Sunday, June 30, 2013

Building Our House by Jonathan Bean

Creative people fascinate me, for lots of reasons. I don't consider myself to be especially creative in any real sense - certainly not with arts and crafts, and rarely with leftovers even -- so I guess that's why the creative process seems so mystifying. The events and objects that inspire authors and illustrators are so varied, and it's always interesting to see what these folks mine for their work. Of course life events are high on that list, and I'd bet that more than a few books were generated from the creators' own childhoods.

In the case of Jonathan Bean's Building Our House, that's especially true, as Bean used his own family's experience of building their home as fodder for this new book. In the author's note at the end, Bean explains the process that his parents used, and includes photos from their experiences. Sprout loved this part of the book. Honestly he was thrilled by the thought that the events in the book really happened to someone who grew up and wrote a book about it. (I think it's important to connect the dots for kids, so any time we can talk about something we know about the author, it's a huge bonus.)

And the personal aspect of this story definitely comes through in the way Bean has lovingly presented his topic. First of all the illustrations are just delightful; from the cover and endpapers right on in, kids will be absorbed by the level of detail and depth Bean includes in each spread. The story opens as the family moves from their home in the city to a plot of land in the country, where they plan to build their new home. Every aspect of the construction process is discussed, from the plans and tools, to the pouring of the foundation, to the raising of the frame. The family lives in a trailer as the house is going up, and the process of readying their temporary homestead is mentioned as well.

The house itself is quite obviously a member of the family, around which the entire story turns. Even the weather becomes a secondary character - for instance, Bean depicts the kids playing in a pool as Dad downs lemonade, and describes the hurry to get work done before the winter weather sets in. And the extended family comes into play, participating in the frame raising and helping out with the move. But through it all the little family works together, mother and father and children, each to their own talents and abilities, diligently laboring to build their home.

It's a love story Bean has told, and marvelously so, with simple prose and illustrations kids will pore over. For those who are enthralled by construction work and tools, this is a surefire hit, and adults likewise will find themselves studying each page closely. It's no wonder Bean won a Horn Book/Boston Globe Award this year for Building Our House. In the manner of classic kidlit, this book is timeless and one no library should be without.

Building Our House by Jonathan Bean, published by Farrar Straus Giroux
Ages 3-8
Source: Library
Sample: "My family makes up a strong crew of four and we have a truck named Willys. My brother helps Dad carry the tools. 'The right tools for the right job,' says Dad. / I help Mom carry the plans. 'A good plan for a good house,' says Mom. Willys carries everything else."
Highly recommended

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Not All Princesses Dress in Pink by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple

School's out in most places now, and Sprout's preschool has shifted to its summer program. His school does an end-of-year progress report, which was really interesting. His skills are coming along, especially in regard to literacy. But what made me smile was that his teacher noted Sprout's awareness of the various parts of a book - title, author, illustrator - and that he identifies many authors with their specific works. I love this! Way to make a librarian mama proud!

And it is that very awareness of authors that helped me get him to buy in to today's pick. I thought princesses might be a tough sell as a topic, because lately we just seem to want to read about dinosaurs and trucks and trains and other rough-and-tumble subjects. But the minute he heard that Not All Princesses Dress in Pink was written by Jane Yolen, together with her daughter Heidi E. Y. Stemple, Sprout was in with no question. He loves Yolen's Dinosaurs books, such as How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? and others. So princesses were no hurdle at all (though I think he did secretly hope a dinosaur would pop up here or there).

If you're looking for a book to combat the saccharine depiction of princesses that's so pervasive, you know you've got the right pick from the very front cover. The girls are literally constructing the frame for the title -- how great is that? Yolen and Stemple give us some decidedly un-fussy princesses in all sorts of arenas. We have sporty girls, crafty girls, gardening girls, sword-fighting girls (Sprout likes the latter best). In each page, the princesses appear in non-traditional garb, in a variety of different situations. But each girl wears a "sparkly crown" - lest we forget they are princesses, after all!

The diversity here is also a nice touch. I love the way illustrator Anne-Sophie Lanquetin weaves in plenty of different sorts of girls to make even the background characters something you'll want to pore over. In addition to princesses whose roles are nonstereotypical, we have a vast range of skin, hair and eye colors to boot. And the individual personalities of the girls comes out in the last big spread, where the entire cast dances together, all to their own tunes. Sprout cracks up over the one who "hip-hops in her overalls". "She's dancing way silly, Mama!" he tells me each time. Love it!

When you want to cut through the Disneyfied tulle-and-sequined vibe and find an approach for your little princess (or prince) that's entirely unique, this is the book you're after. And you may just find a kiddo in your life building her own treehouse -- all while wearing a very sparkly princess crown, of course!

