Thursday, April 14, 2016

Growing Up Pedro by Matt Tavares

Growing Up Pedro by Matt Tavares
Rating: 5 stars


I'm so happy it's baseball season again. I'm thrilled to spend many afternoons throwing the ball around with now both of my sons, and sometimes pitching to them in our backyard. I love watching Ben practice, and I love watching the games.

I've said it before here, but one of the things I love so much about baseball is that there are so many wholesome, heroic, hard-working, and dedicated ballplayers. Many of these great men lived and played in the past--but their memories live on through their stats and their lore, so their lessons are still accessible and easy to discuss with my sons. But how great to find a man from the present whose life and character are worth knowing and emulating.

The talented Matt Tavares shows and tells us of how Pedro Martinez grew up in the Dominican Republic. He followed in his big brother Ramon's footsteps as he played baseball, practiced pitching by aiming at mangoes in trees, and dreamed big. Ramon made it to the minor leagues, then the major leagues, and soon Pedro, despite his small size, got a chance. He pitched his way through the Dodgers' minor league system and finally played alongside Ramon. The two boys were ecstatic--it's a big dream come true!

Then what always happens happened: Pedro got traded to the Montreal Expos, but Ramon's advice to the upset Pedro turned out to be true. Ramon explained how the Dodgers would never make Pedro their starting pitcher, but the Expos will. The Expos do, and Pedro started to make headlines as a great pitcher, possibly even better than his brother.

The two brothers continue to play and excel and win awards--Pedro even more so than Ramon--until they finally play together again, this time on the Red Sox, and this time with Pedro as the star pitcher with heaps of talent and grit. The two return to the Dominican Republic often, where they've paid for a fantastic gathering space for their whole family in the spot on which they first learned to play the game.

I know this post is long enough, but the best part of the book for me is the brotherhood part. I know Kiefer keeps choosing this book because of the story of two brothers, making it to the big leagues together--and the little brother comes out on top. But I hope he's listening to the fact that the brothers don't care who is a bigger star. They love each other fiercely still now. When the boys were young, Ramon always looked out for him, and Pedro was smart enough to recognize this and humble enough to keep working hard. The brotherhood bond is awesome and strange right now for my boys--they can't stand being apart even when they can't figure out how to get along at that minute--but it's so important that they figure it out and trust in and believe in and root for each other...

I hope my boys continue to play baseball and be good team players and role models, but I hope even more they continue to be good brothers to each other.

Matt Tavares has several other great baseball (and non-baseball) picture books. Click HERE for a list of titles.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hector and Hummingbird by Nicholas John Frith

Hector and Hummingbird by Nicholas John Frith
Rating: 4 stars

Arthur A. Levine Books

"Deep in the mountains of Peru lived a bear called Hector and a hummingbird called Hummingbird," this book begins. "They were the best of friends. Mostly."

Bear and Hummingbird were grand pals but they were total opposites in one main way: Bear was an animal of few words and appreciated the sanctity and peace in silence. Hummingbird was a total chatterbox, and he had a tendency to copy whatever Bear is doing.

If Bear ate a custard apple, Hummingbird realized what a great idea that was, and talked all about which custard apple he was going to eat. If Hector scratched his back on a tree, Baloo-style, Hummingbird sang the praises of a good idea and scratched the feathers on his back while chirping how great it felt. If Hector decided to take a little nap, Hummingbird lay down next to him and chatted about how great it'd be if they napped together.

But suddenly, Bear has had ENOUGH.

"ARRGH!! Leave me ALONE!" he bellowed. And stomped off into the jungle to get some peace and quiet.

Hummingbird drooped, and he decided he should not follow Bear. Mostly.

Of course he does, and of course we adult readers can predict the ending: Bear was at first elated to be on his own, but the feeling got stranger and stranger, and the quiet got louder and louder and he realized he really missed Hummingbird. He admitted this to himself, out loud, and out pops Hummingbird, thrilled to be wanted again.

This is a great story with a big old lesson for big readers and little listeners alike: The very quirks that drive you batty in those you love are the ones you'd miss the most. So love the quirks in the friend, too. Mostly.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dylan the Villain by K.G. Campbell

Dylan the Villain by K. G. Campbell
Rating: 5 stars


When I was a kid, my dad used to root for the bad guys. He'd whistle and cheer for Captain Hook, explain how the Big Bad Wolf got a bad rap, and smile broadly when Jafar or Ursula wreaked havoc. Villains always got his attention and support.

