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Friday, December 26, 2014

Connecting with Characters

My friend and reading workshop collaborator often laments how difficult it is to teach readers to make true connections with characters. "I'm tall, and so is my character" is not an example of what we hope readers will share about their books! As I read Heather Vogel Frederick's new novel Absolutely Truly, I thought about why l loved the main character Truly Lovejoy so much. She's tall, and I'm short. She likes books, but they do not hold the same passion for her as they do for her younger sister Lauren (or for me). She often feels like no one in her family truly listens to her (not so much for me). She loves swimming (not me). But her deep interest in birds - and her life list of those she has seen - fascinated me. Truly even classifies the people she meets into bird species! She says, "Mom I've always thought of as a robin. They're such cheery, dependable birds. And Dad's an eagle for sure, what with his strong jaw, piercing gaze, and prominent nose." (p. 37)

As a narrator, Truly lays out both the faults of others and herself. She accepts her lot in life, learns to adjust to the town of Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, embraces a mystery presented to her in the pages of a first-edition copy of Charlotte's Web, and is open-minded enough to accept the classmates in her new, small school. Because the Lovejoys are there to run the family bookshop with Truly's namesake, Aunt True, literary references abound, especially at story time (which I would love to attend!) in the shop.

The book's subtitle - a Pumpkin Falls Mystery - leads me to believe I will get to join Truly and her family and friends in another adventure. Until then, I will content myself with making a batch or two of Aunt True's Mini Pumpkin Whoopie Pies (served every afternoon, recipe provided on the final pages of the book).

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Reusing and Retelling

There are certain articles of clothing I like so much I find ways to keep them in use despite decades of wear. That said, I am not quite as resourceful as the grandfather in Jim Aylesworth's new book My Grandfather's Coat. As a young immigrant, "on the luckiest day of his life," he fell in love. A skilled tailor, he fashioned a handsome coat to wear on his wedding day. With rhythm, rhymes, alliteration, and repetition, the storyteller freshly retells the Yiddish folk song "I Had a Little Overcoat." Barbara McClintock's detailed watercolor illustrations add to the text as grandfather ages along with the blue cloth he adores, showing the passing fashions and family events along the way. It is a perfect picture book, combining entrancing words with supporting artwork and tied together with wonderful notes by the author and illustrator that encourage readers to reuse things in their world and seek stories retold in their families.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Making a Unique Book

One of the joys in my life is watching my friends' books transform from idea to draft to final copy...and come to the hands of readers. Brother Hugo in Katy Beebe's new book Brother Hugo and the Bear has a slightly different path involving the creation of a book. When the copy of St. Augustine's letters is due at the abbey's library, he must confess to the Abbot that the words were "as sweet as honey" to him, they were much sweeter to the bear who devoured them. As penance, he must make the trek to the Grand Chartreuse, borrow their copy, and recreate a book for his own abbey, all before the season of Lent has passed.

Without giving away too much of the plot here, readers should expect humor and helpfulness as the beautifully named brothers of the abbey (Caedon, Aelred, Hildebert, Eadmer, Anselm and others) assist their friend in the process. Supplies are generously shared, and Brother Hugo works with dedication to copy the book perfectly, all the while hearing the rumblings of a bear's hunger for words. His return trip to the Grand Chartreuse offers readers a surprise. 

S. D. Schindler's illustrator's note explains the process of creating a book in the Middle Ages, and an historical note tells about the origin of manuscripts, as well as the scrap of paper that served as the idea for this book. 

The book is a wonderful blend of text and artwork that brings the mood of the monastery and Brother Hugo's dilemma to readers. It is one of those books I have resisted returning to the library because I want to keep holding it and gazing at the intricate artwork. When I return it, I will imagine a bear, rumbling behind me, longing for its sweet words.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

What Makes You Happy?

Just a few words into Amy Schwartz's 100 Things That Make Me Happy, I needed paper and my rhyming dictionary. She thoughtfully combines everyday sorts of objects and experiences (lest one think only things can bring about happiness) in rhymed pairs. And it is not just one character featured in the charming illustrations. Children and adults of many colors express joy in "grandma's lap/a ginger snap" and "chocolate chips/camping trips" and 96 assorted other things. I could not help but make my own list of things that make me smile, experience that cause gratitude to bubble within me, people whom I appreciate and adore.

Caramel apple pecan pie
A favorite pen always nearby

My own bed
Homemade bread

Earl Gray tea
Lighted Christmas tree

The book's brightly-striped end papers make me happy. So do the kids doing handstands and those holding hands. So do the rhymed pairs I have been composing. My list continues. I would love to know some of yours.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Kid Book

Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads makes me giggle. When hope rides into Dry Gulch in the form of a kid on a tortoise, I find it humorous when the narrator tells the reader to "give him a minute." When the pot-bellied mayor asks the kid his business ("I'm your new sheriff"), I laugh at both his lack of qualifications and his key skill ("I know a really lot about dinosaurs"). Whenever the Toad brothers strike, the sheriff is certain they were not to blame! What a surprise Bob Shea incorporates into the story's resolution...and how perfectly Lane Smith's artwork complements the tone and text. The last page makes me giggle again. Every time I read it. Now I need to share it to some younger readers - and hope they think it is as funny as I do.

The only hesitation about it is the skin color of Kid Sheriff (white) and the Toads (brown). My middle son, ever cognizant of justice and fairness, pointed out that contrast immediately.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Santa Clauses

It looks like winter today in Minnesota. Half the buses were late at the end of the day (translating to 350 kids in the gym waiting to go home). Coats, snowpants, and boots spilled from the coat hooks onto the floor. A thick layer of ice coated my vehicle. My neighbor kids are still playing in the semi-darkness, savoring this first snowfall.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, to share Bob Raczka's new book today. Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole is a collection of haiku, written by Santa. One poem expresses his thoughts or activities for each day from December 1 to December 25, beginning with an onslaught of letters (what he calls "December's first storm"). The poet likens sprinkled sand to nutmeg, the elves's work to a holiday symphony, heavy workshop sawdust to snow accumulation. With images both beautiful and witty, the poems tell the story of preparation for a sleigh flight over "a toy train layout," with plenty of moments in between to indulge in winter pleasures. Chuck Groenink's artwork is the perfect accompaniment to the  haiku. Full-page spreads in wintry hues dominate the illustrations, and spot art focuses the reader's eye on Santa's skinny shadow or the wolf carolers on a hill. 

Many of my friends buy a holiday book each year for their families. This is the one for us. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Winter Bees

Winter is coming. Soon, it seems. A winter storm watch is in effect for the early part of the week with lows in the single digits. Lover of winter that I am, I keep quiet about my glee while others lament the start of this long season in Minnesota. Thankfully, I have a few hardy friends who also like the chilly season!

