Thursday, December 29, 2011

Picture Book Review -- Lala Salama by Patricia MacLachlan

One of the things I was most looking forward to, in the days and weeks and months and (yes, even) years that we prepared to become parents was the prospect of reading to our Sprout. Cuddling up with my kiddo in a cozy chair, with a big stack of picture books -- pretty much my idea of heaven.

And I'm pleased to say that, more than 18 months into the process of parenting this little bug, the experience continues to delight me. It is without question our favorite time of day, and it's time we spend as a family, since Daddy and our puppy dog join us too. Most of our reading is done while Sprout's in the bathtub, which works for us, but we always save at least one book for when he's tucked up in bed. Usually I try to steer him toward more "active" titles at first, and then pull out a gentle, calmer tale for that last title of the night.

In that vein, Patricia MacLachlan's Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby could not be more perfect. Gentle and soothing, this would be a fantastic choice to read with a drowsy baby or toddler, or even an older child who may be reading parts of it to you. The book follows a Tanzanian family through their day, as mother and child spend the day together, working in the fields, preparing meals, enjoying the cool breezes from Lake Tanganyika. Elizabeth Zunon brings MacLachlan's simple text to life, capturing the rolling rhythm of the day in the serenity of the mother's countenance and the bright eyes of her baby. At the end of the day, Mama and baby watch  Baba's boat out on the lake, and Mama rocks her child to sleep, safe in the knowledge that he is loved and well cared for.

I'm always on the lookout for quality titles about East Africa to share with Sprout, and the sensitive portrayals in Lala Salama fill the bill. Plus, it's a simply gorgeous title for us to marvel over and read aloud, in that hushed cocoon of evening when stories bring us all together. Add this to your family bedtime routine -- after a busy day, it's just the thing.

Lala Salama by Patricia MacLachlan, published by Candlewick Press
All ages
Personal collection (full disclosure: I won this from a contest hosted by Cynthia Leitich Smith on her blog Cynsations -- if you don't read this a-ma-zing blog, you should!)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Picture Book Review - The Red Thread by Grace Lin

It's hard for me to find anything not to like about a Grace Lin book. From her realistic yet adorable illustrations, to her sensitive characters and her affinity for detail (both in words and pictures), Lin just about never takes a misstep.

And there's a lot to like about Lin's picture book, The Red Thread. For one thing, this is a great way for adoptive families to share with young children the story of their own experience. Lin sets the story as a traditional fairy tale with familiar elements. The king and queen of a prosperous land have everything, but they are very sad and in great pain. After consulting a mysterious peddler, the king and queen discover there is a red thread pulling from their hearts. The more they pull away from the thread, the more it hurts. The only solution is to follow the red thread. It is an arduous journey, but at last they come to a distant land and discover what is on the other end of the thread - a beautiful baby girl who belongs to them!

In typical Lin fashion this book is gorgeous, with lots of small details that add texture to the picture. The story, too, comes to life with details - the king and queen's journey, for example, and the fact that they gradually lose their fine appearance and become tattered and ragged. I also love that the tale is bookended by a transracial family who is reading the story to their own child, presumably who herself is adopted.

Just a couple small things nag at me, however. First, I don't love the subtitle: "an adoption fairy tale". Maybe it's because of that assumption that adoption automatically equates to "happily ever after" (which it may, but it also may not), maybe it's just that the pairing of the terms feels off to me -- either way, I could do without this part. Also, the tale itself is singular in focus, very much geared toward what the prospective adoptive parents go through and with little consideration given to the child or her first family. I'm not comfortable with how readily the king and queen scoop up their baby and return to their normal lives. Adoption isn't this seamless, in most cases, nor should it be.

Granted, adoption is a complex issue, many would argue too complex for a picture book to examine fully. Also, this is presented as a fairy tale, and therefore idealized. But it's worth noting these issues so that adoptive families who might be sharing the book with their own families can be aware of them, and discuss with their kids as necessary. When I read it with Sprout, we talked about his Ethiopia family, retelling their story to him and emphasizing the centrality of their place in his life.

Overall, however, this is a great book with lots to recommend it, and an excellent addition to home, school and public libraries. Use this to start the adoption conversation with all children, no matter how they came into their family.

The Red Thread by Grace Line, published by Albert Whitman and Company
Ages 2-7
Source: Library
Sample: "And sure enough, when the queen put on the glasses, she could see a brilliant red thread coming from her heart. It ran around the room, out the castle door, and far beyond. With every move she made, the thread pulled and twisted, causing her pain."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Social Networking

Sprout's Bookshelf is now on Facebook! "Like" the Sprout's Bookshelf Facebook page for updates and other information about the world of kidlit.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - The Night Before Christmas

It's Christmas Eve! We can hardly believe it! We're excited to see family and friends, share delicious food, give and receive gifts, and of course re-read all our favorite holiday books.

The past 12 days I've shared some really wonderful picture books. Each title fulfills my goal of providing Sprout with a diverse canon of reading material, showing people of all different races/ethnicities, various cultures, and unique perspectives. And each one of these books was carefully selected because it embodies a different aspect of the holiday season -- joy, kindness, peace, love, hope.

Perhaps none of the titles I've shared does that so well as Rachel Isadora's version of the Clement C. Moore poem, The Night Before Christmas. As she's done with other classic books, Isadora sets her tale in Africa, with all African characters, and sets off the familiar words with her gorgeous mixed-media illustrations. The collage effect she uses creates textures that combine beautifully with her vivid color palette, causing the images to just about jump off the page.

No version I've ever seen captures the spirit, the joy, the pure delight that is childhood at Christmas. Reinventing a classic is always a bit of a risk, but in Isadora's capable hands, the result is simply dazzling. I mean, Santa with dreads? Snow in an African village? How can you fail to be enchanted by that?

Tonight we'll be spending Christmas Eve at home, warm and cozy with a house full of loved ones. And you can be sure we'll be reading this book at bedtime, once Sprout is nestled all snug in his bed.

Merry Christmas to All!

Friday, December 23, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Yoon and the Christmas Mitten

Blending cultures is always a tricky thing. It's tough to know what customs to keep from one, which to add from another, and which to let go of. You want to honor everything, but sometimes it feels like our worlds are so full already, it can be hard to add more. This is especially true for holidays, I think, when another set of observances can make the celebration richer but at the same time more complex.

In Yoon and the Christmas Mitten by Helen Recorvits, Yoon's family is struggling with this very thing. Recent immigrants to the US from Korea, Yoon's parents are reluctant to embrace American traditions like Christmas, with its strange customs. Stockings by the chimney? Colored lights? Santa Claus? Yoon's father puts his foot down. "We are not a Christmas family," he tells her. But Yoon longs to experience all the things her classmates speak of, like decorating a tree and getting presents in her sock. On Christmas Eve Yoon decides to take action, hanging up her mitten so that Mr. Santa Claus can leave her a gift. And what a surprise Yoon gets, when somehow Santa finds her house even without the twinkling lights!

This book is simply beautiful, with breathtaking illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska. Really, nothing I can say will do these pictures justice - you just have to see them for yourself. And the way Recorvits tells Yoon's story is something special indeed. While never devaluing the way Yoon's parents feel, she still captures Yoon's desire to have an American Christmas just like all the other kids do. The resulting compromise - the family still celebrates New Year, which is much more in line with their Korean traditions - shows that joining a new culture doesn't have to mean abandoning familiar customs.

