Friday, October 31, 2008


Just in time for Halloween, our favorite witch gets a spectacular makeover!

BRAVA, STREGA NONA!: A HEARTWARMING POP-UP BOOK by Tomie de Paola, paper engineering by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart (Putnam) Holy moly, sometimes a book comes along that I desperately want to wrap in a ribbon and give to every single person that I know and love, and this is that book. Many book mavens know Strega Nona, the gentle grandmother witch who can cure headaches, remove warts and mix a mean love potion, and who rescued poor Big Anthony from the pasta pot that ran amok. The recognizable simplicity and clarity of DePaola's style is put through Reinhart and Subuda's mighty magical pop-up machine, and what we have is an absolutely inspired and explosive tribute to an iconographic character in children's literature. After a brief introduction into the life of Strega Nona ( a mini pop-up book on the first page states: "I am delivered! / I learn the secrets of nature./ Grandma Concetta gives me her book of magic!/ And now the wise words!") we are treated to, basically, a self-help book of sorts. Short paragraphs underscore what is important in a Strega's life: family, friends, food, patience, celebration and love. Not a bad plan, and made all the better by breathtaking paper engineering that allows a full grape arbor to spring from the page, a fountain to spin and sparkle amidst a busy piazza, Big Anthony's infamous pasta overload to spill from the pages, and oh so sweetly, Strega Nona's own magic pot runneth over with hearts on the last page, a true Valentine to all who love Strega Nona...and to all who love reading.

The other thing that makes this book extraordinary is the artistic progression it represents for creators Reinhart and Sabuda, whose innovations into the pop-up have shaken the very possibilities of what a book can be. Sabuda deserved a Caldecott for his Herculean linocut-meets-pop-up masterpiece THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, though people I suppose at that juncture still considered pop-ups too "gimmicky." He persevered with Reinhart, and I thought the latest contribution to the Encyclopedia Mythologica: FAIRIES AND MAGICAL CREATURES was a new pinnacle, with lovely maids evolving into purple trolls, jeering pixies and swirling djinns peeking out from page insets, entire golden castles rising from the pages like some magnificent feat of paper architecture. Every time I see work with Sabuda's name on it, I think, how can this possibly be topped? But these books are all very complex and text-rich, and in a way, this cooperative effort with DePaola is the best yet because of all of these books, this is the one that best remembers its intended audience: the children. This collaboration of talents and genius between these several very gifted men embodies the expression "your art helps my art." Inspired, brave, lovely and fun, I hope it marks the beginning of more innovative connection and experimentation between creative spirits in the publishing world. Brava is right! (5 and up)

Also of interest:
More books that go bump on Halloween night (and beyond)!

THE MONSTER WHO ATE DARKNESS by Joyce Dunbar, illustrated by Jimmy Liao (Candlewick) Hey, fans of Mercer Mayer's THERE'S A MONSTER IN MY CLOSET, there's a new creature in town! Like a drop of black ink, the tiny speck of a monster grows and grows, insatiable in its appetite even as he drains all the darkness from the caves and forests and deepest volcanoes ("He especially liked darkness soup, which he made out of the darkness at the bottom of wells"). Eventually, the monster wraps his darkness around an overtired little boy, snoozing himself and letting drain away his darkness into the rest of the world like a warm blanket. Original and beguiling, the monster's hunger gives the story a good, monster-y edge, but the comfort of the ending will make this a good bedtime pick long after the Halloween candy...and the last corner of the darkest eaten. (4 and up)

VUNCE UPON A TIME by J. Otto Seibold and Siobhan Vivian (Chronicle) The talent behind the modern holiday favorite OLIVE, THE OTHER REINDEER now turns his attention to the season of black and orange, delivering the trials and tribulations of a rather timid and vegetarian vampire. Snazzy computer-generated art has a style all its own. (5 and up)

And have you been to a Halloween parade yet today? You can march vicariously with your favorite costumed book characters thanks to the excellent "Halloween Costume Contest" post at Collecting Children's Books. Be sure also to check out the post relating to my favorite Halloween poem, "What Was I Scared Of?" at Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Likes, from Dr. Seuss's THE SNEETCHES AND OTHER STORIES (my favorite Dr. Seuss book, also including poems like "Too Many Daves" and "The Zax"; by any chance, do you know a Zax stuck in his or her tracks this election season? ;-) I love to recite this poem and pull out an actual pair of pale green pants after reaching into an imaginary snide bush! EEEEEeeee! When you hear the sound of gleeful screams, you know it's Halloween.

On a personal note:

Thanks to teacher extraordinaire Ms. Barlock at Baker Elementary for inviting me to deliver a storytime (IN A DARK, DARK WOOD by David A. Carter, THE REVENGE OF THE MAGIC CHICKEN by Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger, and THE LITTLEST PUMPKIN by R.A. Herman and Betina Ogden) in her kindergarten class on this high holiday. It was a joy to visit with the children, and all of my friends at Baker! Thank you to the Burley Book Club, a warm and wonderful group who used the Bookroom venue for their thoughtful grown-up discussion of Linda Sue Park's middle grade novel A SINGLE SHARD. Truly, Burley is the gem of literacy best practices in the Chicago Public School system; they make every book a celebration! Last but not least, thank you also to Nancy Berggren at North Park University for the lovely lunch on campus, and a chance to meet with some of the staff in the education department. So many people all around the city doing such wonderful work!

