Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Raise your glass of champagne (or raspberry ginger ale punch, at our place!) to celebrate not only the start of 2009, but the 200th post here at the PlanetEsme Plan! Since the blog's inception, over five hundred titles have been personally reviewed and recommended here, to add to the archive of over a thousand books at the PlanetEsme site (now on the right scrollbar)! So CHEERS, everyone, and heartfelt thanks for your support over the years, as well as your support of HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO LOVE READING and my other titles. In honor of my 200th post, I ask that you in indulge me in my soapboxing (bookboxing?) and a more personally grounded review as I share a favorite passage from this, one of my all-time favorite books, one that I can always look at and be reminded of the work that needs to be done in the world, as well to find the inspiration to try and do it.

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith (Harper). I still remember when my father brought it home for me when I was about twelve years old. The first thing I noticed is that it was 430 pages, or three thumbs thick, and no pictures! But when I finished the last page, I wished there was a magic button I could press that would make 430 more pages appear. Here, in the character of Francie, was my sister, my friend, a girl who lived in the city, who wanted to read all the books in the library, who lied about her address to go to a better school. This book, first published in 1943, is about a second generation Austrian/Irish American family struggling in the slums of Williamsburg, New York at the turn of the last century. It's a book you can read at different times in your life and find something fresh and applicable with every revisit. I re-read it this year, somewhat fearfully, as I wondered if it would be as good as I remembered, but just as it did twenty-five-some years ago, it kept me up at night to turn the pages. I marvel at the book's honesty and insight and sheer beauty, the author's unbelievable capacity to develop so many characters at once and to deliver the reader to a place of caring. I can think of no other book that captures the feeling of being alive so completely, and from so many perspectives. If you only saw Elia Kazan's black-and-white movie version, you are missing a lot! I think this entirely brave masterpiece might be counted as the first contemporary coming-of-age and the young adult novel, written long before the work of the venerable Judy Blume. I was impressed as a young girl to learn that this book when it was first published was given to prison inmates to help them learn empathy. Ahead of its time when it was written, this book deserves to be rediscovered now, and widely included in curriculum.

There are more moving and memorable scenes in this novel than I can count, but one that I always think of in December is when the children, Francie and Neely, win a Christmas tree by withstanding a ritual in which the owner of the local lot thrusts leftovers at courageous volunteers at midnight, and if they can withstand the impact without falling, they may keep the tree. Francie and Neely score the biggest tree of all! As they are bringing the huge, bustling pine up the stairs to their tenement with their cheerful father, their mother, Katie, has an internal soliloquy:

Katie stood alone on the top of the last flight of steps with her hands clasped before her. She listened to the singing. She looked down and watched their slow progress up the stairs. She was thinking deeply.

"They think this is so good," she thought. "They think it's good--the tree they got for nothing and their father playing up to them and the singing and the way the neighbors are happy. They think they're mighty lucky that they're living and it's Christmas again. They can't see we live on a dirty street in a dirty house among people who aren't much good. Johnny and the neighbors can't see how pitiful it is that our neighbors have to make happiness out of this filth and dirt. My children must get pit of this. They must come to more than Johnny or me or all these people around us. But how is this to come about? Reading a page from those books every day and saving pennies in the tin-can bank isn't enough. Money! Would that make it better for them? Yes, it would make it easy. But no, the money wouldn't be enough. McGarrity owns the saloon standing on the corner and he has a lot of money. His wife wears diamond earrings. But her children are not as good or smart as my children. They are mean and greedy towards others because they have the things to taunt poor children with. I have seen the McGarrity girl eating from a bag of candy on the street while a ring of hungry children watched her. I saw those children looking at her and crying in their hearts. And when she couldn't eat any more, she threw the rest down the sewer rather than give it to them. Ah, no, it isn't the money alone. The McGarrity girl wears a different hair bow each day and they cost fifty cents a piece and that would feed the four of us here for one day...My Francie wears no hair bow but her hair is long and shining. Can money buy things like that? No. That means there must be something biggerthan money. Miss Jackson teaches at the Settlement House and she has no money. She works for charity. She lives in a little room there on the top floor. She has only the one dress but she keeps it clean and pressed. Her eyes look straight into yours when you talk with her. When you talk to her, it's like you used to be sick but hearing her voice, it's making you well again. She knows about things--Miss Jackson. She understands aboutthings. She can live in the middle of a dirty neighborhood and be fine and clean and like an actress is a play; someone you can look at but who is too fine to touch. There is that difference between her and Mrs. McGarrity who has so much money...So what is the difference between her and Miss Jackson who has no money?"