My friend and teaching partner spent the afternoon at the Red Balloon Bookshop celebrating winter  - and Joyce Sidman's Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold - with me. Numerous starred reviews preceded today's book event. In Winter Bees, Joyce captures winter's images through the actions of creatures who must prepare for and endure winter by migrating, preparing shelter, gathering food, keeping warm, and hibernating. Accompanying each poem is text explaining each creature's habits and adaptations. Rick Allen's detailed and gorgeous illustrations "were made through the unlikely marriage of some very old and very new art mediums." Some of the linoleum blocks carved for the artwork are in the above photograph. After listening to Joyce talk about the inspiration for "Dream of the Tundra Swan" (hearing them fly above her at about this same time of year) and read two other poems, members of the audience shared their favorite winter poems and songs. 

It was a lovely inspiration for us to plan a winter poem event with our staff, a quiet way to celebrate a season of frigid temperatures and ways to be warm.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


When entering a museum, visitors decide which galleries to visit first. Opening this large (11" x 14.75") book, readers are faced with similar choices. Should they go to the galleries in numerical or evolutionary class? Should they look for the most unique animals or their favorites? In Katie Scott's and Jenny Broom's new book Animalium, a Welcome to Animalium message invites readers to "wander through the pages of the see the story of life on Earth unfold." A double-page evolutionary family tree follows that invitation, making clear the categories: invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals.

In the museum's pages, readers find a habitat diorama for each animal class, an ecosystem of the inhabitants, some examples of related animals, and sometimes a dissection of skeletons. "This is the only museum to house animals ancient and modern, enormous and tiny, vicious and vulnerable, between two covers." (p. 1) The book feels like what the creators/curators attempted to assemble: a museum within a book. Its hefty size makes it easy to imagine being a museum as one takes in the creatures and descriptions. 

Familiar creatures like Luna moths, red-eyed tree frogs, and emperor penguins are displayed next to animals new to my vocabulary, like the blue button jelly (not really a jelly but a zooid, another word new to me), the stoplight parrotfish, and the secretary bird. Fascinated is the best word to describe my reaction! Enchanted is how my 14-month-old neighbor might describe her reaction to it. She loved the cover, pointing to birds when asked and quickly pulling her finger away when she touched the snake! 

Though it might not fit in a backpack, readers will long to take this book home for an in-depth visit.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Making Their Way

Living in Stalin's Soviet Union is almost unfathomable for me. I cannot imagine how people could treat neighbors and colleagues with vicious cruelty, seemingly unconcerned for the hurt caused by their actions or words. But I was there last night with Arcady, a young boy who loves soccer, and a man called Ivan Ivanych who comes to the children's home to adopt him. Arcady's life would be unbearable for most children: rationed food (dispensed by a rotund guard nicknamed Butterball), horrible conditions, and no affection. Underlying the horrors of the home is the knowledge that he and the other children living there are children of enemies of the state. Still, Arcady notes, "Ask what our parents have done, and each one of us would say our mom and dad were good." (p. 17)

Despite the awful circumstances, Eugene Yelchin's book is filled with love and understanding, and his artwork adds strong emotion to the powerful text. Arcady yearns for a chance to belong. Ivan Ivanych exudes patience and compassion. These two come together in an unlikely manner, each with his own expectations and hopes. In time, each begins to understand their lives and options differently, accepting how they can fit into each other's lives.  Arcady observed this after just a short while with Ivan: "I never looked at a bird longer than it took to aim a rock at it. But now with my belly more than full I'm thinking what's the harm in birds? I bet it's good to be one. To know someone is making you a home." (p. 70)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Gallery du Fridge

"I love art! It's my imagination on the outside." So says Louise, the red-bespectacled narrator of Kelly Light's first picture book, Louise Loves Art. Louise's love of art is evident on the first spread where she, with an adoring smile, lies atop many or her masterpieces, arms wide across them. Her little brother, appropriately named Art, gazes at her in fondness, as does their cat, a model for her best work. Art clearly longs to emulate his sister, but she is so consumed with displaying her work that she misses some important action. 

Though the cat tries to get her attention, Louise focuses on the Gallery du Fridge, the best place for hanging her piece de resistance, oblivious to how that piece is being transformed by Art. She is crushed, disappointed, crestfallen. What can a young artiste do to make things better? The Gallery du Fridge helps the reader understand the resolution and the title perfectly. 

I love this art book for its art advice, for how it models quiet forgiveness and alternative thinking, and for the art itself, made from black Prismacolor pencils and Photoshop. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Back on Deckawoo Drive

The neighbor kids wanted to read the Mercy Watson books this summer. Sitting in our sunny library, we traveled to Deckawoo Drive, revisiting Mr. and Mrs. Watson, Baby and Eugenia Lincoln, their neighbors Stella and Frank, and of course, Leroy Ninker, that popcorn-selling former night-time visitor to the Watson's home. Kate DiCamillo set her latest book - Leroy Ninker Saddles Up - back on Deckawoo Drive. I was glad to travel back to that friendly street, and my young reader friends will be delighted when they open this book.

Leroy Ninker longed for a horse. He shared his wish to be a cowboy with Beatrice Leapaleoni, ticket seller at th Bijo Drive-In Theater where he sold soda and buttered popcorn (and where Mercy and her parents went in Something Wonky This Way Comes). Wise Beatrice pointed out that in order to be a cowboy, Leroy would need - besides a cowboy hat, boots, and a lasso - a horse. And so, with a "Yippie-I-oh!" he begins the search. "Take fate in your hands," Beatrice tells him. He does. He acquires Maybelline. Not quite the horse he dreamed about, but just the right horse for him. All he has to do is remember the three items Maybelline's former owner told him: talk sweet to her, feed her A Lot Of Grub, and keep her company. 

Filled with humorous lines, more than a few interesting words, and quite an adventure, the book brought me back to that street I enjoy visiting. This time, Chris Van Dusen's illustrations are in monochrome, but they still perfectly capture the tone of the story. A story that ends with hot buttered toast on Deckawoo Drive is bound to be good.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Unexpected Friendship

In Jennifer K. Mann's book Two Speckled Eggs, Ginger is a girl looking forward to her birthday party. "But Ginger's mom said she had a to invite all of the girls in her class - or none of them." A party with no one did not seem like a good idea, so Ginger is forced to invite the girl everyone thinks is weird: Lyla Browning. While the other girls wreck the games and behave inappropriately, Lyla wanders around, enjoys Ginger's favorite silver-and-gold cake (coconut and pineapple), and laughs at the ladybug that lands on Ginger's nose. And, she brings the most amazing gift: a handmade bird nest with two malted milk eggs nestled in it. She becomes the friend Ginger did not expect, the one she most loved. It is one of my favorite picture books about friendship.

