Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook Press

Rating: 5 stars

I'm a big, huge fan of this author. Steve Sheinkin writes nonfiction middle grade books that are well-written, well-researched, fast-paced and informative--I really wish they were around when I was growing up. My favorite of his is Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon. C'mon, with a title like that, how can you not pick it up?! 

Undefeated is about Jim Thorpe, a Native American athlete who dominated almost any sport he attempted (baseball is the notable exception, as documented in the book). Born around the turn of the century, when Native Americans were being herded onto reservations and assimilated into white American culture, Thorpe was forced to go to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The story centers around the meeting of and relationship between Thorpe and Pop Warner. Warner, in case, like me, you're not a football fan, was a football mastermind who hailed from the top of society, having graduated from, then coached in, the Ivy League.

These two men could not have had more different backgrounds.

Yet, Pop Warner realized Jim Thorpe was the most gifted athlete he had ever seen. He knew that within moments of meeting Thorpe, after watching him outrun a pack of Warner's well-trained and well-seasoned football players. And so the two began their relationship, which has been lauded the "most winningest" combination in sports history.

Sheinkin chronicles Thorpe's rise in football, and how he crossed over to track and field to take advantage of his speed. From there, he volunteered to give decathlons a try. Turns out he was a shoo-in for such a demanding sport, and he represented the United States in that sport and the pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics. He was the first Native American to earn a gold medal. (Later, due to the fact that he accepted payment as a minor league baseball player, Thorpe was stripped of his medals.)

In addition to Thorpe's fascinating life and sports career, Sheinkin reports on the history of Native Americans in the United States. The chapters about how Native Americans were forced to schools such as the one at Carlisle, stripped of their birth name and given a "white" name, and then punished for remembering or practicing anything from their native tribes is eye-opening and humbling. In addition, Sheinkin writes about the early years of football. I'm pretty much the opposite of a football fan (don't tell my Seahawks-crazed neighbors that), but found that part of the book really interesting.

Clearly, this is not a book for really young children. But it is an excellent choice for curious, history-minded readers age ten or older, and could be read aloud to a slightly younger child (so that younger readers could have their inevitable questions about Native American policies answered right away).

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza

Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza

Rating: 5 stars

Lucia is a girl who can jump off the highest monkey bars at the playground and run faster than lightening. Still, the boys make fun of her for being a girl. They tease her that girls are nothing but "sugar and spice and everything nice." This makes Lucia mad.

"Spicy mad. KA-POW kind of mad."

But Lucia has a trick up her sleeve. Or, better still, an abuela on her side. Abu explains how, when she was younger, she was a luchadora. She fought in a ring with a mask over her face and a cape blowing behind her, mighty as can be. Outside the ring, she fought the good fight and helped others in need. She passes her mask on to Lucia. With the mask and cape, Lucia is transformed into Lucia the Luchadora. She's unstoppable! She inspires a bunch of other children to don masks and capes and come out to play just as hard as she does.

All is fine until one comes child out in a pink and white mask and cape. She is clearly a girl. The same boys taunt her, returning to their "sugar and spice" phrase. But Lucia comes to her rescue, pulling off her mask, letting her long hair escape.

See? Girls can be powerful players and kind-hearted souls--in one WOW moment.

I love this story of girl power and the illustrations are aaaaaa-mazing. But this book is special to me because I saw it when it was barely more than an idea. When it was a typed-up, double-spaced manuscript handed from one hopeful writer to another. The author, Cynthia Leonor Garza, and I were part of a critique group who met at a coffee shop in Fairfax, Virginia. We'd meet to exchange manuscripts, offer advice, point out problems, suggest improvements, and chat about squeezing in writing time while our children watched movies, played outside, slept.

Lucia is Cynthia's second manuscript (my fingers are still crossed that her piƱata story is published soon!) at our critique group, and I can't tell you how fun it is to read the final version, complete with gorgeous, vibrant illustrations by Alyssa Bermudez.

