Friday, April 25, 2014

Connecting to Nature

Interior from You Are My Baby: Garden

When spring arrives, nature's creatures come out. You Are My Baby: Garden by Lorena Siminovich (author and artist of last year's You Are My Baby: Farm) makes an ideal guide for toddlers eager to identify the animals, insects, and arachnids they encounter in the world around them. Naming them forges a connection between a child and the other beings in his or her world.

The thick corrugated pages of this intelligently designed book allow children to leaf through the larger pages featuring the adults or the smaller ones starring their babies nestled in this book-within-a-book, as their matching game expands to include the great outdoors. They begin to connect the creature they see in a tree, a bush, or on a path in the woods to the animals, insects and arachnids they've observed in these pages.

It's a terrific companion for a stroller ride or a drive in the country, to prompt toddlers--even before they can form the words--to point to the page that matches what they see on a branch or a grassy patch.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Second Chances

John Corey Whaley

John Corey Whaley, the author of Noggin, says the outlandish premise of his latest novel--a transplantation of a full cranial structure onto a donor body--began with Kurt Vonnegut.

"What is it about him that I'm able to connect with so much?" Whaley said of Kurt Vonnegut when we got to interview him recently. "He's able to take absurd ideas and scenarios, and you can be laughing hysterically on one page, and he'll bring you to tears on the next."

The idea of scientific advances allowing doctors to cryogenically freeze someone's head and surgically affix it to a healthy donor's body may be something akin to what Vonnegut might create, but, like Vonnegut, Whaley grounds the story in authentic emotional experience. Travis essentially falls asleep and wakes up five years later. But the people he cares about have lived on, gathering life experiences. "That was the most realistic way I could re-create the way people feel their friends and family are growing up a little faster than they are," Whaley said. "A lot of life is people moving faster than we are, and us moving faster than others."

Travis is 16 when he goes to sleep, and his friends are 21 when he wakes up. He has a second chance at life, but does he want it, if he can't be with Cate, who is now engaged to someone else, and his best friend, Kyle, who has retreated back into a life of denial? Whaley gets to the core of growing up through his exploration of Travis's dilemma. Travis wants to win Cate back. But in those five years, Cate had fully grieved and accepted the loss of Travis in her life. Travis and Kyle are able to restore their friendship, but Travis's desire to recreate the romantic relationship he'd had with Cate remains problematic.

Travis must ask himself, how do I go on from here, with this new reality? Is it worth it to get a second chance if I cannot have the people I want in my life the way they were? Travis quickly learns that his return does not come with an automatic reset button. It means working on these relationships--with his parents, with Cate, with Kyle, and with his new friend Hatton. How do you stay true to yourself yet still honor that relationship, either as it is now, or what it once meant to you? Is it possible to do? How much compromise is possible without losing your self?

At a pivotal time, when teens are becoming adults and trying on new personas and/or deepening their beliefs, their relationships are shifting. Whaley captures all of these nuances with humor, compassion and unforgettable characters.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The New Orleans Legacy

Rodman Philbrick

Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick takes readers with narrator Zane Dupree on a visit to New Orleans, just before Hurricane Katrina hits. Because Zane is new to the city, we learn through his conversations with his grandmother and through Zane's own observations the deep and complex history of this culture-rich town.

He has barely arrived when the mayor instructs everyone to evacuate in preparation for the storm. Zane gets separated from his grandmother when his beloved dog escapes from an open window in her preacher's van, and he chases after his pet--all the way back to her house on the Ninth Ward. This is most of all an adventure story. But as Zane learns more about his rescuers, Malvina Rawlins and her guardian, Truedell "Tru" Manning, a renowned jazz musician, readers also learn more about the culture of New Orleans, its traditions, its racial tensions, its economic divide. Armed security teams guard the homes of the rich, which are on higher ground. Rescue efforts take days and days. Malvina and Tru pass the time by telling Zane stories.

Philbrick describes the situation in a way that 9- and 10-year-olds can understand, yet with enough suspense and details to hold the attention of teen readers, too. Another book for 8- to 12-year-olds about life before and after Hurricane Katrina is Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes. And for older readers, the books that delve into the nuances and rich past of New Orleans are the historical novels Richard Peck's The River Between Us, and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. In many ways, the city of New Orleans reveals in microcosm the tensions that have haunted and continue to plague the United States, as well as the many gifts of food, music, language, celebration and culture that one city's residents have given to the nation.