Quote of the Month

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

To Want, To Hope For, To Dream Of...

It was a gift.  It was a gift from the parent of a student.  It became the symbol of the beginning and the end.  I still have it; a cherished token of hundreds of storytelling hours with girls and guys of all ages.

It looks like a genie's lamp; formed on a potter's wheel and fired in a kiln.  A wide wick coils in a pool of oil and then winds up the neck where it can be lit.  There is magic attached to this small beacon of light and warmth.  At the close of stories told, one is chosen to blow out the flame but all in attendance make three wishes; a wish for someone, know or unknown, anywhere in the world, a wish for someone you love, even a pet, and a wish for yourself.  You are, after all, very special.

In their newest collaboration Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld weave words, art and wishes together to bring us I Wish You More (Chronicle Books, March 31, 2015).  You don't need a lamp, a star, the first robin of spring or a newfound penny.  You can do it every day as often as possible.

I wish you more ups than downs.

In a series of comparisons destined to spread a feeling of gladness from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, someone is sending out goodness to another.  We experience the thrill of sharing.  We find relief in being able to keep our head above water. Limber limbs to the rescue.

If everyone pulls their own weight, everyone is a winner.  Handing out hugs goes a long way to taking away the blues.  Be sure to celebrate but not too fast!

We learn to be persistent in our climb.  We know that trying over and over leads to success especially when making bows.  Who wouldn't like to capture endless snowflakes on an outstretched tongue?

Be sure to notice the world around you; take time to see the little details.  Will you be ready to stay dry when it rains?  You can never have enough bubbles in a bath.  You can never gather enough tiny riches from nature.  You can never have enough tales to tell.  All this goodness is sent because you...wonderful you...are loved.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal has the gift of finding joy and conveying it in the best words possible for her intended audience.  She appeals to those universal moments most children share; the act of giving, standing on your tip-toes in the water, learning to tie shoelaces in a bow, or standing under an umbrella listening to the rain hit the fabric.  The way one sentence follows another in a mix of opposites, alliteration and rhymes creates a melody of affection.  Here is another sample.

I wish you more will than hill.

If you live where there are dandelions, you have wished on the seeds, scattering them to the gentle winds carrying your desires with them.  The matching dust jacket and book case is a single illustration with the seeds scattering across the back, to the left, on the pale blue sky.  The white illumination seen on the bottom of the jacket and book case is carried to the opening and closing endpapers in the softest golden yellow.  On the publication page is a large dandelion gone to seed.  Opposite this on the title page three seeds spin above the text on the same blue background.

Rendered in ink, watercolor, pan pastels and colored pencils with digital art assistance from Kristen Cella, Tom Lichtenheld's illustrative interpretation of Amy Krouse Rosenthal's words is delightful.  For each of the fourteen I wish you more phrases he gives readers double-page illustrations with the exception of four.  On these there is liberal use of white space with text on the right followed by an image on the left.

Lichtenheld uses a full color palette.  His details are an uplifting complement to the narrative.  On the bubble bath pages the two bs in bubble are raised up by a bubble.  On one of the top bubbles sits a yellow rubber ducky.  The children's expressions are precious.  The little girl who is trying to tie her shoe is chewing on her tongue as her dog watches.

One of my favorite illustrations is near the end of the book.  For the words

I wish you more stories than stars.

it's nighttime.  The scene is inside a child's bedroom as they are reading by flashlight beneath the blanket.  On the bookshelves are a top, blocks, a toy truck, a globe and a sock monkey.  A skateboard rests against the shelves.  Beneath the bed are frog slippers with big googly eyes.  Outside the sky is filled with stars.  A crescent moon is framed in a single window pane of six.

I Wish You More written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal with illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld definitely falls in the category of books I hug when I finish reading them.  Children who read this or have it read to them will know their true value, priceless treasures every one.  I know this will be on all professional and personal shelves but I plan on buying multiple copies to give as gifts.

To learn more about Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Here is a link to a free activity kit at the publisher's website.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

To Play Or To Work

Their world beneath our feet is a series of tunnel roadways leading to the queen's residence.  I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see some form of John Heywood's timeless quotation,

Many hands make light work

strategically mounted along their hidden passages.  Never at rest, always on the move, all the members of team ant know what to do and when to do it.

