Sunday, July 31, 2011

Link Love - Sendak, Tintin and Potter, Oh My!

Loads of juicy stuff in the link roundup for this week!

~  On my fall radar already is Cedella Marley’s picture book One Love, based on her father’s song of the same name. The illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton are crazy cute and features a great theme, that we can all do incredible things if we work together. Check out the trailer and feel the love.
~  Also due in September is Maurice Sendak’s Bumble-Ardy, the first book in 30 years that Sendak has both written and illustrated. Dave Eggers interviewed Sendak for Vanity Fair, and the author is, as always, nothing if not unpredictable.
~  The 2011 Bulwer-Lytton Awards were announced this week. Not familiar? The award is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the playwright who penned what is widely considered the worst opening sentence in literary history. The more florid the sentence, the better in this case. This year’s winner, Sue Fondrie, had the shortest sentence yet, but it is wonderfully awful: “Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories”. Eeeuuuwwww. . .
~  Harry Potter mania is beginning to wane. I haven’t seen the new movie yet, but then I haven’t seen the last movie yet either – such is life when you have a small child. Maybe on DVD? Anyway, if you are mourning the end of an era like so many Potter devotees, perhaps you can try to recapture the magic as one couple did, with a (pretty amazing) Potter-themed wedding. Capes optional.
~  Tintin fans, rejoice! According to The Guardian, the new movie looks to have “the most impressive use of motion capture yet” (and with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson involved, are we at all surprised?). Read the full story here and check out the trailer too.
~  Flavorwire has a new take at artwork for some classic fairy tales, that might be more at home in the living room than in the kid’s bedrooms. Personal fave? Little Red Riding Hood. Deliciously Grimm!
~  Cover design is a huge part of a book’s appeal, whether we want to admit it or not. Don’t believe me? Take a peek at the Book Cover Archive. Fair warning: it’s oddly mesmerizing.

~  And finally, for any who doubt the power of books, and librarians, to influence the course of a child's life, Stephen King has words for you.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Summer Days!

Thus far summer has been more of a fleeting glimpse than an actual season here in the Pacific Northwest. Just when we think it's here to stay, another round of cold rainy days sweeps in. We're used to so-so summers around here, so our strategy is just making the best of it and enjoying the days we have had -- though I'm getting tired of wearing sweatshirts and jackets at the park, and I'm not entirely sure that Sprout's wading pool is going to make a second appearance.

But if you can't find summer outside your windows, you can always find it between the covers of a book, right? Here's a few of Sprout's current favorite bedtime reads, just right for the season:

Summer Is Summer by Phillis and David Gershator, published by Henry Holt

There's a lot to like about this one, from its sunny, playful cover art to the cleverl use of shifting, changing perspective throughout. No surprise there, with Sophie Blackall as the illustrator -- I just love the way she draws children, sweet and soulful and mischievous all at once. And the text, a riff on the Gertrude Stein quote "A rose is a rose is a rose" fits well with the illustrations, as we consider giant bumblebees ("a bee is a bee is a bee") and summertime entertainments ("Rain or shine, baseball time -- Summer is summer is summer"). That the boys and girls, all friends and happily enjoying the best of the season, reflect diversity is an added bonus. Sprout likes the beach scene best, with the little brown-skinned boy dumping a pail of water over his head while playing in the ocean. Good times!

Jamberry by Bruce Degan, published by HarperCollins

It's an oldie but a goodie -- who doesn't love berries, especially this time of year? Since "fruit" (aka strawberries) is one of Sprout's favorite foods, this was a natural choice for us, and he loves it. I had forgotten how much fun the whimsical illustrations are (where else are you going to find "elephants skating on raspberry jam?), and it's especially nice because we pick up little details nearly every time we read it. Plus there's a train in this one, so that makes it an automatic win in Sprout's book. And oh, the berries, such a mouthwatering plentitude of them! Sprout loves the spread at the end, where the boy and his bear friend are "buried in berries". Yum! Colorful, jubilant and a rollicking read-aloud.

