Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Never Trust a Tiger (CYBILS Nominee)

Well-told folktales are in short supply these days. So it's a happy occasion when one appears that's geared to beginning readers. Never Trust a Tiger is a Korean folktale that answers the age-old chestnut: Can a leopard change its spots? Only in this case it's a tiger's stripes. And the answer? Apparently not.

Told in six short chapters, the story begins with the tiger trapped in a pit. A passing merchant helps him out and the tiger repays the kindness by pouncing on the man and opening his jaws to devour him. The merchant protests, arguing that his good deed should be rewarded. The pair agree to let others be the judge. If the merchant is correct, the tiger will free him. If the tiger is right, GULP

An ox votes in favor for the tiger. A pine tree gives the nod to the merchant. Then a hare happens along and it is she who will decide the merchant's fate. Pretending not to understand the predicament, she tricks the tiger into showing her what happened. The tiger jumps back in the pit and.... Well, do I have to spell it out?

The tale is cleverly told, with one chapter leading seamlessly to the next, and the bold illustrations are done in an appropriately primitive style. Beginning readers craving more can also check out The Tortoise's Gift: A Story from Zambia, the first book in the series.

Never Trust a Tiger: A Story from Korea
Retold by Lari Dan
Illustrations by Melanie Williamson
Barefoot Books, 48 pages
Published: September, 2012

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Little Engine That Could

At the beginning of November's Picture Book Month, I posted several picture books that resonate with me. Now that the month is almost over, I'd like to write about one that leaves me, well, let's just say  underwhelmed. No, it's not The Giving Tree, a book that many parents either love or hate. While I don't care for that book's premise--a tree gives and gives of herself until nothing is left--it was never a book I read. No, my least favorite picture book is the much beloved The Little Engine That Could.

I know, I know. It's a classic and the illustrations, I agree, are charming. But I've never been a fan of its message. Oh, I guess I enjoyed the book as a kid--or was it the pictures of all that luscious candy?--but as an adult I find it way too didactic and its moral questionable. Yes, I realize that it's important to always try and that a positive mindset can get you over humps. But guess what? Sometimes you can give your all and still fail. As a child I practiced dance steps over and over, but no amount of positive thinking will ever make me a ballerina. So I resent being told that if you try really, really hard, you're bound to succeed.

Naturally, I never purchased the book for my daughter. When her aunts found out, they fretted that their niece would grow up  deprived and one of them gave her the book as a present. Once in her hands, I had no choice but to read it to her--again and again. Another thing--is that book long or what! Now--full confession--she did grow up to perservere in her chosen field, undertaking three grueling years in grad school and she's currently working at a very demanding job with an extremely long commute. Does she get through her day thinking, "I think I can. I think I can."? If so, then all those endless hours reading a book I didn't much like paid off.

Well, I'm glad I got that off my chest. Now it's your turn. What picture book sticks in your craw?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Spunky Tells All

How did I miss this one? Spunky Tells All, a beginning chapter book told from a dog's POV, was published in October 2011, yet somehow it slipped under my radar. I'm a sucker for dog books (as long as there is no chance of them dying. I have not and will not read Old Yeller.) and this one does not disappoint.

Readers familiar with Ann Cameron's previous books about Julian and Huey Bates (The Stories Julian Tells, among others) will rejoice to be reacquainted with the brothers, even though they aren't the focus. The book belongs to Spunky, the family's devoted dog whose snout gets out of joint when the Bates decide to adopt a cat. From his very first sniff, Spunky senses that Fiona reeks of Foolish. Fiona gets into one scrape after another, and Spunky, loyal dog that he is, bails her out of trouble, even if she does toss his kibbles on the floor and drink out of his water bowl. After a last, spectacular rescue, the two animals make peace and become friends.

Young readers will enjoy seeing the world from a dog's point of view. Like canines everywhere, the nose rules. When Spunky gets hold of one of Mr. Bates socks: "A sweet, ripe scent filled my nostrils. I opened my jaws. The sock went into my mouth. Thousands of tiny lights in my brain flashed in spangled colors." Spunky also has a unique way of describing things. The bathroom, for instance, is the White Pond Room.

Fair warning, for those who like fast-paced action, look elsewhere. The story takes a while to get underway and the first few chapters meander. But the wait is worth it. Once Fiona makes her appearance, Spunky has a worthy adversary and the story takes off.

Spunky Tells All
by Ann Cameron
illustrations by Lauren Castillo
Farrar Straus Giroux, 112 pages
Published: October 2011

Friday, November 16, 2012

Two More From Mo (Both CYBILS Nominees)

The amazing Mo Willems is back this year with two--count them two--more Elephant & Piggie stories. Of the pair I had a slight preference for Let's Go For a Drive, so I'll start with that.

Gerald has the bright idea to go for a drive and the friends set about preparing for their jaunt by procuring the necessary items--a map, sunglasses, umbrellas, and suitcases. Wise readers will see where this is going and won't be surprised when the pair realize they are missing one vital thing--a car. They will, however, be amused by Piggie's resourcefulness.

Piggie plays her new trumpet for Gerald, and her enthusiasm knows no bounds. Neither does her playing, which is all over the place. Gerald, when pressed to comment, tries hard not to state the obvious. At last, like good friends should, he tells the truth. "That was not music," he tells Piggie. But it wasn't supposed to be. Piggie was trying to speak Elephant in order to sound like her friend. Beginning readers will have a blast sounding out the noises issuing from Piggie's trumpet. KL-ACK! GR-ELP! GR-ICK!

Let's Go for a Drive!
by Mo Willems
Hyperion 64 pages
Published: October 2012

Listen to My Trumpet!
by Mo Willems
Hyperion 64 pages
Published: February 2012

Monday, November 12, 2012

Lost and Found

November is Picture Book Month--Yay! Thinking about some of my favorite picture books, I realized that many deal with the experience of being lost. The classic The Story About Ping, for instance, tells how a little duck winds up spending a scary night along on the Yangtze River before he is reunited with his family.  And then there's William Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble in which poor Sylvester the donkey turns himself into a rock and can't switch back. You can't get more lost than that!

No picture book explores this theme better than The Tub People by Pam Conrad and illustrated by Richard Egielski. When my daughter was in preschool I bought a copy at my local bookstore and had it with me when I went to pick her up. Seeing a new book peeking from its wrapper, she demanded to hear it there and then. Since we weren't in a hurry, I found a quiet spot and began to read. Around us four-year-olds and their parents milled about packing up and putting on coats. Slowly, one by one, kids drifted over, plopped down, and listened, spellbound, to the story of the little tub boy who is sucked down the drain. Until he was rescued and back safe and sound with his family you could have hear that proverbial pin drop.

As demonstrated, the power of the picture book is mighty. What are some of your favorites?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover (CYBILS Nominee)

Ah, the sleepover. The bowls of buttery popcorn, the fuzzy PJs, the watching of movies into the wee hours, the tears and hurt feelings as young tempers fray. As a kid I looked forward to nocturnal play dates; as a parent I dreaded them.