As a classic piece of folklore a fable uses animals to convey a moral or lesson.  None are more recognized than those of Aesop.  None are more gorgeous in their retelling than those of Caldecott Medal winner, Jerry Pinkney.

On April 7, 2015 a companion to The Lion & The Mouse (Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010 Caldecott Medal) and The Tortoise & The Hare (Little, Brown and Company, October 1, 2013) was released.  In the first book the setting is the African Serengeti and in the second title we travel to the American Southwest.  In the third book, The Grasshopper & The Ants (Little, Brown and Company), we find ourselves in the woodlands.

When first looking at the dust jacket, you will want to take your time to notice the exquisite details deftly depicted by Pinkney.  For mere moments a group of Ants have paused to listen to the music man, the Grasshopper, who carries his drum set, banjo and concertina with him everywhere.  The delicate wings on his back are breathtaking.

The staff in pastel shades of blue, pink and yellow swirling about him indicates the lightness of the melody.  Dandelion seeds, like wishes, float on the air.  This illustration extends to the left, the back, in a lush view of the forest floor, filled with leaves, flowers, Ants, a monarch butterfly, a caterpillar and a lady bug, wings spread ready to soar.  (It should be noted the front flap images align with the opening endpapers.)

Beneath the jacket on the book case, with a white canvas, framed in dandelion leaves and flowers are portraits of the Grasshopper and an Ant observing the reader.  On the back is the Ants' winter abode with the note laden staff twisting forth from an opening.  This picture is outlined in holly branches and leaves.

Both the opening and closing endpapers are a naturalist's delight in an array of leaves, flowers and the Ants' stump home covered in shelf fungus.  Both feature the Ants busy at work.  Only the Grasshopper is featured differently.  I wonder how many readers will stop to identify all the leaves and flowers.  With a page turn we see the title spread across two pages; the letters formed from leaves, tiny twigs, and flowers.  The Grasshopper and the Ants are busy doing what they do best.

In a series of twelve spectacular double-page visuals Jerry Pinkney gives his signature spin on the tale. (There is also a gasp-worthy surprise toward the end.) In addition readers can see two framed single pages where elements break out from the lines and two edge-to-edge single page pictures as well as the final illustration.  At one particular point in the narrative he even uses a set of smaller framed images to enhance the pacing and add a bit of tension.

"Why work so hard?"
sang Grasshopper.
"It's spring and time to go fishing."

"No time to relax,"
said the Ants.

With these three sentences Pinkney begins.  As the seasons progress Grasshopper asks the same question with alterations to his words.  The Ants reply in kind.  Each time Grasshopper's phrases are increased making his invitation more enticing.  In the autumn and winter the Ants do not reply.  Grasshopper finally realizes his activities would be better if shared.

For the remainder of the book all of the illustrations are wordless with one exception.  A wise matriarch offers a cup of compassion.  It is humbly accepted.

All these illustrations are deserving of being framed.  One of my favorites is when the first snow comes.  The Ants are nowhere in sight but Grasshopper is beside himself with glee, wings extended, hovering above trees branches and lingering fall leaves in rustic reds and browns.  Snowflakes are falling in all shapes and sizes.  Concertina music rides the breeze.  (At this point Grasshopper is not wearing his leaf snowshoes yet.)

When you first hold this book in your hands, after you look at the dust jacket and book case, you can't help but run your fingers over the heavy smooth matte-finished paper.  It's like you have to touch the beauty.  Please add The Grasshopper & The Ants written and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, a true national treasure, to your professional and personal collections.  Share it with everyone as often as you can.  You will enjoy reading the Author's Note on the final page.

To learn more about Jerry Pinkney and his other work please visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  If you access the TeachingBooks website they have many resources about Jerry Pinkney.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Royal Robbery

Yesterday morning before the sun rose, a crescent moon hung in a deep blue sky over black lace treetops.  The air was filled with birdsong.  In fact, the birds seemed to be participants in some celebratory party as many were wildly flying from point to point.  As I moved toward the end of my driveway two flew past me at breakneck speed.  They were so close I felt the rush of air as they passed.

I wondered how they could see so well in the dim light of dawn.  I wondered how they missed colliding with me.  The Queen's Shadow:  A Story About How Animals See (Kids Can Press, March 1, 2015) written and illustrated by Toronto-based author illustrator Cybele Young artfully explores the vision of many animals through a mysterious theft.

The Queen's Ball had begun like any other of her royal parties---lavish displays of food and festive entertainment were being enjoyed by society's most important nobility.

Catching her guests unaware an unexpected booming burst of noise and flash of lightning flooded the room with blinding brightness before seconds later all went as black as night.  Then as if someone had flipped a switch, all was light again.  Mere heartbeats later a scream was heard.  It was the Queen.

Her shadow was missing; stolen in the stormy confusion.  As you can imagine everyone, especially the Queen, was in a tizzy.  Into the foray stepped calm, cool and methodical Mantis Shrimp, the Royal Detective.  No one was to leave the room.

Of the nine partygoers Sir Chameleon was obviously the thief according to quick deductions.  Explaining how his eyes work, independently of one another when searching for food, it was impossible for him to have consumed the shadow.  He pointed a finger at Captain Shark.

As each animal was accused by a companion, their particular sense of vision provided an alibi.  Whether by distinguishing patterns in gloomy conditions, sensing body heat in light or dark, knowing when enemies approach due to peripheral sight, using compound eyes or extremely large eyes, seeing into great distances and sensing a huge array of color or using an entire body to look, the sea urchins, pigeon, colossal squid, dragonfly, goat, lancehead pit viper snake, shark, chameleon and particularly the mantis shrimp were all innocent. Where was the Queen's shadow?

Two giggling animal children who loved a good game of hide-and-seek provided the answer.  In stunned silence, the Royal Guards and the Royal Detective did their duties.  Thus ended the party and the mystery.  But...all was still not quite right.  Or was it?

By the second paragraph the entire mood of the story changes as Cybele Young captivates her readers with an intriguing mystery.  This quick shift from elegant party to burglary is an excellent hook.  To have animals with given nobility names adds a pinch of humor but also opens the door to the discussion of their vision.

Through a pleasing blend of narrative and dialogue the plot unfolds much like the best kind of detective story.  The Queen's exclamations as each member of the company are proclaimed the perpetrator will have readers grinning. The inclusion of a side panel with a more detailed explanation of each animal's eyesight in support of their claims is the crowning perfect touch.  Here is a sample passage.

"SNEAKY, SLIPPERY SERPENT!" cried the Queen.  Stupefied, Lancehead declared:  "I was behind the Queen.  I thought it a sssafe place to hide from Goat'sss trampling feet!  (Some proper dance lessonsss would do him well.)  Goat was coming from Her Majesssty's ssside, and I saw him drawing nearer in the blackout.  He was looking straight at Her Majesssty."

Intriguing is the word which comes to mind when looking at the matching dust jacket and book case of this title.  All nine of the animals are shown in a colorful array spreading out from the back of the Queen on the front.  Their particular shades pop when placed on the white canvas.  Sir Chameleon is perched on top of the barcode on the back.

On the opening and closing endpapers the (royal) purple of the Queen's gown supplies the background.  Etched in white on one side is the elegant design seen in her dress.   This design (her shadow?) appears again on the initial title page.  For the more formal title pages Sir Chameleon is sitting on a swinging chandelier lit with candles with faint outlines of the shadow.  Those same graceful images are seen on the verso and dedication pages framed within a squid tentacle.  A tipped cake, falling from a plate, makes an appearance too.

Throughout this story the pictures may be framed with fine lines on single or double pages, spread out as if we are seeing what the animal speaking is seeing or as small accents to a particular portion of the narrative.  The layout and design is splendid.  It's like a combination of a naturalist's notebook and a fairy tale mystery.

