Monday, February 23, 2009


EVERY SOUL A STAR by Wendy Mass (Little, Brown)
The setting of this book is the Moon Shadow campground in the days before a total solar eclipse. A constellation of three main characters is formed, and told from their points of view: home-schooled Ally who doesn’t want to move from her home out in the country, the urbane Queen–Bee Bree, who dreads moving into the very home in the boonies that Ally doesn’t want to leave, and Jack, a sensitive, slightly overweight boy who comes to the campground in hopes of raising his science grade and avoiding summer school. Mass achieved the admirable feat of writing realistic fiction that kids who like the splashiness of Cecily Von Ziegesar's Gossip Girl will enjoy just as much as kids who savor quiet books like Lynne Rae Perkin's Criss Cross. Plus, the cross-curricular potential of this book for middle-schoolers is otherworldly; you’d better have books about the solar system readily available for the contagion of interest that starts in these bindings, and you’ll find yourself counting the days until the next solar eclipse (July 22nd, FYI). Mass is smart without being heavy, employing recognizable characters that are genuinely cool to hang with, and very prolific for prolonged tweenage book-loving pleasure! Look for 11 BIRTHDAYS, “Groundhog day for tweenagers,” in which the day in which a friend said something hurtful gets repeated over and over again; JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE, in which a box left by a 13-year-old boy’s father contains the meaning of life (how would you like a gift like that? Can't you just imagine the pre-writing activity, teachers?), and A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE, about a girl with the rare condition of synesthesia, which allows her to see colors in numbers, letters and sounds. Always great premises and accessible execution, Mass stands to be the Judy Blume of a new generation. For reals. (11 and up)

Also of interest:
More realistic fiction for "tweenagers" (more or less), boasting both strong character development and solid writing styles.

TRACKING DADDY DOWN by MaryBeth Kesley (Greenwillow) When her daddy robs a bank (accidentally?) Billie Wisher is hot on the trail, trying to find him before the Feds do. Trying to keep a family together is what Billie hopes will be gained by surrender, but meanwhile she is having a hard time surrendering herself to the reality of her stepfamily. Set against the backdrop of a small down where everyone knows everyone else's business, the writing and voice is markedly poignant and funny at turns, with a good ear and eye for the truth of the world a la eleven-year-old, and a memorable, likable main character that, although not having criminal intent, still manages to steal the reader's heart. Keep track of this author; her debut shines. (10 and up)

ALVIN HO: ALLERGIC TO GIRLS, SCHOOL AND OTHER SCARY THINGS by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Schwartz & Wade) Rules for making friends: "1. Say hello. 2. Just say hello. 3. trade baseball cards. 4. Trade more baseball cards. 5. Just trade baseball cards." Funny, funny, funny is the first-person account of a neurotic little boy who still has some fight in him despite being afraid of elevators/tunnels/bridges/airplanes/thunder/substitute teachers/kimchi/wasabi/the dark/heights/scary mobies/scary dreams/shots/school. Personal Disaster Kit in hand, armed with valuable advice only a big brother can give and an alter-ego as Firecracker Man, will he ever find the wherewithall to speak up in class, or his quirky classmate Flea, who learned kickboxing at her "Aggression for Girls" class and has her eye on the shy guy. This book has a tone that will tickle, but also an honesty when it comes to things that are hard for boys, such as making close friends and feeling successful at school. Illustrator Pham reconfirms her genius on every page through her infinitely expressive and jubilant line drawings. There is something affirming about having Alvin out there; children will root for him and his family as they try to fortify themselves to contend with their own "allergies." Boy oh boy, this is what guys who have already read all of the hilarious HORRIBLE HARRY series but didn't want to be caught reading CLEMENTINE have been waiting for. (8 and up)

SAMANTHA HANSEN HAS ROCKS IN HER HEAD by Nancy Viau (Amulet) Samantha is a smarty, a budding geologist who is slated to enjoy a rock-lover's dream vacation at the Grand Canyon, if she can control her temper long enough to keep the privilege. Big if! Here is a heroine with the spunk and mouth of an older (and more grammatically correct) Junie B. Jones, and a storyline with a subtle texture; Samantha's love of rocks connects her to her deceased father, while frustrations with her older sister, her quirky mom and her own self-improvement loom very much in-the-now. The plot is peppered with real science facts that never overwhelm the story and will likely inspire interest. In the end, the change is in the seismically altered layers of Samantha; tween readers hitting a rough patch can scientifically predict such hopeful changes in themselves as well. (10 and up)

