Sunday, September 28, 2014

Owls See Clearly At Night and Wild Berries

I have a funny relationship in my mind with other children's literature bloggers (I know they have no idea about it!) and children's literature reviews on the Internet in general.  I love reading and supporting other bloggers.  But if I am already considering reviewing a title on my own blog, I try to avoid any other reviews of that title until I'm done.  I think most reviewers probably do something similar.  I want to record my own thoughts about it, not inadvertently let someone else's thoughts affect my own.  So I mostly use brief summaries or mentions on other blogs to spur my interest in new titles, but don't read longer reviews until I'm done.  With so many titles coming out each year, bloggers have to call each other's attention to the best ones.  But then we each have our own spin on what we love about that  title - what works for us and what doesn't.  I found Julie Flett's titles, Owls See Clearly at Night and Wild Berries, mentioned on a listserv that I follow for Montana librarians.  I am so glad I did.

The first book I requested through ILL was Owls See Clearly at Night.  It is a Michif alphabet book.  In the introduction to this book, Flett explains that "languages are precious; they capture the very essence of a culture."  The Michif language is a mixture of Cree, French and some Ojibwe as well.  It is distinct, and yet Métis are transitioning to become solely English-speaking and losing the Michif language.  They are losing this link to their heritage.  This language is spoken in Montana, which is why it was especially of interest to me.  One of the unique hallmarks of Michif is that one word can often express something that takes a whole sentence in English.

So this alphabet book is just as unique as the culture it depicts.  Some of the Michif words Flett has selected include commands ("Tell a story") and descriptions ("Red Willow") as well as the more standard vocabulary words ("jig", "canoe").  On each page, the letter featured is in a large font.  Then the word is written in Michif, in the same colored font as the large letter, like "La Niizh".  Then finally below this is the word written in English, "snow".

This book is gorgeous for many reasons.  One of them is the way the book is laid out.  The letter/Michif/English text is isolated on one side of the page, floating in white space.  The letter and Michif words are in a muted red or green-blue, colors that echo those in the illustrations.  The white space around the text give the words weight, but they also seem ethereal there on the page - a marvelous juxtaposition.

And then there are the illustrations.  Unfortunately, there isn't a description of Flett's illustrative process, so I can only make an educated guess.  It looks like collages of painted papers.  All of the illustrations, taken together, are a celebration of nature and the people around us.  One of my favorite illustrations is J for "La jig/jig".  On a background of snowy gray-white are darker gray stars.  Two girls stand, arm in arm, clearly dancing.  They wear matching dresses and tan moccasins.  Their hair blows lightly, and their faces are serious, concentrating.  It is a gorgeous page, and you feel included in the moment between sisters.

This book is extremely functional as well as being gorgeous.  Besides the introduction explaining the importance of keeping the Michif language alive, there are also vowel and consonant pronunciation guides at the back of the book.  There are also Michif language resources as well as several books.  I think you know by now that I love the sort of "picture books" that can be expanded to be used by many students or even adults.  This one is no exception.

Wild Berries was published last year, and just like Flett's first book, as soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to write about it.  This differs from Flett's previous book in several ways.  Firstly, the language emphasized in this text is Cree, not Michif.  The jacket flap tells us that Flett is Cree-Métis, so this possibly comes from another branch of her family than Owls See Clearly at Night.  Wild Berries also is an actual story, instead of teaching concepts through the Michif language.

It is the story of Clarence, who goes with his grandmother to pick wild berries.  As Clarence grows older, he participates, singing as they walk through the forest.  Grandma keeps an eye out for bears; Clarence eats the blueberries that he picks.  They like very different kinds of blueberries - Grandma loves the juicy, almost overripe ones.  Clarence picks the blueberries that are tart and almost underripe.  What matters in this story isn't their differences.  What matters is their shared experience, and the gratitude they also share.  As they leave the clearing, Clarence sets out blueberries for the animals and birds, to say thank you to them for sharing their berries.