All right, off to the spider-web bedecked Bookroom to frost cupcakes with black icing and sprinkle with eye of newt. Trick or treat!

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Monday, October 27, 2008


WHERE'S MY MUMMY? by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by John Manders (Candlewick) Follow Little Baby Mummy in his game of hide-and-shriek through a midnight graveyard, some shadowy woods, a slithery swamp and an ominous cave, all the while being warned by the cast of many a monster movie to be careful of creatures in the night. But for all the creepies he meets, it's a teeny squeaky mouse that sends Little Baby Mummy back to get wrapped in his mother's hug. The story steadily winds down to its bedtime conclusion (Dracula is wearing some very fetching bat jammies), and the author lights the spooky storytime way with plenty of sing-song join-along refrains. Pair with Margery Cuyler and S.D. Schindler's SKELETON HICCUPS and Alice Schertle and Curtis Jobling's THE SKELETON IN THE CLOSET for little ones who want a shiver up their spine and a tickle in their bones. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
THE FOGGY, FOGGY FOREST by Nick Sharratt (Candlewick) Turn the pages of misty vellum overlays and moody silhouettes to reveal fairy-tale scenes. Great potential for "turn the page, turn the page!" build-up, and a sense of the dark, dark forest fit even for those who preschoolers prefer their frights to be monster-free. (4 and up)

On a personal note:
In time for Halloween, here is the much requested Booger Cookie recipe from DIARY OF A FAIRY GODMOTHER:


1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 cup softened butter
1 tsp. vanilla
3/4 tsp. almond extract
Small package of instant pistachio pudding
1 egg
2 cups unbleached flour
1/2 cup chocolate chips
Pecan or walnut bits (optional)
Eye of newt, tongue of frog to taste (optional)

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 to 3 tbsp. milk
3-5 drops green food dye

Witch's hats:
Bag of Hershey's chocolate kisses (dark chocolate if you're really evil)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large cauldron, cream 1/3 cup powdered sugar, butter, 1 teaspoon vanilla, almond extract, pudding mix and egg until well blended. Bit by bit, stir in the flour and then the chocolate chips until well blended. Chant your favorite spell while you stir; it makes the time go faster and your hand hurt less.

Shape into 1-inch balls and roll in eye of newt (pieces of pecans or walnuts also work nicely if you like them). Place an inch apart on a cookie sheet. With thumb or wand, make imprint in the center of each cookie. Bake 10 minutes until edges are light brown. Let cool completely.

In a smaller cauldron, combine all filling ingredients until smooth, and place a very scant teaspoon of this filling into the center imprint of each cookie. Top each with a chocolate witch's hat. Serves one coven.

Thanks to my storybook kitchen witch Hunky Dory for the recipe; I just made eight dozen (and have only eaten six cookies so far, but the night is young). I am planning on packing them in Broom Favor Bags (directions courtesy of one of my other favorite kitchen witches, Martha Stewart). Pair with a copy of Eleanor Estes's THE WITCH FAMILY, and you'll have cast a real reading spell that will last long after the full moon fades.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Halloween draws nearer and nearer! (Insert cackle here!) The owl is abroad, the bat and the toad...and the howl for spooky reads from kids 9-12 grows ever louder! Here are some more picks for reading by moonlight, or flashlight.

THE ROBE OF SKULLS by Vivian French, illustrated by Ross Collins (Candlewick) It is the scream heard round the world (or at least around the high mountain village of Fracture) when Lady Lamorna discovers she does not have the funds for the dress of her dreams. But she puts the resourceful in sorceress when she decided to earn the money by turning princes and princess into frogs and back for ransom. She is surrounded by fairy-tale prototypes that are painted with a original strokes, from a motivationally-speaking bat to a prince without a taste for royalty and to Gracie Gillypot, the brave, under-appreciated stepdaughter who sets out to find Lamorna and put her in her place. This book is a breezy, page-turning read with a surprise ending, and plenty of Halloween motifs. Black-ink spot illustrations are as delicate and devious as a skeleton's bone. I believe this catchy, scratchy little novel is number one on the Transylvania Times bestseller list...if not, it should be. (9 and up)

Also, excuse me for saying so, but I couldn't help thinking that Lady Lamorna would like to go shopping with Auntie Malice from my book DIARY OF A FAIRY GODMOTHER, "stunning in her purple satin dress with the high neck and tortoiseshell cape--tortoises sewn along the hem, clawing helplessless as she dragged them along." Together, they could hit the fashion world like the other famous witches Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie.

