Wednesday, January 27, 2010


GROUNDHOG WEATHER SCHOOL by Joan Holub, illustrated by Kristin Sorra (Putnam)
When a rabbit hears a weather report that spring has arrived, he is chagrined to find snow outside his abode. The good citizen writes a letter suggesting a more regional approach, thus inspiring a nationwide search for talent and the best newspaper ad since art schools asked wanna-be's to sketch Tippy Turtle. "Have you got what it takes to be a weather forecaster? Take this quiz and check all that apply: Are you a mammal?...Are you furry?...Do you live in a burrow?...Are you a rodent?...Are you an herbivore?...Do you hibernate?...If you checked all 6 boxes, you're invited to attend GROUNDHOG WEATHER SCHOOL!" After a hilarious couple of pages in which monkeys, pigs and porcupines fail to pass (and one skunk is accepted as a "foreign exchange student"), readers are immersed alongside as students undergo a rigorous education, including learning about "famous furry hognosticators" such as Wiarton Willie in Canada who predicts the Super Bowl outcomes and General Beauregard Lee who landed a gig on the Today Show and has an honorary college degree; other ways in which nature predicts weather (bees stay near their hive and pinecones fold inward when wet weather is impending); the reasons for the seasons, how to burrow, how shadows work, and then (gulp!) take the final exam! After all this effort, will the weather report be more accurate?

The forecast is both factual and funny in this well-formed story, decked out in stylized illustrations with eclectic, high-interest layouts. Some of the cartoon-balloon dialogue, many voices and lots of visual and verbal detail make this a bit of a tall order for read-aloud with a group; GROUNDHOG GETS A SAY by Pamela Curtis Swallow, illustrated by Denise Bunkus (Penguin), about a woodchuck who feels the occasion deserves more than a day's celebration, also has lots of facts interlaced into the plot and is easy for classroom contexts. But the outlook on The Groundhog Weather School is sunny for independent readers and teachers with opaque projectors; some of these pages are just too good not to share. Inventive, smart, and extremely silly, it's easy to predict smiles when this book appears, and it is a must-have for seasonal collections. (6 and up)

Also of interest:
How many books would a woodchuck read if a...well, you know!
For a long time, there was not much that was topical to read when February 2nd rolled around, but recently excellent books on the topic have multiplied (as rodents are wont to do), making Groundhog Day a real library occasion. My favorite stand-by has been Crockett Johnson's WILL SPRING BE EARLY? OR WILL SPRING BE LATE? (by the author of HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON), in which a groundhog discovers when he makes his prediction that he simply can't please all the people (or animals) all of the time. Perhaps I have showed favoritism for this title because it's so darn easy to copy the groundhog on to tagboard and attach to a stick, and shine a flashlight on him for an instant Groundhog Day puppet show. But since the book is sadly out of print, perhaps that is an impetus to try some more recent fare for kids in kindergarten through second grade:

GEOFFREY GROUNDHOG PREDICTS THE WEATHER by Bruce Koscielniak (Sandpiper) An especially funny take on the day, in which our hero struggles to keep up with past performances. Loose-lined cartoon illustrations in the spirit of James Stevenson add to the good humor.

GROUNDHOG STAYS UP LATE by Margery Cuyler, illustrated by Jean Cassels (Walker) A particularly handsome book for the holiday, the groundhog tale gets a trickster spin when a slacker woodchuck chucks all responsibility to play through the winter. Along the same lines, GO TO SLEEP, GROUNDHOG! by Judy Cox, illustrated by Paul Meisel (Holiday House) features another furry fella who won't get to sleep, but this time it's because of insomnia, not guile. No worries as a witch, a turkey and Santa all try to to tuck him in and get him settled in time for Spring. Gouache illustrations are sweet and superb for sharing.

SUBSTITUTE GROUNDHOG by Pat Miller, illustrated by Kathi Ember (Whitman) Groundhog holds animal auditions for a temp to fill in on a sick day in this storytime favorite.

TEN GROUCHY GROUNDHOGS by Kathryn Heling, illustrated by Deborah Hembrook (Cartwheel) Eek, these groundhogs look quite a bit like teddy bears, but if you can get past this, it's a merry countdown with plenty of chances for audiences to chime in. A good pick for preschooler gatherings.

GRETCHEN GROUNDHOG, IT'S YOUR DAY! by Abby Levine, illustrated by Nancy Cote (Whitman) What to do when a groundhog is too shy to make her appearance? It's nice to see a female groundhog character, and the illustrations have lots of homey detail; readers root for Gretchen's success. Meet another shy groundhog in Kate McMullan's FLUFFY MEETS THE GROUNDHOG (Cartwheel) one in a series of adventures of a class guinea pig with a very distinctive and hilarious voice, and a solid choice for emergent readers.

