Thursday, May 31, 2012


written and illustrated by Mark Fearing
created by Mark Fearing & Tim Rummel
Chronicle Books | June 20, 2012

This fantastic graphic novel for the younger set involves Earthling-boy Bud accidentally catching the bus to the intergalactic Cosmos Academy and an elaborate plan to get back home. Suspense builds handily through plot twists and turns, and appeal abounds through funny names (new friend Gort McGortGort), clever resemblances (school sport ZeroBall), and generational humor (handhelds with “universal door-opening apps”). 

I intially saw only the black and white advanced reader copy, but now I've also seen the full color version and it's just as awesome as I thought it would be. I am usually a reluctant fan of graphic novels, let alone stories about aliens, but this book is fun, silly, and entirely engaging. It is aimed at those aged 8-12 and written perfectly for them. 

Fearing's drawing style is detailed without being overwhelming and clever without being coy. The entire premise of the book - a fear of Earthlings which requires Bud to hide out as another species - grabs the funny bone right from the start and the heart-warming ending brings everything full-circle. A win all around (except in ZeroBall)!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Yes, Yes, Yaul!

written and illustrated by Jef Czekaj
Disney Hyperion Books | May 8, 2012

This companion book to Hip & Hop, Don't Stop! (Disney Hyperion, 2010) brings Hip the Turtle and Hop the Rabbit back again. They are traveling around Oldskool County, Hip still rapping slowly (denoted by red words in the text) and Hop still rapping quickly (denoted with green words), during summer vacation. They visit Slowjamz Swamp, Breakbeat Meadow, Turntable Mountain, and Lake Boogaloo. The day they arrive in Sugar Hill Park, though, they meet Yaul, a "prickly porcupine" who says NO to everything. With a lot of work and a scratchy sweater, Hip and Hop get Yaul to finally say YES. An emphatic "Yes, Yes, Yaul!"

Filled with clever hip hop references (there are even more stuffed into the text than what's mentioned above), the cartoony book is pleasing to the eye and to the ear when read aloud. The text is supported by subtext raps such as "Go, Yaul, go./Do your dance./It looks like ants/are in your pants" meant to be read quickly or slowly.

Groan or laugh at the Moo-Tang Clan of rapping cows and at Kanye Pest the rapping rat. Either way, the book is a fun romp through language with a happy message intertwined.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Scorpio Races

by Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic | October 18, 2011

"This island cares nothing for love, but it favors the brave," says Sean Kendrick to Puck Connolly. He speaks of their home, Thisby, a small island somewhere off the coast of the U.K. In the roiling sea off the coast of their beloved Thisby live the capaill uisce - killer, meat-eating, swimming horses of the sea. Each October, they begin to come onto the land and the citizens of Thisby - the brave ones, anyway - prepare them to ride in the Scorpio Races, held each year on November 1.

Puck (whose real name is Kate) is orphaned and holding herself and her siblings together, barely, in their childhood home. When Gabe, her older brother, announces he's leaving Thisby behind for the mainland, Puck declares she's riding her own non-capall uisce mare in the races in order to win the money to keep their home from being foreclosed upon. Sean, orphaned himself, is a bit of a capaill uisce-whisperer; he is one of the only people who can work successfully with the fierce animals, and has a deep relationship with a capall uisce, Corr. He works at the stables of Benjamin Mulvern, the very man who may take away Puck's home.

As they each prepare to run in the races, learning who is friend and who is foe, Puck and Sean begin to care for each other in a way neither expected. As the day when someone will die rapidly approaches, both Sean and Puck realize they must win the race to get what they need and also realize, and grapple with, the fact that this means the other will not.

One of the most awesome characters in this 2012 Printz Honor book is the island itself. The detailed descriptions of the beach and the cliffs as well as the village and people is credit to Stiefvater's storytelling. A friend said to me, "the character development in this novel is just outstanding!" She also said she wanted more of Sean and added, a bit cheekily, but impressing upon me how well written these characters are, "I want to date Sean." Well, yes. But no. We can't want that too much because Sean belongs to Puck and to Corr and to the island.

There are many myths and legends from this region of the world - the selkies, for instance, and Stiefvater invents her own legend handily here. Do not let the premise scare you off - while the book is indeed about a bloody race on the beach it really isn't. It's about so much more: love, bravery, loyalty, and independence along with finding someone (or something) important and figuring out what that means.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Being Friends With Boys

by Terra Elan McVoy
Simon & Schuster | May 1, 2012

When I was in high school, most of my best friends were boys. They made more sense to me then, seemed less dangerous somehow, and let's face it, were more fun. Charlotte discovers, during the course of this story, as I did way back then, that actually, being friends with boys is more complicated than it first appears.

Char and Oliver have been besties for a long time and are in a band with Trip and Abe. Well, sort of. Char writes the lyrics for Oliver and acts as an advisor/manager of sorts. When Trip leaves the band, Fabian comes along, and everything starts to change.

The book isn't the most astounding thing I've ever read, but it's a good story for a lazy weekend. And it ends right where I want all teenage love stories to end - with the right boy standing beside the right girl. I'm rewarded even more in this one, because rather than the age-old cop-out ending of boy + girl + holding hands walking into the sunset = supposed instant satisfaction, Char acknowledges there's work to do to make the relationship work.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Small Bunny's Blue Blanket

written and illustrated by Tatyana Feeny
Knopf Books for Young Readers | June 12, 2012 pre-order now!

Small Bunny is a happy bunny who loves Blue Blanket. After Mommy decides both Small Bunny and Blue Blanket both need baths, Small Bunny struggles to recognize his precious Blue Blanket all clean and new. 

Feeney’s first foray as author/illustrator provides a poignant look at a child’s relationship with a special object and the fear and concern when that object’s perfection is threatened. Simple and clever artwork begins before the title page as Small Bunny quietly paints on an easel with Blue Blanket by his side and carries throughout the story in gorgeous lush blue tones with texture and fluidity. The words appear in the same textured blue and the placement of some echoes Small Bunny and Blue Blanket’s movements through their adventures. 