He'd love Dylan the Villain! Dylan is a super-villain born to unsuspecting parents who soon realize that he's a little different--his costume is super scary, his laugh is super crazy, his inventions are super-villainous. They believe he's the most special villain around.

Until he goes to school.

(Super villain school, of course. Called "Astrid Rancid's Academy for the Villains and Vile.")

There, he meets other villains just like himself. He fares pretty well, in comparison, to everyone except for one. One girl. Addison Van Malice. Addison Van Malice's costume is bone-chilling, her laugh is "bananas," and her inventions are demonic!

Addison Van Malice
A rivalry ensues, and a contest to build the most diabolical robot becomes the perfect place for their battle to play out. Dylan gets a huge bunch of parts from the diabolical robot supply closet and heads home to make the most diabolical robot ever (while his ordinary parents sit on the sofa and watch TV all night). By the end of the night, he is finished and pretty sure the trophy will be his.

But then he gets to school and sees Addison Van Malice's most diabolical robot, which is so big it can't fit onto the page. Everyone is impressed, including Dylan. But then, Dylan sees a big, red button on the side of this diabolical robot, and he does what any kid would do--he asks what it does WHILE pushing the button.

The diabolical robot, with Addison Van Malice inside at the wheel, blasts off into space!

Our hero--oops, I mean, the super villain Dylan--wins the contest and it turns out the rivalry is far from over...

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Great Pet Escape by Victoria Jamieson

The Great Pet Escape by Victoria Jamieson
Rating: 5 stars

Henry Holt & Company

What do you need when one of your children gets the dreaded GI bug while at the beach during Spring Break? You need a laugh, that's what--both you and your child need to find some reason to laugh despite this miserable situation.

That's exactly what happened to my son two weeks ago. After driving for five hours to get to the beach, he got sick. He was so miserable--exhausted yet awake, feeling icky but wanting to snuggle in close with me. He called out, "Mom, will you read to me?" I grabbed a few options from our library bag; he chose The Great Pet Escape, a new graphic novel written and illustrated by the author of Newbery Honor-winning Roller Girl, Victoria Jamieson.

Talk about an escape from your own reality! This book was just what Ben and I needed.

The Great Pet Escape starts with a hamster explaining his situation: he's the second grade class pet at Daisy P. Flugelhorn Elementary School, and he's been stuck in this "prison" for three months, two weeks, and one day. He's got to bust out, find his two friends who are locked up in similar situations, and get the heck out of this school.

George accomplishes his first step--get out of his own cell--by stealing away bits and pieces of classroom items that the kids drop in his cage and inventing a machine that will propel him towards the cage door. The bobby pin he's acquired does the final trick of opening the cage.

When he finds and frees his two friends, the conversations on how school has changed them are surprising and hilarious. Unlike George, they don't hate their new situations. In fact, they kinda like the kids and the books they get to read and the feelings they get to talk about. But they are willing to leave this all behind and escape with their pal George to the outside world.

But when they go to escape, their plans go awry. The fourth grade pet mouse stands in their way, with an army of white mice behind him, and the three pets suddenly find themselves fighting for the kids, protecting them against the head mouse's evil plans to make grosser-than-gross food and serve it up in the cafeteria.

The rest of the book is laugh-out-loud funny while the two groups of class pets duke it out in the student-free halls of school.

I love how Jamieson takes the familiar school setting and the friendly class pets and shakes things up with a wonderful, imaginative adventure. I love how her silly drawings and funny quips made my sick son and his tired mom laugh out loud every few pages. My younger son (nearly 5 years old) heard us laughing and wandered in, so I ended up reading the book a second time to him. He loved it as much as Ben did. Then their big sister Lorelei (nearly 9 years old) wanted a turn with it. What fun that this book got six thumb's up from three kids at three very different points in their reading life.

The size of this book helps with its accessibility, I think. It's a slim graphic novel, so it's perfect to tuck into the car as a surprise book during a long road trip, when kids are tired of being in the car but still need a distraction from the fact that no, we are not there yet. My kids and I had fun conversations about what the animals in our lives do when their humans aren't around, though I'm pretty sure our good dog Lulu is content to sleep, uninterrupted.

Well done, Victoria!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg

Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg
Rating: 5 stars

Nancy Paulsen Books

We're moving West this summer--nearly as West as one can move when you live in Virginia. We're moving to Washington State. As a Seattle University alum and a fan of the great Pacific Northwest, I'm pretty excited. To prepare or just get excited for the move, I'm reading books about or by authors from the "other" side of the country.

And that goal led me straight to Sweet Home Alaska.