While the guy in Groundhog Gets a Say may be right, we may need more than one day to read all of these fine fictional stories, we might remember to mix in a little non-fiction as well. GROUNDHOG DAY by Michelle Aki Becker (Children's Press) is a slim but handy volume for looking at actual photographs of the icky critters (sorry, I'm not really an animal person, they look a little "bitey" to me). Gail Gibbons is a trusted nonfiction author that delivers plenty of interesting history in GROUNDHOG DAY! (Holiday House) and the concise GROUNDHOG DAY BOOK OF FACTS AND FUN by Wendie C. Old (Whitman) is so overflowing with trivia that surely it would be part of the Groundhog Weather School's curriculum, and deserves a place in yours as well.

It's hard to resist such a quirky holiday! Hey, any reason to celebrate...and to read great children's books.

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
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Tuesday, January 26, 2010


AROUND THE WORLD WITH MOUK by Marc Boutavant (Chronicle)
Take your eye for a walk! And what a walk it is, from continent to continent accompanied by a restless little brown bear who bids au revoir but not adieu to his friends in a French café while he goes off to collect some more comrades. Mix the Asian-influenced, almost unnerving cuteness of Gyo Fujikawa with the eager, overpopulated animal world of Richard Scarry in a new wave trip-hop blender, and wah-la! The result is a book to look at repeatedly, and with wonder. The animals that inhabit these pages are not trite children's book cuties, but a diverse and fully realized world of hipster galagos, aardvarks, bandicoots, tanukis, ocelots, caimans, lemurs, pangolins, wombats, salamanders, skinks and fruit bats...someone did his homework at of the zoo, that's for true. Each glossy spread holds more interest on two pages than the average picture book does in thirty-two, and it even comes with bonus Colorform-like resuable vinyl "stickers" that can be added to the action; not necessary to the success of this book, but nonetheless fabulous and begs the question, "did they think of everything?!" There is contagious delight and personality in these pages, we feel the energy of an artist (and supportive publisher) who really loved making a book and wanted to tuck everything wonderful inside.

Sure, some details in the illustration were unsettling: an insidious smiling tsetse fly, a chicken eating a fried egg, octopi as charming pink characters on one part of a page hang out on a line to dry for lunch on another part, and some general food chain drama ("don't eat me!" exclaims a bunny-like mammal to a python. "I have an appointment!"). Oddly, the effect is not unlike real travel, requiring a certain suspension of judgment in the course of discovery of things unfamiliar and beautiful in turn, sometimes in plain view and sometimes in the corner of the eye. While an index would have been useful for identifying the mass menagerie, many animals are still named in context, and one finds one's self learning new things, though not always what we expect...also like real travel. The book ends organically with a return home and Mouk recounting his adventures to his homebody buddies, one who is inspired to pack his bags, the other who will stick to the internet. Like looking at a photo after a trip, Mouk's attempts at summary can't capture the true color of his magical days, and the reader can sense Mouk's frustration in trying to share it all. The inside joke is that he was never alone; the reader was there every step of the way, and remembers the excitement, too. Mouk, where you lead I will follow, and so will many goggle-eyed kids. (6 and up)

Also of interest:
More eye-poppers.

LEON AND THE PLACE BETWEEN by Grahame Baker Smith (Templar Books) "It will be magic. You have to believe," advises Leon as the siblings await the parting of a curtain and the beginning of a magic show. This book feels more like a theatrical experience than a reading experience; more specifically, the chance to walk around in someone else's dream. While digital illustration often can feel chilly and flat, what these digital montages have accomplished with light is astonishing. Pages at times actually seem backlit and glowing, highly textured and dimensional; the shadows are so sharp, the black so deep with stars glowing, it's as much like looking into a window as on to a page. With the appearance of the "Abdul Kazam," Leon is carried away though a die-cut door into an alternate universe, and given a tour by the magician's son, only to return to the real world with a deeper conviction that anything is possible...a belief that the young reader is bound to share after this experience. The nod to Aladdin-like exoticism is wearied, and the free-flow of imagination and decorative fonts may be a rough carpet ride for those who prefer a more staid storytelling style, but the theme of a boy trying to walk the line between what's real and what isn't is developmentally appropriate and handled with both delicacy and optimism. Most of all, it cannot be denied that the glimmering, intense beauty of this book is some amazing trick. (7 and up)