The details are intricate, skillfully rendered.  One of my favorite illustrations is of the dragonfly's explanation.  The circles of dotted greens for the vision span intermingled with the tentacles of Colossal Squid's movements are wonderful.  An indignant Queen, hands on hips listens as does the Royal Detective.  The sight circles bleed across the gutter perfectly.

Readers will develop an appreciation for the marvel of animal sight through the fascinating mystery of The Queen's Shadow:  A Story About How Animals See written and illustrated by Cybele Young.  Whether read by an individual, shared with a group at story time or as a one-on-one read aloud, this book is exquisite in word, art and information.  At the end, Young offers a two page clarification on vision, two pages with further facts on each of the animals and a single page glossary.

To learn more about Cybele Young and her work please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  Enjoy the book trailer.

Please stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see the other titles highlighted by bloggers participating in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What We Give Up, What We Keep

It hangs in my front picture window near the entrance to my home.  It's a small poster the size of notebook paper.  Beneath a large picture of my chocolate Labrador are the words Rescue Me, I'm Xena.

While it would be heartbreaking to loose family photographs and artifacts, pieces of furniture which belonged to my parents when they were children, letters and cards from cherished friends, artwork, decades of successful lessons and created games used in my school libraries and thousands of books, nothing is more precious than the being who has shared her fourteen years and seven months of life with me.  I remember asking my vet if moving from one home to another would be hard on Xena at this age.  He told me as long as Xena had me, wherever we were, she would be fine.  This truth about family is beautifully portrayed in words and pictures in Yard Sale (Candlewick Press, April 14, 2015) written by Eve Bunting with illustrations by Caldecott Honor winner (Nana in the City) Lauren Castillo.

ALMOST EVERYTHING WE OWN is spread out in our front yard.  It is all for sale.  We are moving to a small apartment.

Callie's parents did take her to see the new apartment.  She will be sleeping in a bed which comes down from the wall.  No matter how nice it may be, it's strange to her.

She watches all the people walking around, looking at her family's possessions and asking about prices even though her mom and dad have labeled them.  She's hurt when a woman wants to give less for her headboard because of the crayon marks.  They aren't simply crayon marks to her but a record of something special.

As she chats with her best friend Sara, who brought along her little brother Petey, she abruptly stops in alarm.  A stranger is taking her bike.  She hurries over to tell him, reaching for it.  Her dad rushes to them; reminding her of a conversation they had about having no place to ride a bike at their new home.   Callie agrees to let the man have the bike on one condition.

Resuming her talk with Sara, it's clear the two are going to miss each other deeply.  They are not entirely sure of the reason for the move, but Callie believes it's about money.  Sara offers an exchange of Callie for Petey but she would miss her parents.

Their goodbyes said Sara and Petey leave as Callie watches people coming and their things going.  Prices are lowered.  A woman who thinks a seated Callie is adorable wants to know if she is for sale.  This alarms her.  Crying she runs to her mom and dad who reassure her with a group hug.  She will never be for sale.

Items left are now free.  Soon the yard and home are empty.  Some things are still full; the hearts of a mom, dad and their precious little girl.

To me the words of Eve Bunting, as a whole in this title, are infused with wisdom.  Within a day, she takes a situation experienced by many, a drastic change due to money, moving from losing things to understanding the value of those people we keep in our lives.  Through narrative thoughts and conversations we experience along with Callie her sadness, bewilderment and acceptance.

Bunting focuses on specific moments.  The comparison of a small empty apartment with a home filled with familiar things now on the lawn.  The woman who points out the crayon marks on the headboard has no idea of the significance to Callie.  It's like complaining about lines on a wall marking a child's growth.  It's the meanings attached to our things which she brings to our attention.

When Callie is confused by seeing her bike going, in the ensuing conversation, she is startled by what she sees in her dad's eyes. Bunting is careful to have the buyer be particularly understanding.  In this way, readers see how adults view these same shifts.   Bunting is building on each event during the day toward a hopeful conclusion, a new beginning filled with love and family.  Here is another sample passage.

Almost everything is gone.  Anything that's left my dad is selling cheap.  He and my mom look droopy.  My dad is rubbing my mom's back.  