When we brought our son into our family, we also gained a whole new culture. Now we love having two Christmases, two New Year's, and a host of other holidays along the way. Even if you don't have a direct link to another culture, it's fun to add in different observations, and a great reminder that we all come together in the joy of sharing celebrations.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - An Angel Just Like Me

See this guy?

This is one of the new Santa pieces we bought this year. My husband found him at a department store in downtown Seattle, after driving two hours to take Sprout to see the only African American Santa we were able to locate anywhere in the vicinity. We felt it was important for him to understand Christmas as a holiday for everyone, not just people whose skin looks like most Santas. After all, a snowman has to be white, but a Santa? Not so much.

And that's the thesis behind Mary Hoffman's book An Angel Just Like Mewhich is gorgeously illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu. In this moving story, Tyler asks his family why all the Christmas angels they have are "pink" and "look like girls". Tyler decides then and there to find an angel that looks just like him, with brown skin and curly hair. And he scours every store in his town for such an angel, even talking to Santa about it. Finally Tyler decides to get a star instead, because "a star's the same for everyone". But Tyler soon finds out that angels (and Santas) do come in all shapes and sizes, and that Christmas joy really is for everyone.

I am so grateful for authors like Hoffman, who tackle the tough questions and do it in such an approachable, even humorous way. And those pictures -- could the cover illustration be more alluring? Sprout nabbed this one off the kitchen table as I began writing this, poring over the pictures and exclaiming "Santa!" with pure joy.

If the people in your family come in different colors (like ours do!), chances are some little one is going to pose Tyler's question. And even if you all "match", your kids just might wonder why there isn't an angel or Santa that looks like their best friend. Adding some color to your holiday scheme doesn't have to mean lights and tinsel - think how much more interesting your mantel would look with a Santa just like ours!

UPDATE - No sooner had I added this blog post than the doorbell rang with a package from a wonderful friend of ours. Mary always sends our sweet Sprout the most amazing books, and this time there was something for Mom and Dad too - a gorgeous angel that, as you can see, matches our boy exactly. Now Sprout can point to the mantel and his very own "angel just like me"!

Thanks Mary! And Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Tree of Cranes

A few years ago, there was a big furor about the "death of the picture book". I've blogged about it before, but the gist is that an article claimed that in the push to get kids reading younger and younger, picture books were no longer relevant. I think that's patently false -- for nearly all of us who love books, that love was born out of the experience of being read to, and as a parent, that's an experience I am determined to pass on to my son. Sure, chapter books are great read-alouds, but there's something about the magic of picture books that can't be replicated in any other form.

And artists like Allan Say prove that picture books are not just for the youngest members of the family. His photorealistic illustrations and detailed, nuanced text is perfect for sharing with school-age children, who will also appreciate the subtleties of his plots. We read Say's Grandfather's Journey in a class I took last semester, and there was more than enough there to keep a classful of grad students conversing for weeks!

In Tree of Cranes, Say gives us the story of a young Japanese boy who has been playing in the pond, which he's been told not to do. When he comes home wet and chilled, he thinks his mother is angry with him. All afternoon she's busy doing strange things -- making many paper cranes, digging up a tree from the garden and bringing it inside. Then the boy's mother explains to him that where she grew up, in California, the family celebrated Christmas, a wonderful holiday with presents, lights, and a "day of love and peace". The boy thinks that nowhere on earth could there have been a more beautiful sight than what his mother created, a tree of cranes.

When Sprout's old enough, I think we'll take time out to read Tree of Cranes and learn to make our own origami cranes to hang on the tree. Examining a holiday from the outside in can give us a unique perspective to share with our kids, one in which we look past the piles of gifts and holiday treats to the spirit that drives our celebration. This peaceful portrait is more than just a glimpse into another culture - it's also a reminder to be mindful of what the holiday really means, to us and those we love.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Christmas for 10

A few months after Sprout joined our family, I picked up a board book copy of Cathryn Falwell's Feast for 10 at a used bookstore. I was excited to see it because there's such a lack of board book titles with characters of color (really. . . take a look sometime at the library or bookstore and you'll see for yourself!) Little did I know then that it would become part of our family's bedtime reading canon. Rarely a week has gone by without us reading Feast for 10 multiple times. Sprout can just about read it to me, at this point!

So with the holidays coming around it was a no-brainer for us to get Christmas for 10. Like Feast, this is a super-simple counting-based plot that revolves around an African American family preparing for a celebration. This time the grandparents are in on the prep work, helping to decorate the tree and reading holiday stories to the little ones. The entire family's involved in getting ready, especially with the fun parts, like stringing popcorn chains. As Sprout always says, yum!

This is a comforting book about family and the excitement of preparing to welcome guests. Falwell's illustrations are engaging and delightful, and I appreciate that she adds small touches that personalize the characters, like older sister's ever-present braid and the variety of skin tones among family members. Sprout likes to point out each character in turn, particularly his favorite: "cute baby".

Again, the emphasis here isn't on gifts -- in fact, the only spread that features gifts at all ("six presents to stack") is opposite a page about giving to others, as the family packs food baskets which appear to be for needy families. And I love, love, love that there are two angels in the family's display -- one white, one black. Yay!

Monday, December 19, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - It's Christmas, David!

Nobody quite captures the spirit of a little boy like David Shannon, in his "David" series. The first entry in the series, No David, is based on a book that Shannon wrote when he was a child, in which every page featured a picture of him doing something he shouldn't, with the caption "No David!". (Hmmm, wonder where he got that idea?)

It's Christmas, David! is much along the same line. It's the holiday season, all right, and poor David can't catch a break. Everywhere he goes there's something fascinating to look at or touch, and adults always telling him not to. And then there's that constant reminder that "Santa's watching!", which seems to crop up whenever things get good. In the final pages, David wakes up on Christmas morning to discover that he's gotten a lump of coal! Could that really be how David's Christmas will end??

We can totally relate to David's predicament around here these days. Sprout's got exactly one present under the tree at the moment, and he's asked us if he can open it approximately 3000 times. In the past 3 days.

But at least Sprout's not emulating all of David's behavior. . . he just giggles whenever this page comes up.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Jingle the Christmas Clown

How can you not love Tomie dePaola? From Strega Nona to Big Anthony and beyond, his characters are among the most beloved in all of kidlit. And he's written a slew of great holiday books too, jam-packed with Christmas spirit along with adorably whimsical depictions of angels, Santas, and even the Nativity.

One of my favorite dePaola selections, though, is an older title (and a bit hard to get - except from the library!), Jingle the Christmas Clown. If you're looking for a title that focuses more on "giving" and less on "getting", this is a great choice. The only gifts that are given here are those of the heart, and what great gifts they are!

Like many dePaola titles, this one is set in the Italian countryside, and there's a sprinkling of Italian tradition and phrases throughout the text. Jingle is the littlest clown in Il Circo Piccolo (The Little Circus), and it's his job to care for the baby animals. Every year the circus plays a special Christmas Eve show in one particular village. But this year when the circus arrives, they discover that the village has fallen on hard times and there's almost no one left to perform for. The circus officials decide they need to move on to another spot for Christmas Eve, but the baby animals are too tired to keep traveling. Jingle is left behind to care for the animals until the circus performers come back through.

