Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Picture Book Review - My Mei Mei by Ed Young

When you're preparing to add a member to your family through adoption, there's a lot of getting ready to do. Preparing a room, checking out daycares or schools, babyproofing (or big kid-proofing), picking a pediatrician -- there are a million little details. If you have other children in the home, a big part of the preparations is explaining the adoption process, and what it will feel like when their new sibling joins the household.

Luckily there are a lot of great picture books to facilitate these discussions, and My Mei Mei by Ed Young is one of them. Young, himself an adoptive dad, was motivated to write and illustrate this picture book through his own experience adding a second daughter from China. Young's firsthand knowledge of this situation shines through on every page.

Antonia desperately wants a mei mei (little sister) to play and share secrets with. She plays at being jieh-jieh (big sister) and she just knows she'll be a really good one. And then the day finally arrives, and the family travels to China to bring Mei Mei home. Antonia is so excited! But Mei Mei turns out to be nothing like Antonia thinks she would be, and soon jealousy is creeping in. Will the sisters ever get used to each other? Will Antonia like being a big sister after all?

Young is not only an adoptive dad, he's also a Caldecott medalist, and his talents bring this very personal story to life. The colors he uses are vibrant and vivid, emphasizing the emotional journey that all the family members move through. And as the girls' relationship changes, so does the perspective, and soon the two are totally intertwined.

Whether you're bringing home a child through international adoption, foster care, or having a birth child, there's a lot here to help ease the transition from only child to older sibling. Sharing Young's gentle tale as a family is an excellent way to open a discussion about life changes or to remember another child's adoption story. A beautiful book, beautifully told!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Library Find - New Red Bike! by James E. Ransome

No matter how you slice it, there's no substitution for the serendipity that occurs when you browse the shelves in a library or bookstore. I like to think I'm pretty plugged in to kidlit, that I have a good eye for new releases coming out that feature people of color or other aspects of diversity. But even so, titles slip past me, which makes it all the more wonderful when I stumble on something new when I'm picking out books for Sprout.

A recent find for us is New Red Bike! by James E. Ransome. This is a 2011 release, but somehow I missed it entirely, until Sprout pulled it off the shelf at the library. One look at the cover -- that gorgeous shiny bike and the happy African American boy riding it -- and we knew it was coming home with us.

This is a great read for younger kiddos like Sprout, who are ready for a bit of plot but not too much intricacy. Tom's having a great time on his new bike, riding it all over the neighborhood and checking out its moves. He decides to ride over to Sam's house and show it off. But no one answers the door at Sam's, and when Tom turns around, his bike is gone!

The resolution to Tom's problem comes fairly quickly, and the rest is a negotiation in the importance of sharing and togetherness. Told in the simplest of language, this is one that would work well for read-aloud or for early readers too. And Ransome's art is just fantastic. The illustrations are as accessible as the text, a perfect pairing. Graphic and vibrant watercolors set off the story of two friends, one bike, and moment of panic (and one of forgiveness).

Pair this with other bike-themed titles like Along a Long Road by Frank Viva or Duck on a Bike by David Shannon for a fun read-aloud session. New Red Bike! is a perfect choice for boys like Sprout, who love anything on wheels. And who can resist a shiny red bike??

New Red Bike! by James E. Ransome, published by Holiday House
Ages 2-5
Source: Library
Sample: "He zooms down the hill, / around the curve, / and back up. / Then he sweeps down to Sam's house."

Bonus: James Ransome's interview with 7-Imp (don't miss it!)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Picture Book Review - The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster

For a young child, visiting a beloved friend or relative can be a momentous occasion. Even if it's someone the child knows well, staying with them provides a glimpse behind the curtain of their mysterious "other" life. Growing up, I was always proud of the fact that my sisters were full-on adults, with their own homes and cars and jobs. Staying with one of them for a weekend was a huge deal for me. It felt like they lived in an alternate dimension, where there were trips to the park, nights at the movies, ice cream in the afternoon and games to play after dinner. Those visits are some of the fondest memories of my childhood, and really they seem even now to be tinged with magic.

