Friday, December 21, 2012

Our Library

I've written here before about our visits to the local public library.  While I check out picture books and nonfiction that appeal to me, Frances and Gloria also check out books, puppets, book & CD kits, and DVD's that they select themselves.  Frequently, Gloria selects the same board books over and over again, even at four years old.  And sometimes their selection is one we read dutifully and ship right back to the library.  But every once in a while, one of their selections really surprises me.  For instance, Gloria's choice of It's a Little Book was a happy find.  I also wrote about her choice of Ooh La La Polka Dot Boots here.  When Gloria chose Our Library a few weeks ago, I thought it would be a sweet read, considering how much we love the library.  I had no idea how impactful this book would be for me personally.

This book begins with Miss Goose, the librarian, telling a group of young animals that the library is going to close.  The animals can't believe it, and when they ask why, Miss Goose tells them that the building is too old and need a new roof.  The group of animal children thinks hard, checks out books on making a new roof, roll up their sleeves, and get to work.  But then Miss Goose tells them that the library needs money.  And the group does the same thing - check out a book.  Then "we read by day, and we read by night." (p. 9).  They find a way to earn money.  Then the library must be moved to a new location.  But instead of throwing up their hands (paws?) and giving up, the animals check out a book and figure out how to get the job done.  Their final hurdle is a substantial one, but these library lovers can tackle that, too.  And when they are finished, the library is a richer place - not only for their efforts, but for their love and belief in the library.

Eve Bunting shows library advocacy at its most primal in this story.  Not only does this book show young readers a group of their peers working for something they believe in, but she also shows them working together for a common goal.  These library lovers want their library to survive, and as young as they are, they are willing to learn any skill to save it.  I also love that a huge part of their advocacy plan includes learning these skills at the library itself.  They quite literally would not be able to achieve this goal without the library.  In a way, the library saves itself through its information.

It goes without saying that I am a library lover.  Ever since I was old enough to sign my name on the paper card, I have been a prolific library user.  I have always seen libraries as a place of refuge, information, and kindred spirits.  I grew up using a small county library in San Diego, where the librarians all knew me, and saved the children's discards for my own personal collection (I still have a few!).  Once I became a librarian, I moved from community to community precisely to provide services to children and teens.  It has always been a job I loved, a job where I felt I could make a difference, a job where I could change lives.  My final children's librarian job was in Glendale, Arizona, as the Youth and Teen Services Coordinator at the Glendale Public Library.  I worked there for five years.  At that time, it was an amazing system, with a huge emphasis on welcoming the patrons who will impact services in an ongoing way - young people.  Glendale was a place I was proud to work for, with incredibly talented, enthusiastic librarians in every department in every branch.

You may have heard stories of what has been happening in the Glendale libraries, but it is nauseating and dizzying.  Even before I left Glendale, as the economy spiraled downward, services were being cut left and right.  I should say that this blog post is, of course, my own interpretation of these events, but it has also been reported by the media.  Look at articles from this past year here, here, here, and here.  Cuts continued to happen as the City Council took money from every possible part of the budget to support the sports complex that had built right before the recession hit.  Then the real shock - it was announced that the libraries might lose hours, materials, programming, librarians and possibly even close buildings to help make up an enormous budget shortfall.  This happened to other departments within the city of Glendale as well, but what was most important to me were the libraries.

But something happened in Glendale.  There had always been a very vibrant teen volunteer group in our libraries.  In fact, as services, hours and staff had been cut, our teen volunteers had done more and more work to help continue to provide quality services to patrons.  And when the news hit that their library would be dreadfully impacted, these teenagers (none older than 18 when this began) stood up and said they would not let this happen.  They formed a group - called Save the Glendale Public Libraries and they bounded into action.  These teens were patrons I knew very well - they used the library on an almost daily basis.  Some of them even want to become librarians themselves.  They intuitively knew library advocacy, and started attending the City Council meetings, speaking eloquently in protest of the cuts.  They handed out flyers in front of the libraries and informed Glendale citizens of the service cuts and how this would impact their lives.  Of course, these cuts didn't just affect children's and teen services.  They affected job seekers, information retrieval, patrons who rely on the library for medical research, the latest news or even air conditioning when there is no respite.  These teenagers spoke up.  I have quite possibly never been as proud as I was of these teens.

And they turned the tide of the discussion.  Voters came out and voted against the proposed cuts.  But sadly, just because these teenagers won the battle doesn't mean they won the war.  The libraries continue to operate on very tight budgets, and the librarians feel so uncertain that they are leaving and not being replaced.  All of their skills, enthusiasm and ideas cannot be replaced.

But this is a story about library advocacy.  I haven't even talked about the sweet illustrations and the perfect ending in the book, because in reality it doesn't always work that way.  It's why I believe a book like this is so crucial in communities.  A library is a privilege, not a right.  It is an incredible gift, and it should always be treated that way.  Celebrate your library.  Go in and say thank you and articulate how important it is to you.  Go in and say what you think should be changed, too - that is also part of library advocacy.  But stand up for your library before it stands empty because no one fought for it.  I am so grateful that Gloria brought this book home.

Our Library.  Eve Bunting; illustrated by Maggie Smith.  Clarion Books, 2008.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Alice the Brave

I remember the exact moment I was first introduced to Alice.  I was commuting from library school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to work in Williamsburg, Virginia, on the weekends.  It was my last semester of graduate school, and in order to maximize my time, I tried to listen to as many audiobooks as possible to fulfill my children's literature requirements.  I had always loved children's books, and I had been preparing to become a children's librarian.  But listening to Alice's worries and fears in Alice the Brave made me connect with the book in a way I had never previously connected with children's literature.  I heard one particular conversation between Alice and her father, and it resonated with me.  In this last semester, I was struggling with relationships, and something that was said felt unbearably wise.  This really formed part of my overall theory of children's literature, which is that children's literature can speak to anyone, regardless of age.  It also helped me form an ongoing relationship with Alice herself, which I have blogged about here.  This is the book, for me, that started it all.

Interestingly, I had not ever actually read Alice the Brave, only listened to it.  And although it was such a formative book for me, I'd never actually re-read it after that first time.  So getting ready to read it again, I had to take a deep breath and see if I could re-discover what had made it so impressive for me in the first place.  And I did.  I'll quote it later.  But suffice to say the advice is just as wise today as it was then.

In this book in the series, Alice and her friends are getting ready to start eighth grade.  Alice is part of a close group of friends, both boys and girls, and they have spent the summer primarily at one of the group's family pool.  Every time they go to the pool, Alice grows increasingly anxious.  She is hiding a big secret - she's afraid of swimming in the deep end, and she has been hiding this secret from everyone she knows, including her family.  Even worse, the boys in the group have begun sneaking up on the girls and dumping them into the pool.  And Alice is sure her turn is next.

Even though this is a fear Alice hasn't previously disclosed to readers before, there are themes that have continued throughout the whole series.  One of those themes is growing up.  Alice has two best friends - Elizabeth and Pamela.  Pamela is always a little ahead of Alice in relationships and life.  She knows how the social scene will be in each grade and what they should all do to be popular, including whether or not they should have boyfriends.  And Elizabeth is the exact opposite.  She is very embarrassed about anything having to do with sex or boys.  Elizabeth's mother is pregnant, and Elizabeth cannot even stand to think about how that happened.  Alice is squarely in the middle - she has an on-again, off-again boyfriend, Patrick.  Even when they are "off" they are best friends and continue to confide in each other and spend time together.  But Alice is nowhere near as sophisticated as Pamela either.  She tends to follow Pamela's lead (which has gotten her into situations she isn't ready for in other books), even when she isn't sure of what might happen.

