Friday, May 27, 2011

Quote of the Week

"Repeat reading for me shares a few things with hot-water bottles and thumb-sucking: comfort, familiarity, the recurrence of the expected."

~Margaret Atwood

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hooray for Amanda & Her Alligator!

And hooray for Mo Willems! He's done it again, creating another perfect blend of pictures and text for young readers. More than any other children's book author alive today, Willems slips most comfortably into Arnold Lobel's shoes. Both are masters at taking seemingly slight incidents and turning them into stories that resonate.

This beginning reader/picture book is made up of 6 1/2 stories about surprises. Each one features Amanda, an avid reader, and her pet alligator, who as we learn in story #4 was purchased for seven cents from a sale bucket. In the story the illustrations show Alligator becoming increasingly insecure as he learns the truth about his origins. Amanda tells her beloved stuffed toy the truth because, as Willems explains in parentheses, "(When friends ask you to tell the truth, you tell the truth.)" (I love parentheses!) Alligator summons up the courage to ask the question; "Why did no one want to buy me?" And Amanda gives the perfect answer: "No one wanted to buy you because they knew you were meant to be my best friend."

In the final story Alligator is put out when Amanda brings home another stuffed toy, a panda that her grandfather bought for her at the zoo. Panda is everything Alligator isn't. Brand new and fluffy, she definitely doesn't look like she came from a sale bucket. Left alone together, the two friends find that they are more alike than different.

The illustrations are classic Willems. He manages to convey so much in just a few squiggles and lines. Take a look at the illustration of Alligator and notice how his nostrils and mouth resemble a smiley face.

As a review in BCCB states, "This is a perfect stealth early reader, a story that will begin as a chapter-by-chapter readaloud and then get converted by the audience when experience and determination make it time to fly solo." Amen. Reserve a space on your bookshelf for Mo Willems's latest.

Hooray for Amanda & Her Alligator
by Mo Willems
Balzer + Bray 72 pages
Published: April 2011

Monday, May 23, 2011

Queen of the Falls

It's been said that to fully appreciate Shakespeare's King Lear one should be middle-age or older, as a younger audience isn't capable of grasping the horror of old age. I feel the same about Queen of the Falls by Chris Van Allsburg. To his credit, Allsburg does his best to mitigate the depressing story of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. He portrays Taylor as the plucky enterprising woman that she was, coming up with the scheme when she was in her early sixties, devising a barrel that would withstand the falls, and bravely entering the barrel not knowing if she would survive, and if she did, in what condition.

But Allsburgh can't hide the underlying circumstances that propelled Taylor to undertake such a perilous adventure. For Taylor wasn't your typical daredevil, eager to risk life and limb for the thrill of it. No, Taylor was desperate.  Left a widow with little money, she faced the prospect of spending her declining years in the poorhouse. With few options open to her, she convinced herself that going over the falls would make her rich. Allsburg describes her quest to conquer Niagara Falls in gripping detail. Truly, the reader feels as if he or she is inside the barrel right along with Taylor.

Amazingly, Taylor survived with only a few minor cuts and bruises. Once recovered, she expected to cash in on her daring deed. Frank Russell, a promoter she hired, took her on tours, the pair riding on trains from town to town with the barrel. Fame and fortune failed to materialize. Again and again, the audience was dismayed to find Taylor, a plump grandmotherly type, the heroic conquerer of the falls. Put bluntly, she didn't fit the part.  After Russell absconded with the barrel, Taylor was able to get it back. She hired a second promoter, but he too stole the barrel, this time for good. Not one to quit, Taylor had another barrel made and for years displayed it in a park near Niagara Falls, selling souvenir postcards and pamphlets about her famous achievement. She did this for years, never earning much money.

Allsburg ends his picture book on an upbeat note, giving Annie Taylor the last words. " was the greatest feat ever performed. And I am content when I can say, "I am the one who did it.'"  

The illustrations by Allsburg, Caldecott winner of The Polar Express, are all done in sepia-tones, helping to set the book firmly in the past. With incredibly detailed realism, they resemble newspaper photos. Yet no camera could capture Taylor's terrified expression inside the barrel as it crashes over the falls.

Children reading or listening to this biography will be caught up in the thrilling tale, and probably won't be aware of its sad undertones. For them, old age is far, far away. Adults, though, hearing news reports of cuts to Social Security, might well ponder Taylor's fate. I know I do.