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Sunday, February 22, 2009


MADAME PAMPLEMOUSSE AND HER INCREDIBLE EDIBLES by Rupert Kingfisher, illustrated by Sue Hellard (Bloomsbury)
Minotaur salami with sage and wild thyme. Salt-cured raptor tails. Crocodile kidneys in blueberry wine. Great white shark fin in banana liquor. Pate of North Atlantic sea serpent with green peppercorn mustard. These are just a few of the colorful delicacies that swirl inside their jars on the shelves of the mysterious storefront of Madame Pamplemousse, where she concocts such original fare with her frowning feline sidekick Camembert. Across town, through the narrow streets of Paris, another cook is hard at work: Monsieur Lard at the Squealing Pig, a jealous, untalented head chef who is squelching the skills of his gifted niece Madeleine, relegating her to wash dishes in Roald-Dahl-like squalor. When a twist of fate lands one of Pamplemousse's masterpieces into Lard's greasy palms, he sends Madeleine to work for the eccentric genius and to discover her secrets. How can the little girl maintain her loyalty to her new and inspiring colleague while protecting poor Pamplemousse from the nefarious relative? No worries; this Madame can take care of herself very nicely thank-you-very-much, and in the process Madeleine's own gifts get unwrapped for the world as well. This book is odd and rare, an imaginative fantasy celebration of the adventures of the kitchen, including the sense of risk and discovery. The story also plays on the sophisticated theme of the work we do for others and for acclaim, and the art we create for the sake of art. The language is uninhibited and elegant, the characters are strong and memorable (albeit caricatured for dramatic effect), and the novella length is perfect for a read-aloud main course; like any good entree, there's enough meat to sink your teeth into without feeling overstuffed. It's plated up perfectly as well, with fetching, frilly spot illustrations throughout that are absolutely oo-la-la. Very special on the reading menu. (8 and up)

Also of interest:
More great adventures with food, and the foodies that love it.


Wake up, Jacon. Day's a breakin'.
Fryin' pan's on and cornbread's bakin'.
Bacon in the pan. Coffee in the pot.
Git up now and get it while it's hot.

Spend time in the garden in Freetown, Virginia, a community founded by emancipated slaves where folks live by the seasons and share what they grow. "We're rich as kings as long as we have beans," says Mama. "You'll need to outrun the rabbits to get all the berries." "Melons are just like friends," Granny says. "Gotta try ten before you get a good one." As young Edna Lewis came up among this lovely bounty and banter, between bites of perfect peach pie and tangy tomato sandwiches and sips of healing sassafras tea, she discovered the way that food tastes freshest is if you deliver it from vine to table toot-sweet. When Edna grows up, she becomes a chef and owns restaurants, bringing the sunny pleasures of Southern regional cooking to new palates. Juicy watercolor illustrations, five manageable recipes from Edna's own country kitchen and an affectionate author's note make the book complete. If you have a taste for a fun Black History Month storytime, pair with with information about the chef and potato chip innovator George Crum (Penelope Stowell's THE GREATEST POTATO or Frank Morrison's GEORGE CRUM AND THE SARATOGA CHIP). (6 and up)

BEETLE MCGRADY EATS BUGS! by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Jane Manning (Greenwillow) Think you've got a picky eater? Whatever you're serving won't seem so bad after this. Beetle McGrady dreams of being a real explorer, a true pioneer, but where to begin? When an ant wanders across the food pyramid that Table 6 is working on, Beetle is inspired to break new ground by creating a brand new food group, but she's not quite sure if her appetite for adventure matches her appetite for bugs. Thanks to a creative culinary class visitor, the opportunity presents itself for crunching on a creepy crawly, and maybe even connecting with the wider world. This much more modern picture book addendum to Thomas Rockwell's classic novel HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS is drawn in stylized, angular spreads. The text is especially well-written, fun to read aloud and features a heroine with a special fearlessness that marks a new breed of little girl. Be sure to check out Beetle's "Tips for Eating Bugs" on the endpapers. (6 and up)

