Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Chapter Book Review - Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

Ever felt that you just aren't quite -- right at something? That you are somehow falling short, and you may not know how, or why? I've certainly had that feeling many times in my life.( If you haven't had that feeling yet - and I can't imagine how you haven't -- let me assure you that parenting is one experience that will give you this impression time and time again. Woo boy!)

Those of us who have felt this way will absolutely relate to Albie, the protagonist in Lisa Graff's top-notch middle grade novel Absolutely Almost. Albie seems destined to go through life being not quite good enough at everything he does, to his great frustration. He can't seem to sort out why things he tries don't turn out the way he wants them to, and he seems to fall short in the estimation of the people he loves the most. But then Albie starts a new school, and gets a cool new babysitter - and suddenly Albie begins to realize that while he may not be great at math or reading, he's still perfectly great at being Albie.

I completely adored this novel, and it's all because of Albie. He's a fantastic character with a one-of-a-kind voice to match. Graff has drawn him splendidly, making him come alive on the page from the very first chapter. I love that Albie's passionate about things like donuts and excels at building models, even though he's often made to feel like his interests are somehow less appealing than others. (It's pretty clear that Albie has some delays, but Graff never defines or diagnoses - an aspect I really appreciated.) Your heart will go out to Albie, but don't pity him - though there are some really tough aspects of this book (bullies, his oblivious father), Albie's 100% the hero of this story. He transforms over the course of the book from bystander in his own life to a boy who knows where he's going, even if he's not quite there yet. 

Graff draws the reader into Albie's story through the ample use of humor and very realistic situations. She captures that sense of feeling powerless, when decisions that affect Albie's life are made without his input and he has to just go along with the ride. You'll cringe at some of the outcomes, but ultimately you'll end up cheering for a hero who's less Superman and more Captain Underpants -- and despite what Albie's mom thinks, that's pretty darn terrific. 

This is a terrific book to hand to kids who enjoyed Wonder or Counting by 7s, for a protagonist who is quirky and completely unique. Don't expect a neat resolution or a glossy happy ending from Absolutely Almost. It just wouldn't be true to the characters. But do expect a book with heart and soul, that will make readers think and feel, and most importantly help them put themselves in another's place. And expect to want donuts. . . lots and lots of donuts!

Ages 9-12
Source: Library
First lines: "'Not everybody can be the rock at the top of the rock pile.' That's what my Grandpa Park said to my mom once when they thought I was asleep, or just not listening, I don't know. But my ears work fine. 'There have to be some rocks at the bottom, to support those at the top.'"
Highly recommended

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Picture Book Review - Books Always Everywhere by Jane Blatt

Sprout had his first class library visit today. He couldn't wait to come home and tell me about it, and show me the two books he checked out to bring home (one on dinosaurs and one on bones - no big surprise from this aspiring paleontologist!). He was surprised that the library was kind of small, but still had lots of cool science books, and also that he didn't need his regular library card to check books out. Got this kiddo trained right, evidently!

By the way, in case you hadn't heard, September is National Library Card Month. This is a great time to visit your library, especially if you haven't been in a while - you might be surprised at all the cool things your library card entitles you to explore. It's also the perfect opportunity to sign your kiddos up for their own cards. Sprout got his card this spring and he is crazy proud of it. Every time we go to the desk to check something out, he has to tell the librarian he can use his own card now, not mommy's. :)

So, onto today's pick, which is a perfect choice for National Library Card Month if I do say so myself, since it's all about books. Jane Blatt's Books Always Everywhere is a lovely piece of poetry all oriented around babies and toddlers who are exploring books of all sorts. It's simple enough to read with the smallest kids - in fact this would be a great introduction to books for a baby storytime or one-on-one session. The large spreads feature just a few pages each, and gorgeous pictures for kids to focus on. I wasn't familiar with Sarah Massini's illustrations before, but I'll be keeping my eyes out for more from her - these pictures are just fantastic!

Of course you know I always look for diversity in books like these, and I'm pleased to say that there's plenty here. Best of all, it feels organic and not forced, adding to the title's overall charm. The other thing I especially love is how joyful the text and illustrations are. Books Always Everywhere is a celebration of books, and as such is as light and effervescent as can be. The kiddos and animals cavorting on the pages are having loads of fun experiencing books -- reading, creating with and sharing them. What better way to send kids the message that books are fun?!

Books Always Everywhere would make a terrific storytime pairing with Lola Reads to Leo or Wild About Books. But you needn't wait til you have all those titles at hand - grab yourself a copy and read it to your little one no matter where you are!

Ages 1-4
Source: Library
Sample: "Book build / Book mat / Book chair / Book hat"

Monday, September 8, 2014

Picture Book Review - It's Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr

So I alluded to it a couple of posts back, but it's official - Sprout has started kindergarten and he loooooves it. Like seriously crazy loves it. In fact this morning he bounded out of bed just a little after 5 a.m. and got dressed and ready without any prompting. Win! As you might imagine, this transition is one of mixed feelings for Hubs and I, but seeing our son so enthused about his class and his teachers definitely helps.