In The Hello, Goodbye Window, Norton Juster and Chris Raschka translate that magic to the printed page, and they do it in masterful fashion, as you might expect from two kidlit superstars. The narrative follows a little girl who's visiting her grandparents overnight. The magic at Nanna and Poppy's starts before you even get inside their house, at the Hello, Goodbye Window. The window, we're told, "looks like a regular window, but it's not". Through the Hello, Goodbye Window, you get a glimpse into Nanna and Poppy's world, where there are loads of magical things -- the sink where a certain baby girl used to get a bath ("really!"), the counter where Poppy whips up breakfast delights, the table that's perfect for coloring. From the inside you can look out at the world through the window too. You can see the stars (Nanna knows all of them!), check the weather, keep an eye on Nanna's garden and look for mysterious visitors (a T-Rex, maybe). Yes, this is indeed a magic window, where you can see all the wonders of the world, both inside and out.

In reading this to Sprout, the first thing that we were both taken by was Chris Raschka's unbelievable artwork. (Yes, the very same Chris Raschka who just won the Caldecott for A Ball for Daisy. Well-deserved on both counts!) Raschka's style is like nothing else, and it completely manifests the spirit of our narrator, a vibrant little beauty with twinkling eyes like her Poppy and curly hair like her Nanna. I love the liveliness of Raschka's drawings, the way they dance and snap and nearly skitter off the page, and then gear down to match the quieter moments of the text. Beautiful stuff, truly.

But what kept us coming back to this one, I think, has to be Juster's text. This is an author who knows his character -- he not only gets her voice down just right, he also captures the essence of this girl and her very special grandparents. There's more than a sense of understanding here. There's also the whiff of wanting to freeze a moment in time, preserve one of these visits for her so it stays there, immediate and lovely, always ready for reliving. I'm just guessing that there's some autobiography involved, and that's quite likely why the book rings so true at every point. Oh, and the fact that the family is multiracial? Icing on a very tasty cake indeed.

Don't miss The Hello, Goodbye Window. Even without that Caldecott win, it was always going to be the best of the very best.

The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster and Chris Raschka, published by Hyperion
Ages 2 and up (oh please, read it with your older kids too!)
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Sometimes when it's hot / Poppy chases me with the hose / and I yell, / "Stop it, Poppy, stop it!" / When he does I ask him / to do it again. / Nanna just shakes her head."
Highly recommended

Bonus: Kathleen Horning's interview with Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Chinese New Year!

Happy Chinese New Year! 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, with the new year beginning tomorrow, January 23. New Years is a very important holiday for the Chinese people, and the celebration is one of the biggest that Chinese families celebrate. New Year marks new beginnings, but also is a chance to honor family and express hopes for good fortunes in the months to come.

When choosing books to use as part of your holiday observance, whether it's Chinese New Year or another holiday, it's important to pay attention to cultural accuracy. Look for titles written and illustrated by individuals with strong cultural ties (those who are either raised in a culture or closely linked to it in some significant way). Books with author's notes or explanatory passages about the holiday offer other beneficial insights. And choosing a cross-section of several titles will help present the most diverse perspective, including a sense of how the holiday is observed by people around the world. Check out sites like Kid World Citizen for unique crafts and other ideas of how to celebrate Chinese New Year in your library, classroom, or at home.

There are so many great titles about Chinese New Year that it's hard to sum up just a few. An older title that I really like is Janet Wong's This Next New Year. In the book a Chinese-Korean boy explain how his family celebrates the holiday and what his hopes are for the year to come. Each of the traditional observances is carefully explained in a way young readers will understand. The boy also describes how his friends, all of various other ethnicities, commemorate Chinese New Year in their own ways. A cheerfully inclusive title that's great for sharing.

Another fun title is The Runaway Rice Cake by Ying Chang Compestine. I love this one for its traditional feel. Set in China, the book explores one family's New Year observation. Momma uses the last of the flour to make one rice cake, which the family will share. But suddenly the rice cake comes to life and runs through the village (hints of The Gingerbread Man story here). Will the family catch the rice cake, or go hungry on New Years' Eve? Compestine provides some excellent cultural details here, including an afterward that explains the customs that most families follow in celebrating New Year. This is a really delightful tale that doesn't disappoint!