Also on the subject of food and fussiness, don't miss LITTLE PEA by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Jen Corace (Chronicle). "If you want to grow up and be a big, strong pea, you have to eat your candy," Papa Pea would say. "If you don't finish your candy then you can't have dessert," Mama Pea would say. But yuck! Little Pea doesn't like candy! Can he make it through dinner to dessert…and a surprise ending? The simplest illustrations against a white backdrop manage brilliantly to convey color, movement and family coziness, and you don't have to be a mealtime fussbudget to appreciate the clever reversals in this dearest, darlingest book. Peas have never looked so appetizing, especially paired at a storytime with Lauren Child's hipster plea, I WILL NEVER NOT EVER EAT A TOMATO (Orchard) or George McClement's NIGHT OF THE VEGGIE MONSTER (Bloomsbury). (3 and up)

MAISY BAKES A CAKE by Lucy Cousins (Candlewick) Maisy is the one mouse you wouldn't mind having in your kitchen. Join her in her step-by-step process and revel in the clever effects as she watches batter rise through the ovrn window, sifts sugar on top of her strawberry cake and feeds her day's labor to a most appreciative alligator. A durable and delightful pop-up that doubles as a kitchen word book for your littlest line cook. (3 and up)

ICE CREAM CONES FOR SALE by Elaine Greenstein (Scholastic)
Who invented the ice cream cone? Was it Ernest Hamwi, a waffle-maker from Syria? Did the muse visit Charles Menches when he handed a bouquet to his lady-love? Was it Italo Marchiony, who pushed the pushcart all day in the hot summer sun? There are seven contenders for the credit cone at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, but only one is the true inventor. Children will have fun trying to guess which one it is, and also be introduced to the idea that there are many claims on history; use this book to springboard into an investigation into the story behind inventions. The pastel scratchboard technique is as cheerful as a strawberry sundae, but this book is better than a banana split for my money: it won't melt! Use this summery reading treat to turn any primary ice cream social into a storytime, too. Librarians, it is also a sweet first scoop to an Upstart Ice Cream Reading Promotion. (5 and up)

THE ADVENTUROUS CHEF: ALEXIS SOYER by Ann Arnold (Farrar Straus and Giroux)
Ze special tonight is ze culinary delight Alexis Soyer, ze king of ze kitchen, ze man who revolutionized what a kitchen can do for ze world, don't you see! Oh, you don't? Then you must read this picture book biography which follows Soyer from a rakish cooking school student to the celebrated chef of Europe's aristocracy, to the savior/foodie during the Irish potato famine and the Crimean War. Faithful to French fashion, there is a love story baked in, but what really caramelizes this book is all the interesting advances Soyer suggested, making him a notable inventor and humanitarian as well as a great chef. There are things in all of our kitchens that we can attribute to Soyer's innovations, read and find out what they are! Yes, the pen and ink with watercolor illustrations are yummy: detailed and delicate. The map of Soyer's dream kitchen is captivating to explore. This is a noble story of an epicurean life, and one that will inspire children who are destined to make unconventional contributions. (8 and up)

CHICKS AND SALSA by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Paulette Bogan (Bloomsbury) Fans of Doreen Cronin's classic 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 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 irreverent 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) Check out the saucy sequel, BUFFALO WINGS, or pair with another barnyard star for parody-for-thought, THE LITTLE RED HEN (MAKES A PIZZA), by Philomel Sturges, illustrated by Amy Walrod (Penguin)(5 and up).

Uh-oh. Honestly, I really was only going to recommend a couple of books today, but the theme is just too appetizing. It seems my eyes are bigger than my stomach, as they say...but luckily, they aren't bigger than my bookshelf. Books and dieting just don't mix! If you feel the same, rise to the occasion with a "Raise a Reader" program, a cozy plan to gather books, children and cooking together which was easy enough that I was able to run it from my apartment when I was on maternity leave with my son, or scroll down on the same page for a "Books for Breakfast" initiative, always a page-turning way to start the day and a boon to schools with populations of children who come to school early for a meal. Bon appetit, buen provecho, and happy reading-eating!