During this book Alice and Patrick are back together.  Even considering how close they are, Alice has not told Patrick about her fear of the water.  He has been gone much of the summer, so it is easy to conceal.  But it is almost too much to explain, especially when he asks her to join the swim team with him as a fun school activity that fall.  She thinks Patrick won't understand her fear, that he will not want to be seen with her because of her inability to swim.  When the whole incident finally comes to a head, Patrick is not there.  So Alice has to risk rejection and explain her anxiety to him.  Unsurprisingly, Patrick supports Alice and encourages her, telling her they will just have to find something else to do together if they can't join the swim team.

One of the other ongoing themes in these novels is Alice's sense of family.  Alice's mother died years ago, before Alice can even remember.  But she acutely misses the idea of her mother.  Especially as she grapples with growing up, Alice wonders how having a mother in her life would have changed her: "I went up to my room and wondered if it was times like this a mom would come in and sit beside you.  Put an arm around you and, no matter how you were feeling, say she'd felt like that once when she was your age." (p. 75)  Alice, no matter how she feels about her mother, does have a great amount of support from her father and her brother Lester, who is 21.  When Alice confides in Lester that she is afraid to swim in the deep end, Lester comes through for her.  He takes her to a friend's pool, where no one else will see them.  Lester works with Alice, giving her confidence little by little.  It is a sweet moment, and while Lester is a lot older than Alice, he understands her worries, and helps her solve them without giving her all the answers.

Alice, very wisely, eventually realizes that her anxiety about swimming is hurting all of her summer, not just the time she spends at the pool.  After all, what seems fairly simple affects everything she does on a daily basis.  She observes "If parents knew everything that goes on in their kids' heads, they'd be really surprised, I think.  Dad had no idea that I always said 'love you' before I went to Mark's pool so that if that turned out to be the day I sank to the bottom the last thing I would have said to my father was 'love you'" (p. 79).  This anxiety and panic really has her in its grip.  Again, this is a feeling even adults can relate to, especially the way Alice articulates what she is feeling.  She realizes that "There was plenty I could do about mine [my situation], but I was too afraid to try. " (p. 90).  She has to, finally, work up the courage to take her fear and face it squarely, and she does.

Alice is, of course, triumphant.  But this is not the only worry Alice has in this novel.  Alice's father has been dating Alice's sixth grade teacher, Miss Summers.  Alice is convinced that her father will ask Miss Summers to marry him.  Then it doesn't happen, which leads Alice to start asking questions about the adult relationships around her.  She asks her father about why he married her mother, hoping to get an idea about what he is looking for.  What he tells her at first - that he might have been happy with someone else besides her mother - scares her.  But he goes on to explain "Why did I marry her?  Because I knew that she was a woman I could love - that I did love...I had committed to the marriage, Al.  That's what makes the difference." (p. 123).  This next quote, although long, is what really resonated with me when I read this book the first time.  Incredibly, it is just as meaningful to me now.  "And suddenly my warm fuzzy feeling was back again, my armor for the first days of eighth grade, and all the other firsts in my life...It was the feeling...if any of the other hundred and one awful possibilities that lurked around the corner were to happen, I would take it....Because I had guts....Alice the Brave, that was me." (p. 123-4).  And she IS Alice the Brave.  It is a victorious ending for a wonderful, strong character.  I love her just as much today.  Who could ask for anything more?

Alice the Brave.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Aladdin Paperbacks, 1995, 1996.

from my personal collection

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Looking at Lincoln

I have been reading books for the Cybils like crazy for the last few weeks, and have found some real gems that I can't wait to share with you.  Here's the first of the nonfiction picture books that I would like you to track down and read.  With the movie out about his life and presidency, Abraham Lincoln is a popular president again.  While this book was probably not written to take advantage of the movie's buzz, it will certainly be looked at with interest because of its subject matter.  And my hope is that it is read again and again, because of how well it has been created.

The narrator of this book begins by telling the readers that she saw a man while walking in the park.  He attracted her attention with his unusual height.  He reminded her of someone, but until she finished eating breakfast, she couldn't think who it might be.  When they paid, she realized that he looked like the man on the $5 bill - Abraham Lincoln.

Like my own fondest hope for readers, this chance meeting spurs the narrator on to more research.  She goes to the library to learn more about Abraham Lincoln's life, but she finds that she can't tear herself away from his face.  The narrator recites facts about Lincoln's life and death, inserting her own ponderings, opinions and questions as she goes.  By the end of the story, after the narrator (is it Kalman herself, who is an avowed Lincoln aficionado?) has learned about Lincoln's death, the reader has gotten a much fuller appreciation of his humanity as well as Abraham Lincoln's greatness.

There are some things that I find really fascinating about this book.  First of all, I love the narrator's emphasis on curiosity and research.  She sees the man who reminds her of Lincoln, and that is what sends her directly to the library.  She tells readers "Abraham Lincoln was such an amazing man that there are over 16,000 books written about him.  I wanted to read them all, but I got lost in photos of his unusual face."  The illustration on the facing page shows the narrator, poring over a large portrait of Lincoln.  The library is filled with people reading (and one guy sleeping on a book) and learning.  It is exactly what librarians hope all readers will do - become enthusiastic about a subject and keep researching and learning.

And while the narrator claims to not be able to read about Lincoln because she is so fixated on his face, the facts she learns and shares form the majority of the book.  Another thing that is very unusual about this book is the way Kalman combines facts and fiction in a clear way.  She doesn't have to delineate the difference between them - she lets the fonts do it for her.  Facts are done in a more typewriterly font, resembling print in a book.  Then her opinions or questions about Lincoln are written in a handwriting font.  Her questions are fun to read: "I wonder if Mary and Abraham had nicknames for each other."  She calls Lincoln's face unusual, calls his wife short and says that his stepmother wasn't as stern as she looks.  It brings a light tone to this historical subject and also gives a childlike feel to the book.
Kalman has a very modern illustrative style, and I was very curious about how her style would translate to a historical subject.  But it actually works very well.  She combines very realistic depictions of the family with other more modern objects or colors.  For instance, in a portrait of the Lincoln family, every person looks fairly recognizable, with all of them dressed historically accurately.  But some of the children are colored green, which is not as distracting as it sounds.  I think her chosen style for this book combines modern with historical, much as Kalman does with the text.  It's a well-done book and I recommend it for Lincoln lovers and newcomers alike.

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.

Looking at Lincoln.  Maira Kalman.  Nancy Paulsen Books: Penguin for Young Readers, 2012.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The One and Only May Amelia

As you can imagine, I have a pretty large collection of children's literature.  I tend to collect books and authors I really love and hold onto them.  But three years ago, my family began a pattern of moving once a year, and I had to start giving away books "to better homes".  But I held onto the book Our Only May Amelia.  But as time went on, the story became more hazy, and I became less sure of its value in my collection.  When the sequel, The Trouble with May Amelia, came out last year, I decided to reread the first one as well, in order to decide if it should stay or go.  After reading both books together, I am keeping the first one in my collection.  I will look at both of these books as an ongoing story and as historical fiction.