Though top-ten lists are popular, I choose only five others as my favorites:

Enemy Pie by Derek Munson
Farfallina and Marcel by Holly Keller
Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel
Toot & Puddle by Holly Hobbie
Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox

"My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me." - Henry Ford

Monday, October 6, 2014

Nuts to You Times Two

Since the early days of our relationship (while attending a university with a high squirrel population), my husband has believed he can speak squirrel. He makes a sort of Tsch Tsch noise with his tongue, and much of the time, the squirrels at least cock their heads in curiosity. Sometimes, they actually turn to look at him. He is certain they understand least the gray squirrels.

So, when I started reading NUTS TO YOU by Lynne Rae Perkins, I immediately read aloud to him the tidbits that made speaking squirrel language not so far-fetched (albeit in a fiction book). There is even a pronunciation explanation for certain squirrel sounds, as well as numerous footnotes to explain behaviors and provide inside information. Beyond the language connection, I found the book captivating and enchanting. The story is being told to a human on a park bench by a wonderfully verbose squirrel who speaks human quite well. This squirrel conveys its greatest adventure: when a badly played "squirrel cried wolf" game ended in the capture of a squirrel named Jed by a hawk...and later a further adventure when his friends Chai and TsTs travel across the buzzpaths to frozen spiderwebs (power lines and towers = evidence of the creative language) to rescue Jed. What results is a series of adventures, contact with human tree surgeons, and a game named MOVE to get other squirrels to a safe place. Accompanied by the authors's artwork, the text is witty and filled with nutty ideas.

Lois Ehlert's NUTS TO YOU! (2004) shares the title with the chapter book and also features an adventurous squirrel. Told in rhymed text, it is the story of a brave and wily  squirrel who climbs the bricks of an apartment building and miraculously discovers s tear in the screen, allowing him to enter the narrator's apartment. Lois Ehlert's cut-paper illustrations are bright and textured. Her "Squirrel Talk" notes explain about identification, teeth, feet, tail, nest/home, and food. The book was inspired by something that happened to her!

"Nuts to us all." - Jed in NUTS TO YOU by Lynne Rae Perkins

Friday, October 3, 2014

Silhouettes and Night Vision

In 1945, artist Dahlov Ipcar illustrated her first book...and began a career in children's publishing that lasted decades. Though many of her books are out of print, several have been reissued over the past years (and many more will be reprinted in 2015). My dear friend told me about some this summer, and my teaching partner discovered them a few weeks later.

This week we shared THE CAT AT NIGHT (originally published in 1969 and reissued in 2008) with first and second graders. They were mesmerized by the double-page spreads that alternate between silhouettes of things we would see at night and bright double-page spreads of what those same scenes would look like for a cat with excellent night visions. Their engagement with the cat's actions and the text was so intense they answered the unseen narrator's questions repeatedly. 

"And what does the cat see now?"

Voices on the story steps described what they imagined the silhouettes to reveal. And at the end, when the cat is curled up asleep by the stove, chuckles arose as the farmer commented about the cat's laziness, sleeping all night and then all day, too. Cat comments flowed from their own experiences. Most interesting, though, was one from a second grade teacher about my age who was astonished that I read the book she checked out so often when she was in second grade was the one I read to her class today! She always loved it and assumed it could never be had again. How happy she was to take it back to her classroom - and her own cats - this weekend.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Don't judge a book by its title. When I first encountered Cece Bell's latest book El Deafo in reviews, I assumed the title meant she had been picked on by others and called a name because she was deaf. It sounded cruel and insensitive, and I wasn't sure I wanted to read it. On the contrary, Elf Deafo is the name she chooses to represent her brave and powerful alter ego, the one who speaks the words she wishes she could say, the one who stands up for herself, the one who makes people truly understand what she wants and needs. El Deafo flies, spies, soars, and utters curses.

Biographical in nature, the story is immediately engaging, and Cece Bell captivated me with her genuine voice: honest, witty, sometimes uncertain, always wondering. Though her frustrations about being deaf certainly play a large part in her story, it was the yearning to find a true friend that spoke most to me. As she sought the best friend for her, she contemplated whether that person was feeling sorry for her or whether she should agree to do something simply to keep a friend or whether anyone would ever accept her for just being Cece. 

The graphic novel format - usually not my favorite - was perfect for this story. Speech and thought bubbles conveyed everything in first-person, allowing the reader to completely enter Cece's heart and mind. When necessary, narration blocks helped tell the story. Her formation of the garbled speech she heard when those around her watched television or listened to music or turned out the lights at a slumber party allowed me to imagine how she struggled to understand when lip-reading was not an option. A novel without pictures would not have been the same.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Growing Old

Age, as one realizes with age, is relative. My age used to seem old when I observed my aunts and uncles. Now in their early 70s, they do not seem old to me. Imagine, though, really going back in time to be an age you have already lived. But with that age, you have been able to keep the wisdom and knowledge gleaned from the actual experiences of your life.

Such is the case of eleven-year-old Ellie's grandfather in Jennifer Holm's latest book The Fourteenth Goldfish. When her mother comes home one day with a rather odd teenage boy (who has the teenage attitude and appetite), she soon discovers him to be her grandfather Melvin. Geeky, judgemental, brilliant, sassy, and always hungry, Melvin has become young in body through experiments done with a jellyfish. Naming the species T. Melvinus, he has taken a dose and gotten into some trouble. His only wish is to rescue the remaining sample from his refrigerator in the lab. 

Enter Ellie, who has been abandoned by her longtime friend for the popular crowd. To her credit, she sits with her cantankerous and strangely dressed grandfather/so-called-cousin at lunch and accompanies him on his excursions. She listens to his research ideas. She enlists the help of a boy named Raj who becomes her friend. And she begins to question, as she learns from Melvin about other scientists and their mistakes, whether it is right to stay the same age forever. She asks him, "Is growing up, growing old - life - is it all so terrible?" 

Recently, I listened to a TED talk by author Mac Barnett in which he discusses how children are able to suspend their disbelief in the unlikely, buying in to the scenarios and possibilities in the books they read. That was me with The Fourteenth Goldfish. Melvin's research and transformation was believable somehow. I contemplated with Ellie: "Who's going to be the grown-up?

The realistic dialogue and situations, the wonderful connection to Our Town, a fabulous title story, and an opening quote from Galileo added to my appreciation of this thoughtful science fiction book. Reading it aloud to fourth graders later this year will, no doubt, provide me with insights from readers who are still deciding about what it means to be old.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Quiet Reading

There are authors whose books I seek on lists of new releases, often searching their names or websites every so often in order not to miss anything I might want to read. Naomi Shihab Nye is one of those writers. How glad I am to have spent quiet reading time with her latest book The Turtle of Oman this week. Who in the book world would not love a main character like this: "He learned to read shoes first. Then he learned how to read books"?