Queen of the Falls
by Chris Van Allsburg
Houghton Mifflin, 40 pages
Published: April 2011

This week's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Great Kids Books.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Animals Riding Bikes

May is National Bike Month, and a great way to celebrate--besides going for a ride--is to read books that feature these two-wheel wonders. I'm particularly pro-bike because my Main Squeeze is a biking fanatic, who has owned two bike shops. His last one had as its logo an illustration of a frog riding a bike, drawn by the talented children's book illustrator Brian Schatell.

Why a frog? Main Squeeze is seriously into Kermit.

During the time he owned the shop, I started collecting picture books that featured animals riding bikes. Here are a few of my favorites.

What a great cover! A classic, Lobel's Frog and Toad Together showcases five stories about these two amphibian friends: "A List," "The Garden," "Cookies,"  "Dragons and Giants," and "The Dream." My favorite is the first, in which Toad writes a list of the many things he needs to do. Number one is "Wake up," which he then proceeds to cross off. Incredibly, I know an avid list-maker who has been known to do exactly that. (Hi, Mom!)

Marta is a cow captivated by bicycles. One day when a bike race passes by the farm, she is inspired to build her own. When she's finished, she faces a problem. She doesn't know how to ride. Like many a beginning rider, she takes her fair share of spills before mastering her new set of wheels. Next year Marta is ready. When the race again comes to town, Marta joins the fun--and ends up taking first place. Written by Germano Zulla and illustrated by Albertine, both from Geneva, Marta and the Bicycle is a delightfully silly story children will be sure to want to read again and again.

I love anything by David McPhail, the illustrator of The Bear's Bicycle. His appealing drawings of animals capture their essence. The Bear's Bicycle, written by Emilie Warren McLeod, is a step-by-step progression of a little boy's ride through town. The boy narrator is a model rider, signaling turns, looking both ways before walking his bike across the street, and steering around cans and broken glass. All this is clearly shown. His stuffed teddy bear, however, is another matter. McPhail portrays the bear as a real one, who gleefully disobeys the rules of the road. He coasts down hills, shoves people who are in his way, and ignores STOP signs. His actions do have consequences. He fails to brake at the end, causing him to tumble. Children will get a kick out of seeing the bear's naughty ways, while at the same time learning the importance of bicycle safety.

Duck on a Bike showcases an entire barnyard of animals on bikes. The fun starts with Duck, who highjacks a bike and begins  riding it around the farm. He passes Cow, Sheep, Dog, Cat, Horse, Chicken, Goat, a pair of Pigs, and Mouse. Each animal has its private opinion about Duck's shenanigans. When a bunch of kids ride up to the farm and leave their bikes outside, the fun begins. The animals jump on (the pigs riding a tandem) and off they go. When they disembark, no one is the wiser--except readers who have had the fun of seeing David Shannon's winning illustrations.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Lift the Flap and Learn: The Human Body

Kids love books they can manipulate, whether they be pop-ups or lift-the-flaps. There's something satisfying about pulling a tab or lifting a shape to see what's hidden underneath. Babies have Pat the Bunny to mutilate. Toddlers and preschoolers, Where's Spot. But what about beginning readers?

The Human Body is perfect for this age group. Cleverly done, children can lift, slide, and pull to their heart's content, while picking up fascinating facts about how their bodies work. The book starts with a matter-of-fact account of how babies are made. (No tabs to pull or lift here!) Children then lift flaps to see the developing fetus and even get to help "deliver" the newborn when they pull the tab in the operating room. The next spread shows how babies grow and change into adults.

Kids are then introduced to some of the body's major systems (muscular, skeletal, circulatory, respiratory, digestive, nervous, and integumentary) with detours to explore the five sense and taste buds, as well as information on germs and how to take care of ourselves when we're sick.

My all-time favorite spread is called "Your Digestion." It shows how a forkful of broccoli works its way from the mouth through the intestines. The reader helps push the food down as it gets processed. When the tab at the bottom is pulled--out comes the poop. One review I read deplored this as being in questionable taste, but I think kids will appreciate this very graphic illustration of how food turns to waste. I know I did!

