Quote of the Month

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

Friday, December 19, 2014

To water, To life Al agua, A la vida

Back in October teacher librarian extraordinaire, John Schumacher, and blogger at Watch. Connect. Read. began compiling a 2014 Best Books Lists.   To have all these selections in one spot is invaluable in directing the reading lives of your students, colleagues, friends and you.  It gives you a chance to compare what you have read and what you might need or want to read.  When the New York Public Library released their Children's Books: 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing 2014 earlier this week, one title in particular, already on my pile, caught my attention.

Having spent my life in a state whose motto is Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice, If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you, water, streams, rivers and lakes, is an inescapable part of my immediate world.  Water Rolls, Water Rises El agua rueda, el agua sube (Children's Book Press, an imprint of Lee & Low Books Inc., October 1, 2014) written by Pat Mora with illustrations by Meilo So and translations by Adriana Dominguez and Pat Mora is a respectful tribute in free verse, in both English and Spanish, to all forms of water.  It reminds us how this essential element connects people all across the planet.

Water rolls
onto the shore
under the sun, under the moon. 

El agua rueda
hacia la orilla
bajo el sol, bajo la luna.

As I walked along the sands of Lake Michigan this morning, even though it was dead calm, it was easy to identify with the words in this first verse.  The play of the wind on the waves along any shore anywhere is a continual constant.  If you have not witnessed these same waves crash upon the shore or climb skyward in a wild wind, it is a sight you need to see. Who has not felt the fingers of fog?  Who has not felt this water cloak days and nights?

Water shapes walls of rock as it wanders or is directed through walls made by man.  Deeply dug wells hold it.  Slight shallow streams guide it.  Loud storms release it.  It is a sculptor, a quencher of thirst, and a composer.

Water gathers in natural containers.  Water provides a home for nature's residents.  Water makes music as it moves.  Silent, speaking softly or roaring water seeks and finds our attention.

More than seventy per cent of Earth's surface is covered in water.  In all its forms the sensory experience of water is priceless.  It sustains life.

As each of the fourteen lyrical lines is read, we are fully aware of the beauty water creates.  Reading them aloud in English and Spanish (thankful my Dad gently pushed me to get a minor in Spanish); we recognize the care Pat Mora gave to her word choices.  She begins slowly with words like

rolls, rises and weaves.

She gives water as fog human qualities readily identified by readers; a hand brushing cat's fur.  If you close your eyes, listening to her use of language, visuals of wild water, quiet water, nurturing water, dancing water and water like a mirror easily come to mind.  Mora excels in her use of alliteration and onomatopoeia.  Here is another sample verse.

In the murmur of marsh wind,
water slumbers on moss,
whispers soft songs far under frog fee.

En el viento susurrante de los pantanos,
el agua duerme sobre el musgo,
murmura suaves canciones bajo patitas de ranas.

With the first two images on the front and back of the dust jacket and book case, Meilo So with sweeping lines evokes the sheer magnificence of water's natural displays.  Within a few page turns younger readers will continue to be fascinated by the variety of landscapes water inhabits.  Older readers will begin to feel as though they are being taken on a world tour as familiar sights appear in the illustrations.

This is exactly what So has done; each picture takes its inspiration from sixteen places around our globe as disclosed in the back matter.  Point of view is modified to generate reverence in the reader or to represent the significance of water in our daily lives.  For the first verse we see waves making their way toward a beach as seagulls fly overhead.  Several groups of people are engaged in activities or simply enjoying the view.  For the other verse I showcased we are closer to the water.  Geese are flying low, ducks are swimming and a frog sits on a lily pad.  Two children are poling a skiff through the reeds.

Her choice of color, its boldness or softness, is dictated by the words of Mora.  Each two-page illustration throughout, rendered in mixed media, will elicit an emotional response in the reader.  It's as if her visuals are a gift to water.

One of my favorites is of the women and children dipping their buckets into a well for water.  We are the water looking up at them as they look down.  The majority of the lower section of the pages is of splashing water with pails tipped to gather what they can.  It's a stunning depiction.

This bilingual ode of gratitude to water, Water Rolls, Water Rises, El agua rueda, el agua sube written by Pat Mora with illustrations by Meilo So and translations by Adriana Dominguez and Pat Mora is elegant and eloquent.  It most certainly will leave readers more appreciative of this invaluable resource but will also promote thoughtful discussions and research.  This is a book not to be missed.  A short author's note is included at the end.

