Monday, October 31, 2011

Follow Me!

I've been reading a lot of picture books lately.  This year, since I was a stay at home mother for most of the year, I swore I would have read most of the award winners when their names are called in January.  I've kept up with blogs (A Fuse #8 Production, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast), with Mock Caldecott Lists (Glendale Public Library, Allen County Public Library) and my own library browsing.  I don't keep track of how many picture books I read, but it's well into the two hundreds, at least.  I feel like I've been fairly comprehensive, but of course you can't predict how the committee's collective mind works.  I can only hope they will see things my way and consider choosing Follow Me.

Tricia Tusa isn't a new artist by any means, but the art in Follow Me is some of the most striking art I've seen from her.  I'm going to break from my own tradition and talk about the art first in this case.  Usually I talk plot/story first and then move on to art, but in making the case for a Caldecott nod, I have to say the art is jaw-droppingly beautiful.  Tusa has used what is cited in the front of the book as "an etching process with monoprinted color" to create the illustrations in this book.  What stands out the most to me is the monoprinted color.  Tusa's color choices are strong yet soft.  The colors are luminous - the book glows in your hands.  The backgrounds are simply crystal clear colors, but there is also a chalky texture to them.  These choices are truly unique.  What is also striking about this book is that the backgrounds are in many ways the focus of the book.  These pages are simple, without a lot of extraneous detail to clutter up the backgrounds.  It just makes the colors stand out.

Now let me go back and talk about the plot so you can see how well the words and illustrations fit together.  A young girl talks about soaring through colors as she admires them in the natural world around her.  She is gleeful, she is joyful, she is exuberant with the beauty around her.  And while she talks about emotionally soaring, she is physically soaring as well.  Her braid flies behind her as she rides on a tree swing - the old-fashioned kind with just a plank of wood and knotted ropes.  As she is enveloped in color, she shoots off the swing, soaring yet again through the sky.  The girl skims the leaves and flowers as she bumps gently to the ground.  The text is poetic without fitting a particular rhyme scheme.  It's dreamy and luminous, just like the colors Tusa chose.  And finally the little girl comes back down to Earth, finding her way back home.

The girl in the illustrations is not particularly old-fashioned but I would say this whole book has a timeless feel to it.  This girl is a child who is allowed the freedom and physical space to revel in her imagination.  She soars up into the limitless sky, lands in fields of flowers without a honking car or busy street to jar her out of her dreamy state.  It reminds us as parents, caregivers and educators how important it is to try and give our children this space to dream.  Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast gives this her Flight of Fancy award (I would link to the specific post, but I can't find it!) and it truly deserves that.  Not only is the book full of both flight and fancy, but it is full of nature.  And when the little girl lands and returns home, she is much richer for the experience.  There is a bounce in her step as she enters her front yard and goes up the steps.  The text is very simple, but it is the kind of book that invites the reader's own interpretation and imagination.  This is yet another reason why I think the text and the soothing, dreamy colors work so well together.

This was a spring picture book, and those can sometimes get overshadowed by the newest fall publications come award time.  Here's my love letter to this book, in hopes it won't be forgotten.

Follow Me.  Tricia Tusa.  Harcourt Children's Books: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

borrowed from the Lewis and Clark library

Sunday, October 23, 2011

While the Giant is Sleeping

Living here in Montana, there are many local features that we admire.  This is a mountain range known as "the Sleeping Giant" - see his face and chest in the photo to the left (from Google Images)?  This is unfortunately pretty abstract for young children to see and recognize.  The name sounds so appealing, but they have to look closely and carefully to actually see him.  I know when we would mention the Sleeping Giant to Frances and Gloria, they would get excited: "What?  Where's the Sleeping Giant?  I don't see him!  I want to see him!"  But in order to recognize him, children have to be able to know what a giant looks like, and then take time to match that up with the landform.  It usually just ended in frustration for the girls.

We were introduced to a book this spring that really made an impact on Frances and Gloria that talks about this local wonder.  Frances & Gloria's aunt is a school librarian at a local elementary school, and we spend quite a bit of time there.  She told us that a local author and illustrator were coming to do a presentation, and invited us to tag along.  The author, Alycia Holston, read the book and talked about why she created it.  Then the illustrator also talked about her creative process, including how she took many, many photos of the Sleeping Giant in all seasons.

This book is unusual in many ways.  It really helps personify this landform for children.  And when I use the word personify, I don't mean that children will think that this giant is alive and talking during the book.  The author and illustrator just help match the features of the mountain to a giant's body through this book.  There are just three or four lines of text on each double-page spread, always beginning with "While the giant is sleeping...".  Each page ties the mythical giant to the real, natural world around him.  The sun shines in his eyes, deer graze near his belly, the town below him includes schoolchildren who keep a watch over the Sleeping Giant.  There are pages for each season, too, as snow covers him like a blanket or rain pours down on his head.  It is told in a soothing, almost folktale style.  After all, this is a sleeping giant.  But Holston takes care to tie this sleeping giant to the land - he isn't going to wake up any time soon.

The illustrations (chalk pastels) are also very realistic.  The giant is reproduced exactly as he looks off in the distance from our house.  In reality, the Sleeping Giant is surrounded by open land, and Stranahan does a great job of showing the wide open spaces around the giant.  His features are very discernible without being over-emphasized.  Children can really see the giant's face, chest and stomach.  He definitely looks like a mountain, though - he isn't going to sit up and wink at you.  This realistic illustrative style is perfectly suited to Holston's text.  Both the text and the illustrations give you the majesty of Montana's wildlife and this wonder. 

Frances and Gloria haven't met many authors or illustrators, so for them, even at their young age, this program was very impactful.  Not only were the author and illustrator here, in Helena, to talk to them, but this author and illustrator were talking about a book written about their town!  And seeing the pictures close up meant that the girls were able to identify the Sleeping Giant for possibly the first time since we moved here.  Usually the Sleeping Giant had been pointed out to them in the distance, or as we whiz past it on the highway.  This book really delineated the Giant for them.  Now whenever we are driving, even Gloria calls out "There's the Sleeping Giant!"  This book has helped connect them to their local landscape in a new way.

If you are a planning a trip to Montana, I definitely recommend finding this book.  Even though it is specifically about Helena, Helena is the state capital.  Many of the wild animals and birds captured in these illustrations are seen throughout the state.  This book was published by a small press, but it is available locally and even on Amazon.  A sweet, soothing book.

While the Giant is Alycia Holston; illustrated by Suzi Stranahan.  CrossRiverkids, 2011.

borrowed from the Lewis and Clark library

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Old Penn Station

I recently found an old email recommending several good picture books from 2007.  While I was familiar with the authors of all three books, I wasn't familiar with the books themselves, so I interlibrary-loaned them.  The one that I loved the most of this set was Old Penn Station by William Low.  Perhaps it struck a chord because of its format - it is definitely a nonfiction picture book.  Nonfiction picture books are more important to me these days because of my current work as a Cybils panelist.  But whatever the reason. I want to share it with you.

Low includes an author's note at the beginning of the book, explaining why he was so interested in Old Penn Station.  He began to create the paintings for this book as part of a thesis project.  Low had always loved New York City and its history, and Old Penn Station is evocative of both of these.

Low takes the history of this station and distills it into sentences that are easily accessible for even kindergarten students.  There are only one or two sentences per page, but they give you the feel of the station as it was built, and, eventually, torn down.  For those of you who may not be familiar with it (like me), the Pennsylvania Railroad Company created the original Penn Station to have a station presence in New York.  It was designed to make a grand statement, and no expense was spared in its creation.  Eventually, however, as commuting changed, people were not using trains and the gorgeous Penn Station was torn down.  It was replaced by the current underground station.

Low used oil paintings to depict the station in all its facets.  One of the things that Low mentions about his own work on his website and in a video located on the website about the making of this book) is his love of light.  He looks for places to include light sources, and in this book the use of light is amazing.  Light and shadows are everywhere - making you realize how truly beautiful the old station was.  The most jaw-dropping picture to me is the title page painting.  Workers pose in front of a stone sculpture at the station, and half the painting (and half the group) is in shadow, the other half bathed in warm light.  It's almost as if a drop cloth is being pulled off a sculpture or painting, exposing it to the light.  It is a magical effect.

One of the themes Low emphasizes in this book is work and the pride workers took in what they had created.  There were many, many people who toiled to create this station.  There were tunnel workers who burrowed under the Hudson River, stone masons who carved sculptures and hundreds of construction workers involved.  Once the station was built, there were still many workers involved in a traveler's experience within Penn Station.  Low highlights these workers as well - the shoeshine man, the porter, the wait staff, the conductors.  The expressions on their faces show their pride, their dedication to their work.  You can see how much they love working in the station.  It is not only a history of the station, but also a history of work as many of these jobs are no longer as prevalent.
Another thing Low does in this book is make the concept of historical preservation understandable for very young readers.  We see many of the stone sculptures that stone masons carved throughout the book.  But Low focuses on one of the stone maidens throughout the destruction of Penn Station.  As the text describes the Pennsylvania Railroad Company's belief that the old Penn Station needed to be torn down in order to modernize it, you see the stone maiden over and over again.  Readers admire her luminosity and grace in the beginning of the book, along with admiration for the hard work of the stone mason.  Then as the stone maiden is hauled away to rest unceremoniously in a dump, readers become aware of the loss and sadness in this process.  You feel palpable sorrow as the maiden is hoisted off the building.  Low talks in his video about his anger at the destruction, but there is also grief in the paintings.  Low goes on to describe the founding of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and its importance in protecting the rest of the city's historical landmarks.  I think this is a perfect place for teachers to draw connections between New York City and their own towns,  It is so important to preserve history and to make children aware of what history can teach us.

