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