Monday, July 30, 2012

The Best Pet of All

by David LaRochelle
illustrated by Hanako Wakiyama
Dutton | June 3, 2004

The young protagonist asks his mother incessantly for a dog. She refuses, coming up with all kinds of reasons why dogs are not a good choice for a pet. Finally, he asks for a dragon instead, and she agrees that if he can find one, he "can keep it for a pet." So he heads out around town, looking for a dragon, and finds one at the drugstore. After convincing the dragon to come home with him, the dragon then proceeds to wreak havoc on the house (and the mom). Soon, something has to be done, and the boy has just the idea to solve their dragon problem. The clever twist at the end is a delight--I shall not give it away!

The illustrations are fun. Mom is young with a short blonde bob who only wears capri pants and is never pictured wearing shoes (although they make an appearance next to the couch at one point). Their house is reminiscent of the 1950s, with a red mod couch a yellow free-standing televison complete with rabbit ears, and a claw-foot tub. There is lots of white space, which also gives the book a more old-fashioned feel.

Enjoy this clever tale of a clever boy who figures out a clever way to get what he wanted to begin with!

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Templeton Twins Have An Idea

by Ellis Weiner
illustrated by Jeremy Holmes
Chronicle Books | September 2012 (pre-order now!)

Twelve-year-old twins John and Abigail Templeton have an absent-minded inventor father, Elton. When he abruptly has to leave the university where he teaches, he and the kids pack up and go to the famous Tick Tock Tech. Soon, crazy things start happening which result in the kidnapping of the twins and their clever plan to foil the evil twins, Dan D. Dean and Dean D. Dean, who are out to steal Elton's invention. All the while, the narrator telling the story is a character in his own right, talking directly to the reader and overtly holding back some information. This is book one in a planned series, and sets it up nicely leaving all kinds of questions, which likely will lead young readers waiting for the next installment.

Each chapter is entitled something hilarious, such as The Story Actually Does Get Started and Introducing Cassie, the Ridiculous Dog Who is Not a Jack Russell. At the end of each chapter are "Questions for Review" which are also hilarious. An example: "1. Why do you think someone would scrawl the word THIEF over a picture of nice Professor Templeton? 2. Isn't it silly to try to answer Question 1? Shouldn't you just keep your "theories" to yourself and continue reading? 3. True or False (circle one): The Narrator is a wonderful person. T F."

Between the intrusive narrator, the silliness of the story itself, the likeability of the characters, the interesting design (graphed pages, invention drawings), the occasional speech bubble integrated into the text, and the pleasing trim size (6"x8"), this book will likely be enjoyed by many a middle-grader.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

How Do You Wokka-Wokka?

by Elizabeth Bluemle
illustrated by Randy Cecil
Candlewick | August 11, 2009

In this joyful celebration of dancing for dancing's sake on a "fine old sunny day," a child declares "Some days you wake up and you just gotta wokka." As he makes his way out of his apartment and down the block with his orange and white cat in tow, he asks each child he meets the same question: "How do you wokka-wokka?" Each answers in a unique, adorable, word-fun way from "like flamingos in a flocka" to "like a clock go ticka-tocka" to "at your door go knocka-knocka."

The original child meets more and more city kids with skin every color of the brown spectrum and they boogie on down the blocks together. Finally, on a happy double spread they all gather in the street and the first adults in the book appear. The children are still dancing their moves and new children are checking them out - clapping, chasing a balloon, eating cotton candy. With a page turn, yet another double spread declares "We all gonna rocka/cakewalk/till we droppa." And now, street vendors are there, folks are holding hands, sitting on stoops, and hanging out windows and doors. A block party! For no reason but because, as the final page reveals, "Yeah, ya gotta wokka!"

The art is awesome. Simple and lovely, capturing the urban setting perfectly. The white space used while each child shows their moves allows for uncluttered individual expression. Each child is adorable, and the diversity represented in these few city blocks is refreshing. The cat and pigeons who are on most every page and the dogs at the block party bring even more diversity to each page. 

According to the back flap of the book, Bluemle's young nephew, when he was 2, started asking people "How do you wokka-wokka?" and while he appeared to know what that meant, nobody else did. So they made up funny dance moves to answer. And now, she's put that kernel of a moment in the life of her family into this delightful book.

