Thursday, August 31, 2006


Why should teachers have all the fun? Invite other members of the school community into the classroom for a read-aloud as a special guest, and as a way for children to get to know all the special people who make the school function. Such as...

The lunch lady...
SCHOOL LUNCH by True Kelley (Holiday House)
When the health-conscious school lunch lady Harriet takes a much-needed vacation, its mighty hard to fill her shoes, or her kitchen. Told mostly in letters between the suffering school and Harriet swinging in her tropical hammock, we see the fry cook who douses everything in salt and grease, the French chef whose flambé sets off fire alarms, a summer camp counselor who serves up a few too many s'mores, a witch with culinary mischief brewing, and finally, the principal must resort to Chinese take-out. Wish you were here, Harriet! Accented with explosive cartoon illustrations, this-laugh-out-loud story is a delicious tribute to one of school's unsung heros. (6 and up)

The custodian...
THE FEET IN THE GYM by Teri Daniels, illustrated by Travis Foster
This book celebrates the great underdog of the school, the custodian! Handy Bob takes great pride in his job, wiping and washing and craping and scrubbing until the school shines, but begins to feel a little "walked on" as he wrangles with the footprints of everyone from the shuffling kindergarteners to a troupe of ballet-dancing kids to a soccer team to (gasp!) the art class goodness...the marching band! How will poor Bob ever get the floor clean? The story is hilarious and a perfect read aloud, with an underlying message of persistence and pride in a job well done. Though sometimes hard to find, it's worth the hunt. The book production is outstanding, with super-glossy parts to the pages that actually makes the footprints look wet! I can't wait to have kids make their own paint footprints to lead them into their new classroom...or should I write new students' names on the feet and use them for a bulletin board featuring Handy Bob? Run, don't walk to get this book... for laughs and creative extensions, other read-alouds might very well "pail" in comparison! (5 and up)

The administration...
A FINE, FINE SCHOOL by Sharon Creech, illustrated by Harry Bliss (HarperCollins)
A well-meaning principal is so enamored with the climate at his school that he decides to hold school on Saturdays. And then Sundays. And then holidays. Meanwhile, Tillie's little brother was not learning how to skip, and Tillie's dog was not learning how to sit, and Tillie herself was not learning how to climb the tree in her backyard. So when the principal considers holding school all summer, it's time to set the record straight. Clever illustrations (children brushing their teeth at the lockers, a boy carrying a volume titled This Book Is Way Too Hard for You, and children passing each other boxes of tissue to cry into as the principal makes his announcements) bring home the point that maybe it is possible too much of a good thing, and that there is all kinds of learning, some of which doesn't take place even in a fine, fine school. Another fine, fine children's book for this time of year! Also of interest to adminstration on a storytelling spree might be THE FROG PRINCIPAL by Stephanie Calmerson, illustrated by Denise Brunkus (Scholastic) (6 and up), THE PRINCIPAL'S NEW CLOTHES also by Stephanie Calmerson and illustrated by Denise Brunkus (Scholastic) (6 and up), and MR. TANEN'S TIES by MaryAnn Cocca-Leffler (Whitman) (6 and up). Come out of the office and set the tone for a community of readers!

And don't forget to check out Mike Thaler's classic "Black Lagoon" picture book series, covering everyone from the school bus driver to the school nurse, and recognizes and reduces any trepidation children may have about meeting these new and important folks.

Any other suggestions for read-alouds that are comfortable and fun for folks who work outside of the classroom in the school? Please share them in the "comments" section!

On a personal note: The PlanetEsme Bookroom!
Many of you have asked about upcoming events at The PlanetEsme Bookroom, the fabulous literary living room on Chicago's north side where children's literature is celebrated! I am currently working on giving the Bookroom page a facelift to include the history of the space, the marvelous and extraordinary guests that have passed through and the people who contributed to make it so unique, and how to get information on how you can start your own literary salon! Thanks for your patience!

The truth of the matter is, at the start of August I have taken a full-time position as a school librarian (at a school that will at this time remain unnamed to protect privacy), and have been busy setting it up one shelf at a time. Meanwhile, the Bookroom programming is going to be a bit you say...."once in a while," as I get the plate-spinning act honed. We are keeping events minimized to absolutely the most fabulous. Which is why we are planning on having illustrator HARRY BLISS (of bestselling DIARY OF A WORM fame), appearing at the Bookroom on October 18th, 6:30 p.m., courtesy of our wonderful independent bookselling supporter, The Bookstall. Yes, you can come. Yes, you can bring a friend. Yes, it's free if you buy a book at the event, which will be easy, because Bliss will bewitch us with his collaboration with Allison McGhee, A VERY BRAVE WITCH (Simon & Schuster). Details this fall, but mark your calendars today! Also, I want to have an ooo-la-la release party this fall to celebrate VIVE LA PARIS, but haven't quite worked out the details. Your bookbash brainstorming is welcome!

Peek-a-boo at the Bookroom!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


As we celebrate the theme of school stories this week, let's not forget these oldies-but-goodies, most of which have the added perk of being available in paperback!

