Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Reviews: Eric Carle and Friends, a Dog Named Fred, and More

There are lots of great picture books out there already this season. Here’s a look at a few good ones:

Author/illustrator Jane Cabrera has made a career out of taking familiar children’s songs, tweaking them, and then presenting them in picture books bursting with color. Among her previous books are “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and “The Wheels on the Bus.” 
Now Cabrera tackles another favorite song in “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (Holiday House, $16.95, ages 3-6). As always, Cabrera’s art is eye-catching, but it’s her new lyrics that are memorable, including such verses as “Row, row, row your boat/ Splish! And Splash! And Splatter!/ If you see the monkeys swing/Don’t forget to chatter/ OO, OO, Ah, Ah!”
 I’ve already used this book in our library’s popular Circle Time programs and it was a big hit. Kids loved the way a song they knew could be transformed just by adding different animals and sounds. The adults also were amused to see how a song they thought they had sung, ad nauseum, could be reworked into something totally different.

Another familiar children’s song gets a geographical make-over in “Old Mikamba Had a Farm” (Penguin, $17.99, ages 3-6). As she did in “The Night Before Christmas” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” author/illustrator Rachel Isadora sets her book in Africa, and features a farm with animals like a baboon (“With a ooh-ha-ha here”),  a zebra (“With a whinny-whinny here”) and a hippo (“With a grunt-grunt here”).

It’s both a fun conceit and a way to introduce young readers in America to a different part of the world (unless they come from a part of Africa, as do many of our library’s patrons from French-speaking African countries). Isadora, who was a ballerina before she turned to children’s books – uses mixed media (oil paints, printed paper, palette paper, ink and pencil) to create her collage-style illustrations.

It’s time for bed, but where’s Fred? Well, for one thing, he’s out in the flower bed, running in puddles, climbing a tree (?!!), and getting filthy. As author/illustrator Yasmeen Ismail shows in the hilarious “Time for Bed, Fred!” (Bloomsbury, $14.99, ages 2-5), Fred may be a dog, but his antics mirror that of young children when bedtime looms. Even a bath doesn’t slow Fred down.

A bedtime story (“Woof!” by R. Hound) finally helps calm Fred, but even then it takes a bit of time to sort out which bed he should be sleeping in. Ismail tells a tale that will bring nods of recognition to both little ones and their weary parents, and her loosel-lined illustrations underline Fred’s incredible pre-bedtime energy.

The illustrations in "Time For Bed, Fred!" also are reminiscent of the Caldecott Medal-winning “A Ball for Daisy” by Chris Raschka, which would be wonderful book to pair with this one. Just for fun, check out this brief video of Ismail painting Fred (the video features the original British cover).

Author/illustrator Eric Carle asked 13 of his children’s picture book artist friends to illustrate and write about their favorite animals. The result is the delightful “What’s Your Favorite Animal?” (Henry Holt, $17.99, ages 3-7).

Young readers will enjoy thinking about what their answer would be to the book title’s question as they enjoy such responses as the one by Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen (“This Is Not My Hat”). Klassen has chosen a duck as his favorite animal, noting: “Most times when you see a duck in a story, it’s not very smart… But I like ducks. I like watching them walk around.” But -- showing his typical dark humor -- has provided an illustration of a duck that is flat on its back, feet in the air.

Another Caldecott Medalist, Erin Stead (“A Sick Day for Amos McGee”), says penguins are her favorite animal because “I like how penguins seem confidently awkward on land but then glide so swiftly and expertly underwater. I think I relate to that a little.”) Then there’s the answer given by Mo Willems (of “Knuffle Bunny,” “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” and “Elephant and Piggy” fame). Willems says his favorite animal is the apocryphal-sounding “Amazonian Neotropical Lower River Tink-Tink.” Willems' illustration shows snake with a hump in the middle, and Willems mischievously adds that his favorite animal “is also this snake’s favorite animal.”).

Carle himself has showcase the cat as his favorite animal, writing about a feline named Fiffi who lived with him in New York City. Overall, kids will love poring over this colorful volume, which also features short biographies of each of the contributors. Sales of the book will benefit the Eric Carle Museum of PictureBook Art in Amherst, Mass., a true treasure of a museum.

(Note: the books included in this blog post were review copies provided by the publishers).


