Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz

A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by Cátia Chien

Rating: 5 stars

Once upon a time, a little boy about four years old walked with his father to the Bronx Zoo. This boy stood in front of the cage of a giant, wild jaguar. The jaguar paced before the boy, seeming frustrated at his confined situation.

The boy understood how the jaguar felt. He was a stutterer; thoughts were confined to his head, unable to get out. Usually when he tried to "use his words" he grew red in the face and his body convulsed with the his inability to transform his thoughts into coherent sounds and launch them successfully into the conversation.

But today, in front of this great cat, he whispered without a single stutter, "One day, if I figure out how to speak, I will speak for you, too." There was something magical between them. With this wild creature, he could speak.

On the days between visits to that jaguar in the Bronx Zoo, the little boy endured harsh sentences--he heard grown-ups tell him he was broken, and he was sent to a school for disturbed children. Like that jaguar, he felt caged and misunderstood.
"If I try to push words out, my head and body shake uncontrollably."

Years went by and this little boy grew up and went to college in an experimental program that embraced his debilitating stutter, and grown ups encouraged him to be a "fluent stutterer." He worked hard to finally speak without stuttering. He found his voice.

But he still feels broken on the inside, still feels damaged and different and unsure how to use that voice. He studies black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains, then travels to Belize to study jaguars. He starts to feel connected to his voice, and he wants to use it to fulfill the promise he made to that one jaguar on that one day so long ago.

He begins to follow and capture jaguars for study before releasing them. He successfully argues for the world's first and only jaguar wildlife preserve. He becomes Dr. Alan Rabinowitz: a zoologist, a conservationist, a passionate advocate for the 36 big cat species of the world, what Time calls the "Indiana Jones of Wildlife Conservation." And today, he says he is grateful for his stuttering, because that disability led him to what he is most passionate about: jaguars.

This is an incredibly moving true story about working hard, keeping promises, finding your passion, and making the world a better place.

P.S. The illustrations by Cátia Chien are phenomenal, too!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Shh! We Have a Plan! by Chris Haughton

Shh! We Have a Plan! by Chris Naughton

Rating: 5 stars

Shh! We Have a Plan! is sitting on Kiefer's bed right now, and it hasn't moved very far all week. He is just crazy about it. Almost as crazy as I am about the book, which is oddly dark for a picture book.

But the hues match the setting and story perfectly: Four wrapped-up guys go out hunting for a bird in the dark. Three are serious about catching one; one is along for the ride, seemingly too young to have been left at home.

"Hello, birdie!" this little one calls out.

"Shh..." says the first guy.

"SHHH!!" reinforces the second guy.

"We have a plan!" says the last guy, who is holding something (a cage, a ladder, a big log).

Kiefer likes to then tell me what their plan is: "They're going to CATCH the birdie and put him in the cage." Or "They're going to climb up the ladder to get the birdie in the tree!"

Ready one, ready two, ready th...!
The three guys try to get that birdie but never succeed.  Finally the littlest guy pulls out some bread and attracts not just the one bird but a whole flock, including a big, mean one that does NOT want to be caught. They run for their lives!

And they decide maybe they'll catch a squirrel instead.

This is a wonderful book with which your child or student can practice making predictions, and to talk generally of having a "plan." Maybe it's just plan-happy me that appreciates that...?!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sally Goes to Heaven by Stephen Huneck

Sally Goes to Heaven by Stephen Huneck

Rating: 5 stars

Our own black dog--her name is Lulu, not Sally--is luckily not going to Heaven this week.  But when she does, I'm glad to have another book to read to my kids to make that lesson a little less painful.

I've reviewed three other Sally books (there are more)--Sally Gets a Job, Sally's Great Balloon Adventure, and Sally Goes to the Vet--and explained how much I like the very simple, very straightforward yet still very unique woodcut illustrations in the books. And I like Sally a whole lot!  How sad but appropriate that after these adventures and life experiences, she dies.  And goes to Heaven.

