Quote of the Month

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

Friday, February 5, 2016

Heart To Hands, Hands To Heart 's

Let's fill the tables in a room with scraps of brightly colored fabric and paper, scissors and glue.  Let's open the doors of that room to a group of children.  It will get messy but the results will be extraordinary.  Each item will be fashioned from a mind without boundaries straight from the heart.  What if each child is allowed to bring a favorite person to watch them work?

Let's reverse this scenario filling tables in a room with an array of patterned cloth and paper, scissors, glue and a needle and thread.  This time those cherished children will look as the objects are being created by a beloved mentor.  What results will be different and what will be the same?

I am fairly certain if an exchange is made, those gifts will be treasured.  Maya's Blanket La Manta De Maya (Children's Book Press, an imprint of Lee & Low Books Inc., August 15, 2015) written by Monica Brown with illustrations by David Diaz is a story presented bilingually.  It's a tale of creativity motivated by a willingness to make the best with what you have.

Little Maya Morales had a special manta that she loved very much.  That blanket was blue and green, with purple butterflies that Abuelita had stitched with her own two hands when Maya was just a baby.  

La pequena Maya Morales tenia una manta especial que queria mucho.  La manta ere azul y verde, con unas mariposas moradas que Abuelita le habia cosido con sus propias manos cuando Maya ere solo un bebe.

Maya slept with her blanket every night until it was worn, believing it magically protected her from bad dreams.  With the help of her Abuelita Maya used her own two hands to make something new from the old blanket.  It was a dress which she wore to her cousin's celebration, her quinceanera.

Even though she danced and danced with abandon the dress kept her upright.  To her dismay though she spilled red punch on her dress, staining it beyond repair.  The two, granddaughter and grandmother, working together, made a skirt.  When Maya wore that skirt she could jump rope lifting her higher than the other children.

As time passed Maya grew and the skirt no longer fit her.  As a shawl it cast a spell on the children playing games, making sure everyone was treated equally.  When vigorous fun shortened the shawl's life and size, the duo fashioned a scarf from the remnants.  For some reason on the coldest and windiest days, Maya stayed safe and warm.  With each change in size the material still held magic until it became an object so small she lost it.  It simply could not be found.

With inventiveness born from the altered uses of her blanket over many years, Maya was able to make one more thing with her two hands.  Perhaps red punch would be spilled on it, or it might get worn out or even lost but it no one would ever outgrow it.  The magic would still be present when it was shared by another mother and her little girl; a little girl who had something special.

When the final sentence on the first page is read, readers will feel a tickle in their story memories which is confirmed in Monica Brown's author's note at the book's end.  Sparked by the Yiddish folk song, I Had a Little Coat, and her Jewish and Latina ancestry, Brown adds richness to the original incorporating the magical element each item brings to Maya.  The repeating phrases

with her own two hands and Abuelita's help...that she loved very much

tie the transformations together.  Each time something new is made all the previous things are named again.  

On the left the story is read in English with the object first named in Spanish.  In the course of the narrative the English name is revealed.  On the right the text is shown in Spanish.  Both are beautiful when read aloud.  Here is a sample passage.

So with her own two hands and Abuelita's help, Maya made her vestido that was her manta into a falda that she loved very much.  She wore the skirt to the park, and it bounced as she hopped and skipped rope with her friends.  With her magical falda, Maya could jump higher than anyone else.

Asi que, con sus propias manos y la ayuda de Abuelita, Maya convirtio el vestido que habia sido su manta, en una falda que queria mucho.  Se la puso para ir al parque, donde se balanceaba mientras Maya brincaba a la cuerda con sus amigos.  Con su falda magica, Maya podia brincar mas alto que cualquiera de ellos. 

The matching dust jacket and book case created using mixed media by David Diaz is stunning.  It's a single illustration across the front and back of both.  The blanket extends over the spine to the left.  The blues, greens, and purple with the golden glow about every element are indeed magical.  Each of the orbs looks like tiny stained-glass windows. The butterflies seem to move on the blanket.  Indeed there are several flying on the back.

The opening and closing endpapers are patterned in large butterflies.  On the first it's purple on a blue-green background.  On the later it's blue-green on a lighter purple canvas.  The verso and title page is one image, a flow of the blanket topped with the colors in Grandmother's coat from the jacket and case.  Butterflies are moving among the magical spheres.

Eleven marvelous two-page images extend and enhance the text in a display of eloquent, colorful hues and patterns.  I nearly gasped when in the first illustration the Grandmother is wearing a rose.  It reminded me of December by Eve Bunting which Diaz illustrated. He supplies the same wonder in this book as he did in that title.

Each pictures flows from left to right, filled with happiness.  Details offer further explanation; the fifteen on top of the cake, the tiny words in English and Spanish of a familiar chant woven into the moving jump rope, the soccer shirts numbered in succession, and what appears to be the cover of The Yearling on the top of Maya's book stack.  As Maya grows up, her puppy, shown in the first picture, grows too, always by her side.