While there are some things that are very different between Flett's two books, there are some things that unite the two beautifully.  One of these is a feeling of simplicity and serenity.  The tone of both books is calm, simple, but the language is chosen carefully for full impact.  For example, "Clarence likes big blueberries, sour blueberries, blueberries that go POP in his mouth."  The words give you a tangible feeling along your teeth as you read (don't they?).  We can sense exactly how those blueberries POP.  The words are strung together like poetry, where every word counts.

There is also the theme of family.  Much like the dancing sisters in Owls See Clearly at Night, there is a closeness between Clarence and his Grandma that doesn't require conversation.  They are content to pick together, not talking.  It is truly a moment to celebrate the nature around them.  This is a ritual to both of them, with the song as they approach the clearing and the thank you as they leave.  And just because it is a familiar ritual doesn't mean the time together isn't still appreciated.  It is a sweet time, and not just because the blueberries.

Finally, the illustrations are similar, yet not the same.  She uses many of the same earthy colors here that she did in Owls, and the same stark backgrounds.  There are very simple shapes and lines here.  But what I love most is the pop of a tomato red in each picture.  Grandma's skirt is red, and at some points a fox or birds appear and highlight the rich colors.  It brings almost an autumnal feel to this title, but it has the same ethereal feeling as Owls See Clearly at Night.

There is a pronunciation guide at the back of Wild Berries too, which helps explain to readers the dialect in which this book was created.  There is also a recipe for wild blueberry jam, which is mouth-watering.  Both of these books are gorgeously created books, but they also have a gorgeous meaning as well.  I highly recommend them, and can't wait for her next book.

Owls See Clearly at Night.  Julie Flett.  Simply Read Books, 2010.
Wild Berries.  Julie Flett.  Simply Read Books, 2013.

both titles borrowed via ILL

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Rookie Toddler Series

Sadly, Frances and Gloria are too old for board books now.  We still have a few of our favorites on our shelves - I mention Dinosaur's Binkit in my post, but we also love Baby Cakes and the Sandra Boynton series about Pookie.  They are read pretty infrequently, but I still catch Gloria reading them every once in a while.  I miss having board books in our house.  That was a pretty special time for us.  So it made me happy this spring to see the Rookie Toddler series featured on a School Library Journal webcast.  Side note:  I love those webcasts, and this isn't the first time I've learned about new books from a webcast that I've reviewed here.  In this case, I am excited to say that my request for some books to review has led to a relationship with Scholastic Library Publishing, and I'll be featuring many more of their titles in the future.

But back to the Rookie Toddler series.  I requested this series because I was interested in seeing how nonfiction could be created successfully for the youngest readers.  How could they be simple enough for toddlers to understand, hold up to repeated readings, and also impart information to young children?  The good news is that they do all of those successfully. I was also pleasantly surprised to realize that while they are board books, they can expand to be used with children up through preschool.  As you'll see in the next few paragraphs, some of the concepts that are covered are a little more sophisticated (like It's Time For...), but that doesn't mean that the subjects won't be meaningful to younger children.

The books are very durable.  They are, of course, board books.  They have die-cut scalloped edges along the right-hand side.  This makes it easy for chubby hands to grasp and hold on.  The glossy clovers are smooth, so pieces won't bend off, like has happened with many of our other well-loved books.  All of the books are illustrated with photographs.  The photos are primarily on white backgrounds, which help the photographs stand out even more.  The choice of a plain, stark background makes it easier for young eyes (even babies) to focus on the photos.  This series is very well designed!

The first individual title that I'd like to talk about is Shapes That Go.  On each double-paged spread, the left hand page shows a shape.  The shapes are vibrantly colored, which pop against the stark white background.  The shape is identified under the picture.  On the right, the shape is highlighted on a vehicle.  For example, the triangle is highlighted on a picture of a bicycle, along with the text "See the triangle."  The color is consistent to help toddlers track what is going on in the spread.  The triangle on the left (and the word underneath) are yellow, and so is the sentence on the right (and the highlighting around the triangle on the bike).  My only minor disappointment with this title is that it doesn't identify the vehicles.  But in a fourteen page book, it is teaching children the concepts of colors, shapes and vehicles in a simple, easy to follow format.  It's very impressive!