Also of interest:
Want some more shivers?
ALL THE LOVELY BAD ONES by Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion) Grandma's Vermont Inn has a reputation for ghostly goings-on, so visiting grandchildren Travis and Corey oblige with the chain-rattling a la Brady Bunch. The legend of the haunted house brings in business, but the children's mischief manages to awaken the real evil spirits, who scare Travis and Corey, and readers, too. How will they ever right the wrongs done to these restless souls? Sorry, Neil Gaiman of CORALINE fame, Hahn holds her crown as the master of the middle-grade ghost story with a capital G. This latest mixes in both mystery and history, casting the same spell as her classic WAIT TILL HELEN COMES, which has been giving children goosebumps for generations. If your bookloving patron is voicing complaints of "not scary enough," you can offer Hahn's titles with the disclaimer, "don't come crying to me if you think you hear something go bump in the night." OOoooOOOOOOO! (10 and up)

THE MYSTERY OF THE FOOL AND THE VANISHER by David and Ruth Ellwand (Candlewick) An ethereal story-within-a-story about a man who finds the journal and a box of peculiar fragments relating to a doomed mine expedition, in which some fairy folk were disturbed and wrought their vengeance. Told mostly from the point of view of the expedition's accompanying photographer (and advocate of the fairy folk), the gorgeous volume is decorated with sepia images of tangled tree boughs and surprising treasures. Enthusiasts of THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES and older admirers of the work of Joseph Conrad will appreciate the measured, mannered, Victorian tone that takes it's time in achieving the perfect tension of a web, and closes in around the reader like the darkening of a forest. An unusual, mystifying read-aloud that questions the nature of belief. Look at the last photo for yourself, and decide: do you believe in magic? (11 and up)

Need a list of not-too-spooky stories for your younger ones? Grab your trick-or-treat bag and visit here.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008


GRACE FOR PRESIDENT by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion) Grace is appalled that no woman has yet been president of the United States, but decides to remedy it when she grows up, and gets a jump start by seeking to win the school election. The author ingeniously and seamlessly is able to explain the sticky wicket of the electoral college by assigning each of Grace's classmates a state with a number of votes, instead of a single vote. Grace's rival from the other class figures that the boys have more electoral votes than the girls and rests on his laurels, but when it boils down to a boy representing the Equality State of Wyoming, will the best kid win? This story is a great read-aloud, and is just as wonderful and heart-pounding on the re-read. Pham's expressive, jubilant illustrations are absolutely irresistable, and perfectly compliment the high-energy, competitive campaign. The last wordless picture tells all: Grace taking the inaugural oath in front of the Capitol, and the endpapers show her face carved into Mount Rushmore. This may be a work of fiction, but it will be true for some little girl...somewhere, someday! (6 and up)

OUR WHITE HOUSE: LOOKING IN LOOKING OUT by 108 renowned Authors and Illustrators and the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance (Candlewick) This book is an ambitious and eclectic endavor, as over a hundred children's book talents contribute imaginative responses to all things White House. From Nancy Willard's remembrances of looking at a book of paper dolls featuring dresses worn by First Ladies, to Jane Yolen's imagined conversation between John and Abigail Adams, Don Brown's true telling of Dolley Madison's rescue of George Washington, Paul Janeczko's poem "Mary Todd Lincoln Speaks of Her Son's Death, 1862," Dwight Eisenhower's prayer for peace, haunted White House legends from M.T. Anderson, Jean Craighead George's tribute to Teddy Roosevelt in "Executive Order for Nature," illustrations of Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" by Peter Sis, Calef Brown, Ed Young, and Stephen Alcorn, an amazing double-page rendering of presidential pets by Steven Kellogg, Jimmy Carter's memories of Christmas, a behind-the-scene sketchbook by David Small, and perhaps the most affecting: a mini graphic novel by Matt Phelan that captures the callousness of "Hoover's One Term," plus Jack Prelutsky! Jerry Spinelli! Katherine Paterson! Meg Cabot! Richard Peck! Linda Sue Park! There are more stars in this book than on the American flag. Whatever is happening to our economy, we can find a great book value and the richness of America within these pages. An amazing resource to be treasured over time; invaluable to teachers, and informative to all citizens. (9 and up)

Also of interest:
More forays into history and politics for kids!

PRESIDENT PENNYBAKER by Kate Feiffer, illustrated by Diane Goode (Simon and Schuster) After his father refuses to let him watch television even after finishing his chores, Luke Pennypacker makes the startling revelation that life isn't fair. In order to amend this situation in the interest of all children, he decides to run for office, not under the Democratic or Republican Party, but the Birthday Party, with a platform that promises children will be treated as if it is their birthday every day of the year. Luke is very good at thinking outside of the box (painting the White House orange!), but if Luke didn't like doing chores, he finds the work involved in running the country to be an even more trying task. Light and full of laughs, this book ends with the smart and subtle suggestion that anyone who takes office will have their own agenda. (6 and up) And a reminder: older children who like to imagine what it would be like to rule a country should check out KING MATT THE FIRST by Janusz Korczak (Algonquin), a great introduction to the grown-up world of politics and one of the best books for children ever written. King Matt always gets my vote! (10 and up)