Sunday, February 23, 2014

This "Knucklehead" is a Common Core King

If you know children’s books, then you already know that Jon Scieszka is a genius when it comes to writing for kids. I witnessed yet another demonstration of that genius the other day when I introduced a couple of 4th grade classes to Scieszka’s book, “Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka” (Viking, $12.99, ages 8-12), and brought down the house. For those unfamiliar with the many charms of “Knucklehead,” this book trailer will help you understand why it is now a cult hit in my library, and likely in many other libraries around the country.

Here’s how I gathered the most recent evidence of Scieszka’s genius – and why I believe that “Knucklehead” should be required reading, at least for 4th graders, in the Common Core unit on memoirs. My library just happens to be at the crossroads of both public elementary schools in our city, with the K-2 elementary school on one side of our library parking lot, and the grades 3-5 elementary school on the other side. As you can imagine, we do a lot of school programs, which is a great and easy field trip for the students and the teachers, and wonderful for us because the kids usually get to check out books, thus upping our circulation stats. Plus it's just fun to have the kids come over and talk about books with them.

We have a particularly close bond with the 4th grade teachers, and the 4th grade classes regularly come to my library for programs connected to whatever they’re studying in language arts at the moment. This year, the new Common Core curriculum is part of the equation, so instead of doing the usual “autobiographies and biographies” unit, my program last week was focused on “memoirs.” (With permission from the teachers, I did expand the program just a bit to include a quick look at biographies, book-talking such diverse books as “Nelson Mandela” by Kadir Nelson, “What to Do About Alice?” by Barbara Kerley, and “John Smith Escapes Again” by Rosalyn Schanzer.) 

For the main session on “memoirs.” I had pulled out some of my favorites for kids this age. Among my choices:  “Boy” by Roald Dahl; “Bad Boy” by Walter Dean Myers; “Knots in My Yo-Yo String” by Jerry Spinelli; “How Angel Peterson Got His Name” by Gary Paulsen; "To Dance" by Siena Cherson Siegel;" "The Wall" by Peter Sis, and “Smile” by Raina Telgemeier.  And, when I’m doing a program like this, I always try to pick out particularly entertaining and/or outrageous sections of these books to read so I can capture and keep the interest of my young listeners.

For example, for “Boy,” I had earmarked the section where Dahl recounts a story his classmate told him about a particular kind of licorice being composed of rat parts, and for “Angel Peterson,” I read from the introduction, where Paulsen talks about the time he had the crazy idea of sealing himself into a wooden barrel and launching himself off a small waterfall. Only a happy bit of fate kept him from dying.

 The kids enjoyed those stories, but they also were starting to grow a bit restless. That’s when I launched my piece de resistance, and played the audio version – read by Scieszka himself – of the first few chapters of “Knucklehead.” Just the name Jon Scieszka is enough to attract the interest of most young readers, who are huge fans of “The Stinky Cheese Man,” “The Time Warp Trio” series, and other Scieszka books. So, when the kids heard his voice, their attention was immediately caught, and they listened closely as he talked about the wild and crazy (and sometimes very inappropriate) things he did with his five brothers. As Scieszka read from “Knucklehead,” the kids were totally rapt when they weren’t erupting into laughter. Not surprisingly, they especially loved the story in which Scieszka and his older brothers decide to try to “put out” the portable heater in their basement room by peeing on it.
The Scieszka Brothers

When I finished the program, I was swarmed by kids who wanted to check out a copy of “Knucklehead.” Every kid I talked with said they couldn't wait to find out what else happens in the book, since they only had listened to the first three chapters. One girl came up to me and with an expression that was part-thrilled, part-thunder-struck, said: "I can't believe what Jon Scieszka and his brothers did!" Because I’ve done this program for previous 4th grade classes, I knew that “Knucklehead” would be an instant best-seller, and so I had stocked up with multiple copies. Still, there weren’t quite enough to go around, so I’m heading out soon to Politics &Prose, our local indie bookstore, to purchase some more copies.

