Quote of the Month

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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

PSST! Celebrating Xena's Birthday With A Cat Book But Don't Tell Her

Fifteen years ago on the twenty-first day of August a sweet girl puppy was born; the runt in a litter of Chocolate Labrador Retrievers.  Knowing she would need to make up for her size in spirit, I named her Xena, the Warrior Princess.  Anyone who meets her agrees the name fits her perfectly.  Her zest for life is contagious.

As a youngster she was so small she needed three meals a day.  For the first six months of her life with me, she came to the elementary school library, safely tucked away in my office.  She was frequently seen on my lap during story times.  Over the years when I worked evenings, weekends and summers at school, she was a constant companion.  We have rarely been apart.

This form of devotion, a love that's completely unconditional, is a rare gift we humans receive from our animal friends.  People from all walks of life will readily concur with their own stories about these daily moments.  One of the more notable examples of this faithfulness can be found in one of this year's newer titles, Mummy Cat (Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 21, 2015) written by Marcus Ewert with illustrations by Lisa Brown.

The winds hiss over desert sand.
The moon shines down on empty land.
And long ago...

Traveling back in time to ancient Egypt, within the walls of a pyramid built to house a queen, a being stirs after one hundred years of stillness.  It's a cat, wrapped in cloth, which awakes from death.  Each century this cat seeks to see if his friend, Hat-Shup-set, no longer sleeps.  During her reign the two were inseparable.

Paintings in the tomb chronicle their lives and shared experiences.  Days resting during game challenges, playing along and on the River Nile, dreaming and lounging beside the pool and posing for an artistic pal are some of the pastimes they relish.  Treachery ends their joy.

Each is prepared, carefully bound, for their journey into the afterlife.  This the cat sees while searching for his queen as sadness descends like a shroud.  Ahead a doorway leads to a room, a storehouse for lifetime treasures.

At the center a coffin bears a likeness of the beloved young woman.  All the cat desires is to see her again after three thousand years.  Waiting.  Wanting.  Wishing. Wonderful!

As quietly as the tomb in which the story begins Marcus Ewert writes words in gentle rhyme flowing flawlessly.  We are wrapped, like the mummies, in history woven into the narrative.   We learn of a culture past and of a rare friendship standing the test of time.  Here is a sample passage.

Or this mural of a noontime nap:
dreams of mice, on the queen's own lap.
Their couch was set beside the pool.
The shade from date trees kept them cool. 

Unfolding the dust jacket readers see a happy mummy cat arising from a long sleep; hieroglyphs on the coffin spelling out the title.  Like the cat the text is wrapped in cloth.  Two yellow butterflies appear here and on interior images throughout the book.  Perhaps they are representative of transformation, souls living after death or acting as guides.  A single mouse watches.  On the back, to the left, two other mice, friends with the first, gaze at a painting on the wall of the tomb, the queen happily holding the cat on her lap.

A stylish book case, different from the jacket, uses a darker gray as the background, appearing like stone. (This is used again in the body of the book.)  An Egyptian pattern adorns either side of the spine.  On the front the queen and her cat are walking together in life.  On the back they are walking away from us as they appear in death.  The opening and closing endpapers are rows of two different lotus shapes; highly symbolic in ancient Egypt.

Lisa Brown starts her visual story on the double-page spread for the title page with a panoramic view of the Egyptian desert with pyramids and a setting sun.  A closer view is presented to readers under a full moon on the next two-page image.  Each set of two pages brings us closer to the door of the tomb and finally inside.  The textured floors and walls supply a realistic but important background helping to make the fine details in the artwork, cat, mice and butterflies, the queen and her sister visually stunning.

A series of smaller images are placed on a white background to serve as an introduction to the relationship between the cat and queen.  The portrayals of the animals are beautifully rendered as if they are ancient Egyptian art.  From the entrance to the tomb until the next to last two pages hieroglyphics have been incorporated into the design of the pictures.  Brown also extends the text to provide readers with an additional illustrative story as to the events leading to the death of the queen and her cat.  A true sense of stepping back in time is generated.

