Thursday, June 28, 2007


Let's give a little jump-start to our summer blogapalooza with a picture book throw-down of a few choice picks from the new picture book pile!

THE STORY OF CHERRY THE PIG by Utako Yamada (Kane/Miller) When I read this book, I thought, "ah, what an absolutely darling story, and so old-fashioned in the best sense of the word! They don't make 'em like this anymore!" And I guess they don't, because it turns out this author has been writing for decades, and now we have the chance to discover her talents! This Japanese reprint import is the charming story of a piggy who bakes her best apple tart to enter in the big bake-off, but is discouraged when some nibbling mice give it less than rave reviews. Can she still make the cut in the competitive world of pastries? A sunny, retro take on the subjectivity of art, and the author went on to open a dessert shop, so she knows from whence she speaks! (4 and up)

FIX IT, SAM by Lori Reis, illustrated by Sue Rama (Charlesbridge) This little gem achieves a kind of picture book perfection. A few well-chosen words and jubilant crayon-scribbled depictions manage to speak volumes about the far-reaching effects of patience and kindness. Baby break, baby spill, baby drop, and brother fix, fix, fix. Though big boy Sam sometimes rolls his eyes, scratches his head and bends an eyebrow, in the end, it's the helping of his little brother that makes his rugrat counterpart want to follow in his footsteps. Just look at that little guy on the last page, bursting with pride after helping to assemble a motley tent for make-believe! This is the kind of unassuming book that may not win big awards, but kids will ask for it again and again, and it also shows boys in the best and brightest light. (3 and up)

THE DUMPSTER DIVER by Janet S. Wong, illustrated by David Roberts (Candlewick)
As a die-hard reader of ReadyMade magazine, I was thrilled by this ahead-of-its-time tome about Steve, a laid-back hipster bent on giving old things new life. Donning full protective regalia (half scuba-diving, half spaceman suit), he braves winged roaches and possible tetanus to dumpster-dive in search of treasure. To the delight of his young neighbors, a blender becomes a lava lamp, an old computer becomes a flowerpot, a tubeless tv becomes an aquarium. When Steve hurts himself, its up to the kids to collect Useful Junk from other neighbors to create something their friend will use...and love. In addition to developmentally affirming kids' desires to make things using what they have, the book realistically portrays the dangers of actual dumpster diving and underscores the pooh-poohing of it by old-school consumers ("The Grouch...says Steve is crazy--too lazy to work hard to make enough money to buy new stuff at the store like good people should. She says his apartment is full of junk!" ) Love those buggy endapapers and Steve's groovy digs, decorated with a Bette Midler poster and bike-wheel mobile. This is an upbeat book to dive into again and again as a springboard for meaningful discussions about consumerism and recycling with the next Greatest Generation. (6 and up)

GATOR by Randy Cecil (Candlewick) When business at the amusement park carousel slows down, the most popular animal on the ride goes out to explore the world on his own. Children will appreciate the sense of adventure and the expressive, memorable hero with a hole in his heart where the pole used to be. (4 and up)

SKY SWEEPER by Phyllis Gershator, illustrated by Holly Meade (Farrar Straus & Giroux) The monks need a temple, the temple needs a garden, and the garden needs a flower keeper...Takeboki! As one season follows another, though, members of the Japanese community question why Takeboki's ambitions do not stretch far beyond the garden gates. In the end, Takeboki's dedication and singleness of purpose inspires all. In these days of unnecessary competition, this story of a boy who is content to do one simple job well is very refreshing...and this book will also awaken an understanding in children to give thought to workers who do the tasks that may seem mundane, but are necessary and deserve appreciation. (6 and up)

I DON'T LIKE GLORIA by Kaye Umansky, illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain (Candlewick) "The first thing she did was eat out of my bowl. MY bowl. She has her own bowl. It says GLORIA on it. Mine says CALVIN. Can't she read?" One pet feels displaced by another, but then again, it could always be worse in this bold and funny tribute to family rivalries. If you liked the brave, rueful art and humor of Sam Lloyd's MR. PUSSKINS, you will like this title as well. A nice storytime pairing with I DON'T LIKE GLORIA would be LOVE THE BABY by Steven Layne, illustrated by Ard Hoyt (Pelican), about a poor big brother bunny who is perpetually entreated to "help me love the baby," which is hard to do when Baby is getting lap time with Mommy and blocks with daddy and the special Scrub-a-Dub song from Nana! Brother manages to help love the baby when only he has the magic touch that can get wascally wabbit back to sleep. Especially comical text and illustration keep this book fresh...yes, this "newcomer-grows-on-you" theme has been visited before (as in Kevin Henkes' JULIUS, THE BABY OF THE WORLD), but who can tire of seeing it done right? (4 and up)