In Cece Bell's book for beginning readers, Best buds Rabbit and Robot are having their first sleepover. It's at Rabbit's house and he's fairly hopping with excitement. A bit of a control freak, Rabbit has firm ideas about what should take place at a sleepover and he has a list to prove it.

1. Make pizza
2. Watch TV
3. Play Go Fish
4. Go to bed

As the poet Robert Burns famously wrote, "the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray." Apparently, a rabbit's plans too. Robot doesn't want carrots on his pizza; he prefers nuts, bolts, and screws. When he removes all the hardware from the table and chairs, the friends have no place to eat their dinner. Rabbit has a major meltdown until Robot spreads a blanket on the floor and they enjoy an indoor picnic.

Each remaining chapter deals with another item from Rabbit's list. Rabbit can't find the remote to watch TV, then Robot's batteries conk out while the friend are playing Go Fish, and at bedtime Robot is without PJs and has to borrow a pair from Rabbit. By lights out, Rabbit has manages to ease up enough to suggest that maybe Robot can make the next day's to-do list. Maybe.

Channeling Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad characters, Bell creates her version of mismatched friends. While Rabbit always has to have his way, Robot, who resembles an anthropomorphic iPhone, is more easy-going and accommodating. The cartoony illustrations are a lot of fun, especially the ones that show Robot zigzagging around the house on his one wheel. Beginning readers are sure to enjoy this new series. Who wouldn't want a robot for a friend!

Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover
by Cece Bell
Candlewick Press, 56 pages
Published: September 2012

Friday, October 26, 2012

Maybelle and the Haunted Cupcake

With Halloween just around the corner (although it looks to be a rather wet one here on the East Coast), what better time to curl up with a book about a haunted dessert? The cupcake in question is  decorated with pink icing, chopped nuts, and chocolate sprinkles. The eponymous Maybelle is a cockroach. Yes, cockroach. She lives under a refrigerator in an apartment owned by Mr. and Mrs. Peabody. The couple's cat, Ramona, is home and meal source to Maybelle's best friend, Henry the Flea.

Mrs. Peabody has just baked a batch of cupcakes for a bake sale and Maybelle can't wait to get her six legs on them. Henry reminds her of The Rules:

"When it's light, stay out of sight; if you're spied, better hide; never meet with human feet."

Maybelle intends to wait till night when fate intervenes in the shape of Bernice, a picnic ant with a bad head cold. Unable to find her way back to her nest, Bernice crowns Maybelle her new queen and does her best to fetch food for her sovereign. Heedless of The Rules, Bernice puts herself in danger time and time again and it is up to Maybelle to rescue her. In gratitude, Bernice hijacks an entire cupcake, albeit a mini one, carrying it on back. The silliness continues after the Peabodys discover what appears to be a haunted cupcake walking on its own across their kitchen floor.

An entertaining read, this book is sure to resonate with kids just starting to read short chapter books. The story bounces along at a lively place, the humor is abundant, and the clever black and white illustrations add to the charm. The Haunted Cupcake is number three in a series. I certainly intend to pick up the first two, Maybelle in the Soup and Maybelle Goes to Tea

Maybelle and the Haunted Cupcake
by Katie Speck
illustrations by Paul Ratz de Tagyos
Henry Holt, 65 pages
Published: August 2012

Friday, October 19, 2012

Lulu Walks the Dogs (CYBILS Nominee)

Judith Viorst and Lane Smith have paired up again for a second chapter book about the incomparable Lulu, "a girl who wants what she wants when she wants it". And what Lulu wants this time out is so out-of-this world outrageous that readers don't even learn what it is until the final pages. Trust me, it's a lulu.

The bulk of the story is taken up with how  Lulu attempts to earn money to buy her heart's desire, since her parents refuse to shell out the moolah. She quickly hits upon the idea of dog walking. Fleischman, a nice polite boy who's yin to Lulu's yang, helps her manage her workload--Brutus, a belligerent bulldog, Pookie, a spoiled toy fuzzball, and Cordelia, a vain dachshund. Lulu is less than pleased with Fleischman's help--even though he asks for nothing in return and is an ace dog whisperer. Lulu just doesn't like him, mostly because he's a goody-two-shoes.

Viorst tells her tale with plenty of authorial asides--all quite clever and amusing. There are frequent time-outs in which she humorously answers questions young readers might be asking, such as "What is it Lulu wants to buy with all this money she's earning?" The answer? "I really don't feel like discussing this right now." Smith's clever pencil illustrations match the book's satirical tone.

By the end, surprise, surprise, Lulu and Fleischman work out their differences. But to Viorst's credit, the mismatched pair don't become best friends. As she aptly puts it: "You want a happy ending? Read Cinderella."

Lulu Walks the Dogs
by Judith Viorst
illustrations by Lane Smith
Atheneum, 160 pages
Published: September 2012

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Penny and Her Doll (CYBILS Nominee)

Naming a new doll or stuffed animal is of supreme importance to young children. Cleaning house a few years back, I forced my adult daughter to go through bag after bag of stuffed bunnies, bears, cats, and other assorted animals with the challenge to get rid of at least half. There had to be more than a hundred and each one that was pulled from its trash bag home had a name, whether it be Ella, or Sleepy William Rabbit, or Silly Bones Jones.

In Kevin Henkes' second easy reader starring Penny, the young mouse receives the gift of a doll from her doting grandmother. Penny loves the doll at once but is stumped by what her name should be. Her wise parents advise her not to force the issue, and, left to her own devices, Penny eventually finds the perfect name for her doll, one that alert young readers might be able to predict before Penny's announcement.

Both Penny and Her Song and this new book hark back to classic easy readers, a genre I'm admittedly partial to. The story is unhurried and unfolds in its own time. The text is written in rhythmic, simple sentences with certain words repeated to help new readers with fluency. Here's a sample:

Penny unwrapped the doll.
The doll had pink cheeks.
The doll had a pink bow.
The doll had a pink dress
with a big button.

The illustrations support the text and add delightful details, like the wicker basket Penny's two wiggly baby siblings are often put in to stay out of trouble. And no one can do subtle expressions on a mouse face like Henkes. Bravo!

Penny and Her Doll
by Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow, 32 pages
Published: August 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Trip to the Bottom of the World With Mouse (CYBILS Nominee)

Beginning readers are in for a treat with this latest Level One comic from TOON Books. Frank Viva, of 2011's Along a Long Road fame, presents the seafaring adventures of a young boy and his pet mouse as they travel to the bottom of the world, aka Antarctica.

From the first panel Mouse is not an enthusiastic passenger. He wants to go home and he pesters the boy repeatedly with his request. After riding roller coaster waves, viewing all kinds of penguins, being splashed by a whale, and swimming in warm thermal waters, the boy is finally ready to head for home. So naturally Mouse's last request is "Can we go back there soon?"

Visually, the book is a feast for the eyes with spread after spread of stylized graphics and a subdued yet striking palette.

An author's note relates that Frank Viva actually took a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula (sans Mouse I assume) which explains for the vivid details--like swimming in the waters of a submerged volcano. Since a trip to the bottom of the world isn't in the cards for most young readers, this book is the next best thing.

