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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Reading Ahead

Superheroes and Bad Days

Even Superheroes Have Bad DaysI don’t know about you, but I’ve been wishing for an honest-to-goodness superhero to save the day.

If adults are feeling that way, kids, who pick up all of our emotions, are wishing for the same thing. Batman and Wonder Woman led the list of most popular Halloween costumes in 2016. The proliferation of superhero movies is hard to ignore. But there are very few books about superheroes that are appropriate for the 3-7 year age range.

With rhyming text and a cartoon illustration style that has a sophisticated palette and delicious details, Even Superheroes Have Bad Days is a book everyone can use right NOW. For kids of that certain age, Shelly Becker and Eda Kaban have teamed up to give us a rowdy, exuberant book filled with images of superheroes in action.

We first learn what they could do when they’re having a bad day: kicking, punching, pounding, shrieking. They could be quite destructive with their superpowers.

“But upset heroes have all sorts of choices …
Instead of destruction and loud, livid voices
They burn angry steam off with speed-of-light hiking
Or super-Xtreme outer space mountain biking. “

They clean up other people’s messes, they protect people from harm.

Even Superheroes Have Bad Days

There’s no denying that superheroes could use their powers to wreak havoc, make mayhem, but:

“Instead they dig down to their super-best part,
The strong super-powers contained in their heart!”

There are lots of images to look at while you read together, including eight superheroes created just for this book. Beastie, Zing, Thrash, Laserman Magnifique, Screecher, Typhoon, and Icky are good writing prompts, especially for difficult days.

Every single one of us has those crabby days, down days, exasperated days. How are we supposed to act? We can look to these superheroes for inspiration to be our best selves.

Captain America and Avengers star Chris Evans chose to read this book on the CBeebies ‘Bedtime Story’ on the BCC!

Fun and emotions and resiliency and good reading all in one package! It’s a message book but one that will resonate with many kids. Recommended for school libraries, public libraries, and exuberant bookshelves everywhere.

Even Superheroes Have Bad Days
written by Shelly Becker
illustrated by Eda Kaban
Sterling Children’s Books, 2016

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Chef Roy Choi’s Story

Chef Roy ChoiEvery time I re-read this book, it makes me happier. I’ve grown quite fond of the books being published by Readers to Eaters and I eagerly anticipate each new book.

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix is another food artisan biography from Jacqueline Briggs Martin, this time co-written with June Jo Lee. Jackie writes the flavorful essence of the artist in an irresistible recipe of words. June Jo is a food ethnographer, “studying how America eats,” and the co-founder of Readers to Eaters. As a kid-at-heart, I want a biography written about her next. Studying food?

But this book is about a boy born in South Korea who travels to America at age two with his family and attends school in California. His mother is a talented cook, specializing in kimchee, a Korean food staple. Her cooking is so good that she and her husband open a restaurant. And Roy is fascinated by what happens there.

He becomes a chef. The authors relate his journey in a way that every kid will understand. Eventually, Chef Roy Choi launches the Kogi BBQ Taco Truck with a mixture of Korean and Mexican food. He prepares ingredients by hand, with love, to share with his community. Healthy fast food is a rare thing in his neighborhood and Kogi is a hit.

One of the main ingredients for this LA-connected book is street art turned into book art by Man One. Don’t miss the authors’ and illustrator’s notes in this book. They will have your students wanting to know more about these talented book creators. The art in this book (I’m paraphrasing from his Note) started with spray-painting the backgrounds on large canvases, photographing them, and then working with them digitally, adding pencil and Sharpie to create truly unique picture book art. He includes many scenes from his community—you can sense the love imbuing these pages. His palette, the textures … they’re yummy.

This is a book filled with so much respect for readers, eaters, and kids with aspirations … it’s completely satisfying.

Don’t miss this for your inspirational school and classroom library!

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix
written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee
illustrated by Man One
Readers to Eaters, 2017.

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March Shorts

Oooo! Here in Minnesota, shorts in March mean chills. These books will give you chills–in a good way!

Cat Goes Fiddle-I-FeeCat Goes Fiddle-I-Fee
Adapted and illustrated by Paul Galdone
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985
(reissued in April 2017)

I recognized the title immediately as I song I know well, sung as “I Had a Rooster” by Pete Seeger on Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Little Fishes in 1968. Turns out, I remember the rhyme more than the words. Galdone wrote a different adaptation of this folk tale, one that is irresistible for reading out loud. In fact, even if you’re sitting alone in a room by yourself, you’re going to want to read this out loud. The words and the rhyme scheme are fun. Kids at storytime and kids in a classroom and kids sitting on your lap will want to sing along … and quite possibly dance. In this new edition, Galdone’s illustrations are friendly. Find the snail. Who shares the page with the dog? There are many animals to examine and they don’t always make the expected sounds: “Hen goes chimmy-chuck, chimmy-chuck.” As the tale builds cumulatively, it’s a good exercise in memory and repetition, and just plain fun. Turns out it’s a different story than Seeger’s so both of them could be used. 

Hoot & Honk Just Can't SleepHoot & Honk Just Can’t Sleep
written and illustrated by Leslie Helakoski
Sterling Children’s Books, 2017

Two eggs, one from an owl’s nest and one from a goose’s nest, tumble to the ground during a wind storm. When the mamas take home the wrong eggs, the hatchlings are confused. The owlet doesn’t like the food the other goslings like and the gosling doesn’t want what the owlets are hungry for. And their sleep patterns are quite different. A wonderful way to open up the discussion about different birds with young listeners, this is a gorgeous book with a happy-go-lucky spirit. Illustrated by Helakoski with pastels on sanded paper, the color is sumptuous, the views have depth, and everyone’s going to want to touch the bird’s feathers. And who can resist the main characters’ names? Hoot. Honk. Hoot and Honk. 

Charlotte the Scientist is SquishedCharlotte the Scientist is Squished
written by Camille Andros
illustrated by Brianne Farley
Clarion Books, 2017

I squealed after I read this book. This is exactly the book I would have read and re-read when I was a kid. The fly papers are diagrams of the inside of a rocket, labeled carefully so there’s much to ponder. Charlotte is a bunny rabbit with a problem. She is a serious scientist with no room to conduct her work. She has a large family, as some bunnies do, and they’re always underfoot. So Charlotte employs the Scientific Method to solve her problem. She creates a hypothesis and tried her experiment and draws a conclusion. And all of this is done with a great amount of humor supplied by the author and the illustrator, a seamless story. That carrot-shaped rocket is delightful and so is the bunny in the fishbowl. At the end of the book, there’s a feature “In the lab with Charlotte,” that uses Charlotte’s experiments for a discussion of the scientific method. Highly recommended.

Anywhere FarmAnywhere Farm
written by Phyllis Root
illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Candlewick Press, 2017

Where can you farm? Anywhere! Together, Root and Karas present convincing arguments for growing your own food wherever and however you can. “For an anywhere farm, here’s all that you need: soil and sunshine, some water, a seed.”With soft vignettes that look closely at ways and means to plant seeds, “Kale in a pail, corn in a horn,” to circular depictions of neighbors tending their small-scale farms, to two-page spreads that show an urban community involved in gardening, the blend of poetry and illustrations make this book an appealing invitation to try your hand at farming … anywhere. Readers will have fun detecting all the places growing plants can be supported. As kids and adults of all ages and abilities work together, the lush end to this book is a satisfying one. Excuse me, won’t you? I’m off to germinate my seeds!

Peggy
written and illustrated by Anna Walker
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017 paperback

I pronounce this a Picture-Book-of-the-Absurd, delightfully so. “Peggy lived in a small house on a quiet street.” Her chicken coop in the backyard of a suburban house has a trampoline outside. “Every day, rain or shine, Peggy ate breakfast, played in her yard, and watched the pigeons.” In a series of nine “slides” (do you remember slides?) on each page, we observe Peggy doing just these things … with joy and When Peggy is blown off her trampoline by a strong wind into the unfamiliar environment of downtown, does she panic? No. She takes the opportunity to explore. In vignettes, Peggy eats spaghetti, she rides an escalator, and she shops for bargains. The soft, muted watercolor palette of the book is punctuated by Peggy’s black feathers, making her easy to follow as she ultimately decides she’d rather be at home. But how will she get there? Clues planted earlier in the story give her ideas and ultimately she finds her way back to her chicken coop with new-found friends. This is an ideal book for sharing one-on-one, examining the humor on every page as the intrepid Peggy shares her story.

RoundRound
written by Joyce Sidman
illustrated by Taeeun Yoo
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Do any of us spend enough time noticing the natural world around us? Do we look at the shape of things? Do we wonder enough about why they are in the shapes they are? What about all of the round things in the world? The moon. water, lily pads, rocks … so many specific things to notice, observe, and appreciate. Joyce Sidman’s poem leads the listener into this exploration: “I love to watch round things move. They are so good at it!” Yoo’s illustrations find things to show us that are not in the text … words and illustrations blending together into a book that is more than its parts. Colorful and charming, the book’s design gets everything right. Even the author’s bios on the back jacket flap are presented in round shapes! Two pages in back ask “Why are so many things in nature round?” Short paragraphs from the author will broaden your vision, leading to discussions and noticing more each time you walk outside.

If You Were the MoonIf You Were the Moon
written by Laura Purdie Salas
illustrated by Jaime Kim
Millbrook Press, 2017

From the glossy cover to the moon’s expressive face to the bracketed, you-didn’t-know-that facts, everything about this book is appealing. Salas has a way of looking at something as familiar as the moon while encouraging us to think about it in fresh ways, poetically observant, waking-you-up ways. The moon as a ballerina? Of course, and for very good reason. In brackets, the facts: “The moon spins on its invisible axis, making a full turn every twenty-seven days.” Kim illustrates this spread with a contented, ballet-dancing moon that can’t help but make the reader smile. “Weave a spell over wonderers.”? The bracket inspires us with “Claire de Lune” and “The Moon is Distant from the Sea.” The illustration shows the Baule people of the Ivory Coast in festival masks. All of this is set in the vibrant colors of a moonlit night. It’s an inspiring book presented with the right balance for kids who love a poetic presentation as well as factual information.

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I’ve Been Enchanted

The Hotel CatThis is a rare admission from me because it’s about a book whose main characters are animals. I’ve stated before in this column that animal books have never been a favorite of mine, even as a child. Surely there are others of you out there who are too shy to admit the same thing?

In my determination to read older children’s books that I haven’t read before, I’ve just finished a book that has shown me I can adore books about animals: The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill, a Jenny’s Cat Club book. First published in 1969, this is the penultimate book in Averill’s 13-book series that begins with The Cat Club, published in 1944.

I liked this one so well that I’m going to track down all of the other books that come before it and some of Averill’s other books as well.

Her cats are always cats. Even though they speak cat talk, and at least in The Hotel Cat they can talk with a human who understands cat talk, their thoughts and dialogue and actions always seem cat-like.

Tom, the stray who wanders into the Royal Hotel, an older but genteel 300-room hotel in Greenwich Village, is welcomed by Fred, the janitor, and given a place to stay. Tom eventually explores the hotel, staying out of sight of the humans, until kind and thoughtful Mrs. Wilkins, a long-term resident of the hotel, discovers him in the ballroom. The two become tender-hearted friends because Mrs. Wilkins is that character who understands cat talk. She meets Tom late each night for a conversation, always remembering to bring Tom a treat.

It’s the winter of the Big Freeze, and neighboring residents are moving to the hotel with their cats because their boilers are bursting. Tom is very protective of his hotel until Mrs. Wilkins encourages him to be friendly, an accommodating and compassionate host. Three of the new hotel guests are Jenny Linsky and her brothers Edward and Checkers.

Esther Averill

illustration copyright Esther Averill

It’s a book about making friends and sharing and learning how to talk in a kind and thoughtful way. Tom worries about losing his new friends when all the boilers are fixed. He learns about the Cat Club and tries hard not to feel left out. These are all feelings every child knows well.

Because Averill’s writing is so spare, with words appropriately evocative, this book (and presumably the others) would make a great read-aloud for classrooms and families. What fun it is to read the cat talk out loud!

Esther AverillAnd now that I’ve fallen in love with her writing, I had to know more about the author and illustrator. I’ll keep looking for more information about Esther Averill but I’m already fascinated by what I’ve found.

She graduated from Vassar College, wrote for Women’s Wear Daily, then moved to Paris. There, she founded Domino Press to publish children’s books with European illustrators. She paid as much attention to book design and production as she did to content and illustration—the books were topnotch. When Nazis threatened to overtake Paris, Averill returned to the United States and once again published books through Domino Press. She went to work at the New York Public Library and then began writing and illustrating her own books. Don’t you want to invite her to lunch?

Here’s an article that Ms. Averill wrote for The Horn Book in 1957. If you wonder about the distinction between picture books, illustrated books, and picture storybooks, this article will enlighten you. In it, she critically reviewed the Caldecott winners from 1938 to 1957. 

I enjoyed this article by Anita Silvey about Jenny and the Cat Club for Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac

You can research Esther Averill’s work, including The Hotel Cat, at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota and at the DeGrummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi.

______________________________________________

The Hotel Cat 
written and illustrated by Esther Averill
The New York Review of Books, 2005
originally published in 1969

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Those Kennedys

Patrick and the PresidentAmerica has a fine tradition of elected officials who care deeply about the people, places, and policies of the United States of America. Two recent books highlight the good works of, and respect for, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the First Lady and President from 1961 to 1963. Although President Kennedy was assassinated just two short years into his term as President, the First Lady continued her work for the benefit of the people throughout her life.

In Patrick and the President, Ireland’s Late Late Show host, Ryan Tubridy, has written his first children’s book about President John F. Kennedy’s visit to his ancestral homeland, Ireland. In June of 1963, President Kennedy spent four days in various cities, visiting sites and meeting people. This book shares one boy’s experience of meeting the President.

Patrick Kennedy, John’s great-grandfather, left Ireland in 1848 aboard a famine ship. Many people in Ireland relied solely on potatoes as their food source, so when a blight affected the potato crop, nearly one million people starved to death and one million people emigrated to America. The immigrants retained a strong love for their original country, which they passed along to their children and grandchildren. John F. Kennedy’s decision to visit Ireland was heralded by Irish people on both sides of the ocean.

The language of this story beautifully portrays the excitement the entire town felt as they welcomed this world-famous Irish descendant back to the land of his roots. Patrick, the boy in the story, will be part of the children’s choir singing “The Boys of Wexford” when the President visits … and his father negotiates a chance for Patrick to help serve tea to the President when he visits the Ryans and Kennedys in New Ross. Emotions are high and expectations are tense: who will get to talk with “Himself”?

Tubridy is the author of a book written for adults: JFK in Ireland: Four Days That Changed a President. The information here is distilled in a way that feels personal and immediate. Every child will identify with young Patrick, knowing full well what it feels like to have high hopes for something.

P.J. Lynch, currently the Children’s Laureate of Ireland, contributes nearly photographic illustrations of Patrick, his family, the helicopters, the President, and the food.

There are two pages in the back matter that list Kennedy’s itinerary during his four-day visit, along with three sepia-toned photos. Don’t miss reading this information—it’s quite interesting.

The closeups and focus on Patrick and his family bring a palpable excitement to the book, which encourages reading throughout a somewhat long but ultimately satisfying text. This would make a good read-aloud for discussing several things in class. Who was President Kennedy? What do families mean to us? From where did our forebears immigrate? What do these connections across oceans and time mean for our world?

Patrick and the President
written by Ryan Tubridy, illustrated by P.J. Lynch
Candlewick Press, 2017
ISBN 978-0-7636-8949-0, $16.99

The interior of Grand Central Station in New York City, © Charlotte Leaper | Dreamstime.com

Natasha Wing wrote one of my favorite picture book biographies, An Eye for Color: the Story of Josef Albers, so I was excited to learn that she has written a book about historic preservation, starring none other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

When Jackie Saved Grand CentralAs First Lady of the United States for two years, she captured the attention and imagination of every newspaper, magazine, and newsreel in the land. Women adopted her fashion sense and hairstyle. She did a great deal to restore the grandeur of the White House and would undoubtedly have done more had she been in residence there longer.

Returning to live in New York City, the city in which she grew up, Mrs. Kennedy learned that Grand Central Station was in danger of being altered with a skyscraper built on its roof!

“Like a powerful locomotive, Jackie led the charge to preserve the landmark she and New York City loved. She joined city leaders and founded the Committee to Save Grand Central. She spoke at press conferences and made headlines.

“She inspired citizens to donate money. When people across the United States saw their fashionable former First Lady championing her cause, New York City’s fight became America’s fight.”

In other words, only Jacqueline Kennedy could promote a cause in a way that resulted in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, under which Grand Central Station could find the protection it needed to be restored to its former grandeur. 

The text is written with such clarity and verve that the reader will want to look for an historic building of their own to save! An extensive author’s note provides more information that will prompt some children to adopt this as a cause of their own.

The illustrations by Alexandra Boiger are energetic and whimsical, all the while using color to subtly emphasize parts of the story. In “A Note from the Illustrator,” you’ll find much to discuss about the colors she uses while you pore back over the book to find examples.

For a classroom, this is a terrific way to begin talking about the buildings we see every day, why they are important to a community, and what they mean for our future.

When Jackie Saved Grand Central:
The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s Fight for an American Icon

written by Natasha Wing, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

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Graphic Storytelling

 

Fish GirlA good graphic novel should pose a mystery.

As it opens (last possible minute), the reader often has no clue what’s going on.