There's a good reason by Scieszka was chosen as the first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. He's a guy who just understands kids, especially reluctant readers, and especially boys. Just check out his Guys Read website, or his Guys Listen website. And then there's the awesome new genre-bending -- and mind-bending -- new children's book that Jon has written with Mac Barnett, "Battle Bunny" (Simon & Schuster, $14.99, ages 5-8).  Illustrated by Matthew Myers, "Battle Bunny" is a guaranteed hit with young readers, who will delight in Scieszka and Barnett's subversive humor, as you can readily see in this book trailer.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Trio of Top-Notch Novels I Didn’t Want to Read (But Am Glad I Did)

 True confession: I was a reluctant reader – at first – of these three novels. Each book had what seemed a fatal flaw to me as a reader; one, “The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp,” was an animal fantasy; another, “The Thing About Luck,” was written by someone whose previous prize-winning book wasn’t my favorite (to say the least); and the third, “Better Nate Than Ever,” had a bad cover (yes, I do judge a book by its cover sometimes – don’t you?). Yet, because each of them received such great reviews – and “The Thing About Luck” won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature – I decided that I should give them a try. Bottom line: I’m glad I did, and I’m now having fun recommending them to young readers in my library.

Let’s start with “The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp” (Atheneum, $16.99, ages 8-12) by Kathi Appelt, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. What can I say? I’ve just never been a fan of talking animal books. Still, I know how popular they are with a certain segment of my young library patrons, and Appelt’s novel is one I know they will love. 

 Once I convinced myself to crack the first chapter, I couldn’t put down this book, which is, at turns, poignant, dramatic and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s hard to sum up the story, but suffice it to say that a pair of spunky raccoons named Bingo and J’miah help a young boy thwart a bad guy’s dreams of developing the swamp land. Other cast members include some gators, a gang of wild hogs and a yeti-like creature named Sugar Man. Oh, and there’s also a restaurant named the Paradise Pies Café and a partially sunken De Soto automobile that both are key to the plot.

Told in 104 short chapters by a third person omniscient narrator, the story of “The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp” is interesting in a quirky way, but it’s Appelt’s characters – especially the raccoons – who truly win the reader’s interest as you can see in this book trailer. Despite the fact that they are raccoons, Bingo and J’miah are just the kind of loyal and ready-for-adventure friends any kid would love, even those young readers who, like me, aren’t crazy about talking animals.

Now for Book Number Two. The first time I saw the cover of “Better Nate Than Ever (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, ages 10-14) by Tim Federle, I was totally put off. I got the play on the phrase “better late than never” and thought it was kind of clever, but the kid depicted on the cover seemed much younger than the character introduced on the jacket copy. Overall, the slickness of the cover made “Better Nate Than Ever” look like yet another forgettable novel – at least to me. But other librarians kept mentioning the book to me, and “Better Nate Than Ever” also got a good share of love among those betting on possible 2014 Newbery winners.

So I decided to give it a try, and from the very first page, I was totally hooked. I literally finished the book in one sitting. I loved Nate immediately and readily sympathized with his challenging life as the Broadway-music-loving younger brother of a jock star who is idolized in their western Pennsylvania hometown. By contrast, Nate, who loves to sing and dance, is predictably bullied by other eighth grade students because he’s a clearly different kind of kid, and even Nate’s parents keep trying to “toughen up” their son. The only one who seems to understand Nate is his best friend Libby, who helps him escape for a day to New York and the chance to audition in a Broadway musical based on the movie, “E.T.”

In this debut novel, Federle, who has danced on Broadway himself, displays a sure but gentle hand with his coming-of-age story, as he shows how Nate’s New York trip opens his eyes to a larger world, including one “where guys . . . can dance next to other guys who probably liked Phantom of the Opera and not get threatened or assaulted." While “Better Nate Than Ever” is a natural read for theater geek kids and “Glee” fans, any kid who feels different, in any way, will identify with Nate and will cheer him on.

And Nate is now doing an encore performance in a just-published sequel, “Five, Six, Seven, Nate!” (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, ages 10-14). In this video, Federle explains why he wrote a second book about Nate, who discovers that Broadway is "like a junior high school cafeteria but with more glitter." Final notes: “Better Nate Than Ever” was chosen as a 2014 winner of the Stonewall Book Award, given annually by the American Library Association to books “of exceptional merit for children or teens relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience.” And the audiobook, narrated by Federle himself, won a 2014 Odyssey Honor; the Odyssey Awards are given annually by the American Library Association to the best children’s and teen audiobooks.

One final book: when “Kira-Kira” by Cynthia Kadohata won the 2005 Newbery Medal, I read it and agreed that it met the Newbery criteria of “most distinguished.” But it’s just never been one of my favorite Newbery winners, and I’ve been luke-warm about the books Kadohata has published since then. So, when I saw her newest book “The Thing About Luck,” I didn’t rush to read it. But the book got rave reviews and was a favorite on the “Heavy Medal” blog where potential Newbery Medal winners are endlessly discussed. That piqued my interest and once I decided to read it, I was immediately caught in the world of the 12-year-old girl named Summer who narrates the book. In fact, Summer sets up the outline of the book in the first sentence: “Kouun is ‘good luck’ in Japanese, and one year my family had none of it."

