Thursday, February 28, 2008


HOW I LEARNED GEOGRAPHY by Uri Shulevitz (Farrar Straus & Giroux)
Displaced by the events of WWII, Shulevitz's family found themselves reeling against the unfamiliar backdrop of Turkestan (now Khazakhstan) , sleeping on a dirt floor, with no toys or books and worst of all, no food for a very hungry little boy. In a scenario reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk, the author's father goes at last to the bazaar to buy some bread, but instead returns with a large map. "'I had enough money to buy only a tiny piece of bread, and we would still be hungry,' he explained apologetically. 'No supper tonight,' Mother said bitterly. 'We'll have the map instead.'" Though stomachs continued to growl, the effect of the large map hung on the wall was transformative. This title is a loving tribute to a father's foresight, and to the nourishing power of imagination. A brief and affecting endnote includes the only surviving photo of the author during that time period, and a map and cartoon drawn by the man who would someday become a Caldecott honoree many times over.

I have to confess, when I read this book, a tiny piece of my heart began to crumble at the panic-worthy prospect of how many children might not be exposed to this title because it is a picture book. In these treacherous (and hopefully numbered) days of Every Child Left Behind and testing and general climate of needless academic posturing, we have so often marginalized the art form of illustrated books into "baby books," counting words and pages and reading levels with meticulous Orwellian scrutiny and determining what is too easy to the point that we have discarded the value of the what the author is trying to convey at its heart. Picture-book nonfiction affords educators such a marvelous opportunity to integrate reading into all subject areas while managing time-constraints, while busting the nefarious "baby book" myth that stigmatizes children and keeps them from reading books they can actually understand and enjoy. What impressed me most about this particular historical vignette is that it is perfect for removing that stigma; it's not a children's book or a grown-up book, it is an offering, a memory, a representation of an author with something to share who, in this instance, relates it even more effectively and immediately than the celebrated Peter Sis who often creates within the framework of similar themes. Though younger children will appreciate the vibrant artwork of the Caldecott-winning talent and sympathize (and in some cases empathize) with the deprivations of the hero, older children need this book integrated into their social studies program for its simple, hopeful message: the world awaits. Let's hope that applies to the world of picture books as well. (7 and up)

Also of interest:
Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses longing to read free!

THE CASTLE ON HESTER STREET by Linda Heller, illustrated by Boris Kulikov (Simon and Schuster) In an energetic 25th anniversary reissue, Grandpa enthusiastically recounts his arrival to the Golden Medinah of America with some hyperbole, only to be corrected by a more literal grandmother. This charming immigrant tall tale and intergenerational classic is graced with good humor, good history and new, Chagall-inspired illustrations. (6 and up) Also wonderful and in the same vein is MY NAME IS NOT GUSSIE by Mikki Machlin (Houghton Mifflin), one of my all-time favorite books on the subject of immigration, in which reminiscences of a hundred-year-old grandmother's experience as a Jewish Russian immigrant girl shine via first-person POV, each vignette funny, frightening and moving in turn. The storytelling voice is so personal, turning the last page of the book is truly like saying goodbye to a only complaint, if I might be a "kvetch" like Tante Feindele in the story, is that it left me wanting more, hundreds of pages worth! As it stands, it is a perfect read-aloud for older children, with an especially attractive layout: each double-page spread offering on one side a two-column anecdote and on the other a detailed watercolor. Sadly, it is out-of print, but happily, since we live a hundred years later than Gussie's landing at Ellis Island, we can find used copies easily on the internet. (8 and up)

THE ARRIVAL by Shaun Tan (Scholastic) In the new wave of graphic storytelling in the vein of the beloved HUGO CABRET, we have this thoroughly amazing Australian import, in which a new immigrant traverses a surrealistic and futuristic landscape. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the series of wordless frames capture the stories and emotions of thousands of new arrivals: feeling lost, haunted by memory, struggling to decode language, feeling part of a larger machine, and the relief and support offered by friends and loved ones who can make any new place feel like home. The lack of specificity of countries or groups makes this all the more universal. A beautiful artistic feat in sepia tones and with such resonating and original elements of fantasy, to turn these pages is like getting to read a dream. I can't wait for this to come out in paperback so I can buy a classroom set; there is so much to discuss, and to share this with a class is really preparing them for the future of books, and for the moral imagination required for globalization. Wow. See it to believe it. (9 and up)

I think of immigrants as new and brave explorers, so I am combining themes here:

TRAILBLAZERS: POEMS OF EXPLORATION by Bobbi Katz, illustrated by Carin Berger (Greenwillow) "Imagine an earlier time...there are no maps. The globe is blank. What lies behind the mountain, beyond the sea, beyond earth's atmosphere? Who will risk life itself to find out?" What a boon to elementary educators to have this marvelous and extensive collection of sixty poems, consistently excellent, arranged chronologically and listed by explorer in the contents, across all cultures, from Queen Hashteput to Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, from Ibn Battutato Henando Cortés, Mary Kingsley to Bessie Coleman, with brief prose biographical notations for each entry in the back. The author's own experience with children shines through, as she knows how to hook 'em: how can one resist reading "The Plan of the Mongol Commanders," or experiencing "Dawn at the Cosmodrome"? New teachers, heads up: you can build a year-long unit around this baby. (8 and up)

EXPLORER: A DARING GUIDE FOR YOUNG ADVENTURERS by Henry Hardcastle (Candlewick) This is the book Indiana Jones would have had as a child. With fold-outs, pop-ups, letters and plenty of solid "training" and real survival skills, lost treasures and explorers-who-have-gone-before, fans of novelty books will find themselves well-outfitted to traverse across deserts, beneath the sea, into the jungle, across polar ice caps and through ancient Egyptian tombs. Unusually attractive engraving-style illustration and a palette worthy of faded maps make this endeavor especially fetching. More then a gimmicky guide, this book is genuinely exciting and informative...honestly, I have not had this much fun or covered more territory since the comic digest adventures with Huey, Dewey and Louie. (7 and up)

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

Sunday, February 24, 2008


TWIST: YOGA POEMS by Janet S. Wong, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (McElderberry)

Head to foot to foot,
Finger to finger to toe,
Hand to ankle to hip:
My body is a puzzle of triangles.