Our Only May Amelia was published in 1999, and won a Newbery Honor for that year.  The action takes place in 1899, on the Nasel River, in the state of Washington.  It is written from May Amelia Jackson's perspective, and she is a spark plug.  She introduces her brother Wilbert on the very first page, giving an indication of her personality as much as his.  He is her "favorite brother which is something indeed since I have so many brothers, more than any girl should have." (p.1). She has seven brothers.  May Amelia is the youngest, but has never been looked at as the baby of the family.  She is twelve years old, but does just as much farm work as her older brothers.  But she is also always in trouble - she doesn't always think before she acts, she is curious and wants to explore.  Her father declares "We're living in wilderness, May Amelia , and you girl have got a Nose for Trouble.". (p. 134).  May Amelia talks back when she believes she is right, and like the rest of the Jackson family, she is stubborn.

Life in 1899 rural Washington state isn't easy.  You have to be tough and creative to survive.  Each member of the family is cognizant of the need to survive financially.  The boys, all in their teens, find work when and where they can, including at the logging camp upriver.  But they are also part of a immigrant Finn community, and they are highly involved with also helping the entire community survive.  May Amelia's mother is heavily, uncomfortably pregnant, but besides caring for her own family, she delivers all the community's
 babies.  When an aunt cannot afford to take her son with the rest of her family as they move looking for work, Kaarlo is adopted into the Jackson family.  He is counted as one of the brothers.

While their life has moments of fun and hilarity, their strength is really shown through their enduring struggle to survive.  It can be unrelenting, but this family shoulders their burden and continues forward.  They value education and send the younger children to school, but if they are needed at home, there is no protest.  And Holm shows all of life on the Nasel River, the good and the truly terrible.  One of the most excruciating episodes has to do with Grandmother Patience.  Grandmother Patience has moved in with the Jackson family, and she is cruel, crotchety and outspoken.  She does not approve of May Amelia and the way she has been raised.  One terrifying episode happens with Grandmother Patience sends May Amelia back repeatedly for the correct cup of tea. 

 "She [Grandmother Patience] bangs the floor with her cane. But I've had all I can take.
There isn't any more honey you Greedy Old Witch! I shout.
She stands up to her full height and shakes her cane at me.  She is big, bigger than I thought and she is full of fury.  Her mouth is twisted in an evil snarl.
How dare you defy me, you little brat, she says.  Go and make me a Cup of Tea." (p. 104)
This woman is truly a villain.  Yet May Amelia finds ways to stay true to herself.  There is an awful consequence to the incident I quoted above, but that isn't the worst of Grandmother Patience's behavior.  And it isn't the worst of what May Amelia will face in this book.  But like the rest of her family, May Amelia knows that life must go on and move forward.  And she does as well.

There is an author's note at the end of this novel describing where Holm got the idea for this novel.  It came from the journal of her grandaunt, Alice Amelia Holm.  Jennifer Holm did a lot of research to supplement family stories, and it is written so beautifully that the research doesn't show.  The chapters are illustrated with photographs (some of which are from the author's own collection).  The sepia tones of the pages and the historical photographs add to the authenticity of this novel.

The Trouble with May Amelia was published in 2011, and it is billed as the sequel to Our Only May Amelia.  However, when I got around to reading it, I read it first, without rereading Our Only May Amelia and it does stand very well on its own.  The action in this novel takes place about six months after the last novel has concluded.  While Holm spends some time re-introducing the Jackson family and their life on the Nasel River, it doesn't feel awkward or forced.  Grandmother Patience, who caused so much strife in the first novel, has died, and in one last stroke of cruelty has left her money to one of May Amelia's uncles, even though her family cared for Grandmother Patience selflessly.  Money is still an issue, and in this book it is a real focus.  Holm also writes about the issues surrounding immigration in this era.  A man comes to meet with May Amelia's father, to talk with him about investing in making Nasel a real town with more business, a developed port and increased financial gain for those people willing to become stakeholders.  Her father only speaks Finn, and asks May Amelia to do all the translating for him, both verbally and translating the documents he must sign.  May Amelia sees this as a pivotal moment in their relationship - that her father finally sees her as truly ready to contribute to her family.  So after May Amelia translates everything, her father decides to take a risk and mortgage the family farm to invest.  Others in the community who also do not speak English fluently base their decisions to invest on the Jacksons' risk.  This is a close-knit community.  It is fairly isolated, and even the children who go to school will not speak English.  They rely on each other and go out of the community very infrequently.  And family members continue to immigrate from Finland, making this group even more prone to rely on each other.

Unfortunately the insularity of this community comes back to haunt them in the end.  It ends up that the man who has convinced the town to invest is a con man.  Families up and down the river blame their unimaginable loss on the Jackson family's decision.  And in an unforgivable turn of events, May Amelia's father blames the con on her.  He believes she should have understood better, should have translated more clearly.  The family is powerless in the face of his anger and helpless when confronted with his stubborn refusal to see reality.  He is stunningly cruel to his only daughter.

Much like the events of the first novel, these events show quite a bit about this family's resiliency, their spirit and strength.  This novel is based on events from Holm's great-grandfather's life, and sadly, these events are true.  Holm writes about this with compassion and a historian's eye for details of the family's despair.  And yet from the truly terrible springs hope and innovation.  This family creates a new venture that will bring prosperity.
I did say earlier that these novels could be read alone.  The events of the second book are affected by the events of the first, but Holm gives the broad strokes of the Jackson family history in a very natural way in the second book.  But when you read these books together, you begin to see a more complete story.  In Our Only May Amelia, Holm focuses primarily on family events.  She does introduce some neighbors and community members, the book examines each of the family members closely.  Readers get to know each one of them - their personalities, their stubbornness, and how May Amelia feels about each one of them.  In the second book, Holm is looking at this family within their community.  As I mentioned, she looks at the immigrant community and how they operate as a unit.  Readers still spend time within the family, but they get to know more of the neighbors, the hope a potential new town brings to Nasel, and the devastation left when this hope disappears.

One of the things I believe works best about this pair of novels is the way Holm crafts her historical fiction.  She creates May Amelia as a lively character, one who is easily relatable to readers and is full of spunk.  She is very much a girl of 1899, but she bucks against tradition and expectations.  There is a family secret that May Amelia isn't privy to at first, although she can sense something isn't being said.  When her brothers finally come out with the secret, the explanation is "You're a girl, May, he says.  We didn't want to scare you.
Nothing scares me, I say. " (Trouble, p. 75)  In her overalls, she is constantly being called a boy and indignantly correcting people: "I ain't no boy!" (Trouble, p. 49).  Yet Holm also fills these novels full of the information that gives readers a feeling of the time period.  Some of the events take place in and around a logging camp, a dangerous place for all of them.  But the money is good, and all of May Amelia's brothers long to work in the camp.  There are also scenes in the fish cannery in nearby Astoria that highlight both the terrible status of immigrants and the workforce in such grueling, low-paying jobs.

I could go on and talk about work in these novels, or education, but you get the idea.  These novels are rich in family and period detail, but their episodic nature and May Amelia's strong, sympathetic character will keep readers enthralled.  One of the other things that I noticed throughout both books was Holm's beautiful, original way of describing things.  She describes objects using easily digested language that brings pictures to the reader's mind.  From Our Only May Amelia, she writes "the Nasel is as calm and smooth as the inside of a clam's shell." (p. 24).  And in The Trouble with May Amelia, Holm describes May Amelia's mother's interaction with a younger cousin: "Mamma spends hours braiding and brushing Helmi's hair until it gleams like fresh milk." (p. 81).  She brings these ideas to life by using pictures that transcend the historical time period, making them appropriate both to May Amelia and the reader.