Moving to a new place is usually not a welcome experience for most young people, and Aref is no exception. Though he knows many American students from his years as a student at the American International School in Muscat, he has never been the new kid. Now as his parents prepare for their doctoral programs in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Aref faces the challenge of making new friends as he learns about his new home. Most importantly, he will do that without the quiet guidance of his Siti, the grandfather whose model for living has shaped Aref's life. 

And so, as Aref's mother cleans and packs and organizes, Siti and Aref spend time reminiscing, gathering memories, learning together, and dreaming of what they will do when Aref returns in three years. The two head out in Siti's old vehicle, affectionately named Monsieur, and spend a glorious night at the Night of a Thousand Stars camp. "This was the way they talked for miles and miles, syllables unrolling with the pavement." (p. 135) Savoring roasted nuts, weighed on a balance with brass weights, watching turtles roll in the ocean waves, sleeping in a tent, meeting friends along their route...all these things keep Aref grounded in the love of his Siti. The wise man knows that the experiences they share will resonate with his grandson in his new home. 

The chapter titles kept me intrigued, the tiny ink illustrations by the paragraph indents are lovely, and the way her words play out on the page and in Siti's and Aref's dialogue added to my love of this quiet book. I know just the readers who will enjoy it, too. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Scent of a Book

A new fabulous library volunteer started at school today. As I read aloud to the fourth graders, she was shelving nonfiction. My sense that she was listening to the book was confirmed when, after the students departed, she said, "What book were your reading? I couldn't help but listen." I showed her Sterling North's Rascal. Taking the book from me, she said, "I knew it was an old one." She opened the book to its center and sniffed deeply. "I love this scent," she uttered with a sigh.

The students love the book. When I began reading it on the first day of school (to all six sections of information literacy students), I was not certain it was the right choice. Set in 1918, it definitely offers a glimpse into a slower pace of life...without television and computers. Yet after a few pages, the students were hooked, begging for me to read beyond May, the first chapter. Almost palpable tension swirled as Sterling and his friend Oscar attempted to trap a mother raccoon and her four babies. Sterling's drawing of the short straw, bringing him to the branch of an oak tree where that mother screeched, made them cringe in anticipation of what she might do. But when Oscar's mother showed Sterling how to feed the raccoon warm milk through a wheat straw, many nodded in understanding. 

In June, they love how Rascal, at two months old, learns instinctively how to wash a minnow caught in Sterling's bait pond, how to better hold a crayfish in order not to be pinched, how to open the screen door to get to his companion's human bed, and how to hold a bottle of strawberry pop to get the last drops. They also love how Rascal learns quickly not to wash his sugar lump as he would wash a minnow! I love how this gentle story captivates readers almost a hundred years after the events occurred. It was an excellent choice.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Grudge Keeper

When end papers give integral information to a story, readers take note. In my library, if I do not show the end papers, readers ask to see what they missed. In Mara Rockliff's new book The Grudge Keeper, they would have missed a surprised young man, a young woman grimacing in pain and holding her shin, and another young man just in front of her, his angled movement indicating he caused the young woman's injury. The following half title page reveals a seemingly quiet village. And the title page shows an older man trudging behind a wooden cart piled high with scrolls of paper: the Grudge Keeper.

Imagine a town like Bonnyripple where no one held a grudge except old Cornelius. Whatever trivial or monumental grievances occurred were scrawled on paper and stored in his cottage. The jars and containers on his shelves are filled with them, in much the same way the BFG kept dreams. The text is filled with word play, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and imagery. Eliza Wheeler's ink and watercolor illustrations, filled with shadow and light, call attention to the thousands of scrolled grudges. When a howling wind blows, the people of Bonnyripple find that "squabbles were scrambled with quibbles" and in the middle of the heaps of displaced grudges, the people heard the groan from Cornelius. 

I love a happy ending, and this book finishes with friendliness and comfort, prompting me to think twice when I want to hold onto a grudge. The final end papers reveal a happy pair of women, their grudges forgotten. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Observant Mouse

Born in a cheese box in the attire at Number 33 Offley Street, the narrator of Hermelin the Detective Mouse is observant and witty. Mini Grey's artwork pairs perfectly with her text, making this a mystery, a case book, and writing opportunity all in one.

The opening pages display the happenings of Offley Street residents, each going about daily business and some distraught (observant readers may predict has happened to them). The narrator is revealed on the second double-page spread. It is Hermelin, a mouse who was fortunate to acquire a pair of binoculars in the morning breakfast cereal. With them, Hermelin can zoom in on the neighborhood residents. Hermelin happens to be  a rather literate mouse, so the presence of a typewriter in the attic allows the mouse to communicate with others, something extremely helpful when the neighbors display notices asking for help! 

Hermelin finds Mrs. Mattison's handbag, Dr. Parker's glasses, and many more items. But when the neighbors ask Hermelin to attend a party honoring those acts of servitude, the crowd reacts with shrieks and gasps. Hermelin discovers that being a mouse is akin with being a pest! One neighbor finds a way for them to work together, however, bringing the perfect resolution to the problem. 

My fingers are tingling to type on an old typewriter like Hermelin's!

Note: Hermelin is also a cheese, similar in taste and texture to Camembert.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Traveling Through Architecture

If I had chosen other career paths, I know being an architect or a photographer would have been tops on the list. The latter is possible in an amateurish way as I document what I observe and encounter in life's journey. The former is what causes me to marvel when I visit new places, what I imagine in my mind, and what I sometimes envision in my nighttime dreams.

Reading The Story of Building by Patrick Dillon has immersed me in the history of architecture via a timeline of buildings, styles, and placed. Subtitled From the Pyramids to the Sydney Opera House, it encompasses the various structures that allowed buildings to soar, let in light and air, and serve functional purposes. Stephen Biesty's cross-section artwork pulls apart the platforms, arches, beams, and inner-working elements to reveal how the buildings remained intact and how they served users. Side panels taught me about the classical orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan), arches, domes, the Middle Ages, cantilevers (used in the Forbidden City), symmetry, geometry, pattern, and reinforced concrete. Every inquiry that formed in my mind was answered a paragraph or page later in the text! I visited places I have seen (and now wish to revisit) and places I wish I could see in person. 

