Tuesday, January 29, 2008


PUPPET PANDEMONIUM by Diane Roberts (Delacorte)
The move from Seattle to a small town of Franklin, Texas is suspect to Baker, who was well settled in and quite comfortable, thank-you-very- much, with a best friend and a baseball team and a tony job as Grandma's apprentice puppeteer. With the help of a ventriloquist's dummy given as a going-away gift, Baker works on building his confidence and talents he will have to offer his new community, hopefully in time for the big Franklin Fall Festival, in which a long-lasting rivalry between two small towns peak in the form of performance. The description of the fair, replete with Frito Pie fried Oreos and Tilt-A-Whirl, is rich with regional warmth and detail. Clearly, the Lone Star state is far from the lonely star state, as every child gets a chance to shine and a small town proves just as good as a big city for making friends.

I must say, my enthusiasm for this book may have some bias; getting me to like a book about puppetry and Texas is about as hard as shooting fish in a barrel (shout out to Buda and Kyle...would someone there please adopt me?!). In fact, there are editorial aspects of the storytelling that could use strengthening; problems are solved with a pinch of Pollyanna predictability, the pacing is a bit harried and the pat endings brimming with blue ribbons insinuate more of a 1950's television show than a puppet show. That said, the chummy, upbeat tone of this book offers a dose of "positivity" many children could afford and appreciate, and the inclusion of a highly active and influential grandparent is realistic and refreshing. Children who are about to make a major move will have their hopes bolstered by the fast friendships Baker makes in his new town. Best of all, this is the sort of book, like Megan McDonald's STINK or Suzy Kline's freaking brilliant HORRIBLE HARRY (which, incidentally, if you are a second/third grade teacher, you must have and read all of them in the series) that has a high level of confidence-building readability and depicts kids taking a ton of initiative, inspiring readers to do the same. Who could read this book and not want to get together with friends and make a puppet show of their own? (7 and up)

Also of interest:
KAMISHIBAI MAN by Allen Say (Houghton Mifflin)
Kamishibai, or "paper theater," is an art form popularized during an economic depression in Japan during the 1930's. The kamishibai storyteller would be surrounded by children, eager to hear his tales and see the hand-painted illustrations, and buy the candies from his cart. But with the advent of the television, the unique form of street performance loses its audience. What's an old kamishibai man to do? This touching story chronicles what happens when an artist once celebrated ventures out into a modern, urban world, filled with traffic and television, for a final performance. Will he find his audience once more? Sophisticated ideas of aging and cultural change make this ideal for discussion with older children, and young artists may also enjoy trying to create their own kamishibai. (6 and up)

This past year, I had the very good fortune of learning how to give a kamishibai show under the guidance of master early childhood educator Carolyn Tripp. She let me use her authentic theater for library storytimes; it took me a long time to find out where to get one just like hers, but you can write a grant and find one here! It's a lot of fun; the story is written on the back of the a series of pictures on stiff paper, and as you read the story as the children view the image inside the frame, offering the lure of television without the electricity. The last picture has the first text to be read, so as you change the picture by moving the first picture behind the others, the text changes in progression. The traditional kamishibai story cards are exciting, but they are expensive; I found it worked even better to make our own kamishibai-style stories by drawing on paper that fit the screen, and typing out the text and attaching it to the back for reading.

"Goldilocks and the Three Bears" kamishibai-style!
I drew some of the pictures, and the four-year-olds drew the rest.
Play some jaunty background music as you read, and you're off!

And at the risk of feeding consumer frenzy, on the subject of storytelling theaters, I do have to let you know about one of the most beautiful and extraordinary things I came to own in the past year, A Grand Little Theater of Puppets, in the hopes you can have one, too. When a teacher friend and I took it out of the box, we both practically had to reach for our inhalers, it so took our breath away! We couldn't stop sighing and shouting! What an heirloom! Inspired by popular European toy theaters from the 19th century and the vision of educator and puppeteer Judith O'Hare, these sizeable tabletop theaters have an elegance and attention to detail that is from another time altogether. The theater came with five gorgeous little rod marionettes from Hansel and Gretel, and a book of pop-up scenery that the puppets play on. I loved the first set of puppets, but the Three Billy Goats Gruff story set was even better (so much fun to make the little guys trip-trop!) and there is a shadow puppet accessory pack for a whole different effect. This is a well-crafted treasure for any child with gentle hands, or a great way to say an extravagant thank you to a favorite teacher or librarian.

Lastly, let's wave goodbye with puppets on our hands, with the help of YouTube and puppets by Folkmanis: check out The WitchyPoo Story Hour (which is really only about two minutes), and you can join Volfy and me as we lip-sync to Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson singing "Wunderbar" from KISS ME KATE, goofing around at the PlanetEsme Bookroom. (Clearly, I'm no Jim Henson...thanks for loading anyway, JesusMom39).