Not All Princesses Dress in Pink by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, published by Simon & Schuster
All ages
Source: Library
Sample: "Not all princesses dress in pink. Some play in bright red socks that stink, / blue team jerseys that don't quite fit, accessorized with a baseball mitt, / and a sparkly crown."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mama's Saris by Pooja Makhijani

Have you seen this infographic yet?

First Book, a remarkable organization dedicated to promoting childhood literacy, included this graphic in their recent blog post "Lack of Diversity in Kids' Books and How to Fix It". (You should go read the post, if you haven't already, and consider supporting this group in their efforts.) The stats are alarming, and they're real - based on data from the Cooperative Children's Book Center, which each year tracks the number of books published in the US that are by and about people of color. The most frightening thing about these statistics is that they've gone relatively unchanged in the timeframe that CCBC has been tracking this information (check out the statistics on the CCBC blog).

First let me admit a little bias here. I think the CCBC is an incredible group and I admire so much of what they've done. To be honest, my secret desire is to work there as a librarian someday (a girl can dream, right?). And as you already know if you've been reading this blog long, I feel strongly about the significance of multicultural literature for ALL children. So it may seem as though I'm just reiterating what has already been said, but it's obvious to me that these numbers don't lie. 

And the repercussions of these kinds of statistics -- say what you will about the causes, everything from a lack of manuscripts to "multicultural books don't sell" -- are huge for our society. There's a ripple effect here, and it starts with kids who don't see themselves reflected in the literature available to them or taught in their schools, who then begin to think books don't apply to them. And it continues to kids who see themselves reflected too much, who then begin to think their culture is normative and all other is just that, other. Further, it extends to all areas of our society. Where we see indifference and intolerance, prejudice and exclusionism, condescension and dismissal, we can be sure that there's a cultural disconnect that runs pretty deep. Think how different that might be if all kids learned at a young age to embrace difference and celebrate diversity!

To that end, I've made a conscious reading goal with Sprout. This is something I haven't really done up to now, largely because I like to follow his lead with our reading time and present a wide range of choices for us to share. But I also want to make sure that I'm giving him selections that are fully rounded, so I've decided to work through a list compiled by the CCBC, 50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know. I've referred to the list before, and have already reviewed several of the selections on the blog. But going forward, as Sprout grows, we'll be working our way through the list, and I'll share a bit about each title as we read it together. (Look for the full list, linked to reviews, on Pinterest.)

First up was a book inspired by the author's affinity for playing dress-up as a child. In Mama's Saris, Pooja Makhijani writes about a little girl who longs to wear a beautiful sari like her mother. It's her seventh birthday, and our heroine feels she's ready for one of these incredible garments of her very own. She asks Mama, but the answer is not quite yet. So instead our girl helps her mother pick out a sari, and the journey through Mama's suitcase is full of gorgeous fabrics and delightful smells, and memories. And at the end, Mama relents and our heroine gets to wear a breathtaking blue sari for her special day.

This is a lovely story of family togetherness and the special bond between mother and daughter. As the two relive important moments in their lives together, readers find themselves in the moment, thanks not only to Makhijani's emotive text but also the thoughtful illustrations by Elena Gomez. Sprout loves not only the use of shifting perspectives, but also the incorporation of colors and patterns that blend with to produce some stunning spreads. Best of all, Mama's Saris includes Hindi words, with a glossary at the front that defines them, and a great insight into Indian culture. This is a terrific one for moms and daughters to share, but it's also a perfect choice for classrooms and libraries as well.

Stay tuned as we work our way through the 50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know. It's not going to happen in a day (more like years, really!) but we're looking forward to experiencing all of these books together, and sharing our thoughts. And we'd love to hear what titles from the list your family has enjoyed!

Mama's Saris by Pooja Makhijani, published by Little, Brown and Company
Ages 4-7
Source: Library
Sample: "I jump onto my mother's bed and sit down. I watch her reach under the bed and pull out a leather suitcase. Inside are her sairs -- the yellow satin one she wore for Uma Didi's baby shower, the peach-colored one that is as fine as a spider's web, and my favorite, her red wedding sari, which I have only seen once because it is carefully wrapped in an old bedsheet."

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz

One of the things I love about the interwebs, and blogging in general, is that I come into contact with so many books that I would never otherwise have heard about. Although I don't have time to follow a ton of blogs, I do read my share, and keep a running list of books coming out that I'm interested in. (And I pin some of them too, just for future reference.) It's a very dangerous habit to have, considering that my average workday already brings me into contact with all kinds of bookish goodness, but at least this way I'll never run out of things I want to read, right?

Somewhere in my bloggy travels, I ran across a review for today's pick, Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz. The book stuck in my head, probably as much for the unique title as for the cover art, which is flat-out awesome -- kudos to Candlewick for such an eyecatching cover. And I'm so happy I had this one on my radar, because it's absolutely one of the most incredible middle-grade novels I've read in quite some time.