The lines are invisible
but straight and strong.
Children’s imaginations will stretch and stretch with this collection of short poems that combine mind and body. A child can become a cobra, pushing up from damp soil, a half-moon grabbing hold of a star, a graceful warrior, a roaring lion, a swaying tree, or back again into a child (The chick-child curls up and breathes full./Her body remembers the inside of the eggshell,/the firm roundness of her first home.) Serene and spell-like, each poem is graced with a bold illustrated border. This unusual pick will help all readers become more comfortable in their own skins. (6 and up)

Also of interest:
I have to confess, after a few hard fouls in basketball, I was the girl who made up almost any excuse to sit on the sidelines during gym, and my only physical fortitude was demonstrated through square-dancing. That said, I find these bones finally creaking and cracking towards the new hope of adding a little action to the reading experience.

MY DADDY IS A PRETZEL by Baron Baptiste, illustrated by Sophie Fatus (Barefoot Books) During circle time, children take turns saying what their parent does for a living, and each answer is related to a yoga pose that children can try themselves. The dog pose for the vet! The airplane pose for the pilot! The plow pose for the farmer! The pretzel pose for the baker! Extremely cheerful and folksy art carries the storyline, and also visually outlines the steps toward achieving the yoga poses. “The practices here give children and adults alike targets to aim for and examples to follow, while the storyline shows how the benefits and inner meanings of the yoga postures relate to the way we live, whatever our profession or status in life,” the author explains in his introduction. A very nice beginning book…one step in a long journey, as they say. (4 and up)

It’s so hard to find a book that really, truly gives new energy to sharing stories with kids, but this one does the trick. Short-easy-to-learn stories from around the world with character education themes are integrated with yoga movements (photographs included) that match the actions and characters in the narrative. This is an extremely generous book; with notes on safety, warm-ups, class control and inclusion, as well as games and exercises for creative relaxation for kids, it’s clear that the author’s intent was that anyone could create a whole yoga/storytelling practice using the content of this book. Even if that is not the case, the author has offered us a new outlook on the connections between health and literacy, and educators can all breathe easier at this truly joyful possibility of individualizing instruction for kids with learning differences, so they can get up and move during storytimes without being disruptive. What an exciting concept! (Adult)

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

Thursday, February 21, 2008


THE NEDDIAD by D. Manus Pinkwater (Houghton Mifflin)
I have read all the reviews of this book so far. Most of the reviewers liked it pretty well. Did any of them get what it's about? Not really. Do I know what it's about? Well, I'm the author. Am I going to say what it's about? Nope--that would be telling. I hope you will read it, and make up your own mind. If you hate the book, you can always make it a present to someone whose taste you don't respect, or use it for pressing flowers, or a doorstop.

So sayeth D. Manus Pinkwater in an autobiographically written Amazon review, but I'm afraid I won't be using his latest novel for a doorstop anytime soon; then we would miss all the fun of traveling alongside Neddie Wenworthstein, who is making an elegant cross-country trip from 1940's Chicago to Los Angeles, land of the LaBrea Tar Pits and hat-shaped restaurants, courtesy of the bankroll made big by his father, scoring a fortune in shoelaces. Separated from his family on route, Neddie encounters a shaman who puts him in possession of a turtle carved from a meteorite, a fun little chochkie that is all that separates humanity from the end of civilization. Hang on to it, Neddie! Pinkwater takes us cross-country in this expansive, genuinely imaginative and original novel. This is an author that knows its audience well enough to throw in a woolly mammoth that can perform a circus trick, aliens from outer space, and a ghost. And this is the author who can make you believe it could have happened...and that it could happen to you. (9 and up)

Also of interest:
I have been getting a few e-mails asking why I don't review more fiction. Well, to tell you the truth, I only like to recommend books that hit a home run, and when I read novels, it's harder to find books that get past second base in terms of consensus by their intended audience of kids 9-12. They take along time to read and to share, and even after best efforts, many are met with a youthful ambivalence, an eye-rolling distaste that only a tweenager can fully manufacture. Throw in the desire to find books worthy of read-aloud to older kids, maybe something they will even read by romantic flashlight, and you've got quite the tall order. Still, a few funny, thoughtful titles have lately made the grade, and I am happy to present some smart chapter books for smart kids:

ALCATRAZ VERSUS THE EVIL LIBRARIANS by Brandon Sanderson (Scholastic) Are you so bad at something, you're almost good at being bad at it? For Alcatraz Smedry, he is world-class at being clumsy, but his greatest fault may be a life-saver when faced with the cult of Evil Librarians, who abscond with a precious bag of sand, an inheritance given to him on his thirteenth birthday, setting off a truly epic quest that happens almost entirely in the library. This book has laugh-out-loud slapstick, zany characters, and a meticulous plotting that keeps imagination from becoming mayhem; in fact, I have yet to meet a child (or a librarian) who didn't like this book, probably because it sizzles with magic, and gives readers hope that whatever fault you may have can be turned to an advantage. The tempo of the storytelling has been widely compared to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai in the 8th Dimension, so fasten your seat belts. (9 and up)

THEODOSIA AND THE SERPENTS OF CHAOS by R.L. LaFevers (Houghton Mifflin) What to do, oh dear, what to do when your parents are archeologists and fall under Egyptian curses? Par for the course, it seems, for savvy, sharp-tongued daughter Theodosia, a turn-of-the-century butt-kicker who is on the prowl for a powerful amulet that World War I bigwigs are gunning for. It's hard to say who is an ally and who is an enemy, but luckily, Theodosia trusts none. Enthusiasts of historical fiction (especially WWI and Ancient Egypt) will find an erudite book with a vocabulary and wit that doesn't talk down to its audience for a New York (ahem, make that a Cairo) minute. Smart stuff. (11 and up)

THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY by Trenton Lee Stewart (Little, Brown) "ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?" After answering this unusual ad, Reynie finds himself in the company of three equally unusual associates: small, sad Sticky, still heartbroken over the avaricious nature of his parents; adventurous Kate, who really ran away to join the circus; and cantankerous Constance, who is clearly good for something, if we can only discover what. Together, they choose to unite in a secret mission and take down the nefarious force at the Learning Institute of the Very Enlightened, the hub of messages that are being subliminally sent into the minds of the masses. Carefully paced and full of very clever puzzles and challenges that the children undertake, this book will happily confound followers of Balliet's CHASING VERMEER series, and fans of Georgia Byng's MOLLY MOON'S BOOK OF HYPNOTISM will appreciate the carefully drawn pathos of each of the characters, plenty of underdogs worth rooting for. (10 and up)

THE SEEMS: THE GLITCH IN SLEEP by John Hulme and Michael Wexler (Bloomsbury USA) How do you think things run in the world? Who makes the weather? Who designs dreams? Filling the position of "the Best Job in the World," Twelve-year-old Becker Drane becomes a fixer, a cog in the The Plan which keeps things running smoothly. Some disconcerting glitches are occurring, maybe instigated by the Bedbugs who handle Nightmares, or perhaps a secret organization bent on dismantling the structure altogether? Whatever the cause, Draner better mend the problems of the world, or have the Fabric of Reality ripped away. Fans of Juster's THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH will appreciate the humor and wordplay throughout. A truly great fantasy creates an alternate world and makes us believe in it; with page-turning speed, this book sure enough seems to deliver. (9 and up)

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

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


GREEN EGGS AND HAM COOKBOOK by Georgeanne Brennan and Dr. Seuss (Random House)
Sometimes you get a taste for Yot in the Pot, and nothing else will do. For those days, forty-four Dr. Seuss were culled for food references, culminating in a collection that meets the criteria for a good cookbook: recipes you will return to again and again. At first, one might think this is another marketing throw-away, but au contraire, these recipes are the enthusiastic invention of real live cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan, who took the time to discover insights such as that apple glaze is the perfect consistency for holding cilantro on a very impressive ham to go with guacamole green eggs. Since she’s a real cookbook author, the recipes at times ambitiously assume a real cook, but there are enough simple recipes (like the River of Nobsk Corn-off-the-Cobsk and the marvelous and beautiful Pink Yink Ink Drink) and they are easy enough to modify that everyone can confidently don their aprons. Some thought was actually given to the healthfulness of the recipes, and though there are lots of treats there is also the inclusion of healthy ingredients and recommendations for leaner meats and oils. The signature craziness of Seuss is bound to bring out the culinary adventurers in kids, bolstering their willingness to try more unusual ingredients. A perfect pick for preparation of Seuss’s birthday celebration on March 2nd, but I don’t think I can wait that long; the Cat’s Mac and Cheese will be on our dinner plates tonight. (7 and up)

Alsoof interest:
What else is cooking on the bookshelf?

THE MOON MIGHT BE MILK by Lisa Shulman, illustrated by Will Hillenbrand (Dutton) A little girl wonders what the moon is made of. Milk, says the cat. An egg, says the hen. Sugar, says the butterfly. So many animals, so many opinions, which one is right? Grandma knows; when she puts them all together, she makes a moon cookie that readers can replicate, thanks to a simple recipe in the back of this sweet book. Now, what’s the sun made of? (4 and up)

THE SPATULATTA COOKBOOK by Isabella and Olivia Gerasole (Scholastic) “Liv and Belle” Gerasole are two very, very nice girls who happen to be the youngest winners ever of a James Beard Foundation Award, and who do an amazing job in encouraging kids to be confident and capable cooks through their creative must-visit video website. They bring their expertise to this cookbook, arranged very clearly with tabs for each of the four seasons, vegetarian recipes, and snacks. The recipes sizzle with a diverse international flair as well as American classics, and include succinct lists of ingredients, equipment, numbered steps toward completion, and tons of photos showing technique as well as finished products. The Gerasoles clearly take kids’ cooking very seriously; these are not experiments, these are dishes that will have your family asking for seconds. (8 and up)

And don't forget, there is a whole section of literature-based cookbooks and ideas for "Reading and Eating" (including a "raise a reader" program you can run from your apartment) in HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO LOVE READING. And since I love you and don't want you to have to wait to eat something, I am going to share my latest favorite recipe for this easy easy easy and divine chocolate cake that my friend Patrick Dunafin the Gym Teacher shared with me (thanks, man!!!), I've made it six times since January.

4 eggs
1/2 c. oil
1/2 c. water
dark chocolate fudge cake mix (Betty Crocker)
small thing of chocolate instant pudding
12 oz. bag of chips (semi-sweet, but the white chocolate swirls work great, too)
A cup of sour cream (this is optional, I found out by mistake)
Mix! Pour into well-greased pan or bundt cake mold. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes. Drizzle with melted white chocolate, like Patrick does, or cover with two cans of whipped cream, like I do.

More insane baking inspiration may be found at Family Fun; I swear, you will be the Belle of the Bake Sale. Also, check out these crazy laser-cut cupcake wrappers for special occasions! And if you're on a diet, maybe you should just make a diaper cake for a friend instead.

Also, in other delicious news: the Cybils have been announced, prestigious literary awards given by the community of bloggers with a passion for children's and young adult books. Thanks to the thoughtful committee, and check out this year's choices across the genres!

Bon appetit!

