Monday, December 31, 2012

Brooklyn, Burning

by Steve Brezenoff
Carolrhoda LAB | 2011
Get it now!

Kid is only 15 but has been kicked out of home and is making do on the streets. Friends like Felix, a junkie; Fish, a friendly bar-owner; Konny, a friend since childhood with problems of her own; and Scout make life a bit more bearable. When NYPD starts sniffing around trying to pin a warehouse fire on Kid, things get turned a little upside down.

At the core of this poignant YA book is gender. How its performed, by whom, and when. The reader never learns what gender or sexual orientation Kid or Scout are--and it's unclear whether they know themselves. The fluidity of sexuality and of gender assignment is in question here. How people deal with it and interact with it are also important. Even while these themes are central, they are dealt with subtly (and handily) by Brezenoff. This book makes me want to read it in a book club or class, to talk about how each and every person reads it differently--it's one of those books.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Snowflake Bentley

by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
illustrated by Mary Azarian
Houghton Mifflin | 1998
Buy it here!

This Caldecott Medal book is about William Bentley, who discovered much of what was known about snow crystals during his lifetime. Born in 1865, as a boy in Jericho, Vermont, he spent the long winters there determined to make photographs of snowflakes. After a lot of trial and error, he learned how.

Azarian's gorgeous woodcut prints, which according to the copyright page are hand-tinted with watercolor, couldn't be more perfect for the story and it's no wonder they won the Caldecott. It's clear through her artwork that Azarian is not only a Vermonter, but a snow-lover. And indeed, her dedication in the book reads: "For all the snow lovers of the world, who--like me--think that snow is like chocolate; there is never enough."

As a snow and winter lover myself, I find this is the perfect book with which to curl up next to the fire. Snuggle in with someone and read about Snowflake Bentley. This book is as unique as the snowflakes Bentley found so fascinating.

One of W.A. Bentley's photographs.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I Funny

by James Patterson with Chris Grabenstein
illustrated by Laura Park
Little, Brown | 2012
Reviewed from ARC
Order here!

Patterson, well-known for his prolific career as an adult mystery novelist, began working toward getting more kids to read in 2011 with his Read Kiddo Read site. He's also begun writing for young people (apparently in his spare time <grin>).

Jamie Grimm is focused on being a kid-comic. And he's good. He's funny. He lives with his aunt and uncle and their kids and spends time at his Uncle Frankie's diner, has two best friends, and a new friend he dubs "Cool Girl." Jamie is in a wheelchair, and when he wins the Long Island Local Funniest Kid Comic competition, there's some rumors that the judges just felt bad for him. How he deals with those rumors, the situation of his life, and his dream to be funny rounds out a great story that any third through sixth grader will likely love.

Patterson is doing for child reluctant readers what Oprah did for mostly non-reading grown-ups all those years ago--inviting them in. He's gone one step further and is penning just the books he and his publisher think will draw kids in. This is one.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas!

This is the Christmas tree my housemate and I built for ourselves this year. Note all the children's and YA titles that contributed to its success!

And, yes, that is a Rosemary Wells Voyage to the Bunny Planet box set, first edition (1992) atop the tree!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ender's Shadow: Parallel Novel to Ender's Game


by Orson Scott Card
Tor | 1999
Buy now!

If you haven't read Ender's Game, go. Go read it and then come back. I'll wait.

Okay, good. Now you know what you need to know to read Ender's Shadow, which in my opinion is actually better than Ender's Game. That last statement may perhaps be blasphemous, but I've decided I don't care. As much as I like Ender Wiggin and appreciate his struggles and his story, I find I like Bean that much better. And that Card, fourteen years after Ender's Game was published, decided to go back and write Bean's story, tells me that I'm not the only one with affection for Bean.

This is a parallel novel. This concept is so awesome to me, I don't even know where to start. Basically, Card went back and wrote Ender's Game again, only from the perspective of Bean. Through him, the reader gets that much more information about Battle School, the plans of Graff and the other teachers, and how the war against the buggers plays out. We get to see how Ender's rag-tag army was created and we get to understand more about how the political situation on Earth is playing out. We get to see a strong-willed, strong-minded character we root for even through his sometimes misguided behavior. We get to know Bean, an important character in Ender's Game, in his entirety.