ENCYCLOPEDIA MYTHOLOGIA: GODS AND HEROES POP-UP by Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda (Candlewick) By Zeus, they've done it again, or should I say outdone it? This latest pop-up encyclopedia in the series (see FAIRIES in the "mythologica" collection and the less whimsical SHARKS, DINOSAURS and MEGABEASTS in the "prehistorica" series) is the most awe-inspiring. We are welcomed on the first page by a sprawling vision of Hathor, the ancient canine-faced Egyptian protector of expectant mothers. On another page, mighty Viking deity Thor swings his enchanted hammer off the page, and for a finale, the Aztec plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl slithers with springing action. The sublimest surprises in the book , though, are the unsuspecting insets; see the light come into the eyes of Sun-Wukong, the legendary Chinese Monkey-King, and the twelve labors of Hercules revealing themselves in succession with the pull of a tab by some absolutely genius paper mechanism, well, that just plain runs the arrow right off of the oo-ahh-o-meter, a wholly fresh effect that to my mind is worth the price of the entire book. Pair with the masterful classic must-have, D'AULAIRES' BOOK OF GREEK MYTHS (seriously, high school teachers, please share these with your classes as well...big kids like pictures, too). (8 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
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Monday, January 18, 2010


ALA Youth Media Awards were announced this morning! It's like the Oscars for the American children's book world. And the winners are...

Newbery (for writing)
WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead (Random House)
CLAUDETTE COLVIN: TWICE TOWARD JUSTICE by Philip M. Hoose (Farrar Straus Giroux)
THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE by Jacqueline Tate (Henry Holt)
THE MOSTLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF HOMER P. FIGG by Rodman Philbrick (Scholastic)

Caldecott (for illustration)
THE LION & THE MOUSE by Jerry Pinkney (Little, Brown)
ALL THE WORLD by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane)
RED SINGS FROM TREETOPS by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski (Houghton Mifflin)

Sibert (for nonfiction)
ALMOST ASTRONAUTS by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick)
THE DAY-GLO BROTHERS by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tony Persiani (Charlesbridge)
MOONSHOT: THE FLIGHT OF APOLLO 11 by Brian Floca (Atheneum)
CLAUDETTE COLVIN: TWICE TOWARD JUSTICE by Philip M. Hoose (Farrar Straus Giroux)

Complete list of awards awards announced here, including the Coretta Scott King (congrats to Walter Dean Myers for lifetime achievement, great news!), Pura Belpré, Prinz and Geisel.

Apart from the usual robberies (ugh, never enough good to go around, it seems!), I'm generally pleased with this year's picks, largely honing in on titles with young readers in mind (read: humor and lightness of spirit), always a positive in a children's book award yet not to be taken for granted. I was especially happy to see some poetry represented, as well as new talent, strong female protagonists and subjects, a cross-section of publishers and some multicultural representation. I was also pleased to see five of these winners predicted here on PlanetEsme, plus two more reviewed here in the year. Still the place to be for the cutting edge of children's lit, ha-ha!

Feel free to celebrate or vent in the comments section.


A POP-UP BOOK OF NURSERY RHYMES by Matthew Reinhart (Little Simon) One of the masters of the movable book puts some spring in the step of classic verse with scenes that are as much sculpture as illustration. Besides the dramatic pop-up splays on every spread, a bevy of insets brim with small surprises such as a black sheep that transforms into three bags full of wool before our eyes, a tiger caught by the toe who really gives jumping off the page a college try, and some glittering lenticular stars to wish upon. The palette borders on the nursery-friendly pastel, but is bumped up with eye-catching saturation, texture and color bleed. The conundrum with this book is that although the rhymes are meant for children so young that the lilt of language is novel, the pages (albeit sturdy for a pop-up and without the nefarious yank-able pull tabs that so often raise pop-up mortality rates) are still relatively delicate for baby hands. Fans looking for a more traditional-to-tear collection should check out Iona Opie and Rosemary Wells' impeccable MY VERY FIRST MOTHER GOOSE and HERE COMES MOTHER GOOSE, but Reinhart's less conventional treatment should not be dismissed. It makes for a shower gift with a wow factor that will surely be treasured if it survives to become a keepsake ,or otherwise enjoyed by baby for however long. Better yet, sock it to the slightly older sibling surrounded by new baby things; he or she can read it aloud to the new arrival (you can never start too young!), or add it as a cunning addition to preschool storytimes with small groups who can always use a little nursery rhyme refresher. There have been concerns that some young children these days aren't familiar with them at all (see here and here). Ah, if only all problems were as easy to fix as patting a cake, rock-a-bye-ing a baby or opening a lovely book. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
Mother Goose goes grown-up.
Hey diddle whaaaa...? Find out what those guys were smoking when they wrote those crazy rhymes. Who knew that "Jack, Be Nimble" was about yellow fever? Is there really a fair (but unfortunate) maiden trapped inside of "London Bridge"? Why is "What are Little Boys Made Of" possibly an author's worst nightmare? Through legend, theory, and lots of history, we discover "Goosie, Goosie Gander" concealing the secrets of the church, "Humpty Dumpty" the nickname for a war cannon that sent British troops scrambling, and "Higgledy Piggledy, My Black Hen" skirting enough skank to suit a gangsta rap. There are five explanations for "Jack and Jill," each more interesting than the last...which do you believe? In fact, these vignettes behind the verse are insightful, accessible and engaging, and reveal why these ditties have endured: they can be appreciated on so many levels. Any adult children's book enthusiast will find these stories useful, both for scholarly purposes and great party conversation (especially if you party with preschool teachers and librarians). (Which I do.)