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

Friday, February 15, 2008


THE HOUND FROM THE POUND by Jessica Swaim, illustrated by Jill McElmurry (Candlewick)
Let's celebrate Valentine's Day with a little puppy love! Lonely Miss Mary Lynn MacIntosh is irresistibly drawn to the bad boy of the bunch at the pound: a basset with no obedience training, but enough of a leader of the pack to have every other canine follow him to his new home. Overwhelmed with paw prints and puddles, Sam the Trainer comes to Mary Lynn's rescue, and while the old dogs learn new tricks, the affection between the couple grows by leaps and bow-wownds. The affair culminates in a marvelous wedding with Mary Lynn in a poodle-inspired gown, and a basset as best man.

Pictures books in verse can be cloying, but the meter is this book is so tight and the lines so witty, and with a joyful refrain, it's a good example of what a rhyming book should be. Double-page spreads have lots to look at but are anchored by bold brush strokes and a brown-based palette, and care is given so that each canine has a personality. An earthy, true-to-life depiction of Not-So-Still Life with Dogs, young readers and listeners will love the chance to chime in with recognized breeds and to howl "AH-ROOoooooo!" with the best of 'em. This funny book is a real tail-wagger! (4 and up)

Also of interest:
Visit my page of Unlovable Love Stories for some of my favorites, such as Leah Wilcox's FALLING FOR RAPUNZEL (Putnam) and Vladimir Radunsky's euphemistic TEN, which is oddly sexy (if you like armadillos). Also check out the "Ten Ways to Use Books and Reading to Say I Love You on Valentine's Day," and every day. What could be more romantic than cuddling up and reading aloud?

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


VINNIE AND ABRAHAM by Dawn Fitzgerald, illustrated by Catherine Stock (Charlesbridge)
My work has never been a labor, but an ecstatic delight to my soul. I have woked in my studio not envying kings in their splendor; my mind to me was my kingdom, and my work more than diamonds and rubies. If my encouraging words can help any struggling artist to have new hope, I shall be glad..." -Vinnie Ream
With so many men away fighting the Civil War, women were given new opportunities for employment, and fourteen-year-old Vinnie Ream took on work sorting dead letters in the post office. During her noon breaks, she slipped away to the Washington graveyards, cultivating her gift for sculpture. Realizing "I'll have to make my own opportunity if I ever hope to make art," she apprenticed herself out to a famous artist, who could not deny her talent. Soon Vinnie reputation spread, and she was able to sculpt the likenesses of haughty congressmen, always putting out into the universe and into their influential ears her dearest wish: to sculpt the face of the brave President Lincoln, whom she often saw walking among the people despite many threats of assasination. Her wish was eventually granted, but bittersweet. After the deed of John Wilkes Booth, Congress sought to hire a sculptor to create a memorial statue of President Lincoln. Could Vinnie's image of the president as a kind and gentle man compete with other visions of Lincoln as a warrior or saint? Would the bias against her age and gender stop her from giving the gift she wanted to create for her country?

Besides being a tribute to a woman who never gave up, this is an extraordinary story of friendship and admiration, of two parallel lives converging in a way that resonates through all time. The graceful writing in this book lends itself to smooth storytelling, and almost euphoric levels of inspiration. Have a hanky handy; I cried twice during the reading, just rooting for Vinnie and celebrating her achievement as the youngest and first woman to receive a commission from the U.S. government. Stock makes watercolors look easy, with varied layout, an expressive style that captures Vinnie's indomitable energy and what surely was also a loveliness about her, and also evokes the flavor of the period. Capped off with a stirring author's note and a manageable list of both print and internet resources, this unassuming picture book biography was never boring, and achieves a level of excellence will truly take readers by surprise. It's the best Civil War period piece to hit the children's shelves since Patricia Polacco's PINK AND SAY. (7 and up)

Also of interest:
These all get my endorsement for President's Day picks...and a storytime pick any day! Read early and often.
GEORGE WASHINGTON'S TEETH by Deborah Chandra and Madeleine Comora,illustrated by Brock Cole (Farrar Straus and Giroux) What was the biggest challenge for the father of our country? The invasion of British troops? Winter at Valley Forge? No, it was toothaches that ultimately brought poor George Washington to his knees! Starting at age twenty-four, Washington lost a tooth a year (spitting out two as he crossed the Delaware) and by the time he took office, he had only two chompers left! No wonder he didn't smile for his portraits! Told in witty verse, we follow the immortal general as he battles this mortal and mortifying malady. The watercolors are glorious and humane. This book shows that even the most powerful people are prone to an Achilles' heel (or molar), and incorporates all sorts of fascinating and downright juicy history. A timeline is included at the end, along with a photograph of Washington's last set of dentures carved from hippopotamous ivory. It is unusual to find history told in a way that is so accessible and compelling to young children. How resonating is this book? After we first readthis some years ago, my son came up to me wiggling a tooth and announced joyfully, "Ma! I'm just like George Washington!" (6 and up)

ABE LINCOLN: THE BOY WHO LOVED BOOKS by Kim Winters, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Simon and Schuster) They thought he was lazy, this boy who would take a book out of his back pocket to read at the end of each row he'd plow. In fact, bigger things were in store for this young dreamer who was destined to become out 16th president. Readers are treated to a homey glimpse of this hero's boyhood, leaning on his father's lap by the fireside as yarns were spun, splitting wood, shivering with his sister in a drafty log loft. It chronicles both the dark days (like when Abe's mother dies of "milk sickness" when he is nine) and exciting adventures (such as the great wrestling match between him and Jack Armstrong, which was met with cries of "Body slam! Body slam!" by my second grade listeners). The story stops where most others begin, as Lincoln takes his seat at the White House. The unpretentious illustrations are evocative of the period and contain many details that are springboards to discussion, such as what schools were like in pioneer times, and why Lincoln campaigned from a train. And don't forget, in honor of Lincoln's favorite pastime, celebrate his birthday by starting a penny drive fundraiser for your school library! (6 and up)