IF I WERE PRESIDENT by Catherine Stier, illustrated by Dyanne Disalvo-Ryan (Whitman) An explanation of the duties of the executive branch for the very young. (4 and up)

LADY LIBERTY: A BIOGRAPHY by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Matt Tavares (Candlewick) Poets, construction workers, artists, engineers, journalists, and a little girl with two pet roosters...told in free verse from these many points of view (a la Nikki Grimes' TALKIN' ABOUT BESSIE), we come to know how the Statue of Liberty came to be, the collaboration she really represents, and what a truly marvelous gift she is to us all. Illustrations bear a stoic dignity, and the story will choke you up. (7 and up)

THE ELECTION CONNECTION: THE OFFICIAL NICK GUIDE TO ELECTING THE PRESIDENT (Nickelodeon) Generally, I do not consider titles that have characters on them that were on television before they were in books, or that don't have an author on the cover, but there is an exception to every rule, and the genius of Spongebob is usually that exception. I was able to build a full fourth-grade unit around the election process using this book that answers virtually every question about the election process. In clear language, the political party system, campaigns, debates, electoral college, ways to vote and the role of the media are all addressed. Hmmm, maybe it's a handy guide for grown-ups, too? (7 and up)

QUIET HERO: THE IRA HAYES STORY by S.D. Nelson (Lee & Low). A shy Native American boy fights personal and military battles during WWII, and ultimately serves most honorably and memorably at Iwo Jima. Fascinating photographs add to a richly historical author's note. (7 and up)

THE IMPOSSIBLE PATRIOTISM PROJECT by Linda Skeers, illustrated by Ard Hoyt (Dial) When the children are supposed to come up with something that represents the big idea of "patriotism" for Parent Night, a sad little boy rallies with something that inspires the room. Children lonely for parents serving in the military is a reality, and the sensitivity to this experience is recognized in these pages. Readers will be encouraged to reflect on the meaning of the word in their own lives. (6 and up)

CHILDREN OF THE USA by Maya Ajmera, Yvonne Wakim Dennis, Arlene Hirschfelder and Cynthia Pon (Charlesbridge) A state-by-state tour of our country, with double-page spreads for every location and a focus about the lives of kids at each stop. Young readers will find manageable the bites of history and what makes the location unique, as well as general facts and colorful people-watching-worthy photographs. Useful for reports, armchair travel, and gaining an appreciation of the exciting diversity of cultures within our nation. Parts of the book's proceeds will be donated to The Global Fund for Children, which support community organizations that serve the world's most vulnerable children and youth. (8 and up)

LARUE FOR MAYOR: LETTERS FROM THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL by Mark Teague (Scholastic) Correspondence tells the story of a canine who manages an underground, grassroots campaign to create the most dog-friendly adminstration ever. Dirty politics and anti-gog hysteria kep the story spicy. (5 and up)

TWO MISERABLE PRESIDENTS: EVERYTHING YOUR SCHOOLBOOKS DIDN'T TELL YOU ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR and KING GEORGE: WHAT WAS HIS PROBLEM? EVERYTHING YOUR SCHOOLBOOKS DIDN'T TELL YOU ABOUT THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Steve Sheinkin, illustrated by Tim Robinson (Roaring Brook) Revisionist history perfectly packaged for reluctant readers, with plenty of quirky spot illustration and historical play-by-play sectioned off into manageable chunks that are colloquially described ("Bravery in battle earned [Colonel Johann "the Lion" Rahl] his nickname. But he was also kind of a lazy guy"). These books are like having a really fun uncle help you with your history homework. (9 and up)

BABAR COMES TO AMERICA by Laurent de Brunoff (Abrams) Our favorite French colonialist pachyderm takes a shine to our great country. Take the greyhound (or grey elephant) tour old school with this retro reissue from 1965. Gotta love big daddy Babar resting with room service at the Hilton, and a carriage ride through New Orleans ("Finally, in an excellent restaurant, they feast on fried chicken and pecan pie"). From football to Black Angus beef to Los Angeles traffic, the American spirit is covered from sea to shining sea. If your youngster is part of the mod squad, they may prefer the more contemporary BABAR'S USA, which overlays the cartoon characters on to real photographs from landmarks around the country (I appreciated the nod to Chicago's "El" train). (5 and up)