An answer came to Katie. It was so simple that a flash of astonishment that felt like pain shot through her head. Education! That was it! It was education that made the difference! Education would pull them out of the grime and dirt. Proof? Miss Jackson was educated, McGarrity wasn't. Ah! That's what Mary Rommely, her mother had been telling her all those years. Only her mother did not have the one clear word: education!

..."Francie is smart," she thought. She must go to High School and maybe beyond that. She's a learner and she'll be somebody someday. Butt when she gets educated, she will grow away from me...Maybe when she gets education, she will be ashamed of me--the way I talk. But she will have too much character to show it. Insteadshe will try to make me different. She will come to see me and try to make me live in a better way and I will be mean to her because I'll know she's above me...Already she is growing away from me; she will fight to get away soon. But Neely will never leave me, and that is why I love him best. He will cling to me and understand me. I want him to be a doctor. He must be a doctor. Maybe he will play the fiddle, too. There is music in him. He got that from his father. Yes, his father has the music in him but it does him no good. It is ruining him. If he couldn't sing, those men who treat him to drinks wouldn't want him around. What good is the fine way he can sing when it doesn't make him or us any better? With the boy, it will be different. He will be educated. I must think out ways. We'll not have Johnny with us long..."

Thus Katie figured out everything in the moments it took them to climb the stairs. People looking up at her---at her smooth pretty vivacious face--had no way of knowing about the painfully articulated resolves formulating in her mind.
Now, with some life behind me and in our modern times, I know there are people who read thousands of books and are well-spoken and educated, but use their fine degrees the way the McGarrity girl uses her candy. Katie knows that education is the catalyst for change, but what Katie doesn't know, can't know from her circumstances, I think, is that education is not an end, but a beginning. I hope that in the New Year, and with all the changes that are expected on the horizon for our country, that we can move from education being a stick of candy to the sweeter look of understanding and compassion in someone's eyes. We can learn to use what bounty we have, and work from the scaffolding that opportunities for education has given us to end the kind of terrible poverty that is described in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, and that is still so rife. I hope we can make Katie's wish come true for all of the Francies and Neelys in the world. A great book in the hands of a rich child is the same great book in the hands of a poor child. For many children, the authors and characters they connect with through books will be the first people outside of their own communities that they will encounter. For many children, picture books will be the only art education they receive. A child who discovers the magical transport of literature will never be as bored or lonely as the child who has not, and is more likely to succeed in school. So do your part to equalize education, and, as Gandhi suggested, be the change you wish to see in the world: make the resolution to read aloud a book to a child every day!

Also of interest:
Another anniversary! Congratulations to friends at Just One More Book on their 500th (!) podcast!!!

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008


BIRD by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Shadra Strickland (Lee & Low Books)

Once I told Uncle Son

I wished I could play the saxophone
like Charlie Parker.
Uncle Son just shrugged.
"That other Bird--he's alright.
But don't you waste your time trying to be like him.
You just remember,
everybody got their somethin'.
And that includes you.

An artistic little boy's family is torn irreparably asunder when the brother he idolizes gets involved with gangs and addicted to drugs. This story sensitively juxtaposes two different approaches to life and urban problems by the two young men, but never resorts to stereotyping, as the grandfather and grandfather's best friend, "Uncle Son," maintain a strength and offer a mentorship that gets the boy through to a future his brother never saw. Also unexpected in this book are the redeeming qualities of the sick brother. Even in his diminished state, he tries to critique his little brother's art constructively, and gives him a gift to help him along, underscoring a goodness and value in all people, even the people who might ultimately let us down. This is a short, complex picture book that makes no attempt to simplify or sugarcoat the issues with which it contends, but still, there is a delicate grace to it, as fine as the pencil drawings that depict Bird's inner, imaginative world, and against a city backdrop that is undeniably beautiful, in spite all of its dangers, to the creative eye that can see it. The motifs throughout that allude to Charlie Parker are like a base line to the theme of the loss that occurs when creative people fall victim to their addictions, a loss not only to their families but to the world.