IN ENGLISH, OF COURSE by Josephine Nobisso, illustrated by Dasha Ziborova (Gingerbread House)
The members of Josephine's classroom all seem to come from somewhere else, and are called upon in turn to talk about where their families are from. But when it's Josephine's turn, she is not sure she has enough English under her belt to explain that her parents are architectural engineers from Napoli, Italy. Her limited language leads her into uncharted farm territory, where with the help of her teacher she is able to share an extravagant reminiscence about a cow, told with a lot of body language. This hilarious and honest book explores both the insides and the outsides of an extremely intelligent child who is just gathering the tools she needs to make herself understood. The splashy collage illustrations appropriately reflect the wild amounts of information that are being sorted through, along with the style and spirit of the story's heroine. ESL students and teachers will cheer here, but any child will empathize with Josephine's earnest attempt to share the best of herself with her class. "Sometimes native-speaking people underestimate the talents, dignity and wit of newcomers to a country," the author muses in her postscript. All of these attributes come through loud and clear in one of the more endearing characters and accurate classroom narratives to appear in children's literature in a long time. This book has won so many accolades, its getting hard to see the cover! (6 and up)

PUNCTUATION TAKES A VACATION by Robin Pulver, illustrated by Lynne Rowe Reed (Holiday House)
Poor Mr. Wright plods along, trying to teach about punctuation marks, but when the frustrated fellow suggests "let's give punctuation a vacation," the underappreciated notations take him up on it, hopping a plane and leaving the class in a lurch. It turns out that writing is so hard to understand without those funny dots and dashes! When postcards arrive with crytic signatures, can Mr. Wright's students (and yours) figure out who each one is from? Leave it to clever Robin Pulver to take something as pedestrian as the period at the end of a sentence and infuse it with her signature zing. This attractive, funny book earns exclamation points all the way, and is a teacher's dream come true. Overheads of the illustrations will bring grammar lessons to life (unscramble the badly behaved punctuation in Mr. Rongo's room!), and children will love preparing their own punctuation postcards for a trip abroad to the bulletin board! Language arts has never been so lively. If you're going to talk about what everyone did over summer vacation, this might be a fun place to start. (7 and up)

COYOTE SCHOOL NEWS by Joan Sandin (Henry Holt)
Marvelous storytelling timeline following twelve students who attend the Coyote School. The tales of Monchi and his family living between Tucson and the Mexican border are told in fast-moving anecdotal style, describing exciting events like the Fiesta de Los Vaqueros (the big annual rodeo) and breaking open the Christmas pinata, as well as more everyday events like a visit from the nurse to the school and an attempt at a baseball game…who let the cattle out! Each vignette is perfectly accented by a page from "The Coyote School News," inspired by actual newsletters written by Arizona ranch country schools between 1932 and 1943. Besides this unique treatment, lovely watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations, both big and small, help bring the school year to life. By the last day, readers will have a very clear picture of a school that they will surely wish they could attend. And qué bueno, there's no way your own estudiantes will not be inspired to create their own classroom newsletter after reading this book! (7 and up)

LITTLE BROWN BEAR WON'T GO TO SCHOOL! by Jane Dyer (Little, Brown)
Every child has those days where they simply don't want to go to school, and Little Brown Bear is no exception. "I want a job," he complains, and sneaks off in puruit of one instead of going to class. It seems he doesn't have the aptitude to work at at the restaurant, the contrsuction site, the knitting or the barber shop. Is there any place where his skills match the job he has to do? This gentle watercolor illustrations feature a menagerie of animal characters that makes the story extra fun. The story plays on the fantasy of so many children to work as the grown-ups do, while celebrating the special work that children do every day. Don't be absent for this one! (5 and up)

LEON AND THE SPITTING IMAGE by Allen Kurzweil, illustrated by Bret Bertholf (Greenwillow)
Leon's lack of fine motor skills is landing him in hot water with his new teacher, the odd Miss Hagmeyer, a Medieval throwback who has an almost deranged obsession with sewing. In order to pass, the children must create stuffed "animiles" (stitch count not to exceed four s.p.i., or stitches per inch, mind you), culminating in a master piece at the end of the year. The story takes quite a fantastic turn midsection, though, when Leon makes a doll of his teacher and discovers that he can control her every move by using it. The book brims with mystery (is Miss Hagmeyer's hair really held on with velcro? What are all of those funny eyeballs she keeps locked away? And what on earth is The Hag doing with all those stuffed animals?) and ends on a sharp note of revenge, both of which are extremely appealing to the dark side of middle-graders. The story's great strength, however, resides in Hagmeyer's willingness to redirect her curriculum based on the best of what she has to share. The fact that this one teacher's passion, for all the controversy she stirs up, is able to transform her students, makes this book an inspiration for all classroom teachers to stand and deliver their lessons through the filter of the best in themselves. A highly unusual classroom read. Plus, I just loved staring at those endpapers covered in eyeballs…and I could swear they were staring back. (10 and up) If you like this one, check out the science-fair themed sequel, LEON AND THE CHAMPION CHIP.

And since I promise a new book-a-day, check out funnyman Dan Gutman's THE HOMEWORK MACHINE (Simon & Schuster). Told from a variety of POV's, including police interviews (!!!), this is a story of a wish come true, and as is the case with many wishes that come true, it has gone awry in ways that were hard to predict. A young computer mastermind tries to lose his "nerd" status by demonstrating his marvelous machine, and its use and consequences reveal the sometimes serious backstories of four students (such as the need for one boy to connect with his father on duty in Iraq, and a girl's coming to terms with deciding who her friends are or following the crowd). It's like a modern-day Danny Dunn mixed with the devices of a good old-fashioned problem-novel. While some may find the situations and resolutions a little pat, this straightforward storytelling that will make this book a success and a delight to discuss with reluctant readers. (9 and up)

On a personal note:
Thanks to Junko Yokota of National Louis University for recommending to me the most amazing website,, which features shareware that allows you automate your personal collection of books! That means, teachers, you can scan in your classroom collection, beep-beep-beep, and look things up and check things out, just like a real library, only interfacing with snazzy Mac graphics! Good gravy, I am absolutely over the moon with this program, it's even better than a homework machine in my book! I can't wait to zap everything in sight.

