Friday, December 31, 2010

Rest in Peace

Last Sunday's New York Times magazine paid tribute to notable people (famous and not-so-famous) who died in the past year. Included was Lucille Clifton, a poet and author of twenty children's books. It started me thinking what other writers for children died in 2010. Here's my unofficial list. Some are well known to me, while others I'm hearing about for the first time. If you can think of any I've forgotten, please chime in.

Ruth Chew, 90
The Wednesday Witch, Chew's first novel was rejected by 10 publishers before finally being accepted by Scholastic.  Chew went on to write many more wrote fantastical books featuring witches, wizards, and time travel. Some of her many titles include: The Would-Be Witch, The Magic Coin, and Trapped in Time. Chew also worked as an illustrator.

Eleanor Coerr, 88
The book that put Coerr's name on the map is Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a story based on a girl who died from leukemia in 1955, ten years after an atomic bomb was dropped on her village. While in the hospital, Sadako folded origami cranes, trying to complete 1,000 of them. She died before she made her goal, but her classmates pitched in and folded the remaining cranes. This past year, the 25th anniversary of Sadako's death, Coerr attended a ceremony where she was presented with one of the original cranes.

Sid Fleishman, 90
Newbery medalist for The Whipping Boy, Fleishman was one of the greats. This year I finally got around to reading his autobiography The Abracadabra Kid. In it, he tells about his childhood love of magic tricks and how he grew up to become a magician before stumbling into writing, first for adults and then for children.

Eva Ibbotson, 85
I haven't read any of Eva Ibbotson's work, but I intend to. Her first children's book was published when Ibbotson, a British citizen, was 50, and she went on to pen dozens more, including her recent book The Ogre of Oglefort, shortlisted for this year's Guardian children's prize. It was described as being "a bit like reading the Brothers Grimm through the lens of Monty Python." Many of her other novels have to do with the supernatural and have a comic bent.

Patricia Wrightson, 88
Australian author Patricia Wrightson wrote numerous novels about her native land, often finding inspiration in Aboriginal legends. Her first novels were realistic adventure stories for children. Later novels focused more on fantasy, such as The Nargun and the Stars, published in 1975. In 1986 Wrightson was the recipient of the Hans Christian Anderson Award.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Raymond Briggs, An Appreciation

Here in PA, we've finished digging out from our recent blizzard. All the snow put me in mind of that wonderful wordless picture book The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. In 1982, four years after its release, it was made into an equally spectacular animated film.

Briggs, an early practitioner of graphic novels for young readers (before they were called such), is not as well known on this side of the pond. In Great Britain, though, he's a big cheese, and deservedly so. The man who is most famous for The Snowman composed that book as an antidote to Fungus the Bogeyman. It took two years for Briggs to complete Fungus, and after being "buried amongst muck, slime, and words," he wanted his next project to be "clean, pleasant, wordless and quick." To hear Briggs talk about his art, click on this recent interview from "The Guardian."

And to celebrate the joys of winter, here's "Walking in the Air" from The Snowman. Enjoy!  

Friday, December 24, 2010

Quote of the Week

"'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,' grumbled Jo, lying on the rug."
--from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Santa Cow Cheer

All families have their holiday traditions. Some bake cookies or assemble a gingerbread house, others tune in to Merry Christmas Charlie Brown or go caroling. In mine, come Christmas Eve, we watch Mr. Magoo's A Christmas Carol (a surprisingly good adaptation with a stellar performance by Mr. Magoo as Scrooge) and read Santa Cows, a hilarious parody of Clement C. Moore's "A Visit from Saint Nicholas."

First published in 1991, Santa Cows by Cooper Edens starts with the children nestled not in their beds but in front of three TV sets and chowing down on pizza, soda, popcorn, and chips. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, mom and dad (Elwood) are eating microwaved meals of clamcakes and chopped eels.

"When all of a sudden, not the sound of reindeers,
But the mooing of Santa Cows came to our ears.
So we ran to the windows and opened the shutters.
We threw up the blinds to a sky full of udders."
"As lovely as angels," the family agreed,
And Elwood, so helpful, named each by its breed:
"Look kiddies, a Holstein, a Brown Swiss, a Jersey,
And here comes a Hereford, an Angus, a Guernsey."

The Santa cows come down the chimney and float around the living room before serenading the family with carols and presenting them with a fully decorated tree and sacks filled with presents of baseballs, bats, gloves, and caps. The group, cows included, then head outdoors to play an impromptu game of baseball in the moonlight. Top that, Clement C. Moore!

Daniel Lane's soft and fuzzy watercolor illustrations capture the warm holiday glow as well as the cows' gentleness: "Their eyes, like Liz Taylor's, were dewy and clear. Their lips, like Liz Taylor's, so rosy and dear." The many kitschy details that fill the duplex, like the Charlie the Tuna lamp that sits atop a TV set, are worth the price of the book, no longer, alas, in print. Check your local library or order a used copy from Amazon, and make this offbeat picture book the start of your holiday tradition.