The read-aloud possibilities for this book are endless. Voice, hand, and body variations galore could come from putting a bunch of preschoolers in a room and reading this book with them. I can't imagine anyone, child or adult, who wouldn't be compelled to do a little wokka-wokka-ing of their own during or after reading this book!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Guest Reviewer: Sian Gaetano on Emily Gravett

Wolves (2006) & Wolf Won't Bite (2012)
written and illustrated by Emily Gravett
Simon and Schuster for Young Readers

Emily Gravett’s picturebook page-turner, Wolves, immediately draws the reader in by starting the action on the wraparound cover. On the front, we see an inquisitive Rabbit on a blank page gazing up at the bold type of the title. Flip the book over and reviews for Wolves, Gravett’s first book, can be seen: “Every burrow should own this!” says The Daily Carrot while The Rabbit Review states it is “A wonderful introduction for young rabbits to the danger of wolves. Buy this!” The illustrations are done in a mixed media of photographs and black and white and color line drawings that meet in an action-packed collage. To begin the “tail,” Rabbit goes to the library, chooses a book about wolves, and begins reading immediately. As he walks, leaving little Rabbit footprints behind, he learns all kinds of facts about wolves’ packs, habitats, and attributes. With every turn of our page, a wholly invested Rabbit also turns his page and, distracted, does not notice the ever-growing size of his book, nor the wolves’ ability to move outside the margins... Don’t fear if your reader worries about the safety of Rabbit—Gravett has included an alternative ending “for more sensitive readers.” As you read this winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal and Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award for Illustration, be sure to keep a sharp eye out for little jokes Grabbit—er, Gravett—has included throughout the body of the book and make sure to spend some time with her last double page spread.

Gravett’s 2011 picturebook, Wolf Won’t Bite, presents a startling situation on the wraparound cover—three circus pigs pose happily while holding the end of a leash made out of string wrapped around the neck of a scruffy and defeated looking wolf. The first set of endpapers depicts the pigs, all decked out and toting a brightly painted cage, chasing after the fleeing wolf. As the copyright page and half title page show the pigs plastering up large posters for their show “Wolf Won’t Bite,” it becomes evident to the reader that the pigs must have caught their star. In the series of watercolor and oil based pencil illustrations that follow, the pigs excitedly make the increasingly harassed wolf do embarrassing and annoying stunts. On a page turn that begins with the sad wolf wearing an over-sized red bow, the texts states “I can dress him in a bow…” Flip the page and find the strongman pig standing on the back of the wolf, dressed like a show pony, declaring “I can ride him like a horse but WOLF WON’T BITE!” The tricks get more dangerous, the pigs more confident, and the wolf… Well, a wolf can only be pushed so far. This book is beautifully illustrated with such fantastic humor that it is hard to imagine a reader who doesn’t want that wolf to bite.

Si├ón 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.

Friday, July 20, 2012


Original cover
by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Atheneum Books for Young Readers | September 1991

Marty is 11 and lives in West Virginia in a small town. One day, a dog shows up and follows him around. It's clear something has happened to him because he's so timid and shy. After learning he belongs to the mean man down the street and keeps running off because of mistreatment, Marty decides to keep the dog hidden up on the hill behind his house, sneak him food, and names him Shiloh, after the nearby school building where he and the dog first met.

Soon, the web of lies in which Marty is entangled has grown and his parents catch him in it. How will Marty save himself, save Shiloh, and make everything right in the end?
The cover I have

This Newbery Medal Book is fantastically written, heart-warming without being saccharine, and one of the best boy-and-dog stories I've ever read. The regional language used is authentic yet accessible by any child no matter where they live. The universal messages of love, family, care, compassion, knowing-one's-place, small town living, rules of society, and honesty are clear and integrated without being didactic.

The book is the first in a trilogy which includes Shiloh Season and Saving Shiloh, neither of which I've read, but I'm going to go seek them out. If they are even close to as good as this one, it'll be a treat.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Other Side

by Jacqueline Woodson
illustrated by E.B. Lewis
G.P. Putnam's Sons/Penguin | January 15, 2001
Tenth anniversary edition published 2011

If you don't know Jacqueline Woodson, go seek her books out. She is a force and her books are amazing from picture books like this one to her novels for middle grade readers and beyond. She tackles tough issues and sweet happenings both with aplomb, and she portrays people of color - mostly African Americans - prolifically and often in a way that was previously missing from literature for young people.