Check in tomorrow, I'll have news about the PlanetEsme Bookroom!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


A VERY FULL MORNING by Eva Montanari (Houghton Mifflin)
The first day of school is so exciting, Little Tooth can hardly get to sleep! The big day comes. What to wear? What to eat for breakfast? She passes a path of stones, a yard full of bookbags, and walks through a corridor of doors to a room full of desks...which one is hers? A surprise ending creates an empathetic bond between student and teacher that is sure to start the school year out right. Angular, stylized illustrationswith distorted, exaggerated perspectives add to the dreamy, maze-like feeling of being the new person in a new place. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
by B.G. Hennessy, illustrated by Paul Meisel (Putnam)
Mr. Ouchy is a bundle of nerves before school starts, but once he gets rolling, all is well. The male prespective is refreshing, the list of what kids want to learn is inspired, and realistic dialogue gives this story extra snap! Told in short sections that feel extra grown-up in a picture book format, the lively banter will beguile fans of Suzy Kline's HORRIBLE HARRY series (one of my favorite voices for telling a classroom story). My favorite part is when Mr. Ouchy talks to his mommy at the end of the day to let her know that he got a haircut and wore his blue shirt, and, yes, "my class is the best!" (5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Monday, August 28, 2006


Okay, I am going to go out on a limb and hope you will forgive this shameless moment of self-promotion, but I have to share my joy that SING A SONG OF TUNA FISH (9 and up) has been released in paperback in time for the start of the new school year. This book actually has nothing to do with tuna fish; it is a memoir about my growing up in Chicago during the 1970's, focusing on my fifth grade year. In it, I describe things like egging a car with my mother (understandably, she is not too happy about that), stealing a matzoh from under the chair of a hundred-year-old rabbi, attending a school where I could choose disco dancing over math, getting butt-switching lessons from a fifth grade diva, losing my brother under about ten feet of snow after a blizzard, and throwing my grandmother the surprise party to end all surprise parties. It is graced with spot illustrations by the talented LeYuen Pham, who, as always, did her homework to recreate the mood that will have Gen-X'ers reveling in the familiar.

So many children I worked with liked to write stories about haunted houses, car chases, zombies and aliens... I am especially excited because I wrote this book with the hope that it could show children that their own real lives are worth writing about. Each chapter can serve as a springboard into journaling activities for kids. I have an on-line chapter-by-chapter teacher's guide, which also includes a list of other memoirs by children's authors and illustrators. SING A SONG OF TUNA FISH is also available on audiobook, which I had the pleasure of narrating myself for Listening Library. Though this is one of my favorite books I have written, and certainly the most personal, it was a bit of a sleeper...I am glad that it can wake up to a new life in paperback, a format that will reach more kids and the people who love them.

Meanwhile, I am chewing my cuticle to rags, as responses and reviews loom for VIVE LA PARIS, the soon-to-be released companion to SAHARA SPECIAL ( reviews are welcome, people, it's good practice!). VIVE LA PARIS is a "companion novel," not a "sequel," because I was careful to try to write a book that would stand on it's own (though the slow-burning Miss Pointy is still teaching, and our favorite "bad boy" Darrell makes a return...I love that kid). This is the story of Sahara's classmate, Paris, who is taking piano lessons with an elderly woman with a secret...a secret that might help Paris deal with the bullies in her life, and in the life of her gentle brother.

As a teacher, reading books like NUMBER THE STARS by Lois Lowry and KING MATT THE FIRST by Janusz Korczak to inner-city African-American kids, I dreamed of someday writing something that would connect children of different cultures, and a different era, to the experiences of WWII in a way that would really speak to THEM, and NOW. That seed was watered by comments made by Sharon Flake in reference to her book BANG!, about how important it is to tell the story of people on the news, even after the television goes off. I wanted children not only to learn history, not only to hear about what's happened in the world, but to use it so it doesn't have to be repeated, which is what Paris tries to do (even though its harder than she imagined). I also wanted to use writing as a tool to help fortify children as they confront the onslaught of news of war and terror. I hope VIVE LA PARIS connects young readers to history in a way that is recognizable and relevant to their own lives, and gives them some hope and power to do better.

Well. We'll see. Anyhoo, stay tuned this week, as I may have a few more advance copies available for librarians and book clubs! Also, I'll have back-to-school themed books to review, and to get things rolling, let's start with THE WHEELS ON THE SCHOOL BUS by Mary-Alice Moor, illustrated by Laura Huliska Beith (HarperCollins). The librarian on the bus says read, read, read! the custodian on the bus says, mop, mop, mop! The coach, the teachers, the lunch lady, and yes, some children chime in, introducing storytime listeners to the whole cast of their merry school day. A rollicking find, and a fresh take on an old favorite. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
THE WHEELS ON THE BUS by Paul O. Zelinsky (Dutton). If you don't have it already, you need this rock-and-roll pop-up version of the original song. Pre-dating the moveable masterpieces of Robert Sabuda, this book is the wheel deal. (4 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Friday, August 25, 2006


ALL FOR PIE, PIE FOR ALL by David Martin, illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev (Candlewick)
When Grandma Cat bakes an apple pie, it's not only the cat family that gets a piece of the action! This simple and charming reverse-Little-Red-Hen shows how much work can be done and how many can share in the fun when everyone pitches in and works together. I am always looking for good apple-themed stories to tie into my Johnny Appleseed Anniversary
celebration in September, and this one is definitely going on the menu. (3 and up)

A few posts back, we celebrated the work of Ard Hoyt, but ALL FOR PIE reminded me that Valerie Gorbachev is also a quiet riot, deserving of a moment in the spotlight. Gorbachev's style is a hybrid of Richard Scarry and Arnold Lobel; check out his newest, HERON & TURTLE (4 and up), gentle, friendly vignettes featuring enthusiastic animal neighbors and see if you don't agree! Gorbachev has quipped, "the basic thing for an illustrator is to create a cozy, truthful world for the characters." Don't we wish we could live in his books?