Looking for the perfect holiday gift for a sci-fi-loving kid on your list? Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow, bundled together. And let me also suggest, that no matter whether a reader professes to like sci-fi or not, these books cross-over and transcend genre. Give them a try. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters

by Andrea Davis Pinkney
illustrated by Stephen Alcorn
Sandpiper/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | January 8, 2013 (paperback reprint edition)
Order now!

Originally published in 2000, this gorgeous new paperback reprint edition would be a fantastic addition to any middle-school classroom. Chronicling the stories of 10 important black women freedom fighters (a term I love), the book offers succinct yet information-rich vignettes of each person.

Included are Sojourner Truth, Biddy Mason, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ella Josephine Baker, Dorothy Irene Height, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Shirley Chisholm. How many of these women have you heard about before? Are you sure you know their whole story?

The text is lyrically written, just as we've come to expect from Pinkney. Lines like these, from the section on Sojourner Truth lead the reader in and makes you want more: "Belle's mother, Mau-Mau Bett, had a special kind of strength. She was quiet strong, like a wind that keeps a boat on course."

The art is the perfect blend of realistic and whimsical, with gorgeous color and rich details. An entire discussion could happen just about what the art depicts and why. The trim size is a perfect 9 x 12, which is big enough for two students to read together, huddled over a desk as they prepare a report or a presentation to their classmates. This is the perfect non-fiction text: it draws the reader in and makes learning both interesting and fun.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness
inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd
illustrated by Jim Kay
Candlewick | 2011
Buy now!

Thirteen-year-old Conor has been recently plagued with a recurring nightmare, has a mom who is sick and isn't doing so well, a grandmother he doesn't really understand, and a father who is off in the U.S. living with his new wife. School is a problem as the bullies bother Conor each day; pretty much nothing is going well.

Conor also has a yew tree outside his window. One night, it turns into a giant monster and visits him. Slowly, over time, as the monster tells Conor three stories, he finds out what the monster wants -- why it has called on him.

My description here is purposely vague. To say much else would ruin the book, I think. Suffice it to say, this is a book for everyone and especially for any person (perhaps 12 years old and up) dealing with something difficult. Social workers and school counselors -- read and figure out if you have clients and students who might benefit from reading and discussing this special book.

Author Siobhan Dowd had the characters, premise, and a beginning for this story, which would've been her fifth book, but she died before she could write it. Ness was asked to write it in her stead, which he has done in her memory and with aplomb. Kay's illustrations are nothing short of phenomenal and the design of the book is something quite special from the silver foil on the cover to the yew-leaf covered end papers to the heavy gloss paper.

Clearly, I like this one a lot. I think you will too.

I know this looks terribly scary, but in context, the illustrations are perfect and in some odd way, not scary at all.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

The cover I have
written and illustrated by Robert Barry
McGraw Hill | 1963 (most recent re-issue, 2000)
Order it! 

"Mr. Willowby's Christmas tree came by special delivery."

And so begins my absolute, hands-down, favorite Christmas story ever. For close to forty years, my family's copy has been pulled out, displayed, and read over and over again at Christmas.

The 2000 cover
The cyclical story traces one Christmas tree, which is a bit too tall for Mr. Willowby's ginormous house. When the top is lobbed off and discarded, someone else takes it home, only to find that it is just a bit too tall for her house, so she also lobs off the top and discards it . . . you get the picture. In the end, the very tippy-top of the tree ends up back in Mr. Willowby's house -- get this fantastic story and you'll find out how.

Your kids will beg you to read it again and again and you just might find, after they've gone to bed and the house is quiet, that you pull it out one more time for a re-read all on your own. It's that lovely.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Guest Reviewer Sian Gaetano: Me and My Dragon

Written and illustrated by David Biedrzycki
Charlesbridge Publishing | 2011
Buy now!