Humor at just the right moments helps to alleviate Small Bunny’s (and perhaps small readers’) anxiety as Mommy’s “Don’t worry…it will only take a minute” is followed on the next page with “It actually took 107,” with Small Bunny watching the washing machine minutes tick down on a tiled-art page. 

Rather than bemoan the newness of Blue Blanket, Small Bunny shows perseverance and “after plenty of swinging, painting, reading, and playing” all is well again. “Perfect,” actually.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I Hunt Killers

by Barry Lyga
The book cover (better than the jacket)
Little, Brown | April 3, 2012

Jazz (Jasper) Dent is a teenager from Lobo's Nod. There's been a mysterious killing in town and the body was left in a field with a finger missing. The police chief, G. William Tanner, solved a serial killer case not too long ago, and put Cornelius "Billy" Dent, Jazz's father, one of the most notorious serial killers ever, away for a long time. He's hesitant to believe this body in the field is the start of another serial case, but Jazz isn't hesitant at all. As the entire town looks to Jazz to turn out just like his father, he instead sets out to prove he's the opposite, helping G. William solve the case.

The story is complicated by the fact that Jazz was brought up by Billy as an apprentice, with the understanding he, too, would become a killer. As a result, Jazz has a desensitization and emotional detachment about crime, death, killing, bodies, blood, and more. It makes him a creepy good guy, a little Dexter-like, if you will.

This crime mystery stands alone or could be supplemented by a sequel. It's a satisfying crime novel with a teenage protagonist. I recommend to mystery-lovers and CSI-lovers everywhere.  There's more to this, though, than just a good mystery - there's a young man trying to make sense of himself, his parentage, and his place in society. The combination of the two is unique.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Subway Story

written and illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach
Knopf/Borzoi Books | October 11, 2011

Jessie was "born in St. Louis, Missouri" and "weighed 75,122 pounds and was 51 1/2 feet long." Jessie is a New York City subway car who works hard and long through the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Soon, she is old and tired and while she thinks she's going to receive repairs, she is instead stripped down and dumped into the ocean. There, she becomes an artificial reef, complete with fish and corals and other sea creatures. "Jessie was once an important part of the city where she lived. And now a whole city lives inside her."

The book is appended with fantastic back matter including an extensive Author's Note about how this actually happens with older subway cars in NYC, websites to visit for more information, and a bibliography. Considering the book is a fictionalized account, the back matter is impressive.

The design is fantastic. Bright illustrations done with acrylic paint on paper stand out on the glossy pages. End papers in the front are the subway tracks and in the back are the swirly blue of the sea water. The title page display text looks like the tile/brick often found on signage in older subway systems. The majority of the pages are double spreads. The text is simple and clear. While the book does personify a subway car, it works, much in the way Little Toot still works (for me, anyway!).

My sister reported my niece was a little worried for Jessie's fate for a bit, but then reveled in her new job under the sea, so I can safely say reader response is good for this one. City kids and country kids alike will likely love Jessie's story.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jake and Lily

by Jerry Spinelli
Balzer + Bray | May 8, 2012

Jake and Lily are twins. They have secrets, share a room, play together, have magic twin powers - they know when the other is hurt and can communicate without words.

The summer they turn eleven, Jake decides he wants to spend more time with the boys in their neighborhood, and amongst a group of boys there's no room for Lily. While Jake is sowing his oats and trying to figure out right from wrong, Lily is getting to know her grandfather and figuring out how to "get a life" for herself.

Told in alternating chapters in the first person by Jake and then Lily and then Jake again, the reader follows each twin's trajectory away from the other, into some scrapes, and back towards the other again. Both are confronted with choices they must figure out how to make on their own for the first time while still maintaining the special bond they share.

This is a solidly middle-grade book - nothing too upsetting and there's something to learn without being overly didactic. Twins or not will enjoy Jake and Lily's tale.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


by Janne Teller | translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Atheneum Books for Young Readers | Feb 9, 2010

Pierre Anthon realizes one day that nothing matters, walks out of school, climbs into the plum tree in his yard and taunts the rest of the kids in his 7th grade class incessantly from that day forward. They become obsessed with making him believe that things DO matter - after all, something must matter in order for them to make sense of the world and their lives. As they set out to prove to Pierre and to themselves what matters, each gives up something to a growing "heap of meaning" they create, and soon they prompt each other about what to give up. Gerda forces the narrator, Agnes, to give up her favorite shoes, and in turn Gerda must give up her pet hamster. But then there's stealing involved, and intangible things to give up, and violence ensues. In the end, what matters and what doesn't is more murky than at the start.

The book has an undoubtedly Scandinavian sensibility. Its unemotional stance and matter-of-factness can be tough at times for an American reader more used to effusiveness or judgement. For me, though, that's one of the best things about this book. It doesn't provide provocative situations and then stand back and point to itself, saying, "Look at how provocative I am!" Instead, Teller allows the reader to respond purely, unencumbered by an expectation of the text. Freeing.

I'm rarely shocked by a book. No matter how subversive, provocative, disturbing, or manipulative, I'm usually not bothered. I was more shocked by this book than I've ever been by anything I've read. I was simply amazed by what was happening. And I was even more amazed that I could believe it could happen. Some reviewers have dubbed it a "modern day Lord of the Flies," but I find that comparison superficial at best and insulting at worst. Teller has not placed these young people in a situation where their actions are driven by survival. This book is philosophical at its core. What matters? How do you know? What's worth it? And what if, just what if, the answer is NOTHING? Then what?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School

written and illustrated by David Mackintosh
Abrams Books for Young Readers | August 1, 2011

The young narrator tells the reader all about Marshall Armstrong, new to school. It seems Marshall is a bit odd, with odd parents. He looks a tad different, showing up the first day in a banded straw hat and jacket and tie, carrying a briefcase; his shoes are tied in a new way and his watch has no hands; all his food is weird. Not playing with the other kids at recess and reading the newspaper just serve to set him apart even further. Marshall Armstrong doesn't appear bothered by any of this in the slightest. When the child telling the story is forced to attend Marshall's birthday party, he anticipates the worst. But he's pleasantly surprised by what he finds and learns a valuable lesson about judging people in the process.