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


With school almost back in session, let's get one more big trip around the world in, while we have the chance! These titles will also painlessly get those neurons firing in time for September...

IT'S BACK TO SCHOOL WE GO! by Ellen Jackson, illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis (Millbrook) Kids can get into the back-to-school-groove by reading the conversational portrayals of the return ritual from the POV of eleven kids in the same boat. The map on the endpapers helps to track the trips!

MY LIBRARIAN IS A CAMEL: HOW BOOKS ARE BROUGHT TO CHILDREN AROUND THE WORLD by Margriet Ruurs (Boyds Mill Press) Finland! Indonesia! Kenya! Mongolia! Azerbaijan! How do young readers in remote areas get their goodies? An exploration of thirteen countries introduces us to beasts, bookmobiles and even boats that really know how to deliver to their patrons! Lots of text is motivating for hard-core bibliophiles, and for the rest, a multitude of cool, exotic photographs really show us how we all have so much in common through our love of reading. Each spread also includes a sideline featuring a map, flag, and brief encyclopedia-like description of the locale. What an unusual, inspiring book! (8 and up)

CELEBRATE! CONNECTIONS AMONG CULTURES by Jan Reynolds (Lee & Low) What do people around the world have in common when they celebrate? Do they decorate themselves? Do they use fire? Do they dance? Featuring vibrant, people-cenetered photographs in the style of George Ancona, this choice is perfect for your youngest anthropologist. (7 and up)

Also pretty great is Disney Press's OUR WORLD (6 and up) which is, unsurprisingly, relentless in its product placement through little iconic cartoons. I am generally unkind to anything featuring a licensed television/movie character. However, to be fair, this book is a stand-out because it also has an amazing amount of information, well-organized with large print, a clear index, and lots of photographs, including great big ones of kids from every continent. Written in very kid-friendly language, it's handy for reports, and is an extraordinary value for a hardcover. But if you find the likes of Lilo and Stitch too intrusive, check out OUR WORLD: A COUNTRY-BY-COUNTRY GUIDE by Millie Miller (Scholastic)(7 and up), is also rich in information, including a lot of history, with hand-illustrated pages and maps, almanac-like info in handy sidebars on the bottom of every spread and a handy guide to world flags.

CAN YOU SAY PEACE? by Karen Katz (Henry Holt)(3 and up) has succulent, gumdrop-colored illustrations with plenty to point out to preschoolers on every page, and a reminder that September 21st is an International Day of Peace. Oh, heavens to betsy, if dear dear Fred Rogers were still alive, I bet he would have loved this book, it is such a warm reminder of what all children have in common, and what they have to teach us. CAN YOU GREET THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD by Lezlie Evans, illustrated with sweet, unpretentious cartoons by Denis Roche (Houghton Mifflin) (4 and up) is beautifully laid out, with lists of polite remarks that would make Emily Post very happy, and pronunciation help on every page. Both books offer multilingual opportunities for children to extend a friendly hand to one another.

Also of interest:
One of the very best ways for children to get to learn about the world is to have a penpal, someone far away who wants to exhange letters. Educators, I highly recommend International Youth Services as a provider (you have to order a relatively large number of addresses). Children can learn skills like geography and letter-writing, as well as character traits such as tolerance and empathy. These long-distance relationships are so interesting, and can last...I was given a penpal from India through IYS over twenty years ago, and she is now the godparent of my son and one of my dearest friends! (Hi, Cleta, love you!!!)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


THE PALACE OF LAUGHTER by Jon Berkeley, illustrated by Brandon Dorman (HarperCollins)
The cover of this book is as alluring as the entrance to a carnival fun house, and the similarity does not end there. Miles, an orphaned boy, is told by a tiger that he can "smell the circus in him," and when he follows that calling, he finds himself in a position to rescue a creature known as a song angel being held against her will. So suspenseful that you want to get off the ride and never want it to end at the same time, florid descriptions and a dreamlike plot carry the reader along page after page, with a few frightening bits mixed in. I personally find the idea of scary clowns in a book for children distateful, frankly, given the sad and horrifying grown-up history of crime which I won't get into here; but aside from that, the language is lovely, the writing is original, and if your 10-and up reader can stomach the likes of Neil Gaiman's CORALINE or the tribulations and droll, dark humor in the works of Lemony Snicket, ahhh well, they'll be fine (or as fine as they'll ever be). This first in a series is a thrill ride, and likely to find legions of fans. (10 and up)

On a personal note
This book is part of the "Julie Andrews collection," yes, the lovely and ridiculously multi-talented Mary-Poppins-Eliza-Doolittle-Victor-Victoria Julie Andrews, an imprint of HarperCollins publishing. In the 1970's, Julie Andrews published under her pen/married name, Julie Edwards, penning classics such as the read-aloud fantasy delight THE LAST OF THE REALLY GREAT WHANGDOODLES ,and my favorite, MANDY, in which a girl builds a secret house with a mosaic room of seashells, good gravy, what little girl wouldn't love it? Julie Andrews at that time also chose admirably not to rely on star power garnered from another field, but to allow her stories to stand on their own merits.

