Monday, October 28, 2013

Eleanor & Park

This was my second time reading Eleanor & Park.  Usually I read the books I'm going to blog about twice - that way I can mark quotes I'd like to use in my review.  But I usually read books twice in a row, pretty quickly, so that I can remember all the things that struck me the first time.  This time, however, I had to read it the first time and return it - there were holds on it.  And that's fairly unusual - even though my public library is small, there are rarely holds lists there for more than the most popular titles.  I was gratified to see the long holds list.  I love when someone else in my town sees how great a book is without me having to shout it from the rooftops!  When I finally got it back, I dog-eared many, many pages with quotes I wanted to share.

Eleanor & Park would have been a sure win for me, no matter what.  It combines school (I love books set in schools, for whatever reason) and romance.  But the icing on the cake is that Rowell chose to set this in the '80's.  Without dating myself too much (yeah, right!), I grew up in the '80's.  So reading this didn't feel like a blast from the past, it felt like the way things were for me.

A side note about the time period - at my old library, they started putting historical fiction genre labels on books set in the 1980's.  While I technically agree that books set more than 20 years ago are historical fiction, boy, does that make me feel old!

Now back to Eleanor & Park.  It begins on the day Eleanor first gets on the bus.  It's a bus full of high school students, and like any group of students who have been riding the bus together for any length of time, they have created a stratification.  The coolest (and most obnoxious) kids sit in the back, freshmen in the front, and everyone else somewhere in the middle.  When Eleanor first stands tentatively in the front of the bus, Park notes that she is "not just new - but big and awkward.  With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly...She had on a plaid shirt, a man's shirt, with half a dozen weird necklaces hanging around her neck and scarves wrapped around her wrists.  She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser." (p. 8).  Eleanor looks so different from everyone else, and she is harassed from this very first moment.  By the time she has reached the seat where Park slumps down, she has been told she can't sit in multiple seats.  So Park tells her to sit next to him.  And not in a nice way, either.  Having grown up with these kids, he knows the comments he is in for even by sitting next to her.

And yet, from that small action, something huge grows.  They very slowly develop a friendship based first on the comics Park reads on the bus.  Then they begin listening to and sharing music.  One of my favorite pieces in the book was when Park gives Eleanor a Smiths tape - the album "How Soon is Now?" Park hears the lyrics as "I am the son... and the heir."  When Eleanor listens to it again, she hears "I am the sun...and the air." (p. 54)  It is one of those little moments where you see how different, how separate they each are.  And it makes their eventual romance that much sweeter.

Eleanor's life is very,very difficult.  She has just recently returned to her mom, siblings and stepfather.  She was living with another family for a long time after her stepfather kicked her out.  He's a drinker, a druggie, and has a temper.  Richie is just skeevy, and I can only imagine how exhausted Eleanor's mother is with the effort of keeping them all out of Richie's way.  There is no money.  The children don't have shampoo, toothpaste, clothes that fit.  Eleanor's daily reality is heartbreaking and the courage and grace that she carries is amazing.  She purposefully dresses in wild colors so people won't notice she's worn the same jeans three days that week.  That way, Eleanor feels like she can control what people say about her.

Eleanor lives in a carefully constructed house of lies and half-truths.  Her stepfather is fairly out of control, but no one can know about it.  They all live with an excruciating amount of tension.  And Park's life is almost the polar opposite.  His mother is Korean, and she met Park's father while he was serving in the military there.  Eleanor is astonished by Park's family - so content, so put together, so different.  "Eleanor imagined Park's dad, Tom Selleck, tucking his Dainty China person into his flak jacket and sneaking her out of Korea." (p.126).

Park sees how Eleanor looks to everyone else: "Eleanor, today, was wearing her sharkskin suit jacket and an old plaid cowboy shirt.  She had more in common with his grandpa than with his mom." (p. 122).  But he genuinely loves her, too.  "As soon as he said it, she broke into a smile.  And when Eleanor smiled, something broke inside him.  Something always did." (p. 163).  He loves her at first in spite of his wanting to fit in with everyone else.  Then, as their romance continues, he loves those things that stand out about her best of all.

Rowell has constructed an amazing book.  Of course, I love the music, but I also love many other things  about this book.  The romance is tender, juxtaposed against the suspense of Eleanor's family life.  I physically hurt for the whole family - their desolation is piercing.  Park's family is fascinating.  They are quirky, endearing, but not perfect.  Once Park's mother knows more about Eleanor's life, she tells Park "' In big family,' she said, 'everything, everybody spread so thin.'...'Nobody gets enough.' she said.  'Nobody gets what they need.  When you always hungry, you get hungry in your head.'" (p. 189).    This is such a strong description of Eleanor's family.  Eleanor often feels like whatever she might have comes at the expense of her siblings or her mother.

I also love that Eleanor and Park are not your typical romance characters.  I just read another teen romance (which shall remain nameless) where both of the main characters were gorgeous, blond and tanned.  It is a relief to have characters who aren't perfect.  They are originals.

Finally, Rowell's writing is extraordinary.  I said at the beginning of the post that I dog-eared lots of quotes.  I probably marked thirty quotes in this book - that moment of recognition happened over and over again for me.  There were places where truth shines, where romance shows its face, moments of breathtaking cruelty, moments of sheer perfection.  Teen romance feels like something to smile at, to marvel at.  And this book is no exception.  I can hardly wait to read Rainbow Rowell's next book!

Eleanor & Park.  Rainbow Rowell.  St. Martin's Griffin, 2013.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Fire Horse Girl

I am sure that I have written here before about my feelings about historical fiction.  I'll read it, but I usually feel like I'm getting a history lesson, and it is hard to get through the story.  I find myself drifting off, picking up and then finishing other books...that's not a good sign.  But The Fire Horse Girl had me from the very first paragraph.  In fact, the writing was so good that it made me want to improve my writing too.  So before I published this post (and hopefully my posts going forward), I used Grammarly to check my spelling and grammar. It was easy to use and made cleaning up my own post simple. It also offers an online plagiarism checker too.  I still can't compete with Kay Honeyman though!

The book begins this way:

"In Chinese astrology, the Year of the Fire Horse is a bad year for Horses.  All of their worst traits - their tempers, their stubbornness, their selfishness - burn with increased strength.  Girls should never be born in the year of the Fire Horse; they are especially dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families.