A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse
by Frank Viva
Toon Books, 32 pages
Published: September 2012

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Toast to KidLitCon 2012

Whew! What a weekend! September 28-29 was the sixth KidLitCon and what a whirlwind it was. Kidlit bloggers from all around the country flocked to NYC, my old stomping grounds, eager to share their love of children's books.

The fun began on Friday with visits to publishing houses to partake in previews of their spring lists. That morning I went to Holiday House, a delightful old-school publisher, and saw previews of so many enticing books my notebook quickly filled with my scribbles. The husband-wife team of Ted and Betsy Lewin made a special appearance, showing us their upcoming books. Betsy has a charming easy reader featuring a determined alligator called You Can Do It! and Ted's book Look! showcases amazing watercolors of African and rainforest animals he photographed over years of traveling.

After a quick lunch, I hightailed it downtown to Penguin's offices, where bloggers were treated to an informative session in which editorial members of the various imprints introduced a multitude of upcoming middle grade and YA novels.

I left Penguin bogged down with so many ARCs I could barely make it to the next venue--dinner at IchiUmi. Ensconced in our own private room, conference goers feasted on an endless buffet of Japanese food and compared notes. Then the supremely talented Grace Lin, herself a longtime blogger, gave an engaging talk about her artistic career. While she powerpointed away, her husband kept their adorable baby daughter entertained.

Saturday the conference shifted to the NYC's Public Library on 42nd Street. Of the many session being offered, I attended Shelia Ruth's "Who's in Charge" and Greg Pincus' "Avoiding the Echo Chamber: Bringing the World of Children's Literature to the World." Ruth, of Wands and Worlds fame, is an amazing multi-tasker who sure knows her social media. In her talk she explained the ins and outs of social networking. I learned scads of useful information. Did you know that the worst time to tweet is Fridays after 4? Now you'll never catch me tweeting during that dead zone. The best? Mondays through Thursdays around 1 PM.

Pincus, of Gotta Book, charmed the socks off his audience. The thrust of his presentation resonated--book lovers spend much of their time preaching to the choir. Pincus made the valid point that we also need to cast our net further afield. I, for one, will definitely be taking his advice. Just not this post.

After lunch, we regrouped in the auditorium and listened to a panel made up of some of the shining stars of the kidlitosphere discuss the burning question "How Nice Is Too Nice: Critical Book Reviewing in the Age of Twitter". While no consensus was reached, the panel (Elizabeth Bird, Liz Burns, Monica Edinger, Marjorie Ingall, Sheila Barry of Groundwood Books, and expertly moderated by Jennifer Hubert-Swan) suggested several useful rules, top among them: "The author shalt never upon pain of death contact the blogger."

Unfortunately, I missed the final session and the keynote speech by YA author Maureen Johnson due to a tummy bug. I bid adieu and took off to recuperate. In doing so I missed the event I most wanted to attend, Kidlit Drink Night at the Houndstooth Pub. Oh well, I'll just have to wait till next year's conference to raise an elbow with my fellow scribes. Cheers!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


It's that time of year. CYBILS 2012 is gearing up for an exciting new awards season. For those who don't know, the CYBILS are an annual award given by bloggers in children's literature. There are many different categories, from picture books and book apps to graphic novels and YA.

Last year I had the honor of being a first round judge in the easy reader/short chapter books category and what a hoot that was. I got to read a stack of amazing books and work with some fabulous bloggers. This year, I'm proud to announce, I'm a second round judge, again in the easy reader/short chapter books category.

Nominations start October 1, and I urge you to submit your favorites. And be sure to check out the CYBILS site for a list of the 2012 judges. Congrats to them all!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Cecil the Pet Glacier

Mary's fleecy white lamb of nursery-rhyme fame has nothing on Cecil the Pet Glacier. The heroic chunk of compressed ice not only follows its mistress, Ruby Small, to school, it risks its very life performing a daring rescue.

Before this dramatic event occurs, the story opens with a glacier-less Ruby, "a normal little girl" who values conformity. Her eccentric parents test her sanity daily by dancing the tango on the front lawn among the fabulous topiary Mr. Small trims and shapes. Ruby keeps her distance from the pair, staying indoors, curtains drawn, and playing with her trio of dolls, "The Three Jennifers," each one dressed like Ruby in plain brown pinafores.

When the family travels to Norway for vacation, a "tiny, strange-shape glacier" befriends her and follows her around. The attachment is one-sided as Ruby is mortified by the glacier's attention. She looks forward to the end of vacation when she'll be leaving "the ice-pest" behind. Except her parents, delighted with the unusual pet, purchase an ice chest and Cecil travels back home with them. There, Ruby ignores Cecil until the fateful day on the school playground when the little ice floe distinguishes itself by saving one of Ruby's beloved dolls at great cost to itself, earning in the process Ruby's admiration and gratitude.

This quirky picture book exudes charm and the details are spot on. Cecil, for example, is fed a diet of pebbles. "Finicky like a cat, he liked white and black pebbles but wouldn't eat the gray ones." And my favorite line: "He didn't speak, but when he was happy he creaked." Potter's surreal watercolor illustrations are a perfect marriage with Harvey's quirky text.

Cecil the Pet Glacier
by Matthea Harvey
illustrations by Giselle Potter
Schwartz & Wade, 40 pages
Published: August 2012

Monday, September 10, 2012

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs

Reading Mo Willem's latest picture book, I had flashbacks to when I was a kid watching the hilarious Fractured Fairytales from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. A vivid memory is my father laughing even harder than me or my sisters. Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs will likewise appeal to grown-ups as much as their offspring, which is a good thing as parents will probably be reading it aloud a lot.

Willems tweaks the familiar storyline so that Goldilocks is the victim and not the callous housebreaker of the Grimm version. The dinosaurs lure "a poorly supervised little girl named Goldilocks" to their home by preparing chocolate pudding and leaving the front door unlocked. What will keep kids chuckling is that the dinosaurs' nefarious plans are never directly stated. In fact,  Willems goes out of this way to assure young readers that the dinosaurs "were definitely not hiding in the woods waiting for an unsuspecting kid to come by." The heavy-handed irony is consistent throughout the book and provides much of the humor. The more Willems insists the dinosaurs mean no harm, the more obvious it becomes that they do.

The illustrations give some of the best laughs. There's the door mat with the words "Tee-Hee" in parentheses under "Welcome" that Goldilocks blithely skips over. Or the telephone with an extremely long receiver designed to fit the dinosaurs' huge heads. Even the endpapers continue the fun. Willems has filled them with alternative ideas for titles, such as "Goldilocks and the Three Prairie Dogs," "Goldilocks and the Three Naked Mole Rats," or my favorite, "Goldilocks and the Three Wall Street Types." Now there's a scary fairy tale!

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs
by Mo Willems
Balzer + Bray, 40 pages
Published: September 2012

Friday, August 31, 2012

Hold onto Your Shorts!

He's back. To all Captain Underpants fans (which my 8-year-old nephew numbers among), fear no more. The ninth novel in the series is here. I read the first book, and while I can certainly see its appeal, the potty humor proved a bit too much for yours truly. That said, I can't deny the power it exerts on young readers, especially boys. Dav Pilkey speaks their language. To read an interview with the Pasha of Poop, click here.