The book is designed and lettered by the author and almost every page turn reveals a double spread. The illustrations are simple yet provocative, and ask for a reader to look and search and consider the information provided in each one. "His glasses belong to another boy" is paired with a close-up illustration of the arm of Marshall's glasses, imprinted with "Ray Ban." And "his eyes are always focused on Ms. Wright" is paired with a stylized illustration of glasses with pupils made of protractors indicative of Marshall's math proclivities.

First published in the UK, the book is simple in message and pleasing in execution and small readers may begin wonder, like the unnamed narrator, what wonderful new adventures a new kid might have in store.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Timelessness of Katherine Paterson

To watch a video of Katherine Paterson's talk, click here.
I was lucky enough to hear Katherine Paterson speak recently in Lowell, MA. The Tsongas Industrial History Center, which is a partnership between UMASS Lowell Graduate School of Education and the Lowell National Historical Park, invited her to speak on May 3 about her historical novel, Lyddie, about a young girl who makes her way from Vermont to Lowell to work in the mills.

In preparation for the event, I re-read Lyddie and Bridge to Terabithia, and pulled out my copy of The Great Gilly Hopkins to take with me to get signed. When I got there, I bought Bread and Roses, Too and Jip, both Paterson novels I'm familiar with, although have not read before. I had everything signed that night - I'm a sucker for an author-signed book.

Paterson's speech was astounding. I'm not quite sure how else to describe it. She spoke of Lowell and her research for Lyddie, of course, but she also shared some about her writing process, how she does it, and how she doubts it. She told stories and shared instants in her career that were difficult or meaningful or both. She talked about not writing what she knows, but what she wants to find out.

When she was done, I turned to my companions and said, "How does anyone write a speech that good?" Paterson graciously took questions from the audience and then sat and greeted the long line of people wanting to have books signed, accompanied by her husband, who assisted the process by finding the title page in each book and handing it over to her (they will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary this year if I understood her reference correctly in her speech that night).

Paterson's prose is clean, clear, and inviting. It is simple and concise. It is exactly what a middle-grade novel requires, especially when historical in nature. The story draws in the reader, holds attention without waver, and delivers on education at the same time - something very rare indeed. Lyddie and Jip and Rosa and Jake (Bread and Roses, Too), if they were real, would have lived over 100 years ago, yet modern readers can relate to their stories. Teachers teach Paterson's books because they are worthy of study, to be sure, but also because their students will love them.

Gilly, Jess and Leslie (Bridge), and Louise and Caroline (Jacob Have I Loved) are 20th century young people. I think even 100 years from now, readers will still be able to relate to them as well - their stories can be universally understood and appreciated over the passage of time. Finding a home and an identity, dealing with death, and sibling rivalry are all here to stay, and so these characters will continue to provide insight into issues for a long time.

I fear sometimes that the books of my youth might be missed by the youth of today. Will my niece Sonia pass by The Great Gilly Hopkins in favor of something flashier or more recently published? I hope not. (And my niece is a bad example, really, since she has me sending her books - I'll make sure she gets Gilly's story at some point.) Seek out these modern day classics from Paterson. Even adult readers will likely find something new in Lyddie and Jip's stories - Vermont, slavery, mill work, lunatics, and the poor farm are portrayed in ways I've never considered. Read Lyddie first, and you'll appreciate the lovely intertextual twist Paterson builds into Jip that shouldn't be missed.

And so, in a blog that has focused in its first three weeks on the new, I take a step back and invite readers to do the same. Time may pass, technology may change, lives may march on. But the written words on the page stay the same and invite with each reading something new created by those who take the time to ingest and consider them.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

If I Stay & Where She Went

by Gayle Forman
Stay - Dutton | April 2, 2009 (paperback - Speak/Penguin April 2010) 
Went - Dutton | April 5, 2011 (paperback - Speak/Penguin April 2012)

Mia has a perfect family. Her mom and dad are both ex-punk-rockers who have their acts together. She has a little brother named Teddy who she loves. She is a talented cellist and just applied to Julliard. Her boyfriend Adam's Portland, Oregon-based band is growing in popularity and success. Everything seems to fit just right.

And then there's a snow day. "It isn't even an inch, but in this part of Oregon a slight dusting brings everything to a standstill," Mia tells the reader in the second paragraph. A family drive goes terribly awry and Mia's family is gone in a flash and her own life hangs in the balance. The balance is between staying or going - and it seems Mia has some choice. As her body lies in the hospital, Mia is walking around, listening in on conversations about her and her family, spending time with her friend Kim and boyfriend Adam as they try to gain entry to the ICU unit. Through flashbacks, Mia fills in all the blanks for the reader, explaining her hopes and dreams, her relationships, and her bleak-looking future.

Adam clutches her hand and begs her to stay. "Stay...If you stay, I'll do whatever you want." And for the first time, Mia squeezes back. She stays.

Forman writes a heart-wrenching novel that was a 2010 Teen Choice selection that poses the question of what happens when everything is taken. And she comes back a year later in the sequel to Mia's story, told in the first person by Adam. It's three years later, and Adam is a true rock star, but tortured. It's been three whole years since he's seen Mia and his life is less meaningful without her.

After a chance meeting in New York City the night before Adam is meant to embark on a sixty-seven city tour with the band, he and Mia spend a night wandering the streets, re-learning each other, and figuring out what might be next.