But desperation flowed fast and thick through my mother's veins..." (p. 1)

In Jade Moon's village, she was marked from her very first breath.  She's a girl in a culture that reveres males, her mother died giving birth to her, she's the last of her line, and worst of all, she is a Fire Horse.  The entire village judges her every move and Jade Moon feels their scrutiny.  It is a heavy burden.  When she meets a neighbor, Jade Moon "...quickly shifted my gaze to a point in the air just in front of [the neighbor's] forehead.  This was a technique I used often.  It blurred people's faces and kept me from seeing the disdain in their eyes." (p. 7)

Jade Moon isn't stupid, despite what the other villagers believe.  She just doesn't feel like she can fit into their traditions, into the way things have always been.  That isn't who Jade Moon is.  The village blames this on her being a Fire Horse.  Jade Moon already knows "my mind constructed ideas that no one seemed to understand, and my heart held hopes that were far beyond my reach." (p. 8)  She is viewed as an oddity, and her father is having a difficult time finding a match for her.

Until Sterling Promise arrives.  This young man comes to their home with news of Jade Moon's only uncle, who has recently died.  Before he died, he sent Sterling Promise with papers to allow both Jade Moon's father and Sterling (masquerading as his son) to America to earn their fortunes.  Surprisingly, Jade Moon's father tells her she will be traveling to America along with them.  Jade Moon sees America as a place where she can grab her destiny, where she can shake off other people's expectations and become fully herself.  This trip is an unexpected gift, and she isn't quite sure why it has been given to her.

Sterling Promise is an enigma as well.  He is a smooth talker, someone who can talk business with her father and grandfather.  Yet there is emotion below the surface.  And it seems Sterling Promise (how can you call him anything but his full name??) feels the same desperation Jade Moon feels - that need to grab onto the chance to start anew.  It is intriguing, and she knows there is more to his story than he is willing to share.

I really don't want to ruin this story for those of you who will read it.  Suffice to say that I learned many new facts about immigration to America in the 1920's.   I was raised in California, but most of what I read about Angel Island, where Jade Moon starts the immigration process, was new and very stark.  Immigrants much like Jade Moon stayed there for weeks on end.  We all know about Ellis Island, of course, but on Angel Island conditions were very different.  I found this part of Jade Moon's story fascinating.  It is also very painful.

As the immigrants wait for permission to enter the United States, or for someone to come and get them, they spend a lot of time together.  The women's bunk has its share of anger, frustration, and sadness.  So when Jade Moon is asked to tell a story to the others, she knows: "These women needed a story about people trying to get somewhere impossible.  They needed a story about promises kept and broken, a story about sacrificing everything at a chance for something beautiful." (p. 113)

Eventually, Jade Moon finds a chance to get off Angel Island and the story twists again.  In each of the twists of this narrative, there are interesting people, people who you want to get to know further.  But the key to the whole novel, of course, is the Fire Horse girl, Jade Moon.

It is Jade Moon who kept me glued to each page.  All of the things she has believed about herself throughout her life in China - that she is selfish, stubborn, full of temper - are in reality strengths.  She is smart, savvy and a shrewd judge of character and emotion.  Jade Moon isn't afraid to say what she thinks but can also play the game if it is necessary to get what she wants.  America is her destiny.  She asks another character in the novel where stories come from.  Spring Blossom tells her they come from "deep inside me, where we must bury what we desire in order to protect it."  (p. 105).  Jade Moon has always tried to bury her dream of freedom deep inside, but it cannot stay there any longer.  This is her one chance to change the life she has always been expected to lead, and she takes it.  The journey changes her in unexpected ways.

I've quoted liberally from the text because I think Honeyman's writing is so beautiful.  There are gorgeous turns of phrase on almost every page.  Honeyman describes characters by how they look, but also by how they seem and who they are.  For instance: "She looked like a woman who decided things, who molded the world around her instead of letting it push against her. (p. 264)  What does that look like?  This character would most likely look different to each of us, depending on which women we had known.who had that same determination Honeyman describes.  But her assessment is so well-crafted and correct.

The book is a smart use of historical fiction where it doesn't feel like the history gets in the way of the story.  Instead, it is a vehicle for the story - Jade Moon would not be the same in any other decade or even if she had stayed in China.  She becomes more herself through this experience.  And by the end, being a Fire Horse is something to be celebrated, not reviled.

The Fire Horse Girl.  Kay Honeyman.  Arthur A. Levine Books: Scholastic, 2013.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark library
post sponsored by Grammarly

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Alphabet Trucks

I am sure I've written before about Gloria and her love of cars and trucks.  She loves the movie Cars and the book I Stink!, and many, many other books about vehicles (like Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site).  On the day I opened a package from Charlesbridge and found the promised copy of Alphabet Trucks, Gloria quickly ripped it out of my hands.  We had stopped home briefly before swim lessons, and she took the book to the car with her and read it the whole way there.  Frances was the only one participating in swim lessons that session, and so Gloria spent the entire 45 minutes looking at Alphabet Trucks.  It had been sent to me for review, but I actually couldn't read it for a few days because Gloria wouldn't let me.  We are all big Samantha Vamos fans in our house, and this book was no exception.

  There are twenty-six different kinds of  trucks in this book.  Vamos has carefully constructed a rhyme for each type of truck.  It is tricky to come up with twenty-six different kinds of trucks, much less rhyming text that describes their function.  And Vamos packs a lot of information about each of the trucks into two short lines.  One of my favorite trucks is the zipper truck, which I didn't know existed before this book.  "Z is for zipper truck, lifting barrier walls."  But there is also "T is for tow truck, with a hook, chain and boom."  When I read that line, I realized I had never known what the boom was called.  I learned quite a lot about trucks through this book!

A pitfall of alphabet books is what I like to call the "infamous problem letters".  You know the ones - most often, they are the letters Q,U, V, and sometimes Z, depending on the book's subject.  We've all read alphabet books where the author dodges these letters (using the U as the second letter, or coming up with some way to use the Q without really tying it back to the concept) or their rhyme scheme falls apart around those letters because they are hard to incorporate.  Vamos stays strong through the Quint truck (a fire truck), a U-haul, Vacuum truck, and the Zipper truck I already shared.  There are plenty of trucks to go around!

Another pitfall I sometimes see in alphabet books is when the rhyme scheme becomes shaky - sometimes an author has a set rhyme scheme, and then has to contract words or use less familiar words just to fit the rhyme scheme.  This book scans well throughout.  To continue the smooth rhyme through 26 trucks is no easy feat!  I think of trucks as bumpy, choppy and a little teeth-chattering.  But Alphabet Trucks doesn't sound or feel like that at all.  It isn't forced, and is a great read-aloud.