Of course, there's a lot Sprout has to learn about school, and I don't just mean the academic part of it. He's a hard working kid, very dedicated but also leaning toward perfectionism. And so tonight's book came along at just the right time and was one I figured we'd better get read ASAP -- It's Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr. (To be honest, this is one I wish had been around when I was little, because it's a message I sorely needed to hear - then and now!)

If you've ever read a Todd Parr book, you know what you're in for here -- important messages delivered in a simply charming title that will win over adults and children alike. (If you haven't read a Todd Parr title - why the heck not?? He's awesome!) Parr's books aren't so much narrative-driven as they are message-driven, but don't let that put you off. He's managed once again to create situations to illustrate his points that are funny and believable, and present the theme in an accessible way. Kids love the simple drawings and the palette of primary colors, plus all the silly touches. A pink horse? A skunk wearing socks? Whyever not. . . it's a Todd Parr world!

I love the way It's Okay to Make Mistakes can be used both as a tool to reassure kids and to help them develop empathy. In this title, each spread shows something going a bit wonky, like a fish swimming the opposite direction or a girl falling from her horse. Some readers might be in the place where they need to hear "it's okay to be shy" because they are introverted themselves, while others might need to hear it because there's someone in school who seems quieter than the other students. Parr's scenarios work both as windows and mirrors in that sense, and making this a perfect choice for teachers to use at the beginning of school, when kids are just learning about one another.

My favorite part, and Sprout's too, comes right at the end, where Parr's illustration of a line of monkeys, with one upside down, is captioned "Everyone has 'uh-oh' moments. That's how you learn!". This is a message we've tried to teach Sprout, but somehow I know that he's going to take it to heart not so much because of what we've said, but because of the fun way he learned it, thanks once again to the fantastic Todd Parr!

It's Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr, published by Little, Brown and Company
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Sample: "It's okay if you are clumsy. You might invent a new move."

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Celebrating Grandparents - Our Multicultural Picks!

In the U.S., tomorrow is Grandparents' Day. This isn't as big a deal for Americans as Mother's Day or Father's Day, not by a long shot (you don't see ads like "buy Grandma a diamond necklace for Grandparents' Day", for instance). I'm not sure why this is, although it's an interesting commentary on our culture. The sociologist in me is fascinated by this kind of thing. But the mother in me is busy making sure we have a homemade card and a picture for Oma -- no diamond necklaces here, that's just how we roll.

A fun way to celebrate Grandparents' Day would definitely be an intergenerational storytime. I think this would be an awesome program for a library or bookstore to host, but you could certainly do an impromptu one at your own Grandparents' Day celebration or the next time an extended family get-together comes around. I've gathered up some terrific picks to share for such an event - none of which are specific to Grandparents' Day itself, making them the perfect titles to share for the holiday or any time you want to celebrate these important folks in your kiddo's life.

1. Can You Hear the Sea? by Judy Cumberbatch - this vibrant title, set in West Africa, catches readers right from the front cover (got you, didn't it?). The story is simple enough for the youngest listeners, but works on multiple levels to teach concepts and share relationships. I love the messages about trust and caring for one another.

2. All the Way to America by Dan Yaccarino - kids will recognize Yaccarino's whimsical style, and adults will appreciate his intergenerational theme of a family's immigrant heritage. Based on the author's family's journey to America from Italy, this story of perseverance and connections will get kids thinking about what pieces of their own family are being handed down for generations. A lovely title on all levels.

3. Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia - this was one of Sprout's favorites for a long time, for the fun illustrations and the playful text. This one's great because it really shows the relationship between Aneel and his grandfather, whom he idolizes. And the elements of tall tales that Zia weaves in make this a true joy to read aloud - over and over again!

4. Suki's Kimono by Chieri Uegaki - a classic title that speaks very much to identity and being confident in your own skin. Suki decides to wear her kimono to school because it reminds her of a special time with her grandma - even though she knows that other kids might make fun of her. All is well in the end, though not unrealistically so. A good choice for older kids just starting to find their identity.

5. Rainbow Stew by Cathryn Falwell - Falwell's books are always a hit in our house and Rainbow Stew is no exception. This one not only has a grandpa taking care of all three of his grandkids, it also emphasizes the appeal of growing and preparing your own healthy food. Great for late fall storytimes about harvest and togetherness.

6. Lottie Paris Lives Here by Angela Johnson - it's hard to say how much I love Lottie Paris. She's pretty much everything I adore about kidlit today - a dynamic personality, full of flair and life, and just a little bit of naughtiness (which makes you love her even more). Lottie's just right for kids who like all things color and sparkle, and will add a burst of liveliness to storytime for sure.

7. My Granny Went to Market by Stella Blackstone - a rhyming book! What fun! This rollicking read features a grandma who's getting around - around the world, that is. Kids will enjoy counting along with granny's purchases even as they are introduced to the concepts of global citizenship. Full of small details that make this entertaining even after the story is done!

