Friday, August 31, 2012

Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917

by Sally M. Walker
Henry Holt | 2011

As I mentioned in my post here, I am a big fan of disaster stories. And I'd read about this one before as there are a number of adult titles about the explosion. This book, written for middle-grade and young adult readers, is a spectacular telling of how the incident occurred, how many folks were affected, and what it meant for Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the northeastern seaboard of the United States.

Beginning with a chart of the families featured in the book overlayed on top of a map of Halifax;  a "Note to the Reader;" and an quote from David McCullough, that great nonfiction writer, the book carefully sets the stage to tell the story of this Canadian city on a hill. Back matter includes source notes, a selected bibliography, and an index. Historical photos and maps are presented throughout.

What, you may be asking, was the Halifax Explosion? During World War I, two ships were in Halifax Harbor, which is long and skinny with little islands dotting it, making it a bit hard to navigate. One ship rammed the other, and it blew up. As the book's flap copy succinctly puts it: "The blast flattened large areas of Halifax and the town across the harbor, Dartmouth. It killed nearly 2000 people."

Boston responded, sending doctors and nurses north on the train to help with the aftermath. And the people of Halifax was more prepared than they might've been for a disaster, because they'd just responded in force to the sinking of the Titanic only five years earlier. But families were devastated and the rebuilding of Halifax took years.

Each year to this day, the people of Nova Scotia select a giant tree, cut it down, and ship it south to Boston--a gift and thank you from one place to another. The tree is put up in downtown Boston and decorated for the holidays. A reminder of how we (I say we since I'm a Bostonian through and through) helped them during that terrible time.

Have a look at a piece of history you may never have heard about before. I promise it's fascinating. Disasters and our reactions to them usually are!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

It's a Book

by Lane Smith
Roaring Brook Press | 2010

A donkey and a giant-headed monkey meet up in a couple of armchairs for a chat. (Sounds like the start to a bad joke, right?) The donkey wants to know what monkey has and monkey enlightens him: "It's a book."

And there the donkey's confusion and the monkey's increasing exasperation starts. Donkey wants to know if you scroll it or blog with it and where the mouse is (he, it turns out, is under the much-too-small for the big-headed monkey's hat). Donkey plays on his laptop berating Monkey with seemingly never-ending questions about what this book could possibly do.

Finally, Monkey gives the object in question to Donkey just to shut him up. And shut up he does. As the hours tick by, Donkey hangs onto the book, apparently enjoying it very much, indeed. He refuses to give it back when asked, so Monkey heads for the library.

In a last  moment of continued denial, Donkey ensures Monkey he'll charge the book up when he's done, prompting the hilarious joke-of-a-last-line to end all last-line jokes. (And yes, I've heard all the complaints about the fact that this is a kid's book. Have you seen the one where the bear eats the rabbit as punishment for stealing his hat? C'mon.)

Lane Smith has been a subversive voice in children's books ever since the Stinky Cheese Man hit the scene way back in the 90s. And he's still going strong. (Although not always subversively -- Grandpa Green was a Caldecott Honor this year and it's nothing but lovely.)

Get this for your reluctant readers (the little donkeys!) or your tech-savvy friends with kids. Everyone will love it! 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Life: An Exploded Diagram

The U.S. cover
by Mal Peet
Candlewick | 2011

Clem is young and from the wrong side of the small British-town tracks in the 1960s. He falls for the rich girl who happens to be the daughter of his father's boss. Frankie and Clem keep it all a secret, sneaking around to hiding places in the woods and the environs of their town.

In the news is the Cuban Missile Crisis and what it might mean for England, still recovering in many ways from WWII. Interwoven with Clem and Frankie's story are chapters devoted to the history of President Kennedy's handling of Russia, Cuba, and the 13-day crisis.

The British cover
When Clem and Frankie decide to spend a day in a seaside town forty-five minutes away for a more serious rendezvous, something befalls them that changes the course of their lives forever. The rest of the novel unfolds, time and history with it, and the final pages find Clem in New York City on a universally fateful day in September.