The books together are a satisfying pair. Adam's voice is a little too whiny at times, but Mia is such a likeable, believable character, it makes up for it. Mia stayed, and then went. And Adam found her.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Roaring Brook Press | March 27, 2012

Each page of Seeger's new picturebook offers the reader (or observer, really) a shade or type of the color of nature, the color of vegetables, the lush color of so much around us. Starting with "forest green" Seeger's rich multi-layered artwork invites a reader to explore the art. The rich green of the forest trees and leaves is offset by the brown forest floor carpet and a tiny bunny peeking out from behind a tree. When the page is turned, here the real treat becomes clear. The green leaves are die-cut in the page, and as it turns and those same die-cuts are placed atop the prior page, they become fish, swimming behind a turtle on the "sea green" scene!

Each page offers this magical surprise. The bubbles emitting from the turtle turn into spots on a lime rind, and the lime slice die-cut turns into the soup ladle on the "pea green" page. It's fun, clever, and perfectly executed. My favorite is the nail-shaped hole on the "faded green" page that, when turned, becomes the spotlight on the barn nearby kids chasing fireflies on a "glow green" spread.

The book offers rich art, unexpected surprises, and beautiful lush color. Seeger's First the Egg (Roaring Brook Press) won a Caldecott Honor Medal and a Theodor Suess Geisel Honor Award in 2008. I wouldn't be surprised if Green sported a seal of some sort this time next year.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The High-Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate

written and illustrated by Scott Nash
Candlewick Publishing | September 25, 2012
pre-order now! | visit the site

Drop everything and go pre-order this book right now. I have an advanced reader copy and I've pre-ordered my hardcover copy and am already anxiously awaiting its arrival in September. I loved the story, cannot wait to see the full-color art considering how pleasing it is in black and white, and have been completely been won over by Nash's animal characters.

Blue Jay the Pirate is a blue jay. And he's a pirate of the skies. He and his crew of bird-pirates sail their pirate ship, the Grosbeak through the sky with the wind in their sails, looking for treasure. Blue Jay has a bit of a thing about eggs, and he steals and collects them and keeps them in a special hold in his ship. (Incidentally, "some of his crew had originated from eggs he collected...'The trouble with eggs,' Jay would often joke to his adopted offspring, 'is they sometimes grow legs!'") But times have changed and Jay is in search of different booty - "jewels, contraptions of all sorts, and anything metal or shiny." For old times' sake, though, he and his crew take aboard one more egg, which ends up hatching into a fuzzy, enormous (to them) gosling.

The ragtag band of pirates led by Blue Jay and accompanied by Gabriel the baby-goose pirate end up losing control of their ship and being captured by Teach the Crow and his group of bandits. After their flight wings are clipped, they end up in Briarloch, where sparrows have been trapped ever since migrating was outlawed and get help from Covey, Cyrus, Poppa Fox (who, despite his name, is a sparrow), and a star-nosed mole called Hillary.

Does all of this sound incredibly confusing? Fear not! It makes perfect pirate-sense and bird-sense. Nash masterfully ties up all the ends into a fantastic narrative. After foiling the plans of the rascally crows and regaining ownership of their ship (albeit in pretty bad shape), Blue Jay's crew (with a few new pirates from Briarloch aboard) sets sail once again, looking for a vacation and repair stop.

If you ever see a goose flying through the sky with what looks like a pirate ship behind it, it might just be Blue Jay the Pirate. Aye, sir!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Dead to You

by Lisa McMann
Simon Pulse, Simon & Schuster | February 7, 2012

Ethan has been gone for nine years. He was abducted from outside his family home when he was seven, right in front of his brother, Blake, who was only four at the time. He got right in a car with two men and nobody ever saw him again. Until now.

This story of how a family gets back a child who has been gone for more than half his life and how they work to reintegrate as a family unit works pretty well. The writing is good, and the story hangs together. Ethan's challenges with trying to remember things and Blake's struggles with the reappearance of his long lost brother seem authentic. Told in the first person by Ethan, the narration privileges his feelings, confusion, and thoughts. Information about how everyone else is feeling is second hand, which is logical enough - after all, it's he who has been missing all this time, he who was raised by his kidnapper, and he who has to figure out who he is now.

I am one of those readers who is surprised by everything - I never see the twist coming, and I didn't here. It's a good one, albeit a little bit too easy in how it happens. And the very end leaves me wanting more. Perhaps McMann is coming back with the sequel? I for one, would love that.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Wildwood: The Wildwood Chronicles Book I

by Colin Meloy
illustrated by Carson Ellis
Balzer + Bray | August 30, 2011

Prue McKeel has a little brother called Mac. One day, while she's watching him in their Portland, Oregon neighborhood, a murder of crows swoops down and steals him away. So she follows the birds into the Impassable Wildness followed by Curtis, a boy from school nobody likes much. Soon, Prue and Curtis separately discover different aspects of a magical land called Wildwood, complete with talking animal inhabitants, a convoluted political system, and a long history of demonizing the human world.

Meloy is the lead singer of the band The Decemberists. Although I don't know his music, I'm told fans of it will recognize some of Meloy's artistic sensibilities in his first book for children. Meloy is married to Ellis, and she is the artist behind the wonderful illustrations for The Mysterious Benedict Society series. The art for this book is equally as amazing, and Balzer + Bray really did a nice job with the design. The book includes hand-drawn end papers with a full map of Wildwood and six astoundingly beautiful full-color plates. Black and white full page and spot illustrations appear throughout the book, as well. The trim size  - 8 inches by 6 inches - makes the book thick and heavy and a pleasure to hold in your hands. 

This is the first in a planned series called The Wildwood Chronicles. Book two is due out in September 2012 and is called Under Wildwood. Recommend this to your fantasy-loving friends and anyone who likes a good adventure tale.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I Want My Hat Back

by Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press | September 27, 2011

I am a little bit in love with this insanely clever picturebook by Jon Klassen. The story is simple and unique, the jokes are perfectly placed and while one can be enjoyed because it's so expected, the other is joyfully out-of-the-blue. The design is entirely pleasing, with gorgeous end papers, great use of color, and Klassen's art, created digitally and with Chinese ink (according to the copyright page), leaves me wanting to see the originals in an exhibit - it's that good.