One of my many favorite illustrations spans two pages.  The background in the stone gray showcases the highly decorated queen's coffin extending nearly edge to edge from left to right.  The three mice are placed along the coffin's upper sides.  The mummy cat wearing the queen's favorite ring on his paw meows a message.  Will this be magical enough?

Although Mummy Cat written by Marcus Ewert with illustrations rendered in ink, gouache, and watercolor on paper with digital collage by Lisa Brown is a work of fiction, we learn much about the culture in which the story is placed.  It's a story of eternal love and friendship.  This is guaranteed to be a much requested story time title.  At the close of the book there are several pages dedicated to Mummies, Cats, Queens and Hieroglyphs.

To learn more about Lisa Brown please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  The publisher has provided a fun page on Tumblr.  Lisa Brown is a guest at author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Both Marcus Ewert and Lisa Brown talk with teacher librarian Matthew Winner on the Let's Get Busy Podcast #170 about this book. An earlier title Lisa Brown illustrated, Emily's Blue Period, is featured as a trifecta at the Scholastic's new Ambassador of School Libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs John Schumacher's Watch. Connect. Read. Links to other posts by the author are found there.  Enjoy this video about the making of Mummy Cat. 

Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert and Lisa Brown from HMH Kids on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Blowing In The Wind-Changes

Dear Readers:

I actually started this blog back in October of 2008 with a single short post.  Professional duties shifted and it was almost two years later before I began to blog in earnest in August of 2010.  I worked my way through an online program called School Library Learning 2.0.

Through my posts explaining websites and online tools, book recommendations, cover reveals and professional news gleaned from Twitter, I found my professional and personal connections growing with like-minded people.  With every exchange, virtually or face to face, my passion, my lifelong dedication to service in the field of library science, expanded.  Over the weeks, months and years I have felt myself improve as a writer, especially in expressing why a certain author, illustrator and their work needs to be shared with others.

We are living in a time when there is an abundance of wonderful books being written, illustrated and published.  It has become an important part of my life to write these posts for you.  It feels as though a day is not quite whole unless I talk about books, authors or illustrators at Librarian's Quest.

With that being said, over the next several weeks my blog posts will not be as regular.  Xena and I are going on a new adventure.  A dream decades in the making and further fueled by Kirby Larson's Hattie Big Sky is about to be realized.  Nothing will be certain until late September but excitement is brewing.  I hope all of you will be patient with my intermittent posting.  I will also be a less frequent visitor on social media but I will be back as soon as I can to talk about all good things in the world of children's literature.

I wish you all the best each and every day,
xxoo Margie


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Chilling Encounters

Fear is a curious thing.  We can carry it with us constantly for reasons easily explained or for no reasons at all.  Fear can creep up quickly causing us to go from calm to panic in mere seconds.  Some fears are shared.  Other fears belong to the individual alone.

People may tell us to face our fears but what they should really do is encourage us to assess each situation, if possible, weighing the reality of whom or what gives us the jitters or fills us with dread.
The Fun Book Of Scary Stuff (Frances Foster Books, Farrar Straus Giroux, August 11, 2015) written by Emily Jenkins with illustrations by Hyewon Yum is a lively look at one boy's fears.  His two canine companions join the conversation.

Dad says I should make a list of everything that frightens me.  He says it will help me be brave.

The bull terrier with a shake of his head voices his opinion of the dad.  His boy agrees. This dog wants to know what scary things the boy put on his list.  Not sure the dog can endure the sheer terror of those listed items, he is hesitant.

Of course the bull terrier proclaims his fear of absolutely nothing.  With confidence the boy shares the position of monsters; they're at the top.  It doesn't help what the boy's mom says about monsters and staying in his own bed.  The dog cleverly points out how he never sleeps in his bed but on the boy's bed.  He goes on to say ghosts are afraid of dogs when the boy mentions them.

