Wednesday, March 28, 2007


DIFFERENT LIKE COCO by Elizabeth Matthews (Candlewick)

I get a lot of fashion advice from the children I work with. "Black is for women who don't know what else to wear," I was informed by a third grader while primping at a mirror in the girls' bathroom. "Haven't I seen you in that dress before?" A second grade fashion savant squinted at me speculatively in the hall.

It is for these children that this picture book biography was designed. The story of Coco Chanel's beginning is bleak: a poor Parisian, she was orphaned, separated from siblings and sent to a convent where she got her first taste of no-frills fashion in a serious way. An idiosynchractic child, she designed lovely clothes for her friends' dolls and stuck her nose in the air at mealtime, comporting herself like the arrogant young ladies who paid for their tuition while she sat at the second rate table. "She always believed she deserved more. She loved to read cheap romance novels and rarely told the truth. She constantly rearranged and romanticized the facts of her life story." Like Chanel's lines, the writer's lines are sparse and taut and direct, and the pictures adds droll elegance with a thin line that befits Chanel's famous trim figure. Her determination and hard work, both as a seamstress and a social climber, scored her a boutique where she designed the practical, protocol-smashing styles that became the gear of the modern sportswoman. To paraphrase recording artist Pink, "nobody ever got famous by trying to be somebody else," and indeed Chanel's differences were the keys to her rags-to-riches success. Her distinctive style and attitude went beyond anything that money could buy, and indeed, when children close this book, they are sure to have renewed faith that it is cool to be different, and they will ultimately be celebrated for being themselves. An idea that will never go out of style! (7 and up)

Also of interest:
The Devil may wear Prada, but he reads picture books. Probably ones like these!:

HALIBUT JACKSON by David Lucas (Andersen Press)
Move over, Vera Wang! Halibut Jackson is piecing together fabulous suits that camoflauge the shy designer in all settings: see if you can spot his apple-covered fedora in the produce section, his flowery frock in the city park, and oh, dahhling, his shelf-of-books suit that he wears to the library is simply to die for! When the queen invites Halibut to a palace party, he pulls out all the stops in order to disguise himself admist the grand surroundings, but a change in backdrop to the garden threatens to reveal this wallflower for the rose he is! Theis gentle, charming book, like its main character, deserves to be noticed. Whimsical, swirling illustrations bring to mind the marvels of Beni Montresor (of Caldecott-winning MAY I BRING A FRIEND? fame). How about an after-storytime fashion show of invented vests made from paper grocery bags? The catwalk will never be the same. (5 and up)

THE KETTLES GET NEW CLOTHES by Dayle Ann Dodds, illustrated by Jill McElmurry (Candlewick)
The canine Kettles are out for their annual clothes-shopping jaunt. What will it be this year? Paisley? Plaids? Stripes? Checks? Dots? Each exit from the dressing room reveals some confounding haute-couture that will leave read-aloud audiences laughing. Terrier salesman Monsieur Pip does not give up despite the Kettles' propensity for the plain, and there is hope yet as the baby Kettle delights in the more outlandish fashions. The colorful matte illustrations and broad double-page spreads with dividers that match the clothes are very fetching. (5 and up)

DO YOU HAVE A HAT? by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Geraldo Valerio (Simon & Schuster)
Do you have a hat? Well, you�d better get one, because it seems that anyone who was anyone has had a hat! "Francisco deGoya had a hat,/with candles on the brim," "Igor Stravinsky had a hat,/a tattered, battered green beret," "Isabelle of Bavaria had a hat, a cone shaped hat so very high, it poked a gargoyle in the eye…" and on and on we go, being introduced in a lively way to a wonderful parade of personalities from history and their chapeaus, inviting the reader to join in this long and illustrious line of fashionistas! The meter of the couplets are lively and fresh and fun to read, and bright illustrations with no shortage of smiling faces compliments the text. The combination of information and primary-level bouncery makes this book a sophisticated standout that neither talks down to children or leaves them in the dust, but will fit their heads just right. (4 and up)

Anyone who has ever argued with a little girl over what attire to wear to school in the morning absolutely needs to get their opera-gloved hands on a copy of the sadly out-of-print LOTTIE'S PRINCESS DRESS by Doris Dorrie, illustrated by Julia Kaergel (Dial)
in which a savvy fashionista negotiates the right to her couture with a rushing mother. (4 and up)