Wolf Duet

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

Thursday, January 24, 2008


"The world doesn't need another A-to-Z list of dinosaurs!" said the author, and that is why he created this new and important illustrated compendium, covering not only the entire Dinosauria of 800-plus named species of Mesozoic dinosaurs, opinions and insights from thirty three of the world's preeminent paleontologists, and answers to pretty much every question a child could think about: how are dinosaur bones put together? Why do dinosaurs have such long names? How do we know how old a dinosaur is from the bones? What does dinosaur dung have to tell us? How can you tell the difference between a boy dinosaur and a girl dinosaur? With sections like "The Fighting Dinosaurs of Mongolia," "Dinosaur Detective," "Will Jurassic Park Ever Happen?" and "The Science of Dinosaur Art," this ain't no fooling around. The passion for the subject comes through on every page, and with the heft of an adult book and but the voice that speaks to the young, it reads like a dream textbook for the School of Dinosaurs. If your library's dinosaur encyclopedia was printed before 2000, oh my, how you need this book on the shelf. And if you know a child who dreams in the days of the deinonychosaurs, we need it in that child's hands. (9 and up)

Also of interest:
Well, there certainly seems to be a propensity to put eyeballs on the covers of dinosaur books; thank you, Steven Spielberg's scary Tyrannosaurus peeking-in-the-car scene from Jurassic Park, I guess! That said, you'd do well to eyeball these recent additions to the shelves on this ferociously popular topic.

EXTREME DINOSAURS by Robert Mash, illustrated by Stuart Martin (Atheneum) Dinosaurs come jumping off of the page thanks to pop-ups, pull-tabs, fold-outs and posters. Amidst all the action is a ton of information, photographs and fetching natural illustrations, all broken down into chunks of appealing dino-trivia. This wild museum-in-a-book approach assures that kids come away knowing something they never knew before, and makes it an extreme winner with relctant readers. (7 and up)

UNEVERSAURUS by Aidan Potts (David Fickling Books) If dinosaurs could debate, they might argue, "you never saw us, so how do you know what we look like?" U-never-saur-us? Get it? It took me a minute, but once I got it, I was glad I did...and the same goes for this book. Could dinosaurs really have been pink, with feathers like their birdie cousins? How did the environment and survival of the dinosaurs really impact how they looked? Funny, imaginative, and with a splash of the rarely celebrated imagination that goes into science, this book will have readers looking at the past in a whole new way. (6 and up)

DINOMUMMY: THE LIFE DEATH AND DISCOVERY OF DAKOTA, A DINOSAUR FROM HELL CREEK by Dr. Philip Lars Manning (Kingfisher) The great strength of this book is that it captures the real-life excitement of being a scientist; any child who has dreampt of being a paleontologist will thrill to the excavation of Dakota, the most complete mummified dinosaur fossil ever found. The present-tense narration in this book gives the telling a startling immediacy, even as it moves between the age of battling dinosaurs to sixty-five million years later, when a teenage enthusiast makes a remarkable discovery. The computer-enhanced illustrations are so realistic, it may take some explanation to younger children that these are not photographs, and a reminder that the dinosaurs, apart from their tamer modern cousins, no longer walk among us (phew). This book has a definite "WOW" factor, not from gimmicks but from a real story of discovery that was supported by the National Geographic Society and contained such sensitive scientific information that the title was under worldwide embargo until December. Now's your chance to have a look. (9 and up) Kids who are interested in DINOMUMMY may also enjoy the novel MY DANIEL by Pam Conrad (HarperTrophy), the page-turning tale of children on a Nebraska farm whose desperation compels them to become involved in unscrupulous dinosaur fossil hunting on the prairie, with tragic results. (9 and up)

DINO-PETS by Lynn Plourde, illustrated by Gideon Kendall (Dutton) How do you choose which dinosaur to get? Would the longest or the strongest make the best pet? The scariest? Fastest? Softest? Smallest? All pets have their pros and cons, and the boy in this book gets a lesson in superlatives the hard way. A happy ending and illustrations from the Mark Teague school of dino-drawing silliness will earn lots of chuckles at storytime. (4 and up)

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

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Uh-oh! The owls got jealous of the penguins featured in the last post, so to make up for the courtesy that poor Kucinich never received in the debates, I'm giving them equal time.