Cauldron stirring witches make an appearance but mister-I'm-not-afraid-of-anything is sure it's something to eat rather than a hex.  With total lack of tact he points out how the boy seems to fear things which might not be real.  Irritated by this remark a particularly nasty relative is named.  Joining the discussion the pug admits his lack of fondness for this obnoxious cousin.

The boy names three other possible encounters found in their neighborhood which give him and the pug the willies.  The nonchalance and downright laughter they receive in response leads him to mention the final thing---the dark.  In a twist, perhaps bolstered by the remarks of the bull terrier, the boy is able to banish another's growing alarm.  It's time for treats given in love.

Tapping into her inner dog, Emily Jenkins gives the personalities to the boy's bull terrier and pug perfect for them and their relationship with him.  The casual way they all feel free to express themselves openly supplies ample opportunities for outbursts of laughter for readers while revealing how much they care for each other.  In the course of the narrative, told entirely in dialogue, the rhythm is formed with the boy naming a fear and why it's scary with the dogs either agreeing or pointing out why it might be unfounded.  This makes the twist even better.  Here is a sample passage.

Hee Hee!  Scared of the crossing guard. (Bull terrier)
She's so bossy. (Boy)
I'm scared of her, too.  She smells like gasoline. (Pug)

On the matching dust jacket and book case, we are introduced to the three main characters and some of those things the boy finds scary; things other readers might find frightful, too.  You can readily see which of the three are not comfortable and which one is confident in the face of unnerving situations.  On the back, to the left, Hyewon Yum cleverly depicts the view of the front as if we are looking at the back of the scene.  The opening and closing endpapers are the same shade of red as the text color on the jacket and case.

The title page background looks like notebook paper; the same used by the boy to make his list.  The three characters are named.  The humor begins immediately with

Bull Terrier the Bravest Dog Ever.

On the verso and first page the trio starts the story.  White space is used as an element in many of the pictures to bring the dogs and the boy to the center of our attention.  Speech bubbles hold their comments.

The pacing of the narrative is enhanced with the variations in illustrative sizes.  For most of them the scary thing is introduced with a single page visual followed by a group of smaller ones.  Several times Yum inserts double-page images for impact.  This works to great effect when moving from the fear of the swimming pool to sharks.

One of my favorite illustrations is for the dialogue highlighted above.  It spans across two pages.  On the left the bull terrier is rolling on the ground in laughter at the boy and the pug.  The boy looking fearful is supported by the pug looking disgusted at the bull terrier.  In the center of the crosswalk a rather formidable, frowning crossing guard stands with outstretched arms.  Wearing a whistle, vest, official hat, white gloves and orange-tinted sunglasses as extras to her pants, shirt and boots, she presents an imposing picture.  Behind them a woman driving her care has stopped.  She's looking a little scared herself.

Addressing fears, real or conjured in his mind, The Fun Book Of Scary Stuff written by Emily Jenkins with illustrations by Hyewon Yum will generate giggles and grins during any reading.  Possible voices to use for the characters promptly pop into your mind based upon the charming, detailed illustrations and the heartfelt words each speaks.  You couldn't have picked a better title as this book truly helps us to see the lighter side of scary stuff.

To learn more about Emily Jenkins and Hyewon Yum please take the time to visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  At the publisher's website eight interior images can be seen.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Of Work And Wishes

Even before the last of the snow melts the daily ritual begins anew.  It's a slow meander around the perimeter; frequently stopping to clear leaves, pull unwanted grass or weeds and observe the health of each individual growing thing.  Everything in a garden flourishes under the careful eye and hard work of the gardener.

The vines extend, wrap and weave, bulbs burst and bloom, and the perennials push upward a little more each day.  The Little Gardener (Flying Eye Books, June 1, 2015 UK, August 11, 2015 US) written and illustrated by Emily Hughes gives readers an entirely different view of the gardening world.  We come to appreciate those things nearly too tiny or hidden for us to see.

This was the garden.

It didn't look like much, ...

If we were to lie down flat on our stomachs and peer among the leaves, stems, stalks and flowers in a garden we would see someone extraordinary.  Before us is a gardener who takes great pride in his work and who needs the garden to provide shelter and food for him.  More important than those two things, the garden is the source of filling his soul with complete bliss.  Gardens can do this for a person no matter their size.