The next title is Counting 1 to 20.  This one divides the double-paged spread into four columns, using a line of little pawprints.  They are all a cheery blue color, and again, it helps train the reader's eye to move down the column.  Each column shows a certain number of the same animal; for instance, "6 six pandas".  Toddlers see the number and see it spelled out.  Again, color is used repetitively (and effectively) to match the text and send the subtle message that the number and words are related.  There is plenty of white space surrounding the animals being counted, which means that children can put their finger on each animal as they count.  While I love this one for its cuteness factor (and Gloria is still enjoying counting with it), it might be a bit too picky to mention that some of the animals are clearly baby animals, and perhaps should have been described with that name (foals, kids, kittens, etc.).  However, not all of the animals were noticeably babies, so maybe that was a conscious decision.

One of the most ambitious titles is It is Time for... .  This is the book that I mentioned earlier would work with preschool-aged children too.  There is a label to identify the general time of the day - morning, noon, evening.  There is a sentence describing the activity the child is performing in the photograph.  There are also both a digital and an analog clock to help children connect to the specific time of day.  This book is unusual in that the photographs fill the whole page.  But the photographs are sharp, and it is easy to identify the activity.  The photographs focus on the child, but also show many different families and parents.  It adds a feeling of warmth and caring to the book.

The Seasons mixes some of the hallmarks of this series in a new dynamic way.  From the cover on, each season is associated with a color.  So winter, for example, is matched with the color blue.  On the spread that talks about winter, the word 'winter' is in bold blue print.  There are three short sentences that describe the weather conditions for that season.  There are also four pictures framed in that same blue color to tie everything together.  Children are performing a variety of tasks and activities that can be done in that season too.  In spring, children are walking in the rain, gardening, playing baseball, and flying a kite.  I like how in all of these photos children are outside and active, even in the snowy winter.  And the photos include a diverse group of children and adults, making it feel fairly inclusive.

Can You Say Please? is another book that could be used at any time up to kindergarten.  The concept here is manners (obviously).  Each double-paged spread includes one full-page photograph.  On the other page is a sentence describing what the child would say in that situation.  "When I want a turn to speak, I say 'excuse me'".  The important words are in a different color, so they are emphasized.  The other thing I appreciate about this title (although this applies to the other titles too) is that the photos are very carefully chosen.  Even a very young child can grasp why that child needs to use that word at that time.  Again, there is a multiculturally diverse group of children included in these pictures.

Finally, Red Pepper Yellow Squash is probably my favorite in the series.  It combines the concept of colors along with a variety of vegetables.  In this book, the background of each page matches the color of the vegetables and the word in the text.  The brown page features potatoes, with the sentence "The potatoes are brown."  The background, actual potatoes, and text are all a subtly different brown, but close enough that they "read" as the same color.  I think that is very effective.  Plus, the vegetables look shiny and yummy without looking too perfect.  I love that the book includes eggplant and cauliflower along with those kid favorites, peas and carrots.  Again, Gloria loved identifying the various vegetables that we eat on a regular basis.

One other thing that I love about these books is that the last spread in each book is that the last spread reviews the concept again, along with a storytime tip.  In It is Time For...that last page shows a lineup of thumbnail shots of the day's activities, along with a digital and analog clock for each time.  The storytime tip recommends that the reader could go back through and talk about what that particular child's family does at each time.  This helps give some suggestions for book use and how to extend its use beyond its own pages.  I love this series and am grateful to Scholastic for allowing me to review it!  Look for more Scholastic books to come.

Can You Say Please?  Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
Counting 1 to 20. Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
It is Time for... Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
Red Pepper Yellow Squash: A Book of Colors.  Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
The Seasons. Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
Shapes That Go. Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.

All books sent by the publisher in exchange for a honest review.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Haunted Library

Haunted libraries sound very cool, don't they?  When I was asked to be part of a blog tour for this series, I was very excited about it.  I worked in several libraries in my career, and I was often in those libraries after closing.  It was always a little creepy, but in a sort of exciting way.  I wondered whether I might catch a glimpse of a ghost.  Sadly, I never did.  But with the Haunted Library series by Dori Hillestad Butler, readers can explore a haunted library in a safe, fun way.  Frances and Gloria haven't been able to keep their hands off this easy chapter book series since they arrived!

Interestingly enough, this series doesn't actually begin in a library.  Kaz, the nine year old ghost who is the focus of this series, is haunting a school with his family.  There are a few problems, though.  Kaz doesn't like to do some of the things that most ghosts do automatically.  He hates trying to pass through walls (it made him feel skizzy, or sick, the only time he tried), he can't glow or wail (which is the way ghosts allow people to see or hear them).  And he is desperately afraid of the Outside, where you can't control where the wind takes you.  His brother and grandparents had been sucked into the Outside and were now lost to them.

So without basic ghost skills, Kaz is really in trouble when the schoolhouse is demolished and the wind sucks him Outside.  Even worse, he is sucked in a different direction than the rest of his family.  He's left alone.  But then he blows into the window of a house, and it turns out to be the library of the title.  Kaz soon meets up with Claire, a young girl who lives upstairs from the library (how cool is that?).  Her grandma Karen is the librarian, and her parents run a detective agency.  And to Kaz's surprise, the library is already haunted.  An even bigger surprise - Claire can see Kaz!

I want to not do too much summarizing of the plots of the stories, although I'll have to describe some points as I review.  I read both The Haunted Library, which begins the series, and The Ghost in the Attic, which is Book Two.  Book Three (The Ghost Backstage) will be available in November.  These books are each about 125 pages, with lots of illustrations throughout.  They are perfect easy chapter books for 2nd through 4th graders.  They look interesting and accessible and will be great additions to any collections.

Part of what I like about these books so much is Kaz himself.  Yes, he's a ghost, but first and foremost, he is a young boy.  There is no mention of what happened to cause Kaz and his family to become ghosts - they are really like any other family.  There are just a few other restrictions.  And once Kaz is separated from his family, you see that he longs for them, just like any other 9 year old would.  And I think that is very comforting in an odd way.  Even though he's a ghost, Kaz actually behaves like many children would in the same situation.  There is nothing scary about Kaz at all, and he is very relatable.  So it's a fun way for young readers to explore ghosts without being scared.

Another thing I like about this series so far is that the "hauntings" are very explainable, which I think makes them more understandable to young readers.  My interactions with elementary school readers is that it is primarily older grade students who enjoy reading something that is scary and has no explanation.  New readers want there to be an explanation that makes sense in the end.  And both of these hauntings are explained in enough detail to satisfy them.

Kaz and Claire decide to form their own ghost detective agency, because Claire's parents won't let her participate in theirs.  Claire can see Kaz, but no other human (Kaz calls them solids) can.  So Kaz can go along with Claire on cases.  But the two immediately run into a problem - we've already seen that Kaz doesn't like to go Outside.  So Kaz and Claire problem solve - Claire ends up carrying Kaz around in a plastic water bottle.  It's a perfect situation which allows Kaz to explore his surroundings without risking being blown away.  Kaz is particularly taken with cell phones!  I love how Claire and Kaz work together as a team - it's a great friendship.

The illustrations are perfect for this series.  They are slightly cartoonish without being silly.  Claire, Kaz, and all the other characters look animated and full of personality.  The illustrations vary in size, too, which keeps readers moving through the text at a rapid pace.  It keeps chapters or even blocks of text from feeling too long or cumbersome for a reader who is just tackling their first real chapter books.

There is much more I could say about these books, but I will save it for my next review.  I am definitely going to request Book #3 for review.  I'll also report back on what Frances and Gloria think about these books.

Thanks again to Dori Hillestad Butler for appearing.  For other stops on the Haunted Library Blog Tour please check

The Haunted Library.  Dori Hillestad Butler.  Grosset & Dunlap, 2014.
The Haunted Library: The Ghost in the Attic.  Dori Hillestad Butler.  Grosset & Dunlap, 2014.