For further information about Pat Mora and Meilo So and their other work visit their websites by following the links embedded in their names.  Pat Mora has a discussion guide which can be used in other subject areas as well as language arts.  This link will take you to a series of video interviews of Pat Mora at Reading Rockets.  Author Julie Danielson and blogger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast highlights this title at Kirkus and her blog.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Glacial Good Will

On more than one occasion I have been aboard a sailboat in the Atlantic Ocean only to wonder if my last moments on this earth were quickly approaching. An unforeseen gust of wind changes the tilt of the deck nearly throwing me overboard.  Luckily my cheekbone became friends with the rigging; a baseball-size bump being my only souvenir.  A blue sky quickly turns black as a squall blows in.  When the captain, who never wears a life-jacket, dons his and asks everyone else to put one on, you feel fear travel from the top of your head to the tip of your toes in mere seconds.

For these reasons those hardy souls who traveled, in conditions fit for neither humans or animals, across oceans to seek a better life have my utmost respect.  To do so alone without the company of a single friend or family is truly commendable. Simon And The Bear: a Hanukkah Tale (Disney Hyperion, September 2, 2014) written by Eric A. Kimmel with illustrations by Matthew Trueman traces a journey filled with one marvel after another.

When Simon set out for America, he promised his mother and brothers and sisters that he would work hard and save money.  As soon as he could, he would send tickets for all of them.

His mother packs his knapsack to the brim with food and several traditional items for observing Hanukkah.  He has hard-boiled eggs, salted herring, heavy black bread and lots of latkes.  A dreidel, matches, a box of candles and a small menorah are carefully placed inside.

Simon's luck begins when he purchases the final ticket on a ship sailing to America.  Nothing, not even the rolling ship, can discourage his joy at getting closer and closer to his destination.  This happiness is short-lived when during the night the boat begins to sink after striking an iceberg.

When Simon goes to climb on the last lifeboat after helping others to safety, a man calls out to have them wait.  Unfortunately there is no more room.  He throws a family heirloom to Simon to give to his son.  What happens next clearly demonstrates the true character of Simon.  He trades places with the man.  Can you imagine how he feels watching all the lifeboats leave without him?

As the ship sinks into the icy waters Simon, knapsack in hand, leaps.  Does he land in the water?  No!  He finds himself standing on the very iceberg responsible for destroying their vessel.  As the gravity of his situation threatens to overcome him, he remembers his Mother's parting words.  This is the first night of Hanukkah.  Perhaps a miracle will happen to him. He uses the shamash to light the first candle.  He spins his dreidel hopefully.

Soon the little light from his candles sputter out. Plunged in darkness Simon hears and sees something new.  I'm sure his heart nearly stops when a huge white bear joins him on the iceberg.  His guest enjoys the food his mother knew he would need.  Well...most of it.

The two, shipwreck survivor and mother ice bear, develop a relationship over the course of seven days and nights.  On the eighth night Simon is hoping for one more blessing as the light from all the candles glows.  Without warning, again surrounded by only the moon, stars, dark and the silent sea, the bear who has kept him warm every night stands and swims away.  Simon calls out in fear.  The night provides a reply.

Whenever I begin a tale crafted by Eric A. Kimmel, I feel as if I have walked through a door into a simpler life when nightly stories told around a fire burning for warmth would entertain eager listeners.  Even though they might take place in another time or place, he brings them to the here and now to make a print upon your reader's heart.  His narrative speaks of beliefs not only essential to his Jewish character but profound truths about life.

Specific word choices form sentences binding you to narrative while introducing you to terms associated with Hanukkah.   Similes draw you into significant moments.  Dialogue endears you to the characters. Here are two sample passages.

His bunk was in the hold, with three hundred other people packed together like herring in a barrel.  When the ship sailed, the barrel began to roll.

"Are you hungry, bear?" Simon said brightly, trying not to show his fear.  Slowly and carefully, he opened his pack.  "Have I got a treat for you!" he said.  He handed a latke to the bear, who gobbled it down.
"Delicious, isn't it? Have some more," Simon cooed.  "Better to eat latkes than to eat me!"

