Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Dose of Happy

Standing on the doorstep poised for action, she sniffs the air and glances outward before looking hopefully back at her human.  As the walk begins a prance replaces her usual plodding pace, everywhere she sees a fresh blanket of snow.  It's as if the puppy portion of her fourteen-year-old heart grows larger and larger.  She runs and dips her head into the whiteness gulping huge mouthfuls of icy goodness.

If you want to see joy, try watching a dog, at least my dog, in the snow.  This, like most enjoyed pursuits, starts in puppyhood.  Every dog I have ever known embraces everything they do with enthusiasm.  I Love Dogs! (Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, December 30, 2014) written by Sue Stainton with illustrations by Bob Staake is a cheerful celebration of one boy's complete, one hundred percent affection for dogs.

I love dogs!

Is there a specific kind of dog this boy likes?  Does he prefer one size over another?  Is there a certain personality quirk he requires in dogs?  Of course not!

He sees strength as a virtue as well as dogs that make comfy cuddlers.  Taking a snooze or running, even around in circles, is perfectly fine dog behavior as far as he is concerned.  Always hungry dogs, taking advantage of every opportunity dogs or patiently waiting dogs are the consummate canine companion.

This boy can't help telling the world how much dogs fill his entire being with happiness. If they have smooth fur, fluffy fur, or fur with polka dots, he simply does not care.  If they sniff or are smelly or if they bark or quietly sneak, he treats them equally.

As he follows signs through the park with a definite destination in mind, everywhere he looks he sees dogs.  Long bodies, tall bodies, short bodies, and tails and noses in motion are traits he treasures.  This boy knows everything about dogs in art, dogs in the news and how they are very smart.  This boy loves dogs with all his heart!  Where is he going on this fine day you ask?  I'll never tell.

If you want exhilaration on every single page, read the words written by Sue Stainton for this title.  Her character, the boy, not only declares his fondness for these four-legged friends but he tells us exactly why he feels the way he does.  Stainton groups at least ten two-word phrases together; the first two and second two rhyming descriptions preceding the word dogs.  When she switches this up with three word phrases the final word rhymes.  Her repetition of the words I love dogs and Dogs, dogs, dogs contributes to the delivery of the beat and helps build toward the finale.  Here is a sample.

Chasing dogs,
racing dogs.
Speedy dogs,
greedy dogs.
Dogs in the snow,
dogs that know.

Looking at the bright colors and facial expressions on the front and back of the dust jacket will make readers want to lift their hands and laugh too.  On the left is a separate single illustration of the boy, eyes closed, nearly lying on the ground as two dogs happily bark at him and lick his face.  This is a portion of an interior two-page picture. As my copy is an F & G I am not sure how the endpapers will appear.

Bob Staake's remarkable, individualistic images begin the story on the title page as the boy walks by a sign which points the way.  The verso and dedication pages hold a single visual of a street surrounding a park with a pathway the boy will follow.  The park is a haven for dogs.

All of the illustrations spanning edge to edge across two pages are rendered digitally.  People's faces and dogs are every shape, hue and age.  Trees and their trunks are striped, plain and variegated.   The architecture of buildings is mixed.  I want to step into this world created by Bob Staake.

I could spend hours (even more than I already have) looking at the details in each illustration.  Some dogs are on leashes, some are being pulled in wagons; some are running free or running after another dog.  Some collars are small, others are big and one is even worn on a tail.  You won't have to look for very long to see burst-out-loud-laughing humor that tops the smile you are already wearing.

One of my favorite illustrations is one of the center portions of the park; four paths branching from a small pool.  Nearly every single being is in motion, except for a newspaper reader on a bench.  Our lover of dogs can be seen on the far left, arms outstretched, head raised proclaiming

I love dogs!

with a single tooth showing in his open mouth.  The hat one of the men is wearing might remind you of another book character.

I love books!  I love reading! And I love dogs!  The narrative written by Sue Stainton paired with the artwork of Bob Staake in I Love Dogs! is a title which welcomes not only readers with my same passions but anyone looking for delight with a capital D.  This is a great read aloud inviting listeners to participate by shouting out repetitious words and would be wonderful to do as a reader's theater production.