These books are compelling, whether read together or separately.  I recommend you find them and acquaint yourself with May Amelia.  She's a keeper.

Our Only May Amelia.  Jennifer L. Holm.  HarperCollins, 1999.
The Trouble with May Amelia.  Jennifer L. Holm, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2011.

both borrowed from Lewis and Clark Library

Monday, October 29, 2012

Scientists in the Field, part two

In 2011, I wrote a post on two books in the Scientists in the Field series.  I am a huge advocate for this series - I have raved about it to multiple people and at conferences ever since I first discovered it.  But I haven't written about other books in the series, even though I have continued to explore the series ever since.  I haven't written about them because I haven't found ones that were different from the series formula I had already discussed.  That doesn't mean this is a bad formula.  On the contrary, this is an well-constructed, well-thought-out formula.  All I can wish is that every middle school science classroom had the complete set on their shelves to inspire young scientists.  They show fascinating careers and scientists of all ages and cultures who are passionate about what they do.  Most importantly, they talk about the world around us in interesting ways without trivializing the science involved. The scientists profiled and the authors who create the books take the science seriously and take the time and effort to create something readable but also informative. However, I've read two contributions to the series lately that I believe should be recommended, and I want to talk about those here.

The Elephant Scientist won a Nonfiction Honor from the Horn Book magazine this year, and it is well deserved.  One of the interesting things about this book is that the scientist herself is one of the authors of the book.  Caitlin O'Connell has also taken many of the photographs of her research and field station that are featured in this book.  O'Connell has been studying elephant communication in Namibia, in Southern Africa.  She has been observing elephant behavior with a research team in hopes of deciphering the elephants' calls as well as how they are able to detect noises through vibrations in the ground.  Some of what she is researching has a very practical aspect - farmers in Namibia are frustrated because there is no way to keep elephants out of their farms, where they destroy crops both by eating them and trampling them.  O'Connell believes that elephants' calls may hold the key to protecting the farmers' crops in a non-threatening, inexpensive way.  She has been studying elephants and their behavior for quite some time, and she and Donna M. Jackson (the co-author for this title) find ways to include this incredible knowledge about elephants along with her research and methodology.  Her group creates an incredible field station, and Jackson and O'Connell describe how this field station must function in order to produce credible research, but at the same time, it must not attract negative attention from the animals they are researching.  O'Connell and Jackson also discuss elephant behaviors in this book.  One of the sections discusses male elephants (bulls) and their social structure.  While we tend to think of bulls as aggressive, they also have affiliative (bonding) behaviors and comfort behavior.  The older bull elephants help raise and guide the younger elephants, just as in the female herds.  O'Connell's love and fascination for these animals shines through on every page.  It gives this volume an almost unparalleled intimacy.

In the other volume of this series that I have been thinking about lately, Sneed B. Collard III goes to a reconstructed prairie in Iowa.  I just met Collard at the Montana State Reading Conference a couple of weeks ago.  At that time, I had this book to re-read and review on the blog, and it was hard not to mention it to him.  The grassland that was created in Iowa was the dream of Congressman Neal Smith, who believed that children should be able to see a prairie in their own state, something Iowa had very little of at that time (in the 1980's).  They created the prairie meticulously.  It was a true community effort - there are photographs here of local people helping to sow native grasses and dancing those seeds into the ground.  One of the most unique things about this book is its community - Collard doesn't just profile one scientist in this volume - instead, he emphasizes how many people maintain responsibility for this delicate ecosystem.  There is Pauline Drobney, the National Wildlife Refuge's biologist who carefully monitors the plants and native grasses of the prairie.  There is Dr. Diane Debinski, who searches for one specific butterfly (the Regal Fritillary) on the prairie.  There are the managers who keep the prairie's bison herds healthy, the volunteers who collect and provide seed... this is an ecosystem, and Collard looks at all its working parts in a very compelling way.  This story is one man's dream, but it is the community responsibility, and it brings science to life in a different way than some of the other books in the series.

One of the things that I love most about this series (and if you know me, this is no surprise) is its backmatter.  I believe strongly that students must be able to read a nonfiction title and springboard to additional resources on that subject or related subjects.  I love the bibliographies in these books.  They respect the reader - giving the reader plenty of opportunities to move past this particular volume.  And both books offer readers a diversity of materials - adult books, books written for young readers, web sites and Internet resources, and in The Elephant Scientist, DVD's too.  There are glossaries, indexes and maps to help readers visualize the subject they are learning about.

One of the other things I like most about this series is its design.  The creators of the series are very cognizant of making these books interesting to look at.  The authors and editors present information in multiple ways to readers.  There are sidebars, text boxes and extensive photo captions to pique readers' interest along with the ongoing narrative.  All books in the series are true, contemporary research projects, and as such, are illustrated primarily with rich, vivid photographs.  This choice also brings readers directly into the scientific environment.  These are high-quality books about terrific subjects.  I cannot recommend these books highly enough.

The Elephant Scientist.  Caitlin O'Connell and Donna M. Jackson; photographs by Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.  Houghton Mifflin, 2011.
The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America's Lost Grasslands.  Written and photographed by Sneed B. Collard III, Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

The Elephant Scientist was loaned to me by a friend; The Prairie Builders was borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Picture Book 10 for 10

About two months ago, I asked to participate in the Third Annual Picture Book 10 for 10 event and was happily accepted.  I had gotten as far as pulling my list together, getting ready to write the post for August 10th when I got sick.  Really sick.  Kidney stone misery. And I passed the 10th in a haze which left me unable to write or even speak coherently.  So I set the list to one side and tried not to think about it again.  Except I kept coming back to that list of my top 10 picture books and I was pretty proud of it.  I wanted to share it.  So with my apologies for the very late entry to Mandy and Cathy, here is my list.  It's mostly my favorites, but I included a couple recent favorites of Frances and Gloria, too.  Some of these are ones I've already blogged.  Some of them I will describe here for the first time.  I'm going to count down to number one, just for the thrill of it.

10. My Little Sister Ate One Hare - Bill Grossman; illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.  Have you ever read this book?  If not, here is a sample: "My little sister ate 3 ants, she even ate their underpants.  She ate 2 snakes.  She ate 1 hare.  We thought she'd throw up then and there.  But she didn't."  Hilarious.  Gross.  It's a counting book with a touch of sibling pride - the unseen sibling cannot believe all the things the sister digests...and then what she doesn't.  While the clever rhymes and gross eating are terrific (I can recite parts from memory!), Hawkes' illustrations are brilliant too.  Set as a stage show, the sister sits above the stage lights.  Children gape at her from the audience - amazed, horrified, transfixed - much as we might think of watching the tattooed woman in a sideshow.  Rich vivid colors add to the overall craziness.  I used to love to read this one at storytime, and listeners loved it too.

9. The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred - Samantha R. Vamos, illustrated by Rafael Lopez.  My original review is here.  I have blogged about this book before, so you can go there and read my gushing about it.  Last week I presented at the Montana State Reading Conference and this was one of the books that I brought with me to share.  It just reminded me how much I love this one.  I love the story, created around "The House that Jack Built" but with rice pudding.  I love the sun-drenched colors and the creative combination of the nursery rhyme with Hispanic culture.  Samantha Vamos, do you have anything new coming out soon that I can gush about?