And what would a Chinese New Year list be without a book by Grace Lin? In Bringing in the New Year, Lin brings her trademark joyous illustrations to a book about the holiday. Every member of the family contributes to the holiday preparations, getting the house ready for the year to come. And the celebration that follows is extraordinary - who wouldn't love to participate? Lin caps the book off with a unique look at the dragon parade that is sure to impress. Bright and festive, this title belongs in every library's collection. (And for older readers, don't miss Lin's The Year of the Dog. The book follows Pacy on her quest to "find herself" throughout the year - it's a warm and funny story that has lots of great cultural detail too.)

However you celebrate, may the Year of the Dragon bring you much good fortune!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Chapter Book Review - How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen

Walter Dean Myers was recently sworn in as the new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, which to me is an inspired choice. In this capacity, Myers announced that his platform for the next two years is to be "Reading is Not Optional". NPR interviewed Myers and asked him why he chose this particular message to send out. Myers' response:

"Well, the problem is very often books are looked upon as a wonderful adjunct to our lives. It's so nice. Books can take you to faraway places and this sort of thing. But then it all sounds as if it's something nice but not really necessary. And during my lifetime things have changed so drastically. You can't do well in life if you don't read well."

Whether you agree with Myers or not (I happen to agree), most of us can attest to the fact that sparking a love of reading is crucial if we want to really change kids' lives. I firmly believe that there's a book out there for everyone, it's just a matter of putting the right selection into someone's hands. Unfortunately, when it comes to humor, finding well-written books that tackle important themes -- and are also hugely funny -- can be quite the undertaking. Even more so if you're hoping for multicultural titles.

But How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen fits the bill, in every way. This is one of those books that will have you laughing on nearly every page, and reading bits aloud to family and friends. Seriously! Allen's protagonist Lamar has a quick wit and a mouth to match - too bad the two aren't always working together.

Lamar is the King of Striker's Bowling Alley, a man with mad skills in the lanes but not such smooth moves when it comes to romance. Looking to impress the "superfine" Makeda, Lamar makes a deal with Billy Jenks, a guy known for jumping in and out of juvie. Lamar figures that Billy's plan to hustle some guys at bowling equals nothing more than quick cash - enough to treat Makeda in style and score himself a pro ball from celebrity bowler Bubba Sanders. But before he knows it Lamar is in way over his head, and for once not even his smooth talk can get him out of this mess.

Allen's bio reveals that she has two sons, and that she practically grew up in bowling alleys. That firsthand knowledge shows. Not only does she capture the buzz and energy of a red-hot bowling competition, she's also got the voice of thirteen-year-old Lamar down pat. And like the best of authors, Allen wraps the heavy stuff so tightly up in the humor and tension that the deeper themes come at you almost without you knowing it. Kids will be laughing alongside Lamar and Sergio (love that the two main characters are African American and Latino!) even as they watch them work through painful emotions and difficult relationships.

I raced through Lamar's Bad Prank and was sorry to see it end. Lamar, like Joey Pigza or Greg Heffley, is the kind of kid you simultaneously root for and cringe with, who sometimes makes bad choices and always has good excuses, and who may or may not end up on top. In other words, a real kid. That and his hilarious banter should gain Lamar (and Crystal Allen) a stable of loyal fans.

How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen, published by Balzer + Bray
Ages 9-13
Source: Library
Sample: "I've known Billy Jenks since kindergarten. He's tall on attitude but short in stature. Billy's so low to the ground, I bet his hair and feet smell the same. I'd never seen a person with a square face until I saw his. It's all smashed in, like he got clocked with a can of Spam."

Bonus: Crystal Allen's interview with The Brown Bookshelf

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Library Find - Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler

I love my kid. I really do. But at the moment he's in a stage that frustrates the life out of me. If you have toddlers or have spent much (any) time around them, you'll recognize it -- it's the "no way will I tolerate anything new" phase. Basically this means that his daily selections (food, clothes, books, DVDs) are from a very limited list of personally-approved items. Any deviation from said list is bound to meet up with a pronounced "no, I don't want to" or "no, I don't like it". Or, you know, just "no".

Well, okay, I can play along with this to a limited extent. But since my husband and I happen to believe that trying new things is good, we can't entirely let our dear son dictate everything. So that means that alongside his beloved dinner of noodles and cheese, Sprout is apt to find a taste of asparagus. Paired up with his favorite Cars pajama bottoms, he's likely to have a different t-shirt choice. And in with his tried-and-true library selections, there is bound to be something he thinks he just won't like.