It’s often an unknown world, even if it looks like our world.

This isn’t that different than the opening of a conventional print book but, for some reason, people often react to graphic novels by telling me, “I can’t read them! I never know what’s going on.”

What is there about adding continual visuals that causes some otherwise avid readers to throw a graphic novel aside with such disfavor?

This question is an intriguing one for me. In our Chapter & Verse Book Club, we read at least one graphic novel each year, usually with an undercurrent of grumbling. I know which of our members won’t like the book, which of them won’t open the book, and which of them will do their best to like the book. Some will even love the book.

Why such a wide range of responses based on the visual aspect of the book? And the dialogue nature of the story?

I recently finished David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli’s Fish Girl. The opening is bewildering. What is going on? I find this satisfying.

When I finished, I turned immediately to re-read it, to figure out where I first figured it out. What were the clues? Were they visual or verbal or a combination of both? I’m not going to tell you, of course. That’s your reading journey. But I was particularly fond of the way in which Fish Girl (dare I say it?) unwinds.

As a long time fantasy reader, I’m familiar with stories in this segment of the genre. (I’m trying not to reveal too much so I’m purposefully not naming that segment.) 

About the  book, David Wiesner writes, “I tried several times to develop a picture book around these components (drawings of characters, scenes, and settings to go with an image of a house filled with water where fish are swimming) but the house full of fish turned out to be a complex image, suggesting stories too long and involved for the picture book format. The logical next step was to see it as a graphic novel.”

Many of the people who don’t care for graphic novels love picture books. Perhaps understanding graphic novels as a picture book for telling longer, more complex stories will help them appreciate this form more?

In Fish Girl, the watercolor-painted frames are clear and visually beautiful. The characters are well-delineated. The dialogue is involving. The mysteries lead the way. Why does this girl, who lives with fish and an octopus inside of a house filled with water, named Ocean Wonders, seem to be a prisoner? Why can’t she leave? Why does Neptune set so many rules? Are stories the true reason that Fish Girl stays in her prison?

Wiesner’s paintings provide focus in an involving way throughout the book. The ocean is brooding, beautiful, and beckoning. Fish Girl is lonely, a loneliness every reader will recognize. The expressions of loneliness, bewilderment, friendship, and longing are beguiling. When I consider how long it would take me to draw and paint just one of these frames and then look at how many frames are employed to tell this story, I could well imagine that David Wiesner has been working on this book for five years. I wonder what the truth of that is? 

It’s a book that many readers, young and old, will enjoy. I believe it would be a good read-aloud if all listeners can see the book and help turn the pages. Fish Girl is highly recommended. And I will keep looking for graphic novels that will convert even their most reluctant readers!

Fish Girl
David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli
Clarion Books, March 7, 2017
(I read an Advanced Reader’s Copy.)
ISBN 978-0-544-81512-4 $25 hardcover
ISBN 978-0-547-48393-1 $18 paperback

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The Delight of Reading Older Books

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?

One of my favorite types of reading is to go back and read books I’ve missed from years ago. I once spent an entire summer reading books that were published in the 1950s. I had such a strong feeling of the decade after reading those books that I felt more connected to people who lived then. That feeling of connection is very satisfying to me.

Do you do a similar kind of reading?

This last holiday season, I did another dive into books published in decades past. There’s something very comforting about reading these books. I frequently scout out articles where people talk about the books they’ve loved from their childhood. If I haven’t read them, they go on a list and I seek them out. Sometimes I have to scout used book stores but the books are all easily obtainable.

My most recent delight was Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? by Avi. It was first published in 1981. I hadn’t read it before. It holds up well today. In fact, I would readily put this book in the hands of any child, aged 7 and older, who enjoys a mystery. Set in a small town, twin siblings Becky and Toby set out to solve a crime that’s presented on page one and is wrapped up neatly 115 pages later.

The crime takes place in a library and so does much of the action. Becky and Toby solve the crime on their own, without help from grown-ups. They question adults. They apply their brains. They discuss (and bicker) and ultimately end up on a stake-out.

To arrive at the solution, they read five classic books: Through the Looking Glass, The Wind in the Willows, The Wizard of Oz, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Treasure Island. By the time they’re done discussing what they’ve read, I knew I’d have to re-read each of those books myself! (I’ve never read Winnie-the-Pooh. I know. Gasp!)

What do each of those books have in common? That’s the delicious part of the story so I won’t spoil it for you. Read this book!

We focus on new books because people love to guess which books will win awards.  We forget that there are thousands (millions?) of kids who are reading these books for the first time. Drawing books off the shelf from the rich canon of children’s literature is a gift we can keep giving again and again.

Stay tuned. I’ll share more of my reading-of-books-past in upcoming columns.

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?
Avi
Alfred A. Knopf, 1981
(I read a Yearling paperback.)
ISBN 978-0394849928, $6.99

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Irresistible Reading: How Things Work

How Things WorkNow, if that Science Encyclopedia wasn’t cool enough, here’s another sure-fire hit for kids who love to read facts, true stories, and know how things work.

In fact, the book is called How Things Work and it’s another powerhouse from National Geographic.

As the book admonishes, “PUT THIS BOOK DOWN NOW. It’s dangerous. It might make you think you can do impossible things.” Followed closely by “You must be one of those. The kind of kid who thinks ‘just because’ isn’t a real answer.”

Do you know one of those kids? Endless questions? On the trail for the real story? Wondering all the time? Lucky you. Lucky them if you give them this book.

How do hoverboards work? This comes with a “Try This!” that encourages experimenting with the attraction and repelling of magnets.

How do microwaves work? There are infographics, fun facts, diagrams, another Try This with ice cubes, Myth vs. Fact, a short biography of Percy Spencer whose melting peanut cluster bar sparked his imagination … and it’s all terribly exciting.

The visuals that accompany every fact in this book, the layout, the colors, all of this put together makes me want to devour this book. There are so many cool things explained that it makes me breathless.

Don’t you want the kid in your life to feel the same way about learning?

How Things Work
T.J. Resler
National Geographic, 2016
ISBN 978-1426325557, $19.99

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Feeding the Naturally Curious Brain

Science Encyclopedia“You’ll discover mouthless worms and walking ferns … ” (pg. 13) And with those words, I’m charged up for the hunt. Along the way, I can’t help being distracted by a satisfying amount of irresistible information in National Geographic’s Science Encyclopedia.

If you learn best visually, there is a surfeit of images to stimulate a curious mind. If you learn best verbally, then this book is chock full of words arranged in the most interesting ways. And the photos! This is National Geographic, after all.

The book is so visual that information leaps into the reader’s brain. Colorful text boxes help the eye and mind focus.

You’ll find page-long introductions to the various sections on matter, energy, forces and machines, electronics, the universe, life on Earth, planet Earth, and the human body. The way I approach these is to look at all of the photos in the section, read the text boxes, and then go back to read the introductions because by that time I would need to know everything on this subject.

Each double-page spread (and sometimes a single page) includes “Try This!” for practical, do-at-home-with-supplies-on-hand experiments, “Personality Plus” featuring a small, true, biographical tidbit about someone important in that field, “LOL!” a riddle pertaining to the subject (!), and a “Geek Out!” fact with which you can amaze your friends and draw new friends into your geek circle.

One set of pages features a timeline: Amazing Science! Milestones, Atom Smashing. The earliest entry from 1897 is “Englishman J.J. Thompson discovers the first subatomic particle, the electron, using a gas-filled tube that creates a glowing beam.” The latest entry is “2012-2015, in which the Large Hadron Collector “accelerates protons to just below the speed of light and smashes them together.” (pgs 22-23)

The way the pages of this timeline are laid out helps the reader focus and absorb information. It’s not a straight line with words on tick-points. Oh, no! It’s a vibrant, image-filled, double-paged spread of completely cool tidbits. A timeline to get excited about!

Everything about this book is a launchpad for further investigation.

I grew up believing that I didn’t like science. What a nut! How can you not like this stuff?

The Science Encyclopedia is such an exciting presentation of information that it belongs in every household, whether or not there are children in said house.

Don’t have any children? Buy yourself a copy of this book.

Then, buy a copy for each elementary school and middle school where you live. This book is that good. You’ll be charging up the curiosity of young minds for years to come.

Science Encyclopedia:
Atom Smashing, Food Chemistry, Animals, Space, and More

National Geographic. 2016
ISBN 978-1426325427, $24.99

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Essential Holiday Giving: Books

Hands down, there is no better gift for holidays or birthdays than a book. You can find a book to suit every interest, every taste, and your budget. You can always feel good about giving a book (unless you’re giving a gift to someone who lives in a Tiny House … ask first). 

pl_books_best_gifts

Here’s my list of suggestions for the holidays. It’s filled with books that are informative, beautifully illustrated or photographed, useful, well-written, but mostly books that can be savored or cherished, with uplifting stories.

And if you’d like more suggestions, my best advice is to walk into your public library and talk to the children’s librarians there. Tell them about the children in your lives, their interests, the kind of books they like to read, or if they haven’t yet met the right book to turn them on to reading. You’ll be amazed by the good suggestions these library angels will give you.

I’m going to break these out into the type of reader I think will be most appreciative. You’ll find links to longer reviews scattered throughout. And I’m going to keep adding to this list up until the end of the year. People are celebrating holidays at many different times.

In love with picture books

Before MorningBefore Morning
written by Joyce Sidman
illustrated by Beth Krommes
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

I think this ranks up there in my list of favorite picture books of all time. It works on so many levels, but mostly it speaks of love and yearning and beauty and grace. It is a simple story of a little girl who wishes for a snow day so her family can be together. Joyce Sidman’s story is exquisite. Beth Krommes creates a winter everyone can love and appreciate with her scratchboard illustrations. The color palette, the texture on the page, and the snow! Has there ever been such glorious snow? A perfect gift book for young and old.

Frank and LuckyFrank and Lucky Get Schooled
written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins
Greenwillow Books, 2016

“One day when Frank could not win for losing, he got Lucky. And one day when Lucky was lost and found, he got Frank. Both of them were just pups. They had a lot to learn.” Life, at its best, is one big learning adventure. Frank and Lucky grow together, each teaching the other. We hear the story in both of their voices. Life is explore through learning: Chemistry, Taxonomy, Reading, Math. So many questions and so little time. Learning follows these two wherever they go. They have fun. But how does it all fit together? Ah, that’s the adventure. There is so much to look at and think about in this book … and Lucky makes the adventure fun. A great book for exploring together as the first step in planning your own learning adventures. Inspired!

Henry & LeoHenry & Leo
written and illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 

This is such a wonderland of a book. I finished it and immediately started again at the beginning. And yet again. The pages are filled with details that are irresistible, inciting curiosity and storytelling. The story is a comforting one about a young boy, Henry, who ferociously loves his stuffed lion, Leo. The family goes for a walk in the Nearby Woods and … Leo is lost. Henry is beside himself, worried about Leo alone in the woods. His family comforts him by saying that Leo isn’t real, which is no comfort at all of course. But something very real and mystical happens in those Woods and Leo finds his way back to Henry. Pamela Zagarenski paints this book with lucious foresty and night-time colors, with pages so soft and textured you know you can walk into the scene. She includes her trademark crowns, critters large and small, windows, and those teacups. What does it all mean? As our brains look for answers, we create our own stories. It’s magical.

Ganesha's Sweet ToothGanesha’s Sweet Tooth
written by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes
illustrated by Sanjay Patel
Chronicle Books, 2012

A story based on Hindu mythology, an adorable Ganesha and his friend Mr. Mouse are all about the candy. In particular, Ganesha wants a Super Jumbo Jawbreaker Ladoo (candy) and he wants to bite down on it. Mr. Mouse warns him that it’s a jawbreaker. And soon Ganesha has broken his tusk. Luckily, he happens upon a poet who advises him to use his tusk to write down the Mahabharata, a long, ancient, Sanskrit poem about the beginning of things. Ganesha is described as a “Hindu god. He’s very important and powerful. And a tad chubby.” And that sets the tone of the book. Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth is a feast for eyes, mind, and imagination. Patel, an artist and animator with Pixar, creates illustrations unlike anything I’ve ever seen before … you’ll enjoy poring over them.

Luis Paints the WorldLuis Paints the World
written by Terry Farish
illustrated by Oliver Dominguez
Carolrhoda Books, 2016

When an older brother enlists in the army to “see the world,” young Luis is uncertain. How could his brother want to leave their family and their neighborhood? How could he want to leave Luis? Will he come back again to play baseball and eat his Mama’s flan? Luis begins painting a mural on a wall in their neighborhood, hoping to paint the world so Nico won’t need to leave home. He paints and paints with a good deal of skill. Yet Nico does leave home. Missing his brother, Luis continues to paint his heart onto the wall. Soon his friends, family, and neighbors join him in painting. Will Nico come home again? The author, Terry Farish, based her story in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where she was a public librarian. The city is famous for the murals and outdoor art found throughout the town. For a heartwarming story of love and artistic expression, this is the right choice.

Monster & SonMonster & Son
written by David LaRochelle
illustrated by Joey Chou

This is an ideal book for dads to read aloud to their little sons. Yetis, werewolves, monsters of every shape and shiver, this is a bedtime story in spite of the subject matter. The illustrations are calming and detailed, even sparkling, yet perfectly suited to the monster fan. David LaRochelle’s text is fun to read out loud and Joey Chou’s artwork is painted with calm blues and purples and sleepy monsters.

NorNorth Woods Girl
written Aimée Bissonette
illustrated by Claudia McGehee
Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2015

For anyone who loves the North Woods, no matter where those woods may be, this is a heart-calling tale of a grandmother who knows she belongs in the woods and a granddaughter who is fascinated by what her grandmother knows and how she lives. Aimée Bissonette’s story is so well told that it feels universal. We all know someone like this girl and her grandmother. We hope we understand what it means to be so connected to place. Claudia McGehee’s scratchboard illustrations are an integral part of the experience of this book. The animals, trees, plants, the boundless night sky, the warm fire … there’s so much to love here. North Woods Girl will lead to good inter-generational discussions and foster good memories of your own special places.

On One Foot

On One Foot
written by Linda Glaser
illustrated by Nuria Balaguer
Kar-Ben Publishing, 2016

A familiar tale to many Jews, this story of the not-quite-a-fool who seeks a rabbi (teacher) who can teach him while standing on one foot (I’m guessing because the student would like the teaching to be short, even though he says it’s because he wants his teacher to be the best) is an active parable for the most important lesson in the world. Each successive teacher derides the student for asking them to teach the Torah on one foot, telling him that not even the famous Rabbi Hillel could do such a thing. When the student finally meets Rabbi Hillel, he is astounded by the simplicity of the lesson, one that each of us can live and share. The cut paper and mixed media illustrations are fitting for long-ago Jerusalem, showing both wit and empathy.

A Poem for PeterA Poem for Peter
written by Andrea Davis Pinkney
illustrated by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson
Viking, 2016

Probably my favorite picture book of 2016, A Poem for Peter tells the story of the growing up and older of Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz, who is “Born under Hardship’s Hand, into a land filled with impossible odds.” He began paintings signs for stores when he was eight years old. An introduction to the Brooklyn Public Library opened the world to him. It’s a biography written poetically and every word is worth savoring. We know him now as Ezra Jack Keats and he created A Snowy Day, which is one of the most beloved books of all time. His life is painted here by Fancher & Johnson, who small touches on each page of their illustrations that remind us of Keats’ genius, his work with collage and color and shapes and textures. It’s a lovely, beautiful, magical book. It should be on your family’s bookshelf, ready for reading again and again.

Storm's Coming!Storm’s Coming!
written by Margi Preus
illustrated by David Geister
Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2016

The weather! In many parts of the country, it is increasingly a factor in our everyday life. Here in Minnesota, it is what strangers talk about before anything else. Friends exclaim in e-mail and by phone about the effect weather has on their lives. When family gathers, the first topic of conversation is the weather (and how they drove to the gathering place). Margi Preus tells the story of a storm approaching with traditional weather signs and folk sayings. Bees flying in large numbers into their hive? “Look at those busy bees,” Sophie exclaimed. “They know it’s going to storm.” Dan watched the bees flying into their hive. “That’s true,” he said. “You know what they say: A bees was never caught in a shower.” All kinds of intriguing tidbits are woven into this weather story, set at Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior at the beginning of the twentieth century. David Geister’s oil paintings are suffused with light, family love, the varying moods of the Lake, and the final, satisfying storm scene. You know the weather-watchers in your family. This will make a welcome gift.

savors poetry

Emily Dickinson: Poetry for KidsEmily Dickinson: Poetry for Kids
edited by Susan Snively, PhD
illustrated by Christine Davenier
MoonDance Press, Quarto Publishing Group, 2016

For a beautiful introduction to the poems of Emily Dickinson, this book invites reading out loud, discussion, and turning the pages in appreciation of Christine Davenier’s art. The poems are accessible by children and their adults. Arranged by the seasons of the year, the pages offer commentary and definitions for important words to aid in your conversations about the poems. It’s a book that will be read and re-read in your home.

Miss Muffet, or What Came AfterMiss Muffet, or What Came After
written by Marilyn Singer
illustrated by David Litchfield
Clarion Books, 2016

Think you know all about Miss Muffet? That tuffet? That spider? Think again, mes amis!