Please follow the link embedded in Bob Staake's name to access his website.  I was fortunate to obtain this F & G from my favorite independent book shop, McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey.  Be sure to visit your nearest indie store to get a copy or your local public library when the end of December appears on your calendar.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Solstice Sleep, Solstice Sights

The winter solstice signals the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.  Bare branches wave in the winds.  Only the cawing of crows, the honking of migrating geese or chirping of chickadees breaks the silence.  The snow reveals those beings still awake; footprints betraying their nocturnal travels.

Mother Nature demands this rest, this sleep of renewal.  Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, November 4, 2014) written by Joyce Sidman with illustrations by Rick Allen recreates this natural interlude in all it's fascinating elegance.  We listen. We read. We marvel. And we grow in understanding.

Dusk fell
and the cold came creeping,
came prickling into our hearts.

This is the first sentence in the first poem of twelve titled Dream Of The Tundra Swan; transporting us into the residents' realm.  Not only can we claim a clear vision of white wings shaking off gathered flakes of ivory but to know these creatures soar up to 5,000 feet in the air is astounding.

Readers may shiver not from cold but from the thought of thousands of garter snakes gathering to slumber together in the same spot year after year.  Water drops drop from clouds gathering vapor on formed crystals moving without direction, each one different, and each one adding to the growing crowd to layer the ground with snow.  A moose moves with its mother from one spring season to the next weathering winter depths on tall thin legs built for its bulk.

Did you know busy honey makers huddle around their queen, a living buzzing ball?  Beavers hide beneath the ice all winter never seeing the light of day unless it dimly shines through the walls of their mound of sticks and chips.  Ravens and wolves work together in the air and on land, not in complete harmony, to find food.

If voles are fortunate snows will fall deep enough so tunnels can offer protection and passage.  Clever predators are always ready to listen, dig and capture them. Those sentinels, standing silent except for the creaking and cracking on bitter windy days, those trees survive through the ages.

Chickadees cheerfully maneuver from point to point seeking food until the shift in seasons.  Tiny arthropods gather by the thousands as winter weakens and those early floral harbingers send out their skunky scent.  A change is coming.

Poetic master, Joyce Sidman, creates amazingly realistic images with her words. Reading her poetry is an experience for our senses bringing us into the essence of her subject.  Free verse, rhyming patterns, repetition, and two voices speaking surround us with their pulse, Nature's heartbeat in rhythm to our own. Here are two examples from this title.

In the fat white wigwam
made of ripped chips and thrashing twigs
is a heart of fur, curled and cozy,
far beneath the winter sunshine.
(Under Ice; a pantoum)

From dawn to dusk in darkling air
we glean and gulp and pluck and snare,
then find a roost that's snug and tight
to brave the long and frozen night.
(Chickadee's Song)

To the left of each poem are short informative paragraphs offering intriguing details about each subject.  They are the types of facts which get to the heart of each.  They are the types of facts which will garner even more appreciation for each animal, snowflakes, first flowers and trees.

Unfolding the matching dust jacket and book case, readers are greeted by the first of fifteen illustrations spanning across two pages.  With a color palette as icy as the temperature except for the warmth of the featured beings, we are moved to the woodland as surely as if we walked through a door.  Many parts of this world sleep and slow but others are as animated as the foxes moving over the snow.  A steely blue-gray covers both the opening and closing endpapers.  After the turn of the title page highlighting a moose deep in the snow facing readers, a tree branch spans from left to right, final clinging autumn leaves falling, shifting to bare twigs and huge snowflakes drifting downward.  At the book's close the branch is there again.  Snowflakes leave to reveal new buds.

Rick Allen rendered these artistic pieces as stated in this portion taken from the verso.

The individual elements of each picture (the animals, trees, snowflakes, etc.) were cut, inked, and printed from linoleum blocks (nearly two hundred of them), and then hand-colored.  Those prints were then digitally scanned, composed, and layered to create the illustrations for the poems.  

You want to pause at each visual to gaze in wonder at the details, the movement, the background and the texture.  You can hear wings being lifted in flight, the soft fall of snowflakes and crunching and tearing of moose teeth on willow.  Every scene is a study in the marvels of animal and plant adaptation shown in varied perspectives.  In every double-page image but three the fox can be seen.

Several of my favorite illustrations are of the moose and its mother foraging and resting together to sleep. The shades of color in the background are a striking contrast to the warm browns of their fur.  The beavers moving beneath the ice, gathering sticks, swimming and curling up inside their lodge is fantastically portrayed; the shadows of being near the bottom of the stream against the clarity of the room.  Having walked the woods for many years in the early spring to see the first flower, skunk cabbage, I know this close-up view is perfect.  The reflection of the fox drinking in the pool of water is stunning.

Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold written by Joyce Sidman with illustrations by Rick Allen is a beautifully conceived and executed work.  The poetry literally sings off the pages, elevated by breathtaking art.  This title would be a welcome addition to a personal or professional collection.  Reading it aloud is mesmerizing.  A single page glossary is included on the final page.

To learn more about Joyce Sidman and Rick Allen please follow the links embedded in their names to visit their personal websites.  Joyce Sidman has several extra items for her titles including videos.  Here is a link to an educator's guide for this book.  Author and blogger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Julie Danielson, interviewed Rick Allen recently.  The questions and his answers along with the pictures and artwork are wonderful.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Now What Cat?

Two weeks ago when heading home through town down several side streets, I couldn't believe my eyes.  One of the houses looked like Clark Griswold had paid a visit; lights twinkling in the early dusk.  Not too many days later wreaths and garlands began to appear outside markets and nurseries. Members of the high school band were canvasing neighborhoods selling seasonal greens to raise money.

Perhaps the early snow storms contributed to the air of preparation and expectation but there is no doubt, the season of winter holidays is upon us.  Children throughout the world, depending on their cultural customs await the arrival of a special night, a night of gift-giving.  You may recall there is a rather cunning cat we first met in Here Comes The Easter Cat (Dial Books for Young Readers, January 24, 2014).  For reasons soon to be revealed he has returned in Here Comes Santa Cat (Dial Books for Young Readers, October 21, 2014) written by Deborah Underwood with pictures by Claudia Rueda.

Hey, Santa!
Have you seen Cat?

Readers, unlike the unseen narrator, are quick to recognize Cat dressed in Santa garb.  When the unidentified voice realizes their mistake, they ask Cat why he is wearing a suit of red trimmed in white fur.  Through the use of his clever mode of communication we decipher the true reason for Cat looking like Santa Claus.  He wants to give himself a gift.

He is secure in his assessment the real Santa Claus will not be giving him a gift.  On the naughty or nice pie chart, his nice section is a mere sliver.  Cat has no other option.

In further conversation, it's clear his role as the jolly giver of gifts has not been carefully considered.  Climbing down chimneys is too messy.  Not being in possession of flying reindeer, Cat decides to wear a device of his own choosing with disastrous results. (He does have a love of speedy means of transportation.)

He could simply be nicer even if there are less than twenty-four hours left.  His ideas of caroling, giving presents to children and decorating the tree in the town center are fabulous failures. Regardless of his less than stellar attempts, the narrator decides to give him two cans of his favorite fancy food.

Now a new problem presents itself to Cat in the form of a younger character.  Cat has a choice to make.  It's not going to be an easy decision because Cat is.... Well he's Cat.

Jingle Jingle Jingle

Look what's happened to Cat now.  Merry Christmas to you too.

Continuing with the narrative technique which worked extremely well in the first title, Deborah Underwood uses a conversation between Cat, displayed through the use of signs, with an as yet unnamed speaker.  This voice questions, discusses, reasons, advises, responds and supports Cat in all things.  It's the actions of Cat, devised by Underwood, which will have listeners rolling on the floor with laughter and readers giggling with glee.  Cat's personality is distinctively his own.

Claudia Rueda has rendered all the illustrations

with ink and color pencils on white paper, surrounded by hundreds of cats (ink cats!).

White space is definitely an element in all her visuals beginning with the matching dust jacket and book case.  The look on Cat's face sitting on top of the gift holding up the sign covering Claus makes me laugh every single time.  On the left the expression on his face sans the suit (the hat is behind his back) is without a doubt devious.  Rueda begins her visual story several pages before the formal title page with Cat wandering by a pet store displaying a bounty of items.  By the time he passes the shop he has a plan.

In a pattern which splendidly dictates the pacing, adding to the humor of the story, Rueda alternates with an illustration on one page with the black text spoken by the narrator on the opposite side.  On several pages pictures alone carry the story line seamlessly.  Her artistic technique and style convey every single nuance of Cat's moods.

With a soft touch to her color and lines and with the smallest of details, the mere hint of a smile with his paw resting on his lips, a toothy grin, a frown with upraised eyebrows, or crinkled whiskers, we know what Cat is thinking and feeling.  Her use of shading depicts Cat's change from being downcast to expressing alarm and then hopeful.  Selecting a favorite illustration is nearly impossible.

I think one of my favorite funny pictures is after the big CRASH!  Cat is standing wearing the Santa hat and coat with a string of Christmas lights wrapped around him from head to paw.  On the opposite side is a single word spoken by the narrator.


For me the "heart" factor comes with the illustration featuring Cat wearing his new set of clothes having just given a gift to his unexpected visitor.  After the gift is opened I can already hear readers sighing.

Who doesn't love to laugh? We need it every day.  The effect is immediate and beneficial.  Here Comes Santa Cat written by Deborah Underwood with pictures by Claudia Rueda is one of those seasonal books certain to lift spirits not only for the wit but for the wisdom Cat discovers.  I am grateful to Deborah Underwood and Claudia for creating this series.  (I'm still smiling after numerous readings.)

To learn more about Deborah Underwood and Claudia Rueda please visit their websites by following the links embedded in their names.  Deborah Underwood was a guest blogger at PiBoIdMo, Picture Book Idea Month, hosted by Tara Lazar on November 17, 2014.  She talks about the creation of Cat and the first book.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

To Wait

If you choose to think about it in this way our lives can be measured by the time we spend waiting.  When younger we can't wait until we are grown up; only to wish we could turn the clock back every so often.  We wait to hear our name called to make the walk in front of classmates, friends and family to receive our high school, then college diploma. We anxiously await news about our first job.

One of the most highly-charged times of waiting is for the return of loved ones.  A hole in the fabric of lives is plainly felt by their absence.  Coming Home (Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan, November 4, 2014) written and illustrated by Greg Ruth vividly portrays the arrival of soldiers.  


This word is the first of only eighteen words in this story.  Each illustration offers an explanation or an extension of the text.  The initial visual of fourteen double-page pictures accompanying this single word shows two rows of people waiting behind a roped-off area. 

Eight people and a dog are more prominently featured.  It is the boy in the red shirt off to the side that draws our attention.  He, the dog and another woman are intensely focused on a plane, steps lowered, which has landed.

A signal is given.  The boy and the dog on a leash held by the woman race out the doors onto the tarmac.  The dog jumps on a kneeling female soldier as the boy walks away.  He runs again searching and watching as others greet one another; hugs shared, kisses given and pictures taken. 

He wanders among all the people. He looks in every direction filled with hope.  A soldier stands alone with a duffel bag at their feet.  The boy stands alone perfectly still staring ahead.  He suddenly yells with hands upraised, joy spread across his face.  A hero has returned.

Until the final page only one or two words have been selected for use by Greg Ruth on some of the pages.  Each choice not only builds anticipation but offers the boy's response to observations made as he seeks his parent.  We can also sense his increased frustration making the eventual reunion all the more joyful.  Bracketing specific words with repeated words and phrases mirrors the pace of the boy walking and pausing.  

When opening the dust jacket Greg Ruth gives readers a before and after glimpse into the reality for those left at home with loved ones in the armed services.  A boy and a dog stand on the airstrip watching a plane fly overhead each waiting respectfully.  On the left or back the airstrip is extended with the landed plane across its surface.  Passengers are embarking.  The tiny figure of the boy and his parent can be seen.  On the book case Ruth has placed the image from the book's interior when the boy and his parent first see one another.  A pale yellow color apparent in all of the illustrations covers the opening and closing endpapers.  

Each page turn reveals gorgeous images brimming with motion and emotion.  Body postures and facial expressions express more than words could convey.  Each and every reader can connect to the feeling of meeting someone who has been absent; someone whose presence makes your life richer.  

Ruth's technique of having elements in the illustrations appear more faded in the background drawing your attention to those in full color is beautiful.  As you focus on the dog jumping on the soldier, the woman kissing the male soldier's nose, the man touching the pregnant woman's stomach, or the child wearing a male soldier's cap you understand completely the exchange taking place in those moments. One of my favorite images uses these techniques to great effect.

Greg Ruth shifts his perspective zooming in on the boy peering between two separate groups of people.  We still have the more faded people in the background.  In the foreground the people are much darker in shades of brown and black drawing our eyes immediately to the boy.  His look of inquiry might be tinged with increased hope.  You can't really know until you turn the page.

Coming Home written and illustrated by Greg Ruth needs to find a place on every bookshelf.  Its portrayal of the arrival of returning soldiers home to friends and family of all ages is striking in its truth.  This is an important and moving book; a homage to those who serve and those who await their homecoming.  An Author's Note concludes the book.

To learn more about Greg Ruth and his other work, please visit his website by following the link embedded in his name.  On November 10, 2014 Greg Ruth was a guest blogger at teacher librarian extraordinaire, John Schumacher's site, Watch. Connect. Read.   He speaks about this book and several illustrations are posted.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In Silence Heroes Rise

For nearly five years in the 1950s audiences thrilled to The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.  During the same year The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin first aired and lasting for nineteen seasons, Lassie was a beloved classic recreated for television.  Even today hearing the opening music for either show brings back memories of watching the episodes each week.

Unbeknownst to me, stretching back to the era after World War I, another canine is responsible for the fame found by dogs on the silver and later the television screen.  Based on factual research, this fictionalized account, Strongheart: The World's First Movie Star Dog (Henry Holt And Company, November 11, 2014) written and illustrated by Emily McCully, shines the spotlight on a little-known hero.  With the assistance of his humans this dog became a household name.

This is the story of Etzel von Oeringen, who became the first movie star dog.

Etzel von Oeringen was born in Germany in 1917.  He was a pup with a lineage firmly in place; champion dogs known and trained to work with police.  During World War I he served in the German Red Cross earning recognition before being sent to American in 1920.

Director and animal trainer, Larry Trimble along with his screenwriter wife, Jane Murfin, wanted to create a movie, a silent film, with a dog in the starring role.  After an initial encounter with Etzel where he exhibited frightening traits relative to his training, the couple still decided to take him from his kennel near New York City back to their home in Hollywood.  Larry worked for weeks with Etzel retraining him for his new occupation.  He needed to focus more on play than work but still be obedient.

Larry and Etzel became more of a team as the dog seemed to anticipate his every move and thoughts; his face actually mirroring Larry's emotions.  Ready to begin the filming of Jane's script, The Silent Call, all Etzel needed was a screen name.  Strongheart was born. 

Strongheart was a natural on the set even performing his own stunts.  This first film with a dog in the lead was a huge hit; earning him a national tour with treatment fit for a star.  Upon his return home, his original training served his humans unexpectedly.  It seemed his fame was destined to flourish whether he was in front of the camera or not.  More movies, a mate and puppies that starred in movies too, extended the legacy of Strongheart: The World's First Movie Star Dog.

Emily Arnold McCully chooses to focus on those points in Strongheart's life most appealing to her reading audience.  Her research provides her with specific examples used to support other statements in the narrative.  By including components of his first three years of training she is able to contrast it with the results gained by Larry Trimble's work with his dog.  Her simple sentence structure works in tandem with the included dialogue creating an authentic portrait of this dog's life.  Here is a sample passage.

In time Etzel
learned to play ball,
to fetch, and to chase.
He loved his toys.  He would take each toy out of
the closet, play for a while, and then carefully put it
back where it belonged.
His favorite was a mouse.  He wouldn't let anyone 
else touch it.

Rendered in watercolor and pen and ink on watercolor paper all the illustrations by Emily Arnold McCully, beginning with the dust jacket, exude warmth.  On the front a mature Strongheart is shown from a scene in a movie.  On the back she places the puppy Etzel within an oval shape surrounded by the same shade of red from the title.  The opening and closing endpapers are five strips of film showing frames from the movies.  Three of the frames have words on them as was done in silent movies.  They are done in black and white placed on the identical rich red background.

McCully has included an introductory title page and a formal title page.  On the first a cameraman is standing behind an alert Strongheart.  A full double-page picture is next with the camera and light crew along with director Larry Trimble to the left of a movie set with actors and Strongheart on the right.  A full color palette is used with exquisite attention given to the smallest of details.  Appropriate clothing, hair styles, buildings and decor in keeping with the time period is evident in all of the images.

The pacing set by the illustrations seems to be similar to what would be found in the silent films of the 1920s.  Emily Arnold McCully uses many smaller visuals to accentuate her text with only a few double or single page spreads to emphasize more dramatic moments.  Her delicate brush strokes and fine line work convey overall mood and singular emotions with skill.

One of my favorite illustrations spans a single page.  It shows the interior of a movie theater premiering The Silent Call.  The audience is in the foreground with a pianist in front of them providing the musical score.  The upper left hand corner shows a close-up of Strongheart on the screen.  This truly captures the historical perspective presented overall in this title.

Strongheart:  The World's First Movie Star Dog written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully preserves and presents to readers the place this canine holds in film and dog history.  Her narrative flows well captivating her readers and inviting them to do further research about this amazing animal.  A one page Author's Note supplies more details about Strongheart.  A short bibliography follows.

You might enjoy the insights of Leonard Marcus in his review of Strongheart:  The World's First Movie Star Dog found in an issue of The New York Times Sunday Book Review.  He places it with other nonfiction titles.   As usually happens to me every week when I am looking for nonfiction books to review, I found even more interesting primary sources on Strongheart, pages from an article in Photoplay 1921. (Yes...1921!) The links are here, here and here.  This is fascinating reading folks.

I am sending many thanks to Alyson Beecher, educator and blogger at Kid Lit Frenzy for hosting the 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge this year. Make sure you visit the other blogs to read about this week's choices.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Twenty-Six Tales To Tell

Twenty-six unique symbols with twenty-six individualistic sounds comprise our alphabet.  Twenty-six distinctive characters, either vowels or consonants, when combined make words.  A word or group of words strung together to form a sentence give us the opportunity to express ourselves in writing or through speech with extraordinary results.

If these letters were given the chance to sit down and chat with us we might be treated to twenty-six exceptional yarns spun from centuries of experience.  Or perhaps they might chose to whisper in the ear of the talented Oliver Jeffers.  Once Upon An Alphabet: Short Stories For All The Letters (HarperCollins Children's Books, September 25, 2014 UK)  written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers is a whimsical, original celebration of exactly what letters can and will do when placed in the hands of a master.

If words make up stories, and letters make up words, then stories are made of letters.
In this menagerie we have stories, made of words, made FOR all the LETTERS.  

These stories for the letters use as many parts of speech as possible starting with the individual featured letter.  To begin we have an astronaut afraid of heights even though he has been training for ages for a particular adventure to acquaint himself with aliens.  There is a bridge burned by two not-buddies, a cup who crashes after leaving a cupboard and a delightful daring girl who dashes away on a donkey.

There might be elephants and an envelope, an unfortunate frog, a glacier guy, a woman who wishes she had used a hammer and a suspicious iceberg.  A thieving dog, dancing royalty, an electrifying woodsman and a mysterious microscope might have something to do with keys, cheese, light bulbs and shrinking.   Discovering what those elephants and envelopes and nuns have in common will drive you nuts...with laughter.

Teamwork finds resolutions, questions lead to more questions (a certain vegetable will never learn and it seems something is lost), and robots have resorted to robbery.  A previous dynamic duo averts a drowning but a tree-eating monster switches his favorite food.  Monkeys, a frustrated musician, a weird but effective giraffe, special glasses, a discarded toy and the return of the astronaut tie all the tales together.

The sentences and phrases used for each letter number as high as eleven and as low as two.  Sometimes Oliver Jeffers uses succinct thoughts, short, to convey exactly what he wants readers to know.  Other times alliterative descriptions boggle your mind at their ingenuity.  More than once he uses a combination of rhyming words to depict his story.  Additions of conversations between characters and narrator asides increase the humor.  Before a story begins one page is devoted to a brief introduction.  As each letter's words are read you can't help but be amazed how Jeffers connects one to another.  Here is a sample letter.

There once lived an ingenious
inventor who invented many
ingenious things.
His latest invention allowed
him to observe iguanas in their
natural habitat...

(Two iguanas talking)
Is that an iceberg?
I've no idea

The electric red dust jacket shouts out, "Hey readers!  Look at me!"  Oliver Jeffers includes the astronaut and the Zeppelin, the beginning and the end, on the front.  On the back of the jacket the alphabet is listed in rows in a darker shade of red.  O, R, S, T and Y are in white arranged to flow spelling story.  Embossed in the book case, which is the darker red shade, are eight rows of the letters of the alphabet in the jacket color.  Spread across the white opening endpapers are the capital letters of the alphabet again in the jacket red.  Small elements from the twenty-six stories are cleverly pictured on the closing endpapers.  The title page combines letters from the front and back of the dust jacket.

Each introductory page includes the heading, a large capital letter and a small significant visual.  Jeffers illustrations range from double page to single page to smaller insets.  Every detail is important; the text never says it but Danger Delilah is juggling daggers and naturally there is a fly zipping around from page to page near the frog,   You never know when something from one letter will appear with another regardless of the text; the ladder sticking out of a hole in the background for the letter L comes in mighty handy during the letter U story.  Many details from the O story reappear in this title or have appeared in another book entirely.  Jeffers artwork is playfully marvelous.

One of my favorite illustrations is a smaller one at the close of the L story.  The lumberjack who has been struck by lightning repeatedly is sitting up in his bed reading.  He is holding a glowing light bulb in his hand.  It looks as though there are bears on his pajamas.  The book he is reading is titled Once Upon An Alphabet.  The entire image is done in black and white.

Once Upon An Alphabet:  Short Stories For All The Letters written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers is a rich and rare alphabet book.  As soon as you close the back cover I'm certain you'll open up the front and read it all over again not once but many more times.  I would plan on having more than one copy available to your readers.

To learn more about Oliver Jeffers please follow the link embedded in his name to his website.  This link takes you to an interview at NPR All Things Considered.  Oliver Jeffers talks about this book and reads several of the stories aloud.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Blow Winds Blow, Blow The Falling Snow

It's like living inside a snow globe someone is constantly shaking.  The landscape is laden with more than a foot of white fluff.  Soon the winds will begin to howl rattling the windows and singing down the chimney.

When the National Weather Service issues a gale and winter storm warning together, it's time to expect the unexpected especially when Thanksgiving is ten days away.  Back in February 1978 no one was prepared for the severity of the storm; no one was sure the meteorologists were correct.  Caldecott Honor winning author illustrator John Rocco (Blackout, Disney Hyperion, May 2011) writes and illustrates his version, Blizzard (Disney Hyperion) with all the childlike awe this spectacular event deserves.

One day, when I was a young boy,
nearly four feet of snow fell from the sky.