We are hours away from the announcements of the highly publicized, heavy-hitting Youth Media Awards given by the American Library Association (ALA), including the famous Caldecott (for illustration) and Newbery (for writing) as well as many other notable commendations. Unlike other years where books like Kate DiCanmillo's TALE OF DESPERAUX or Brian Selznick's THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET seemed to lead the race early on, this year feels like anyone could take the gold. Though picture books rarely win for the Newbery, I am still rooting for ONCE UPON A TWICE by Denise Doyen, which I do think meets the criteria for a distinguished contribution, and writing a perfect picture book text can certainly be considered as big of an achievement as writing a novel. I can dream, can't I? I really don't see any reason why Mordicai Gerstein's latest book, A BOOK shouldn't win the Caldecott, unless the committee is tired of giving him prizes even when he deserves them. Also getting Caldecott buzz is Peter Brown's THE CURIOUS GARDEN by Peter Brown, THE LION AND THE MOUSE by Jerry Pinkney, DUCK! RABBIT! by Amy Krause Rosenthal, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, but who knows, maybe a woman will take it this year, like Antoinette Portis for A PENGUIN STORY, or Taeeyun Yoo for ONLY A WITCH CAN FLY by Alison McGhee (I love it when holiday books win prizes); plus, you can still buy affordable gorgeous digital prints by the artist on Etsy, sure to be a coup on Antiques Road Show in the future and a delight in the present. There has been a lot of buzz around Grace Lin's WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON for the Newbery, and Lin is an author who is very easy to root for, being such a positive presence in the world of children's literature, though the popular novel for slightly older readers WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead is bound to give it a run for its money, as will the debut novel THE YEAR THE SWALLOWS CAME EARLY by Kathryn Fitzmaurice, a new author in full flight, but I'm also rooting for THE SMALL ADVENTURE OF POPEYE AND ELVIS by Barbara O'Connor, who is a long-time author of realistic fiction that children really enjoy. I think there have also been some really outstanding nonfiction books out this year: YOU NEVER HEARD OF SANDY KOUFAX by Jonah Winter and Andre Carrilho (definitely should be a Caldecott contender if the committee has done their homework), Kathryn Lasky's ONE BEETLE TOO MANY certainly seems worthy of a Sibert nod (or will it be CHARLES AND EMMA: THE DARWINS' LEAP OF FAITH by Deborah Heiligman? Or Jacqueline Kelly's THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE, a Newbery-caliber novel with some nonfiction footing? Darwin's so hot right now...and so are new authors!). Candace Fleming, one of the hardest working nonfiction writers in show (or book) business might finally find herself in the center ring for THE GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM. REDWOODS by Jason Chin is a tall glass of excellent in a way that's hard to dispute, and I'll eat my gross frozen astronaut ice-cream if Tanya Lee Stone doesn't moon-land some sort of major accolade for ALMOST ASTRONAUTS: 13 WOMEN WHO DARE TO DREAM. One of my favorite books this year was A WHIFF OF PINE, A HINT OF SKUNK by Deborah Ruddell, illustrated by Joan Rankin; though poetry's always a long shot and this one's a bit of a sleeper in the bunny-eat-bunny world of children's books, I'd be very happy if this one enjoyed the sweet smell of commercial success.

Predictions and arguments always seem to be a major element of these ALA awards, but from a kid's eye view I think it's not as fun having a winner chosen for you as getting to read and decide for yourself what's the best! That's why it's hard to beat the Mock Caldecott and Mock Newbery at the Allen County Public Library, featuring a discussion blog that gives the process a special lifeblood. I have followed these lists for years and find the tastes of Allen County more compatible with mine even than the real awards, as children are deeply involved in the process (imagine that!). The list of nominations is a very valuable for young readers and all lovers of children's literature, worth exploring all year and any year.

The Sydney Taylor Awards were just recently announced, which is kind of like the Jewish Newbery and Caldecott. As the saying goes, "you don't have to be Jewish" to enjoy the thoughtful picks by the Association of Jewish Libraries, an organization made up of professionals who aren't afraid to debate tooth and nail to determine the best of the best (go see for yourself sometime at the sessions of their annual conference if you get a chance, the spirited conversations about books that happen there are some of the best I've heard in the industry), so winning a Sydney Taylor is an honor indeed. I was especially excited to see that the lovely NEW YEAR AT THE PIER: A ROSH HASHANAH STORY by April Halprin Wayland, illustrated by Stephane Jorisch (Dial) took the gold for young readers.