“Some kids want a dog. Others would like a cat.” But Hameer wants… “a dragon!” And Hameer is smart enough to know that getting a dragon is just like getting any other pet: you have to choose which kind you want carefully, bring him to the doctor for his shots, name him (Sparky!), give him a home, feed him, and bring him for walks. And, just like any other pet, if he’s a naughty dragon, he might have to go to obedience school. Unlike other pets, though, Sparky can act as the campfire on camping trips, melt all the snow in the neighbor’s driveways, and may accidentally terrorize the kite-flying community. He’s also a great friend to have around in case of bullies or Brussels sprouts.

I cannot begin to express how very much I love this book—the joys are too many to count. The story is endearing, quirky, fast-paced and just so incredibly funny. And the play of text and illustration! Biedryzycki masterfully builds text that needs illustration and illustration that adds so many layers to the book. Each page has tons of things to look at and enjoy from the intraiconic text, to a mouse living in Hameer’s room, to the reactions of pets and people near Sparky. Both Hameer and Sparky, through text and illustration, are exciting, active, and completely round characters. And, for the love of all things children’s book related, check out the endpapers! In general, a joy. And a book I’ve been reading three times a day.

Siân Gaetano is, before all else, a reader. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Children’s Literature at Simmons College (to be finished in  Summer 2013) and working evenings serving the good people of Boston food and beverage. She was an editorial intern at Charlesbridge for the Fall 2012 semester.

Monday, December 10, 2012

How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah?

by Jane Yolen
illustrated by Mark Teague
Blue Sky Press | 2012
Order it now!

Starting with How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? in 2000 and continuing through this latest installment, kids and parents will enjoy these silly stories that educate. Yolen and Teague do a fantastic job of addressing all the important aspects of Chanukah while still making the story laugh-out-loud funny.

Written in crisp, concise verse, this story should become a mainstay for holiday time, regardless of which holiday you celebrate!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Martin & Mahalia: His Words and Her Song

by Andrea Davis Pinkney
illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Little, Brown | August 2013
pre-order now!
(reviewed from galleys) 

Children's book living-legends and husband-and-wife team Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney come together again--this time for a glorious portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Mahalia Jackson. This gorgeous and spiritually-worded book begins with separate portrayals of the two subjects and then brings them together, mirroring their relationship in real life. The water color in the illustrations lend a softness and the India ink pen highlights a strength in the images.

Some words and phrases on each page are rendered in a bigger, sans-serif font, allowing for the reader's eye to focus in on what's most important on that page. The water-color-like color of those words keeps them clearly linked to the images. The story uses a metaphor of a road map to invite the reader in before the title page and carries the story along the path towards the Civil Rights era and the path toward a greater freedom for all in the United States. Ending with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the book is appended with an author's note, an illustrator's note, a list of further reading, a discography of Jackson's work, acknowledgements, and a time line.

This is a picture book, yes. But it is a fine example of why picture books are not always for the smallest readers. While a younger child might appreciate the images and could perhaps sit through an entire reading, this is the kind of book that is meant for older readers. This book invites kids as old as high-school to sit down and dive in. The illustrations add context and a fluidity to an understanding of the impact both King and Jackson had on United States history. This book shows with words and with pictures why the struggle was difficult, yet also vibrant and joyful. And while everyone has heard of King, is everyone familiar with the role Jackson played? I would guess: probably not.

The book opens: YOU ARE HERE. . . . Take the road. Come along. With Martin and Mahalia." I echo this first page. Get this book. Take the road the Pinkneys offer.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


by Katie Williams
Chronicle Books | April 2013
Reviewed from an Advance Reader Copy
Pre-order now!

Paige is seventeen and she's dead. She died during a class when she fell off the roof of her school, and she's trapped there, in the school, with two other dead students -- their spirits are trapped (if you'll allow that religion/spirituality-based concept). Every time she tries to leave the school grounds, she is snapped back to the location where she died. It's a never-ending cycle.

Her best friend, Usha is upset and there are a flurry of rumors that she didn't actually fall, she stepped off the roof on purpose. When Paige discovers she can "enter" the bodies of her classmates if they think of her, she begins a quest to end the rumors and prove she didn't kill herself. A fantastic twist and a pretty happy ending make this a very well done package of a book.