The illustrations extend the text in a natural and clever way.  O'Rourke uses the letters of the alphabet in consistent ways throughout the book, which also helps reinforce the concept.  Each truck has the letter on its side, marked clearly and in capital letters only.  This choice helps extend the text.  If a young reader weren't sure what a quint truck was, they could match the capital Q at the beginning of the text to the capital Q on the truck.  This information, along with the  text's explanation that there are ladders, a hose, a tank and pump, helps the reader make the connection between the quint truck and the fire truck that is pictured.

There are so many cool trucks in this book, and the individual illustrations are one place where O'Rourke plays with letters again.  One of the trucks I like best is the ore truck.  Vamos writes "O is for ore truck, carrying tons in weight."  The ore truck is enormous, dwarfing the pickup truck next to it.  The tons of weight that Vamos cites are actually O's - big O's, little o's, in all sorts of fonts.  It adds a twist of whimsy to the illustrations once you start noticing all the ways O'Rourke has used the mentioned letter.  I am also fond of the tow truck, where t's make up the tow truck's chain.  It is a simple thing, but it adds so much to the illustration.

This book will be popular with many different audiences, but the truck-lovers in particular will pore over it repeatedly.  And the brief text means that parents will remember information about all the different kinds of trucks long after the book is finished.  Vamos is already at work on Alphabet Trains, and I can't wait to see it when it is published!  I know it is going to fill a need at our house, since I know even less about trains than trucks.  I hope Alphabet Trucks fills a need at your house too!

Alphabet Trucks.  Samantha Vamos; illustrated by Ryan O'Rourke.  Charlesbridge, 2013.

sent by the publisher for review

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Yoo-hoo, Ladybug!

I had my weekend all planned out.  Friday: write a blog post, read a book.  Saturday: finish another book.  Sunday: finish the weekend strong by reading TWO books.  Here it is, Sunday night, and I only read one book (Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong).  And I'm just now getting around to writing that blog post!  Winter is approaching fast in Montana.  The wind is picking up, and snow is in the forecast for Wednesday!  That's right, snow.  I ended up pulling out all of the girls' winter clothes this weekend to prepare.  Plus I had to do some cooking to use up all the produce we are harvesting to get ready for frost.  Yikes! I've got a freezer full of shredded zucchini, pizza sauce, and tomato coulis.   But I'm not here to lament my busy weekend.  I'm here to talk about one of Gloria's most recent favorite picture books, Yoo-hoo, Ladybug!.

Maybe I should start out by saying that Mem Fox is a literacy genius.  She has been writing books for years - such great ones as Time for Bed, Koala Lou, and Where is the Green Sheep?.  All of these books put the principles into play that she discusses in her book Reading Magic: Why Re.ading Aloud to our Children Will Change their Lives Forever.  I saw her speak about literacy at the Glendale Public Library a few years ago, and she was wise and amazing.  Fox has studied literacy and pre-literacy for many years, and she has come up with a natural, fun way to introduce concepts to children.

Yoo-hoo, Ladybug! is her latest, and is a collaboration with Laura Ljungkvist.  The book is a very simple look-and-find book.  On each page, the narrator calls "Yoo-hoo, Ladybug!  Where are you?"  Then the narrator announces "There you are..." and uses some rhyming text to help the viewer find the ladybug in the illustrations.  The first illustration is a wide-angle shot.  There is plenty to look at - although Ljungkvist includes many of the same toys on each page, they are in new places and positions each time.  The first illustration in the book is of a filled bathtub, with toys galore.  In the tub is a long-legged giraffe, a fish, a rapidly sinking VW bug, and the ubiquitous rubber duckie.  When you peer at the duck closely, you can see the ladybug's side just behind the duck.  The text continues "..afloat in the bath with Duck and Giraffe!"

This is definitely a first look-and-find book, and it suited almost 5-year-old Gloria perfectly.  A few weeks ago, we checked out Can You See What I see: Out of this World, and Frances loved it, but Gloria found it difficult and a little frustrating.  There were too many things to find on each page, and they weren't easy enough for Gloria to spot without prompting.  This book, though, is very different.  The first illustration in each set, as I mentioned, is wide-angle.  It lets readers pore over the illustration, looking for Ladybug.  But it's not overwhelming.  The lines are simple and clear, to help guide the reader's eye.  There are plenty of patterns and textures in each illustration, but they soothe the eye instead of distracting.  And if the reader doesn't spot Ladybug on their first try, they can always turn the page to see where she is.  She's the focus of a spot illustration on the next page, which allows the reader to train their eye on where she is.  They can flip back and locate her more effectively in the bigger illustration if they have trouble.

Several pre-literacy skills are used successfully here.  Fox rhymes the text so new readers can predict what animals Ladybug is hiding near.  For instance, in another illustration, the reader finds Ladybug "tucked in a box with Rabbit and Fox".  They can guess who she might be near in the bigger illustration.  The repetitive text throughout the book also helps new readers feel in control of what is happening.  They know that the first page will include the narrator calling for Ladybug and they can call for here as well.  There has been a lot of enthusiastic hollering for Ladybug in my house lately!

One of the things Ljungkvist contributes to this is a remarkably detailed, yet simple, set of toys.  Each illustration contains the same toys, just set up differently.  That way readers don't have to spend a lot of time identifying the individual objects once they've seen them.  If they spend a lot of time looking at the first illustration of Ladybug hiding in the bath, they'll be able to see the boats, ball, car, and giraffe in the other illustrations.  Even better, this technique rewards repeated viewings.  It's only after you stop searching so intently for Ladybug that you can appreciate the bee buzzing wildly, or the positioning of the robot (usually teetering almost out of control).

The toys also add to a retro feel for this book - there are no Polly Pockets or Squinkies here.  There are modern cars (a Volvo station wagon for one), but even those feel antique.  Ljungkvist's digital illustrations are mostly in a candy-colored palette, and some pieces look collaged, like the black and white chicken.  It adds up to a feast for our eyes.  The animals all express personality through their charming faces, too.  There are blocks in each illustration to help spell out Ladybug's name, again emphasizing the spelling of her name to readers.

This book is a lot of fun, but it also helps start young children on the road to more successful seek-and-find books.  Gloria can read this one all by herself now, and we'll be sorry to return it to the library.  But I'm sure another family will love Ladybug as much as we have.  Now I'm off to do more chores... goodbye, weekend!