A BIG CHEESE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE: THE TRUE TALE OF A TREMENDOUS CHEDDAR by Candace Fleming, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Farrar Straus and Giroux) Jefferson wasn't the only big cheese in the White House in 1801, thanks to the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts. I liked the persistent undertone of the town "downer," Phineas Dobbs, throughout the story ("It can never be done!" "I told you it could never be done!") as the town sought to create a ridiculously enormous cheese, weighing 1,235 pounds! The success of the endeavor suggests that diligence is all that's really necessary to overcome cynicism and make ideas come to fruition...or is it cheesition? Kids will melt over this funny, exciting and true story. (6 and up)

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

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


NEW CLOTHES FOR NEW YEAR'S DAY by Hyun-Joo Bae (Kane/Miller)
A girl prepares for Solnal, the South Koran Lunar New Year, by the meticulous dressing into hanbok, a glorious traditional princess-worthy costume complete with embroidered socks, rainbow-striped jacket and crimson skirt, a warm furry vest, embroidered shoes, lucky charm, red and gold hair ribbons, bag and black satin hat. Dressed to the nines, the girl opens to discover that the world around her has also dressed new snow! The delicate illustration style is evocative of the masterful work of Demi (for a sample, check out her recent release, THE BOY WHO PAINTED DRAGONS, a dazzling, golden-gilded tale of a boy who faces his fears), but Bae is clearly a talent in her own right. Strong figurative drawings really capture the palpable frustration and accomplishment of a young child getting dressed. The final garb really is so stunning, and rendered with lots of red jumping off the page, a symbolic color of good luck. Indeed, any child would be lucky to have this strong multicultural pick included in a storytime, any time of year. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
February 7th starts the Lunar New Year celebrations for many Asian cultures! Though I am not Chinese, my family does something every year to celebrate this festive, firecracker-filled holiday, because the dancing dragons, paper lanterns, red envelopes full of money given to the children, and a reason to order out the Mongolian Combo from the lovely take-out place on the corner make this holiday just too fun to miss.

There are many great children's books about Chinese New Year and Chinese culture, but there are a couple that are an absolute necessity in the collection of any grown-up who wants to share the holiday with their class or family. MOONBEAMS, DUMPLINGS AND DRAGON BOATS: A TREASURY OF CHINESE HOLIDAY TALES, ACTIVITIES AND RECIPES by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz and the Children's Museum, Boston, illustrated by Meilo So (Harcourt) is one of these. Every teacher I showed this book to gave a gleeful shout upon receiving it in their hands, as if welcoming someone they hoped would stop by. I gave the shout myself when I saw this title, a much-needed resource and long-awaited addition to any multicultural collection. This book spills over with crafts, recipes, stories and fascinating general information pertaining to Chinese New Year and the lantern Festival, as well as Qing Ming and the Cold Foods Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival and the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Intriuged? You should be, this stuff is more delicious than a Five-Treasure Moon Cake (yes, a recipe for that is included, too!). A guide to Chinese pronunciation, internet resources and a compass to the Chinese Zodiac are a few of the handy extras that you'll find. Some of Meilo So's illustrations are so brightly colored and energetic, I wonder if she didn't dip her paintbrush into a firecracker to make these pictures! Phenomenally festive and just plain fun, both children and adults will love poring over it, and every teacher absolutely needs it. Non-fiction fit for a dragon!

The other book that is an absolute must-have is HAPPY NEW YEAR!/KUNG-HSI FA-TS'AI! by Demi, who has been notorious for using art supplies like a mouse's whiskers in order to create her illustrations. But exquisite artwork aside, this book is the most complete and engaging compendium of information about Chinese New Year that I have come across, including information about the animal zodiac, read Chinese writing and learn all of the kindest Chinese greetings for the New Year, watch a parade of Chinese guardians and symbols go by (each clearly explained), learn what all the dishes served on New Year's represent, what role different trees and flowers play, and so much more. Informative for kids and grown-ups alike!

I also turn annually to Ying Chang Compestine's RUNAWAY RICE CAKE, illustrated by Tungwai Chau (Simon & Schuster), an altruistic tale of a hungry family who shares food with the needy. While the message is lovely, I have to admit that my favorite part is the recipe for the unique and authentic rice cake nian gao in the back of the book. A far cry from the Styrofoam discs we can buy at the supermarket, this is a damp and sugary cake you can slice into and that is a delight to make as part of a yearly tradition. No wonder Ms. Compestine is so successful as the author of cookbooks as well as children's books, though she consistently combines both talents; THE REAL STORY OF STONE SOUP, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch (Dutton), adds some fresh Chinese flavor to an old trickster tale, and also includes a recipe in the back of the book.

Also check out librarian/author extraordinaire Toni Buzzeo's latest, FIRE UP WITH READING illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa (Upstart), in which a school librarian helps her patrons to "scale" new reading heights with the help of a dragon dance promotion that's fun to replicate (lots of firey and fetching support materials available from Upstart). More suggestions for celebrating the culture during every month of the calendar may be found at the article I wrote, Dim Sum and Then Some: Celebrating China Through Children's Books. Plus, you can make something fun by visiting the Chinese New Year Crafts at Kaboose, and be sure to get on the mailing list for the cool Asia for Kids catalog so you can enjoy the continent all year long. You can even get a purse that looks like a Chinese food take-out container, to carry all of your good fortune!

Happy Year of the Rat!
This pretty print was done by willlovelogic at the Etsy on-line artist collaborative!
Don't you think this person would be a dandy book illustrator?

On a personal note: Chinese Zodiac Classroom Horoscopes!
For a long time I was a Chinese astrology "junkie" and studied their zodiac, in which each year was represented by a different animal, repeating in cycles of twelve years, and a person had particular traits based on what year they were born (like how the Western zodiac has Libra, Sagittarius, Pisces, etc. representing the months). This year belongs to the clever and resourceful rat; wouldn't Templeton be pleased!