Truly, it seems that nothing is going right for Summer’s family, and especially for Summer herself, since she was one of only 1,500 people in the United States who had malaria that year. On top on that, Summer and her brother Jaz are spending months under the care of their uber-strict Japanese grandparents because their parents have been called to Japan for a family emergency. And – even more challenging -- that means Summer and Jaz will be going with their grandparents on their annual trek around the Midwest as wheat harvesters – the major source of the family’s income. As Summer says: “Bad luck chased us around, pointing her bony finger.”        

 Yet Summer is a wonderfully resilient character whose voice irresistibly pulls readers through the pages – even those in which Kadohata painstakingly explains the ins and outs of wheat harvesting. But, surprisingly, my favorite character was Obaachan, Summer’s old-fashioned, unbending grandmother, who provides moments of both comic relief and true poignancy. Months after reading “The Thing About Luck,” Obaachan remains a memorable character to me, and one of the main reasons I’m so glad I read this book. To see if you might also like it, check out Kadohata's reading of a section from the novel.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Honoring Our "Founding Mothers"

Cokie Roberts has long been fascinated by American history. That’s not surprising, given the fact that both her parents served in Congress and that she’s spent her career as a respected Washington journalist. Yet, while volumes have been written about America’s “founding fathers,” Roberts realized some years ago that there was a dearth of information about the women who also were an integral part of our Revolutionary history. So Roberts set out to rectify that, and in 2004 published an adult non-fiction book, “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation.” The book was well-received and helped open the doors to other books about the women who played key roles in creating the American nation.

 More recently, HarperCollins asked Roberts to use the information from “Founding Mothers” and create a kids’ version of the book. The result is the just-published “Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies” (HarperCollins, $17.99, ages 8-12). Featuring 10 short biographies of key “founding mothers,” including Dolley Madison, Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, this wonderfully-readable book also includes information about lesser-known heroines like Lydia Darragh, who spied on the British, and Deborah Sampson, who dressed as a male soldier and fought in the Revolutionary War for three years before being wounded. These were women who weren’t afraid to take on the quest for independence in their own terms.

Watercolor illustrations by Caldecott Honor artist Diane Goode bring color and lots of flair to the text of “Founding Mothers,” and the artwork also adds another layer of meaning to the text. Goode, for example, includes facsimiles of the signatures of each of the 10 spotlighted women, and her formal “portraits” of them help highlight their personalities.

“Founding Mothers” is published in a picture book format, and the roominess of that format that allows Roberts to pack in lots of information without overwhelming her readers. The book includes a timeline, notes about finding further information and an introductory note by Roberts, who quotes British General Lord Cornwallis as saying during the war: “We may destroy all the men in America, and we shall still have all we can do to defeat the women.”

In a recent telephone interview, Roberts said she was “puzzled” by the publisher’s decision to use the picture book format, noting that her six grandchildren, ages 8-13, “read chapter books. But the publishers kept saying to ‘trust us’ on this, and it certainly worked out – particularly when the pictures are this good!”

Robert said she got “veto power” over the choice of illustrators for her book, adding that she and Goode were allowed to communicate with one another as they worked on it. That’s unusual in the world of children’s book publishing, where publishers deliberately keep authors and illustrators apart in the belief that such separation is best for artistic freedom. Roberts, however, disagrees, saying that “this Chinese wall seems crazy to me. It wouldn’t have been helpful for us.”

While Roberts is obviously an accomplished writer, “Founding Mothers” is her first children’s book and she says it was a challenge to write it. “It was hard to do it in a way that children would find interesting,” she said. “I, of course, was very nervous about how to get these stories into a single page. I think it helped being a broadcast journalist.” Because she’s new at writing for children, Roberts said she was guided by her editors. But there was word that she refused to delete from her “Letter of Introduction” in which she describes the “Founding Mothers” as “feisty and funny and flirty.” The editors disliked the word “flirty” for a children’s book, but Roberts said: “I just insisted on it.”

Asked who were some of her favorite “Founding Mothers,” Roberts replied that “it’s hard to pick one because they were all so different from each other…. Dolley Madison was clearly one of the most charming people who ever lived. She was a total people person, and she reminds me of my mother. So, she’s a favorite…. Sally Jay wrote letters to her sister when she was in Spain and France … and those letters are just fabulous. She’s so funny and smart and she would clearly be someone I’d want to hang out with.”

Overall, Roberts said she enjoyed writing a children’s book and wouldn’t mind trying her hand at another. “If people like ‘Founding Mothers’ and the publisher wants me to write another book, I’d be thrilled.”

For further reading about this period in U.S. history, try a new children's book written and illustrated by Maira Kalman about our third president. Titled "Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything" (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin, $17.99, ages 7-10), this volume features Kalman's signature quirky, colorful artwork and a breezily-written text that highlights Jefferson's prodigious energy and curiosity. This is Kalman's second children's book about a U.S. president; two years ago, she published "Looking At Lincoln." Both books offer a wonderfully humanizing look at American icons for young readers.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Visit From the Myth Maker

Graphic novelist George O’Connor is crazy about mythology, and by the end of his recent program at my library, the roomful of participants – many of them kids – were totally caught up in his enthusiasm.

To be fair, most of those present already were fans of mythology, but they still were riveted by George’s hilarious, energetic presentation of how he creates his award-winning “Olympians” graphic novel series on Greek gods and goddesses. (George’s presentation was part of our series of programs co-hosted with Politics & Prose Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C.

George began his program by showing a self-portrait in which his head is exploding. “That’s how I feel on the days when I know I have to write,” George laughed, noting that he feels much more confident as an artist. “In the fourth grade,” he said, “I was the guy who likes to draw and the guy who likes to write. I especially liked to draw when the teacher was trying to teach us math!

 Once George discovered mythology, he couldn’t get enough of it. “I read every book of mythology I could get my hands on,” he said. George also developed an early love of comics, something he shares with his parents who, he says, “have always liked comic books.” George published his first graphic novel, for adults, in 2006. Titled “Journey Into Mohawk Country,” it was based on the 1634 journal of explorer Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert. "Journey" drew critical praise, and a feature in The New York Times on how George developed the artwork. That book was followed in 2009 by “Ball Preen Hammer,” written by playwright Adam Rapp and featuring George’s artwork.

In 2010, George finally got to combine his two loves – mythology and comics – with his debut graphic novel for kids with “Zeus,” the first of his projected 12-book series on the Greek gods, “The Olympians,” published by the award-winning comics publisher First Second. My colleague Dave Burbank, our library’s resident graphic novel expert, says that, while George remains faithful to mythology in the books, he “nevertheless finds new angles to tell these stories, often from the perspective of the gods themselves.”

“Aphrodite,” the sixth book in the series was just published, and once again won kudos from professional library journals, with School Library Journal calling it “another strong addition to a great series.” But the main point is my young patrons love these books. Some kids are drawn to them because of they’re fans of the mythology-fueled “Percy Jackson” books written by Rick Riordan, while others mainly are mythology lovers, who really dig into the additional information and references that George includes in each volume. In addition, the graphic novel format of the books, especially the action-packed scenes that George draws so well, appeals to our reluctant readers, the kids who normally aren’t much interested in books.

 In person, George is kinetic, jumping around to make a point about how Poseidon, for example, suddenly transforms from a “super cool dude to a terrifying guy in 20 seconds. George readily connects with his young fans, and they were rapt as he talked about his decision to eschew the typical vision of Zeus as an old man and instead pictures the god as a cross between actor Liam Neeson and “a 21-year-old cool surfer dude from California.” The kids laughed when George said that “Aphrodite” was his favorite book to draw so far “because I drew nothing but pretty ladies all the time.”

George also tested the kids' knowledge of Greek mythology by quizzing them on who was who in a new "family portrait" that he's drawn of the Greek gods and goddesses. The kids passed the test with flying colors, something that impressed but didn't surprise George, who does a lot of school and library visits and sees mythology fans everywhere. The kids (and adults), meanwhile, were fascinated by George's presentation on how he creates the illustrations for the books, beginning with a "scribble scrabble mess" and ending with superbly drawn and colored artwork.

Besides “Zeus” and “Aphrodite,” the books in the series include “Athena,” “Hera,” “Hades,” and “Poseidon.” George says he’s just completed his seventh book in the series, “Ares,” in which he pictures the god of war as a “blood-dripping Ares.” That book likely will be published later this year, George said, adding that he’ll begin work next on “Apollo.”