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Saturday, February 21, 2009


ABE LINCOLN CROSSES A CREEK: A TALL, THIN TALE (INTRODUCING HIS FORGOTTEN FRONTIER FRIEND by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by John Hendrix (Schwartz and Wade)
Now we're coming to the last page. About all that's left is to remind you of the moral of our story: Listen to your mother and don't go near any swollen creeks.
Oh, you don't think that's really the point? A mite weak, perhaps? Like Abe, a bit thin?
Then how about this: Remember Austin Gollaher, because what we do matters, even if we don't end up in history books.
Austin was there the day young Abe Lincoln and his buddy got the wise idea to cross the swollen Knob Creek. Now, how did they get across? Did they tiptoe or did they crawl? When Abe falls in, is Austin ready to help with the words "I'll save you, 'cause I know you're on earth for a great purpose," or was he off hunting for a partridge, or did he leap right into action to rescue his friend? What's true and what's possible in history gets into a clever tug-of-war page by page, and calls for readers and listeners to grab a side and pull. Past adventures told in present tense with text that hits the pause button for reflection and invitations for the audience to cheer the heros on, this is the most rollicking slice of revision to come to life on picture book pages since the days of the log cabin. Unpretentious lines as thin and silly as a little boy's wobbling legs are still strong enough to carry us across the landcapes. According to the text, in the dark days of the Civil War, Abe said he'd rather see Austin Gollaher again than any other living man, though he never met him again after that harrowing day; it is a great [pleasure we have as readers to meet him again here. In these days of oversaturated celebrity, the differences we make in the lives of people are celebrated in earnest within these pages. This tour de force also links the connection between storytelling and history sure as a log creates a bridge across a creek, however tenuous. If children's book awards were given for titles that work best in the classroom, this baby would have won...and that's no tall tale. Children will never look at history, or their own role in it, the same way again. (7 and up)

Also of interest:
Since this is the bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln's birth, we have an unusually comely bevy of books on the great statesman.

LINCOLN AND HIS BOYS by Rosemary Wells, illustrated by P.J. Lynch (Candlewick) From attending a show of acrobats, sharing "sherbet Jenny Lind," building a playfort on the roof, grieving the loss of his son to the rampant typhoid to the little boy sitting at his feet catching the pages of Lincoln's last public address in 1865 in which he still strived to show compassion for the losing side, this is the story of real people, real children, a real family, as told from the perspective of Lincoln's sons Tad and Willie. Lincoln is depicted as a loving father, and one who was well ahead of his time when it came to the convention of the day of children being "seen and not heard." Speaking of new facets of favorites, we often think of Wells as the creator of the iconic (and extremely cuddly) world of Max and Ruby and her inimitably sensitive insights into the preschool world, but she is also formidable in her forays into historical fiction, as she proved in her Civil War novel RED MOON AT SHARPSBURG. Well-researched, nicely timed narrative takes young readers back to meet famous folk who are made recognizable. (8 and up) ***We will be hosting the legendary Rosemary Wells at the PlanetEsme Bookroom and celebrating this wonderful book in the late afternoon of March 16th; save the date if you are near the north side of Chicago and would like to attend! Details coming soon. I think we'll have to have to serve up good pioneer corn bread pudding, though, don't you? Or maybe the "Mary Todd Lincoln cake" using the recipe at SweetReads, one of my new favorite blogs?***

OUR ABE LINCOLN by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by Barbara McClintock (Scholastic) Illustrated in an engraving style to resemble a children's pageant, the stage is set to sing along to the words of this ditty that was popular during Lincoln's presidential campaigns, to the tune of "The Old Gray Mare." Hooray, now even the littlest Lincoln lovers can get into the act! (4 and up)

THE LINCOLNS: A SCRAPBOOK LOOK AT ABRAHAM AND MARY by Candace Fleming (Schwartz & Wade) Too rich in text for traditional read-aloud, think of this as a jaw-dropping treasure trove of everything any child could want to know about the Lincolns. The focus on the partnership of the man and woman underscores the role of both genders in this history. Meticulous research continuously reveals the rare and amazing for page after page, and the author's enthusiasm is equally unrelenting...and contagious. Well written, fascinating and attractive, you'll plant the seed to grow a history buff with this fine fodder. (9 and up)

VOYAGES: REMINISCENCES OF YOUNG ABE LINCOLN by Neil Waldman (Calkins Creek) Unusually eloquent writing that relies on primary sources bring us to a new understanding of how Lincoln may have earned a personal distaste for slavery in the context of his times, through three flatboat trips along America's rivers. A strong read-aloud and starting point for discussion with middle-schoolers, this title is short but stretches the intellect. (12 and up)

The wit and wisdom of Lincoln is celebrated in hadnsome works such as Doreen Rappaport's ABE'S HONEST WORDS, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Hyperion), and Sarah L. Thompson's WHAT LINCOLN SAID, illustrated by James Ransome (Collins), though my favorite will always be Beatrice Schenk de Regnier's now out-of-print ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S JOKE BOOK, illustrated by William Lahey Cummings, where I first encountered my favorite Lincoln quote: "God must have loved the plain people; He made so many of them."

