Sunday, January 26, 2014

Multicultural Children's Book Day - Review of Dreaming Up!

I'm SO excited about this event, folks - tomorrow, January 27, 2014 is Multicultural Children's Book Day. Dreamed up by the amazing bloggers Mia from Pragmatic Mom and Valarie from Jump Into a Book, this is an event designed to bring awareness and attention to the importance of multicultural literature in the world of children. You'll want to visit both Pragmatic Mom and Jump Into a Book tomorrow for all the Multicultural Children's Book Day festivities.

Of course you know this is an issue near and dear to my heart - the need for diversity in literature is what prompted me to begin writing Sprout's Bookshelf and what drives me to continue to seek out quality multicultural books for Sprout and other kids. I'm fortunate now to work in a library system, where a part of my job is ordering all the picture books for our branches. And I can tell you that, while there are some amazing multicultural books being published each year (you'll see proof of that from Multicultural Children's Book Day sponsors Susan Fayad and publishers Wisdom Tales, Chronicle Books, and Lee & Low), it's just not enough. Diverse books not only provide much-needed mirrors for children of color to see themselves reflected in literature, they also give white children a window into the experience of others. And that's vital if we are to raise sensitive, compassionate kids who are global citizens.

I read a whole lot of multicultural kids books over the course of a year and keep lists of hundreds more (check out our Pinterest boards for proof!), so it's never hard for me to find something to recommend when asked for a good pick. I find that some publishers are easy to rely on for thoughtful reads that incorporate diversity seamlessly into the storyline or characters. Lee & Low has long been a go-to publisher for me, and their recent book Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building was no exception. Author Christy Hale has pulled off an incredible feat with this title -- I mean, who would think that a book about architecture could be not only accessible to the picture-book set, but also a page-turner? But Dreaming Up is just such a book.

Right from the cover you know this title is going to be somewhat different. It features an illustration of a brown-skinned youngster building a block tower, against a field of photos of famous buildings. Inside, Hale presents the concept -- on the lefthand side of each spread, an image of children creating their own structures from familiar materials, and on the righthand side, a photograph of a landmark piece of architecture that mirrors the children's creation. Thus, kids who are stacking cups into spires are set opposite a photo of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. A house of sticks built by two girls flanks a picture of the Bamboo Church in Cartagena, Colombia. And best of all, each spread features a snippet of poetry, artfully arranged in a way that sets off the shape of the building being shown, and which suits the tone of the landmark as well.

I'm hard pressed to say just how terrific this title is, as a resource and as an inspiration. Sprout's eyes lit up when we explained the concept to him. He was every bit as fascinated by the book itself as with the glossary at the end, which shows each building along with the architect who designed it, and gives a brief history of creator and creation. I especially love the quote Hale includes from architect Nader Khalili, who said, "Everything we need to build is in us, and in the place." To me, that sums up the essence of Dreaming Up -- that the seeds that are planted in children as they play, take root in later life, when inspiration of place and material are married with those early dreams.

I love the thought that Dreaming Up may inspire a generation of future architects, designers, engineers, creatives of every sort. And I especially love that when we looked at the faces of all these great men and women, who designed such iconic pieces of artwork, Sprout pointed out that, "They all look different, Mom. And that man (Ghanian architect David Adjaye) looks like me!" Therein, my friends, is the power of diversity -- the dream made possible, viewed through windows and in mirrors.

Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building, by Christy Hale, published by Lee & Low Books
Ages 4-7
Source: Library
Highly recommended

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Snatchabook by Helen Docherty & Thomas Docherty

Have you ever fallen in love with a book? Like, so in love that you've stolen it? I've never done this myself - I guess it's my inner librarian that quails at the thought of swiping a library book, since those are for *everyone*. But recently I was reading an interview with an author, cannot for the life of me remember who, and he/she admitted that as a child they had loved a book so much that they swiped it from the local library.


Honestly I suspect this probably happens more than we realize. After all can you really blame a child for doing this, when there is such literary richness on store in today's library. Certainly I'm not condoning the disapparation of public property, but I think we can all remember a time when we came across a book so perfect, so aptly suited to our place in life, that we just wanted to consume it. At least, I can relate to that (it happens to me sometimes still, which is why my bank account is so slim).