Such was the case for Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. I picked this one up at the library because I was drawn to the energetic cover art, which features a multiracial cast. (The fact that it was sporting a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor seal didn't hurt either.) A quick read through suggested that it might be a bedtime favorite - lots of fun upbeat rhymes, characters swinging and swaying to a jazzy beat, and skin in all shades of pinks and browns. What's not to love, I thought?

Unfortunately Sprout was a harder sell. He pitched a fit the first time I pulled it out, but I persisted. And lo and behold, it has become one of the most-requested titles in the bedtime rotation. Well, how could it not be - seriously, this is a fun one to read together! The premise is simple: a lively family celebration of music, with singing and dancing and beboppin' galore. Wheeler's words put the song in motion, and Christie's vibrant characters look ready to dance right off the page. In each spread, our jazzy baby is dancing with someone new, as the whole family, plus neighbors and friends, get into the act. And the singing and dancing is infectious -- if you can read this one through without wanting to get up and dance yourself, I'd be surprised!

Sprout loves the recurring refrain sung by the main character: "Go, man, go!" My husband taught him to say it in a really jazzy way, which makes him laugh like nobody's business. All in all, this is a fun and funny title that's great for bedtime reading but would make an excellent addition to any storytime program as well. Pair with This Jazz Man for another title that will get kids up and on their feet!

Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, published by Harcourt
Ages 2-7
Source: Library
Sample: "Auntie toe-taps. / Uncle soft-shoes. / Fancy-dancin' Baby sings 'Doo-Wop-Doo!'"

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Comment Challenge

One thing that the community of book bloggers does very well is challenges. You name it, there's a challenge for it - TBR challenges, debut author challenges, e-book challenges, best-of list challenges. It's extremely cool, and one year I'll jump into these in a big way. BUT, right now, there's that little matter of most of my reading time being taken up for school, which means most of my reading choices are being made for me. Not so conducive to participation, no matter how cool the challenges are.

However, I did hear about one that I think I can absolutely do, mostly because it involves something I'm really wanting to work on -- reading and commenting on other people's blogs. I'm a horrible lurker, reading lots of blogs on a variety of topics but hardly ever speaking up. Hmmm, a bit like real life, maybe? But I'm turning that around by participating in the 2012 Comment Challenge, sponsored by Lee Wind and MotherReader. So far, week-and-a-half in, I'm on track with five comments a day. And I've found some incredible blogs along the way, that I might never have stumbled on other wise. Woohooo!

If you're doing the Comment Challenge too, welcome! What moved you to participate this year? And what other reading goals have you set for yourself??

Friday, January 13, 2012

Picture Book Review - Journey Home by Lawrence McKay Jr.

I rarely read the dedications of picture books. Before I read a book, I'm usually in too big of a hurry to get to the good stuff, and afterwards I'm either excited to share the book or eager to be rid of it.

In this case, for some reason, I did. And I'm quite glad, because I think the dedication set the tone for the entire work. Dom and Keunhee Lee, the illustrators of Lawrence McKay Jr.'s book Journey Home, dedicated their work "to the people who have two homelands". This speaks to the desire on both the author's and the illustrators' parts to honor the experience of international adoptees as well as multiracial individuals.

And honor this experience they do, with a tale that captures the emotional and psychological process involved in searching for birth family as well as identity. Mai's mother Lin was adopted from Vietnam when she was just a baby. Lin doesn't know anything about her family -- "her past is like a puzzle", Mai explains -- but she longs to reconnect. So Mai and Lin decide to journey back, to see what parts of the puzzle they can bring together. Finding answers isn't easy. There are a lot of closed doors and dead ends, and at times Mai's mother seems to feel more lost than ever. But finally, finally, they find a connection, and the picture Lin has so often longed to see begins to fill in at last.

This is a powerful story not only of an adoptee's desire to find her first family, but also to return to a homeland whose roots are deep within her heart. McKay relates in unsparing prose the longing that Lin feels, to know more about herself and her birthplace. And he connects Lin's journey to that of her daughter Mai, who was born in America but never knew her father. In Vietnam, Mai finally has the experience of fitting in, since everyone else looks just like her. And Mai feels a connection to her mother's birthplace. As she puts it "I think home must be inside me and all around me too."