First off I need to say that this is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. It's far from formulaic in the subject matter, it's historical, and it's got a slow start. Okay, then, so if you're still reading along, let me say that what makes this work is author Gewirtz's absolute fearlessness in her writing. She never pulls a punch, never backs down from a tense moment in the plot and isn't afraid to make her characters inscrutable. You don't often see that kind of bravery in one who writes for such a young audience - not to say that there aren't amazing middle-grade authors out there, but honestly there aren't many who are willing to pull their characters through the wringer with no definitive solution to the crisis in sight. That's guts, my friends.

So on to the plot: It's June, 1980, against the backdrop of the Iran Hostage Crisis. Annie and Rew are living with their grandmother, a loving but reclusive woman who has trouble dealing with everyday life. They remember their mother, who dropped them off with Gran and gave scarcely a backward look. But their father is a blank. Gran tells them he was killed by "an angry man", in a fight gone badly. So Annie makes up possible stories to assuage her curiosity, and in the meantime she pretty much takes care of everything around the house when Gran is debilitated. It's not a perfect situation, but it works.

Until one night there's a noise at the back door, and an escaped convict appears in their kitchen. Annie and her brother are scared witless. It's evident that the man means to keep the little family hostage. And then Gran comes downstairs, and in a flash Annie and Rew discover that what they thought they knew about their lives is all swept away. In its place is a new reality, one each child approaches from a different perspective.

I won't give away the secrets here, but suffice to say Gewirtz employs multiple layers of issues to drive her story along. There is gorgeous imagery here, the kind that makes you want to reread entire passages to catch all of it. The character development unfolds slowly; though their roles may be familiar, their personalities are wholly unique. Annie herself is an unreliable narrator at times, and she admits it. In fact, honesty and truth are a running theme throughout, as readers discover that the lives of these characters are as variegated as the Zebra Forest that sits behind their home. There are no easy answers, just like in real life, a facet of this novel that I particularly appreciate. It would be simple for Gewirtz to wrap things up with a bow, but that wouldn't be true to the spirit of her characters. Lucky for us, Gewirtz chooses authenticity.

In the Zebra Forest, chocolate oak and white birch trees mingle to give the wood a striped light-and-dark element. In the same way, Zebra Forest the book threads conflict and heartache with hope and truth. Watch out for this one, it'll get under your skin.

Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz, published by Candlewick Press
Ages 9-13
Source: Library
Sample: "Gran never went out there except near dusk, when the shadows gathered. She usually didn't go out in full sunlight, and told me once she didn't like the lines the trees made. Gran was always saying stuff like that. Perfectly beautiful things -- like a clean blue sky over the Zebra -- made tears come to her eyes, and if I tried to get her to come outside with me, she'd duck her head and hurry upstairs to bed. But then it would be storming, lightning sizzling the tops of the trees, and she'd run round the house, cheerful, making us hot cocoa and frying up pancakes and warming us with old quilts."

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Library Find: In the Park by Huy Voun Lee

Wow oh wow, are we glad to see the warmer weather around these parts! I'm telling you, it's no mean feat keeping a four-year-old busy and engaged when the weather's too foul to play outside. And so we soak up as much outdoor time as we can once the clouds start to dissipate. This year we've been working on a big yard project, and Sprout's been right in the thick of things, helping us dig, hauling dirt and weeds in his wagon, and riding his brand-new birthday bike. Bonus: he sleeps like the dead every night! :)

Of course we had to read some summer-themed books to sustain the mood, right? And among the treasures we unearthed on a recent library trip is Huy Voun Lee's picture book In the Park. This title is part of Lee's Season Series, which includes At the Beach, In the Snow, and In the Leaves. Today's pick is an oldie, so you might have to look a bit for it - I'd try the library, or a good used bookstore if you want to own your own copy.

I'm hard put to say what we like most about this title, because there are several elements that make it not only fun to read but also a treat for the eyes. Firstly, there's the plot: as the weather turns nice, Xiao Ming and his mother head to the park to enjoy an afternoon outside. Mother suggests that they work on their Chinese characters together while they are there. As the pair explores, she finds opportunities to teach Xiao Ming new characters based on what they see. The character for earth, for instance, looks like a plant growing. The sight of a bird in flight presents a chance to learn the character for bird. Even a spring storm helps Mother introduce the character for umbrella.

What's great about the Chinese characters is that Lee helps readers learn how to write them, presenting visual examples as well as helpful hints for remembering them. Each character is tied to an event in the book, and kids will have fun guessing what character the pair will be writing based on what the illustrations show. And let me tell you, these illustrations are really stunning, as Lee uses cut-paper collage to articulate the actions of the story. Each page includes lots of small elements that deepen the visual impact, such as shadows on a hilltop or dandelion seeds wisping in the wind. There's a ton of diversity here too, a real bonus for all audiences. Lee elevates what could be a didactic premise into a gorgeous one, that not only celebrates a culture but also the relationship between a mother and son.

The first and last pages of In the Park are a glossary of the Chinese characters included. For each character, Lee has included a visual reference, the character itself, its meaning, and the written word in Chinese, with its pronunciation. This is a very nice touch and helps take the book to the next level, in my estimation. Families familiar with Mandarin will en;joy the book, but it's also a nice one to share with children as an aid to reinforce linguistic similarities and differences. And kids can't help but be intrigued by the images formed by these characters - Sprout was fascinated at the thought that each word is its own little picture!

I've said it before but I'll say it again - tying books into the events happening in our lives is one of the best ways to reinforce the relevance of literature for children. And when there's an opportunity to do so while including a multicultural theme, the benefits grow exponentially. Check this one out and see what I mean!

In the Park by Huy Voun Lee, published by Henry Holt
Ages 3-6
Source: Library
Sample: "Xiao Ming and his mother walk until they come to a stream. 'What does this look like to you?' she asks Xiao Ming as she stops to draw. 'It looks like water flowing,' Xiao Ming says. 'It must be the character for stream."

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins

And we're back! We spent last week at the beach, a little slice of heaven known as the San Juan Islands. We had gorgeous weather (which for us Washingtonians means no rain!), and plenty of good food, games, bike riding, game nights, and of course tons of time to read. The resort where we stay has no television and our cell reception is spotty - the perfect excuse for us to unplug Sprout from screens and get some quality time as a family.

This year I did the unthinkable and didn't pack a huge box of picture books. Instead, I decided to make the great leap forward and add chapter books to our reading rotation. At four years old, I figured Sprout was ready -- Mama's been ready since before he came into our family. I chose my selections carefully, after getting input from some of our readers on Facebook and scouring Pinterest for possible candidates. And before we left, I explained to Sprout that we were trying something new, and showed him the books we were taking. He didn't, frankly, seem all that interested, so I started second-guessing myself, but we were already packed at that point. So forge ahead we did.

And, dear reader, I discovered something about my son that warmed this mama's heart: he's a "just one more chapter, pleeeease???" guy.

Oh yeah.

Interestingly enough, Sprout's first choice for read-aloud was the one I thought we'd have to work up to. Being that we're in a hardcore dinosaur phase, I packed Dick King-Smith's Dinosaur Trouble, a crowd-pleaser with plenty of action, friendship and one big ol' T-Rex. And we did end up reading that one, but not right away. Instead, Sprout dived on one that I packed mostly for myself -- Emily Jenkins's Toys Go Out. And he LOVED it.

Which isn't surprising, because, as I mentioned, it's Emily Jenkins. This girl just knows kids, inside and out, what makes them tick and laugh and well up (she's pretty good at knowing grown-ups too). We've loved so many of her picture books (like this one, and this one, and most especially this one) that I had a hunch her chapter book would be a winner. And with a cast of characters this diverse -- a stingray, a one-eared sheep, a brave buffalo, and a little someone just named Plastic -- well, tell me you wouldn't just immediately crack this open yourself?

Let's be clear: the title tells us right off that we're dealing with toys, but it most certainly doesn't feel like one of those creepy playthings-come-to-life situations. Instead these characters are fully realized and just so unique you can't help but love them. Stingray's a know-it-all, but you love her for it. Lumphy, our buffalo friend, is equal parts fearless and clueless. And Plastic has a great heart, even if she does suffer a bit of identity crisis. Oh, and let's not forget the other characters: Tuk-Tuk, the yellow bath towel and Frank the washing machine, both of whom offer sage advice to our dear ones, from their own perspectives. 

The whole thing is made infinitely more charming by the illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky, which bring the wonder of these delightful creatures to life for young readers. Each one captures the spirit of the characters perfectly, in Zelinsky's inimitably style. Further deepening the emotional connection are small jewel-like moments Jenkins embeds throughout. Like the time Lumphy gets peanut butter on himself (don't ask) and hides so he won't have to be washed. But then the Girl misses him and begins to cry, so Lumphy comes out of hiding, and the Girl's joy is palpable. "'Lumphy!' she cries. 'You were in my boot!' She pets his head. 'How did you get in my boot, you sweetie sweetie?' / For a moment, life is wonderful."

Sharing our first chapter book together as a family read-aloud was bound to be special. But having it be Jenkins's pitch-perfect Toys Go Out? A reading mama couldn't ask for more.

Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins, published by Schwartz & Wade
Ages 4-8
Source: Library
Sample: "Lumphy likes the idea of a buffalo shuffle. He does feel queasy during the agitation, but Frank keeps singing as Lumphy sloshes around, and by the first rinse cycle -- when the clean, cool water pours in to wash the soap and peanut butter away -- the buffalo is starting to enjoy himself."
Highly recommended