Friday, December 20, 2013

Fun with Color

Little hamsters help toddlers to recognize and name familiar colors in the playful board book This Little Hamster by Kass Reich. The examples mix the routine with the whimsical. For black, it's a tire (in the form of a swing), a top hat, and a "healthy snack" (blackberries).

Repetitive phrasing allows toddlers to join in on repeat readings, and large, open type helps them recognize patterns of letters and length of words, even if they're not reading yet. The pictures clearly show the items mentioned in the text, and the charming hamsters make ideal models for the objects under examination.

Hamsters Holding Hands, also by Reich, which counts up to 10 and back down again, boasts a "meatier" story line, but by the time toddlers finish this pair of board books, they will be quite comfortable with both numbers and colors--and likely will have shared more than a few laughs.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Two Sides to the Story

Gene Luen Yang

 Gene Luen Yang is no stranger to pushing the limits of what graphic novels can say and do. With his Boxers & Saints, he tells both sides of the story of China's late-19th-century Boxer Rebellion. It's a conflict rarely taught in schools, yet its themes reverberate through history: economic disparity, oppression, freedom to practice one's beliefs, and a right to education.

Yang's highly visual approach, and his balance of humor with weightier themes make this a fascinating, entertaining journey to a foreign land during a pivotal era. The origins of the project began in Yang's own back yard--at a celebration of Chinese Catholics newly canonized by Pope John Paul II at the author-artist's Catholic church in the San Francisco area, he told us in an interview for School Library Journal's Curriculum Connections. As he researched these martyrs from China, Yang also gained compassion for the peasantry who fought against the missionaries arriving from Europe to increase their congregation--and their power.
Photo Credit: Jarrett Krosoczka

Teens will find both Bao, the hero of Boxers, and Four-Girl, the heroine of Saints, to be sympathetic. The way Yang integrates their stories and intersects their paths in the two books makes it nearly impossible to choose sides. Bao's fondness for the Chinese Operas through which he learns history leads to a visually entrancing comics-like superhero-style thread (when the peasant-rebels fight, they transform into Chinese deities). Yet Yang ratchets up the emotional impact as high as the suspense about the fate of his two protagonists. The author-artist's exploration of China's terrain, gender differences, and the lack of education available to its less affluent citizens will further contribute to readers' appreciation of the full potential of the graphic novel form.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Paleoartist on the Case

Catherine Thimmesh

Catherine Thimmesh takes a unique approach to dinosaur detective work in Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled: How Do We Know What Dinosuars Really Looked Like? First off, the book makes readers aware that those who draw and paint dinosaurs are also scientists.

Kids may already assume that those who put together dinosaur skeletons must be scientists, to know which bone is connected to what other bones, but what about those who sketch and paint dinosaurs?

The other thing Thimmesh makes clear is that scientists must stay current to new scientific discoveries and also be open-minded, willing to revise their models and drawings in accordance with those discoveries. A perfect example in the book is Stephen and Sylvia Czerkas's life-size reconstruction of the dinosaur Deinonychus--which served as the model for the raptors in the Jurassic Park movies. The couple spent three years working on those models. "Every single scale was delineated," Sylvia Czerkas explained. But then scientists discovered that Deinonychus had feathers, so the couple covered over their three years' work with feathers instead. "That's what you have to do," Stephen Czerkas said. "You have to be ready to change what you think in the face of new scientific evidence.... [It] was undeniably clear that Deinonychus and many types of dinosaurs were feathered."

Thimmesh, through specific examples, such as pairing two paintings of Triceratops a century apart (one by Charles R. Knight, another by Mark Hallett), or the previous example of the Czerkases' revision, demonstrates how flexible scientists must be--willing to reexamine their approach in light of new evidence. It's scientific theory in practice, and models for children that the best practitioners must combine discipline, research, critical thinking and creativity in their endeavors.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Everyday Miracles

Bob Graham

For a parent, every change in a baby's activities feels giant: holding up one's head, sitting up, and taking a first step. For an older sibling, it's just part of his or her experience. That's what Bob Graham captures so well in The Silver Button.

Life is going on all around Jonathan and his family. Laundry dries on a rack near the blanket where his older sister, Jodie, draws and the dog naps; a woman pushes a stroller outside the window. As Jonathan sways and tilts on his way to his first step, Jodie draws the final silver button on the boot of the duck in her drawing. Jonathan and Jodie's mother is playing on her pipe in the kitchen and misses the whole thing.

As author and artist Bob Graham moves the perspective farther and farther back, readers see that a baby is born across town, and people are at their desks working. They are completely unaware of this giant milestone in Jonathan's life. Jodie is his witness and alerts her mother, but continues with her drawing.

Yet we know the significance of Jonathan's milestone by the image of his mother's enveloping embrace of her boy and the look on her face--both pride at his accomplishment and sorrow at... what? having missed it? the idea that he's no longer her baby? Graham wisely leaves the mother's thoughts unspoken. This insightful book allows readers of all ages to appreciate life's significant moments and the importance of pausing to honor them.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What Do They Do?

Mark Teague

Children who are asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" can find out for themselves whether they'd like to be a firefighter, thanks to Mark Teague's Firehouse! Just right for toddlers, this inviting board book gives plenty of information about the inner workings of the fire station and the teamwork involved in the work firefighters do--without the fright of an actual fire.

Both canine characters Edward and Judy visit, so boys and girls will both feel included. First the firefighters have a practice fire drill--just like at school. They practice all the steps in preparing for a real alarm. Next, an actual alarm sounds, and Edward, Judy and the firefighters are ready. Spared an actual fire, the firefighters are off to rescue a kitten stranded in the treetops. Edward and Judy's lives are never in danger, and Edward plays a major role in the kitten's rescue.

