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