In the article, Pilkey mentions that it was always a dream of his to inspire kids so that "they'd staple some pages together, grab some pencils, and make their own comics." He's certainly done that, and my nephew is proof. He's informed me that since first grade he's written a total of thirteen comic books and he's halfway through his first novel. Pretty impressive for someone who goes to school ten months of the year.

A couple of weeks ago, he and my niece visited and I took them to a used bookstore that recently opened up in my town. The store has an extensive collection of books for kids and the owner is a joy, both knowledgable and helpful. My nephew questioned her extensively on her Dav Pilkey books, but he already owned or had read all she had. As he looked around for other books, I found one on how to write superhero comics. (He's a huge Marvel fan.) Unfortunately, it was aimed at teenagers. I showed it to him anyway and remarked that one day he might like to own it. At this, he drew himself up and in a withering voice said, "I already am a writer." Then he reminded me of his output, the thirteen comic books and novel-in-progress. Chastened, I returned the book to the shelf.

Later, I thought how right he was. While I don't deny the benefits of how-to books and classes (I teach a writing course), having belief in your abilities and just getting on and doing it are all you really need. I write, therefore I'm a writer. Thank you, Jack!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books I've Read for my Blog

The folks at The Broke and the Bookish selected a retrospective list for this week's top ten--your favorite books since you began your blog. I started mine almost two years ago, so I had to do a lot of soul searching before I came up with my final list. Click on each title for my original review.

1. Ivy + Bean by Annie Barrows

Why? Great friendships are a staple in early chapter books. This series introduces two girls with big size personalities that perfectly mesh.

2. Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee

Why? Two very different friends put a new spin on dynamic twosomes for beginning readers.

3. Clementine and the Family Meeting by Sara Pennypacker

Why? My favorite in the series about Clementine, an irrepressible third-grader, who learns she will once again be a big sister.

4. Balloons over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Why? Readers get a front view seat to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and how it began in this award-winning nonfiction picture book.

5. Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke

Why? Atinuke is a natural storyteller. Anna, a young African girl, is an engaging character who lives with her extended family in an unnamed African village.

6. The No. 1 Car Spotter by Atinuke

Why? An eyeopener into the world of a young African boy and his extended family.

7. Toys Come Home by Emily Jenkins

Why? This hard-to-classify story stayed with me long after I read it.

8. Bad Kitty Meets the Baby by Nick Bruel

Why? One word--Hysterical. Bad Kitty rules.

9. Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch

Why? A picture book about death like no other. Wow.

10. Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones

Why? Diana Wynn Jones' last book proves why this author excelled in writing fantasy.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Year of the Book

Fourth grade is tough. Especially when your best friend deserts you to hang out with a budding fashionista. Anna Wang also has problems on the home front--her mother's less than perfect English and her part-time job cleaning apartments cause Anna's cheeks to flame. On weekends, there's Chinese school, where Anna isn't exactly shining. Her way of coping with all the stress is to bury her head in a book, a familiar strategy for many bibliophiles.

As the school year progresses, Anna gains insight into her own and other people's problems. She makes a new friendship with a girl from Chinese school, who has a learning disability, and reconnects with Laura, her best friend. Laura's parents are separating and Anna experiences the turmoil firsthand during a sleepover when Laura's father barges into the Wang household, demanding to see his daughter.

Throughout the year Anna reads and reads and reads. Many books teach her empathy, as good books do. Twain's The Prince and the Pauper causes her to wonder what if would be like to switch places with Laura and have to deal with one's parents splitting up. Kimberly Willis Holt's My Louisiana Sky helps her understand how much she loves her mother just as she is. For Halloween, a favorite picture book, Leo Lionni's Little Blue and Little Yellow, is the inspiration for her costume.

Author Andrea Cheng is careful to show how Anna also uses reading as a shield. She reads walking home from school and in social situations, such as during recess when she takes out her book rather than play tetherball or soccer. As the months pass, Anna occasionally chooses not to read but rather to play with a friend. And even the most confirmed book lover will cheer for her.

The Year of the Book
by Andrea Cheng
illustrations by Abigail Halpin
Houghton Mifflin, 160 pages
Published: May 2012

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny--Detectives Extraordinaire!

When we moved to Phoenixville a few months ago, we found our premises already occupied. Rabbits live in our backyard and, because ours is a residential area, we found them to be somewhat blase about our presence. They usually don't run away; they just stop nibbling grass and dandelions and stay put, whiskers twitching. Now that I've read Mr. and Mrs. Bunny--Detectives Extraordinaire, I doubt I'll ever be able to view rabbits as bland, innocuous creatures again. Who knew that's just their cover, that underneath rabbits are as varied and nuanced as we are!

Polly Horvath (or rather Mrs. Bunny) has written a fantastical novel in which a pair of fedora-sporting bunnies help a young girl find her missing parents. Madeline, the girl in need of assistance, lives in a commune on an island with her hippy dippy  parents. Horvath makes it clear from the start that Madeline is the responsible one in the trio. When her parents are kidnapped by a band of treacherous foxes, it's up to Madeline to rescue them. She does this with the help of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, who have just recently decided to try their hand--er, paw--at detecting. (Madeline, it seems, has the knack of understanding the Rabbit language, as well as Marmot and Fox.)  

Their quest to get to the bottom of the mystery takes many twists and turns, as Madeline forges a relationship with the nurturing lagomorphs. Mr. and Mrs. Bunny are hysterical (and perhaps uncomfortably recognizable to some adult readers) as a long-married couple prone to bickering. I confess that in places the story became a tad too whimsical for my taste and I have no idea why Madeline wanted her clueless, childish parents back. However, these are small quibbles. Overall, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny--Detectives Extraordinaire is an amusing tour d'force that practically begs to be read aloud.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny--Detectives Extraordinaire
by Polly Horvath
Schwartz & Wade, 256 pages
Published: February 2012

Friday, August 3, 2012

KidLitCon Here I Come!

KidLitCon is in NYC this year, September 28 and 29. If you're a blogger who posts about children's books, come and join the fun. The conference will be held at the Public Library's main branch at 42nd Street. Saturday's events are free--that's right--free, so you can't beat the price.

Elizabeth Bird gives you all the details and a link to the registration form at A Fuse #8 Production.

Hope to see you in September!

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Shark King

Nanaue is not your average little boy. For one thing, he sports some mean snapping jaws between his shoulder blades. Perhaps that's because Dad is the Shark King, a shape-shifter who fell in love with Nanaue's mother, a mere mortal.

The Shark King, one of Toon's graphic novels, retells a Hawaiian legend, adapting it for beginning readers. The story is simple, yet powerful. Nanaue's father leaves the night before his son is born, and the boy grows up yearning for him. That doesn't stop Nanaue from enjoying his prowess in the water. A fast swimmer, he boasts, "No fish in the sea can outswim me!"

Nanaue also has a bottomless pit for a stomach and devours fish. (He is half shark, after all.) His appetite gets him into trouble when he sabotages the local fishermen's catches. Pursued by them, he leaps into the ocean and finds his way to his father. His mother? She's left behind, but she's obviously not the clingy sort. She's content to savor the tasty sea snails they drop off for her.