This poignant picture book is told from the point of view of Clover, a young girl whose mother makes it clear she can play in the yard, but she can't climb over the fence that lines their property. One summer, another young girl, who Clover eventually learns is named Annie, starts showing up on the other side of the fence. When she asks if she can jump rope with the kids on the other side, Clover's friend Sandra tells her no pretty quickly. You see, Annie is white while Clover and her friends are  black.

The day Annie and Clover finally speak to each other, they both confess their mothers have told them they can't go on the other side of the fence. But both figure out pretty quickly that nobody forbade them to sit upon it together. What results is beautiful and amazingly well written by Woodson and in the end questions the old adage that fences make good neighbors.

I heard Woodson speak last summer about a different picture book, Pecan Pie Baby, which had just won an award. During that talk, she talked a bit about this story. When she originally conceived it, she pictured it as a modern-day tale, perhaps set in the city, similar to where she and her family live today. But the illustrator placed it as a period piece, which is how it lives on, and Woodson said she loves it that way. It's pretty beautiful, actually. The illustrations are expansive and old-timey, but show universal scenes of family and home that any modern child will recognize.

The story could be just a story. Or it could be a jumping off point for discussing difference, diversity, and the inherent sameness amongst us with even the tiniest child. We have a lot in the world of children's literature to thank Woodson for - this is but one example.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Clean & Crazy

by Amy Reed
Simon Pulse | Clean - July 2011 / Crazy - June 2012

Amy Reed has followed up her first novel, Beautiful, published in October 2009, with Clean and Crazy. Clean follows five main characters mostly through the first-person accounts of two of them. All five are in a rehab center in Seattle for different reasons - alcohol, meth addiction, diet pills, and more. All are teens. All are troubled in ways that go beyond their substance abuse.

The prose is stark and the epistolary moments where Reed uses snippets of reflection papers written by the characters to fill in information work well. The characters seem like reliable sources even in the throes of their struggles. Reed tells it like it is and often evokes harsh imagery and language to hit home the pain of recovery, but at the same time, she rounds out her characters' edges to make them likable and appropriate for a younger reader. (Kelly recognizes her parents are pretty great and Jason consistently tries to be a better person, for instance.)

At first glance, it might be assumed Crazy is a retelling of Clean set somewhere with teens struggling with mental health, but it is actually quite different. Connor met Izzy at camp, where they were both counselors. He lives on a small island off Washington and she in Seattle. They keep in touch via email during their senior year in high school. The book is written entirely in those emails back and forth between them and Connor "watches" from afar as Izzy struggles with the sharp up and downs of bi-polar disorder. Connor, who has a psychiatrist for a mother, begs Izzy to let him help her, but isn't sure how to best intervene or whether he should.

Both these books are good reads in and of themselves. But they also lend a non-threatening look into two issues that affect teens today. Young readers who have dealt with these issues first-hand, in their families, or with their friends may appreciate how these characters are portrayed as handling the situations. Those young people who haven't dealt with these issues will come away with a clearer sense of what it means to be trying to get clean or dealing with a sort of crazy. Either way, it's a win.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Madhattan Mystery

by John J. Bonk
Bloomsbury Kids | May 2012

Lexi and Kevin are 12 and 10. Their mother died not too long ago, and their dad recently married Clare. Now, Dad and Clare have gone to Europe on an extended honeymoon and Lexi and Kevin have been sent to spend the summer with their Aunt Roz in New York City. They meet Kim Ling Levine, a neighbor-girl in Roz's building and instead of going to camp each day like they're supposed to, they set out to solve the mystery of missing Cleopatra jewels.

The twists and turns of the mystery along with the people the three kids meet makes it fresh and new. The writing is fine, although thoroughly peppered with cliches. Kim Ling speaks with the kind of quintessential (or stereotyped?) New York vernacular that doesn't seem quite real. She's 14, so perhaps it's buy-able, but I had a hard time with it at points. Kevin is hilarious - entering the conversation with one-liners and zingers to remind the reader that he's tagging along, but can hold his own.

