Saturday, November 29, 2008


THERE ARE CATS IN THIS BOOK by Viviane Schwarz (Candlewick)
This title is a promise kept, as page after page follow Tiny, Moonpie and André under blankets, among tangles of yarn, in and out of boxes, and into an imaginary ocean full of fish. What really sets this book apart is the banter the text initiates with the reader, requesting that he or she turn the page, turn back to play some more, turn the page to rescue them, or blow on the page to dry them off (a low-tech interactive tack first taken in the 1970's, with Sesame Street's still delightful THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK). How lively and satisfying! How silly! Fun with a group or one-on-one, the bright colors and loose, quick-sketch lines fly across the pages like a kitten across a newly-waxed floor. There are cat people, and there are book people, and if you or your young reader fall into either (or both) of these groups, you are bound to fall in love with this feline play-date. (3 and up)

Also of interest:
Let's give the canines some equal time here!
THE DOG WHO BELONGED TO NO ONE by Amy Hest, illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams) A precious pup lives a parallel life to a lonely little girl, and when their worlds collide, it's a wish come true for both of them. Though the perfect-pet-finding premise of this book is not new, the artfulness is in the execution. The author narrates with carefully paced rising action and thoughtful, emotive detail reminiscent of Rumer Godden (if you have not yet become acquainted with Godden's children's holiday classic THE STORY OF HOLLY & IVY, you're in for a treat), with a kind of earnest sentimentality that is just the kind we need to feel our hearts beating again. All of the characters feel like flesh and blood, rosy-cheeked and alive. The Depression-era backdrop feels (unfortunately) timely, and underscores the hard work, diligence and cooperation which makes the girl and mutt especially deserving of their happy ending. How fitting that the girl's parents are bakers, because this book is warm with a capital W, and the experience of turning page after autumn-toned page is like sitting while bread bakes and knowing you will get the first buttered slice. The puppy is beyond adorable and it would be hard to believe he hasn't found an owner at the outset, except for our knowing that the perfect owner is right around the bend...and you can read this book with the confidence that the story and audience are equally well-matched. (5 and up)

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Saturday, November 22, 2008


THE BAREFOOT BOOK OF BLESSINGS FROM MANY FAITHS AND CULTURES compiled by Sabrina Dearborn, illustrated by Olwyn Whelan (Barefoot Books)
Here is a book you can bring to the Thanksgiving table, and each member of the family can take a turn sharing a page! This diverse collection of blessings all express an attitude of gratitude, and remind the reader of the magnanimity of the world. Eighteen blessings celebrate occasions that might occur in a day or in a lifetime, from the bounty that is a meal or a harvest ("Give thanks to the Mother Earth./Give thanks to the Father Sun./Give thanks to the plants in the garden/Where the mother and father are one." - Steiner) to blessings for a journey that will touch the hearts of far-flung guests ("May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back./May the sun shine warm upon your face..." - traditional Irish) to blessings for bedtime ("Great Owl of Dreams,/Wings soft and furred with dark,/Soar through my sleep/To that tender place between the eyes and heart..." - from "Celebrating the Great Mother") and general wishes for the future ("May you have success in all endeavors./May you have peace and health in the four seasons./May your happiness be as wide as the sea/May all your comings and goings be peaceful." - traditional Chinese). All conspire to create an overall feeling of general goodwill, gentleness and positivity. Colorful, detailed artwork gilded in bronze and featuring multicultural figures is clearly influenced by the work of Jane Ray. Pair this with Kay Chorao's BOOK OF GIVING and celebrate all that you have to be grateful for as a family, and the great blessing of being together, reading aloud. (6 and up)