And so, Julie Andrews, multi-talented Mary-Poppins-Eliza-Doolittle-Victor-Victoria Julie Andrews of whom I am very fond and who gave performances that made me shed tears of joy and who has written fine books to boot, may I please gently point out to you that when you are heading an imprint, you should not quote yourself on the back cover, praising the book which you have had a hand in publishing? My editor, too, heaven bless her, has many nice things to say about the books we have published together, and her enthusiasm does make my heart skip a beat. All the same, there is a general understanding that to the unbiased public, such praise is of the caliber of your mother telling you that you are the prettiest girl in the world. Chances are, if you actually are that beautiful, you don't need mother to point it out; the world will recieve you as such. Be brave in your imprint, Ms. Andrews! Keep putting out good stuff like this Berkeley fellow has done, and readers will say the things you'd like to have said.

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


BOBBY THE BOLD by Donna Jo Napoli and Eva Furrow, illustrated by Ard Hoyt (Dial)
Bobby is a bonobo in a cage full of chimpanzees, and his differences make it so he is not included in all the monkey business. Bobby gets along well with people, though, and tunes in to the pretty song the zookeeper plays on the lock keypad. One night, Bobby dons a zookeeper jacket and hops a bus over to the hairdresser, when he gets a new do and a skill he can share to earn the respect of his primate peers. Besides being downright hilarious, a sign-language theme is integrated into the story, giving it another facet of interest. Bobby is a character with a ton of personality, and the message of fitting in even when you're different will be a hopeful one for many children. The wild story does require some suspended belief, and Ard Hoyt is perfection here, a hybrid between David Small and Dr. Seuss, doing exactly what every author dreams an illustrator will do: add something above and beyond than the text on the page. You can practically hear those chimps hoo-hoo-ing! And wait until you see Bobby's new hairdo! Ard Hoyt has a broad, imaginative talent with an unbridled use of space that I think in another era would be pushed by publishers and greatly celebrated by children; I hope that we are enough evolved to get his books into their hands today. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
WHEN THE COWS GOT LOOSE by Carol Weis, illustrated by Ard Hoyt (Simon & Schuster)
Ida Mae's twenty-six cows have gone a-wandering, and she's got to bring those bovines home again. Once more, Ard Hoyt adds so much to the story, setting it in a circus-inspired town and letting the cows in on the daredevil, high-flying feats, and giving Ida Mae a zebra to ride instead of a horse. A colorful, crazy tall-tale told in folksy read-aloud language. (5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Monday, August 21, 2006


TOOT & PUDDLE: THE ONE AND ONLY by Holly Hobbie (Little Brown)
Bubbles recieves a warm welcome as a new student in Opal's class, and soon gloms on to Opal. So begins a year of imitation as Bubbles cops Opal's dress tyle, her Halloween costume, her turkey artwork, even her one-in-a-million snowflake. Opal's family in Woodcock Hollow reassure her lovingly ("Never mind, we all know who made the most beautiful snowflake,") and try to encourage her to be tolerant and view this behavior as a form of flattery. But when Bubbles' "personality plagiarism" starts making her popular, it might be too bitter a pill for Opal to swallow. Just in time for the annual school theatrical extravaganza , Opal discovers something at which Bubbles falls short. Will Opal be able to swallow her pride just once more in order to help Bubbles, and her class?

This is a marvelous treatise on the patience we need to extend to other people as they find themselves, but equally, it is a pitch-perfect porcine portrait of the lovely myriad of ways little girls find to drive each other crazy. Opal's best friend Daphne wins the best supporting friend award, with chagrin over the indignities suffered palpable even through a Halloween mask. The difficult idea that being kind even when we feel like being mean results is betterment for everyone is done with panache and sans preachiness. If the Newbery committee can find it in its heart to give an award to one more pig book, I say this should be a contender. Each picture is so expressive, working well with the text to carry us through all of the seasons, the use of the space on the page is dynamic, and details capture so much of the lively activity of school. Though Holly Hobbie's early work has been largely commercialized (sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable from the sweet "country" flavor that some of us old folks from the 1970's might remember), I think this Toot & Puddle shows that she is no copycat; her style is always distinctive and recognizable, and she has shown tremendous growth over the years even starting from a place of sensitivity and talent. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
RUBY THE COPYCAT by Peggy Rathmann (Scholastic) A classic copycat drives a classmate, and a teacher, to the brink of explosion. Luckily, even copycats eventually find talents that are all their own! (5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Friday, August 18, 2006


With the start of school looming around the corner, I thought I'd focus on some outstanding resources available that will make you a children's literature expert!

The classic guide to read-aloud has just been reissued with new, up-to-date research supporting the most successful approach in pedagogy, a bevy of helpful hints, lessons we can learn from Oprah, Harry Potter and cyberspace, a treasury of read-aloud titles, and a whole new chapter of inspiring testimonials from parents and teachers. This book by my hero (xoxoxxo) is possibly the most important book you can read before entering the field of education, and should be required reading by everyone who comes in contact with children. A journalistic coup de grace, I'm thrilled it is still going strong and finding new audiences to empower. Believe me, if you read this, you'll always find time for read-aloud!