Rendered in ink and watercolor by Lauren Castillo the matching dust jacket and book case reach right into the heart of the reader.  You can tell by the expressions on the characters faces, this yard sale is not about getting rid of unwanted items.  This yard sale signals a move.  You want to embrace this family.  In fact, to the left, on the back, a small oval set in the signature red background, frames the family in a group hug.

The yellow seen on the spine, in the chair on the lawn and in one of the balloons is the shade used for the opening and closing endpapers.  With a page turn Callie is holding the four balloons as her dad places the sign in the yard.  A two-page illustration holds the verso and title.  Rooftops are shown against blue sky and wispy clouds as one of the balloons floats away.

The next picture is also edge to edge across two pages.  We zoom in on Callie sitting on her front porch looking over the lawn filled with her family's belongings.  It's a beautiful day but we see the heartbreak in Callie by her body posture.  All of the illustrations either cross the gutter or cover double pages which enlarges the emotional impact.

Endearing in every single detail, through her color choices and perspective, Lauren Castillo binds us to all the characters.  Although Callie's age is never mentioned her bike has training wheels attached.  The pajamas worn by her best friend and her brother make you want to smile.  Castillo is meticulous but her softened lines, blended hues and the play of light and shadow are full of warmth. Careful eyes will see the passage of time through the balloons.

One of my several favorite illustrations is the scene of Callie and her dad talking with the man who is buying her bike.  We are close to the three of them.  We know Callie's dad is lovingly explaining to her by his body posture.  The buyer is squatting down on their level too with his hands clasped around his knees.  The bike is between them.  This is a powerful portrait.

I have yet failed to read this book without being deeply moved, even though I know the words and pictures well.  Yard Sale written by Eve Bunting with illustrations by Lauren Castillo is an eloquent depiction of one of life's hard times.  It's touching and brimming with trust.

Please follow the links attached to Lauren Castillo's names to access her website and blog.  This link will take you to a series of video interviews of Eve Bunting by Reading Rockets.  After her Caldecott Honor win, John Schumacher, teacher librarian extraordinaire, interviewed Lauren Castillo on Watch. Connect. Read. For a truly lovely discussion of this title, please read the post by author and blogger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Julie Danielson at Kirkus.  UPDATE:  Julie has some of Lauren's process artwork on her blogEnjoy some of Lauren Castillo's tweets below in which she shares art from this title.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Place To Rest

When the leaves fell from the trees, there it was.  It's no bigger than the size of a golf ball.  Through the cold, rain, thunder, lightning, sleet, snow and wind, it has endured.  It's so secure; you can almost imagine it as a part of the branches which hold it.

Out of habit, I look every single day to make sure it's still there, wondering about the parents who crafted it so well.  I think of other questions.  What kind of birds lived there?  Did all the babies fly away?  Will any of the birds come back?  You Nest Here With Me (Boyd Mills Press, an imprint of Highlights, March 3, 2015) written by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple with illustrations by Melissa Sweet is a soothing lullaby of birds and their homes.

My little nestling, time for bed.
Climb inside, you sleepyhead.

A mother snuggles next to her daughter, telling her their nest is wherever

there's you and me.

She reads to her the same story we hold in our hands.  She speaks of pigeons and catbirds living in the city, finding a space to rest on buildings or in shrubs.  Near the edge of water, small wrens weave a refuge.

In the tip-top of firs in a forest or among towering cliffs along the sea, birds safeguard their young.  Tree trunk hollows and below ground burrows are homes.  Even telephone poles provide a place to reside.

Hidden among the cattails, coots are secure.  Nestled among branches, sparrows prefer to be high and dry.  Attached to human structures, swallows shape shelters.  Sunken in sand near the water's edge, plovers place their eggs.

Eagles soar, cowbirds give up and killdeer pretend to protect.  As surely as nests are made up or down, on, in or around the best location by those winged wonders, this mother assures her child of a secure sanctuary.  This nest is her place to grow and rest.

If you seek slumber, the words of Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple are certain to supply peace.  When read aloud, they create a form of music, light and gentle.  The rhymes glide like feathers on the wind.

After each bird and their nesting place are introduced, the same refrain follows.

But you nest here with me.  