Most engaging was how I traveled in time and style from the Pyramid of Djoser in Egypt to the Parthenon to the Hagia Sophia to Notre Dame and on to the 21st Century's straw bale house in London. The last few pages of the book provide the index above the detailed timeline of architectural events, discoveries, and trends. Readers will appreciate the wrtier's engaging style and be captivated by the illustrations. I look forward to reading chapters aloud and challenging them to consider what they observe and perhaps even how they want to live.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Setting Sail

Being a frequent visitor to my favorite independent bookshop has some excellent benefits, like being greeted by name, noticing new books and displays upon entering the store, and asking and answering the question "What have you liked lately?" Fortuitously, an advance proof of The Doll People Set Sail arrived at the Red Balloon yesterday morning, and the bookseller who shares my name dashed out the door after me, waving the copy and saying she knew I would like to read it first. How fortunate I am!

And so last night I spent time with Annabelle Doll and Tiffany Funcraft and their families on an adventure across the Atlantic Ocean! I know they are not really alive (at least not when humans are nearby), yet that did not stop my brain from traveling with the families from Kate's room to a box marked ATTIC to a truck for ATC (Allied Transatlantic Charities) to a cargo ship called The Brown Pelican. I gasped I horror when a hole in their box widened, causing a catastrophe. I climbed along the plastic straps of the towers of boxes to get to the floor of their deck. I heard the voices of other dolls in boxes and met the merdolls whose tails miraculously allowed them to walk. 

This fourth book in the series comes almost twenty years after Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin began writing The Doll People and is a fabulous continuation of the Doll and Funcraft saga. Brett Helquist's artwork shows his efforts to continue Brian Selznick's original ideas while adding some of his own style (and still keeping the characters's personalities). Danger lurks behind boxes and on deck. Family members are lost and found. Friendships are made and strengthened. Readers will love this story on the sea.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Have You Seen My Dragon?

While reading Steve Light's new book Have You Seen My Dragon? this afternoon, I responded to one double-page spread by speaking aloud my thoughts. "I would like ice cream." My husband, sitting quietly nearby, asked what I had said. Obviously, it had not quite registered that my thoughts became public! This happens with the listeners on the story steps all the time. They cannot help but respond to books when their engagement with the text and artwork is intense.

Have You Seen My Dragon? begs for reader response from the end papers and continues through the twenty spreads in which a young boy searches the city for his dragon. Readers will no doubt find the dragon easy to locate on some pages (on top of the hot dog vendor's cart, for example) and artfully disguised on others (like when he is part of the fountain in the monkey house at the park). Each spread features ink drawings - done with "a Mont Blanc 149 with a B nib that 'flips' to a fine line" - and just a bit of color, determined by whatever the boy and dragon are seeing or doing on that spread. Books are a goldenrod shade when the boy looks at the book stall for the dragon. The dogs in the park are light brown, and the balloons at the playground are red (just like at my favorite bookshop). 

Readers must look amidst the detailed drawings for the scaly dragon but also for the young boy, who is sometimes a bit more hidden than the dragon. He often asks others for assistance, causing him to miss his friend who is playing or helping nearby. For tracking all the places the boy and dragon have been (with corresponding colors), the end papers are an excellent narrowed map.

One of the best lines in the book comes from the author's biographical statement on the jacket flap:
"When I visited New York City as a kid, my father would tell me that the steam coming from the manhole covers was a dragon's breath - which made me want to live there!" And of course, that scene is illustrated with the 11th spread. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Quiet in the Library

Don Freeman's books are among my longtime favorites. I always longed to spend a night in a department store like Corduroy (though I never saw one with escalators until I visited Dayton's as a college freshman). It would have been terrific if our St. Bernard could rescue someone - with hot chocolate! - as Hugo did in Ski Pup. Dandelion provides the perfect example of why it is important to just be yourself.

As a librarian and frequent library patron, I like how the young girl Cary in Quite! There's a Canary in the Library imagines what it would be like to host "Animal and Bird Day" and welcome non-human patrons to browse the collection. Though librarians rarely sit behind their desks and wait, Cary understands all the other important duties that keep visitors coming back for more books. She welcomes Lion and Elephant and makes accommodating spaces for them to read. She greets each creature with enthusiasm and appreciation. She helps locate just the right books for each patron, like tall tales for Giraffe. She realizes the importance of respecting each other's needs and tries to keep the porcupine away from Lion and the monkeys contained. Most of all, she values reading and is pleased when all the patrons are engrossed in their chosen books. It is only when mice enter that chaos ensues, forcing Cary to maintain order with Canary's song.

Cary's imaginative scenario is charming, especially when she accidentally utters "Quiet!" aloud at her table. Don Freeman's text feels like a song itself at times with rhymes interspersed in unexpected places and puns scattered amongst the dialogue. His artwork, of course, plays along perfectly. Cary's delight when Canary sits atop her head, telling the patrons it is time to leave, shines in color in front of a gray background. 

A colleague told me yesterday how much she loves it when I share old books like this one (1969), and it is on my list for storytime in the fall. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Learning Chinese

Growing up, our family had large dogs: a St. Bernard and two Newfoundlands. Though I recall little of getting the former, the images of kennels of puppies for the latter two dogs remain strong in my memory. All those dark brown eyes and pink (sometimes spotted) tongued smiled at my brother and me. Knowing one of them was ours filled us with joyful anticipation!

The young narrator in Caroline Adderson's new book Norman, Speak! gets his dog a bit differently. Visiting the animal shelter, he decides to pick the saddest dog of the twenty-four residents. The stray called Norman had been there the longest and was the boy's choice. Despite his initially sad appearance, that dog wagged and twitched. "His wag was a hula dance of happiness." The family agreed he was friendly and funny. Still, Norman just could not get the hang of basic dog commands. 

Until they visited the dog park one day. Norman miraculously followed the commands another owner gave to his dog - in Chinese! And thus follows a series of Chinese lessons for the family so they can communicate with Norman. 

I liked the boy's determination and perseverance as he tries to learn a new language (especially when his dad gives up) and his dedication to the dog he so badly wanted. With illustrations by Qin Leng that provide a variety of perspectives, the story unfolds with perfect timing, allowing the boy's voice to shine. Reading this aloud to children will require a few Chinese pronunciation lessons for me, but I know there will be many young volunteers ready to teach this library lady.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Book Battle

My friend Mike Wohnoutka and his kids embarked on a Battle of the Books in March. Starting with 64 titles, they read and reread, voting books to the next bracket. When Dinosaurs Came With Everything by Elise Broach almost made it to the Final Four, prevailing over Don't Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus (Mo Willems) and Monkey With a Tool Belt (Chris Monroe) before losing to One Cool Friend (Toni Buzzeo). In the final round, Matthew McElligott's The Lion's Share and Anne Mazer's The Salamander Room faced each other for the title of winner. I love these books for different reasons, but what I especially like about both of them is their quiet nature.