Throughout this book, I was reminded of some old-school classics like the "sleeper" Newbery Honor winner THE JAZZ MAN by Mary Hays Weik, illustrated by Ann Grifalconi, the spirit of urban jubilance in spite of all odds captured by Vera Williams, the candor and new ground broken by the early picture book work of John Steptoe, the one-two punch of Alice Childress's now dated but still powerful young adult novel A HERO AIN'T NOTHING BUT A SANDWICH, and Hope Anita Smith's more recent THE WAY A DOOR CLOSES, all unflinching, all beautiful. As we approach the award season for children's books, we'll see if BIRD is welcomed into this canon. Whether it is recognized or not, Elliott's offering resonates in the reader, and for all of the seriousness that may make a grown-up balk, it puts into print an important, and unfortunately recognizable, situation for many young people who will be fortified by the high note of hope upon which this sad song finishes. (8 and up)

Also of interest:
BIRD may have been inspired by Charlie Parker, but I'm sorry, all through I was feeling Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat". But hey, let's not fight and argue...instead, let's riff on BIRD's undercurrent of jazz!

BEFORE JOHN WAS A JAZZ GIANT: A SONG OF JOHN COLTRANE by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Sean Qualls (Holt) Even jazz giants were children once, and this little be-bop baby knew how to put on his listening ears. Gorgeous angular illustrations are bespeckled with bubbles of music floating through the air, and seem inspired by Picasso's Old Guitarist. This author also has an accomplished young adult novel out this year, BECOMING BILLIE HOLIDAY, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Wordsong), that is getting lots of buzz but pulls no punches when it comes to the bluest parts of Lady Blue's youth, including turning tricks and smoking weed, so if you have a little jazz bird you might prefer to start with the biographical compilation SOPHISTICATED LADIES: THE GREAT WOMEN OF JAZZ by Leslie Gourse, illustrated by Martin French (Dutton), which gives brief but still honest and inspiring portraits of greats such as Billie, Diana Krall, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Anita O'Day and many more. Talk about women who knew how to make a joyful noise, in spite of anything! Sing out! (10 and up)

WHEN LOUIS ARMSTRONG TAUGHT ME SCAT by Muriel Harris Weinstein, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Chronicle) Oooo, hope you're tongue is in good shape, because it's going to get some double-dutch action in this read aloud, and when you're done, you'll be scattin', cat, and your little listening kitten will be smitten! Christie's retro illustrations really swing, and any time spent with Satchmo is sweet, sweet, sweet. (6 and up)

COOL DADDY RAT by Kristyn Crow, illustrated by Mike Lester (Putnam) A little rat stows away in his father's music case, and joins his daddy through the clubs, rooftops, cruises, parties and street performances on a New York City night. Daddy rat really is cool, just the guide you'd want, and the love and pride the little boy has for his musical dad is a subplot all its own. Loose lines vibrate on the page like a bow to the string. Like a good jazz progression, this author and illustrator makes beautiful music together and they make it look easy, but there is a particularly marvelous artfulness to their combination, and a real love of the city and its rhythms that come through most contagiously. Delightful to read to one child or a whole group, it's bound to be a surprise favorite that bears repeated reading, probably best shared with a big bass strumming in the background...but in its absence, a little exuberant heartbeat will have to do. (5 and up)

Here are a few of my favorite jazz birds,
who stopped by to perform at a children's open mike
I held recently at the Bookroom.
"Straighten Up and Fly Right!" "What a Wonderful World!"

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A COLD WINTER'S GOOD KNIGHT by Shelley Moore Thomas, illustrated by Jennifer Plecas (Dutton)

"I am colder than a snowball," said the first dragon.
"I am colder than an ice cube," said the second dragon.
"I am colder than a popsicle," said the third dragon.
The dragons' teeth were chattering so loudly that the Good Knight heard the noise all the way to the king's castle. So the Good Knight rode clippety-clop to the dragon's cave.