8. I Stink! - Kate & Jim McMullan.  This is very definitely a Frances and Gloria favorite.  I've always liked it fine, but trucks aren't my favorite thing.  Then the girls checked this out of the library (along with the stellar Weston Woods/Scholastic video) and away we went.  They love the trashy alphabet (including dirty diapers, puppy poo and ugly underpants).  Gloria likes to watch our garbage truck, which comes to our complex around the time we leave on Wednesday mornings, and recite parts of the book.  We bought a board book copy for a young friend this summer, and it is definitely too long to read to a one year old.  But the garbage truck's brash personality and matter of fact work habits have become endearing to me.

7. Press Here! - Herve Tullet. This is a book I blogged about last winter, and we have looked at it again many times since then.  It truly is a magic book - the way Tullet gets engagement from the listeners is genius.  I can't believe how quickly Frances and Gloria will leap to do what the text instructs them.  The bright, primary colors set against the white page are striking, too.  It combines for an impactful book.  But it's fun, too.  We love this one!

6. The Gentleman Bug - Julian Hector.  Another book that I need my own copy of (along with Cazuela).  I talked about this book at my presentation last week and I hope people continue to love this one.  The Gentleman Bug is perfectly fine with who he is until a new Lady Bug comes in to his garden, making him believe he needs to become someone else to impress her.  There are several things that resonate with me about this story. I love the message that the Gentleman Bug is loved most when he is himself, not trying to be someone else.  I love the connection to reading and literacy.  And I love the intriguing world of bugs Hector has created.

5. Good Night, Gorilla - Peggy Rathmann.  I can't believe I've never written about this book before as it is one of my very favorites.  I have loved this sweet bedtime story about a zoo for a long time.  Then I saw the Weston Woods/Scholastic video and saw some details I had been missing in the story.  I couldn't believe a movie had added to my understanding of this story.  First of all, I love reading this story aloud.  It's a perfect example of how to read a wordless book aloud.  I love when the zookeeper's wife sleepily says good night, expecting one good night, and ends up with her eyes popping open in surprise at all the animals in her house.  I love all the small details in this book - the colored keys that match the locks on the cages, the Babar and Ernie dolls, that mischievous gorilla.  This is one of those perfect books, and multiple readings don't make the jokes any less effective.

4. Pete's a Pizza - William Steig.  This is one of Gloria's favorite books.  I love the ingenuity of the fun game the family plays.  If you don't know this one, it is a stormy day and Pete had plans to go to play outside with his friends.  In an effort to cheer him up, his parents start to make him into a pizza.  They roll him around on the table, "stretching him this way and that".  They cover him with pretend cheese, tomatoes and pepperoni.  His parents try to cook him, and when they are ready to eat... the whole book is funny and comforting at the same time. Both of my girls think this book is hilarious, and I love how free the parents feel to play with their son.  I like the simplicity of the story and how Pete's mood changes long before the weather outside.

3. Dinosaur's Binkit - Sandra Boynton.  I first met this book when I babysat for a family on Nantucket with a toddler son.  He loved this book, and soon so did I.  It isn't uproarious, totally silly humor, like many of Boynton's books.  The rhyming text is soothing and sing-song..."Dinosaur, O Dinosaur, you fuss and fret and yawn.  It's time to brush your dino teeth and put your p.j.'s on."  But the dinosaur who is being soothed to sleep will have none of it: "I NEED MY BINKIT."  He is insistent, the motherly voice persistent.  Then the binkit is found, in time for the dinosaur to curl up and go to sleep.  This story has flaps, textures and things to touch, which adds to the youngest reader's enjoyment.  I continue to give this book as a baby present.  Our copies (and yes, we have multiple copies) are tattered, but we still read them (and I can recite this from memory at the drop of a hat).

2. The Frances books - Russell Hoban, illustrated by Garth Williams, Lillian Hoban.  I am probably cheating by including all of these picture books here, but I can't help it.  As you know, these books are near and dear to my heart.  After all, I even nicknamed my girls after those stories.  And I can't even say I have one particular favorite.  I love Bedtime for Frances with the father threatening Frances to get her to go to bed, clearly at the end of his rope.  I love A Bargain for Frances, with that coveted blue china tea set.  I love Best Friends for Frances, with the amazing picnic their mother packs for Frances and Gloria.  These books with their gentle lessons never go out of style.  In fact, they are necessary reading at our house again right now for some reminders of how to behave.  Another set of books I talked about last week in my presentation.

1. I'm sure you have been holding your breath, waiting to see my number one book...and here it is.  Goodnight Moon - Margaret Wise Brown
This is another book I am surprised I have never mentioned on my blog before.  I have a deep, abiding love for Margaret Wise Brown.  I love her books and Goodnight Moon is my favorite of all.  At my last children's library, I read this at the end of every pajama storytime, with my voice getting softer with every page.  I read this to Frances every night while I was pregnant with Gloria, and Gloria still can be soothed by this book at four years old.  It is a magical, cozy tale, with the perspective getting more and more focused as the objects become more and more abstract.  This is the perfect good night book, and my perfect number one. Goodnight noises everywhere.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Cybils Panelist

I am so excited to post here that I will be a Cybils panelist for the Nonfiction Picture Book award again this year.  If you don't know about the Cybils, it is a group of awards for multiple types of books, given to the books that best combine literary merit and kid appeal.  The panelists and judges for this awards are children's and young adult book bloggers.  This group has a ton of expertise and a ton of enthusiasm.  It is fun to read for all of these awards, but as you can guess, I have a special spot in my heart for Nonfiction Picture Books.  While I liked them before last fall, I really fell in love with them over the course of my reading.  I read more than seventy books last year, and can't wait to read more!

If you are wondering about this procedure, it goes like this: between October 1st and October 15th, you can nominate books to be considered.  Rules are available at the Cybils website as the nomination period is opened.  Then the first round panelists (of which I am one), begin reading.  We read everything that is nominated, folks!  Then beginning around Christmas, we begin debating.  The panelists look at books and discuss them together, trying to narrow the books down to a shortlist.  The shortlist is passed on to the second round judges, who come up with a final winner in each category by Valentine's Day.

It is an incredibly fulfilling process for me, and I cannot wait to get started again.  You will be seeing reviews of some of the books I love as the fall goes on (last year I reviewed books here, here, and here, among others).  I will use the same post labels as I did last year - Cybils and Non-fiction picture books - if you are interested in looking at all of the related posts.  I hope you'll enjoy this as much as I will!

Monday, September 17, 2012


I used to be the head of the Weezie Library for Children on the island of Nantucket.  It was a wonderful time in my life, in some ways very like a story.  I was very lucky to meet a family early on in my time there who became my second family.  I babysat for their children, shared adventures with them, spent time at their house...I even lived with them for a while, sharing a bedroom with their middle child.  They had the best yellow lab, named Bucky.  He was enormous, sweet, and good-natured, a real friend and companion to all of us.  When the whole family would go off-island for a vacation, Bucky would come stay with me at my apartment.  He would jump up and stretch out on the bed next to me at night.  Bucky was a sweet old dog.

Homer reminded me of Bucky in a great way.  The book begins with Homer, a big yellow dog, laying on the porch, looking out over the ocean, nose up to sniff the air.  The sun is just rising, and the day seems full of possibility.  Cooper's text is brief, but sums up the dog's experience so honestly and lovingly.  As the entire family (including a whole passel of dogs) tromp past him, he rests contentedly on the porch.  He's right at the edge of the stairs, where he can survey everything.  Everyone who passes offers Homer things to do - chase and race around the yard, swimming in the waves, running to the market.  But Homer demurs, saying "No, no, I'm fine right here."