What I like best about this book is the bold, vivid artwork. R. Kikuo Johnson does an excellent job of conveying action and pacing his story. Kids will be completely absorbed as they flip the pages, wondering what will happen to Nanaue next.

The Shark King
by R. Kikuo Johnson
Toon Books, 40 pages
Published: April 2012

Monday, July 23, 2012

Another Great One Gone

If I were a children's book author of a certain age, I'd be quaking in my boots. So many VIPs have died in 2012 and the year is only little more than half over. To the list of Maurice Sendak, Jean Craighead George, Else Minarik, and Donald Sobol, we must now add Margaret Mahy, a New Zealander author and winner of the prestigious Hans Christian Anderson medal.

Mahy was a special favorite of mine. She wrote wonderful supernatural novels--I especially like The Haunting and The Changeover--but I'm also a big fan of her picture books. The Man Whose Mother is a Pirate is classic Mahy, as is The Three-Legged Cat. Both books feature characters who trade in their constricted lives to roam the world.

And what a marvelous stylist she was.

The little man could only stare. He hadn’t dreamed of the BIGNESS of the sea. He hadn’t dreamed of the blueness of it. He hadn’t thought it would roll like kettledrums, and swish itself on to the beach. He opened his mouth and the drift and the dream of it, the weave and the wave of it, the fume and foam of it never left him again. At his feet the sea stroked the sand with soft little paws. Farther out, the great, graceful breakers moved like kings into court, trailing the peacock-patterned sea behind them.”
--From The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate

RIP Margaret Mahy. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always

Tao Nyeu presents four short stories in her latest picture book about two BFFs, or make that FFAs (Friends for Always).  The first story starts with a spat, as the two friends disagree on a chilly day whether socks or mittens should be worn on tentacles. Not a problem for most readers, but then we're not cephalopods.

The second story offers a surprise. When Squids dreams he has X-ray vision, readers get to lift the flap to see what's going on inside a giant submarine cruise ship. Story number three, "The Hat," is the strongest of the bunch. Octopus finds a cowboy boot and decides it's a hat. His confidence in his choice wilts as other sea creatures see the boot as a vase, flowerpot, and doorstop. Luckily Squid shares his friend's vision. In the final story, the pair imagine what the fortune in their cookie holds for them.

Nyeu creates a whimsical world for the friends to inhabit. Her silkscreen illustrations, in subdued pastel hues, are intricate and full of surprises. Beginning readers will pour over the witty details and asides, such as a pair of lobsters gossiping over bowls of soup. ("So I heard Lucy molted the other day." "You don't say!")

Squid and Octopus is a charming addition in the long tradition of fictional duos.

Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always
by Tao Nyeu
Dial, 40 pages
Published: June 2012

Monday, July 16, 2012

RIP Else Holmelund Minarik

On July 12, Else Holmelund Minarik, author of the Little Bear I Can Read series (so wonderfully illustrated by Mauruce Sendak), died at age 91. The Little Bear books helped this blogger learn to read and to love reading and so I owe Minarik my gratitude. In my school first graders were given Dick and Jane primers to practice on. I never got far with them, but at home there was a stack of well-thumbed Little Bear books. My mother read them to me, and I would mimic her, pretending to read the words when I had only memorized them. (I wasn't fooling anyone, myself included.) Then, one day, I picked up one of the books and--miracle of miracles--I wasn't reciting. I was reading! The letters on the page had magically shifted and suddenly made sense. So thank you, Else Holmelund Minarik, for writing words that mattered.

Read the New York Times obit here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Beware the Ninja Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales

Beware, indeed. The Ninja Weenies are a bunch of martial arts wannabes causing havoc at the narrator's school. Then his birthday party threatens to be ruined by the bullies until a real ninja comes to his rescue. That's just one of the more than two dozen short stories in David Lubar's latest collection. The stories are super short--most run three to four pages--and all feature outlandish or downright weird happenings. A snow globe that makes real snow, a pool that becomes the ocean, casting its young swimmer adrift, bedbugs that suck an unfortunate hotel guest dry. Boys are the protagonists in the majority of the tales, but one of my favorites features a girl. In "A Christmas Carol," Carol loves Christmas so much she wishes it will never end. When a genii dressed as Santa grants her wish, savvy readers suspect how it will end. The tale, however, turns our expectations upside down.

While not all the stories deliver, enough do to make this a worthwhile collection. Fans of The Twilight Zone will find much to enjoy between its pages. Lubar wraps up his book by revealing how he got the idea for each story, a nice touch.

Beware the Ninja Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales
by David Lubar
Starscape/Tom Doherty, 192 pages
Published: June 2012

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Greyhound of a Girl

Roddy Doyle is one of my favorite contemporary novelists. I especially like The Woman Who Walked into Doors and Paula Spencer. So I was intrigued to discover he also writes fiction for children. His latest is A Greyhound of a Girl, and it's an unusual take on a ghost story. Set in present day Dublin, the novel's protagonist is Mary, a 12-year-old who speaks her mind, occasionally veering into being cheeky. One day coming home from school she meets a curiously old-fashioned woman who seems familiar, although Mary is sure she's never seen her before.

It turns out the woman is the ghost of her great grandmother, who died suddenly of the flu in 1928. She's returned to guide her daughter, Emer, who's dying, from this world to the next. To do that she needs Mary and her mother Scarlett's help. The four generations of women embark on a journey one night, traveling to revisit the farm where the great grandmother and grandmother once lived.

As in his adult books, Doyle is especially strong on dialog and the three women and one-woman-in-waiting banter in distinctive, colloquial voices. Doyle explores mother-daughter relationships from different viewpoints and astute readers will enjoy seeing how Scarlett's struggles for independence are later echoed by Mary. And while the novel pingpongs from present to past, because the characters are so clearly drawn, the reader is never confused. If you like your ghost stories light on scary and full of heartfelt emotion, A Greyhound of a Girl is for you.

A Greyhound of a Girl
by Roddy Doyle
Amulet, 208 pages
Publication: May 2012

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Duck for a Day

Waddle as fast as you can to your library or bookstore and pick up a copy of Duck for a Day, an engaging early chapter book. McKinlay, an Australian writer, covers well-trod ground--a girl wants to bring home the class pet--but she does so with great finesse and with a delightful twist--the class pet is a duck.

Abby isn't allowed to have pets--they're messy and her mom is a bit of a neat freak. Last year, however, she brought home the class rabbit and this year her mom grudgingly will let her take home Max, the duck Abby's teacher surprises the class with one day. But not just anyone gets Max as a houseguest, only those who can provide the perfect aquatic environment. As Mrs. Melvino, their teacher, says more than once, "A duck is different. A duck has demands." Meeting these demands proves almost impossible for Abby and her classmates. Add to Abby's challenges, Noah, her next door neighbor and chief rival, and you have the perfect ingredients for an engrossing read.