"Never fear, my dragon friends," he said. "It is warm in the king's castle. Methinks you will be toasty and cozy there."

Taken under this valiant protection of this Good Knight, three truly endearing little dragons join in a wintry party at the castle, only to inadvertently disgrace their guardian by setting the hearth fire to blazing with their fiery breath, hogging the harp, and literally swinging from the chandelier. Once corrected, they are rightly contrite and join the Good Knight in his efforts at gallantry. Just like real little children, sometimes the dragons don't even know they are committing a faux pas, and rise to the occasion when given a second chance. As is fitting for a reading feast, there is some meat on this bone; the author brings her own knowledge of children earned as a schoolteacher and storyteller to her writing. This book is so wintry, so festive, so subtle in its smartness and the expressions of the little dragons on the loose are just plain precious...all in all, this is a gem you will want to revisit long after the snow has been plowed. Luckily, there are many more "Good Knight" stories in the series, proving that chivalry isn't dead, and neither is read-aloud. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
More books for dragon slayers and dragon-hooray-ers!

MERLIN'S DRAGON by T.A. Barron (Philomel) The bat-winged lizard in this exciting story is small in size but big on bravery! Basil's challenge is not only to find the legendary Arthurian wizard in order to give him the warning that will save his life, but to face his own fears along the perilous journey. Besides the appeal of a charming, vulnerable small animal whose character is well-developed into the heroic, this book has another great strength: the fact that it is that hard-to-find, age-appropriate fantasy quest for the middle-grade reader, a.k.a. the holy grail of many a librarian's quest. Good humor and rich descriptions of a lushly imagined world round out this first volume in a high-flying trilogy. (10 and up)

SWORDS: AN ARTIST'S DEVOTION by Ben Boos (Candlewick) "Devotion" is not a word written lightly here; the decorative hilts and handles, the well-weighed pommels and the gleaming blades, even a peacenik can't help but appreciate the great craft that went into these warrior tools. Carefully placed descriptions and history inform but never detract, and we are given the full tour of the sword through history and across continents. The detail of the artwork is so textural and vivid, you can almost hear the metallic ringing of a blade pull out of the sheath, and almost feel the carefully adorned indentations, cool beneath your fingers. One of the most beautiful nonfiction books of the year, this title is nothing short of sharp. Pair with A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO DRAGONS COLLECTOR'S SET by Lisa Trutkoff Trumbauer, and you'll have one well-trained squire. (9 and up)

EON: DRAGONEYE REBORN by Alison Goodman (Viking) Hot stuff, a dragon adventure that features a female protagonist! Eona disguises herself as a boy in order to be in the running to serve as the catalyst between the invisible dragons and her kingdom. Drawing from Japanese and Chinese mythology, this sophisticated read plays a lot on complicated court politics. Make sure to introduce Patricia Wrede's clever princess page-turner DEALING WITH DRAGONS and Franny Billingsley's gender-bending coming of age story, THE FOLK KEEPER (both 10 and up), as stepping stones to this high fantasy. (12 and up)

ARTHUR OF ALBION by John Matthews, illustrated by Favel Tatarnikov (Barefoot) I'd be lying if I didn't admit that Marget Hodges' MERLIN AND THE MAKING OF THE KING remains my favorite read-aloud introduction to Arthurian legend, but still, this gorgeous, more generous volume is sure to be a boon to Camelot's enthusiasts and experts, and equally sure to create some new ones. Misty, moody paintings deliver us into the woodsy grove and the world of Percival's grail, Sir Gawain's Green Knight, Tristan's dragon, the magic of Albion, the lure of handsome Lancelot and the lore of the ladies of the court (and the lake), the duplicitous Morgana and the insightful Merlin, this copious Medieval melange of straight narrative and short, descriptive introductions casts a charm that makes a space for every reader at the round table. (9 and up)

On a personal note:
Happy Kwanzaa! During this African-American holiday rich with symbolism, my favorite are the ears of corn (vibunzi, suke or muhindi), representing the number of children in the home, or the potential of children. They also represent an acknowledgment towards Native Americans, and the connection to them felt within the African American community. In honor of this idea, whatever your background, we can all get connected by sharing my very favorite, very easy corn pudding recipe that I learned from the most reliable cookbook author Susan Branch:
1 cup sour cream
1 14 oz. can corn, drained
1 14 oz. can creamed corn
1 egg, beaten
1 box jiffy corn muffin mix
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1/4 tsp. paprika
Mix all ingredients, then bake 1 hour at 350 degrees in a buttered 9" baking dish. Delicious served warm with honey or maple syrup!