THE DOG CHILD by Simon Black, illustrated by Gernimo Garcia (Cinco Puntos Press) Well, I'm afraid this book's execution really stretched the limits of credulity for me, but given the wildly enthusiastic response of the children, I would be remiss if I did not recommend it. Ever meet those kind of people who, when you ask them to show you a picture of their kid, they show you their dog or cat? Such are the "parents" of the Dog Child. They push the limit between loving and loony by enrolling him in school, signing him up for t-ball, and when they ultimately throw him a birthday party, he uses his wish upon the candles to ask for a human addition to the family (when this canine backed up to the cake I thought we were going to have a derivative toot-salute to William Kotzwinkle's WALTER THE FARTING DOG, but no, he blows out the candle another way). Good call, doggie! (5 and up)

DELILAH D. AT THE LIBRARY by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Rosie Reeve (Clarion) Delilah D. hails from a faraway land where they eat doughnuts and cupcakes in the library, a dreamy princess delivers storytime and trapeze are handy for reaching the high shelves. Where is this land? Alas alack, even a double-page spread cannot help Delilah D. find it on the map, and her ambassador status does not exempt her from following the library rules. Oversized format, a jaunty font, smiling faces a-plenty and a push-the-limits little girl all converge to give this book energy akin to the work of Lauren Child. A dandy read-aloud choice whether starting the summer library reading program or hosting a storytime amidst the shelves. (5 and up)

AND THE TRAIN GOES... by William Bee (Candlewick) Clickerty-click, clickerty-clack, an onomatopoetic train comes down the track! Do you hear the whistle blowing? The book calls for you to get on board with some choral reading. Quirky swirls and lines, bold symmetry and patterns bring to mind vintage Ed Emberley revisited for a new century (check out the Caldecott-winning classic, DRUMMER HOFF to see Bee's stylistic cousin). (2 and up)

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

Wednesday, June 06, 2007



An unusual surge of energy came over Emma-Jean, very possibly a thrill, as she took a step toward Colleen. She had the feeling of walking through an invisible door, the door that had always seemed to separate her from her fellow seventh graders.
Surprisingly, the door was wide open.

Emma-Jean Lazarus approaches her 7th grade class with the distant, bemused air of a cultural anthropologist, and years of careful observation have culminated in a confidence that she can solve her cohorts' condundrums, whether they be botched invitations, false accusations by teachers, or grown-ups who fall in love when it is clearly not a good idea. Unfortunately, Emma-Jean's methodology for problem-solving generally involves forgery, and she manages to complicate things more often than not.

The true beauty of this first novel is the deep compassion for outsider Emma-Jean, who takes pride in being "strange" (dictionary definition: extraordinary, remarkable, singular), who rationalizes the world according to the theories of Jules Henri Poincaré (a mathematician held in high esteem by her deceased father), and manages to have a real affection for her classmates despite the lack of inclusion in their circles. There is also strong attention given to other characters: the grown-ups are flawed but appropriately involved and refreshingly likable; the boys are often oblivious to machinations for and against them ("Perhaps there was more to Will Keeler than mediocre grades and exceptional basketball skills. Perhaps he posessed a talent for old-fashioned gallantry that went largely unnoticed in the modern hallways of William Gladstone Middle School") and popular Colleen, cheerful and repressive, cares desperately and distractingly about what other people think ("She wished she could recapture the feeling she'd had the other day at school, when for just a few moments she really didn't care what Laura Gilroy thought of her. But that had lasted no longer than the flavor in a stick of sugarless bubble gum").

Emma-Jean's developmentally pitch-perfect delusions of her own power are poignant, but even more stirring is the the underlying message that being nice and having good intentions counts for something in this world, even when the best laid plans of mice and men and middle school girls often go awry. Also impressive was this new author's ability to write a book in third person that feels as confidential as first person...aspiring authors, take note of her formidable technique. This novel is that rare realistic fiction that works as a read-aloud for older kids, and is also a really perfect choice for those 'tweeners who are not quite ready for the pallor of some hard-core young adult fiction. It's light without feeling facile, and features strong characters that will have plenty of middle-schoolers saying, "hey, that's me!" (11 and up)

Also of interest:
An extra dose of intermediate girl-power!
It is very rare to find a book in which you cannot manage to turn a page without laughing, but Sid Fleischman Humor Award winner MILLICENT MIN: GIRL GENIUS by Lisa Yee (Scholastic) is that book. Millicent's tentative, earnest steps toward achieving every pre-teen girl's dream--making and keeping a real best friend--loom larger even than Millicent's goal to win the Field's Medal, the highest mathematical honor a person under forty can achieve. ("It would be great to do all this by age twenty but I don't want to put too much pressure on myself. Therefore, if it doesn't happen until I am, say, twenty-three, that's fine with me.") As Millicent tutors a jock named Stanford (who stars in his own sequel, STANFORD WONG FLUNKS BIG TIME), survives her first sleepover, spikes a point for her volleyball team and tries valiantly to hide her genius from her ebullient friend Emily, she learns that there are book smarts and people smarts, and both are important. It's nice to have a heroine who is more concerned with learning curves than body curves, and her character's development is gradual and convincing and a pleasure to read. Millicent is the valedictorian of the intermediate reading list (no Field's Medal, I know, but it will have to do for now). (11 and up)