For the most part, the illustrations are cartoonish and not very detailed. The illustrator draws germs as weird-looking creatures with facial features. Yet they are realistic enough to portray essential information about the body accurately. The bones that make up a hand, for instance, are correct in number and size.

After pulling and lifting their way through this book, kids are sure to come away with plenty of questions of their own. So bone up on your anatomy and be prepared with your answers.

Lift the Flap and Learn: The Human Body
by Pascale Hedelin
illustrations by Robert Barborini
Owl Kids, 40 pages
Published: 2008
Book provided by publisher.

  This week's Nonfiction Monday Round-up is at Simply Science.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Quote of the Week

About Writing: "Have good toilet habits; go regularly, daily, go in private, and use plenty of paper. Go even when you think nothing's going to come...."
~ Louise Dean

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Writer's Wednesday: Two Pages a Day

Newbies to fiction writing are often told to write every day. After "Write what you know," it's probably the most frequent advice given. So why did it take me so long to heed it? I'm not sure. Like everyone, I have plenty of excuses. Job obligations, family commitments, the joys of staying up late and sleeping in. Bottom line: I resist schedules and routines. Always have. Something in me bristles at doing the same thing the same way day after day. So I disregarded the advice and wrote when the writing bug hit or when I had extra time or when the stars aligned correctly. And I got stories and books published, so my approach felt justified.

Except my novels often stalled. Yes, shorter work could be completed in dribs and drabs, but longer works often petered out or weren't cohesive. Then last fall I watched a video featuring Kate DiCamillo. In the video she discussed her working habits, mentioning that each morning she got up, drank her coffee, and wrote two pages. And that's it. Two pages, singled-spaced, took her about an hour, and after that she was done. Even if she had more to write, she stopped. Hmmm. If this kind of schedule worked for Kate DiCamillo, a Newbery Award winner, maybe it would work for me. Two pages and an hour a day seem doable, not daunting.

And so I began. Each morning (excluding weekends), I brewed myself a cup of coffee and went straight to my desk. I did not check email or surf the internet. Instead I wrote for one hour, and by some miracle came up with two pages a day. By spring I had accumulated a 30,000 word middle-grade manuscript (and that was after abandoning 15,000 words and starting afresh). Now this first draft was as shitty as they come, of course. But that's what revision is for, right?

DiCamillo follows the same process when revising, with one small change. She revises two pages a day, but the pages are now double, not single, spaced. In this regard, I've parted ways with her. I revise for an hour each morning too, but I'll often go back and work some more in the afternoon.

So this once free spirit has become a creature of routine--and my writing has certainly benefited. What's your writing schedule and how does it help/hinder your writing?

Interview with Kate DiCamillo. Watch it!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Say Hello to Zorro!

Hello, Zorro!

So who's Zorro? He's a bossy pug who moves into Mister Bud's territory, disrupting his orderly life. The picture book begins:

"Mister Bud had it pretty good.
Everything was just about right."

An experienced reader just knows things won't stay that way. And they don't. As soon as Zorro sticks his what passes for a snout into the household, things change. The two dogs have trouble sharing--toys, favorite sofas, food dishes, well, pretty much everything. Luckily, the two quickly realize they have something in common--they both have the same routine, and doing things with a buddy is much more fun than doing them alone.  Soon the pair are terrorizing the neighbor's cat on their daily walks and napping on the same cozy rug. In short, they become best friends.

Carter Goodrich, the author/illustrator, was the lead character designer for Despicable Me, and his talent for showing each dog's personality in the art is evident. Mister Bud is the epitome of a contented dog enjoying his doggie lifestyle until Zorro arrives. And Zorro is the quintessential pug. Little in size but with a big dog's personality, Zorro doesn't let any creature, no matter how large, get anything over him. (I confess here that I am the proud owner of a pug and can attest that Zorro's portrayal rings true.)

My only quarrel with this delightful book is that the conflict between the two dogs is over almost as soon as it starts. I'd have liked there to be a bit more of a struggle before the two learn that joining forces is always better than going it alone. But that's a small quibble. Kids will enjoy reading about this mismatched pair who discover that even when everything is just about right, it can still get better.