Two ears of corn for me! Blessings to my son and goddaughter!

Shop with Esme:
We tend to celebrate everything at our apartment, but whatever holidays you celebrate, I hope they were absolutely wonderful. My favorite Christmahanukwanzaakah gift I received this year came from my son, who surprised me very thoughtfully with a Snuggie, which I guess is all over the television ads but he happened to spot it at a department store. It's a blanket with arms, which sounds silly, but actually, all day long every day since I got it, I can't wait to get into it and read Tove Jansson's A WINTER BOOK with the book light that comes in the same box! This Snuggie thing is a crazy indulgent book lover's perfect delight! Plus, you can wear it while you eat your corn pudding, it hides tummies very nicely! And, as a super bonus, you can look like a Franciscan monk draped in polar fleece! Take that, Paris Hilton, once again!!!

As a holiday gift, I sent a couple of my hard-working editors some crushed velvet over-the-knee socks, the kind that I wear everywhere all the time, because they are so toasty when worn over tights that you can wear skirts even in the winter and I figured any woman would want some. A friend pointed out that I probably came off as pretty strange and possibly lascivious by sending them, which hadn't initially occurred to me, but after some worry I trust they were received in the spirit in which they were intended, and fine, maybe I'll just send chocolate next year. At any rate, I hope you'll all treat yourself or someone you love to something cozy, for goodness sakes, get this New Year off on the right foot.

"Only one hour in the normal day is more pleasurable than the hour spent in bed with a book before going to sleep
and that is the hour spent in bed with a book after being called in the morning." -- Rose Macaulay
Artwork by the astounding Mary Azarian of SNOWFLAKE BENTLEY fame

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

Thursday, December 18, 2008


I had an idea! In the countdown to the holidays, there is so much anticipation, but when presents are finally being opened, its hard for books to initially compete with all the battery-powered beeping and booping. Why not make a tradition of a countdown to Christmahanukwanzaakah by letting your child find a wrapped gift of a book under his or her pillow (or at the foot of the bed or outside the door or served up on a breakfast plate) every day for a week before the holiday? Kind of like eight days of Hanukkah, or a shortened, real-live advent calendar; I dare to suggest, waking up to a book may even beat opening those little windows with chocolate inside! I think titles may be more appreciated when given in this well-paced way, as older children will want to read to pass the time during winter vacations, and younger children will love the time spent reading aloud together as much as any present, underscoring the real joy of the season: savoring time together. You can also be freed up to give books that are less glitzy, and ones that may be enjoyed all through the year. What do you say? Here are a few new picture book picks of special merit to get you started, or to give as gifts on a big day!

HUMPTY DUMPTY CLIMBS AGAIN by Dave Horowitz (Putnam)
Humpty Dumpty/Sits in a chair,/He used to climb rocks--/Today he won't dare." After his great fall, the egg with a fragile ego doesn't have the gumption to scale any walls, and instead mopes around in his underwear, in spite of encouragement from his concerned nursery-rhyme constituency. When one of the king's horses is in peril, though, Humpty rises to the occasion. This book is at once hilarious and a hard-boiled look at how important it is to try, try again. The author is one of watch; a super-funny favorite among children, if he can keep up his laugh-a-minute quota he may rise to the level of Robert Munsch. Also, try his recent royal alphabet TWENTY-SIX PRINCESSES in which some saucy sisters in crowns cut some mighty funny capers, and the kosher countdown in FIVE LITTLE GEFILTES, which also makes a hit as a hostess gift at Jewish holiday celebrations.