Those words hug us, surrounding the reader and listener with affection.  Here is a sample passage.

Some owls nest in oak tree boles,
Some down in abandoned holes,
Hawks may nest on telephone poles,
But you nest here with me.

As soon as I saw the front of the matching dust jacket and book case, without reading the fine print, I knew whose name I would see as illustrator.  The attention given to the smallest detail, the layering of mixed media, the use of authentic and appropriate materials, watercolor and gouache all point to the skill of Melissa Sweet.  The letters of the title made of wood pieces, a nest woven of branches, grass, and leaves framing the sleeping child holding her toy owl and the mother watching her nestlings in their nest placed on a night-sky blue background are her signature style.  To the left, on the back, a single enlarged leaf is placed on the same canvas.  On the opening and closing endpapers, the predominant green on that leaf covers them both.

A two page illustration, worthy of framing, holds the title page information.  On the left a hole in a birch tree holds a tiny bird.  Watching, the mother, a nuthatch, is perched on a branch which extends from the right edge almost to the tree.  Between this branch and a cluster of leaves at the top of the right page is the title text made with twigs.

Although our eyes are initially drawn to the focus of the image, when we look a second time all the smallest elements blend to make a superb picture.  In the child's room drawings of birds hang on the walls.  Outside her window we see birds flying, and a variety of them eating at a feeder.

All the birds and their nests are portrayed realistically.  Each habitat features other flora and fauna appropriate to the area.  Sweet chooses to alter her illustration size from single pages to double pages to enhance the pacing.  To tie the jacket and case to the interior, the central items, the large leaf and nest, are used to splendid effect in the final pages.

One of my favorite of several illustrations is a single page featuring swallows.  The mother has adhered the nest to a beam in a barn.  Five babies are peeking over the top as she looks inside at them.  Beneath this piece of wood is a window.  Outside we see a dog at rest gazing toward a flock of sheep in a pasture.  A garden is growing in front of the field near the home.  These perspectives by Sweet are tranquil and true.

I can't think of a better bedtime story which flawlessly illuminates readers and listeners about birds and their nests than You Nest Here With Me written by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple with illustrations by Melissa Sweet. Reading this book is like wrapping yourself in a cozy comforter.  You will want to add this title to your personal and professional collections.  At the close of the book is a column on the left side of two pages for an Author's Note.  Further details about the fourteen birds highlighted in the narrative appear to the right.  There are four extra pieces of information about each.

Please visit the websites of the authors and illustrator by following the links attached to their names.  They are as individual and interesting as the people themselves.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Carrying Words

When you reach into your pocket forgotten treasures may be discovered.  Depending on the owner of the clothing these tokens represent captured memories; a perfectly round pebble or a bit of sea glass, coins left over from a recent purchase, an old movie theater ticket, a handful of acorns or a dog treat.  Unless this attire is worn on a daily basis the locating of a lost item is cause for rejoicing.

In twenty days, all around the United States (maybe the world), people will be purposefully placing something of importance in pockets.  Poem in Your Pocket Day will be celebrated on April 30, 2015.  Newly released this year A Poem in Your Pocket (Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, January 27, 2015) written by Margaret McNamara with illustrations by G. Brian Karas takes us back for a visit with Mr. Tiffin and his students (How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin? and The Apple Orchard Riddle).  

Mr. Tiffin's class had never had an author visit them before.
"Emmy Crane is a poet," said Mr. Tiffin.
"And she doesn't know it!" said Robert.  "That rhymes."
"Not all poems rhyme," said Elinor.

This particular author is visiting on Poem in Your Pocket Day.  Mr. Tiffin thinks it would be a great idea for each of his students to write a poem, place it in their pocket and read it aloud during the author visit.  Conscientious Elinor begins immediately (in March) to learn everything she can about poetry.

In April the class starts their study together.  Mr. Tiffin explains the use of similes and metaphors in comparisons.  The students test their thinking skills verbalizing their examples.  Only Elinor seems to be quiet saying she is working on something astonishing.

