Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Keisha Ann Can! by Daniel Kirk

Are your kiddos off to school yet? Sprout's got another year before he packs off to kindergarten, thankfully. But a number of his friends from preschool are headed that way, so we've been talking about it. A lot. There's been speculation about what lunch box he wants (currently Lightning McQueen is leading the pack). He's asked if he'll be riding the bus or if Daddy will still drop him off. And there's been a lot of trips past the site of the elementary school Sprout will be going to -- much attention is focused on this, since the old school was recently demolished to make room for a brand-new building, due to open next fall. Just in time!

As a result, there's been an uptick in Sprout's interest in school-themed titles. We resurrected one we read a lot last summer, which has definitely stood the test of time for Sprout -- it's Daniel Kirk's Keisha Ann Can!, and it's just as cute as can be. Keisha Ann is the adorable kindergartner at the center of this title, which takes young kids through a typical school day. We see Keisha Ann catching the school bus, lining up with her friends, feeding the class pet (it's a bunny). She gets to paint, play with blocks, have quiet time, count coins. It's a great introduction to what kindergarten looks like, all cheerfully and fearlessly navigated by Keisha Ann.

There's a lot to love about this title, not least of which is the fact that the main character is African American, but it's completely incidental to the storyline. As I've said many times, there's a huge need for this type of book, not just for children of color, but for white children as well. By including books with non-white characters in a home or school collection, we're exposing all kids to a much broader array of heros, and breaking down stereotypes. I love that in this title, there's a diverse group of kids featured in the classroom as well as with the adults. It's a nice slice of life, demonstrating that a book with diverse characters doesn't have to be issues-heavy or serious in tone.

And let me tell you, if your kiddo isn't chomping at the bit to head off to kindergarten before you read Keisha Ann Can!, he or she will be after you flip through this fun book. Honestly, I want to spend a day in a kindergarten class after reading this one. Best of all, the whole tone throughout is upbeat and cheery. This isn't the one to choose if you're looking for a discussion of anxiety about the first day, or how to overcome nerves. There's absolutely a place for books like that, but if you want a book that just affirms how FUN school can be, this is a great choice. Keisha Ann rolls through her day with joy, and it shows - the confidence this girl exudes is infectious. Sprout totally loves calling out the line that's repeated like a refrain throughout - Keisha Ann can!

Maybe we're not on our way to kindergarten this year, but you'd better believe we'll be rereading this one next August, as we prepare to send Sprout off to the big leagues. He's excited to do all the things he's seen Keisha Ann do - and even more, because that's just how he rolls.

Keisha Ann Can! by Daniel Kirk, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons
Ages 3-6
Source: Library
Sample: "Who can paint a picture, and sign it with her name? / Who can guess what words are missing in a rhyming game? / Who wants to make a storybook and comes up with a plan? / Who can share with all her classmates? Keisha Ann can!"

Monday, August 19, 2013

Lulu and the Duck in the Park by Hilary McKay

We're in transition around the Kinser household. Reading-wise, that is. Whereas we were once a 3-4 (or 5, or 6) picture-books-at-bedtime kind of family, now we appear to have moved on to chapter books, in a big way. This all started with our family vacation in May/June, where I read Sprout his first chapter books. To be honest, I thought it would take a while for it to stick but he's embraced this new format wholeheartedly. And so now, Mommy often finds herself reading maybe one picture book, as a prequel to the chapter-book-of-the-day.

I'm both strangely unnerved by this transition, and absolutely okay with it. It's a process.

This sea change means that we're visiting a whole new section of the library now. (Moment of huge librarian-mommy pride: when, during our most recent library visit, Sprout approached the desk and asked the clerk, "Excuse me, do you have any dinosaur chapter books?" Swoon.) Thankfully there are some really great early chapter books out there, and we're enjoying the vast majority of the titles we've brought home. But, as with other areas of publishing, diverse characters are few and far between, so we do have to do a fair bit of hunting.

One recent series that I can wholeheartedly recommend are the Lulu books by veteran children's author Hilary McKay. Best known for her award-winning Casson family series, McKay dips her toe into different waters with these books for younger readers. Happily, McKay's knack for creating enthralling characters translates beautifully. The story is peopled with types that readers will find familiar but not boring, a balance that isn't easy to strike by any means. The plot, while easy to follow, offers just enough uncertainty that a preschooler or early elementary kiddo will be on the edge of his/her seat (or in Sprout's case, pillow).