DINOSAUR VS. BEDTIME by Bob Shea (Hyperion) Grown-ups blabbing away! A pile of leaves! A bowl of spaghetti! All vanquished with a roar, roar, roar! No problem! But bedtime? Now, there we may have a problem. This simple, beautifully designed picture book taps into the toddler tug-of-war between power and vulnerability, and it seems even the bravest, most ferocious folk like a little consolation when the lights go out. With energetic lines and a retro sensibility, it is sure to garner award buzz, but it already has won the best prize of all: a perfect bedtime story that will both delight and comfort even your tiniest T-Rex. (3 and up)

TILLIE LAYS AN EGG by Terry Golson, with photographs by Ben Fink (Scholastic) Real photographs of the author's own chickens are nesting inside these pages. Each day, Tillie, the renegade hen, picks different places around the barnyard to lay her precious egg, and in every picture the reader is invited for seek and find: where has Tillie laid her egg? Funny, anthropomorphic asides into chicken thinking abound ("On Wednesday, Tillie goes into the kitchen. She doesn't find any worms, but she does find some breakfast. Delicious, she thinks. This tastes much better than the corn in the barnyard. ") In many ways, this inspired and well-balanced endeavor is a perfect conceptual picture book for primary children, the likes of which I have not seen since the heyday of work done by The Crews Family. Each spread is graced lovely glossy photographs that have a country charm, and a real love of the subject that shines as brightly as the sun coming up. Cock-a-doodle-doooo! (4 and up)

PEANUT by David Lucas (Candlewick)
In the night, on a tree, a flower grew.
As the son rose, the flower opened.
Inside was a monkey, a monkey as big as a pea...
"How pleasant to be a little peanut," said the tiny monkey.
(He really didn't know what he was."
Oh, what a big, big world is it for the little monkey! The floor is made of air, water falls from the sky, and beasts abound (how is Peanut to know they're really butterflies?) and when the sun goes down, it seems the world has ended. Luckily, even in the big wide and wild world, a friend awaits to help explain it all away. Sometimes you want a book that is just plain magical, and this book delivers. Visually beautiful and dynamic, patterns play on symmetry against bold backdrops, and through it all is our hero, so sweet in his smallness. Channeling the spirit of Leo Lionni, this book sees the world of a child through a child's wide eyes, and from the vantage point of a flower petal. (3 and up)

NEVER TAKE A SHARK TO THE DENTIST (AND OTHER THINGS NOT TO DO) by Judi Barrett, illustrated by John Nickle (Atheneum) The co-author of CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS and ANIMALS SHOULD DEFINITELY NOT WEAR CLOTHING offers us some fresh but equally sage advice, such as "never play double-dutch with a grasshopper,""never take a giraffe to the movies," "never give a moth a sweater for her birthday,"page folds up to reveal the giraffe's head going through the roof of the theater, interfering with pigeons watching television. The illustrator's smooth, computerized style gives a contemporary edge to a classic author who still has her creative chops. (5 and up)

THE DUCK WHO PLAYED THE KAZOO by Amy Sklansky, illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke (Clarion) "La ditty, da ditty, zu zu!" Don't you just want to join in? This chummy, rhythmic story stars a duck who ventures out into new vistas, and uses music to make friends who will come and visit him, too. The illustrator's watercolors are surprisingly atmospheric. Of course, a kazoo for you and your friend makes the reading all the more melodic. (3 and up)

A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton (Candlewick) Uh-oh, it seems like somebody rolled out on the wrong side of the den, as bear is an insufferable grouch who wants nothing better to be left alone. this misanthropic mood does nothing to deter Mouse, who reappears time and time again with "ta-da!"-like panache, no matter how tightly Bear tries to secure his abode. When Bear finally gives in to the mouse's insistence on a visit, the tables are turned and he begs for more golden hours in the company of his lovely new friend. Sometimes authors and illustrators are a match made in heaven, and this seems to be the case; droll and mannered language like "vamoose!" and"farewell!" and "begone!" and "intolerable!" are just a few among the well-chosen, well-ordered text, and soft-toned illustrations against white backgrounds hearken to the gentle work of Martha Alexander. This book reminded me a little bit of GUS WAS A FRIENDLY GHOST by Jane Thayer, illustrated by Seymour Fleishman, in both the story line and some of the character gestures, but the hearty and hale resiliency of the mouse in his campaign to make a friend will win over a whole new generation. (5 and up)

