Thursday, October 13, 2016

Thank You and Good Night by Patrick McDonnell

Thank You and Good Night by Patrick McDonnell
Little, Brown and Company

Rating: 5 stars

Maggie and Clement are getting into their pajamas when friends Jean and Alan Alexander appear at the door. "We're here!" they announce.

It's time for a good, old-fashioned pajama party!

They dance the chicken dance, jump on the bed, play hide-and-seek, and do yoga. As they get sleepier, they wish on a falling star, sing a lullaby, and start to yawn.

"Now is it time for bed?" the three animals ask Maggie.

"Yes," she says.

Maggie read them their favorite bedtime stories--
stories about a majestic elephant, a brave bear, and a quiet bunny.
Stories that bring sweet dreams.
They sleepwalk, zombie-style, down the hall, listen to several bedtime stories, and then Maggie prompts to end the day in a thankful way.

"Now, before we go to sleep, let's all say what we are thankful for this day," she says.

The list is wonderfully long and lasts the whole page, and ends with a good-night kiss from Maggie on their heads.

Thank you, and good night.

I am smitten by this book because although we aren't the biggest prayers, we sure are thankful, and we talk about how lucky we are all the time. Like Maggie, Clement, Jean, and Alan Alexander, we have much to be thankful for each and every day.

I hope your family does, too!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary
Wendy Lamb Books/Random House

Rating: 5 stars

This is my favorite middle grade that I've read in a very long time. If I were on the Newbery team, I'd choose this one.

Laura Shovan has written an intriguing, quirky, thought-provoking story, and delivered it in the most impressive way: she's written it in verse. List, narrative, odes, raps, rhyming, senryu, free verse, haiku, acrostic are just a few of the poem forms she uses. But wait, it gets better: the book is not one long poem. That'd be neat, but to get the feel of all the unique voices that make up Emerson Elementary's fifth grade, she gives each student his or her own distinct type of poem.

Really, I'm not sure writing gets more creative than this.

The problem: Emerson Elementary is closing. The building is being razed and a huge grocery store will replace it. The students' reaction to this fact is very realistic: Some are alarmed and angry, determined to change the fate of their school. These are the young activists, some earning their parents' support, some doing it behind their parents' and teachers' backs. Some students are apathetic about the demolition. Still others are eager for the demolition because they want a new beginning (and they're pleased with their previous years in school being buried underneath the rubble). The students document all of these feelings in poems which are to be placed in a time capsule and buried somewhere in the grocery store's foundation.

WHAT I MISSEDby Edgar Lee Jones 
I missed the sit-in at the Board.I missed the waiting, being ignored.I missed it when we lost our fight,and Emerson was sold that night.I missed it all. I wasn't there.I spent all night in my hospital chairvisiting Grandpa with my dad.I miss his smile. He looks real bad.

As you can see in the poem above, in addition to this main plot, the students are concerned about stuff in their own lives--about grandparents dying, questions of identity, trying to figure out how to dress in a "cool" way, how a boy feels when his dad leaves his mom, who to be friends with, whether or not a girl wants the attention of a boy...things of this nature. Shaven does a stellar job remembering how big these issues are to middle school children; I love the way she respects the students emotions and concerns and complaints without looking down on them in a "it's not a big deal" way we grown-ups often do. 

LEFT OUTby Rajesh Rao 
Edgar was my friend.We shared a seat on the bus,played chess at recess. 
Now he's always with George Furst,working on secret projects.

This is an excellent, excellent book for teachers to know about and read with their class. The over-arching story and individual students' stories are ripe for discussion!

I confess that I listened to the audiobook version, and I think that made me love it even more--usually only one person reads an audiobook, but in this one each student got his or her own reader, making the voices and poems stand apart from each other that much more. It was incredibly well done, and made me wonder if teachers would ever press play for a book such as this one instead of reading aloud to their classes...? I always favor human over electronic, but this audiobook is an exception.

I found this book on a list at the School Library Journal's entitled "Choice Chapter Book Read-Alouds." There are some other great books on the list. Click HERE to check them out.

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.
Death said quietly, "Cry, Heart, but never break.
Let your tears of grief and sadness help begin new life."

"'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?'"

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.

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...