Summer Sun Risin' by W. Nikola-Lisa, published by Lee & Low

Life on a farm sure is busy! The little boy in this vibrant, cheerful story loves to help out wherever he can on the farm, and there's plenty to do, from feeding the pigs to hoeing the garden and everything in between. The rhythmic rhyme is so fun to read, it'll almost make you want to break out in song. Our favorite verse reads "Pa casts a line, I check the bait. Summer sun's slippin' and the fishin' is great!" Every nuance of Nikola-Lisa's nature-inspired text is mimicked in Don Tate's warm, homey illustrations. The boy and his family are happy at work on their farm, and their love for the land shows through in each welcoming spread. We like to end our night with this one, and kiss the little boy goodnight, all tucked up in bed.

Long summer nights are perfect for "just one more book" at bedtime. And as Sprout already knows, I can't help but give in!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Mom's Bookshelf - The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma

As a parent, I stand pretty firmly on the notion that one of the greatest gifts I can give Sprout is a love of reading. Lots of reasons for that -- books open your mind to new worlds, give you possibilities you would never otherwise have dreamed of, allow endless opportunities for exploration, hone and refine literacy skills that will serve you in great stead, and provide huge amounts of enjoyment on a daily basis. What could be better? And I'm well aware that the best way to spark that love is through example, by filling our house with books and reading as much as we can, both individually and as a family.

I'd like to say that we've read to Sprout every day since he's been a part of our home. The percentage of days we have read to him certainly outweighs those we haven't. But I can't guarantee that we haven't missed a night here or there -- life goes awry sometimes, even with the best laid plans.

So that's why the story of Alice Ozma and her father Jim is particularly awe-inspiring to me. When Alice Ozma was nine years old, she and her elementary school librarian dad made a pact to read together for 100 nights in a row. Big commitment, but they made it. And then that 100 become 1000, and the 1000 turned into "The Streak", 3218 consecutive nights that Jim read aloud to Alice. From fourth grade until the night before she started college.

Impressed? Me too.

Alice Ozma writes about The Streak in her new book The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared. But the title is a bit misleading. Yes, Alice talks a bit about some of the books they read together, but the bulk of the book is about Alice's relationship with her dad, and the way that relationship influenced the rest of her life and the choices she made. From the opening anecdote, where Alice and Jim are reading together on a train and someone asks them why (who would do that, BTW? Wouldn't you just silently applaud??), it's pretty clear that the bond between this father and daughter runs amazingly deep. Though Alice's mother makes some brief appearances, her dad appears to have been the center point around which Alice's life turned. And the reading seems to have been the bond that kept the two connected, even through the aftermath of parental divorce and the tumult of the teenage years.

Parts of this memoir made me laugh right out loud: Jim's stubborn insistence on reading despite a wicked bout of laryngitis ("you are like some sort of voiceless alien" Alice tells him); Alice's sales pitches to drum up business for her dad's book fair ("Books are collectors' items, especially if you collect books"); Jim's efforts to eradicate Alice's irrational yet persistent fear that her room is haunted by the ghost of JFK ("Would I be talking to you so calmly if the body of an ex-president was lying on your bottom bunk?"). But other parts are incredibly moving, such as Alice's sister leaving home and the end of The Streak, which, though impossibly sad, is, of course, inevitable. At the end I was compelled to go back and read Jim's introduction, feeling, now that I knew their story, a thousand times more moved by a father's words.

Not many parents still read to their nine-year-olds, although if you asked them I'm pretty certain that most nine-year-olds would secretly love to be read to. But Jim Brozina did, and he kept reading long past the point where everyone else would have given up. And that, as they say, made all the difference.

If you already read to your kiddo, as we do, you probably don't need any encouragement to keep on doing so. But maybe you'd like a glimpse into the future, to see what could be, the outcome of the bond forged by sharing books together. Here's one such glimpse, and it couldn't be better.

The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma, published by Hachette
Source: Library
Sample quote: "We were already good at routines, but The Streak was anything but. Every night was different because every story was different. Even when a book started to drag, as some did late in the second half, there was still the thrill of getting closer to our goal to make things a little more interesting. But as my father told him, and as anyone who reads regularly might agree, the only thing that has to be similar from night to night is the act of turning pages."
Highly recommended

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Link Love - A Clickable Roundup of Kidlit Bits

New feature! This week I'm starting a (hopefully) regular effort to share some of the useful, funny, off-the-wall and oh-so-relevant links I've stumbled upon in the recent past. I wouldn't say this is "news" per se, but rather a gathering of stuff that might peak your curiosity, if you're the kidlit-minded sort -- which presumably you are, unless you just happen to know me in real life and are reading along out of sheer politeness. Either way, thank you. Consider this your reward!