The Little Gardener does not believe he is good at what he loves best.  He toils all day long carting, cutting and digging but he is small and the garden is huge.  Only one thing looks beautiful.  A single flower tall, strong and brilliant in color, like a sun shining through a gap in a gray, cloudy sky, it supplies a much needed belief in possibilities.

Working with more diligence day in and day out and even through the night, he longs for more blooms like the other.  No matter what he does, he can see the garden is not thriving.  If it does not grow, the Little Gardener will lose those things he needs and values most.

Exhausted and not knowing what else he can do, at the end of a day and before going to bed, the Little Gardener voices his hope.  At times we are not heard but our deeds are visible to others.  When they see the magic our work is making, it inspires them to do the same.  When our tiny friend wakes from a very long rest, the garden is glorious.  Even the smallest of us can bring wonder into the world.

One thought at a time, with an economy of words, Emily Hughes brings us into the world of her little gardener.  By the end of the second sentence we are well aware of his connection to the land of plants.  As the story continues our understanding and empathy for his investment grows even as the garden is dying.  Though he believes he is failing, he has presented the gift of promise to another who in turn without knowing it helps him realize his dream.  In a stroke of storytelling splendor Hughes uses a familiar phrase (as she does more than once in this title) from the beginning at the end helping us to understand the link between the garden and its gardener.

Looking at the book case of The Little Gardener is similar to looking at a work of botanical wonder.  The expression on his face is full of happiness and hope.  A shiny glaze (forgive my lack of knowledge) has been placed on the title text, the Little Gardener and portions of two leaves, the stem and the brilliant blossom.  To the left, on the back, beneath a short blurb about the story, the gardener's constant companion, a worm, has a look of peace on its face.  Both the opening and closing endpapers contain a background canvas of pale yellow.  Clusters of two or three leaves are shown sprouting from small patches of dirt.  On the title page under the text, the spectacular flower is only a bud.  Resting, curled around its base, is the sleeping worm.

Rendered in pencil and colored in Photoshop, the illustrations vary in size from double page spreads to a group of two images on a single page, and single page pictures.  The smaller images tell us to slow down to appreciate the shifts in the story.  Hughes' perspectives will leave readers nearly breathless.

Every minute detail on the plants adds to the elegance of the visual story.  The Little Gardener's home is exquisite.  In fact one of my favorite illustrations is of his home.

It's a single page picture.  Hughes gives us a cutaway to the inside.  It's nighttime with a single star tucked in the upper right-hand corner.  A woven blue and white rug is on the floor.  Off to the side is a special bed filled with dirt and a single sprout labeled Wormy.  Wormy is snuggled in The Little Gardner's bed beneath a homemade quilt.  Our tiny friend is standing on a stool, arms resting on the window sill, starring at the moon.  On the wall is a picture of the Little Gardener on a sunny day standing next to the magnificent zinnia.

Every time I read this book I love it more.  The Little Gardener written and illustrated by Emily Hughes is an ode to the importance of the individual.  We can never know how what we do will change others.  We just need to keep on doing what we do best.  I encourage you to share this book with everyone you know...often and with joy.  And I will be looking for The Little Gardener in my own gardens from now on.  Will you?

To discover more about Emily Hughes please visit her Tumblr by following the link attached to her name.  You can view more interior images at the publisher's website.  Julie Danielson, reviewer, author and blogger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast highlights this book at Kirkus and shares artwork on her blog the following week.  Scholastic's new Ambassador of School Libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs John Schumacher chats with Emily Hughes on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read.  Teacher librarian and blogger at 100 Scope Notes Travis Jonker reviews this title. UPDATE: Teacher librarian and soon-to-be-published author Carter Higgins highlights this book on her blog, Design Of The Picture Book and here.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Live, Just Live

When looking at bodies of water, ponds, lakes, small and large, seas and oceans I do so with a great deal of reverence and respect.  Firsthand experience at an early age, nearly drowning during a swim lesson at the YMCA as the instructor chatted on the deck with someone, taught me the power of water.  As an adult getting caught in a sudden squall on a twenty-six foot sailboat on the Atlantic Ocean and nearly falling overboard the same day due to a rogue wave (a portion of the rigging saved me but gave me a baseball-size lump on my check), reinforced my beliefs.