That's pretty much what's going on in Helen and Thomas Docherty's new picture book The Snatchabook, a title that, quite honestly, you may want to swipe yourself, it's that good. Eliza Brown, like the rest of the occupants of the forest neighborhood Burrow Down, is snuggling up with her bedtime reads when something strange happens -- Eliza's book vanishes. And Eliza's not the only one, for other families are experiencing the very same thing. It happens again, night after night, until Eliza vows to do something. Lying in wait, she catches the culprint. But rather than a big bad burglar, the villain turns out to be a little bat-like creature called a Snatchabook who steals the books because he loves them, and he has no one to read to him.

Luckily Eliza is able to come up with a plan to satisfy the Snatchabook's hunger for stories. Furthermore, she holds firm in her insistence that the Snatchabook return every last title he pilfered before the fix is to take place. And then, once all the tomes have been restored, Eliza and her friends agree to read to the Snatchabook, and include him in their nightly bedtime story rituals.

I adored The Snatchabook because of the prize it places on the books in the story. These are the most valuable things the forest folk own, and they're devastated when the books disappear. How many of us wouldn't love it if our kids grew up to feel the same way? I've already seen firsthand the devastation Sprout felt when we mislaid one of his beloved dinosaur encyclopedias (turns out we left it at school, and boy was that ever a long weekend). So the message here is one I really embrace with all my little kidlit-lovin' librarian heart. But The Snatchabook is terrific on multiple levels - it works as a morality tale, where the Snatchabook learns stealing is wrong and has to make amends, and it works as a cozy sweet bedtime story, with its deft rhyme scheme and charmingly classic illustrations. There's a lot to appreciate with this one, and I can't wait for more from this husband-wife team.

At the end of this story there was nowhere I wanted to be more than in the burrow with Eliza Bunny and her crew (including the Snatchabook), cuddled up with a book at the end of a long day. The Snatchabook is one your kiddos will clamor for again and again - just don't be surprised if it disappears!

The Snatchabook by Helen Docherty and Thomas Docherty, published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Ages 3-5
Source: Library (but we didn't steal it, I promise!)
First lines: "One dark, dark night in Burrow Down, a rabbit named Eliza Brown found a book and settled down. . . / when a Snatchabook flew into town."

Monday, January 20, 2014

Big Snow by Jonathan Bean

Oh boy, was Sprout disappointed in Christmas this year. Not that he didn't love the activities, the tree, the presents, and the time with family. No, all of that was great, but there was one major component missing: snow.

All those songs about white Christmases and sleigh rides have worked a number on our boy. He's convinced that it isn't really a proper Christmas if there isn't snow on the ground. And because we live in the Pacific Northwest, snow isn't a guarantee at Christmas (or even at all during the season.) Though we did have one day where the snow hit about 3 inches deep, it wasn't the magical-snowman-come-to-life event of Sprout's dreams. Poor kiddo.

Instead, we decided to read about snow, because what else can you do? So we hit the library up for some new wintertime reads, and found an absolute gem among them - Jonathan Bean's Big Snow. We recently read Bean's Building Our House, which Sprout adored; that one was heavy in the bedtime rotation for a good three weeks or more. So when he saw the cover image for that book on the back cover of Big Snow, he put two and two together and deduced that, "This one's going to be my favorite too, Mama." Right he was, no less.

In Big Snow, our hero David is eagerly anticipating a heavy snowfall. Clearly he's heard the weather forecast, because all the while that he's helping his mother get the house ready for guests, David's keeping a watchful eye outside. The flour he spills while making cookies reminds him to take a peek out the door, as do the suds from the bathroom cleaners and the white sheets from the beds. Each time he looks, David sees a progression, from sparse flakes to big fluffy ones, to drifts of snow covering the entire world. David dreams that the house is taken over by a big snow. When he awakes, Dad is home early, and the family ventures outside to explore the familiar neighborhood, made somehow strange by its blanket of white.

I've heard a few comparisons between Big Snow and The Snowy Day, and I have to say that this is not a farfetched notion. Both David and Peter share a sense of wonder at the snow, at the world around them that is transformed by this wintry event. There's a dash of humor in each book, and an appreciation for the thrill that "big snow" brings. One thing I find most appealing about both titles is the fact that the diversity in them doesn't drive the story - you could easily replace David in Big Snow with an Asian or Native American or white character and there would be no difference to the narrative. Truth be told, I didn't even notice the main character's ethnicity (multiracial, perhaps?) until Sprout pointed out that "David's skin is brown like mine!" That's a nice touch, in my opinion, and something we need much more of.