Jingle being Jingle, he can't help noticing that there isn't much Christmas spirit left in this lonely place. Jingle decides to take matters into his own hands, and bring Christmas to the villagers himself. The result is a more magical holiday than even Jingle could have imagined, and one that warms the hearts of young and old alike.

Sprout's a little young for this yet -- the story's just a touch too long to hold his attention, I think, and there's not a steam engine in the whole thing -- but I can't wait to share it with him. I'm betting he falls in love with Jingle just as quickly as his mama did.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Christmas Cricket

I love the holidays. Love the hustle and bustle, all the lead-up to Christmas and the crazy chaos of celebrating together. But let's face it -- it can be pretty overwhelming, particularly for the little people in our lives. It's hard for kids not to get lost in the shuffle of all there is to see and do at Christmastime.

Enter Eve Bunting and her sweet story Christmas Cricket. Bunting gives us a glimpse into the world of a little insect who "felt small and worthless in the bigness of night". Looking for warmth, Cricket slips into a house and takes refuge in a Christmas tree, where he begins to sing. But then someone hears him, and comes looking for the source of the song. Should Cricket run away? Or is he safe to sing, even in a place that doesn't seem at all familiar?

Bunting's a masterful storyteller, and one who doesn't shy away from tough subjects (her collaboration with David Diaz, Smoky Night, is one of the most powerful and poignant picture books I've ever seen). And though you might not think Christmas is a tough subject, it can be for many. Though this isn't a book about adoption, as an adoptive parent I couldn't help reading Christmas Cricket with an eye toward children in new family situations. For them, and their families, the holidays can be a time both exciting and scary, as everyone learns their place in the whole scheme of things. Like Cricket, children might feel "small and worthless in the bigness" of Christmas with a family who loves them, maybe in ways they don't even understand quite yet. And new parents, too, can be overwhelmed, as their children don't seem to be enjoying the holidays like they imagined.

As happy as this time of year can be, it's worth reminding ourselves that taking joy in the small things means every bit as much. In the end, Cricket learns that there is joy in his own song, sung in the way only he can sing it. And at Christmas, isn't that the best gift of all?

Friday, December 16, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - 12 Days of Christmas

Nope, that's not a typo -- this is the book that inspired my whole picture book series! As a song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has always seemed a bit weird to me. Really, are these gifts anyone would want? The five gold rings maybe, but seven swans a-swimming? Ten lords a-leaping? Give me a nice sweater or a box of chocolates (or better yet a book) anytime!

But somehow, in the hands of the ever-talented Rachel Isadora, The Twelve Days of Christmas just works. For one thing, she's included a rebus that helps you remember which gift comes next (don't know about you, but I always get lost in all those birds). And best of all, this version is set in Africa. Believe me, you've never seen pipers piping until you've seen them dancing along, shadows against a dazzling African sunset!

Each page includes colorful, cheery mixed media spreads depicting each of the famous 12 gifts. Isadora's collage style lends itself beautifully to this tale, which incorporates inspirations from all across the continent. The three french hens are going home to roost under a coconut tree, and the drummers are banging out tunes on drums from Nigeria and Ghana. Now that's a gift anyone would enjoy!

We read -- okay, sang -- this as a family last night and Sprout just loves it. He gets a huge kick out of having the very last line "parpidge in peah TREE!". A fun addition to your pre-Christmas bedtime routine. :)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Too Many Tamales

One of the best things about Christmas are the traditions, especially the foods that we seem to get only at this time of year. For many Latino families, especially those with connections to the American Southwest, tamales are an important part of the holidays. Families gather to make piles of these delicious, spicy treats to put right at the center of the Christmas table. This is one tradition that seems like it's as much about the togetherness as it is about the food!

In Gary Soto's Too Many Tamales, Maria is helping her mother prepare a platter of tamales for their family's Christmas Eve gathering. Mom takes off her ring to knead the dough, and when she's called away, Maria can't help sliding the sparkly bit of jewelry on her own finger, just for a minute. But then the ring is forgotten, and only later does Maria realize where it must have ended up. . .

The solution Maria comes up with is pretty hilarious (and also realistic, because it's just something a kid might do!). Gary Soto's warmly funny tale is dressed up just right with paintings by Ed Martinez that capture the homey, cozy feeling of a holiday spent with family and friends.

This one might just inspire you to add a new spice to your own Christmas celebration -- it's definitely got us craving tamales!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Waiting for Christmas

Today's title is out of print, unfortunately. But if you can get your hands on a copy, either through a used bookstore or, even better, at the library, you won't be sorry.

The smell of cookies baking, the lights on the tree, brightly colored packages and the joy of seeing friends and family -- it's all captured vividly in Monica Greenfield's Waiting for Christmas. The excitement builds as we join a boy and girl preparing to celebrate with their extended family. Jan Spivey Gilchrist's paintings are so lively and festive, they nearly jump off the page, and the homey setting is just right to spread the eager anticipation of the season.

Sprout loves this one, and so do I. The words are simple, but powerful, as is the message -- that Christmas, like all holidays, is best celebrated together. You can practically taste the gingerbread!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - The Polar Express

In the spirit of the season (and in an effort to revive my blogging mojo), I'm proud to bring you Twelve Days of Christmas, Picture Book Version. Nothing's more fun than experiencing Christmas through the eyes of a child, really. This year, with Sprout a lot more aware of what this holiday is all about, we're digging into the Christmas books in a big way. I'm thrilled to finally be sharing some of my favorites with him, and discovering some new holiday gems as well.

Tonight was a momentous night in our household -- our first-ever family reading of The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. Folks, there's a reason this makes all the lists of perennial Christmas favorites. It's got a little something for everyone: nighttime adventures, snow, a mysteriously magical train ride to the North Pole, hot cocoa (that tastes like melted chocolate bars, no less!), and of course Santa Claus.

Sprout was thrilled by the train, less so once the reindeer entered the picture, but we stuck with it. And by the time we turned that last page, I think we were all expecting to hear sleigh bells.

For the first gift of Christmas, The Polar Express is just right.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Audio Review - Strings Attached by Judy Blundell

Atmosphere -- as a character in one of her books might say, Judy Blundell's got it in spades. Her books are like a step back in time, literally. You are so transported to the place and time she's writing about that it will likely be a shock for you to look up from the book and realize you're not in a smoky 1940's nightclub. If you want to be totally swept away from your life for a bit, Judy Blundell can do that for you.

I've listened to both of Blundell's books on CD now, and both are simply amazing. What I Saw and How I Lied won the National Book Award, and it's easy to see why -- though I didn't review that one because honestly? I wasn't sure I could say much other than "read it, read it, read it now". It's that good.

And Strings Attached is a very, very close second. It's 1950, the war years are over, and Kit Corrigan has left her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island with no looking back. Kit's going to make it on Broadway, though when we meet her, she's dancing in the chorus of "That Girl from Scranton" and not making much of anything doing it. But then she runs into her ex-boyfriend Billy's father, who makes her an extraordinary offer. Nate Benedict is connected, and he's willing to use those connections to help Kit open some doors. Almost before she knows it, Kit's installed in a swank new apartment and working as one of the "Lido Dolls" at the most famous nightclub in New York. But the glamorous life comes at a price, as Kit quickly discovers -- and suddenly Kit's realizing that behind the velvet curtains is a world she's not sure she's ready for.

