Friday, September 23, 2016

Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved, illustrated by Charlotte Pardi, translated from Danish by Robert Moulthrop
Enchanted Lion Books

Rating: 5 stars

A picture book about death?

That's not something you see everyday. But this exceptional, unique book by Glenn Ringtved is worth noting for the sad moment your child needs to say good-bye to a loved one in his or her life. There is magic within these pages, because the delivery of this message could easily have gone wrong had it not gone perfectly right.

Here's the story:

"In the far north" (love that this could take place anywhere), a beloved grandmother and her four grandchildren lived together for many years. Now, they had a visitor. The four children knew the visitor was Death. ("Not wanting to frighten the children, the visitor had left his scythe outside the door.")

The four knew about Death. They understood he had come for their grandmother, who lay ill in her bedroom. They tried to trick him into leaving without her, but Death sat patiently and quietly at the table while the children poured him cup after cup of coffee. Finally, Death "placed his bony hand over his cup to signal 'No more.'"

And here's where the tale goes from interesting to beautiful...

Death wanted the children to understand why he'd come, and so he said, "I would like to tell you a story." He told the children a story of two brothers named Sorrow and Grief who moved about in their gloomy lives until they came across two sisters named Joy and Delight, whose moods were always bright and sunny. Soon, Sorrow and Delight fell in love with each other, and Grief and Joy did the same. The four lived in their two houses on a hill until they were all old and gray, then they died on the same day because they could not live without each other.

"'It is the same with life and death,' Death said, 'What would life by worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for day if there were no night?'"

Death said quietly, "Cry, Heart, but never break.
Let your tears of grief and sadness help begin new life."
After one final good-bye, Death took the children's grandmother. And while their hearts will full of sorrow and grief, those same hearts did not break because they could remember the joy and delight of her life.

This was such a surprising, moving, beautiful book. Hopefully you will not need it in your life anytime soon, but...when Death inevitably and necessarily comes, perhaps it is a good one to read with your children.

When our dog died this past Spring, I was shocked by how sad I was! But watching my children meet Grief for the first time was gut-wrenching in another way. While she was only and wonderfully just a dog, Lulu gave my kids a tiny taste of how things have a way of balancing each other in this life of ours. For better or for worse, life is a combination of the best and the worst. That's what keeps it interesting, that's what keeps it worthwhile.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Tinyville Town by Brian Biggs

Tinyville Town: Gets to Work! by Brian Biggs
Abrams Appleseed

Rating: 5 stars

Recently I upped the ante on my kids' chores. They've gotten a weekly-ish (I forget frequently but always pay up) allowance for about two years. Each receives the same amount as their age--I'm not sure if this is exactly fair or right because Kiefer ends up doing about the same as Lorelei. But he often earns a few extra dollars every week helping me or my husband in a big way. Now that I've delegated more jobs to my kids, I only put the dishes away once a week now! They vacuum, sweep, feed our dog, wipe the table, and put the endless piles of laundry away.

While I want to take a load off of my own shoulders, my main goal is to teach them what it takes to run a household and to train them to be an active participant. "We all pitch in," I tell them. "We all do our part."

The cute, neck-lacking people of Tinyville...
That's what I like about Brian Biggs' series about Tinyville Town: these cute and smiley, hard-working and neck-lacking people live together and do their part to keep the town working. This particular book Gets to Work! starts out with things running smoothly, but they soon encounter a problem: a big traffic jam is keeping the trash collectors from collecting the trash, the bus driver from getting to the bus stop, and (the biggest problem) the baker from delivering his donuts!

The leaders of the town get together, discuss, and realize the solution: a new, bigger bridge. And one that looks nice, too. The right people--the city planner and the engineer--design the bridge, and the next people to solve the problem, the construction team, soon begins to build the bridge. By the end of the book, things are running smoothly again, and the no-neck people of Tinyville are all smiles.

(Kiefer was particularly enamored by the ribbon-cutting at the end of the book, when the mayor officially opens the new bridge. "Do they always cut it? Do they leave the ribbon up for forever?" I never know what's going to grab my kids' that this little part was the most interesting part of this book, at least during the first reading!)

Hope your own family and town are running smoothly today!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Please, Mr. Panda by Steve Antony

Please, Mr. Panda by Steve Antony

Rating: 5 stars

Once in a while, a perfect book just falls in your lap. And this book, with the adorably grumpy panda holding a box of delicious treats on its cover, is one such book.

Simple, sweet, with a fantastic message.

Mr. Panda offers donuts to a handful of different animals, but then changes his mind and takes back the offer when their responses are much too greedy, demanding, and rude.

"Would you like a doughnut?" Panda asks Penguin,

"Give me the pink one." Penguin replies.

"No, you cannot have a doughnut. I have changed my mind."