Teague walks toddlers through the firefighters' routine without the life-or-death stakes. The book is a great way to prepare for a visit to the firehouse or when a child's curiosity is piqued after seeing a fire engine drive past. It answers children's basic questions (What do they wear? Where do they stay?) without raising their fears.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Pieces of a Puzzle

Meg Rosoff

Picture Me Gone came to Meg Rosoff in small pieces, the way the clues to the mystery at the heart of the novel came to her 12-year-old narrator. 

First, the author found the name Mila (pronounced MEE-lah). Then, she met a lone dog in the park with a nametag that said Mila. "I don’t believe in extraterrestrial communication," Rosoff told me in an interview, "but I had a little bit of a feeling that someone was telling me to go to work." That dog also gave the author her opening line ("The first Mila was a dog"), and after that, the book was all in her head: "It was a moment of magic that happens sometimes with writing," she said.

Rosoff knew that Mila and her father, Gil, would be trying to find someone--Matthew, Gil's oldest friend--but she wasn't sure why Matthew left. One of the key early clues for Mila is that Susannah, Matthew's wife, seems to be angry with the family dog--Susannah completely ignores Honey. Mila realizes Honey must be Matthew's dog, and what kind of person leaves his dog behind? Rosoff wasn't sure when she began why Susannah would hate Honey, but over time, as she rewrote and rewrote, it became clear to her. "It was like applying thin layers of paint, draft after draft," she said. "Each draft got a little more complex."

The parallel between Mila and Rosoff herself, this process of discovery in solving a mystery and writing a novel, seems too strong to ignore. The creative process is a mystery. In the composition of a novel or a painting or a piece of music, the creator may have an idea of where he or she is going, but the way to get there is often elusive. And on the journey, like Mila, the artist often discovers something about herself in putting together the puzzle.   

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Job Well Done

Anne Ursu

In The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, Oscar has a talent he does not wish to trumpet. He is very good at mixing healing herbs and potions for his guardian, Master Caleb, "the first magician in a generation." Oscar loves working away in the lab with his many cats for company. He loves gathering the herbs in the magical forest where he can feel the presence of the ancient wizards. He has no interest in accolades; he just wants to know that his remedies work.

But when circumstances change--when the magician must travel and Oscar must come out into the shop and deal with customers who wish to purchase the fruits of his labors--he freezes. Luckily, Callie, an apprentice to a healer with a gift for communicating with others, befriends Oscar. She trades him some coaching on his people skills for his talent for concocting just the right remedies for her patients.

Oscar is the perfect example of so many people--child or adult--whose skill is working alone or with equally focused peers on projects--and then when they are pressured to come out into the world and talk about what they've done, they are terrified, even paralyzed. Such radically different skills are involved. The ability to focus inwardly and give one's full attention to a painting or a novel or a scientific experiment or math formula is one thing, and then to have it be seen by others outside yourself or to feel compelled to show or explain it--how rattling that can be.

The Real Boy, in addition to building suspense and creating a complete world, and turning readers' assumptions on their ears, also allows young people to examine these conflicting impulses--to create something and to just be pleased by its creation--and the implicit pressure to tell the world about it. Master Caleb loves to flaunt, so readers see that contrast between the magician and Oscar. But they will also discover a champion for Oscar in the baker, who finds contentment in nourishing others with his well-made bread, and who looks out for Oscar.

With all the emphasis on Tweeting and posting on Facebook and blogging for all manner of accomplishments--from choosing a good restaurant to winning an accolade--Oscar presents a fascinating contrast as someone who takes his sense of self-worth from a job well done. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Born Storyteller

Ashley Bryan
Ashley Bryan is a born storyteller. In his latest book, Can't Scare Me!, we can see that the boy narrator is a budding storyteller, and his grandma is a pro. She tells her grandson a tale to help him turn his hubris to humility.

The first time I saw Ashley Bryan at a conference, he performed "Things" by Eloise Greenfield. It's a poem about how, after other things are gone, a poem is something you have forever. Ashley Bryan really does "perform" a text--he inhabits each word. He had "Things" memorized, but he continued to look down at the book in his hands (Honey, I Love), as he explained it, to show children the power of the written word spoken aloud. He wants children to make that connection. 

With Can't Scare Me! the boy's grandmother tells him of a two-headed giant and his three-headed brother, who come out after dark. His reply serves as the book's refrain, "Tanto, tanto, I'm wild and I'm free./ Grandma's stories can't scare me./ I'm bold! I'm brave!/ And though I may be small,/ No many-headed giant/ Scares me at all." With the rhymes and the scanning of the lines, the text rolls off the tongue; it's a foolproof text for reading aloud, even for those who are just starting to read aloud to young people.

From Can't Scare Me!
Bryan's approach to art is as playful as his choice of words. The bright rainbow of colors helps take the fright out of the scary scenarios that the boy confronts. The green and pink faces of the two-headed giant who appears in the boy's path look like masks. Bryan always puts himself in the child's shoes. So as "willful" as the young hero is, we, like his grandma, also delight in his thirst for adventure--his "thrillful" side. In fact, this serves the hero well when the three-headed giant (who comes along next) pops the boy in a sack, because he never gives up trying to escape.

It's a wonderful story about bravery starring a hero who loves to scout new territory and try new things, but who also realizes that sometimes those with more experience (like Grandma) have some helpful guidance to give. Ashley Bryan is a born teacher as well as storyteller. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Time to Play

Interior from Giggle!