There are very few parenting books I have read that I could shout, "I didn't want it to end!" but that is the case with this candid tell-all of a mother who is is passionate about books, and is eager to pass her enthusiasm on to her daughters. The author faces challenges as she realizes that there are all different kinds of readers in the world, and a variety pack happens to exist within her own household. An extemely brave parenting confessional, many scenes will ring familiar as Nash struggles with the tensions of parent-teacher conferences and the competition she feels as one child lags in the great reading race, and shares those shining moments when street signs begin to make sense and the world of words begins to crack open like a treasure chest. Besides offering all sorts of pragmatic suggestions and ideas at the end of each anecdotal chapter (such as "The Birthday Journal," "Soak up the Pleasures of the Bookstore," "The Three Chapter Rule," "One Dad's Storytime Secret," "What You Get When You Turn Off the TV"), there are several specific book recommendations and lots of good family dialogue that rings true. In all of its honesty, this book offers the great gift of perspective, and invites us to celebrate our children wherever they are on their reading journey. "I glanced around the little cabin, now dark with the night and lit by the fire. My whole family was there and it felt like we were in a state of grace. I realized that it wasn't really about anybody's ability to read, and it wasn't about any of the books that were being read. It was about just being able to be together in a quiet room, at peace in each other's presence." Sigh!

BOOKS TO GROW WITH: A GUIDE TO USING THE BEST CHILDREN'S FICTION FOR EVERYDAY ISSUES AND TOUGH CHALLENGES by Cheryl Coon (Lutra Press) I think this is one of my most dog-eared resources. Though I have long advocated that all good books are character education books, people continue to ask for books that deal directly with issues, making this title one of my most dog-eared reference books. This extraordinarily comprehensive and approachable guide solves the problem so many teachers and parents face: finding just the right children's books to address a problems! This author really did her homework in creating this resource of excellent recommendations falling under such clear and helpful headings as sharing, bullies and teasing, feelings, fears, babysitters, stuttering, being gifted, boasting, honesty, sleepovers, self-esteem, adoption, moving, glasses, divorce, strangers, aging, illness, disabilities, death, and many more, making it sure to be dog-eared by booksellers, counselors, physicians, parents and educators. When it comes to prescribing bibliotherapy, Cheryl Coon has the country's best bedside manner, so the next time you have an issue, don't reach for a tissue, grab this title instead. And just FYI, this author is a great speaker to boot.

CHILDREN TELL STORIES by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss (Richard C. Owen Publishers) This truly generous and invaluable guide written by two seasoned performers is "the" book for creating a new generation of oral storytellers. I discovered the first edition as a teacher, and with a cheerful, can-do voice, it walked me through all the steps of becoming a better storyteller, and sharing that skill with my students. No educator should be without this amazing tool for exploring the power of narrative, and creating an appreciation for the special talent behind the oral tradition. The new edition is an even bigger treasure trove than the first, has a four-week sample timetable for easy use in planning and preparing a storytelling unit (teachers, resist kissing the page, if possible), and includes a DVD that features videos, web links and printable stories. You will be amazed at the stories both you and your students are able to bring to life, the and the confidence and enthusiasm with which you will be able to do it.

BOOKS KIDS WILL SIT STILL FOR #3: A READ-ALOUD GUIDE by Judy Freeman (Libraries Unlimited) I am actually pulling at the hair on my head, trying to decide where to begin to describe this lifework of one. Amazing. Woman. Starts with a list of seventeen things you need to know to be a good school librarian. Then sections on awards, reading aloud and reading alone, how to integrate books across the curriculum, how to do storytelling and reader's theater, and then, and then, and then! there is an annotated (!!!) list of over a THOUSAND recommendations, divided be genre (such as fiction, fairy tales, poetry, nonfiction), and each recommendation contains a "germ," or a springboard to discussion, a weblink, a project idea...and then, and then, and then! Every title has a mammoth list of related titles! Whooooaaaah. The thing that differentiates this title from other resource books is that this book, despite its dictionary-like girth, despite its encyclopedia-like wealth of knowledge, has personality. You can feel Freeman's enthusaism and heart on every page, and her desire to pass on everything she knows to you, to make a community of readers a reality in America. Despite its price tag, being from a specialized publisher, I have found this book to be worth every penny, a one-stop shop for all you need to know about children's literature. The admiration I have for this woman and this boggling project brings tears to my eyes.

HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO LOVE READING (Algonquin) Judy Freeman is a tough act to follow, but I'll remind you that my book is handy for its thematic lists, and for the motivation-based approach that affirms that there is hope for every child to be a lifelong lover of books.

Also of interest:
Even if you're not a teacher, you can make a huge difference in a classroom by visiting one of my very favorite websites, DonorsChoose, in which teachers post mini-proposals that need our funding. Beyond being a brilliant initiative, it sure is fun reading what creative ideas teachers have!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to let you know that an amazing example of picture-book non-fiction has landed on the shelf! From the days before television comes the story of the radio broadcast that sent the country into a frenzy, believing that martians had landed at the Wilmuth Farm in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. What was to become of us? What did they want from us?! It wasn't until later, well after hysteria had enued and blood pressures had been raised, that listeners discovered they had actually been listening to a radio play orchestrated by Orson Welles, based on the science fiction novel THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. This wild bit of history is conveyed in beautiful black and white when the real-life situation is being described, and fabulous technicolor when the script is being read. What a great read-aloud to introduce kids to this bit of history, and to discuss whether or not we should believe everything we hear! I loved Megan McCarthy ever since her hilarious SHOW DOG (Viking), and her googly-eyed characters are just right for expressing the wide-eyed surprise about the whole situation. Break out the old audio recorder and use this book as a springboard to inspire kids to produce their own "radio" broadcasts before summer is over! (7 and up)

On a personal note

Dear Madame Esme,

How come you never really say anything mean or critical about books? Don't you ever come across a book you really don't like? You got really down and dirty in your diary, but you never bust on the books. What's up with that?