Many forms of poetry are presented to the students; haiku, acrostic, concrete and poems that make you laugh.  To flex their new abilities Mr. Tiffin takes them outside one morning, asking them to write in their journals.  Elinor neither says a poem aloud nor puts pencil to paper.

Paper bags filled with a single object, one for each student, are handed out on a Friday afternoon.  The students are asked to write a poem describing their item.  The other students are supposed to guess based on the student's writing.  Elinor's page is blank.  Her desire for perfection leaves her wordless.  Mr. Tiffin encourages her to work on it over the weekend but despite all her efforts on Monday her pocket is empty.

As the rest of the students go about their day, Elinor keeps on working but by the time the poet arrives and the assembly starts, she still has nothing.  Emily Crane reads her poetry to the students, she answers their questions and one by one they read their poems aloud to her.  With a sinking heart Elinor makes her way to the stage.  Emily Crane, author and poet, knows exactly what to say.

There is a special universality about the portrait Margaret McNamara creates of Mr. Tiffin and his students.  Through a blend of dialogue and narrative a diverse, lively group of personalities are presented to readers.  The respect the girls and boys have for their teacher and one another and Mr. Tiffin for them is real.  It's a classroom climate where learning, in this case poetry, can flourish.

Readers feel comfortable exploring alongside the other students in the classroom.  They can see themselves in the unique individuals.  When Elinor has trouble finding the writing perfection she desires, a believable solution is supplied.  Here is another sample passage.

"Sadness is a cracked sidewalk," said Tara.
"Very nice!" said Mr. Tiffin.  "Ms. Crane will be so impressed. 
He noticed that Elinor was being very quiet.  "How about you, Elinor?
What does your poet's eye see?"

It's easy to smile when you see Mr. Tiffin on the front of the dust jacket and matching book case taping the sign on the wall.  The gathered students have poems in their pockets or are carrying their poetry journal.  It's an uplifting school scene.  On the back, to the left, text is written on a blackboard as six boys and girls chat and read.  A bright denim blue background patterned in stitched pockets covers the opening and closing endpapers.  Poems are peeking from the pockets, written on a variety of paper.  A mirror image of the letters from the front appears on the title page with an opened journal and pencil placed below the text within a circle.

Rendered in gouache, acrylic and pencil G. Brian Karas recreates the kind of school setting we all wish we could enter.  Using size and color Karas enriches the pace of the story.  He alternates his image sizes from several double pages, to a series of six small circles, to a single page and then back to more two-page spreads.  The selected palette reflects the mood of the students, their teacher and of Elinor.  When her journal page is blank, Karas has the row of desks with the seated students in blue hues but a circle highlights Elinor in full color.

I've never met G. Brian Karas but I have to believe he is a people person.  His characters are charming in every aspect; their physical features, body postures and clothing.  One of several favorite illustrations is on Poem in Your Pocket Day.  Elinor is walking toward the school in the rain carrying her red umbrella wearing a green back pack.  She passes by the lawn, a flowering bush and letters of a poem in chalk on the sidewalk. Other students are entering the building or already walking about in the hallway.  There are pockets and poems in them on most surfaces and hanging from the ceiling. The mood of the students and of Elinor is apparent.

A Poem in Your Pocket written by Margaret McNamara with illustrations by G. Brian Karas is wonderfully normal.  You wish you could place these characters in your pocket much like a poem. They are treasures, every single one.  Use this book any time of the year in a study of poetry, writing and building self-esteem.  For National Poetry Month in April it is ideal.  At the end of the book you will enjoy reading Elinor's Poetry Page and Mr. Tiffin's Pointers.

To learn more about G. Brian Karas please follow the link attached to his name to access his website.  This title has been selected for the next #SharpSchu Book Club Twitter chat in April.   Visit teacher librarian extraordinaire John Schumacher's Watch. Connect. Read. for the details.  Here is a link to a study guide prepared by the publisher.

To celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day I am giving away a copy of this book.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

If We Only Knew

They look at you with complete understanding as if they have a command of whatever language you are speaking.  Outside they may suddenly pause as if all their instincts have gone on red alert.  If you should happen to leave them alone for longer than intended, it's uncanny how things seem to have been moved in your absence.