Board books often seem to be directed at the adult playing with the child, rather than to the child directly. Giggle! by Caroline Jayne Church speaks directly to toddlers, and encourages adults to engage with them in the activities suggested in these pages. 

Giggle!--like Pete's a Pizza by William Steig, The Baby Goes Beep! by Rebecca O'Connell, illustrated by Ken Wilson-Max, and Mitchell's License by Hallie Durand, illustrated by Tony Fucile--features toddlers that model fun things to do with your child that require nothing but imagination and interaction.

If your baby or toddler is having a fussy day, just press the Giggle! button that pops through the upper right-hand corner of every page, and the sound of laughter emanating from the book is sure to pass on its infectious joy and improve everyone's spirits.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Price of Power

Holly Black

What could be a more frightening thought than teens who aspire to be vampires? Not for love, as with Bella and Edward, but for the desire to stay beautiful and young forever. That is the picture Holly Black paints in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

Black taps into that teen mindset of invincibility and carries it to its logical extreme in thought-provoking and haunting ways. She lays out the "scientific" parameters of infection versus "turning," after a vampire bites a human (there's an 88-day "cold" period during which, if an infected human does not feed on the blood of another human, he or she can theoretically return to a "normal" human state), and the elaborate Coldtowns that the government has built to contain the infected. Black gives a back story that explains how vampires are "made" and the complicated way that Lucien--a power-grabbing vampire whose nightly broadcasts within the oldest and most famous Coldtown--has achieved his status.

Once there were strict rules designed to "control," or at least track, the vampires' lineage--and the mysterious vampire Gavriel (aka, the Thorn of Isra) played a part in it. But Lucien has changed all that. The human heroine, Tana, makes a decision to rescue Gavriel, and gradually uncovers his complex past, and reveals a complicated history of her own. It's an epic book, with a size to support it, yet it reads in a flash. Black melds her characters' addiction for power, glamour and blood with sly commentary on today's youth-obsessed culture. The humor comes as easily as the book's gothic elements.

If you've not yet read her Doll Bones (aimed at middle graders, but which will appeal to her YA fans, too), it makes a fascinating contrast to this book. With a very different tone and equally serious (though less gory) themes, it too explores friendship, family, loyalty and independence. In many ways, Coldtown, with its exploration of hierarchy, the breaking of rules and fierce love, shares more of the aura of her Curse Workers series. This reader can't wait to see what she does next.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Time Matters

The father in Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Skottie Young, disrupts the space-time continuum when he escapes through an emergency exit, against the wishes of his alien captors. All the man wants to do is take some milk back to his children for their breakfast.
Neil Gaiman
Photo: Brady Hall

His children believe that their father is taking a very long time to buy milk for their Toastios. The people and creatures their father meets on his journey live in an era different from his. Professor Steg, for instance, believes they are in the future, but the father knows the Stegasaurus is from the past. The aliens are outside of time, and who knows what era the pirates belong to.

Gaiman plays with the elasticity of time. Time passes quickly from the father's perspective, as he moves swiftly through time periods and challenging situations, milk safely in hand. To the children, time plods along at a snail's pace. As we wait for a loved one, time moves slowly; when we are swept up in events, time moves quickly.  In an ever more programmed world--programmed by events as well as technology--time moves at a breakneck pace. 

As an early adopter, Gaiman was one of the first to join Twitter. He tweets throughout the day and often crafts a blog entry from them at night. He uses Twitter to reflect in the moment, and his blog to reflect on the day. So it was especially interesting to hear Gaiman say, when I got a chance to interview him recently, that he plans to take a break from social media. Why? Gaiman says, "I would like to be bored more. I don't think I get bored enough these days, and I think boredom is a brilliant, brilliant way of coming up with ideas."

Time to be "bored" feeds the imagination. Time to do nothing, matters.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Wordless Books & Visual Literacy

For a child who cannot yet read--who cannot decode letters as symbols that represent sounds--wordless books such as Journey by Aaron Becker give them a way to tell the story they see. 

From Journey by Aaron Becker
Children will notice the only colors that pop in the opening pages of Journey: a boy's purple crayon, and a girl's red one. Like Crockett Johnson's Harold and his purple crayon, the girl uses her red one to create a world. In her case, it leads her out of her alienating sepia-toned cityscape and into a lush world of forests, interconnected waterways and steampunk airships. Eventually, a purple bird leads her back to the boy and his purple crayon. She is no longer alone. 

Stephen Savage's Where's Walrus? is a terrific introduction to wordless books for children. Its direct, implicit puzzle--finding Walrus, who's escaped from New York's Central Park Zoo--allows them to pick the hero from a line-up based on his unique characteristics (flippers, tail, tusks, etc.). The book gets them thinking about patterns, likenesses and differences. Generous white space and bold colors repeated for maximum effect make this an ideal book for giving children the idea of how to "read" a purely visual narrative. 

Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger includes a few words, to describe the bountiful shades of green that she showcases in the book, but the larger narrative goes unstated. A parent-child relationship that centers around a tree, which begins as a sapling and grows to be the anchor of their home, suggests the cycle of life. Her greens go from the concrete and literal ("lime green" / "pea green") to the more abstract ("all green" / "never green"). She uses die-cuts in the pages to train children's eyes on the details she wants to reveal to them. It's an ingenious way to demonstrate ways to inspect artwork carefully and unlock its secrets.