Say Hello to Zorro!
by Carter Goodrich
Simon & Schuster, 48 pages
Published: 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

Quote of the Week

"I am sure I read every book of fairy tales in our branch library, with one complaint--all that long golden hair. Never mind--my short brown hair became long and golden as I read and when I grew up I would write a book about a brown-haired girl to even things up."
~ Beverly Cleary

Thursday, May 5, 2011

One Proud Mom

My daughter, a grad student finishing her second year in an interior design program, had as her final assignment the task of re-designing the children's library in Chappaqua, NY. Her inspiration for the project was the Crockett Johnson classic, Harold and the Purple Crayon. I remember reading the story to her when she was a little bit of a thing.

This morning I was thrilled to see the plans for the library posted on her blog. I think she did a wonderful job of creating an inviting yet sophisticated environment for young readers. But what do I know? I'm only her mother.

You can check out the entire design for the library here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie

Great title! And an apt one, since it accurately describes the eight-year-old heroine's forlorn summer after her beloved babysitter moves away.

The story, told in free verse, starts with Eleanor hearing the terrible news that Bibi, her first and only babysitter, is moving to Florida to care for her aging father. How Eleanor copes with her grief at losing Bibi and how she comes to accept and like her new babysitter is the crux of this early chapter book.

Natalie, the new babysitter, has big shoes to fill. Bibi was just about perfect. Let Eleanor tell you herself:

"She is the best babysitter in the world.
She makes me soup when I am sick.
She holds my feet when I do handstands.
She knows which of my teeth are loose
and which ones I've lost.
She rubs my back when I am tired.
She takes a needle and thread
and sews up my pants
to make them fit right.
And she knows not to tickle me.
Because I hate to be tickled."  

Who wouldn't miss someone like this! As the summer progresses, Eleanor slowly comes to terms with her loss. It helps that she has understanding parents and that Natalie doesn't pressure her to accept her. First-time author Sternberg realistically portrays Eleanor's transformation so that by the story's end we can see that she's ready to start third grade and get on with her life. Bibi hasn't been forgotten, though.

"Bibi will always be my first babysitter.
My very special babysitter.
And she will always be my Bibi.
Even if she is waiting for the breeze in Florida,
and I am far away."

This special book is for anyone who has had to grapple with loss--and that means just about everyone.

Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie
by Julie Sternberg
Illustrations by Matthew Cordell
Amulet books, 128 pages
Published: March 2011

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Buddy Files: The Case of the Lost Boy

Mystery Writers of America recently announced the winners of the 2011 Edgar Allen Poe Awards, and Best Juvenile mystery went to a beginning chapter book. The Buddy Files: The Case of the Lost Boy won out over the following middle-grade reads: Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon; The Haunting of Charles Dickens by Lewis Buzbee; Griff Carver: Hallway Patrol by Jim Krieg; and The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman by Ben H. Winters.

I have to admit I was a bit shocked. The other four books are more traditional kinds of mysteries and more typical of past winners. Intrigued, I checked out The Case of the Lost Boy and gave it a read. The story is told in first person from the POV of Buddy, a golden retriever with a big heart. Locked up in the local P-O-U-N-D,  Buddy has a mystery to solve. What happened to his family, specifically Kayla, the young girl who trained him to be a detective? When a different family adopts Buddy and brings him back to his old neighborhood, the dog thinks he'll be able to find his original family. That doesn't happen, at least not in the first book of this series. Instead, Buddy finds himself with a new problem. Connor, the nine-year-old boy he lives with, goes missing. Buddy feels responsible and does his doggy best to find the lost boy. Although he has serious liabilities--he can't speak, for one--he manages to lead the boy's mother to her son.

A lot of the fun from this beginning chapter book comes from seeing the world from a dog's perspective. Make that smelling things from a dog's perspective, for Buddy is all nose. The world is made up of all kinds of smells. Connor's mom has shoes that smell like a mixture of "new carpet, pizza, a sweaty gym, other dogs, and mole." Young readers will enjoy following the clues that lead to Connor's safe return, and they'll get a giggle each time Buddy proclaims his favorite food (whichever one he's currently smelling).

Additional titles in the series are: The Case of the Mixed-Up Mutts; The Case of the Missing Family; The Case of the Fire Alarm; and The Case of the Library Monster.

The Buddy Files: The Case of the Lost Boy
by Dori Hillestad Butler
Albert Whitman, 128 pages
Published: 2010

Check out other great posts about children's books at Lemme Library's Book Talk Tuesday.