And best of all, Lulu and the Duck in the Park is the kind of book for younger kiddos that doesn't try to be more than it is. It's a simple story about two girls: Lulu, who loves animals, and her cousin/best friend Mellie, who's really quite a character. The friends are in the same class, and their teacher, Mrs. Holiday, is decidedly NOT an animal person. In fact, she even threatens to trade the class guinea pig for a pair of stick insects! So when Lulu unexpectedly begins fostering an abandoned duck egg, it's up to the two girls to keep the egg safe without letting pet-unfriendly Mrs. Holiday know about it. And as you might expect, there are more than a few risks involved in doing so.

Laced with humor and realistic observations (not to mention super-cute illustrations by Priscilla Lamont), Lulu and the Duck in the Park is a great match if you're looking to add some diversity to your classroom or library shelves, without having a heavy message involved. Naturally books on African American history or Latino holidays are important, but so too is the example of people of color living everyday lives - and this title is a lovely instance of that, a light adventure that's familiar enough for most kids to find it relatable. What's even better is that Duck in the Park is only the first of the Lulu adventures, with several out already in the UK and Lulu and the Dog from the Sea just out in hardcover here in the US. I know we'll be reading the rest of the series - if Sprout has his way, probably as soon as they hit the library shelves!

Lulu and the Duck in the Park by Hilary McKay, published by Albert Whitman and Company
Ages 5-9
Source: Library
First lines: "Lulu was famous for animals. Her famousness for animals was known throughout the whole neighborhood."

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Homer by Elisha Cooper

I may not have mentioned it before, but we're dog people. My husband and I both grew up with dogs, and while a cat or two has crept into our lives in the past, our hearts belong to canines. Our current dog, Maxie, is a miniature dachshund, but believe you me, there's nothing miniature about her personality. She was the kind of puppy you see in sitcoms: a holy terror one minute and sweet as a bug the next.

But over the years Maxie has mellowed quite a bit. At almost 14, she no longer plays fetch for hours or chases every bird that flies over our house. And when we're out in the yard, she's more than content to find a nice shady spot to perch and watch us work or play. Sure, she'll run after the odd squirrel now and again. But for the most part, she's happy just to be with her people (and trust me, we belong to her, not the other way around.)

That's the sentiment that's captured so deftly in today's pick, the heartwarming Homer by Elisha Cooper. If you're not familiar with Cooper's work, please go check out his backlist. Really, you won't regret it - aspects of his style remind me of Marla Frazee, Bob Graham, and Inga Moore, just to name a few. And while I've enjoyed some of his earlier books, it's Homer that has won my heart, truly and completely. Sprout's too, without question.

Homer is an old dog. If you've ever owned an old dog, you know what I mean by this. He has slowed to a point where his greatest pleasure is just being with his family. And that's the narrative Cooper relates, as the family goes off for their various pursuits: the young dogs to chase balls, the kids to explore, the mother to swim, the father to ride his bike. Homer is happy to laze on the porch, half in sun and half in shade, and watch the world go by, the broadness of it standing in sharp contrast to the warm cocoon of his perch. And then, when everyone returns from their day, Homer is there to hear all about it, sweet and simply content in the knowledge that all is right with the world. "I have everything I want," Homer says. "I have you."

{Okay, you're going to have to give me a minute to wipe my eyes here.}

Homer is the kind of book that's just pitch-perfect. I don't often say this, but I wouldn't change a single bit of this spare and sentimental gem. Cooper captures emotion so very well - not only what Homer is feeling, but what his family feels for him. While younger kids might not understand the depth of feeling, they certainly will get the theme of contentment and certainty. Homer is what he is, and he is completely fine with that. And so is his family, who quite obviously adore their darling old gentleman, just for being the ideal companion.

Being owned by an old dog is a rare pleasure, as is this beautiful picture book. For all a puppy's charms, let's not forget that senior dogs have just as much to give. When Sprout asks why Maxie doesn't run and play so much, I know it's time to reread Homer, and revel in what our older dog adds to our lives - acceptance, companionship, and total, absolute devotion.