Carole Estby Dagg writes out of Everett, Washington, a town an hour or so north of Seattle, and the city in which my husband will work. When our family was out in Washington to visit schools and the area in general, Mrs. Dagg was speaking at a local bookstore to promote Sweet Home Alaska, her just-released second book. I didn't go, but the book piqued my interest and I requested it from our local library.

The book is about a girl who does the same thing my kids will do this summer: she moves about as far away as possible.

Terpsichore's family start the story in Wisconsin during the Great Depression. Like many families during that era, times were tough. Her father loses his job at the mill. Her mother sells her beloved piano for money. Terpsichore makes a million things out of pumpkin because pumpkin is what they've got to eat.

But they have one big chance: a move for a better life. Thanks to a New Deal Pioneer program set up by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Terpsichore's family has the opportunity to move to faraway Alaska and receive land from the government. Better yet, they get a new start on life.

With a little finagling, their family is selected to go. There's a string attached to the adventure: Mother is not happy about it, and she insists that after one year she gets to decide if they remain in Alaska or return to Wisconsin to live with her (straight-laced, well-off) mother.

With that tension set in the story, the family sets off. First, they take a train across the country to Seattle, then head north on a boat. They reach Palmer, Alaska, and receive their plot of land. The challenges they meet are realistic and eye-opening--the bugs and living conditions smack them in the face, but they all prove to have the necessary pluck to keep going.

Terpsichore is determined to remain optimistic about Alaska and about changing her mother's mind, but she jumps right in to make Palmer what she wants, too. She misses her library from home, and decides to start her own. She writes letters to people and organizations back in the lower 48 with a plea to "help start the pioneer library" and she gets boxes of books--the first from her wealthy grandmother, including one book that sets another mystery in motion. She's the first librarian in the "pioneer library."

The book is very well done--I love how it was inspired by the author's son's move to Palmer, Alaska. A little digging into the town's history and Dagg knew there was a story (or two! or more!) that could be made from the plucky people who dared to move so far away all they knew. Terpsichore is a great little hero--she jumps right into her community and aims to make it a better place. She misses home and has her own friendship woes, but she is exactly the kind of character you want your child to read about and love.

Fingers crossed that my own children remain optimistic about their first big move in life and that they have some of Terpsichore's moxie, cheerfulness, and interest in a world new to them!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Midnight Madness at the Zoo by Sherryn Craig

Midnight Madness at the Zoo by Sherryn Craig, illustrated by Karen Jones
Rating: 5 stars


Just in time for March Madness--a basketball picture book! Add animals, a top-notch rhyme, and practice counting to ten and you've got a winning bedtime (or anytime) book.

What do the animals do after the last guest leaves, after the zookeeper locks up the gate for the night, after the last car exits the parking lot? Play basketball, of course!

The animals must warm up first / before they can roam free.
Some new officials take their place: / three zebras referee.
The trumpet of the elephants / calls players from their pens.
But for a game of basketball, / they'll need a group of ten.

Kids listen and see as one by one, an animal is added to each team, until two teams of five are formed. Then they have a fun game of five-on-five--luckily, these are rule-following animals so no elbows are thrown or fouls earned.

Kiefer has had this book in his room for a few weeks now, and I've read it to him at least five times, which means it has scored high enough to be reread more than once or twice. Ben does his best to pretend that he only reads chapter books, but he stood in the doorway for this one. He couldn't help but be interested in it--he's the child in the family who plays and follows basketball.


This book is near and dear to my heart because the author, Sherryn Craig, is one of my critique partners. When I met her nearly two years ago, this book had been purchased by Arbordale and I got to follow along in the publishing process. In the beginning, I simply heard how she and her sons went to the Reston Zoo and wondered why the animals all looked so sleepy. "I think they must play basketball all night," her son said. And just like that, an idea was formed.

It was so fun to see the first sketches by Karen Jones sprawled out on the table in front of us at the coffee shop at which we meet. It was even more fun to see the cover in black and white, then color. But the best part? Seeing my friend with her debut picture book in her hand, smiling proud. A close second? Seeing Midnight Madness on our own shelf, or in my kids' hands as they read through it for the very first time.

Congratulations, Sherryn!

Sherryn will be having a few events around town to celebrate and promote her book:

Sunday, March 13th, at the Greene Turtle in Fairfax from 6-8 PM she'll be selling and signing her book while the NCAA Tournament teams are announced.

Saturday, March 19th, at the Reston Zoo 9 AM-12:30 PM she'll be selling and signing her book to celebrate the zoo's opening (after its normal winter closing). Book readings will be at 10 AM, 11 AM, and 12 PM.

