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...

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!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Midnight Madness at the Zoo by Sherryn Craig

Midnight Madness at the Zoo by Sherryn Craig, illustrated by Karen Jones
Rating: 5 stars


Just in time for March Madness--a basketball picture book! Add animals, a top-notch rhyme, and practice counting to ten and you've got a winning bedtime (or anytime) book.

What do the animals do after the last guest leaves, after the zookeeper locks up the gate for the night, after the last car exits the parking lot? Play basketball, of course!

The animals must warm up first / before they can roam free.
Some new officials take their place: / three zebras referee.
The trumpet of the elephants / calls players from their pens.
But for a game of basketball, / they'll need a group of ten.

Kids listen and see as one by one, an animal is added to each team, until two teams of five are formed. Then they have a fun game of five-on-five--luckily, these are rule-following animals so no elbows are thrown or fouls earned.

Kiefer has had this book in his room for a few weeks now, and I've read it to him at least five times, which means it has scored high enough to be reread more than once or twice. Ben does his best to pretend that he only reads chapter books, but he stood in the doorway for this one. He couldn't help but be interested in it--he's the child in the family who plays and follows basketball.


This book is near and dear to my heart because the author, Sherryn Craig, is one of my critique partners. When I met her nearly two years ago, this book had been purchased by Arbordale and I got to follow along in the publishing process. In the beginning, I simply heard how she and her sons went to the Reston Zoo and wondered why the animals all looked so sleepy. "I think they must play basketball all night," her son said. And just like that, an idea was formed.

It was so fun to see the first sketches by Karen Jones sprawled out on the table in front of us at the coffee shop at which we meet. It was even more fun to see the cover in black and white, then color. But the best part? Seeing my friend with her debut picture book in her hand, smiling proud. A close second? Seeing Midnight Madness on our own shelf, or in my kids' hands as they read through it for the very first time.

Congratulations, Sherryn!

Sherryn will be having a few events around town to celebrate and promote her book:

Sunday, March 13th, at the Greene Turtle in Fairfax from 6-8 PM she'll be selling and signing her book while the NCAA Tournament teams are announced.

Saturday, March 19th, at the Reston Zoo 9 AM-12:30 PM she'll be selling and signing her book to celebrate the zoo's opening (after its normal winter closing). Book readings will be at 10 AM, 11 AM, and 12 PM.

More information can be found on Sherryn's website.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Blazer + Bray

Rating: 5 stars

If you've got a chapter book-reading girl in your life, you've probably seen or heard about the Clementine series. Sara Pennypacker writes that fun series about a lovable girl throwing herself headlong into middle school. Lorelei really loved it. Pennypacker also wrote this gem of a middle grade novel, Pax, that was just released earlier this month. It received a ton of fanfare--I think I heard about it a year ago; all the important people and places in the kidlit world seemed to have a countdown for Pax's publication.

I even pre-ordered it, which isn't something I do a lot. But it just seemed...special. But was it all hype?

Nope. The story, characters, and messages between the covers are extraordinary, and extraordinarily important.

Here's the story:

Soon after 12-year-old Peter's mother dies, he finds a small kit and keeps him--and names him Pax. When his father must go off to fulfill his obligation and fight in a war, he sends Peter to live with his grandfather. His father demands that he leave Pax behind, and forces Peter to trick Pax into going into the wild. As soon as Peter arrives at his grandfather's house, he realizes he made a huge mistake in sending Pax away, and he runs away to find and reunite with his beloved fox.

Along the way, Peter is confronted with challenges from both nature and man. Peter understands what a big deal this is--to run away from home for a pet--and questions himself appropriately. His bravery is sprinkled with the right amount of foolhardiness and fear. At a crucial part in his journey, he meets an old woman who turns out to be both a regret-filled veteran from a different war and the kindest soul he's ever met. They help each other in really neat ways.

The story is told with alternating chapters--Peter's story, then Pax's story (neither is told in the first person, which is a wise choice I think). Pax's story is well done; Pennypacker speaks for Pax in appropriate ways, and it's neat to see Pax's transformation from a tame fox to a wild one. He, too, meets others along his journey and questions his loyalty to his boy and his pack. I was completely drawn into both of their self-discovery journeys while they fought to return to each other.

It's clear to this adult reader that Pennypacker has real things to say about war, and the costs of war. We see a good character broken down by guilt and shame from what she did in war, and we witness animals being cleared out and killed or made homeless to make room for war, in addition to the breakdown of families that happens. In this case, it's a blessing as Peter needed to escape the heavy hand of his father.