  • First up, birthday wishes and all felicitations to Winnie-the-Pooh. The silly old bear turns 90 years old this summer. 90! And he doesn't look a day over five. Send Pooh your own birthday wishes care of the Children's Center at the New York Public Library (sorry, no honey pots accepted).
  • While we're talking classics, for me it begins and ends with Ramona Quimby, the precocious kindergartner that I fell in love with many years ago. Author Beverly Cleary celebrated her 95th birthday this past spring, and had a lot to say about writing, balancing a career, and the state of children's books. I love that she didn't see the point behind "refreshing" the illustrations in her books. Apologies to Tracy Dockray, the new illustrator, but to me Ramona will always be as Louis Darling saw her. Guess I'd better start scouring used bookstores now to find the oldies for Sprout.
  • Speaking of the little man, he is a hard-core Thomas the Tank Engine devotee right now. We love us some Useful Engines, and all their assorted friends and adventures. Good thing he's still too young to plan our next family vacation -- now that the location of Sodor has been revealed, I have a sneaky hunch that's where we'd end up!
  • This next click comes from the UK as well. Kidlit fans, test your knowledge with the Guardian's quiz about beloved kidlit characters in the classroom. And yes, Hogwarts leads the way.
  • If you aced that one, test your knowledge with this piece about little-known kidlit by famous writers. Seems like a few things here are better left undiscovered.
  • My last post was about the devastatingly brilliant novel One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. Of course you've read that post, right? If not, scroll down first and then read this interview with Williams-Garcia's editor. "As an editor, the smartest thing I can do is leave Rita alone." Whoa!
  •  At last! An imprint brings us sci-fi, fantasy and mystery novels WITH DIVERSITY! Tu Books is the product of the ever-fantastic Lee & Low Books, and the brainchild of editorial director Stacy Whitman. I can hardly wait. Check out the Tu Books debut list, pubbing this fall, and then read this awesome interview with Whitman over at the HappyNappy Bookseller. How crazy wonderful is that Tankborn cover??!?
  • How did I not know that Jeff Smith's amazing Bone books are finally being made into a movie? Ah well, this is what I get for neglecting my entertainment news in favor of studying. Anyway, the word from Comic Con is that things are coming together for a three-film project. Here's hoping they do those racing cows justice.
  • And finally, I can't possibly ignore the biggest publishing news of the week: the total liquidation of the Borders chain, and the loss of jobs for nearly 11,000 booksellers. This news makes me terribly sad, not least because that's 399 fewer outlets for kids to connect with books, and for books like those published by Lee & Low and all the other diversity-minded houses to be discovered. I owe a lot to Borders -- my bookselling roots were planted in a Waldenbooks outlet, grew and flourished at several more, and branched out to an indie and a used bookstore. I met my husband there, made some wonderful friends, and discovered amazing kidlit during all those hours of shelving. Say what you will about Borders, but they were the home base of some incredibly knowledgable and enthusiastic booksellers, and their talents will be missed by everyone whose lives they touched. Here's a great response from one indie, who hopes that the flames kindled within Borders customers can continue to burn at local bookstores everywhere.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Audio Review - One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

If you're looking for quality reading choices for yourself or your kiddo, checking out awards lists is a great place to start. Last semester I took a children's lit class and one of the assignments was reading one title from each of ten different awards lists. For those of you who think it begins and ends with Caldecott and Newbery, guess again. There are a TON of fantastic awards programs in kidlit, recognizing everything from novels to nonfiction to picture books and lots more in between. (A great comprehensive source for kidlit awards is the list maintained by the Cooperative Children's Book Center, found here.)

As part of that assignment I chose to listen to the audio version of One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. Williams-Garcia is herself the recipient of numerous awards, including the PEN/Norma Klein Award, and One Crazy Summer has been honored multiple times: Newbery Honor book, Coretta Scott King Winner, Scott O'Dell Award Winner, ALA Notable Recording for 2010. But as we all know, award-winning books can be critically acclaimed and still fall curiously flat in the real world.

