Saturday, December 21, 2013

Zoobean - Last-Minute Gifting Problem-Solver

Hey peeps! It's been a bit quiet here on the blog this week as Hubs & I have been scrambling to get our holiday shopping done. Usually I'm way ahead of the curve, but this year, between vacation, work and a germ-infested kiddo, we've fallen behind. I'm sure more than a few of you can relate.

If you know me IRL, you probably know that I spent several years working in retail, bookstores to be exact. This was always the point in the holiday season when my coworkers and I started to feel the pinch -- it's too late to order anything, the shelves are starting to get bare, yet shoppers still cling to the desperate notion that they'll find *exactly* what they want. It's tough.I can totally understand what those frantic folks are feeling, because no one wants to admit that it's too late to find that perfect present. But sometimes you have to realize that the ship has sailed, and make the best of the situation.

Many people in that situation succumb to the ease of the gift card. And while that's a fine solution, I have another idea for you this year. Zoobean is a subscription-based book service that's a definite win-win. Each book in their library is curated by parents who also happen to be kidlit experts -- yours truly being one of the folks honored to be a Zoobean curator. I can honestly say that their library is the best of the best. All the picture books I curate are field-tested first by Sprout and myself, and I only share with Zoobean the ones that pass his stringent test. (You'll recognize several from our reviews here on the blog.) Zoobean curators know how to sift through the dross to find the best books out there, the ones your kids will return to again and again.

I was drawn to Zoobean because of their focus on multicultural and diverse titles. And I'm thrilled to see how their library has grown, and how many truly amazing multicultural books they've featured. New subscribers fill out a profile that helps Zoobean customize a subscription just for the child in question. Let me tell you, these folks work HARD to ensure that the books they pick meet each child's needs and interests. I've had the opportunity to help select a few books for personalized subscriptions, and it's very gratifying to hear later that the titles we chose lit up a child's eyes!

You're in the drivers' seat when it comes to a Zoobean subscription. Choose your binding (hardcover or paperback), as well as how often you'd like the books to arrive -- from a one-time gift to a years' worth of yummy literary goodness. Featured books are also accompanied by a reading guide packed with awesome. And Zoobean also recently launched their apps feature, so parents can get help picking out the best of the best in the app world as well.

The Zoobean folks have graciously offered a special discount for Sprout's Bookshelf readers. Make a purchase at Zoobean through 12/31/13 and take $5 off your purchase -- just use code MaryKHoliday to redeem. Give the gift of reading to a kid in your life and save money too?? What's better than that?!

Regular readers will know that I won't recommend anything to you that I don't believe in myself, and Zoobean is a great example of that. For all those who've realized they forgot stocking stuffers, or would just rather stay home in their pjs than head to the mall this weekend -- Zoobean can be the perfect solution to your last-minute gifting crisis. And it's a great way to extend the holiday fun well beyond when the last gift is unwrapped!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Counting by 7s - Holly Goldberg Sloan

Wow! Can't believe the response to our 30 Days of Picture Books series. This is such a fun project for us to do, and it's nice to hear how it's affecting readers. For all those who've told us how much you enjoyed our picks, or mentioned that you're adding titles to your library list - thank you! And don't worry, we're already thinking about books to feature in next year's list. :)

In preparation for this year's 30 Days, Sprout and I read a ton of picture books, but that wasn't all I was reading. Today I'm featuring a title I read a while back, that touched me so much I couldn't help but share it with you. Holly Goldberg Sloan's Counting by 7s is being compared by many to R.J. Palacio's Wonder, and for good reason - both books feature narrators with compelling voices, unique challenges, and incredible people in their lives. But you can't really compare these books on any significant level, because each brings such individual strengths and impact to the reader. So let's acknowledge that one and move on, m'kay?