This is an excellent book--we see the beautiful bond between a boy and his animal, we watch these two fight their way back to each other while maturing within their own skin in the process. Pennypacker's language is just perfect, and Jon Klassen adds that something extra with a few illustrations. I'm so glad this book is and will always be on my shelf to read again and again, with or without my kids.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

If Kids Ruled the World by Linda Bailey

If Kids Ruled the World by Linda Bailey, illustrated by David Huyck
Kids Can Press

Rating: 5 stars

I'm pretty sure every child on Earth would cheer if they got the chance to read this book. It is a brilliant crowd-pleaser of a book.

If kids ruled the world, here's what would happen:

Your doctor would say, "Eat your birthday cake so you'll grow up strong and healthy!"

You could wear anything you like. A T-shirt. A tutu. A tuxedo.

If you want to travel a long way, you could take a pirate ship.

You could have all the pets you like. Any kind!

Every yard would have a lake with frogs for catching and rafts for riding.

You'd never have to take a bath again.
You could go to any kind of school you like...
circus school, fairy school, inventing school, recess school.

All the sidewalks would be trampolines, all the cars would be ponies.

And, to end it just right, all the grandparents would remember how to play, and they'd join in, too. (No mention on the parents, though, which is funny to me--and understandable. Clearly, it's easier to remember how to be playful when you're a grandma, not a mom!)

As if the fun text isn't enough, when you add playful, fun images by David Huyck, this book is a no-brainer cheerer-upper for any day. My kids and I have had fun conversations about what type of school they'd attend if they could go to any school (inventing school, with breaks for recess school), and what type of breakfast they'd eat (cake).

Fun, fun, fun!

Monday, February 1, 2016

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín, translated by E.M. O'Connor
Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Rating: 5 stars

Some years ago I was part of a writing group which encouraged us writer-participants to share what we've read. A woman a few decades older than me read a piece based on her childhood in Chile. She wrote about the hills and the sights of the sea, how her father came home from abroad and brought a woman's shawl for a woman other than her mother. There was something captivating about her story, and after she read, she explained how she and her family (had her mother forgiven her father and they left together? I've forgotten...) fled Chile during the violent Pinochet years.

I think it was this woman's story that made I Lived on Butterfly Hill to call out to me from the library shelves. I just had to read it, and I'm so glad I finally did.

The story is about and narrated by Celeste Marconi, a young girl growing up in Valparaiso, Chile, during a time of significant political turmoil. During the first few chapters, as Agosín drops hints to describe how deeply entrenched Celeste and her family are in Valparaiso, Celeste notices large ships coming into the harbor. She hears the grown-ups whisper; with the help of a wonderful dose of magical realism that is sprinkled throughout this novel, Celeste senses that some sort of darkness about will occur. Finally, it happens: the socialist President is killed, and a dictator takes over the country.

(In the book, it is fictional President Alarcon who is killed by an unnamed sunglass-wearing dictator, not real-life Allende and Pinochet.)

Celeste struggles to understand what is going on during the first week of the new dictatorship as books are burned and new rules are imposed. Many of Celeste's classmates and neighbors are "disappeared." Her parents, both doctors who work at free clinics for the poor and publicly supported Alarcon, go into hiding. Her grandmother watches over her, then decides to send Celeste to her aunt in Maine. Traveling alone and in exile from everything she's ever known to this faraway place, Celeste makes the best of it and trusts herself and has faith in her homeland while still opening herself to another way of life, and another group of people to love.

This is an excellent, excellent book. It's a long one for middle grade readers--over 400 pages--but Agosín quickly wrapped me in an emotional story about characters about which I cared deeply, and I couldn't put it down. I loved how Celeste matured into a patriot, more certain of the future of Chile than the grown-ups who were affected and still shaky from the political turmoil. 

I loved the insights young readers could get from this book: what a difference a political leader could make, what it's like being a non-native English speaker in an American school, how it isn't only Nazi Germany that has stories of escape and heroism and defiance, how many rights we Americans have that are taken for granted, the importance of literacy for a country. This book is rich with such lessons--I highly recommend it, especially if read and discussed with your child (or students).

Friday, January 29, 2016

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela DePrince

Ballerina Dreams: From Orphan to Dancer by Michaela DePrince
Random House Children's Books

Rating: 5 stars

Here's a review I did a little while ago for Washington FAMILY Magazine about the true story of one talented, amazing, determined young woman:

I dare you to read this book and not get goosebumps up and down your arm. Michaela DePrince’s rags-to-riches tale is almost unbelievable, from its tragic beginnings to fairytale ending. And it’s all true.