The Salamander Room was voted the best book in the battle in the announcement this past moo day evening, so I pulled our copy from my oldest son's shelf to reread it yesterday. The words flowed from the page and my memory (having read it so many times to the boys). Brian's decision to take a salamander home to his room prompts a series of questions from his well-meaning mother. He must explain where it will sleep and play, how he will have company, what he will eat, where the other creatures (those that inevitably must join the salamander) will live, and how things will grow. I think the fascination for my sons were Brian's matter-of-fact answers and how when he spoke them aloud to his mother, they happened on the page in Steve Johnson's artwork. The boy's bedroom is transformed into a lush forest, just like the one the salamander inhabited a few pages ago. So the birds could fly, Brian's ceiling was lifted off. The trees could then grow tall through that open ceiling. Brian could sleep under the stars with all the lovely things he gathered for the salamander around him. 

Though they never were basketball fans, my sons would have loved doing this with the books we love. Somehow, I want to expose the second graders to 64 picture books before March so we can have our own Battle of the Books during information literacy!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

How They Choked

Georgia Bragg's How They Choked: Failures, Flops, and Flaws of the Awfully Famous (a companion to How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous) will definitely be off the shelf when school begins. The readers in my house commented on the gruesome cover (a skeleton with an RMS Titanic life preserver around its neck), wondering why I was reading a book like that. Soon, though, the book went missing from the last place I had been reading it. Others became engrossed in the 14 stories of failures and flaws of famous folks like Isaac Newton, George Armstrong Custer, Queen Isabella of Spain, and Montezuma.

In her introduction, Bragg writes that "juicy failures don't often make it into biographies because sometimes historians lose sight of the fact that their subjects were human beings. Real people make mistakes (even historians)." With that in mind, reading about the featured famous people becomes an anticipation of doom. What did Susan B, Anthony do to bring about failure? I thought Thomas Edison was the most famous inventor in U.S. history. Wasn't Amelia Earhart a skilled aviator? Reading the sometimes surprising truths revealed more than the biographies I have previously considerd thorough! 

Each chapter begins with the biographical facts about the noteworthy people. The author's witty, forthright style prevails as she describes the actions and events that brought them fame but also the ways their tragic flaws led to disappointment and worse. Bragg finishes with "One More Thing", a section of advice for how to work through the inevitable mistakes and failures we are bound to encounter in life and with a thorough list of sources for each of the subjects in this collective biography. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

I Am From

I am from the school library, always in search of the best books for readers.

In Andrea Cheng's The Year of the Fortune Cookie, the main character's teacher introduces the class to the George Ella Lyon poem "Where I'm From"The third in a series of books about Anna Wang, the story is a delightful mix of her adjustment to a new school, her continued learning of Chinese, and her desire to help others. Centered around all those things is the trip to China she will take with her former teacher and her husband when they adopt their daughter from China. As she contemplates the words of the poem, lines flow from her mind to express where she is from. 

Never one to believe in the fortunes wrapped inside cookies, I must admit to liking how the author integrated fortunes in this book. There is even a recipe at the end that looks tempting to try.

When I see readers in a few weeks, this will be one new book to recommend! For the full text of the poem (a great writing prompt for readers), go to 

I am from the comfortable chair where words from the pages swirl in my brain.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Last week I left my house on the quiet street where I like to watch the birds and traveled to a new place: Crater Lake National Park. In the afternoons, after hiking to the tops of peaks and along the lake's rim, I would sit in the lodge - or on the veranda - and read. Far from home, I saw things I had never imagined (like a 45' log called the Old Man floating vertically in the clear blue lake) and found cozy spots. Still, I was glad to come home to my home and routines.

The brave chicken who goes on a big adventure in Anna Walker's book Peggy leaves her small house on a quiet street quite unexpectedly when a gust of wind carries her away with leaves and twigs. Going  for a walk in the big city, she saw things she had never before seen, tasted new things, and found a cozy spot. But she missed her home, and none of the people she asked for directions could understand her. In a lovely twist of fate, she is led how by sunflowers and pigeons, the very things she loves in her yard! 

The ink and photo collage illustrations are charming, especially the spreads of Peggy doing her everyday things in the yard (including bouncing on the trampoline). Readers will enjoy observing her shopping experiences and the ways she moved unobtrusively through the city and transportation system, as well as her delight in telling her friends of her adventures.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Reading Connections

This week I have been reading a variety of books. In my past reading life, I never read more than one book at the same time; focusing on a single topic was necessary for focus and engagement. Lately though, I have appreciated the opportunity to read a few chapters of a Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery, switch to an intermediate-grade novel (like Lisa Graff's Absolutely Almost), and spend some contemplative time with a more serious non-fiction book.

Today I finished Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath: Underdogd, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants and then opened to my bookmark in Jenny Lee's Elvis and the Underdogs: Secrets, Secret Service, and Room Service. The latter is a sequel and features a Newfoundland who acted as a service dog to the main character, Benji Barnsworth, but is now the First Dog. Amazingly, Elvis can talk and communicate, and he has sent a Morse Code message to Benji on a YouTube video, begging for help. So, Benji is in Washington, D.C., and Elvis calls Benji "a feisty little David" and explains how the expression is "used to describe the little guy going up against big odds."

The former is a fascinating look at a variety of case studies in which the powerful do not triumph in expected ways because the underdogs - or seemingly less powerful people - behave in unexpected ways that bring about incredible results. French people in Le Chambon during World War II embraced the opportunity to take in Jews, hiding them and guiding them to safety, and the government knew about it. The Catholics in Northern Ireland did not behave as the British army expected, and the attacks on the people resulted in devastation and violence that went beyond what was necessary. Students who choose the larger, more prestigious university programs often find being a little fish in a big pond is not desirable. The examples from education, law enforcement, civil rights, war, and medicine speak to the power of underdogs.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Like Carrot Juice

Knowing books to recommend for readers is a necessity in the library world. Readers trust their librarians, knowing she or he would not suggest a book for them unless it was really good. As I continue reading this summer, I am gathering titles to share with readers in a few months, books I know will capture their attention and bring them back for another recommendation. This morning, the book was Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake.