BEE-WIGGED by Cece Bell (Candlewick) Jerry is a big bumblebee, but he's never stung anyone, so why can't he cut a break in the friend-making department? When he sports an old wig, he finds his old identity is hidden under the rug, so to speak. His many good qualities win him many companions and he enjoys a series of school adventures before the children find out the truth. Just like a wig, the zany unlikelihood of the story covers the deeper truth that many children have trouble making new friends and will go to great lengths to join the hive. In the vein of Andrew Clement's BIG AL and Don Freeman's wonderful DANDELION, this book, too, will reassure young readers that people can like them as they are. (5 and up)

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Ho-ho-ho! Time to start filling sleighs and days with perfect holiday picks hot off of the jolly elf shelf:

THE DOG WHO SAVED SANTA by True Kelley (Holiday House)
Uh-oh, young Santa turns out to be a bit of a slacker, munching on fruitcake and shlumping in front of the television while his elves knock themselves out to make deadline. With the help of a motivational video, "Take Charge of Your Life," a plucky pup is determined to help Santa live up to his reputation! Thanks to the dedication of his trusty dog, Santa learns geography, gets a little dose of driver's ed and is back in that reindeer saddle before long. Now...does the Easter bunny need any help? This author knows how to write picture books that tickle the funny bone and inspire requests for re-readings from children who think they are too old for picture books. A sleigh-full of kid-friendly good humor is in these bindings, along with a subtle message that even Santa wasn't born great, he had to work at it. (7 and up)

THE DINOSAURS' NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by Anne Muecke, illustrated by Nathan Hale (Chronicle) A rhyming midnight romp in a museum is a holiday dream come true for the hero of this book, and is sure to replace visions of sugar-plums dancing in the head of a young dino-loving reader. At first, I was concerned about the resemblance of the book to the popular HOW DO DINOSAURS series by Jane Yolen and Michael Teague, but on closer inspection, the detailed, jewel-colored illustrations have a style all of their own. The book, despite mushy bouts with mistletoe (have you ever been kissed by a Tyrannosaurus?), manages the trick of maintaining the slightly scary and very toothy spirit of the Mesozoic in the context of the holiday season. The volume comes with a CD which includes dinosaur carols. The "Allosaurus Chorus" and "Hark! The Pterodactyls Sing" may prove to be an evolutionist's nightmare come true, but may also be a future favorite at secular holiday assemblies. The musical tributes to Dino Kwanzaa and Dino Hanukkah did not go unappreciated. (6 and up) Children who enjoy this kind of riffing on classics may also find treasure in A PIRATE'S NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by Philip Yates, illustrated by Sebastia Serra (Sterling); the team of seahorses ("On, Salty! On, Scurvy! On, Sinbad!") was an especially nice touch. (6 and up)

SANTA GOES GREEN by Anne Margaret Lewis, illustrated by Elisa Chavarri (Mackinac Island Press) I'm not sure if Santa has an agenda, but if he did, I imagine that leaving the earth a better place for future generations of children would be on it (not to mention that he must be concerned about global warming, with all that real estate in the North Pole). In this book, Santa listens to a boy's wish for help making the world a better place, and manages to improve the sustainability of his own large scale productions. Despite the strong message, the storyline has a viable and readable arc, and Elisa Chavarri's artwork is a standout, with illustrations are as crisp and lovely and alluring as a wrapped package on Christmas day. Thematically, this is a useful classroom holiday read-aloud, and a nice teacher gift as well. (5 and up)

SANTA DUCK by David Milgrim (Putnam)

Nicholas Duck had only one day left to find Santa.
"If I don't tell him what I want," he quacked,
"it's going to be another year of socks and underwear."