Journey Home is a gorgeously illustrated portrait of the adoption journey that would be an excellent tool for sharing with older children. There's a lot of food for thought here, and be aware that the frankness with which McKay tells Lin's story may prompt questions from adoptees about their own history. If you don't want to answer hard questions, then you'd better pass this one by. But if you feel, as we do, that it's most important to be completely honest with your children about their story, this is the kind of book that can facilitate open communication.

For another perspective on Journey Home, check out The Asian Reporter's review. For a classroom guide, check out Lee & Low's website.

Journey Home by Lawrence McKay Jr., published by Lee & Low
Ages 7 up
Source: Library
Highly recommended

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chapter Book Review - Vanished by Sheela Chari

I'll admit it -- I'm a sucker for mysteries. I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and the like, moved up to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle in middle school, and by high school was reading pretty much any mystery author that could hold my attention. Now, whenever I need a break from schoolwork and a change of pace from kid's books, I'm all about authors like Lee Child, Michael Connolly, Meg Gardiner and Laura Lippman (among many others).

So when Vanished by Sheela Chari cropped up on my radar screen, it was pretty much a must read -- a middle-grade mystery that takes the reader from Boston to India and back again. Neela is pretty much an average musician, but she longs to be world-class. When her grandmother sends her a beautiful and intricately carved veena (a stringed instrument from India), Neela is more than happy to cast off her practice model and play this gorgeous heirloom. But then Neela's veena disappears, and in her efforts to find it, Neela uncovers some unexpected information about a famous veena player who died tragically, and a cursed veena that will never stay with the one who owns it. Could this curse be on Neela's veena? And how will she ever get the priceless instrument back in her family?

What I loved about Vanished is Neela's persistence. Once she gets hold of the idea that there are strange circumstances surrounding her instrument, she just won't let it go, despite getting in trouble at home or receiving threats to give up the hunt. This persistence drives the story, and keeps the reader hanging in with Neela, certain that the truth will turn up around the next corner. Neela's friends add flavor to the plot, from traditional Pavi to unconventional Matt to Lynne, who seems somewhere in between friend and nemesis for much of the book. Neela's parents are proud of their Indian culture and traditions and have taught Neela to be too -- another point I like is that Neela's ethnicity, while it adds depth to the story, doesn't drive the plot. This isn't a "ethnic girl clashes with American society" story -- it's a "creepy guy appears, veena vanishes, what is girl going to do" tale, and that's what will hold a young reader's interest.

For me the plot ran a little thin towards the middle; although I think a strong reader will hang in with it, this slowdown could be a turn-off for reluctant readers or those who aren't true mystery fans. Still, things pick up considerably when the family travels to India, and the change of locale is perfectly timed with the build-up of plot tension. Chari's strength is character, and it shows in people like Lynne, whose unusual mannerisms fit perfectly with her role in the story, and Matt, who turns out to be the right person to help Neela crack the case (even despite his orange hair).

Chari has a solid debut here, and I'll be interested to see what comes next from her. This is a great choice for readers interested in India, strong females, music or just a great character-driven mystery.

Vanished by Sheela Chari, published by Hyperion Books
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "At the coat closet, she opened the wooden folding door, still thinking of what to say at home, when she stopped. At first she thought she was mistaken. But the closet was so small, the truth was plain and simple. An awful feeling crept over her. She stared at the coat still hanging in the closet, a dark vinyl jacket that Hal had said was his, and the gaping space next to it where her veena should have been."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cybils Shortlist

The list of Cybils finalists is out -- actually has been out for a few days, but I'm behind the times. The Cybils are awarded to the best children's and YA books of the past year, as judged by book bloggers. It is my fond hope to someday be a judge, but I'm thinking that will have to wait until after grad school. 'Cause the reading list for judges, while awesome, is also huuuuuuge.

Winners announced February 14, so check back!

Picture Book Review - Lottie Paris Lives Here

Recurring characters are a great device for young kids. They create an instant bond with a new book, becoming more like familiar friends than characters. Some of my best literary memories are with series characters: Frances, Frog and Toad, Pippi Longstocking, Nancy Drew, Henry Huggins.

