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