This oh-so-delightful book will have you smiling, laughing, heart filling with awe at the poet’s and illustrator’s mastery … but most of all falling in love with a story you never knew. That short nursery rhyme? Pull back from the scene (I easily see this as a staged play, readers theater or with props and costumes) and realize that Miss Muffet (Patience Muffet) and the spider (Webster) live in a larger world of sister, mother, rooster, fiddlers, a king, and many lively neighbors. These are easily understandable poems and poetry that is fun to say out loud and poems that tickle our funny bones. David Litchfield manages to use mixed media in a way that pulls us into the story and has us touring Pat Muffet’s world. Just gorgeous. It’s all so satisfying. Children will enjoy reading this themselves, with friends, acting it out, and taking part in a classroom performance. Such possibilities!

good family read-alouds

Garvey's ChoiceGarvey’s Choice
written by Nikki Grimes
WordSong, 2016

Garvey feels as though he’s constantly disappointing his father. Sports are his dad’s way of relating and he has high hopes for Garvey becoming a football player or a baseball player or … something in a sport uniform. Garvey, on the other hand, enjoys reading and music and science. How does he show his dad what matters to him? This is a book that is optimistic and funny and hopeful. Even though Garvey consoles himself with food, becoming heavier and heavier, he is drawn outside of his funk by his interests. He can’t resist. And his father finally sees what’s important to his son. A novel written in verse, this makes a good book for the family to read out loud. 

Making Friends with Billy WongMaking Friends with Billy Wong
written by Augusta Scattergood
Scholastic Press, 2016

When Azalea’s mother and father drive her to Arkansas to help her injured grandmother, Azalea is not thrilled. She contemplates being lonely for an entire summer and having nothing to do … and her grandmother, whom she hardly knows, is cranky. Even though she yearns to go home, she is drawn into the neighborhood by a boy with a boundless spirit and a curiosity to match her own. There is a mystery to solve and the two kids become friends while they’re figuring things out. It’s a heartwarming book and one that brings to light an immigrant story that isn’t well-known. 

Saving WonderSaving Wonder
written by Mary Knight
Scholastic Press, 2016

Curley Hines lives with his grandpa in Wonder Gap, Kentucky, settled in the Appalachian Mountains. His Papaw gives him a word each week to learn and decide where it fits into his life. For people who love words, this is a book that enchants with its word choices. Curley has a best friend. He believes he’s in love with Jules but at 15 it might be a little early to know. And then Jules is entranced with the new kid in town, an urban kid, J.D., and Curley’s life is taking an unexpected turn. Even these changes pale in the face of a more threatening change: the coal company that employs so many of Wonder Gap’s residents wants to tear down Curley and Papaw’s mountain in order to get at the coal inside cheaply. All three of the kids get involved in Saving Wonder. This is an uplifting story that will have you cheering while you’re reading.

WishWish
written by Barbara O’Connor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016

Charlie Reese is a girl whose parents have abandoned her. Her father is in jail and her mother suffers from a depression that has her forgetting about Charlie for days on end. Child Protection Services sends Charlie to live with her Uncle Gus and Aunt Bertha who are as nice and loving as any kid could want. But Charlie wants to go home. She wants a family who loves her. In fact, she searches every day for something lucky that allows her to make that wish. She’s angry about her new home. She hopes it’s temporary. So she’s resistant when Howard, a kid with an up-and-down walk, does his best to reach her, to make her his friend. And she’s a little resistant when a stray dog, who she names Wishbone is as hard to reach as she is. It’s a wonderful story of a group of people coming together to form a family that’s made with love. These characters will take up a place in your mind and your heart for a very long time. And isn’t that a magical book cover?

can’t get enough of biographies

Let Your Voice Be HeardLet Your Voice Be Heard:
The Life and Times of Pete Seeger

written by Anita Silvey
Clarion Books, 2016

At this very moment, many of us, children and adults alike, are looking for a way to make a difference in our world. We’d like to show that love is stronger than any talk or action done in hatred. Young and old, we’d like to show that we are willing to stand up and let our voices be heard. There is no better example than the life of Pete Seeger. Anita Silvey writes this book in a way that shows how hard it was for him to perservere but he stood by his principles for nearly nine decades! Even when he was beaten down by the government, he was resolute. And he sang songs by the people, for the people, to inspire the people and bring them together. This book is written so it can be read by anyone ages 9 and older (adults will find this book worthwhile, too). I highly recommend it as a family read-aloud and discussion starter but it’s so good that reading it individually works, too.

Six DotsSix Dots: a Story of Young Louis Braille
written by Jen Bryant
illustrated by Boris 
Random House, 2016

When a terrible accident blinds him as a child, Louis Braille’s world turns dark. He sets out to get along in the world. “My family did what they could. Papa made a wooden cane. … My brother taught me to whistle … My sisters made a straw alphabet. Papa made letters with wooden strips or by pounding round-topped nails into boards” With his mother, he played dominoes. But he wanted to read books. Six Dots is the story of Braille’s journey to create a code that the blind could read. Louis Braille was a child inventor and this biography leads us to appreciate how significant his invention was and how much it continues to matter in the world today. Bryant’s text, written in free verse, makes the reading lyrical. Kulikov’s illustrations give an understanding of the darkness and the light in this blind inventor’s world. Six Dots fits well into our list of uplifting gifts. [Hidden Giveaway: the first person to send us an e-mail requesting this book will receive a copy of Six Dots, signed by the author. Be sure to include your mailing address so we can send you the book.]

Some Writer! The Story of E.B. WhiteSome Writer! The Story of E.B. White
written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

Are you a fan of Charlotte’s Web? Stuart Little? The Trumpet of the Swan? One Man’s Meat? Here is New York? E.B. White wrote books that are considered classics today, loved with a fierce wonder for their characters and emotions. In a work of love and art, Melissa Sweet shares the story of his life from childhood through adulthood as he learned to love books and writing. It’s the story of a man of words who lives so closely with them that he co-authors Elements of Style, a standard reference. There are details here that every fan of his books will want to know. Best of all, the book is done as perhaps only Melissa Sweet could, making collages out of found objects, White’s papers, and original (and charming) drawings. There are Garth Williams’ original sketches and photos of the people in E.B. White’s life. This book is a treasure, one you can share with many people on your gift list. Perhaps you can bundle it up with a copy of one of his books listed earlier, choices for both children and adults.

just the facts, please

Science EncyclopediaScience Encylopedia: Atom Smashing,
Food Chemistry, Animals, Space, and More!

National Geographic, 2016

I think every person on your gift list should get one of these! Seriously, whether you love science or don’t want anything to do with it, you will like this book. You will dip into the book somewhere and then you’ll find yourself thumbing through, being caught by this and that tidbit. Here’s my full review of this encyclopedia.

How Things WorkHow Things Work
T.J. Resler
National Geographic, 2016

As if the Science Encyclopedia isn’t cool enough, this book, also published by National Geographic, has astounding information in it. This quote from the beginning of the book wraps things up so well and tempts you to pull at the tail of the bow: “PUT THIS BOOK DOWN NOW. It’s dangerous. It might make you think you can do impossible things.” Followed closely by “You must be one of those. The kind of kid who thinks ‘just because’ isn’t a real answer.” Read the full review and buy this book for every kid (and maybe an adult or two) who love to know how things work. Because this book reveals all.

adults who breathe more fully around children’s literature

Comics ConfidentialComics Confidential: Thirteen Novelists Talk
Story, Craft, and Life Outside the Box

interviews by Leonard S. Marcus
Candlewick Press, 2016

If you have the smallest bit of interest in comic books and graphic novels, you will find yourself drawn in by the interviews in this book. Marcus is a veteran at asking the right questions and his chosen subjects are the people who create books that kids and adults stand in line to read. You’ll hear from Harry Bliss, Catia Chien, Geoffrey Hayes, Kazu Kibuishi, Hope Larson, Danica Novgorodoff, Matt Phelan, Dave Roman, Mark and Siena Cherson Siegel, James Sturm, Sara Varon, Gene Luen Yang. Each one of them contributes a self-portrait, a comic written and drawn especially for this book, and there are sketches that accompany the interview. It’s a visual book about a visual medium created by visual artists who know how to tell exceptional stories.

Picture This: How Pictures WorkPicture This (25th anniversary edition)
Molly Bang
Chronicle Books, 2016

If you’ve ever felt that you like the art in a book but you don’t know why, this is the book for you. If you know teachers who regularly read out loud to children, this is the book for them. First written 25 years ago, Molly Bang has revised her guide to show us in clear language and pictures how the art in our favorite books works its magic. The way a page is arranged, the perspective, the focal point, the emotion, the mood, all of these can change the way we experience a book. We can understand what it is that we’re looking at in ways we never understood before. This is a very special book to give as a gift to someone you love or to yourself.

cook it up!

Betty Crocker's Cooky BookBetty Crocker’s Cooky Book
by Betty Crocker (!)
illustrated by Eric Mulvaney
Hungry Minds, 2002

I received this book in 1964 with an inscription from my grandmother, who wanted me to have “the gift of cooking food everyone will love.” It’s hard to go wrong serving cookies and the recipes in this book are classics. You’ll find Chocolate Chip Cookies, Toffee Squares, Krumkake, and Sugar Cookies. Good photographs show you how to decorate them and suggest how to serve them. Your burgeoning baker will spend hours planning, considering which cookies to make, and mixing things up in the kitchen!

Kids in the Holiday KitchenKids in the Holiday Kitchen
by Jessica Strand and Tammy Massman-Johnson
photographs by James Baigrie
Chronicle Books, 2008

For those who celebrate Christmas, this book has loads of recipes that are fun to decorate, good to give as gifts, and will help to keep the holiday buffet well-supplied. And it’s not just food. There are crafts included to decorate a soap bar for a gift or dress up gift tins. A good idea for the cooking-inspired child on your gift list.

Everyday Kitchen for KidsEveryday Kitchen for Kids: 100 Amazing Savory and Sweet Recipes Your Children Can Really Make
by Jennifer Low
Whitecap Books, Ltd.

If your child’s wish is to appear on Food Network, here’s a head start.  In addition to being delicious and easy to make, these 100 recipes are all about safety. None of the methods call for sharp knives, stovetop cooking,  or small motorized appliances. All the recipes are kid tested and each one is accompanied by a full-color photograph.

crafts are the stuff of life

Ed Emberley's Book of Trucks and TrainsEd Emberley’s Drawing Book of Trucks and Trains
Ed Emberley
LB Kids, 2005

Using simple shapes and lines and putting them together in thousands of different ways, anyone can draw. And in constructing these pictures out of those shapes and lines, they will find confidence in creating their own drawings. A part of it is practice, but a part of it is seeing how things are put together and Ed Emberley is a master at this. He is a Caldecott Medal winner and the author of many fine picture books, but it is his drawing books that many children cherish because that’s how they learned to draw! It’s an ideal book for a gift because with a pack of colored pencils and paper the fun can begin immediately!

51 Things to Make with Cardboard Boxes51 Things to Make with Cardboard Boxes
Fiona Hayes
Quarto Publishing Group, 2016

Gather up cereal boxes and chocolate boxes and match boxes and large boxes and small boxes and paint and googly eyes … to create dinosaurs, chickens, houses, and robots. Then make a giraffe and a hippopotamus and a construction crane … all out of boxes! The book has step-by-step instructions in both words and pictures that will help you and your children create fifty-one different projects. My only quibble with this book is that I would like measurements so I know which kind of boxes will work best … but perhaps the author wanted the size to be variable. I would have loved this book as a child. I suspect there’s crafty and building children in your life as well. There’s hours and hours of fun (and cereal-eating) ahead.

Look for this company’s 51 Things to Make with Paper Plates as well. Using paper plates and paper bowls (and googly eyes) there are many more creatures to be brought to life with these inexpensive construction tools.

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Orbiting Kindergarten

Planet Kindergarten: 100 Days in OrbitThat lively, quirky-thinking duo from Planet Kindergarten have teamed up once again for Planet Kindergarten: 100 Days in Orbit. Many schools use the 100-day marker to reflect on how far they’ve come since the first day of kindergarten. Social graces, etiquette, mindfulness, assignments, singing, pledges … they’re all included in this new book.

But the extra-fun twist is that our hero recounts the entire story as a trip into space aboard a starship filled with aliens and a thoughtful commander. 

A classmate who becomes sick doing “anti-gravity exercises” is kindly accompanied to the Nurse’s Office by our hero. Shane Prigmore, the illustrator, reminds us of the exciting scene from Star Wars, the first movie, in which Luke Skywalker zeros in on the Deathstar, with a hallful of doors, slightly askew, and the red-doored office at the end. Adults and older siblings will get the reference and continue looking for more. 

Waiting for show-and-tell, our hero says “Then, like the Apollo astronauts, we wait to be called up. It takes forever before my turn.” Mayhem ensues when there’s a tricky maneuver … but these children aliens are quick to lend a hand, because that’s what they’ve learned in Planet Kindergarten!

Planet Kindergarten: 100 Days in Orbit

The illustrations are bold and funny and cued-up with plenty to notice and appreciate. The story is clever but that never gets in the way. It’s a very good story to read out loud, savor as a child-and-adult reading book, or use in the classroom to inspire space-themed play and imagination. Count me in as a moon circling this planet!

Planet Kindergarten: 100 Days in Orbit
written by Sue Ganz-Schmitt
illustrated by Shane Prigmore
Chronicle Books, 2016

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Tucked In for the Winter

Sleep Tight Farm

Sleep Tight Farm by Eugenie Doyle illus by Becca Stadtlander Chronicle Books ISBN 9781452129013

Every detail in this book is heartwarming. You know that the author and the illustrator and the book’s publishing team put a lot of love and respect into bringing this story to readers.

From the moment you see the opening end papers, a forest and pasture ablaze with fall color, until you discover the closing end papers, that same forest with the snowy skeletons of those trees, you sense the care within.

It’s a story of a farm family who are very busy tucking their farm in for the winter. Unless you live on a farm, you likely have no idea there’s so much to do! Harvesting, putting food by, protecting the fields, preparing the hoop house, keeping the beehives safe from mice and wind … from big chores to small, this family’s love for their farm wraps around the reader like a fluffy quilt.

The book will open eyes for children who don’t know about farm life, but it also neatly tucks the details around us, giving us a satisfying look at a family who raise a variety of vegetables for themselves, winter markets, and their own farmstand. You sense the family’s deep level of caring for the land, the birds and animals, and the farm that sustains them.

“Dad cuts back the raspberries before wind and snow can crack the canes. … The promise of late summer’s plump fruit lies in roots tucked underground. Good night, raspberries, resting below.” So fine.

I was drawn to this book by the cover and illustrations. It’s those finely detailed, draw-the-reader-into-the-world-of-the-book, gently instructing paintings that complete the spell of Sleep Tight Farm.  Those details include the icy whiteness of the book’s title on the cover and the informal friendliness of the body text. The farm kitchen is fascinating with stacked wood, a collection of painted pottery, rugs on the floor, and a fire in the pot-bellied stove.

Sleep Tight Farm

When “We board up chinks in the chicken coop and set a timer to give the hens the light they need to lay eggs all winter” even the straw that lines the chicken coop and the feed for those chickens are included in the details. We learn a great deal about the farm by observation. How are eggs collected from the coop? Mom is pounding nails to “board up chinks.” There’s a variety of hens and a beautiful rooster. The family is wearing boots for their work. There’s a fence around the chicken yard. A chicken-strutting ramp leads from the coop to the ground. “Good night, chickens, snug in your coop.” 

After reading this book, I feel calmer about the winter to come. And I want to visit this farm. Warm thanks to author Eugenie Doyle (whose family operates The Last Resort Farm in Vermont) and illustrator Becca Stadtlander and the team at Chronicle Books for creating this respectful, loving, and informative book. What a joy to read! It’s a keeper.

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Women Can Be Magicians, Too!

Anything But Ordinary AddieIn a sumptuous picture book biography, author Mara Rockliff and illustrator Iacopo Bruno give us the life of Adelaide Scarcez Herrmann, a real person who lived from 1853 to 1932. During her 79 years, she was an actress, a dancer, a vaudevillian, and she was shot out of a cannon. As the title says, she was Anything but Ordinary Addie. In 1875, Addie married Alexander Herrmann, a magician, and became his assistant. They added other acts to their show and traveled the world as Herrmann the Great. When Alexander died of heart failure in 1896, at age 52, Addie decided to carry on as the magician in the act. A female magician was uncommon, so her first solo show included a daring and dangerous magical feat. It was good enough to keep her on vaudeville stages as Madame Herrmann for 25 years. She kept performing until she was 75. Four years later, she passed away and out of memory.

In the Author’s Note, Rockliff laments that “Generations of girls grew up thinking all the great magicians had been men.” With a daughter interested in magic, Rockliff says “This project started when I went looking for a biography of a woman stage magician for my daughter and found to my dismay that none existed.” She began researching women magicians and ran across a very interesting research story. (Yes, I think you should read this in her book.)

It’s an inspiring story appropriate for children. It doesn’t include the financial ups and downs of the Herrmanns, focusing instead on Addie’s successes. A determined little girl and woman, she accomplished admirable feats, including The Bullet-Catching Trick. Although the book shares the highlights of her career, I’m intrigued to find out more. Other readers will be as well. Isn’t that what we want out of a good book?

gr_addie_shock_600px

Iacopo Bruno’s illustrations are richly colored with glowing elements that light the pages much as footlights would light a stage. Addie’s costumes and hair adornments are period-perfect. Even the lettering on the handbills and posters transports readers to the Gilded Age era. Bruno has a curious way of providing depth to his illustrations by surrounding people and objects in the foreground with a thick, white border, almost as though they were cut out of paper. It’s a style that grew on me. It adds focus to the page, directing the reader’s eye to truly see what’s on the page. 