Last but far from least, there's the deserves-its-best-selling-status FANCY NANCY by Jane O'Connor, ilustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (HarperCollins). Nancy loves the color fuschia, lace-trimmed socks, tiaras, French accents and frilly toothpicks. In short, this little sister is f-a-n-c-y FANCY, and she's generously willing to share her expertise in private lessons. After a creative makeover that does Queer Eye proud, her blasé family's looking better by the minute! But when an embarassing mishap occurs involving spilled parfaits in a restaurant, Fancy Nancy may need some plain old love. Strong character voice puts Nancy at the tea-party table with characters like Eloise and Olivia. Sporting a cover appropriately bedeckled in pink glitter and curly-swirly illustrations brimming with accessories (of course), this book is as delightful as a cupcake with extra sprinkles and a must-must-must for your favorite fancy girl. (4 and up)

On a personal note:
Though I may be wearing black or a dress you've seen before, I hope if you are in the Kansas City, Missouri area this weekend you will come see me in the company of several amazing authors at the DNA Children's Literature Festival, sponsored by the legendary and irreverent independent bookseller, Reading Reptile! Visit their website for times and tickets...and a pretty rocking animation clip of Tomie dePaola in a wrestling deathmatch with Maurice Sendak! Now, children's booklover, you have seen almost everything.

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


HOW TO STEAL A DOG by Barbara O'Connor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Georgina is frustrated about living in a car. Her clothes are wrinkled, her hair is matted, and she has to eat tuna sandwiches from out of an ice cooler. She can't play with friends after school since she has to keep an eye on her little brother, and stretching out on a real bed seems like a distant dream. Even with her mother working two jobs since her daddy left, there just doesn't seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. But when Georgina spies a "lost dog" sign that offers a reward, she carefully calculates a scheme to snag a canine and hide it until a reward is offered. This misadventure requires a lot of planning, and Georgina writes down her steps meticulously, but forgets big-picture items that the dog will need like water and exercise. Her nagging conscience gets eager back-up from her little brother Toby, a philosophical homeless man named Mookie, and even the raised eyebrow of the trusting pup seems to ask, "are you kidding?" Georgina's bad choices come to a head as she gets to know the dog's heartbroken owner, realizing that her first impressions were off-base and that money doesn't come easily to anyone. Can she make things right before it's too late?

Several titles came to mind when reading this book. The characters from HOW TO STEAL A DOG seemed to be from from the same quirky school as Kate DiCamillo's BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE and the moral dilemma is a cousin to the one introduced in Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's brilliant modern dog novel SHILOH. Teachers will find that these three titles make for a mighty literature circle trio. However, the astringent quality of the situation reminded me most of all of Lee Bennett Hopkins' sadly out-of-print character study MAMA, in which a son is asked to be a party to his desperate mother's shoplifting excursions. Both Hopkins and O'Connors raise the question of whether circumstances warrant (or even excuse) actions, and bravely explore what happens when a parent's best efforts fall short. O'Connor's craft is still emerging, and the questions we sense her examining as an author are the same questions that will make for dynamic discussion. What should go next on Georgina's master list? What could the consequences of her actions be, how far can she take it before everything falls apart? Why is she so angry at her mother when the father is the one who left? How are Georgina's choices unsafe? With a special talent for capturing the urgency of situations from the perspective of young people (like the intense spelling bee with a spotlight on an underachieving student in her wonderful novel FAME AND GLORY IN FREEDOM, GEORGIA) and the poignancy of being lower-income in one of the richest countries in the world, O'Connor's books are consistently compelling. Realistic fiction that elicits nail-biting is a tough trick, so reluctant readers will be grateful for her gift. And with 39% of children in America (over 28 million) living in low income families and surviving day-to-day, there is certainly an ever wider audience out there that will appreciate Georgina's family's all-too-familiar struggle. (9 and up)

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

Thursday, March 22, 2007


HERE'S A LITTLE POEM: A VERY FIRST BOOK OF POETRY by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, illustrated by Polly Dunbar (Candlewick)
Imagine you wake up one sunny morning and someone brings you a plate, only instead of holding scrambled eggs, you are served up a dish piled high with more than sixy little presents to unwrap, each one more lovely and surprising than the last. That's what's being served up in this oversized collection of bright spots in a young child's life. From a traditional British Street Rhyme ("Happy birthday to you!/Squashed tomatoes and stew!/Bread and butter/In the gutter/Happy birthday to you!") to my new favorite poem by Andrew Fusek Peters, "The NO-NO Bird" ("I'm the no-no bird,/that's right, that's me. /I live up in/The Tantrum tree") the selections are seasoned generously with flavors both silly and sweet. The illustrations are every bit as delightful as the verse, from the perfectly pregnant mommy whose midsection seems to be sticking out three feet to the grandpa with adoring children coming out of his pockets to the family making music together that practically sings off the page. Children riding choo-choos! Playing in puddles! Getting snuggly bedtime cuddles! Babies in baths, toddlers swinging from trees! Children in teacups! Climbing up knees! You'll find the spirit of poetry contagious in this most recitable preschool collection since Mother Goose, and yes, I know that's saying a lot, but how often do you find a book that makes you hold your breath just a little bit before you turn the page? Though the themes may not be new, the exuberance is fresh as fruit. Polly Dunbar's figures all take on the rosy, contented glow of children who have just come in from hard play; I'd even hazard to say that Dunbar's broad happiness emotionally achieves a level comparable to the legendary Rosemary Wells (Wells herself gets a nod with the inclusion of her delightful poem, "Your Birthday Cake").

Exceptional selections in an order so perfect it's rivaled only perhaps by the Beatles' White Album go far to underscore not only the art of the poem, but the art of the anthology. This one belongs in every nursery, on every baby shower gift list, and certainly on the shelf of anyone who loves great children's poetry and great illustration. (3 and up)

Also of interest:
More poems for the very young! Remember, big brothers and sisters like to read these aloud, too. Rhyme time is a family affair!
THE LLAMA WHO HAD NO PAJAMA: 100 FAVORITE POEMS by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Betty Fraser (Humorous and plentiful poems from a very gifted author are a perfect introduction to the form.)
MY VERY FIRST MOTHER GOOSE and HERE COMES MOTHER GOOSE edited by Iona Opie, ilustrated by Rosemary Wells. (As a duo, these are my all-time favorite collections of Mother Goose. Don't you want to really know what little boys are made of?)
WELCOME, BABY!: BABY RHYMES FOR BABY TIMES and GOOD FOR YOU!: TODDLER RHYMES FOR TODDLER TIMES, both by Stephanie Calmenson, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Collections that celebrate recognizable early childhood moments, and if you like Polly Dunbar's illustrations style, you'll enjoy Sweet's as well. Great gifts/collection additions for an early childhood educator.)
TALKING LIKE THE RAIN: A READ-TO-ME BOOK OF POEMS by X.J. and Dorothy Kennedy, illustrated very gracefully by Jane Dyer (This well-organized collection contains work by many classic poets that are accessible to the very young. X.J. Kennedy is such a talented poet hemiself, and it's exciting to see the kind of poems that might have inspired him. Paying it forward in the most beautiful way!)
You may also want to do a little legwork to the library or used bookstore to get some out-of-print treasures, like Clyde and Wendy Watson's unusually cozy and original collection FATHER FOX'S PENNYRHYMES that actually deserves to be in print forever, or the collection decorated by nine Caldecott artists, SING A SONG OF POPCORN, which includes poetry for both younger and older children.

Sharing poetry early on is a great way to introduce the lovely, musical qualities of language, making laptime or storytime all the more fun. Feel free to share your favorite "first" poetry books in the comments section!

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

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Oney Judge was considered "like another one of our children" according to the first First Lady Martha Washington, with a few exceptions: Oney would not be allowed to learn to read, to earn money, and would be denied the liberties of being a free citizen. George Washington planned to free the slaves he "owned" upon his death, but Martha Washington had no such intention. Martha was careful to make sure none of the slaves from her household stayed in Philadelphia for longer than six months, lest they be granted their freedom, and intended to trade her servants around, separating their families. Knowing this, her seamstress devised a plan to escape to New Hampshire, so that she could live with a free black family. But even as she tried to live her life independent of the Washingtons, a prideful Martha was hard pressed to give up machinations to get her back, especially once Oney had a baby that Martha considered her "property." Through the cooperation of many diverse allies, Oney repeatedly manages to give the big wigs the slip, but page after page we root for her to find the peace from flight she so deserves. This is a perfect example of a picture book for older kids, a story of injustice thwarted that is made all the more chilling by its basis in fact. (7 and up) Older audiences (11 and up) will want to check out a master of historical fiction's take on the situation, via Ann Rinaldi's TAKING LIBERTY.

Also of interest:
by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Scholastic). Being denied freedom upon the death of his master, and being separated from his wife and children, it seems Henry Brown has nothing else to lose. With the help of an abolitionist, he concocts a plan to mail himself to freedom in a wooden crate, which he manages to do after surviving a harrowing voyage. This amazing true story pulls no punches when it comes to the pain this main endured before his decision to escape in this daring and dangerous manner, or the hope that managed to survive in this remarkable man's heart, even after all the unthinkable adversity he experienced. I don't think I could ever love any of Kadir Nelson's illustrations more than I did in ELLINGTON WAS NOT A STREET by Ntozake Shange, however, the power of the oil paintings in this latest offering is undeniable. (7 and up)

These latest releases from new, revisionist prespectives are so refreshing and well done. If you want more, try the unique series A HISTORY OF US (9 and up), which relies on primary sources and makes history read like the narrative that it is. Whether or not you agree with all the points of view presented in these provocative books, the series creates a wonderful arena for discussion and reflection, and will help to create the kind of thinkers that will cast a skeptical eye to media...the kind of thinkers the generation coming up will need to be. Basically, these are the social studies textbooks you wished you had as a kid; how nice that our kids can have them!