Interspersed with sections focused on Lexi reminiscing about her mother and her struggles with her stepmother, the story moves along nicely as a mystery, but also a coming-to-grips tale for middle-grade readers.

Thoroughly fun.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Stuey Lewis Against All Odds: Stories from the Third Grade

by Jane Schoenberg
illustrated by Cambria Evans
Farrar Straus Giroux | May 22, 2012

In this follow up to The One and Only Stuey Lewis: Stories from the Second Grade, Stuey has progressed on to the third grade. He has the same teacher again, Ginger Curtis, and Lilly Stanley, the Queen of Obnoxious, is still in his class. Through four distinct chapters/stories, Schoenberg takes Stuey through his third grade year.

The stories are adorable and the perfect length for new readers at 30-35 pages each. Each story begins with an illustrated title page with spot art and full-page illustrations throughout. Stuey's voice is fantastic. Here's an example from "Queen for a Day," in which the students prepare a Mother's Day tea for their moms. "Covering empty soup cans with colored paper is not as easy as it sounds. Trust me. You have to line up the paper and cut it just right so it doesn't stick out on the top of the can. Then it has to be glued very neatly, which take a lot of patience and not a lot of glue. Did I mention that it has nothing to do with fun and that you need a wicked long time to do just one?"

Get the Stuey books for your rising second or third grader this summer. They'll enjoy these perfect stories so similar to their own classrooms! 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Meet the Illustrator: Timothy Palmer

Meet Tim Palmer - have a look at his illustration and watch his short animated film

Why are you an artist?

I am an artist because I love to create.  I have always enjoyed getting lost in other worlds and stories with different creatures and characters that seemed like they could do anything.  I create because I want to share this passion with other people, in whatever form it may be: children’s books, animation, etc…  I want to create from my own experiences for others to enjoy.  Being an artist has always been a part of my life.  I’ve gone from drawing on the walls to drawing on any parchment of paper I could find.  Art has always been a part of my life and I guess part of the reason I am an artist is just because I enjoy it!

Why do you want to illustrate children's books?  

When I was young, children’s books were a huge part of my life.  (They still are today!)  I had certain stories that I would have my parents read to me over and over again, stories that I still remember.  I want to share that same experience with children today.  Through high school and even college, I worked with younger students and I loved teaching them, sharing things that I love with them, and being a good influence in their lives.  I hope to use children’s books to do the same thing: teach them lessons, be a good influence, and allow them to expand their imagination and creativity.  I hope that with the books I create, children will want to read them over and over again, just like I did when I was young.

What does your art offer that is fresh and new? 

When thinking about what is fresh and new about my work I think I’d have to say that a lot of it is my passion behind it.  All of my work I invest myself in with both my emotions and past memories.  All of my work has meaning to me, which allows me to put that something extra into it.  The sense of real emotion in it, allows people to easily connect with it.  I have a hard time classifying my work in a certain style because I work in such a wide range of styles, but most recently I find myself working in a very simple style.  It’s a style that I have found to fit well with my stories, especially for the  children’s books.

What is your dream job? 

 This might seem a little repetitive, but my dream job would be anything that allows me to create stories, worlds for people to get lost in, and characters for them to grow attached to.  That is quite a broad spectrum of jobs, so here is a goal of mine.  I hope to start a company someday based around children’s books, but with a few twists.  It would allow other artists and myself a chance to collaborate and create stories like I have mentioned that children of all ages would be able to love and relate to.  As long as I am creating stories, my job will be a dream job.

Tim Palmer recently received his BFA in Computer Animation from Ringling College of Art + Design where he completed The Projectionist, a short film, as part of his senior year.  He is currently living in the Boston area and is on the hunt for a job.  He has one completed children’s book that he hopes to get published soon and is currently working on a new one.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Between the Lines

by Jodi Picoult & Samantha Van Leer
Simon & Schuster | June 26, 2012

This YA novel, written by the prolific and famous Picoult and her teenage daughter, Samantha, asks (on the flap and in every advertisement I've seen for it), "What happens when happily ever after...isn't?"

Premise: Oliver is the hero in a fairy tale book for children. Delilah is a high school student who doesn't fit in and becomes obsessed with the book. One day, Oliver speaks to her from the pages and together they try to figure out how to get him out of the story and into real life. See, it turns out that when you close a book, the characters get to do whatever they like. It's only when the book is opened that they must take their places and act the story out over and over again. Oliver is bored silly.