Big Snow is a terrific candidate for a winter-themed storytime (though there's a Christmas tree in the house,  the plot isn't holiday-centric) or a cozy bedtime read. This is the kind of story that kids ask for again and again - not because it's splashy or gimmicky, but just because it's comforting, familiar, and classic.

Big Snow by Jonathan Bean, published by Farrar Straus Giroux
Ages 3-6
Source: Library
Sample: "But then the flour, white and fine, made David think of snow. / So he decided to check the weather. / Small flakes fell softly, white and fine."

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Martin & Mahalia : His Words, Her Song by Andrea Davis Pinkney & Brian Pinkney

It's no secret that there are a lot of great books out there about Martin Luther King Jr. I've written about plenty here on my blog, and I've even done features for other blogs full of titles celebrating this amazing man. Dr King's life is rich in elements that make a good story, the kind kidlit authors can't resist, and that's probably why there are so many great books out there.

But with an abundance of excellent works, with more being published each year, it's kind of hard to find a fresh approach. Yet, that's exactly what bestselling authors Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney have done in their new book Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song. And they did it by combining the story of one incredible preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., with that of a woman whose voice was heaven on earth, Mahalia Jackson.

Kids to whom this book is targeted will no doubt recognize the name of the first subject here, but likely very few will know the second. No matter: the Pinkneys do a fantastic job of setting the stage for Martin and Mahalia's work together by beginning when both were children. Each excelled in their own way: Martin through his oratory skills and Mahalia through her musical talents. Both used their gifts to spread the message of the gospel, of peace and hope and love to all. And they did this in the South, in the time of Jim Crow, when things were, as Andrea Davis Pinkney puts it, "Separate, but nowhere near equal."

Both Martin and Mahalia looked around and saw that things needed to be different, that there needed to be equality and freedom for all Americans. And so their common mission brought them together, first as part of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and then for the March on Washington. I love the imagery that the Pinkneys use for the March, the way they set the stage with the marchers walking stoically on even as hecklers jeered and tried to distract them. Once in place at the Lincoln Memorial, Mahalia used her "brass and butter" voice to draw the crowd together, to focus and settle them. And then Martin delivered what is arguably one of the best-known pieces of oration in the history of our country, and one which brings chills to me even now, the "I Have a Dream" speech.

As always with a Pinkney collaboration, this title relates historical detail in a way that keeps readers turning pages, but never shortcuts the facts. It's bolstered by an afterword by both author and illustrator, plus an historical timeline and suggestions for further reading and listening. I wouldn't be surprised to see Martin & Mahalia on awards lists this year, it's that well-executed. Brian Pinkney's illustration of the crowd on the National Mall is one of the last in the book, and it is jaw-dropping. His use of abstract shapes and swirling colors, coupled with the imagery of the dove that carries throughout the book, brings home the power and peace of that day.

Together Martin and Mahalia, each gifted in their own unique way, made the March on Washington a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement, and one that our country will never forget. And I'm in awe of the way the Pinkneys have captured that partnership through their own, a marriage of Andrea's lyrical prose and Brian's arresting images. This book, like its subjects, won't soon be forgotten.

Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song by Andrea Davis Pinkney & Brian Pinkney, published by Little, Brown
Ages 7-10
Source: Library
Sample: "Martin's sermons and Mahalia's spirituals told their listeners: You are here. On the path. Come along. Step proud. Stand strong. Be brave. Go with me. To a place, to a time, when we all will be free. People listened and believed."
Highly Recommended

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Recently I received a comment about the presence of several girl-centered books on the blog. "Thought these books were for your boy," the commenter stated. "Does he like it when you read books about girls?"

Well, yes. Because, you see, we read them to him.

I think we do our kids a real disservice with our preconceived notions about what boys will like or what girls will be into. We're big believers in following our kiddo's lead, but also in giving him a diverse crop of things to read and do. So we include books that feature girls as often as boys, just like we read about an equal number of books featuring characters of various ethnicities. And I hope that as he grows older, this will make him open to the idea of cracking open a book with a female protagonist.

