Tuesday, August 26, 2008


ELVIS AND OLIVE by Stephanie Watson (Scholastic)

"Don't be fooled by people who seem boring. Even the most dull-looking people do all kinds of weird, interesting things when they think no one's watching."
Cross Pippi Longstocking with The Great Gilly Hopkins and you've got Annie, code name "Elvis," who strongarms the otherwise cautious Natalie, code name "Olive," into a summer of spying on the neighbors. From the moment we are dragged along with Natalie under the porch with the near-feral topless wild child Annie, we are drawn into her world of unlikely and outlandish stories, and readers will share Natalie's wish that they are true; but the real truth is that Annie's lies are covering a deep and secret hurt. Clever Annie knows she's not the only one with something to hide, and from an uninvited vantage point the girls witness a harmless jig of frustration danced by an unhappy businessman and the whimsical hobby of a retired army sargeant, the more dangerous admission of shoplifting methodology by a teen beauty queen, and finally, in an effort to prove to to Annie that she is capable of taking risks, Natalie bears witness to vandalism. When a few too many secrets are revealed for the community's comfort and Natalie's secret crush is on the table, Natalie has to think hard about what she can do to redeem reputations, and to recoup the unlikely friendship she has come to treasure.

This story walks the fine line between innocence and innocence lost in a way that is appropriate for the tweenagers walking that same line. With a style like a modern-day Carolyn Haywood, the swell of the story's plot builds steadily and the characters are both interesting but comfortably recognizable. Although this book sports two girls on the cover, the spy-theme and opportunity for classroom discussion crosses gender lines. When is it all right to tell secrets, or to keep them? Why do people tell lies? Why do we want to believe them? Why do parents sometimes disapprove of the friends we choose? Do opposites really attract? What are the lines we draw between friend and enemy? What are some different ways this story could have gone? In an overflow of girl-on-the-cover fiction, this stand-out is one that shouldn't be kept secret for very long, and this new author is definitely one to watch, with or without binoculars. (9 and up)

Also of interest:
AFTERNOON OF THE ELVES by Janet Taylor Lisle (Putnam)
A poignant and resonant Newbery honor book about a girl whose friendship with a poor but imaginative neighbor leads her to abandon the mores of the rest of her community. Is Sarah-Kate really an elf with an enchanted backyard, or a neglected girl with more on her plate than a child can handle? A beautifully wrought story about a girl who learns to form her own opinions, for better or worse, and a wonderful choice for reading circle and book club comparisons with ELVIS AND OLIVE. (10 and up)

And a couple other strong female protagonists join us on the fiction shelf:

JUST GRACE WALKS THE DOG by Charise Myracle Harper (Houghton Mifflin) In this stands-on-it's own latest in the "Grace" series, buddies Grace and Mimi determine that Grace has a better shot of having her folks say "yes" to a dog, so they set out to prove their pet care prowess with the help of a cardboard prototype. A chapter book nod to Dayal Kaur Khlasa's I WANT A DOG (the little girl in that story takes meticulous care of a roller skate), what sets this apart from the rest on the shelf is the empathy and carefully chosen words the friends extend toward one another. Refreshing! (7 and up)

BRONTE'S BOOK CLUB by Kristiana Gergory (Holiday House) Literary soul After moving from California to New Mexico, Bronte Bella starts a book club featuring ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS (oh, don't you want to join?), but finds that making new friends is not as easy as it seems in stories, and getting the gathered to talk about the books and not each other is a whole other challenge. Though Sheila Greenwald's MARIAH DELANEY'S LENDING LIBRARY DISASTER will always be my favorite book about book clubs, Gregory's good humor will make her a favorite author, and distinct character prototypes will make Bronte's hard-won clique a hit with young TRAVELING PANTS fans. (9 and up)

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

Sunday, August 10, 2008


THE BEST STORY by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf (Dial)
"The Red Brick Library was having a contest: Write the best story. Win first prize."
First prize is a ride on the Super Duper Looper roller coaster with the author of The Runaway Roller Coaster. Wow! First prizes don't get any cooler than that.