My admiration for every swimming feat performed by humans continues to grow story by story.  Overboard (First edition, 2002, Cricket Books, Carus Publishing) has been recently released in a print-on-demand version.  A debut novel for Elizabeth Fama it garnered a unanimous decision to be placed on the 2003 Best Books For Young Adults list by the American Library Association.

Emily might have been the only fourteen-year-old in the world who could change the sheets of a hospital bed with the patient still in it.  She had done it more times than she cared to remember.

Emily lives with Olivia and James, her parents, in Banda Aceh on the island of Sumatra.  Both of them are doctors working in a clinic as part of an international program, moving every two years.  Fair-haired, light-skinned Emily longs to return to Boston to attend school and be with her friends.  Her physical appearance causes her to feel like a freak.  The heat and humidity make her situation even more oppressive.

Her uncle, Matt, tries to get her parents to let her join him on the nearby island of Weh for a bit of a vacation but they want her to stay with them.  A death at the clinic for which Emily believes she is responsible has her running away toward the ferry headed for Weh.  Without a word to anyone, it's a decision placing her life in jeopardy.

The holiday of Ramadan has more than normal amounts of people using the ferry.  It hardly looks seaworthy but after several hours wait it leaves the docks.  Two British tourists Richard and Catherine strike up a conversation with Emily but moments later it's apparent by unusual activity of the crew, the ferry is in trouble.  Life vests are being thrown to passengers.  Emily snags one but without a second thought gives it to a young boy.

Shoved into the vest cabinet by panicked passengers, Emily is locked inside.  Liquid fills every space as the ferry sinks.  In a fierce battle with the water and her own thoughts she makes it to the surface of the sea.  Relieved to find Richard and Catherine in the growing darkness, little does Emily know the fight for survival is just beginning.

People turn into crazed individuals while attempting to secure a spot on a life raft, exhausted people make terrible choices, sharks swirl around the groups of passengers, and then following a distant speck of light, alternately swimming a variety of strokes or using her make-shift floaty,  Emily hears soft crying.  Following the sound she discovers the boy, the very boy to whom she had given the vest.

Sometimes an uneasy and at other times an appreciative relationship develops between nine-year-old Isman and Emily as hour after hour passes during the night and into the next day.  Each has lessons for the other to learn, practical means of existing in the water and spiritual practices of the Islamic faith.  In a further stunning turn of events a heart wrenching decision is made as the story spins toward a resolution.

As soon as the first chapter readers can understand the good intentions of the parents but through the writing of Elizabeth Fama we are drawn in empathy to Emily.  It's extremely hard to endure a situation not of your own choosing; especially when you believe your opinion and desires are thought to be insignificant.  We readers will come to realize as does Emily, it could always be worse.

Each chapter ends with an important thought, conversation or statement.  These propel you forward quickly to the next page, cause you to knowingly nod or pause wondering what you would do in similar circumstances.  Even before the ferry accident the mood created by Fama's writing is intense.

Emily's conversations when she is alone are exquisitely written; an exploration of self in the midst of survival.  The portrayal of Isman and the strength he finds in his faith in the face of overwhelming odds will go straight to your soul lifting it up.  Some of the scenes between Isman and Emily will bring readers to tears.  The contrast provided by the British couple's understanding of the people and Emily's points out to readers that while Emily is not happy living in Indonesia, she does have insights into the culture of the people.  Here are some sample passages.

Before she could hear an answer, she was pulled under the water.  She didn't have time to catch a breath.  Someone, something, was dragging her under from behind.  She felt water churning in front of her face.  She scraped at the water with her hands, losing her leggings-float.  She didn't feel any pain, but she was sure it was a shark.