The first few pages of the book are about how difficult it is for Sally to eat and move. And then, the next morning, "Sally wakes up in heaven." And the joy begins!  She runs in circles really fast, without any sort of pain. There's a gigantic mound of smelly socks for her to sniff like crazy--hurray! All the animals play together; no one is afraid of anyone else. Meatballs grow on bushes and there are ice cream stands--for dogs!--on every block. Frisbees fill the sky!

Sally just wishes she could comfort her family and friends and let them know that all is good, her pain is gone, and that she is happy.

This is a very sweet book about a very sad time in the life of a family, but Huneck focuses the pet death experience about the dog and the wonderful things she's doing in Heaven. It's a "good to know about" book for when you need it.

(Another book very similar to this book you might also want to know about: Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant...)

The Tarantula in My Purse: and 172 Other Wild Pets by Jean Craighead George

The Tarantula in My Purse: and 172 Other Wild Pets by Jean Craighead George

Rating: 5 stars

I went on a trip last week, and left this book for Lorelei with a Post-It stuck onto it: "DO NOT read this book! Mrs. George is MUCH nicer than your mom! She lets her kids bring any and every animal they want into their home as a pet!  Your mom is not that nice.  Do NOT read this--you'll get too many great ideas!"

She read the book (of course). And loved it.

That's right: Jean Craighead George was a much more tolerant, patient, encouraging mother than I am. She tolerated--no, encouraged!--her three children to bring home and keep home anything and everything they found in the wild. Crows. Skunks. Frogs. Fish. Ducks. Geese. Lots of birds. And yes, even a tarantula.

Because George herself had this sort of upbringing, it was second-nature to her.  So I guess I could blame my dear mom and dad, but...I try not to throw them under the bus unless it's absolutely necessary.

Each short little chapter is about a different pet the George family had, and little quirks and idiosyncrasies about that particular animal and/or that particular pet. It is not overly scientific, and I think that's a really great thing. Instead, there are heaps of small bits of information about the behavior of wildlife that the family learned first-hand simply by observing the animal over an extended period of time. They just wrote down what they observed, and oftentimes George would also provided background about the animal's behavior that she had learned through research while writing one of her many nature books.  (She is the author of more than 100 books, including Julie of the Wolves and, my childhood favorite, My Side of the Mountain.)

This was a great, fun read for me, but also very appropriate for any animal-loving kid. It would be a great read-aloud book as kids wonder "What if we had a ___ for a pet?!" Appropriate for any age at all--just be ready for some wild pet suggestions!


P.S. I heard about this book through the for-adults book The Book Whisperer, which is full of ideas on how to get kids to read more and also has a ton of middle-grade great book suggestions in it.

P.P.S. One fun exercise to do with this book is to read this book together (or, like Lorelei and I did, separate) and then read the I Can Read It book Goose and Duck, which is a cute little fictional story that you quickly find out in the book is based on a totally true story. What a need example of how to come up with a fiction story with a true story, and how you write what you know!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fox's Garden by Princesse CamCam

Fox's Garden by Princesse Camcam

Rating: 5 stars

One cold and snowy night, a fox gets lost among endless woods and drifts of snow. She runs past one house, but gets scared off by the look of fright in the woman's eyes.  She runs up to another home, but gets kicked off by an angry old man. Not knowing where else to go, the fox finds a greenhouse open and available, so she goes in to get out of the cold.

She doesn't realize a small boy watches her from his window.  He gathers some food and follows her inside, and realizes that the fox is not alone.  She now has a small gathering of kits around her, nursing quietly among the flowers in the greenhouse.

The boy offers what he can: a basket of gifts. Then he slowly returns to his room; he doesn't further interrupt the fox or wait for her to pay him any attention.

While the boy sleeps, the fox and her kits carry large plumes of flowers from the greenhouse to the boy's house.  They all jump quietly through the window, and plant them in his room. Then, the fox family is off through the night.

The boy wakes to their grateful abundance of flowers in his own room.


There is something extremely special about this wordless picture book.  I'm not entirely sure what it is--I just can't put my finger on what makes this book so magical. Princesse Camcam (I'm sure you're not shocked to hear it's not her real name, but it is a pen name you're not likely to forget--she was born Camille Garoche in southwest France) creates her own paper-cut dioramas that she then lights up and photographs. This gives the illustrations a unique sense of depth as you turn the pages of her book.