I’d recommend this book for school libraries, classrooms, and for homes where magic and accomplished women are interests.

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Everything You Need to Ace Five Subjects

bk_everything_series_300pxI’ve had this TBR pile of five very attractive, come-hither-looking books begging to be recommended for weeks now. The spines are bright primary colors so I know that even when I shelve them they will be calling to me. And I think they’ll be calling to your students as well.

I open what are for me the two scariest volumes (eat your vegetables first—oops, as an adult, I find I LOVE vegetables), Everything You Need to Know to Ace Science in One Fat Notebook: Notes Borrowed from the Smartest Kid in Class (Double-Checked by Award-Winning Teacher) and Everything You Need to Ace Math in One Big Fat Notebook: Notes Borrowed from the Smartest Kid in Class (Double-Checked by Award-Winning Teacher). Did you catch that? Borrowed from the “Smartest Kid” in the class.

When I was a kid I had encyclopedias from the grocery store of the highly visual, dipping-in-and-out variety. I could sit for hours, flipping pages, looking at something that caught my eye, devouring information.

These books remind me of those encyclopedias although they’re more focused on a subject area.

If you have kids who suck up facts and information like a vacuum cleaner, these are the books for them. They’re also self-challenging. Each chapter ends with a list of questions which you can respond to before you turn the page to find the supplied answers.

bk_everything_science_200pxSo, in the Science book, my eyes light immediately on Chapter 5: Outer Space, the Universe, and the Solar System, with subsections of The Solar System and Space Exploration (which every self-respecting Star Wars nerd needs to study), The Sun-Earth-Moon System, and The Origin of the Universe and Our Solar System.

In all of the books, important names and places are bolded in blue, vocabulary words are highlighted in yellow, definitions are highlighted in yellow, and stick figures provide the entertainment.

Looking further, I discover the first chapters in the Science book are about thinking like a scientist and designing an experiment. I need a LOT of help with those activities, so I’m glad to be put at ease.

It’s a bright and colorful book, with great eye-appeal. Even for the most reluctantly curious mind, these books hold a great deal of promise.

Everything I Need to Ace Math

In the Math book, we explore ratios, proportions, equations, probability, and more. Although my brain bawks at looking at this stuff, I find my eye resting longer and longer on some of the highly visual information, wanting to understand it better. The book is working its magic.

Everything You Need to Know American History

Volumes on American History, English Language Arts, and World History similarly offer an overview of many topics within their disciplines. The American History notebook begins with “The First People in America EVER” and ends with the George W. Bush administration, with many stops along the way for famous and not-so-famous parts of America’s history.

English Language Arts explores everything from language and syntax to how to read fiction and nonfiction, including poetry, explicit evidence, and using multiple sources to strengthen your writing.

World History covers 3500 BC to present times in 502 pages, lighting on ancient African civilizations, the Song Dynasty in China, 1830s revolutions in Europe, and so much more.

Everything You Need to Ace English Language ArtsNone of the information is exhaustive. In fact, it’s quite light. Toe-dipping is an apt description. But the information is enough to intrigue the reader and lead them on to other resources.

There are no bibliographies or sources or suggestions for further reading in the books. I can see where that would have been a monumental task. I suppose I’m going to have to look it up myself. Oh, maybe that’s part of the experience? I’m guessing it is.

Highly recommended for grades 6 through 9 (the covers say “The Complete Middle School Study Guide”) and especially for your home library. I think this would be a perfect starting place for choosing a research topic or entertaining yourself with reading an expository text. I envision whiling away many hours looking through these books. Good job, Workman and production team.

 

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Those Alluring Comics Storytellers

Comics ConfidentialWhen I began working as, and thinking of myself as, a graphic designer, I assumed that all of my ideas would have to spring out of my mind … and that was terrifying. (Think of the oft-asked question, “Where do your ideas come from?”) I didn’t think I was creative enough or widely traveled enough or even educated enough as a graphic designer to come up with ideas that would translate into smart, pleasing designs on paper or a computer screen.

Then I talked and worked with other graphic designers. I learned that they had folders full of “reference material,” designs they admired, cut out of magazines and newspapers, along with photos they’d taken and words typeset in innovative ways. And that sounded liked cheating to me. Were they just copying other people’s designs?

I began collecting my own reference materials (books, magazine pages, type, color swatches) and organizing them into folders and notebooks.

As I became more experienced, I understood that looking at reference materials was not copying because somewhere during the creative process my brain added its own concepts and my design seldom looked anything like the references I had used for a project.

So many young people are interested in creating their own comics and graphic novels. They have stories to tell and they want to do it in a visual way. There’s a learning curve. They’ve probably read enough “reference materials” when they begin, enough that they intuitively understand sequence, the gaps in time and story, and the conventions of dialogue bubbles and frames. They may begin by copying their favorites, but what they’ve read informs their storytelling and what they create will be entirely their own.

Leonard Marcus

Leonard S. Marcus

How refreshing to have Leonard Marcus’ book of interviews, Comics Confidential: Thirteen Graphic Novelists Talk Story, Craft, and Life Outside the Box (Candlewick Press). It’s a reference material of a completely different type, invaluable really, because it shares how these thirteen much-admired artists tell their own stories. We get a peek into their lives, their experiences, their notions of art and the work they’ve done before they achieved their much-admired status.

Every interview, whether I know the work of the artist or not, held me riveted to their story, their experiences, their gaining of knowledge. I loved reading that many of them worked with a group of like-minded comics artists, learning and developing together. These interviews instill confidence and surefootedness. As a young and budding storyteller, I know that tidbits from these biographies would change how I work and how I think about my images and scripts.

For instance, Danica Novgorodoff shares that, for The Undertaking of Lily Chen, “I would envision each scene as a scene in a film. Sometimes I would have to stop myself and realize, ‘This is not going to work in a drawing. I am going to have to write it differently.’ I wrote a scene, for instance, with an empty gray stone city in which mist was rising through the streets. I thought, ‘You can’t actually make mist rise in a drawing, can you?’ I tried it and it didn’t work out nearly as well as it had in my mind! It would have looked beautiful in a film.”

What you see clearly in your mind frequently doesn’t translate well into your drawing or screen. You have to do a lot of erasing. Much as the concept of revision is taught by educators in thousands of classrooms, this idea of working on the frames in a comic book page until they are telling the best story possible, both in words and pictures, can be enormously freeing and encouraging.

Comics Confidential, Danica Novgorodoff

Danica Novgorodoff, “Turf,” Comics Confidential, interviews by Leonard Marcus (Candlewick Press)

In this book, each interview subject created an original two-page story. Both the finished comic and an original sketch are shared. Marcus tells us in the caption for the “Turf” sketch that Novgorodoff “not only specified more background detail but also moved more action to the foreground and turned more of her characters to face us.” That’s essential information!

Comics Confidential James Sturm

James Sturm, self-portrait, from Comics Confidential, interviews by Leonard Marcus (Candlewick Press)

The comic artists telling many of our favorite graphic stories are interviewed for this book:

  • Kazu Kibuishi, who keeps his fans breathless with anticipation for the next volume in the Amulet series.
  • Hope Larson, astounding story reteller of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
  • Matt Phelan, who has graced us with exceptional storytelling and art in books like Bluffton and The Storm in the Barn.
  • James Sturm, the brilliant storyteller and instructor behind the Adventures in Cartooning series.
  • Sara Varon, well-loved for Odd Duck and President Squid and Robot Dreams.
  • Gene Luen Yang, whose Avatar, Shadow Hero, and Secret Coder series all show the brilliance for which he was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.

These are just a few of the mighty talents interviewed for Comics Confidential. Marcus, who is a master at asking questions that bring forth the information Every Reader wants to know, has created a book formatted beautifully, brimming with elements that readers will pore over, with a helpful bibliography in the back matter.

If you’re an educator, this book will open your eyes to the skill and imagination and wellsprings of creativity from which our very best graphic novelists for young readers draw (tired pun, but apt). You’ll understand and appreciate graphic novels and comic books in a way you haven’t done before reading these interviews.

Your youngest budding artists may have a hard time reading the book if their reading level doesn’t match the book’s vocabulary but Comics Confidential is also a powerful incentive to persevere so you can learn from the masters.

If you have a small group of interested comics creators in your room, reading the interviews out loud and discussing them, particularly with some of that artist’s books at hand to review, would inform those students … and make you look awfully smart.

Donald Duck Officer for a DayI have loved comics since I read my first Donald Duck comic book in the first decade of my life. I quickly became enamored of superhero comics. I wasn’t allowed to buy them but thankfully my cousins were. I often spied one under a coffee table and took myself surreptitiously into a quiet room to read it before we went home. As an adult, I continue to love the visual nature of the stories and the different, inventive ways in which stories are told by comics artists. Comics Confidential is a dream-come-true, allowing me to “meet” the visual storytellers I admire greatly. I consider this book an essential purchase for every library and classroom.

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Apples, Well-Being, and Family

Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You a PieBring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story about Edna Lewis is a memorable book about growing food throughout the seasons and living off the land in Virginia. Wild strawberry, purslane, dandelions, sassafras, honey. As spring rides the breeze into summer, this extended family tends to their larder, taking full advantage of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables growing around them. Summer subdues itself into fall. Time to bring in the corn and beans, take a last harvest of pecans before winter sets in.

This way of life may be unfamiliar to a large percentage of children, but even though the book is set in the 1920s, everything about the story feels contemporary. Perhaps it is a way of life that withstands time.

Food is the focus because this is a glimpse of the early life of Edna Lewis, renowned chef and Southern cookbook author. As the author and watercolor illustrator Robbin Gourley writes, “But her most significant contribution was to make people aware of the importance of preserving traditional methods of growing and preparing food and of bringing ingredients directly from the field to the table.” With our current resurgence of interest in a farm-to-table lifestyle, this book is a good way to talk about food and nutrition with your children.

Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Bake You a Pie

Quite a few traditional sayings are included in the book:

“Raccoon up the pecan tree.
Possum on the ground.
Raccoon shake the pecans down.
Possum pass ‘em round.”

Your mouth will water so much while you’re reading this book that you’ll be glad there are five recipes in the back of the book, from Strawberry Shortcake to Pecan Drops.

The watercolor illustrations throughout are charming and informative, warm and loving. The color palette of clear, bright tones adds to the feeling of health and well-being.

It’s a worthwhile addition to your home, school, or public library.

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Welcome to Roy’s House

Roy's HouseWhat better way to familiarize one’s self with the work of pop culture artist Roy Lichtenstein than to walk through his house from living room to snack bar, from bathroom to bedroom, and finally into his studio, where we can try our hand at painting?

Susan Goldman Rubin and her team at Chronicle have created a book illustrated by Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings, Roy’s House, which lets us see up close his style of art, the colors he used, and the technique of shading color in dots.

printer's loupeIf you look at a newspaper or a magazine or a brochure, and you use a loupe (Merriam-Webster definition: a small magnifier used especially by jewelers and watchmakers), you can distinguish among the dots used to lay the color down (the “halftone” technique).

During printing, when the color is laid down, those dots grow in size a bit. That’s called “dot gain” and printers expect it, compensating on the original.

Lichtenstein exaggerated those dots, and the technique of cross-hatching, to make his paintings bold, bright, and memorable. His style is instantly recognizable. As the back matter states, “His first show shocked critics in 1962.”

Roy's House

The text is minimal (in keeping with Lichtenstein’s paintings) but the author still manages to imbue those words with warmth and humor, spark and spirit. Making use of the artist’s distinctive, jagged-edged thought bubbles provides energy.

This is a book for the very young, the budding artist or art collector, and yet it’s also a book for those who love art, teach art, and are educating themselves about the infinite styles within art. Lichtenstein’s work is iconic … and so is this book. (Merriam-Webster definition: “widely known and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence”)

Also take a look at the author’s book Whaam! The Art and Life of Roy Lichtenstein (Abrams), written for an older child.

For readers 12 and up, find a copy of Marc Aronson’s Art Attack: a Brief Cultural History of the Avant-Garde (Clarion Books).

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August Shorts

Warning: There’s a lot of enthusiasm ahead for these books!

Where Do Pants Go?Where Do Pants Go?
Written by Rebecca Van Slyke, illustrated by Chris Robertson
Sterling Children’s Books, 2016

Well, this is just adorable … and I can already hear households throughout the English-speaking world chanting:

“Where do pants go?

On your arms? No.

On your neck? No.

No, no, no.

Pants go on your legs, that’s where pants go.”

We all know how much kids love saying “NO!” This book depicts a charming cast of kids in a rowdy lesson on getting dressed from underwear to jacket and hat. It’s a cumulative text so language skills are a part of the mix. The illustrations are bouncy and full of humor. Getting dressed will be filled with giggles.

Sky Stirs Up TroubleThe Sky Stirs Up Trouble (Tornadoes)
written by Belinda Jensen, illustrated by Renee Kurilla
Millbrook Press, 2016

I wonder if a scientific study has ever been done to determine how many kids want to grow up to be the weather forecaster on local or national news. Certainly the weather is just as much a preoccupation for children as it is for adults. This brand-new, six-book series about Bel the Weather Girl is written by a television meteorologist with an eye toward entertaining and educating the reader. In this book, Bel and her cousin Dylan head to the basement with Bel’s mom when a tornado siren goes off. They learn how to react to the warning and Bel explains, by baking a Tornado Cake, how the atmospheric conditions must be just so in order to cook up a tornado. A recipe for the cake is included as are interesting fact bubbles. The illustrations are friendly and engaging. I know I would have read and re-read this series in elementary school.

D is for Dress-UpD is for Dress Up: The ABCs of What We Wear
written and illustrated by Maria Carluccio
Chronicle Books, 2016

This charming alphabet book is just right for someone who will grow up to collect fabric, carefully study fashions, and find joy in creating “a look.” A wonderfully diverse group of children are dressed in clothing and accessories that depict each word from apron (for a chef) to zippers (for two friends’ jackets). In between, we find leotards and overalls and raincoats. It’s the illustrations that are most inviting: so much for the eyes and brain and heart to notice and absorb. There’s texture and pattern and detail (notice those galoshes) created by a textile and product designer resulting in a warm and enchanting book. You’ll know just the child to give it to.

This is NOT a Cat!This is NOT a Cat!
written by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka
Sterling Children’s Books, 2016

LaRochelle and Wohnoutka (Moo!) are at it again: a book that has very few words but a lot of laughs! I love these books with few words because kids are so good at telling the story themselves. With gentle prompting from the adult reading with them, kids can be encouraged to tell the story in different ways. Perhaps the most fun is saying the five words in the book in so many different ways with varying emphasis and LOUDness! It’s just plain fun to read this book out loud. And because there are only five words, every child can have the satisfaction of reading this book on their own. The lively, humorous pictures conceived by Mike Wohnoutka invite studying closely as the details add to the fun. Bring your own knowledge to this book: do cats like cheese?

The Bot That Scott BuiltThe Bot That Scott Built
written by Kim Norman, illustrated by Agnese Baruzzi
Sterling Children’s Books, 2016

Great Scott! I love this book. For any child the least bit science-minded who loves to experiment or build things or creatively compile what-ifs, this is a must-have book. It’s an awe-inspiring feast for the eyes and the ears and the funny bone. The setting is a Science Day, in which students show their science projects to their teacher and the rest of the class. In a House That Jack Built style, the “what can go wrong, does” story progresses with much laughter thanks to the spot-on rhyming text and the color-infused illustrations. The ending is ingenious. I won’t spoil it for you and your smaller readers. But Scott’s science project saves the classroom from the brink of destruction. I’m inspired to make my own “bot” right now and so will you be!

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Books Like This Are Convincing

Lives of the ScientistsI’m more comfortable with magic than I am with science. Married to a science guy, I work harder to be interested in science. It gives us something to talk about. When I find narrative nonfiction that tells a compelling story, I’m thankful … and intrigued. I’m particularly happy to find books that feature lesser-known aspects of science, thereby taunting my curiosity.

Do you know the Lives of … series, written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated with disproportionately big heads by Kathryn Hewitt? First published in 2013 and now in paperback for less than $10, I had a ball reading Lives of the Scientists: Experiments, Explosions (and What the Neighbors Thought). It reminds me of People magazine in tone, leaning toward gossipy aspects of these most curious of people past and present but balanced by the right amount of tantalizing information about their work (for many of them, their obsession). And you may not have heard of many of these people.

For instance, William and Caroline Herschel, brother and sister, earned their living as musicians until they had sold enough of their handmade telescopes (they used horse dung for the molds!) and their catalog of newly discovered heavenly bodies attracted the attention of England’s King George III, who paid them both a salary.

The gossipy part? Apparently William was a bossy guy who didn’t have his sister’s well-being at the top of his priority list. During a long night of astronomic observation, Caroline’s leg was impaled on a hook but he couldn’t hear her cries of pain. He was concentrating hard!

After each profile, there are “extra credit” points that didn’t fit into the narrative but they’re awfully interesting.

Don’t you love this tidbit about Grace Murray Hopper, computer scientist? “When Grace Murray Hopper was seven, she took her alarm clock apart to see how it worked. Her parents were impressed—until she took apart seven more. They limited her to dismantling one clock at a time, but they fully supported her education.”

Rachel Carson, Lives of the Scientists, illustration copyright Kathryn Hewitt

Rachel Carson, Lives of the Scientists, illustration copyright Kathryn Hewitt

Do you know the work of Chien-Shiung Wu, Zhang Heng, and Edwin Hubble? There are more familiar scientists as well, people like Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Rachel Carson, and George Washington Carver.

