Friday, November 25, 2011

Star of the Sea

I'll bet you haven't really thought about sea stars.  Have you really thought about how perilous a simple meal can be for them?  How life ebbs and flows with the tides?  Okay, maybe that's a little philosophical.  But Janet Halfmann reveals a whole new world of information about the ochre sea star in this gorgeous book.  This is one of the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book nominees this year, which is why I picked it up.  However, I am impressed with how this appeals to the youngest readers and listeners. 

First of all, a note about why we are talking sea stars and not starfish.  In her notes at the back of the book, Halfmann writes that the name sea stars suits this family better because they are not fish at all.  They are related to the sand dollar, the sea urchin...sea animals with spiny skin.  But that's just a note.  I know I wondered as soon as I opened the book if sea stars and starfish were the same creature.  Halfmann does the right thing here by both referring to the creature by its correct name (in this case, we are learning about the ochre sea star) and explaining the differences further in the back matter.

So here is Sea Star, the ochre sea star we are watching throughout this book.  Her daily trip takes her from coastal rocks to the shore to feed, riding in with the tide.  Then after a day-long struggle to find accessible food, she goes back out with the tide, or she tries to.  Halfmann has a very relatable style.  She explains both Sea Star's daily life and her special features to readers in fairly simple text.  The text is easy for even the youngest listener to understand.  While my three year old couldn't tell you exactly how a sea star moved, she could tell you that she uses her feet to pry open the mussel, like a tug-of-war.

What I like about the way Halfmann has chosen to create this book is that it is full of information, but there aren't a lot of complicated facts to weigh down the plot.  For instance, there are no facts about how far a sea star can travel, or how often they need to eat.  But each page is packed with contextual information about the sea star's habits and survival skills.  This information is included very naturally within the text, and because the information is couched in the story, children learn it all easily.  There is also suspense in this sea star's day.  She is nibbled on by a fish and almost gulped by a gull.  In both instances she has to use her survival skills (like losing a ray) to escape.  The sea star is definitely made real by this text.  We know it is a female, and we root for her to get enough food, to make it through the day successfully.  But on the other hand, Halfmann does not personify Sea Star with cute features - she is very real and acts appropriately.

Paley's illustrations help make the connection between fact and story stronger for young readers.  The illustrations are created out of hand-painted papers to make the collaged double-page spreads.  They are richly colored, and Paley uses this technique to its fullest.  Readers can see the grains of sand, almost feel the rough rocks the sea star clings to.  Paley does one large double-page spread and then includes a detail in a pop-out square for readers to examine more closely.  One criticism is that sometimes that closer look isn't at Sea Star with her unique characteristics.  For instance, on a page where the text is talking about the eyespots on the tips of the sea star's rays, the closeups are of the mussels she's heading towards.  This isn't what I thought was most interesting about that page of text.

But this is a minor quibble with what are really amazing illustrations.  The watercolor blends and textures Paley creates give a real sense of movement to the ocean and to Sea Star herself.  On a page where Halfmann describes Sea Star flipping over "like a circus acrobat", Paley takes insets and cantilevers them.  You can see the sea star has flipped over from square to square, but the cantilevering gives a sense of the actual movement.  These illustrations are so realistic as well - there is a sense of being down at the beach, staring at the sea star in a tide pool.

There is quite a bit of back matter to support this book.  This includes information about ray regeneration, the aforementioned explanation about sea stars and starfish and some diagrams of the sea star.  I can't help but wish for a map of the ochre sea star's habitat (the Pacific Ocean) even though Halfmann describes it.  There is also a bibliography of other age-appropriate books as well as a few websites and a brief glossary.  This is well done marine biology that even a preschooler can enjoy.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.
Star of the Sea: A Day in the Life of a Starfish.  Janet Halfmann; illustrated by Joan Paley.  Christy Ottaviano Books: Henry Holt & Co., 2011.

Borrowed from Helena School District

Sunday, November 20, 2011

All About Alice

As you already know, I've been reading the Alice series for the past year or so.  I really believed that I had read a good portion of the series previously, and that many of these would be re-reads.  So far I've read seven books for this goal, and I hadn't read any of those before!  Here's the latest one in the series - new to me (and to you!) - All But Alice.

Alice's mother died seven years ago, when Alice was only five years old.  She doesn't remember much about her mother, and in fact she often gets memories of her mother and her Aunt Sally confused.  But even though she didn't really get to know her mother, her mother's death still affects her life every day.  This year (seventh grade is just starting at the beginning of the novel) Alice feels the loss of her mother very strongly.  She has felt for the past couple of books that the embarassing mistakes that she makes are mostly due to not having a mother or another strong female presence in her life.  But she does realize that there are lots of women, young and old, around her.  So to take advantage of all their wisdom and experience, Alice decides to join the Worldwide Sisterhood.