One of my favorite illustrations is when the blanket has become a scarf.  A turquoise sky highlights the lacy bare tree branches.  As Maya walks from her home in the background to school with two friends wind and snow swirl around them.  One companion is lifted off his feet, his book opening and blowing in the air.  Maya and her other friend are in the foreground moving along safely.  The scarf is securely tied around her lower face generating its magic.

This story, Maya's Blanket La Manta De Maya, written by Monica Brown with signature illustrations by David Diaz is book to be added to your personal and professional bookshelves.  It speaks to using something beyond its intended purpose by using your mind, hands and heart.  The love between generations makes this a perfect read aloud book.  Students will beg you to hear the English and the Spanish.  This book makes you want to create something for someone you love, over and over again.  At the conclusion is an author's note in English and Spanish along with a ten word glossary providing the translation of Spanish words into English.

To learn more about Monica Brown and her other books, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website. At Kirkus author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson chats with Monica Brown about this title and other exciting news.  At Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Jules's blog, illustrations from this book by David Diaz are shared.  David Diaz is interviewed at KidLit411 in early 2014.  At the publisher's website you can view more interior illustrations.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Love And... Life Lessons

More times than I can remember, students have walked into my library telling me in soft, heartbroken voices about the loss of a beloved animal family member.  For the younger ones, depending on the creature, it was probably a part of their lives for as long as they could remember.  Making sure I was at eye level with them, I told them how sorry I was.  If they wanted a hug, one was given.

I never told them that time will ease the pain or that death is a part of life because adjusting to the absence of someone loved is different for each individual.  The pain is tangible, something you carry every day.  Some days the weight is heavier than on others.  Eventually those days when the load is unbearable will be less than those when it is.  

In 2001 the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award for New Illustrator was established.  This award, the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award, for authors and illustrators is designed to

recognize and encourage emerging talent in the field of children's books.  

This week the recipient for the 2016 New Illustrator Award  was announced as Phoebe Wahl for her new book, Sonya's Chickens (Tundra Books, August 11, 2015).

One day, Sonya's papa came home with three fluffy chicks.  He gave the chicks to Sonya.  "It can be your job to take care of them." he told her.

Until the coop was properly ready for occupation, those three tiny chicks lived in a cardboard box with Sonya inside her home.  Like the proverbial mother hen she took care of all their needs.  When the farm's alarm clock, the rooster, sounded each morning she went to the coop making sure all was well with her chickens.

She kept them feed and watered, cleaning out their home and placing clean straw inside their boxes.  They were allowed to roam within the yard.  Wherever Sonya went those chickens trailed behind her.

One day she discovered a beautiful brown egg in one of the chicken's nest.  This made Sonya's happiness grow.  She was careful each evening to put the hens inside the coop, making sure the door was secure.  The gate to the fenced enclosure also needed to be shut tight.

Sonya woke one night to loud sounds coming from her chickens' coop.  She bravely ventured outside knowing they needed her help.  When she got inside, amid the scattered feathers, she counted only two chickens.

As tears streamed down her face, her papa came, hugged her tight and took her inside their home.  This wise man told Sonya a story about an animal that was doing the same thing Sonya did for her chicks and the same thing he did for Sonya and her little brother.  Her sadness did not go away but she did understand why her chicken was gone.

The next day the family honored her sweet hen.  They made sure the coop was repaired.  Sonya continued to do as she had always done for her two remaining feathered friends.  One day life gave her a gift.

As an author Phoebe Wahl tells a story in which children and adults can relate.  It's a tale of putting the care of something else before your own needs.  When we do this, it is out of love.

She brings us into this narrative by telling us all the things Sonya does for her chickens and their response to her.  When Wahl makes a point of explaining the nightly rituals, we pause wondering what will happen next.  Like all good storytellers when our fears are realized, she leads us back to a safe place with the father's words about the ways of woodland animals.  The repetition of certain phrases supplies a rhythm and a sense of security.  Here is another sample passage.

Sonya took her job of tending to the chickens very seriously, and they grew quickly into gawky pullets.  As her mama and papa went about the duties of the farm, Sonya was proud to do her part.  Everywhere Sonya went, her little birds were at her heels, peeping loudly.

Upon opening the matching dust jacket and book case, readers can see a liberal use of green on the left and right side of the illustration.  Although the two sides are in different parts of Sonya's world they blend together as one complete picture.  On the front is Sonya in a farm setting with her chickens.  To the left is a scene from the surrounding woods, a foreshadowing of events to come.  After explaining the difference between a dust jacket and a book case to younger students, they now ask if the illustrator has left us a "surprise" when the jacket is removed.  In this instance Phoebe Wahl did but not where you would expect.  (Please view the Vine taken by Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher.)  The opening and closing endpapers are in two shades of golden yellow, patterned with flora, the chickens and the woodland creature that provides for his young.

Using watercolor, collage and colored pencil Wahl conveys in her images a vintage, textured quality exuding warm amid the pastoral setting.  On some pages her text is framed in branches, a cozy nest or a forest den. She varies her visuals' sizes from two pages edge to edge, larger illustrations extending across the gutter, single page unframed pictures or smaller insets on a white background.

