Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Alphabet Trains

When I worked as a librarian, one of the most frequent requests was for books about vehicles.  Boys, girls, parents, teachers - they all asked for books about things that go.  As far as we were concerned, there were never enough books to satisfy the need.  And now that I have a little boy (who we call Albert here) in my life, I know that still holds true.  On every trip to the library, we are always scanning the shelves for more books about his biggest loves - vehicles.  This is why one of his favorite books currently is Mighty Dads.  And Albert wants both story and information at the same time, so he can learn more facts while we read.  There are very few books which combine story and fact to his liking,  I am so lucky to count the author of Alphabet Trains as a friend, and even luckier that she created this second book in the series (I reviewed Alphabet Trucks here, another Albert fave.).

Alphabet Trains follows the same general pattern as Alphabet Trucks did.  There is an introductory verse on the first page.  It serves to set up excitement for readers.  They are invited on this train trip.  As the train in the illustration pulls away, a crowd surrounds the train, waving joyfully.  I'll take a quick moment here to note that unlike most of my reviews, where I write about text and illustrations separately, with Alphabet Trains I'll mostly talk about both pieces together.  That is because text and illustration complement each other so seamlessly here.  I am really not sure I could talk about each individually!  So as the train leaves, and everyone waves, we see that the first car of the train is filled with letters,  Here is our first glimpse of the alphabet train.

Each subsequent page includes two rhyming lines about a type of train along with an accompanying illustration.  As he did in Alphabet Trucks, O'Rourke adds the featured letter into its illustration with ingenuity.  In the letter A (for Auto train), the giant racks where passengers load their cars are A's themselves.  On the Pacific Surfliner page, each of the waiting passengers sport a P on their t-shirts.  The text for the letter U is "U is for unit train - one freight to one location.".  And, indeed, the picture shows that the freight on this particular train is all capital U's in a row.  Clever!

It really does seem like a daunting task to come up with twenty-six different types of trains, but Vamos completes the task with grace.  And these trains aren't all passenger trains either.  There isn't an Amtrak or the B&O Railroad, familiar to us from the Monopoly game, listed here.  Instead, types span from the Q subway train (familiar to me from my review of Lost in NYC) to the Hurricane Train in Alaska.  There are bullet trains, top-and-tail trains, and dinky trains.  For young train enthusiasts, this book is a winner - it gives them twenty-six new trains to learn about as well as a catchy way to categorize them all.

There are a couple of new additions to the series in Alphabet Trains that I wanted to mention here.  Alphabet Trains includes international trains as well, which is a great choice.  Trains are trains the world around, but it is how those trains are used in various countries that is so interesting.  For example, the Victoria Express - it travels between Hanoi and Lao Cai, and includes air-conditioned sleeping cars.  These are so necessary in a tropical environment!  There's also the Leonardo Express, in Rome.  It simply moves passengers from the airport to the Central train station, but does it efficiently in thirty minutes.  And finally the Glacier Express (which I have to admit, I believed was here in Montana, in Glacier National Park).  It's actually in Switzerland, and moves at a glacial speed, taking advantage of all the incredible scenery.  Including trains from around the world helps keep the audience for Alphabet Trains entranced.

And I wouldn't know all these facts about these trains if it wasn't for an addition to the book that I love most of all - back matter.  There are two pages packed with facts about each of the trains at the end of the book.  These facts are so useful.  With only two lines of text per train, there isn't much room to identify the train.  The back matter will also appeal to those train enthusiasts who want to know more.  Again, when Albert and I read Alphabet Trains together, it helped us learn more information.  There is no way I would have known all the facts he wanted without those pages.  On the Hurricane train in Alaska, riders must wave a flag to get the train to stop for them.  And they also have to inform the conductor what milepost they want to get off at.  They are equal participants in their train trip!