Luckily, that's not the case for One Crazy Summer. This is a novel that delivers.

Premise: It's the summer of 1968. Delphine and her sisters Vonetta and Fern are on their way to Oakland, California to spend the summer with their mother Cecile, who ran out on the girls when Fern was just a baby. At eleven, Delphine remembers enough of their mother to be afraid about what they are in for. And when they first head home with Cecile, nothing is as she thought it would be. Now transformed as the poet Nzila, Cecile seems more interested in social change and protests than in reacquanting herself with her girls. And the Black Panther Day Camp where she parks her daughters is not at all what Delphine had in mind. Revolution? No thanks. As Vonetta puts it, "We didn't come for the revolution. We came for breakfast."

And that in a nutshell embodies all there is to love about Summer. Williams-Garcia manages to paint a story about very personal relationships on the grand stage of civil rights, social protest and upheaval that characterized Oakland in the 1960's. Even as we watch Delphine, Vonetta and little Fern try to navigate this strange new world, and their stranger mother, we see the shifting racial climate and the tensions that were produced. The girls come from a world where assimilation is the goal, and their grandmother cautions against making themselves a "grand Negro spectacle". Oakland, though, is all about standing up and speaking out, fighting for your rights and being proud of yourself. And the struggle being played out on the larger scale is personified in the girls' own struggle to reconcile the two ideologies within themselves.

So, big social themes, and lots of great historical detail. But none of that would be worth a bit without the characters. Oh, what great characters Williams-Garcia brings us! From distant and often frightening Cecile, to worrier Delphine, to look-at-me showoff Vonetta, and obstinate little Fern, these are characters you just can't forget. While Delphine slowly awakens to the prejudice and injustice that surrounds her, so too will readers. More importantly, kids will recognize bits of themselves and their friends in these children, who are just about as real as kids can get. As they see the girls living in the balance, making new friends and considering new ideas, readers will be moved to learn more about this tumultuous time -- and isn't that the mark of a great historical novel?

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fantastic narration of the audio by Sisi Aisha Johnson. Listen, this woman is a masterful reader, and she will hook you from the first line. Johnson becomes each of the girls in turn, bringing out layers of their personalities that I might otherwise have missed. Even the most minor characters, like Crazy Kelvin and Mean Lady Ming, have their own distinct turn of phrase, and Johnson doesn't miss a trick. Kids who might be on the fence about reading a historical could easily be persuaded to give this a try on audio, and I wouldn't be surprised if they are as sad to see it end as I was.

Bottom line: An excellent historical novel with characters as fresh as if they lived today. And an audio worth a second (or third!) listen to boot.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, published by HarperCollins (audio read by Sisi Aisha Johnson)
Coretta Scott King Winner, 2010
Ages 9 up
Source: Library
Sample quote: "It wasn't at all the way the television showed militants -- that's what they called the Black Panthers. Militants, who from the newspapers were angry fist wavers with their mouths wide-open and their rifles ready for shooting. They never showed anyone like Sister Mukumbu or Sister Pat, passing out toast and teaching in classrooms."
Highly recommended

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Picture Book Review - Mama Panya's Pancakes by Mary and Rich Chamberlin

When we embarked on the process of adopting from Ethiopia, I immediately began scouring the shelves of every library and bookstore for fun picture books about East Africa. There are several Ethiopian ones, and I'll share many of them in the weeks and months to come (if you can't wait, a good place to start is anything by the fabulous Jane Kurtz. Really, you can't go wrong.) But I didn't want to limit myself to just books about Sprout's birth country, so I cast a wider net and found some great titles about other nations on the Horn of Africa.

One such title is Mama Panya's Pancakes: A Village Tale from Kenya by Mary and Rich Chamberlin. Right from the start, you know you have a fun choice here, with its vibrant and colorful artwork that captures the look of village life. The characters are joyful and it shows, both through Julia Cairns' illustrations and through the spunky, lively text of the story itself. Mama Panya and little Adika are on their way to market to buy ingredients for pancakes. Along the way they run into a lot of friends and neighbors, and Adika just can't help inviting each and every one along for pancakes. Mama Panya is worried: will her flour stretch to make pancakes for everyone? Yet somehow "a little bit and a little bit more" becomes just enough! (Think "stone soup" and you'll get the drift.)