But what makes the best story? The aspiring author's brother says the best stories have lots of action. Dad says the best stories have plenty of humor. Aunt Jane likes stories that make people cry, and teenage cousin Anika quips, "if it's not romantic it's a loser." Trying to please everyone all the time creates quite a muddle on the page, with pirates in polka-dotted pajamas and and monkeys in love and runaway school buses and goldfish funerals and...and...and...will our heroine ever find her happy ending?

I once saw Marcus Zusak (THE BOOK THIEF) speak, and he said something along the lines of "you have to write the book that is in you, the book that you would write even if no one else reads it." This also makes me think of the advice my high school English teacher gave me, echoed by Miss Pointy in SAHARA SPECIAL: "a writer writes," meaning that it's the act of writing that makes you a writer, not prizes or praise. It turns out the best story is the truest story one can tell, the one that speaks from the author's heart and not from trying to please other people. This lands the biggest reward of all...maybe even better than a Super Duper Looper rollercoaster ride. This little picture book speaks to that big idea, with a tenderness and truth that might even choke you up. With succinct storytelling, this may be Spinelli's "best story" yet, and nobody captures the exuberant flailing of real children like Wilsdorf. A celebration of the value of writing about real, honest, everyday things, this is a great title to start any young author program, and to get any young author off on the right track. (6 and up)

Also of interest:
WE'RE OFF TO LOOK FOR ALIENS by Colin McNaughton (Candlewick)
This may not look like a book about writing at first glance, but that's just another surprise from this offbeat author. Dad is a picture book author who finally gets a bound copy of his outer-space book in the mail. With some trepidation, he shares it with his family. How will they respond? This clever and pedagogically useful book-within-a-book allows readers to form their own opinion about Dad's work before hearing the unexpected review from his kinfolk. Who knew a book about creatures with eyeballs in their bellybuttons could inspire debate about the difference between fiction and non-fiction? (6 and up)

On a personal note:
Attention, Chicago area teachers, librarians, booksellers, parents, author/illustrators and enthusiasts! Speaking of finding the "best stories," I have very good news, and an invitation for you! I’m slowly but surely getting back in the saddle with programming at the PlanetEsme Bookroom in its new location in a high third floor near Touhy and Western in Rogers Park, Chicago (described very nicely at A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy). I’m starting with a "Wish List Wednesday" on August 20th at 4:00 p.m., which is an informal booktalk for grown-ups about the best new children’s books for grades k-6. This a great way to see the new space, network with like-minded booksharers and page through PlanetEsme picks in person! Space is limited, it has to be a little more exclusive than in days past (no more street traffic for now), so if you'd like to come, I need an RSVP (esmeATplanetsmeDOTcom) with where I might know you from and your contact info, and I’ll reply with the exact address. Please feel free to bring a friend or tell a friend. This event is free, though cookies and snack-y stuff is always welcome for sharing. Hope to see you soon!

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

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


MINJI'S SALON by Eun-hee-Choung (Kane/Miller) While mother is getting her hair done, a preschool stylist is working her magic on the family dog. With Mama's progress on one page and Minji's efforts on the other, readers can witness for themselves two beauty transformations worthy of an Oprah makeover show. It's amazing what a little strawberry ice cream can do as a hair relaxer...who knew?! Good-intentioned mischief relies heavily on the expressive mixed-media of the illustration for its storytelling arc, making it a real winner for emergent readers still relying on visual cues. Just look at that thoughtful pout as Minji scrutinizes her work! Faaaaabulous, dahhhling! Fans of Niki Daly's charming and original South African Jamela series and Peter Spier's OH, WERE THEY EVER HAPPY! (out of print, for shame!) will appreciate Minji's freewheeling, problem-solving personality. Your multicultural shelf will be all the prettier when you add this tribute to creativity. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
More girl (and liberated boy) power!