Monday, December 20, 2010

She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story

Effa Manley might have remained a footnote to baseball history for most kids if Audrey Vernick hadn't gotten interested in this remarkable woman who became the first woman inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In her picture book biography, Vernick introduces young readers to Manley and places her firmly in the context of her times. Manley was a light skinned black woman who cared passionately about putting an end to injustice. While living in Harlem in the 1930s, she organized a group of community leaders to protest a department store's refusal to hire black salesclerks. The boycott was a success. But Manley didn't stop there.

After marrying a man as crazy about baseball as she was, Manley and her husband started a baseball team in the Negro National League.  Manley worked tirelessly as the Newark Eagles's manager, "organizing schedules, ordering equipment, arranging transportation." She also fussed over the players, who fondly considered her a mother hen. After many successful years (the highpoint occurring in 1946 when the Eagles won their league's World Series), the Negro League lost fans as players left to join the now integrated major leagues. Even here, though, Manley continued to fight against injustice, insisting that the major league owners honor the Negro League's contracts and compensate teams for their players. When the National League ended, Manley wrote countless letters persuading the National Baseball Hall of Fame to induct Negro League players. Thanks to her, many were. And in 2006, 25 years after her death, Effa Manley was inducted as well.

She Loved Baseball is an excellent addition to biographies about women's contributions to sports. Children who read at Level 3 should be able to complete the book, although having an adult present to help explain unfamiliar terms and concepts would be a big help. And I agree with Dorothy Seymour Mills's assessment in the New York Journal of Books that Vernick's reliance on pronouns can occasionally be confusing, especially to a beginning reader. Several times I had to go back and reread a sentence to be sure of its meaning.

Don Tate did an outstanding job illustrating this biography. His illustrations are fresh and modern-looking, while capturing the spirit of the times.

She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story
by Audrey Vernick
Illustrations by Don Tate
HarperCollins Children, 32 pages
Published: October 2010

This week's Nonfiction Monday is at Simply Science Blog.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Quote of the Week

"I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn't be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage."
--Roald Dahl

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Clementine, Friend of the Week

Don't you wish you had Clementine as a friend? Here are just some of the small acts of kindness she does in this fourth installment in the series:

1. She thoughtfully fixes Margaret's Friend of the Week booklet, peeling off the tape that Margaret's brother had placed over the "r" in "friend." Her reward? Margaret thinks Clementine was snooping, not helping. Now Margaret is mad at her.

2. She compliments her fellow classmates repeatedly. Collecting the lunch money, she tells Waylon his quarters are especially shiny, Maria that she counts out change quickly, and Rasheed that his nickels and dimes are neatly stacked (that's because he uses spit).

3. She offers free tattoos to her classmates, decorating their arms with anchors, tulips, and a goat eating berries behind a bush. This good deed lands her a trip to the principal's office.

4. She names her friend Maria's new iguana Flomax (a medication that treats the symptoms of an enlarged prostate). This eventually leads to the once TV-deprived Maria being allowed to watch the tube, and earns Clementine Maria's gratitude.

5. She offers to provide free decorations for all her classmate's bikes in time for Saturday's bike rally fund raiser.

Clementine's motivation for most of these good deeds is not entirely selfless. She wants her friends to write good things about her in her upcoming Friend of the Week booklet. Her plans are going along just fine when tragedy strikes. Moisturizer, her pet kitten, goes missing. Clementine is heartbroken. On Friday, the day she was to receive her booklet, Clementine doesn't go to school. Instead she spends the day putting up posters of her missing cat and combing the streets of her neighborhood looking for him. Saturday, the day of the bike rally, the hunt continues, and Clementine forgets her promise to provide decorations for all the bikes.

But as the song goes, "you gotta have friends," and Clementine does. Margaret joins forces with Clementine's third grade class, which leads to Moisturizer's safe return.

Sara Pennypacker has done it again. Laugh-aloud funny, Clementine, Friend of the Week is also thoughtful and moving. Similar books often minimize how truly heart wrenching it is to lose a pet. This book shows how catastrophic such a loss can be to a young child. Marla Frazee's pen and ink illustrations are priceless, especially the ones that focus on the characters' expressions. I'm thinking especially of Margaret's when she visits Clementine after their fight. Arms folded across her chest, she barely looks at Clementine through her narrowed eyes.

Highly recommended.

Clementine, Friend of the Week
by Sara Pennypacker
illustrations by Marla Frazee
Disney-Hyperion, 176 pages
Published: July 2010

Monday, December 13, 2010

Let's Look at Sloths

Sloths fascinate me, and not because I'm envious of their laid-back lifestyle (though I am). There are just so many curious facts about these odd, alien-looking creatures. For instance, a sloth moves so slowly that algae grows on its shaggy fur, turning the animal green and helping it to hide in leafy branches.