Yoo-hoo, Ladybug!  Mem Fox; illustrated by Laura Ljungkvist.  Beach Lane: Simon & Schuster, 2013.  (borrowed from the library)
Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to our Children will Change their Lives Forever.  Mem Fox.  Harcourt, 2001.  (personal collection)
Can You See What I See?: Out of this World.  Walter Wick.  Cartwheel Books, 2013.  (borrowed from the library)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Eggs 1,2,3: Who Will the Babies Be?

Summer sped by for me - how about for you?  Some things in our lives stay the same all summer.  Gloria is in a year-round preschool/daycare, and obviously our general schedule each week stays the same.  But in Montana, summer is so short, and we took advantage of it this summer by packing in swim lessons, tending our vegetable garden, and outdoor time.  One thing we have enjoyed doing each summer is taking part in our local library's summer reading program.  It's called "Four to Score", and we record the titles and what we liked best about four books to earn a prize.  The sheet asks for three fiction books and one nonfiction title.  The librarians tell us that young children don't actually have to read nonfiction.  But you know me - I am such a nonfiction lover, and I want to read nonfiction with the girls.

It isn't always easy to find nonfiction that appeals to Gloria, though.  At 4 1/2, she is doing some reading on her own (Dinosaur vs. the Library was one she read to her preschool class recently), and she has pretty limited interest in the subjects Frances wants to read about.  Also, much of the nonfiction that Frances checks out is too long and detailed for Gloria.  So when Eggs 1,2,3 came up in my blog pile last week, I was really excited to share it with both Frances and Gloria.

When I first got Eggs 1,2,3: Who Will the Babies Be? as a nomination for the Cybils last year, I couldn't wait to read it.  I had reviewed Janet Halfmann's previous Cybils nomination, Star of the Sea  and all of us loved it.  So I had a feeling that we would all like this one too.  And the rest of the Nonfiction Picture Book panel agreed, making this a finalist for the Nonfiction Picture Book award.  Sadly, it didn't win, but I'd like to focus on why this is a perfect preschool-level book.

Eggs 1,2,3: Who Will the Babies Be? combines several ways of looking at information in a format that's very accessible for young children.  First of all, the book is a counting book.  Each double-page spread has an enormous number on the left-hand side of the page, corresponding to the number of eggs on that spread.  On the first page, Halfmann sets the tone.  There is a sentence describing the egg and its habitat.  Then she asks the reader to guess "Who will the baby be?"  Young readers can look at the illustration on the opposite page for clues.  Again, Thompson has carefully considered the readers and given fairly obvious indications of the answer.  Then they can open a sturdy flap to reveal the answer.  The number is repeated inside the flap: "5 wiggly glowworms, their tiny tails shining, growing up to be fireflies."  The eggs increase in number from 1 to 10.  And the number of eggs is appropriate for each animal, bird or reptile, which is no easy feat.  At the end of the book, there is one last chance to count all the eggs, and inside the flap, all the babies.

The book seems deceptively simple.  But Halfmann and Thompson are working some real magic here.  First of all, the sentence that gives clue to the egg's inhabitant including important information for the reader.  Those sentences might divulge details about the creature's habitat "a land of ice and snow", what the egg looks like "tiny and round", and whether the parents are involved.  The illustrations are crucial to helping readers identify the baby, and those might include details of the parents or habitat as well.  The eggs, too, are always prominent.  Once the flap is opened then readers see the babies once they hatch, as well as learning their identity and the specific name of the baby, if applicable: "6 babies called fry, eating, eating, eating, and soon they are fish".

There are many things I like about this book, and one of those things is its suitability for many audiences.  It's a natural learning tool whether used in small groups or read with a parent. But it comes alive when used in a storytime.  Listeners can participate by giving the numbers, counting the number of eggs and babies and guessing who might be inside the egg.  It is also a nonfiction book that reads more like a story.  The information has been incorporated into this format so seamlessly, which makes me appreciate the effort that must have gone in to writing this text.  

Finally, one of the best things about the book is the design.  The flaps are extremely sturdy and will hold up to repeated (and rough) readings.  The flaps also open in different directions to keep the experience interesting and fresh.  

One other thing I'd like to mention about this book is that there is no back matter in this title.  While I usually look very carefully at the back matter, this is one title where it is appropriate not to have back matter.  Halfmann has included enough detail for preschoolers in the actual text.  Young children don't need to use a bibliography as a jumping-off point for additional research.  They've been given everything they need already, and I admire the simplicity here.

The illustrations are collaged, with textured papers and layered cut-paper assemblies.  The art walks a fine line between realism and collage very successfully.  The collaged elements add depth to the pictures, but Thompson is careful to use natural colors and replicate the creatures exactly.  The eggs look very real as well, and you can almost feel their exteriors as you look at the pages.  The turtle eggs look tough and leathery; the tadpole eggs really seem encased in shimmering jelly.

This is such a terrific book.  The eggs are fascinating, and so are the animals that lay them.  Halfmann and Thompson have done a masterful job bringing the topic to life for the youngest readers.  I highly recommend it!

Eggs 1,2,3: Who Will the Babies Be? Janet Halfmann; art by Betsy Thompson.  Blue Apple Books, 2012.

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.

sent by the publisher in consideration for the Cybils

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Night Before First Grade

I was invited to take part in Natasha Wing's Back-to-School blog tour this year.  It was a perfect fit for us, since Frances just started first grade last Wednesday.  We were lucky enough to receive The Night Before First Grade from Natasha (and you can too! - details at the end of the post).  I was amazed at how many of the details of the book felt like they came right  from Frances' experiences, and I can't wait to tell you about her review of the story.  But first, a summary of the plot so you can see why it fits Frances so well.

The night before school starts, Penny is so excited she can hardly stand it.  She is packing school supplies and her lunch and planning her outfit.  Penny and her best friend Jenny have matching outfits already picked out, and neither of them can wait to start the new year.  But when the day dawns, and the girls scurry off to school, there's a problem.  "The principal told us that some changes were made. 'We have some new students.  So we split the first grade.'"  You might predict the outcome - the best friends have been split up.  This sudden, unexpected change might make the day terrible for some first graders.  But Penny realizes "I had to be brave because I'm a first-grader."  And it turns out her new class isn't all that bad - she knows most of the other students already, and her teacher, Mr. Barr, is great.  Penny plucks up her courage and goes to say hello to someone she doesn't already know.  It turns out that the new girl and Penny have things in common - favorite colors and pet turtles.  When Penny and her new friend, Nina, join the crowd going to the lunchroom, looking for Jenny, there is one more surprise in store for Penny.