Kids who otherwise won't tolerate anything new are more open to a different plot peopled by someone they already know. Sprout's right at this developmental stage -- over Christmas break he ate the exact same breakfast every single day, and when I suggested something different, he looked at me like I was nuts. He'd happily listen to the same book four times every night, but Mama needs to switch it up for sanity's sake. Enter series characters: I can easily sell a different Elephant and Piggie title in place of the one that's wearing a bit thin. Whew!

Angela Johnson's Lottie Paris Lives Here is a book all about one of the most endearingly energetic girls in kidlit today. She's smart and spunky, with an attitude and an imagination to match. At times that attitude gets her into trouble (Lottie ends up in the quiet chair on more than one occasion), which makes her all the more lovable. This is a girl who takes life and shakes it awake -- Sprout and I love the spread where Lottie's on the playground, because all that vivacious energy has her near about bursting off the page. Oh, and when Lottie wears a hat? Yep, that's a hat like no other, complete with feathers, flowers and frogs. Woot!

Scott M. Fischer illustrates this humdinger of a picture book. We loved Fischer's Jump!, which has become one of our favorite get-the-wiggles-out reads (here's my review). Fischer brings a similar liveliness to Lottie, giving her eyes that sparkle and snap, a head of luscious curls, and a smile that's about 1000 watts. No boring color palettes for Lottie's world, either -- it's all bright pastels, even down to Lottie's purple-furred puppy. Fischer knows how to draw kids, too, in all kinds of situations. Lottie's equally charming when she's yelling for another cookie, or when she's snuggled up to Papa Pete at the end of a long day's adventures.

I don't know if Angela Johnson is planning to make Lottie Paris a recurring character, but it's my opinion that she should. Lottie is the sort of girl kids are going to bond with instantly and stick with over the course of many books. More, please!

Lottie Paris Lives Here by Angela Johnson, published by Simon and Schuster
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Sample: "Can you find Lottie in the park? / She's the one going this way / and that way / and under the trees, / around the fountain, / and down the slide. / Lottie Paris plays here."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Novel in Verse - Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Rarely am I at a loss to describe a book, or even to write a review of it.

Rarely does an author so take my breath away that upon finishing her work, I am immediately moved to reread it.

Rarely does a book like Thanhha Lai's come along.

If you haven't read a novel-in-verse, you may be put off by the format. I was, for a very long time, until reading Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust. In a word, that book was stunning - it captures the experience of living in Dust Bowl Oklahoma in a voice that is spare and beautiful. Since then I've read a few others, but none quite comes close to Lai's Inside Out and Back Again.

Lai's debut novel (winner of the National Book Award) is a story based on her own experience, that of ten-year-old Ha, who with her family escapes Saigon in the wake of the Vietnam War. Ha's life is marked by loss - her father went missing in action before Ha's first birthday, her mother has drawn gradually away with the stress of supporting the whole family. And now the war - Ha's best friend flees with her family, and the loss continues. At last it becomes clear that Ha's family also must go, but with no clear idea exactly where they will end up. The escape, the boat journey, the terror of floating aimlessly with no rescue in sight - this is all part of Ha's story, as is her arrival in a strange land called Alabama, where not even a taste of her favorite fruit can bring back the feeling of her homeland.

Lai tells Ha's story with a fierce tenderness that speaks to the personal nature of the tale. Her decision to write the novel in verse is, in my estimation, a brilliant one, as it allows for the kind of stark imagery that brings the entire experience to vivid life. Bursts of humor break the tension, but never do we forget that this is a journey not only of physicality, but also of identity and of learning to find one's place in a strange land.

Like Lai's prose, Ha herself instantly captures you. She's sneakily brilliant: on the first morning of the new year, Ha tells us, male feet should touch the floor first, for luck -- but Ha wants to be the first, so she creeps her toe out of the covers to tap the ground. She's determined: her strength shines through every line, every thought, every vignette. Though the world she knew gradually slips away from her, Ha clings to her faith in herself and her family. Never does her beautiful, bright determination waver, never does her spirit become worn away.