Aimed at a 14+ audience, this YA novel asks lots of interesting questions about death and high school and allows for readers to think about their own reactions to what's asserted by the text. There's nothing heavy-handed about the story and no one religion's beliefs about death are privileged, making this a story that will likely have wide appeal.

Monday, December 3, 2012

All the Awake Animals Are Almost Asleep

by Crescent Dragonwagon
illustrated by David MacPhail
Little, Brown | 2012
Order now!

A young child is reluctant to go to sleep, so his Mom tells him about all the awake animals that are going to sleep, too. This alphabet book includes a number of familiar animals (frog, fox) and some new ones (dromedary, ibex). By the end, everyone is asleep, including the reluctant human child.

The rich, warm colors are beautiful and the sunsets, moonscapes, and darkness settings of each of the animals' habitats are rendered realistically. The large, sweeping letters in different colors might be hard for little readers to recognize, but they are more a part of the artwork than anything else, so it still works. MacPhail's animals are lovely as always, and some illustrations include baby animals along with the adults, likely appealing to little readers.

Do you have a small child who never wants to go to sleep? This might be the perfect bed-time book for them (and you!).

Friday, November 30, 2012

Meet the Author: Hannah Gomez

Why do you write for teens?
I think it’s the same reason I like working with them. I remember what it was like to be one so strongly, and I didn’t really enjoy it. Books were something that I really did love, however, and not only are they where I found people like me inside the pages, but they also helped me connect with real life people who loved books, too. Also, I’ve grown really disenchanted with “adult literary fiction” because it’s so insufferably similar and full of purple prose, whereas I think YA authors and editors are so much more willing to take risks, create new narrative styles, and blend genre.

What's the most difficult part of crafting a story?
Writing it. I hate writing. I love research, I love outlining and planning, and I actually adore editing and rewriting. But first drafts are the most painful thing EVER.

How does your writing offer something new to the children’s literature world?
I guess that remains to be seen, but I like to think that I can do a lot for diversity in the field, both as an author and in the content. I don’t write “multicultural literature” because that’s a misnomer and very Orientalist. But I write about people who look like people I know look, people who have mixed or complicated backgrounds like mine, and people who don’t already see themselves in hundreds of books, because I certainly had trouble finding those books when I was young (and still do now).

(Sarah) Hannah Gómez grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and got her BA in creative writing at the University of Arizona. Now she lives in Boston and is completing a master’s in children’s literature and a master’s of library and information science at Simmons College. She is at work on any number of things at any given time, and she blogs at

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Olive and the Big Secret

by Tor Freeman
Templar Books/Candlewick | 2012
Buy now!

Molly tells Olive a secret and Olive does pretty well not telling anyone until she finally cracks and shares the secret with Joe (she almost told Ziggy!). Joe tells someone and that someone tells someone and pretty soon, word gets back to Molly, who confronts Olive straightaway. It's the classic story of how secrets become not-so-secret anymore.

The mostly spot art and large type is perfect for early readers as well as for younger kids as a read aloud. Hints on the end papers and on the title page give some clues into what the big secret is all about, and work in concert with the back endpapers to confirm it. Heavy glossy paper and lots of white space add to the overall appeal of the design. Freeman's animal characters are endearing (Olive is a cat, Molly is a bunny, Joe is a turtle, and so on . . .).

This is the perfect book about an important lesson without being too heavy handed about it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Just One Day

by Gayle Forman
Penguin | January 8, 2013
Reviewed from ARC
Pre-order now!

Allyson and her best friend, Melanie, are on a big pre-college trip around Europe that their parents paid for to enlighten their minds. Melanie's been living it up, enjoying their young guide's frequent bar trips while Allyson's been playing it straight like she always does, never taking chances or risks. When the girls see a version of Twelfth Night performed by a Shakespeare street theatre troupe called Guerrilla Will, Allyson notices Willem, a handsome Dutch guy. Next thing she knows, she's going with him to Paris for just one day, leaving Melanie in London with a promise to keep the secret from Allyson's parents.