Let's Look at Sloths does a fine job introducing this unusual animal to beginning readers. The text covers the basics, such as where sloths live, what they eat, what they do (not much), and which animals are out to get them (jaguars, ocelots, snakes, and harpy eagles). I thought I knew a fair amount about sloths, but one fact surprised me: Sloths are good swimmers and move faster in water than on land. The well-chosen photographs reinforce the text's meaning. Some are quite dramatic, such as a close-up of a sloth's long, curved claw. Captions provide additional information. The book's backmatter includes a map showing the sloth's range, a diagram of a sloth, an index, glossary, and a list of recommended books and websites for more information. Let's Look at Sloths provides beginning readers with a good overview of a little known mammal and should be a big hit in the classroom.

Other books in the series take a look at armadillos, bats, brown bears, earthworms, iguanas, monarch butterflies, pigeons, prairie dogs, sea otters, sharks, sloths, and snails.

Let's Look at Sloths
by Janet Piehl
Lerner, 32 pages
Published: August 2010    

Today's host for Nonfiction Monday is at Books Together.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Quote of the Week

"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words."
--Betty Smith ( A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Johnny Boo and the Mean Little Boy

Move over Casper! There's a new ghost in town and his name is Johnny Boo. The "best little ghost in the whole world" is featured in four graphic early readers by James Kochalka. The latest in the series is Johnny Boo and the Mean Little Boy.

In this book about friendship, Johnny has a play date with his new friend Rocky the Rock, excluding his old pal Squiggle, a comma-shaped ghost. So Squiggle squiggles off to find a friend of his own, landing in a butterfly net wielded by Mean Little Boy. The little ghost believes he's found a new friend, even after the boy plops Squiggle in a jar. Luckily Johnny shows up, and the two ghosts figure out Mean Little Boy's true colors.

Perfect for the kindergarten-through-third-grade crowd, this book will leave young readers laughing, especially at the potty humor. (Mean Little Boy has an unfortunate accident.) They will also take away an important message about what it means to be a friend. Kochalka's action-packed illustrations are zany and fun, while the speech balloons are large enough to assist beginning readers.  

Johnny Boo: The Mean Little Boy
by James Kochalka
Top Shelf Productions, 40 pages
Published: April 2010

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Zelda and Ivy: The Big Picture

Secret Agent Fox is playing at Zelda and Ivy's local movie theater, and Ivy is worried that it will be too scary. Big sister Zelda reassures her. "It's not real, it's just a movie." Little does Zelda know that she, not Ivy nor their friend Eugene, will be the one terrified. She spends most of her time ducking behind the seat in front of her, pretending to search for a lost object. When the movie is over, Eugene and Ivy are eager to see it again. Not Zelda. Saving face, she informs the others that the movie wasn't "scary enough" for her.

Two more chapters complete this early reader (number six in the series) by Theodor Geisel Award winner Laura McGee Kvasnosky. In "Secret Agents" the trio decide to spy on their neighbor Mrs. Brownlie, mainly because she is wearing goggles while mowing her lawn. Mrs. Brownlie soon discovers the secret agents and invites them inside for chocolate chip cookies. While chowing down, the spies learn the reason for the goggles--they protect her eyes as she mows. Case closed.

The final chapter sees the three foxes preparing for a campout. When rain nixes their fun, Zelda has a plan. Why not camp indoors? Even though Zelda tacks stars to the ceiling and they eat dinner from a cooler and roast marshmallows in the fireplace, Ivy finds the experience falls short compared to camping outdoors. Snuggled inside her sleeping bag, she stares at the fake stars above. One becomes unglued and floats down. A falling star! The camp-in is a success!

Zelda and Ivy: The Big Picture
by Laura McGee Kvasnosky
Candlewick Press, 48 pages
Published: September 2010

Monday, December 6, 2010

Nonfiction Monday: Bones: Skeletons and How They Work

On a recent visit to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia I stood before a display of skeletons lined up behind a glass case and marveled at the diversity of the human frame. At first glance a skeleton is a skeleton, yet when examined closely, each one is unique.

Steve Jenkins' new book Bones conveys this sense of wonder in spades. The human skeleton is compared to various animals, and what the illustrations so remarkably show is how similar they are. The human arm, a mole's, a whale's, and a bat's  share the same basic set of bones. Another page features a giraffe and human skeleton from the neck up. Although the giraffe's neck is as tall as a man, both have the same number of neck bones (seven). After exploring the size and shape of groups of bones, Jenkins turns his attention to movement, showing how an animal's skeleton is adapted to its needs. Three gatefolds are included. The first reveals a python's skeleton with almost 200 pairs of ribs; the second the skulls of a dozen animals (all drawn to size), and the third a full human skeleton. The book concludes with a fascinating section featuring more facts about bones.