She focused on the stars again and one little point of light moved down in a streak.  For a fraction of a second she thought it was a plane, but it was clearly a shooting star.  Half a minute later, another.  The longer she looked, the more she saw.  A beautiful light show, hundreds of miles away.  No, not really a light show.  These were bits of rock or dust, burning up as they traveled through the earth's atmosphere.  They were lifeless meteors that cared nothing for her.  They weren't shooting for her; they weren't shooting for any human beings.  They had shot long before humans were on earth, and they would shoot long after humans were gone.  Look at that sky, millions of miles deep.  Nothing in that incredibly full sky cares about humans, or about the silly, stupid things we do.  Humans are the only things that care about humans, and in the end we don't even do that very well.

Isman held up the bitten tomato.  "This is from Allah.  No matter who grew it or who bought it.  Allah alone made this tomato possible.  I try to remember whatever I have---whatever I love---comes from God.  Saying the ninety-nine names helps remind me."
He took a last measured bite and handed Emily the rest.
"My father says that nothing belongs to us in this world, Ehm-lee. This is why we share our good fortune with others, and give alms to the poor.  This is what we learn; that everything is on loan from God."

When you start to read Overboard written by Elizabeth Fama you need to make sure your time is free because there is no stopping until you are finished.  It's a highly captivating story of survival and human growth in an extreme situation.  It defines page-turner.

In her Author's Note at the conclusion of the novel Elizabeth Fama explains the true events on which this story is based.  To learn more about Elizabeth Fama and this book please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  She has included a discussion guide for educators on themes and ideas important to her when writing this book.

Small But Mighty In Mind

In my way of thinking you can never have too many fairy tales on your personal or professional book shelves.  At the very least a perusal of your library statistics should indicate you as a frequent visitor and borrower of titles from the folklore section.  On most days you can see me exhibiting my firm support of this particular train of thought in a pendant I wear.

Interpretations, variations and fractured fun on the classics broaden our views on the intent of the original stories and the cultures from which they and others come.  Eleven versions of Little Red Riding Hood appear on my personal shelves; some are more light-hearted than those which adhere to the conclusion of the earliest tales.  On May 7, 2015 Little Red And The Very Hungry Lion (Scholastic) written and illustrated by Alex T. Smith celebrated a book birthday.  To begin the story we journey to the continent of Africa.

This is Little Red
and today she is going to
be gobbled up by a lion.
This Lion.
Well, that's what he thinks is going to happen anyway...

Aunt Rosie looks in her mirror one fine morning to discover spots all over her body.  A quick phone call to Little Red has her hustling from her daddy's general store to deliver medicine to her ailing auntie.  She merrily makes her way on the long walk over water and dozing crocodiles, through the grasses and under grazing giraffes.

Monkeys, termites, and gazelles go about their business as she strolls past them.  A kindly elephant offers assistance.  Wandering, waving and unaware she settles for a rest under a large shade tree.  It's the voice of The Very Hungry Lion that alerts her to his presence.  

When he asks and she answers, a plan, his plan, is put in place.  In a flash he dashes away, away to Aunt Rosie's place.  He stashes her in a closet, dons her sleepwear and paints dots all over his furry self.  

Little Red is no fool.  She sees Aunt Rosie looking out through the crack in the cupboard door.  And that is definitely a lion in her bed.  It's time someone learned the difference between right and wrong.

In quick succession three things not part of The Very Hungry Lion's plan happen.  Disgusted by this turn of events, he lets out a roar of protest.  It is addressed emphatically by one determined gal.  Before we sigh and read the words


there may have been the consumption of scrumptious treats, the solicitation of a promise, a reminder and the sheer enjoyment of childhood play under the stars.

Along with shifting from a forest to the landscapes found in Africa Alex T. Smith further freshens the story with the substitution of an aunt with an unusual rash for the sickly grandmother and a father for the traditional mother.  Without a word, only a goodbye wave, he sends his daughter off on her errand.  This, to me, is a clue about his confidence in her ability to take care of herself in any situation she might encounter on the way to Aunt Rosie's house.