There's a love story, of course - Oliver and Delilah fall for each other even across the pages and with everyone in both their worlds thinking they've gone insane. Is the love story a plus or minus?  Also, the ending and how everything is resolved struck me as a tiny bit bizarre. 

Nothing was spared in the design. Full color plate illustrations, different color text for Oliver and Delilah's first-person chapters and another color for the actual text of the story book. Black and white silhouetted spot art throughout. I understand the cover - the girl is holding a book and a a fairy wand. It's fine, I guess, but I just think some of the art from the inside might've worked on the outside.

Samantha called her mother and said she had a good idea for a YA book, and so they wrote it together. I agree. It's a clever premise. And it's an okay read. You just might enjoy it!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The House That George Built

by Suzanne Slade
illustrated by Rebecca Bond
Charlesbridge | February 1, 2012

On the birthday of the United States (which happens to be my favorite holiday), here is a book about the birth of our most famous house. In the style of "The House That Jack Built" (the famous British nursery rhyme), each progressive bit of the house is added to the refrain of the tale. The book begins with introducing the reader to George Washington, our first President, who was hand-selected after independence.

As George and others plan for and build each part of the house, information about why or how each portion of the planning happened. The grand "President's House," as it was known, (today we know it as the White House) was meant to be three stories and have a lead roof. But the quarries nearby didn't have enough stone, and George refused to ask England for any, so the third story was never built. "During his last year as president, building officials asked him to change the plans because the house was getting too expensive. George approved their request to use slate instead of lead for the roof." Little tidbits like these are awesome additions to any kid's (or adult's!) repertoire.

The art is watercolor and ink and is the perfect blend of realistic, historic, and whimsical. Soft lines allow for landscapes to feel homey and the greens and browns hit home the hard work of the building project.

The champion of the project, George himself, never lived in the house. The book shows John and Abigail Adams, the first residents, moving into an unfinished home. The book is rich with back matter, including a photograph of the White House today; info on how the house has changed through years, presidents, and updates; an author's note; a source list; and a resource list for those wanting to learn more.

This book sits squarely in the camp of the idea that if you want to know about something, seek out a children's book first - chances are, you'll learn more than you thought possible in the pages of a 32 page picture book.

Happy Fourth of July. I'm not sure what George would think of us today, but he'd likely be pleased as Apple Pie about the shape the White House is in!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave

by Laban Carrick Hill

illustrated by Bryan Collier
Little, Brown | September 7, 2007

The 2011 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner and a 2011 Caldecott Honor book, Dave the Potter tells the story of Dave, a real man who lived in the 1800s and worked as a potter while he was a slave. Because he could create and throw giant pots - up to 14 gallons - he had a "better life" than many other slaves. He often marked the sides of his pots with lines of original verse, which is why we know who he is today.

The book is stunningly beautiful. I still can't pick it up without running my hand over the cover. Bryan Collier's magnificent mixed media artwork is layered in collage with his signature use of bits and pieces he finds, coupled with watercolor. That last part amazes me - the rich and royal hues (to steal a phrase from Carole King) are so deep and earth-toned, it takes a minute to believe it's watercolor. Dave's hands are the most striking. Collier has portrayed them as strong, expansive, and truly skillful. It is easy to imagine from the illustrations how this man made such large and useful vessels.

Hill's sparse words are perfect to tell the story of Dave's life. "Dave kicked/his potter's wheel/until it spun/as fast as/a carnival's wheel of fortune" is one example. A gorgeous three panel fold out spread depicting close-ups of hands forming a pot is coupled with "Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat" as the lead in, followed with "Dave's hands, buried in the mounded mud, pulled out the shape of a jar."

There is expansive back matter - information about Dave's life (what we know of it) and about the phrases he sketched onto his pots, an author's note and illustrator's note, a bibliography, and websites of interest.

This book is awesome for little ones to look at and for older readers who can understand the nuances of Dave's life as a slave and artist. This is the perfect example of why picture books are not only for our littlest people. I bought this one for a good friend for her birthday last year and she loved it. It's a story of hope and ownership and artistry. And those themes have no age limit.