A series of events in Paris lead to strong feelings between Allyson and Willem and doesn't end well. Allyson returns first to London and then to the U.S. and back to her controlling mother's arms. She begins college on the pre-med track her mother has had her on since she was 13. And everything slowly starts to come apart.

Just one year later, Allyson decides she must find Willem and learn what happened that night in Paris. In true Gayle Forman style, the book grabs the reader from the start, moves along at a fast pace, and invites the reader to think and feel right alongside Allyson. This, like Forman's other books I've reviewed: If I Stay and Where She Went, is part of a planned duet. I'm really looking forward to the second one!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Z is for Moose

by Kelly Bingham
illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
Greenwillow | 2012
Buy now!

This is one of the stand-out books of the year! (I can hardly believe I've not included it in the Book Pile until now, actually.)

Zebra is organizing all the things that represent the letters of the alphabet as they line up to appear in the book. Starting before the title page, we see Moose holding up the curtain so the reader can have a peek at everyone getting ready. On the copyright page, the stairs and doorway appear and Apple holds Ball's hand (and Ball has its teddy bear). Zebra, with his referee shirt, cap, and whistle, is ready to go.

Apple heads boldly up the stairs and sits on the stage while "A is for Apple" appears below it on the page. (Zebra peeks in to ensure everything is going smoothly.) Things progress just fine through B and C and suddenly, there is Moose, with "D is for Moose" above him, and Zebra charging in telling him, "Moose? NO. Moose does not start with D. You are on the wrong page." Moose departs, right across the gutter into Elephant, who is doing his thing over on the E page. From here, things only go down hill. And then end in a lovely friendship-filled ending just right for a picture book!

When I gave this book to my niece, she howled. She laughed. She giggled. She insisted we read it over and over and over. She brought it to school and insisted the teacher read it to the class. She howled some more. She's 4. I hope every kid who encounters this book gets as much pleasure as Sonia does from it! I think they will. (And grown-ups? You can have a chuckle too!)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tons of Trucks

by Sue Fliess
illustrated by Betsy Snyder
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 2012

This chunky book with interactive tabs, parts that move, and textured sections is perfect for new babies this holiday season. Adorable animals including a kangaroo (complete with joey in her pouch), a turtle, a mouse, and a hippo drive the trucks and work around them.

"Old trucks, New trucks, ARMY CREW trucks!" one page declares and a koala with a pink bow on her head holds a wrench, working on the flat tire on the old truck while genderless cats of every color move "Top Secret" boxes in the Army truck. The little mouse appears on every page and it'll likely be fun for tiny readers to look for it.

The moveable parts are sturdier than most, making this a safe choice for even the most destructive of new book users!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Red Knit Cap Girl

by Naoko Stoop
Little, Brown | 2012

This New York Times Best Illustrated Books of 2012 winner is about a small girl who is trying to get close enough to the moon to talk with her. She and her small white bunny try everything to no avail. She asks for help from the wise owl, who isn't much help at all. Finally, she devises a plan which at first seems to fail, but then.

This charming, quiet story is a pleasure and the artwork makes it that much better. Fairly often, I need to check the copyright page to figure out how art was rendered. This time, though, I knew from the start this gorgeous art was done on plywood. The knots and contours of the wood shows through the art and onto the page, lending movement and emotion to each image. In some cases, bare wood has been left as a border, or as a part of the overall illustration. Stoop uses ink, paint, and pencil on the plywood, which lends a multi-layered feel.The matte pages add to the overall aesthetic.

Don't miss this one. Red Cap Girl and White Bunny will share their adventures with your littlest reader!

Friday, November 16, 2012


by Louis Sachar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 1996

I had forgotten how amazing Holes is. As a Newbery winner, it obviously is good, but it's not just good--it's truly amazing. I know two of the people who were on the Newbery committee that year, actually. I'm so pleased they chose this book. If you've read this book before, read it again. And if you know a child of either gender between the ages of 10 and 18, give it to them to read or read again. It's that good.