The way Smith fashions the story it's as if a family friend or relative has gathered a group together to tell this tale.  The narrative is lively, completely in keeping with the character of Little Red.  Verbs are loaded with action linking sentences together in an upbeat rhythm.  The dialogue is dramatic and hilarious.  Here is a sample passage.

...he opened his mouth wide and... 
tutted Little Red.
"What grubby, grotty
teeth you have, Auntie!"

The book case is a vibrant beckoning call to read this story.  On my copy gold foil is etched over the title letters, along the circles at the top, on all the plants, Little Red's ribbons and throughout The Very Hungry Lion's mane.  To the left on the back, Little Red, The Very Hungry Lion, the two elephants as well as Little Red's constant companion, a goat, are showcased with the first page text.  The opening and closing endpapers awash in reds, oranges and yellows with black silhouettes begin and end the story.  In fact the verso and title page are on the opening endpapers with Little Red and her goat out and about as the sun rises.  

The selection of colors, no matter the place, exudes warmth with every page turn.  Smith's layout, design and use of white space are superior.  The facial looks on Little Red but especially on The Very Hungry Lion are guaranteed to generate laughter.

Careful readers will appreciate Smith's attention to detail; Spot Medicine advertised on the wall of Daddy's general store, crocodiles drinking morning coffee as they lounge in the water, red glasses on one of the giraffes, and hippos wearing snorkels and masks as they mud swim. They might even spy a lurking, bowtie-wearing lion in the background.  Image size is altered to supply pauses and intensify a portion of the narrative.  The one vertical, double-page illustration is a show-stopper.  

One of my favorite pictures is the first two-page spread when Little Red is walking to Aunt Rosie's house.  The background is a glowing golden hue.  Tiny details are finely drawn.  Over them are the more colorful trees, plants water and animals.  Dotted lines represent Little Red's route.  You can almost hear the sounds; perhaps Little Red is singing.  She looks so happy.  So does her goat.

Readers are going to request this title, Little Red And The Hungry Lion written and illustrated by Alex T. Smith, over and over again for bedtime or story time.  It's uproariously good fun with one of the best endings I've ever seen.  You'll want to make sure to add it to your bookshelves.  I'm glad I did.

To learn more about Alex T. Smith and his other work please visit his Tumblr by following the link attached to his name.  If you select Archive you can see interior images from this book in the May 2015 section.  There is a short musical book trailer there.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Story, A Ballet, A December Night

If you were to ask a group of children if they have heard of the German author E. T. A. Hoffmann, you will probably find yourself the recipient of many silent stares.  If you question them about their knowledge of a Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a low mumbling about your current state of mind is likely to begin.  On the other hand if you mention The Nutcracker, nods of recognition and slight smiles will be seen and the stories will start.

The more curious minds in your group will start to wonder what possible connection an author and composer living across the ocean from the United States and residing in different countries could possibly have to this well-known Christmas fairy tale.  The Nutcracker Comes To America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created A Holiday Tradition (Millbrook Press, September 1, 2015) written by Chris Barton with illustrations by Cathy Gendron offers a fascinating explanation.  It all begins with three births in 1902, 1904 and 1909.

AND THIS. (a ballerina)
AND MAYBE EVEN THIS. (the Mouse King)

In a small town in the state of Utah there lived the Christensen brothers, William, Harold and Lew.  The family had a dancing school, so naturally the boys danced.  Up until the arrival of their Uncle Pete the boys had little introduction to the world of ballet but those ballerinas accompanying their uncle opened up a whole new world for William and Lew.  Harold decided the United States Military Academy at West Point better suited his wants.  Before too long Harold failed at the academy returning home to run the dancing school.

Why, you ask, was Harold running the school instead of the other brothers?  William and Lew had practiced and perfected their form of ballet and could be seen on the Vaudeville circuit.  It took Harold three years to learn to dance like his brothers but he did it, joining them in New York City.