That sounds comforting and empowering, doesn't it?  Alice thinks she'll be safest following the sisterhood's lead.  But really the Universal Sisterhood isn't everything it seems.  For instance, Alice believes that sisters should put each other first.  So how can she balance the three women who are all in love with Alice's older brother Lester?  She knows Marilyn and Crystal, the two girlfriends Lester has alternated between, the best.  Alice likes them both for different reasons.  Then there's Loretta, who works at the music store Alice's dad manages.  Loretta seems older and more worldly than the other two, and Alice thinks that has its advantages, too.  "I felt as though I'd been admitted to the Secret Society of Sisters or something.  Whatever Loretta knew about life, she'd share with me, I was sure." (p. 25)  Who's a girl to support?

One of the other problems that Alice is trying to solve is the problem of popularity.  When several other girls in the seventh grade, including her best friend Pamela, decide to get their ears pierced, Alice wants hers done too.  After all, one of the best things about the sisterhood to Alice is solidarity.  This means, Alice believes, doing everything the same, looking the same, to show how strong they are together.  The girls become popular together, including spending most of their free time together, trying to decide what they will wear and how to coordinate their clothes with their new earrings.  But in becoming popular, Alice excludes one of her long-time best friends, Elizabeth.  Elizabeth has decided not to pierce her ears, and doesn't become popular.  At first, Alice doesn't even notice.  She is too busy feeling loved and comforted by her young sisterhood.  Alice needs help getting her first pair of earrings in, and her group is there to help her.  "After that, I felt terrific just thinking about the way the girls had fussed over me there in the restroom, the way they'd helped and encouraged me.  I'd been surrounded with Sisters..." (p.49)

So what does being a Sister really mean?  Alice has to come to terms with the fact that being in the sisterhood doesn't mean being a pod person.  This means valuing herself and her friendships, both with boys and girls.  Alice is an original, and that's what great about her character.  She's not perfect, and her mistakes in life are just as genuine as her desire to do the right thing for her sisterhood.  Alice is scattered, but excited about life and what's ahead for her.  At the beginning of the book, she muses "Only a day or so ago, I'd been thinking bulletin boards and now I was thinking pierced ears.  What would I be thinking about the day after tomorrow?  Being twelve, almost thirteen, meant all kinds of wonderful surprises..." (p. 16).  Alice keeps us guessing.  What will happen next to Alice?  We'll have to keep reading in this series to find out!

All But Alice.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1992, 2011.

my own copy

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Nation's Hope

There are some books we hear about all year long because they've been written by a famous author or illustrator.  There are some books we hear about all year long because they are quirky or are just plain enjoyable.  And there are some books that are mentioned all year long because they are just plain fabulous.  And A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis is just plain fabulous.  As an example of its fabulosity, it was just this week named one of the New York Times' Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2011.  It is also a Cybils Non-Fiction Picture Book Nominee, which is why I am reviewing it here.

Full disclosure:  I looked for A Nation's Hope at my public library this summer after hearing its buzz.  The book's status was checked in, but after I put it on hold the library quickly determined that it was lost.  I tweeted about my frustration, and Matt de la Pena did tweet back that he would hunt down the thief for me!  Also, there is a San Diego connection between de la Pena, Nelson and myself - we all at least attended high school there, and Kadir lives there now.  Just some fun facts before I dive into my review...I love how connected we can be with social media!

De la Pena opens this story at Yankee Stadium in 1938.  It is in the middle of the action - the crowd is buzzing and full of excitement.  The crowd is waiting for Joe Louis to fight German Max Schmeling, as we learn in subsequent pages.  This could be confusing for readers who don't know much about Joe Louis and his history.  But it works in this case because de la Pena helps readers cue in to the high energy and excitement.  This sucks readers into this moment in time.  We want to read on and find out why everyone is waiting for this fight to start.  De la Pena balances the tension of the fight (which is billed as the United States against the Nazis) with the story of Joe Louis' life.
There is a lot of weight on Louis' shoulders as he waits to fight - the "weight of history", the weight of the nation's need for him to win, to show Germany their power, the weight of the underdog, the weight of being black in America.  As we examine Joe Louis' life, we see that he also staggered under the weight of other people's expectations (his mother expected him to be a musician) and he also worked through the weight of defeat - working harder and harder every time he lost as an amateur.  What Joe Louis carried on his shoulders was the weight of learning - he learned from every experience and came out of it a better fighter.
De la Pena uses a free verse style to draw readers through the dual stories.  In this style he can give the important facts, the important feelings of the fight without getting weighed down.  He creates a successful mix of sportswriting, biography, poetry and informational text.  Readers will get the historical context while feeling like they are there, waiting for the bell to ring.
There is a good reason why this was named one of the New York Times' 2011 Best Illustrated Children's Books.  Nelson's oils on wood are simply amazing.  One of the most spectacular things he does in this book is his work on black backgrounds.  You would think that the black background would be unmanageable, that it would be difficult to paint light images onto the dark background, but in fact the opposite is true.  The darkness of the background just serves to emphasize the light in the rest of the painting.  One double-page spread is a closeup of Louis' arms and hands in boxing gloves.  His arms glow with sweat and hard work, veins and muscles delineated.  The black background only makes the light source warmer.  The same is true for a painting at the beginning of the fight.  Nelson does the unbelievable, making the lights (which are also black, but give off warm yellow light) stand out from the rest of the dark shadows of the stadium.  Most paintings where Louis is featured are from a perspective slightly below him.  This always makes him look like the hero he was and is.  The art is astonishing.
Now that's not to say that I think this is a perfect book, but it's pretty darn close.  I really missed the back matter for this title.  Because de la Pena's text is so spare and taut, I think that there could have been a bibliography of other recommended titles or source notes.  I would have liked to see notes from the author and illustrator, describing their process or maybe the sources they used to create this portrait of Joe Louis.  I would have even liked to see some other biographical information about Louis - his fight record or when he retired.  All of these, I believe, would help students use this book as a springboard for more research.  But these things don't stand in the way of a great piece of sportswriting at a perilous time in history.  Please take a look at it.  I know you'll be moved by this powerful story.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my ideas and thoughts.
 A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis. Matt de la Pena; illustrated by Kadir Nelson.  Dial Books for Young Readers, 2011.