Stanley Yelnats is fat and bullied. His family struggles economically and things are pretty tough. One day, while he's walking along, a pair of sneakers falls from the sky, clocks Stanley in the head, and he's arrested for stealing them. Turns out they are some valuable sneakers. He's sent off to Camp Green Lake, in the middle of the desert in Texas. And there he is made to dig a hole each day, alongside the rest of the campers/prisoners who are also digging holes. The holes must be exactly 5 feet deep, 5 feet wide, and 5 feet across in every direction. They measure with their shovels. The Warden is looking for something.

When Zero is punished one day for helping Stanley dig his holes in return for reading lessons, he takes off across the desert and is left for dead. Stanley follows the next day, and together, they survive the desert, hatch a plan, and return to camp. In the grand climax of the story, all the pieces of the book fall together--stories told intermittently throughout the text involving Stanley's great-great-grandfather and a family curse and the story of the woman outlaw Kate Barlow and her forbidden love, Sam the onion man.

I don't own this book, but I'm going to buy a copy right now. You should too. (Note: I've not seen the movie, but if you've only seen the movie and never read the book--get the book. I bet it's better.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Duckling Gets a Cookie?

by Mo Willems
Hyperion | 2012

The latest installment in Willem's pigeon book series involves a very cute little duckling, who, because he possesses some manners, gets a cookie. And of course, along comes the pigeon in all his glory and has a fit because he never gets what he asks for. What happens next is totally unexpected and kind of hilarious. You'll love it. And so will any kid reading alongside you.

The very clever end papers give a hint about the story and as usual, the story starts before the first page, in this case on the copyright page where the pigeon declares: "I do not like the look of that title." This sort of metatextual joke is one of my favorite things about picture books, which can do all kinds of fun things with art.

I think, in 2012, the pigeon is as recognizable to young Americans as Mickey Mouse is. Don't miss his latest story!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Zoe's Tale

by John Scalzi
Tor | 2008

Zoe lives on Huckleberry, a planet that's part of the Colonial Union. She has her adoptive parents, John and Jane and two Obin, Hickory and Dickory, charged with making sure she's safe, because she is actually the lynchpin in universal peace. When John is chosen to command a new colony on the new planet of Roanoke, Zoe leaves with him, Jane, and 2500 other colonists and heads to their new home. What they don't know is that the Colonial Union has sent them purposely off course to a different planet to hide them from the evil Conclave. And it ends up that only Zoe can save them all in the end.

Scalzi's Old Man's War trilogy, published for adults, ended with The Last Colony, the story of the group's trip to Roanoke, told from John's (Zoe's dad) perspective. He returns to the same story to tell it again--from Zoe's perspective. Zoe's Tale works as a stand-alone novel and there's no need to have read The Last Colony to love it. And, the best part is, even though Zoe's Tale was also published as an adult novel, it is really a YA novel. It's protagonist and storyteller is a teenage girl, and the story is just as concerned with teenage problems as it is with interplanetary warfare.

Anyone who likes YA lit will likely love this. Anyone with a child who likes fantasy books will also love this. It's well written and a really well-paced and exciting story. It's one of my favorites I've read this year. (Don't dismiss it if you usually don't go for Sci-fi--you'd really be missing out!)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Noah Webster & His Words

by Jeri Chase Ferris
illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
Houghton Mifflin | 2012

This nonfiction biography picture book about Noah Webster and the creation of the first dictionary is fantastic! Full of great facts and the story of how Webster became the father of the American dictionary, it is written clearly with excellent definitions of fourteen words built right into the story.

From the first page:

"Noah Webster always knew he was right, and he never got tired of saying so (even if sometimes, he wasn't). He was, he said, full of CON-FI-DENCE" [noun: belief that one is right] from the very beginning."

The whimsical drawings bring the story even more to life, and the prodigious use of squiggles in the art bring a "handwritten" quality to all the illustrations. One awesome detail in the illustrations stands out. On a page about how Webster sailed to Europe to use the libraries in there to finish his dictionary, the illustration is of a boat on the ocean. The ocean waves are made of words, all having to do with ships. I only know that because I looked them up! Taffrail, gaff, moonraker, stunsail, tilller, halyard, and more are spread across that ocean and it's a lovely detail!