The authors have taken pains to add in aspects of Kenyan life and culture; especially thoughtful is the inclusion of various wildlife common to the Kenyan countryside. The post-story pages include quite a bit of information about language, geography and environment, and even feature a recipe for the titular pancakes (although they sound less like pancakes and more like flatbread similar to Ethiopian injera, but the target audience won't care about the semantics there).

I'm in no way an expert on Kenya, so I can't say for sure how culturally sound this tale is as a whole. Still, if you take it at face value, as a light and playful story about the importance of sharing and making room for others, there's a whole lot to like. The representations of the village and the process of walking to market give texture to the tale. Kids can see traditional homes and garb, from head scarfs to the robes worn by the cattle herders. It's quite nice too that the relationship between Mama Panya and Adika is never fully spelled out -- Mama Panya may in fact be Adika's birth parent, or a relative or neighbor who is caring for the young boy. The distinction isn't important, and that makes this a nice choice to read to an adopted child who may have been raised by a grandmother, aunt or other relative.

Sprout's a little young yet to sit still for this one, though he did have fun looking at the pictures and picking out the doggie who appears on nearly every page. Mama Panya would be a nice choice for storytime and a good jumping-off place to learn more about Kenya's history, culture and daily life.

Mama Panya's Pancakes by Mary and Rich Chamberlin, published by Barefoot Books
Ages 4-8
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Mama tucked the package into her bag. 'Ai-Yi-Yi! You and I will be lucky to share half a pancake.'
'But Mama, we have a little bit and a little bit more.'"

Monday, July 18, 2011

YA Review - The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage." (Lao Tzu)

Katherine Paterson's slim but affecting novel The Day of the Pelican embodies the very nature of Lao Tzu's words. In what seems somewhat of a departure for Paterson, this novel is set in Kosovo in 1998, during the conflict between Serbian and Albanian Kosovars. The story centers around almost twelve-year-old Meli Lleshi, an Albanian Kosovar who, with her family, is plunged into unexpected conflict when her brother Mehmet is captured by Serbian soldiers. Almost without warning the Lleshis are forced to flee their home, leaving behind everything they know and love. As the family struggles to survive, moving from one harrowing situation to another, their first priority is to keep everyone together at all costs. And then out of the blue everything changes again for the Lleshis as they immigrate to the US and face a whole new set of challenges, trying to reestablish themselves in a place both welcoming and frightening.

Meli's story is a harrowing yet uplifting one. It's difficult to read about the fallout from ethnic cleansing; in the hands of a lesser author, this could come across as a much different type of tale. But Paterson handles her subject matter deftly, always emphasizing the personal while not underplaying or misrepresenting the horrors ever present in this time and place. Paterson puts faces and names on the tragedies, helping readers to understand the reality that refugees face, whether in the Kosovar region or in other places, and the difficult if not impossible choices that must be made.

For me the most affecting part of the narrative came towards the end, when Meli and her family are living in the US and trying to adjust to their new reality. There are so many parallels between the struggles Meli and the other children face, and those of children newly adopted into American families. Cultural differences and uncertain mastery of a new language are only the tip of the iceberg. The Lleshi children also have to come to terms with the atrocities that they witnessed. This is especially true for Meli's brother Mehmet, whose experiences mark him as unusual in the eyes of his soccer teammates and other boys. Mehmet is angry, very angry, and Meli worries for him that he will never find peace within himself. Children born into countries where war and hunger and strife are the reality may identify with Mehmet especially, and understand how difficult it is for him to resolve his old life with this strange new American one.

If we are to change the world, we must first open our eyes to it, all of it. If we are to reach out to others, we must first know their heartache. The Day of the Pelican is a novel imbued with both heartache and hope, one that will speak to adults and children alike.