Low includes a bibliography at the end of this history, so teachers can extrapolate more information to use with their students.  Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of these sources are adult books, but there are always ways to use the photos and other primary sources.

This book has come from Low's heart, and it is especially rich for all of his emotion about Penn Station.  I hope you will take time to admire this glorious book and honor this part of New York City's history.

Old Penn Station.  William Low.  Henry Holt & Co., 2007.

borrowed on interlibrary loan

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred

Seems like I have quite a few picture books to blog about - get ready for some posts on great books, both old and new!  And in the pipeline is another Alice book blog and some nonfiction picture books too, so there's a lot to look forward to this fall!

I think you can tell by now that I have a fondness for Hispanic authors and stories (If you haven't thought about that before, there's reviews here and here.  I've lived in San Diego and the Phoenix area, so I am definitely interested in talking about these books and seeing them succeed.  So I'm here to introduce you to one of the books that has already been mentioned as an outstanding picture book this year.  I'm hopeful it will at least win a Pura Belpre award, if not a Caldecott, too!

The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred is set up in a cumulative rhyme pattern.  I know preschool and primary grade teachers salivate when they hear that a new book is written in a cumulative pattern.  At my old library, we put together themed boxes of books for teachers.  We dreaded seeing "cumulative books" on the request slip.  There is no easy way to search for these books since there isn't really a subject heading.  You would have to rely on web bibliographies or your own memory to find these books.  For those of you who might not know what a cumulative book is, it's a book that is constructed like the nursery rhyme "The House that Jack Built", where things are added on with each stanza, but the stanza is primarily a retelling of everything that's come before.  It's always worth mentioning when a book works successfully in this pattern.

It begins, of course, with the farm maiden, who is leaping on the title page as she begins the stirring.  Each page introduces both an animal and the ingredient they are adding to the pot in English (the majority of the text is in English).  On subsequent pages, the animal and the ingredient are incorporated into the text in Spanish.  Vamos uses the text itself to emphasize the Spanish words - each noun is at the end of a line, formatted in bold, larger text.  It draws your attention to the Spanish vocabulary.  For non-Spanish speakers, there is a certain amount of comfort in the fact that they have already seen the word in English.  That way parent can point to the animal or ingredient when it is repeated in Spanish.  Also included for non-Spanish speakers is a glossary with pronunciations located at the end of the story.
Speaking of the end of the story, once all of the animals (and a farmer) have added their ingredients to the farm maiden's pot, they have made a traditional Hispanic dish, arroz con leche.  All the animals, farm maiden and farmer enjoy it together in what the jacket flap calls "a bilingual celebration of community and food".  It truly is a celebration, and all of them have given their time and work to make this delicious dish.  Vamos has also included a recipe for arroz con leche (good to know for schools or families who like to present a book and then cook together).

But as much fun as the rhyme is, the illustrations take its exuberance to a higher level.  Lopez chose warm yellows, browns, oranges and reds that evoke a desert landscape.  There is so much to look at in these illustrations for viewers.  There are animals everywhere, interacting with each other in funny ways.  The goat wears a large chef's hat as the cow gives him instructions as the farm maiden milks her.  As the arroz con leche cooks to its finale, all the animals peer longingly into the pot.  The farmer and farm maiden's clothing and home add to the rustic feel of this book.  Everyone is happy to work together and equally happy to eat up their hard work.  Texture is drawn into the illustrations with swirls, dashes and dots.  However, Lopez also uses the background texture of the grained wood he created his paintings on to good effect.  He is expert at evoking smell, movement and emotion in his art.
This book is luscious and highly recommended.  I only hope the committees appreciate this as much as I do!

The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred.  Samantha R. Vamos; illustrated by Rafael Lopez.  Charlesbridge, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark library

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cybils Judge!

Hey folks!  I've been sitting on this really exciting news for a couple of weeks now.  I applied and was accepted to be a Cybils judge this fall!  I am on the Non-Fiction Picture Books first round committee, and I am so thrilled!  The Cybils are a group of book awards that are designed to "Reward the children’s and young adult authors (and illustrators, let’s not forget them) whose books combine the highest literary merit and "kid appeal." " (that's straight from the website).  They also foster a sense of community among children's literature bloggers.  In order to be considered, you had to have a fairly active blog, as well as review children's books critically.  The judges are an amazing group of people, a who's who of the children's literature blog world, so it's definitely an honor to be chosen!

If you are interested in participating, you can nominate any book you'd like until October 15th  -there are lots of categories to choose from.  After October 15th, we will begin the daunting task of reading ALL of the nominated books, and then coming up with a shortlist to recommend to the second committee.  It's an overwhelming task - there are already more than 30 books on our list. 

I will be reviewing some of these books on my blog, especially the ones I really like or want to point out to my beloved readers.  You can follow the reviews that I post by looking at the labels Cybils and Non-fiction picture books.  However, I will continue to post other reviews as time allows - I have to have all of these books read and evaluated by the end of December!  So now you know what I will be up to for the next two months!  I can't wait.