One of my favorite illustrations spans two pages. In the background is the green and brown of the forest.  To the left is the chicken coop with the three hens running from their door to follow Sonya.  To the side of the coop is a garbage bin.  In the foreground and along the fenced-in yard are delicate pink flowers.  On the right Sonya, wearing a blue short-sleeved shirt, red-patterned jumper and yellow rubber boots, is walking and carrying a red pail.  It's a wonderful, all-is-right-with-the-world scene.

Sonya's Chickens written and illustrated by Phoebe Wahl is a heartwarming story of different kinds of love; a girl's love for her chickens, a forest creature's love for his babies and a parent's love for their daughter.  It explains beautifully how the wildlife world and that of humans cross boundaries.  It illustrates the need for comprehension and compassion.

To learn more about Phoebe Wahl and her other work please visit her website and blog by following the links attached to her name.  At Storybook Spotlight you can listen to a podcast about this title with Phoebe and Karen Santhanam.  NW Kids Magazine interviews Phoebe Wahl about Sonya's Chickens.  Author, reviewer, and blogger, Julie Danielson, invites Phoebe Wahl to be a guest on her blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, September 1, 2013.  There is a lot of artwork. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Last Sunday amid the quiet (and not so quiet) chatter of children, I could be seen in a local book store sitting on the floor in front of the nonfiction shelves.  The titles were arranged by subject but there was no delineation as to when the book was published.  If I found a volume in which I was not familiar, I would pull it out to examine the information for accuracy, reliability of the author, illustrations and the release date.  The stack next to me on the floor did get a little bit higher.  

Participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge has me constantly seeking new titles.  One book I discovered recently is A Tower of Giraffes: Animals in Groups (Charlesbridge, September 8, 2015) written and illustrated by Anna Wright.  It's a whimsical exploration of collective nouns guaranteed to impart several new tidbits of wisdom and wonder. 

Animals have varied social lives, family systems, and living situations.  Some animals live together in large groups of thousands.  Others prefer to be alone but like to know that neighbors are nearby, and some animals are very particular about the other animals they spend time with.  

After completing this introduction and a short definition of collective noun, readers travel to and from sixteen different gathered animals.  We first visit geese learning they have two different names, depending on whether they are in flight or on the ground.  Even though koalas do tend to enjoy their own space, a collection of their individual territory boundaries are called colonies.  

The movement made by squirrels is assigned to their group.  Did you know that a herd of elephants is composed of only females?  Social as they are pigs may spend years with the same one every night.  Sheep use a great defensive technique to disorient predators.  

Penguins and flamingos are known to take the "birds of a feather" idiom to extreme measures.  Readers will concur with the title given to a family of mice, a mischief and to a bunch of otters, a romp.  The wisdom symbolism attached to owls might account for their title.  Are monkeys part of the military?  

You will smile at the word supplied for a group of camels and peacocks.  After being a guest with each group, readers will begin to see a pattern.  The animals' collective nouns can be viewed as descriptions of their actions or personalities or an alliterative flight of fancy as in a parcel of penguins.

What Anna Wright offers readers in her narrative paragraphs is not only the term but fascinating pieces of information woven together in several sentences.  These additional facts are of the variety people will tend to remember.  They work together to create a form of mnemonic devices.  Her word choices assist in supplying a cadence.  Here is her first passage.

When geese are together on the ground, they are called a gaggle.  When they fly, often in a V shape, the group is known as a skein.  The bold geese at the back honk to encourage those in front to move quickly.  Honk! Honk!

Charming and unconventional, the illustrations, rendered in ink and watercolor with feathers and fabric collaged on them, will catch any reader's attention at first glance.  The giraffes on the front fashioned from fabric, looking straight at us, seem to be ready to speak as does the one to the left on the back.  Sharing this space is a peacock, a penguin and a mouse, looking lively.  Twelve of the animals are placed in a row stretching from the opening endpapers to those at the back.  The dedication and publishing information are incorporated into these at the beginning and at the end.

For the animals Anna Wright has selected to place them on two pages or on a single page on the heavier matte-finished cream paper.  She changes their size and location within those images to create a spirited display.  All the animals look as if they are ready for some kind of action.  

The fabric and feather choices are marvelous.  Each of the sheep is wearing pieces of sweater, several unraveling.  The peacock feathers are their actual size but appear on smaller birds.  Every page turn is a step into a world of delight.

One of my favorite illustrations is for the prickle of hedgehogs.  On the five that are featured each is wearing a unique piece of material in shades of green and pink with one exception; a pattern in yellow.  They all look quite content with their colorful coats.

A Tower of Giraffes: Animals in Groups written and illustrated by Anna Wright is a refreshing look at the animal kingdom and the words used to describe it.  It's a joy to read individually but even better when shared with others.  Wouldn't it be fun to create some creatures as distinctive as these after doing a bit of research?

To learn more about Anna Wright please visit her website and blog by following the links attached to her name.   A portion of her website highlights this title with numerous interior pages to view.   There is an additional interior page at the publisher's website

Please visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other titles selected by participating blogger this week.  

Rhythm Of The Seasons

For three days our meteorologists have continued to issue winter weather advisories.  The snow comes and goes almost as if some giants are engaged in synchronized breathing.  As they inhale the clouds clear so patches of blue sky appear above the mountain peaks.  Heavy snowfall obscures everything except for my immediate neighbors' homes, yards and the nearby fifty foot ponderosa and tamarack pines, signifying they have decided to exhale.

This evening as another frequent squall brought in a thick curtain of falling flakes, a trio of deer slowly walked down the street.  I wondered if tucked away in their minds was a picture of other deer previously moving along the same path; only all signs of humans were replaced with a dense forest of trees.  Other than the ever present magpies no other creatures were around during the day; a clear sign of the deeper snow and colder temperatures.

Our animal companions' lives are dictated by clocks and conditions; some we can understand, others are beyond our comprehension.  In a recent collaboration, author Kathy Duval and illustrator Gerry Turley depict one woodland resident's life during a shift of the seasons in A Bear's Year (Swartz & Wade, October 27, 2016).  It's a gentle story of lessons learned under the watchful guidance of a mother.

Winter Bear
drifts into sleep,
Earth's snowflake blanket
soft and deep.

As the first months pass two cubs are born sharing the den with their mother.  They snooze together until signs of spring appear.  Their growth is noticeable as they practice climbing and playing.

During the summer bushes laden with berries provide delicious meals.  Streams full of fish sharpen their hunting skills.  Swarms of bees lead the way to golden sweetness.  Mother earth provides tasty delicacies underground if they understand where to dig.

As a chill announces the onset of autumn, mother bear locates a place for their den hollowing a hole with her claws.  The coats on the trio grow heavier.  Their world glows with new color.

A lingering darkness crowds out the light of their days as they shorten.  Two bigger cubs get cozy with their protector and guide beginning their slumber.  Sheltered from wind and snow they'll weather this winter.

No matter how many times this story is read, the beauty of the words lingers.  Kathy Duval has written fifteen lyrical four-phrase poems depicting the growth and activities of bear cubs with their mother amid the shifting of the four seasons.  The final word on every second and fourth line rhyme, describing with clarity the scenes in which the trio spends their months.  Here is another poem.

Cubs catch fish,
find bees that swarm,
and dig for roots
when days are warm.

A light snow starts to fall as mother bear pauses with her cubs, a bird perched on a nearby spruce branch.  It's a peaceful scene of serenity and security which is felt throughout the book.  Gerry Turley uses a pale blue for the background for the coolness of winter balancing it with the warmth of the bears' colors and the yellow feathers on the nearby bird.  To the left, on the back of the dust jacket, four circular images on placed on a white canvas.  Each one features a cub during one of the seasons.

On the opening endpapers is a pattern of tiny evergreen trees, green on white.  Delicate miniature flowers, pink and green, are spread over a white background on the closing endpapers.  These same flowers are grouped beneath the dedication on the verso.  The oval holding the title text is used again on the title page with bees swarming along the bottom and sides.  At the top are two clusters of yellow flowers.

The illustrations rendered with drawing and screen printing were blended together digitally.  They all cover two pages, edge to edge, sixteen in total.  Turley alters his perspective bringing us close to the family and moving back to give us a more panoramic view of their surroundings.  His layout is different also, moving the trio from the bottom, middle, and top of the page and displaying them more on one side, then the other or in the center of the page.

Intricate details ask us to slow our reading, matching it to the text.  On the floor of the den where the group sleeps are veined leaves and needled branches.  In the far distance, beyond the group of birches where the bears stroll, are three deer. Four teeny yellow birds rest at the top of an evergreen tree as the bear cubs climb.  A nuthatch, a hawk, a couple of otters, a ladybug, and a fox silently observe the bears.  Turley includes the same animal in the second and final illustration.

One of my favorite pictures (I love them all.) is during the summer.  On a pale yellow background Turley has placed light brown tree trucks with small-leafed branches along the top and sides.  The two cubs are climbing a tree on the left as their mother watches from the lower right-hand corner.  They are after a hive loaded with honey.  There are bees everywhere.

A Bear's Year written by Kathy Duval with illustrations by Gerry Turley is an eloquent and endearing look at the life of a mother bear and her cubs.  Readers will come to understand how cubs adapt to the changing seasons and learn to survive on their own when it is time.  This is more than a book about seasons and bears.  It is an excellent example of how poetry can inform and appeal to our senses as images extend both the words and those sensory experiences.

To learn more about Kathy Duval and Gerry Turley and their other work please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Kathy Duval has a link to a seventeen page activity kit within the pages about this book in the news section   You can get a peek inside this title at the publisher's website.