Last but certainly not least, there are the Cybils (tra-laaaa!) the amazing Children's and Young Adult Blogger's Awards, with picks nominated by dedicated and passionate children's book reviewers from the farthest reaches of the Kidlitosphere. The timely lists of nominations are just as important as the winners when creating collections and knowing what's out and notable in a given year. The Cybils cover a comprehensive gamut of genres and represent a broad range of reading abilities. These awards have a unique energy, and even though there are winners the process seems more inclusive than exclusive, both of creative artists and readers in general. The public benefits of nomination is another opportunity for authors and illustrators to gain viable exposure in the marketplace, and a chance for readers everywhere to shout, "hey, that's a good book!" This transparency of process and assured exposure for many types and reading levels of children's books is a virtue that is sacrificed by ALA awards in the interest, I suppose, of avoiding outside influence, though the Newbery and Caldecott continues to provide a nice overview of the timeline of children's literature. It just goes to show how a variety of awards are necessary to draw the big picture and tell a whole story, and a variety of books in our culture does the same.

Whoever wins awards, you can find a place to make your vote count, and no book is a bigger winner than the one that connects with an individual child and opens to the first chapter of a lifelong love of reading.

Annual "PlanetEsme Picks" list coming soon, as well as some predictions about the future of children's books in general for your consideration and debate. Stay tuned!

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

Thursday, January 14, 2010


This page-a-day book feels like getting to peek at the genius scribblings on napkins or the secret "stuff drawers" from the desks of two brilliant authors (and husband/wife team), with a little goodie to pull out for every day of the year. Highly conceptual, each page contains the date (without a year named), a quote taken from children's literature, a brief reflection on the quote and a sort of junior "self help" suggestion for the reader's improvement or affirmation. Each page is decorated with a cheerful, doodly line drawing, adding to the personal feel of a journal.

That it is in part a book of quotes taken from children's books already qualifies this as a gem ("When you're exploring, the best this is that you don't know what's coming next. That's the most frightening this, too," from Gloria Whelan's Where the Berries Should Grow; "Nine times out of ten, talking is a way of avoiding things," from Patricia Wrede's Dealing with Dragons; "It's a funny thing about parents. You think you know them pretty well and then one day they let something slip and you see them in a brand-new light" from Orwell's Luck by Richard Jennings), some of the quotes don't pack a punch out of context. "I would like a drink of water, Esther. I am thirsty," from Virginia Sorenson's Plain Girl or "'She started it,' Jack said," from The Rudest Alien on Earth by Jane Leslie Conly, for instance, are not chosen for the purpose of standing alone, but rather as a springboard device as a "thought for the day" format. An example: using the quote from John H. Ritter The Boy Who Saved Baseball, "Tom had hoped today would be as ordinary as possible," the authors riff on the perils of the word "boring" and concludes: "Today may be ordinary, but that doesn't mean it has to be boring, not if I find the extraordinary within it. And anyway, who am I to blame the day? Is it the day that's boring--or me?"

Though such a project runs the risk at times of being pedantic, it offers is a chance for children to be contemplative, and provides advice and positive direction during a prickly tweenage time when the voice of parents begins to mush into a Charlie-Brown's-Mother-like "mwah-wha-wha-wha." As a mentor text, children can follow the format themselves, writing a thought of the day using a favorite line of a children's book as a point of conversation and inspiration. Best of all, readers will love recognizing some of their favorite authors and books inside these pages, and are bound to discover some new titles to explore. This is a very personal book that will likewise peak to each young person in a very personal way. And on that personal note, I was very flattered to discover that a quote from one of my books was included! Which one? Read it and see! (9 and up)

Also of interest:
2010, we've only just begun! Here's another book in which the calendar format holds treasure.
This beautiful book is a list of birth dates, each day of the year followed by the name of a famous and accomplished person and a quote from that person. April 28, Harper Lee: "Before I live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide majority rule is a person's conscience." April 29, Duke Ellington: "A problem is a chance to do your best." February 24, Steve Jobs: "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower." July 3, Franz Kafka: "A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us." And today, January 14, L.L. Cool J: "I think when you move past the fear and go after your dreams wholeheartedly, you become free. Know what I'm saying? Move past the fear." With such a breadth of personalities represented, naturally, some will be more to an individual's taste than others, and some quips are more geared for young adults,. Even though the claim of "greatest" quotes may be subjective, with so much food for thought, an equally broad audience is likely to find something to either munch on or discuss. A gold foil cover, striking woodblock portraits and pages framed in subtle patterns are all gorgeous and well-designed. Brief biographical notes are included in the back of the book. What a wonderful opportunity to hear the voices of luminaries throughout history, encouraging and enlightening us today! A beautiful gift for special occasions and rites of passage, it's also a helpful resource for teachers looking for something snazzy to put on the board in the morning. (10 and up)

Speaking of teachers (and I mean homeschoolers, too!), I hope everyone has their most recent possible copy of THE TEACHER'S CALENDAR: THE DAY-BY-DAY ALMANAC OF HISTORIC EVENTS, HOLIDAYS, FAMOUS BIRTHDAYS AND MORE! Otherwise, how will you know when it's National Pig Day? When Mo Willems' birthday falls? When the Boston Tea party happened? When the next big comet will pass near the earth? This treasure trove of fun facts throughout the year makes every day a reason for celebration.