The book includes a detailed timeline that interweaves Noah Webster's life with important American dates; after all, he was born in 1758 and died in 1843 and during his lifetime, the United States was born. He is buried in New Haven in Grove Street Cemetery next to Yale. The book also includes a longer note about Noah Webster and a bibliography that includes websites.

Biographies are not boring! And this one proves it yet again.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Castle: How It Works

by David Macaulay
David Macaulay Studio/Macmillan | 2012

David Macaulay's new early reader series, My Readers, kicks off with Castle: How It Works. David is already famous for his other Castle book, written in 1977, along with his other amazing books about buildings (Mosque, Pyramid, City, and more) as well as the one that started it all in 1973, Cathedral. He is also lauded for his The Way Things Work books. You should check out all of his books, but for now let's stick with this new one in this new series.

Here, David explains how a castle works in words and pictures accessible to new readers.  He writes in the second person, addressing the child reader and inviting them into the castle. He gives a a tour about how things work for both friends and foes of the castle.

Some text examples:

"If you are friend you must first climb a steep ramp. It ends at a wooden drawbridge. The drawbridge crosses the moat."

"If you are a foe, or an enemy, you won't be let in. To capture the castle you will have to surround it and wait. This is called a siege."

The clear and precise language allows early readers to investigate both words and pictures independently.

The book includes a Words to Know section complete with a diagram of the castle's parts, a list of websites to visit to learn more, and an index for the most intrepid readers. Jet Plane: How It Works is also available already, and more titles are planned.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Children's Book-A-Day Almanac

by Anita Silvey
Roaring Brook Press | 2012


Anita Silvey is a legend. She's a former editor-in-chief of the Horn Book Magazine, former children's publisher, and current writer and professor. She's also a really, really nice woman.

For the two years-plus, she has blogged her recommendations of the best books for children, both classic and new, at Anita Silvey's Children's Book-A-Day Almanac, available here. And now, the blog has been turned into an easy-to-use, affordable reference book that belongs in every library, on every teacher's desk, and in every parent's home.

Beginning on January 1 and containing 366 entries (one for February 29, too!), each page highlights a different book for children in every age-level and every genre from The Very Hungry Catepillar to The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery. Each entry contains a synopsis of the book and information about it written in the first person, which feels almost like Anita has joined the reader in the classroom or living room to help the reader understand why the book is important. She ends with recommendations about for whom the book might work best and with suggestions on how to use it with students or kids. A sidebar on each page notes important things that took place on that date such as birthdays and historical events.

The book is appended with a guide to major children's book awards, a book and author index, an index of books by type, an index of books by age, an index of major holidays, and photo credits. All this back matter makes the book even more user-friendly. At the fantastic price of $19.99 and with its easy to hold and flip-through paperback format, you may want to buy a few of these as holiday gifts for folks you know!

Friday, November 2, 2012


by Uma Krishnaswami
illustrated by Jamel Akib
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux | 2003

It is the end of the dry season in an Indian city and a young girl and her family await the monsoon rains that will wash away the dust and bring renewed life. As they go from home to market to the streets, they wish and hope that the rains will come soon and in just the right amount. Too little rain means difficulty as does too much.

Akib's soft drawings are perfect for both the mood and topic of the book. The family includes the protagonist, a young girl and her younger brother, mother, father, and grandmother. They live in a modern, upper-middle-class home and wear a mixture of Western and traditional Indian clothing. The book introduces a weather phenomenon most American children won't be familiar with and places it in a place that looks both familiar and foreign at the same time.

On the copyright page a brief, helpful glossary explains a few Hindi words not defined in the text. This is a lovely book. Don't miss it's quiet and graceful story. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Trick or Treat

written and illustrated by Leo Landry
Houghton Mifflin | 2012

As Oliver Ghost makes his way around inviting his friends to his Halloween party, one invitation floats away and ends up in the hands of two children. They come to the party and have a great time, completely unaware they are partying amongst real ghosts, goblins, and witches!

Landry's simple illustrations are absolutely adorable. The Halloween story is unique and different than all the other Halloween stories out there. Get this one for your little ghosts and tricksters this year!