DIARY OF A WOULD-BE PRINCESS by Jessica Green (Charlesbridge) shows us that mean girls and typecasts are an international malaise, as an Australian girl does some clumsy social climbing. Episodic writing is hilarious in parts, and readers sympathize with feel for the heroine as her party goes exactly as unplanned, she trips over her own true talents for public speaking and struggles with the making and keeping of friends...the best one being a boy. (11 and up)

MAKEOVERS BY MARCIA by Claudia Mills (Farrar Straus Giroux) Marcia is less than thrilled when she discovers her eighth grade community service project will entail visits to the local nursing home. Distracted by pre-teen concerns like her perceived weight gain, difficulties in art class and the upcoming dance, working with a bunch of old people is last on her list. When her savvy sister suggests she combine her talent and interest in makeup with her requisite visits, it sets off a series of connections that, in the end, help Marcia get her priorities straight. Mills is a too-often overlooked talent when it comes to the delicate art of capturing the voice of the 'tweenager: "Of course, it was only the second week of school, and Marcia knew that no boy was even thinking of asking a girl to the dance yet. It would take some serious, but subtle, manipulating by the girls to plant the seed of that thought in the dry, stony soil of an eighth grade boy's brain." Marcia's magazine-inspired machinations backfire hilariously, and her relationships with the elderly blossom in a way that is both believable and uncontrived. A nice balance is achieved between who Marcia is trying to be and who she really is, and make her a character that many girls will look upon with both sympathy and empathy. Emotional depth, laugh-out-loud humor and a rhythm that matches the heartbeat of its intended audience mark this well-written intergenerational story that will inspire community service, self-esteem and an appetite for more books by the author. (11 and up)

IDA B. AND HER PLANS TO MAXIMIZE FUN, AVOID DISASTER AND (POSSIBLY) SAVE THE WORLD by Katherine Hannigan (Greenwillow) The unconventional heroine of this award-winning book is homeschooled, and likes her cozy world built around her by her loving parents, but when her mother's health takes a turn for the worse, the family must sell part of their beloved orchard, and Ida B. must go to a public school. Ida B's character is a standout as a philosophical, inventive and imaginative, but also deeply flawed, as she has many preconceptions about people who are not like her (and in need of her correction), and harbors a bit of a mean streak. Ultimately she freewheels out of the orbit in which her only-child self was once the gravitational force, but whether you like her or not, it's hard to get this precocious protagonist out of your mind. A must for free-spirits and tree-spirits. (10 and up)

On a personal note
I recently had the massive pinch-me-I'm-dreaming honor of sharing a podium with the legendary National Book Award and Newbery-winning author Katherine Paterson (of BRIDGE TO TEREBITHIA fame) at the recent conference for the International Reading Association in Toronto. We both read aloud from our work, and we agreed that her character Rosa and my character Paris would have made good friends. Everyone was wildly impressed with the charming Italian affect Katherine gave to the characters in her recent historical fiction, BREAD AND ROSES, TOO. I was greatly relieved at how absolutely kind and personable she was, especially since I don't think I could have been more nervous about meeting her than if I were meeting the Queen of England. Katherine Paterson in fact met the Queen of Sweden this year to receive the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, which is pretty much the Nobel Prize for children's literature.

At the conference, she paraphrased from her lecture given in Stockholm to the breathless teachers in the room:

“I’m very Biblically oriented, and so for me the most important thing
is for the word to become flesh. I can write stories for children and young people, and in that sense I can offer them words, but you are the word become flesh in your classroom. Society has taught our children that they are nobodies unless their faces appear on television. But by your caring, by your showing them how important each one of them is, you become the word that I would like to share with each of them. You are that word become flesh.”

This lecture was personally inspiring to me, as I have often been questioned about why I went back to teaching when my writing career was in full swing. It was hard to explain the spiritual and pragmatic need for a balance between writing and teaching; I did not see the sense of writing books unless I was also working to support kids directly so they could and would read. Whether secular or not, teaching really does feel like the word is being made flesh, and is a natural compliment to the communication and sharing intrinsic to writing. Thank you, Katherine Paterson, for articulating that connection so meaningfully, and acknowledging the work of teachers. There was not a dry eye in the house, as they say! More of Katherine Paterson's brilliant and inspirational essays and lectures have been compiled in the hard-to-find treasure THE INVISIBLE CHILD: ON READING AND WRITING BOOKS FOR CHILDREN, and Ms. Paterson has been featured in Gail McMeekin's 12 SECRETS OF HIGHLY CREATIVE WOMEN: A PORTABLE MENTOR. Writing, read-aloud and giving lectures that resonate, this is a woman with many talents and gifts; the world is a better place because she is in it.

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


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