Monday, February 1, 2016

To The North

Every single person living then was affected.  (The effects have lasted for generations.)  By 1935 it caused untimely deaths, loss of businesses and employment, and large-scale fear.  The Great Depression exacted a cost of unparalleled economic scale taking decades for recovery.

The loss of income meant people were unable to keep their homes, clothe themselves or their children and maintain a healthy diet.  In 1935 as part of a New Deal program initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt more than two hundred families on relief from the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin were selected to participate in The Matanuska Colony in Palmer, Alaska.  Sweet Home Alaska (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House L.L.C., February 2, 2016) written by Carole Estby Dagg captivates reader at every page turn with the struggles and triumphs of the Johnson family through the voice of eleven-year-old Terpsichore.

Chapter 1
Terpsichore Johnson Cooks Dinner
November, 1934---Little Bear Lake, Wisconsin

It was because Terpsichore was the only unmusical Johnson that she dragged a hatchet across the yard toward a pumpkin as big as a pickle barrel.  She stumbled over an icy hillock of mud where her mother's roses had been uprooted to make way for potatoes.

After an exclamation and a promise during a frustrating piano lesson Terpsichore finds herself cooking dinner day after day for her two sisters, baby Matthew and her parents.  All they have left to eat is pumpkin and this creative young woman whips up more delicious meals than you would think possible.  Their father has lost his job at the sawmill as an accountant and their mother has few piano students left.  Mr. Johnson refuses to apply for assistance or move to Madison to live with Mrs. Johnson's mother.

When word of The Matanuska Colony plan is announced Mr. Johnson goes to apply only to discover you have to be on relief to qualify.  As the winter gets harder and harder for the family, Mrs. Johnson decides to trade her piano for food credit at the grocery store.  When Terpsichore's best friend Eileen's family is sure to leave for Alaska, she hatches a daring plan.  To her dismay it completely backfires!

With only two days to plan and pack, the Johnson family is destined to leave for Palmer, Alaska. Each family receives a loan of three thousand dollars, forty acres of land and is allowed to take only a ton of possessions.  Mrs. Johnson is not happy making Mr. Johnson promise to return to Wisconsin if in sixteen months they have not succeeded.  

Traveling on land by train and on sea aboard a ship over the turbulent waters of the Gulf of Alaska, the Johnsons arrive in Palmer only to discover the promised tents, their residences until homes can be built, are not available.  This is only the beginning of the troubles experienced by Terpsichore, her family and the other pioneers.  Swarms of mosquitoes have them hurrying from place to place and wearing specially designed headgear,  shared two-holer outhouses, wood and coal burning stoves for heat and cooking, a mess hall for eating for those without tents, the lack of enough hammers for the CCC employees, and overcrowded classrooms are some of the problems they endure.

Terpsichore and her new friends, Gloria and Mendel, forge a companionship much as the adults in the community, individual successes happen with the support of others.  The Library Action Committee, a telegram to Mrs. Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Wiley Post, winter snow and howling winds, the appearance of a kindly old-timer with a secret, the first upcoming autumn fair and Terpsichore's final big plan will keep readers flipping pages as fast as they can. Hardships can be handled with hope and the can-do attitude of one gal who won't give up.

One of the first things you notice about this title is the personalities of the characters.  Carole Estby Dagg creates characters, Terpsichore (Trip and Tipper), her twin sisters, Polly (Polyhymnia) and Cally (Calliope), little brother Matthew, Mother and Father, Grandmother, Gloria, and Mendel and their parents, Mr. Crawford and other community members who are as compelling as the people you might meet in everyday life.  Placing them within this historical context through Terpsichore's thoughts and the dialogue between the real (Dagg effortlessly weaves historic figures into the narrative.) and imagined people is like stepping back in time, experiencing what they do as if it's happening right before your eyes.

Through her painstaking research Dagg paints vivid pictures of the landscape as well as detailed accounts of daily life.  We see the grandeur of the mountain ranges, the flora and fauna, and the opportunities for farming.  We are exposed to the sickness and fright endured during the sea crossing, the lack of privacy in the cramped living conditions, the act of caring for a child still in diapers, a community without a hospital, doctors and nurses, a library or churches.  We come to understand these people begin equally with nothing, building a community in the wilderness.

One other high point is the mention of current news (some of it listened to on a radio), music and literature during this time period.  Terpsichore takes to heart one of President Roosevelt's Fireside Chats using it to boost her spirits.  She also uses what she has read in The Little House on the Prairie and Farmer Boy to assist her in accomplishing her goals.  I should also mention the pets, a cat named Tigger and a dog named Togo, who accompany Terpsichore and Mendel to Palmer.   Here are some sample passages.

Cutting library hours again?  Whose crazy idea was that?  The library was one of the most popular places in town, especially after the mill closed.  People couldn't afford the movies or the roller-skating barn, but they could come to story hour and check out books for free.  Even folks who didn't read much huddled around the heat registers at the library.  Terpsichore returned her books through the slot.  The hollow clunk they made as they hit the bin inside was as hollow as her heart.