Homer by Elisha Cooper, published by Greenwillow Books
Ages 4-8 (and grown-ups, too)
Source: Library
Highly recommended

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dinosaur Days - 5 Fierce Titles for Budding Paleontologists

It's happened. We've entered the seemingly inevitable phase that all parents of young boys somehow find themselves in - the dinosaur obsession.

It began simply enough, with an uptick in the number of dinosaur books Sprout was picking out at the library, and a request for Mommy to bring home "some more good books like those ones" when the much-enjoyed titles had to be returned. And then Sprout began choosing Dinosaur Train as his evening screentime pick. Then came the dinosaur figurines, and the coloring books, and the dinosaur themed birthday party (he was thrilled when his best friend followed suit). And before you know it, here we were discussing over breakfast the other morning, "What kind of birthday cake would a triceratops have?" (The answer, if you were wondering, is a cake shaped like a long-neck dinosaur. And vanilla, because triceratops don't care for chocolate.)

So here we are, and I know we're among friends because many of you probably either are in the same phase or have lived to tell the tale. Luckily for us, there are plenty of great books to choose from, both the factual and the fantastic, so Sprout can get his dino itch scratched without Mommy going insane trying to pronounce all those names (giganotosaurus, anyone?). I've picked out a few to highlight here, but this is by no means an exhaustive list - we have tons more over on our Pinterest board, if you need to round out your library list!

First up is a title that's a good beginning point for kids who are starting to be fascinated with these incredible creatures. Richard Byrne's The Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur is all about friendship and sharing, with a side order of comeuppance for a very know-it-all character. One big dinosaur thinks he's pretty tough, but a very little dinosaur knows somebody tougher! The cartoony illustrations make this an accessible choice, and the dinos themselves are reminiscent of kids you'll see in every preschool classroom and on every playground. Sprout loved the surprise ending in this one - definitely a choice you'll want to reread once you're in on the joke. (He could hardly contain his glee on the second time through!)

Moving on up the spectrum is another title that's heavy on the humor but that satisfies kiddos' need to read about giant reptiles. Elise Broach's When Dinosaurs Came with Everything has been popping up on recommended lists ever since it came out, and no wonder - this title, engagingly illustrated by one of my favorite artists, David Small, has something for everyone. No kid likes to run errands, but on the day when every business in town is giving out free dinosaurs, one boy thinks a few extra stops sound great! (Mom's not so convinced.) The absurdity of ankylosaurs walking down Main Street and pterosaurs instead of balloons at the barber will delight young readers to no end. This one's a real winner, and perfect for storytime at home or in the classroom.

For Sprout's birthday, all he wanted was a book on dinosaurs. And he got several, the lucky little stinker. Of these, two have been in near-constant rotation for perusal in the car, at the doctor's office, on his bedroom floor. The first, See Inside the World of Dinosaurs by Alex Frith and Peter Scott, is appealing for lots of reasons: realistic pictures, flaps to lift, information galore, and best of all loads of action shots of critters eating and fighting and chasing. For kids who don't mind some grossness -- there are dead dinos here, people, so consider yourself warned -- this is a surefire hit, like so many Usborne books.

The second of Sprout's birthday gifts is one that hubs and I bought for him - National Geographic's Little Kids First Big Book of Dinosaurs. This is a terrific selection for kids who are at the stage of wanting to pore over pictures. Like all National Geographic selections the illustrations are big and glossy, which will thrill young dino-lovers to no end. And as you might expect, the text is jam-packed full of details and facts - did you know that pentaceratops liked to swim, for instance? (I didn't even know pentaceratops existed, if I'm being honest. Thank goodness for National Geographic to fill in these gaps in my education!)

The last title in our list is one of the most innovative books you're likely to see on this topic. Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss are absolutely amazing, and their dinosaur book Alphasaurs and Other Prehistoric Types isn't one you'll soon forget. The authors take us through the alphabet, one dino at a time, and each illustration of a given animal is made up of various sizes and styles of the letter of their name. So the Kentrosaurus, for example, is entirely built of the letter K, in different sizes. Sounds pretty bland but believe me, it's not - you'll have as much fun drooling over these images as your kid will. And there are tons of nifty facts included, plus some artful paper work besides. I'm tempted to put this one on my own holiday list!

What books do your young dino-fans adore? We're always looking for new titles to check out - would love to hear what you've read and enjoyed!