LITTLE HOOT by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Jen Corace (Chronicle)
"If you want to grow up to be a wise owl, you must stay up late," said Papa Owl. "And besides, I don't give a hoot what time your friends go to bed. In this family, we stay up late. Rules of the roost."
Little Hoot, an otherwise happy little owl, goes through the looking glass of human toddler tribulation at bedtime when forced to stay up and play. With very few lines, the illustrator communicates the many moods of our nocturnal nay-sayer: a slightly sassy eyebrow lift when disagreeing with mommy, the sedate visage while practicing pondering and staring (owl skills, you know!), growing sleepy on the skateboard, and the ultimate snuggly comfort of being tucked into the nest at break of day. My very favorite illustration must be Little Hoot playing on the jungle gym in the park, with a bat friend hanging upside down alongside. This author/illustrator team would be hard-pressed to out-do the Sweetness Quotient and the cleverness of their last escapade, LITTLE PEA, in which a pea has to eat all of her yucky candy before she can have broccoli for dessert, but with this latest offering, they proved they were just wise enough to do it. "When I grow up, I'm going to let my kids go to bed as early as they want," Little Hoot bemoans, but I'm afraid human children are going to be up later than ever, asking for repeated readings of what is sure to be a favorite bedtime story. (3 and up)

Also of interest:
COCK-A-DOODLE HOOOOOO! by Mick Manning, illustrated by Brita Granstrom (Good Books) A forlorn owl wanders amidst some deprecating fowl, but earns the honorary title of resident rooster after a deliciously politically incorrect (but naturalistically accurate) run-in with a rat. Particularly jouncy cartoon art add to the barnyard jubilance of this story of a stand-out who finds his place in the group. (4 and up)

Thanks to my former fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Schultz, for insisting in 1978 that I read Farley Mowat's classic OWLS IN THE FAMILY (Dell, 8 and up), despite my wheedling and fervent complaints that 1) "I don't like animal stories," 2) "this book has too many boys in it," and 3) I couldn't read words like "Saskatchewan." I know the trend nowadays is to present children with books that have characters and situations to which they can closely relate. While that is inarguably important, I consider myself very lucky to have had teachers who also encouraged me to read to meet others so very different than myself (even boys!), and to use reading to expand my world, not just to affirm it. Today, dear booklovers, in your effort to be a supporting character in a child's reading life story, recommend a book outside of the box, and send out a thank you to a teacher who did it for you!

On a personal note:

A huge thank you to young adult literature guru, author and blogger extraordinaire Cynthia Leitich Smith for awarding (or is it a-
roar-ding?) The PlanetEsme Plan a "Lion Award" from the Shameless Lions Writing Club . The award is in honor of "those people who have blogs we love, can't live without, where we think the writing is good and powerful." Award recipients then give the award to five other bloggers. In fact, the best part of the award is that it did come from Cynthia Leitich Smith, who would have been first on my list to nominate. Her own website, Cynsations, is a gold mine of information, interviews and inspiration for anyone involved in the field of children's literature, and in fact, it is she who inspired me early on to recognize the internet as a potent way of getting the word out about the power of children's books. Though she is a professional cyber-mentor, privately, I enjoy her personal blog SpookyCyn; although she has lots of juicy insider writing stuff there and updates on her gothic fantasy TANTALIZE , I must confess I mostly bookmarked it because I savor her gem-like descriptions of meals she eats around Texas! Even a children's book maven like me needs variety on the menu, and Cyn's posts always hit the spot.

Well, it seems then I am at bat to recognize five more bloggers, which is hard to do when I consider my own blogroll of favorites, but here's a few I check regularly:

THREE SILLY CHICKS Created by children's authors Andrea Beaty, Carolyn Crimi and Julia Durango, this blog never lets us forget that kids wil keep reading if they are laughing. Regularly updated, it also features offbeat interviews and contests.
VINTAGE BOOKS THAT KIDS LOVE I believe the average children's book goes out of print in about two years. This lovely site, replete with sample illustrations, keeps books in our hearts for much longer than that.
MIMI SMARTYPANTS Not for kids. Oh no no no no no. But sometimes I want to read about being a grown-up, even if it's in a world that could clearly be better run by kids. Snarky voice, but voice with a capital "V." Plus lots about Chicago. Bless you and your bad, bad mouth, Mimi Smartypants.
BELLA DIA: SIMPLY HAPPY PRETTY THINGS I lurk here regularly to be reminded that life is about making stuff, and also that life, she-is-a-beautiful! Juicy, vibrant photographs, and sometimes there are crafts that tie into books. (Clearly a cousin to another favorite blog of mine, GROW WINGS by Laini Taylor.)

Just one more? Well, okay. It would have to be BIG A, LITTLE A, because Kelly Herold does a Herculean journalistic job of making sure anyone who wants to know about goings-on in the children's lit "blogosphere" stay in the loop every single week, and her blog contains links to all of my other favorites, including but far from limited to Welcome to My Tweendom and MotherReader and A Year of Reading and Jen Robinson's Book Page. (OOOooo, I know I snuck in a few other links there, sorry. That's just the way I roll.)