A bear has lost his hat. He asks each animal he encounters if they've seen it and each says no in their own way, and the bear politely thanks them. Finally, bereft and exhausted, the bear gives up and lies on the forest floor. Soon, a deer comes along and asks just the right question, which sets off the events that end the bear's search and ends something else, which I'll not spoil.

I Want My Hat Back won a 2012 Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor and was included on the 2011 New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Children's Book Awards list. It is a great read-aloud. The littlest readers will get the first joke, even if they miss the second one. In a family test, some of my own all-adult test-group missed the second joke because they were going too fast. To me, that makes this book all the better - how to interpret that last twist and whether the reader gets it at all are part of the fun!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Animal 1 2 3

by Britta Teckentrup
Handprint Books/Chronicle | February 22, 2012

1 wriggly snake becomes 2 wriggly snakes when the number-one shaped flap is opened. And 2 marching elephants become 3 marching elephants when the number-two shaped flap is opened to reveal a baby elephant holding onto its mama's tail. And so on through the numbers one through ten past swimming hippos, snowy swans, grinning snails, and more to the final 9-10 double-flap to reveal all the animals on one panel.

The primary colors are bright and the depictions of the animals are fun and engaging for tiny readers. We can count a billion counting books out there - but this one stands out.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Paradise Trap

by Catherine Jinks
Egmont USA | April 24, 2012

Marcus and his mom, Holly, head to Diamond Beach for a much needed vacation. Holly's a single mom, and she doesn't have a lot of money, so she buys a second-hand, smelly trailer and off they go to the very beach where Holly spent a joyful summer as a child. There they bump into Holly's childhood friend, Coco, her rich, inventor husband, Sterling Huckstepp, and their two kids, Edison and Newton. Soon, everyone is in the throes of a crazy adventure which involves a magical basement under Marcus and Holly's trailer that provides dream vacations for each person who opens a door. Edison is trapped in a an amusement park where all the rides are alive and catering to his every whim, Coco ends up in a cat-run spa, and Newt gets a never-ending party filled with rock stars and all the cute boys she could ever want. When Marcus figures out all this awesomeness is actually something sinister, he and Holly work together with one of Sterling's prototype robots, Prot, and the rest of the Huckstepp family to save everyone, including Jake, a long lost childhood friend of Holly's who's been trapped in his "dream" vacation for 20 years. Together, they manage to eradicate the evil world and its creator, Miss Molpe.

The physics and space/time warps involved in the story are done really well. Each time another twist was revealed, it makes sense how the author got there. There weren't any obvious logic-holes like there often are in stories like this. Marcus, like all good middle-grade heroes, is very smart and often figures out just what the group needs to know in the nick of time. Sterling's work as a scientist and inventor often saves the day as well; his knowledge of obscure mathematics is helpful. Each member of the group has their own strength to share as they wend their way back to reality and safety.

I really enjoyed this. When I first picked it up, I wasn't sure I would - the cover doesn't help much - it makes it look like some goofy 80s novel. (It was originally published in Australia with a much better cover!) But the story inside is great, and I wish I was 10 again, so my sister and I could both read this and then talk about what we thought about Marcus's adventure and what our dream (and nightmare) vacations would be.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship

by Russell Freedman   
Clarion Books | June 19, 2012 | pre-order now!

Russell Freedman won the Newbery Medal in 1988 for Abraham Lincoln: A Photobiography. (There have been very few nonfiction books that have won the Newbery since it's inception in 1922, by the way.) There are also thousands of books about Lincoln - he's in the top five of the most written about people of all-time (or something like that).  

Freedman has returned to Lincoln in this new book, this time focusing on his “brief but telling friendship with Frederick Douglass.” It's a fantastic look at both men, their backgrounds, and how their extraordinary lives intersected.

Opening with Douglass’s visit to the White House to request audience with Lincoln during the height of the Civil War in 1863 and then backtracking to give history of both men, highlighting the parallels, the text is succinct and organized. Historical illustrations, photographs, daguerreotypes, political cartoons, and reproductions from books support the text, each credited fully in Freedman’s classic manner. Anyone who has read Douglass's autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave will recognize salient details in Freedman's text, as he deftly makes Douglass's life story accessible for younger readers.

Some readers might wish for a stronger thread of the friendship story touted by the title throughout the text, while others may not even notice the time it takes to get to the heart of Lincoln and Douglass’s relationship. The brevity of the friendship doesn’t belie the strength of it, as evidenced by Mary Todd Lincoln’s bequeath to Douglass after her husband’s assassination: “…[Lincoln] had wanted to do something special to express his warm personal regard…Mary had decided to send Douglass her husband’s favorite walking stick as a memento of their friendship.”  And now Freedman has honored that same friendship with this well-researched book for young people. 

A list of historic sites, selected bibliography, notes and picture credits make for thorough back matter.This is a great one for middle-grade readers just discovering Lincoln and Douglass or for high-schoolers looking for multiple sources for longer reports or papers.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Mouse and Mole: A Perfect Halloween

written and illustrated by Wong Herbert Yee
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children | September 2011

The most recent Mouse and Mole book is entitled Mouse and Mole: A Perfect Halloween. This adorable early reader chapter book feature best friends, Mouse and Mole, and their fall adventures revolving around carving pumpkins for a contest, making costumes, and facing the scariness Halloween can bring. Yee uses a clever story-within-a-story as a way for Mouse to help Mole be less afraid. In the end, Mole gets Mouse back, startling him in his ghost costume, and "together, Mouse and Mole had a perfect Halloween!"