On a personal note: Haiti
Cric? Crac!
It's a call and response. Cric? The storyteller is asking, do you want to hear a story?
say the listeners. Yes, now!

But what a sad story, the saddest in all the world, comes now from a land of sublime story sharers. Though it seems so small to say in the face of such catastrophe, heartfelt condolences and wishes for healing to Haiti, the Haitian-American community, the peace workers of all nationalities who live and lived there, and to all who have suffered such untold losses through friends and family over these past few days. I also send my special prayers to the families of the Haitian children I taught in the Chicago Public Schools. I am so sorry this has happened.

Though children in our country are now are seeing so many images of distress and hearing much about the Haiti's poverty, this is an opportunity to share and embrace with them the richness of the culture and the beauty of the people, inside and out. My favorite collection of Haitian folktales is by far THE MAGIC ORANGE TREE by Diane Wolkstein (Schocken), a collection of exciting (and sometimes scary) short stories often with a fairy tale feel, meant for retelling. Images of the island come to life in the picture book joy ride to market in TAP-TAP by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Catherine Stock (Clarion), and by the same author is CIRCLES OF HOPE illustrated by Linda Saport (Eerdmans), a story with simple and affecting illustrations centering on the Haitian tradition of planting a fruit tree when a child is born. PLEASE, MALESE by Emily MacDonald, illustrated by Emily Lisker (Farrar, Starus and Giroux) is a neighborly trickster tale that features tropical touches and many clever twists; it is sadly out of print, but available used and in libraries. Also check out SÉLAVI, THAT IS LIFE: A HAITIAN STORY OF HOPE by Youme Landowne (Cinco Puntos Press), a sad but hopeful story of homeless children's involvement in the creation of a local radio station by and for children. This is a pretty rough read for sensitive young people, but with notes by the well-regarded, award-winning author Edwidge Danticat, it offers some historical knowledge about the sociopolitical situation in Haiti that may be a special boon as background knowledge to educators. Speaking of non-fiction, OPEN THE DOOR TO LIBERTY!: A BIOGRAPHY OF TOUSSAINT L'OUVERTURE by Anne Rockwell (Houghton Mifflin) is an outstanding biography for children 9 and up about the revolutionary leader who helped bring slaves on the island to freedom and form the nation we now know as Haiti; the elegant paintings throughout by R. Gregory Christie are nothing short of magnifique.

All of these stories celebrate resiliency, creative problem-solving, family and community, and through these themes, there is the promise of the country's rebirth. So even in the face of tragedy:

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

Thursday, January 07, 2010


I AND I by Tony Medina, illustrated by Jesse Watson (Lee and Low)
Each note I play
Each song I sing
Freedom coming
From my guitar string

It was predicted that Bob Marley, the "one kissed/By three little birds/As a baby chile" would be a soothsayer, a fortune teller, a prophet, but ultimately he created a future by using lines of music instead of lines in a palm. In the free verse form the author used so effectively to tell a life story in LOVE TO LANGSTON, readers are carried from Nine Miles, Jamaica, to the streets of Kingston, lonely to the little boy who had been taken from his mother, and then returned for a childhood in the impoverished Trenchtown. Young "Tuff Gong" rises to the challenge of finding a better way, and we are privy to his awakening:

When I hear
The blues man's
Moans wailing
Through the radio
I hear a slave ship
My people down below...
I come from all
Of this
And there's much
More I need
To know...
I want to make songs
As pure and clear
As water
To help my people grow

The elegant, episodic poems are at times cryptic out of the context of real life, but the author scaffolds them with detailed notes for each poem at the end of the book, creating a comprehensive bonus biography that includes information about Rastafarianism, Reggae, Jamaican history and Marley's role in transforming people's attitudes during a violent climate. Whether read in biographical detail, interpreted as a testament to the transformational power of music or simply enjoyed as a true story of a little boy who came up well on the rough side of the road, this pick is a standout that can be enjoyed at whatever level the child is ready, though a few rounds of of Marley's music is a prerequisite (LEGEND is a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with the repetoire). Mmmph, no small order creating a book to pair with the sweet sway of "Stir it Up," "Lively Up Yourself" or the driving rhythmic throng of "Exodus," but no reader, no cry; heavy layers of paint have a muscular quality, awash in reds, greens, golds and browns, exuding a calm artistic confidence with packaging reminiscent of early collaborations by Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier such as JOHN'S SECRET DREAMS and MARTIN'S BIG WORDS.