And finally, the one I most often pull out from the stacks this month:
ABE LINCOLN: THE BOY WHO LOVED BOOKS by Kay Winters, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Simon & Schuster) They thought he was lazy, this boy who would take a book out of his back pocket to read at the end of each row he'd plow. In fact, bigger things were in store for this young dreamer who was destined to become out 16th president. Readers are treated to a homey glimpse of this hero's boyhood, leaning on his father's lap by the fireside as yarns were spun, splitting wood, shivering with his sister in a drafty log loft. It chronicles both the dark days (like when Abe's mother dies of "milk sickness" when he is nine) and exciting adventures (such as the great wrestling match between him and Jack Armstrong, which was met with cries of "Body slam! Body slam!" by my second grade listeners). The story stops where most others begin, as Lincoln takes his seat at the White House. The unpretentious illustrations are evocative of the period and contain many details that are springboards to discussion, such as what schools were like in pioneer times, and why Lincoln campaigned from a train Best of all, we learn that Lincoln shares a trait with the reader: both booklovers! (6 and up)

And use Abraham Lincoln's "penny power" to create a fun fundraiser that students won't soon forget! Yes, it even works in a recession! Lucky us! Oh, that dear stovepipe-hat wearing hero is still doing us good. Thank you, Abie-baby!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
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Friday, February 20, 2009


MOST LOVED IN ALL THE WORLD by Tonya Cherie Hegamin, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera (Houghton Mifflin)
A log cabin. A star. A tree with moss growing on one side of it. A little girl, smiling, the most loved in all the world. These are the special patches being embroidered by Mama, putting together a quilt. This special work is not for the Big House or to sell, but as a gift and a map for her precious daughter whom she will trust to others to lead to freedom. In very few words, the author captures the unspeakably wrenching nature of family separations during slavery, and the unfathomable depth of a mother's love. Heavily laid acrylics and textile collage give the sense of the weight of the world, the cover of night, and the warmth of blanket; the folksy painting style combined with bright cloth collage are beautifully juxtaposed. A very thoughtful author's note is included to parents and educators, explaining how so dire were the circumstances, many families sent children North on the Underground Railroad without them, "regardless of overwhelming feelings of loss...and without even a shred of seeing their loved ones again. Their only hope was freedom itself." It also touches on the many cases of brave people who returned to slavery or stayed behind to help others become emancipated, as depicted by the little girl's mother. In the context of terrible sadness, hope still sparks like light from a flint. This book is an opportunity to reflect on the great bravery and sacrifice of these Americans, and what we love most in the world: our families, and our freedoms. Readers who were moved by Jacqueline Woodson's and Hudson Talbott's award-winning rendering of a quilt's depth of meaning through history in SHOW WAY will appreciate this new and equally powerful picture book read-aloud. Also check out the illustrator's other recent offering, STITCHIN' AND PULLIN': A GEE'S BEND QUILT, a celebration of family tradition neatly sewn together with the poetic language of Patricia McKissack (Random House).

Also of interest:
MOMMA, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? by Marie Bradby, illustrated by Chris Soentipet (Orchard)

"Momma, where are you from?"
"I'm from Monday mornings, washing clothes in the wringer washer..."

A smooth melding of nostalgic and contemporary feeling flows in the cozy remembrances of a mother growing up in the mid-20th century. Serious topics like segragation and inequality are touched upon, as well as cheery, timeless experiences like playing neighborhood games, walking down a summery country road, buying ice from a cart or being in the warm circle of family and community in the midst of a fish-fry. Every child wonders what life was like when a parent was growing up, and this book is a lovely springboard into a conversation between young and old. Warm text is matched by unusually gorgeous realistic illustrations that seem to glow with a joy of feeling.

"Momma, can I go there?"
"Yes. We can travel through roads in my memory."

Thanks to bookloving friends at Bees Knees Reads for introducing me to this wonderful title!

Shop with Esme
One of the great regrets of my craft life is that I never really learned to sew on a machine (yet), so as a teacher I looked upon the amazing quilt projects done in other classrooms with admiration and envy. Then I discovered The Ultimate Quilt Painting!