Elizabeth P., Syracuse, NY

Dear Gentle Reader (or Not-So-Gentle Reader, as the case may be),

Hey, are you calling me a Pollyanna? How refreshing!

I think criticism is overrated in our culture. Once upon a time, for instance, we had variety shows where everyone had their own unique talent showcased. Now everything is a contest, and people are perpetually judged and pitted against each other. Dangerously, depending on whose offering it, opinions are increasingly confused as some sort of overreaching fact, an attitude that is sure to continue as literacy and critical thinking skills decline. I would hope that in the world of reading, of all places, we can do better than that.

I understand that there is a certain skill to being a critic and I laugh out loud at the snarky, insightful, candid remarks in some blogs and review journals...these folks can do a much better job than I at dishing the dirt! But given the challenges that people have when it comes to sorting through the thousands of books published every year and managing time at a premium to decide what to share with children at home and in the classroom, I don't think people need help knowing what not to read, so I direct my energy towards recommending what I consider to be the cream of the crop. Though I certainly have opinions as strong as limburger cheese on most days, I try to limit these grunts and groans to a less public forum (as was the case with my diary, only it eventually made its way to a wider audience).

I read thousands of books and oh brother, I sure do come across books I don't like. But I feel that when someone writes a children's book, they are trying their best to create art. They are trying to do something peaceful or thought-provoking in the world. They are trying to share something with a child. Whether or not I consider the effort to be completely successful, I have to respect that effort and those instincts, and I have no desire to "bust on that." I also know from my own experience as a writer and as a listening ear to many writers and illustrators, that sometimes a book is an exercise, a step in pathway that leads to a larger work that can't be arrived at without a smaller, less celebrated work. I have to respect that effort as well, and try to view each book in the context of the artist's body of work. Even great authors like Joan Aiken, Maurice Sendak, Betsy Byars, Avi, they have all had big books and little books, loud splashes and quiet ripples in their proverbial ponds. We are grateful for the works that spoke to us, right? We are glad someone "introduced" them to us and probably don't remember the attacks on their individual works because we are invested in them as authors. But I bet they remember!

I try not to read reviews until after I experienced a book myself, and sometimes I just can't believe the critic and I read the same book, have you ever had that experience? Though it is only fair to admit to a book's shortcomings when in a position to help people make decisions, I notice a lot of "reviews" are just mean, full of careless, unnecessary jabs. But oh, a flippant unkind remark can be so discouraging and counterproductive to an author or illustrator, or worst of all, it can actually stand in the way of a book finding its audience. For instance, if I may use my own experience since that is the only one I am privileged to share, some stinker put in his two cents (or more like a generous seventy-four cents) about my book DIARY OF A FAIRY GODMOTHER in a public forum. Now, this person is entitled to his opinion. But the fact is, I wrote the story for girls ten and up, whose letters suggest that they like it very much, who like to draw funny pictures of all the little witches and who usually tune in the reason I wrote it: to show 'tween-age girls in a feminist-backlash world that they can still "be the one with the wand" and not wait for other people to make their wishes come true. I did not write it for middle-aged men who should perhaps stick to analyzing Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS or Emile's Zola's NANA to impress attractive grad students with a professorial command of literary devices and big words like "protagonist," sooner than railing on the story transitions and love-affairs of a skateboarding girl named Hunky Dory. (You see, dahhling, you don't have to worry. I still occasionally do have two cents of my own to spend!)

It takes about a minute to write something mean (or less than a minute, if what I wrote in the last paragraph is any indication), but it can take years to write a book and get it published. If I really don't like a book, I think the worst thing I can do is not to mention it at all. The bottom line is, I come across critics I don't like far more often than books I don't like. So I guess I'll stay in the suggestion business and continue to celebrate the wonderful, and leave the down-and-dirty business of criticizing children's books to the books' intended audience: the children.


E-mail your "ask Esme" questions to Esmeatripcodotcom. Feel free to post your "review gone wrong" or example of when your opinion strongly differed from a review in the comments section below!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


TALES OUR ABUELITAS TOLD: A HISPANIC FOLKTALE COLLECTION by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy, illustrated by Felipe Davalos, Susan Guevara and Leyla Torres (Atheneum)
Habia una vez, or once upon a time, five amazing artists got together to create a marvelous book, to gather stories that their grandmothers might have told. Each shoned and shimmered individually but fit together to create a mosaic representing the artful history of storytelling in Spanish-speaking countries, stories speckled with tradition and influence from the Arab, Jewish,Germanic, African, Spanish and indigenous worlds (to name a few). What flavor each story packs! From the familiar and legendary, such as the Puerto Rican trickster "Juan Bobo" to the beloved and romantic "Blancaflor," to the eloborate quest of "the Little Horse of Seven Colors" or the cumulative poem, "The Castle of Chuchurumbé," there are a dozen stories in all, each benefitting from these experienced storytellers' awareness of making the words roll off the tongue, so that they may be told again and again, and live on and on and on.