This book supports curiosity, investigation, and the pursuing of dreams … your kids will enjoy these three- to four-page biographies even if they’re more inclined to magic than science.

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Dear Peacemakers

In recent weeks, we’ve had many requests for books about anger and fear and conflict resolution.

Book by BookI was immediately reminded of an excellent resource published in 2010 called Book by Book: an Annotated Guide to Young People’s Literature with Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution Themes (Carol Spiegel, published by Educators for Social Responsibility, now called Engaging Schools).

Peace educator Carol Spiegel has gathered a useful, important, and intriguing-to-read list of 600 picture books and 300 chapter books that will spark your imagination and help you find just the right book to use in your classroom, library, or home.

When Sophie Gets AngryAs she says so well, “Stories can gently steal into the lives of young people and show the way to peace and conflict resolution. Children’s literature is rich with such tales. As an example, picture this. Annie struggles with her anger and then she hears about Sophie who gets just as angry. Annie is heartened when she learns how Sophie copies. Had someone tried to talk directly with Annie about ways to deal with anger, Annie may have been defensive. This posture was unnecessary when Sophie was being featured.”

Of course, the book Ms. Spiegel is describing is Molly Bang’s book, When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry … (and check out the 2015 book When Sophie’s Feelings Are Really, Really Hurt).

There is an Index of Book Themes in the back matter that will help you find books with themes such as:

  • Elderly, respect for
  • Emotional literacy: accepting limitations and gifts
  • Exploring conflict: nature of conflict, conflict styles
  • Friendship, inclusion and exclusion

You’ll find good books that will be useful for your reading and discussions, such as:

  • First Day in Grapes by L. King Perez, illus by Robert Casilla (Overcoming Obstacles, Bullying)
  • Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema, illus by Leo and Diane Dillon (Listening, Rumors or Suspicion)
  • Probably Still Nick Swanson by Virginia Euwer Wolff (Accepting Limitations and Gifts, Respect for Elderly or Disabled, Rumors or Suspicion)
  • The Revealers by Doug Wilhelm (Bullying, Prejudice or Dislike, Nonviolent Response)
  • REVOLUTION is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine (Nonviolent Response, Oppression)

Book by Book books

In our current world, where books have a shelf life of less than five years, you may not readily find some of these books (because they were published six or seven years ago). Get the book you’re interested in on interlibrary loan from your public library, read it, consider whether it’s important to have it in your school or classroom library, and then find a used copy online.

The folks at Engaging Schools were kind enough to send me two downloadable PDFs that may help to convince you to obtain this book: Table of Contents and Supplemental Index. You can order the book from Engaging Schools online.

I hope they will update this book … it’s a critical reference in our unsettled, growing wiser, opening our minds world.

Seriously, you’ll wonder why you don’t already have this reference book on your shelf.

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Reading Memories

bk_threelittlekittensMemories of my childhood are imperfect. Yours, too?

I don’t remember having a lot of books as a child. I remember The Poky Little Puppy and another dog book (title unknown) and Three Little Kittens (perhaps a reminder to me to keep track of my mittens).

I remember using the school library voraciously to read books. I had no access to the public library (too far away) so that school library was my lifeline. And our librarian understood what I was looking for before I did.

But back to the question of having books on our shelves. My mother had a Doubleday Book Club subscription so a new book arrived each month for the adult reader in our family. I saw To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, The Light in the Piazza, and The Sun Also Rises added to the shelves, but other than curiosity, I felt no interest in those books.

My mother also subscribed to Reader’s Digest. We had a lot of music in our house in the form of LPs. Some of my favorites were those Readers Digest collections, classics, folk songs, Broadway musicals. There was always music on the turntable. More importantly, Reader’s Digest published story collections and books for children.  

Yesterday, I was sorting through the three boxes that remain of my childhood toys and books. We’re downsizing, so the tough decisions have to be made. Do I keep my hand puppets of Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse, and Hush Puppy or let them go?

Reader's Digest Treasury for Young ReadersI know I’ve gone through these boxes since I was a kid but every ten years or so I’m surprised all over again by what I played with as a child and cared enough to pack in a box for remembrance.

I found two Reader’s Digest Treasuries for Young Readers and the three-volume Doubleday Family Treasury of Children’s Stories.  My mother also subscribed to the Reader’s Digest Best Loved Books for Young Readers. This is how I read Lorna Doone and Ivanhoe and Where the Red Fern Grows.

I was startled to realize that my familiarity with many of the classic poems, stories, and nonfiction articles came from these books. I was introduced to Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Elizabeth Janet Gray and Dr. George Washington Carver and Jules Verne and The Odyssey and NASA’s work and more than a hundred more stories and articles. I’d like to believe that I’m an omnivorous reader today because of the wide variety I encountered in these books.

The Family Treasury of Children's BooksThere’s a penchant for everything new right now. Grandparents pick up the latest Dora the Explorer or Where’s Waldo? book because they’ve heard of them and have a vague sense that kids like them. Or the bookstore clerk suggests a Caldecott or Newbery winner of recent vintage.

This is a plea to remember those classic books: the stories, the folk tales, the fables, the poetry. Children will read a lot that you wouldn’t expect them to read, especially if you give it to them. Those classics provide a common language for educated people.

Can’t find something suitable? Write to your favorite publisher and suggest that they print collections of classics, old and new. There are a few books published in the last 20 years that sort of approach these collections published in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Here are a few:

Story Collections

Perhaps 50 years from now your children and grandchildren will open their own box of childhood memories, being thankful that you gave them such a great gift.

Thanks, Mom. You gave me a gift that has sustained me all my life.

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Visiting Brigadoon

Vermont College of Fine Arts

Steve and I returned earlier this week from Montpelier, Vermont, where we spoke at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, specifically to the alumni of their Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program. We were there to talk about “Marketing as Storytelling,” with the goal of making these typically introverted writers feel more comfortable about touting their books. Marketing is all part of the business of writing, especially in these times when the social media cacophony makes it harder to be heard.

We’ve heard about this program at VCFA for years. A number of our colleagues are faculty members and a number of our clients have graduated from this college. Did it live up to the many laudatory statements we’ve listened to? The graduates speak about the school as though these are hallowed halls. What is it that creates their reaction?

On our drive back to Boston to take the plane home, Steve and I talked about this. We overheard the faculty and staff referring to themselves as Brigadoon throughout the three days we were there. Are you familiar with that legend? The city in Scotland that appears for only one day every one hundred years? A step outside of time? A haven for good and talented people? 

Set among the verdant hills of Vermont, the College’s buildings are arranged around a green grass plaza, a place where dogs catch Frisbees and fountains burble and trees shade students who are writing, reading, and conversing. 

Students in the WCYA program are enrolled in a low-residency program, meaning that they work in their homes and come together twice a year on the campus to listen to and work directly with faculty and visiting speakers. They get to know the other students in their class, all of whom are working toward the common goal of having sustainable publishing careers. They spend ten days together in the summer and ten days in the winter (another popular time in skiable Vermont) and then they fade away to their own homes, inspired once again to work intently on improving their writing and storytelling techniques.

Brigadoon? Yes. The spell fell upon us, too. What a charming place to learn your craft, to strive toward being the best writer you can be. We look forward to great books from the men and women we met during our brief sojourn. We’re confident we’ll be reading them soon.

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Going to Camp

Mother Daughter Book CampAs summer begins, it’s possible there is no more ubiquitous experience for American children than summer camp. Whether it’s a day camp or a sleepaway camp, an art or music camp, a Girl Scout or church camp, there are some things that most camps have in common: the outdoors, getting along with other kids and counselors, and new experiences.

Or, as Heather Vogel Frederick writes in her latest Mother-Daughter Book Club book, Mother-Daughter Book Camp, the motto of Camp Lovejoy is “Broadening Horizons for Over a Century.” Girls are encouraged to stretch outside their comfort zones.

When the subject of summer camp comes up among my friends, the discussion turns to crafts learned (macaroni-adorned something), songs sung, injuries sustained, family weekends, and unforgettable counselors.

Mother-Daughter Book Camp captures this experience with spot-on details, the emotions of being away at camp (remember that feeling of homesickness? who were these strangers? how would you make it through [however long you were slated to be there]? how could you ever leave?), the food, the one most memorable experience, and those wonderful friendships.

Mother Daughter Book Club Series

I’m a big fan of this series of books which began with The Mother-Daughter Book Club, continued with Much Ado about Anne, and continued through to the recent, seventh book, Mother-Daughter Book Camp. We’ve grown to care about these five girls, Emma (the most dedicated reader and writer), Jess (the farm girl and musician), Becca (first a bully, then a friend, highly organized, quilter), Megan (fashionista, blogger, whose mother is obsessed with green and healthy living), and Cassidy (sports, sports, and great love of family). Their mothers are familiar, too, because of Book Club meetings and trips they’ve taken. There are even grandmothers within these stories. I love it when all of the generations are drawn into the story, don’t you? These are five girls who for the most part didn’t know each other before the book club began—and now they’re forever friends.

In each part of the series, the book club discusses a classic book, from Little Women to Anne of Green Gables to the Betsy-Tacy books to the book featured in Mother-Daughter Book Camp, Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. The book club shares Fun Facts about the book and the author and so, of course, readers are drawn inevitably to reading the featured book—how can curiosity not engender this result? And the book club is woven skillfully into the larger story, which provides plenty of laughs, a lot of gasps of surprise, and heartwarming tears.

I’ve come to care about these girls, their families, their boyfriends. Each of them is heading off to a different college after being counselors at Camp Lovejoy. The series is done with book seven but I know they’ll stay in touch. Their lives are intertwined. I’m going to miss knowing what happens next.

Heather Vogel Frederick has written characters so vivid that I expect them to walk through my front door, plop down on the couch, and tell me all about their lives. I wish they would.

These books are that good. I highly recommend them for fourth grade readers and older. The characters are in sixth grade when their book club is formed. We watch them grow up, graduate from high school, and spend a special summer together at camp before they head off to the rest of their lives.

I’m grateful that their stories are a part of my life.

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Summer Adventures

 

Adventures in Cartooning: Characters in ActionThe other day, a public librarian asked on social media for graphic novel recommendations for readers aged 6 to 12. I immediately recommended the Adventures in Cartooning series by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost.

The first book was Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles into Comics, introducing us to The Knight, Edward the chubby horse, and the Magic Cartooning Elf. With humor and breathless storytelling, this story captures both attention and imagination. I cannot envision a reader who wouldn’t want to pull out a pencil and give cartooning a try.

Since then, there have been three more Adventures in Cartooning story/how-to books and four picture books featuring the beloved characters.

The book I’ve fallen in love with now is Adventures in Cartooning: Characters in Action, first published in 2013. An affordable paperback, this is a stealthy way to buy an activity book that also encourages storytelling, writing, spatial thinking, and math (yes, math, while figuring out how to lay out the story).

These books are clever because they tell a story while showing how to write a story. And the story is good, not didactic.

In this volume, many characters are introduced as a way of showing how you can make different characters out of a few shapes and how you describe a character with a minimum of words, clothing, facial expressions, and placement on the page. And they all move the story forward! With each page turn, something unpredictable happens—that’s great storytelling. I admire the authors’ skillfulness.

Reading these books as an adult cracks me up. The jokes are clever, but they’re layered—and they, too, move the story forward, so they also teach while tickling the reader’s funny bone.

Summer’s nearly here. Are you gearing up with things to do? Buy the series of Adventures in Cartooning books and pull them out of your boredom-reliever bag at opportune times. They’re a can’t miss for any kids who like to tell stories and draw.

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Light vs Dark

The Dark is Rising

A recent paperback cover, I quite like this. It’s as elegant as the story itself.

Do you have a book that you re-read periodically? At least every few years? Sometimes more often?

For me, it’s The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. I have read thousands of books in my lifetime, but this book stands out as the one that captured my full heart, mind, and imagination. When I think of it, a hush falls over me. I respect this book on many levels.

Each time I read about Will Stanton, met with challenges that threaten his family, his village, not to mention his life, I am filled with wonder. How did the author write about such dire circumstances while keeping the reader assured that good would find a way to defeat evil?

That’s what I notice most about The Dark is Rising, even more than the other books in this series. Cooper writes about a sky laden with snow, the heaviness of it, the blanketing of feeling and sound. Surrounded by the menace of weather that shouldn’t be that way, the reader finds places of comfort. Family, the church, traditions, many of the villagers … these are people and parts of life that we can count on to support us, defend us, and surround us with love and security.

The Dark is Rising

This is the original hardcover dust jacket.

We’re living in a time where we’re aware of how much Dark there is in the world. This book is needed. Our movies and television shows and many books are filled with anti-heroes and problems that go unresolved because that is “real life.” We can change that.

I like to think there are really Old Ones out there, like Merriman Lyon and Miss Greythorne, who are looking out for world, leading the fight against the Dark. We can’t rely on Old Ones: we need to be reminded that it’s up to us to push the Dark back so the Light can shine brightly.

I enjoyed the romp of the first few Harry Potter books, but they are simply not as captivating and reassuring as The Dark is Rising. Susan Cooper writes with power, elegance, and a deep understanding of the human psyche. Each time I finish the book, I am convinced Ms. Cooper must be one of the Old Ones herself, fighting for the Light to prevail. We need her. Read this book yourself and give it to a young reader. Walk on the side of the Light.

(A side note: Do not be tempted to watch the movie The Seeker instead, which was purportedly based on The Dark is Rising. It is nothing like the book.)

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The Jungle Book

The Jungle BookThe word exquisite once won the game for me while playing Password. I have been fond of that word since that time and look for instances where it applies. That is surely the illustrated edition of The Jungle Book, written by Rudyard Kipling all of those years ago, and newly illustrated by Nicola Bayley. Candlewick published this edition of the classic stories and their classics are worth collecting, reading, and treasuring. They should be well-worn on the bookshelves in your home.

I first read The Jungle Book when I was ten. I don’t remember any illustrations in the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books version but I remember that this book made a big impression on me. It was so “other.” It was not the world I knew and it was larger than the farm dogs and pet cats I observed. It gave me a sense of the world beyond my vision. I believe it can still do that for readers today.

Bagheera and Mowgli by Nicola BayleyThe story of Mowgli and his wolf-pack, of Shere Khan, the tiger who believes Mowgli is his to dispose of as he wishes, of Baloo and Kaa and Bagheera … is as captivating now as I remember reading it as a child. There is such dignity and grace in the words that Kipling wrote, the stories he weaves with fierceness and humor and respect, that The Jungle Book transcends time. Who would not be fascinated by this story of a young boy (cub) who is adopted by a wolf pack, grows up believing he is a wolf, and then must re-join the world of man when the animals judge it is time. He lives in the jungle, is accustomed to the ways of the animal tribes, and this never leaves him, especially in his dealing with humans.

Midday Nap by Nicola BayleyThe book is such a treat to read because the visual experience is so rewarding. There are richly-colored borders and sumptuous story-dividing pages with patterns evocative of India, where The Jungle Book takes place. Every spread has some illustration it, done in colored pencil, that set the scene or enhance the storytelling or give us a glimpse of Mowgli and the animals. The full-page illustrations are riveting.

You’ve read before of my fondness for “butter covers,” dust jackets finished with a smooth and tangibly soft cover that invites holding and reading. This book has such a cover and it is irresistible. (I made that term up, by the way. Don’t try Googling it.)

In the “Word” at the beginning of the book, Nicola Bayley writes, “I’d been to India and visited all sorts of places you wouldn’t normally see, and I went to libraries in London to find out what the country was like in Kipling’s time.”

In the author’s bio on the jacket flap, we learn that “Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was born in India and spent his early childhood there. He lived a migratory life: educated in England, he returned to India in 1882, then met his wife in London and spent the early years of their marriage in Vermont, eventually settling in England. The most famous writer of his time, Rudyard Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1907, thirteen years after the publication of The Jungle Book.” His writing is a look into his world and his time, his experience, his feelings about life.

This edition of The Jungle Book is exquisite. I recommend it highly for your family read-aloud time, for young and older. Don’t skip over the poetry. Its rhythm and words are part of the experience. It will give you much to discuss and a world to explore.

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Fashion Studio

Fashion Studio Oh. my goodness. When I opened up this box, I was immediately transported to my grandparents’ back yard, on the blue blanket under the elm tree, when a gaggle of friends brought their Barbies and Kens together and we sewed clothes out of fabric scraps and held fashion shows. Those days are some of my best memories of childhood.

If we had had this Fashion Studio from Candlewick Press, I’m convinced it would have altered lives. This would have amped up the creativity level and built confidence.

You see, we often became frustrated because we lacked new ideas or didn’t quite know how to construct a garment. Fashion Studio will crack that disappointment wide open. There are cardboard templates to help you make paper garments.

For those who are challenged by spatial relationships, this will provide many an Aha! Moment as designers fashion their clothing.

First of all, the Fashion Studio itself is chic (and purple!). Well-designed to have wide appeal, it’s made from sturdy cardboard that folds open to reveal a beautiful shop with its own type of runway. There are dress stands and a display rail. When designing is done for the day, it all folds up into an easy-to-carry box that is roughly the size of a Harry Potter book.

Fashion Studio

Want to make a Skater Dress? Pages 8 and 9 in the Fashion Handbook by author Helen Moslin take you step by step, with a drawing for every direction, cutting out, gluing (no stitching here but there are seam allowances and one can easily make the leap between a line of stitching and the glue).