All right, bloggers, if you were pretty in pink above, congratulations on entering the den of Shameless Lions. Now it's your turn to "pick five." Thank you again, Cyn Smith...that was fun! I am practically motivated to read Blogger's manual-like how-to's of creating a permanent sidebar of links for the PlanetEsme Plan, a New Year's Resolution of mine. (I'll get to it, I'll get to it. It's only January.)

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

Friday, January 18, 2008


Baby, it's COLD outside! Chicago is only fit for penguins this time of year, so button up your overcoat, here we go!

AUGUSTINE by Mélanie Watt (Kids Can Press)

It's hard to be the new kid at school...or the new penguin! Augustine, named for the artist Renoir, struggles under the strain of moving from the South Pole to the North Pole. With the help of her stuffed penguin, Picasso, and some colored pencils, the best of Augustine's personality is eventually drawn out. Illustrations and text on the right side of the book tell the story, but the left side of each page is separated into nine frames, eight surrounding squares capturing the nuances of what Augustine is thinking or feeling with Augustine's own art in the middle: eight different types of houses for sale, with the one the family chose in the middle, nine staring animal classmate faces with a portrait of the teacher in the middle, and especially poignant is the picture of a ball in the middle with eight empty frames around it, when Augustine is not invited to play. The grand finale is an art exhibition, with Augustine's masterpeice very much included. With unusual tenderness and subtlety (and more than a few arctic puns), this smart and sensitive book captures the challenges of fitting into a new place. Artists who have influenced Augustine throughout the book are named on the back page. But take note, Augustine is not the only artist with a rising star worth watching; Melanie Watt, with her charming SCAREDY SQUIRREL and CHESTER, she is emerging as an illustrator with a uniquely droll sense of humor and special gift for bringing children's book characters to life. Read an interview with Mélanie Watts and MotherReader at the Cybils Blog. (4 and up)

PENGUIN by Polly Dunbar (Candlewick) Toddler Ben is up for fun and games, but his toy penguin remains stoic. "'What shall we play?' said Ben. Penguin said nothing. 'Can't you talk?' said Ben. Penguin said nothing. Ben tickled penguin.Penguin didn't laugh...'Will you talk to me if I stand on my head?' said Ben. Penguin didn't say a word." Ben's frustration increases, as does the hostility of the attempts towards making the penguin talk...but when a big blue lion eats Ben for being to noisy, Penguin has plenty to say about that. This tale of two very different friends finding the power of story together manages with a perfect economy of words. As someone who enjoys quiet time with friends as much as I enjoy time spent talking, this book was especially delightful to me, but toddlers tune in to the stylistic art against the sparse white background, and the temperature rise that occurs when it's hard to find the right words. (3 and up)
P.S. Please excuse the following blogger-to-author billet doux. Dear Polly Dunbar. I love you and everything you do! You draw the cutest children in the world, and your penguins aren't bad, either. Please come over, we can make dolls together and I will serve you cookies. XOXOXO from your fan, Esme. P.S. Your home page is adorable, too.

Also of interest:
Some oldies but goodies (things stay fresh in the deep-freeze, you know)!

WHITEBLACK THE PENGUIN SEES THE WORLD by Margret and H.A. Rey (Houghton Mifflin)
Yes, it's the creators of Curious George, and this time the hero is a the Chief Storyteller on station W-O-N-S, the radio station for all of Penguinland. When he ran out of stories, he did what any good journalist would do; he traveled the world in search of more! Join Whiteblack as a traverses desert and sea, then break out the old tape recorder and produce your own "radio show" with the family! After all, as this entertaining book goes to show, adventure is where you make it. (4 and up)

365 PENGUINS by Jean-Luc Fromental, illustrated by Joelle Jolivet (Abrams) A mysterious package arrives on New Year's Day, containing one penguin. The next day, a second penguin is delivered. The third day brings yet another black-and-white buddy, but this trend can't continue, can it? With the accumulation of Antarctic animals comes a series of problems to be solved, some mathematical (three digit addition, the budgeting of fish and the determination of proper amounts...if each penguin eats 2.5 pounds of fish a day, how many pounds will we need after the first three months of the year?) some logistical (how shall the penguins be organized? How shall they be cared for in the summer months? What to do about that penguin smell?) and some emotional (how does one share a shower with hundreds of penguins? "Once you reach the point of no return, one penguin more or more penguin less each day doesn't make much of a difference anymore. You live penguin. You think penguin. You dream penguin. You become penguin.") By the time we are truly and wholly feeling this family's penguin pain, though, the sender is revealed, along with his surprising and provocative plan to help wildlife through global warming. All's well, it seems, until the next New Year's Day when another package is left at the family doorstep. What could be inside this time? A PlanetEsme pick from last January...defrost it now! (6 and up)