Although the text contains difficult words (vertebrate, femur, symmetrical), the sentences are concrete and clearly written. Level three readers should be able to tackle it (with a little support). It would also be a great choice for guided reading. Jenkins' extraordinary cut-paper collages reinforce the text and greatly add to a reader's understanding.
Bones: Skeletons and How They Work
by Steve Jenkins
Scholastic, 48 pages
Published; August 2010

Today's host for Nonfiction Monday is Scrub-a-Dub-Tub.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Quote of the Week

"TV. If kids are entertained by two letters, imagine the fun they'll have with twenty-six. Open your child's imagination. Open a book. " 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ivy + Bean: What's the Big Idea?

In the seventh book in the series, second-graders Ivy and Bean take on a pretty big challenge: saving the world from global warming. After Ms. Aruba-Tate's class hears a report by fifth graders on the subject, they take the problem to heart. Their wise teacher channels their concerns into a project for the science fair. Their mission? To cool down the Earth. Bean and Ivy team up, but each new idea they come up with gets squashed. Their decision to toss ice cubes into the sky is ridiculed by Bean's older sister and her snobby friend. They bind their wrists so that animals will have a better chance of survival only to find themselves at the mercy of a small child who forces them to play Bad Orphanage. They attempt to pound energy out of rice and are again mocked for their efforts. Then, while watching an ant colony, the girls finally get their big idea.

On the night of the science fair, Ivy and Bean show their parents the other projects, the funniest of which is classmate Vanessa's. She has her siblings hold their breath 1 minute 15 times a day in an effort to cut down on carbon dioxide. Then it's time for Ivy and Bean's project. With the help of Ms. Aruba-Tate, the girls shepherd all the parents outside and have them stretch out on blankets under the starry night sky. The parents grumble at first but gradually unwind as they experience nature. Not clear what this has to do with global warming? Let Bean and Ivy explain. "We wanted you all to feel happy in nature." (Ivy) "So you would care about global warming." (Bean)

Oh, I see. Well, truthfully, I don't. But that one of the strengths of this series. Author Annie Barrows has an unerring instinct for getting inside a second-grader's mind. From Ivy and Bean's perspective, anything is possible. So go outside and throw some ice cubes into the sky. It can't hurt, and, who knows, it just may do some good!

Ivy + Bean: What's the Big Idea?
by Annie Barrows
illustrations by Sophie Blackall
Chronicle, 128 pp.
Published: November 2010

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pearl and Wagner Four Eyes

That first pair of glasses. It's a rite of passage for many kids, especially those in my myopic family. I was in fifth grade when the world suddenly became a whole lot clearer. My daughter was in second. Unlike my unattractive first pair of specs, hers were wire frames patterned in rainbow colors. In the optometrist store they were cool-looking. But then came the day she had to wear them to school, and doubts bubbled to the surface. As she bravely marched into the schoolyard, a gaggle of friends surrounded her, giving her hugs and telling her how great her glasses looked. As the song goes, "That's what friends are for."

In Pearl and Wagner Four Eyes by Kate McMullan, Wagner has friends just as supportive. In this Level 2 early reader, Wagner lines up for a school eye test and soon learns the awful truth. He needs glasses. Pearl, his best buddy, is envious. She would love a pair, saying that "glasses can give you a whole new look."  Wagner is fitted with a spiffy pair of blue glasses, but he refuses to wear them to school. Pearl convinces him that he looks cool, and in the playground his other friends agree. Unfortunately, a pair of older boys tease Wagner, calling him "Four Eyes." Off come the glasses and Wagner is again in the dumps. His friends find a clever way to bolster his confidence, and the specs go back on, as Wagner proudly declares, "The name's Four Eyes." R. W. Alley's delightful ink and watercolor illustrations complement the storyline. This early reader concludes with helpful tips for wearing glasses.

Pearl and Wagner Four Eyes
by Kate McMullan
illustrations by R. W. Alley
Dial, 40 pages
Published: September 2010

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bad Kitty vs Uncle Murray: The Uproar at the Front Door

Bad Kitty is in the middle of a wonderful dream about Pussycat Paradise, where everything is made out of food, when she awakens to a nightmare. Her owners skedaddled off on a trip, leaving her and Puppy with Uncle Murray as their pet sitter. Puppy accepts the new status quo, but not Bad Kitty. Readers of Nick Bruel's two previous beginning chapter books starring Bad Kitty (Bad Kitty Gets a Bath and Happy Birthday, Bad Kitty) will guess (correctly) that this situation can not end well.

The Bad Kitty books are a favorite with my six-year-old nephew and I can see why. From the opening page the book takes young readers on an antic, fun-filled roller coaster of a ride. Bad Kitty, maniac and fearful, sees Uncle Murray as her arch enemy, although he clearly isn't. The cartoony illustrations provide many sight gags, as when Uncle Murray  sits on Kitty, mistaking her for a pillow, or tries to use her as a dish towel. Kitty becomes more and more frantic with each misstep, but the final straw is when Uncle Murray gets out the vacuum cleaner. Kitty flies out the door and a wild chase ensues before Kitty is safely back home. By book's end she and Uncle Murray have agreed to an uneasy truce.