The artwork is colorful, rendered in gouache and litho pencil, which provides strong lines and soft details. As appropriate in an early reader, the illustrations provide clues to the text to assist new readers still working out new words. There's a fair bit of text on each page, which makes this book perfect for those ready for a little more work, but broken up well into four separate chapters to allow for breaks. The typical early reader trim size is great for little hands.

There are six Mouse and Mole books in all. The other five are: Upstairs Mouse, Downstairs Mole, Abracadabra!: Magic with Mouse and Mole, A Brand New Day with Mouse and Mole, Mouse and Mole: Fine Feathered Friends (2010 Theodor Suess Geisel Honor Award Winner), and Mouse and Mole: A Winter Wonderland. I'll confess I've not seen the others, but judging by the Halloween title, I'd feel safe assuming they all provide good little stories for the just-starting-to-read set. Set up your slightly older child to read aloud to his/her younger sibling/cousin/friend - these are just right for such an endeavor!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

One Cool Friend

by Toni Buzzeo
illustrated by David Small
Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin | January 10, 2012

Elliot is a formal little kid with a quirky dad. One Saturday morning, his father asks, "Family Fun Day at the aquarium, shall we go?" and Eliot reluctantly agrees. While there, tuxedo-wearing Elliot asks if he can have a penguin, and Dad hands over the $20, after checking out the price of the stuffed ones for sale. But Elliot slips a real penguin into his backpack, names him Magellan, and brings him home.

He and Magellan build an ice rink, do research at the library, eat loads of anchovy pizza and goldfish crackers, and generally have a fantastic time, all under the seemingly unsuspecting nose of Elliot's somewhat oblivious father, who is busy in his study, which is covered in turtles - it appear Elliot isn't the only animal lover in the family. What happens next is hilarious and everyone will love the joke. You'll want to immediately go back and figure out how you missed it!

David Small, prolific illustrator and author himself, offers black and white line drawings complete with spot color in just the right places - Magellan's scarf, Dad's pajamas, the ice-packs Magellan lays around on. The illustrations vary - some are full page, some are double spreads, and some are smaller. The illustrations add to the story rather than only complement the text, making this picturebook the best kind - one in which there is the story the text tells, the story the illustrations tell, and the story that lies in between.

Pull up a cup of fishy crackers and dive into Elliot and Magellan's world. It's fun here!

Click to enlarge photo. Text reads: "Elliot emptied the school notices from his backpack, selected the smallest penguin..." (next page continues - "and popped it inside.")

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ghosts of the Titanic

by Julie Lawson
Holiday House | April 1, 2012

In this 100th anniversary year of the sinking of the Titanic, there have been plenty of books published to choose from. Nonfiction, fiction, picturebooks, books for older readers, and ones for adults. Some blend fact and fiction together. This is one, and it's a good read.

Twelve-year-old Kevin can't do anything right. He messes up at school, his father is always disappointed in him, and his sister is the golden-child. When he finds out his family is making him go to Nova Scotia for the entire summer, he's none-too-pleased. His dad has inherited a house for some unknown reason, and they are going to check it out. What Kevin discovers in the house leads him to research and a fantastic Titanic-based ghost story of which he becomes a part.

This fantasy/mystery incorporates facts from the sinking of the great ship and imagines the story of a passenger, Annie, intertwined with a young seaman, Angus, who was involved with the rescue/clean up efforts. Kevin's own story becomes intertwined with Annie and Angus's and he finds he isn't just a mess-up, like his family and teachers believe.

Lawson provides a tight plot line, clear descriptions, and a puzzle-piece mystery that comes together with appropriate pacing and causes the reader to gasp and exclaim with delight as each discovery unfolds. Don't let the cheesy cover of the book discourage potential middle-grade readers. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Great Molasses Flood

by Deborah Kops
Charlesbridge Publishing | Feb 1, 2012

Finally, a proper book about the Boston Great Molasses Flood for young people! I've been waiting for this for years - since I discovered the only book for adults about this amazing disaster, Dark Tide, by Stephen Puleo. Up until now, there's only been a few books for kids that deal with this subject, all travesties in different ways from false portrayal to egregiously misconstruing it as a jovial event in the folklore of Boston.

The molasses flood happened in January 1919, after a tank built by USIA literally burst at the seams. Molasses was brought from the Caribbean to Boston and then boiled down into industrial alcohol and used to make ammunition for the war. USIA was in a hurry to build the tank and didn't properly inspect it. It was built in the North End of Boston, which was filled with Italian immigrants who didn't complain too much when the 50-foot tall massive, ugly tank was constructed in their densely populated neighborhood.

The destruction caused by a 30-foot wave of molasses flowing down the street was astronomical. It took out the elevated train tracks and destroyed buildings and houses. Twenty-one people died and countless others were injured. The civil case against USIA lasted for 6 years.

Kops has done a brilliant job boiling down (pun intended) a very complicated story for young readers. She has paid careful attention to ensuring details are true and accurate. The book design is lovely - with rich brown tones and sepia historical photographs reminiscent of the sticky brown liquid that caused so much trouble. Kops introduces people into the story both to humanize it and to keep readers interested as they go through the minute details of what happened that day and the weeks and months and years that followed.  Occasional sidebars offer other peripheral information - one about John F. Fitzgerald, Rose Kennedy's father and mayor of Boston at the time, one about anarchists in the U.S. during that period, and more. Back matter includes a photo of the small plaque that marks the site today, photo credits, and an index, and although a bibliography is absent, an acknowledgement page indicates the major sources Kops used in her research.

Many who know me know I love me a good disaster story and I've been semi-obsessed with the Molasses Flood for years. Finally, young readers can learn about this bizarre incident that changed Boston and some laws in the rest of the U.S. Read it as a family - it will amaze everyone of every age.

Caption in the book under this photo reads: A section of the molasses tank and other debris. Men wore boots to protect their feet from the sticky goo. Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Meet the Author: Lilia Nickerson

Meet Lilia Nickerson and read an excerpt from her unpublished young adult  manuscript Daredevil.