And finally, the subject of women in history and politics has fared very well in the season of books. MARGARET CHASE SMITH: A WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT by Lynn Plourde, illustrated by David McPhail (Charlesbridge). Formalistic, solid writing tells a tender story of a very strong and accomplished woman, who besides running for president in 1964 served in the Senate and stood against McCarthyism while others kept silent, earned ninety-five honorary college degrees, and kept a copy of the constitution in her purse unbtil the day she died. Truly helpful and insightful timelines are on every page: "US women working outside the home," "US life expectancy," "US incomes," which are very effective in putting Margaret's experiences (and our own) in a historical context. Pair with A WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT: THE STORY OF VICTORIA WOODHULL by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Jane Dyer (Walker), the compelling story of a controversial figure who used money she earned from palmistry to start her campaign, and also by Krull we have DREAMS TAKING FLIGHT: HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, illustrated by Amy June Bates (Simon and Schuster). Bates does a remarkable job of really capturing Clinton without caricaturing her, and we do sense the dewy-eyed dreamer who really did want to be an astronaut during a time when women were not encouraged to reach for the stars. The author does an equally good job of removing the figure from current political tensions or leanings, and instead tells an age-appropriate story of a little girl who was inspired, and then went on to inspire others. (5 and up) We also have ELIZABETH LEADS THE WAY by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (Henry Holt), a folksy and succinct picture book introduction the spunky suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to whom all women owe a debt of gratitude this November 4th; PHILLIS'S BIG TEST by Catherine Clinton, illustrated by Sean Qualls (Houghton Mifflin), about the famous black poet of the times of George Washington, who underwent intense examination because no one could believe a young slave girl could produce such accomplished work; and, while a bit too busy to be a read-aloud, we have the still well-researched and informative INDEPENDENT DAMES: WHAT YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT THE WOMEN AND GIRLS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Matt Faulkner (Simon and Schuster), combining a general overview of the situation from a woman's point of view, countless biographical salutes to women from history that will allow children to springboard into deeper research, and a detailed revolutionary timeline that flows from page to page, plus the humorous and historical ink-and-watercolor sketch style we saw in THANK YOU, SARAH: THE WOMAN WHO SAVED THANKSGIVING.

On a personal note: what finally sent me over the edge

Because I love people with whom I do not always agree and I am unhappy about the divisions this election has caused between friends and neighbors, I generally strive to keep politics out of my conversation, and certainly out of my blog. However, during the third domestic presidential debate there were some statements made that were so audacious, unsubstantiated and so potentially damaging to the education of children, I feel I would be remiss in my advocacy if I did not point them out. At one point in the debate, one of the candidates suggested that we "need to encourage programs" such as Teach for America and Troops to Teachers specifically because they allow people to "go right to teaching and not have to take these examinations...or have the certifications that are...required is some state[s]."

Both Teach for America and Troops to Teachers are fast-track programs that fill a logistical need for teachers to be employed in geographic areas that are most challenging to staff. They often attract people who have previously studied for other careers, but are now eager to contribute positively to the lives of children through the classroom and want to hurry up and do it. My foremost concern is the suggestion that teachers who do not have the education training to be qualified enough to serve in affluent white suburbs should be sent to serve children who are so predominantly of color and from a lower socioeconomic background. This, as far as I'm concerned and despite the best of intentions, is an overt breach of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of 1964, which outlaws separate but equal education. Further, children in the urban areas that these programs serve generally are at the highest risk for academic failure, in overcrowded settings that require the most classroom management and parent outreach, to say nothing of the need for professionals to be able to assess and address critical learning deficits and differences. Why on earth would we assign our least trained and experienced teachers to serve this population? This doesn't negate the best efforts of the wonderful people who try to fill these voids in urban schools, but I wish, as a country, we would not suggest that these programs are the answer to the problems of urban education, and instead recognize them as aid we receive while we are supposed to be genuinely working on solving these problems.

If we were to decide that the likes of five weeks of teacher training before entering the classroom were sufficient, my other concern is that an accepted lack of training undermines the profession, hardly the thing to do when we are trying to make the career attractive enough to enlist "an army of teachers." I do think that if someone really cares about doing their best, they will value the importance of training so they can deliver the quality of education that children deserve, and this does take time. Just as we don't have fast-track pediatrician programs, I can't imagine why someone would think a few weeks is enough time to begin to absorb the stages of child development, capably diagnose roadblocks to learning, or to know how to individualize instruction in a large group. I know that I could not have survived my own experience teaching in inner-city Chicago without comprehensive preparation, including classroom management work alone that went on for fifteen weeks, hundreds of hours of observation, student teaching and mentorship. Life experience is not a substitute for pedagogy, and knowing something is a different ability than knowing how to teach someone else what you know; this is a mantra from the world of veteran teachers. What failures will it take to make people outside of the profession believe it?