There are so many more titles that we could have included, but I hope this list gives you just a taste of all the wonderful intergenerational titles that populate the shelves at your library or bookstore. What are your favorite grandparent stories? Please share in the comments!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Talking with Kids about Ferguson: Recommended Titles on Race & Equality

It's been a heck of a few weeks, has it not? In addition to Sprout starting kindergarten today (wha???), which has taken up most of my free brain space, there's the situation surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Events are continuing to unfold, but one thing is pretty clear to all involved - this was about far more than the death of one young man, tragic as that death may have been.

I have my opinions on this issue, and I'm betting many of you can guess where my sympathies lie. I'm not going to be debating the events in this space, however. It's a discussion that needs to happen, and I'm fully invested in that, but in other arenas. Instead, what I want to do today is share some resources for initiating a conversation about race and justice with the children in your life. That's where I feel change can begin - with talking openly about the history of our country, honestly looking at events that have transpired, and considering where we can go from here, as a nation and as individuals.

So, without further ado - my picks surrounding African Americans' struggle for civil rights, to help provide some context to discussing Ferguson in the classroom, library or at home:

1. Let's Talk about Race by Julius Lester - (Ages 4-8) Possibly my favorite book ever to discuss race and difference between people. Lester acknowledges that race is important, and an element in everyone's story, and explores why difference can divide, or bring us together. Critical for every classroom or library.

2. We March by Shane W. Evans (Ages 4-6) - a family participates in the March on Washington, showing the power of individuals joining together to make their voices heard. Great introductory piece for young children, with a nice afterword for further discussion.

3. Ron's Big Mission by Rose Blue and Corinne J. Naden (Ages 3-6) - a young boy is denied a library card because he is black - but Ron doesn't let it go, and stages a protest for the right to access the books he loves. Based on the true story of astronaut Ron McNair, this is one of the first books about race we read with Sprout, and he still remembers it.

4. Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud (Ages 5-8) - a fictionalized account of true events surrounding the drive to register to vote, and the fallout that happened when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. This vivid title doesn't shy away from relating hard truths, but is beautifully done.

5. Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney (Ages 7-10) - At the core of the Civil Rights Movement is nonviolent protest, and the Pinkneys demonstrate that in action with their account of the 1960 protest at the Woolworth lunch counter. A tremendous example of the small acts of injustice that wore away at African Americans daily, and how they stood up to gain basic freedoms.

6. Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges (Ages 8-12) - the firsthand account of a young black girl at the forefront of the movement to integrate public schools in 1960. The power of this first-person narrative draws readers in and provides plenty to think and talk about.

7. Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Russell Freedman (Ages 8-12) - a nonfiction piece that explores the entire history of this pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, giving context for the boycott and explaining how organized resistance brought about change. Illustrated with powerful photos, full of citations and additional reading suggestions.

8. Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson (Ages 9 up) - a stunning portrait of black history in the United States, covering the entirety of the stuggle for equality and acceptance. This should be required reading for all Americans, in my opinion - much of the history Nelson provides is often glossed over in regular history classes. Simply the finest title out there.

9. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (Ages 9 up) - Set a little later than many of the other choices here, this novel brings to life the late 60's and the rise of the Black Panthers. By setting her story against that of three sisters reconnecting with their absentee mother, Williams-Garcia personalizes the events and helps readers see a different view of the much-maligned organization. (Even better on audio.)

10. Revolution by Deborah Wiles (Ages 10 up) - this novel, the second in Wiles's Sixties Trilogy, is densely populated with facts that underscore the fiction. Students of history will appreciate the many small threads that Wiles weaves into this story, set in Mississippi during Freedom Summer; the shifting perspective of white and black characters adds power to the narrative.

11. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Philip Hoose (Age 12 up) - Hoose's award-winning title recounts the true story of Claudette Colvin, a teenager whose refusal to move to the back of the bus preceded Rosa Parks's by several months. Colvin's actions were instrumental in the beginnings of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but her story was mostly forgotten; Hoose corrects this wrong with a striking story of one girl at the epicenter of a vast political movement.

12. They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Age 13 up) - I've often wondered how an organization based on hate could get its start, and this book pulls back the curtain. This is a difficult title, so best for older readers - Bartoletti is unflinching in her examination of the cruelty and bloodshed that spawned this group, and I think this is an important read to understand not only Jim Crow and segregation, but also the roots of the Civil Rights Movement.

13. When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick Lewis (Age 12 up) - the struggle for civil rights is of course not confined to the United States. Here, with a powerful collection of poetry, Lewis brings voice to the leaders of civil rights struggles the world over, including many who are familiar and some that will be entirely new. An intensely personal volume, and one that will linger in the heart and mind of the reader.

In addition, here are some more resources for discussing civil rights, protest, inequality and the events both past and current: