Saturday, March 21, 2009


"The blossom that flaunts his color is soon plucked!" warns Master Zutsu, teacher at the Summer Moon School for Young Ninjas. "The loudest cricket is the first to be caught!" But Wink can't help it. What's the use of being super stealthy if no one sees? Wink has a propensity for performance, but when Wink resorts to acrobatics and engages a panda in battle to catch everyone's eye, things look bad for Wink's future prospects. A surprising and happy ending sneaks up by the last page to remind us that there is a path for everyone, even if it's not the path we expect, grasshopper! Gracefully cut, clean collage illustrations very judiciously employ fetching swatches of origami paper. The pictures are as sharp as nunchucks, humorous and expressive to boot; Wink's flamboyant improvement on the basic black ninja gear is a scream, and Wink's smile on the last page is one that will be mirrored in every face in the storytime circle. This picture book verges on perfect; funny and original, touching and hopeful, it's a story that every child will absolutely love. This is one ninja that definitely will be noticed. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
Everybody loves kung fu fighting (and karate...and tae kwon do)!

BLUE FINGERS: A NINJA'S TALE by Cheryl Aylward Whitesel (Clarion)
Twins are considered bad enough luck in 16th century Japan, but when Koji's clumsiness loses him a valuable artisan apprenticeship, he becomes a pariah, fleeing to the forest. He is captured by a band of ninjas, deft and focused warriors whose fighting skills cannot be matched. The training and missions of Koji, and the dawning of his destiny will keep readers absolutely riveted. Koji's growing understanding of his role in the feudal society, strong personal relationships and his desire to keep a code of honor will go far to help children understand that the Teenage Mutant Turtles didn't have anything on the real McCoy! In spite of the dangers and action, the violence in is at a minimum, but the page-turning stays at a maximum. This book earns a black belt for excellence. (10 and up)

MORIBOTO: GUARDIAN OF THE SPIRIT by Nahoko Uehashi (Scholastic) A prince is thrown from a bridge into raging waters. Enter Balsa, a female bodyguard for hire, who rescues him purely out of habit, and then is charged with his protection. Fans of anime will love the action of this story played out against a well-developed fantasy world, and fans of literature will love the equally well-developed characters, and the bravery with which the text speaks to the meaning of power. A hot cutting-edge import and must-have addition to any middle school collection. Haven't enjoyed such good estrogen-fueled martial arts since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (12 and up)

REAL NINJA: OVER 20 TRUE STORIES OF JAPAN'S SECRET ASSASSINS by Stephen Turnbull, illustrated by James Field (Enchanted Lion) Not for the faint of heart, we have an illustrated history of the undercover elite force of assassin known as "ninja," "a word that literally means 'invisible men.'" Unromanticized tales of kidnapping, suicide, arson and assassination are balanced by impressive legends of intrigue, quick thinking, disguise and escape, and descriptions of a macabre but resourceful inventiveness that would have made James Bond proud. The ninja house, ninja weapons and fascinating ninja mythology all get bows of respect here, and exclamation points rightfully abound. A hyper-realistic, detailed painting style brings to mind martial arts movies of the 1970's, and likewise, this book pulls no punches; the red paint comes out on the blades, so a certain fortitude (and non-censoring Shogun library overlord) is required to get from cover to cover. That said, if you are sharing nonfiction books about pirates, the ruthless gangstas of the high seas, in fairness can you have any qualms about a ninja here and there? Readers interested in real military history will find this wild book a little scary, and lot fascinating...I've already seen a few boys practically "hi-YAH!" each other in order to get the next turn at it. (9 and up)

For more junior picks that connect literary arts with martial arts, including an inspiring children's picture book biography of the master Bruce Lee, click here.

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

Friday, March 20, 2009

Happy birthday, Mister Rogers!

On a personal note:
Oops! I can't let this day go by without sending out happy birthday wishes into the universe for one of my heroes, Mr. Rogers. Click on his name to learn 15 things you might not know about this giant of children's television!

I watched him as a child and liked him, but it wasn't until I grew up that I really started to understand what a truly rare person he was. Now we have a small shrine in his honor up at the Bookroom. Kids can read about him in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. Don't forget to continue to support his legacy through Family Communications, which also offers many outstanding free resources for parents on-line!

We don't always think of him like this, but with the accompaniment of jazz pianist and his dear friend Johnny Costa, he was also an exceptional and accomplished songwriter. He also made music with another friend of his, teacher and puppeteer Josie Carey. I listen to his CD's all the time. His tunes are snappy, inspiring, and just plain wonderful.

In honor of his memory, how about a sing-a-long?

It's You I Like (1971, rights reserved, Family Communications)

It's you I like
It's not the things you wear.
It's not the way you do your hair,
But it's you I like.

The way you are right now,
the way down deep inside you,
Not the things that hide you
Not your toys--they're just beside you.

But it's you I like.
Every part of you--
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you'll remember
Even when you're feeling blue
That it's you I like, it's you yourself
It's you. It's you I like.

Mister Rogers passed away on February 27th, 2003. We miss you, good neighbor!

For more heroes, please visit


TADPOLE REX by Kurt Cyrus (Harcourt)
Like any little toddler, this tadpole dreams of the day he will become a big boy, but his idea of a big boy happens to be Jurassic-sized, emulating the dinosaurs that roam his world. Though Rex never quite passes his weeny welterweight status, he still undergoes changes that allow him to hold his own. Perspective and scale are the order of the day in this stunning science and storytelling mix that employs a new height of effective digital illustration enhancement. The suspenseful tale is told in verse both perfectly paced and meticulously metered, overall one of the best read-alouds of the past year. A note from the author about metamorphosis, prehistoric frogs, and the environmental challenges frogs face today is included. Fans of the Eric Rohmann's award-winning visual drama TIME FLIES will enjoy this newest dinosaur delight. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
One good dino-book deserves another.

DINOTHESAURUS by Douglas Florian (Atheneum)

Gigantic, titanic, enormous, colossal--

What once was humongous is now just a fossil.

The celebrated poet often inspired by the natural world and its creatures turns a reptilian eye toward the primeval timeline. Superstars like the Stegosaurus and Brachiosaurus and Triceratops (Beware and please-take-care-a-tops/Born with three great horns in place,/Triceratops was in your face) all get their due, as well as newer-bies like the Barosaurus (higher than five elephants, "hey kid, wanna ride?") and the Micropachycephalosaurus (yes, there is pronunciation help for each dinosaur, as well as a "glossarysaurus" on the tail end). Quirky mixed-media collage illustrations have a fun, child-like naivite. What I love about this author is that while working a theme from cover to cover, the poems are never stale, never belabored, forced or repetitious; inspiration follows from tip to tail, which in the case of the likes of a Seismosaurus is quite a long way indeed. (5 and up)

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

Thursday, March 19, 2009


ALL IN A DAY by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Nikki McClure (Abrams)
A simple, sweet entreaty to children to make the most of time is delivered in rhyme by this award-winning and prolific author. This poem verges on a spiritual, a la "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" or "Simple Things," but like those songs, the traditional, folksy feel keeps it glowing from sun-up to sundown for all audiences. Some of the ideas, though beautifully communicated, are a little esoteric for its young audience ("The past is sailing off to sea,/the future's fast asleep./A day is all you have to be, it's all you get to keep") but the soothing rhythm of the language compensates for what is hard to comprehend. Most noteworthy are the illustrations, striking black papercuts laid against alternating backgrounds of pastel blue and buttercream yellow, every double-page spread bright as breakfast. Nature, family, play and helping, themes of great interest and identity for primary audiences are all celebrated here, and babies will also enjoy the swing and sway of the words and the bold contrasts in the pictures while nursing or rocking. A perfect pick for springtime, and definitely worthy to tuck in among the marshmallows in the Easter basket. (3 and up)

Also of interest:
Day turns to night in another book using minimum palette for maximum impact, namely, the 2009 Caldecott winner, THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT by Susan Marie Swanson, illustrated by Beth Krommes (Houghton Mifflin). Scratchboard technique on black elicits the shadows while yellow-orange objects on the pages reassuringly glow like fireflies on the page. The unfettered text inspired by the traditional nursery rhyme "this is the key of the kingdom" is cumulative and winds down perfectly to a cozy bedtime tuck-in. The style of both pictures and text bring to mind the work of Janina Domańska, who won a Caldecott honor in 1971 for IF ALL THE SEA WERE ONE SEA, and likewise, bears reading again and again and again. A dreamy book as warm in spirit as a cozy house.

On a personal note:
Who would have expected any less, but I have to report that Rosemary Wells certainly rocked the PlanetEsme Bookroom this past week when she came to celebrate her recent release LINCOLN AND HIS BOYS for intermediate readers. She certainly gave no doubt as to why she is considered legendary in the world of children's books, captivating an audience of over fifty people squeezed in on a Monday afternoon as she shared a fiery and wholly contagious enthusiasm and wildly impressive knowledge of her subject. It was most interesting to hear what really different people they were in the Civil War time period, how "Victorian" in attitude they could be, how things like keeping warm and preparing food and going to school, things we take for granted, were not to be taken for granted back then, and how (as Rosemary put it) "encumbered by prejudice" they were as a generation, and for generations; and yet, out of all of these trials and limitations came forth this amazing man. So, so interesting! I think everybody there learned something new, and felt something new, too.

Every party needs some treats, so I served cupcakes using Mary Todd Lincoln's original almond cake recipe (thank you, Sweet Reads) which actually tasted a little funny, kind of like Chinese almond cookies only they were cupcakes...maybe it's because I didn't churn the butter or gather eggs from my own hens, as Mary Todd suggested. I also served up southern corn pudding (to be fair to both sides and bring the union together in honor of our 16th prez), and ham sandwiches, yummy yum if I do say so myself!

Rosemary Wells fielded questions with aplomb and here she is giving some serious consideration to the work of a talented young author.

My photos are somewhat crummy, pardon me, maybe someone else who was in attendance can share theirs? The Book Stall was our local bookseller for the event (don't forget to support your local independent!) and everyone came away with one of Rosemary's outstanding titles to peruse; my favorite e-mail I received after the event read, "Jesse and I both had a wonderful time listening to Rosemary Wells yesterday. Jesse has barely put the book down since." Well, you know I wish I could just have EVERYONE in my literary living room, but if you couldn't make it, at least you can still vicariously enjoy the experience by "barely putting the book down," and isn't that really the most lasting part, anyway?

Thanks for visiting the land of Lincoln, Rosemary Wells!

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

Friday, March 13, 2009


The intermediate years in a child's life are a time when children are striving to be industrious, and discovering what they feel "good" at. It's a time when the topic of what you want to be when you grow up takes on a new timbre of real possibility. Especially in these days of standardized testing (and over-testing), it's so encouraging---and exciting--for children to remember again that there is a life outside of school and grades number-2 pencils, and a time when they will contribute meaningfully to the world through the work that they do. This book is a developmentally appropriate tool for such imaginings; fun jobs like game designer, master cheese maker, pet photographer, kite designer, chocolatier, percussionist, alpaca farmer, entomologist and more are each explored with a brief explanation and several annotated photographs describing the nature or process of the job. There is enough text so older children will not feel scandalized by reading it, but brief enough to feel engaging and varied. An unusually helpful section of resources awaits at the back of the book, including a list of occupational summer camps (very cool adventures like the National Geographic Photo Camp and the welcoming Kids Culinary Camp of Vermont, as well as opportunities to explore law enforcement, work with the Humane Society, attend robot camp or sports camp or performing arts camp, be first mate on a boat or fly high with an opportunity through the Organization of Black Airline Pilots). When children want to grow up to be "rich" or "famous" and grown-ups around them may be discouraged about jobs, a title like this serves as a reminder that work can reflect personal passions and be a pleasure instead of a chore, and inspire readers to think more specifically, hopefully, and outside the box about the future. (8 and up)

Also of interest:
More help from the "help wanted" section, wild and worthy work submitted for consideration even for children who were left behind by No Child Left Behind.

THE UNDERWEAR SALESMAN AND OTHER JOBS FOR BETTER OR VERSE by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Serge Bloch (Atheneum) Belly dancer. Highway line painter. Pet groomer. Crossword puzzle maker. Queen of England. Ventriloquist. Skycraper window washer (Window Pain:/Ordinary words/Cannot express/My thoughts on birds"). Tiger tamer. Acupuncturist. Librarian (best job, xoxo). Maitre d'. Morning talk show host. This far more lyrical and far more imaginative junior version of What Color Is Your Parachute is less than meticulous about meter but promises kid-appeal on page after page. Funny, loose illustrations mix photographs and an inky doodle style. Several of the poems are real gems, among them: "Subway Driver" ("Big bunny tunnels underground/With folks who stare or read or sleep/And dream of something/VERY DEEP"), "Astronomer" ("I look for stars/Too fat to hang/Far out in space/That pop--and bang!.../The holes that swallow/starry light/Are big as day/And black as night"), and my favorite, "Mapmaker":

I climb up a mountain of fine fountain pen
I float down an Nile of ink.
I crisscross three countries, six cities, and spend
A while on an isle to think.

I brush in the valleys and sweep in the sands,
I shadow blue oceans, green seas.
I'm the very particular painter of lands
Who measures the degrees.

(5 and up)

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

Thursday, March 12, 2009


April Fool's Day is just around the corner. Anyone up for a trickster tale?

ANANSI'S PARTY TIME by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Janet Stevens (Holiday House)
"What took you so long?"Anansi asked. "Where is your costume?"
"I didn't know it was a costume party," said Turtle.