I see why the credentialing of teachers would come under fire. Established university certification programs are not the be-all-end-all. Requiring full-time unpaid student teaching makes the experience out of reach for some. Complaints of the impracticality of training falls on deaf ears of entrenched academia. Traditional training programs take years, and people need jobs now, schools need teachers now. It may be true that tests for credentials are hardly a reliable measure for what a teacher is able to share, or how capably they will share it. Public education is already built on a historical model of Ford Schools, in which sixteen-year-olds taught roomfuls of sixty kids, with the hope of indoctrinating immigrants in American citizenship and creating reliable workers. I know that many teachers come out of Teach for America and other programs are ultimately successful at what they do, and perhaps it is hard to tell the difference between certified and uncertified teachers after they have been working for a number of years. It may be argued that any new teacher does a certain amount of learning by doing anyway, so really, what's the difference? The difference is, to have to initially rely so heavily on instinct instead of research, theory, and learned management skills involves a lot of unnecessary reinventing of the wheel on the children's time. Minimal training is also unfair to these teachers going through these fast-track programs, who are almost invariably assured a trial-by-fire. Even the many teachers who enter alternative certification programs still strive to become ultimately certified, and many experienced teachers have been revitalized to reflect on their practice by rising to the challenge to become National Board Certified, another eschelon of professionalism. Scoffing at the preparation and formalized assessment process by which one becomes a teacher is at best, unsettling, careless, and insultingly dismissive to a workforce dominated by women; and at worst, dangerous, both to teachers who are sent into situations they aren't prepared to handle, and to our national security, when we choose to bank our children's futures on pedagogical practices of a hundred years ago or those of developing countries. If necessary, I would hope we can adjust the way teachers are prepared without moving backwards, making better use of seasoned teachers as part of that equation.

Politicians, left and right: please! If we need to change the ways teachers are credentialed, so be it, but we cannot say to teachers that they are going to be held accountable in one breath and then undermine the level of training that would allow them to be accountable. We cannot continue to send teachers out of credentialed teacher training programs with (maybe) one children's literature course under their belt; sending a teacher into a classroom who doesn't know children's books is like sending a plumber out without a wrench...and even Joe the Plumber gets a wrench (and a license for what he does). We cannot ignore the need to integrate literacy across the subject areas, and then expect children to perform well on math and science tests if they can't read the questions. We cannot value the insights of military veterans in deciding what resources are needed to lead to victory, and then shrug off teaching veterans when they have so much to say about what is needed to create victories on the home front. Most of all, we cannot laud ourselves as civil rights activists and against segregation in one breath and then continue to 1) have a double-standard about which teachers are qualified to teach in inner city schools serving minority children and 2) fund schools based on property taxes, an inherently inequitable modus operandi which makes socioeconomic class the new school segregation... something that neither candidate, for all of their charter schools and vouchers and choices, were willing to dare to address directly.

These weeks have been times of tremendous stomach aches for most Americans, and our crystal ball is cloudy...but let's take heart! Luckily, a great book in the hands of a rich child is the same great book in the hands of a poor child. Children's literature remains our best hope for equalizing education in America, and read aloud remains our most successful practice across the grade levels for academic achievement. I hope that teachers, whatever path they are taking, embrace these truths that will ultimately create a future (and by Heaven, a present!) for the children they serve, and allow them to live the American Dream: and by that, I don't mean a house, a dog and two-and-a-half children, I mean the promise of possibility, of telling the truth to children when we say, "if you can dream it, you can do it."

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller
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Wednesday, October 15, 2008


BATS AT THE LIBRARY by Brian Lies (Houghton Mifflin)
An open window means open house at the library for a bunch of literary bats, who at first are a bit feral, playing with the copy machine and creating shadow plays on the overhead projector ("Please keep it down--you must behave! The library is not your cave!"), but soon settle down to storytimes, during which they are all ears (and wings). Many delights await on these dark pages, as the bats explore a pop-up book, but builds into a crescendo of artistic inspiration as we are treated to not one but two amazing double-page spreads of bats engaged in reading, and their interior imaginings: bats crossing the street uder whistling policeman's guard a la Robert McCloskey's MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS; a blind bat Rochester blundering in the darkness in search of Jane Eyre; a bat at attention in a tribute to Ed Emberley's DRUMMER HOFF; Peter Rabbit scuttles under McGregor's fence with a bat-like wing instead of paw; an upside-down Cheshire Bat, a bat sporting Pippi longstocking's braids and a bat at Pooh Corner; and besides all of these nods to beloved classics there are many clever details, such as bats reading books upside-down and a bat mother reading her preschooler from a copy of "Goodnight Sun." A companion to BATS AT THE BEACH, it stands solidly on its own; enthusiastic and largely unobtrusive couplets make for the text, but the visual wit of this book is what is truly boundless, an unbridled tribute to all that we love about the children's section. My one complaint about the book would be since the book is set in darkness, there is not a stark contrast between the action and the background, which is fine for laptime or a few children, but more difficult to see when held up in a larger storytime group...that said, it is certainly worth the effort to lean in, to point out, or to use the opaque projector to share with a crowd. Worthy of a Cybils award (not yet nominated!) and recognition beyond, this title is inspired and actually beautiful, a bona fide booklover's delight. So many children rail against bedtime, thinking that when they sleep, they are missing something; now I see what we all are missing. (5 and up)

The trouble with October is that even with thirty one days, there isn't enough time to read all of the great seasonal and thematic books available. I always open my bat storytimes with a little non-fiction, namely the wild and crazy full-page photographs in EXTREMELY WEIRD BATS by Sarah Lovett (sadly out-of-print, but still easy enough to find used on-line) which always inspired screams and squeals, then I like to share my other favorite bat-in-the-library tell-all, LITTLEBAT'S HALLOWEEN STORY by Diane Mayr, illustrated by Gideon Kendall (Whitman). Don't forget Randall Jarrell's THE BAT POET (HarperCollins), a masterful and elegant nature story for older kids and good listeners, and I know you won't forget everyone's favorite, Jannell Cannon's STELLALUNA (Harcourt). Keep swinging these bats all through the fall...not just just for Halloween!