With so many great changes, though, I am happy to report that some of the things I loved best about Alphabet Trucks is still alive and well in Alphabet Trains.  I've already mentioned how well integrated the text and illustrations are in this title.  But I'd also like to point out what a strong literacy impact these books have.  I mentioned that O'Rourke incorporates the featured letter wherever he can.  But he also uses the letters in different typefaces, both print and cursive, and in capital and small letters.  It is fun to stop and admire each page, noting all the ways that letter has been used or displayed while still depicting the train accurately.

I cannot say enough how great I think these books are.  And while I've focused mostly on younger reader here, this title could be used as an informational book up to fifth grade.  IT can help springboard students into additional reading.  We love Alphabet Trains!  I've heard a rumor that there may be a third book in the alphabet vehicle series... we'll be first in line!

Alphabet Trains.  Samantha R. Vamos; illustrated by Ryan O'Rourke.  Charlesbridge, 2015.

sent by the publisher for review

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Woods

One of my favorite ways to learn about books is by reading about the titles other bloggers read and recommend.  We don't always agree, but quite often they have read books I have never heard about.  I've also never met a list of books that I didn't immediately want to check titles off!!  So I was in seventh heaven when Janssen published her summer reading list "100 picture books to read this summer".   I "met" Janssen when we served on a Cybils panel a few years ago (Side note: I am so excited to be a judge for Round One of the Easy Readers/Early Chapter Books judging this year!!), and I know that she has amazing taste in books.  So I printed out her list of recommendations and got to work.  Because these weren't the only books we read this summer, it took us all summer to get through the list.  But we loved it - reading old favorites and new titles.  And one of the new-to-us books that I loved enough to write about was The Woods.

It begins with a little boy going through his bedtime routine.  He's in bed, under his covers, finished with his story, when he realizes his bunny rabbit is missing.  The boy knows there is only one place his stuffed rabbit could be.  He gathers some supplies, including a sword, and heads off into the woods.  He announces that he isn't afraid at all.  Until...he runs into a BIG, SCARY BROWN BEAR!  Luckily, the little boy is brave enough to determine that the bear is afraid of the dark.  And the little boy can also solve the bear's problem by providing a night-light.  Because he has been kind to the bear, the bear wants to join in and help the little boy find his rabbit.
So with the bear tagging along behind, the boy proceeds through the woods.  They continue their search through the murky, dark woods, finding two scary giants and a three-headed, fire-breathing dragon.  Each time the little boy confronts something new, he doesn't get scared, but makes the effort to find out what they need (that frightening dragon is actually bawling because he has a stomachache!).  When he helps them out, they all agree to help him to find his rabbit in return.  But when the group approaches a dark cave, it tests all of their combined bravery.  The solution is to hold hands and  work together as they venture in.

What is inside that dark, spooky cave?  Well, it's one last surprise to close out the little boy's adventure.  But suffice to say everything turns out okay in the end.  When that little boy finally climbs back into bed, he has a whole host of new friends to snuggle with.

There are several pieces of this title that I think work together to make this a successful picture book.  Some of these are textual, and some are contained within the illustrations.  It doesn't have complex text with lots of words on each page, but those words are full of imagination and adventure.  Readers are drawn into the story immediately through the little boy's bedtime routine.  I have yet to meet a child who doesn't sleep with at least one stuffed animal.  They can all relate to the process of getting into bed, tucked in and slightly sleepy, and missing that one special animal who has disappeared.  When the story changes from a bedtime story into an adventure, children are ready to commit to searching along with the little boy.  Part of this is due to the earnest first person tone in those introductory sentences.

And another textual success is the repetitive structure of the story.  The sentences are fairly short to keep the plot moving along.  And after each time the boy meets someone (or something) new, and the group sets off together, the text claims "And we weren't afraid at all.  Until..."  It's a great device for building momentum - readers can't wait to see what is around the corner.  They will listen intently for the next cue and be prepared when the page turns.  That piece of repetitive text also ties off the previous incident.