Oh, but this is good, historical fiction at its very best. In fact, I'm hesitant to even use the term "historical" because it might scare some readers away. And even though Kit's life and her struggles are very much couched in the issues and mores of the day, these are familiar themes even today. Kit's the kind of person who jumps in first and thinks it out later, and as a result she soon finds herself down a road she never intended to follow. Blundell is unsparing in her depiction of Kit, and of the other characters -- though you may at times want to scream at them, they are always true to their own motives and their own perceptions of the world as they know it. This is what makes for great fiction, and for the kind of story that lingers in readers' minds well after the story's end.

I loved having the audio version of this -- Emma Galvin's voice captures Kit's youth as well as a bit of world-weariness that comes from having lived life absent of softness. The other characters are shaded just as well -- Billy's edgy distrustfulness, Nate's smooth veneer, Delia's commanding righteousness. We are bound up with these characters for the entire course of the narrative, and soon we, like Kit, can hardly tell what's real and what's just what we want to believe.

Blundell's definitely not for the younger set (though not graphic, these are novels with teens in adult situations) but she's got a whip-crack sense of timing and the environment couldn't be richer. Be forewarned though -- once you crack the spine, you're not likely to put it down until you turn the last page.

Strings Attached by Judy Blundell (audio narrated by Emma Galvin), published by Scholastic
Ages 12 and up
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Nate hung up with a soft click. No chance for me to say no. It was like he knew whatever I'd say would be a waste of his time. He knew I wouldn't turn this down. He knew I'd be crazy to say no. I didn't like him knowing all that. I didn't like how staying here suddenly made me available to him whenever he felt like calling. I hadn't counted on that."
Highly recommended

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

So wouldn't it be great if you could hand your child a thrilling, well-crafted, engrossing novel in which neither race nor adoption were the driving force behind the plot?

Thought so.

If you'd like to do just that, Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs is a must-have. I was excited to read this one not only because the main character, Hazel, is part of a multiracial family formed by adoption, but also because I've read and loved Ursu's adult novels Spilling Clarence and The Disapparation of James. Both were favorite handsells back in my retail days, for the clever mixing of intriguing characters and fantastical turns of everyday reality.

And Ursu didn't disappoint me in Breadcrumbs, which I think is a strong contender for the Newbery this year (please please please). In the book, Hazel and Jack are two peas in a pod, sharing everything from a love of fantasy to a talent at superhero baseball (a game of their own invention). But one day Jack just -- goes away. Oh, he's there in body, all right, but he's no more Hazel's best friend than a stranger on the street. Jack just looks right through Hazel like he doesn't even see her. Hazel's crushed, and she can't accept what her mother tells her, that "these things happen". And when Jack disappears for real, Hazel doesn't believe for one second that he's with his elderly Aunt Bernice. No, Hazel's going to get to the bottom of this -- and for that, she must set off into the frigid Minnesota woods to rescue her very best friend.

Now, I could go on and on about all the things there are to love about Breadcrumbs, from the way Ursu interweaves fantasy into common events and how she turns fairytale conventions upside down, while never betraying their essence. Particularly well-done are the scenes once Hazel enters the woods, so evocative that I was amazed to look up from reading them and find myself at home tucked up in bed. But what many readers will take away from Breadcrumbs is the sense of holding fast to your sense of self and letting that be your compass. Hazel never wavers from the notion that Jack, the real Jack is still in there, and that he needs her now even more than he ever has. Quite a commentary on growing up but not away, this one.

Breadcrumbs is that rare thing, a novel that's not genre- (or gender) defined, neither wholly fictive nor entirely true. Honestly, I can't say enough about this smart, funny, surprising novel, which I found so compelling that I truly regretted turning the last page. For kids who feel on the outside, either because of something like adoption, or because they're finding their way across that looming chasm between childhood and growing up, Breadcrumbs will be a great gift. And if you feel that way as an adult? Guess what -- it'll speak to you too.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, published by HarperCollins
Ages 10-13
Source: Library
Sample Quote: "Hazel blinked. It occurred to her that Mikaela was being nice to her. She did not know how to react, for when your heart has been poisoned and someone picks a dandelion for you -- because it is bright and yellow and you seem like you could use something like that -- all you can do is contemplate the funny ways of weeds."
Highly recommended

Want to read more? Check out this guest post from Anne Ursu at The Book Smugglers blog, or visit her official author site.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Sylvia & Aki by Winifred Conkling

Winifred Conkling's Sylvia and Aki is a deceptively slim little book, the kind kids are drawn to for book reports or school projects because it's so skinny. And yet, for all its brevity, Sylvia and Aki packs a punch.

The story is a fictionalized account of the lives of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, opening in 1941. Aki's family has been evacuated from their farm, sent to a Japanese internment camp in the furor that resulted from the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Aki's father is taken away first, with no notice -- she is terrified that she will never see him again, that their family will always be separated. Because of the restrictions about what the family could take with them, Aki has had to leave some of her most precious things behind, including her favorite doll, which she tucks onto the shelf in her closet, hoping she'll be back to reclaim her.

Sylvia finds Aki's doll, on a very bad day when she is in need of comfort. Sylvia and her family are renting the farm from the Munemitsus, and Sylvia's father is the boss, something the family is very proud of. But the day Sylvia's aunt takes the children to enroll in the closest school, they discover that Mexicans must attend the migrant school. Everything about the Hoover School is second-best, from the rundown buildings to the battered supplies. And Sylvia's father is determined to get his daughter into the Westminster School, which so far is white students only.

Each family struggles. Each girl feels lost, alone, uncertain. But as time passes the girls come into contact with one another, and a friendship slowly blossoms, borne of shared hardship and isolation. Life for the girls is not easy, but knowing that there is someone else, someone like them who feels on the outside of things, makes it all just a little easier to bear.

Conkling weaves the girls' stories together skillfully, showing how both Sylvia and Aki were outsiders because of something they had no control over, the color of their skin. Aki's time in the camp is particularly poignant, as we feel with her the pain of loss and the fear that her family will never be whole again. Like Aki, Sylvia is made to feel foreign, an outsider, as school district officials assume she is unclean or tell her to go back to Mexico (with the irony being that she is American). Conkling depicts the quiet heroism mirrored in each girls' individual heartbreak. Because the girls experience a similar day-to-day reality, as victims of prejudice and open racism, when they find friendship in one another, it is all the more sweet.

One of the readings in my multicultural kidlit class last week pointed out that children's books with a diverse cast almost always include white characters in the mix. This hadn't occurred to me, but flipping through some of Sprout's books I can see it's true. Sylvia and Aki is that rare thing, a book that examines racism from the inside without casting a white person in the role of savior. For these girls, breaking down barriers just meant living the lives they dreamed of. It's hard to think of a more inspiring tale, no matter what your skin color.

Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling, published by Tricycle Press
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Then Aki said good-bye to the nurse, picked up her suitcase, and took her mother's hand. She missed her father. She missed her home. She missed the life she used to have. But when she felt her mother's hand in hers, she knew that she was ready to face Poston."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chapter Book Review - What Happened on Fox Street by Tricia Springstubb

What Happened on Fox Street by Tricia Springstubb is one of those books that's been on my TBR list for a long time but which I wasn't really excited about. To be honest, though it was receiving rave reviews, it didn't seem like something that felt terribly relevant to me, probably because the cover just didn't draw me in. All that white space, I think, and the cutesy fox taking a nap in the O of "Fox". Adorable, but maybe a little too much so.