borrowed from Helena School District

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Can We Save the Tiger?

I couldn't wait to read this one.  People had been talking about it since the spring and it sounded intriguing.  I had been waiting for it all summer at my local public library, but it was never ordered.  I had given up on seeing it, but two events happened at the same time - it was nominated for a Cybil in the Nonfiction Picture Book category and we finally went back to our favorite school library to visit after the summer.  It was there on the shelf (actually several of our local school libraries had bought it), and I now had the perfect excuse to review it!

I find this book a really fascinating combination of nonfiction and picture book.  First, the nonfiction.  The book is about endangered species and wildlife conservation.  Jenkins looks at animals who are extinct or endangered and breaks them into several groups.  There are animals who are already extinct, species who are endangered because humans have introduced predators, species who are running out of room, species who are accidentally killed off by human actions or disease.  Jenkins also includes a more optimistic group - the animals that were once in danger but have now rebounded. 

Jenkins has two ways of giving young readers information.  The main text is written in a more narrative style.  Facts are mentioned in a general way - writing about the American bison, Jenkins "A few hundred years ago, there were millions of them roaming the prairies and woodlands."  Jenkins is concentrating on telling the story of these endangered species, rather than throwing facts at the reader.  But he does this in an easy-to-read style, with a clear line of reasoning.  In explaining why tigers are in danger of becoming extinct, he tells readers "So if you were a poor farmer trying to make a living with a couple of cows and a few goats, you might not be happy if you found there was a hungry tiger nearby."  He helps us as readers clearly envision how our world has gotten into this predicament.

Jenkins also works hard at making the various problems affecting animals very clear to us.  This is actually one of the clearest books on wildlife conservation I've read.  As I mentioned, Jenkins takes groups of animals who have become or are becoming extinct and talks about the problems facing those groups.  He takes one focal animal, like the tiger, and uses that animal to represent the group.  But after the narrative section where he tells the story of their problem, there is a double-page spread with facts and illustrations of the other members of that group.  This is where Jenkins uses actual facts about the animals , including their location and the problem facing them.  Jenkins combines nonfiction techniques, making it appeal to both kinds of nonfiction readers - those who like the information and those who like the story.

But there is something else that will help this book appeal to readers and that is the illustrations.  The illustrations are done primarily in pencil, but they are amazingly realistic.  White's shading techniques bring light to the gray graphite color and there is amazing texture on these animals.  White uses oil paint (primarily a golden brown) to draw readers' eyes to some of the smallest details.  My favorite is the broad-faced potoroo (a small mouse-like creature) which is on a double-paged spread with several large animals.  White uses a touch of that brown on the potoroo's ears and paws to bring readers to the corner of the page.  It just highlights the ears and paws, but he just glows.  So do other animals where she uses the paint to cover the animal - the tiger just smolders regally.  It's amazing.  The book was created on creamy paper, which sets off the pencil and oil paint perfectly.  It is just a gorgeously drawn book.  Especially in the beginning of the book, where Jenkins is discussing species that are extinct, White brings these species to life.

Finally Jenkins and White show off what may be my favorite species on the brink of extinction - the kakapo.  If you remember, I wrote about last year's Siebert winner, Kakapo Rescue, here.  Here's hoping that this year's Siebert winner also brings attention to this precious bird.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my ideas and thoughts.

Can We Save the Tiger?  Martin Jenkins; illustrated by Vicky White.  Candlewick, 2011.

borrowed from Helena School District library