Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Double Serving of Anna Hibiscus

"Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa." Storyteller guru Atinuke begins all her Anna Hibiscus early chapter books with these simple, yet powerful words, propelling readers into a world far different from their own. In book three of the series, Good Luck Anna Hibiscus!, Anna is on pins and needles as she prepares for her upcoming trip to Canada to visit her maternal grandmother for the Christmas holidays.

But first she has to get through the harmattan season, a time when the desert wind blows sand over Anna's home and beloved garden, blotting out the sun and making everything dull and brown. Rather than just describe an interesting weather phenomenon, Atinuke takes the opportunity to teach her readers about empathy. To Anna and her extended middle-class family, the harmattan is an inconvenience. Their garden wilts and they must conserve water from their well to restore it to its lush glory. For their poor neighbors who live outside the compound, there is little or no water at all and the people are suffering. Anna and her family sacrifice their garden to share their water with them. Now that's a trickle down theory I can get behind!

In the remaining stories, Anna's twin baby brothers, Double and Trouble, cause her to be blamed for a misdeed she didn't commit. The sharp injustice she feels is one young children will sympathize with. She also takes a trip to the city to shop for winter clothes for her trip to Canada, and, in the last story, finds that no one in her family has time for anymore; they are all too busy. What they are up to and how Anna responds will leave readers with a smile.

Cold feet. That's what Anna Hibiscus has, literally and figuratively,  in Have Fun Anna Hibiscus! Excited to travel by plane to stay with Granny Canada and see snow for the first time, Anna bumps up against cold reality: to go she has to leave. It isn't until the car pulls away to the airport that her worries start, among them Grandfather's admonition to steer clear of dogs. Grandfather tells her that people in cold countries allow dogs into their homes. Anna is sure he is mistaken. In her world, dogs "have worms and germs, and they like to bite people." Naturally she is astonished to find that Granny Canada keeps such a beast. And frightened. How friendly Qimmiq turns Anna's ideas about dogs around is both touching and believable. 

Snow, dogs, woolen tights. Another big discover Anna makes on her trip is prejudice. Up till now Anna has been cocooned in her large family. With all her cousins around, she hasn't ever had the need of friends. When a group of neighborhood children stop by to check out the new girl, Anna happily goes off with them to ice skate on the pond. She flops at ice skating, but when she excels at sledding, one small boy shouts, "Africans can't do that!"  Anna's heartfelt response is worth the price of admission. 

Atinuke packs a lot of life lessons into such a short book. Yet it's never didactic and the morals go down as smoothly as the steaming hot chocolate Anna sips throughout her stay. Lauren Tobia's cheerful ink illustrations help bring Anna's experiences in the icy North to life, and she captures Qimmiq's doggy ways to perfection. Highly recommended!

Good Luck Anna Hibiscus! and Have Fun Anna Hibiscus!
by Atinuke
illustrations by Lauren Tobia
Kane Miller, 110 pages
Published: 2011

This book was nominated for the 2011 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Top Ten Books I Want To Give as Gifts

Top Ten Tuesday, the weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, has rolled around once again. This week's timely topic is books for gift-giving. I love giving books as gifts and this year quite a few are on my own wish list as well (hint, hint). Below are some books I hope will thrill the book lovers in your life. Click the title to be whisked on over to Amazon.

For the Anglophile:
The Old Romantic by Louise Dean

For the armchair detective:
Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Akinson

For the poet:
The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry

For the animal lover:
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend by Susan Orlean

For the graphic novel fan:
MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman

For the history buff:
A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

For the person in need of a chuckle:
Bossypants by Tina Fey

For the chef with a sweet tooth:
Jen's Splendid Ice Creams at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer

For the pre-teen:
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and Darth Paper Strikes Back

For the child in all of us:
Nursery Rhyme Comics: 50 Timeless Rhymes from 50 Celebrated Cartoonists

What books would you like to give--or receive?

Cybils Nominee: Toys Come Home

Some books defy classification, and Toys Come Home is one of them. It's been nominated for the Cybils' Early Chapter Books category, but like many classic children books it appeals to a much wider audience. The story is a prequel to two previous books, Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party. These books slipped under my radar, so I haven't read them. Rest assured, I will make up for that pronto.

All three books feature a trio of toy friends (two plush, one rubber): StingRay, a bit of a bossy boots; Lumphy, a brave buffalo; and Plastic, a hyper bouncy red ball. Toys Come Home relates how the three toys become friends in six easy-to-read chapters. In this made-up world, toys can communicate with one another and can move, but only when people aren't around. In spite of this restriction, the trio of friends have plenty of adventures. After a few difficult nights in her new home, StingRay runs away, ending up in the basement. She also rescues Sheep (my favorite character--a very old pull toy whose life ambition is to chew grass), from a thorny rosebush. Lumphy bravely defends some plush mice from the antics of an all-too-real kitten, and Plastic posits existential questions--such as "Why are we here?'--that keep her friends up nights searching for answers.