I read this in one quick burst -- I couldn't help it -- but then went back and read shorter portions, savoring the language, the imagery, the sense of place and time and personality. This is a gorgeously written portrait of a girl whose experience echoes over and over in refugees the world over. Absolutely compelling - one of my new favorites.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, published by HarperCollins
Ages 9 up
Source: Library
Sample: "Water, water, water / everywhere / making me think / land is just something / I once knew / like / napping on a hammock / bathing without salt / watching Mother write / laughing for no reason / kicking up powdery dirt / and / wearing clean nightclothes / smelling of the sun."
Highly recommended

Bonus: Thanhha Lai's interview with Publisher's Weekly

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Here Be Dragons

It's a new year -- let's start it off with some fantasy and ferocity, dragon-style!

What is it about dragons? Cuddly or scaly, friendly or forbidding, they make excellent fodder for some really engaging picture books. In an effort to add some whimsy to our bedtime routine -- and to balance out all those truck/train/car/airplane books we seem to end up checking out -- I recently brought home a couple of dragon-themed titles to share with Sprout.

The first choice, A Dragon Moves In by Lisa Falkenstern (whom we love from her illustrations for The Busy Tree), caught Sprout's attention from the get-go. I'm pretty sure it was the artwork, which is sumptuous and oh-so-inviting. Really, this is the kind of book that defines the phrase "feast for the eyes", as every spread has yet more visual delights. And the story's a winner too: Hedgehog and Rabbit stumble on an egg, which promptly hatches into a baby dragon. The pair are thrilled and decide to bring their new friend home, but they aren't prepared for just how thoroughly Dragon will fill up their house. The solution comes pretty easily, as it often does in picture books, but it's just the thing to bring the friends together. Magical and endearing!

And then there's Jack -- King Jack and the Dragon, that is. It's easy to fall in love with this title, right from the first moment, just for the sake of Helen Oxenbury. But Peter Bently's tongue-in-cheek storytelling kept us turning pages. Jack and his band of intrepid knights must protect their castle at all costs. Monsters and dragons can be easily fought, but it's giants that cause the real trouble, as they pull the knights away one by one. Soon Jack is all alone, but he's not scared, exactly. Still, it's a good thing Jack has his own giants. . . to take him home for bath and bed. The clever, subtle humor here will appeal to older preschoolers, while little ones will thrill at the thought of fighting dragons and beasts themselves. And Oxenbury's artwork is of course beyond charming (naturally I find the chubby-cheeked Zack the most appealing, but Jack and Caspar are pretty cute too).

He's a little young for it yet, but one dragon title I can't wait to introduce Sprout to is Ruth Stiles Gannett's My Father's Dragon. I still remember hearing this one read aloud when I was in elementary school, falling under the spell of this inviting tale and its quirky, old-fashioned artwork (that cover - what is it about that cover?? Retro fabulousness!). Though there are other books in the series, this is the one that grabbed and held my attention from the first lines. I'm thrilled that there are new editions of this one still around, that I can share with my own kiddo in the not-too-distant future.

What's your favorite dragon title? Add it together with one of these newer choices for a fun (and fierce) storytime experience!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ring in the New Year with Dumpling Soup

As holidays go, New Year's has never been a big deal for us. In years past we've gathered with our extended family to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, but as far as ringing in the New Year, we're kind of ambivalent. The big event around here was Family Movie Night -- popcorn, The Aristocats on DVD, and everyone in bed by 10:30. Yep, big excitement. :) Lately we've been thinking we'd like to build some New Year's family traditions for Sprout, though we're not sure just what form those will take yet (we're open to suggestions -- what do you do to celebrate as a family?).

For the family in Jama Kim Rattigan's Dumpling Soup, New Year's is all about gathering as a family for a delicious meal. Marisa lives in Hawaii, and her "chop suey" family is made up of lots of ethnicities - Korean, Chinese, Hawaiian, Japanese, Caucasian. Everyone brings something from his/her culture to the big New Year's feast. But the centerpiece of the meal is Grandma's dumpling soup, and this year Marisa gets to help make dumplings. What an honor!

There's just one problem: Marisa's dumplings are funny-looking, not like all the others. Marisa hopes that Grandma won't use them in the soup. She just knows her cousins will tease her about her cooking skills. And sure enough they do, but Marisa soon finds out that it's not how the dumplings look on the outside, but what's inside that really counts - and on the inside, Marisa's dumplings are the best ever. Mmmmmm!

Rattigan's tale of an energetic Hawaiian family is just right for ringing in the New Year, no matter how you celebrate. Pass the dumplings!