LADYBUG GIRL by Jacky Davis and David Soman (Dial) Now, I'd be lying if I told you that I adored this story; while not bad, I'm afraid that girl-being-left-out-by-brothers was a little been-there-done-that for my taste, but I'd also be lying if I didn't tell you that I was asked to "read it again" seven times by a five-year-old girl. No wonder, the illustrations on the end papers alone are as worth poring over as a wordless picture book: a spirited double-page cavalcade of a girl vogue-ing in costumes such as a ballerina, movie star, unicorn, astronaut, aviator, roaring tiger, detective, swami, pirate and more! This loose-lined, confident style with Manga influence is a departure for the illustrator, and an exciting one that speaks to her versatility and makes her an artist to watch. This title's popularity is sure to flourish among reading fashionistas who enjoyed Jane O'Connor's FANCY NANCY, and might also induce similar haute couture on the kindergarten catwalk. (5 and up)

Also in the lovely pictures category is MERMAIDS ON PARADE by Melanie Hope Greenberg (Putnam), a very busy, colorful and summery tribute to Brooklyn's East River Mermaids who strut their stuff in a competitive parade. Besides, there's instructions on "how to make a mermaid tail in 3 easy steps," people! (5 and up) Net it along with THE MERMAID'S TREASURE by Stephanie True Peters (Dutton, 6 and up) for more fish-tailed fun and folklore.

THE CHICKEN OF THE FAMILY by Mary Amato, illustrated by Delphine Durand (Putnam). After Henrietta's taunting older sisters call her a "chicken" one time too many, she decides to go and live in the coop, where she will be appreciated. A quirky family story about appreciating our differences and speaking kindly, with a googly-eyed underdog (or underchicken) that is hard to resist. (6 and up)

BOOMING BELLA by Carol Ann Williams, illustrated by Tatiana Mai-Wyss (Putnam). Bella's teacher is nearing the end of her rope...does this girl think anything she doesn't say, and say loudly? But when there's a mix-up on the school field trip, Bella's verbal verve saves the day. The illustrator has a smooth, understated watercolor style that so beautifully captures school-aged children, which is not an easy thing to do. Call kids to storytime with a megaphone, and read this along with Sofie Laguna and Kerry Argent's TOO LOUD LILY (Scholastic) and Alexis O'Neill and Nancy Carpenter's LOUD EMILY (Simon and Schuster). Shout it out, sisters! (6 and up)

Shop with Esme
Did you know that Target has been carrying a super adorable oversized Fancy Nancy doll? Serious cuteness. Matching costumes in little-girl sizes. Tea party in the hizzouse, ya'll!

On a personal note
Yes, I still review chapter books. I'm just gunning for some stellar new ones for intermediate readers that kids don't hand back to me after two chapters or don't require sequels or read like movie treatments, or are actually for kids. Coming soon (I hope), but meanwhile, Tweendom and Kidsreads seem to have better luck than I do.

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

Sunday, August 03, 2008


BIG YELLOW SUNFLOWER by Frances Barry (Candlewick)
Seed to flower, yeah yeah, think you've been there, done that? Well, here's a fresh pick! Different creatures encounter the germinating seed in different stages, and as each page is turned, the pages open outward, unfurling petals to culminate in a sensational sunflower finale. The center of the sunflower's head lifts up to reveal simple instructions on "how to grow your own sunflower. Always a trend-setting cut above when it comes to book design, this latest ingenious offering from the Candlewick house has yet to meet a teacher who didn't ooh and ahh and exclaim how perfect it is for sharing with a group. Folding the book back into the binding takes a little care, but it's definitely worth the effort when you imagine paper-plate sunflower art projects and pairings with Laurence Anholt's CAMILLE AND THE SUNFLOWERS, Janet Anderson's SUNFLOWER SAL, or the activities in Sharon Lovejoy's gardening book for families, SUNFLOWER HOUSES. The other in this "Fold out and Find Out" series, LITTLE GREEN FROGS, opens up to reveal a lily pond with lesser dramatic effect, but paired with the likes of Karen Wallace's TALE OF A TADPOLE, it will also prove useful. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
Hey, look out! In Richard Louv's LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS, he makes a compelling argument that a lot of the emotional ills and cognitive challenges children experience are a result of an increased disconnection to the natural world. Well, on the off-chance the kids come inside for a bit, you can still impress upon them the glories of the great outdoors with a few recent picks:
MAISY'S NATURE WALK: A MAISY FIRST SCIENCE BOOK by Lucy Cousins (Candlewick) Sturdy pull-tabs allow readers to join Maisy on a stroll, watching flower petals open, bunnies bounce from their burrows, and a snail leave a slick and silvery trail. Bold black-line illustrations on big pages make this the rare pop-up that you can share with a group. Pair with Paul Showers' THE LISTENING WALK to help open up children's senses to nature all around them. (3 and up)

RIVER OF WORDS: YOUNG POETS AND ARTISTS ON THE NATURE OF THINGS edited by Pamela Michael (Milkweed) This anthology showcases some of the most outstanding entries to "River of Words," one of biggest international children's writing contests in the world, a project which strives to help children find their place in the natural world through the arts. In the spirit of the great Stone Soup magazine, we find a wide breadth of young talent, interesting and original illustration, and a reminder of children's abilities and possibilities. "Swim in me/i'm yours/my waves/yours/my rivers/yours..." (Gracie Jordan, age 12). Make this book yours, and you and your children will realize and own treasures: watersheds, and inspiration. (8 and up)

On a personal note:
Thanks for your patience between posts. I have been out of town and sans computer. My friend and author Dianna Aston (AN EGG IS QUIET, NOT SO TALL FOR SIX) moved to San Miguel de Allende in Central Mexico a couple of years ago and has steadily beckoned me to come visit her in her magical place. This summer, I've been at a bit of a career crossroads. Should I write another novel? Go back to teaching in the public schools (if they have forgotten or forgiven or maybe not read my first book)? Expand my Bookroom and create a new and comprehensive support program for new and first-year teachers? Pursue other dreams of being an acquisitions editor (any houses out there?), or reading aloud children's books on the radio? Waitressing? I'm taking votes here, people. Meanwhile, I thought a trip to another place might give me some perspective. Chicago also has one of the largest Mexican populations in the nation, so I also thought it might be nice for our family to have a better sense of where our neighbors and friends are from. Plus, my husband suggested that plane travel might become prohibitively difficult and expensive in the near future. True dat, Nostradamus! So, I booked our tickets and we were south of the border for the better part of July.

San Miguel de Allende is a medium-sized colonial city. They say you don't really have to speak Spanish here, and that's true, if you're really good at charades or if you only plan on meeting Americans. They also say it's a walking town, and it is, if you don't mind walking at a 90-degree angle. It's really in the mountains, over 7,000 feet above sea level. Bring your inhaler.

San Miguel was more busy and urban than I expected, but it felt relatively safe. There was a perpetual feeling of good cheer that permeated everything. The colors of the market, men selling balloons and blow-up-toys and bouncing balls, women grilling corn on street corners, ice cream in every flavor from rose petal to octopus. In the middle of the town is an enormous pink church, La Parroquia, and a park with neatly manicured trees over a hundred years old. The people were warm and helpful at every single turn. They also did the best job of working a piece of tissue paper since Eric Carle.

Who makes an alleyway look like a fiesta? Cool Mexicans from San Miguel, that's who.

Dianna was out of town for our first few days, but there were still friends to be found. I was fortunate enough to connect with the charismatic author and storyteller Patricia Hruby Powell, an Illinois SCBWI member who had coincidentally posted on a listserv that she was going to be in San Miguel all through July, and she had been keeping up with an invaluable blog about her south-of-the-border experience. Here she is in one of the region's hot spring grottos, looking very much like a mermaid, and she was just about as enchanting as one. She hosted a very lovely dinner party with spaghetti and chorizo and many nice people, and a little white dog to keep my son entertained during our conversations. It was a special treat to meet a Midwestern friend while so far from home. Small world, as they say!

When Dianna came back, she kept telling us she was going to take us to Willie Wonka's house, and I wasn't sure what she meant until she took us to the incredible home of former figure skater and current artist extraordinaire, Toller Cranston. It's been a while since I have been so inspired by art on the canvas; with a similar sensibility to illustrator Jane Ray, his imaginative and whimsical paintings were everywhere, glowing like lights and glinting like gold. Above is the chandelier he designed, and below, a tree covered with blown-glass hearts he designed in his kitchen nook. A jungle of blooms and vines exploded around the house, and enclosed it. It was like being inside a flower, or Thumbelina's dream. Or, yeah, okay Dianna, you were right. Willie Wonka's house. Some publishing company should snap him up as a talent for a fairy tale collection. Maybe the Snow Queen?

People who know me well know that when I'm not about the books I'm all about the food, and at the first place we stayed, the homey and authentic Casa de Reyna, Reyna herself prepared both breakfast and lunch with an extra effort to accommodate my vegetarian husband. Here is the chile relleno in a light cream sauce with pomegranates, stuffed with soy meat, apples and raisins. Oh, man. Another day, she made us soup with squash blossoms and exotic mushrooms and a delicious mild white cubed cheese, with homemade spinach enchiladas. I think my son was ready for a hot dog, but my husband and I were sorry to leave.

Dianna lived way outside of town in el campo, or the countryside, up against the mountains, right outside a little pueblo full of children who were happy to speak the international language of basketball with my son while we enjoyed the view. Not too shabby, huh?

I was jealous of Dianna's yellow kitchen (even though you shouldn't be jealous of friends). Note to self: paint everything. Mosaic everything. Fear no color.

My son and husband went on a hike where they met a large snake of questionable intent (luckily, my husband was a good boy scout at one time and remembered to knock rocks together), and Dianna showed me her haunted clearing (which I'm pretty sure was really haunted) and her orchard full of baby trees. Dianna was living in the boonies, but even in her remote surroundings she had managed to surround herself with many brilliant, kind, capable and dynamic bilingual people who shared her enthusiasm for hot-air ballooning. She was excited for me and my family to share in the experience that had changed her life, so at dawn we came out to see the launch. Free tethered rides for all the children in the town, or whichever early bird managed to get out of bed!
It took a bit of doing...and a whole lot of cooperation and muscle and know-how...but slowly and astonishingly, it filled with air...

Up, up and away! Some of the children crossed themselves before we elevated. But no worries! Hot-air balloon pilots have to be very well-trained. Hot-air balloons are, actually, very hot (who knew)! There was a big flame whooshing into the balloon's gullet. I was glad I didn't put too much product in my hair that morning.

I went up with some of the sweeties. Look how small everything is getting! That's right, little girl, maybe it's better if you don't look down. But who would want to miss even a minute of it all? Dianna said riding in a balloon is like being in a bubble. To me, it was more like being in an elevator without the shaft. Either way, it was one smoooooth ride.

On landing, everyone had to run up and hold the basket down while people climbed in and out. Like a horse chomping at the bit, that balloon was tugging like a live thing, trying to climb back up toward the sky!

After many, many rides, the propane ran out and it was time to "milk" the balloon, or do a funny back-and-forth pulling dance with everyone helping on both sides to release the air. Then it was time to squish it flat and roll it up (Dianna, below, is squishing), and it took at least half a dozen strong folks to get it on its cart to haul away. It looked very light, but it was really very heavy!

Dianna moved to Mexico and made a lot of changes in her life in order to follow a dream of learning to fly hot air balloons and to continue her mission of opening up possibilities for all children. Dianna's Oz Project, which just gained not-for-profit status, aspires among many other helpful things to take children "over the rainbow" and open up vistas for children who might not otherwise see them, and what better vehicle than a balloon for that? For me personally, seeing the process of the balloon going up and then putting it away was chance to appreciate the power of cooperation, and how much we need one another to make miraculous things happen. Kudos to brave Dianna for embarking on this exciting initiative.

I can't resist a book recommendation here. If you would like to ride a hot-air balloon from your armchair while you're waiting for your turn in the clouds, check out William Pene du Bois's wildly inventive Newbery-winning read-aloud THE 21 BALLOONS, about a professor who dreams of spending his retirement aloft, only to find himself crashed upon the volcanic island of Krakatoa amidst an idiosyncratic civilization built on restaurants.
"One day I started thinking of a balloon in which I could float around out of everyone's reach. This was the main idea behind my trip: to be where no one would bother me for perhaps one full year; away from all such boring things in the lives of teachers as daily schedules...one year of truly delightful living, a year in a balloon!"
The story's set-up is a bit detailed and old-fashioned, but give children support for the first few chapters and then they'll be off and running--or flying--with the best adventure since Verne's AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS.

Also, I do want to recommend that you check out Dianna Aston's fall release, THE MOON OVER STAR, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, about the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing as seen through the eyes of an African American girl and her grandfather. Though I can hardly seem anything but biased at this point, I will say in all honesty that I think it is her best writing to date, a great multicultural, intergenerational and historical story.

Well, never mind eighty days, that was about all the adventure I could take for thirty days. Now I hope to get back in the blogging groove, with great books that will have every young un' ready for September. Adios for now, but please check back!

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


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