Saturday, January 29, 2011

New Babies

I have a friend who asked me for recommendations for books for their grandson who will be welcoming a new baby into their family.  While I have some tried and true choices (a list is at the end of this post), I found a couple new choices to share.

A board book from the publishing company Child's Play called My New Baby takes a new approach to the new baby in the family.  Each page includes the older sibling's question or observation about her baby brother.  I say "older" and that's relatively speaking.  The older sister is clearly between 18 months and 2 years old - exactly the right age for this board book.  The questions the little girl asks and the observations she makes - "This bed is bouncy.  Is the baby hungry?" - are perfectly and totally toddler.  This book is about how the new baby fits into her schedule, life and family - she even acknowledges this when she tells the new baby "You're part of my family now."  This book wisely focuses solely on the older toddler and their reaction to a new sibling.  The story is told through the toddler's point of view, and shows how that new baby, while changing things, can still be part of the older child's routine.  Each picture has at least one parent smiling, caring for and comforting both children.  Without being didactic, this book sends the message that life will continue on with a new sibling.

In There's Going to be a Baby,  the mother makes the exciting announcement on the first page.  The young boy is being told some time during the winter, so he has plenty of time to discuss and wonder about his new sibling, who is arriving the next fall.  For some reason, the young boy is very concerned about what the new baby is going to do for a career.  This leads to a very amusing set of illustrations of a baby working in a bank, raking leaves, collapsing in an armchair after taking care of zoo animals.  These creative ideas are interspersed with more realistic worries such as "We don't really need the baby, do we?"  But the feeling throughout this book is one of comfort.  In most pictures the mother is hugging the little boy or holding his hand as her stomach grows larger and larger and the baby's due date approaches.

This is a story of love and reassurance between mother and child - interestingly, the father is absent in this picture book.  Perhaps he is working, as much of the book takes place during the day.  But the young boy and his mother spend their whole day together, playing outside, bathing, doing errands, visiting the doctor.  And Oxenbury does an exquisite job of depicting this loving relationship, with tender looks and smiles and the little boy clinging to her knee.
The design of the book is stellar - timeless yet modern in its font and general look.  There are no quotation marks to indicate the mom and boy's ongoing conversation throughout the months.  Instead the little boy's words are in a lighter blue, the mother's in a navy blue. 
The timeless book design perfectly augments Oxenbury's gorgeous illustrations.  The rich colors add to the timelessness - in fact these illustrations evoke the early twentieth century, combining scenes of tranquility and everyday life.  But then the careful viewer spots a robot or a shaggy purse to keep the illustrations fresh and current.  The baby in the small block illustrations is especially humorous - with little smirks or outright glee the baby completes whatever task its older brother has set for it.

At the end of the pregnancy, the little boy goes with his grandfather to meet the new baby.  He has worked through his worries and is excited to welcome this new member of his family, just like I hope my friend's grandson will.

Reviewed here -
My New Baby, illustrated by Rachel Fuller.  Child's Play, 2009.
There's Going to be a Baby.  John Burningham, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.  Candlewick, 2010.
both borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

More new baby titles that I like -
Cornelius P. Mud, Are you Ready for Baby? - Barney Saltzberg
Mail Harry to the Moon - Robie Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley
Benny and Beautiful Baby Delilah - Jean Van Leeuwen; illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Vera's Baby Sister - Vera Rosenberry
Good Knight Sleep Tight - David Melling
I Kissed the Baby! - Mary Murphy
I'm a Big Sister/I'm a Big Brother - Joanna Cole; illustrated by Maxie Chambliss

Saturday, January 22, 2011

April and Esme, Tooth Fairies

I first read about this book in The Horn Book Magazine (Sept/Oct 2010), where it was given a starred review.  When I flipped through it briefly, it seemed a little long for Frances and Gloria (now 3 1/2 and 2), and so I set it aside.  Christmas and our vacation passed by, and we didn't pick it up.  Last week we finally sat down to read it, and I was immediately charmed by April and Esme, Tooth Fairies
April and Esme (7 3/4 and 6 years old) get a call on April's cell phone, requesting that they come pick up a little boy's first lost tooth.  They've never done this before, and in fact their tooth fairy parents believe they are still too young.  But the little girls say they've promised, and off they fly.  There are challenges in the tooth pick-up (including the little boy waking up unexpectedly), but the girls handle themselves capably and return home successfully with their very first tooth.