This book is a Step Into Reading book, rated Level 4, geared towards 7 to 9 year-olds. I say this first because DePrince’s story has some difficult facts for young kids to absorb, and the questions kids will likely ask have some sobering answers. Despite the image of the graceful ballerina on the cover, know that this is not your typical ballerina children’s book.

In this easy reader, DePrince glosses over the death of her parents in an age-appropriate way. “My parents died [in Sierra Leone] in an ongoing war.” That sentence will satisfy some readers; others will want to know more. The whole truth is that DePrince was born in Sierra Leone in 1995, during the civil war. Her father was shot by rebels. Her mother starved to death. She was sent to an orphanage with other children with similar stories.

In addition to this tragic beginning, DePrince suffered from vitiligo, a skin disease that made white spots appear on her brown skin. Kids at the orphanage teased her. DePrince worried she would not be adopted because of her imperfections.

While at the orphanage, DePrince saw a ballet magazine and was carried away with the image. When she was adopted (by Elaine DePrince, whose story is equally heartbreaking and inspirational, but not told in this story), she kept the image with her. Her adoptive mother saw it and promised that in America, she could dance ballet.

This is where the story takes a welcome positive turn. DePrince is not the only child adopted by Elaine DePrince. Her best friend is also chosen, and the two friends become sisters in America. They both start dancing, though it is Michaela who excels and advances. Because there are so few African American ballerinas and because she is a superior dancer, she is asked to dance for a documentary about ballet. At her mother’s urging, she says yes. “First Position” was a huge success, and DePrince’s fame grew.

DePrince’s story is incredible—I was so glad that such good things came from such horrible beginnings for this young lady. In case you or your child are curious to learn more, you should know that Ballerina Dreams was written after DePrince wrote and published Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina (2014, Alfred A. Knopf). This is her memoir targeted for young adult audience and goes into more detail about all parts of her story.

I was also glad to discuss this book after my second grade daughter read it. She had a lot of questions about DePrince’s beginnings, and the conversation about war and parents dying wasn’t an easy one. But I think therein lies the beauty of books with difficult subject matter: they provide the opportunity to talk about tragic and sad realities in a safe place, in an appropriate manner, and with a loved one.

Review originally posted HERE.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
Dial Books

Rating: 5 stars

On the one hand, Astrid Vasquez is a twelve-year-old girl who is a lot like other girls: she wants to fit in, she's scared to do something new, and she's going through the un-fun and confusing middle school stage where emotions and friends and identity are all turned upside down and inside out. She's had the same best friend ever since she can remember, but suddenly their different interests seem to be the end of the world, and the end of their friendship.

On the other hand, Astrid is nothing like most other girls. She prefers baggy shorts and dull colors over dresses and cheery hues. Her best friend is flirting with the idea that boys are something other than gross, and Astrid still has no interest whatsoever in the opposite gender. And Astrid is curious about roller derby, an activity not exactly sanctioned by the cool kids. Another great thing that sets her apart: she's not afraid to jump over her fear and complete lack of skating ability to follow her curiosity and interest.

The story that unfolds--in bright, fun, inviting graphic novel format--is a fantastic, modern coming-of-age story. At a time when Astrid is confused about who she is, she finds a tribe of tough and smart chicks who are simultaneously demanding and supportive of her. She finds a new friend and tip-toes into the water of teenage decision making when she dyes her hair blue and lies to her (single) mom about how she's getting home from roller derby camp. You parents of young readers might be worried to know that the mom grudgingly accepts her new hair color; but you'll be happy to know that Astrid learns good lessons about telling the truth about logistics as well as emotions.

What I loved most about Roller Girl was that it challenges the definition of what it means to be a "good girl." I chatted with Lorelei about it, about how much I liked how Astrid was taught and encouraged to have a fighting face while skating in a bout, how she was able to pull on a tough-girl mask and have no one mess with her. Astrid yells at her friends when she's mad, too, and while it's not lauded as something a girl should do, it's part of life, and not the end of the world. Astrid is still figuring out how to be a good friend and true to herself--two things a lot more important than being a typical "good girl," I think.

Roller Girl recently (and deservedly!) won a Newbery honor. I highly, highly recommend it. I think it's perfect for ten- and eleven-year-olds, but still fine and appropriate for eight- and nine-year-olds (like Lorelei). And while she read it first, first grader Ben was curious about it, so we read it together. He was equally impressed by it, and now the three of us are eager to find a roller derby game near us! I'm checking out NOVA Roller Derby right now...!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation by Peggy Thomas

Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation by Peggy Thomas, illustrations by Stacy Innerst
Catkins Creek: An Imprint of Highlights

Rating: 5 stars

I'm one of those geeky parents who stays on top of what my children are learning in school and tries to augment the lessons at home. I figure if I'm going to be a full-time mom, I'm going to be a great one.