When the dress is assembled and the glue is drying, it’s time to make the adorable little polka dot mules and the small bag.

At the end of each set of instructions, there are ideas for other combinations of paper and trim, just enough to spur the imagination into making its own designs using these templates and papers found around the house or designed with crayon or watercolor. The papers and stickers included with the Fashion Studio will appeal to a wide variety of tastes.

Fashion Studio

A glossary of Dressmaker Words is included—and the text uses them—so that the design and assembly processes are akin to the world of fabric and sewing.  

Like the outstanding Candlewick Press Animation Studio before it, this Fashion Studio will bring big smiles and happy hearts to the fashionistas in your life. Lucky kids!

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Perspective

Pippi LongstockingAt Bookology, we believe the adage about “the right book for the right reader.” Those are not necessarily the books that we see in advertisements, in the bloggers’ buzz, or on award lists. Only by listening to each other, and especially to kids, talk about books do we find those gems our hearts were looking for but didn’t know existed.

When you think about your favorite books, what’s your perspective? Do you remember the story first? The characters? The cover? The illustrations?

For many of us, it’s the book cover. Yesterday, I was looking for books about cats. I wanted to recommend some classics. I remember a book from the 1960s that had a boy and a cat on the cover. Both of them were facing away from me, looking at a neighborhood. I remember that the cover is yellow. Do you know the book I’m talking about? I asked Steve, because he frequently talks about this book. When I described the cover, he knew right away: It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville. (I’m not publishing the cover here because I don’t want to give it away. Take a look at the bottom of this article.)

Often it’s the illustrations. Who can forget the thick black outlines of My Friend Rabbit? Or the clear, bright colors of My Heart is Like a Zoo? Or the pen and ink drawings of Lois Lenski?

gr_myheart

Sometimes it’s the characters. The book with the spider and the pig. That one with the adventurous red-haired girl with pigtails. That book where the high-school kids share their poetry in class. That autobiography of the author growing up in Cuba and the USA. Those characters are so memorable that, once read, we can’t forget them. (The book covers are posted at the end of this article.)

When we’re meeting with the Chapter & Verse book club each month, the last half-hour is a time to recommend books we’ve enjoyed. I always add to my reading list. Do you have an intentional, set-aside time for talking with other adults about the children’s books they’re reading and are thrilled to recommend? I particularly love it when they’re books that aren’t on the buzzers’ radar. I feel as though we’ve shared a secret.

Chapter & Verse Book Club, Redbery Books, Cable, Wisconsin

Chapter & Verse Book Club, Redbery Books, Cable, Wisconsin

I also hunt through the state lists. These are books that educators and librarians are choosing because they know they have kid appeal. So often, these are not books that have been on award lists … but they’re passed along, buzzed about among child readers, recommended by the adults in their lives.

State Choice Awards

Not all books need to be new. There are fabulous books hiding on the library shelves and in used bookstores. Do a subject search. It’s amazing what you can find by looking at a library catalog or doing an online search.

Everyone’s publishing booklists these days. How do you know which ones to follow? Do the titles resonate with you? Do you find yourself eagerly adding their suggestions to your TBR pile? Then bookmark those lists! Visit them frequently or sign up to receive notifications when they publish their next list.

The award books and books with stars are one way to find good books but don’t rely solely on those sources. Don’t forget the wealth of fabulous books that fly under the radar.

Talk to each other. Adult to adult. Child to adult. Child to child. Adult to child. Old or new. Hidden treasure or bestseller. We learn about the best books when we hear recommendations from another reader, another perspective.

books described in the article

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Libraries in the USA are at Mission Critical

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” —Andrew Carnegie

Hamel Public Library, Minnesota

Hamel Public Library, Minnesota

Libraries in the USA are at mission critical. Those who went before us worked hard to establish free public libraries so we could have access to what we need to know. How can we let their legacy erode?

We’ve already seen our public school libraries damaged by budget shortfalls in which libraries are deemed non-essential and degreed librarians are considered easily replaced by a volunteer.

Public libraries have suffered as well via consolidation, replaced by pick-up-your-book kiosks, and outright closure.

For readers, it is understood how vital libraries are as a free source of education, essential services, and entertainment that might otherwise be too expensive for families and individuals. Beyond books, public libraries offer free programming in education, crafting, music and dance, citizenry, and business. Some libraries have become a place to check out seldom-needed but important items like fishing rods, electric drills, sewing machines, and gardening tools.

gardening tools library

Reading is still at the heart of the library. The ability to learn, whether by fiction or nonfiction, and the privilege of asking a librarian who can help you find what you need and what you don’t yet know that you need—that is a library. No computer algorithm, no matter how well-meaning, can take a librarian’s place.

Many of us take our public library for granted. We walk a few blocks, ride our bikes, drive a few miles or 30 miles to check out books and magazines. We can call the staff on the phone to make sure they know what we’re looking for and have it. If they don’t have it, they can order it from a library far, far away. This is one of the most reliable services of being an American citizen.

This access to information and resources was hard-won. The generations before us recognized how vital books and reading are to a healthy, citizen-engaged country.

Down Cut Shin CreekIn Down Cut Shin Creek: the Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky by Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer (Harper Collins, 2001), we learn the riveting true story of women, primarily, who were hired by the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in 1935, during the height of the Depression, to ride horses or pack mules to the often inaccessible small communities and individuals of eastern Kentucky. Eventually these librarians would serve more 100,000 people in 30 counties as part of the Pack Horse Library Project. It’s an inspiring book. Reading the account of how important these librarians were because they knew their communities, their readers’ tastes, and felt a sense of duty … it’s easier to understand why libraries have been so vital in America.

A congressman from Kentucky, Carl D. Perkins, sponsored the Library Services Act in 1956 “that made the first federal appropriations for library service.” More than likely, he was influenced by a Pack Horse Librarian while he taught in rural Kentucky.

That Book WomanFor a picture book about the Pack Horse Librarians, read Heather Henson’s That Book Woman, illustrated by David Small (Atheneum, 2008). Written by a Kentucky native, this story of Cal, living high in the Appalachian hills, depicts a young boy who wants nothing to do with reading until he realizes the extraordinary lengths his Pack Horse Librarian is achieving to bring him books.

Books in a BoxIn northern climes, Stuart Stotts wrote the marvelous Books in a Box: Lutie Stearns and the Traveling Libraries of Wisconsin (Big Valley Press, 2005). Lutie Stearns grew up near Milwaukee, reading all the time. She is drawn to library service where, thankfully, she has big ideas. She teams up with Frank Hutchins (another big idea person, he started the Wisconsin State Forest Department, and introduced Easter Seals to the Anti-Tuberculosis Association) to create traveling libraries.

Melvil Dewey (he of the Dewey Decimal System) introduced publicly-funded traveling libraries in New York State in 1893. (The first traveling libraries were likely those in Scotland and Wales in the early 1800s, but they were part of a schooling system.)

The next year, Lutie and Frank petitioned lumber baron and Wisconsin state senator James Stout to fund traveling libraries in Dunn County. They wanted him to introduce a bill in the legislature to fun the Wisconsin Free Library Commission. You must read this book for the engrossing experiences Lutie encountered as she tried to establish traveling libraries, books in a box, around the state in post offices and stores.

Later, Lutie would help citizens apply for funds from Andrew Carnegie to construct a library. These Carnegie libraries, some of which are still in use, brought education and entertainment to generations of citizens, taxpayer supported but otherwise free, throughout the United States. Lutie Stearns could celebrate the growth of books-in-a-box to full-fledged libraries through her persistent efforts and those of Frank Hutchins.

Dunn County

Democrat Printing Company – (1897) Free Traveling Libraries in Wisconsin: The Story of Their Growth, Purposes, and Development; with Accounts of a Few Kindred Movements

“The desire to have a good influence and a decent place to go, instead of the many saloons and dance halls, led me to visit one community no less than twelve times before I could get the town president, also owner of a dance hall, to appoint a library board.” (Lutie Stearns, Books in a Box, pg 49)

Twelve times? That’s determination.

Can we do less?

MORE RESOURCES

“The earliest libraries-on-wheels looked way cooler than today’s bookmobiles,” by Rose Eveleth, Smithsonian.com

“Traveling libraries,” by Larry T. Nix, Library History Buff

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Telling a Story the Hard Way

Space Dumplinsby Vicki Palmquist

I’ve just finished reading the graphic novel Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson, with color by Dave Stewart (Graphix, 2015). I am overwhelmed by the work that went into this book. First off, it’s an engrossing, turn-the-page story with an appealing cast of characters. As readers, we care about what will happen. That’s a good start.

Now, imagine that you are sitting down with a pencil to sketch one of the spreads in this book. Perhaps you’ve picked the pages where Violet, our heroine, first gets a look at SHELL-TAR, the interior of the space station. You start by drawing the intricacies of the gleaming steampunk time clock and then you draw all of the activity going on inside the transparent transport tubes, large enough to accommodate personal spaceships. Next you fill in the many habitats, the globular trees, the people at the beach. Then you insert our cast of characters into the scene along with the robotic Chaperdrone (a babysitter). Whew. That’s a lot of drawing for two pages.

Of course, you’re providing this as a backdrop for the fast-paced story of three new friends, quick-witted, learning to work as a team, doing their best to save the people they love and their corner of the universe. You’ve already written the story, the script, and worked through the surprises that will delight your readers, making it a tight and believable hero’s journey set in the Mucky Way.

Violet, Zacchaeus, and Eliot are unlikely heroes except that Violet has a welcoming heart, a brave outlook on adventure, and an optimism as big as outer space. She can see qualities in her new friends that they can’t see themselves. Eliot, the chicken, is studious, introverted, widely read, and somewhat psychic. Zacchaeus, the last of the Lumpkins (well, almost the last, because space whales ate his planet) is chaotic, impulsive, and ready for a fight. All three of the friends are good at problem-solving, especially when they work together. The military can’t defeat the space whales: they can only clean up after them. It’s these three who figure out the true heart of the problem.

Craig Thompson Space Dumplins ballpoint

from Craig Thompson’s website, copyright Craig Thompson

Once you’ve sketched all of this, applied ballpoint pen, then brushed ink, you ask someone else to color everything in.  Together, you’re creating a book full of these story-telling images, richly colored, highly detailed, and ultimately believable as a look at life that’s really happening somewhere “out there.”

The rest of the main cast of characters include Violet’s parents, the reformed felon Gar and the fashion designer Cera, Gar’s fishing buddies Mr. Tinder and crew, Cera’s boss at the Fashion Factory, Master Adam Arnold, and the most inventive space vehicles I’ve ever seen. Every being (they’re not all human) in this book has a unique look. No cookie-cutter, repetitive characters to save on drawing time.

It’s a movie set on paper, except that you’ve had to conceive of, write, draw, and color every bit of it. There are no cameras and crew to bring your vision to life. Exhausted yet?

Even the endpapers are attention-riveting. The constellations fill the skies of Space Dumplins and they often make an appearance, reminding us that we share the same space even though the setting feels alien and wondrous.

early concept

early concept of spaceship, copyright Craig Thompson

You know those kids who are constantly doodling in class? They’ll love this book. And the kids who stay up long past their bedtimes trying to finish a chapter? They’ll love this book. And the kids who don’t know what to read next but they don’t want it to be boring? Yup, they’re gonna love it. Space Dumplins reads like a TV series, a movie, a video game, and a solid, exciting story all between book covers. Brilliant.

Asides:

Be sure to notice the homage to a number of cultural icons in this book. H.A. Rey’s The Constellations? Strange Brew? Spaceballs? And the real Trike (it exists!).

Be sure to read Craig Thompson’s answers to Five Questions on The Book Rat‘s blog. You’ll find out how long it took him to create Space Dumplins.

For a look at what Craig Thompson is working on and where he’s appearing, visit his website.

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Rolling the Storytelling Blocks

by Vicki Palmquist

How to tell a storyLooking for hours of fun with a book the whole family can enjoy … or one person can easily study to learn to write or tell a story … better? Then you’ll want to give this a try: How to Tell a Story, written by Daniel Nayeri, illustrated by Brian Won, and published by Workman Publishing in 2015.

This book comes in a box. Inside the box there’s a small-format book (5-1/4” x 5-1/4”, 143 pages) with lots of illustrations and visual cues to help understand the many ways telling a story can be not only fun but interesting and challenging.

To help you “get ideas,” which kids often feel is the toughest part of writing or storytelling, there are 20 cubes. Each face of the cube contains a character, object, place, adjective (description or emotion), action, or relationship. They’re color-coded so you can set particular parameters for your “game play” or the challenge you’ve made for yourself.

How to Tell a Story

 

With chapters on conflict, motivation, dialogue, character, plot, and theme, the basics of storytelling are packed into this guide.

The author has included a number of games that can be played with two, up to 20, blocks. For instance, in “Debate,” we’ll roll 10 blocks. We’ll choose two blue blocks and one red block. Nayeri writes, “Oh, no! There’s a deadly storm on the horizon and Captain Lark has to decide what to do with a ship full of precious (blue block), the crew of (red block), and the magical (other blue block), which can only be used to save one person or thing. What should Captain Lark save first? Why? Come up with enough stories to argue for saving either the precious (blue block), the crew of (red block), or himself.” My fingers are itching to roll the blocks, aren’t yours?

How to Tell a Story

The blocks can be used in simple ways with young children or they can be engrossing for adults. The author is very instructive in the text:

 “As our storyteller, if you start in the middle, then you’re going to have to introduce us to the important bits of the backstory as they become necessary.

“The ancient Roman poet Horace called this method IN MEDIA RES, which means “in the middle of things.”  He recommended telling stories this way so you can jump straight into the action and fill out the details as you go.”

The illustrations by Brian Won are appealing to children, teens, and adults. They’re the same style as those used on the blocks (and often the same images) so we feel a connection. They’re descriptive enough so that our brains begin making stories out of them immediately, but not so reductive that they only convey one possibility.

How to Tell a Story

That’s the beauty of this set of story starters. There’s a myriad of ways to use them, to learn from them, to play games with them, and to have fun. This is a perfect gift for the storytellers in your family.

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Looking inside

by Vicki Palmquist

Today I WillFor several years, I have been dipping into a book that I keep beside my desk. It’s called Today I Will: a Year of Quotes, Notes, and Promises to Myself (Knopf, 2009). Two acknowledged masters of children’s literature, Eileen Spinelli and Jerry Spinelli, wrote it. They are parents and grandparents and one can feel their love and concern for future generations in this book.

When I was growing up, I often received the gift of a day-by-day book that had word definitions or devotions or super-short stories in it. I didn’t have enough patience to read each page on the designated day, but I read several pages at once, returning often for just a few, satisfying minutes.

This book’s format finds each page with a quote from a children’s book, a thought- and discussion-provoking statement or questions, an illustration by Julie Rothman, and an example of a promise you could make to yourself (or as a family).

I love books of quotations. Do you? This book looks more deeply into the thoughts inspired by the quote.

Once in awhile, the book feels a little heavy-handed, but I remind myself that I am an adult with many years of experience in my brain. For someone still in the first decade or two of their life, these are ideas worth considering. There’s no shying away from the moral compass in Today I Will. I find that refreshing. Especially now, when all of our worry meters are turned to HIGH, I feel that a book like this is grounding.

bk_todayiwill2Eight to 12-year-olds will enjoy Today I Will on their own, but a classroom or homeschool or family could use this for a short, daily discussion or a writing prompt.

“If you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you—you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness.” —The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

I hesitated before writing about this book, even though it’s a favorite of mine. It’s no longer in print (and that’s a rant for another day) but it is available as an e-book. That won’t be nearly as satisfying as holding this book in your hands (it’s a good size, a good weight, and the paper is really nice) but you can easily find this at a used bookseller (I know this—I looked it up).

Not everything we read has to be entertaining. Sometimes we want to think and feel and learn to know ourselves better. This book is a good fit.

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“Don’t get took! Read a book!”

by Vicki Palmquist

bk_bookitchI go crazy when I hear that Vaunda Michaux Nelson has another book coming out. I’m a fan. For my own reading life, No Crystal Stair: a documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller, is one of my top ten books in the last ten years. I found every aspect of that book satisfying. I learned a great deal. Ms. Nelson’s writing style is well suited to narrative nonfiction: she makes it exciting. 

So, when I heard that a picture book form of No Crystal Stair was on the horizon, my expectations were high. It would be illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, whose work I have loved ever since his Stars in the Darkness (written by Barbara M. Joosse) found me sobbing. But how would they compress all of the great true stories in No Crystal Stair into a picture book?

They’ve done it. Even the title appeals to younger readers: The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (Carolrhoda, 2015).

The book is narrated by Michaux’s son, Lewis H. Michaux, Jr., who is justly proud of his father. It opens with Muhammad Ali’s visit to the store. Jump right in!

With the longer text in No Crystal Stair, Nelson builds a depth of understanding for Michaux’s commitment to books. In The Book Itch, she knows this is not needed for young readers. We learn the parts that will interest this crowd. Michaux started with five books, selling his reading materials out of a pushcart. He couldn’t get financing from a bank because the banker said “Black people don’t read.” Michaux believed otherwise. His store became a place to find, and read, books by and about black people.

Lewis Michaux was a good friend to Malcolm X. They were both political and believed “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” Nelson includes the heartbreaking scene that recounts Michaux’s reaction to the assassination of Malcolm X. His son had never seen his father cry before that day.

bk_bookitch_illus

This book keeps history alive and vital by connecting us to The National Memorial African Bookstore, a place which was, in Michaux’s words, “The House of Common Sense and Proper Propaganda.” Christie’s illustrations are at once a record and a ribbon reaching from the past, showing us how people felt. We often forget about this in our look back … and it’s essential to remember that important historical figures were just like us, thinking, acting, laughing, hurting.