"Mendel Theodore Peterson," he said, holding out a hand.  
Terpsichore didn't let go of the windowsill to shake his hand. "Terpsichore Elizabeth Johnson."  That would be one advantage of the move.  In Alaska she could reinvent herself and finally escape her horrible nickname. "Terpsichore," she said. "As in---"
"I know, I know, the Muse of Dance," he said.
Terpsichore narrowed her eyes.  "How did you know that?"
Mendel smirked, "You're not the only kid on this ship who knows Greek mythology.  And my name, Mendel, is for---"
"The composer Mendelssohn?" Terpsichore wanted to show he wasn't the only one who knew his composers.
"No," he said. "Gregor Mendel, the guy with the twenty-nine thousand pea plants.  The guy who figured out how two parents with brown eyes could have a blue-eyed baby."
"I knew that," Terpsichore said.  "The reason I guessed Mendelssohn first is that my mother used to teach piano."
And my mother used to teach botany, so I got stuck with 'Mendel.' Anyway, since I read up on sea travel in the library before I left, I've been able to minimize seasickness.  At least I didn't toss my cookies."
"Toss your cookies?"
"Puke, vomit, upchuck, retch, heave, spit up, spew up, disgorge, be sick to one's stomach, be nauseated, return your breakfast, or blow your lunch."
"Stop!" Terpsichore said. "Just the words..." Who ever knew there were so many ways to say throwing up?  All the same, she couldn't quite control the grin that quivered at the corners of her mouth.

Later that week, as the wind shrieked through spruce trees and bare limbs of cottonwoods, Terpsichore huddled in her cot and pulled the blankets up over her ears, trying to muffle the sound.  Moments later, Tigger led her two new kittens under Terpsichore's blankets.  Terpsichore wished she had ten more cats to keep her warm.
The tent canvas whipped in the howling wind that threatened to fly them all away to Oz, like Dorothy and Toto.  Outside, the washtub clanged and rattled across the plowed field.  Wind thrust itself under the narrow space between the wood platform and canvas walls and whipped Matthew's drying diapers off the clothesline. 
At a crack like a gunshot, Matthew stood in his crib and howled.
"What's that?" Cally and Polly whimpered.
"Probably a tree that couldn't stand up to the wind," Pop said.
Terpsichore coughed and pulled the blankets over her head.  She flinched each time a tree snapped.  She didn't think any trees were close enough to hit the tent and crush them, but she wasn't sure.

Sweet Home Alaska written by Carole Estby Dagg is an engaging portrait of the settling of the Matanuska Colony in Palmer, Alaska, an event rarely depicted in American history classrooms.  This is one of the reasons readers will enjoy this book.  It acquaints them with something they might not know through the eyes of people like them.  It's inspirational and hopeful; two things as important today as they were then.  Short chapters with compelling closing sentences will keep them venturing to the next episode until the heartwarming conclusion.  Author notes, resources, recipes, and the lyrics for When It's Springtime in Alaska are placed at the close of the book.

Please visit Carole Estby Dagg's website to learn more about her and her other books.  She includes fascinating pages about this title as well as a discussion guide.  If you would like to know how to pronounce her name and the history about it, go to TeachingBooks.net.  More information about this portion of history can be found at the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation site, the National Association of Rural Rehabilitation Corporations, Explore North, and Alaska's Digital Archives.

Update:  February 3, 2016 Carole Estby Dagg wrote a post about this title at the Nerdy Book Club.

Update:  February 5, 2016 Carole Estby Dagg is interviewed at Margie's Must Reads.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Frustrated Forecaster

There will be days when you not only feel unappreciated; you are unappreciated.  The stress of being stuck in a rut weighs heavily on your entire outlook.  You are locked into a time schedule over which you have no control.  To make matters even worse you are just plain tired.  You NEED a vacation.

For most people making a checklist and following it to the letter means you are good to go on that much needed rest.  For others their absence leaves a huge hole in the scheme of things affecting a great many individuals. Groundhog's Day Off (Bloomsbury, December 8, 2015) written by Robb Pearlman with illustrations by Brett Helquist calls our attention to a holiday hero who has had it.

Every year, on one special day in February, Groundhog wakes up extra early.

On this day hordes of people hover around Groundhog's hole.  Every year the only thing of interest to them is whether there will more winter weather or will the signs spring begin to appear.  Most disheartening to Groundhog is these women and men and girls and boys have no real interest in him at all.  They could care less about his likes and dislikes.

THIS year is different.  Groundhog pens a letter, packs his bag and heads off to the spa for a vacation.  And...he takes his shadow.  Thinking as quickly as she can, the mayor decides to hold auditions for replacements.

Well, let me tell you, this does not go well at all.  An elephant, an ostrich, a monkey, a bat, an owl, a mole, an opossum, a puppy and one quirky human have distinct physical characteristics and habits which hinder their bids for the position.  The mayor realizes there is only one animal that can do this job correctly.

A newscast is heard by a relaxing rodent who rallies in a heartbeat.  Could it be true?  Have the townspeople and the reporters changed?  That special day in February comes and goes.  In case you and Groundhog think all is right in the world, a double dose of twists awaits.