1   Why do you write for children?
When I was a kid my mom drilled one important thing into my head: there are two ways to spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious*. My mom was a copy editor for Scholastic in the 70s, and she was very proud of the fact that one of the books she edited was Mary Poppins. She was passionate about children’s literature and she loved sharing her passion with my sister and me. Of course, we didn’t really care. We thought she was weird. But then one day when I was twelve or so I found my copy of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. I knew it was just a “kid’s” book but I wanted to look at it, so I started flipping through the pages.  Then, out of nowhere, my mom walked in. I tried pushing the book under my pillow, but Mom saw and her ears perked up. “What are you reading?” she asked. I hung my head and showed her. I told her I knew I was silly for reading a picturebook. She made me look her in the eyes, which meant I better pay attention.  “You’re never too old for picturebooks,” she said. She told me that children’s books aren’t written for children as in young humans. They’re written for the child in all of us. I know that’s super cliché, but my mom talks in clichés. And usually her clichés make a whole lot of sense. I write for “children” because I want to write for the child in all of us. I want to bring anyone who reads my books back to the excitement, wonder, and magic of childhood.(*Supercalafragilisticexpialadoshus)

What’s the most challenging part of crafting a story?
Crafting a story is the ultimate juggling act. There are so many elements to keep in mind when writing: pacing, word choice, setting, character development, voice, point of view, tension, etc.; and I always seem to let most of them drop to the floor, even when I’ve tried so hard to catch them. I’ve discovered that this is because I haven’t taken the time to figure out what my story is about before I begin writing.  So now, I try to utilize as many writing exercises I can. I have volumes of character interviews, setting maps (which are important to make even when writing realism), and photographs of what my characters look like. Once my characters feel like real people, living in a real place, looking for something true, then I write. And it’s usually better because of it. 

How does your writing offer something new to the children’s literature world?

I don’t really know yet. I’m still trying to find my niche. So far I have worked on a picturebook about a boy named Felix and his guinea pig Gadget. It’s about how they learn to appreciate their friendship. My other project is a young adult supernatural thriller about a daredevil named Haven who wants to get out of his dumpy town and make it big as a stuntman, but the ghost of his dead sister meets him on the roof of the building he’s training to jump off. I’ve had fun writing both manuscripts, but now I want to try my hand at nonfiction. I’m also a teacher, and a nerd, so I think nonfiction might be my “thing.” I have an idea for a young adult book about Lizzy Borden that I’m just itching to write. I’m sure I have a lot to offer, but it’s still going to take some time to figure out exactly what.

Lilia Nickerson will receive her MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College on May 18, 2012. She attended Keene State College in N.H. and graduated in 2008 with a degree in elementary education. After receiving her B.S. she taught 4th grade in Franklin, N.H. She currently lives in Harwich, MA on Cape Cod. She still has imaginary friends.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The One and Only Ivan

by Katherine Applegate
Harper/Harper Collins Publishers
January 17, 2012 | $16.99

Ivan is a silverback gorilla. He lives in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall off I-95, caged up as a novelty for passing shoppers. As the years have progressed (he's been in residence for 9876 days so far), he's made friends with Bob, a stray dog, Julia, the janitor's daughter, and Stella, an elephant caged up with him. When Ruby, a young elephant, comes to take the place Stella will leave when she soon succumbs to old-age and poor care, Ivan is faced with a challenge. He promises Stella to gain Ruby her freedom and then must fulfill, somehow, his seemingly impossible challenge. 

Ivan is an artist - putting on a show for children by drawing pictures with crayons, and through his art he activates a plan to save Ruby (and himself). Because Julia is also an artist, he engages her to help explain his plan to the humans. "It has to be Julia. She's an artist. Surely she'll look, truly look, at my painting," he says. And Julia does figure out the plan, and against all odds, it works. (Sort of how a spider we all know, with a human girl's help, once saved a pig.)

Ruby and Ivan.
Told from Ivan's viewpoint in the first person, the story is lovely, simple, and profound. While the book seems long for its intended audience (8-12 year olds), it's actually much shorter - Ivan's thoughts and ideas are placed in short bursts with lots of space between. Illustrations by Patricia Castelao support the text. A short glossary strategically placed at the front, and an author's note at the end situate the text squarely as advocacy for fair treatment of animals.

This is a great read aloud or a good one for middle-grade readers to brag about having read all 305 pages. It's serious in tone because Ivan's situation is serious. But it's full of hope and has a very happy ending to balance everything out. The George Eliot quote as the epigram that starts this story, "It is never too late to be what you might have been," really says it all.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Long Lankin

by Lindsey Barraclough
Candlewick Press
July 10, 2012 | $16.99 | pre-order it now! 

Originally published in England, this gripping thriller follows sisters Cora and Mimi after their father foists them upon great Aunt Ida at Guerdon Hall. Ida is averse to keeping them for an unknown reason, which gets Cora “curious, poking and prying around the house.” With the help of Roger and Peter, who live up the road, she begins to piece together the terrifying truth about what goes on in Bryers Guerdon.   

I am not usually a horror fan since I scare so easily. I had to read this for a class I was taking, so in I went. I was so gripped by the story I didn't want to stop and so utterly creeped out that I couldn't go to the basement of my house to switch my laundry to the dryer. It was quite a conundrum, that.

Extremely well-written and unapologetically British in vernacular and sensibility, the story, taking place over a month in 1958, is told in first-person sections from Cora and Roger with an occasional comment from Ida in present day and flashbacks. Because the pacing picks up towards the end, the reader can occasionally lose track of who tells the story; a small price to pay considering how well the details of the mystery surrounding Long Lankin hang together. 

The crescendo of the action, which lasts 60 pages, comes through so clearly the reader has no trouble picturing each goosepimple-raising detail  such as “…the sound of stone grating on stone….The whole panel of five carved squares gives way…and swivels around on itself vertically, bringing threads of cobwebs with it. Behind, there is a dark hole.”   