Interspersed within the seven chapters are Uncle Murray's Fun Facts, which explain why felines are so fearful and cautious by nature. The facts are both accurate and entertaining, and they help readers understand why Bad Kitty freaks out the way she does. The book also has an appendix of phobias, many of which afflict Bad Kitty, such as peladophobia, fear of bald people. (Uncle Murray is sparse of hair.)

My fear? That Nick Bruel will stop writing books about Bad Kitty.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ten Things You Might Not Know About Turkeys

1. That floppy protrusion on a turkey's head is called the caruncle. An agitated turkey's caruncle will grow longer and hang over its beak. The fleshy skin under its chin is called the wattles. 2. Male turkeys gobble to show they are dominant. The sound can be heard a mile away. 3. Male turkeys have spurs on their legs that they use to fight other toms and to fend off predators. 4. Turkeys prefer to run from danger. But they can fly, sometimes as fast as 50 mph. 5. Domesticated turkeys usually have white feathers and are much too heavy to get off the ground. 6. To stay safe from predators turkeys roost in trees at night. 7. A turkey has binocular, or 3-D, vision. It can spot movement a hundred yards away. 8. Although turkeys don't have external ears, their hearing is sharp. 9. Female turkeys lay between 8 to 18 tan eggs. The hatchlings are called poults. 10. While wild turkeys have the capacity to live to about 12, most don't make it past two. And for domesticated turkeys it's half that.  

I found most of these facts in All About Turkeys, written and illustrated by Jim Arnosky. Published in 1998,  Arnosky's book remains a good introduction to the bird that was Ben Franklin's choice for the United States national bird. Wild Turkeys by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent and illustrated by William Munoz provides additional information for kids to chew on.

Today's host for Nonfiction Monday is Practically Paradise.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Shows Must Go On

What are the odds of there being not one, not two, but three beginning-reader books that deal with the problem of being cast as the turkey in a Thanksgiving Day play? Each book gives its own unique twist to this unusual situation.

Arthur's Thanksgiving by Marc Brown puts the lovable aardvark in the director's chair for his class's Thanksgiving play. His dilemma? He can't find anyone interested in being the turkey. His friends want starring roles, and even family members turn him down. What's an aardvark to do? Like all great directors, he knows the show must go on, so he dons the turkey costume and steps on stage. Bravo, Arthur!

Mark, the second-grader in I Am a Turkey by Michele Sobel Spirn, is glad he landed the role of the turkey--that is until his big brother tells him how the play ends. Now that he knows he'll be the Pilgrim's main course, he's dreading the big day. But when a Pilgrim forgets his lines, Mark forgets his stage fright and comes through with flying colors.

Thanksgiving Turkey Trouble, a 96-page early chapter book by Abby Klein, features Freddy Thresher, a first-grader who is stuck with the one part in the class play that nobody wants. You guessed it--he's the turkey. Freddy now has to find a way to play the part and keep his dignity intact.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Princess Posey and the First Grade Parade

Posey is starting first grade in a few days. Her biggest fear is marching into school all by herself. (Parents must say their goodbyes in Kiss and Go Lane.) If only Posey could wear her pink tutu to class. Whenever she puts it on, she feels as if she can do anything. Will Posey get to wear her tutu to school?

Of course she will. Posey meets her first-grade teacher by chance at a grocery store and confides in her. Miss Lee understands perfectly and invites the entire first grade class to dress in their favorite clothes for the first day of school. The class then parades down the hallway to the classroom, with Posey, dressed in her pink tutu and new sparkly pink veil, leading the way.

Princess Posey and the First Day Parade, the first in a new series written by Stephanie Greene and illustrated by Stephanie Roth Sisson, is broken down into ten very short chapters, making it a good choice for children just graduating from early readers. With its focus on princesses and pink tutus, it is very definitely a girl's book. But that's not to say that Posey isn't without spunk. When two neighborhood boys tease her about her fears, telling her about the snakes who suck the blood out of first-graders, Posey retaliates by jabbing one of the boys with a stick. Good for you, Posey! Just make sure you don't get any blood on your pretty tutu.  

Monday, November 15, 2010

Time Is When

What is time and how do you explain this elusive concept to a preschooler? In 1960, when her son was three, Beth Gleick answered his questions about time in a picture book, Time Is When. Gleick starts off her book with, "Time is from before to now; from now to later." She then goes on to explain the different units of time: a second, a minute, an hour, a day, a week, ending with a year and its seasons. She also touches upon that most important mark of time (at least from a child's perspective)--one's birthday. Each unit is compared to something that a young child is familiar with, such as, "In one minute, you can walk one block (if you walk quickly and don't stop to look in store windows)."  