The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson, published by Clarion Books
Ages 11 up
Source: Library
Sample quote: "'Once you've been in jail, you're not a kid anymore,' he replied, the words sending a chill up his sister's spine. He was no longer the brother she thought she knew. He didn't speak about that terrible time, but it had changed him. . . . Despite his squawky voice and smooth cheeks, Meli knew that he was becoming a man -- not the sort of kind, loving man that Baba was, but a secretive man with the sharp and watchful eyes of a blackbird."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Picture Book Review - Bringing Asha Home by Uma Krishnaswami

If there's one thing you need when embarking on an adoption, whether international or domestic, it's patience. Hurry up and complete paperwork; wait for government approval. Scramble to organize dossier; wait for translation. And that doesn't count the months, even years waiting for a referral, and then the post-referral wait for court approval, legal hoops and diplomatic clearances. All of this is very necessary to ensure ethical adoption, of course, but the fact remains that there's waiting. A lot of waiting. It's not a process for the faint of heart.

And yet few books that explain the adoption process for kids address the waiting that families undergo. Enter Bringing Asha Home by Uma Krishnaswami. In this picture book, young Arun learns that his family is going to be adopting a baby sister from India. Arun is excited, especially once he gets to see the picture of little Asha. He really hopes his sister will be with them for his birthday. But that milestone, and others, come and go, and still no Asha. Arun is sad thinking about his sister waiting for her family: "I hope the people in India are taking good care of my sister. I try to believe that someday soon she will come to us." At last Arun's father travels to India, and soon the new family is all together in America.

I love that Krishnaswami discusses the process of waiting for a child, and how difficult that can be for parents and siblings alike. For children whose families are adding another member, it might be hard for them to understand why the wait is necessary; Krishnaswami explains this in simplified terms, and while the explanation may not be enough for older children, it does open the door for further discussion. I especially appreciate the connections the text makes to India. Arun's father is from India (Mom is not) and the family observes several holidays and customs from Dad's heritage. It's great to see a multiracial family expanding through international adoption, yet remaining connected to the country of origin of its newest member.

While the text is fairly long -- I wouldn't recommend this for toddlers, but kindergarten and grade school ages should follow it -- the author does a nice job of explaining the complexities of international adoption in a way that most kids can relate to. It's especially good to find a book that doesn't begin just when the new sibling arrives in the family. Arun is part of the process from the very beginning, and the way Arun's parents approach the entire issue with him is one that many families may choose to model. Overall a celebration of adoption that doesn't skip over the realities, both good and bad.

Bringing Asha Home by Uma Krishnaswami, published by Lee & Low Books
Ages 5-9
Source: Library
Sample quote: "I sit on the step and drum my heels on the floor. 'I've been patient forever,' I cry. 'I'm tired of being patient.' Mom and Dad look at each other. I think they're tired too."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Library Find - How Do You Wokka-Wokka? by Elizabeth Bluemle

For me, one of the best things about being a mama is going to the library with Sprout. He LOVES our regular Friday trip to pick out books, made even better when the weather is nice by a ride to and from on the bike (or "yike" in Sprout-speak). It's been a little weird for him since summer reading started and the library is a lot busier -- less room to spread out and read books, more competition for the rocking chair and the bead rollercoaster toys. But still it's a lot of fun to see what there is to discover, and even more fun to watch him discover books that I already know and love.

On one of our last trips Sprout stumbled across How Do You Wokka-Wokka?  by Elizabeth Bluemle. I remembered reading Wokka when it first came out, because frequently read the ShelfTalker blog that Bluemle, a bookstore owner, writes with co-owner Josie Leavitt. So I had given the book a quick read, but wasn't that familiar with it. But then Sprout pulled it off the shelf in that oh-so-random toddler way and we fell hard for Wokka. In fact, that's how it's referred to now around our place, just Wokka. Solo consistently chooses it for one of his bedtime selections, and it never fails to deliver.

So what's great about Wokka? Well, lots of diversity, for one thing, which makes me happy. It's always a good thing when the group of kids represents a whole spectrum of skin tones, rather than having one or two brown faces only. The pictures are fun too -- boys and girls skipping rope, dancing their way through the city streets, making friends along the way. You can sense the motion in the artwork and it makes you want to jump right into the book and "shimmy shake" along with the characters.