Author Robb Pearlman creates a pleasing blend of narration and dialogue with heaps of humor.  He assigns funny features to the contestants elevating the laughter.  His gift to readers is when they think happily ever after has happened but the comedy continues.  Here is another sample passage.

But the one thing they never ask Groundhog about is him.

No "How are you feeling?"
No "Have you seen any good movies lately?"
No "Do you like mushrooms on your pizza?"
Not even "Who does your fur?"

Brett Helquist's signature use of line, color and the facial features on his animals (and people) is apparent on the dust jacket (I am working with an F & G.)  The layout, the use of an arch, the circle of Groundhog's suitcase and the shape of his tennis racket combined with the rays of yellow and blue welcome the reader into the story.  On the back, to the left, the background is a brighter shade of those rays framed in scallops of reds and triangles of orange along the top and bottom.  Groundhog is diving into his hole.

Prior to the verso and title pages a two-page image depicts the town with people gathering around Groundhog's fenced-in home.  A winter weary man is reading a newspaper with the headline reading,

(I believe this is the opening endpaper.)

A page turn shows a small inset of Groundhog brushing his teeth.  On the opposite page he is startled awake by his alarm ringing.  Helquist begins his visual story even before the text starts.

With the remaining illustrations he uses small ovals, circles or free forms with elements outside the border, full page pictures edge to edge or loosely framed with a combination of his brush strokes and white space.  For emphasis his images span both pages.  The expressions on all the characters, particularly Groundhog, are wonderfully funny.  It should be noted that for three of the illustrations there is hardly any color to match Groundhog's initial mood.

One of my favorite images is of Groundhog at the spa.  He is resting on a bed, bamboo growing behind him.  Candles are burning around the room.  Cucumbers are placed over his eyes.  His body is under an herbal wrap.  As he listens to the news on a television with a remote in one paw, the other is lifting a cucumber slice. He is definitely startled by the news.

While you may think you have the ultimate collection of Groundhog Day books, it is lacking without this title, Groundhog's Day Off written by Robb Pearlman with illustrations by Brett Helquist.  Pearlman has cleverly inserted the facts associated with the holiday but continues with a charming narrative.  Everyone will be laughing from beginning to end because they will see bits and pieces of themselves, even if they are not a groundhog, in this story.  The final double-page wordless illustration (closing endpaper) by Helquist is hilarious.

To learn more about Robb Pearlman and Brett Helquist please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  Brett Helquist posted about his process for this book on his blog here, here and here.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

..."If I Never Get Back."

On February 24, 2016 people around the world will be celebrating World Read Aloud Day.  One of this year's activities leading up to the festivities, focused on the sheer joy of reading, is the 7 Strengths Countdown.  These seven weeks highlighting specific themes, belonging, curiosity, friendship, kindness, confidence, courage and hope, began the week of January 3, 2016.

Very early this morning I finished
a book, a book with words and pictures resonating long after the final pages are turned and the cover is closed, which embodies every single one of those ideas.  Firefly Hollow (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, August 18, 2015) written by Alison McGhee with illustrations by Christopher Denise is a place called home by firefly, cricket, vole and human nations.  It is an extraordinary place if you have a true heart, a heart ready to believe.

Firefly flitted through a knothole in the hollow tree, straight out into the clearing and straight back in again.  The night air outside the hollow tree was cool, and the air inside was warm.  She whooshed back and forth from cool to warm, outside to inside, faster and faster and faster until---yikes---she accidentally side-swiped Elder.

Since she was a teeny, tiny baby Firefly was watched over and encouraged by Elder.  They had a secret code for communicating, three fast and two long blinks which meant a variety of words depending on the situation.  Regardless of what she learned in her Basics of Blinking, Air Safety and Fear of Giants classes, Firefly practiced her midair flips, loop-de-loops, figure eights and timed her endurance flying.  Firefly had dreams; to explore beyond the safety of her home, to get closer to the miniature giant and to fly among the stars traveling to the moon.  The other fireflies thought she was crazy.

Cricket was usually getting in trouble during the Telling Temperature, High Jumping or Fear of Giants classes taught by Teacher.  He understood the reasons for fearing all water, the sun and giants but he had secrets.  Cricket had been close to the miniature giant, a boy called Peter, many, many times.  At night when the other crickets were singing about the natural world, Cricket hid away from the others among the reeds on the sandy shore, singing the words Peter and his friend sang,

Take me out to the ballgame...

Cricket had a dream; he wanted to be the Yogi Berra of crickets, learning to catch.  The other crickets thought he was crazy.

Vole was the last of his kind.  All the other river voles had lost their lives in a great flood (the giants had destroyed a beaver dam) when he was very young.  He now lived on a boat crafted of cedar by his grandfather tied to the roots of a white birch on the bank of the river.  He practiced a series of sailor knots over and over and memorized the River Vole's Guide.  Many seasons had come and gone and Vole had never left this spot.  He had a dream to sail, as his ancestors had done for years, down the river south to the sea.  The other animals highly respected Vole.