One of the things I love about this story is that it takes teamwork to accomplish the little boy's mission.  When they reach the cave, they aren't individuals - they are a team.  It takes all of their effort to face off against that last creature.  The little boy has been clever in solving every character's problems with compassion and generosity.  But even the bravest little boy might cower before that creature, and it is the support of his new-found friends that helps him get through the confrontation.

I thought the illustrations helped make the story so captivating.  They remind me of illustrations readers would experience in a graphic novel.  There is rich color, with an incredible range of browns in the woods and the little boy's bedroom.  And there are fun details in the pictures too - that scary brown bear who the boy meets first has a gold HONEY necklace.  It looks incredibly out of place on a bear in the woods, but makes that bear seem more hip than scary.  When the little boy gives him the night-light, he strings the lightbulb around his neck instead.  The looks on the faces of every character as they discover each other are priceless.  They are often reacting in shock and fear, but they also look hilarious.  These details add to the fun of reading this book aloud.

Speaking of reading aloud, this story is dramatic and a perfect addition to storytimes or just a family reading time.  It is especially perfect with the multiple surprises on almost every page.  And of course, the combination of bedtime and adventure will help keep it in regular rotation everywhere.  Thank you, Janssen, for the recommendation!

The Woods.  Paul Hoppe.  Chronicle Books, 2011.

borrowed through interlibrary loan.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Courage & Defiance

You know I am a fan of well-crafted, thought-provoking nonfiction of all kinds.  I love when a title leaves me with questions - things to mull over later.  I strongly believe that the best nonfiction leaves you wanting more, that the reader will then take the bibliography or resource list and continue to learn.  When I was offered the chance to review Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs and Survivors in World War II Denmark, I knew that Deborah Hopkinson would have written a book that would make me think.  I had already read and loved many of her previous titles, including most recently Titanic: Voices from the Disaster.   What I didn't know when I accepted this assignment was that I would cry, cheer and sit in awe of the people contained within its pages.

The story Hopkinson tells is about the small island nation of Denmark.  When Germany came marching into Denmark on April 6, 1940, the country of Denmark did nothing.  The.  Not y quickly realized that their military could not resist the much larger German military, and their best hope was to surrender.  Amazingly, while the Danish government thought this was the safest plan of action, its people did not agree.  Hopkinson writes "But it began that first day, when ordinary citizens woke up to a changed world.  It began with anger, disbelief, and determination.  And it began with individuals asking themselves a difficult, almost impossible question: what can one person - or even a few together - do to make a difference against a powerful invading force?" (p. 22-23)

To me, the answer to the question is continually surprising.  Not because one or two people wanted to make a difference, or even hoped they could, but because so many Danish citizens stood up against the Germans.  They fought back in clever ways, risking their lives to do what was right.  For instance, Tommy Sneum, who was a pilot and lived by a German-occupied air force base.  A German soldier accidentally gave Tommy information about an early-warning system that the Germans were using to watch for Allied planes at the base.  Sneum risked his life repeatedly to get this system documented and the information to the Allies.  This included such inconceivable tasks as reconstructing an airplane in a farmer's barn to fly it across the ocean to England to deliver the intelligence.  And since they couldn't risk landing the single-engine plane anywhere the Germans might discover them, Tommy and his co-pilot would have to refuel in midair.

Tommy's story is just one of the incredibly daring stories Hopkinson has documented here.  And what is incredible to me about these stories is that these aren't necessarily the stories of generals in the Danish military or government officials scheming to save their countrymen.  These are the stories of people like you and me.  Many of the stories involve young people who easily see the injustice and fight back.  Niels Skov begins his sabotage by blowing up German cars on the street.  It may have seemed small, but it was something.

Hopkinson follows several people throughout the war, retelling their efforts at collecting information, performing feats of sabotage, and basically doing everything possible to slow the Germans down.  One truly amazing story begins on October 1, 1943, the day the Germans came to round up all of the Danish Jews.  There were 7700 Jews in Denmark, and it would take the bravery of many people to get as many of them as possible to safety.  Reading this story was one of the times tears came to my eyes - the entire country showed courage and defiance in accomplishing this miracle.  They protected their Jewish neighbors and friends and got more than 7200 of them to Sweden safely.  That is a jaw-dropping number.