Also of interest:
WISH: WISHING TRADITIONS AROUND THE WORLD by Roseanne Thong, illustrated by Elisa Kleven (Chronicle) This Thanksgiving, the wishbone isn't the only opportunity to have a wish come true! This title is a world tour of the ways different cultures send their desires out into the ethers. In Guatemala, did you know children send their wishes up on kites, while in India, a lucky peacock feather holds their wishes for success in school between the pages of their notebooks? In Brazil, children on beaches jump seven waves, and in Thailand, they send their wishes off on lovely handmade boats. And the Zulus of South Africa send their wishes off on the tail of an animal! With so many traditions offered, it is easy to find one to adapt within your own family, or to inspire a young reader to find ever-new opportunities to hope. Folks who enjoyed the interesting and useful THROW YOUR TOOTH ON THE ROOF: TOOTH TRADITIONS FROM AROUND THE WORLD by Selby Beeler, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Houghton Mifflin) will appreciate the concept here as well, and as always, Elisa Kleven's artwork glows, with jeweled landscapes that evoke each setting uniquely, populated with dancing, exuberant figures of all races and ages, and a gumdrop-colored palette that is a joy to the eye. (7 and up)

People celebrating at Loi Krathong Festival, held during November in Thailand,
in which bad luck is carried away so that good wishes can come true.

SOMETIMES IT'S TURKEY, SOMETIMES IT'S FEATHERS by Lorna and Lecia Bailan (Star Bright) Hopefully, many will recognize and be excited to revisit this hilarious classic first published in 1973, about a woman who ends up having a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner as an invited guest. I think Lorna Balian has made a significant contribution to the world of children's books through her holiday offerings, which are consistently clever and often hilarious. This title is top bird, and always manages to be a highlight of any seasonal storytime.

ONE IS A FEAST FOR MOUSE: A THANKSGIVING TALE by Judy Cox, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler (Holiday House) In the beginning, our mousie friend tends toward moderate tastes, figuring a single pea will make for a mighty meal. But in the spirit of the season, who can resist a cranberry? Or a few crunchy carrots? What harm could a few olives do? And what's Thanksgiving without at least a sliver of pumpkin pie, some mashed potatoes (and gravy, certainly!) and...of course...some turkey? As the pile on the plate grows ever higher, it catches the eye of the family cat, who thinks our hero might make the best meal of all. Anyone who has ever had to loosen a belt at the end of a meal will empathize with this funny little mouse's best laid plans, but best of all, this slapstick story leaves us with a lesson that is easy to digest: make the best of whatever you have, and you'll find that it is enough. (4 and up)

Also, who likes leftovers? Check out more Thanksgiving picks in the PlanetEsme archive, where titles only get tastier with time.

On a personal note:
It was nice reading words of gratefulness for everyday things in these books. I know I am so grateful that someone took the time to teach me to read. Chris, my first grade teacher, who took dictation for my many stories on construction paper...thank you! Mom, who came to read aloud a short story about crossing the street for the first time to my whole class, who bought me every Beverly Cleary title as soon as it came out and showed me William Steig's cartoons in The New Yorker, and Dad, who read aloud Huckleberry Finn and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator using all different voices...thank you! To Mrs. Schultz, my fifth grade teacher, who told me to take home the complete set of Great Books and not tell any one...thank you! To my Uncle Dave, who gave me all of his childhood Dennis the Menace comic books for keeps...thank you! To my husband, who read aloud to me ( YOU CAN'T WIN: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF JACK BLACK ) during the whole ride to New Orleans...thank you! To my son, who learned to read using Johanna Hurwitz's books, who looked at his first library card as if it were a million dollar bill, who read aloud ABE LINCOLN: BOY WHO LOVED BOOKS with expression to his whole second grade class when I was too stuffed-up to do it, who still reads every night and recommends books to me and makes me understand how reading is a legacy...thank you! To all the children I have taught, who sounded out words when it was hard and chose books because they wanted to and did all the art to make our reading spaces so beautiful...thank you! Thank you to all the authors and illustrators who, miraculously, make everything new and new and new again, and thank you to all who publish and read my books and visit my Bookroom and website, and make my working life a story. So much to be grateful for! Does anyone have any words of thanks for favorite books, for reading together, for literacy? Please feel free to share them in the comments section! It feels good.

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

Friday, November 21, 2008


THE BILL MARTIN JR. BIG BOOK OF POETRY with Foreword by Eric Carle (Simon and Schuster)All through elementary school and part of high school, the celebrated author of BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, WHAT DO YOU SEE? could not read. He was taught through rhythm, "dum-da-da, dum-da-da-dum," and that quality of musicality has ever since permeated all of his early childhood classics. Here, we discover the poetry that tuned the author's ear for language and meter, shared in a special volume that is bound to get kids' hearts in rhythm with that same poetry-loving beat. Collected before the author's passing in 2004 with the help of his artistic collaborator for the alphabetical favorite CHICKA CHICKA BOOM BOOM, poems are sectioned off under familiar, child-centric themes such as "Me and My Feelings," "Food for Me," "Around the Year," "World of Nature," and the ever-popular "Nonsense." A lengthy A-list of children's illustrators pay visual tribute to each selection. It can debated whether this volume ever achieves the kind of visual flow that comes from the vision of a single illustrator; the wonderful and sadly out-of-print anthology SING A SONG OF POPCORN edited by Beatrice Schenk De Regniers attempted a similar showcase of diverse talent, with slightly better results by assigning single illustrators to each section. That said, some illustrators really shine even among the stars (Ashley Bryant's bold collage technique jumps off the double-page spreads and seems well-suited to the age level, and it was exciting to see veteran Robert Quackenbush's illustrations stand out with an undeniably revitalized energy). There's little doubt that the child who picks up the volume is bound to find a favorite picture within these pages...and a favorite poem. A lovely homage to a beloved author, and a lively book. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
Poems always help me look at the world in a new way! But here are a couple books that help readers look at poems in a new way.
TAP DANCING ON THE ROOF: SIJO (POEMS) by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Istvan Banyai (Clarion) A sijo is a type of poem that originated in Korea, with a fixed number of stressed syllables, usually divided into three or six haiku, but with a surprise, unexpected twist or joke at the end. Now, ask your favorite child if they like a surprise, unexpected joke or twist at the end. Why not ask if they like pizza and ice cream? The author of the Newbery winner A SINGLE SHARD flexes her genre muscles and shows she is in good form. The thin ink lines, grey sky palette and general adult sensibilities of the New Yorker illustrator may prove a bit demure for the broad, chummy tone of the book's content, but is lovely nonetheless and invites us, as the poems do, to look more closely at the small. (6 and up)

A KICK IN THE HEAD: AN EVERYDAY GUIDE TO POETIC FORMS by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Chris Raschka (Candlewick) Using straightforward explanations of twenty-nine poetic forms and succulent examples of each, readers are introduced to the variety and diversity of the genre. Yes, there are forms like sonnets and haikus, but have you ever heard of a senryu? An aubade? This is an eye-opening, mind-altering guide that belongs on the bookshelf of absolutely every educator and every lover of words. Pair with the work of Kenneth Koch ROSE, WHERE DID YOU GET THAT RED? TEACHING GREAT POETRY TO CHILDREN and WISHES, LIES AND DREAMS: TEACHING CHILDREN TO WRITE POETRY), and hey, teachers, you've got yourselves a unit!

On a personal note:

Thanks for being patient between posts. During spring and fall, sometimes I tour, and every now and then I discover a real gem of a place. This week I spent some time in the middle schools of Galesburg, Illinois for an exemplary and inspiring "Reading at the Crossroads" initiative, which involved the adoption of my book SAHARA SPECIAL throughout the curriculum, culminating in school visits, a community presentation, lunch with students and an evening with educators. I was so very, very impressed at how Juanita Scott and her energetic team checked every single box possible on the to-do list that would ensure a great author visit.

First of all, I'd be lying if I didn't admit to falling in love with the town just a little bit. Railroad hub and birthplace of poet Carl Sandburg (with a very nice little museum that includes an original illustration by Paul Zelinksy from ROOTABAGA STORIES), my tour of the incredible houses down Broad Street really made my eyes pop out of my sockets! Hey, if anyone needs a write-off, how about setting up the new PlanetEsme Bookroom in this cozy little joint? (I'm only half kidding, you know.)

Home is where the heart is, and I felt the love from the minute I walked through the doors of Churchill and Lombard, where I received welcomes both big

and small

Isn't this a fetching artist rendition of Ms. Pointy? May I use it as my new author photo?

I was amazed at how much thoughtful and beautiful work the children had done before my arrival. Creative responses at every turn! Journals...

Collages, cityscapes, relief artwork, bookmarks, audio playlists and dioramas galore...from the scene where Sahara discovers the cactus in her locker to a classroom set with casting la Polly Pocket dolls...and hey, did somebody scalp Miss Pointy up there?! One ambitious group made board games, including a whole Monopoly game with properties inspired by Sahara's Chicago, and another child even made a very nice movie poster for Fandango, suggesting my novel be made into an IMAX 3-D movie. I hope my agent in charge of sub-rights is taking note.

There was an interactive bulletin board that played on the fable from my book, "Why Teachers Get Apples," which afforded everyone in the school to say nice things about one another (that's the spirit!)...

...and an evening event for the whole community, which featured a reader's theater program starring some very talented and expressive Galesburg students! The kid at the end who looks grown-up enough to have been held back a few times is in fact not a student, but Churchill's beloved principal, Mr. Arthur. I got to hang with him a bit, and, wow, what a privilege to spend time with an administrator who exudes gentleness, leadership and the spirit of "yes!"

During my visit, my kind hosts remembered the cardinal rule of a successful author visit: feed the author! I was treated like a queen, with a cake that had the book cover on it, and a pot-luck spread full of goodies provided by teachers, staff and local providers (knowing how busy everyone is, I marveled at this generous gesture). We even ate off of place mats the kids had designed, depicting scenes and covers from my books! The food was delicious...

...but the company, even more so!

I got to meet and dine with kids at every grade level. They were very friendly, and very smart. Some even shared their own writing, art and reading recommendations with me, as well as candid insights into the middle-grade life. I think I may have found my new critique group!

It was so cool, how each school offered sewing, cooking and industrial arts (that's not true in Chicago). It seemed to make a lot of sense, as well as a big difference in the confidence and abilities of the children (plus, it looked like a lot of fun). These were some well-rounded kids! My favorite part was meeting with every single middle-school class via assembly. We talked about the value of their own writing, and the importance of daily journaling from an early age to develop a writer's "voice." Sometimes I used readings from SING A SONG OF TUNA FISH to underscore the stories hiding in our real life (if you want to get ink flowing, scroll down here for 150 story starters or visit here to springboard into a "Let Me Tell You Something" story!). I liked playing Phil Donahue, running around the audience with the mike. There was a lot of laughter and participation!

The Crossroads team made sure that each and every child had an autographed copy of my book weeks before my arrival. Some kids even went an extra mile, forming book clubs to explore the companion novel about bullying, VIVE LA PARIS. The result was a true connection with the books and author, evident through incredibly thoughtful questions and conversation. I was also very proud of this community for choosing Sahara Special, which took a certain bravery, given that the urban setting was somewhat removed from Galesburg, and because there are aspects of the book that are controversial. The team completely understood that reading is about expanding horizons and reaching out towards empathy, not only reaffirming what you already know. The enthusiasm and understanding from the children was palpable. This is a community of real readers.

Here are a few of the quotes I received on the evening program's playbill:

"It is sometimes nice to meet an author and see their face."
"Sahara is like a desert and special like an angel."
"Heart warming and emotional; it touched me deeply. I will never say boring again."

And possibly, the highest compliment I have ever been paid in my professional life:

"Sahara Special is the most spectacular book anybody has ever read."

Well. Flattery notwithstanding, I have to say: if you are an author or illustrator and have the good fortune to be invited to Galesburg, please GO! If you are a granting foundation and have the chance to fund this program that actually makes a difference in the literary lives of children, please DO! You will be glad to be a part of Reading at the Crossroads. I sure was! Even after such busy days, when my train pulled out, I was very sorry to leave...but my heart was full, knowing the initiative is on-going and that more lucky authors and illustrators will be getting on that reading train to Galesburg.

And in the spirit of poetry, book-loving and today's reviews, I offer you:

Reading (by Emma G.)

Reading by a tree on a sunny spring day.
My eyes dancing across the page.

The words floating around in my head.
Sentences coming together

Suddenly, I am taken from the ordinary world.
Soaring to a different place through the pages.

Becoming one with the characters.
Feeling what they feel,
seeing what they see,
hearing what they hear.

I could be flying with a bird, riding on a horse,
Feeling something magical or mythological.

Then once my book is done,
being taken back to the normal world.
A boring, regular, ordinary world...

I can't wait to find another book to read...

Thank you, Blue Streaks and Zephyrs, and to all who made this week possible! I loved meeting all of you. Cindy, Teresa, Mrs. Pointy-Jones, and of course Nita, thank you for letting me join your pedagogical ya-ya sisterhood, if only for a few days. There are more names and special touches than I can list here, but please know I appreciated every bit of it. Thank you again, Galesburg, and great job!

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

Thursday, November 13, 2008


GREATER ESTIMATIONS by Bruce Goldstone (Holt)
How many rubber duckies are on the cover of this book? Ask that question, and even before you break the binding, kids will be engaged in the wonderful speculation that is so much a part real-world math. Using concrete and colorful photographs against a white background and "hints" at the bottom of every page, the author introduces strategies such as "clump counting" and "box and count." The book offers opportunities not only to estimate amount but size and weight, and builds conceptually until children are making informed guesses as to how many hairs on a cat, or blades of grass on a football field. This companion volume to GREAT ESTIMATIONS stands on its own, and will also appeal to fans of Greg Tang's math series, which so cleverly makes math a visual adventure. This is my kind of test prep, and believe me, after sharing this book with a class, the game of "guess how many jelly beans in a jar" will never be the same again. (7 and up)

Also of interest:
FUN WITH ROMAN NUMERALS by David Adler, illustrated by Edward Miller III (Holiday House) Personally, this is the only kind of math I could ever truly understand, probably because it is all the alphabet, and only involves addition and subtraction. This book relies heavily on direct-instruction style text and examples, with a chunky, chummy style of illustration set in Roman times. This thorough introduction will have children reading publication dates and Super Bowl numbers in no time. (7 and up)

SPOT THE DIFFERENCES by Steven Rosen (Scholastic) Not a math book per se, but one that, like GREATER ESTIMATIONS, requires a lot of visual acuity. This is a fairly irresistible game book of sorts, in which two similar photographs are placed side-by-side and the young picture detective goes to work. Divided by seasons, the photographic scenes are absolutely juicy with color. A clear and helpful answer key is in the back. This book is beautiful and fun, and the kind that kids gather around and squeal about. (6 and up)

On a personal note:
I went to Grant Park on election night (one of the million perks of living in Chicago). Perhaps you saw me on television; I was the one waving. Congratulations to our new President-elect and his family, and good luck. Good luck to us all in this time of hard work...
Plowshares demand more of us than swords. The work of peace is infinitely more difficult than the waging of war. For one thing we've had so little practice--not only little practice in peacemaking, but also so little practice in imagining it.

--Katherine Paterson, from a 1993 speech given for Children's Literature New England
Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at


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