In the end, Aunt Ida succeeds at what’s eluded her before; she outwits Long Lankin and protects Mimi and Cora. There's more than horror here. There's a good old fashioned story and a mystery and a friendship and a powerful thread of sibling-love.

Definitely read this book. Just don’t read it at home alone at night.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Little Dog Lost: The True Story of a Brave Dog Named Baltic

written and illustrated by Mônica Carnesi
Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin
January 5, 2012 | $15.99

I am not a sucker for animals. I don't have a pet at home and don't miss the one my family had as a child. Surprisingly, I took one look at Little Dog Lost and fell in love with Dog (Baltic, as he comes to be called). The story is perfectly written, almost like an early reader, with repetition and the perfect mix of worry and hope. In Poland, on the Vistula River, something on an ice floe floats by a group of children on the river bank.  They wonder, "Is it a bird? No. Is it a fish? No." Then the realization: "It's a DOG!" Firefighters are called to help with the rescue, but Dog floats too far out (see spread below). Two days later, after a long, cold journey, Dog is spotted by the Baltica, a ship, in the Baltic Sea, and rescued, warmed up, fed, named, and adopted. All is well.

The illustrations are endearing - at one point the text says, "Oh no! Where is Dog?" as only little paws are visible on a piece of ice after Dog loses his footing and falls into the river. The illustration where Baltic thanks a rescuer with a wagging tail is seen from above, a perspective not seen too often in picturebooks and executed well here. The text is simple but full of anticipation. Each page turn will have little (and not so little) readers on the edge of their seats and breathing a sigh of relief in the end when Baltic the Dog is safe.

Be sure to check out the printed end papers with the map of Baltic's journey and the back matter where Carnesi explains the facts behind this story. And don't miss the title page and publication information page - this is where the story actually begins, as Carnesi imagines how Baltic got on the ice in the first place. Since nobody really knows, she offers a simple, yet entirely plausible explanation that I just love. I hope you will too.

(Click photo to see it bigger) Text on this spread: "But the river flows too fast. The little dog floats away with the current, past the people and past the buildings. Dog leaves everyone behind."

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

by Jesse Andrews
Amulet Books
March 1, 2012 | $16.95

Greg Gaines doesn't have a lot of friends in his Pittsburgh, PA school and he's not really jiving on the idea of college next year. He spends a lot of time making sure he's as inconspicuous as possible, as does his only real close friend, Earl. During their senior year, when Greg's meddling mother insists he reach out to a childhood friend named Rachel who's been diagnosed with leukemia and then intervenes again at the big school assembly, he and Earl get more than they bargained for. Through first-person narration in one of the funniest, most self-deprecating voices I've read in years, Greg wonders about friendship, life and death, sex and love, and the future.

I laughed out loud throughout the entire book. I felt a little silly reading it in public because I couldn't help myself. There are doozy sentences, such as Greg's final word in a chapter wherein he and Earl accidentally get stoned at school (they think through their favorite teacher's soup, but later learn the source was actually Earl's older brother's cookies): "Holy flame throwing Jesuses. There are definitely kids out there who enjoy being on drugs, but I can promise you that Greg Gaines is not one of them." Rachel's mother, after telling Greg he's a riot is rewarded with a one-liner: "I'm illegal in twelve states." A scene between Greg and Rachel revolving around a nonsense riff about his potential sexual attraction to pillows ends with her asking, "Do I have to keep you away from my pillows?" to which he answers "No. Are you serious? Those pillows are all dudes." And these are only three examples. This review is not like a movie trailer. I didn't just put all the funny parts in this paragraph. There's plenty more where that came from.

This is Andrews's debut novel, and he calls it, in the acknowledgements, "this weird little book." I have to agree. And this weird little book is worth a read. The bright striped cover and marquee frames at the start of each chapter echo the film-making theme in the story as Greg and Earl learn how to be together, how to be apart, and how to figure out what's next as they grow up.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tua and the Elephant

by R.P. Harris
Illustrated by Taeeun Yoo
Chronicle Books
April 18, 2012 | $16.99

This sweet book takes place in Chang Mai, Thailand. Since I lived in Thailand for 2 years, I was interested in how it would be portrayed. Since reading this book, I've already ordered two more copies to give as gifts. Meant for middle-grade readers (age 8-12), it also makes a fantastic read aloud for any child, and I think the reader will enjoy it as much as the listener will.

Chronicle Books is known for producing beautiful books and this is no exception. Physically, it's gorgeous. It's a small trim-size with bright orange, Thai-silk print inspired end papers and a purple binding with the same little purple elephant which also begins each chapter. There are three-color (white, purple and a rich yellow) full-page plates throughout the book, and the type, set on heavy bright-white paper is also a shade of purple. Some of the fun of reading the book is holding it in your hand; it's that well-made and beautiful. The artwork by Yoo, done in charcoal and linoleum block print are fanciful and fun while also bringing some of the action of the book to life.

The story is about Tua (which means peanut in Thai), a little girl who lives with her hardworking mother in the north of Thailand, in Chang Mai. She's known throughout her neighborhood, and one night while at the night market, she liberates an abused baby elephant from two mahouts (elephant trainers). She helps the elephant after she sees the abuse and the elephant "turned toward Tua and once again held her gaze. 'Did you see that?' it seemed to say." An adventure ensues, involving bringing the chang (elephant), now named Pohn-Pohn, into a house, across a river, and to a wat (temple) to seek protection. All the while, the two mahouts are in pursuit, trying to get the elephant back because of "what an elephant is worth." In the end, everyone is safe, thanks to Tua, a local boy called Kanchanok, an elephant sanctuary run by Mae Noi, and a farang (tourist). Pohn-Pohn is a treat, and children and parents or others can say khawp khun kha (hello) to her together.