This book is pure magic.  Graham uses the details of our daily life and adds a little sparkle of fairy dust to them.  A full-size illustration of England's M42 freeway (probably not the British term for it...) shows trucks speeding past a tree trunk on the side of the road.  It's only when you look more closely at the tree trunk that you see the tiny fairy house at its base.  There is a wonderful series of illustrations where April and Esme are telling their mother about their first job while she bathes.  Her wings spread out over the sides of the tub, their mother carefully listens, tattoo visible on her upper arm.  Then as she dries her hair, she playfully uses her hairdryer to blow Esme into the air.  The charm is in all these little details of home and fairy life, and these are the sorts of details that children will pore over and find magical.

While Graham is telling the story of the tooth fairies and their first tooth trip, he is also bringing the tooth fairy's traditional story into today's world.  April's call comes in on her cell phone (what is the tooth fairy's phone number?),  and during a crisis in the story, she texts her mom for experienced advice.  Their father is a trademark Graham father - long hair tied back in a rumpled ponytail while he works in his workshop (where teeth wave from the rafters).  There is a pleasing balance of modern and traditional here, and the comfort of the tooth fairies and their magic wins over young readers.

Graham uses a really interesting method to emphasize the fairies' size - a combination of full-size and panel illustrations.  He uses full-size illustrations to remind us how truly small and young the little girls are - as when they stand at the foot of the stairs, ready to collect that first tooth.  But then Graham uses smaller panel or strip illustrations to track the plot and focus on the girls' pluck and strength.  This also gives a sense of movement as the girls use the winds to soar.

As a mother, I love that the parents allow the girls to soar - not without worry - but with pride and love.  And I love that the little girls (exactly the same 18 months apart as mine) need each other to succeed and be confident.  They rely on each other and are wonderful sisters.  And when Frances had read this multiple times (both with me and by herself), I happened to ask her what she wanted to be.  She told me she wanted to be a tooth fairy!
This book is a real winner - magical, loving and full of the power of family.  Wonderful!!

April and Esme, Tooth Fairies  - Bob Graham.  Candlewick Press, 2010.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Scientists in the Field

As you already know, I love nonfiction and learning new things.  One high-quality series that I am enjoying and learning so much from is the Scientists in the Field series.  Books in this series are written by many authors and with many different points of view.  I wanted to highlight two offerings in this series from 2010, including the Siebert Award winner for this year.

Project Seahorse takes place on a small island in the Philippines. Two female scientists are there to preserve the seahorse population and we learn why this is fundamental to the larger work of saving our oceans.  Pamela S. Turner weaves several strands of this story together successfully - she looks at conservationism, coral reefs, the problem of overfishing and the solution of sustainable fishing, information about seahorses and the scientists' work with not only the seahorses but with the Filipino community.  It is a fascinating story and Turner tells it capably.  As I mentioned, the primary scientists are women (and mothers!) and I feel it is so important to highlight female contributions to science.  Turner spends a lot of time writing about how these scientists work in the field - the diving, the collecting of information from the coral reefs and the analysis of that information.  Because seahorses are endangered, the scientists spend time counting them, measuring them and observing them in the wild.  These scientists feel so strongly about the seahorses and their passion for the safe fishing of the seahorses is inspiring.
The Siebert Award winner Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot was next on my reading list.  Honestly, I originally picked this up only because I wanted to compare and contrast two books in this series.  I really thought I would like Project Seahorse much more, but I was wrong.  Sy Montgomery has been waiting to write this book for several years because these parrots do not breed on a regular basis.  The kakapo is so endangered that there are less than 90 parrots in the world!!  They mostly live on an extremely isolated island off the coast of New Zealand, where people cannot harm them.  But there are so many mysteries associated with the kakapo, including why they do not breed regularly.  Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop are wholly a part of the scientific investigation - they help to monitor these nocturnal parrots and are there when several chicks hatch.  Because of their first-person presence in the book, Montgomery includes their own experiences and dialogue makes the book feel fresh and immediate.  The kakapo story is also very dramatic - as Montgomery introduces the individual kakapo, the reader becomes invested in their survival.  Montgomery makes this story compelling and inspiring.  While there are scientists doing this research, there are many volunteers who help do the work, which also makes the project seem accessible and personal.  Plus the kakapo are so cute!
There are some things about the Scientists in the Field series in general that I would like to talk about.  These books look like picture books (and both have stunning photographs), but they are not designed for a beginning reader.  The reading level in these books is actually quite high - between fifth and seventh grade - so there are bigger words, more challenging scientific concepts, and generally more information than a young student could handle.  However, these books are aimed at exactly the right audience.  Giving these books to any student beginning a research project will make their day - they look accessible and easy to read, but have lots of information (including sidebars of related stories), great photographs and exemplary backmatter.  You know I am a sucker for great backmatter!  Each book includes strong indexes, maps, bibliographies, and contacts for the research projects.  Also, I think that these books do a wonderful job of bringing science to life.  Students are searching for careers at this age, and becoming aware of the world around them.  This series introduces readers to a way of doing science that isn't completely done in a laboratory with test tubes.  Both books also give students ways they can help with these projects by raising and donating money, raising awareness, or helping to clean up the ocean.  These books are stellar examples of today's new crop of nonfiction and are very, very exciting.  Check them out!