Oh, and did I mention how deliciously tricky Wokka is to read aloud? You've got to bring it in a big way when you read this one, it's not for the faint of heart, with its rhythmic rhymes and trippy dance-along cadences. Sprout loves it when I get tongue-tied as I read -- it's just part of the fun. He also loves to say "wokka" along with me, adding a special flourish when we get to the last line of the book "Yeah, you gotta wokka!".

This one will get you up off the carpet and trying out your groovy dance moves in no time. How do you wokka-wokka?

How Do You Wokka-Wokka? by Elizabeth Bluemle, illustrated by Randy Cecil; published by Candlewick
All ages
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Some days you wake up and you just gotta wokka / Say 'hey' to your neighbors up and down the blocka."

Friday, July 8, 2011

Chapter Book Review: Junonia by Kevin Henkes

The phrase "instant classic" is so overused that it's just about totally meaningless, but I'm in favor of resurrecting it for one recent read, Kevin Henkes' Junonia. A junonia, for those not in the know (which I wasn't) is a type of seashell, one that is so rare that it is highly prized among shell collectors. And in Henkes' novel, ten-year-old Alice Rice is such a collector, who hopes that this year her vacation to Sanibel Island, Florida will yield her the precious find.

Alice has been coming to Sanibel Island on vacation almost since she can remember, and she loves the rhythm and predictability of the island. Her parents always rent the same cabin, the same neighbors are usually there, and her birthday is always the highlight of the trip. But this year, it seems that nothing will go according to plan. Old friends can't make it and new friends don't live up to Alice's expectations. Especially vexing is six-year-old Mallory, who wants to do everything Alice does and whose tantrums seem to ruin everything that would otherwise be so perfect.

Henkes' novel is one of those quiet, gentle plots that unfolds just like the ebb and flow of the tides. The conflict within Alice provides the greatest tension, as she wrestles with the reality of her trip, and how things have turned out differently from her ideal version. I think there's a lot here that speaks to kids of a certain type, the kind of child who craves routine and precision and is somewhat undone when actual events don't match up to expectation. And isn't that all of us, at some time or another?

Or maybe it was just me, but I can see how watching Alice deal with the way things change in this pivotal year would offer a number of opportunities to talk with kids who are themselves undergoing change. Whether that change stems from adding another family member, a move, changing schools or moving up a grade, or just getting older, Junonia is a book that will help kids see how change, though unsettling and not easy, can also bring about a lot of positives.

And in any case, Junonia is a pitch-perfect choice for reading aloud, a book whose subtle rhythms would make for the perfect bedtime read, whether on vacation at the beach (I wish!) or snuggled up together at home.

Junonia by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow
Ages 8 up
Source: Library
Sample quote: "After all, she was going to be ten. Finding a junonia would be the perfect gift. She picked up one of her new tulip shells and turned it in the light. It was covered with bluish gray and brown markings. Its inner surface was lustrous. . . . It was many things, but it wasn't a junonia." (pp 87-88)
Highly recommended

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Poetry Review - A Child's Calendar by John Updike

Somehow the Fourth of July has come and gone again. We were fortunate to have beautiful sunny weather here all weekend, somewhat of a rarity in Northwest Washington, so we were able to get some yard work done and then enjoy the fruits of our labor. We had planned to take Sprout to his first-ever fireworks display yesterday but a day of playing in his wading pool, chasing the dog, blowing bubbles and throwing the ball in the back yard had him completely worn out even before his regular bedtime. But there's always next year!

Having a little one around the house makes it even more fun to mark holidays and the passing of seasons. A great title for doing this is A Child's Calendar, a collection of poems written by John Updike (yes, that John Updike) and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Each month is celebrated in its own poem, with the highs and lows of the seasons and holidays captured in simple, readable verse. Updike's knack for imagery takes a playful turn; of March, he says "The sun is nervous / as a kite / that can't quite keep / its own string tight." How well that sums up the fleeting glimpses of spring that March offers, teasing us with its promise of brighter days ahead! I also love his take on October (my personal favorite month): "Frost bites the lawn. / The stars are slits / in a black cat's eye / before she spits."