Quacking voice? On the first page? Somebody knows something about read-aloud up in here! Walking around in a Santa suit that has been mysterious left at his doorstep, Duck becomes the unwitting ear to all holiday requests of all the neighborhood animals (Rabbit's request: "all I want is a carrot cake/The size of a football field/Don't forget the frosting"). 'Tis better to give than to receive in the funniest holiday book of the year. (5 and up)

WILLY AND MAY: A CHRISTMAS STORY by Judy Schachner (Dutton) From the author who brought us the wildly popular bilingual chihuahua SKIPPYJON JONES, we have here a holiday return to her earlier style, that focuses on humans. In this story, we feel the closeness of a girl to her elderly aunt and her pet bird. Making pies, listening to phonograph records, splashing in a pond and decorating a tree, the years passed are filled with great memories of being together, so no wonder the narrator is palpably disappointed when family circumstances mean they may not be able to spend the holiday together this year. When Willy and May manage to show up amidst a snowstorm, its a Christmas miracle! I must confess to a twinge of melancholy while reading this book, thinking of all the children who have a parent serving in the military overseas, and families who have had to curtail their traditional treks to the homes of distant relatives because of the economic downturn. But stories about wishes coming true are fair game for Christmas, and this in particular serves as a reminder that simply being the company of one other is indeed a marvelous gift. What I like about Schachner's people-centered books is that there is an undercurrent of invention; these books are always, below the surface, idea books. Her characters are examples, models of fun, eccentricity and generosity of spirit. She depicts children showing love through the artwork that they do and the initiatives they take, and she depicts this with a sincerity that verges on defiance, or maybe its simply faith, but definitely a pronouncement of sorts: "people are good." The illustration of the girl cutting out snowflakes from newspaper captures every ounce of the joyful anticipation of the season and the longing to contribute to the loveliness all around. Sigh! (7 and up)

PENINA LEVINE IS A POTATO PANCAKE by Rebecca O'Connell, illustrated by Majella Lue Sue (Roaring Brook) The holiday blues aren't just reserved for Christmas! When Penina realized that her Hanukkah is setting up to be a bummer, she decides to take action to get her family and friends back into the holiday groove. Penina is a funny friend in print, a character with so much that her readers will identify with: Have you ever had a teacher leave in the middle of the year? Felt like a parent wasn't listening? Tried to dress up a traditional recipe (peanut-butter-covered latkes, anyone)? Made homemade holiday gifts? Ahhh, nothing like a good piece of realistic fiction! Beats peanut-butter latkes any day. (8 and up)

'TWAS THE DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS: THE STORY OF CLEMENT MOORE'S BELOVED POEM by Brenda Seabrooke, illustrated by Delana Bettoli (Dutton) Clement Moore promised his children the special gift of a story. A poem would be all the's harder, after all. But where can he find the inspiration? This true story of how the season's most celebrated piece of verse came to be doubles as an interesting look into the whirling snow-globe of artist inspiration and process. A wonderful period piece is enhanced by eloquent vocabulary and decorated with scenes that are as charming as a store Christmas window. It includes the full text to "The Night Before Christmas," Clement's gift to his children and to the world. What story can you tell that will be a gift in the hearts of your family? (7 and up)

These are some of the newer holiday titles, but sometimes oldies are goodies! I remember my favorite as a child was Patricia Scarry's THE SWEET SMELL OF CHRISTMAS (3 and up), in which the hot chocolate magically smelled like hot chocolate mint and the Christmas tree smelled like pine and the candy canes smelled like...well, you get the idea! One of the great joys of the season, I think, is sharing what you enjoyed as a child. More recommendations for great holiday reads in the Seasonal Archive.

And, at the risk of shameless self-promotion, may I remind you about HANUKKAH SHMANUKKAH, illustrated by the brilliant LeUyen Pham (Hyperion) (ages 8 and up). This kosher Christmas Carol is an Association of Jewish Libraries notable book, and explores the Jewish-American experience in the context of the past, present and future. A full reader's theater script is available on-line for free download, which may be handy for classroom use or speaking in parts around the family table. Oy, books are so much fun!

On a personal note:
I've been very busy writing a guide for first-year teachers for the new year, so thanks for your patience with the pause in my postings. I've fallen a little behind, but I hear Santa has, too, so at least I'm in good company! Please check back, I'm going to try my best to post several more recommendations for terrific books in the next few days. And thanks to everyone who came to the PlanetEsme Bookroom for the kids' open mike, you all shone brighter than the star at the top of the tree! Season's readings, everyone!

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