Friday, July 25, 2014

A Comical Con

Varian Johnson
It's refreshing to see a diverse group of friends with a range of talents working together to "fix" any bully--but especially an entitled bully. That is the central plot of The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson.

It's Jackson Greene's first outing without his big brother, and he's doing a smashing job. The kids keep referring to a previous effort, one that got Jackson in trouble with his former crush, Gabi, even though he got back at wealthy, bullying Keith Sinclair. Now Keith is obsessed with winning the student council presidency against Gabi, even if it means stealing the election. Jackson plans to fix Keith's wagon once and for all.

This is the Hardy Boys ratcheted up a notch. Jackson and his pals are determined to intercede and take justice into their own hands. The adults are none too helpful. The principal's secretary is prejudiced, and the principal is on the take from the wealthy parents of the bully in question. What recourse do Jackson and his friends have, other than to mete out justice themselves?

One of the many fun features of this comical con game--in addition to the diverse cast--is Jackson's ability to judge characters. So when things seem to go haywire on his team, well, it was all part of the plan. Readers will hope for more from this resourceful group of friends.

Varian Johnson's book has become an independent bookseller favorite: two indies in Massachusetts--Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, and Eight Cousins in Falmouth--competed in a "Great Greene Challenge" to see which booksellers could hand-sell the most copies of the title. It became a national selloff, and readers had the most to gain.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Visual Grammar

Alison Jay has always created a visual story line in her books, and her beachside adventure Out of the Blue follows that established pattern. Her alphabet book (A B C) and counting book (1 2 3) teach youngest children these early concepts, and they also give them a plot line to follow that unfolds entirely through the illustrations. Out of the Blue, with no words, tells a complete story--two children make friends, take shelter from a storm, and rescue a giant octopus. It's liberating for children who are just learning to read because they can make up their own story.

Jay helps youngest children build confidence, as she reinforces all that they know: pages move from left to right, children can point out the heroes in the book who appear repeatedly (the boy and the girl) and they can follow the secondary characters down the beach. They do not need to decode words to "read" the story.

This spring at the Bank Street College of Education, Stephen Savage spoke about “visual grammar” using his book Where’s Walrus? to explain his idea. He spoke of the text and illustrations as “the harmony and melody of the song” and pointed to silent movies as “the original wordless books.” He explained the four components he believes are essential to books without words:

1)  The close-up
2)  Color/contrast
3)  Design/branding
4)  Pattern/repetition

You can see these elements most clearly in Where's Walrus?, but they also come into play in Alison Jay's work.

Children take in everything around them. They are sponges, absorbing how the world works long before they have words to explain what they're seeing. These elements, of which Savage spoke so eloquently, and which Jay also employs in her books, help children unlock the story within the book and also to use those strategies to make sense of the events in their own experiences.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cooking Up a Celebration

Jan Thomas

Jan Thomas takes true toddler scenarios and finds the humor and fun in them, as she does in A Birthday for Cow!

Pig and Mouse do a perfectly normal good deed: They make a cake for Cow--"the best birthday cake EVER," in fact. Duck keeps trying to tell them something in his gently (and later, not so gently) insistent way. As Pig and Mouse combine the flour, sugar and eggs, Duck says, "And a TURNIP?" They mix it all together with... "A TURNIP!" Duck repeats. It may seem as though Duck is just being silly, but what toddlers learn at the end is this: Cow loves turnips.

Jan Thomas hints at the outcome with Duck's close attention to the calendar as Cow's birthday draws near. The blue X's indicate Duck's count down to a special day--not Duck's birthday, but Cow's birthday. Duck keeps trying to tell his friends what the perfect present would be for Cow, but they are intent on making a cake -- perfectly reasonable (Pig and Mouse certainly enjoy it), but not what Cow would wish to eat.

It's a subtle lesson delivered with heaping helpings of humor, that sometimes what we would want for ourselves is not what someone else would want. Duck thought about what Cow really loves, and that was the gift Duck gave to Cow. Or, maybe it's because Duck loves turnips, too...

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Only Summer Slides Are at the Pool

With school dismissed, it's time for pure pleasure reading. Emily's Blue Period by Cathleen Day, illustrated by Lisa Brown, will send youngsters scurrying for scraps of wrapping paper, crayons and paintbrushes to make their creations. For additional inspiration, dip into Lois Ehlert's The Scraps Book.
Children will start toe-tapping and beat-bopping with I Got the Rhythm by husband-and-wife team Frank and Connie Schofield-Morrison. You can't dance without music, so pick up The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra by Chris Raschka. Haven't heard of Sun Ra? Many of his recordings are now available on YouTube, and Raschka's illustrations sway to Sun Ra's sounds.

Gather the family around The Pilot and the Little Prince by Peter Sís, the picture-book biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, then reread The Little Prince and note how many of the facts about the pilot's life made their way into the classic. If you have a child who loved to get lost in Harry Potter, give him or her The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove. The maps, time warps and parallel worlds will keep the pages of this thick book flying. Do you have a reader who's not so committed? The Cabinet of Curiosities by Stefan Bachmann lets readers dip in and out of 36 spine-tingling tales.