Counting by 7s tells the story of Willow Chance. Willow's a middle schooler who's best described as different from others she encounters. Willow's family is transracial, as Willow, who is multiracial, was adopted by "two of the whitest white people in the world (no exaggeration.)". But this isn't an adoption story. Willow's a genius, finishing the state proficiency exam so quickly that the school puts her into behavioral counseling. But this isn't a smart kid story. Willow's an oddball, not quite fitting in with anyone else at her middle school because of her talents and her interests. But this isn't an odd-girl-out story.

No, what defines this story is what happens to Willow in almost the first couple of pages: Willow's parents are killed in a car accident, and Willow, the adoptee/smart girl/oddball, is suddently and irrevocably on her own. Willow's got no support network to speak of, but from the emptiness around her, a web of family begins to appear. There's Mai Nguyen, a Vietnamese-Mexican girl who encounters Willow at the counselor's office and becomes a friend almost against her will. There's Pattie, Mai's mother, who sees Willow's plight and becomes convinced that foster care is no place for this tremendous child. There's Quang-ha, Mai's brother who disdains Willow but can't help but be impressed by her talents. And there's Dell Duke, the going-nowhere counselor who's treading water in his job until he becomes entangled with Willow and her story, and suddenly finds his whole life turned upside down.

It's tough for me to sum up in mere words just how much I loved this book. As with Wonder (here we go with the comparisons again), Counting by 7s is a watershed book, one whose story stays with you and that makes you think differently about assumptions you've previously held. Willow's a remarkable character in that her unswerving focus on her particular interests sweeps up everyone around her, a force that's changing their lives before they even realize it's happened. Though the narrative is propelled by a tragic event, this is by no means a sad book -- rather, it's a book about hope, about the goodness of human nature and how every minute can be a turning point. Willow's story speaks to the cynic in all of us, proving that even the most isolated and insular among us can be moved outside of our bubbles to be a force of change in another's life.

I highly recommend Counting by 7s for middle school readers, and for older readers as well, because I think even adults can learn a lot from this wise girl and her story, lessons about valuing yourself and about reaching out, believing that we can change the world. If you read one chapter book this year, make it Holly Goldberg Sloan's - and if you give one, make it this as well. You'll be glad on both counts.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, published by Dial Books for Young Readers
Ages 9-12 +
Source: Library
Sample: "I was taken to see an educational consultant that autumn and the woman did an evaluation. She sent my parents a letter.
I read it.
It said I was 'highly gifted.'
Are people 'lowly gifted'?
Or 'medium gifted'?
Or just 'gifted'? It's possible that all labels are curses. Unless they are on cleaning products.
Because in my opinion it's not really a great idea to see people as one thing.
Every person has lots of ingredients to make them into what is always a one-of-a-kind creation.
We are all imperfect genetic stews."
Highly recommended

Sunday, December 8, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - What a Wonderful World, illustrated by Ashley Bryan

It's Day 30 in our 30 Days of Picture Books. We made it! Can't believe how quickly that 30 days -- and 30 books -- zipped by. At the beginning of the project I always feel as if I'll never have enough selections to fill up 30 days, and then by the end I'm compiling a list of titles for next year's picks. I hope you've enjoyed reading along with us as much as we've enjoyed sharing these books with you. The research is tough, but someone's got to do it! :)

Tonight we're sharing a pick that seems to sum up the feeling we have at this time of the year, when thoughts turn to giving and sharing, and being grateful for all the blessings we've been given. Ashley Bryan's What a Wonderful World distills those thoughts nicely, using the classic lyrics by George David Weiss and Bob Thiele. Kids and parents alike will recognize this song, made famous by Louis Armstrong, just from the title alone. Sprout can't stand for us to read the words of this one -- we have to sing it, which is just fine by me.

Bryan's version has been around for quite some time, and it stands out as an example of how vivid illustrations can breathe new life into a familiar theme, or in this case song. Bryan brings his signature multicultural perspective to this work, weaving together people of various ethnicities through the storyline of a group of children putting on a puppet show. Louis Armstrong makes a cameo appearance, even working the puppet version of himself in the finale, where all the children gather to sing the last line of the song. It's a fantastic example of diversity, in which each individual is distinct but together makes a beautiful panorama.