AND TANGO MAKES THREE by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (Simon and Schuster) Roy and Silo walked together. And sang to each other. And built a nest together. And wound their necks around each other. But there was one thing Roy and Silo couldn't do together. With the help of a sympathetic zookeeper, these penguin partners were able to become a family, hatching Tango (because, after all, it takes two to tango!). Based on the true story of the first penguin in the Central Park Zoo to have two daddies, this refreshing celebration of the diversity of families in nature is a perfect blend of storytelling, science and sentimentality. Expressive, understated illustrations clearly done from real-life sketches capture the penguins' frustrations and joys. An outstanding read-aloud which every teacher can feel comfortable in sharing to cultivate tolerance, and through which alternative families will feel affirmed. Nice in combination with Todd Parr's THE FAMILY BOOK.(5 and up)

On a personal note
I want to thank everyone for the warm welcome back to the blogosphere! I very much appreciated all of your kind notes, and I am so gratified that the recommendations you find here might be helping to get these great books into the hands of great kids (and book lovers of all ages).

I have received several queries if I will be posting a list of the PlanetEsme best books of 2007 here, and the answer is yes, as soon as I am done reviewing them! I will continue to review the brand new stuff, but since I still have a big leaning tower of 2007 reading power to share with you, I'd rather not rush. The complete list will be posted by early March, before the next publishing season is fully under way. In fact, if I may put on my author hat for a moment, this makes me happy, since after the big ALA awards are announced in January, publicity for books published the prior year can get a bit sleepy. In children's books, there should be no "flavor of the month." A truly good book stays delicious! So please keep checking in, as all books posted here will be included in that round-up.

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

Thursday, January 17, 2008


PRINCESS GRACE by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying Hwa-Hu (Dial)
"There's more than one way to be pretty," said Nana.
"I suppose it depends what she does," said Aimee.
"I don't know," said Grace. "What does a princess do, Nana?"
"You tell me, darling," said Nana.
But nobody could, except for wearing beautiful clothes and looking pretty.
"That doesn't sound so interesting," said Grace. She liked having things to do.
Yes, the liberated young lady who nailed the lead role of Peter Pan in AMAZING GRACE is back, this time inspiring her class to rethink what makes someone really royal. When the school gears up to make a float for the parade at the annual community festival, the girls start vying for who gets to wear the crown. Uninspired by the standard fairy tale fare, Grace again rises to the occasion with the helps of books and her lively imagination. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Grace's worthy teacher shares more stories of real princesses, some warriors like Amina of Nigeria and Pin-Yang of China, and other brave and brilliant princesses who didn't just sit on their thrones; they were artists and scientists and athletes and spies! If there were so many different kinds of men and women who wore crowns, might there be a little more room of the float? This story gains momentum with every page, and is marvelously true-to-life in representing a classroom that is inclusive, energetic, diverse and full of ideas that are always evolving. The
author is refreshingly modern in her depiction of realistic situations and feelings such as Grace's loving single-parent home, and boys who want to get in on the dress-up action. Realistic watercolors capture the dreamy faces of the girls in the midst of their pretend. Grace's stories are always joyful, but this latest is a special treat because it has so many classroom applications: a great springboard for Cinderella stories from around the world, or research into real royalty through history. A succinct note from the author at the end of the book helps us on that path, but you will be glad to have P IS FOR PRINCESS: A ROYAL ALPHABET by Stephen and Deborah Layne, illustrated by Robert and Lisa Papp (Sleeping Bear, 7 and up) close at hand when you finish, as it is an attractive and fabulously informative A to Z resource for learning about princesses in both fact and fiction, and also contains a fun quiz at the end. By royal decree, these are two titles that give 80's feminist backlash some 21st century whiplash.

Also of interest:
In honor of the new children's book royalty, Newbery award-winning Laura Amy Schlitz (pictured above, being very surprised about her prize, thanks, Educating Alice!), how about a little princesspalooza?

RED BUTTERFLY: HOW A PRINCESS SMUGGLED THE SECRET OF SILK OUT OF CHINA by Deborah Noyes, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Candlewick) Based on the true story of the Chinese princess who was married off to the King of Khotan, north of Tibet, and smuggled precious silkworm cocoons and the seeds of the mulberry tree on which they feed. This poetic picture book from the princess's POV uses language that flows with emotion and period detail, and is accented by illustrations that fairly glow. The robes of the ladies in the court spread like beautiful wings, and you've got to love the hairdos that look like butterflies...complete with antennae! A graceful and unusual read. (7 and up)

THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA by Rachel Isadora (Putnam) All of the original language of Hans Christian Anderson's classic fairy tale is preserved, but dressed in the vibrant patterns of Africa. With three ways to say "hello" on the continent at the end, this is a stunningly beautiful addition to any multicultural collection, as well as a great storytime read-aloud. Oh, that pile of mattresses, each one so different and so colorful! Eyes and smiles grow wide with this one. (4 and up) Also see Isadora's recent rendering of THE TWELVE DANCING PRINCESSES, though my favorite versions of that one will always be the heady, classical one by Marianna Mayer and Kinuko Y. Craft and the one illustrated by Jane Ray, in which several of the princesses wear glasses. Read them all and compare with your own royal court of children!