But with all the heavy-duty reading I've been doing for school of late, I felt like I needed something frothy and light. Enter Fox Street -- but frothy and light? Try substantive and thought-provoking.

Mo Wren's lived on Fox Street her whole life, with her father and her crazy little sister Dottie. Mo knows everything about everyone on Fox Street, and she can't imagine ever living anywhere else, because whatever she needs is all around her. Most of all, the neighbors on Fox Street have looked after Mo and Dottie since their mother died, particularly Da, the persnickety former school teacher whose red beans and rice are Mo's favorite food. Da's granddaughter Mercedes is Mo's best friend, and she spends every summer on Fox Street.

The whole thing is pretty idyllic, really. But this summer things in Mo's world are starting to unravel. First Mercedes shows up with fancy new clothes and an attitude to match, telling Mo that this will be her last summer visit. And then there's the strange behavior of cranky old Mrs. Steinbott -- Starchbutt to the Fox Street kids. Is she really having a change of heart? Then Mo's dad gets a mysterious letter in the mail, and suddenly he's making plans -- plans that Mo fears will take the family away from Fox Street for good.

So my initial assessment of Fox Street was basically dead wrong. Here's a book that's anything but frothy, about a character who is spirited, determined and deeply introspective. Mo Wren is one of those girls who sticks with you, as devoted to her family and friends as she is frustrated by them and determined to always do the right thing. Mercedes is far more than a sidekick, but a fully developed character in her own right, struggling to integrate her new stepfather into a place in her life where only a hole had been. And Dottie -- oh, Dottie! A little bit of Dottie goes a very long way, which is a good thing. Just when you count her out as nothing more than the "wild child", Dottie does something to stir everything up again. I'd love to see more of Dottie in later books about the Wren family; I have a feeling she, like many other literary little sisters, is in for some fascinating adventures of her own.

And here's a lesson in not judging a book, literally. Though the cover art features a decidedly Caucasian Mo, there's a great multiracial storyline in here that decidedly increases the appeal to children of color. Mercedes is biracial, but she's never known anything about her father except that he is white. Without giving away any plot spoilers, suffice to say that this becomes a major subplot of the book, and one that is handled brilliantly by Springstubb. Though the resolution comes a little too neatly, this is a minor point in an otherwise engaging and realistic story thread.

Overall, a great read and one that will appeal to kids and adults alike. Can't wait for the next adventure of the family in Mo Wren, Lost and Found.

What Happened on Fox Street by Tricia Springstubb, published by Balzer + Bray
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Climbing down the hill, she took her time, making as little noise as she could, her eyes peeled. Fox Street had gotten its name for a reason, and sometimes, especially toward dusck, the air took on a mysterious, deep red texture. At those moments, Mo felt a beautiful pair of amber-colored eyes watching her. She'd sense a rust-colored tail, tip dipped in cream, disappearing just behind her. But no matter how quickly she turned, Mo never saw anything."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Picture Book Review - I'm Adopted! by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly

It's a fact well known that babies and toddlers love to look at pictures of other little ones. I've read a number of theories about why this is, but I suspect it might just add up to the fact that babies of all races are stinkin' cute, and they captivate kids as much as they do (most) adults. Many books and movies have taken advantage of that to great effect. The recent film Babies is a prime example -- with no dialogue and very little footage of other family members, this movie manages to catch and hold your interest throughout. As we see the babies growing and changing, we notice a lot about culture and social norms, but we also notice just how adorable these kiddos are, every last one uniquely individual.

We watched Babies as a family not long after Sprout came into our family, and like us he was taken with it,. His most-requested book during that period was Global Babies, a vibrant pictorial board book that represents little ones from around the globe. I recommend this book highly to all adoptive parents, particularly those who are bringing home babies and toddlers -- it's a great way to express to a small child, especially one with whom you might not have a shared language, that people come in a rainbow of colors and that though they may look different, the kids your new son or daughter will play with are babies just like them. Sound like too much to read into a simple board book? Well maybe, but it's what I hope for, anyway.

Fast forward to now, when reading books together is a treasured part of our daily routine. Now, interspersed with books like Snow Day and What's Up, Duck are titles that share with Sprout the journey of our becoming a family through adoption. Though he's heard the word "adoption" since day one, and though we've told him his story many times already, we recognize that this isn't a concept he can yet grasp -- but still, we feel it's essential to introduce it now.

Having read and loved some of Shelley Rotner's earlier books (click here to read my review of Shades of People), I was thrilled to see her listed as one of the authors of I'm Adopted!. Rotner and frequent collaborator Sheila M. Kelly bring readers a sensitive yet factual look at adoption that's geared for the youngest readers. No easy feat, this, and yet Rotner and Kelly pull it off enormously well. First because of the format of their book -- those aforementioned pictures of babies, toddlers and kids of all races. Gorgeous shots abound, from the copper-skinned beauty on the cover to the adorable Asian, African American, Caucasian, Latino/a, and multiracial darlings inside. Serious cuteness here!

Then there's the text. You wouldn't think that adoption would be a topic you could boil down succintly and yet thoroughly, but Rotner and Kelly have nailed it. Their explanations are clear without being drawn out, and encompass all perspectives. I've seen great picture books that take the adoptive family's point of view, and equally well-done titles from the adoptee's angle. But this is the first picture book I've run across that addresses the birth mother's side of things, and discusses reasons that children may not have been able to stay with their family of origin. This is handled frankly but sensitively, and presents a great opportunity to open discussion about your particular situation.

International and domestic adoption are both mentioned as well, leading into a discussion about transracial families. "I don't look like my sister, but we like to do the same things" reads one bit of dialogue, and really, how much better could one sum up the essence of multiracial families? In a brief afterword, the authors address the fact that not all adoption situations can be adequately discussed in such a format; this sensitive recognition of the uniqueness of every adoptive family is reflected throughout the book, as the authors honor every child they depict.

I truly believe this title belongs on the shelf of every adoptive family and should be part of every school or library's collection. Bravo, Shelley Rotner and Sheila Kelly -- you've given us an adoption classic for the ages!

I'm Adopted! by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, published by Holiday House
All ages
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Children are happy in their families, no matter where they were born. . . when they know they are cared for and loved."
Highly recommended

Monday, November 14, 2011

Audio Review - Schooled by Gordon Korman

I'm a sucker for the fish-out-of-water novel, mostly because I think there's not a kid or adult alive who hasn't felt that way. Especially in middle school, when it's kind of a revolving door of outside-inside, where every day brings a fresh new opportunity to end up labeled a complete loser. And in Schooled, Gordon Korman gives us a doozy of kid out of his depth, in the character of Cap Anderson.

Cap -- as in short for Capricorn -- does that give you a clue why this boy might be a bit of an outsider? Cap's grown up on Garland Farm, a commune run by his grandmother Rain, and it's the only world he's ever known. Garland's kind of small -- in fact, Cap and Rain are the only members left -- and so when Rain has an accident and has to go into the hospital for a while, there's no one for Cap to turn to. Suddenly Cap finds himself living with a social worker and her snarky daughter, and enrolled at Claverage Middle School, better known as C Average by the student body. Can life get any weirder? As it turns out, it can, when Cap's elected 8th grade president, has to plan the Halloween dance, and starts teaching a high schooler to drive. Oh, and becomes the greatest philanthropist in the history of middle school.