The story, so elegantly and gently placed before the reader, is simple and straightforward. The adults in this book are not open to helping the fox, yet the small boy opens his heart and gives what he can to the fox. His thoughtfulness does not go unnoticed; the fox thanks him simply with a magical bouquet. The big lesson: kindness begets kindness.

The world needs more of this lesson.  The world needs more of books like these. This is truly one of the most beautiful books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance by Birgitta Sif

Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance by Birgitta Sif

Rating: 5 stars

Frances Dean was a little girl who loved to dance. "When no one was around, she would feel the wind and dance..." With the woods as her backdrop, the birds as her backup, and the geese and duck as her audience, she danced and danced and danced.

But when people were around, she stopped.  She felt their eyes on her, so she just stood still, waiting for them to pass. There were too many people and she stood for too long, so she forgot how to dance, and she forgot the joy she felt when dancing.

As she walked home, trying to figure out how to get her joyous dancing back, she stumbled across a little girl, much younger than she, singing a happy tune.  The girl saw Frances Dean, but had the courage to keep on singing, no matter whose eyes were on her. That night, Frances Dean thought of the little girl and how she kept singing, regardless of who or what was around her.

In the morning, Frances Dean woke up and, with a little help, remembered how much she loved to dance and dance. She practiced dancing in front of and with others.  She started small--with birds--then graduated--to a cat and dog--then, finally, with an old lady in the square. The little girl with the happy tune dance and sing together, being true to their own voice while also sharing their love with their world.

Stories like this--especially with whimsical, magical illustrations like those Sif produces --touch a special place in my heart right now, as Lorelei begins to navigate some of the "un-fun" aspects of girlhood in elementary school. The teasing isn't so bad right now, but it is teasing to keep her from being best friends with a boy (a gem of a child, I have to add), going to the barn she rides at now (the other girls go to a "better" barn), and stuff like that. We use the words, "What's the truth in your heart? Do you know what you really want to do?" She knows: be best friends with Garrett and ride that pony Mo. But...courage to Lorelei for keeping on being Lorelei.  (Who's a gem of a child, too, I think.)

Check out Birgitta Sif's first picture book Oliver and these other dancing books if you like this one:

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy Dempsey
Rupert Can Dance by Jules Feiffer

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look, illustrated by Meilo So

Rating: 5 stars

Ben chose this book as his bedtime book a few nights ago, when we were on a quick weekend trip to the beach. He and Kiefer were sharing a room in our rental place. On twin beds, lying side by side, my boys lay side by side, listening to Lenore Look's absorbing story and looking at Meilo So's amazing artwork. Kiefer was asleep by the end of it, but Ben was spellbound throughout and even let out a quiet "woah" at the ending.

The book tells the legend of Wu Daozi, an Chinese artist that lived in the eighth century. The story begins in his calligraphy class when he was a young boy.  He tries to get the strokes right, but his brush seems to have a mind of its own.  The monk-teacher chides him for not paying attention, not trying hard enough, not making his brush do his brain's bidding. Yet Wu Daozi learned in that classroom that he possessed a gift: the gift of art.

Leaving calligraphy behind, he painted on walls everywhere--at temples, teahouses, and the silk bazaar.  (I guess graffiti laws were different back then?) The scenes were extraordinary, and people stopped to appreciate his artwork and skill. One day, he paints a butterfly that is so life-like that it flutters off the wall, into the air. Daozi is shocked, and is certain that he imagined what just happened.  He paints another butterfly, and it, too, flies away.  Suddenly, all around the city, his incredibly realistic paintings start to disappear.  The horses gallop off, the birds fly away, the men march down the road...

Yet the Emperor commissions Daozi to do the biggest mural of his career (hoping that it won't fly away).  Daozi toils on it for years and years, growing older and older as he paints and paints.  At the unveiling, the painting doesn't disappear.  It remains.  But Daozi...old Daozi walks right into the painting and is never seen again!

Magical for sure.  In just the right way.