Both Cricket and Firefly were told giants could not see or hear them but after curious Firefly found Cricket, they made discoveries of their own.  These lead to a summer like none other ever experienced before in any of their lives. Firefly, Cricket and Peter helped and healed one another.  Vole watched, waited and cared for the two small creatures.

As the days grew shorter, the leaves started to look a little less green, and Peter's parents kept talking about school (He is refusing to go for reasons I will let you uncover.), a hurtful encounter at the hollow tree had Firefly doing the impossible.  Nations united in unforgettable moments.  Words of wisdom and comfort

You'll know when the time is right.
I'll be watching over you.
Let it come to you.

bound in hope a courageous, kind and confident cricket, firefly, vole and boy.  Their curiosity and sense of adventure created a friendship built on the need to belong.

The realm of Firefly Hollow is a place tucked away outside the hustle and bustle of city life, a small space of trees, leaves, grasses, and wild flowers near a river running to the sea.  We only know of two homes of humans near the wildlife community.  Alison McGhee fashions a world we want to reach out, hold gently in our hands and store in our hearts forever.  In our mind's eye we can see the hollowed tree, home to the firefly nation, the school training all the crickets, the outside and interior of Vole's boat and the flat rock, sandy beach and home of the boy Peter.  We share balmy nights lit by stars and a moon and days full of summer sunshine.

The conversations between the characters are genuine, full of true emotion.  We are also privy to the thoughts of Firefly, Cricket, Vole and Peter.  In addition to the dialogue between the characters McGhee has a narrator softly and subtly unfolding all the parts of the characters' lives, past and present, so we completely and wholeheartedly feel a kinship with them.  Here are some sample passages.

Firefly floated closer still.  This song was not a cricket song at all.  Firefly could hardly believe it, but this song was, in fact, a giant song.   It was the same song that the miniature giant used to sing, back in the days when his friend was still there and they played catch on the shore.

"I don't care..."

This was a song about forbidden things: giants and ball games and crowds.  Firefly fluttered her wings just enough to stay aloft, trying to be as quiet as possible, so that she wouldn't disturb the unknown cricket and his song.

"...if I never get back."

Somewhere out there was a cricket who snuck off at night to sing about something forbidden, something dangerous, something that none of the other crickets wanted.  Somewhere out there was a

Now the sun went down, and the clearing in the woods began to glow with fireflies.  Vole watched the little rebel cricket hop down the creature path and hide himself in the reeds by the riverbank.  Every time Vole heard this particular cricket's song, he crept out onto this deck to listen.  There was something about the little cricket and his song that made him dream of faraway places.  Of what he himself might see, when he finally sailed downstream and beheld the great waters beyond.

Peter tilted his head in the way that meant he was trying to figure something out.  How could Cricket explain to him?
"After we die, we turn into music," he said.  "And we're everywhere."  They turned into the sound of the wind, rustling the leaves on the trees.
The crunch of an acorn in the fall.
The tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker's beak on a tree.
All these sounds were music.  Crickets and the memory of them were still part of the world, even if they were invisible.

The illustrations in this book by Christopher Denise will literally take your breath away.  You are introduced to Vole, Firefly and Cricket during a nighttime conversation along the river bank in the initial visual on the dust jacket.   The luminosity seen here is found in the fourteen full color single page images placed within the interior of this story.  

These eloquent pictures depict fireflies in flight, one doing loop-de-loops beneath a full moon, Cricket gazing at the captured baseball card of Yogi Berra, sunlight streaming through the trees into the clearing, and Peter, eyes open wide in wonder, peering at Cricket and Firefly near their flat rock.  Each image is a study in light and shadow, delicate details drawing you into the world of Firefly Hollow.  Numerous drawings in black and white and various sizes further support the narrative.  Each chapter begins with an oval picture above the text.  One particular image of a small paper boat caused me to burst into tears.

One of my favorite (I love all of them.) illustrations is the interior of Vole's boat at night.  He is sitting in his chair which rests on a small rug on the plank floor, an open book on his lap.  Firefly is floating upward toward her hammock-like bed in a spider web.  Cricket is sleepily leaning against the folded paper boat resting on Vole's table.  The room is lit from the glow of the fire.  Readers will wish they could join them.

Firefly Hallow written by Alison McGhee with illustrations by Christopher Denise is a marvelous story of longing, loss and love.  It's one you want to read at least once a year.  It's a story you will want to share with as many as you can.  Read it one-on-one or to an entire group, but read it you must.  This book is a classic in the truest sense.

To learn more about Alison McGhee and Christopher Denise please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  They both have more information about this book on their respective blogs (Christopher's) which are linked at their websites.  At the publisher's website are several more interior images as well as an excerpt from this book.  Take a moment to read Q & A with Alison McGhee at Publishers Weekly about this title.  Alison McGhee also talks about her writing process for this book at The Pippin Insider.  Christopher Denise and Nick Patton chat together on The Picturebooking Podcast