Just when you think you've figured out where Korman's going with this one, he throws another twist in the mix. And while the cast of characters is huge, the audio sorts this out nicely by having a different actor voice each part. (Even so, I'll admit I occasionally got lost and forgot who was who.) Cap is a wholly original character, a blend of modern kid with a whole lot of sixties hippie thrown in for good measure. The way he approaches life is unique, but believable in the context of a boy who has grown up only knowing one other person, his grandmother. And the lessons Cap teaches his fellow middle schoolers follow right along with his worldview, that of a boy who's never seen television and honestly thinks he needs to learn every students name.

Schooled moves along at a rapid clip, with plenty of hilarity along the way, but manages to wrap in some important lessons too -- about being true to yourself, sure, but also about being true to others, and being the kind of friend we all really need.

Schooled by Gordon Korman, published by Hyperion Books
Ages 10-13
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Something tingled directly beneath the peace sign I wore around my neck. I was developing a sixth sense for when trouble was coming my way. But what good was advance warning? Advance warning of what? I wasn't going to understand it anyway."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Review - Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same! by Grace Lin

On my weekly trips to the library with Sprout, one of the first sections we hit is the easy reader shelves. These books -- a step above picture books, a step below full-on chapter books -- are great for reading readiness. Many of them are broken up into small chapters, short stories really; Frog and Toad is a good example. The vocabulary used is generally pretty basic, particularly for the first readers, and when I read them with Sprout I make sure to run my finger along the text to help connect the dots between printed and spoken words. He loves the character titles, and we usually bring home at least one or two of the Thomas books (here's the current favorite, which I suspect I'm going to have to break down and buy because he loves it SO MUCH).

But, the thing about easy readers is that it can be tough to find multicultural titles. This is definitely a segment of kidlit that is screaming for diversity -- for every Little Bill title there's a dozen Barbies or Caillous. Authors take note: let's have some culture here please!

Enter Grace Lin. I've been a huge fan of Lin ever since I read her semi-autobiographical novel The Year of the Dog for my kidlit class last year. She's got a great sense of humor, which comes through in her characters, whose escapades echo Ramona Quimby in all the best ways. She writes fantastic girls -- curious, mischievous, smart and inventive girls whose world a reader will recognize as much like their own. And best of all, her characters are usually Chinese, like Lin herself, but her plots aren't always about race. Refreshingly relatable and always fun!

Ling and Ting is no exception. The title characters are twins, but no one can tell them apart. Until they get haircuts, that is -- then there is one big difference. And when you get to know the girls through the pages of this book, you'll see that though they are similar, they are NOT just alike. Which is fine with these sisters, who really like being their own unique people! Kids will love Ling and Ting for lots of reasons, not least because of their spunky personalities. Lin mixes in lovely notes of Chinese-ness -- the girls make their own (scrumptious-looking) dumplings, and talk about the relative ease of using chopsticks -- along with library books and magic tricks. Really, there's something here for everyone! And beginning readers especially will be proud of themselves for reading through this "chapter book" all on their own.

Ling and Ting may not be exactly the same in every way, but they are both completely adorable. Don't wait until your little one is learning to read before you check out these hilarious twins. Ling and Ting is destined to be an easy reader classic! 

Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same! by Grace Lin, published by Little, Brown and Company
Ages 5-8 (or younger, if you read together)
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Ling and Ting are twins. They have the same brown eyes. They have the same pink cheeks. They have the same happy smiles. People see them and they say, 'You two are exactly the same!' "

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Picture Book Month!

November is National Picture Book Month -- what fun!

I LOVE picture books and I will confess that having an excuse to read them has been my motivation for many major life decisions, including a career as a bookseller, studying to be a librarian and even having a kid. OK, maybe not that last one exactly, but getting to read picture books to Sprout every night is in fact one of the very best things about parenthood. No question.

A while back there was a big fuss made over "the death of the picture book". Parents are no longer reading them to their children, at least according to one article. Huh? Maybe that's true for some parents, but not in our house or with any of the families we know. In fact, we're on the constant hunt for picture book titles, and every one we love sparks the desire for more, more, more! Picture books have a whole lot to offer for everyone involved, from developmental benefits to social factors to positive bonding. The act of sharing pictures and stories together not only boosts literacy skills but also makes a strong association that reading is a pleasure activity. Isn't that what we all want for our kids, anyway?

In support of picture books, several authors and illustrators have banded together to promote Picture Book Month. Each day features a new blog post demonstrating why and how picture books are important, not just to individual kids and their adults, but also to our society as a whole. Reading through some of these entries confirms for me that the picture book is very far from dead. Many of the books we all loved from childhood are picture books, and as School Library Journal points out, by keeping the focus on good stories, the picture book can have a long and happy life.

Picture books make us better people, I think. They teach us about the world, our surroundings and those of people much like us and much different as well. If you're looking for some great picture books to share with the kids in your life, or if, like many of us, you're still a sucker for them yourself, start with some of the authors participating in National Picture Book Month. Check out best-of lists and read a blog that celebrates the artform.

Picture books are the gift that keeps on giving, so let's give a little love right back to them!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Crazy Fun Read-Alouds

A big part of making sure that you and your kids connect during read-aloud time is choosing books with a wide appeal. This isn't to say that every book will be everyone's favorite -- trust me, I've suffered through enough Thomas titles already to know that isn't the case -- but there should be something in each stack that's just downright fun for everybody. Pulling together a good mix of book titles is the best way to make this happen. It's kind of like a good movie -- high points, low points, dramatic tension, a little humor, and a satisfying resolution.

For us the highlight of the nightly read-aloud is what we call the "shout-it-out" title. These are the ones where Sprout's two-year-old sensibilities burst out, as he yells out lines, jumps up and down (or splashes, if he's in the bath) and makes goofy animal noises. This is usually the first or second title of the night, because as we progress I try to gradually gear down with gentler storylines and "sleepy" titles. So he's all revved up and ready to roll, and these books take full advantage of all that energy.

Sprout's current favorite along this line is Bark, George by Jules Feiffer. This is one of those books that I've loved forever and always wanted to share with my own little one. And it's perfect for toddlers, where obvious jokes play right into their burgeoning senses of humor. The plot's pretty simple: George's mama wants him to bark, but he makes nothing but other animal sounds instead. So naturally Mama takes George to the vet, whereupon we discover that -- well, I won't spoil it for you, but suffice to say it's a pretty unlikely condition that's plaguing this sweet little puppy. Thankfully the vet fixes George's problem. . . or does he? Trust me when I say that this is one you won't mind reading a lot, which is a good thing because boy will it tickle that little one's funny bone!

Another great one for boys and girls is The Little, Little Girl with the Big, Big Voice by Kristen Balouch. Lots to love here -- insanely colorful (and playful) illustrations, plenty of exotic animals (an orange snake! Sprout adores it), and best of all for us a little girl with brown skin! Again, a simple plot carries the day: one little girl has an awfully huge voice, which scares away every critter she wants to play with. All except one, that is, and he is the perfect match for this sweet but noisy darling. Kids will love shouting along -- we read it "there was a little, little girl with a BIG, BIG VOICE" -- and they'll be just as surprised by the ending as our heroine is. Perfect!