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Obstinate Pen

by Frank Dormer
Henry Holt | 2012

Uncle Flood's new pen arrives while Horace is visiting. He flees as Uncle Flood demands silence to write. He begins, "The following story is all true." But that's not what the pen writes. The pen, who is obviously obstinate, writes, "You have a BIG nose." Uncle Flood tries again. The pen insults him again. So Uncle Flood throws it out the window.

What follows is a stream of adults discovering and attempting to use the pen to no avail and with different reactions. In the end, it is Horace who winds up with the pen, and a surprise. For, it appears, in the right hands, the pen has no need to be obstinate.

This unique and original idea has turned into a fantastically illustrated picture book. It's funny and clever and droll. The characters are entertaining and readers learn quite a bit about each one, which is quite a feat considering the small number of words in a picture book.

Imagine if your pen suddenly started writing whatever it wanted rather than what you wanted. Ask your young readers to imagine it. What might it say? What a fun classroom activity!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Why We Broke Up

by Daniel Handler (Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) will be at the Boston Book Festival tomorrow, October 27, as the Kid Keynote speaker)
illustrated by Maira Kalman
Little, Brown | 2011

Min is a girl scorned. She is breaking up with Ed and writing him an epic letter explaining why she's dumping him. Her reasons are linked to items she is placing in a box which she will put on his front steps. She's doing all this while riding in her best friend Al's truck--well, actually it's his dad's truck. Al and Min haven't been so close lately because she's been preoccupied with being Ed's girlfriend. Ed, after all, is a pretty popular guy.

The reader learns all about this dramatic teenage love affair through Min's manifesto accompanied by artwork of each item. Min's voice is clear and unique. The story is heart breaking and funny at the same time. Anyone who has ever been in a teenage relationship or wishes for one will likely love this book.

This is my favorite physical book of the last couple of years. It's heavy in your hands because the paper is coated to properly present Kalman's artwork, which are all glorious, colorful pieces. The leading (the space between lines of type) is nice and big, allowing the eye to breathe on the page as you read. The jacket is awesome, with a falling cup, linked to the back end papers. The story begins on the front end papers. Even the spine gets into the action, sporting an umbrella--the one item that Min wants back from Ed. The casewrap (the actual printed cover of the book under the jacket) is covered with Kalman-drawn rose pedals, an important item in the box Min is preparing for Ed.

YA romances abound these days. This is an old-fashioned love story that everyone will recognize (even those of us who have never met a vampire nor ever hoped to fall in love with one).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Crossing Stones

by Helen Frost
Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 2009

This narrative brings together the voices of two families in rural Michigan in 1917 as their sons go off to war and their daughters struggle to define themselves. There is an easy symmetry in the families and an assumption that the boys and girls will match up and be partnered, but Muriel finds herself questioning this arranged destiny. "Mother: I have no intention of becoming the Mrs. Norman of your imaginary future. Who I am remains to be seen - and I alone intend to be the one to see it." Muriel tells us this on page 15! So early we learn this young woman in 1917 will not be molded easily. And luckily for her, she has a paternal aunt who is fighting for suffrage.

At 16, Muriel is already questioning the status quo at school and at home, and her parents, although supportive, are cautionary. They tell her she must learn to mind her tongue, to think before she speaks, to not be too forthright with her thoughts or questions. They are raising a daughter, after all, in 1917. When Muriel attempts to write to her friend (not boyfriend) Frank, away at war, her mother is quick - "I'm not aware I know this rule, until I'm embarrassed to be caught breaking it: The gentleman should always be the first to write, Mama informs me. A lady never writes before she has received a letter." Yet two pages later, Muriel's mother says to her daughter after a bout of questioning: "Maybe you won't rock the cradle, Muriel. Some women prefer to rock the boat.

Told deftly by Helen Frost in verse, the poems are shaped round like river stones and waving like river water. The shape depends on from whose point of view they are told. This book is for anyone really, but it might be especially good for middle and high school girls. It reminded me why it's important to believe in myself and I think it would do the same for younger readers.