And one last thought, on a personal note:
I was recently at a conference where books were being sold, and I was at a luncheon table with a woman who was showing me the purchases she had made. Among them was HENRY'S FREEDOM BOX. "I have an African American child in my class," she explained. On the one hand, I think it is wonderful that such books that reflect African American history are available, that children can see themselves reflected in the literature (which hasn't always been the case for many races and ethnicities), and I was glad she made the purchase. But on the other hand, I was concerned, because I didn't understand the need for that somewhat self-conscious explanation. If she did not have an African-American child in her classroom, would she not have bought that book? Would it have been considered relevant? Are other purchases made with this criteria: does she look at the cover of a book about Abraham Lincoln or Eleanor Roosevelt and think, "this might work, I have a Caucasian kid in my class," or is that reserved for books that feature children of color? While I imagine her motive may have been noble and right, offering books that might represent the culture of her student, I think we have to be careful that it isn't the only occasion we add such titles to our collections. African American history is also American history, and its dissemination benefits all of our citizens...these are people and stories that all children in our country deserve to know, regardless of race or ethnicity. Teachers and parents, especially if you work or live in a homogenous school or community, you don't have to apologize or rationalize or explain when you buy a book that widens horizons and gives children the chance to vicariously meet people they would not or could not in their day-to-day lives. Recognize that you have a special opportunity, maybe even a responsibility to take integration another step from the classroom to the bookshelf. Be inclusive in your collection based on the excellence of the text and illustrations sooner than the race of the reader, and in this way, your collection will be richer and naturally more representative of many people, and your children can fully benefit from the empathy towards the human experience that great children's literature--and great literature at large-- has to offer.

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


LITTLE FUR by Isobelle Carmody (Random House)
Little Fur, a half-elf, half-troll, lives within the safety of a circle of seven ancient trees, a sacred grove in the center of a sprawling city. Hundreds of creatures call this place home, and the spirits of the trees cloud the minds of all who would put an end to their world. But word has it that a group of humans are burning trees, and someone must go and find out whether this is the truth...and stop them, if it is so. Little Fur's feet have never left the flow of earth magic, her body has never disconnected from the nature's touch for fear she might lose the communicative bond with the trees and her magic altogether. But when duty calls, she finds the wherewithall to venture out into the uncertain streets, with the aid of a cyncial crow and a few unreliable cats. This adventure is impressive in the spell it manages to cast; we really care about this odd little creature, and feel her vulnerability as she tries to complete her quest. The author's own illustrations decorate the pages, dear and unpretentious as our heroine. The brown, soft velveteen cover is more than attractive packaging, it is a perfect binding to this unique environmental quest. It's no easy feat to find strong fantasy for younger readers, and this cliffhanging read-aloud and imaginative play fodder fills the bill. Fans will find its sequel in LITTLE FUR: A FOX CALLED SORROW. 8 and up.

Also of interest:
You know, LITTLE FUR isn't the first to be clad in the good stuff: check out Margaret Wise Brown's oldie but goodie, LITTLE FUR FAMILY, illustrated by Garth Williams (of CHARLOTTE'S WEB fame), and Margot Lundell's FURRY BEDTIME BOOK: LOVEY BEAR'S STORY, illustrated by David McPhail. Isn't it nice to find books to cuddle! Now if someone would only invent a toddler book that could be eaten, we'd be all set.

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


17 THINGS I'M NOT ALLOWED TO DO ANYMORE by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Schwartz & Wade)
"I had an idea to staple my brother's hair to his pillow. I am not allowed to use the stapler anymore." "I had an idea to show Joey Whipple my underpants. I am not allowed to show Joey Whipple my underpants anymore." I have a queue of books I can't wait to tell you about, but this title got serious "budgies" because the figurative drawing is just off. The. Charts. This book is SO beautiful and SO funny, it crossed my eyes. Unbeliavably expressive and clever, a meeting of the grace of early Jan Ormerod with the ebullient spunk of a grammatical Junie B. Jones and a computer collage technique that brings Ezra Jack Keats' influence into the 21st century with a rip-roaring kaboom, this book is irreverent and unrepentant and freakishly perfect from a child's POV. We're hardly out of the gate for 2007, and already this is the one to beat, folks...from the glossy white glue being spilled on the cover to interiors containing guest check backdrops ("I had an idea to order a different dinner from my mother. I am not allowed to pretend my mother is a waitress anymore") to an old-school American Sign Language diagram that suggests perhaps our little mischief maker is not actually hard of hearing, just hard of listening. If you are a fan of David Shannon's classic Caldecott winner NO, DAVID!, kick it up a notch. If you dare.