The day passes, and soon everyone is back.  As they pass Homer on their way back inside, they all report on their activities - the chase and race was tiring, the waves were big and wild, the market trip produced great things to eat.  Homer is the family's touchstone.  As the sun sets, they all gather on the porch around him, evidence of their day spread around Homer.  The sweetest moment come when the father asks if Homer needs anything.  Homer answers no, that he has everything he wants.  Cooper shows Homer in a series of panels getting up slowly, a little stiff from a day on the wooden porch, going into the house, and settling into an oversized chair.  He is surrounded by the family again, and you can see Homer's calm, his love and peaceful demeanor.  Homer truly has everything he needs right around him.

This story is heartfelt.  Cooper has written a paean to the heart of the home and a beloved dog.  You can tell how everyone regards Homer - they pat him, one of the little girls tucks a hydrangea flower behind Homer's ears.  Even the other family dogs stop for Homer's approval before moving on.  Cooper cuts through the sweetness of these scenes with other techniques.  There are details in each illustration that show the life of the family, things we can all relate to.  Some of these details are humorous - in the picture of the dogs barrelling past Homer on their way to chase and race, a Scottie flies off the porch, all legs extended.  Though one of the parents clearly has the door opened wide to let the pack out, a basset hound chooses to go out through the doggie door.  There is also some bittersweetness to this book - Homer is clearly getting older, no longer needing to romp and burn off energy like the other dogs.  Instead, he is content to stay at home, sniffing the air and monitoring everyone's activities.

The CIP for this book says that Cooper used watercolors and pencil to create the artwork.  First I want to say that mentioning the way the illustrations were created are so important to me.  I am actually not sure why EVERY picture book doesn't include this information.  It celebrates the art that was made for that book, and that's what it is - art.  Could you imagine going to a museum, finding something framed that you really liked, and having no idea how it was created?  I think this is a valuable learning opportunity.  Even after all of these years reviewing picture books, I am still astonished at the way picture books are created.  I still quite often need a reminder of the methods that were used, especially when there are multiple methods used.  Especially as art classes are cut all over the United States, the artistic method seems like crucial information for readers to have.  I love seeing how a technique works best, and speculating on why an artist chose something particular.  Okay, rant over.  But if you are a publisher, please consider including this every time.

This time Cooper's choice suits the illustrations perfectly.  The pencil helps delineate soft, puffy clouds and the fur all over Homer.  The watercolors are precise, rich and beachy without being too pastel - they remind me of the natural beauty of Nantucket.  In the first illustration, Homer is the exact color of the morning sky and a path to the beach.  He is a part of the scenery, even though he remains slightly apart from it.  Most pages are paneled - with one or more panels framed with crisp white.  There are two double-page spreads, both showing the whole family, busy with their own activities yet all within Homer's eyesight.  Your eye catches on many details as you scan, but these pictures are filled with love.
There is no getting around the love in this book, both within the family and for Homer.  Homer is the elder statesman of the family and graciously accepts the respect that is his due.   This book really struck a chord with me because of my beach experiences, but I think anyone who has experienced the love of a dog will love it just as much.  On the last page, Cooper focuses tightly on Homer's loved, loving face - all is right in his world as he falls asleep.

Homer.  Elisha Cooper.  Greenwillow Books, 2012.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Puffling Patrol

If you know this blog at all, you know how much I love children's nonfiction.  And I'll say something here that I've said before: I am a fairly recent convert to children's nonfiction.  I thought of it as something I should read to round out my blog, not because I had any strong feeling for it.  And over the last two years (including a stint as a Cybils judge on a picture book nonfiction panel), I find myself really struggling not to focus my blog almost exclusively on children's nonfiction.  There are so many great books out there.  So just know for every book I've written about, I've read two or three other great ones.  This book, however, is one you can't live without.

I first saw this book at our local library and was drawn to the sweet puffling on the cover.  Then I saw that it was written and illustrated by Ted and Betsy Lewin.  This husband and wife are both Caldecott Honor winners, which is an amazing thing.  Their illustrative styles are so different, and I was interested enough to take a closer look at their collaboration.  I am always fascinated by collaborations - picture books, nonfiction, chapter books.  I love to look at how different authors (or illustrators) "fit" together - one of my favorite collaborations being Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green and David Levithan).  You can hear each author's voice yet also see the overarching plot and themes.  Each author's contribution meshes seamlessly.

This book was strong from the very first page.  The Lewins created maps to orient readers immediately.  The larger map is a close-up of the island of Heimaey (off the coast of Iceland), where the story takes place, giving landmarks to help readers picture where specific events take place.  A smaller map shows the entire world, with Heimaey and Iceland shown in perspective to help readers see how small this island really is.  There is a note on the facing page describing the Lewins' interest in this island and its importance for the puffin population.

Then the text begins.  One of the most notable things is how well the Lewins are able to incorporate facts into their travel narrative.  The Lewins have come to Iceland in August, when young puffins (called pufflings) are ready to venture out on their own for the first time.  The adult puffins have already abandoned their pufflings to return to their lives on the ocean.  The pufflings have to begin to fly, but their wings aren't always strong, and they become disoriented by the lights of the small town on Heimaey.  They fly down onto the streets, and are unable to take off again.  The pufflings can become victims of predators like dogs, or be hit by cars since they are so helpless.  This is where the children of Heimaey come in to help.  They are enlisted into the Puffling Patrol, and go out at night to rescue pufflings before they are injured.

The Lewins introduce readers to Dáni and Erna, eight year old twins who are in the Puffling Patrol.  It is compelling to see the rescue efforts through these children's eyes.  The twins are all business, capable and confident in their task.  They stay up late during their stint as patrol, and their father tells the Lewins that Dáni "rescued twenty-seven pufflings in one night", so you can visualize the importance of their task.

While the children are the eyes of the story, the entire island is focused on rescuing and caring for many kinds of seabirds.  The Lewins go out on a boat with researchers who are monitoring puffin burrows.  They visit the Natural History Museum to see the pufflings measured and weighed before being released out into the ocean.  At the time of year when pufflings are taking the first flights, the island is dedicated to puffin rescue.  It is rewarding and dramatic when Dáni and Erna release the pufflings into the ocean.

Ted Lewin creates full-page watercolor paintings, and the most dramatic illustrations (the cover picture of a puffling caught in a spotlight, the pufflings being thrown up and out into the sea) are his.  The colors are rich and saturated.  There are black volcanic beaches created by sparkling lava, warm red light shining on wet pavement, an azure blue ocean.  But for all the drama of his paintings, Betsy Lewin gives the puffins personality.  She has created smaller spot illustrations that add details to the text.  One of my favorite illustrations accompanies text about the researchers who must scale a cliff to see puffin burrows.  When they return to the boat where the Lewins are watching, they must leap in while the small Zodiac bobs on waves, since there is no dock.  Betsy Lewin shows a researcher leaping wildly (and almost missing the boat) while they watch.  It is funny and terrifying at the same time.  She also provides small closeups of a puffling gulping a fish and other endearing puffling activities.  Their different styles add interest and diversity to this fascinating text.