This haunting tale is beautifully written and offers a commentary on history and life all rolled into one bittersweet YA novel. Peet's author's note is what really got me, though. After a caveat about his narrator's grasp on history and a short bibliography, he offers this final note:

"Finally: there are still approximately seven thousand nuclear warheads in existence. More than enough to blast the planet into a perpetual winter. I assume there are enough people who know where they all are. But we don't talk about them much anymore. We have other things on our minds."

Whoa. Yes.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat

by Susanna Reich
illustrated by Amy Bates
Abrams | 2012

I've been enamored of Julia Child for some time now. First I bought a copy of Julie & Julia way back when it was on the seconds table at the Barnes & Noble because Nora Ephron hadn't discovered it yet. Then I saw the film and realized the book I really should be reading was My Life in France, which I ran out to buy. And it was so lovely. I'm old enough to remember Julia on WGBH in Boston way back when. She's a pretty great woman, it turns out.

Last Wednesday would've been her 100th birthday (which  wouldn't have been that odd, really; she was a major go-getter right till the end and lived to be two days short of 92). In honor of her, I went out and got Minette's Feast, a cute little story about the cat Julia and Paul Child adopted when they lived in Paris. She was a fantastic mouser and didn't even realize the fancy-food heaven in which she lived.

The illustrations by Bates are lovely. The Childs are rendered perfectly in a way that shows their own physicality (which was remarkable in their relationship) as well as their love for each other. A cross-sectioned illustration of their home is pleasing and the little girls found on many spreads keeps young readers searching.  The color palette is homey and warm, just like Julia's kitchen.

A nice afterword includes some biographical info about Julia and the cat and clarifies that all dialogue used in the text is from actual sources, which is great!

Have some beef bourguignon sometime this month and honor Julia Child and her energetic and innovative spirit. It resonates with me - reinventing oneself later in life is scary, but as Julia proves, it's possible. And fun!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball

2012 Cover

written and illustrated by David Shannon
Scholastic/Blue Sky Press | 1994

In this stunningly illustrated fanciful tale, Georgie is born into a world with no baseball. A former player Boss Swaggert, who was in a terrible slump that ended his career is now in charge of the world and has outlawed baseball. A perpetual winter and sadness has fallen across the land.

But Georgie is born with an affliction. As soon as he can talk, he utters baseball-inspired phrases for everything, yelling things like "Batter Up!" and "Hit 'em where they ain't!" His parents are horrified and the family is in danger. Georgie is put on trial for his infractions and challenges Boss to a baseball-off. It turns out Georgie is also an amazing pitcher, and he handily beats the evil man, restoring summer and baseball, along with happiness, to all the land.

Older cover
Shannon, best known for his David books (No, David!, David Gets in Trouble, David Goes to School, etc.), creates a fun and beautiful book about baseball that any kid will love. This is an older title, but don't pass it by the next time you're in the library or bookstore. It's just been re-released in March 2012.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Which Way to the Wild West?: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About America's Westward Expansion

by Steve Sheinkin
illustrated by Tim Robinson
Roaring Brook Press | 2009

Steve Sheinkin is a former textbook writer and he struggled with all the rules and regulations in this country about what is "appropriate history" for a textbook and what is deemed too "controversial" or too "risque" for the schoolchildren of the United States to know about. So he "secretly stashed away all the stories [he] wasn't allowed to use in textbooks" and started writing his own books about the fun side of history. And let this reviewer say, they are super fun, super interesting, and really well written.

Last year, Sheinkin received a Boston Globe Horn Book Award for his book The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery. I, like most other people educated in the public school system (and one Brady Bunch episode), only knew of Arnold as a traitor. But Sheinkin's gloriously well-researched text enlightened me about his amazing Revolutionary War hero past (before he became a traitor). So interesting how history remembers people.