Jerry Pinkney's Caldecott Medal–winning The Lion and the Mouse, with its breathtaking landscapes of the Serengeti teeming with hidden treasures, invites children to pore over the pictures for flowers and creatures, large and small. Pinkney's gorgeous spreads of grandeur composed from the tiniest details echo Aesop's overriding theme of the interconnectedness and interdependence of nature's plants and species. 

Open any one of these books (and hopefully all four) to unlock how much your youngster has to say about what he or she sees.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Power of Words

Richard Scarry

Perhaps no one knows the power of words more than a toddler just starting to name the people, places and things in his or her world. Richard Scarry's Best Little Board Book Ever taps into that instinctive wish and helps youngest children take control of their needs. 

Richard Scarry understood that by naming the things around them, children begin to gain power. They can ask for what they need. They may not always get what they want (how many times have we heard them say, "I need it" when referring to a coveted toy or sugary cereal), but they can in fact get what they need, and they can be understood. 

The author-artist takes that very basic desire to communicate and gives children a way to take control of their world. As Frannie the bunny goes through a day very much like readers' own, she describes waking up, getting dressed, playing with friends--all the way through to bedtime. Scarry gives Frannie a constant companion in a little green bug (the bug, too, has a doll to cuddle with). Later, in the story Daddy reads Frannie at bedtime, the little green bug makes a number of appearances and ties the entire book together. Scarry provides enough of the familiar to make the new vocabulary easy to digest.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Readers and Writers

The truth is, it's only by writing that we become better readers. We begin to appreciate what it takes to write well. In Thrice Told Tales: Three Mice Full of Writing Advice, Catherine Lewis gives concrete examples of what effect different approaches to writing may have on the reader. She does this by putting teens--as the potential writers--in the reader's shoes. 
My Bible in high school

Perhaps you, like me, used Kate Turabian's A Manual for Writers as your Bible while writing in high school and college. The trouble is, it's a great reference for research papers, but as a guide to drawing in readers (or listeners, when we had to give oral reports in front of the class), not so much. If we were lucky, a good teacher pointed us to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. But Lewis wrote Thrice Told Tales especially for teens, and lets them in on the tricks of the trade for great writers, and also gives them the tools to analyze--as readers--why a piece of writing moved them in a particular way.

A godsend in college
(It also warmed the cockles of my heart to see a sentence diagram [illustrated by Joost Swarte] in Lewis's pages--it reminded me of Mrs. Hecker, my seventh-grade English teacher at South Junior High, who taught us how to do sentence diagrams. No dangling prepositional phrases for her students!)

Lewis gives writers the nuts and bolts (such as sentence parts, as with those fab diagrams) with Three Blind Mice as her framework--a tale they know well--to get them walking. Once writers have mastered that, she let's them run--with secrets to the craft. Through the use of metaphors, similes, point of view and more, she offers up not just definitions, but their actual use in context. Because Lewis provides a loose narrative of a trio of mice with different personalities, she often offers contrasting ways of expressing the same set of facts, depending on the perspective of the three observers. She also lays out a smorgasbord of styles from a wide range of writers, such as Dickens, Homer, and Hemingway. She models critical thinking for readers, and also demonstrates for aspiring writers how the choices they make elicit different responses from readers.

Catherine Lewis reveals the tools for good writing, and encourages young people who wish to write well to practice with these tools. Thrice Told Tales is for writers, readers and teachers; it's made for dipping in and out, for mini-lessons or for first-aid "how do I get out of this mess" writing crises. Put this in teens' hands, and see how they run.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Myths to Explain Our World

Have you noticed how the days are getting shorter? How it's sometimes dark when you wake up now, and the sun sets earlier? In The Time Fetch, Amy Herrick creates a captivating mythology to explain why this is so.

Eighth-grader Edward has disturbed a Fetch in the middle of December, "a dangerous time." The Fetch collects the stray minutes, the moments you won't miss -- and disperses them where they're needed. But Edward's interference puts the Fetch's job in jeopardy. The boy needs a rock for Mr. Ross's science class, and grabs the nearest one from his kooky Aunt Kit's backyard. Aunt Kit has raised Edward and, with a sense of foreboding, tells him to come straight home and offers him some cryptic words of advice, "It's the short end of the year," when "the curtain between here and there grows thin." As odd as her phrases seem, they begin to make sense to Edward--and to readers--as bizarre occurrences whirl around the Fetch. 

Amy Herrick
Photo credit: Breukellen Riesgo
The Fetch may be Herrick's invention, but she uses the idea of time's perceived elasticity to explore age-old ideas. Edward's Aunt Kit is the first to broach the subject ("Without time everything would happen at once," says she), then Mr. Ross introduces the topic of time as the fourth dimension (along with length, width and height). This may lead neatly into a discussion with young readers of how man has always sought explanations for things he cannot understand, from the oral tradition of the Aztecs to the controversial heliocentric ideas of Copernicus. Over the centuries, poets and scientists have always worked toward and continue to strive for a deeper understanding of how the universe works and where human beings fit within it.

The Time Fetch makes a natural complement to books such as A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle and Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, to further explore the nature of time and humankind's fascination with it over the centuries. And for adults and older children with a desire to explore these ideas, Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman (an MIT professor of physics and writing) is a beautiful piece of bookmaking--a series of meditations on the nature of time, to be enjoyed in short bursts, to allow time for Lightman's ideas to sink in before reading the next chapter. (This was one of the early paperbacks to use French flaps--maybe even the first.) 