Keeping these things in mind it should come as no surprise when an author/illustrator introduces you to a canine with unique creative abilities.  What sets It's Only Stanley (Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, March 17, 2015) written and illustrated by Jon Agee apart is the humans in this dog's world.  They have no idea as to Stanley's true capabilities. 

The Wimbledons were sleeping.
It was very, very late,
When Wilma heard a spooky sound,
Which made her sit up straight.
"That's very odd," said Walter.
"I don't recognize the tune..."

Upon checking Walter discovers the family beagle howling at the full moon.  Time passes.  It gets later.  Daughter Wendy wanders into her parent's bedroom complaining of another strange noise.  Investigating, dad discovers Stanley busy fixing the leaky oil tank in the basement.  

After reporting this news to his wife and daughter, no one seems the least bit surprised at Stanley's handyman talents.  (At this point I can feel laughter starting to erupt.)  Before you know it, another child, Willie awakens, complaining about a weird smell.  It is now 2:30 in the morning.  Dad locates Stanley making catfish stew.  

As the number of people occupying the parent's bed increases Wanda and an hour later Wylie each hears a buzzing and a splashing.  Stanley continues to make much needed repairs.  By now though, Wilma, Wendy, Willie, Wanda and Wylie are getting a tad bit cranky.  They crave sleep.  Stanley has to stop.


No one, not one single soul including Max the cat, in the Wimbledon clan has a clue as to what has happened.  Of all the curious sounds and smells this night, easily explained, this has them baffled.  Dad is going to get to the bottom of this immediately.  With the now familiar words, he announces

"It's only Stanley," Walter said. "We're...

With the first two sentences the rhythm of Jon Agee's rhyming will be asking you to join the narrative.  With each subsequent page you find yourself wondering who is going to hear or smell what next.  In addition to the cadence Agee supplies with his words choices; the repetition of key phrases provides a beat of its own, further engaging readers in the story.  As another humorous alliterative touch all the human names, first and last, begin with w. 

You are not quite certain from looking at the matching dust jacket and book case as to what Stanley is doing.  On the left, the back, the cat, Max, is watching with disgusted interest with more cobbled contraptions appearing in the background.    One thing is certain, though, Stanley is no ordinary dog.  This beagle is all business.  He is on a mission. And our curiosity is off the charts.

The bright yellow seen on the back of the jacket and case is carried to the opening and closing endpapers as a solid color signaling the electrifying effects of this story.  Prior to the verso and title pages, Stanley is pictured asleep on the front porch as a 


breaks the silence.  The story continues beneath the text of the title with Stanley now awake looking at the full moon.

Heavy loose black lines define the elements in each illustration done in a muted color palette of greens, blues, yellow, red, brown, black and white. It isn't until the final pages another color is introduced.  With the simple lines on the characters' faces we are clearly aware of their moods.  

Agee alters his illustration sizes, two pages, edge to edge, single pages, edge to edge and smaller pictures set in white space, depending on the point in the story.  The only text on some pages is sound effects and subtle clues.  As if the story is not funny enough, you must watch the cat in every sequence.  He is certainly a victim of Stanley's endeavors.  

One of my favorite illustrations is of Walter standing in his pajamas outside in the tall grass looking at Stanley howling at the moon.  Max is with him.  It spans across two pages.  Little do we know the significance of this scene or what is in store for the Wimbledons.

I have literally been laughing off and on all afternoon and this evening after reading this book repeatedly.  It's Only Stanley written and illustrated by Jon Agee is utterly hilarious.  I can already hear the giggling of the guys and gals (and the adults) when this story is read aloud.  The comedic pacing is perfection.  

To learn more about Jon Agee and his other work please visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  Author and blogger Julie Danielson talks about this title at Kirkus and at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Due to the generosity of teacher librarian extraordinaire, John Schumacher who hosts Watch. Connect. Read. Xena wants to give someone their own copy of this canine treat.  Xena and I thank you, John.
UPDATE:  John Schumacher tweeted about a video interview between Jon Agee and Becky Anderson, owner of Anderson's Book Shops in Illinois.  It's a must watch.