Tah-dahhhh! Finally, a quilt that requires no sewing! It's put together with canvas instead of cloth. At first I thought it might be a little pricey, but the supplies it comes with are high-quality, and it had everything necessary to start and finish with a whole classroom full of children to great effect. Sorry to sound like a commercial, but I am very pleased to find a group craft project that really is a keepsake. I was inspired by the themes you can do with the kit, like the one of African masks done by a third grade class in the gallery. Developed by an art teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, some of her classes' finished work was auctioned off to provide relief for tsunami and hurricane victims, and the end product you can create with a class is desirable for school auctions as well. I even bought one and included the blank canvas squares in invitations to a wedding shower. When guests came they brought the decorated squares and I assembled them during the shower, so the bride-to-be had a frameable "quilt" to take home at the end of the party!

Have fun, and send me a pic if you make one!

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009


FANNY by Hollie Hobbie (Little, Brown)
If Barbie were a real person, she would be about a hundred pounds and be six feet high, wearing a size four with measurements of 39-19-33. Barbie's tiara was absconded temporarily in recent years by the sale of Bratz dolls, with heads the size of watermelons and a penchant for makeup, scoring them a not-very-coveted place in the 2007 American Psychological Association report from its Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Whether or not you view these little poppets as craven or just good-natured camp, with so many concerns about realistic body image and self-esteem in girls (including statistics suggesting the average American fourth grade girl has already been on a diet), there's bound to be one in any crowd who is just not allowed to play with them.

Enter that girl: Fanny. When her mother nixes all hopes of acquiring a coveted Connie Doll ("Because I don't like the way Connie dolls look," said her mother. "They're just too...much"), resourceful Fanny sews together her own very cheerful companion, naming her Annabelle. Duly snubbed by the high-fashion dolls and their owners, Fanny becomes self-conscious about the sewing machine she receives for her birthday. Fanny relegates Annabelle to a drawer until her heart compels her to accept her as different and unique, and leads the other girls to appreciate her for the same. As befitting the makeshift nature of the theme, the illustrations in this book are a little looser than some in the author's celebrated TOOT AND PUDDLE series, but have maintained all of the signature charm; the embrace between girl and doll in the moonlight is sigh-worthy, and Annabelle examining a teddy-bear with a stethoscope assisted by two long-legged hoochie-doll nurses is a hoot. This book is a battle-cry for young DIY'ers, and the fact that the rag-doll and plastic-doll constituencies manage to ultimately play in peace offers hope for the future of Girl Power without negating anyone's playtime tastes. I can't imagine any child not wanting a friend like Fanny, and anyone who has enjoyed the flair of Jane O'Connor's runaway bestseller FANCY NANCY or Rebecca Caudill's old-school classic THE BEST-LOVED DOLL will applaud the rag-doll revival and rugged spirit of individualism here. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
ROSIE FLO'S COLORING BOOK by Roz Streeten (Chronicle)
Not a read-aloud narrative, but a book I know I would have loved as a little girl, we have page after page of funky clothes floating on the pages, awaiting a pen to draw in heads, arms and legs and creative backgrounds. Color in all the get-ups in your favorite hues and shades! Also check out ROSIE FLO'S ANIMALS and ROSIE FLO'S GARDEN. A great gift for the the Junior Betsey Johnsons and Bob Mackies in your life, you might also want to have a supply of your own on hand to doodle in during staff meetings. (You didn't hear that from me.)(5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
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Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Oooh boy, booklovers, the 2009 list is off to a running start.

GERTRUDE IS GERTRUDE IS GERTRUDE IS GERTRUDE by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Calef Brown (Atheneum)
to greet her magesty, Queen Gertrude.
Artists and artists and writers and artists.
Artists are artists and artists will be artists.
What will writers be we do not know.
Just writers probably. Everybody talks.
Talk talk talk talk. Laugh laugh. More talk.
Laugh. Okay. Enough.
This book is an invitation to an avant-garde party, peopled by the likes of Picasso and Hemingway and Matisse, a popular poodle, and a chance to join in the joyful passing of days with Gertrude Stein and her best girl Alice B. Toklas (not serving up any of her infamous brownies in this children's book). Filled with all the artistic temperaments of guests and hosts told in the marvelous, repetitive, lulling style of its subject, this book is a playful toast that offers lots of question marks in an exclamation point world. We see why Gertrude loved modern art ("Those crazy pictures sure are crazy. Who cares? A picture is a picture. It can be whatever it wants to be") and why she loved her friend and companion Alice ("But tonight Miss Gertrude is just so so so happy as a baby, so happy. And Alice is happy, happy as a mother, so so happy"). Brown is at the top of his game, with matte acrylic illustrations that are at once accessibly folksy and as angular as any modernist, in a brave palette that calls to mind the work of Maira Kalman. Why would we give such a sophisticated book to a child? While young children may certainly not clue into all the cultural references, at its heart, this book is about freedom, and children get that. Children also undrestand periwinkle people and bears in chairs and roses and cows and loving our friends very much and going somewhere. "Often mocked in her lifetime, Stein is now praised for being among the most original and influential voices of the twentieth century," says the author's note, and the author also writes, "Thank you for laughing. Thank you for writing. Thank you for having fun when you write." This unusual book will make readers say thank you, too. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
More artistic temperaments, in honor of the writing achievements of my "peeps" in the SCBWI Illinois "New Year, New Novel" (NYNNies!) group. The goal was to write 50,000 words in a month; I managed little over 30,000, and salute the many who hit the high mark. Congratulations, super writers!

BELLA & BEAN by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, illustrated by Aileen Leijten (Atheneum) Writing does not come easily to Bella, a poet whose efforts are perpetually interrupted by her well-intentioned friend Bean. Besides needing to get a second copy simply so I can rip out and frame the first page depicting a mouse writing in the window of her little treehouse, this is far and away the most realistic depiction of the writing process ever to have been penned in a children's book, definitely underscoring that writing is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. Patient Bean is not thwarted by Bella's grouchiness:
"I've been told I have the cutest toes," said Bean, turning her foot this way and that.
"Who told you that?" asked Bella.
"Secret," said Bean. And she swung her leg back down to the ground.
"Well, here's a secret for you," said Bella. "Poets need peace and quiet."
Bella secretly, almost desperately, longs to join Bean in her excursions and chit-chat, but her concentration and commitment pay off, and she ultimately composes a fine ode to their friendship. This book has a sweetness to it, a delicate loveliness in the lines both written and drawn, but underlying both is a brave honesty about love being where love might not always seem to be, and the tolerance required to bring out the best in the people we care about. (6 and up)

HOUNDSLEY AND CATINA by James Howe, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay (Candlewick)
Catina is an aspiring author. Houndsley is a talented cook. Both have aspirations of fame and recognition, but they may ultimately have to settle for the audience of one good friend. Just the opening is worth the price of the book: "Catina wanted to be a writer. Every evening after dinner, she would make herself a cup of ginger tea and sit down to write another chapter in her book. So far she had written severty-three chapters." (I guess she could give Bella some pointers aboutwriter's block, huh!) An early reader in chapter book form, the droll and heartfelt writing makes this little gem glow. (5 and up)

THE DOT by Peter Reynolds (Candlewick) The teacher of a frustrated young artist suggests, "just make a mark and see where it takes you." This reassuring tale that will bring out the artist in every child. Check out the companion title, ISH, about a creative boy whose abstract interpretations may not look exactly like a vase or a tree, but definitely appears vase-ish and tree-ish.(4 and up)

STRANGE MR. SATIE by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Petra Mathers (Viking)
I asked my husband, an artist, what he thought of this book, and he said, "If I had read this book as a kid, it would have changed the way I thought life could be." Composer Erik Satie did indeed put the en garde in the avant-garde, hanging out with Picasso (he sure got around, didn't he?), tossing his girlfriend out of a window (luckily, she was a circus performer and landed safely), wearing seven identical grey velvet suits, playing jazz on typewriters, producing ballets that required live camels and cannons firing, and fathering the movement known as surrealism. This is a man who, instead of writing instructions in his music like fast, loud or slowly, gave directions like "from the end of the eyes" and "I want a hat of solid mahogany." I don't know if everyone would want Mr. Satie as a friend after reading this book, but he sure was a colorful character, and this comes through very clearly thanks to the affectionate and sympathetic treatment by both author and illustrator. This is a very accessible children's book about a complicated eccentric, in part because of the understated, imaginative artwork that arranges the chaos (look at the drawing of Satie's ideas playing out, quite literally, across stanzas of music) and gorgeous, succinct writing that reads like musical notes; the last page of this book may be the best I have ever read in children's biography. (6 and up)

On a personal note:
I'm looking forward to meeting with friends old and new at the Wisconsin State Reading Association conference later this week, and talking about the great books of 2008 and the backstory behind my most recent novel, VIVE LA PARIS. To any attendees visiting this site: a special welcome!

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