Having said that, I know it's probably an uphill battle to expect that most boys will want to read a book titled Princess Academy, no matter how awesome it is (and with Shannon Hale as the author, you know it's going to be a good one). Heck, I'll admit that even I had reservations about this because let's be honest, that title is kind of awful. Still, it's a Newbery Honor title, and I'm on a mission to read as many Newbery medalists as I can, so I overcame my feelings about the name of this book and dove right in.

Princess Academy tells the story of Miri Larendaughter, who lives with her father and sister in the village of Mount Eskel. The villagers have been quarriers for generations, extracting linder from the mountain and trading it to lowland traders, sustaining themselves through the harsh winter months. The people of Mount Eskel are used to the idea that the lowlanders look down on them, and keep to themselves as much as possible. But then comes the proclamation that the prince's bride is to be one of the girls of Mount Eskel, and that in preparation, all girls of the right age must enter the Princess Academy to be established on the mountainous slopes.

Miri's torn about whether or not she wants to be chosen, and this struggle forms much of the narrative drive of the book. But there are other factors as well -- competition among the girls, worries about home, the completely horrible tutor Olana, and Miri's feelings for her childhood friend Peder -- that make up the complexity that is Miri's life at the Academy. I love that through it all, Miri relies on her own cleverness and the help of her friends to solve her problems. When bandits take the girls hostage, for example, it is Miri's knowledge of the villagers' "quarry speech" that allows her to summon help and save everyone from a terrible situation.

I'm so glad I read this, and it's one I'm really looking forward to reading with Sprout when he's old enough. The story is paced very well -- there's plenty of suspense to keep readers turning pages, but enough heart and soul with the characters to make them easily relatable. Add in a touch of fantasy, and just a hint of fairy-tale essence, and you have the makings of a solidly classic title that will appeal to readers of all types. Plus you can't help but admire the mighty-girl message here. Miri's anything but a damsel in distress, and really none of the other girls are helpless maidens either. The idea of a fairy tale where the heroine saves the day isn't new, but it's beautifully done in this novel. Easy to see why the Newbery committee couldn't pass it by!

Grab this one for your middle-grade girl or boy -- because once they get past the titles, readers can't help but cheer for Miri and thrill at the adventures this fantasy has to offer.

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, published by Bloomsbury Children's Books
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
First lines: "Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat. The world was as dark as eyes closed, but perhaps the goats could smell dawn seeping through the cracks in the house's stone walls. Though still half-asleep, she was aware of the late autumn chill hovering just outside her blanket, and she wanted to curl up tighter and sleep like a bear through frost and night and day."

Thursday, January 9, 2014

My Blue is Happy by Jessica Young

If there's one thing librarians like, it's categorizing stuff. We just adore it. Lining everything up in its proper place, classifying a random bunch of things, making order out of chaos, well, that's the cornerstone of our profession. And while some take it a little too far (cue the stereotype of the rigid old lady with her bun pulled too tight), the rest of us see the beauty in organization. After all, if things are classified in a systematic way, it makes everything easier to find, right?

Well, that's true, but it's also the case that authors and publishers love to throw us curveballs. One of the hidden secrets of my own job is the extent to which we all consult to determine how to categorize materials so patrons can find them. Because after all, it's the rare person who comes into a library or bookstore armed with title/author/ISBN/publisher (present company excluded, of course). And so we deliberate over classification, over subject heading and series listings, and all the little moving pieces that make it possible for patrons to head up to a catalog and type in something like "animals train" and pull up Steam Train, Dream Train, for example. (Trust me, it works.)

And then along comes a book like Jessica Young's My Blue is Happy and all that carefully organized classification goes out the window. Oh it's a picture book, all right, that much is clear. But what's the subject? Colors, maybe -- you could easily put it with concepts because Young is describing each color using metaphors, if nonstandard ones, and the book is rich with saturated hues thanks to the illustrations by Catia Chien. Moods, perhaps -- our protagonist is considering the interpretation that someone else has about a particular color and contrasting that with the mood she is sometimes in. Or maybe it's creativity, and how we are all inspired by the same basic elements in different ways. Hmmm.