This amazing book by the talented Emily Jenkins (whose Invisible Inkling is also up for a Cybil in the same category) is perfect for beginning readers and would make a wonderful read-aloud for younger children. I wager older elementary-school kids would appreciate it as well, that is, if they aren't too embarrassed to be caught reading a book about toys. Paul O. Zelinsky's full-page black-and-white illustrations are sprinkled throughout. The detailed, realistic renderings add immensely to the story's charm.

Toys Come Home
by Emily Jenkins
illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky
Schwartz & Wade Books, 144 pages
Published: 2011

This book was nominated for the 2011 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cybils Nominee: 8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = CHAOS

Years ago, I read a collection of Vivian Vande Velde's spooky short stories and admired them for their wacky inventiveness. So I was pleasantly surprised to find she had an early chapter book nominated in this year's Cybils Awards. 8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = CHAOS did not disappoint. It's a fast-moving romp about a bunch of animals--(See title)--that wreak havoc inside an elementary building one night. The adventures start when, Twitch, a squirrel that hangs around the schoolyard scoots into the building to escape from an owl looking for its dinner. Cuddles, the principal's dog, gives chase after him. Twitch darts into classroom after classroom, begging help from each pet that resides there, a hamster, a rabbit, a white rat, a school of tetras, a parrot, a turtle, a snake, and some geckos. The classroom pets get swept up in the resulting chaos with hilarious results.

What I liked best about this early reader is that each chapter is told by one of the animals. This approach allows readers to see conflicting points of view. Green Eggs and Hamster, the first-grade pet, is a bit ditzy (all that wheel spinning) but good at math and full of ideas. The school of tetras speak in one voice and advise the squirrel that there is safety in sticking together. Galileo and Newton, the science lab geckos, interrupt each other constantly. Their part in the story is written all in dialog, a nice touch. It isn't until near the end that we hear from Cuddles, the story's bad guy, or rather dog, and learn that he was acting in his master's best interests.

I liked everything about this book except for one thing--it's title. While humorous, when I first saw it on the list of nominees, I put off reading the story. From experience I've learned clunky titles often correlate to clunky books. Happily this was not the case. Highly recommended, 8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = CHAOS is a fun read, even if its title is quite the mouthful.

For an interview with its author, click here.

8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = CHAOS
by Vivian Vande Velde
illustrations by Steve Bjorkman
Holiday House, 80 pages
Published: October 2011

This book was nominated for the 2011 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Childhood Favorites

I haven't done a Top Ten meme in ages, but this one, for obvious reasons, I couldn't resist. Top Ten Tuesday is brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish, so head on over and see what childhood gems other folks list.

1. Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh)
2. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis)
3. A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle)
4. Gone Away Lake (Elizabeth Enright)
5. The Saturdays (Elizabeth Enright)
6. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
7. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
8. A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
9. Charlotte's Web (E.B. White)
10. Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren)

What are your favorite kid reads?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Books to Keep Little Hands Busy

December 1st starts the Christmas shopping season for me. I just can't focus on the holidays when the calendar page is turned to November. Big surprise, I enjoy giving books as presents. Books have always equaled love to me. Christmas Eve, our mother gave me and my three sisters, all chomping at the bit by that time, two presents each. Santa's presents would be under the tree next morning, so we set upon our presents like the tiny savages we were, tugging at the ribbons and tearing at the paper. Each year we received new pjs or nightgowns to wear that evening and a book. Bliss.

There are plenty of best book lists for kids out there. Two I recommend are the New York Times' Notable Children's Books of 2011 and the Center for Children's Books Guide to Gift Books. This year, I'm thinking of buying books that encourage kids to use their creativity, whether it's making paper monsters or cooking up imaginary meals.

I confess, when I saw this book, I was tempted to start punching out all the cool monsters and folding and gluing them into toys. Since I was in the library, I restrained myself. Why did the library have a copy of a book clearly meant to be consumed? I have no idea.

Yes, kids can have a perfectly good time playing with their Legos on their own. So why do they need a book? Well, I can go into the kitchen and cook a meal without any help, but sometimes I like to flip through a cookbook for inspiration. Open a page of this book and see Lego gondolas, elephants, picture frames, castles, spaceships, and much, much more.

Instead of a spatula and mixing bowl, supply a budding chef with a box of crayons instead. This book by the always amazing Herve Tullet is stuffed with recipes that kids use to draw meals such as Zigzag Soup and Crayon Puff Pastries. Opposite each recipe is a plate for children to scribble their creations on.

For more doodling fun, give your favorite artist Taro Gami's Daily Doodle 2012 Calendar. Kids can use the prompts to doodle something new every day and end the year with a one-of-a-kind calendar.