During the next eight years the three brothers never gave up their pursuit of ballet, sometimes working together, sometimes working in states apart.  One while teaching in Portland, Oregon, chatted with a Russian immigrant, a conductor, about a possible performance for his students.  Portions of a Christmas ballet, the music written by Tchaikovsky, got a positive audience response.  Two others were refining their performing and choreography skills in their own original ballet in New York.

World War II separated the brothers for four years with Lew serving while the other two, Harold and William, taught in San Francisco.  Times were tough on those aboard and at home but Harold and William with help decided to keep ballet alive by staging the first American full production of The Nutcracker on Christmas Eve, 1944.  It was years later before William, Harold and Lew each worked together to present another full length version of The Nutcracker but doing what you love with those you love can bring about a miracle and create a holiday tradition.

One of the first things which come to mind when reading this book is how much fun it is to read aloud.  Chris Barton strings words together to supply us with an energetic, down-to-earth chronicle of the three Christensen brothers.  We are keenly aware of his impeccable research in the way personal details are presented within the text.  In the course of the narrative if a word is introduced which Barton feels the reader might not know, it is defined easily and without pause.  The flow of his storytelling matches the ups and downs experienced by the brothers as they come together, move apart and join one another again.  Here is a sample passage.

Now, folks in San Francisco were not in the habit of attending big shows during the holiday season.  But it was on Christmas Eve, no less, that the Christensens and company put on the whole shebang.  
And---who would've thought?---the War Memorial Opera House was packed.  Aside from some troublesome wigs, The Nutcracker was a genuine, deck-the-halls, oh-come-all-ye-faithful holiday smash.

A stunning display of light and shadow is spread across the matching dust jacket and book case in a single illustration, bleeding into the flaps, rendered with painstaking care by Cathy Gendron. The chosen color palette here, throughout the entire book, invites an emotional response in the reader.  The magic of the dance, like the ribbon flowing within several images, weaves around the reader.

The opening and closing endpapers are a dazzling panoramic view of the entire stage as it is being set up for a performance of The Nutcracker and how it changes during a particular scene with a common element in both illustrations.  On the initial title page and the formal title page, the nutcracker, inanimate and alive, is featured.  Pacing and emphasis on the narrative direct the size and background of the paintings. Gendron may place several smaller visuals on a background of white followed by an edge to edge single page picture.  Her double-page images are breathtaking.  You will pause at every single one.

The details in body positions and facial features will have you believing everything is going to come to life any second.  To present this type of accuracy the research must have been extensive.  We are given a clear sense of the people, the time and the places in which they lived and worked.

One of my many favorite pictures is prior to the first full performance of The Nutcracker.  It covers two pages.  It's a casual gathering in a living room.  William and Harold are chatting with their two friends, George and Alexandra.  These two unlike the Christensen brothers had danced during an entire performance.  The scene is luminescent.  Woven through the picture above the heads of the four people is a musical staff with notes.  Among the notes are tiny pictures from the ballet, soldiers, candy canes, peppermint candies, a nutcracker, a ballerina, a mouse and a gingerbread man.

As surely as this ballet is a part of the Christmas season, you are going to want The Nutcracker Comes To America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created A Holiday Tradition written by Chris Barton with illustrations by Cathy Gendron to become a favorite read aloud with your students, children, family and friends.  The story of these three brothers continuing to follow their passion despite life's trials is truly inspirational.  You can't help but think what if William had not been where he was, when he was.  This is nonfiction at its finest for all ages.  At the close of the book the Author's Note, Illustrator's Note, Timeline, The Whole Shebang, In A Nutshell: A Summary Of The Nutcracker and Suggestions For Further Reading are must reads.

To learn more about Chris Barton and Cathy Gendron please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Cathy Gendron blogs here.  She is interviewed at Writing and Illustrating about her work and process.  Please take a moment to read Setting the Record Straight: The Nutcracker Comes To America at Huffington Post.

Make sure to stop by Kid Lit Frenzy to enjoy the selections of the other participating bloggers in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by educator Alyson Beecher.