When I was a new teacher, it always struck me as funny listening in the teacher's lounge to the veterans complain that classroom dynamics alternate; if you had a "bad" class one year, the wives' tale seemed to dictate that you would have a "good" one the next, and teachers with "good" classes shivered over what the next year would bring. The scary thing was, it seemed to be true! Why would that be? It struck me that nearly all of the children in a class would have been born in the same year, and according to the Chinese zodiac, would probably share certain qualities. According to Chinese horoscopes, a "Ying" year is followed by a "Yang" year, and so it stands to reason that the challenges of the classroom would either rise or ebb, depending on the teacher's own place in the chart. In the interest of all classes being "good" classes at heart, a few years ago I compiled all of my limited but enthusiastic knowledge of the Chinese zodiac to create this guide to help teachers anticipate the needs of the animals in front of them. Teachers, you'll have to tell me if it rings true or not for your class! This information is for entertainment purposes only; I hope you have as much fun reading them as I had writing them!

If your class was born in 1996, your classroom is Year of the Rat!
What a well-rounded, clever group! These children can pick things up in a flash, so be sure to assess their abilities regularly and mind your pacing. This bunch loves to collect things, and has many outside interests. How about a classroom museum, or regular show-and-tell? Rats have artistic and literary flair, and this is a great year to let the children run the class newspaper (they are very creative writers), or create a library of books on tape read by the children. Be flexible in your routine; these kids feel bogged down by schedules, and once they get rolling with something, you'd be better off to let them roll. People born under this first sign in the Chinese zodiac are adventurers, and sensualists; incorporate multi-sensory experiences whenever possible, whether sniffing spices that Marco Polo might have encountered or rubbing hands in a piece of fur that might have been traded by the pioneers. Reward them in a classroom economy, they will just love keeping track. You may want to initiate some conflict-resolution ground rules for your class, as this energetic group can become aggressive towards each other at times. Also, this group loves responsibility, but the lesson of not biting off more than you can chew will be valuable in the long-run for these children. Although this group will grow up to be leaders, while they are children they have a need to feel comforted and protected, so give them plenty of hugs (no matter what your administrator says). When they come back to visit you, they will be entrepreneurs, breaking ground in whatever they choose to do.

If your class was born in 1997, your classroom is year of the Ox!
You have a classroom full of hard workers! Strength is the hallmark of oxen, both in character, constitution and ability. Physically robust, you will have good attendance this year. Appeal to the oxen with the practical side of things; this is a good year to teach about simple machines and money skills, and read lots and lots of folktales. Oxen can stick to tasks that require repetitive attention, or attention over time; measure those bean plants, dig for dinosaur bones in plaster, learn those time tables, work on handwriting. Build, build, build wherever possible; early childhood educators should invest in another set of blocks. There is something kind of old-fashioned about ox children; they are polite, sticking to the rules and self-reliant. Though calm and amicable, the ox child might struggle with shyness and veer into the land of the lonely. Refer to your classroom community as "a family" to help them feel like they belong, even if they don't do things to stand out. Oxen build their futures in construction, on the farm, in academics or in the corner office of a corporation.

If your class was born in 1998, your classroom is year of the Tiger!
Tigers love a challenge, so this may be a year to raise the bar a little bit. Even though tigers can be extremely competitive and approval-seeking, they value friends above all else, so accentuate the need for sportsmanship while creating opportunities to excel; the idea that we all can be winners may be a new one to a Tiger. Tigers also passionately throw themselves into tasks to the point of burn-out, so alternate exciting projects where their leadership qualities can shine with intervals of calm review practice where they can relax and pull themselves together. Try weekly poetry memorizations and oral presentations with this group (How about William Blake's "Tyger, tyger burning bright"?) for something to look forward to that gives each child a chance to shine, maybe even a poetry slam or two? Field trips will have this group roaring for more. Intelligent, far-sighted and with a dramatic streak, these children often earn their stripes in the military, on stage as actors or comedians, or behind the wheel as chauffeurs and pilots.

If your class was born in 1987 or 1999, your classroom is year of the Rabbit!
Like the sheep (1991), this is a sensitive and artistic group. Be sure to create an organized, tidy environment with plenty of routine to help your bunnies thrive. Rabbits also have a strong social streak, and if you can invite children into the subject matter with "clubs" or other groups, they will be extremely receptive. This attentive group will tune in to read aloud, and their prowess as mini-administrators make for great reading groups as well. Though no child likes sarcasm, take special care to avoid it with rabbits, as it cuts them especially deeply. Music is their special gift and it can permeate your day without creating a distraction; get out those classical albums and watch them whistle while they work. Rabbits grow up to be attentive therapists, diplomats, fare well in public relations, and shine in the arts. This diverse spread of talent makes them effective teachers, too!

If your class was born in 1988 or 2000, your classroom is year of the Dragon!
The dragon is one of the most charismatic of the Chinese signs, so you have a classroom full of irrepressible personalities that will need your most acute attention to bring out the best in them. Energy and ideas percolate, sometimes manifested in hyperactivity and other times these children seem to withdraw into a world of their own invention. Maybe because they are so good at solving problems in creative ways, these children are not particularly good at taking advice, and you may hear a lot of "I know, I know!" when trying to teach. It stands to reason, then, that one of their favorite sayings might also be "I did it all by myself." Help dragons learn to organize and plan, so that their many dreams can come to fruition. Science and invention fairs will go over very well this year. The best ways to get dragons to open up and hear other people's ideas is through many classroom discussions, structured to insure that everyone's ideas get the respect they deserve. Dragons may also demonstrate specialized talents that are not necessarily academic; go out of your way to encourage parents to support them with outside classes. Unusually loyal and ethical, a good teacher will help prepare these straightforward souls for a world that might take advantage of their trusting natures. These children grow up to live by example in business and politics, and also thrive in fields like engineering and computer technology.