Just about every time we go to the library we look to see if this next title is in stock. Judging by the fact that it never is, I think the secret's out. But if you don't know it yet, Jump! by Scott M. Fischer is a sure-fire favorite in the making. Can't say enough about the power of rhyme in a successful read-aloud -- a couple times through and your little one will be finishing the sentences with you. The sing-song rhythm is infectious, and the surprise of each snoozing animal, resting quietly until someone else comes along, will spread to readers in equal measure. Fischer knows how to draw animals that kids will like, straddling the line between authenticity and cartoon goofiness. Don't even try to keep quiet with this one, because the punch line -- "JUMP!" --  is best when you shout it loud and long!

Got a favorite shout-it-out title of your own? Pass it on and keep the read-aloud joy alive!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Picture Book Review - I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley

One thing I've noticed over the years -- the stories that touch readers most deeply, most personally, are those that come from the true heart of the author. It could be through an experience the author had, a relative or friend's life, a connection to an historical event, or even through something the author read that touched him or her. But when a writer is moved from the very core of his/her being to write something, that motivation is going to come through in the story and to its readers.

Natasha Anastasia Tarpley was motivated to write her picture book I Love My Hair because of her own childhood relationship with her locks and with her mother. As an African American, Natasha's hair needed to be combed out frequently, which her mother would do in the evening. The tender ritual that Natasha's mother acted out, where the two would bond over the combing and braiding of Natasha's hair, resulted in some wonderful memories. And as an adult, those memories returned when Natasha herself was able to find a hairstyle that allowed her to feel "at peace with my hair, at home again with myself".

In I Love My Hair, an African American girl celebrates all that is wonderful about her particular head of hair. She thinks of all the ways her mother can fix her hair, from cornrows to buns to a fluffy Afro style. She loves the way her beaded braids make a fun rhythm that she skips along with down the sidewalk. And readers will see that there's much to love about this gorgeous gir'ls hair, which is "curly as a vine winding upward, reaching the sky and climbing toward outer space." E. B. Lewis's illustrations bring the imagery of Tarpley's text to life, capturing the emotion and spirit of the words and memorializing the love of mother and child. While the story focuses on hair, it's more than that, as you might imagine -- it's family love, healthy self-image and the joyous spirit of hair that makes you feel like flying!

For anyone who's parenting an African American child, this is an essential addition to your bookshelf, one that will help put into words all the reasons there are to "love my hair!".

Bonus: Read an interview with Natasha Tarpley from the kidlit blog The Brown Bookshelf

I Love My Hair by Natasha Tarpley, published by Little, Brown & Company
All ages
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Some days I just let my hair be free to do what it wants, to go any which-way it pleases. Then my hair surrounds my head, like a globe. This is my Afro style."
Highly recommended

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Link Love: Kid World Citizen

Looking to raise your kids to be global citizens? Want to add new elements of multiculturalism to your classroom or homeschool curriculum? Check out Kid World Citizen, a newly developed website that contains a host of ideas to "help young minds go global".

Started by an adoptive mom with a beautiful, truly multicultural family, Kid World Citizen aims to be a destination site for activities, games, educational items, art projects and other sites that help bring global concerns into a child's everyday life. Plenty of pictures and lots of great links are included. And, of course, there's some terrific books mentioned here too -- including the Runaway Rice Cake, a really fun twist on the familiar Gingerbread Man story that sets the tale in China. Love it!

Studies show that multiculturalism is most effective when it's integrated into the overall curriculum, not made into a special theme unit or focus week. As parents, we want Sprout to recognize his place as a citizen of the world, and what better way to do that than to introduce him to different cultures through music, food, literature, and games? Bookmark Kid World Citizen, or follow them on Facebook, and grow your global consciousness along with us!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder

Penny Dreadful is the kind of book that librarians and teachers live for. This is the book that you secretly keep in the back of your mind, just waiting for the earnest boy or girl who comes to you and asks for something new. This is what you hold on to for the summer doldrums or the winter blahs, when kids are tired of required reading and want something comforting. Penny Dreadful is like your favorite flavor of ice cream, reliably tasty and never disappointing.

The plot is simple and remarkably classic. Penelope Grey lives a life that many other kids would dream of, with a huge house, loving if distant parents, a private tutor and every creature comfort. Yet her life is boring, nothing at all like the life of children in books. So Penelope makes one wish, a small and simple wish that something interesting would happen.

She has absolutely no idea what she's in for.

Before she knows it, Penelope's comfortable life is turned upside down. Her father has quit his job and soon the family is out of money. Their lavish lifestyle rapidly disappears. Soon the only option the Greys have left is to move to Thrush Junction, Tennessee, the home of Mrs Grey's elderly aunt who recently passed away. Great-Aunt Betty owned a rambling house there, which she left to Penelope's mom. The plan is to start life over again in Thrush Junction -- and that is just what the family does, with some amazing results. Very soon Penelope has become someone she would scarcely have recognized in her old life, and she's determined to hang on to her new self no matter what it takes.

Laurel Snyder has a good thing going here, something that many writers aspire to but aren't able to pull off. There's scarcely a misstep in Penny Dreadful -- the characters are quirky but believable, the problems are those kids can actually identify with, and there's even a whiff of magic to keep things interesting. Readers will want to move into Thrush Junction and meet Penny's clever and adventurous friends (especially Luella, my absolute favorite. Is it too much to hope Laurel Snyder brings Luella back again??). I love the way Penny relates to the books she's read, wanting to spice up her own life so it more closely resembles the stories she loves. Although at the beginning of the book Penny lives a life of privilege, she's no Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. Rather, she's an ordinary little girl craving an extraordingary life. I was exactly the same way as a kid, and I suspect there are more than a few of us out there (if you're reading this, you probably were too).

Bottom line: Penny Dreadful is a believable yet dreamily hopeful novel that is just right for readers who want something different and still reminiscent of familiar favorites. I firmly believe this is one that will have a long life on many recommended reading lists, and it's a great choice for reading aloud together.

Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder, published by Random House
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "With an unfamiliar flutter in her chest, Penelope unfolded the scrap of paper and read what she'd written one last time. I wish something interesting would happen when I least expect it, just like in a book. Penelope refolded her wish carefully and tossed it into the well. Then she leaned over and peered down after it."
Highly recommended

Friday, October 21, 2011

Chapter Book Review - The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright

With some notable exceptions (Charlotte's Web, The Cricket in Times Square, Bunnicula, The Mouse and the Motorcycle), I'm usually not that thrilled with chapter books that have animal narrators. I'm not sure just why -- maybe it feels a bit contrived, and maybe the anthropomorphism just goes too far with some books. Hard to say. With picture books, I'm a lot more forgiving, but a chapter book usually has to run at least a little bit on empathy and shared experience, and, well, I've never been a cat or a dog or a mouse, so how should I know what that feels like?

All that goes out the window, though, for a book that marries Dickensian wit with a nice twisty plot, and lines like "Animals carry time in their bones." More, please!

Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright have crafted a pitch-perfect book in The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale. The plot seems straightforward: alley cat Skilley has found the perfect gig at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, an inn in the heart of London renowned for its amazing cheese. Since the inn is overrun with mice (see: amazing cheese), Skilley's pretty much got a job for life as far as the humans go. But Skilley is not what he seems, and he'll do anything -- including forming an alliance with a rascally mouse named Pip -- to keep his secret hidden. Enter a villain in the form of skulking, sneaking tomcat Pinch, and an even more mysterious personage in the attic, and you have the makings of a novel that captures the very spirit of Dickens' best.