In 2008, Time Is When was republished with new illustrations by Marthe Jocelyn. Using the medium of collage, Jocelyn snips and pastes pieces of fabric, paper, and trimmings to create visually exciting illustrations of children experiencing time. The book open with a parade of children marching toward the reader. The facing page shows the parade marching away, cleverly showing how time has already passed. Young readers will pore over the illustrations with delight as they notice the many whimsical details, such as the photograph of wolves pasted on a TV screen that a young boy is watching.

This book is highly recommended. Be sure to carve out the time to order a copy.

Today's host for Nonfiction Monday is In Need of Chocolate.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bink & Gollie

After reading so many rave reviews of Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, I had to see what the fuss was about. Not yet having the book in hand, I couldn't imagine why everyone was so excited. Two girls, one tall, one short, who in the first story buy a pair of socks? Come on, pull the other one.

Then I read the book. Aah, now I see. So I'll add my bucket of praise to the oceans already out there. Bink & Gollie is a wonderful, wonderful book, destined to become a children's classic. DiCamillo, a Newbery award winner, and McGhee, a NY Times bestselling author, have created two winning characters based loosely on themselves. Bink (DiCamillo) is the short one, the down-to-earth one, who lives in a cottage at the base of a giant tree. At the top of the tree, in a modernistic treehouse, lives Gollie. More cerebral than Bink, Gollie speaks with precision and a rather formal syntax. There is a whiff of superiority about her, no doubt caused from living in rarified air among the treetops.

Somewhere between an early reader and a beginning chapter book, Bink & Gollie is 96 pages long and divided into three stand-alone stories. The first concerns socks. While out rollerskating, the girls come across a store having a sale on socks. Not just any socks, but outrageously bright socks. Bink buys herself a pair, and Gollie is mortified. The mere sight of them offends her. After a tiff between the friends, the pair learn the joys of compromise.

The second story involves Gollie's adventure climbing the Andes (in her imagination) while Bink tries her best to wangle her way inside her friend's abode. The final chapter deals with jealousy. Bink buys a pet fish, and Gollie resents him. When the trio are out rollerskating, a near tragedy occurs, but Gollie saves the day (and the fish), and Bink reassures her that she, not Fred the Fish, is the most marvelous companion of all.

No review of this book can be considered complete without mentioning the art. Tony Fucile adds so much to the characters of Bink and Gollie. Bink has a shock of blond hair, giving her an impish charm, while Gollie's lanky body language speaks volumes. The background is usually in black and white with the girls and a few objects (like the socks) highlighted in color. Little wonder this book made the NY Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2010.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mac and Cheese

Mac and Cheese are cats, but that's where the similarity ends. Mac, big and boisterous, likes to play and jump and sing, and, well, have fun. Cheese doesn't. This grumpy cat prefers to just sit quietly next to his pal. But when a gust of wind makes off with Mac's hat, Cheese pounces and bounces and jumps after it, returning it safely to his friend. Written in rhyme by Sarah Weeks, Mac and Cheese is another early reader featuring  a pair of animals who, while very different, are still good friends. Jane Manning, the illustrator, does a outstanding job of bringing the characters and the gritty city setting to life. My one quibble with this book is that Cheese is just a little too grumpy. True, he saves his friend's hat, but up till then, he is so negative that this reader wondered more than once why Mac would bother to be his friend.    

Monday, November 8, 2010

Drawing Fun with Syd Hoff

Syd Hoff (1912-2004) wrote and illustrated many classic early readers, the most famous of which is Danny and the Dinosaur. A cartoonist who sold his first cartoon at age 18 to The New Yorker, Hoff strongly believed that anyone could learn to draw. To this end he published several books on drawing and cartooning that are perfect for beginning readers.

Drawing with Letters and Numbers is especially appropriate because children this age can always use extra practice mastering the alphabet. The book demonstrates how the letters A through Z (capital and lowercase) and the numbers 1 through 9 can be transformed with a few strokes into something else entirely. The capital letter A becomes a clown's hat. Lowercase h is the arch of a cat's back. The number 5 morphs into the mouth of a fierce lion.

How to Draw Cartoons provides simple instructions on how to create cartoons. The book starts with asking kids to draw a circle. Add eyes, a nose, and a mouth and you've got a face. Next Hoff shows how to add detail, such as hair, a mustache, even a double chin. With a few broad strokes a face can be happy or sad. But what good is a face without a body? Hoff goes on to demonstrate how to draw proportional stick figures. Then he makes those figures walk, run, and jump. The book also includes instructions on how to draw animals.

Both books are out of print and can be hard to find. I own my copies, but my local library does shelve How to Draw Cartoons. And, of course, there's always Amazon's used book sellers. While I also highly recommend all of Ed Emberley's drawing books, I find they work better with older children. For beginning readers, stick to Hoff.

 Today's host for Nonfiction Monday is Shelf-employed.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Quotation of the Week

"The greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination."