"You know now. Go home and get a costume." Anansi slammed the door.

A little while later:

Knock, knock, knock! Turtle knocked on the door.
"Hippity-hop!" Turtle said when Anansi opened it. "Hippity hop! Guess what I am!"

"You're a silly-looking turtle pretending to be a bunny," Anansi said. "Where's your dish?"

"What dish?" asked Turtle.
"I told everyone to bring a dish."
"You didn't tell me," said Turtle.

"I just did. You need a dish. Go home and get one." Anansi slammed the door.

Tit for tat is the name of this party game as Anansi delivers the big payback for the deed documented in the earlier book by the same duo, ANANSI GOES FISHING. With friends like the legendary African trickster spider Anansi, who needs enemies? Even after all the shlepping back-and-forth, Turtle has the wherewithall to deliver some sweet come-uppance to his nemesis at a party all his own, held underwater. Anansi has to hold on to Crab in order to keep from floating to the surface, hard to do when trying to partake in refreshments, holding balloons, and playing charades. Through a twist of fate, both Crab and Anansi end up on the surface of the moon (can't you see them there if you look carefully?), setting the stage for the next big prank which is sure to be out of this world. Children love these silly folkloric stories in which things really happen, where characters are not always nice as they can be or as clever as they imagine, and where, hey, the other guy started it. What's up for discussion is who will ever finish it? At least we know that children are sure to finish this story, and look forward to the rest. Party on. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
Another lively animal story with folkloric influence.
FOO, THE FLYING FROG OF WASHTUB POND by Belle Yang (Candlewick) Foo is bigger than his friends Mao-Mao and Sue-Lin, and so is his ego, leading him to proclaim that he is the biggest animal in the whole wide world! When this boastful toady becomes so filled with hot air that the wind carries him away, he experiences some misadventures with predators that will dramatically change his perspective.

Blinking back a tear, Foo replied, "I learned that I am nothing but a very small frog in a very big world."
"Foo, you are the perfect size," said Mao-Mao, "for a frog."
"Yes, said Sue-Lin, "and you are the perfect size for a friend."

True to the title of the book, the gouache artwork is high-flying, introducing dream-like colors not found in the tired old crayon box, swirling and funny and strangely beautiful. Influenced by her own experiences in China, Taiwan, America and Japan, this is a tale about belonging and being unique at the same time. (4 and up)

On a personal note:
Much better than Anansi's party, I daresay, are the festivities going on this coming Monday, March 16th at 4:30 p.m. at the PlanetEsme Bookroom on the north side of Chicago. We will be featuring a visit by the legendary Rosemary Wells (!!!) celebrating her recent release LINCOLN AND HIS BOYS for intermediate readers. We're expecting a full house, but in the spirit of children's books, there's always room for one more. If you are in the 'hood and would like to attend, holler at my e-mail.

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


THE BLACK BOOK OF COLORS by Menena Cottin, illustrated by Rosana Faria, translated by Elisa Amado (Groundwood)
How would you experience color if sight was not one of your senses? Imagine illustrating a picture book for young readers who can't see with their eyes? These were the challenges creatively undertaken by this author/illustrator duo, and the outcome is a truly unique addition to the shelves. Colors described by the narrator's friend Thomas makes gorgeous use of figurative language (Blue is the color of the sky when kites are flying and the sun is beating hot on his head, while green tastes like lemon ice), while the embossed etchings and Braille lettering that accompany the text allow your sighted readers to begin to imagine the experience from another point of view, and, as one reviewer noted, shifts the focus from thinking of blindness as a disability or deficit to simply considering it a difference. Teachers, take note: this experiential book is not one you can hold up in front of a large group to all "see the pictures," though it can be shared in other ways, and the Braille lettering in the trade edition is a sampling geared toward sighted people; a special edition with Braille punched on parchment (the dots are higher and easier to read) is available for the blind through the publisher. First released in Mexico by the Venezuelan team, this wholly original undertaking is universal, and helps book lovers see the world---and read it---in a whole new way. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
Another one-of-a-kind concept book import, this time from England!
SHAPE by David Goodman and Zoe Miller (Tate Publishing) For the child who has advanced past circle, square and triangle, we have this ebullient offering for those adventurous tykes who can take on quadrant, cone, cylinder, symmetry and line. Eye-popping photos of shapes and children and objects in eclectic arrangements and settings are bright and visually exciting, reminiscent of the almost trippy old-school style of early Sesame Street. This book takes chances, from the glow-in-the-dark stars to the surreptitiously integrated activities (mobiles, tangrams), resulting in a "wow" concept book that warrants multiple reads. In the end, this book about shapes is as much for the future artist as it is for the future mathematician. (3 and up)

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

Monday, March 02, 2009


TEN LITTLE FINGERS AND TEN LITTLE TOES by Mem Fox, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Candlewick)

There was one little baby who was born far away.
And another who was born on the very next day.
And both of these babies, as everyone knows,
had ten little fingers and ten little toes.
There was one little baby who was born in a town.
And another who was wrapped in eiderdown.
And both of these babies, as everyone knows...