There's a good bit of authentic dialogue here, which might trip up a less fluent reader. However, this is easily handled with the inclusion of a glossary at the back, which provides a great opportunity to teach a few research skills as well. The illustrations by Barry Moser are moodily evocative and put you right inside the Cheshire Cheese with Skilley and Pip as they flee the domineering cook. I love the addition of illustrations in a book like this, where complex vocabulary and plot combine with plenty of white space and pictures, in a balance that keeps readers from being overwhelmed. The drama builds to an appropriately thrilling climax that is complex enough to satisfy adults but not so hard to grasp that kids will be lost. All in all, a perfect title for reading aloud -- with short enough chapters that "just one more" seems a reasonable request.

Bottom line: if you love Merry Olde England and want to share that with your kids, The Cheshire Cheese Cat is the book for you. But don't be disappointed if they read on ahead -- a book like this is too much fun to hold back!

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright, published by Peachtree Publishers
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms." (Love it!)

Bonus! Read more about how this novel came about on the Peachtree Publishers blog.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How White is Your World?

I'm taking a study break from reading about diversity to write a blog post about diversity.

Hmm, can you tell where my heart is these days?

One of my classes this semester is Multicultural Children's Literature. It is nearly the toughest class I've ever taken (save an undergrad linguistics class that was INSANELY hard, but interesting). My reading level for the class is beyond what any reasonable person could handle. My papers and class discussions are challenging. And just when I think I have a handle on it all, something else comes along to upset the apple cart, like the massive paper I need to get cracking on but for which I still haven't chosen a topic.

But really, I think anyone parenting transracially should take a class like this. Because so much of what our children learn about race is formed through how we live our lives, and the materials we choose to bring into them. Through this class I've read and talked a lot about how racial identity is formed -- and it is formed a whole lot sooner than most people think it is. In fact, in this interview Professor Erin Winkler discusses studies that now show children as young as 3-5 years old may begin to use race to identify and exclude. Yikes! And, bias comes as part of the larger process of enculturation, which means kids learn bias from society, not just from the adults in their lives.

Did you get that?

Let me reiterate: kids learn bias from society -- and as most of us know, society does not offer equality of opportunity for everyone.
So it's up to us as parents to educate our kids as much as possible about diversity, particularly where it concerns race. Because studies also show that kids notice race beginning at a very, very young age (see this article - a bit long but worth reading - for more). So ignoring it, or putting off conversations until our kids are older might just result in some serious misconceptions for our children. This is especially crucial for those of us who are parenting transracially, but don't think that just because everyone in your household "matches" that these aren't important issues. Because really, we live in a diverse world, where people look differently and live differently and believe differently. And tolerance is a keystone of the kind of society I want to live in, and where I want to raise my son.

How does this come back to literature? Easy -- look at the books on your shelves, and the DVDs in your cupboard, and the toys your children play with. Does everyone look alike? Are all your bedtime reads "classics" that might harbor hidden stereotypes? Could all the dolls be sisters? Maybe it's time to mix things up a bit. Add in some multicultural family sets. Read a story set in India, or one set in Nigeria. Choose a Thanksgiving title that honors Native Americans. Watch a movie about how families live around the world. Pick out a new friend whose skin is a little darker.

Above all, talk. Talk about skin color, talk about religion, talk about difference. Talk about ability, talk about gender, talk about acceptance. When your kids ask "why is that guy in a wheelchair?", don't shush them. Talk to them about it, and if possible, let them talk to the person in question -- if it's my husband, believe me, he WANTS to talk to your kids about disability. Above all, be open about the things that make us different as people, and the things that draw us together. Because if your kids see that you are uncomfortable talking about how someone is different, what message will they take away from that encounter?

Not too long ago I was at the park with Sprout and a little guy he was playing with asked if I was Sprout's mommy. I said yes, and the boy said, "But you don't look the same." I told him no, we didn't, because Sprout was born in Africa. "Oh, okay," said the boy. "Can he come swing with me?". And that was that. Simple. Honest question, honest answer.

If diversity is a "life lesson" you try to teach your kids, it's going to come off awkward and be hard to approach. If diversity is a walk that you live every day, where your kids see that people come in all shapes, sizes, colors and varieties, then accepting difference will be a natural thing for them. And isn't that what we all want, just to be accepted for who we are, recognized for our unique gifts and personalities?

Be accepting. Be inclusive. And first and foremost, be open -- with yourself, with your children, and most importantly, with others. The richness your world will take on may just surprise you.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Wildwood by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis

Right over our back fence is a patch of land that the owners have pretty much left alone. There's a  plum tree, some grapevines, and blackberries galore. This jumble of wildness presses itself into our fence, bursting over the top and shoving aside random boards in its untameable chaos.

We love it.

And it was this very wildness that I thought of from the first pages of Wildwood, the richly imaginative new novel by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis. The book is set in Portland, OR, but a Portland unlike that most people know, one bordered by the fierce forest known as the Impassable Wilderness. Residents know to avoid these woods entirely. Prue McKeel and Curtis Mehlberg aren't sure just why, as their parents never really talk about it -- but when Prue's baby brother Mac is snatched by a murder of crows who fly into the Impassable Wildness, suddenly everything changes. Prue is determined to get her brother back, and Curtis is equally set on helping her, so, somewhat trepidatiously, into the Wilderness they go.

What they find is something they are completely unprepared for. Armies of talking coyotes, regiments of birds, deposed rulers trying to regain power, and always, everywhere, wildness and magic. Prue and Curtis soon are in the thick of it, trying to piece together which side they should be fighting for and just how Mac could disappear like he did. And the deeper Prue and Curtis get into the woods, the more they discover about themselves, their families, and how dense the wildness really is.

Wildwood is the kind of book that fantasy lovers long for, vividly detailed and fantastically suspenseful. Meloy's writing is offset perfectly by Ellis's illustrations, whimsical and just a bit dangerous. I love the use of color plates inset at points throughout the story -- it reminds me of old editions of the Oz books that I used to pore over. And, in fact, Wildwood owes a lot to L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis and even Lewis Carroll, as readers of these authors will find much that's familiar but also a completely new departure in this novel. Curtis in particular was quite reminiscent of Edmund from Narnia, at least at first, but then Curtis's own character emerges and we can see that he's definitely a personality all his own. My favorite bit was the bandits, especially the Bandit King Brendan, that rakish devil.

I can't wait for the next entry in this series, to catch up with Prue and Curtis and visit Wildwood once more. Share this with anyone who loves magic, mystery and epic adventure -- whether you read it aloud or they jump in all your own, Wildwood is one to curl up with on a stormy winter night (and keep reading long past your bedtime!).

Wildwood by Colin Meloy, illustrated by Carson Ellis; published by Balzer + Bray
Ages 9 up
Source: Library
Sample quote: "'Impassable Wilderness? Oh boy, would that it were. I might have a little more time at home. Nah, I don't know who told you that, but you Outside folk have got it all wrong. 'Course, you're the first of your kind I've ever seen here, so it stands to reason that no one ever made an effort to find out about the Wood -- Wild, North, or South.' He looked at Prue and smiled. 'Seems like you just might be our first pioneer, Port-Land Prue.'"
Highly recommended

For more about Wildwood, check out this interview with Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis!