Thursday, August 28, 2014

Superhero Joe and the Creature Next Door by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman

Superhero Joe and the Creature Next Door by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman, illustrated by Ron Barrett

Rating: 4 stars

Superhero Joe is BACK! And that's a good thing, because we like him!

Last time we saw him, in Superhero Joe, he battled the dark, monster-filled basement for a bit of imagination fun--complete with creative costume, such as turning the lid of a pot as a shield of invincibility--and coming to the rescue of his parents, who had spilled some black gooey stuff and needed him to get a mop.

This time, Superhero Joe is disappointed to see his neighbor move.  The neighbor was an older guy who had a cool treehouse high up in his yard, and the guy had said Joe could use it whenever he wanted.  But Joe was nervous about the ladder that hung down--for the life of him, he couldn't get up there.  Now he never will...

The new family moving has two normal-looking parents but the kid...Joe isn't sure about the kid.  In fact, Joe is apprehensive of the kid.  He has enormous boots, a sweater that hangs so long Joe isn't sure he has hands.  And the kid has a huge hat-of-sorts; Joe isn't sure if the guy even has a face.  And...wouldn't you know it?...there goes that kid (Joe calls him the creature) easily going up to the treehouse, carrying box after box of something with him.

What was in the boxes?!  What sort of preparations was this creature making? Joe thinks up all sorts of evil doings, all ways that this creature could infiltrate his life in unplanned, ungood ways.

(Why is it that Joe jumps to the worst conclusion ever?!  Whatever the reason is, it's the same reason my kids also jump to conclusions, blow things out of proportion, and feel illogical fears.  Not that I ever do these things...nope, not me...)
What is his evil plan??

Finally, Joe dons his superhero stuff and tucks his curiosity and courage in tight, and goes to meet this kid-creature.

"Hi! I like your cape!" says the kid-creature in a not-so-creature sort of way. Turns out, the kid wears a huge hat because he thinks it makes him invisible. Turns out, if one person holds the swinging rope ladder at the bottom, it's much easier to get to the top.

Turns out, Superhero Joe and Invisible Phil are going to be good friends!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka

Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

Rating: 5 stars

This book is a whole lot of awesome.

Raczka wrote a year's worth of haiku poems especially for boys--each season gets about six simple-yet-so-clever poems inspired by the outdoorsy play and crazy behavior that is mostly associated with boys.  Here are my favorites (yeah, I know I did two for summer. I couldn't choose!):

In a rushing stream,
we turn rocks into a dam.
Hours flow by us.

Pine tree invites me
Ba ha ha!!
to climb up to the sky.
How can I refuse?

Penny on the rail,
you used to look like Lincoln
before you got smooshed.

From underneath the
leaf pile, my invisible
brother is giggling.

How many million
flakes will it take to make a
snow day tomorrow?

Love, love, LOVE!

Haikus are so accessible for kids--they are so easy to come up while hiking along, eating breakfast, taking a walk around the block, or driving in a car, which is when Lorelei and Ben and I often do them. It's fun and there's no rhyming necessary and the sillier the better. During Lorelei's Spring Break, when she was encouraged to journal every day, she wrote a haiku every day instead.  On the first day we all got in on the haiku fun...I have one of mine written down--our whole family, including our two weimaraners, were in the car heading to West Virginia and the dogs' smelly gas leaking from their rears was filling up the car.  That was the subject of my poem, which had me in stitches (I often crack myself up).

Back to the book.

I think two opposite things, strongly, at the same time: First, I wish that this was for all kids, not just boys.  Lorelei was the one who enjoyed this the most; I was happy she agreed to forget the subtitle of the book and read it.  She loves thinking up haikus any old time.

Second, I love that this is just for boys. I love that a whole book is full of what I hope my boys are always full of: curiosity and energy, laughter and outdoor play, silliness and exploration.

I know, I know.  I'm a card-carrying member of the Want it Both Ways Club.

Either way, this book is a whole lot of awesome!

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch by Anne Isaacs

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch by Anne Isaacs, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

Rating: 4.5 stars

You could hear a pin drop when I read this very wordy picture book to my trio a few days ago.  Storyteller Anne Isaacs writes a fun tall tale about a rich widow ridding herself of suitors. I would never have predicted each of my children would care so much about the story!

And here's a brief synopsis of that story:

In 1870, the widow Tulip Jones inherits 35 million dollars and a ranch at By-Golly Gully, Texas.  She immediately hops the next boat over to America from her native England (she brings "two trunks of tea and her twelve pet tortoises" and three servants that would soon serve as ranch-hands). When the Widow Jones gets there, she and her three ladies-in-waiting soon realize that everything grows bigger in Texas.  "Potatoes are so big it only takes seven of them to make a dozen."  Her turtles grow to the size of thoroughbreds, and she treats them as the speedy steeds they become.
By Golly Gully was so hot that chickens laid hard-boiled eggs,
and lizards hobbled around on stilts to avoid
burning their feet on the ground.

But it's her money, not her green thumb or animal husbandry, that makes men line up for miles to propose to her. Every day she fends them off one at a time, and every night she sits and chats with Charlie, the ranch's baker, and eats the delicious things he makes for her to try.

She comes up with a plan to get rid of the suitors by making her hand in marriage something to be won in an impossible contest.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, her three ranch hand pals come up with their own plan: to invite a thousand brides to come and take the thousand suitors off of the Widow Jones' hands.

These two plans unfold simultaneously and seamlessly, and my kids were wrapped up in the drama as Anne Isaacs builds up the story in a great, too tall Texas way.  I won't spill all the beans, but you've probably guessed that there were some very entertaining hiccups in each of the plans, and the thousand brides end up scaring away the main bad guys--the Hole in the Pants Gang--because these guys would rather go to jail than get married.

(I did my best not to laugh out loud and then explain why that was so funny on that point while reading to my kids.)

Anyway, the three ranch hands also find husbands so the Widow Jones is left...alone.  Just for the moment, because her baker Charlie has more to offer her than a baked good at the end of her last day of suitors.  He has a diamond ring for her to try.  It's a happy ending after a long, rollicking tale that just feels good to everyone.

Hats off to Anne Isaacs here for writing such a break-the-rules long picture book that really would be less good if it was less wordy.  I'm surprised I like it so much because the story is all about getting hitched, and I think the normal picture book audience is too young to think much about that.  And it's looooong...I'm surprised three year old Kiefer sat through it.

Illustrator Kevin Hawkes might be a big part of the reason he did.  Hawkes is incredible, crazy talented, excelling at making downright impossible things look like they could happen tomorrow morning, if only you were in the right place.  He illustrated one of my favorite holiday books, Santa From Cincinnati, as well as two books I've not reviewed but bought because the illustrations just blew me away (the stories are wonderful, too!): The Library Lion and Velma Gratch and the Way Cool Butterfly.

For me, Isaacs and Hawkes make a fantastic duo.  I'd like to see them pair up again!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara

The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara

Rating: 4 stars

In the woods somewhere near you is a library open only at night.  A little librarian and a trio of owl-assistants run the place, keeping it stacked and ready, tidy and neat for all the animals. They are always available to help find the perfect book, direct noise-makers to the activity room, sit with you until you're through with a sad part in a book.

When the sun starts to peek up, the librarian finds one last book--the perfect book to read to three sleepy owls at their bedtime, at sunrise.

A cute story, indeed.  But, just as in her other book that we have and love (Ghosts in the House), the magic of her book lies in the illustrations. Her amazingly detailed linocut prints create unique illustrations for this midnight library that exists in the woods.  The simple colors--black, orange, and blue--highlight the details without overcomplicating the art.  Each image is captivating, deserving of several minutes of my full attention.

The technique is not incredibly common in children's books; I think showing your child the book helps them broaden their definition of "art" and what it can look like, what it can be. If your child is old enough to use a sharp knife, then there are many projects this book can easily inspire!  Lorelei was impressed with learning a little more--she'd be delighted to receive and use the linocut kit that is used here in this "linocuts for kids" demonstration.

Also, be sure to check out the incredibly unique, incredibly detailed illustrations by cut-paper artist Nikki McClure in the wonderful book All in a Day.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Pluto's Secret by Margaret A. Weitekamp with David DeVorkin

Pluto's Secret: An Icy World's Tale of Discovery by Margaret A. Weitekamp with David DeVorkin

Rating: 5 stars

Yesterday, on the way to the pool, Lorelei read Pluto's Secret.  When we got there, it was break time, so I asked her what she thought of it.  I interrupted her reading of a different book with my question.  Like me, she's not so fond of having her reading interrupted.

"It's nonfiction.  And it's funny nonfiction.  You don't see a lot of that.  Usually nonfiction is so serious.  But if you're so curious about it, why don't you read it?" was her full answer.

I told her the last part was a bit rude but she did have a point.  I shuffled to the car, got the book, and sat down to read it.  I interrupted her one last time before I really began to read: "Do you think someone is going to laugh at me, an adult reading a big picture book, without a kid on my lap?" My remark got no response.

But I kid you not: 30 seconds later a lady walked by and laughed out loud. And not in a very nice way.  I turned and looked at her and she apologized, "Sorry! I couldn't help it!  You just don't see that every day!"

I smiled, held back the long explanation, and went back to my book.

The icy world...was busy dancing with its moons.
I'm sure you heard, as even stuck-in-my-own-world-me heard, that Pluto is no longer a planet.  When my kids read an older science book, I am the one to break it to them or remind them that Pluto is no longer a planet.  This book provides a longer and better explanation than this mom usually provides.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has helped out parents and teachers with this book.  And it is a great book not just for learning Pluto's story (Pluto interjects many parts of it himself in a very fun way) but also to inform kids of how discoveries are made, and how older "facts" need to be reexamined with a fresh eye and a curious mind.

Here are the facts, in case you have to do some explaining before you check out this book (which you really should if you hang around any kid older than five):

  • Pluto was declared a planet on 13 March 1930 after the small dot Clyde Tombaugh, through his telescopic camera, moved in the two pictures a few days apart.  This was what planets do: move.  Ergo, that dot must be a planet.
  • Eleven-year-old Venetia Burney from England suggested the name "Pluto" because "Pluto is the Roman god of the dark underworld.  The new little planet is so far from the sun that it must be a cold, dark place, too."
  • Astronomers soon learned that Pluto didn't always stay in its place.  In fact, it orbited waaaay out past the other planets in the solar system, with other small planet-like things, and in a different path than the other planets.
  • This new area where planets--or, maybe they weren't planets--orbited was named the Kuiper belt.
  • There was no clear definition of what a planet was, so astronomers voted on a definition: they must orbit the sun, must be round like a ball, and it has to be alone in its orbit. (As the daughter of a guy who was constantly saying "Well, it depends on how you define X," I like that the authors included this in the book. Because you can bet I encourage my kids to define things, too.)
  • Therefore, Pluto was recategorized as an icy world--a "something new"--and we have a whole lot more to learn about it.

This book pairs nicely with a field trip to the Air and Space Museum--either downtown D.C. or the one out by us, Udvar Hazy Center.  That's where we're off to tomorrow...

Suggested reading:
A Penguin Story for a simple tale of curiosity, one of Kiefer's favorites (ages 2-5)...
Clouds and other easy reader books in that series for simple explanations of weather (ages 3-6)...
Meet Einstein for simple introduction of Einstein and his major discoveries (ages 4-7)

What Can a Crane Pick Up? by Rebecca Kai Dotlich

What Can a Crane Pick Up? by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, illustrated by Mike Lowry

Rating: 4 stars

This is a book that shows and tells all the stuff a crane can pick up.  With simple verse and bright, fun illustrations, each page shows how much or how little one of these working vehicles can lift.