There are seventeen books in The Night Before series.  We read The Night Before Kindergarten last year too.  So many of the books in this series have to deal with everyday worries and events that I could have requested any title, and they would have all resonated with Frances and Gloria.  Wing really knows what this age child is interested in.  There's The Night Before the 100th Day of School, The Night Before the Tooth Fairy, and we even could have read The Night Before Preschool since Gloria's preschool started last week too.  Since all the books are based on Clement Moore's "Twas the Night Before Christmas", the poetry is familiar.  Wing does a great job of adapting it to her themes without making it wholly unrecognizable.  There is the twinkling and wondering of eyes, just like in the poem.  Impressively, the rhymes also never seem forced into this artificial structure, which is very tricky to do.

Now for our personal experience reading this story with Frances (I feel obligated to say that Gloria was there too, even though her opinion doesn't matter as much this time).  Frances was very surprised at how much Penny's experience on the first day of school echoed her own.  Some of this is because many first grade experiences are alike - for instance, the classroom routines or the bus ride.  Then there were some things that were just luck - the fact that Frances, too, has a male teacher.  But there were a couple of things that really spoke to Frances.

This year, Frances' school, unlike many of the other district schools, didn't tell students who their teacher would be next year at the end of the previous school year.  Many of our friends spent time in the classrooms and knew what they were in for, and we spent the summer jealous of them.  Frances wondered all summer who her teacher would be.  There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for the school's decision not to announce teachers, and it very much like what happens to Penny.  There is quite a bit of mobility in Frances' school, and the school could not be sure how many students there would be or in which first grade classroom children would end up.  When the teaching assignments were made, and the letter came in the mail, Frances had gotten the teacher she wanted.  On the downside, much like Penny, only a few of her friends were in her class.

Frances handled this change in much the same way Penny did.  She has become closer with other friends during the school day, and looks forward to spending recesses with a whole large group of  girl friends.  The Night Before First Grade definitely helped with this transition, as Frances realized that there were opportunities in her new class, and that she didn't have to be nervous about meeting new friends.  Just like the Girl Scout song, she can "Make new friends, and keep the old."

One of the other things that I liked about this book was the bus ride.  Frances took the bus last year, but didn't love it.  The district rule is that kindergarteners and first graders sit in seats with five-point harnesses for safety.  Frances felt that this was babyish, and she was frustrated with the amount of time it took her to get buckled and unbuckled.  Even in the last few days before school started, Frances didn't want to take the bus again this year.  But her bus experience has improved - maybe it's because a close friend is now riding the bus with her, maybe she's figured out how to buckle faster.  Regardless, she has adopted the attitude that Penny's dad celebrates in the book "What a big girl you are to be taking the bus."  Frances is enjoying the bus now.

I loved the book because it also recognizes the strange gap between kindergarten and first grade.  There is only one year's difference between them, but first graders seem so much older.  Penny sees kindergarteners in the hall and wonders "They all looked so young, were we ever that small?"  Frances is still my little girl, but this book celebrates how first graders have become older and wiser.  Our transition to school went so much more smoothly this year because Frances knew the ropes.  She knew where the bathroom was, the gym teacher's name, and where the library is.  Just like The Night Before First Grade, her night before school started was full of anticipation, not nerves.  Thank you, Natasha Wing, for sharing this with us.  I think the surest sign of the popularity of this book is that both Frances and Gloria continue to read it on a daily basis.

We are lucky enough to be hosting a giveaway for an autographed copy of The Night Before First Grade.   a Rafflecopter giveaway
But you should also go to Natasha's website for more titles in the series.  I also want to point out a reading of this book on YouTube here .  

Happy back to school to all of you whether you are a parent or a teacher, librarian or school employee.  Enjoy this book and the giveaway!  Good luck!  The giveaway closes next Friday night, September 13th.

The Night Before First Grade.  Natasha Wing; illustrated by Deborah Zemke.  Grosset & Dunlap, 2005.

The author sent this book to me as part of an organized blog tour for review.

Friday, July 26, 2013

North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration

Last week I traveled for work.  It was a short, four-day trip to DC for a conference.  But I still had a lot to do to get ready for that trip.  I had to pack up Frances and Gloria to stay with their dad for the week, including leotards, swimsuits and soccer uniforms.  I packed my suitcase, arranged for a pet-sitter for our cat, and traveled for about twelve hours each way.  It was a lot of work to leave home for four days, but nothing like what the animals of the world go through to get to the Arctic.

I suspect that most people picture the Arctic as I did before I read North - a cold, frigid, forbidding place where perhaps only polar bears and Santa Claus feel at home.  In reality, there are four seasons in the Arctic, including a glorious summer.  And, incredibly, animals and wildlife travel for thousands of miles to arrive in the Arctic during the summer.

Dowson sets the stage for this migration by describing the deepest winter.  During that time of year, "even the seas freeze deep" (p. 4).  But eventually the winter ebbs, and the polar bears and arctic foxes are no longer the only Arctic inhabitants.  It begins with warmer seas as spring evolves.  Algae bloom under the ice, and plants grow as the ice melts and recedes.  As the spring continues animals begin their treck toward the Arctic in what Dowson terms "THE GREATEST JOURNEY ON EARTH!" (p. 11).

There are tons of animals, birds and other wildlife on this incredible journey.  Gray whales travel for eight weeks up through the Pacific Ocean without eating.  Terns fly to the Arctic all the way from the bottom of the world in Antarctica.  Snow geese fly from Mexico, caribou travel from Canada, walrus swim up the coast of Alaska.  "By late May, travelers crowd together near the very top of the world." (p. 36)  And summer has finally arrived, just in time.  "Tundra flowers grow rainbow-bright, the calm air hums with summer bees...New life is everywhere." (p. 40).  Animals have risked their lives, traveled unceasingly, gone without food to reach the Arctic at precisely this moment.  And their seasonal cycle will continue until September, when winter begins to descend again.  Next spring, most of these animals will begin this journey again.