More information can be found on Sherryn's website.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Blazer + Bray

Rating: 5 stars

If you've got a chapter book-reading girl in your life, you've probably seen or heard about the Clementine series. Sara Pennypacker writes that fun series about a lovable girl throwing herself headlong into middle school. Lorelei really loved it. Pennypacker also wrote this gem of a middle grade novel, Pax, that was just released earlier this month. It received a ton of fanfare--I think I heard about it a year ago; all the important people and places in the kidlit world seemed to have a countdown for Pax's publication.

I even pre-ordered it, which isn't something I do a lot. But it just seemed...special. But was it all hype?

Nope. The story, characters, and messages between the covers are extraordinary, and extraordinarily important.

Here's the story:

Soon after 12-year-old Peter's mother dies, he finds a small kit and keeps him--and names him Pax. When his father must go off to fulfill his obligation and fight in a war, he sends Peter to live with his grandfather. His father demands that he leave Pax behind, and forces Peter to trick Pax into going into the wild. As soon as Peter arrives at his grandfather's house, he realizes he made a huge mistake in sending Pax away, and he runs away to find and reunite with his beloved fox.

Along the way, Peter is confronted with challenges from both nature and man. Peter understands what a big deal this is--to run away from home for a pet--and questions himself appropriately. His bravery is sprinkled with the right amount of foolhardiness and fear. At a crucial part in his journey, he meets an old woman who turns out to be both a regret-filled veteran from a different war and the kindest soul he's ever met. They help each other in really neat ways.

The story is told with alternating chapters--Peter's story, then Pax's story (neither is told in the first person, which is a wise choice I think). Pax's story is well done; Pennypacker speaks for Pax in appropriate ways, and it's neat to see Pax's transformation from a tame fox to a wild one. He, too, meets others along his journey and questions his loyalty to his boy and his pack. I was completely drawn into both of their self-discovery journeys while they fought to return to each other.

It's clear to this adult reader that Pennypacker has real things to say about war, and the costs of war. We see a good character broken down by guilt and shame from what she did in war, and we witness animals being cleared out and killed or made homeless to make room for war, in addition to the breakdown of families that happens. In this case, it's a blessing as Peter needed to escape the heavy hand of his father.

This is an excellent book--we see the beautiful bond between a boy and his animal, we watch these two fight their way back to each other while maturing within their own skin in the process. Pennypacker's language is just perfect, and Jon Klassen adds that something extra with a few illustrations. I'm so glad this book is and will always be on my shelf to read again and again, with or without my kids.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

If Kids Ruled the World by Linda Bailey

If Kids Ruled the World by Linda Bailey, illustrated by David Huyck
Kids Can Press

Rating: 5 stars

I'm pretty sure every child on Earth would cheer if they got the chance to read this book. It is a brilliant crowd-pleaser of a book.

If kids ruled the world, here's what would happen:

Your doctor would say, "Eat your birthday cake so you'll grow up strong and healthy!"

You could wear anything you like. A T-shirt. A tutu. A tuxedo.

If you want to travel a long way, you could take a pirate ship.

You could have all the pets you like. Any kind!

Every yard would have a lake with frogs for catching and rafts for riding.

You'd never have to take a bath again.
You could go to any kind of school you like...
circus school, fairy school, inventing school, recess school.

All the sidewalks would be trampolines, all the cars would be ponies.

And, to end it just right, all the grandparents would remember how to play, and they'd join in, too. (No mention on the parents, though, which is funny to me--and understandable. Clearly, it's easier to remember how to be playful when you're a grandma, not a mom!)

As if the fun text isn't enough, when you add playful, fun images by David Huyck, this book is a no-brainer cheerer-upper for any day. My kids and I have had fun conversations about what type of school they'd attend if they could go to any school (inventing school, with breaks for recess school), and what type of breakfast they'd eat (cake).

Fun, fun, fun!

Monday, February 1, 2016

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín, translated by E.M. O'Connor
Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Rating: 5 stars

Some years ago I was part of a writing group which encouraged us writer-participants to share what we've read. A woman a few decades older than me read a piece based on her childhood in Chile. She wrote about the hills and the sights of the sea, how her father came home from abroad and brought a woman's shawl for a woman other than her mother. There was something captivating about her story, and after she read, she explained how she and her family (had her mother forgiven her father and they left together? I've forgotten...) fled Chile during the violent Pinochet years.

I think it was this woman's story that made I Lived on Butterfly Hill to call out to me from the library shelves. I just had to read it, and I'm so glad I finally did.