To make matters even better, the stories are illustrated in full page plate by not one, not two, but three celebrated Hispanic artists, with distinct styles but all colorful and detailed. The book also includes a fascinating introduction (which might be a little much for young readers but offers fantastic background knowledge for educators), an invaluable guide to beginning and ending a story in Spanish (worth the price of the book right there), and interesting, personal information about all of the contributors to this book, which will create a strong author/illustrator/reader connection. This book is a rare gem, pretty and fun to read alone or aloud, an inspiration for storytellers and a very strong addition to any multicultural or folkloric collection. (8 and up)

Also of interest:
MAMA GOOSE: A LATINO NURSERY TREASURY by Alma Flor Ada, F. Isabel Campoy, illustrated by Maribel Suarez (Hyperion)
Mostly Mexican, this compendium of bilingually-presented birthday songs, riddle, tall-tales, finger plays, jump-rope rhymes, songs and nursery rhymes will add fresh material to both laptimes and storytimes. While the content of the Spanish-language originals are sometimes sacrificed in translation in order to keep the rhythm and rhyme, what results is a treasury of pleasant pieces that stand on their own in each language. Generous, brightly-colored illustrations make page-turning a delight. A wonderful choice for a new baby gift, this book will be enjoyed throughout a child's primary years.(birth and up)

CHICKS AND SALSA by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Paulette Bogan

Fans of Doreen Cronin's CLICK, CLACK, MOO: COWS THAT TYPE will find a new cock of the walk in this story of a farmyard looking for a little culinary variety, and finding it through Mexican cuisine. Now, where the ducks got the guacamole, the chickens got the tortilla chips and the bull snared the the sombrero remains a mystery, but you'll be glad they did! When the cuisine proves irresistable, the farmer and his wife may have to get in on the fiesta. This slightly irreverant book about eating outside the box (or the henhouse or pen, whatever the case may be) has pictures as colorful as a broken pinata, and will whet many young readers' appetites for trying new cuisines. Recipes included, but you may want to have many more international cookbooks on hand! (5 and up)

TINY TORTILLA by Arlene Williams, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Dutton)
Juan Carlos is so hungry, but the only thing the old tortilla maker in the plaza has left is a tiny scrap of dough, but she assures him, he shouldn't worry. Simply pat the dough and sing, "palma-palma-palmadita," and when the dough on it is light and thin, give it three pats, uno, dos, tres. Don't take a bite until it is done! If Juan Carlos can follow this advice, he will have the most unusual day of his life. This book is a storytime treasure, with plenty of opportunities for audience participation and magical results with each repetition of the old tortilla lady's spell. The sketchy, sunburned illustrations are just right for the Southwestern setting, and just like the tiny tortilla, your affection for this folkloric telling will grow and grow by the story's end. Be sure to have some tortillas on hand for a storytime snack to follow, and see if the spell really works! (5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


POND SCUM by Alan Silberberg (Hyperion)
Oliver has problems taking a walk in another's shoes...or wings...or webbed feet. Lonely and with a careless, sadistic streak, he doesn't always get along with his dad, or the kids at school, or even the wildlife that surrounds his isolated house. It isn't until a freak accident leads him to discover a gem with the power to temporarily turn Oliver into any animal that he touches is he able to start cultivating some empathy for the lives going on around him. Quirkier even than Carl Hiassen's Newbery-honor-winning HOOT (Knopf), this book is finding legions of fans, and is a title that sons and dads can share with pleasure. Beautiful prints of wildlife start every chapter. It also imparts ecological themes of interdependence without being heavy-handed...the only heavy here is on the humor. Combined with a fearless, cinematic writing style, flawed and funny characters, and fever-pitch animal battle scenes, we have the makings of your favorite boy's new favorite book. (9 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Monday, August 14, 2006


EXTREME ANIMALS by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Neal Layton (Candlewick)

Nonfiction is one of the most interesting genres of children's literature, always surprising in its subject matter and the creative ways it is presented for young readers. All the same, there are precious few nonfiction titles that I await with the same baited breath as a novel. One exception is work written by Nicola Davies. After four re-readings of POOP (granted, I keep it in the commode), I was a fan for life. There has been a growing pile of complaints regarding the unwarranted toilet talk that has permeated children's literature of late, and so it was with great delight to discover a book that does the subject justice. Every page flows over with absolutely fascinating fecal facts, from the double-dose of digesting power that pellets afford to rabbits or the tell-tale dumps of sloths, otters and hippos that speak (or stink) louder than words. The necessity of the dung beetle in the cycle is honored here in a sculpture in South Australia and within these pages, as is the ski-worthy mountains of guano built by bats in Bracken Cave. Earthy, unpretentious illustrations accentuate the vocabulary- and fertilizer-rich content. Overall, POOP was a remarkably engaging and informative science book that rises far above its foul beginnings, and will make a novice scientist out of your favorite fart-joke-teller. A must for any bathroom bookshelf, this winner of the BCCB Blue Ribbon Nonfiction Book Award also makes for a poop-ular classroom read-aloud. (7 and up)

But let's turn our attention to this team's latest tour de force. Extreme animals find life everywhere, from the coldest corner of the world (who knew that polar bears had black skin?) to live volcanoes (yes, there is life there, too), to the murky ocean depths with pressure equivalent to 1,100 atmospheres. In these pages, we meet sponges that can be put in a blender and then rebuild themselves, seeds that can sleep for six thousand years, frogs that are popsicles and an unfortunate spider stuck in a jar, surviving without food or water for eighteen months, to name a few. Of course, the toughest creature on earth is crowned, but you'll have to read the book to find out what it is...I promise, you'll be impressed! As usual, Layton's illustrations are hardscrabble and hardscribble, doodles done with loose, enthusiastic abandon, a perfect pairing for Davies conversational tone. Her background as a zoologist combined with her work as a children's author is like getting a guided tour through the natural world, with just about the best tour guide you could get. You want a book with an extreme "wow" factor? Here you go. (7 and up)

Please feel free to share your favorite nonfiction in the "comments" section!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


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