This book was on the Cybils nominations list for Non-fiction Picture Books, and one of the panelists really loved this book.  When I first looked at it, I liked the illustrations, and was struck by their crystalline beauty.  Benson uses mostly blues and whites in these illustrations, all in a limited palette.  There is also cream added, particularly as the summer begins, and some accents of black and gray.  The blue, almost a greenish teal, reflects off the frigid waters and the ice.  White isn't used just for the ice and glaciers, but striates the walrus' thick skin and delineates the feathers of the terns' wings.  The illustrations are highly realistic, but also majestic.  One of my favorite illustrations takes place along the gray whale's journey.  A young gray whale swims up the Pacific.  The top half of the double page spread shows the whale passing Los Angeles; in the bottom half she surfaces near the Golden Gate Bridge.  The light is golden in Los Angeles as skyscrapers and hotels stand witness to her journey.  In San Francisco, a mother, her child and their dog monitor the whale's progress.  I love the way this page is divided.  It spreads across both pages, making the reader sense the enormity of the journey.  Many of the pages are divided in a variety of ways, keeping the action of migration fresh and compelling.  There are close-up illustrations that show the stress of the trip on some of the wildlife, some illustrations that show the expanse of the Arctic.

These illustrations match so well with the text.  Dowson's writing is poetic, yet conveys the information clearly and concisely.  I was surprised at how much I learned from this book, which seems relatively simple on the surface.  This takes a very unique look at migration and its impact on the Arctic.  As he describes herrings on their journey, Dowson writes "With bright scales like mirrors, they swerve together, fin by fin." (p. 33).  It is gorgeous, emphasizing the awesome journey these animals undertake.

As for back matter, there is a note giving more information about the Arctic.  The note also asks readers to consider global warming and its impact on this migration.  There are also some websites on the Arctic, a glossary, and an index.  While this story makes my trip to DC seem minute in comparison, it does an amazing job explaining the migration of this group of animals, fish and birds for a summer in the Arctic, just where they all want to be.  This book does a terrific job of detailing the greatest journey on Earth.

North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration.  Nick Dowson; illustrated by Patrick Benson.  Candlewick Press, 2011.

sent by the publisher for consideration for Cybils

Note: I was on the Cybils nonfiction picture book panel, but this blog post only reflects my personal ideas and  thoughts on this book.

Friday, July 12, 2013

New Worlds, Every Day

I am honored to welcome author Nikki Loftin to my blog as my first EVER guest post.  I am also thrilled that she is giving away a signed copy of the book, along with stickers and bookmarks, to one my readers (enter the giveaway with the Rafflecopter link below).
Again, this is part of the 2013 Summer Author Promo Blitz.  There will be a Twitter party on July 19th at 7pm, with the hashtag #2013SummerAuthorBlitz.  There is a Facebook party going on all month as well, located here:  Thank you, Nikki!!!

“Are you writing a sequel?”

Someone asks me this almost every time I speak to groups of kids or adults about writing. It’s a natural question – and a flattering one sometimes, from readers who fell in love with the brave, funny characters in my debut novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy. Readers ask it with a hopeful tone, and helpful ideas for what I might want to consider adding to Book Two.

Some people ask because they know I have sold two more Middle Grade novels to my publisher, and they assume that must mean a series, right? I mean, why would an author write stand-alone books, one after another, creating new worlds, whole new slates of characters, again and again? Isn’t that slightly Sisyphean? (Or, you know, harder than necessary?)

Or is it just dumb? I mean, Everyone knows the real money in writing is coming up with a hot property, stretching it out as long as you possibly can, spinning out the last thread of a story’s life so that every question is answered, every mystery solved. Maybe I’m just not a very clever businesswoman, not smart enough to figure out how to make this writing thing into a real career. Could be true. But I don’t think that’s it. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’d love to try writing a series someday. I would also love to drive a Lamborghini like all the other authors who write series, and eat off new plates every single night like them, wearing their Jimmy Choos, and… sorry. The sound of all my writer friends laughing is distracting me.

But the answer is no. I am not writing a sequel, or a series. I’m not planning on writing a sequel to any of the books I’ve sold. And I may never write a series. (Although I have this great idea for one titled Barry Potter and the Toiletsnake of Doom. Instant classic, right?)

Here’s the thing: I love writing. Pretty much love it more than anything short of eating ice cream. And so far, the best things I’ve written – the things that people have actually (this still amazes me every day) PAID me to write – are stand-alone novels.

New idea after new idea? Yep, I’ve got my Muse on speed dial, people. I adore her, and she’s been pretty good to me, too. My favorite part of the whole process is imagining the new world, coming up with the things that make my books different from all the others. Even from all my others.

Some of my favorite books in the world are stand-alones.  The Graveyard Book, Bridge to Terabithia, The Underneath… when I finished reading these books, I didn’t need another book to give me that shivery wonderful feeling of being enraptured with a new world. I pretty much just wanted to read those books again and again – and I did.

When I was a girl, the very best part of reading was when I reached the end of a story, and couldn’t let it go – and so I’d sit by myself and daydream the rest of the day or week or month. I’d let the characters in my favorite books loose in my head, and let them live out new lives, new stories. Sometimes I’d even write my new stories down. (It’s called fan fiction now. I hear some authors have done very well with it.)

I think in part those moments of continuing favorite stories made me into a writer. If all the loose ends had been tied up? I might have read more of those authors’ books, but I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time playing at being an author myself. 

Learning to be an author.

So, the book I’m writing now, Nightingale’s Nest, is not a sequel. It’s completely new. But I think – I hope – when some young reader finishes it, if I’ve crafted the ending just right – they’ll get to have that shivery feeling, too. And then maybe they’ll write a sequel in their minds – and get a taste for the magic that is creating.

Because as much as I love creating new worlds, I really, really love creating new writers.


About The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy:

Lorelei is bowled over by Splendid Academy—Principal Trapp encourages the students to run in the hallways, the classrooms are stocked with candy dishes, and the cafeteria serves lavish meals featuring all Lorelei's favorite foods. But the more time she spends at school, the more suspicious she becomes. Why are her classmates growing so chubby? And why do the teachers seem so sinister?

It's up to Lorelei and her new friend Andrew to figure out what secret this supposedly splendid school is hiding. What they discover chills their bones—and might even pick them clean!

Mix one part magic, one part mystery, and just a dash of Grimm, and you've got the recipe for a cozy-creepy read that kids will gobble up like candy.

Reviews for Sinister Sweetness:

"A mesmerizing read. . . . a fantasy that feels simultaneously classic and new."—Publishers Weekly

"An irresistible contemporary fairy tale. . . . Deliciously scary and satisfying."—Kirkus

About the Author

Nikki Loftin is a writer and native Texan who lives just outside Austin, Texas, with her two boys, an assortment of animals, and one very patient husband. The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy is her first novel. Her next novel, Nightingale’s Nest, is also for young readers and will be published in February 2014.