Project Seahorse.  Pamela S. Turner; photographs by Scott Tuason.  Houghton Mifflin, 2010.
Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot.  Sy Montgomery; photographs by Nic Bishop.  Houghton Mifflin, 2010.

borrowed from Lewis and Clark Library

Sunday, January 16, 2011


First of all, I'd like to apologize for my six week blog silence.  I have been reading during the holidays, but frankly, I didn't read anything that really sparked my interest and made me want to write.  As the holidays continued, family events and a vacation with my little girls relegated quality reading to the back burner.  But I'm back with a few things to talk about.

The American Library Association's Youth Media Awards were announced almost a week ago.  When I was a librarian, I either attended the conference or watched the live webcast.  This year I was "watching" the awards via Twitter, frantically refreshing my phone while we were at an inflatable bounce palace with the girls.  So when I saw that Ship Breaker had won the Printz Award, everyone in the bounce house turned to look at me shrieking!  And then I heard that Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring won a Siebert honor...I've read some great books this year!  I'm looking forward to reading more of the award winners and sharing them with all of you.

At the beginning of December, I read Anita Silvey's article in the Boston Globe about her 10 favorite books of the year.  The picture book section included Brontorina by James Howe, which is about a dinosaur who yearns to be a ballerina.  A dinosaur?  A ballerina?  Those subjects are both high on Frances' favorites list right now, so I checked Brontorina out from our public library.

It all begins with a dream.  Brontorina, an enormous Apatosaurus, has a dream of being a ballerina.  Not the kind of dream you have while you are asleep, but the kind that you keep in your heart.  So she arrives at the door of Madame Lucille's Dance Academy.  The ballet students gather around while Brontorina explains her dream.  Like any classroom, there are naysayers ("She doesn't have the right shoes"), but there are other students who believe Brontorina can dance, and they convince Madame Lucille to accept her. 

As the story progresses, and Brontorina begins to dance, there is a wonderful synchronicity between text and illustration.  Some pages are more text-heavy, allowing the plot to move forward.  Then there are other spreads where the full page illustrations are allowed to shine, and information is given in dialogue.  For instance, as Madame Lucille begins to put the class through their exercises, the only words on the page are her commands.  The illustrations show the students correctly demonstrating the positions, including Brontorina.  But the dinosaur scrapes her head on the ceiling doing a jete, and comes perilously close to squishing students with her tail.  Brontorina can dance, but Madame Lucille finally, sadly, admits that Brontorina and ballet school do not mix.  But can the students come up with a solution?
While James Howe's text is wonderful, I really felt that Randy Cecil's illustrations were the star.  In a world where dinosaurs and humans co-exist, Cecil uses the dinosaur's perspective throughout the book.  Buildings soar above the small students, and in close-up shots, Brontorina is only partially visible.  The illustrations are luscious and awe-inspiring.  The textures in Cecil's paintings add richness, depth and a balance of light and shadow to these pages.  Most of the color palette Cecil chose is muted, allowing Brontorina (in a bright, eye-catching orange) to be the focus of each page.  I had been attracted to Cecil's friendly animals in We've All Got Bellybuttons! and the students and teacher here have the same expressive, fun faces.

In the end, Brontorina's dream is fulfilled.  All it takes is someone to believe in her dream, and some positive, creative problem solving.  This is a terrific collaboration, and I only wish that it had won some Caldecott love.

Brontorina.  James Howe, illustrated by Randy Cecil.  Candlewick Press, 2010.  borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library.