Speaking of, David Shannon really rocked the house...or the swashbuckling style, as a visiting author at my school last week! He was promoting his latest collaboration with Melinda Long,
Yes, David, we love you!

Also of interest:
Keep an eye on Nancy Carpenter, this truly versatile artist has long been an illustrator to watch! I first fell in love with her illustrations after reading Deborah Hopkinson's APPLES TO OREGON: BEING THE (SLIGHTLY) TRUE NARRATIVE OF HOW A BRAVE PIONEER FATHER BROUGHT APPLES, PEACHES, PEARS, PLUMS, GRAPES AND CHERRIES (AND CHILDREN) ACROSS THE PLAINS. The high-stepping story follows a large family from Iowa to Oregon, where an industrious daddy is determined to cut a trail and plant an orchard of fruit trees, come wind or high water (and believe me, there's plenty of both). Inspired by the travels of Henderson Luelling's shlep with his eight children and wife and some seven hundred plants, this tallish tale comes to spunky life with the help of the jolly little girl who serves as narrator. Though many came West in search of gold, this family ascertains that apples may be better…and with the close of this book, you just might agree. (5 and up)

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

Monday, March 05, 2007


A DROWNED MAIDEN'S HAIR: A MELODRAMA by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick)

Her name again. She looked down and saw without surprise that it was Caroline who called it--Caroline, who clung to the rocks of the jetty. Caroline's hair fanned out, floating on the surface of the water. One webbed hand pried itself loose from the rock, groping toward Maud.

Maud understood what Caroline wanted. She wanted Maud to draw her to safety, to pull her from the deep before she drowned. But the webbed hand repelled Maud: it was mucilaginous, transparent, sticky. Maud knew that once she touched that hand, it would adhere to her skin, cling and pinch, and she would lose her balance...

You know those books that make it so the rest of the day just gets in the way of the next moment you can find to turn another page? Inside this book is the reason we read. Also inside this book is the story of Maud Flynn, a deliriously and deliciously defiant heroine, whom Miss Kittridge, the Superintendent of her miserable orphan asylum, predicts will never leave. Who would want such a belligerent, ungifted, dour little girl? A change of fate occurs, however, after visitor Hyacinth Hawthorne finds Maud locked in the outhhouse singing "the Battle Hymn of the Republic" and whisks her away to live a peculiar and secret life. Living as the daughter in a family of spinster spiritualists, Maud Flynn is being preened to play the part of a ghost child scheduled to appear in staged seances in order to bilk a bereaved millionairess of her money. The premise alone was enough to send children tripping over each other in order to be the first to borrow the book in my library, however, the original and cliffhanging storyline is just the icing on the cake.

The true strength of this volume is the incredible texture of the characterization. With every page, we can feel the swelling of the bitten tongue as Maud tries to repress her natural instincts to talk back, the ache of her heart as she seeks to find the love she has been missing in the context of a family of opportunists, reveling in each small attention she recieves for her many talents, and the stormy turmoil of Maud's own awakening as a moral person, coming out of her role as a ghost in order be a member of the living world. Flawed and wounded, Maud is the girl we root for on every page, while covering our eyes, our ears, our mouths in turn at the shocking situations and choices she bravely faces. Detailed, descriptive writing delivers the reader to this weird world; we can practically smell the antiquity of the room, see the dust mites floating in the light from the ragged damask curtains that shroud a place out of time. I am sorry I waited so long to read this, don't make the same mistake! This book has spirit, in every sense of the word...let it cast its spell on your readers 11 and up.

Also of interest:
Read up on our favorite spiritualist ESCAPE! THE STORY OF THE GREAT HOUDINI by Sid Fleischman (Scholastic). This author is also a magician, making for an especially insightful autobiography! Generous prose written with a masterful sense of the young audience also offers subtle opportunities for knowledge about Jewish history, vaudeville, and the power of a little good publicity. An exciting life story written with clarity and enthusaism. (10 and up)

On a personal note:
Thanks for your patience between posts! I haven't abandoned the blog, simply had some personal matters that needed my attention...more to come!

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


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