Also of interest:
Another spooky new offering!
NIGHTMARE AT THE BOOK FAIR by Dan Gutman (Simon and Schuster)
A sporty non-reader gets roped into helping out at the PTA book fair, and after being clouted by some falling books, he finds himself in a fantasy world of characters that have come to life...many of whom would be better off in the bindings. While a bit of a sitcom-like premise (and peppered with some R.L. Stine-ish gore...try Eth Clifford's HELP! I'M A PRISONER IN THE LIBRARY if you need something tamer), the popular Dan Gutman knows how to hook those reluctant readers with improbable storylines, and continues to establish himself as the creator of books with a Danny Dunn-like appeal for a modern audience. (9 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
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Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I think children's picture book biography is one of the strongest genres within children's literature, consistently executed with excellence and easy to share across the grade levels. May I recommend regular "biography breaks" within the classroom community or home? Just think: if a child is read aloud just one biography a week, how many marvelous mentors and personalities would they be introduced to in a year! Here are a few of this season's stars to start you out:

WANDA GAG: THE GIRL WHO LIVED TO DRAW by Deobrah Kogan Ray (Viking) Thought of as the mother of the modern picture book thanks to her scrappy 1929 tour-de-force MILLIONS OF CATS, Wanda Gag did not always have it easy, but she always had the drive to succeed. Using primary sources (as she did in TO GO SINGING THROUGH THE WORLD: THE CHILDHOOD OF PABLO NERUDA), the author captures the struggles of young Gag as she followed in the footsteps of her hardworking father. His imaginative dreams were thwarted by his need to support his family, but on his deathbed he fortells, "What Papa couldn't do, Wanda will have to finish." Most teenagers would have would have folded under the weight of caring for six young siblings and a sick mother, but the resourceful Gag not only gets her family through the hard times (two sisters became teachers!), but was published and earned a scholarship to study art in New York, where her creative genius began to truly blossom. This is a story that will truly inspire any creative spirit who encounters it, with lovely cozy-brown soft illustrations reminsicent of Don Freeman; you will have to resist pulling pictures out to frame (or maybe you don't have to resist). The story is penned with a personal touch that allows the reader to warm their own skin against the heat of Gag's passion for art ("I can't help it that I've got to draw and paint forever; I cannot stop; I cannot; cannot, CANNOT...I have a right to go on drawing...") and to genuinely revel in Gag's accomplishments, especially in the face of such hardships. By the last page, any reader would want to be friends with sweet Bohemian Wanda, and bring a basket of ginger cookies to her as she draws in "a sagging farmhouse she called 'Tumble Timbers.'" It's exciting to read about somebody who put dreams first, even when it wasn't easy to do. (7 and up)

A RIVER OF WORDS by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Eerdmans) What a beautiful tribute to the poet who brought us a red wheelbarrow upon which so much depends and the apologetic eating of plums, a man who worked hard all day as a busy doctor, and then fled to a world wallpapered in his own imaginings when the moon rose. The story captures not only the romance and beauty of being a poet, but the bravery and hard work as well; it's hard not to fall just a little bit in love wit ol' William. Illustrator Melissa Sweet has a lot of titles out these days (TUPELO RIDES THE RAILS, CARMINE: A LITTLE MORE RED and BABY BEAR'S BOOKS to name a few), all consistently darling, but I this one in particular has a texture that goes beyond Sweet's sweetness, that I hope will warrant a closer gander by awards committees for the subtle and ecelectic genius she brings to books; she is one of those very gifted illustrators whose pictures truly bring something more to the text. Here, she weaves the words of the poet in and out of her artwork like a fine and golden thread. Thorough and affecting, this book also includes a timeline, notes from the author and the illustrator, and poems on the endpapers. (7 and up)

BUFFALO MUSIC by Tracey E. Fern, illustrated by Lauren Castillo (Clarion)

"The heat that summer fell heavy as an angry fist. the trails were deeps with dust. The grass cracked like glass underfoot. And everywhere, far as the eye could see, the bleached bones of the buffalo glistened white in the sun."