Even for those of us who are familiar with the history of World War II, there is something new to learn here.  I mentioned earlier that this book left me with additional questions. Hopkinson's book inspired me to learn more.  In her prologue, she advises "Courage & Defiance is an introduction to a multifaceted, complex story, and there are many aspects I have not addressed." (p. 1)  For example, I wanted to learn more about how 7200 Jews were able to move into hiding without attracting attention from German soldiers on very short notice.  I want to know more about the governmental response.  A good piece of nonfiction gets the reader wondering, and then it provides the reader with strong resources to continue their exploration of the subject.

The back matter in this book is, of course, complete and extraordinary.  There are pages o selected resources (including a section of books of special interest to young readers), online resources, source notes, information on the Danish language, and more.  My only minor complaint is that while I read the book, I kept wishing for a map of Denmark to be able to better visualize some of the action.  I did find one, but it was in the back matter, so I didn't find it until I was finished with the book.  That might be a lesson for those of you who are teachers - encourage your students to explore the back matter first, to get a feeling for what information they will be exposed to in the heart of the book.

These stories give hope in the face of one of the greatest evils our world has known.  People all over Denmark stood up and did something, even if it was small.  Hopkinson's retelling is suspenseful and readable.  I couldn't put it down and can't wait to share it with others.  Thanks again to Deborah Hopkinson for appearing.  For other stops on the Courage & Defiance blog tour, please check http://deborahhopkinson.com/

Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark. Deborah Hopkinson.  Scholastic Press, 2015.

sent by the author for review

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure

I have a confession to make - I am probably a small town girl at heart.  Or possibly a medium city girl at the most.  This might surprise those of you who know that I lived in San Diego until I was 21.  Or those of you who know me from my time living in Phoenix - both big cities.  I do love the benefits of living in a big city - the shopping (an actual mall!), the arts (very few bands make Helena a tour stop!)!  But I also really appreciate many of the things this small town showcases.  And I'm comfortable here.  When I was in college, I took a train from Virginia to Massachusetts.  I had to switch trains in New York City.  Granted, I never left the actual station, but even that experience intimidated me.  I've never wanted to go back.  So I feel a lot of admiration for books with characters who treat New York City so casually - who have, indeed, conquered it.  It's one of the things I mentioned in my review of Starry Night.  And that confident independence (something I could never imitate) is what strikes me about Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure.

It begins like any other school day for these tweens.  They emerge from the subway, thinking about the field trip that day.  And then there is Pablo, whose parents are hovering over him, worrying because it is his first day at this school.  He tugs away from them to enter school on his own, saying "Please just go away!"  But in true mom fashion, his mother gets in the last word, announcing loudly and in public that she's packed Pablo's teddy bear into his backpack in case he gets lonely.  I can feel Pablo's cringing embarrassment from all these thousands of miles away.

Pablo is part of the class going on the field trip, and Alicia volunteers to be his partner for the trip.  It starts off poorly, with the other kids teasing them.  Then  the teacher engages the class in a discussion of their favorite subway trains, since they will be traveling on one to the Empire State Building.  When all the other students rattle off their preferred subway lines, Pablo takes a calculated risk and volunteers the X train.  That starts the rest of the class off into giggles again, since everyone else knows there is no X train.  Pablo has attracted the wrong sort of attention.

But their teacher smoothly moves on from Pablo's mistake, giving lots of facts about both the construction of the subway system and the Empire State Building.  As the class makes their way down to the subway platform, Alicia asks Pablo where he's from.  Pablo replies "Nowhere.  My dad has to move a lot for his job."  Alicia asks Pablo "But where is HOME for you?"  He replies angrily "NOWHERE!", and Alicia states the obvious "Then I guess New York is your home now!"  Pablo huffs "Whatever."  You can already see their emotions about the day in this exchange - Pablo is overwhelmed and negative; Alicia upbeat and positive.