--Elizabeth Hardwick

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Forgotten Favorites: The Golly Sisters

It's been 25 years since The Golly Sisters Go West, the first in a series of three early readers by Betsy Byars, was published. The stories center around May-May and Rose, sisters who travel west in a covered wagon, putting on song-and-dance shows along the way. Like most siblings, the sisters squabble occasionally, as in one chapter when the two can't agree which one will go on stage first. By the time they decide to enter at the same time, the audience has gone home. The dogs remain, however, and so May-May and Rose perform for them. Betsy Byars plops her plucky heroines into all kinds of scrapes and for each one provides an unexpected and funny resolution. The cartoony illustrations by Sue Truesdell add to the humor. The other two books in the series are The Golly Sisters Ride Again and Hooray for the Golly Sisters! All three are highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Too Hard or Too Easy? How to Match the Book to the Child

A beginning reader opens a book from the classroom, the library, or the bookstore. It's on a topic she likes and the illustrations are enticing. But wait, will she be able to read it? If it's too easy, she'll likely be bored. Too hard and she'll put the book down in frustration. So how does Miss Goldilocks choose a book that is just right?

Many educators propose using the Rule of Thumb to determine if a book matches a child's reading level. Esme Raji Codell explains how it works in How to Get Your Child to Love Reading:

"Have a child choose a page in the middle of the book with a lot of text, and make a fist. Explain to the child that she should not use the fist to punch anyone in the nose. Instead, read the page silently, and if you come to a word you don't know and can't guess, put out your thumb. If you find another word, put out another finger, and so on. If you reach the end of the page and between three and five are up, that means the book will be a challenge. The child can decide if she is motivated enough to try to read it anyway (you can offer help), or she can choose to save it for the future. A pleasure read should have 0-2 fingers up."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Review: Let's Say HI to Friends Who Fly!

Mo Willems's latest, Let's Say HI to Friends Who Fly, is a great pick for kids in the beginning stage of learning to read. Cat the Cat asks the same question to all her friends, "Can you fly?" Bee the Bee, Bird the Bird, and Bat the Bat reply "Watch me!" and take off. But what happens when Rhino the Rhino is asked if he can fly? Like all of the stories Mo Willems writes and illustrates, there is a humorous surprise ending for young readers to enjoy.

I highly recommend this early reader, not just for the inventive story, but also for the innovative way the author graphically blends the text with the art. For instance, when Bat the Bat, who is hanging from his feet on monkey bars, speaks, the text in his cartoon bubble is upside down.

To read an interview with the talented Mo Willems, click here.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Nonfiction Monday: Dia de los Muertos

The trick-or-treaters have come and gone, and hopefully you're left with some candy. But don't put away any skeleton decorations just yet. The ancient Aztec festival, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, starts on the night of October 31 and continues through November 2. In Mexico, it's a time to remember family and friends who have died. Celebrate this holiday with young readers by sharing the following books with them:

Day of the Dead by Linda Lowery introduces beginning readers to the holiday, describing its roots in both Aztec mythology and Catholic traditions. Using simple words, the early reader stresses the cycle of life and reminds readers that people, like every other living thing on Earth, have a time to be born and a time to die. As the author states, "Day of the Dead is not a sad time. It is a warm and loving time to remember people who have died. It is a time to be thankful for life." Barbara Knutson's colorful illustrations resemble woodcuts and add to the book's charm.

Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead by George Ancona, gives children a front row seat as they observe through photographs and text how a Mexican family observes this holiday by honoring their loved ones who have died.

A particular favorite of mine is The Festival of Bones. Written and illustrated by the Mexican artist Luis San Vicente, the first part of this "little-bitty book for the Day of the Dead" is a joyous poem about skeletons related in both English and Spanish. The second half explains the importance on this holiday and provides young readers with simple activities, such as building an altar or making a sugar skull. The illustrations are truly out-of-this world!

To learn more about this holiday, check out this informative Smithsonian website.

Today's host for Nonfiction Monday is publisher Capstone's blog, Capstone Connect

Friday, October 29, 2010

Quotation of the Week

"It is not enough to simply teach a child to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations--something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own."

--Katherine Patterson

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review: Dick and Jane and Vampires

A mashup early reader featuring those suburban siblings Dick and Jane and vampires? Bite me. Seriously, though, this is not a joke. Author Laura Marchesani reworked stories from the original Dick and Jane books to include a new character--a vampire who flits in and out of the short chapters. Sometimes he appears as a bat and sometimes as a vampire.

At first, Vampire is someone to flee, and in the first half of this 144-page early reader, Dick, Jane, and toddler Sally do just that. By the the second half, they have gotten used to Vampire and he becomes a kind of playmate. He jumps rope with Dick and Jane, plays dress up, and even does somersaults on the lawn. Needless to say, Vampire doesn't bite anyone's neck and seems to have no need of human blood. (Unless he does his dining discretely at night; the book doesn't say.) In the final chapters, Vampire has found a soulmate, a female vampire, and everyone is happy for the couple.