On a Monday morning when school was in session the flakes began falling.  When they were dismissed early; they were accumulating, getting deeper and deeper.  Even as bedtime approached, the snow kept coming down.

Leaving the house by the door was not an option the next morning.  Moving through the snow was nearly impossible.  Thankfully a working woodstove and hot chocolate warmed up John, his older sister, Mom and Dad.

For the next few days endless shoveling and digging in the snow were on the agenda.  By Thursday no snow plows had been through the neighborhood yet.  Having enough food was becoming a concern.

For a boy who had faithfully read the Arctic Survival guide, there was only one thing to do.  On Saturday, with a list and creative ingenuity on his feet he left the house.  Many stops in the neighborhood were made, delaying his arrival at the local market.  

With his goal accomplished, getting home before dark was necessary.  Many stops in the neighborhood were made, making his arrival home all the more welcome.  In 1978 memories were made.  In 2014 we lucky readers get to read a book recreating those meaningful moments and the incredible efforts of one ten-year-old boy.

It's like John Rocco has turned back the clock several decades, allowing his younger self to tell the story.  His sentences highlight those exact things which would capture the attention of a ten-year-old.  The revelation of a series of personal events by using specific word descriptions gives readers a sense of being side by side with John.  Here are a couple of examples.

We laughed as we sank deep in the frozen powder.  
But walking was hard---
it was like trying to move through white quicksand.

We made camp by the woodstove,
and our feet tingled as we sipped
hot cocoa made with milk.

How can you look at the front of the dust jacket and not smile?  The ten-year-old boy with outstretched arms standing in his windswept snowy neighborhood is feeling downright joyful.  On the back of the dust jacket a picture taken from the book's interior of him, his dog and sister struggling unsuccessfully in the snow gives readers a precise idea of its depth.  Underneath the book case a bird's eye view of the rows of houses, buried beneath the storm's drifts as flakes swirl around, leaves no doubt as to the extent of the blizzard.  The opening endpapers are in a pale steely blue with heavy snow falling into piles.  Nothing but pure white covers the closing endpapers except for a path of telltale prints extending from one corner to the top of the next page.

I burst out laughing at the page before the double title page spread.  Using a single page John Rocco has a series of six pictures of himself holding a measuring stick.  In each one the snow gets higher and higher until all you can see is the boy's hand at the top of the stick and the top of his ski hat with the white pom-pom. Breathtaking would be a word to define the title page.  Again it's as if we are looking from above through a break in the storm clouds at the neighborhood below before the snow begins to fall.  

Rendered in pencil, watercolor, and digital painting the illustrations vary in size according to the amount of white space framing each.  Several span from edge to edge on a single page or across two pages.  Rocco has cleverly inserted the name of each day into the images; as part of the message on the blackboard in the classroom, squirrel tracks over a snow-covered roof, snow-covered branches on a tree, or raisins spilled across the floor from a snack box. His four-page fold-out of the boy's trip to the neighborhood market is wonderful.  The labels of all the stops made couldn't be more perfect.  

Two of my many favorite illustrations follow one another.  The first is the scene from the boy's bedroom as he gazes out the window at the falling snow on Monday night.  The Arctic Survival book in tented to a remembered spot on his bed, his penguin lamp glowing.  On the wall hangs an Everest poster.  Lying next to the bed is his dog.  Outside a street light illuminates the Stop sign.  About a foot of the post is uncovered.  On the next page all readers see is blue, lots of falling snow and the Stop sign, now partially covered in snow.  

Blizzard written and illustrated by John Rocco marvelously documents seven days during the blizzard of 1978 as seen and experienced by a ten-year-old boy.  It is said you should write about what you know.  John Rocco does it brilliantly in text and illustrations working together in seamless harmony.  This title is on our Mock Caldecott list.  

To learn more about John Rocco, his books and illustrations please visit his website by following the link embedded in his name.  Follow this link to a recent review by author and blogger Julie Danielson at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. (My two favorite pages are featured.) This links to a post at Kid Lit Frenzy as part of the blog tour for Blizzard. Several days remain on the tour.