Amy Herrick, whose inspiration for The Time Fetch began with a conversation with a friend about how time seemed in shorter supply now than when they were small, provides a wonderful gateway into a larger examination of how the world works.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Music Feeds the Soul

Sandra Boynton
One of the great things in life is watching a child fall in love with a song. When that happens, nothing else exists. The child instinctively starts moving to the beat and singing whatever he or she thinks the words are. Sandra Boynton's Frog Trouble gives children a songbook filled with likely candidates for a lovefest, and it includes the words so they can sing along with the CD with confidence, and with her signature animal characters to amplify the fun. 

What child wouldn't fall for Dwight Yoakam's ballad of a dog named Hank ("I've Got a Dog"), who howls to his crooner-owner's "lonesome song" and doesn't come when he's called, yet sticks by his human's side. A plucked string imitates a canine whining sound, and the spoons performed by Peter and Gordon Scott evoke the do-si-do of the best friends' dance. The Fountains of Wayne extol the virtues of "big trucks and little trucks and long trucks and tall," for "delivery or long-haul." A "downshift" in "Trucks" lowers the key for the singers, while a command to "throw it into fifth" leads to a modulation up. In the songbook, a pig in shades sits at the wheel of a red pick-up filled to capacity with apples. Later in the songbook/album, more than a dozen of Boynton's porkers star in Ryan Adams' wistful interpretation of "When Pigs Fly." 

Boynton and Ford vary tempos and tones beautifully. They follow up the soulful "Heartache Song," performed by Kacey Musgraves, and "When Pigs Fly" with a honky-tonk tune called "Broken Piano" (sung by Ben Folds) and the hilarious "Copycat," for which kids will attempt to keep pace with lead singer Brad Paisley trying to shake off the relentless feline chorus sporting identical hats and green guitars. For children who love to dance with partners, Boynton includes the choreography for "The Alligator Stroll" (a chicken crashes the reptiles' line dance).

In Boynton's equivalent of liner notes, which adults--especially teachers and musicians--and aspiring young singers and guitarists will regard as a treasured process log, she reveals that Alison Krauss was the first artist they signed to the project, for the elegant "End of a Summer Storm." The musicians' stellar work on this selection led Boynton and Ford to request that they play the entire album. With the variety of voices, moods and rhythms, these musicians provide the through line, along with Boynton's playful illustrations and design. You may also enjoy Boynton's TEDx Talk about working on the album.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Cause and Effect

Matthew Van Fleet
Matthew Van Fleet knows toddlers. His books zero in on one characteristic that fascinates them--in the case of Munch!, it's mouths and what animals do with them. Toddlers gnaw on everything, and Van Fleet's strong, durable pages, tabs and moving parts are built for those teething mouths.

But he also thinks through every pull of a tab. Each allows youngest children to see how things work. The pull-tab opens a mouth, and pushing the tab back into place closes it again (except in the case of the beaver, which wiggles the beaver's head and makes a "buzz" to indicate its teeth's whittling capabilities).

Toddlers get to see cause and effect. It's a big lesson for a small child, to see that they can make things happen. Author-artist-paper engineer Van Fleet thought through every part of this board book, and it's a perfect match with audience members that often lead with their teeth. Bravo!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Grimm Structure

Tom McNeal takes the structure of a Grimm fairy tale and crafts a completely original and compelling story in Far Far Away, involving magic, childhood pranks and disappearing children.

Tom McNeal
Fifteen-year-old Jeremy Johnson Johnson, like many heroes of the Brothers Grimm, must battle big forces alone. He is on a mission to save the house he shares with his father from foreclosure, to feed himself and his father, and to get himself through school with little or no support from his father--who's confined himself to his bed ever since his wife, Jeremy's mother, abandoned them. Luckily, the ghost of Jacob Grimm has taken on Jeremy as his project (Jacob believes that helping Jeremy will free him from the Zwischenraum, a kind of purgatory for "those who are agitated and uneasy").

McNeal suggests magic may be at work when Jeremy and his crush, Ginger Boultinghouse, both eat of the baker's signature Prinsesstårta (princess cakes). Jeremy has avoided the bakery ever since his mother succumbed to the "Legend of the First Bite," which says that whatever living thing you look upon during your First Bite of the Prinsesstårta would steal your heart. (Jeremy's mother skipped town with a Canadian stranger she looked upon at First Bite.) Ever after, Ginger seeks Jeremy out, at school and at home. She also convinces Jeremy to pull a prank on the baker with her and her friends, for which Jeremy accepts full blame. Both dungeons and forests come into play when Jeremy and Ginger are kidnapped. And then storytelling itself gets them through, adding a layer of metafiction to McNeal's tale.

The friendship developing between Jeremy and Ginger lightens the often dark overtones of the novel. Not only does Ginger cheer Jeremy's spirits, but he also keeps her going at key times. And, like Grimm, McNeal plants a few twists readers likely won't see coming. All along the way, readers learn about the Brothers Grimm, as the author offers factual reasons for a fictionalized ghost character to feel compelled to save Jeremy. (The author learned many of these facts doing research for the book.) McNeal's use of a small town in contemporary times, surrounded by a menacing and mysterious forest that feels as ancient as fairy tales, and a hint of magic--like the best of the Brothers Grimm--serve to further this timeless structure: a hero who faces his darkest fears and comes out the other side, forever changed but stronger for it. The difference is that here both Jeremy and Jacob undergo this transformation.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Love Letter to the Midwest

The Thing about Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, illus. by Julia Kuo, begins as the story of an intergenerational family and transforms into a love letter to the Midwest.
Cynthia Kadohata

Each year, Summer Miyamoto's family hits the road to harvest wheat in the fields of Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma. Usually her parents go with Summer, her brother, Jaz, her Obaachan (grandmother) and Jiichan (grandfather). This time, her parents are in Japan attending to elderly ailing relatives. So Summer's grandparents are in charge. Jiichan operates a combine, which reaps, threshes and winnows the wheat, and Obaachan and Summer prepare the meals for the combine operators. 