During the terrible pioneer massacres of the buffalo, Mary Ann Goodnight had the foresight to cultivate the first captive buffalo herd, helping to save the species. Succinct, captivating writing with both strong description and dialogue hits hard but without any unncessary prosaic fuss, making anyone who reads it aloud seem like a seasoned storyteller, and a thoughtful bibliography with young readers in mind will keep kids following the buffalo trail. Homey illustrations accent the tender heart and common sense of a woman who made a big difference. (6 and up)

SHE TOUCHED THE WORLD: LAURA BRIDGMAN, DEAF-BLIND PIONEER by Sally Hobart Alexander and Robert Alexander (Clarion) Before Helen Keller there was Laura Bridgman, the first blind-deaf child to receive a significant education in the English language. Anne Sullivan learned the manual alphabet from her, and the knowledge of Laura Bridgman's accomplishments are what inspired the mother of Helen Keller to seek help for her daughter. Many detailed biographies bury themselves in their own research, but this rich story is truly readable for its intended audience. Little Laura's movement into the land of communication is one of a benevolent spiritual awakening to her, as well as one of secular interest to all. The pages brim with interesting photos that really contribute to an understanding of the experience and the period in history, including a stirring photo of Laura's bust, eyes covered, sculpted by Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife, Sophia Peabody. The co-author is blind and has experienced some hearing loss herself, and contributes a very thoughtful afterword, "If Laura Were Alive Today." (8 and up)

SANDY'S CIRCUS: A STORY ABOUT ALEXANDER CALDER by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Boris Kulikov (Viking) With a few masterful twists of wire, an artist entrances the Parisian audiences with his playful scrap circus, and a world of joy and play. An angel-like muse seems to follow Calder from page to page. I found myself wishing there were more photos of Calder's actual work included (see Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker's BOTTLE HOUSES: THE CREATIVE WORLD OF GRANDMA PRISBEY), as I was not sure that a child would be able to recognize Calder or his work based on this book alone (a concern that was confrimed when a child noted that the man in te photo has a moustache and the man in the drawings does not), but supplemented with additional images, this book makes for a very exuberant introduction to the inventor of the first mobiles. Play on, playa! (6 and up)

PRISCILLA AND THE HOLLYHOCKS by Anne Broyles, illustrated by Anna Alter (Charlesbridge) One of the great joys of reading is learning something you really didn't know before, and I really didn't know that some members of the Cherokee tribe who were trying to assimilate with European settlers owned African-American slaves (though not without controversy within the tribe). This is the true story of one young African-American girl who, as a result of being enslaved in a Cherokee family, accompanied them on the Trail of Tears, a five hundred mile genocidal treck in freezing weather. She was rescued by a man who saw her by chance, tracked her down and bought her freedom, raising her as one of the family. The growing and blooming of flowers through the story is a moving and hopeful allegory, and the stark differentiation of a life under another's thumb compared to a life of freedom and inclusion is effectively drawn. A powerful, interesting book that retells a painful chapter in American history through the eyes of a brave child. (7 and up)

PORTRAITS OF JEWISH-AMERICAN HEROES by Malka Drucker, illustrated by Elizabeth Rosen (Dutton) From the well-known such as Harry Houdini, Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein and Gloria Steinem, to the lesser known and the modern (Henrietta Szold, Hadassah founder; Abraham Heschel, civil rights advocate; Judith Resnik, astronaut; and a very moving closure of the book with a tribute to Daniel Pearl, the journalist, and a poem by an Arab Muslim), Twenty-one thoughtfully selected personalities are presented and given a colorful portraiture in word and in picture. A fine addition to multicultural collections, a great gift book for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, high holidays and a must-have for Jewish American Heritage Month in May (what, do you want to wait until the last minute?) (9 and up)

WHAT TO DO ABOUT ALICE? by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic)

"I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both." -- Theodore Roosevelt

Plans were being made to send the irrepressible Miss Alice Roosevelt to Miss Spence's boarding school to become a proper young lady. "Alice was appalled. The idea completely shriveled her." But with a little consistent effort, Alice manages to get herself homeschooled. Let loose in the library, the dear little autodidact "taught herself astronoy, geology, even Greek grammar. She read Twain, Dickens, Darwin, and the Bible, cover to cover." But what better home to school in than the White House? As her father's career rose to the highest power, Alice (and her pet snake Emily Spinach) make the move to D.C. Her high spirits and propensity not to listen to her father made headlines, and a difference in what women started to think they could do...and what fun they could have doing it. The goodwill ambassador and serious party girl gets celebrated here in a way that will have little girls snorting at the poor little Paris Hilton. Some of the most charming pictures seen since McKinley's time happen here, and fans of Shana Corey and Chesley McLaren's YOU FORGOT YOUR SKIRT, AMELIA BLOOMER will appreciate the retro feel of the characters laid out with crisp, dynamic line and composition. Favorites pics include Alice having a tantrum with her head beneath a pillow, or zipping from shelf-to-shelf beneath a stuffy stuffed moose-head in the library; honestly, it makes me want to write something just so Edwin Fotheringham can draw it. What to do about Alice? Read about her days spent making the point: well-behaved women rarely make history. (6 and up)

Also of interest:
The Cybil Awards are just getting started, which are the premier web-based award for children's and young adult literature! A very fun part of this award is that you, dear reader, can nominate titles for serious consideration! Check out what others have recommended, and you'll find a pretty amazing list of some of the best books of the year. Happy reading!

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


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