This theme means I can't miss the chance to remind you about one of my very favorite children's books in the whole wide world, KING MATT THE FIRST by Janusz Korczak (Algonquin), with cover art by this year's Calecott winning artist Brian Selznick, about a boy king who attempts to run a country of children. Whether Matt is attempting a new reform involving the distribution of chocolate to all of his citizens, running to do battle on a war-torn front under a false name while a lifelike doll reigns in his stead, arranging for his population to attend summer camp or on a diplomatic mission to the land of the cannibals, every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. And why wouldn't it? Its author was a renowned pediatrician who ran orphanages in Poland and wrote this adventure with read-aloud in mind. When the Nazis cleared the Warsaw ghetto, Korczak suffered the same tragic fate as his charges, but his masterpiece lives on. A sensitive and stirring entrez into the wild world of grown-up politics...just in time for the election! (9 and up)

A PRINCESS PRIMER: A FAIRY GODMOTHER'S GUIDE TO BEING A PRINCESS by Stephanie True Peters (Dutton) The "Princesses of Many Lands" page aside, I'd be lying if I didn't say that this book wasn't a little heavy-handed when it comes to the blonde, blue-eyed princess stereotype. I'd also be lying if I didn't say I would have been absolutely ga-ga over this book as a little girl, and that I have watched people who are little girls poring over its pink pages with unbridled delight. Princess hairstyles! Gown styles! How-to's! Types of enchantment (the lenticular image of a frog being turned into a prince and back again is hilarious)! A glittering, gala guide, the contents takes an authoritative, mannered and almost magazine-y tone that will lend anyone claiming Divine Right an air of confidence and enough know-how to run the kingdom. You decide if you can tolerate that in your favorite princess. (7 and up).

Which princess book on your shelf would you take to the ball?

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

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


MY DOG IS AS SMELLY AS DIRTY SOCKS AND OTHER FUNNY FAMILY PORTRAITS by Hanoch Piven, illustrated by Guy Francis (Schwartz and Wade)
A baby brother can be sweet as candy, but he never stops crying, and when he does, he's as loud as a whistle...or maybe a horn...or even an alarm clock! Turn the page, and you'll see all of these items used to describe the baby are included in the illustrations. The same goes for mom (soft as a fluffy marabou feather), dad (fun as a party favor), and even big brother (who eats like an...oink!) And what does the narrator think about herself? She stands at the top of the family pyramid, in this zany collage style.Though the writing at times seems a wee bit forced by the objects at hand, the concept is charismatic. The author used this unique illustration technique of "drawing with objects" with the children in the cancer ward of the Schneider Children's Medical Center, and their family and self-portraits grace the endpapers of this book. All children will enjoy trying their hand at this technique, also used in Piven's wildly popular WHAT ARE ATHLETES MADE OF? and the timely WHAT ARE PRESIDENTS MADE OF?, but the reason I loved MY DOG IS AS SMELLY AS DIRTY SOCKS is because it made teaching fifth graders figurative language like similes as easy as pie! (6 and up)

Also of interest:
Here are some more great books useful for informing the authors and illustrators of tomorrow about the formalistic tricks of the trade!:
THE END by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Richard Egielski (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine) "The soggy knight fell in love with the princess. The knight fell in love with the princess because...she poured a big bowl of lemonade on top of on his head. She poured a bowl of lemonade on top of his head because..." Keep reading to find out why she poured the lemonade, why an enormous tomato was rolling down a hill, why a giant was throwing a temper tantrum and why a dragon would not stop crying. The fairy tale story begins at the end and works backwards, cunningly showing kids cause and effect...or is it the effects from the cause? In any event, as a read-aloud, they won't want it to end, even if they know from the first page that they live happily ever after. (5 and up) Folks who walk in through the out door will also enjoy poetic and philosophical PREVIOUSLY by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated by Bruce Ingman (Candlewick) which also uses a nursery tale theme but can be used with older kids to introduce the idea of "backstory." (5 and up)
HEAVE HO! by Heinz Janisch, illustrated by Carola Holland (North-South) While some unlikely animal allies have an adventure told in a mere twelve sentences, we can examine the ordinal sequence of ideas in a story: beginning, middle and end. (6 and up)
IF YOU'RE TRYING TO TEACH KIDS HOW TO WRITE, YOU'VE GOTTA HAVE THIS BOOK by Marjorie Frank (Incentive Publications) Ahhh, now this is what I look for in a teaching book: page after page of ideas ricocheting all over the place! The double-page list of things you can write besides a "story" has been invaluable, as is the list of things to include in a classroom writing center. Dreams and love stories, a huge section on process, maintaining the young writer's integrity and ego, steps to creating a comfortable "home" for writing growth and the answer to the age old question "would a lapidary play leapfrog in a lyceum?" are all included. You can basically open this book to any random page and have a jumping-off point for teaching or a new way to look at how to skin the proverbial cat. Inspirational and informational to the point of being trippy, this one of my most dog-eared, recommended teaching titles, and a boon to anyone with writer's block. (Adult)