And now LOOK at this! She's got her debut picture book accepted, produced, and published. Congratulations, Cynthia, and keep fighting the good fight, Lucia!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Jake the Fake Keeps it Real by Craig Robinson and Adam Mansbach

Jake the Fake Keeps it Real by Craig Robinson and Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Keith Knight
Crown Books for Young Readers

Rating: 4 stars (my kids would give it a 5)

Here's a new middle grade novel, one that was written to tickle the funny bone of every child who reads it. It has two authors: one (Craig Robinson) is an actor/comedian; the other (Adam Mansbach) is the author of for-adults-only book Go the F**k to Sleep. It's a good one to know about: it's a slim book chock full of silly illustrations by cartoonish Keith Knight, so it's an easy read for a above-grade-level readers but also engages readers who are struggling a bit. There's a ton of incentive to read because readers are going to want to get to the next joke! This book will get passed around the car from one child to another.

But this book is also good to know about because it's a great audiobook--Sullivan Jones performs it superbly, with silly voices, big songs, amped-up reactions to things that he'd easily win a standing O from the children in the back of your car. You might want this audiobook for a long car ride this summer...

So what's it about?

Jake declares himself the dumbest school at his touchy-feely "smart school," a magnet school in a fictional city. He realizes that he wants to fit in, and in this school you've got to be weird to fit in, so he brainstorms schemes that are so funny I laughed out loud at them--and I know my children would have laughed even harder. 

Things come to a head during the school talent show, when Jake feels he's got no talent whatsoever. But he pulls out a great act when he remembers that one time someone thought he was funny. So he runs with it, and tries his first little comedy act, and it goes really well. He's found himself, he gets laughs and high-fives from all his classmates, and he feels like he finally fits in.

Parents should know that, like most comedians, Jake is irreverent and pokes fun at anything and everything. He might offend an adult at some point or another. My two eye-rolling points were: First, when he described a home-schooled child as socially awkward in what I felt was a demeaning way; second, when he said "Americans get type 1 diabetes just by looking at large drinks from 7-11" or something like that. 

But I admit that these statements were a little funny because they are a little true. And kids love to laugh. Kids NEED to laugh! know, we adults do, too. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat and Mo Willems

The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat and Mo Willems
Disney Press

Rating: 5 stars

Four friends. Three cookies.

Is there any better start to a book? Because if you have ever been in a situation like this one, I assure you: it's a fiasco.

These four friends are beside themselves with despair. They think of possible solutions to the problem. Alligator suggests that the two little squirrels share one cookie. One squirrel states that Alligators shouldn't like cookies. Hippo suggests the cookies be allotted according to size. The final squirrel throws her hands up in the air--she's too overwhelmed with the thought of cookie loss to solve any problems.

Then, Hippo starts breaking the cookies. It's what he does when he's nervous, another friend explains. She can't help herself! She breaks them all once, and there are six half-cookies. A few pages later she breaks all of those in half. Suddenly, there are twelve quarters.


Each animals grabs some cookies...and (I know you've guessed it) they each have three pieces of cookie in their hands.

Talk about a smile-inducing book right before bedtime! (Or anytime!)

I knew this book was going to great because:

  • The title: it had the word fiasco in it. And fiasco is such a great word--in general and for young readers to know.
  • It is written and illustrated by Dan Santat. He's the guy who created the gorgeous story and pictures in The Adventures of Beekle, so I knew he'd bring warmth and silliness to any and all characters in this book.
  • This book is in a new series called "Elephant and Piggie Like Reading! Series" This series is launched from the enormous success of the enormously wonderful Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggie books. While at first I was annoyed by the marketing of it, the books selected for this series are really great easy readers for readers who are making the big leap into reading by themselves.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson

Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson
Walden Pond Press

Rating: 5 stars

You've probably already realized that most middle grade books are about a quest. The recent Newbery winner The Inquisitor's Tale is about a handful of young children in the Middle Ages who need to escape persecution and save holy texts. In another middle grade I recently read with Lorelei, The Last Boy at St Edith's, the lone boy at an all-girls school embarks on a quest to get kicked out.