Their days are long, but the setting is breathtaking. Here Summer describes the uncut wheat on a gentle slope of the Franklins' Oklahoma farm: "It looked like windblown sand beneath the bright sky." As someone who grew up in Michigan, this reader appreciated the Midwest anew, seeing the landscape through Summer's eyes. Her first-person narrative perfectly captures the rhythms of their days, as determined by daylight, weather and mealtimes.

Summer roots readers in the moment: we see the operators navigate the rolling hills with the unwieldy combines, anticipating every uneven patch, and the precision with which the drivers must align to the grain trailer to empty their load. There is an art to the process unique to its mission, and every step must be executed with absolute precision. Summer's awe inspires our own: "I don't know. I mean, maybe computers and cell phones and rocket ships are more magical, but to me, nothing beats the combine.... In a short time, the combine takes something humans can't use and then turns it into something that can feed us." Julia Kuo's drawings (meant to represent Summer's notebook pages) show each stage of the process with a handful of clear line drawings.

When Summer must, in a moment of crisis (Jiichan falls suddenly ill on the job), drive the combine herself, readers learn just how mammoth these machines are. Throughout, a story unfolds of the toll the work takes on Jiichan, as well as a lighter subplot about Summer's crush on her employers' son. These, too, highlight the cycles of life, as Obaachan and Jiichan share wisdom gained through experience with their granddaughter, whose life is just beginning. And always the land stretches before them, and the descent of night or rain threatens their mission to yield the most wheat that they can from these fields of windblown sand beneath the bright sky. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Pushing Back the Night

Mini Grey
The beauty of the stars. That's what the seven toys notice first. Their owner has left them outside overnight for the very first time in Toys in Space by Mini Grey. The awestruck playthings fall silent at the vision of the starry night above them. Then their fears set in. Only the WonderDoll's stories help to dispel their anxieties.

This is the ideal book to read just before a child's first overnight al fresco. Usually at about age eight, a child will want to try "camping"--putting a pup tent outside or stretching out a blanket and a sleeping bag and spending a night outdoors, usually with a friend or sibling. On the first and even the second try, he or she might come running back into the house and give up. At the very least, the child will come in to use the bathroom and grab a snack.

Toys in Space addresses those anxieties about being alone in the vastness of nature at night, through the voices of the stuffed Blue Rabbit, dinosaur and others. But the book also taps into that first taste of independence and the desire to embrace it. WonderDoll's stories help her listeners forget their fears, at least for long moments at a time. Her impulse to bolster their courage through tales of derring-do stretch back to ancient storytelling legends of how the world was made, and what causes day and night.

Mini Grey never gets too serious, of course; she taps into the humor of the dynamics between the toys. But she also authentically captures that natural impulse to tell stories as a way of getting through life's challenging moments.

Children will likely see the toys' conversation as an extension of their own rich imaginations and the ways in which they endow their toys with their own feelings and excitement. But adults will also recognize that Grey hooks into something much deeper here: a storytelling tradition that stretches back as far as humankind could communicate.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Form and Function

Not every book is meant to be a board book.

Some board books are really for adults, meant to be given like greeting cards (think of the Urban Baby series). Some are misfired adaptations of picture books, with too much text, or ideas too sophisticated to work well for babies and toddlers. Colors and Opposites by Xavier Deneux were conceived of as board books; their form and function serve their baby and toddler audience beautifully.

What can a baby, a one-year-old, a two- and three-year-old absorb? How do you make these ideas manageable for a child who is unlocking the secrets of the universe? You have to begin with their world, the things they see and touch.

Colors gives babies and toddlers much to explore with their fingertips--raised parts of the pages that fit into indentations on the opposite page. Children start to see how a book works; turning the page completes the puzzle. Rounded edges to the pages keep them safe. Later, toddlers will understand Deneux's double entendre with orange as a fruit and orange as the color of a sunset.

A friend of mine has twin girls who just turned two. They now get the humor in Emily Gravett's Orange Pear Apple Bear. They have had enough experience with oranges, pears and apples (and seen bears in books and pictures) to see that Emily Gravett is playing with the bear's shape and color, and with its relationship to oranges, apples and pears (as one that consumes fruit).

That is the beauty of the board books that earn most favored status in toddlers' lives. There's more for them to observe, touch, and discover with each rereading. As they gain more experience and exposure to a wider world, they see more meaning in the book's pages. On that same "orange" page in Colors, for instance, toddlers will begin to perceive the bird's size as an indication that an orange is small enough to sit upon, while the sunset is very large indeed, so large that the bird can only approach and never reach it. The joy, for those of us reading with toddlers, is watching these epiphanies occur, and seeing their eyes light up with understanding.

Friday, July 26, 2013

More Fun Summer Reading

Now that we're closing in on the end of July, it's time for the young people in your life to read for fun (even though we know you've been encouraging that all summer long)!

In my work at the Bank Street College of Education two days a week as the director of the Center for Children's Literature, I get to work closely with the children's librarian, Allie Jane Bruce.