About Nightingale’s Nest:

Twelve-year-old John Fischer Jr., or “Little John” as he’s always been known, is spending his summer helping his father with his tree removal business, clearing brush for Mr. King, the wealthy owner of a chain of Texas dollar stores, when he hears a beautiful song that transfixes him. He follows the melody and finds, not a bird, but a young girl sitting in the branches of a tall sycamore tree.

There’s something magical about this girl, Gayle, especially her soaring singing voice, and Little John’s friendship with Gayle quickly becomes the one bright spot in his life, for his home is dominated by sorrow over his sister’s death and his parents’ ever-tightening financial difficulties.

But then Mr. King draws Little John into an impossible choice—forced to choose between his family’s survival and a betrayal of Gayle that puts her future in jeopardy.

Inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story, Nightingale's Nest is an unforgettable novel about a boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a girl with the gift of healing in her voice.


"An extraordinary read—I had to tear myself away from it."—Katherine Catmull, author of Summer and Bird

"Perfectly captures the challenges of growing up and dealing with loss. Get ready to have your heart touched."—Shannon Messenger, author of Keeper of the Lost Cities

"Tugs and tears at the reader’s heart. . . . lovely and magical."—Bethany Hegedus, author of Truth with a Capital T and Between Us Baxters

"Riveting. . . . This is a book you'll long remember."—Lynda Mullaly Hunt, author of One for the Murphys

"Loftin's eye for strange beauty in unexpected places often takes the reader's breath away."—Claire Legrand, author of The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls

"Will haunt your soul—and lift your heart."—Kimberley Griffiths Little, author of The Healing Spell and When the Butterflies Came

"A haunting, beautifully told story!"—Bobbie Pyron, author of The Dogs of Winter and A Dog's Way Home

"The kind of book I wanted to read slowly."—Shelley Moore Thomas, author of The Seven Tales of Trinket

"This is a work of tremendous heart."—Anne Ursu, author of Breadcrumbs

&lta Rafflecopter giveaway

Just picked a winner for the giveaway (which is now closed) - Mackenzi V, you will be getting an email from me soon!!! Thank you all for entering!

Monday, July 8, 2013

2013 Summer Author Promo Blitz!

Hi everyone!  Just a quick note to let you all know that I am part of the 2013 Summer Author Promo Blitz, and I am really excited to let Nikki Loftin take over my blog later this week (July 12th).  She is also going to do a giveaway - something I've never done on my blog before - so get ready to win some prizes! I can't wait for her post and giveaway.  It should be fun.

I will hopefully do a review of Nikki's book, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy in the next few days as well.  It looks spooky and, well, sinister, doesn't it??

And here is Nikki's website, with more information about her upcoming book, Nightingale's Nest, which has some great blurbs from terrific authors - it doesn't come out until 2014, which makes me a little sad - I can't wait to read that one too.  If Anne Ursu likes it, count me in!

If you'd like to participate more fully in the 2013 Summer Author Promo Blitz, there  is a list of blogs and participating authors here.  There will be a Twitter party on July 19th at 7pm with the hashtag #2013SummerAuthorBlitz.  There will also be a Facebook party going on all month at  It should all be a lot of fun!  See you on the 12th to learn more about Nikki Loftin!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Big Beasts: Eagle, Polar Bear, Tiger, Whale

So as you all know by now, I've become much more focused on children's nonfiction in the last few years.  I went from having very little interest in nonfiction to wanting to find all the latest, greatest, and the unusual nonfiction - the nonfiction that stands out  from the crowd.  So when I got an email earlier this spring that School Library Journal was hosting a webinar called "What's the Buzz? New Books in Nonfiction", I thought I needed to attend.  Unfortunately, my day job comes first, and a meeting was scheduled at the same time as the webinar.  Luckily, School Library Journal offered an archived version.  It still took me weeks to find time to watch it. When I watched the webinar, I had my library's website and Amazon open at the same time, so I could check for many of the books mentioned from Scholastic, Capstone and DK.  We've already read and enjoyed many of them, including some Star Wars books (Frances and Gloria have become Star Wars fans this spring) that we've ended up buying.

But the publisher that most intrigued me was Black Rabbit Books.  I've been in the library world for a long time, and I wasn't familiar with them.  My public library didn't have any of the titles in their catalog.  But the nonfiction that was highlighted in the webinar seemed to fit very nicely with both my girls' reading levels and interests.  So I did something I rarely do, and requested them from the publisher for review.  I was really delighted to receive some of the books for review, and also really pleased to write about them here.

I was sent four books in the Big Beasts series, written by Stephanie Turnbull - Whale, Tiger, Eagle and Polar Bear.  Frances will be going into first grade in the fall, and I thought these might be a good fit for her reading level.  And they are.  Each book is set up in a similar way.  It starts with a statement about the animal or bird about how large they are (tying back into the series title).  Then there are two-page sections with groups of facts organized by a heading.  For instance, in Eagle, there is a section titled Dinner Time!  There are three facts about eagles and their feeding patterns on the double-page spread.  There is a large, clear photograph of the eagle, swooping down into a body of water.  There are also smaller photographs of some of the eagle's prey.  The facts usually tie together clearly and  flow naturally.  The language is concise but exciting.  On the Dinner Time! page, Turnbull includes the fact "They swoop down faster than a speeding car and grab prey in their long talons. " (p. 11).  These are perfect facts for young readers - written at their level and also written in a way that helps them visualize animals they will most likely never see up close.

At the end of each of the four books, there is a spread of BIG facts about the big beast.  Three of the four books I was sent use fabulous graphics to illustrate these BIG facts.  "Polar bears can be longer than you and a friend lying end to end." (p. 22) is illustrated with a photograph of two children stretched out.  Again, these graphics really help new readers envision these facts in a very concrete way.  A picture of a house illustrates the fact that a whale's spout of air and spray shoots higher than a house.  I found most of these BIG facts incredibly informative and well-done.  Tiger, however, just had a list of facts without all the same types of connections made for readers.

All of the books have a variety of photographs on every page.   These photographs all show the animals and birds in the wild, not in zoos, so readers can see them in their own habitats.  As I mentioned earlier, the books include information about the animals' feeding habits.  Photographs of the polar bear and tiger show them bloodied by their kills.  I think these photographs can also be attractive to some readers - they like to see the blood and gore!  The photographs are clear and vivid and demonstrate the Big Beasts' behaviors.

I was surprised by the breadth of facts included in these books.  I was also surprised by what I learned about animals I would have thought I knew everything about.  I really thought that a book aimed at kindergarten and first graders wouldn't have anything new to offer me.  But I learned at least one new thing from every book.  Did you know tigers have three different kinds of teeth for three separate tasks (biting, tearing and slicing)?  I didn't.  Or that polar bears roll on snow to dry their fur after getting out of the water?  I always advocate for adults to read children's nonfiction too, and this series is a great example of how much we can learn, even when the facts are presented in a simple manner.