Luckily we don't have to narrow it down too much, and we can assign subject headings that encompass all of these aspects, and more if we need them. But still this is a tough book to boil down. I would argue that the elemental message of this book is that we all view life through our own unique lens. Even though most people have one association with something, you might have another take on it, and that's perfectly okay. The narrator knows that blue is sad for her sister, but she herself finds it happy, like swimming in the pool on a summer day. Orange might be fun for her cousin, but this girl finds it foreboding, like there's danger ahead. And she's not cheery with yellow, like Mom, but rather worried, like a trapped butterfly.

My Blue is Happy is a great title for talking with kids about how they view the world, and introducing the notion that we don't all see things in the same way. This may be a debut, but Young's confidence in her thesis is strong and her voice follows suit. It's definitely a title that will spark creativity in even the most seriously grounded youngsters (and grownups). Chien takes the same base color -- brown, for example, and shows how one tone of the color brings up one feeling to someone, while another tone has an entirely different connotation. The visuals are strong and impactful, and the message is one that will resonate with kids: being yourself can mean that you have a different view of things, and that's where the beauty and variety of life reside.

For little ones just starting to find their independence, Young's message is reassuring and supports the importance of individuality. Hey, even librarians don't agree all the time -- though I think most would find My Blue is Happy stands out all on its own.

My Blue is Happy by Jessica Young, published by Candlewick Press
Ages 3-5
Source: Library
Sample: "The boy next door says red is angry / Like a dragon's burning breath. / But my red is as brave as a fire truck / And my superhero cape."

Monday, January 6, 2014

Nonfiction Picks - The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins

Hi friends! Glad to be back blogging with you after a bit of an absence over the holidays. Although we kept things pretty quiet (not ashamed to say we were all in bed before midnight New Year's Eve - that's just how we roll!), it's always the case that this time of year leaves few free moments. Still, it was lots of fun being together as a family.

Today I'm home with a sick kiddo and sneaking in a little blogging time in between cups of juice and chapters of The House at Pooh Corner (which Sprout loves, BTW). One of the goals I've long had for the blog is reviewing more nonfiction. To that end, I'm making it a point to include more nonfiction titles in our nightly reading with Sprout, and will be culling the best of the best to share here on the blog with you. As Sprout is a young scientist-in-the-making, it's great to support his burgeoning interests with books bursting with facts and information!

The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins, my pick for today, tells the true story of Kate Sessions, a young girl who is fascinated by trees. Growing up in Northern California in the 1860s, Kate was definitely not the image of young womanhood most folks had in mind. But she perservered, making it her life's work to study science and becoming the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a science degree. Energized from her studies, Kate accepted a job teaching in San Diego. But upon arriving in her new home, Kate was dismayed by what she found -- a dry and dusty desert town with very few trees anywhere.

No one thought San Diego could be any more than what it was. No one but Kate, that is. She began experimenting with growing different types of trees, eventually leaving her teaching job behind to pursue this work full-time. Kate traveled far and wide to find trees that would grow in San Diego, even writing other gardeners around the globe. She worked tirelessly to turn San Diego's barren landscape into a lush oasis -- which it remains to this day.

I loved The Tree Lady for lots of reasons, not least of which that it shows the impact that one person can have on his or her environment. It's easy to think that we can't do much on our own, but stories like that of Kate Sessions prove the opposite. The matter-of-fact way that Hopkins tells Kate's story adds to the charm; he doesn't dwell on the naysayers, of which I'm sure there were more than a few, but instead on Kate's determination to reach her goal. The illustrations by Jill McElmurry accompany the story beautifully, and really add to the sense of wonder in Kate's accomplishments. I'll admit that it was the striking cover image that drew me to this title initially, and the same vivid visuals carry the story forward throughout Kate's amazing life.

If you're looking to expand your horizons beyond the stable of familiar characters, try wandering over to the nonfiction shelves in your library or bookstore. There you'll find incredible books like The Tree Lady, along with plenty more that will keep your little ones turning pages. Because after all, real life can be even more compelling than fiction!

Ages 5-8
Source: Library
Sample: "Trees seemed to Kate like giant umbrellas that sheltered her and the animals, birds, and plants that lived in the forest. Not everyone feels at home in the woods. But Kate did."