To get to the book in the title of this post, Sheinkin has written a few books just as well-written as the Arnold book about Westward Expansion, the American Revolution, and the Civil War, all with fantastic titles that are meant to lure in middle-grade and high school readers to make history fun again. Check them out,  use them in your classroom, spend some time learning some little-known parts of history right alongside your child, or niece, or grandkid.

And then you'll know the story about how Paul Revere needed to borrow his assistant's girlfriend's underwear in order to row across the bay to get on his horse to warn folks the British were coming. Curious about what I'm talking about? Read Sheinkin!

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq

written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Harcourt | January 1, 2005

This beautiful picture book begins with the epigram: "In the Koran, the first thing God said to Muhammad was 'Read.' - Alia Muhammad Baker" A lovely way to begin, I think.

"Alia is the librarian of Basra," the text starts. The brightly colored illustrations show a woman with her head covered with an armful of books making her way down a street. The library was a meeting place--a happy place, until the war came. The librarian takes matters into her own hands to save the books when the governor refuses to move them somewhere safe. Soon, war is ravaging through Basra and the library is destroyed. But not until Alia has saved all the books.

The book explains how Alia dreams of peace while she waits for a time when the books can return to the library again and it ends without resolution. She stands, a lone figure as the book began, amongst the stacks of books, safely kept away from war until a time the library can be rebuilt.

This is not a real spread in the book, but two pages from separate spreads. I like them together.
An author's note explains the story is true, told by Alia to a New York Times reporter. This lovely, vibrant book manages to do two difficult things brilliantly. First, it portrays a real person and real events in a manner that is engaging to even the youngest readers. And, it shows war and its destruction in a non-scary yet realistic way leaving hope at the end even in the face of an unsure future. (According to online reports, the library was rebuilt in 2004 with Alia as librarian.)

This book is beautiful and worth your time. Enjoy it with a child and have a discussion about books, the universal love of them, and discuss what war can do. This book can help you with those topics and more.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Grandma Dowdel Trilogy

A Long Way From Chicago (1998 Newbery Honor Book); A Year Down Yonder (2001 Newbery Medal winner); and A Season of Gifts (2009) | Dial
written by Richard Peck

Grandma Dowdel is quite possibly the best character written in the past 10-15 years. She is rowdy, independent, fierce, loving, curmudgeonly, domestic, outdoorsy, and even a tiny bit bawdy. She lives in a tiny Illinois town which is located, obviously, a long way from Chicago. In the first book, Joey and his sister Mary Alice are sent to spend the summer with their grandmother, much to their chagrin, during the Great Depression and boy do they have some adventures. Told in short-story-like chapters, each section of these books are a rousing good time for kids and parents alike. Peck's style is fun and thoughtful and seemingly effortless. But to weave together a good set of stories that makes a reader fall in love with characters and laugh and cry all at the same time is no easy task.

In A Long Way From Chicago, the first book, it is 1929 and Joey is 9 and Mary Alice is 7 with Joey as the focus of the story. In A Year Down Yonder, Mary Alice is the focalizer and she's 15. It's 1937 and Joey's gone off to plant trees with the Civilian Conservation Corps and Mary Alice is being sent to Grandma Dowdel's for the entire year after her father is laid off and her parents lose their apartment. Finally, in A Season of Gifts, it is 1958 and a new family has moved in next to Grandma Dowdel--the story is told by Bob Barnhart, a preacher's kid. (Joe and Mary Alice are all grown up by now).

Don't let the time period scare you off. These stories feel as modern as if they were set yesterday. The three together are the perfect gift for every 8-10 year old reader (even the reluctant ones) in your life!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Guest Review of Blackout

written and illustrated by John Rocco
Disney/Hyperion | May 24, 2011

The very first thing to do, when holding John Rocco’s 2012 Caldecott Honor book, Blackout, is to take the dust jacket off and spread the book out to see the monochromatic image of a city block. One spot of brilliant yellow can be found on the front cover where a light shines out of a window, turning the figures behind the glass into shadows. Open the book and Rocco’s androgynous protagonist (who I’ll call “she”) gazes out a window with a look of utmost boredom.

On the first spread we learn that “It started out as a normal summer night. The city was loud and hot.” Two airframes show the reader the same city block from the cover, but this one is awash with color, light, and “loud” intraiconic text. The protagonist can be seen in a window, the large TV casting a green hue over the room. Abandoning the TV, she tries to coerce her family into playing a game with her but “Everyone was busy. Much too busy.”

As she sits alone, the lights go out. “All of them.”

What follows is the family’s journey through a hot and powerless city evening. Rocco’s watercolor uses hue to create mood, setting, and character while his frames propel the story along. Watch how the air frames change from white to black or how one character has an uncanny ability to move in and out of frames the others cannot break. Look for little jokes (the girl’s room has a portrait of a certain someone who had a lot to do with light bulbs) and keep an eye on the shadows. Even the picture of the artist on the back flap refers back to the subject of the book. All in all, Blackout is a fantastic, fun, and wholly engaging read with so many layers it can (and likely will) be read again and again.

 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, August 10, 2012


written and illustrated by Jeannie Baker
Candlewick Press | November 2010

Pull up to the kitchen table with Mirror. You'll need to spread out. On the verso (left), an English introduction and on the recto (right), the same in Arabic. Open each side so now there's a four-page-wide spread in front of you. The title page greets you, in English and Arabic respectively. Turn again and the directions appear, explaining: "The Western and Moroccan stories in this book are designed to be read side by side."

And so the adventure that is Mirror begins. The book is entirely wordless, employing pictures to tell the stories. Baker's intricately created art, which is some of the most amazing collage I've ever seen, speaks volumes and tells the stories beautifully. Hunting for the parallels between the boys' lives in Australia and Morocco can last for hours. The details in the illustrations can take the reader in as many directions as they choose. The message that Baker intends, that we are more alike than different no matter how far away we may live or how differently we live, is loud and clear.

This is the perfect book for small children who can't read yet, but can read pictures as they can spend time with this book on their own. And I'd venture to guess they might notice and "read" a lot more in the illustrations than some of us adults might.

The back matter, again presented in both English and Arabic, explains Baker's inspiration for the book and how she made the art.

There is no other book quite like Mirror. Look inside. You'll see.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Timeless Art of Ezra Jack Keats

Keats's eyes say a lot,
don't you think?
I recently drove out to Western Massachusetts to visit The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art because of the current Ezra Jack Keats exhibit. Entitled The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, it is, according to the Carle's website, "the first major exhibition in this country to pay tribute to award-winning author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats." When I read that the first time, I was surprised. Really? No where had put together a whole show featuring only Keats before? Weird. And also excellent, because The Carle gets to be the first.

The exhibit is fantastic. It has just the right amount of information about Keats and his work. There is original art from The Snowy Day, Whistle for Willie, Goggles, Apt. 3, A Letter to Amy, and more. There are four awesome showcases. One with original sketches and notes by Keats, one about his visits to Japan, one with his actual palette and paints box, and one that chronicles some of the controversy surrounding The Snowy Day.

From Goggles

Critic Nancy Larrick wrote an article entitled “The All-White World of Children’s Books" in the Saturday Review after The Snowy Day was published. To make her point, she pointed to the book, the editors, and Keats as having made an error by not overtly pointing out Peter's race in the text . Keats responded to her via letter to the editor of the magazine, which they printed. (Others also sent letters which are on display as well.) Larrick responded directly to Keats in a letter also on display, and I won't ruin it for you--it's worth going to check it out.

From The Snowy Day, which I give every
new born baby in my life.
This blog post by the School Library Journal, which named The Snowy Day at Number Five on their Top 100 Picture Books List, is extremely comprehensive and has lots of fantastic images, many of which are part of the exhibit.

The amazing cityscapes in Keats's work are beautiful and remind me
why I love living in my neighborhood every day. They were groundbreaking
in their depiction. Like this one from A Letter to Amy.
The art of Ezra Jack Keats was the first to depict urban scenes the way they often are: gritty, messy, and full of adventure for kids. Today, his art is as important as it was in the 1960s and 70s for kids growing up in cities to see themselves in picture books. His art is timeless. The exhibit is open through October 14. Go if you can. You'll be glad you did.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Greyhound of a Girl

Because it was first published
elsewhere, there are loads of
different covers - this is
the one I have.
by Roddy Doyle
Amulet Books | May 2012

I have loved Roddy Doyle since I first discovered him while I was travelling abroad. I fell in love with the family in the linked stories The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van. I fell in love with his writing. So imagine my delight when I discovered this new American publication of a new Doyle children's book this spring. It can be your delight as well.

Twelve-year-old Mary O'Hara's best friend Ava has just moved house and Mary's none too pleased about it. On the first day after Ava's left, Mary meets Tansey on her way home from school and assumes she's moved into Ava's house. It soon becomes apparent, though, that Tansey isn't a normal woman. Soon, it becomes apparent she's not even a woman at all--she's a ghost.

Mary's mother, Scarlett, and her grandmother, Emer (who's deathly ill in hospital) soon get involved and an adventure of a lifetime begins. Something very special happens to these four generations of women (and girl).

Doyle's Irish sensibility and wry wit come through beautifully in all the characters, but especially Mary. Her most oft-repeated refrain, "I'm not being cheeky," is met with some excellent replies by her elders. How these women interact and why is a fantastic story to remind us to appreciate each other every day.

For a quiet treat on a lazy afternoon or a starry night, join Mary and Tansey on the stone wall for a spell.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Pickle & Penguin

by Lawrence David
illustrated by Scott Nash
Dutton | Oct 21, 2004

Pickle is a big deal. He lives in New York City, has his own TV show, and travels to exciting places. This is all because he is "the only talking pickle in the world." He gets a little lonely sometimes. While on a trip to Antarctica, he meets a friendly Penguin who is astounded that Pickle speaks Penguinese. (Of course he does; he also speaks English, Italian, French, Russian, and Kosher Dill.) Penguin decides to come back to NYC with Pickle and their friendship begins.

When Penguin gets lost in the city, Pickle does everything in his power to find his new friend. Penguin needs him; he doesn't speak the language, doesn't know the city, and is just a little penguin. The two are finally reunited, decide to live together in Pickle's giant apartment, and Penguin is assured that "if [he's] ever lost, [Pickle] will always find [him]."

The silly yet heartwarming story is accompanied by simple and delightful illustration. Pickle evokes a Dave Letterman-like quality while Penguin is just adorable. The Statue of Liberty's eyes follow Penguin's rescue. Full-bleed illustrations are coupled with spot art set in circles and squares, varying the design of the pages. The colors are bright, with Pickle's green and Penguin's black and white nicely balanced with bright oranges and blues.

Overall, an entirely weird concept that is entirely (if surprisingly) pleasing.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


by Meg Cabot
Point/Scholastic | May 8, 2012

Pierce is back in this second novel of the Abandon series. (Having not read the first, I can say this one will stand alone with enough back story filled in to get most of the important pieces to enjoy it.) She's been taken by John, the lord of the Underworld, which happens to be under her small Florida town of Isla Huesos. The story is a loose re-telling of the myth of Persephone set in modern times. Pierce is in love with John, her grandmother is possessed by a fury, and Pierce and John must return to the real world to save her cousin Alex and foil the bad guys before they return to rule over the Underworld.

I know. It sounds insane. And it sort of is. But because it's Meg Cabot, it's well written and the storyline actually somehow seems plausible. The series will continue with the third book, Awaken.

For fantasy fans or mythology fans, this is the perfect choice. For a fresh look at an age-old tale of young love and the lengths young people will go to make unlikely relationships work, this is also a good choice. Enjoy it!