Julie Sternberg began a charming series in 2011 about a girl named Eleanor with the book Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie. Eleanor must cope with the move of her favorite babysitter Bibi to another state. In  Like Bug Juice on a Burger, Eleanor goes to summer camp, courtesy of her grandmother, and she copes with the challenges of living away from home and of doing things she does not do well (like swimming). In the latest book, Eleanor copes with having her best friend Pearl spend more time with a sparkly new student than with her. Each book is illustrated by Matthew Cordell, and each can stand alone from the series (though I like learning more about Eleanor in each book). Told in verse, they are perfect for readers who want something a little less daunting than a long chapter book.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Three Bird Summer

Sara St. Antoine's book Three Bird Summer was the perfect book to read on this idyllic summer day. Adam and his new friend Alice spend their days on Three Bird Lake in northern Minnesota paddling, swimming, creating games, reading, and trying to solve a mystery. Having spent time at places like Adam's grandma's cabin, it was almost like being on familiar trails and waterways with them. What I especially liked about this quiet novel for middle grade readers was the surprising and realistic friendship between Adam and Alice and the connections they built with the natural world. The mystery that allows Adam to better understand his grandma added an excellent intergenerational element to the story. I wish I had read the book prior to creating summer reading lists!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tuscan Sun

Earlier in the month while visiting the North Shore, we came across a Little Free Library in a most unusual (but convenient) place: inside the lakeside "fish house" of the lodge. The mix of choices offered something for all ages of guests, and because the book I had selected for the trip was not as stellar as I expected, I chose Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, a book I always intended to read but never quite did. Today, in my favorite reading chair and on my padded windowseat, I finished her account of restoring Bramasole, the estate on the Tuscan hillside.

I am struck by the amount of work required to finish the many projects and can only imagine the sums of money needed to fund the work. But I loved meeting the people in and around Cortona who offered advice, became friends, and thought enough of the place to work carefully. I loved the descriptions of food and flowers and stones. Mostly, I loved imagining the light at various times of day and night, shining through trees and gates, reflected on water, illuminating the people. It was an excellent book to finish on this steamy summer afternoon. And now I want a cooler day so I can bake her lemon cake!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Prairie Seeds

Phyllis Root's latest book - Plant a Pocket of Prairie - opens with words of reminiscence: "Once prairie stretched for thousands of ocean of flowers and grasses, a sea of sky..." The book's lyrical text encourages readers to imagine who and what might come if even a pocket of prairie was planted. Plant things like foxglove beardtongue, butterfly weed, rough blazing star, asters, purple coneflowers, goldenrod, cup plants, big bluestem and Indian grasses, and numerous others. Birds like the ruby-throated hummingbird, chickadee, and dickcissel might come to nest. Monarchs, swallowtails, great spangled fritillaries, and checkerspot butterflies might flit amongst the blooms and grasses. One plant or being attracts others, widening the prairie's reach. Betsy Bowen's block prints and watercolors complement the words with lovely colors, often extending the story beyond the text.

Those prairies (which covered about 40% of the United States) have been transformed into farms and towns and citified, reducing their coverage to a mere one percent of the land. The author's note offers ideas for planting pockets of prairies wherever there is soil...a windowbox, a backyard plot. All the flora and fauna mentioned in the text are explained in greater detail at the end of the book. I plan to scatter my own seeds!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Parallel Worlds

When Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary was released in 2007, I delighted in the friendship between a young girl named Mary and a mouse living in Mary's house. The title hints at what readers find inside the book: a parallel world of humans and mice, living quite amiably together. Or at least those two members of each species do. Beverly Donofrio's story is charming, and Barbara McClintock's detailed illustrations add tidbits of information and intrigue to the story. Mary and Mouse grow up together, and their children encounter each other, too.

That relationship continues in Where's Mommy? Reminiscent of Mary Norton's The Borrowers in how big characters co-exist with little characters, it is the story of Maria and Mouse Mouse. McClintock's illustrations run horizontally across the pages, showing each character's lives and actions. What Maria does in her world, Mouse Mouse does in miniature. While Maria sits on a stool, Mouse Mouse sits on a tiny jam jar. The combined work of the author and illustrator mesh so beautifully, creating another delightful picture book. Reading aloud both to primary readers in the fall is in my plan.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Not Working = Reading

Teachers have the summers off. A common misconception. We are not at school every day. We are not grading or managing classrooms. We can meet a friend for tea or attend a conference without finding a substitute. But we really do work in the summers. We work to prepare for what we will teach and learn with another group of students.

For me, much of the summer work involves reading...and reading and reading. No complaining voice accompanies those repetitions. Not working in the summers in the formal sense means I have time to read for my work with students, families, and staff members during the school year. And that is how I have occupied many hours of the past week (the first away from school).

Numerous titles await their return to the public library (including the hilarious This is a Moose by Richard T, Morris and The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc). Mostly, I have been savoring Revolution by Deborah Wiles. The second book in her 60s trilogy, it is designed like Countdown, filled with photographs, speeches, advertisements, and articles from the time period. This historical evidence is intermingled with the historical fiction, transporting me to Mississippi in 1964 to experience Freedom Summer through the eyes of Sunny Fairchild, her stepbrother Gillette, and Raymond Bullis, a black about their age. So thoroughly immersed am I in their world that I have even been dreaming of them! I love the voices of those three young people and how the author seamlessly moves from one voice to another to show all sides of an encounter or issue. My emotions rage as I read in disbelief of the actions and statements of Americans against their fellow Americans. Through it all, I am carried by the tide of hope and the gratitude for those brave people who worked to bring freedom to all.

Early on, Sunny proclaims, "Sometimes you just need a book near you and you can't explain why." I can explain why I need a book closeby, but I could not help but admire this character who learns that lessons at a young age.

Another Note: The author's fabulous picture book (Freedom Summer) has long been a favorite for introducing civil rights to upper elementary students. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Scenic Cookbook

Years ago, our family visited the New Scenic Cafe, located on Minnnesota's "old" Highway 61 along the North Shore. We loved the grilled gruyere, apple, and avocado sandwich so much that we created our own version...and made it part of our dinner meal rotation.

We visited the cafe just last week with friends from Vermont (who also make that grilled sandwich), and the meal was fabulous again. Though I wanted these friends to experience the cafe, then view of Lake Superior, and the excellent food, I also wanted to stop there to purchase a copy of their cookbook, assembled by owner and chef Scott Graden. Mmm. The photographs of the food and North Shore places are stunning, and the recipes abound with the goodness of the things I have enjoyed eating there. The recipe introductions are poetic and intriguing, like the one for the sandwich my friend and I split last week.

"I mix the tempeh, which is made from fermented soybeans and other grains, together with onions, garlic, soy sauce, and white pepper. Then I bring the tempeh together with the deep flavor of dark raisin rye bread, the sour taste of sauerkraut, the earthy tang of Gruyere cheese, and the zest of Russion dressing. The slice of ripe tomato I layer on as well bring in a flavor that helps merge the concept of a Reuben with the fresh flavors of vegetarian cuisine." 

I continue to meander through this thick, thorough cookbook (405 pages), savoring ideas and planning when to make the next recipe.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Fan Club Jewelry

What a lucky jewel I am to wear my favorite book as a locket! A package from the fan club arrived prior to my birthday, and held a brightly wrapped gift. I loved wearing it to school on the last few days and will keep it with me tomorrow as I talk about books at St. Cloud State University's Children's Literature Workshop. Thanks to the fan club for such a lovely gift!