Look at the face of Simon on the front dust jacket and book case.  It's happy in the light of the Hanukkah candles.  As he tells his stories an attentive bear curves around his body listening.  Readers are already questioning how Simon came to be celebrating Hanukkah sitting on ice next to a bear.  On the back a separate image shows only the head of the bear as it moves through the water.  The text reads

Miracles can happen to anyone,
                                                                                even in the darkest of times.

The opening and closing endpapers are a northern night sky filled with stars.  The only difference is at the end a crescent moon hangs in the upper left-hand corner.  Beneath the title Matthew Trueman has placed a small oval picture. On a shelf of ice sits the menorah.  Next to it are two large bear prints.  This oval shape is used again to feature potato latkes wrapped in paper, a dreidel and a menorah, with all its candles burning, on an icy surface beneath the author's note at the end.

With the exception of four single images, all of Trueman's illustrations span two pages.  Each one creates an unmistakable atmosphere laden with emotion; the sadness of leaving, the excitement of a grand new adventure, the fear of an impending disaster, the hesitancy in making choices, the overwhelming sense of being alone in a vast unfriendly place, the comfort of custom, the relief of companionship and the gratitude of receiving miracles.  Deep blue hues and shades of white act as an excellent choice for those scenes highlighting the colors used for Simon and the goodness found in his knapsack.  The first and final illustrations offer a fuller range of color portraying familial love.

One of my favorite illustrations of several is of the ship sinking, the deck on a tilt.  Upon looking through the railing the night sky is displaying its usual starry brightness.  Ship windows are still yellow with light.  On the deck is the man in the fur coat, his arm extended after throwing his watch to Simon.  Two other passengers can be seen with him in the life boat waiting to be lowered.  This is a major turning point in the story.  Trueman brings us in close so we can see all the facial expressions on his characters.  I've always liked the way he does faces with his own signature depiction of eyes, noses, ears and mouths.

Heartwarming to the core Simon And The Bear: A Hanukkah Tale penned by Eric A. Kimmel and pictured by Matthew Trueman is an exceptional choice for a holiday book; a perfect blend of the work of a master teller of tales and an accomplished illustrator.  I highly recommend you give it a place on your shelves.  A brief author's note at the end offers explanations for the original miracle of the lighting of the menorah, the preparation of latkes and the spinning of the dreidel with its letters.

Please follow the links embedded in Eric A. Kimmel's and Matthew Trueman's names to access their websites.  Each provides additional information about their other work.  This link takes you to TeachingBooks.net for a pronunciation of Eric A. Kimmel's name.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Food For Body And Soul

During the winter months thoughts turn to the giving of gifts; a tradition observed in several celebrations throughout the world.  Freely given these presents bring happiness not only to the recipient but to the giver as well.  In fact, a kindness bestowed upon another any time of the year, especially when it's unexpected, brings joy to both parties.

If your day, week, month, year or even longer has been filled with darkness, the smallest light can trigger hope; even changing the way you view your situation or perceptions of others.  Gifts from the Enemy (White Cloud Press/The HumanKIND Project, June 17, 2014) written by Trudy Ludwig with illustrations by Craig Orback,

based on From a Name to a Number: A Holocaust Survivor's Autobiography by Alter Wiener,

allows readers to travel back in time to the country of Poland during the late 1930s into the mid-1940s.  For those under the rule of German leader Adolf Hitler, especially those on his hate list, these years were filled with constant fear.

There are those who say that what I've lived through never happened.  But I'm here to tell you that it did.  My name is Alter Wiener and I am an ordinary person with an extraordinary past.

Alter begins his story by listing modern conveniences of today and citing the lack of them during his childhood.  To be sure life was simpler but his home was brimming with love.  His family honored the traditions of their Jewish faith.  Two important memories are of his mother's baked challah, a braided bread, served at the beginning of Sabbath and of both his parent's charitable supplying of food to those in need.

This life he knew changed drastically on September 1, 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland trapping thousands of people in their own country.  The years he turned 13, 14 and 15 are forever marked with great personal loss of life and freedom.  Over months and years he was imprisoned and transported to and from a series of labor camps.  Most days he knew he was still alive from the pain in his stomach due to lack of food.

One of his assignments was working in a factory in Germany.  On the wall, posted for everyone to see, was a sign which read:

Do not look at the prisoners.
Do not talk to the prisoners.
Do not give anything to the prisoners.
If you do, you will be DOOMED.

Quite by surprise one day a woman caught his eye.  When she was sure he was looking, she silently pointed to a nearby box.  Beneath the box was a bread and cheese sandwich; a feast for a starving young man.