Lorelei is going to start a big Lewis and Clark unit in social studies this Spring. It comes at a particularly interesting time because this summer we'll be making our own trek across the continent as we move from Virginia to Washington State. Lewis and Clark met wild savages along with a whole lot of Great Unknown; I'll just be driving with three kids. We both have some challenges on our journey...

When I saw Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation at the library, I grabbed it. It was Kiefer who wanted it read as a bedtime book, but Lorelei heard me read the title, so she ran in to join us. It's a long, necessarily wordy, nonfiction picture book. I had to pause every other page for a little bit of background or just explain something. But both Lorelei and Kiefer were curious, and learned a lot about one interesting, complicated, hugely important figure in our country's history.

The book begins: "Thomas Jefferson loved to grow things." He literally grew plants and vegetables at his home in Monticello, but he also planted seeds of freedom, the idea that America was just as important as Europe, several crops that worked elsewhere but failed in America (he remained optimistic through failure), and a nation through the acquisition of land from France.

There are many illustrations in the book that help young readers understand the text. My favorite is an illustration of Jefferson and Hamilton in a tug of war between farms and cities--would American be a nation of cities and factories or a nation of small towns and family farms?

As President, he began to plan an expedition across the continent, even before France sold the land west of the Mississippi River in what became known as the Louisiana Purchase. (This was news to me; I hadn't realized he would have authorized the journey even it wasn't American territory.) Jefferson wanted to know what was out there--Lewis and Clark sent dozens of reports back to Jefferson about the fauna, wildlife, topography of the newly acquired land. After his White House years, Jefferson returned to Monticello to savor time in his garden and fields growing things--not figuratively this time, but literally.

This book helped Lorelei have a better understanding of why the Lewis and Clark journey took place by teaching her about Jefferson and the events in his life hundreds of years ago. This is a great book to have on the shelf in a classroom, or just a perfect bedtime book for any overachieving mom to read to her naturally curious kids.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Little, Brown & Company

Rating: 5 stars

Last year two books about the origin of Winnie-the-Pooh were published. I saw both at our local library but only selected one, Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh, to check out, read, and review. For whatever reason, it was only last week that I got around to checking out Finding Winnie. And it was only yesterday, the day after it won the Caldecott, that I got around to reading it.

I was truly blown away--mostly by Sophie Blackall's artwork, but also by the way this version of the story unraveled. Here's how it goes:

A little boy and his mother sit together. "Tell me a story, a true one, about a bear," the little boy requests. The mother obliges, and she starts this one:
"I've decided to name her Winnipeg, so we'll never be
far from home. Winnie, for short."

Once upon a time there was a soldier, a veterinarian-soldier, named Harry Colebourn, who traveled far from his home in Winnipeg to help in the war. He rode in a train with many men just like him. The train "rolled right through dinner and over the sunset and around ten o'clock and into a nap and out the next day" until it finally stopped at a train station in White River.

Harry got out to stretch his legs. While walking around, he saw a trapper and a bear cub. He knew the bear's fate was dark and the cub tugged at his heart. Harry bought him for $20, thus boarding a train with a bear cub that he argued would be his squad's mascot. The bear, quickly named Winnipeg, which was quickly shortened to Winnie, was a fun mascot and much-needed diversion from the reality of war. Harry and Winnie trained together, slept together, and even traveled across the Atlantic to England together to fight in the war.

But Harry realized a war would be too dangerous for a cub, so he gave Winnie up and signed her over to the London Zoo.

Thirty ships sailed together, carrying about 36,000 men, and
about 7,500 horses...and about one bear named Winnie.
"The story is over?" the boy asked.

His mother answered, in a great, wise, sentence I'll repeat for a long, long time: "Sometimes one story must end so another can begin."

Once upon a time there was a little boy with a stuffed teddy bear who needed a name. The boy and his father walked together to the London Zoo, where a real bear stood behind a gate. It was Winnie. The boy not only named his teddy after Winnie, calling the stuffed bear Winnie-the-Pooh, but he also played with real, yet tame, Winnie--going right inside the fenced yard!

The boy's name was Christopher Robin, and his father's name was Alan Alexander Milne. His father write many books about his son and the bear, books inspired by a real boy and a real bear.

Harry drove all the way to the Big City.
I loved Finding Winnie, then turned the page and was yet again surprised and impressed by it: The mother in the story is the author, and also the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourne! The boy in the story is named after him--his name is Cole. A beautiful family tree illustrates the connection very clearly. The back pages of the book turn into an album that includes pictures of Harry as a young soldier, the journal in which he writes that he bought a bear, pictures of Winnie and her soldiers. Then, there are pictures of Christopher Robin, playing with Winnie, with his father looking on in the background.