So what's the verdict? Is the addition of the vampire enough to make this an engaging book for beginning readers or is it a gimmick? My feeling is that this is a book more for the parents--make that the grandparents--of these kids. Children today, not brought up on these books, won't get the humor. And bottom line, even with a spooky vampire to heighten interest, the stories remain boring. For a behind-the-scenes look at how Dick and Jane and Vampires was put together click here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why Getting an Early Reader Published Is an Uphill Battle

Kidlit recently posted an excellent critique about the early reader and chapter book market. After providing a detailed description of each, the blog goes on to discuss why it's so hard for writers of these books to get published. The short answer? Series prevail in early readers and chapter books, and so writers with an unproven track record are unlikely to be given the go-ahead to pen one. Another impediment is that so many of these series are written as work-for-hire, usually by packagers.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: Ant and Honeybee: A Pair of Friends at Halloween

Written by Megan McDonald and illustrated by G. Brian Karas, Ant and Honeybee: A Pair of Friends at Halloween features two engaging insect friends who are preparing for trick-or-treating. Honeybee is content for them to dress up once again as pilgrims, but Ant is ready for something different. After much discussion, the two decide to go as a washing machine and a dryer. After fashioning the costumes out of cardboard boxes, the pair are ready. The trouble is everyone they meet while trick-or-treating misjudges what they are supposed to be. Beetle thinks they are a pair of dice. Butterfly is convinced they are chunks of Swiss cheese. Mrs. Snail mistakes them for a couple of ice cubes. A stove and a dishwasher is Old Man Spider's guess until Mrs. Spider sets him straight. The duo are really dancing computers. To make matters worse the two friends get caught in a downpour. By the time they reach Cricket's house they are soaked and their costumes are soggy blobs of cardboard. When Cricket opens the door, he asks them what they are supposed to be. The two friends quickly come up with an answer. Ant is an anthill and Honeybee is a beehive. And together they make a perfect pair!

This is a charming story, well told and sprinkled with puns that are perfect for this age group. Megan McDonald, creator of the Judy Moody and Stink series, writes from experience. As the youngest of four, she wore her siblings' hand-me-down pilgrim costumes for many a Halloween. Karas's cartoon-like illustrations compliment the text, as when he shows Ant thinking up costume ideas. All in all, a delightful early reader for Halloween.

Pencil and Eraser

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Challenges of Writing Nonfiction for Beginning Readers

As a children's book author, I write nonfiction mostly. Quite a few of those books are for beginning readers. The challenges of writing for this group are considerable. With a limited word count you have to write simply and clearly, while keeping your reader's attention. This is also true for those who write fiction, of course. With nonfiction, though, the writer has the added onus of having to distill complex ideas so that a six-year-old can understand them. Take biography. Imagine you are writing a bio of a United States president, say, Abraham Lincoln. You don't know what your young reader already knows about Abe, so you have to start from scratch. How do you cover Lincoln's beginnings, his early years as a lawyer, his presidency, slavery, the Civil War, and his death in under 2,000 words?

If you are author Martha Brenner, you don't. Instead of attempting a traditional biography, Brenner chose the conceit of Lincoln's stovepipe hat to frame her early reader of our sixteenth president's life.  I tip my hat to Martha Brenner and her wonderful biography Abe Lincoln's Hat. Although published in 1994, it still stands as a remarkable biography for beginning readers. Using anecdotes from Lincoln's life, such as turning his hat into a file cabinet where he kept important papers, Brenner leaves readers with an deeper understanding of Lincoln's character. The book focuses on his life as a young lawyer and politician before he became president. Children learn how at one trial he determined the true owner of a colt by setting it loose and allowing it to run to its mother. In another famous case, he freed a man accused of murder by proving that an eyewitness could not have seen the crime since there was no moon in the sky that night. The book ends with Lincoln becoming president. The last few lines state what he accomplished in that office and the final page features photographs of Lincoln and other characters mentioned in the biography. Readers are left with an excellent introduction to Lincoln, and, hopefully, the urge to learn more about him.

Plenty of other early-reader biographers focus on one unique aspect of their subjects' lives rather than trying to cram a whole life into 48 pages. George Washington and the General's Dog by Frank Murphy describes a little-known story about how our nation's first president rescued a British general's lost dog on the battlefield and had to make a difficult decision: Return the dog to the enemy or keep it? Eat My Dust! Henry Ford's First Race by Monica Kulling takes readers on an exciting 1901 car race between Ford and Alexander Winton. Ford took his winnings and used them to start his car manufacturing company.

Nonfiction Monday is hosted today by Sherrie at Write About Now 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Quotation of the Week

"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark."
---Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Thursday, October 21, 2010

School Scarecrows

Just two blocks from my house is the local elementary school. Students made scarecrows and staked them outside the building for all to admire. I smile each time I pass by. Thought I'd share their labor of love.