If you were to walk into the children's room today, you'd see an array of graphic novels on display that range from an exceptionally moving memoir of a childhood spent studying at the American School of Ballet under George Balanchine, To Dance by Siena Charson Siegel, illustrated by Mark Siegel; and Little White Duck, a memoir of growing up in Maoist China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez, illus. by Andrés Vera Martínez; to more classic comics such as George O'Connor's action-packed, gloriously illustrated Olympians series (my special favorites so far of the planned 12: Poseidon and Hera); plus a middle school Drama--literally--written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier about theatrical antics on and off the stage.

As with her graphic novels display, Allie's terrific summer reading lists include fiction and information books as well as poetry. The lists are divided into lower school (K-3rd grade), middle grades (4th-6th grade) and upper school (7th-8th grades). She also offers tips on how to present summer reading as fun, rather than a chore.

And here's the summer reading list I put together in May, just in case you missed it. Please don't miss Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein--my favorite summer read since my May list came out. Part Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a wealthy gentleman searches for a young successor) and part Mysterious Benedict Society (testing wit and intelligence through unusual means), it's a great read-aloud for the entire family.

Happy reading!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Body Image

In her debut novel, 45 Pounds (More or Less), K.A. Barson helps teens see that they may not always realize how much they internalize the comments made by the adults around them, especially parents and other family members. 

K.A. Barson
Here's an example at the opening of the novel when narrator Ann hears a comment her mother makes about herself, and the teen takes it as a comment on her own body. When her mother holds up an orange polka dot bikini, Ann tells her mother to "go for it." Her mother responds that she would "if it weren't for this paunch. And these stretch marks.... Hideous." Ann immediately makes the connection back to herself: "I know that I'm bigger than she is. If she believes she's hideously fat, what could she possibly think about me? I don't say any of that, though." Ann's next thought is that she's hungry. Ann's mother never comments on Ann's weight in the book; she supports her daughter's efforts to lose weight and exercise, but Ann's sense of her mother's judgment comes solely through Ann's misguided perceptions of how her mother sees her.

When Ann overhears her four-year-old sister at a pretend tea party, she realizes how far these comments about body image and weight have penetrated into the family. Four-year-old Libby says, "Teddy, are you paying attention to me? This is very, very important... Eating too much food makes you cry. You only eat when nobody is watching. Then nobody will see you get fat. That's what Annie does. Or you run and run and run the fat away. That's what Mommy does. And you yell a lot. That makes fat go away, too." At that moment, Ann knows she must stop the cycle.

Ann is never bullied by her peers--which is refreshing; she simply exists on the fringes. Her struggles are internal. When I got to interview K.A. Barson recently for School Library Journal, she addressed Ann's need to take responsibility for her situation. "The cliques aren’t necessarily mean to Ann, but they’re not including her either," she said. "Some of it is Ann, too. Had she stepped up a little bit, out of her comfort zone, they’d have included her." Barson reveals through Ann's evolving attitudes that there are no quick fixes. Changing one's habits to healthy ones, and adjusting one's image of oneself require practice, discipline and consistency. This is not a heavy-handed book; readers close it thinking, if Ann can do it, I can, too.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Games of Wit

Chris Grabenstein
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein ranks among some of the top novels for middle-graders that deal with solving puzzles. It will stretch readers' minds, yet the book also provides all the clues necessary for the solution.

Fans of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will appreciate billionaire library benefactor Mr. Lemoncello's Willy Wonka–like eccentricities and his search for a young mentee through a series of tests--both intellectual and moral. And those who enjoyed The Mysterious Benedict Society will revel in the kinds of games and puzzles the fellow puts forth. 

Like Roald Dahl's group of would-be heirs to Wonka's dynasty, Grabenstein, too, puts together a cast of characters with a variety of personalities in their quest to win prizes and become the spokesperson for Mr. Lemoncello's company. Twelve children have won a place through a winning essay explaining why they're excited about the new library that Mr. Lemoncello is building in their town. One of the 12, Sierra Russell, helps kind protagonist Kyle Keeley due to her incessant reading and the details she picks up on in her search for books (Kyle invites her to join his team). Charles Chiltington, on the other hand, wants to win at any cost, no matter whom he sacrifices. Kyle simply loves to play games, and he's enjoying the contest for the sheer sport of it.

Grabenstein takes pains to show that the children are never in harm's way; they are free to exit the contest early--with the understanding that they forfeit their chance to win. It's a great summer read for the pure fun of it, yet it also sharpens readers' intelligence--they can't help but be on the alert for clues. It's also a terrific family read-aloud; children as young as seven can easily follow along with delight.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Early Steps toward Independence

Robin Page and Steve Jenkins create a model of how to present science for young children with their book My First Day. They start by telling children what they, as newborn babies, did on the first day. They then use the same format to describe what other creatures did on their first day--some achieve more than a human newborn, others even less (the Siberian tiger, for instance, is born with its eyes closed and remains completely dependent on its mother). 

Author and artist pick usually one, often surprising fact about that animal (or bug, in one case). A wood duck, for instance, jumps out of its nest and falls "a long long way" out of its nest into a pond, then paddles after its mother on its first day. Each illustration depicts the adult parent with the newborn, so children can see how the baby will look when it's grown.

Implicit in these snapshots of animals--many of which are independent in certain respects from the start (joining the herd, walking right away)--is that their parents (usually the mother, but in the case of Darwin's frog or the emperor penguin, the father) are never far from them. Jenkins's cut-paper collage in realistic colors and textures follows a similar visual design on the page, and keeps the focus on parent and offspring.