As they enter the platform, the teacher is explaining the difference between express and local trains.  The platform fills with commuters - talking, walking, checking their phones.  Alicia takes the opportunity to show Pablo a map, so he can familiarize himself with the subway system.  Just as she drags him over, though, the rest of the class boards a local train (which makes additional stops).  In a moment of panic, Pablo grabs Alicia to rush her to the train.  But they have rushed onto the wrong train.  The teacher gestures wildly at them, hoping that they will get off at the next stop the two trains share.  In the meantime, Pablo and Alicia argue over whose decision got them separated from the rest of the class.

The panicked decision-making from Pablo and Alicia only continues throughout their travels.  They are impulsive and worried, jumping from train to train.  At this point in the story, this mother was worrying about their safety.  But at least Alicia is a city kid, comfortable with the maze of subways.  Pablo has the sheer determination to conquer the new school and the subway.  The thing they need to succeed in reuniting with their class: each other.  Can they work together and maybe even become friends?

As much of the story fascinates me, being as far from my children's life experiences as can be, what amazes me about Lost in NYC are the layered, thoughtful illustrations.  The series that TOON Books began publishing last fall is called TOON Graphics for Visual Readers, and I think Lost in NYC is one of the best examples of this series.  Let's start with the endpapers.

The front set of endpapers shows a cropped section of the NYC Subway map, including parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.  It has the stops marked in bold black font and the trains in different colors.  The subway lines interweave on the map, showing how commuters get where they need to go.  It's a traditional subway map - one that is most likely available at any stop to stash in your pocket.  It is the same map posted on the wall in the subway station where the class loses Alicia and Pablo.  On the back endpapers, the students' trip is shown.  The scale is off - the children are as big as buildings - but this is purposeful.  You can spot Alicia, Pablo, and their class throughout this map as they travel.  It's whimsical and suits the story perfectly.  Pablo, for instance, enters a subway car at one height, then in the next car, he fills the car completely, looking a little scared and out of his depth.  It also shows Alicia, the class and Pablo all converging on the Empire State Building.  I like this slightly different perspective on the map of their journey - it feels a little more emotional.  It gives readers a unique view of how they all got to their destination.

As we all know, there are millions of people in New York City, Sanchez has the challenge of drawing the crowd of people surrounding Pablo and Alicia throughout the book, but to also keep the readers' attention.  Many people are dressed in muted colors, so that Alicia (dressed in pink and green) and Pablo (in blues) stand out.  But the commuters also have lots of individual details that draw the eye - absorbed in their phones as they wait, shuffling along in single-file lines, listening to headphones, reading - there are lots of terrific details when the reader pores over the illustrations.

One of the other very cool things about this book is the way it incorporates photographs and New York City history into the graphic novel format.  When the teacher begins to give information to the class in preparation for their trip, the class is shown on a map of the subways (again, much like the one in the front of the book).  The teacher explains how the subways were constructed at the turn of the century, which included digging trenches for the trains.  As he describes the construction process, the students perch on the edges of newly dug trenches.  This double-paged spread is also filled with historic photographs of the subways being built - another way for students to visualize what happened then.

Finally, this book does not disappoint in back matter either.  TOON always has great information in its back matter, and Lost in NYC is perfect.  There is a fascinating behind-the-scenes section about Sanchez's trip to New York City and how he found all the details included in the book.  There are also pages on the subway system's history and the subway system today.  Finally, there is a brief history of the Empire State Building and of course, a bibliography. It is especially helpful that the books in the bibliography are provided with age ranges to help guide readers.

As always, these books are quality products, elegantly designed, but with an appeal to children.  Even here in our little town of Helena, Frances and Gloria have read and re-read Lost in NYC.  I hope you will too!

Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure.  Nadja Spiegelman and Sergio Garcia Sanchez.  TOON Graphics, 2015.

sent by the publisher for review