If your class was born in 1989 or 2001, your classroom is year of the Snake!
Intuitive, enigmatic and even Machiavellian, you have a classroom full of children who like their own space or they get rattled. Manage your classroom with special care to avoid boisterous and chaotic situations, as these children respond especially well to order and calm. Keep your eyes peeled also for cliquish behavior. These children may have unusual organizational skills and are good, ponderous problem solvers. Try activities involving logic and patterns, read lots of mysteries together, and if you can sew, make a quilt. They are also good at research, so give them plenty of opportunities to look things up on their own. While this group may be sometimes slow to start, take care to explain things more than one way and make yourself available for further questions. Once they get going, though, they attack their work with imagination and precision and bask in the sunshine of your praise. This group may have an almost mystical quality about them; pretend you are teaching at Hogwarts this year and you'll do all right. They grow up to become skilled craftspeople, surgeons, politicians and yes, magicians.

If your class was born in 1990 or 2002, your classroom is Year of the Horse!
You'd better make sure you have the children's input in creating classroom rules, or they will buck big-time. It's all about independence with this group, and they have a tendency to rebel, even have tantrums, if there are too many rules or expectations to conform exactly. Share lots of adventures and survival stories with them, and make sure they have plenty of opportunity to physically let off their steam. Explore world geography to help their minds run wild and free, and give them oral reports through the year, as this is a group of great communicators. Foreign languages may also entice them. Careers in journalism, air travel and hotel management may be in the cards for this bunch who will experience life at a full gallop.

If your class was born in 1991 or 2003, your classroom is Year of the Ram!
Oh, these children are so sweet! They have excellent fine motor skills and are an artistic bunch, and should have art and music integrated whenever possible. Their tendencies give them a special interest in the human face of history. Share lots of biographies of artists and peacemakers to inspire them, and to help them gain confidence. These children will also respond well to gardening activities and creating maps. Don't be shy about asking them to help with your bulletin boards, they are great at making visual displays! Socially, your students are sensitive and kind, but they can also be clingy and quick to cry. Work hard to make the physical environment of your classroom as cozy and domestic as possible to make the herd feel school is home away from home. They may grow up to build some pretty impressive homes of their own, as architects or interior designers, or they will carry their calm into the wider world as peacemakers.

If your class was born in 1992 or 2004, your classroom is year of the Monkey!
Be on your toes! Monkeys have a sharp wit and a naughty sense of humor and are known to start a bit of mischief just for the fun of it. These children also are intensely curious, imaginative and good at problem solving. Language is a great outlet for their world of questions and answers; journaling will be prolific. Regale them with trickster tales and allow them to explore using technology whenever possible. Books must abound in their environment, and learning centers will be a big hit. In fact, with monkeys the more resources the merrier, because they need plenty to keep these energetic minds on their work instead of plotting some diversion. If you use a project-based approach, Monkeys eventually come down from their trees to become super scientists and winsome writers.

If your class was born in 1993 or 2005, your classroom is Year of the Rooster!
Cock-a-doodle-doo, your class excels in all things dramatic, so break out those reader's theater scripts whenever you can! Besides being born performers, these little charmers have strong social skills and interact well with adults, so intergenerational projects will go over well. Be sure to accentuate the practical applications of subjects to avoid laying an egg; the straightforward algorithms of math will speak well to this brood. Though not famous for academic achievement, they tend to be perfectionists, so be generous with praise whenever you can to avoid classroom melodramas. Competitions are motivating for them, but with this group's effervescent sense of humor, the teacher will be the real winner this year. These students continue to be in the spotlight as they grow up and become performing artists.

If your class was born in 1994 or 2006, your classroom is Year of the Dog!
Lucky you, you have a classroom full of helpers! Make sure each child has a special responsibility in the class, or reach out into the community to lend a hand and watch them wag their tails. But beware, these dogs bare their teeth at busywork; feeling what they are doing is important to them, and this fact will be imperative towards motivating your pack. Try to find special interests and hobbies for each of your puppies, they are independent learners with a stick-to-itness that will make the passions you introduce now last a lifetime. These honest hard-workers grow up to be lawyers and judges, so all that arguing in class and insistence on fairness is just preparation for the future!

If your class was born in 1995, your classroom is Year of the Pig!
You have a very self-confident class with an indulgent streak. Average grades are satisfactory for this happy-go-lucky group, and character education is of greater interest than academic achievement. Feed their appetite for learning with plenty of activities that integrate cooking (and eating), and small group activities that satiate their need to socialize. Have plenty of joke books on hand, because when it comes to laughter, this group likes to give as well as receive! Many pigs respond well to extrinsic motivators, since pigs like special treats. Don't give up on them if they socialize a bit at first. Instead, enjoy their smiles and their willingness to roll with the punches; their laid back ways will make them receptive and eager as you try lots of new hands-on ideas in the classroom. Besides, you'll be a model; many piglets grow up to be teachers and boar classrooms of their own!

The zodiac images are papercut art from Artistic Chinese Creations. These are little treasures, how on earth do they cut such intricate designs from tissue? I like to get a bunch and read aloud TIKKI TIKKI TEMBO by Arlene Mosel, illustrated by Blair Lent, and give the cuttings as special prizes to the children who have the shortest name and the longest name (get extras, sometimes there is a tie!)

Gung hay fat choy...peace out and happy reading in the New Year, everyone!

"Chinese Classroom Horoscope," copyright 2003-2008, Please do not reproduce without attribution.
Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to
support your local bookseller.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


FIVE NICE MICE by Chisato Tashiro (Miniedition/Penguin)
"Frog Concert, Frogs Only" reads the sign, but a band of music-loving mice sneak in anyway. Despite their enthusiasm, they are escorted out, and the only choice they have left is to make their own instruments and host a more inclusive concert. This book risks being a sleeper, or a "squeaker," as the case may be, since it's hard to tell from the title what this book is really about. Inside, it truly embodies the spirit of Vivian Gussman Paley's preschool philosophy, YOU CAN'T SAY YOU CAN'T PLAY, as sharing and asking people to join in a circle of play are what makes this story hit such a high note. This book also captures a proactive spirit of inventiveness as the mice seek and find everyday items to create their instruments, and will inspire children to do the same. Best of all are the expressive, detailed and very sweet illustrations: a lone mouse peeking out from behind a velvet curtain, into the shadowy double-page spread of an awaiting audience; little mice hands aligning pencils like keys of a xylophone and stretching cheese cloth over a tomato can to make a drum; a joyful choir of wide-mouth frogs and euphoric mice making beautiful music...together! (4 and up)

Also of interest:
Music, music, music, in words and pictures!

GERSHWIN'S RHAPSODY IN BLUE by Anna Harwell Celenza, illustrated by JoAnn Kitchel (Charlesbridge) (nonfiction) American composer George Gershwin discovered by reading the newspaper that he was scheduled to debut a jazz concerto at a concert to be attended by the world's musical elite in a matter of five weeks, a publicity stunt pulled by an ambitious promoter. It seems like an impossible task, until George tunes in to the tempo of New York. "Klezmer, foxtrot, ragtime and blues. My concerto will be a tuneful kaleidoscope--a rhapsody about the music that surrounds me!" This is a wonderfully readable picture book biography celebrates how an artist synthesized what was around him in order to create a masterpiece; as George heard music in the train moving on the track, can children hear the music that surrounds them? This book also includes a CD recording of Gershwin performing Rhapsody in Blue in 1925! Everyone in America needs to know this piece of our cultural heritage outside of the commercial ditty co-opted for American Airlines, and this sure is a delightful way to receive it. (6 and up)

PUNK FARM and PUNK FARM ON TOUR by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Knopf) (picture books) Those with less erudite musical tastes might enjoy rocking out to "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," yeah yeah YEAAAHHHH, complete with electric guitar and microphone to scream into, or follow the barnyard band like a groupie as the wheels of their tour van go round and round. These books are a scream in more ways than one, just the ticket if you know a toddler with a mohawk, or want to add a contemporary beat to your storytime. "Thank you, Wisconsin!" (4 and up)

FOOTWORK: THE STORY OF FRED AND ADELE ASTAIRE by Roxanne Orgill, illustrated by Stéphanie Jorisch (Candlewick) (nonfiction) Before becoming tap-dancing king of the silver screen, Fred Astaire was on toe shoes atop a wooden wedding cake, playing the role of best friend and brother in his Vaudevillian family. Sensitive ink lines and watercolor washes capture the grace of the dancers and the tin-pan alley feel of the era. Hard knocks and high points mark the lesser-known part of Astaire's career, lending a new appreciation of the man leading Ginger Rogers, climbing staircases in slow motion, dancing with brooms, performing origami with his feet and dancing on the ceiling. Read, and then watch THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT to choreograph a few good steps toward a knowledge of Hollywood musicals. (7 and up)

MEET THE MUSICIANS: FROM PRODIGIES (OR NOT) TO PROS by Amy Nathan, featuring members of New York Philharmonic (Holt) (nonfiction) Virtuosos make performance look easy, but this book goes into all the sections of the orchestra to show the years and hard work and even a little whining that went into these successful careers. Full of great advice, "practice tips" in the sidelines to keep young musical hopefuls on track, photographs of the musicians as well as data (age they started playing, pets, favorite books as a kid, things that show they have outside interests and were children once, too), and "concert watch" insider items to look for as an audience member. This book is really a jewel for any child who has dreamed of being a professional musician, or has complained about having to practice their instrument. They'll find they are in very good company! (9 and up)

PIANO PIANO by Davide Cali,illustrated by Eric Heliot (Charlesbridge) Having her own dreams of being a concert pianist thwarted, Marcolino's mom generously imposes her ambition on her son, who would rather watch cartoons and dream of other occupations like magician, pirate and karate champion. When Grandpa sees that the piano is not Marcolino's forté, will an old photo album be the key to his daughter's balance, and helping his grandson find the instrument that suits him best? Funny, stylized illustrations underscore this poignant story that reminds us each child marches to his own drummer, prances to his own piano, or trots to his own tuba. (5 and up) Follow with the bizarro THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR. T, a surrealistic retro live-action tribute to all the long-suffering young piano-practicers, orchestrated by none other than Dr. Seuss. (7 and up)

JUKEBOX by David Merveille (Kane/Miller) Perhaps, as a child, you remember going up to a jukebox, putting in a coin and choosing a song that really reflects your taste (or like me, skittering away before anyone could see it was I who chose "Saturday Night" by the Bay City Rollers). This excitement is well-captured in this near-wordless picture book, as each person walks across a white background, chooses a song, and has the musical genre celebrated in a full-color page. Hip-hop! Country! Hawaiian music! Marching bands! Disco! Blues! Children can do their own artistic interpretations of their favorite musical style. Conceptually unique and a celebration of musical diversity, it's fun to turn the page and discover who is up next on the playlist. (5 and up)

JAZZ ABZ: A COLLECTION OF JAZZ PORTRAITS by Wynton Marsalis and Phil Schapp, illustrated by Paul Rogers. From Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie and every hep cat in between, this book gets it's bass beat from trumpeter Marsalis's true passion for the subject. The poetry calls out for reading while wearing a black turtlenecks and the playing of music by the featured artist in the background, and for those squares who still can't dig it, short, straightforward biographical notes are in the back. Art inspired by record covers boasts a bold, enigmatic palette and lines so crisp, they snap along with the music. Heavy and handsome, this book is a great gift for an adult jazz enthusiast, but also a solid pick for Black History Month. (8 and up)

All this tuneful inspiration, just in time for the new season of American Idol! And be sure to check out the article "Rock 'n Read Library Idol" by Carol Thompson in the "Keep 'em Reading" section of my favorite trade magazine, Library Sparks (sorry, no direct link to the article, but you can request a sample copy of the magazine). I loved the musical reference questions (such as what are the four groups of musical instruments, what years make up the classical music era, who were the members of The Beatles?) musical jokes (What did the guitar say to the guitarist? Stop picking on me!) and party menu (featuring treats like Ruben Studdard teddy bear cookies, and Simon Cowell sour tarts). Great job, Carol!

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


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