My favorite book of the four is Whale.  It covered many different kinds of whales, and included lots of fascinating facts about whales.  But all of them are great.  Each book ends with an index, a glossary of "useful words" and a web link to help set the bar for nonfiction for young children.  I am happy to see that information for these young readers still takes the idea of back matter seriously.  I really like this series - I know Frances' school would love to have them, but I'm sure I can part with these books yet!

Eagle.  Stephanie Turnbull.  Black Rabbit Books: Smart Apple Media, 2013.
Polar Bear.  Stephanie Turnbull.  Black Rabbit Books: Smart Apple Media, 2013.
Tiger.  Stephanie Turnbull.  Black Rabbit Books: Smart Apple Media, 2013.
Whale.  Stephanie Turnbull.  Black Rabbit Books: Smart Apple Media, 2013.

books sent by the publisher for review

Friday, June 21, 2013

Freedom Song

I continue to write posts about some of the books I loved during the Cybils process.  I keep trying to bring as much attention as possible to the Cybils - it is so much fun for me.  The books, the discussion, the exposure to books I hadn't seen before, the discussion... I want everyone to know about these panels!  I can't believe it's summer, almost time to apply for a panel again, and I still have a few more books to write about.  There are so many books that are nominated, and so many of those books strike me, and just don't win the support of the whole panel, but are still worthy of additional discussion.  Two of the things that struck me about Freedom Song: The Story of Henry "Box" Brown were the twin themes of family and music.

One of the ways an author can bring the realities of anyone's life and story to readers is to use those things that are universal.  Even as I sit here, more than 150 years later, in completely different circumstances, some of Henry Brown's feelings about his family are painfully real to me.

This story begins with Henry Brown's birth.  He is born a slave, but far more importantly, he was born into a family full of love.  "Mama blew kisses on his soft, brown body.  Papa named him Henry, held him high to the sky.  Sisters and brothers tickled his toes."  On the next page, Walker notes "The whole family's love grew Henry strong", even as the shadow of Master waiting outside their door threatens the family circle.  Once Henry begins working for Master, his songs begin. Henry has a song for every situation - a workday song, a hidey-hole song, and his favorite, most heartfelt, secret song, his freedom song.  "Henry's freedom song promised a place where families stayed together."

And that freedom songs stays in his heart and mind as he is sent away to Richmond to work in a tobacco factory when he is almost grown. Just as he leaves his family, he meets and falls in love with another slave, Nancy.  When their masters allow them to marry, "Henry and Nancy sang with joy."  Henry and Nancy have their own children, and as their life grows and changes, "Family songs hushed Henry's freedom song."  Then the most heart-wrenching thing happens: their master sells Nancy and their children away.  Henry grieves for his lost family.  He is silent, without the music that accompanied him previously.  Except for that one song that he has always held secret in a corner of his heart - his freedom song.  That freedom song leads him to do something daring - escape slavery to try and save his family.

Henry builds a box to ship himself to freedom, to the address of William Johnson, a freedom-loving man in Pennsylvania.  This is a dangerous escape plan for many reasons - if he is caught, he may be killed as a runaway slave.  But it is also physically dangerous.  Henry plans carefully, and includes water in his padded box. But there are other unpredictable dangers - at one point, the box tips over and slams Henry onto his head.  While he makes it to freedom, the book ends before we know what happens with Henry and his family.

As you can see from the recap of Henry's life story, one of the most beautiful things about this book to me is the circle of family.  Henry begins his life with the tight circle of family.  Their life isn't easy - there are lines of exhaustion and worry on Henry's mother's face as she serves the family dinner.  But there is love in how they sit, facing each other and spending time together.  Walker writes that Henry isn't sent away until he "was almost grown", which is unusual.  He spends a lot of his life with his family.  Then when he moves to Richmond and falls in love with Nancy, he continues that strong family connection that his parents modeled for him. "He named his son, held him high to the sky", just as Henry's father had done with him.  The illustrations show Henry's family gathered around each other, singing while Henry plays the banjo.  All connected, loving, despite their slavery, despite the harsh realities of their lives.

Then there are those heartbreaking moments when first his children and then his wife are sold away from him.  When Henry hears his older son calling, he runs to the wagon.  "Henry fought to reach his son, to clutch him in this arms."  But he is restrained.  Then when he finds Nancy, "Henry clasped her hands.  He held on tight and walked for miles, until men tore him away."  Walker tells Henry's story with stark, raw, painful details.  It puts me right in the middle of his grief, his despair and desperation.

Walker's writing is amazing - the way that she incorporates the musical words is so natural and yet all-pervasive.  When he is told that his family is gone, Walker says that "Henry's song died in his throat."  Those songs have sustained him his entire life, been the songs that celebrate love and family.  And then they are silent as Henry huddles under a worn blanket, staring out the window in misery.  But the freedom song revives Henry's heart and speeds him on his way to freedom.  His music keeps him determined and keeps him moving towards freedom.  The combination of the song and and the family in his heart drive him to risk getting away.

Qualls' illustrations are incredibly striking.  They are historically accurate and yet feel modern too.  Qualls does an amazing job of bringing Henry and his family to life.  The expressions, hard work, and hard life are etched on their faces.  As Henry's family is taken away, you can recognize his despair from his upraised arms, his fall to his knees.  The colors are blues, browns and blacks which give some peace to the family scenes, and some starkness to the emotional pages.  And there is a circle motif throughout the pages, reminding me of the movement and travel depicted there - both the movement Henry chooses and the movement he cannot control.

While there is an author's note and an excerpt from a letter from the man Brown shipped himself to, I do wish there was more back matter.  Walker refers to the fact that Henry gave lectures about his escape, and I wish she could have cited those, or included a bibliography of sources for his story.  But I love the construction of this story and how Walker creates such an emotional gripping story.  Its strengths don't disappear just because I would have liked stronger back matter.  It is one of those nonfiction picture books that would work well at a number of age levels and levels of comprehension.  Because we all have a family.

Freedom Song: The Story of Henry "Box" Brown.  By Sally J. Walker; illustrated by Sean Qualls.  Harper, 2012.

sent by the publisher for Cybils consideration

Note: I was on the Cybils nonfiction picture book panel, but this blog post only reflects my personal ideas and  thoughts on this book.