In the end, it's lemur who uses that magic word...and gets the whole box. Yum! That's what I call just desserts.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Courage of Sarah Noble and The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, by Alice Dalgliesh

The Courage of Sarah Noble and The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, by Alice Dalgliesh
Aladdin Books

Rating: 4 stars

The other day I was at our new neighbor's house, checking out the impressive homeschool supplies she has laying out on her dining room sideboard. Books! Workbooks! Lesson plans! Books! Art supplies! And more. But really, she had me at books. I was having trouble paying attention to the answer to my own question about homeschooling while I browsed through the large stack of middle grade books. It was so fun to see what books she had lined up for her boys for the year.

My favorite of all favorite book genres, middle grade is where it's at for me (memoirs come second)--mostly, I think, because there are happy endings. (I'm just not ready for Young Adult, which comes next, which are about super serious topics such as substance abuse, sex, and suicide and can leave you with a lurch-y feeling at the end.)

These two little middle grade books, both by Alice Dalgliesh, The Courage of Sarah Noble and The Bears on Hemlock Mountain were among the stack in my neighbor's house. We have Courage on our Newbery shelf, so I checked out Bears from our new library. Lorelei read them first, and I read them a few days later. They are very short reads, thus making them really good first chapter books or books you can read with your child if their desire for and interest in long, drawn-out plots is still building.

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, written first in 1952 and a Newbery Honor book, is about a boy named Jonathan, whose mother asks that he climb up over the local mountain (really, a "big hill," he says of its size) to fetch a large pot from his aunt on the other side. Jonathan has heard rumors of bears on Hemlock Mountain, but his uncles and mother all shake their heads at this rumor. But Jonathan doesn't believe them. He sets out, a little nervous. When he returns with the pot after several delays, guess who he runs into?

This is a nice coming-of-age story set in the 18th century with good pacing and an adventurous topic, and I really liked it. Jonathan's solution to hiding from the bears is great, and I love how he calls his father out when his father comes to retrieve him on the mountain with many hunter friends, each with his own rifle. "Rifles? So you did know there are bears on Hemlock Mountain!"

The Courage of Sarah Noble, written two years later in 1954 and another Newbery Honor book, is an early version of Laura Ingalls in two ways: First, it was written before Ingalls' books; second, Sarah is just eight years old, younger (I think, if I remember correctly) than Laura was when she first moves West. Sarah and her father travel together to set up their home in Connecticut, leaving behind her mother and siblings until the house is ready for them. Sarah helps cook for her father, then, after befriending them for what seems to be a short time, stays with a local Native family while her father goes to fetch the rest of the family.

Sarah reminds herself to "have courage!" throughout the book, and it's a nice reminder that little acts of courage are often required in children's daily lives--courage to be honest, courage to be kind, courage to speak up for something unfair or wrong. The story is inspired by real-life settlers in 1707, and sure, it's dated. Sarah's initial comments of the Native Indians made me cringe a little, but by the time her mother arrives and has similar opinions of them, Sarah defends the Natives she's grown to love. Sarah's maturation, fortitude, and yes, courage, are sweet and inspiring.

What was the most fun for me, though, was debating with Lorelei which was the better book. I was surprised she liked Sarah Noble better--I liked Bears on Hemlock Mountain a bunch more. Who really cares who was right...the more important thing was that I had a nice long conversation with my daughter about the lives of two children who lived long ago as we walked our puppy along our new road. Books continue to be one of the many bonds between my daughter and me, and I'm counting my lucky stars for that!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Little Hummingbird, by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

The Little Hummingbird, by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
Greystone Books

Rating: 5 stars

After not writing all summer long while moving my family from the East Coast to the West, I feel some pressure to come back with a BANG, to write about the newest and latest and most popular book that's now sitting on the shelves of the coolest people ever (but somehow you've still not heard about).

But...this book I came across last week is just too special, even though it's six years old. This is a beautiful retelling of a South American tale--both the simple story and the woodcut illustrations are beautiful...and the lesson at the end is one I try very hard to practice and teach my children.

Here's the story:

There is a fire, a big fire, in the forest. All the animals run away. They remain huddled at the edge of the forest, afraid and helpless. These animals look up to see little Hummingbird flying as fast as she can to the stream. There, she picks up a drop of water in her beak and flies as fast as she can back to the fire. She drops the water on the fire.

She does this again and again and again. Flies to the water, picks up one drop, flies to the fire, deposits the drop. Again and again and again.

The animals finally stop Hummingbird. Big Bear asks, "Little Hummingbird, what are you doing?"

Hummingbird stops and says, simply, "I'm doing everything I can."

See this beautiful story as a YouTube video:

The big message of this simple is the sort that stops you in your tracks. What if all of us just did all that we could to fight a particular problem? The results would be nothing short of revolutionary.

So as my kids went to school this morning to their new school with new classmates and new teachers and new cubbies and new everything else, it was with that message. I sure hope that school receives them with open arms, doing all that they can to welcome my trio into their warm environment.

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!