Pick up What a Wonderful World at your library or bookstore, and share this one with a child this holiday season. It's an easy read that's impactful both in image and meaning, and one that reinforces the message we always try to send -- that the difference and variety between people, all people, is what makes this indeed a wonderful world.

What a Wonderful World, illustrated by Ashley Bryan, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Saturday, December 7, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson

It's Day 29 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. We're winding down in our selections, and it makes me a little sad - there are so many more great titles we'd like to share, but that just didn't make it into this year's 30 Days list. If you're interested in checking out the titles we've shared this year and last, just click on the 30 Days of Picture Books tab above, or follow our Pinterest boards for 2012 and 2013 to see every title!

Our choice tonight is one we picked up because of Sprout's love for The Gruffalo. He was ambivalent the first time we read The Gruffalo, and in fact I don't think we even checked it out that day. But one of his absolute favorite teachers at preschool really brought the book to life for him. (Truth is, if Miss Valerie loves it, it's an automatic win for Sprout too!). So because he's come to love The Gruffalo, I knew he'd be excited to see The Highway Rat, the new collaboration by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. And even though there are plenty of sequels that don't live up to the hype, this one delivers on every level.

First and foremost, it's helpful if you have at least a passing familiarity with the poem "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes. (Go ahead and read it, we'll wait.) Okay, if you're good with that, then you're ready to dive into The Highway Rat. Donaldson translates Noyes' poem into a critter-friendly world, where the Highway Rat rules the highway, taking whatever he pleases. "His life was one long feast," she writes, and it certainly seems to be true as all the characters give up their food to the Highway Rat. But then one day a duck comes along, and because the duck has no food for him to take, the Highway Rat declares he'll eat the duck instead. However, unbeknownst to the Highway Rat, this duck has other plans. . . .

Donaldson's command of the picture book genre is evident here, as she transforms the classic poem into a piece that appeals to kids of all ages. Her adherence to the rhyme scheme is flawless, and she uses the form to bring readers the resolution they're craving. And as with their previous collaborations, Scheffler's illustrations aptly suit the tone of Donaldson's work, taking the edge out of what could be a dark plotline by translating it with visual touches kids will love. How many artists would think to show emotion on the faces of a chain of ants? That's a master at work, my friends.

The Highway Rat may be a baddie, but he's an adorable one, and his fate in the end, while clearly a punishment for his misdeeds, is one that always makes Sprout smile. A joy to read aloud, The Highway Rat is one you'll want to share with everyone -- kiddo or adult!

The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson, published by Arthur A. Levine Books

30 Days of Picture Books - Captain Cat by Inga Moore

It's Day 28 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. What part of holiday shopping trips you up? I always struggle with stocking stuffers. It's silly, because it could be anything, but I always try to find fun things that are inexpensive but not junk. Thankfully I came across an awesome post on Growing Book by Book about Literacy Stocking Stuffers, which is chock-full of brilliant suggestions. One of the best on her list is a library card! Such a terrific idea and best of all, it's usually free - a great way to give your kids a whole year of awesome content anytime!

Today's pick is by one of our favorite author/illustrators, Inga Moore. Captain Cat is her newest picture book, and it was destined for us since we've now added a kitty to our household. Sprout was super excited to read this one, and though it's longer than many books we choose for bedtime, he always stays with it until the very end -- the story is just that good. It definitely has the feel of a classic around it, from the way Moore weaves the tale together to the timeless illustration style that she employs for this, as with all her other titles.

Captain Cat is a trader who sales the seas making his living. The other traders make fun of him because Captain Cat can always be persuaded to trade his goods for a cat, and has a whole clowder of cats as company on his ship. One day Captain Cat decides he'll sail off to see the world, but he blows off course and ends up on an uncharted island. The queen of the island is so taken with the cats (she's never seen one) that she trades Captain Cat a wealth of riches in exchange for his feline friends. When Captain Cat returns home and the other traders get wind of his newfound wealth, they decide to make their own trades - but things don't turn out for them exactly as they'd planned!

Moore's illustrations are haunting, echoing the loneliness of the sea with the comfort and domesticity of a snuggly feline. One of the spreads that was most affecting for Sprout was the one where Captain Cat says goodbye to his kitties - Sprout was overwhelmed at the thought that the cats were going to be left behind, tender-hearted as he is (don't worry, it all turns out happily in the end). Moore manages to capture the personality of cats quite well, as she's obviously done a little first-hand research. And she spins her story with a practiced hand, mixing in enough action to keep little readers on the edge of their seat, along with a dash of humor to make for a satisfying resolution.

Captain Cat is a great book to snuggle up with on a cold evening, hot cocoa in hand and a fire roaring in the fireplace. Add this to your kiddo's library for a storytime selection with staying power!

Captain Cat by Inga Moore, published by Candlewick Press

Thursday, December 5, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Pug & Doug by Steve Breen

It's Day 27 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. Tonight we're sharing a pick that we first read several months ago, but it was top on my mind when I started compiling a list of 30 Days candidates. The backstory to this one is that my sister and her family have a pug named Leon. He's absolutely adorable, but when Sprout first met Leon, he was truly terrified. He wasn't scared of any other dog, and in fact liked dogs quite a lot, just not the pug. I'm not sure what he thought that squishy little puppy was going to do to him, but he burst into tears every time poor Leon got anywhere near close.

So we embarked on a campaign of desensitization by exposing Sprout to anything pug-related. And I guess it's carried over, even though he now thinks Leon's very cute, because we still seek out pug-ish titles at the library. One of our best finds was the recent Pug & Doug by author/illustrator Steve Breen. This book had instant kid-appeal with its cover image of cheerful friends Pug and Doug bouncing and having fun. Breen uses watercolors to lend an easy feel to the images, which are interspersed with comic-style panels throughout, a nod to Breen's background as a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist.

The story is one of friendship and misunderstanding, something that's instantly relatable for most preschoolers. Pug and Doug are besties, with the same favorite likes and dislikes, and just enough individuality to keep things interesting. But then one day Doug discovers that Pug has thrown out a picture of the pair at the UFO convention. Doug's upset, and he goes to talk to his friend, only to discover that Pug is too busy to hang out. Things of course spiral from there, and Doug becomes convinced that Pug's completely over him. Is the friendship really over? Or does Pug have something else going on that's been taking him away from his best friend?

Breen intersperses plenty of humor in the story that adds to the overall charm of this book. The misunderstanding, for that's what it really is, is realistic and kids will emphathize with Doug's feelings even as they see why things were misinterpreted. I love the little eccentric touches that Breen includes, like the fact that the friends love UFOs and that they're both afraid of the same things (vampires, mummies -- and Chinese cresteds!). Best of all, there's a nice joke right at the end that Sprout really loves. He's fairly quivering until we turn the last page and see the punch line - well played, Mr. Breen!

For a light-hearted story of friendship, reconciliation and old doughnuts, Pug & Doug is an awesome choice. I'm very hopeful that we'll see more of this pair - like Frog and Toad, they have an easy rapport that seems destined for more adventure.

Pug & Doug by Steve Breen, published by Dial Books for Young Readers

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Don't Spill the Milk! by Stephen Davies

It's Day 26 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. Last night I wrote about giving books as gifts, which put me in mind of the books I received as a child myself. One of the best gifts I ever got was a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia, when I was about 5 years old. I was a precocious reader, but even still I didn't get around to reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for a couple of years, when I was sick in bed with the flu. From the very beginning I was hooked, and I raced through the rest of the series shortly thereafter. I still have fond memories of finishing one book and knowing that the next was right there waiting for me - my guess is I probably put the first book down and picked the second up immediately!

Tonight's choice is a title that reminds me a lot of the kinds of picture books I loved as a kid. Stephen Davies' Don't Spill the Milk! is lively and full of action, with lots of little details embedded in every spread. Kids love books like this - at least every kid I've ever known certainly does, and Sprout is no exception. The first time we read this title he was picking out things I never noticed when reading it on my own. So don't think you're going to flip through this one super fast, because you'll want time to linger.

Davies' story takes place in West Africa, specifically Niger, which we find out from his author's note. (I wish he had specified this in the text itself, rather than using the generic "Africa", but that's a small enough quibble since we were able to look up the country name for Sprout.) Penda's father is far away in the grasslands tending the family's sheep, and she volunteers to take him a bowl of milk. You can tell right off that Penda's a sparky little firecracker. But she channels her energy by telling herself to walk slowly, slowly, slowly so she doesn't spill Daddy's milk. On she walks, past distractions like a herd of giraffes and a flock of masked dancers, and even takes a boat - but will she make it to Daddy without spilling the milk?

Davies could easily have left this as a fun tour through a West African country, but instead he uses it as a vehicle to explore the love between family members. I absolutely adore that touch, because it shows a strong African family united through caring for one another, a message I very much want to crystallize for my own son. The pictures by Christopher Corr are absolutely stellar, and work not only to give a specific sense of place but also to bring Davies' themes to life. There's a folk-art flair about them that perfectly suits the setting, and the sun-drenched colors will cheer up even the most dreary winter day.

If your library or bookstore doesn't yet have Don't Spill the Milk!, by all means ask for it. This is a terrific title that far deserves a wider audience - you can bet that, like Penda's milk, we're sharing it with the ones we love!

Don't Spill the Milk! by Stephen Davies, published by Andersen Press

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Copycat Bear by Ellie Sandall

It's Day 25 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. One thing I hope this month of sharing picture books has done is inspire you to include bookish gifts in your holiday giving. Gift cards are fine, socks are necessary, but books -- books are a gift that stays with a child for a lifetime! Often I see bloggers posting advice on "how to pick out the perfect book for a child" or some such. I know these folks mean well but honestly there is no magic trick to finding a good literary gift. My best advice is to go to a store or library, read a whole mess of picture books, then go get a coffee or lunch and see which books linger in your mind. Whatever book you remember is likely to be the one you'll most enjoy sharing with a child, and that joy is infectious!

Tonight's pick is a fairly recent one that I think would make a lovely surprise under someone's Christmas tree. Ellie Sandall's an author/illustrator with one fine eye for design, as you'll see when you flip through her new book Copycat Bear. She clearly knows how to set up a page not only to emphasize the important points of her story, but also to draw readers through the text. Her illustrations, while graphic and eye-catching, aren't going to overwhelm a young reader either, a balance that's important to strike. And Sandall makes it feel effortless.

Likewise, Sandall's story reads easily but doesn't spare her message. Mango's a bird and Blue is her gigantic bear friend. The two get along great except for Blue's one annoying habit - he likes to mimic Mango's behavior. Mango doesn't care for that too much, and she tries to do things that Blue can't do. But try as she might, Mango can't find anything that Blue won't at least attempt. Finally Mango flies away in frustration - but then she discovers that she can't stop thinking about that big blue bear. At last Mango goes back to find her friend, and figures out that a copycat bear is just the kind of friend she needs.

I love the sentiment in this title, because I think it's an important lesson to learn -- though we might at times be annoyed by the people we love, in the end it is often that very behavior we miss the most. Blue's copying ways remind me so much of the toddler set, for whom imitation is not only sincere flattery but also the most easily expressed kind. Little ones will love this book for its simple, satisfying resolution every bit as much as its gentle pictures - an absolutely great choice for bedtime or the storytime wind-down!

Copycat Bear by Ellie Sandall, published by Tiger Tales

Monday, December 2, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - Too Many Toys by David Shannon

It's Day 24 of our 30 Days of Picture Books. As I'm writing this, it's already starting to feel a lot like Christmas around Casa de Kinser. Hubs and Sprout put up our outdoor lights this weekend and we've got our tree up as well, though not fully decorated. (Our new kitty Jasper isn't sure what to think about it - he's intrigued, but wary.) We've started shopping for Sprout and Santa's been informed of the wish list, which this year includes Legos and the new Otis Christmas book. :)

And that leads me right in to today's pick, David Shannon's Too Many Toys. This book hits close to my heart as we find ourselves actively working to keep the volume of toys in Sprout's closet to an absolute minimum. It's a hard fight sometimes, let me tell you! But in our way of thinking, it's more important to have significant, well-chosen toys than just a lot of -- well, junk.

And junk is indeed the problem in Spencer's house, as he and his parents are being gradually buried under a flood of toys. Spencer pretty much has every toy under the sun, so many he can't possibly play with - or even find - all of them. He's not bothered by the mess, but his parents are. And one day Spencer's mom finally snaps and insists that Spencer re-home some of his playthings. As you might expect, this doesn't go down too well with Spencer, who fights Mom at every step of the way. But at last the pair assembles a box full of stuff that's headed to another destination. All is looking good until Spencer decides there's one thing he can't let go of. . . and you won't believe what it is!

Shannon brings his trademark energy to Spencer's chaotic world of toys. The masses of plastic playthings this kiddo has assembled are impressive, and they definitely imprint with kids. As we read, Sprout kept remarking, "He's got too many stuffs!" - even without my intervention (Shannon's point is hard to miss). I really appreciate not only that this topic was addressed, but that Shannon demonstrates Spencer's resistance in a realistic way. And the resolution is proof positive that some of the best playthings are those you discover all on your own.

Look, let's be honest -- kids rarely want to part with their toys, even when it's obvious that the piles need to be cleared out. But in the holiday season, with lots of goodies coming in stockings and packages, Too Many Toys might just be the bibliotherapy your little ones need to clear out the old and make way for new!

Too Many Toys by David Shannon, published by Scholastic

Sunday, December 1, 2013

30 Days of Picture Books - The Tiny King by Taro Miura

It's Day 23 in our 30 Days of Picture Books. Hopefully you've found some new titles to read this past three weeks. We certainly have, and we continue to explore more authors and illustrators who are unfamiliar to us, as well as our old standbys. I'm fortunate to work at a day job that gives me near-constant exposure to picture books. But if you don't have that luxury, blogs like Pragmatic Mom, What Do We Do All Day?, Delightful Children's Books, Growing Book by Book and Jen Robinson's Book Page are all terrific sources for awesome new picture book finds, just to name a few.

Tonight's pick is one that I probably never would have noticed but for the fact that it came across my desk. I'm so glad it did, because Taro Miura's The Tiny King is a powerhouse of a concept book. It's a fantastic choice for even the littlest readers, because visually it's quite stimulating, with its primary colors and blocky bold artwork. And the simplicity of the story means it works for a wide age range, with different points to explore with readers at different stages.

The Tiny King (pictured actual size on the cover of the book) lives a very lonely life. He's got a big house, a big table and a big bed, but no one to keep him company except his army of soldiers. Then one day the Tiny King meets a Big Princess and falls in love. Marriage soon follows and suddenly the Tiny King finds his household bustling with the addition of 10 children! Now the house isn't too big, the table of food is easily consumed, and everyone sleeps better at night all snuggled up together in the big, big bed.

The use of color and shape are quite dynamic in The Tiny King. Miura contrasts the Tiny King's lonely state at the beginning of the book, marked by black backgrounds, with his blossoming as a family comes into his life. Then the color palette shifts abruptly, with brights and pastels the order of the day. Each spread is more and more joyful, to emphasize how much happier the Tiny King is now, as Sprout pointed out tonight when we read this for about the tenth time. You can't help but smile at the sight of all those adorable kiddos, numbered 1 through 10, cavorting through the previously forlorn castle.

My library has categorized The Tiny King in our concepts area, and it works beautifully there, but don't ignore the depths that the story contains, and the opportunity to talk with kids about life and relationships. This one's a winner for sure - hoping to read more from Miura soon!

The Tiny King by Taro Miura, published by Candlewick Press