And these effortless yet succulent bits of poetry are made even more fun by the charming illustrations. I know, charming -- overused as a descriptor, but so perfect for these artistic snapshots. If you have any familiarity with Schart Hyman's work then you'll recognize her vividly color palette and wry humor at once. But what makes this title special for our family is that the illustrations depict a multiracial family, with hair and skin of all colors. The family here enjoys making Valentines, watering plants and picking flowers, taking a long walk on a November day. I love the underlying subtext: here is a family just like any other, complete with that one kid who strips down to nothing while playing in the ocean. I remember reading once that Schart Hyman was one of the first illustrators to depict multiracial families -- another reason to enjoy her work, besides her gorgeous scenery and the raw emotion she paints into every character.

This is the kind of book I wish we'd see more of, one where there's no heavy-handed message about racism or acceptance, just a gentle glimpse of a family enjoying the year in one another's company. A great addition to any family's bookshelf.

A Child's Calendar by John Updike, published by Holiday House
All ages
Caldecott Honor title
Sample quote: "November: The stripped and shapely / maple grieves / the loss of her / departed leaves."

Friday, July 1, 2011

Audio Review: The Emerald Atlas

At first glance, John Stephens's The Emerald Atlas seems pretty familiar, with all the classic elements of fantasies like Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Orphans? Check. Grim orphanage with heartless administrator? Check. Transport to a mystical realm? Check. Cruel villain accompanied by requisite toady? Check. Objects imbued with magical powers? Check. Mysterious creatures, both friendly and fearful? Check and double-check.

It's true that The Emerald Atlas shares a lot of thematic elements that readers of these iconic books will recognize. But there's also a lot of unique twists that make the story wholly individual. For starters, the siblings are far from being waifs in need of rescue. Instead, they learned early on to rely on themselves and it shows, as they take matters into their own hands whenever possible. The three children have very distinct personalities, from caretaker Kate to analytical Michael to scrappy Emma. These qualities lead each of them into circumstances that rapidly escalate beyond their control, and each is faced with situations that test their bonds of loyalty, forgiveness and love.

The villain, too, has shades of the tried-and-true formula, but with a spin all her own. The Countess is more frightening when she is oozing politeness than many other baddies are at their most evil. (Having listened to the audio version, I can tell you that no one could possibly capture this quality better than the masterful Jim Dale.) Naturally the Countess has her sidekick, the secretary named Mr. Cavendish, whose greasy obsequiousness will make your stomach turn. And of course, these two pop up at the worst possible moments, and refuse to be easily dispatched, even by the children's magical allies.

There are a few elements that feel a bit thin -- the magical objects, in this case books; the children who are destined for greatness; the kindly wizard who looks out for our heroes and heroines at great personal risk. But to be honest I don't think kids, or adults for that matter, who are in the mood for an engrossing fantasy epic will mind all of this terribly much. And if the ground does seem a bit well-trod, there's always Stephens' remarkable pacing to keep you moving along (Stephens worked in television prior to turning to books, and it shows). A huge plus for me is Stephens' sly sense of humor. I especially love the housekeeper, Mrs. Sallow, with her snark-infused commentary. The plot drags a bit toward the end, an instance in which listening to the audio was a huge benefit, as Dale's masterful narration keeps it interesting.

A key point in Atlas is that Kate, Michael and Emma are not really orphans. They believe firmly that their parents will come back for them, and that belief sustains them throughout the course of the novel. At first I worried about how this would all play out, but it becomes clear that their parents did what they had to do for the sake of the children. As an adoptive parent, this plot point provides a perfect opportunity to talk about the difficult choices that birth families make, and why they may elect to place their children in the care of others. Time will tell how Sprout will react to novels like this, with characters who are orphans and struggle with not knowing their birth parents. But I anticipate that this will give us a lot to talk about and to think about, on many levels.

One other thing that occurred to me when listening to The Emerald Atlas -- where are the fantasy epics that feature multicultural storylines? Guess that gives me something to keep looking for.

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens, audio published by Books on Tape/Random House
Ages 10 up
Sample quote: "His voice and that image -- the tall man silhouetted in the doorway -- would haunt Kate for years, as it was the last time she saw her mother, the last time her family was together. Then the man said something Kate couldn't hear, and it was as if a heavy curtain was drawn around her mind, obliterating the man in the doorway, the light, her mother, everything."
Recommended listening