The book is expertly plotted and the characters well-drawn and endearing. When obstacles are put in her path, Abby doesn't whinge or whine, she sets out to overcome them. Noah, in his quest to get the duck, comes into his own, changing from a shy, withdrawn boy to a self-confident one. And Mrs. Melvino is a hoot, a teacher who puts so many roadblocks in the class quest to win Max that careful readers will begin to wonder if she has ulterior motives. Leila Rudge's cartoonish illustrations enhance the text and add many comic touches. A delightful book!

Duck for a Day
by Meg McKinlay
illustrations by Leila Rudge
Candlewick Press, 96 pages
Published: February 2012

Monday, June 25, 2012

Time for Kids: Big Book of What?

Toot! Toot! That's me tooting my horn. For the past year I've been researching and writing the 192-page Big Book of What? for the folks at Time for Kids. It came out this month and is available at Amazon as well as local bookstores.

The book, number three in a series, is divided into 12 chapters and covers a wide range of topics, including Animals, Space, Holidays and Festivals, Inventions, and Sports. It answers questions such as:

What is Skara Brae?
What is zorbing?
What is an orrery?
What is the body's strongest muscle?
What are some foods invented by accident?

Also included are activities and experiments designed and tested by yours truly. Kids can Make a Boomerang, Create a Solar Eclipse, Make Smoothie Pops, Make a Mancala Board, and more.

I had a lot of fun working on this book and hope kids will enjoy reading it. So far, it's garnered a five-star review on Amazon. A parent writes:

The true test of a book at our house is how my children receive it. My oldest son, 7, took the book around with him every where for a good week reading aloud from its pages. We learned about holidays in different countries, what an adam's apple is, and customs around the world. Then I found him making paper boomerangs from instructions within and eventually he even cooked up some pudding pops all on his own.. The Big Book of What kept him highly entertained with full page photos and how-to's. I would recommend it for children ages 6-12 and give it a full five stars for making a reluctant reader one happy camper!

Reviews like that make this writer a happy camper!

Time for Kids: Big Book of What?
by Catherine Nichols
Time Home Entertainment, 192 pages
Published: June 2012

Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week at Capstone Connect.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Bink and Gollie: Two for One

DiCamillo and McGhee hit another one out of the ballpark with the return of Bink and Gollie, two irrepressible best friends. In this sequel the dynamic duo go to the state fair and have a series of adventures. Bink, determined to whack a duck and win a giant-size donut, has more success whacking the ticket vendor. Then Gollie gets a major case of stage fright while performing at the amateur talent show. The last story finds the girls consulting a seer about the future of their friendship. Don't worry, it's all good news. In fact, while gazing into my own crystal ball, I see a long string of books featuring these quirky protagonists.

Bink & Gollie: two for One
by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee
illustrations by Tony Fucile
Candlewick Press
Publication: June, 2012

Monday, June 18, 2012

Here Come the Girl Scouts!

I was never a girl scout. I think it had to do with the uniforms. I  had to wear a blue and white number to my Catholic elementary school and one uniform in my life was enough, thank you. That said, if Here Comes the Girl Scouts were around back then, I might have been tempted to sign up. Shana Corey does a great job showing the appeal of girls banding together to enjoy nature and friendship in this biography of its founder, Juliette Gordon Low.

Low, or Daisy as she's called throughout this picture book, was a girl with gumption who became a woman of even more gumption. She was in her early fifties when she started a group for girls based on the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides in England. Not one to waste time, Daisy travels the country raising money for her brainchild and spreading her belief that girls could do anything. The book, liberally sprinkled with sayings from the Girl Scout handbook, concludes with an author's note that goes into greater detail about the facts covered in the text. The mixed-media illustrations convey the can-do spirit behind the Girl Scouts. We see Daisy in action as she rides an elephant, fishes off a pier while in dinner party attire, and flies in a monoplane. Later on she goes hiking and camping with her scouts with the same energy and enthusiasm.

The Girl Scouts celebrated their 100th anniversary in March of this year. This book will help kids understand why the occasion is so momentous.

Here Come the Girl Scouts!
by Shana Corey
illustrations by Hadley Hooper
Scholastic Press, 40 pages
Published: 2012

Monday, June 11, 2012

Summertime and the Reading Is Easy

School's over in my nabe and summer stretches ahead, filled with promise. Vacation, pool parties, camp, catching fireflies at night, the plans are endless. For beginning readers, though, it's important not to put reading on the back burner. Skills hard won over the school year can erode as the months go by.

Summer reading should never be a chore. Take kids to the library and let them stock up on books they enjoy. Used book stores are another place to get good deals on inexpensive paperbacks, as are yard sales that sprout as quickly as dandelions.

Here are some books for beginning readers that capture the essence of summer. Let the good times begin!


Summer Days and Nights
by Wong Herbert Yee
Henry Holt, 2012
32 pages

A little girl explores summer as she catches a butterfly, goes on a picnic, and hears an owl in this quiet picture book.

by John Rocco
Hyperion, 2011
40 pages

When the power goes off one hot summer night a family reconnects as they discover all the fun that can be had without electricity.

Tar Beach
by Faith Ringgold
Dragonfly Books, 1996
32 pages

It's 1939, long before air conditioning, and on summer nights Cassie and her family go up on the roof of their apartment building to cool off. While on the roof Cassie imagines herself flying above the city and seeing the George Washington Bridge that her father helped build. Spellbinding artwork.


Frog and Friends: The Best Summer Ever
by Eve Bunting, illustrations by Josee Masse
Sleeping Bear Press, 2012
40 pages

Frog and his friends are back with a trio of stories about summer. Readers who have read all the books in Lobel's Frog and Toad series will feel right at home.

Cork and Fuzz: The Swimming Lesson
by Dori Chaconas, illustrations by Lisa Mccue
Viking, 2011
32 pages

Cork, a muskrat, tries to teach Fuzz, a possum, how to swim with humorous results.

Sam and the Firefly
by P.D. Eastman
Random House, 1958
72 pages

An oldie but still a goodie. Sam, a hoot owl, and Gus, a firefly, get in and out of trouble in this classic easy reader.


Starring Grace
by Mary Hoffman, illustrations by Caroline Binch
Puffin, 2001
96 pages

School's out and Grace's backyard turns into a circus, an emergency room, and a rocket launch pad as Grace and her friends let their imaginations take off.

Julian's Glorious Summer
by Ann Cameron
Perfection Learning, 1987

When Julian's friend, Gloria, gets a new bike, Julian fibs rather than tell her he's afraid of bikes. That fib snowballs and his summer turns out very different than what he expected.


A Stick Is an Excellent Thing: Poems Celebrating Outdoor Play
by Marilyn Singer, illustrations by LeUyen Pham
Clarion Books, 2012
40 pages

Joyful poems and stunning artwork capture kids playing outdoors in summer.

Poem Runs: Baseball Poems
by Douglas Florian
Harcourt, 2012
32 pages

Poems featuring America's favorite sport for kids six and up.

Toasting Marshmallows: Camping Poems
by Kristine O'Connell George, illustrations by Kate Kiesler
Clarion Books, 2001
48 pages

Eighteen poems about the fun of camping.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Great Cake Mystery

People who know me well know I love mysteries. I started at age 10 with the Nancy Drew series and never looked back. Today children can get hooked on detective stories at an even earlier age. Precious Ramotswe, a private eye living in Botswana, stars in a number of adult mysteries written by the prolific Alexander McCall Smith. Now young readers have the chance to meet Precious as Smith recounts how she solved her first case while still a schoolgirl. Smith has an easy, conversational style. He begins, "Have you ever said to yourself, Wouldn't it be nice to be a detective?" Readers feel themselves in the hands of a natural storyteller and immediately relax.

The mystery Precious solves is appropriately scaled for young readers. A thief is stealing delicious baked goods from students in school. When a boy is accused on circumstantial evidence, Precious comes to his rescue. And when the true suspect is revealed, like in every good mystery, readers will experience both surprise at not spotting the culprit sooner and a sense of inevitability.

Set in Botswana, the book immerses readers in a world much different from the world they know. Smith begins the book with Precious's father relating a tale of how he saved his village from a hungry lion by keeping his wits about him. Readers will relate, though, to Precious and her classmates, who behave as children do the world over.

The book is illustrated in striking woodcuts. Ian McIntosh limits himself to a palette of red, black, and gray, yet manages to produce  bold artwork that give the story a timeless feel. Altogether, this book serves as a fine introduction to the mystery genre.

The Great Cake Mystery
by Alexander McCall Smith
illustrations by Iain McIntosh
Anchor Books, 80 pages
Published: April 2012

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Evil Penguin Plan

Fans of Lunch Lady and Babymouse will enjoy the capers of the flying beaver siblings, Ace and Bub. In this start to the graphic novel series the duo join forces to thwart the plans of a group of penguins intent on turning Beaver Island into an icy wonderland. The wacky humor begins on the first page and continues to the last with sure-fire gaffaws along the way.

Although they look identical, the brothers have way different energy levels. Ace is a dynamo in constant motion while Bub prefers to catch a snooze whenever the opportunity arises (and sometimes when it doesn't). It's  Ace then who spots a bizarre underwater contraption while practicing for the island's annual surfing competition. He and Bub investigate and learn that the invention (which resembles a giant refrigerator) will deep freeze the island and turn it into a penguin paradise. Our heroes are determined not to let that happen and how they succeed is hilariously portrayed in a series of wordless panels that culminate in the pair saving their island home and winning the surfing competition. Not bad for a day's work.  

 The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Evil Penguin Plan
by Maxwell Eaton III
Alfred A. Knopf, 96 pages
Published: January 2012

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Earwig and the Witch

Earwig is used to getting her own way. An orphan left on the doorstep of St. Morwald's Home for Children, Earwig knows how to make others do her bidding. At her request the cook prepares her favorite lunch of shepherd's pie, the matron hurries to keep her supplied in  red sweaters, and her fellow orphans indulge her in dimly-lit games of hide-and-seek, even the kids who are scared of the dark. Earwig is not among them. "Earwig was never frightened. She had a very strong personality."

This strong personality seems to meet her match when a strange couple visit the orphanage looking to foster a child. Till now Earwig has managed to fend off potential parents. For Earwig has no interest in leaving the orphanage. Why would she? She's got everyone in the joint under her thumb.

The couple choose Earwig, despite her best efforts to look unlovable, and take her home to their bungalow at Thirteen Lime Avenue. From the start, Earwig suspects the couple of being not what they seem. She's right. The "raggety, ribbly" woman in the big red hat is a bona fide witch and the man who has fiery eyes and what appear to be horns growing from his head is you-guessed-it. Earwig is put to work as the witch's assistant and spends her days pounding rat bones into powder and picking nettles from the garden. Her days of getting her own way are apparently over.

Or not. Earwig is a plucky child and she doesn't give in to despair. Refreshingly, she finds the odd situation she's in a challenge and one to be overcome not endured. Determined to learn magic, she pairs up with the witch's familiar, a talking black cat named Thomas, and together the two manage to turn the tables on the couple. By book's end Earwig is once again firmly in the driver's seat. How she gets there makes for a fast, entertaining read.

Knowing this is Diana Wynne Jones' last book made reading the story bittersweet. Although I can't know for sure, many signs pointed to this book being the first in a series. The question of Earwig's lineage (she was left at St. Morwald's with a tantalizing note pinned to her shawl) is left dangling, as is her friendship with Custard, a timid boy at the orphanage.

Earwig and the Witch
by Diana Wynne Jones
illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky
Greenwillow, 128 pages
Published: January 2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

Frog and Fly: Six Slurpy Stories

Beginning readers will devour the simple yet hilarious stories featuring two small adversaries in nature's food chain. Frog can't help having a serious hankering for Fly. He loves the little fellow, especially with lots of ketchup. In each of the first five stories, Frog gets the better of Fly. And by better, I mean Fly ends up in the crafty amphibian's stomach. In a funny and satisfying conclusion, the final story finds Frog the victim of an unexpected slurp.

The appeal of these stories to beginning readers can't be overstated. The simple, short sentences repeat challenging words and sound patterns while the action, portrayed in comic book panels, moves swiftly to the punch line. Kids can gleefully anticipate each story's final slurp without not quite knowing how it will come about. Frog and Fly is sure to hop off the shelves and into young readers' hands.

Frog and Fly: Six Slurpy Stories
by Jeff Mack
Philomel, 40 pages
Published: March 2012

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Marty McGuire Digs Worms!

Marty's back! You have to hand it to a third-grader who has no qualms about shredding her collection of princess paper dolls (unwanted gifts from a well-meaning but clueless grandmother) in order to recycle paper. In this second book of the series the students in Marty's school are on a mission to save the earth. A visiting environmentalist challenges the students to come up with projects to help the environment. When the glop of paper dolls fails to materialize into paper (and breaks the food processor to boot), Marty chooses a new project. With the help of Grandma Barb, her cool non-paper-doll-giving grandmother, Marty and her best friend Annie create a worm compost farm that will turn the leftovers from the school cafeteria into fertilizer.

Worms and third-graders make for an explosive mix, especially in the hands of Kate Messner. After the kids overfeed their slimy charges, the worms escape and Marty and Annie have to capture them. Patience isn't Marty's strong point, but over the course of the story she learns to wait for her worms to slowly process trash into compost. On the big day, the environmentalist returns to judge the projects. Will Marty's worms win or won't they? Messner cleverly keeps readers at the edge of their seats as the winners are announced and brought on stage.

Marty is an engaging character, one whom kids will be sure to root for. And the environmentalist message, while prevalent, is rarely heavy handed. The students at Orchard Street Elementary genuinely care about saving the environment. One girl, whose father sometimes throws soda cans in the regular trash and not the recycling bin, sets up a metal detector that will buzz if aluminum goes in. As she explains, "I really wanted to set it up so he'd get zapped with a shock, too, like those electric dog fences, but my mom said I couldn't." The story is heavily sprinkled with such humorous tidbits, making it an enjoyable read. Brian Floca's light-hearted illustrations add to the fun.

Marty McGuire Digs Worms!
by Kate Messner
illustrations by Brian Floca
Scholastic Press, 176 pages
Published: April 2012

Friday, May 11, 2012

Goodnight, Mr. Sendak

"Please don't go. We'll eat you up. We love you so."
from Where the Wild Things Are

It's hard to add anything new to the tributes to Maurice Sendak that have been flowing in since his death on Tuesday, so I'll just let the great one speak for himself. Here are some quotes that especially resonate with me.

"You cannot write for children. They're much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them."

"I believe there's no part of our lives, our adult as well as child life, when we're not fantasizing, but we prefer to relegate fantasy to children, as though it were some tomfoolery only fit for the immature minds of the young. Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do."

"A woman came up to me the other day and said, 'You're the kiddie-book man.' I wanted to kill her."

"Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children's letters--sometimes very hastily--but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, "Dear Jim: I loved your card." Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, "Jim loved your card so much he ate it." That to me was one of the highest compliments I've ever received. He didn't care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it."

"There must be more to life than having everything."

"I have a little tiny Emily Dickinson so big that I carry in my pocket everywhere. And you just read three poems of Emily. She is so brave. She is so strong. She is such a sexy, passionate, little woman. I feel better."

"I'm not Hans Christian Andersen. Nobody's gonna make a statue in the park with a lot of scrambling kids climbing up me. I won't have it, okay?"

Monday, May 7, 2012

Happy Children's Book Week!

Today's the start of Children's Book Week so take the time to share some great reads with the kids in your life. (Love Caldecott award winner David Wiesner's poster created especially for this event.) The Children's Book Council has a clever bookmark from Lane Smith you can print out. And check out libraries and bookstores for special events. My local library chose today to close for two weeks for much needed renovations. Good timing, huh?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Penny and Her Song

Kevin Henkes's picture books were well-thumbed in our house back when my daughter was a child. She especially loved Julius, the Baby of the World, which features Lilly, a mouse child who does not take well to the arrival of a baby brother. As Lilly puts it: "If he was a number, he would be zero." I spent hours reading this story to my daughter, and later, when she was school age, she'd laboriously copy the text in her childish hand. What I found amazing about her dedication to this work of sibling rivalry is that she's an only child.

Fast forward twenty years. Penny and Her Song is Henkes's latest book and it's an easy reader. Penny, the story's young heroine is, like Lilly, a mouse child, but with two baby siblings. While this would have driven Lilly around the bend, Penny takes their existence in stride. Where Lilly was boisterous and outrageous, Penny is quiet and resourceful. She comes home from school bursting to share her song with her parents. Except she can't. The babies are asleep. Now Lilly would have thrown a tantrum on the spot. Not Penny. She goes to her room and attempts to sing the song to herself and to her glass animals. Neither does the trick. She needs a proper audience. After dinner Penny finally gets her chance and after listening, her parents and the babies join the show, singing until they are all tuckered out and ready for bed.

When I started the story I fully expected Penny to act up when she didn't get her way. How refreshing that Henkes, without moralizing, shows his readers the benefits of using self-control and patience. Short, direct sentences combined with Henkes's always delightful illustrations give us a winning easy reader children will want to read again and again. And, who knows, maybe even copy the text word for word.

Watch Kevin Henkes as he talks about Penny.

Penny and Her Song
by Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow Books, 32 pages
Published: February 2012

Monday, April 30, 2012

Goodbye National Poetry Month

Today is the last day of April, oh cruel month, and hence the last day of National Poetry Month. Around the blogosphere people have been celebrating by creating book spine poetry. My contribution is above. The six books are:

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee
Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox
Trouble by Fay Weldon
Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
Instead of Three Wishes by Megan Whalen Turner
Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pinch and Dash Make Soup

Marcia Brown's Stone Soup, Sendak's Chicken Soup with Rice, Lobel's Mouse Soup, Mercer's Octopus Soup. What is it about soup that gets it featured in so many books for kids? My all-time favorite soup story is the "Tear Soup" chapter in Lobel's Owl at Home, which Owl makes by thinking sad thoughts and filling his bowl with his own salty tears.

And now there's another easy reader with soup on the menu--Pinch and Dash Make Soup. The two friends, animals of indeterminable woodland species, live next door to each other. Hungry but too lazy to cook or walk to the local Chat and Chew, Pinch drops by Dash's home hoping to snag a free meal. Pinch is in luck. Dash is at the stove preparing a lunch of "skinny soup" and invites his friend to join him. Unimpressed by the skimpy meal, Pinch travels back and forth fetching supplies from his own kitchen until the soup is "fat." Pinch, however, likes his soup spicy and wants to add black pepper and hot sauce to the bubbling brew. Dash does not. They squabble with results disastrous to the soup though luckily not to the friendship.  

Beginning readers will find a lot to like in this engaging new series. Pinch and Dash are yin-and-yang friends characteristic of so many classic readers, and the text and illustrations work together to underscore the humor. For instance, to get ingredients for the soup Pinch must walk "all the way home," which the art depicts as being next door in an attached house. My only criticism? The soup sounded so yummy I wish a recipe was included, and I'd add black pepper and hot sauce for sure!

Pinch and Dash Make Soup
by Michael J. Daley
illustrations by Thomas F. Yezerski
Charlesbridge 48 pages
Published: February 2012

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Class Trip

This past Friday I traveled to Edward Heston Elementary School in West Philly to participate in National Library Week. WePAC (West Philadelphia Alliance for Children) is a fine organization dedicated to restoring libraries in public schools that have gone without for too long due to budget cuts and other nasty things. Volunteers restock the library shelves and donate their time to ensure that children will have access to a library. WePAC asked a bunch of children's authors and illustrators to share their books with the children in their program during National Library Week and I was happy to oblige.

I read to a class of second graders, and I could barely get a word in edgewise. These kids were so thrilled to be meeting an author that their hands were rarely down. I could have spent the entire session answering their questions. I showed them a selection of my books and then read one of my nonfiction books. I selected Emerald Boas: Rain Forest Undercover because I was pretty sure most kids are interested in snakes and because, frankly, of the wonderful photographs of the snake squeezing its prey and swallowing it whole. As I suspected, the class ate it up. Most of their follow-up questions I handled with ease except for one little boy's. He urgently wanted to know exactly how baby snakes were made. "That's a whole other book, my friend," I told him.

Afterwards the kids were so enamored with the books I brought, I donated them to the library. They solemnly came up and told me which ones they planned to check out. Because the library has so few books, they can check out only one per week. For many of these kids this is their only access to books. If anyone would like to donate to the WePAC program, I urge you to do so. Here's a link to their website with information about how to donate.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

National Library Week

April 8th through the 14th is National Library Week, a time to celebrate libraries and all they do. As a book lover and author, I'm naturally a big fan. This past month I moved to Phoenixville, and a hop, skip, and jump away from my news digs is a grand old-fashioned public library, built in 1901 with funds from Andrew Carnegie. I've already borrowed dozens of books for the new project I'm working on, as well as an Amy Bloom short story collection. And I haven't even hit the dvd section yet.

Phoenixville Library
To do my bit for National Library Week, I'm taking part in a very worthwhile program. The West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC) invited me and other children's book authors and illustrators to go to elementary schools in West Philly and read to groups of children. I've snagged a second-grade class, and I'm excited to visit with them this Friday and share some of my books. I'll tell you how it went next week.