The big awards given by the American Library Association were announced today! And whaddaya know, if you have been following the PlanetEsme Plan, you'll find you have been on the cutting edge for the gold medal winners all along.

The 2008 Caldecott Award Winners for best children's book illustration
THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick (Scholastic) (a PlanetEsme pick!)
Silver honors:
HENRY'S FREEDOM BOX: A TRUE STORY FROM THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson(Scholastic) (a PlanetEsme pick!)
FIRST THE EGG by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Roaring Brook)(a PlanetEsme pick!)
THE WALL: GROWING UP BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN by Peter Sis Farrar, Straus and Giroux

For more information on the Caldecott, visit here!

The 2008 Newbery Award winners for best children's book writing
GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! VOICES FROM MEDIEVAL TIMES by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd (Candlewick) (a PlanetEsme pick!)
Silver honors:
THE WEDNESDAY WARS by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion)
ELIJAH OF BUXTON by Christopher Paul Curtis (Scholastic)

FEATHERS by Jacqueline Woodson (Putnam)
For more information on the Newbery,visit here!

You may also be interested in the Geisel Awards for emergent (early) readers, and the Sibert Award for informational books. And when it comes to prizes, there is still other game in town:
booklovers should definitely check out the Cybils, the children's and young adult bloggers' literary award, which I adore because of the shortlists representing a gamut of outstanding choices for readers of a variety of interests and abilities, selected by some very thoughtful and proficient reviewers.

The author and writing coach Esther Heshenhorn (who was rooting for another winner, Christopher Paul Curtis's ELIJAH OF BUXTON recently posted on our SCBWI listserv, "I love this time in January - just before the Newbery/ALA announcements. I go to sleep the Sunday night before the announcement smiling, knowing some writer's life is about to be changed forever. Lives, really, when you think of the readers too." I greatly appreciated Esther's enthusiasm for the awards and their meaning in the lives of the winners, since for a long time I have considered them the Oscar's of children's and I'd be lying if I didn't admit to having made a wishful acceptance speech in front of the mirror in my time. But this year, having stepped back from publishing a little bit and not having anything at stake, I find myself thinking of a little girl named Corrina I knew when I taught fifth grade, who was very overt in her hatred of contests. Having a competitive spirit, I couldn’t really understand it, and so I hosted occasional little competitions with prizes which got the rest of the class’s adrenalin going but seemed to almost drive Corrina out of her mind; whenever I announced winners, she pulled a face that I will never forget! I figured this bad case of “sour grapes” was nothing that a taste of victory couldn’t cure, so I created a situation in which she was sure to succeed. When she won, she ran into the coat room and started to cry. Now it was my turn to go out of my mind, and I started to talk to her about the importance of celebrating achievement, but she just looked at me, exasperated, and asked, “don’t you see the faces of the kids who don’t win? What’s the point of winning over people who are already trying their best?” I have spent years trying to rationalize an answer to that question, but I have to be honest and say I guess I’m still not sure. I do still gush over people's achievements, and cry when figure skaters land their perfect-double-triple whatevers and when performers take a curtain call, but as our culture seems to have more and more opportunities for winners and losers and a tendency, at least on television, for “eliminations,” my enthusiasm is tempered by Corrina's query. Luckily, Corrina recently became a certified grade school teacher so she can pass on her wisdom and perspective.

The point is, the big awards represent the excellence of children's literature at large, and more than a popularity contest, the announcements are an occasion to remind us of the excellent body of work that exists and the efforts we should make in the year ahead to connect great kids with great books, whether these books have won a prize in professional organizations or are destined win a place in the heart of a single, special reader. Congratulations to everyone whose books I have reviewed, and to everyone who published a book this year. You dreamed it, and you did it. You win!!!