And what does the title mean? The author explains that within Jamaican grammar, "I and I" can refer to the unity of a higher power and every human "meaning...we are all one people, equal...[it] can also mean 'we' instead of merely 'I.' It discourages thinking of oneself solely as an individual but instead as part of a community." One love! Jah love! Book love. (8 and up)

Also of interest:
At the risk of being presumptuous, what titles might have caught Marley's eye while perusing the shelves of children's literature? Here are some recent and classic children's books on the subjects of peace, progress, and creative ends to conflict.

AFTER GANDHI: ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF NONVIOLENT RESISTANCE by Anne Silbey O'Brien and Perry Edmond O'Brien (Charlesbridge)

"We shall meet your physical force with soul force." -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This book looks and feels unusual, sparsely illustrated with scenes and portraits in charcoal, text framed in wide margins, resonant quotes standing against red backgrounds, the paper cream colored and almost rough. There are names that are familiar (Rosa Parks, Desmond Tutu, Tiananamen Square), but these pages are used to introduce young people to people and points in history that they might not encounter in traditional schooling, such as The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the sacrifices of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, "The Troubles"" in Northern Ireland, the "Stolen Generation" of Aborignes in Australia, and descriptions of the terrible disappearances of children in Argentina that led to the unfathomable bravery of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. For a book about peace, the activist authors don't pull any punches, and this powerful descriptive writing style is definitely a pick for older children. Terrifying and shameful circumstances have inspired brave reactions by citizens of the world, and all citizens of the world need and deserve to know about them, but these vignettes somberly underscore what Katherine Paterson, our new Ambassador of Children's Literature, reminded us years ago: "plowshares demand more of us than swords." (12 and up)

PEACEFUL HEROES by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sean Addy (Scholastic) Again, we find a multicultural mix of the well-known (Jesus, Sojourner Truth, Clara Barton, Gandhi) and the deserve-to-be-known (Ginetta Saganin of WWII Italy, Paul Ruseabagina in Rwanda, Marla Ruzicka working in Iraq, and a poignant closing portrait with William Feehan, a firefighter at the World Trade Center on 9/11). Each of the fourteen figures gets a three page portrait written in a very personal voice, guiding readers like a teacher summarizing the lives of people who work for the betterment of others. Though the book's passion and editing could use some tightening to avoid tripping over itself (for instance, the sentence "imagine a world in which women and girls were strongly discouraged from going to school and schools admitting girls were burned down on a regular basis" suggested to some young listeners that the girls were burned down and the schools admitted it), but the choices are powerful and accented gorgeously with collage portraits that capture both the time period and the spirit of each subject. We learn that peaceful spirits are varied, and, as we imagine angels might be, they are everywhere. (7 and up)

IF AMERICA WERE A VILLAGE by David J. Smith, illustrated by Shelagh Armstrong (Kids Can Press) A close-to-home follow-up to the perspective-inducing IF THE WORLD WERE A VILLAGE, children are invited to consider our country as if it were a village of a hundred people. What are our families like? What languages do we speak? What religions do we practice? What work do we do? Where do we come from, and where do we live? How wealthy are we? What do we own? (In a village of a hundred, for example, we have 81 cars, 76 computers, 74 televisions and 73 cell phones). This interesting census makes big concepts palpable, and also makes us see that every person counts. (7 and up)

TRUCE by Jim Murphy (Scholastic) Using primary sources of diaries and letters to create detailed and compelling narrative, Murphy carries readers to the scene of the extraordinary ceasefire on December 25, 1914, when soldiers in the trenches of WWI openly defied their commanding officers and lay down their guns to break bread and play sports with their "enemies" on Christmas. Reminiscent of the pause button in the war between Biafra and Nigeria that was pressed for a two-day truce so combatants could watch Pele play soccer, this book documents the potential for peace, however heartbreaking it was that the peace was short-lived, and, as some may argue, had to be. "At the very least, the Christmas Truce of WWI demonstrated that the combatants were more alike than offered reassurance and hope that a kinder, humane spirit could prevail amid the horrible brutality of war." This two time Newbery award-winning author consistently produces books that all deserve a place on a non-fiction lover's shelf, and his latest is yet another selection worthy of his reputation, as well as worthy of contemplation and discussion. (10 and up)