And you know one of my requirements for strong nonfiction is high-quality back matter, and this book is exemplary.  I've already mentioned the maps and explanatory note at the beginning of the book.  There are also two pages of Atlantic puffin facts (along with more of Betsy Lewin's expressive illustrations).  The Lewins have included a page on a five month long volcano eruption on the island of Heimaey which caused total evacuation of the island.  It is a fascinating addition to the story of the pufflings.  There is also information about the declining puffin population, a bibliography, and a glossary and pronunciation guide...whew!  I also loved the note with the authors' sources, with a citation for Bruce McMillan's Nights of the Pufflings, which first introduced this island to readers.

This book is beautifully constructed from start to finish.  I loved the topic (who doesn't love puffins?), and I loved how integral the children of Heimaey are to the survival of the puffins.  It is a story that children will relate to, with plenty of facts to encourage further research.  I hope this one will be considered come awards season.

Puffling Patrol.  Ted and Betsy Lewin.  Lee & Low Books, 2012.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Maya Makes a Mess

I don't usually talk about graphic novels for children for one simple reason - my public library doesn't carry them!! When I worked at the Glendale Public Library in Arizona, I had librarians on my staff with excellent graphic novel taste (this book was written by one of my staff) and I honestly could not imagine living in a place without graphic novels for children.  Now I want my girls to begin reading some graphic novels, and I can't get my hands on them - it is frustrating!

One of those series is the innovative easy-to-read comic book series produced by the Candlewick Books imprint, TOON Books.  TOON Books is remarkable for being a collaboration between Francoise Mouly (art editor of the New Yorker  among other accomplishments) and Art Spiegelman, who is a celebrated, award-winning comic book creator.  They have taken many famous comic book and graphic novel creators and artists and have them create books designed specifically for emergent readers.  Comic books can help young readers "crack the code" of literacy - the illustrations and text help guide them from left to right, and from the top to the bottom of the page.  Also, even though these are beginning readers, they are great stories as well.  One of my favorites, Little Mouse Gets Ready, was written and drawn by Jeff Smith (who created the uber-popular Bone series).  The books are leveled, so parents and teachers can tell at a glance what would be most appropriate for their reader.

TOON's backlist is very strong, but there are a couple of books that are coming out this fall that I wanted to draw your attention to.  I am interested in seeing A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse, by Frank Viva.  Last year I read his picture book, Along a Long Road.  What is remarkable about that book is that it was created as one enormous piece of art (from the book: "created as a single continuous thirty-five-foot-long piece of art using Adobe Illustrator").  It had a retro yet modern feel to it.  I cannot wait for this new title from him - I think he will only continue to become more innovative.
But I'm really here to tell you all about an opportunity to get a new TOON books Fall 2012 title for yourself.  TOON Books is celebrating the publishing of the book Maya Makes a Mess with a very fun giveaway.  This book is written by another high-quality graphic novelist - Rutu Modan won a Eisner Award for Best New Graphic Novel for her first published work.  She has written about a topic that is very familiar to parents - Maya, who has atrocious table manners, is suddenly invited to dine with the Queen.  Will the Queen find Maya's manners lacking? I don't want to give too much away, as I plan to blog this soon.  But TOON Books is offering copies of this title to the readers who are the messiest eaters.  I hate to tell you this, but bad manners are encouraged here!!  Follow this link to see how to enter (but basically all you have to do is email a picture - what could be easier?).  While you are there, check out some hilarious pictures of TOON staffers making...well, a mess.  It is a fun way to encourage reading.  If you win a copy, you'd better let me know!  By the way, don't wait to enter - this giveaway ends August 15th.

Watch for my review of Maya Makes a Mess coming soon.  I hope that more reviews of great graphic novels and comic books for children will convince the children's librarian at our public library to reconsider.  For now, look for TOON books at your library and enjoy them!

Little Mouse Gets Ready.  Jeff Smith.  TOON Books, 2009.
A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse.  Frank Viva.  TOON Books, 2012.
Maya Makes a Mess.  Rutu Modan.  TOON Books, 2012.

Monday, July 30, 2012

One COOL Friend

Friendship is a tricky thing - I think we'd all agree.  Sometimes you meet someone and instantly connect.  Sometimes in my life I have met someone who I long to have as my friend, and it takes time to develop that connection.  But sometimes you just know it's right.  I see the same routines happen with my girls - they have made friends with the children of my adult friends, because they are so often together.  Frances has recently become closer friends with a girl in her preschool class who she didn't like at all last fall.  And Gloria, as is typical of Gloria's personality, has one true-blue friend, and he's a boy.

Elliot doesn't seem to have any human friends.  At the beginning of the book, he appears, looking older than he is, surrounded by a circle of stuffed animals.  His father, whose green plaid suit contrasts sharply with Elliot's refined tuxedo, asks Elliot if he would like to go to Family Fun Day at the aquarium.  With an almost audible sigh, Elliot agrees, even though he knows that there will be a horde of noisy kids there.  As soon as they arrive, Elliot's father plops on a bench to read National Geographic.  Elliot roams on his own, steering clear of the crowds.  And then Elliot discovers...the penguins!  He identifies with their style and their posture.  He feels that connection to a true friend.  When he asks to take one home, his absorbed father agrees, thinking Elliot's buying one in the nearby gift shop.  But of course, that's not what Elliot had in mind.  The miscommunication between Elliot and his father (or is it willful misrepresentation?) continues after Elliot absconds with the penguin, who he names Magellan.  This ongoing miscommunication ends in a delightful, surprising clarification at the end, a twist that is unexpected and marvelous.

Buzzeo's text is crisp and stark.  Just like Elliot, it can be refined.  When the father is speaking, you can feel his attempts to find something to connect with his son.  Both Elliot and his father are self-contained fellows - the father pores over his journals, maps and diagrams.  Elliot putters away making his penguin comfortable.  They are both speaking English, but don't seem to be speaking the same language.

One of the nifty design elements in this book ties together Buzzeo's text with Small's illustrations.  Dialogue is entered in balloons, adding to this book's retro, graphic feel.  If there are multiple lines of dialogue, the balloons are stacked.  This is helpful for new readers, to indicate who is saying what on the page.  It also helps indicate the order of the conversation.  There is also a distinction between thought bubbles (more scalloped in shape) and dialogue balloons (smooth and oval) to guide readers.  It's very clever.
Buzzeo's text is pared down and sophisticated, although it isn't too sophisticated for young readers to get a sense of Elliot's isolation and loneliness.  As Elliot winds a garden hose through the house (making an ice rink for the penguin), he tells his father "Forgive the inconvenience."  But the text and illustrations work perfectly together - where Buzzeo is short and sweet, Small;s illustrations are grandiose - in a good way! - filling double-page spreads.  They are over the top, with Elliot's father's crazy colored suit, tufts of orange hair and eyes rolling wildly with excitement.

But while the text draws me into the story, I have to spend some time focusing on David Small's amazing illustrations.  First of all, the palette for the illustrations are cool tones - an icy blue, white, grey, and black.  Other colors are used, but these choices set the tone right from the cover.  The word "COOL" is icy blue, along with a tiled square motif along the spine, echoing the tiles in the aquarium.  The rest of the cover (Elliot and the penguin back to back) is sharply black and white.  And this continues throughout.

This book, after all, is about a penguin and you can almost see Magellan revel in the icy pages.  One of my favorite illustrations shows Elliot and Magellan whirling on a makeshift ice rink.  The focus of the page is Elliot, dressed in uncharacteristically bright colors, eyes closed with contentment.  He is happy.  But there are other details which make this page worth poring over - all of the stuffed animals are wearing scarves and earmuffs because the air conditioner is on full-blast.  Mobiles and globes drip icicles.  The details say just as much about the situation as the main picture does.

The illustrations remind of the matter-of-fact silliness of The Christmas Crocodile - one of my favorite Small-illustrated books.  In both books the wackiness of the core situation (in The Christmas Crocodile, a family receives a large package delivered to them - bet you can't guess what's inside!) is in sharp relief against the ordinariness of the setting.  But in One Cool Friend, once you read to the end, and discover the father's secret, you'll want to go back and re-read the book.  There are many clever indications of the father's secret embedded in the pages - another level of humor for readers to enjoy.

This book fits readers on so many levels - those readers who might long for a penguin, those who might long for the understanding of a perfect friend, those who are looking for a place to fit in.  Oh!  I can't believe I didn't mention it before, but there is also a cool librarian featured in these pages - one more thing to love about this book.  All in all, this is a surefire hit, and not to be missed!

One Cool Friend.  Toni Buzzeo; pictures by David Small.  Dial Books, 2012.
The Christmas Crocodile.  Bonny Becker and David Small.  Simon & Schuster, 2012.

One Cool Friend borrowed from Lewis & Clark library, The Christmas Crocodile is my personal copy.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Heirs of Prophecy

First of all, I apologize for the long silence.  This early summer has been a little bumpy for me, but I have lots of posts waiting to be written, so I promise more regular posts are on their way.  Thank you for being patient with me!  I was approached to participate in a blog tour for this book, Heirs of Prophecy.  I read some reviews that interested me, and I realized I hadn’t written any blog posts about chapter books in a long time, so I decided to give it a go.  And this was a fast-paced adventure that kept me reading!
The Riverton family is going on vacation.  Their father usually plans the vacations, and he chooses some…unusual places (their last vacation featured Japanese ruins and samurai sword making).  But their dad is letting them bring the family cat, Silver, so 14 year old Ryan and 12 year old Aaron figure it can’t be that bad.  Well, their vacation doesn’t go quite as planned.  The family ends up outside of Tucson, Arizona, exploring caves by canoe.  Suddenly, there is a loud rumble, and the cave collapses around them.
This is the Riverton family’s introduction to Trimoria, a world they could not have ever dreamed of.  And as they stumble through the forests, trying to find civilization, some unexplainable things begin to happen to them all.  Ryan, the oldest son, has what looks like lightning shoot out from his fingers.  Aaron, who had been previously described as “diminutive”, shows amazing strength – lifting rocks as if they were hollow.  And their mother and father, too, begin to exhibit powers they never had before.  As for Silver, well, Silver has grown enormous and even smarter than he was before.
They are incredibly lucky to find the Protector of the area, Throll, on their second day, and even luckier that he believes their story, even though it seems farfetched.  As Protector-General of the land, Throll is able to wield some power over the townspeople and gets them to believe that Jared Riverton (the boys’ father)is his old friend from another part of the land.  Oddly, Jared Riverton had been interested in blacksmithing back home in the United States, and had created a smithy in their backyard.  Here in Aubgherle, there is an urgent need for a blacksmith.
Magic is outlawed in Trimoria, and people who exhibit any type of magical powers (especially babies) mysteriously disappear.  So the odd skills that the Rivertons have gained need to be hidden from spies in the town of Aubgherle.  They practice these skills in secret, trying to gain control of their powers and learn how they function.  It becomes evident that while Ryan is the strongest wizard, his father is also a wizard of some power.  Aaron is freakishly strong, and begins to learn a variety of fighting skills and strategies.  And their mother, Aubrey, is an incredible healer.
But somehow the wizard who controls the country of Trimoria, Azazel, who is evil, becomes apprised of this unusual family and sets out to destroy them.  At the same time a “small” ogre (only seven feet tall at the start of the novel! And a vegetarian!) named Ohaobbok joins Throll’s family and the Rivertons, and he retells a strange prophecy, one that includes himself and the Riverton family.  The Rivertons’ inclusion in the prophecy makes sense.  Trimoria is nowhere near as technologically advanced as present-day United States, but the skills the Rivertons have honed in their American lives seem to translate well here.  For instance, the blacksmithing (along with the samurai sword making vacation) comes in very handy.  Jared can actually bring modern technology to creating swords in Trimoria, giving his swords an advantage.  Both Ryan and Aaron have studied martial arts for years, and that gives them an advantage as well.  All these things seem to point to their destiny – to fulfill the prophecy.
I don’t want to tell too much of the plot, because exploring the country along with the Rivertons and discovering where their destiny lies is part of the ride.  And it is definitely a ride.  The book is full of magic, elements of fantasy, and some crazy fights.  Everything is enthralling, and keeps you reading.   This book sped by – I would pick it up and find I had suddenly read 100 pages!  It is easy enough for a fifth grader to read, and perfectly suited for a middle grade audience, including plenty of adventure and danger.
The world-building Rothman does is easy to understand.  I hate fantasy books where I spend so much time figuring out how things work, or how the universe was created.  I often feel that that holds me back from really engaging with the plot, and I’ve been known to not finish fantasies that get overly complicated.  While it is a mystery how the Rivertons arrived in Trimoria (the back of the book calls it a ‘fluke of nature’, but could it be something or someone else?),  the country of Trimoria itself isn’t overly complicated.  It seems to be pretty squarely set in something resembling the Middle Ages, with an emphasis on iron, mining, and blacksmithing.  People fight with swords, daggers and bows and arrows, not guns and bombs.  And the types of creatures that populate the forests are also familiar – dwarves that mine ore, elves in an amazing magical forest glen, and ogres.  But the characterization helps keep these traditional types interesting .  I really loved the ogre, Ohaobbok – he is sweet, and yet fights for this family he has come to love.
This book includes many of the “big” fantasy themes – good v. evil, the power of magic, but adds in some new twists.  It felt fresh, and made me want to continue on to see how this series gets to the final war and an epic battle.  For there will be one – it has been foretold.  Generations of Trimorians have the same dream, and the Riverton family is front and center in that dream.
I do have a couple of minor quibbles with Rothman, though.  I have a cat of my own, and I would never take him on a family vacation.  Especially if I knew that vacation would involve canoeing along a river in addition to a plane ride.  I don’t know many cats who would agree to those conditions!  Also the Riverton family doesn’t seem to articulate any desire to return to the United States.  They seem perfectly happy in Trimoria, and while I’ve already said that they are destined to be there, I can’t help wondering if they will mention a longing for home at some point. 
Also, I would have liked a glossary or pronunciation guide for the names.  I see that book two (titled Tools of Prophecy) is already out in e-book and will be out in hardback next month, so maybe he will consider it for the prequel or book three, both of which are in the works.  I think it’s important to guide readers to the “correct” Trimorian pronunciation for names like Ohaobbok (oh, how I’d love to say that name!), Ealuanni, Azazel, and others.  The elven names are particularly tricky.  So, please, Mr. Rothman, help us out!
All in all, though, this is a fun, thrilling adventure.  I would love to know more about the Rivertons and their adventures in Trimoria, and I hope you’ll take time to explore along with them!
Rothman , Michael A.  Heirs of Prophecy.  M & S Publishing, 2012.
Sent by TLC Book Tours for review as part of a blog tour.