In preparation for tomorrow, I reviewed each title this afternoon, considering what I like and what curriculum connections teachers might appreciate. I have never been one to speak with notes, so the 60 or so books I selected must be memorable in some manner that triggers my appreciation for each one. The problem is always cutting off the list in time for printing. Today, I read a few that begged to be added in one and shared with the participants: Revolution by Deborah Wiles and This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Bird Book 2

Every piece of art created by Steve Jenkins makes me want a sharp scissor and a collection of unique papers. In my mind, I imagine creating collages like his. His layers, colors, textures, and compositions transform paper into life-like birds in Jennifer Ward's new book Mama Built a Little Nest. Even the bird's eyes seem to be looking at me, that tiny bit of white reflected in them. 

The rhyming text tracks the nests built by various bird mothers. The woodpecker taps into a tree trunk. The hummingbird makes a tiny nest of moss that will stretch to hold her young. Some birds inhabit the nests built by other mother birds. Others make a scrape along the side of a cliff. The male cactus wren even makes multiple nests in hopes of attracting an interested female! 

I learned about so many different nests and enjoyed the small captions that provided additional information. The technique of the weaverbirds is admirable. The floating nests of the grebes are attached - or anchored - to plants. Swiftlets (a bird I had never known until this book!) make a nest that is edible, eaten as bird's nest soup in China. Her author's note tells more about nests and provides resources for learning additional facts.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Bird Book 1

One of the things I love about walking and running in the early morning hours is the chance to hear bird songs. With 20+ years of time on the paths, my bird-call identification skills have improved. I wish I had started honing my skills earlier! 

Young readers can start early with Have You Heard the Nesting Bird?, a new book by Rita Gray. Each line of the rhyming text is followed by an onomatopoeic bird song...chiddik, chiddik for the sparrow, ee-oh-lay ee-oh-lay for the wood thrush. All the while, the narrators are longing to hear the sound of the nesting bird, the robin. At the end of the book, "A Word with the Bird" provides readers with an interview with the mother robin, revealing details about her nesting habits and bird song. Clever.

The artwork by Kennard Pak is lovely, though I wish I knew more about the "digital media" used with the watercolor. The birds are sharp and appear to reflect their calls in their personalities. The landscapes - especially the house at night - are vividly engaging. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Under the Egg

I have a passion for art history, something I did not recognize as a young person but which has developed over time. The tip should have been my love of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (and that it was published in the year I was born). So, I was anxious to read Under the Egg, the debut novel by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. 

It begins with a flashback. "Look under the egg," says Jack, a former security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "There's a letter," Theodora Tenpenny's grandfather tells her as he lays dying. "And a treasure." Then he adds, "Before it's too late."

Theo and Jack had a daily ritual under the egg, the painting of an egg, that is. They would select the most perfect egg from those laid by their hens and set it in a place of honor: a ceramic bowl made by Theo's grandmother. Until the next morning, the egg would sit under the painting, "it's only job to echo the painting above it." After searching all around their messy dwelling, Theo accidentally spills rubbing alcohol over the surface of the egg canvas. She swipes and dabs at the paint until her heart sinks. "I could just make out - under the paint that was once that everlasting egg - a bird in flight." 

And thus begins the mystery and extended art history lesson that includes a new friend named Bhodi, connections with unlikely experts (like Sanjiv, the nut vendor), a few excellent librarians, an in-depth study of Raphael, odd encounters with the strange French neighbor, and revelations about Jack that Theo never in a million years would have thought possible. Loved it.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mr. Emerson

I love our home. On a weekend, when I am rejuvenating from the school week, I often hesitate to make  too many plans with friends. Activities that take me away from the peace of home can be both pleasant and draining. Perhaps I have a bit of Ralph Waldo Emerson in me.

A Home for Mr. Emerson, written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, is a bold picture book biography about a man whose many journals chronicled the things he valued in life, the things he considered, and the ways he thought were best for living cooperatively in the world. He named his journal The Wide World, and over the years they were a "Savings Bank" of ideas.

After he married and moved to his first home, he expressed this view: "But we shall crowd so many books and papers, and, if possible, wise friends, into it that it shall have as much wit as it can carry." We have crowded many books into our home and also savor the times spent with wise friends within these walls. Though Mr. Emerson's home was lost to a fire, his faithful friends had a surprise for him when he returned from a voyage oversees. 

I really like the way this biography is presented, but even more than that, I like the author's note and the page inviting readers to "build a world of your own." Using three quote from Mr. Emerson's journals, readers are encouraged (through well-worded questions and statements), to consider their own lives. 

"The great business of life is to learn ourselves." List five things to describe you and things you love to do.

"Happy is the house that shelters a friend." Write about your favorite room and design your perfect home.

"Make yourself necessary to somebody." Broaden your experiences considering ways to work in your community.

All of the suggestions would make excellent common writing prompts for children and adults.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Orange Aardvark

Michael Hall's presentation at the Red Balloon today completely enchanted the young audience members. After showing photographs of aardvarks large and small and requesting help in making the noise of a drill when it appears in the story, he introduced the main characters in It's an Orange Aardvark!: five carpenter ants and, of course, an orange aardvark. As the drilling carpenter ant let in light from outside the stump, the other ants fret about what might be out there. An orange aardvark? An orange aardvark wearing blue pajamas? An orange aardvark with a ketchup bottle? I won't spoil the ending here. Just know the young listeners enjoyed it...and the adults, too.

My favorite thing, though, was watching the little people respond to Michael's requests to help him as he demonstrated how he created the artwork for the book using paper and simple shapes. When the tiny triangles from the aardvark's foot were not needed, the audience blew them off the screen. Multiple times. When they snapped their fingers, the pieces magically shifted places. Michael's own hands deftly moved his shapes or garnered facial expressions in responses to his words. Wide eyes and open mouths surrounded me on the story steps. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

In New York

In 1975, my parents took us to New York City for a day as part of a family trip. As my grown-up mind remembers the trip, images of the blue whale and dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History dominate. I do to think we went across to Central Park, and I know we did not go inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art (because I still long to got there after all these year and countless readings of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler).

And so, I have been savoring Marc Brown's latest book, In New York, for all the things I would like to do there. In what feels like a friendly tour-guide voice, he narrates as only a lover of that city could do. It begins this way:

"One night when I was eight years old, my family boarded a train in Erie, Pennsylvania. When we woke up, we were in New York City, the most exciting city I has ever seen and probably ever will see. As a child, I dreamed of one day living there, and now I do, in an old house near the Hudson River."

Occasionally, his passion for the city spills into the narrative about the places he loves, especially about walking on the High Line in the quiet of the morning. A list of museums, transportation options, and other information follows the text. With facts and drawings adorning the end papers, In New York is a charming journey from cover to cover.