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

Thursday, January 10, 2008


GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! VOICES FROM A MEDIEVAL VILLAGE by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd (Candlewick)
Nowadays, with YouTube and My Space and television and media and thousands of books published every year, Andy Warhol's expectation of everyone getting "fifteen minutes of fame" has far surpassed itself. But what about people before Gutenberg, before the advent of television and computers? How is life documented, how is life remembered, how are lives celebrated? Where go the stories of the everyman? Perhaps all that's left of centuries ago has dissipated into the ethers and imaginations of the new generation, and certainly into the imagination of author Laura Amy Schlitz.

Schlitz, a gifted teacher as well as an author, wrote the pieces in this book for a group of her students. "They were studying the Middle Ages and were going at it hammer and tongs. I wanted them to have something to perform, but no one wanted a small part. So I decided to write monologues instead of one long play, so that for three minutes at least, every child could be a star." In short poems and soliloquies, we meet the members of a Medieval village. Right out of the gate we are speeding along on a dangerous boar's hunt with the Lord's nephew Hugo. We share in the romantic exchanges of the self-conscious blacksmith's daughter Taggot, and hear the fretting over an arranged marriage done in two voices by the glass blower's daughters. We meet outspoken Nelly the sniggler (eel-catcher), who was too willful to drown in a bucket of water as a baby. We hear the laments of Lowdy, the Varlet's child, about the infestation of fleas. Edgar, the falconer's son, faces dastardly punishment for freeing a bird, while young Thomas, the doctor's son, learns the tricks of his imperfect trade. We feel pangs of Jack the Half-Wit, as he endures the slings and arrows of callous neighbors. My favorite of all is the poem of Otho, the Miller's son,"Oh, God makes the water, and the water makes the river,/ And the the wheel goes on forever. Every man's a cheater, and so every man is fed,/For we feed upon each other,/when we seek our daily bread." The author perfectly captures the rough edges of Medieval times, the dour struggle for survival, but most of all the beating hearts of the characters, channeled from across the span of time, with desires and delights and disappointments that, like the miller's son suggests, go on forever.

Byrd based his illustrations on a manuscript from 1255, opening with a map that can be used by young readers to hunt-and-find favorite characters and see where they live in relation to one another. The decorative style is extremely authentic and as delightful as looking through a kaleidoscope. With unobtrusive sidelines explaining unfamiliar vocabulary and thoughtfully dispersed compositions offering background knowledge about subjects such as "The Crusades," "Medieval pilgrimage," "Jews in Medieval society," "The Three-Field System," "Towns and Freedom," there is so much a child can learn within these pages, and oh so painlessly. This is a beautiful book, a poignant book and an engaging one; when is the last time you have looked forward to the next moment you will have to return to a book of poetry they way you have with an exciting novel? Proving that she can write outstanding books in many genres for children, Schlitz in short order has joined the ranks of Laurie Halse Anderson and Sue Stauffacher. A hybrid of many literary forms, this book is deserving the high honor of a Newbery, but barring that, it certainly wins the Time Machine award of the year. (11 and up)

Also of interest:
The Middle Ages: why read it when you can live it? Try the attractive activity guide DAYS OF KNIGHTS AND DAMSELS by Laurie Carlson (Chicago review Press) and KNIGHTS AND CASTLES: 50 HANDS-ON ACTIVITIES TO EXPERIENCE THE MIDDLE AGES by Avery Hart, illustrated by Michael Kline (Kaleidoscope Kids).
Kids can glean a little more historical inspiration and background knowledge from these oldies but goodies:
A MEDIEVAL FEAST by Aliki (HarperTrophy)
HOW WOULD YOU SURVIVE IN THE MIDDLE AGES? by Fiona McDonald and David Salariya, illustrated by Mark Peppe (Franklin Watts)

MERLIN AND THE MAKING OF THE KING by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Holiday House)
BEOWULF is some scary stuff retold by Michael Morpugo, illustrated by Michael Foreman (Candlewick)
CASTLE DIARY: THE JOURNAL OF TOBIAS BURGESS by Richard Platt, illustrated by Chris Riddell (Candlewick)
CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY by Karen Cushman (HarperTrophy) Yes, a novel, but I can't resist reminding you to read Cushman's work for a unique and worthwhile Medieval female's point of view! Another good author along these lines is Carolyn Meyer; older children can check out MARY, BLOODY MARY, full of more intrigue than a middle school!
CHAUCER'S CANTERBURY TALES by Marcia Williams (Walker) All the earthy humor and goodwill of the merry classic is captured in colorful comic strip form. Where oh where was this when I was in high school? Check out all of Marcia William's colorful takes on classics, from The Iliad to Shakespeare to Dickens.

Fare thee well, gentle readers!

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


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