In addition to being an outstanding introduction to science, this book is ideal for starting a conversation about going away for day camp or starting preschool or kindergarten: If a child is feeling any anxieties about leaving home to go solo for part of the day or being in a new environment, his or her worries can bubble up in a safe way, through questions about how the animal parents reunite with their babies. Detailed notes in the back of the book help parents and caregivers answer some of the more probing questions.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Wordless Communication

Many parents teach their babies a few simple words in sign language, so the baby has a way of communicating what they need or want, even before they can speak. Joy Allen's Baby Signs, with its simple pastel pictures and step-by-step (wordless) instructions for 13 words, makes an ideal choice.

Just the other day, I was walking out of Bank Street College of Education with a colleague who had just picked up her 8-month-old baby from the Family Center. She gave her baby a piece of a banana. When little Lily finished her piece of banana, she made the sign for "more." What a powerful thing, at 8 months old, to be able to "say" what she needs.

A few simple signs as a tool to indicate what they want allows babies to express themselves from the get-go. They don't have to break into tears or wails of frustration. They may still, but they have other options. Nothing inspires confidence more than being understood, no matter how old we get. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Audition as the Ultimate Test

Joelle Charbonneau
Credit: Pete Stenberg

Joelle Charbonneau, known for her humorous adult mysteries, started out as a stage performer who turned to teaching. Her teenage students study music, theater and opera. "Not only do they have to do the ACT and SAT and college applications, but they also have to audition," Charbonneau said. "I'd say to myself, 'It can't get any worse. I wonder what could be worse?' " The answer is: The Testing, her first book for young adults.

Q: At the heart of the novel is this idea of competition at the peril of one's peers--do you think that's what testing encourages?

I know it does. I've been doing theater and music since I was a kid. In general, the person who's the lead isn't often the most important person in the play. You're only as strong as your weakest link. In The Testing, a lot of people wouldn't consider Cia a leading lady. She'd be more of a supporting character. In this case, she's forced into the spotlight.

Is a real leader someone who's necessarily [been elected] the president? Or is it the person who questions? You should care when something affects anybody, not just you. Cia does question, and that's what makes her unusual. She'd like to be a leader because she'd like to make a difference, not because she wants to be the leader.

Q: Did you have an outline of all three books? Or do they unfold as you write them? 

I never have a clue where I'm going. By page 60 or 70 I take a left turn in Albuquerque and there's no way back. I had no idea where it was going. Every action that happens propels it along, sometimes in a direction that I'm not sure where it will take it. Why did I make a heroine who's so smart--in science and engineering? I'm studying the mechanics of a bridge! I've finished book two. The series was supposed to be a book a year. Now it's every six months.

Q: Cia's father raises the question of trust. But you also raise the question of whether Cia can trust her father. Will we learn more about that in future books?

The second book takes place in Tosu City. We only get glimpses of what happens in the past. We do get to see some family dynamics. The end of book three should also give the idea that kids go off to college, and home has not changed, but you have. What do you do with that? A lot of that Cia has to work out in her own head. We do see the father a bit in the prequel, a short e-book, available on the series homepage, and soon on other e-retailer websites.

Q: Tell us more about the parallel you see between The Testing and the audition process that your performer-students go through.

Sometimes it's a question of are you confident enough in your own abilities? I have to warn my students there's a warm and fuzzy quality to a school, and then there are others where snarkier kids go. They're always trying to psyche you out. If they can, they will outperform you. I have always wanted to be judged on my own merits. The question is: Are you willing to trust your own abilities, or do you want to bring others down in order to shine brighter, even if it will bring the whole show down? 

This is excerpted from a longer interview that first appeared in Shelf Awareness.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Childish Things

Holly Black with SLJ's Luann Toth

Holly Black spoke last week at School Library Journal's Day of Dialog. She confessed, "I played with dolls for a looong time. I didn't realize I could keep telling stories without them." This is the dilemma at the core of Doll Bones. When do we "outgrow" dolls and a world of make-believe? When are we too old for the imagination? 

Zach, Poppy and Alice, the three 12-year-old friends at the center of Doll Bones, weave an elaborate world around their dolls and action figures. They are at an age when others might still want to play with dolls, but have squelched that impulse. Their peers have moved on to crushes and sports teams and excelling in school. But the dolls are a launch point to these three friends' imaginations and the glue of their bond. So when Zach's father throws out all of his toys, Zach would rather give up his friends than tell them the truth--or perhaps acknowledge to himself--that the game is over. 

The more I think about this book, the more I think it's really about confronting, even grieving the end of childhood--not only for Zach, Poppy and Alice, but also for the adults who take care of them. Their parents and guardians also have to acknowledge that Zach, Poppy and Alice are not little children anymore.

The fact of Zach keeping from his friends the truth about his action figures creates a chasm between them. The secret grows in weight and strength. Later in the book we discover that Poppy and Alice have been keeping a secret from Zach, too. Black explores the implications of hiding a secret, hiding one's true yearning (to connect with their friends, to continue to explore their imaginations), and allowing someone or something to come between them. The Queen doll (pictured on the cover) becomes both a symbol and a physical manifestation of their fears. 

Doll Bones offers the opportunity to create a conversation with young people about how their friendships can change when they "grow out" of the circle faster than the others, whether or not they have to put away "childish things," and whether that sense of play can be continued in other ways. 

Imagination is essential to everything we do: problem-solving, planning for the future, playing chess or video games (which adults do). It's important that young people recognize all the ways in which we use imagination throughout our lives. Even without Zach's dolls, the three friends find ways to continue their friendship and deepen their connection. What they had to give up was not their imagination, but their secrets.