That is all.

And you know what?  I love that Kiefer loves the book so much.  Every time he sees it on the new book shelf, he grabs it and puts it in our library bag.  Sometimes his grabbing is accompanied with a serious statement delivered in sweet, child-like tones: "I really luff dis book."
Can a crane pick up a crane?
It could!

Simple pleasures. Seeing one of your favorite books on a shelf at the library and getting excited that it's your turn to check it out.

May those simple pleasures last in him, may they inspire us.

And you know what? That is all.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Doug Unplugged by Dan Yacarrino

Doug Unplugged by Dan Yacarrino

Rating: 5 stars

We picked up and checked out Doug Unplugged by one of our favorite authors, Dan Yacarrino, yesterday.  I read it four times in about six hours.  A curious thing happens when I start reading it to one of my kids: the other two hear me and come over.  Did Dan Yacarrino install a kid-magnet in this book or something??

I love this book--just love it!  I love the message it sends to kids and grown ups alike, and I think Yacarrino tells this message in the most perfect way.

So we've got Doug.  He's a robot.  Every morning his parents plug him into a giant machine to teach him facts and figures.  They want him to be the smartest robot around.  After they've plugged him in, they pat him on his head, walk away, and go to work.

And he really does learn a lot!  Today's lessons focus on the city.  Doug learns how many manholes are in the city.  Doug learns how many emergencies firefighters respond to every day.  Doug learns how tall the highest skyscraper is.  Doug learns how many miles of subway tracks exist.  Doug learns how many pigeons live in the city.

Here's all that Doug learns by unplugging and exploring the city...
Then, something interrupts all this learning.  A pigeon.  A real, live pigeon.  His first observation: he didn't know they cooed like that.  Doug stretches to follow the pigeon and SNAP! Doug unplugged! He is now unattached from his learning machine. He looks at the pigeon and wonders what else he can learn from actually experiencing the city.  So he follows the pigeon (a jet-pack is handy here) out over and then into the city.

From his exploration, he learns that manholes are dark.  Fire engines are loud!  Skyscrapers are so tall they offer a fantastic view of the city. Subways zip through those miles and you have to hang on extra tight around the curves. He even meets a friend, and learns how to play--including how many ways there are to play! Teeter-totters!  Smelling flowers!  Slides! Hide and go seek!  Swinging!

Doug learns not from words or books or downloads but from being there.  Experiencing it.  Using his senses.  What a great message, especially for this tired mom at the end of a jam-packed summer: Unplug.  Go outside and roam.  There is so, so much to experience and learn!

(A sequel to this book called Doug Unplugged at the Farm was released just three weeks ago...will try to get my hands on it! Read all of my reviews of Dan Yacarrino's books HERE.  My favorite is Every Friday.)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Jacob's Eye Patch by Beth Kobliner Shaw & Jacob Shaw

Jacob's Eye Patch by Beth Kobliner Shaw & Jacob Shaw, illustrated by Jules Feiffer

Rating: 5 stars

Kindergarten teachers should be required to read Jacob's Eye Patch at the beginning of school each year.  The authors  (Jacob and his mom) do a great job of explaining one boy's need for and experience with an eye patch, and the book is easily used to teach empathetic ways to approach other kids who have things (an eye patch, a cast, a wheelchair, braces) that make them stand out.

Here's the story: Jacob and his mother are rushing to the science store, but she keeps on chatting with any and every person who comments on her son's eye patch.  There are a lot of them, and, much to Jacob's dismay, they get held up again and again. He creates excuses for why they need to hurry ("We need to catch a plane for Argentina!") and smart-alec/funny answers to why he needs an eye patch ("I don't speak English"). He simply does not want to talk about it at that time, on that day.
Jacob's mom did want to answer...
She talked and talked about the eye patch.

Until he is at the science store, when the light-up globe that he's coveted is in his hands.  Then he's ready to talk.