Ms. Nelson’s place in my list of Best Nonfiction Authors is firm. This is a book that belongs in every library, classroom, and on family bookshelves. Books bring us freedom.

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Collecting your observations

Welcome to New Zealandby Vicki Palmquist

I never kept a journal. Why? It never occurred to me. It wasn’t within my realm of familiarity. I started writing many stories on notebook paper and stuffed them into folders. But how satisfying to have a journal, specifically an observation journal to keep track of what you see, hear, and think.

As a child, I was a hunter-gatherer. Were you? Did you have a collection of rocks? Leaves? Agates? Animals? Perhaps you still do. Or perhaps you know a child who has these tendencies.

I think of Rhoda’s Rock Hunt by Molly Beth Griffith and Jennifer A. Bell (Minnesota Historical Society Press). Rhoda collected so many rocks on her family’s camping trip that she couldn’t walk—they weighed her down.

Adding to Rhoda’s story, I think of Lois Ehlert’s The Scraps Book and Leaf Man. Author and illustrator Lois Ehlert is renowned for her collections, her “scraps,” and how she puts them to use. A consummate hunter-gatherer.

Then there’s a brand new, absolutely amazing book about creating a nature journal, Welcome to New Zealand by Sandra Morris (Candlewick Press). This picture book combines the record-keeping, visual art satisfaction, and examples of different things to observe in nature that will keep a hunter-gatherer busy for years. I admire this book on so many different levels.

Welcome to New Zealand

Very cleverly designed as a journal, this book shows examples of different types of art, ways to arrange things on pages, labels, and note-taking. There’s advice on pressing leaves, observing clouds and phases of the moon, and making a landscape study. Every turn of the page brings a new surprise and something to try on your own. (And you can do this—none of these excuses about not being an artist—you are!)

Morris writes, “Create a layered map of the birds on the shoreline as the tide changes, like my high-tide journal page here. Working from the top of the page downwards, draw the different flocks as they advance closer.” Much better than ANY video game (and I like playing video games).

Welcome to New Zealand

Examples of crayon, pencil, watercolor, and charcoal drawing will inspire each reader. Plentiful samples of creative hand-lettering encourage the freedom to make your journal quite personal. Morris provides ideas, but unless you’re sitting on a beach in New Zealand as you read this, your journal will be all your own.

And that’ just it. If you’re not in New Zealand, reading this book will teach you a lot about the landscape, the mammals, the trees, the insects, and the seasons.

This book is great for any young hunter-gatherer and observer but any old person will like it, too! It’s a treasure.

Other Resources

Smithsonian Kids has a site devoted to collecting.

Kids Love Rocks Fun Club

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson, Advantage4Parents, writes “Why Kids Love to Collect Stuff.

Now that you know about this book (you’re welcome), and you try out some of the suggested activities, send me a sample in the comments. Most of all, enjoy the time you spend with nature and your journal.

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Is It a Classic?

by Vicki Palmquist

Loretta Mason PottsWhen I was in my twenties, I worked at an architecture firm. Several of the architects were fascinated by my deep connection to children’s books. One day, one of them asked me, “Which books, being published now, will become classics?” That question has stuck with me, holding up a signpost every now and then. How does one predict a classic?

Whenever someone asks which books were favorites from my own childhood (#booksthathooked), several books push themselves to the forefront—A Wrinkle in Time, Lord of the Rings, and Loretta Mason Potts. That last title always causes a “huh?” People, generally, are unfamiliar with this book.

The next question is always, “what’s it about?” Here’s the thing: I couldn’t answer that question. I didn’t remember a thing about the book except its title. What I remembered was the circumstances surrounding the reading of that book, the way it made me feel.

In sixth grade, I had a teacher, Gordon Rausch, who changed my life. He showed me possibilities. He believed in me. He made learning and research fun. I was often bored in school, but never in his class. Every day was a new adventure. What I remember most is that he read books out loud to the whole class. I remember Pippi Longstocking. I remember A Wrinkle in Time. But he also read Loretta Mason Potts to us.

As far as I can recall, he was the only teacher I had who ever read books out loud. Our class had its share of bullies and attention-getters. No one interrupted his reading of a book. His choices were good, his reading skills were exemplary, and he always knew where to end, leaving us craving more.

Loretta Mason Potts was written by Mary Chase and published in 1958. Thanks to The New York Review Children’s Collection, you can read this fine book, too. They reprinted it in 2014. I’ve just re-read it and once again I understand why it springs to mind as my favorite.

Mary Chase lived in Denver. She died in 1981. You may know her because of another one of her books, Harvey, which won a Pulitzer Prize and became a movie starring Jimmy Stewart. If you know Harvey, you will understand that the writer has a fantastical imagination and a good wit. Both of those are evident in Loretta Mason Potts.

It’s a charming mixture of a Tam Lin story and a Snow Queen story, centering on a family of children, their mother, and their long-lost eldest sister, told in a way that will reach into the heart and mind of a child. It has naughty children, ensorcelled children, a caring but somewhat clueless mother, a mysterious bridge, and a castle occupied by the bored Countess and General, who hover on the precipice of danger.

I am so glad that this book is illustrated. It was the first book published with Harold Berson’s black-and-white line drawings. He would go on to illustrate another 90 books.

There are a growing number of titles in the New York Review Children’s Collection. I have several of them and would put every one of them on my bookshelves if I could. The selection of these books is enchanting. Do you remember reading Esther Averill’s Jenny and the Cat Club? How about Dino Buzzati’s The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily? Or Lucretia P. Hale’s The Peterkin Papers? (I had forgotten all about this book until I saw it on their booklist—I loved that book.) Or Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson?

New York Review of Books Children's Collection

Are these books classics? This, I think, is the interesting question. What is a classic? These books are being published once again … so they’ve withstood the test of time. Although the writing is somewhat quaint, they still hold up as stories that will interest a modern reader. Loretta Mason Potts is a book that has lived on in my mind for decades. I wonder if the other students in my sixth grade class remember it in the same way.

Which books published today will become classics? It’s a question worth discussing, isn’t it?

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Museum Feast

HistoriumHistorium
curated by Richard Wilkinson and Jo Nelson
Big Picture Press, 2015

by Vicki Palmquist

In a large, folio-sized book, the curators of Historium present a printed-page trip through a museum, grouped by cultures and described in detail so you can understand what you are seeing without being rushed along by the crowd. Much like those rentable museum audio tapes or the placards on the wall, it’s an enhanced experience of the artifacts. Unless you are a well-traveled museum habitué, many of these items will be unfamiliar to you.

There are articles from cultures all over the world over a great length of time, represented for context by a timeline. From one million years ago, a Stone Age hand ax to the early nineteenth century, a stone statue from Polynesia, traveling to Melanesia, The Levant, Ancient Islam, The Hopewell, and the realm of the Vikings.

This museum is open 24/7, without the need for signing a field trip permission slip or paying for parking.

Historium Ancient Egypt

On page 35, a beautifully decorated jug from the Pueblo is explained in this way: “pottery skills and designs were passed from mother to daughter. Each Pueblo settlement would try to keep the location of its clay deposit a secret, to prevent it from being plundered … they often refer to the clay as female.” This kind of detail provides depth for our understanding of the world.

On page 50, there is a double-headed serpent mosaic from the 15th or 16th century, “intended to both impress and terrify the beholder.” We learn that “the craftsmen best known for their turquoise mosaics were not Aztecs but Mixtecs …” which results in a tangential search to find out more about the Mixtecs, just as a bricks-and-mortar museum would do.

I’m not sure I understand why the artifacts are presented against darkly-colored backgrounds … sometimes the contrast makes it harder to study the items, but overall this is a book that will satisfy the curious in your family or classroom. Like all good museums, it is the beginning to a journey of discovery.

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Laughter and Grief

by Vicki Palmquist

Dragons in the WatersThere are books we remember all of our lives, even if we can’t remember the details. Sometimes we can’t even remember the story, but we remember the characters and how they made us feel. We recall being transported into the pages of the book, seeing what the characters see, hearing what they hear, and understanding the time and spaces and breathing in and out of the characters. Do we become those characters, at least for a little while, at least until we move on to the next book? Is this why we can remember them long after we’ve finished the book?

This column is called Reading Ahead because I’m one of those people others revile: I read the end of the book before I’ve progressed to that point in the story. I read straight through for as long as I can stand it and then I have to know how the story ends. I tell myself that I do this because then I can observe the writing and how the author weaves the ending into the book long before the last pages. That’s partially true. But I also admit that the tension becomes unbearable for me.

When I find a book that is so delicious that I don’t want to know the end until its proper time, then I know that I am reading a book whose characters will live on in me. Their cells move from the pages of the book into my arms and shoulders, heading straight to my mind and my heart.

The Wednesday WarsFor me, those books are The Riddlemaster of Hed by Patricia McKillip, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (but not The Hobbit), The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Dragons in the Waters and Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle, and every one of the Deep Valley books written by Maud Hart Lovelace. 

There are some newer books that haven’t yet been tested by time. I could feel that I was absorbing The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt and Catch You Later, Traitor by Avi and Absolutely, Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick.  There are many, many other books that I admire and enjoy reading but I don’t feel them becoming a part of me in quite the same way.

I suspect that you have a short list of books that make you feel like this. They are an unforgettable part of you.

Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken HeartI’ve just finished reading Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart by Jane St. Anthony (University of Minnesota Press). It is a funny and absorbing book about learning to deal with grief. That’s a place I’ve lived for the last four years in a way I hadn’t experienced before. When my mother died, my all-my-life friend, an essential part of me was transformed into something else. I don’t yet know what that is.

Isabelle Day is learning about this, too. Her father, her pal, her funny man, her let-me-show-you-the-delights-of-life-kid parent has died shortly before the book begins. Her mother is in the throes of grief, pulled inward, not communicating well. Isabelle and her mother have moved from Milwaukee, where close friends and a familiar house stand strong, to Minneapolis, where Isabelle’s mom grew up. They are living upstairs in a duplex owned by two elderly sisters who immediately share friendship and food and wisdom with Isabelle, something she’s feeling too prickly to accept. There are new friends whom Isabelle doesn’t trust to be true.

But for anyone who has experienced grief, this book will reach out and touch you gently, softly, letting you know that others understand what you are feeling. Isabelle comes to understand that she doesn’t have to feel alone … the world is waiting to be experienced in other, new ways.

It’s a beautifully written book in that the words fit together in lovely, sometimes surprising, sometimes startling ways. There is great care taken with the story and the characters. And yet the unexpected is always around the corner. Isabelle is a complex person. She does not act predictably. There is no sense of “woe is me” in this book. There’s a whole class of what I call “whiny books” (mostly adult) and this isn’t one of them. This book is filled with life, wonder, humor, and mostly understanding.

Isabelle and Grace and Margaret, Miss Flora and Miss Dora, they are all a part of me now. When I am feeling sad and missing the people I have lost, I will re-read this book because I know it will provide healing. And I can laugh … it’s been hard to do that. Thank you, Jane.

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The Classics, Galdone-Style

by Vicki Palmquist

Folk Tale Classics Treasury GaldoneAre you looking for a shower or baby gift that will be appreciated for a long time? A good birthday present for a young child?

The Folk Tale Classics Treasury, interpreted and illustrated by Paul Galdone (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013), is a good place for parents to start with retellings of western European folk tales. The stories included here are important for cultural awareness. Throughout their lives, children will hear references to the Three Little Kittens (“and you shall have no pie”) and Goldilocks and the Three Bears (“that porridge was just right”) so it’s good to introduce them to these stories early.

The Three Little Kittens

In his Little Red Hen, wonderful depictions of the cat, dog, mouse, and an alarmed and frustrated hen add insouciance to the story that both children and adults will enjoy. Delicious details in each drawing make it fun to read with someone by your side.

Little Red Hen

In his version of The Three Little Pigs, the big, bad wolf is wily but Pig No. 3 is even smarter, in a satisfying way that will have you cheering.

The bears in his Goldilocks tale are handsome and smart. We see their tale from the point of view of a family who is wronged by a mischievous little girl with golden locks who is both unthinking and careless. Where are her manners?!

The Three Billy Goats Gruff and The Gingerbread Boy round out the stories included in this volume. These are tales that have been passed down for generations, remembered fondly, but also understood.

Pig No. 3 was cautious and clever, the little Red Hen industrious and just, and the biggest Billy Goat Gruff proves that you should be careful who you challenge.

Paul Galdone was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1907, but after 1928 lived in New York and Vermont where he illustrated more than 300 books. His first illustrated book was Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars in 1951. In the second half of the last century, his work was ubiquitous, and much loved. Reissuing this volume will create a new generation of children who picture these stories with his illustrations. Mr. Galdone died in 1986. You can find more information about him at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, where a good representation of his original art and working materials is preserved. You’ll also find a good deal of information on his memorial website.

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Fashion Forward and Backward

by Vicki Palmquist

Where Did My Clothes Come From?(A) If your kids are plugged in to Project Runway or
(B) if you come from a tradition of sewing clothes in your family or
(C) if you’ve ever been asked about where jeans come from … 

this is the right book for your 5- to 8-year-old. Where Did My Clothes Come From? by Chris Butterworth, with illustrations by Lucia Gaggiotti (Candlewick Press, 2015) is a nifty book with words and drawings that combine to give satisfying answers.

From jeans to fleece jackets to party dresses, from cotton to silk to polyester, each fabric is created from natural fibers grown as plants or sheared from animals or else it’s created from a “sticky syrup” made up of chemicals. The author and illustrator walk us through the process from the cloth’s origin to the cleaning to the factory to the fabric.

Where Did My Clothes Come From?

Ms. Butterworth’s language is clear in a straightforward story that will answer questions and stimulate interest. Ms. Gagliotti’s illustrations provide vital information. When the author, writing about jeans, says that “the cloth is cut into shapes,” she gives us a drawing of someone who is doing that cutting on a well-detailed table, followed by the cut pieces laid out in a before-you-sew-the-jeans diagram with labeled parts. For this reader, everything makes sense.

I’ve never wanted to know too exactly where polyester and fleece come from but, thanks to this book, now I know. A section on recycling encourages us to recycle plastic beverage bottles to be made into fleece jackets and cut down jeans for a skirt when the knees are worn.

From Rags to RichesAnother book on this subject is From Rags to Riches: a History of Girls’ Clothing in America by Leslie Sills (Holiday House, 2005). The book is out of print but you may find it in your library or as a used book. It’s worth tracking down. Excellent photo choices and lively descriptions and facts will inform kids about the fashions that have come and gone and still inspire us. Even better, the author looks at history through fashion, a particular viewpoint that will find kids thinking more deeply about their current experiences.

History of Women's FashionThis just in: History of Women’s Fashion by Sanna Mander (Big Picture Press, 2015). What an astounding book! It has just one page which folds out to 6-1/2 feet! That one page is printed on both sides. On the front, there is a timeline of clothing and accessories women have worn from 1900 to the present, with approximately 15 drawings on each section of that page. It all folds down to fit within the pages of a folio-sized book.

We see women wearing the clothes so we get the idea of how bodies were affected by the dresses and pants and corsets! The first item on the timeline is a corset. We are shown a bathing suit from 1917 (modestly covering the entire body), a Coco Chanel pleated skirt and jacket from 1924, a Land Girl Uniform from 1939, a Christian Dior Black Dress from 1955, a punk dress from 1980, and an Alexander McQueen ensemble, with plenty of styles in between. On the back side of that one page are silhouettes of the drawings on the front with text explaining what we’re seeing and the significance of the style.

I love this book now but I would have especially loved it as a teen because I was endlessly designing clothes and drawing them on models. Think how much fun your budding designer would have! This gets top marks from me for inventiveness and a fun way to absorb information. 

Anna KareninaAnd then, because I can’t resist board books for adults, you might look at Anna Karenina: a Fashion Primer the next time you’re in your favorite bookstore. Written by Jennifer Adams, with evocative art by Alison Oliver (Gibbs Smith, 2014), this book is part of the publishers’ BabyLit series. I’m still puzzling over this one. With quotes from Leo Tolstoy and focusing on fashion words and images, perhaps instilling love of great adult literature is starting (too) early? But it would be a great conversation starter at your next literary dinner party or book club.

Anna Karenina

 

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There’s Nothing to Dooooooooo

by Vicki Palmquist

By this point in the summer when I was young, the charm of being out of school had worn off, I’d played every game on my grandma’s shelves, and I’d had a few fights with my friends in the neighborhood, so I’d retreated to reading as many books as I could, consuming stories like Ms. Pacman swallowing energy pellets.

When your kids claim that there’s nothing to do, here are a few suggestions for books that inspire doing things, thinking about things, and investigating more.

How Come? Every Kid's Science Questions ExplainedAs I was growing up, I believed that I didn’t like science or math. Turns out it was textbooks and worksheets and tests I didn’t much care for. Give me a paragraph like these two:

“One very big number was named by nine-year-old Milton Sirotta in 1938.

“Milton’s mathematician uncle, Edward Kasner, asked his nephew what he would call the number one followed by a hundred zeroes. Milton decided it was a googol.”

And the number naming doesn’t stop there. This tidbit is part of a chapter called “What is the last number in the universe”” found in How Come? Every Kid’s Science Questions Explained (Workman, 2014), written by Kathy Wollard and illustrated by Debra Solomon with wonderfully comic and lively depictions of the concepts in the text.

Other chapters address must-know topics such as “How does a finger on a straw keep liquid in?” and “Are ants really stronger than humans?” and “Why do the leaves change color in the fall?”

I probably don’t need to point out that kids aren’t the only ones who will find this book fascinating. Read a few chapters to yourself at night and you’ll be able to answer those endlessly curious children who pull on your sleeve.

PhotoplayFor the visually curious, and I believe that means Every Child, you’ll be inspired by Photoplay! Doodle. Design. Draw. by M.J. Bronstein (Chronicle, 2014).

Ms. Bronstein provides examples and workspace for kids to draw on existing photos (printed in the book), telling a story with those drawings or even writing a story. The book can be used in quite a few different ways … and then you can take your own photos and print them out for kids to continue having fun and using their imaginations.

Who Done It?A book that takes some investigation and one that looks like a book for very young children is actually a sophisticated guessing game. The humans and critters line up on Olivier Tallec’s game pages in Who Done It? (Chronicle, forthcoming in 2015).

A simple question such as “Who played with that mean cat?” requires looking into. Can you spot the most likely suspect?

For kids who are learning about facial expressions, body language, and taking one’s time to reason through a puzzle, this is an ideal book that will engender good discussions or occupy a few of those “there’s nothing to doooooo” hours of summer.

Who Done It?

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Give me a good mystery

Summertime is synonymous with reading for me.

My grandmother kept a light blue blanket by the back door so I could spread it out under the elm tree and dissolve into stories. Sometimes a lemonade, sometimes a piece of watermelon … but always a book. Sometimes a friend would sit next to me absorbed in a story of their own but most often it was just me, the birds, the sounds of summer, and a hardcover book.

I was reminded of that blanket under the tree this weekend when we were in Somerset, Wisconsin. We had to be somewhere at 11 am but we were early. We had brought books with us—of course—and we sat under a tree reading.

Eddie Red UndercoverFor me, it was Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile. Reading mysteries is a passion and a comfort for me. This book by Marcia Wells, with integral illustrations by Marcos Calo, swept me in and connected me to the girl who read during her summers, as many books as they’d let her check out of the library.

Eddie Red lives in New York City with a dad who’s been downsized from the library and a mother who’s a real estate agent. Although he’s been attending Senate Academy, a school for gifted students, his family’s financial duress puts him in a state of anxiety over not being able to afford tuition next year. He likes his school but he realizes he won’t see his best friend, Jonah, anymore. Jonah is brilliant but he’s challenged by hyperactivity and a number of medical conditions … all of which make him a perfect sidekick.

You see, Edmund Lonnrot, our hero, is a 12-year-old with a photographic memory and a startling ability to draw detailed, lifelike portraits of people he has seen recently. When Edmund and his dad are drawn into a dangerous situation in an alley, Edmund is later able to draw the criminals for the police. It turns out these particular bad guys are part of the Picasso Gang, internationally-wanted art thieves. The police hire Edmund as a police sketch artist, code name Eddie Red, to observe the comings and goings of people on Museum Mile in NYC, any of whom could be a disguised art thief.

Plausibility? Well, let’s just say that the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” is apropos. I was willing to overlook the NYPD hiring a twelve-year-old for a stakeout as farfetched  and get completely involved in Edmund’s and Jonah’s story, a chess game of a plot, and Edmund’s likeable sense of humor. The author does a good job of making Eddie’s talents feel universally adoptable—if only we had a Jonah to give us that extra oomph in the mystery-solving arena.

Eddie Red Undercover - Marcos Calo illustratorCalo’s portraits are a part of the plot, essential to the story. They’re as full of character as the author’s story. At the end of the book Eddie Red offers advice on how to draw a portrait. That’s perfection because I found myself itching to pick up a pencil and draw the people around me while I was solving the mystery alongside Edmund.

It’s an engaging story, perfect for reading any time, but especially satisfying on a summer afternoon.

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“I’m not ready for school!”

Dad's First DayI minored in theatre in college, where I crossed the street from Augsburg to attend Arthur Ballet‘s legendary history of theatre class at the University of Minnesota.

Lessons learned in that class came rushing back as I savored Mike Wohnoutka‘s Dad’s First Day because it struck me how well this book would play as theatre of the absurd.

Mike is a keen observer of behavior, knowing what will delight kids … and their parents. Turning that first day of school on its ear, showing that, truthfully, parents are just as worried as the child is, provides good fun, discussable emotions, and a natural lead-in to conversations.

The dad’s behavior is drawn in friendly, realistically comic style with a varied palette of gouache paint. His reactions are absurd. Kids will recognize that and whoop with acknowledgment. Dad is endearing and so is the little boy who nonchalantly, even displaying confidence, can’t wait to experience his first day at school. 

Word choices make this a good read-aloud while the illustrations make this a good side-by-side book. And you must find the references to three of Mike’s previous books in the illustrations. I found six … can you find more?

Highly recommended for parents, grandparents, caregivers, and preschool educators.

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Epic felt

Three small board books … encompassing the first three Star Wars movies and a year-long craft project.

Star Wars Epic Felt

As I read each book, all 12 words, one word and one photo on each two-page spread, it slowly dawned on me just how ingenious they are.

In those 12 carefully chosen words and scenes from the movie, Jack and Holman Wang, twin brothers and admirable artistes, manage to evoke the entire saga of the first three movies. As a Star Wars-loving parent , grandparent (yes, the first fans are old enough to be reading to their grandchildren), aunt or uncle, this is a clever way to communicate across generations, to bring your wee ones into the universe of the Skywalkers.

Each word in the books gives readers an opportunity to talk about ideas such as snow, friend, kiss, father … all of the truly big concepts in a young person’s life … and how they weave into the Star Wars saga.

If we still had bards, they would be regaling us with the epic tales of Tatooine and Aldebaran, the Jedi, and the Force. These books are an unparalleled way to encourage storytelling of tales that are surely as familiar to modern bards as Beowulf or Gilgamesh were to audiences of old.

Star Wars Epic Felt

For further astonishment, each photo on the page opposite those words is as heartfelt and concise in storytelling as are the words. Made by needle felting, consider as well the scale modeling of the characters’ surroundings and the excellent photography. This is artistic skill at its finest.

Jack Wang is an associate professor teaching creative writing at Ithaca College. Holman Wang left the life of a middle school teacher and corporate lawyer to focus fulltime on creating children’s books. The boys grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia. Today, they live on opposite coasts, Jack in Ithaca, New York, and Holman in Vancouver. Their website is a must-visit.

In their own words, here’s how the books are made: “The primary technique for making the figures in Star Wars Epic Yarns is needle felting, which is essentially sculpting with wool. This is a painstaking process which involves stabbing loose wool thousands of times with a specialized barbed needle. This entangles the wool fibers, making the wool firmer and firmer. It took us nearly a year to create all the Star Wars figures and spaceships in wool, build all the scale-model sets, and do all the in-studio or on location photography. We even flew to California and Arizona to find real desert to recreate the scenes on Tatooine! As lifelong Star Wars fans, it was important to us to get the books just right. Think of Star Wars Epic Yarns as the ultimate, year-long craft project! It was definitely a labor of love.”

Highly recommended.

Star Wars Epic Yarns: A New Hope
Jack Wang and Holman Wang
Chronicle Books, 2015

Be sure to look for their other classic books, Cozy Classics from Simply Read Books, a couple of which are pictured here.

Cozy Creations

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Outer Space Ambassador

alarm clockby Vicki Palmquist

Every once in a while I come across a book that wakes up that breathless, eager, sense-of-wonder-at-everything-new feeling I had about reading as a child. I admit it, after 3,000 or so books the plots and characters and resolutions can feel similar to something I’ve read before.

Well, I joyfully read a book that hit all the right notes and transported me back to a bedtime reading experience where I couldn’t turn off the light, fell asleep, and then woke up in the morning to finish the book before my feet hit the floor.

AmbassadorAmbassador by William Alexander is just that good.

I’ve enjoyed science fiction since my sixth grade teacher read aloud A Wrinkle in Time. Our entire classroom tried hard to tesseract. Thank you, Mr. Rausch! Then our librarian helped me find Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet books. There wasn’t much else in that genre for a sixth grade reader so I moved on to fantasy … but today’s readers have a wider variety of choices.

Will Alexander does what all good heroic journey authors do. He starts us in a comfortable, right-at-home setting and then takes us to places unimaginable. Gabriel Sandro Fuentes, who recently got into trouble for letting his friend Frankie set off a rocket, is selected to be the next Ambassador from Earth to The Embassy, where sentient beings from all over the universe gather for diplomacy. When the Envoy arrives, he tells Gabriel of his new responsibility. He should also give Gabe pointers on how to travel through his dreams to reach the Embassy and what to do when he gets there. But someone is trying to kill Gabe and the Envoy is busy defending him … by creating a black hole in the Fuentes’ dryer. A small one.

Alexander plants clues throughout the book. When Gabe and Frankie argue over who has more power, Zorro or Batman, the author is neatly setting up the theme in the book. I especially loved Gabe’s fascinating, intrepid, multi-talented, and present parents … up until Gabe’s father faces deportation. Alexander’s fresh descriptions, perceptions, and actions keep the reader upright, expectant, slightly nervous, and looking forward to turning the page.

This is the perfect book for most readers whether they have experienced science fiction or not. It’s first and foremost a rocket-fueled story with intrigue, humor, and a very likeable hero. Read it!

 

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When a Prince Needs a Mechanic

by Vicki Palmquist

Interstellar CinderellaWith a deft story and otherworldly art, Deborah Underwood and Meg Hunt bring us Interstellar Cinderella, a fresh and welcome take on the familiar fairy tale with a bit of Androcles and the Lion and The Jetsons thrown into the mix.

In this version, Cinderella loves fixing anything mechanical. She has her own set of special tools, all carefully drawn and named on the endpapers for the kids who love identifying things. Her companion is a robot mouse, small and seemingly insignificant but he saves the day when the wicked stepmother tries to keep the Prince from seeing Cinderella.

The illustrator used “gouache, brush and ink, graphite, rubylith, and digital process” to create a world that is readily identifiable as being set in the future, with touches of Arabian Nights and supercool spaceships, which Cinderella dreams of fixing when they break down.

When her fairy godrobot (don’t you think she’s a nod to Rosie on The Jetsons?) gives her a brand new spacesuit and a power gem to join the Prince’s Royal Space Parade, the Prince’s spaceship springs a leak and Cinderella is there to fix it.

I took a “Powderpuff Mechanics” class when I was in college (I didn’t name the class, folks), and I was mighty proud to be able to work on my own car. I know the thrill of fixing a leak and figuring out how to get better performance out of an engine, so Cinderella is my kind of gal.

I’m especially fond of the way this book ends. No spoilers here. Let’s just say that this isn’t your grandmother’s Cinderella story. In a rhyming picture book, the author creates a heroine who is talented and wise. The book sparkles and crackles with the power of the stars. Highly recommended.

Interstellar Cinderella, written by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt, Chronicle Books, 2015

 

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We Didn’t Always Know the Way

by Vicki Palmquist

How to Read a StoryA step-by-step, slightly tongue-in-cheek but mostly sincere, guide to reading a book, How to Read a Story by Kate Messner, illustrated by Mark Siegel (Chronicle Books), will have you and your young readers feeling all warm and cozy and smart.

With advice in Step 2 to Find a Reading Buddy, we are cautioned “And make sure you both like the book.” That makes perfect sense. Reading buddies, as drawn in a colorful palette by illustrator and cartoonist Mark Siegel, can be older, younger, “or maybe not a person at all.” Perhaps a blue dog will wish to read with you.

In Step 6, the suggestion is to read the dialogue by saying it “in a voice to match who’s talking.” The ink-and-watercolor illustrations take up the narrative, giving us irresistible words with which to practice, a lion, a mouse who says “I am the most POWERFUL in all the land!” and a robot who merely says “Beep.” It’s excellent practice for interpreting pictures and putting meaning into the words.

We’re invited to try our minds at prediction in Step 8, as our reader and his reading buddy, the blue dog, contemplate what will happen next.

It’s a book that will make you smile, a good match between well-chosen words and playful illustrations, yet it’s a useful book for home and school and story hour. How can children learn the way to read out loud? How to Read a Story will have them trying before you know it.

 

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That’s Some Egg

by Vicki Palmquist

Under the EggIn Under the Egg, Theodora Tenpenny begins her story when her beloved grandfather, Jack, is hit by a taxi … and dies. Outside their 200-year-old Manhattan townhome, Jack whispers to Theo to “look under the egg.” Dealing with her grief, but desperate because she and her head-in-the-clouds mother have no income, Theo tries to figure out what her grandfather meant. She’s fairly certain he’s trying to provide for them, but did he have to be so mysterious?

What unravels is a tense mystery of art “theft,” Jack’s soldiering in World War II, suspicious adults who become altogether too interested, and a new best friend, Bodhi, who aids and abets Theo’s harebrained, but ultimately brilliant, schemes.

Under the Egg is a fast-paced, intelligent, learning-about-art-history while saving the world sort of book, not unlike Indiana Jones or Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. I stayed up all night to read it, unable to rest until the mystery was solved.

On Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s website, there are wonderful resources. When I finished Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, the first thing I did was find a painting of The Lord’s Supper to see if he was right. Fitzgerald saves us the hunt. There’s a map of all the places Theo visits in New York City. There’s more about Raphael, with thoughtfully provided paintings that link to fascinating stories from the painter’s life. There’s a page devoted to separating fact from fiction. And more.

Readers who love adventurous romps, who like to puzzle through a mystery, or enjoy visiting art museums will adore this book.

 

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Hands-on History for Spatial Learners

Making HistoryWhen I was in elementary school, I was never more excited than when the teacher told us we could make a diorama or a miniature scene of a pioneer settlement. The concept, planning, and building were thrilling for me. Even though my finished work seldom approached the dazzling display I could see in my head, I learned a great deal about history, engineering, science, and cardboard from my forays into building a small world in three dimensions.

We know that some kids learn best this way. They are not only hands-on, but they are spatial and visual learners, people who learn best by seeing and doing.

If you know children like this, they’ll be delighted with Making History: Have a Blast with 15 Crafts (written by Wendy Freshman and Kristin Jansson), published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

With a short historical lesson, thorough supplies list, excellent photographs, and step-by-step instructions that include a call-out for adult involvement (using scissors or a hot glue gun) your favorite kids can make a Makak Generation Basket or an Ice House (model) or a Día de Los Muertos Nichos (a small shadowbox with skeletons depicted on them for the Day honoring the Dead).

metal repousse pendant

Introducing a Metal Foil Repoussé Pendant, the authors share that Alice and Florence LeDuc formed Hastings Needlework in 1888 to create and sell embroidered household items that were treasured by many as artwork. Bought by influential families and featured on magazine covers, their needlework was known worldwide. The Minnesota Historical Society has more than 800 of their patterns in its archives.

With metal foil, a foam sheet, and household supplies such as a pencil, pen, and scissors, your students can make a necklace or box ornament from a Hastings Needlework pattern, included in the book and thoughtfully supplied online.

Paul Bunyan Action FigureFor your visual and spatial learners, building a Twister Tornado (did you know that the Mayo Clinic was founded as the result of a tornado?) or a Paul Bunyan Action Figure is a sneaky but effective way to make learning memorable and engaging.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reading Ahead: Levitate Your Brother!

Big Magic for Little Hands

by Vicki Palmquist

We recently hosted a Harry Potter party for adults for which everyone was asked to perform a magic trick. Some people fiercely addressed the challenge. Some people panicked. Some people bought a trick off the internet. I turned to Joshua Jay’s Big Magic for Little Hands (Workman Publishing Co).

Citing all the benefits of learning to perform magic, the author reveals that he wasn’t a reader until he needed to know about magic. Learning magic tricks and performing them gives a child confidence and helps with public speaking skills. “Others have integrated magic into their jobs, using effects to break the ice or complete a sale or relax a jury.”

There are diagrams and terminology and suggested stage setups. There are helpful hints (overcoming stage fright). There are lists of materials needed for each feat of prestidigitation.

With compelling black, white, and red illustrations, the diagrams are easy to follow, convincing even the most skeptical that they could make these tricks work.

The writing is not just step-by-step instructional–Jay writes with humor and an appreciation of what’s practical.

The materials are items you probably have on hand in your household. When one list includes a top hat, Jay writes “A top hat works great, but you could also decorate an empty tissue box and use that, or use your dad’s cowboy hat. (Note: This only works if your dad is a cowboy.)”

Perhaps most of all, I enjoyed the real-life stories of magic such as “Houdini’s Great Plane Escape.” When Houdini was filming the movie The Grim Game, a stunt required climbing by rope from one plane to the other. During the stunt, the two planes collided and crashed to the ground. What happened? Well, that would be telling. According to Jay, a good magician never shares a secret or tells how it is done. Big Magic for Little Hands will tell you but I won’t.

Highly recommended for kids aged 8 and older (and the adults in their lives who will be just as fascinated). It’s a large format book with a big heart and plenty of fascination between its covers. A great gift. A good, readable, and hours-of-fun addition to your library.

 

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Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming

There is a silly debate taking place about whether adults who read children’s books, including young adult books, are infantile and should have their driver’s licenses revoked because they’re obviously not mature enough to play dodge ‘em cars on the freeway and text while their two thousand pound vehicle hurtles down the road. Grown up, […]

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