You see, you're joining in already! Good grief! Heavens to Betsy! Surrender, give up, wave the white baby-diaper flag! You can't resist it! All around the world we go, from city and town to green hills and sandy tents, meeting multicultural cuties along the way, all who have the requisite digits and tootsies. Chummy little chubbies crawl and cruise across the wide pages, culminating finally in the warm familiarity of the loved one on the lap:

But the next baby born was truly divine,
A sweet little child who was mine, all mine...
And this little baby as everyone knows,

gets kisses on fingers and toes and a few bonus smackers on the tip of the nose. Poetic pacing as perfect as the tick of a metronome is matched with broad pastel artwork, making for a match between artist and writing almost as formidable as that between mother and child...almost. Get your serious snuggle on with this flawless first picture book, a perfect shower gift and one that is sure to inspire read-aloud even to tykes still floating around in utero. Why wait? (birth and up)

Also of interest:
More page-turners for the pre-pre-preschool set.

I KNOW A LOT OF THINGS by Ann and Paul Rand (Chronicle) Young children know so very many things: how to dig a hole, that "a book needs pages and a cake takes ages to bake," and "the moon is a light for the night, and the sun is as round as a bun and very bright," such lovely thoughts to celebrate the knowledge of young children hard won by careful observation. Best of all, the illustrator of this 1956 vintage, retro-feeling reissue knew how to create pictures as simple and exciting and clean and sharp as a cymbal crash. Page after page we encounter clever designs, brave colors and surprising lines that make the eye-popping most out of the minimum. (2 and up)

THE TICKLE MONSTER IS COMING! by James Otis Thach, illustrated by David Barneda (Bloomsbury) Nothing is like the carbonated anticipation of getting a good tickle, and this book milks it to the max. The tickle monster smells the toothpaste, hears your pj's unfold, and as you get into bed, waiting for the perfect moment to strike, and when finds it, he'll get you top to toe! Consumer warning: ticklish child and finger-wiggling parent not included in purchase price, but I think you won't have any trouble supplying that yourself. (3 and up)

RHYMES ROUND THE WORLD by Kay Chorao (Dutton) Nothing beats a good collection of children's poems to savor while nursing or to share in a rocking chair. My favorites upon which I have come to rely are Iona Opie and Rosemary Wells' compilation HERE COMES MOTHER GOOSE and Jane Yolen, Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Dunbar's perfectly delectable collection HERE'S A LITTLE POEM, but here is another gorgeous addition to baby's book basket, a treasury of delightful,well-chosen poems that carry children across Africa, Korea, Greece, Mozambique, Israel, India, Germany, Australia, America, Iran, France, England, Poland, Mexico... on and on, the littlest listeners will float like clouds across the many lands on the lilt of fine language. The pictures are markedly attractive, a throwback to the style of the old Golden Books many of us remember as children, saturated with color and enough detail to allow young eyes to notice more and more as they grow but never to overwhelm. A very nice trip indeed. (3 and up)

More, more, more, said the baby? Visit Russell's Book Basket.

Also, make sure to participate in the utterly splendiferous Share a Story, Shape a Future Blog Tour to discover tons of thoughtful posts that offer helpful hints for a whole childhood of great books and hints for cultivating a lifestyle of family reading! This a really unique internet event that you will not want to miss.

On a personal note:
Happy birthday to Dr. Seuss, who would have been 105 years old today. Let loose with a party blower and post your favorite book title by the master of Cat-in-the-Hat disaster at Sally Murphy's Writing for Children blog. Though I loved the whole lot of them as a little girl, the top of my list would have to be THE SNEETCHES, snarky, quotable little riffs on tolerance that stand the test of time, including "Too Many Daves," "What Was I Scared Of" and "The Zax." I also love to break out my copy of BARTHOLOMEW AND THE OOBLECK for a wacky spring weather storytime. And for a big, dizzying dose of all things Seussical, don't miss THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR. T, his seriously surreal 1950's foray into motion pictures with a haunting score and some very memorable musical numbers.

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


Related Posts with Thumbnails