This is a keeper of a book--a lovely reminder of many things. That acts of kindness often reap large, unseen rewards. That loving an animal is a worthwhile endeavor. That inspiration for stories can come from a single trip to the zoo. And my favorite, that sometimes one story must end for another to begin.

Congratulations to Lindsay Mattick and Sophie Blackall, for creating such a fantastic, gorgeous book! Congratulations to Sophie Blackall for winning the 2016 Caldecott!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Everyone Loves Bacon by Kelly DiPucchio

Everyone Loves Bacon by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Eric Wight
Farrah Straus Giroux

Rating: 5 stars

Yes, indeed. Everyone LOVES bacon in this house! For that reason, and because this is a very funny book, Everyone Loves Bacon was a hit at our house.

Synopsis: Bacon is a total hot-shot, look-at-me kinda guy who gets the attention of everyone around him. Pancake wants to sit next to him, Egg thinks he smells soooooo good, Hot Dog thinks he's the best. You get the idea. After all the adoration-filled pages on the counter of the diner, there's a shot of lowly lettuce, tomato, and avocado looking glum in the bare refrigerator. They miss their old friend.

Bacon quips, "Who needs friends when you've got fans?"

We were smitten from page one.
He's on to bigger and better things! He was the toast of the town! Until...

(spoiler alert)


He got eaten.

Ha! My kids and I didn't see it coming and laughed like crazy at the last page, at the empty plate that once had haughty Bacon lounging on it.

So funny, very original, and makes me want to eat bacon.

P.S. To my step-sister: My respectful apologies to you. I will not get your children this book because you might remember how great bacon is, and give up your vegetarian-ness forever. :)

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Ms. Rapscott's Girls by Elise Primavera

Ms. Rapscott's Girls by Elise Primavera
Dial Books for Young Readers

Rating: 5 stars

It's January, and there are approximately 3 trillion "Best of 2015" lists floating around the internet. I love looking at them, but do you know the ones about which I'm most curious? My kids' "best of" lists. I'm sure Ms. Rapscott's Girls is at the top of Lorelei's "Best of 2015" lists. I don't remember how we stumbled across every book, but I do remember how she discovered this one.

During Spring Break, we went down to the chilly beach in Duck, NC, and found some warm refuge in our favorite bookstore there, the Island Bookstore. We bought some books and got an IndieBound flyer that highlighted some of the newly released books (click HERE for most recent one). Lorelei read through the middle grade section and circled the ones that piqued her interest--Ms. Rapscott's Girls was one of the books we checked out from the library based on that flyer.

Here's Lorelei's review of the book:
Have you ever gotten the feeling that something is too good to be true? Boom. Ms. Rapscott's Girls. Right up there with Ms. Piggle-Wiggle and Mary Poppins--you know, the works! 
A story of four girls, four boxes, two dogs, and an extraordinary teacher, an extraordinary school, and an extraordinary adventure to find the missing Rapscott girl, Ms. Rapscott's Girls will sweep you off your feet like the Skysweeper Winds. This book definitely deserves to be at the top of the birthday cake!
I agree with Lorelei--and love that she can reference other books with great stand-in parent figures, and recognizes that this book fits in with those classics!

You might want a few more details:

Ms. Rapscott has two dogs, Lewis and Clark,
who help keep the girls in line...
Ms. Rapscott heads up a school for girls with busy parents, parents who are too busy pursuing Their Own Thing (some examples: running for days, not just miles; becoming celebrity chefs; being popular, successful doctors) to pay much attention to their daughters. As a result, their daughters have not had the chance to learn many basic life skills. Mrs Rapscott snatches them up in a magical way, and they all end up together, in her lighthouse, under her care.

(I must admit I was pleased that Lorelei didn't think I was a "busy parent," and that she knew nearly all of the big and little skills the girls learned over the course of the book. Gold parenting star to me...) 

Ms. Rapscott's School is quite an adjustment for the girls. They're used to watching TV all day, shouting to be heard, entertaining themselves by reading the encyclopedias, or being small grown ups instead of kids. They bumble and fumble as they learn to clip their nails and make tea and eat birthday cake for breakfast. But more important than that, Ms. Rapscott teaches them big, important things, such as How to Find Their Way by making them get lost on purpose. I love that--because all girls (and sometimes grown ups) need to learn how to figure out which way to go in life.

This a lovely book to read out loud with your daughter, or have her read by herself. Or, like me and Lorelei, both!

P.S. There's a sequel coming out in Fall 2016!