Ms. Bixby's Last Day involves a quest, too, and a wonderfully unique one. Here's the story:

Topher, Brand, and Steve are three boys whose teacher is "one of the great ones." They each appreciate Ms Bixby in a different, special, sweet way; I love how you don't get the full story of why they feel so drawn to her until later in the book. The story is told through alternating first person voice--each boy gets their own chapter and the story unfolds from these similar but yet different points of view. I love how this sheds light on their own individual story as well as the bigger one of which they're all a part.

Anyway, because they really like and respect her, they're sobered when Ms Bixby announces to the class that she has cancer. To make matters worse, she is then too sick to attend her own goodbye party. The boys decide this won't do; they need to go out, find her, and have a goodbye party for her wherever she is, since she can't come to them. 

The boys skip school and navigate through the real world to the hospital--with great adventures on the city streets that both boy and girl readers will lap up. But, like any good middle grade quest, the adventure is simply the way in which the characters learn about themselves and, in this one, a little more about each other.  

What's so great about this book? Two things:

First, I think it's hard for a middle grade book to be both emotional and funny. This book balances the emotional heaviness of the subject--a favorite teacher is going to die--with the quirkiness and grossness and silliness of middle school boys. It's a fantastic reminder to young and old readers alike that it's important to find a reason to smile and laugh in the face of hard times. And hard times will come to those young and old readers alike. My children have lost two great-uncles in the past two years, one dying from kidney cancer, the other dying from complications after a stroke. And yet, we find a reason to come together in our clan of five and with extended family to laugh and play and bond.

Second, I love that the main characters are boys. Boy books are so often full of boogers and poop and potty-mouth words, and while this book does sprinkle in a little bit of that here and there because...well, call me sexist but boys will be boys..., boys are also emotional beings. It seems obvious to point out that they are full of as wide a range of emotions as their female counterparts, but I think we grown-ups forget that. I love that Topher, Brand, and Steve feel so much for their teacher that they feel the need to go find her and say good-bye in a way that feels right to them.

The party that finally happens does involve Jack Daniels, which keeps that final goodbye chuckle-worthy. Though you might, like me, tear up as well.

One final note: Lorelei read this first, and then Ben and I started listening to the audiobook together on a long drive. He's not finished listening to it yet, but on our Spring Break we cozied up for 30-45 minutes at a time listening together. It was a nice break from me reading aloud to him--it put us on the same pillow.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Laundry Day

Laundry Day written and illustrated by Jessixa Bagley
Rating: 5 stars

Two badger brothers star in Laundry Day, a new picture book written and illustrated by Jessixa Bagley. Two badger brothers  start the book with a statement brothers (and sisters!) have been saying since the beginning of time: "I'm bored."

They're complaining to their mother--the receiver of all complaints since the beginning of time. They inform her they've already read all the books (and then again backwards), built a fort (and invaded it), and caught all the fish (and let the fish go). So, she does what this mother would do. She invites them to do a chore.

"Would you like to help me hang the laundry?" asks Ma Badger.

They've not done that! And yes, they would!

She shows them how and they hop right to it. Then she leaves to go to the market (I love this "picture book magic" that leaves the two of them parent-less and unsupervised) with the two badger brothers pinning shirts and sheets and socks and skirts. They are busy. They are happy.

Until they get to the problem of the story: they run out of clothes. And twine.

"TIC AND TAC! What have you done?!" she hollered.
No matter! They've got more twine! One badger brother strings some up, while another runs inside. They gather anything and everything their badger brother hands can find: aprons and mugs and spatulas from the kitchen, maps and framed pictures and a toy boat from the den, a toilet seat and tissue box and scissors from the bathroom.

These two brothers string up more twine so they can hang up more stuff. And this made me and Kiefer, two happy readers, chuckle as we paused to look at each silly item hung up to dry.

You can imagine Ma Badger's reaction. So, she does what this mother would do. She adds them to the line!

This is a cute and silly and all-round-great new picture book where the words and story are good but the pictures are spot-on and perfect. It invites you to sit down with the same book again and again and possibly find one new things these mischievous badger brothers strung up on the line together.

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!