WANGARI'S TREES OF PEACE by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt) This author's nonfiction is often dedicated to portraits of everyday people who make big differences with acts of kindness, art and general compassion (NASREEN'S SECRET SCHOOL, THE LIBRARIAN OF BASRA) so naturally, she honed in on the life of Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Prize winning arborist who transformed her environmentally abused homeland in Kenya from a wasteland to a growing ground for over thirty million trees. Joined by an army of women who embraced her Green Belt Movement, Wangari takes some literal hard knocks from the government en route to her success. The illustration and telling are deceptively simple, but never dishonest; red paint points out the brutality against her, and especially moving is the picture of her in a jail cell: "And still she stands tall. Right is right, even if you're alone." Wangari's story has received treatment in other children's books: the subtle, sweeping PLANTING THE TREES OF KENYA by Claire A. Nivola (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) that captures the landscape (you must see the stirring double page spread of the line of women coming to help) and the brand new and visually stunning MAMA MITI: WANGARI MAATHAI AND THE TREES OF KENYA by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Simon & Schuster), yes, I said genius Kadir Nelson, so you need it, and he's trying out a new style of collage using all sorts of wonderful textile patterns, so you double-need-it, and Napoli's language is beautiful, so you triple-need-it. Can't choose? Get them all, and allow children to compare and contrast the treatments. Them, when a tree falls in Wangari's forest or any forest at all, all the children will hear it. (7 and up)

Some oldies but goodies about philanthropic power are ONE HEN: HOW ONE SMALL LOAN MADE A BIG DIFFERENCE by Katie Smith Milway (Kids Can Press) and RYAN AND JIMMY AND THE WELL IN AFRICA THAT BROUGHT THEM TOGETHER by Herb Shoveller (Kids Can Press). There is tremendous inspiration and motivation to do good in one of my all-time favorite non-fiction read-alouds, THE DOGGY DUNG DISASTER & OTHER TRUE STORIES: REGULAR KIDS DOING HEROIC THINGS AROUND THE WORLD by Garth Sundem (Free Spirit). Check out Don Brown's brilliant KID BLINK BEARS THE WORLD, the applause-worthy true story of a young union organizer, along with Russell Freedman's KIDS AT WORK, Elizabeth Winthrop's novel about child labor, COUNTING ON GRACE, and children 12 and up can know the sad true story of the boy who tried to organize exploited child carpet weavers, IQBAL by Francesco D'Amado. On the subject of war and peace, there are picture books such as Ed and Barbara Emberley's classic Caldecott winner DRUMMER HOFF, Anita Lobel's thoughtful POTATOES, POTATOES, Vladmir Radunsky's irreverent but true MANNEKIN PIS: A SIMPLE STORY OF A BOY WHO PEED ON A WAR, Shel Silverstein's enduring LAFCADIO, THE LION WHO SHOT BACK, and the masterful children's animated film, THE IRON GIANT, based on the book by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes (married to Sylvia Plath, incidentally). Kimberly Willis Holt's PIPER REED: NAVY BRAT is a fun fictional early reader series describing the everyday life of a little girl living on military bases, and Maira Kalman's visually exceptional FIREBOAT: THE HEROIC ADVENTURES OF THE JOHN J. HARVEY probably deserved more awards than it got the year of its release, but I think committees were afraid to touch it; recounting the events of 9/11, it brings to mind the advice given by Fred Rogers' mother when he saw scary things: "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." (Fred Rogers is my favorite peaceful hero.)

On a personal note
: Books about war and peace for children
In our lives as adults, we determine things that are worth fighting for. Children observe our conflicts. In the development of intermediate aged children (8 and up), as they become more attuned to problems that exist, it is important that they see possible avenues toward solving problems. Children themselves are divergent thinkers, and can come up with original solutions that deserve to be taken seriously. They must have opportunities to view themselves as capable of meeting challenges, or they can become frustrated, frightened and/or pessimistic (says Erikson). It's ironic that the time children are most likely to begin to become aware of the hugeness of the world's monumental problems is the time when it is so imperative that they feel industrious. They need our support, and the support of good literature; examples of individuals who can overcome huge odds and serve as vicarious successes, people that, as Kipling would have put it, "keep their heads when those around are losing theirs" to bolster them in their efforts to shape the world.

And the world of a child is shaped like a family. In my observations, children want nothing better than to have a family (however that is defined within a given household) intact, safe and out of poverty, and as they decenter and think of others, they can appreciate that children all over the world want the same thing. Children show solidarity in this aim when given the opportunity, whether family members are serving in the military, advocating for issues at home, or, likely, some combination of such participants in their own circle. Whatever is going on in the world of grown-ups and whatever conversations or opinions are aired, goals and wishes of serenity, security, love and unity in the home remains penultimate to children and they see the fairness in that all of their cohorts are so deserving. And so the little child shall lead them...

While some books may be accused of stylistic stridency and wordiness in their call to peace (and some rightly so), let's view the topics of military presence, war and peace in this context of developmental experience. Textbook teaching to which children are largely and traditionally exposed has a long history of following the timeline of war, and what coin of any value has only one side? It's worthwhile to appreciate there is a timeline of peace as well, as hard-earned and worthy of knowing, with narratives necessary for an informed, imaginative and truly democratic citizenry.

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