Thursday, October 27, 2011

Long Winter’s Nap

There are many reasons to read and reread Very Hairy Bear by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Matt Phelan.

True, it conveys the concept of hibernation for very youngest children, as the bear prepares for his long winter’s rest by eating well and then settling into a cozy spot. That also makes this an ideal nap or bedtime book, because the bear is winding down his activities.

But the best part is the wordplay. In the summer, “He eats the berries and the bushes, too. He’s a very full berryfull bear.” Matt Phelan shows a blueberry stuck to the end of each ursine toenail. As squirrels tuck acorns under oak trees, “a no-hair nose knows where to find them.” Long vowel sounds slow the pace, mirroring the bear’s transition to inactivity: soft white snowflakes “cling to bear hair (if there’s a bear there),” the text reads, as the bear becomes camouflaged by snow. The silver salmon the bear pursued in spring now “sleep deep” on the pond’s floor.

One last gasp of humor before the close as the furry fellow “scratches his big brown bear behind,” then settles down to sleep. This brief book accomplishes a lot in a short span, and your youngsters will want it close at hand.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Before the Monster

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel is scary, which makes it timely as Halloween nears. But it’s scary all year round. As a precursor to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the novel’s fear factor arises from the tensions between the characters.

Oppel’s twist on the classic story is the invention of a twin for Victor Frankenstein, Konrad, and they are both in love with Elizabeth Lavenza. That’s one source of tension. Victor wants to be better than Konrad, even though he loves Konrad. That’s another tension. When the twin brothers together with Elizabeth discover a secret passage that leads far beneath the Chateau Frankenstein, and a recipe for an Elixir of Life—that leads to further tensions with Victor and Konrad’s father, who forbids them from returning to the cellar and from reading the books stored there. And then there’s the tension between Victor, the siblings’ friend, Henry, and Elizabeth when they seek help from a troubled, reclusive alchemist.

More classic scary scenes emerge during their search for the Elixir’s ingredients: white-knuckle encounters with the vulture-like Lammergeier, which has a 10-foot wing span, and also a prehistoric coelacanth (their pursuit of the fish through tiny tunnels will make even hearty readers feel claustrophobic). But the true terror arises from Victor and his unpredictability. We watch his inner struggle as he wrestles between his jealousy of and loyalty to his brother, his desire to attract and even possess Elizabeth’s affections, and finally his hunger for power.

At the same time, the world is changing around the 15-year-old twins. The author probes the societal shifts in thinking in late 18th-century Switzerland. Konrad yearns to visit America, the French people have fomented a revolution, and scientific breakthroughs have begun to overshadow Roman Catholicism. When Victor, an atheist, worries that he could lose his brother to illness, he almost envies Elizabeth her devout beliefs. His thoughts as he observes her in the church expose the tug-of-war between fact and faith, in both religion and science: “Wine to blood. Lead to gold. Medicine dripped into my brother’s veins. The transmutation of matter. Was it magic or science? Fantasy or truth?”

Frankenstein still holds our attention, centuries later, for good reason. And Kenneth Oppel’s perfectly sets the stage for the man and the monster to come.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fireside Stories

As the nights grow longer, there’s nothing better than sitting by the fire or gathering by lamplight to read aloud a spellbinding story. You and your children will find it hard to break away from Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby.

As you know, I’m a big believer in reading aloud as a family, well past the time your children can read independently. In the same way that we gravitate to book clubs, to talk about books we’re interested in reading, a book read aloud together as a family allows everyone in the family to participate in a shared experience and discussion, no matter what their reading ability. On top of that, the power of a great story read aloud is hypnotic. You lose all sense of time in the present as you become fully swept up in the world of the story. That is what will happen to you and your listeners when you read Icefall.

Suddenly you find yourselves in an icelocked land where the children of a king must hide out under the protection of berserkers—barely civilized men who wear animal skins and literally go berserk when they begin to fight. The world of young Solveig, who narrates, her older sister, Asa, and her younger brother Harald, heir to the throne, has contracted dramatically. The waterways are freezing over and their food supplies are dwindling. All they have for entertainment are the fireside stories of Alric the skald—the king’s storyteller.

With his stories, Alric lifts their spirits and imparts wisdom—and sometimes warnings. After some of the berserkers are poisoned, and nearly everyone becomes suspect, only the stories give them a semblance of order. Solveig believes that, unlike her siblings, she has nothing to offer. Asa has her beauty, which can help her father to build an alliance with another kingdom by her marriage, and Harald will succeed their father as king. But Alric recognizes in Solveig the key gifts for a great storyteller: memory and sight. He helps her to see that she possesses an intuitive sense of people and a keen perception of situations. He plants a seed in her that she, too, could make a great skald, and is bent on helping her prove it to herself.

The book works on many levels: as an adventure and a window into another time and place, as a mystery, and in a subtler way, as a guide to what makes a good story. And finally, what are the attributes of a great storyteller? We discover these along with Solveig. Not every book makes a superior story to be read aloud; this one does. As Alric and Solveig weave their tales to entertain, teach, and cheer their audience, we see what power story has over others—ourselves included. Matthew Kirby lets us into the secrets of a storyteller’s bag of tricks, even as he uses them himself to enchant us.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Got it!

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen is truly a book for all ages.

The author-artist’s background as an animator informs his pacing and the subtle adjustments in the expressions of his animal characters. As the story progresses, Klassen demonstrates what the slightest shift of the shape of the eyes or a change in posture can do to convey his character's mood. When the bear realizes, “I HAVE SEEN MY HAT,” he literally sees red. He appears on a tomato-colored page that infuses his fur. His anger emanates from the pages.

Rereading the book helps youngest readers to pick out the early clues as to the culprit that took the bear’s hat. Older readers will appreciate the minimalist approach Klassen brings to the pictures—a tuft of grass here, a rock there—that keep the focus on the bear’s internal life. If youngest children are not ready to imagine a worst-case scenario, Klassen allows them room to think the thief simply got away.

Here the spare scenery serves Klassen’s story well—children can see what they’re ready to see and “get" what they’re ready to get. The important thing, in the end, is Bear gets his hat back. Right?