When a curious kid-bystander asks, "Why do you have a Band-Aid on your eye?" He calmly explains that his left eye doesn't work as well as his right eye, so he needs to wear an eye patch to cover his right eye so his left eye will get stronger. While he and the girl look at his new globe together, he sees that her mouth is full of braces.  He's curious, but thinks she might not want to talk about it right now.

At the beginning of the summer, Lorelei was told that she needed an eye patch.  For just two hours a day, one of her impossibly bright blue eyes will be covered up in an effort to strengthen the other one. This seemingly tiny addition to my day has provided an eruption of lessons in empathy in me, but also in my young Lorelei. Finding this book in the waiting room at the ophthalmologist helped give her the words that she didn't have but needed to wear it and answer questions about it.

"I'll wear it to camp!  I think I'm ready!" she said boldly as she climbed into my car with a teddy bear eye patch on her face.  Along the way, I suggested we role play a bit, so she could practice explaining why she needs to wear an eye patch.  She didn't want to.  Her normally bold voice steadily decreased until it was just a whimper, and I could sense a trembling chin in my rear view mirror.  As we approached her school on that first day of camp, she got a little weepy.  "I don't know.  I'm scared."

My maternal suggestion: "Take it off!  You don't have to wear it right now."  Avoidance is, after all, one option I like to employ in my own life...

So she did take it off before being whisked from my car in the unexpectedly short carpool line to her waiting math teacher.  The eye patch fell to the bottom of my car, happily finding a place amidst Cheerios and snack bar wrappers and library hold cards.

Eye-patch wearing Lorelei reads to Kiefer at the library.
Some hours later, we had a good discussion about standing out, on being different: The idea of it is so fun!  Look at me!  I'm different!  But then, she realized that standing out and being different comes at a price: having a whole lot of attention directed at you.  Kids are curious.  They ask questions.  You'll have their attention, all right.  Ready or not, here it comes…  Clearly Lorelei was not ready then.  But she looked down at the bottom of the car and saw her teddy bear eye patch right where she had dropped it.  She picked it up, finding it still sticky.

"I have to wear it for another hour, right, Mom?  I think I'll do it at the library."

This time, she heeded my advice and practiced what she would say when someone would ask her.  Just a few sentences, but having them ready in her back pocket gave a little more confidence to deal with her first day of going public with an attention-grabbing eye patch (did I mention sparkles decorated the space surrounding the teddy bears?).

We walked into the very familiar library, a place we go at least twice a week.  As a book lover and book blogger they know me and my kids very, very well. After being there for about fifteen minutes, she whispered to me, "No one has said anything."  I discreetly asked the head librarian to ask her about it.  Daniella pretended to wander around the library until she just happened to arrive at the spot Lorelei was in and moved books around for a minute before looking down at my daughter.

"Lorelei!  Hi there!  What happened to your eye?"

Lorelei paused. She collected herself as I held my breath. Then she said, "I'm okay.  My left eye isn't as strong as my right.  I have to wear this eye patch two hours a day on my right eye so my left eye becomes as strong as my right."  She responded just as confidently and bravely when another librarian asked about it on the way out (this one was not prompted by me, promise).

We have learned so much in the past few days about standing out, being unique, having empathy for others, having courage, learning to ask about something that's different about someone else, having the words to say before you actually need to say them.  I'm humbled by the gratitude I feel for my three kids' health--we've been so amazingly lucky--but also so grateful to have this little opportunity to teach not just Lorelei but also Ben and Kiefer the definition of empathy.

I know this is a super long entry, but I really wish this book was stocked in every elementary school library across the country.  It was the first book I requested that our library buy, and I bought a copy to donate to our preschool's library.  It is just one boy's story of what it feels like to stand out and to be asked questions that usually stem from curiosity and genuine care.  But it provides kids to walk a few steps in Jacob's shoes, to feel like him for just a few minutes, and then have that empathetic experience on which to draw when they see someone different.  Or maybe, like Jacob and Lorelei, it'll be them that stands out.

Remember: sparkly eye patches rock!

Check out the book's website by clicking HERE.