For kids on the cusp of adolescence, This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki speaks to precisely where they are. The smart, funny narrator of Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McMahon addresses love between sisters, friends and, yes, potential romance. Did you miss The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau? Summer is the time to start this dystopian trilogy. And finally, a book for you and your teen: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Three cousins, one best friend, a grandfather worthy of Lear with an island off Massachusetts as his kingdom. Let me know what you think.

This article first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Family Intact

Erin McCahan in Grand Haven, MI
It is rare in young adult fiction to find a family that gets along well, in which an author portrays teens with parents who respect them and allow them autonomy. Erin McCahan paints such a family portrait in Love and Other Foreign Words.

Josie Sheridan likes routine, predictability, consistency, and she dislikes surprises. Yet everything is changing. Her sister Kate is getting married, and Josie does not approve. Josie must work hard to do the things that come naturally to others. She practices the signature hug for her volleyball team (at home, in private) so that she can belong, but then everyone wants a "Josie hug," which was not the goal she sought.

Josie's father really "gets" her, and provides some much-needed compassion for his youngest daughter. But he also knows when to draw the line, when to point out that she's in the wrong. And he does it in such a way that she must do some soul-searching. He does not make anything easy for her, because he knows she likes to--even needs to--puzzle things out.

So often novels aimed at teens explore the rift between parent and child once he or she enters adolescence. Here's a novel in which the parents give their teen space to become the person she's yearning to become. They trust her and have faith in her, even when she's acting badly. Maybe it's because she's the third of three children. Maybe they've learned with their first two that their children have to figure it out for themselves, but this mother and father have an approach that works.

Josie's mother and father know that along with their daughter's genius come some social challenges, and they are there to guide her, but they also know she must learn from her own missteps. Yes, the friendship, the portrayal of sister relationships, and the awakening of romance are terrific, but the strong, loving relationship between Josie and her parents may be most memorable of all.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Map of Time

"To her infinite mortification, Sophia had no internal clock," thinks 13-year-old Sophia Tims, the heroine of S.E. Grove's debut novel, The Glass Sentence. The author examines the nature of time and memory in terms that an 8- and 9-year-old can understand. Children know how chores seem to last forever, and a great hours-long neighborhood game of stickball flashes by. Sophia's way of coping may well inspire readers' own methods of time trekking.

Sophia finds her lack of internal clock mortifying because her uncle is the world's finest cartologist, able to make and read maps from all eras. Ever since the Great Disruption, time has settled differently in different parts of the world. Her parents (who disappeared 10 years ago on an expedition) also possess a keen sense of time. But for Sophia, hours can go by undetected, and she also has trouble gauging the time that's lapsed between events.

She copes by creating elaborate accordion-style calendars. She marks all of the important things that happen on that date. At a glance, she can see when something of significance to her occurred, and how much time has gone by since then.

Think of the applications for a child reader. What fun to browse a variety of calendars and for a child to experiment with the tracking method that works best for him or her. They can use the traditional month-at-a-glance calendar, a week-long track, or a daily calendar; tape them together vertically or horizontally; enlarge it on a photocopier or shrink it down. They can draw pictures on each day to indicate someone new they've met, a family reunion, a baby-sitting job or a work shift. It can be as simple or as sophisticated as they want it to be.

If they already use a journal, Sophia's tracking system might spark other ideas of what to include--drawings, collage, scraps of paper. Sophia's way of coping with her "mortification" is not so different from Chuck Close's 10-foot-long illustrated map of Lewis and Clark's expedition in Chuck Close: Face Book, his strategy for learning history in school. Readers may be inspired by Sophia to create a timeline of their own lives that (literally) unfolds, a map of time and events of significance chiefly to its maker.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Keeping Track

Byron Barton

In My Bus by Byron Barton, Joe the driver keeps track of which passengers--a mix of cats and dogs--board and depart from his bus. Children can follow along and see exactly how many cats and dogs are traveling at any given time.

Barton keeps the dogs on one side of the bus and the cats on the other, for easy tallying. He never explicitly states "1 dog + 4 dogs = 5 dogs," but mentally children take note of how many are on the bus. It's a brilliant way to make young readers aware that they sort out and sum up the things in their world all the time.

There are four people in a child's family, let's say. Two have arrived at the dinner table; we're waiting for two more. One clears the dishes after the meal; three are still seated at the table. There's no fancy addition or subtraction; it's a simple way to be mindful of what's going on around them.

Byron gives children other things to look at, too--a boat, a plane, a train. And at the end of My Bus, the first dog passenger that boarded the bus leaves with Joe the driver: "I drive one dog home. My dog! Bow wow." (And for cat lovers, one cat ends the book: "Meow.") Satisfying in every way.