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!