The story is about and narrated by Celeste Marconi, a young girl growing up in Valparaiso, Chile, during a time of significant political turmoil. During the first few chapters, as Agosín drops hints to describe how deeply entrenched Celeste and her family are in Valparaiso, Celeste notices large ships coming into the harbor. She hears the grown-ups whisper; with the help of a wonderful dose of magical realism that is sprinkled throughout this novel, Celeste senses that some sort of darkness about will occur. Finally, it happens: the socialist President is killed, and a dictator takes over the country.

(In the book, it is fictional President Alarcon who is killed by an unnamed sunglass-wearing dictator, not real-life Allende and Pinochet.)

Celeste struggles to understand what is going on during the first week of the new dictatorship as books are burned and new rules are imposed. Many of Celeste's classmates and neighbors are "disappeared." Her parents, both doctors who work at free clinics for the poor and publicly supported Alarcon, go into hiding. Her grandmother watches over her, then decides to send Celeste to her aunt in Maine. Traveling alone and in exile from everything she's ever known to this faraway place, Celeste makes the best of it and trusts herself and has faith in her homeland while still opening herself to another way of life, and another group of people to love.

This is an excellent, excellent book. It's a long one for middle grade readers--over 400 pages--but Agosín quickly wrapped me in an emotional story about characters about which I cared deeply, and I couldn't put it down. I loved how Celeste matured into a patriot, more certain of the future of Chile than the grown-ups who were affected and still shaky from the political turmoil. 

I loved the insights young readers could get from this book: what a difference a political leader could make, what it's like being a non-native English speaker in an American school, how it isn't only Nazi Germany that has stories of escape and heroism and defiance, how many rights we Americans have that are taken for granted, the importance of literacy for a country. This book is rich with such lessons--I highly recommend it, especially if read and discussed with your child (or students).

Friday, January 29, 2016

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela DePrince

Ballerina Dreams: From Orphan to Dancer by Michaela DePrince
Random House Children's Books

Rating: 5 stars

Here's a review I did a little while ago for Washington FAMILY Magazine about the true story of one talented, amazing, determined young woman:

I dare you to read this book and not get goosebumps up and down your arm. Michaela DePrince’s rags-to-riches tale is almost unbelievable, from its tragic beginnings to fairytale ending. And it’s all true.

This book is a Step Into Reading book, rated Level 4, geared towards 7 to 9 year-olds. I say this first because DePrince’s story has some difficult facts for young kids to absorb, and the questions kids will likely ask have some sobering answers. Despite the image of the graceful ballerina on the cover, know that this is not your typical ballerina children’s book.

In this easy reader, DePrince glosses over the death of her parents in an age-appropriate way. “My parents died [in Sierra Leone] in an ongoing war.” That sentence will satisfy some readers; others will want to know more. The whole truth is that DePrince was born in Sierra Leone in 1995, during the civil war. Her father was shot by rebels. Her mother starved to death. She was sent to an orphanage with other children with similar stories.

In addition to this tragic beginning, DePrince suffered from vitiligo, a skin disease that made white spots appear on her brown skin. Kids at the orphanage teased her. DePrince worried she would not be adopted because of her imperfections.

While at the orphanage, DePrince saw a ballet magazine and was carried away with the image. When she was adopted (by Elaine DePrince, whose story is equally heartbreaking and inspirational, but not told in this story), she kept the image with her. Her adoptive mother saw it and promised that in America, she could dance ballet.

This is where the story takes a welcome positive turn. DePrince is not the only child adopted by Elaine DePrince. Her best friend is also chosen, and the two friends become sisters in America. They both start dancing, though it is Michaela who excels and advances. Because there are so few African American ballerinas and because she is a superior dancer, she is asked to dance for a documentary about ballet. At her mother’s urging, she says yes. “First Position” was a huge success, and DePrince’s fame grew.

DePrince’s story is incredible—I was so glad that such good things came from such horrible beginnings for this young lady. In case you or your child are curious to learn more, you should know that Ballerina Dreams was written after DePrince wrote and published Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina (2014, Alfred A. Knopf). This is her memoir targeted for young adult audience and goes into more detail about all parts of her story.

I was also glad to discuss this book after my second grade daughter read it. She had a lot of questions about DePrince’s beginnings, and the conversation about war and parents dying wasn’t an easy one. But I think therein lies the beauty of books with difficult subject matter: they provide the opportunity to talk about tragic and sad realities in a safe place, in an appropriate manner, and with a loved one.

Review originally posted HERE.