This gift was freely given at great risk to the giver.  This gift not only provided food for Alter Wiener's body but for his soul.  Alter Wiener worked in this factory for thirty days.  What do you think this woman did?  Why did she do this?  Did Alter Wiener ever find her after the war ended?  Human hearts are a puzzle.  Thankfully you never know when one will be called upon to act.

Using Alter Wiener's voice to tell this story makes it more relevant for the intended audience.  Choosing to include the basics of everyday life as well as significant familial activities, religious practices and giving food to those who have little, brings greater understanding to readers.  It creates a sharp contrast to the events which follow but also, in my way of thinking, makes the resulting goodness of the German woman even more powerful.  Trudy Ludwig wants us to know what was before, during and after the occupation.

Each of her sentences is designed to bring us into these life-changing moments of Alter Wiener's life.  Not only do we see them through his eyes but we are privy to his thoughts.  It's as if he is sitting across from us telling this story.

Rendered in oil paints Craig Orback introduces readers to Alter Wiener on the matching dust jacket and book case creating a new image of him holding the sandwich on the front and on the back a closer picture of him lying in bed wondering why the woman helped him.  Although the food did not glow, by adding the light readers are keenly aware of its implications to the boy.  The next illustration, in the interior, is of an elder Wiener holding a snapshot of him as a youth.  It, like many in this title, crosses the gutter spanning a page and half of another.  To the left of this visual is the verso.

When people are featured in his pictures Orback pays close attention to their facial expressions, using light and shadow to great effect.  His layout and perspective in any given scene draw our eyes to the main focus whether it's in the center of the image or off to the left or right.  A subdued darker color palette used throughout is indicative of the story but a glow is added when the narrative shifts.

One of my favorite illustrations is of Alter Wiener eating the newly discovered sandwich.  It looks as though he is sitting in a secluded bare room but light is shining in from a nearby window illuminating the lower portion of his face, his hands and upper body.  A hopeful smile adds a sparkle to his eyes.

Gifts from the Enemy written by Trudy Ludwig with illustrations by Craig Orback is an important book.  Authenticity in the words and pictures provides a rich experience for readers sure to generate questions, more research and countless discussions.  A one page afterword is provided by Alter Wiener.  It is followed by a brief explanation of the Holocaust and World War II, a vocabulary list, questions for discussion, and recommended activities.

To learn more about Trudy Ludwig, Craig Orback and this book, please follow the links embedded in their names to access their websites.

Please stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see what other titles bloggers have read for the 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge this week.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Hat Mischief Maker

An early snowstorm comes in mid-November causing hundreds of schools to close.  The normal chatter in the household on a snow day is suddenly replaced with careful whispers.  Drawers, cupboards and even the refrigerator are being slowly opened and closed.  Coats, snow pants, mittens, hats and boots are taken from closets.

After a chorus of "We're going outside", silence descends.  When several of the carrots prepared for dinner are discovered missing, a realization begins to form in your mind.  A trip to the front window confirms your suspicions. A snow family is taking up residence on your lawn.

As evidenced by numerous prints on a white-blanketed field, perhaps humans are not the only ones to enjoy winter's deposit.  Snowman's Story (Two Lions, November 18, 2014), a wordless tale, written and illustrated by Will Hillenbrand takes readers into a creatures' world on a snowy, blowy day.  Is it only the wind or is there a bit of magic in the air?

A fancy top sits in the center of the title page as snow swirls around, evergreens coated in white stand behind it, silent sentries.  In the distance an owl flies.  On the verso and dedication pages, the owl swoops in grabbing the hat in its talons only to have it pulled away.

A bunny notices the fallen hat lying in the snow.  Crawling inside its eyes, wide with surprise, are soon seen peeking through the top as the hat is caught on the wind's currents.  It settles quietly on the head of a newly made snowman.  A bear, fox and penguin watch as their new creation comes to life.

Their wonder only increases when a book placed in the snowman's hands is read aloud.  As a crescent moon appears on the horizon good nights are said.  All this time the wily rabbit has been as quiet as the proverbial mouse.  Every so gently it comes out of hiding and...grabs the book and runs!

An alarm is sounded by the man of snow awakening the penguin, fox and bear from their slumber in a nearby cave.  All follow the thief as he heads toward the edge of a cliff.  Can they conquer the chasm, climb a mountain and best the bunny in a snowball battle?  Spotting his tracks in the snow, they find themselves standing in front of a wooden door tucked in the base of the tree.  Behind the door more surprises await the companions.

As you look at the opened matching dust jacket and book case, your eyes see from left to right, back to front, a scene right out of a cherished snow globe, full of good cheer.  There's a hush in the air as the snow falls.  It appears both the snowman and rabbit are reading.  The same dark forest green on the book is used on the opening and closing endpapers.

Will Hillenbrand begins his story on the title page, not wasting a single moment to engage readers.  Rendered in

6B graphite pencil, colored pencil, chalk pastel, pixels, china marker, crayon, ink, watercolor, collage, transparent tape, and kneaded eraser on paper

his illustrations will charm readers with the lively characters whose facial expressions and body movements are absolutely delightful.  How can you not smile at the rabbit hiding in the hat with only the tips of its ears showing?  Softer shades of blue while evoking the chilly out-of-doors work beautifully with the warmer hues of brown, rusty orange, gray, and red used in depicting the animals and the snowman's scarf.

To establish a desired pace Hillenbrand alters his picture sizes framing single pages in white or showing a single page edge to edge.  An individual image may extend across two pages or a page may be divided by two, three or four smaller illustrations.  To focus on a significant moment a smaller visual might be placed in the corner of one that is larger. A wonderful flow is established with elements from one illustration continuing into another or stretching beyond a border.

One of my favorite pictures is one of several scenes when the perspective shifts.  We are looking down on the top of the snowman as his friends are applying finishing touches to their creation.  They are looking up as the hat falls from the sky.  Most of the hat is pictured moving down from the upper left corner.  All we see of the rabbit are two very wide, dark eyes and two ears standing at attention from the top of the hat.  This picture is loaded with anticipation and promise.

Even though this tale, Snowman's Story, written and illustrated by Will Hillenbrand is set in the wintry outside, it is brimming with warmth.  No one can resist the lure of a good book.  I expect this one to be requested over and over again by readers establishing it as a beloved seasonal tale.

I invite you to visit Will Hillenbrand's website by following the link embedded in his name.  He has several videos about his process and workspace.  Educator and blogger at Kid Lit Frenzy, Alyson Beecher, was part of a blog tour for this title.  She has an excellent interview with Will Hillenbrand there.  A couple of fun activities are included in the post.  Enjoy the book trailer.

You might want to use this title in conjunction with Making a Friend by Alison McGhee with illustrations by Marc Rosenthal and other listed with this previous post.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Steeped In Legend

One of the best perks of online social networks for readers is discussing books to be read, books currently being read and books finished.  Nearing the end of my most recent lengthier book, two tweets from a long-distance colleague appeared on Twitter.

I had been reading a few chapters a day because the language is rich and refined but after those two tweets I couldn't wait to discover what the ending revealed.  When I finished on the morning of December 13th I was stunned at the inventiveness of this title and...I was moved to tears too.

Egg & Spoon (Candlewick, September 9, 2014) written by Gregory Maguire is set in the Russia ruled by Nicholas II, son of Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna.  Timeless legends exist and shape a classic case of mistaken identity.  Wrongs need to be reconciled with the clock ticking toward disaster encompassing the whole of the country.

THE HEELS OF MILITARY BOOTS, STRIKING MARBLE FLOORS, made a sound like thrown stones.  The old man knew that agents were hunting for him. He capped the inkwell and shook his pen.  In his haste, he splattered the pale French wallpaper around his desk.  That will look like spots of dried blood, he thought, my blood.

A monk, whose name is of no importance until the end of this tale, is imprisoned in a tower for one thousand days.  Several times during the course of five parts, containing eighty-two chapters, his singular voice offers a pause in his writing of this narrative.  He asks us to think about story, strangers and heroes, Noah on his ark with his wife, children's games, acts of nature, cycles of life, care for others, magic and children.

Elena lives in a group of homes, barely a village, plagued with poverty, starvation hanging heavy in the air.  Her father has died, as have all the other young women.  Luka and Alexei, her two brothers, have left, leaving her to care for her dying mother.  The one is taken before her very eyes to serve in the army; the other when a land owner's household leaves for Moscow.  Her only supporters are a horse doctor named Peter Petrovich Penkin, a good man, trying to care for the remaining villagers and an aging woman called Grandmother Onna.  A freak storm and a lightning strike herald big changes and opportunities.

A sight Elena has never seen rolls into Miersk on tracks in the form of a train.  People of wealth and privilege are traveling toward Saint Petersburg.  It is Elena's desire to go to this city to plead before the Tsar for the return of her brother Luka.  Although it is not part of her plan, she will soon be on that train headed toward her desired destination.

Accompanying her great-aunt Madame Sophia Borisovna Orlova on this train, Ekaterina is to be presented at court during a festival honoring the Tsar's godson.  At thirteen years of age, she sees a possible engagement with a sense of impending doom.  As her station prevents her from being a true friend with Elena, a give-and-take daily conversational exchange starts and continues between the two as repairs are made to the lightning-damaged bridge.  A Faberge egg made as a gift for the Tsar, designed to have three interior scenes, by Great-Aunt Sophia further alters lives adding yet another layer to this tale.

The first part of this adventure ends as the train jerks to a start with Ekaterina, Cat, somersaulting off the platform cradling the egg in her arms to protect it.  Elena is trapped on the train by fear.  The people of Miersk live in fear of retribution with Cat in their midst.  Cat leaves in fear for her life.  Her governess, Miss Bristol and the butler, Monsieur d'Amboise are terrified.  There is so much fear.  Deceptions by more than one party are about to begin in earnest.

The three depictions inside the Faberge egg from legends of the land, Baba Yaga, the Firebird and the ice- dragon, are very real indeed.  Baba Yaga, hag with iron teeth, enjoying children as entrees, is currently deep in a woods living in her home, Dumb Doma, supported by chicken legs ever ready to mobilize.  Bound by a curse, a Siberian tiger, assuming the form of a cat, is her current house guest.  The  Firebird has recently landed in a forest further down the train tracks.  Elena and Cat are about to encounter one or the other.

As the characters get nearer to their destinations it becomes clear the landscape of Russia, the legendary beings and the heart of magic are under attack. The festival, a beloved matryoshka doll, the Prince attending incognito (Anton the godson who craves nothing more than adventure not marriage), imprisonment, eggs lost and found, and a forgery force four plus Mewster to travel to frozen lands at the top of the world.  The scales need to be righted, with harmony restored, or life as all know it will easily slip away.  You will have to remind yourself to breathe as every chapter races toward the resolution; a resolution filled with so much love and hope your heart will hardly be able to hold it.

Within short order my copy of Egg & Spoon began to fill with sticky notes.  It was all I could do not to get out a yellow highlighter. Gregory Maguire's use of language is marvelous.  Every single character with their nuanced personalities is fully developed.  We are privy to this through dialogue and thoughts.

Cinematic descriptions of settings envelope the reader.  Intricacies of history, politics and the class system are woven into every facet of the adventure.  Whether you believe in Baba Yaga, the Firebird or the ice-dragon, you will definitely expect to see them should you ever travel to this part of the world.

At the core of this story (even at the heart of Russia as you will learn) is Baba Yaga.  Here Maguire excels in giving readers comic relief in her snarky life observations.  Through her contemporary references to a future hundreds of years in advance you will find yourself laughing out loud.  Although she views humans and their lives with negativity, she is positively full-steam-ahead in addressing each situation.

Here are several marked passages from the book.

Sooner or later you realize that everything you experience, especially something like being arrested, is never only about you.  Your life story is really about how the hands of history caught you up, played with you, and you with them.  History plays for keeps; individuals play for time.

What a worthless trade, thought Elena.  All those clouds brashing down the sky, bellowing their opinions and knocking down church steeples.  And the only thing that matters to the people of Miersk?  A sensible snowfall befitting the season?
Not a flake of it.  Full of static and sizzle, the clouds swagger on toward the Urals.  They drag the dry tails of their purple greatcoats behind them.  

"I don't know what the crisis is," muttered Great-Aunt Sophia, "but have you ever noticed that the world can hardly fail to be beautiful even when it is falling apart?"

"Oh! Slumming.  What fun," said Baba Yaga.  The mirror worked up a new outfit and showed Baba Yaga sporting a head scarf and a pair of spectacles with elongated, translucent frames that came to a glittery point on each end.  She was sheathed in a slurry-colored coat that plunged cylindrically to the floor, a fulsome tree trunk shorn of its bark.  Drooping from her hands, two overladen paper sacks with handles.  On their sides, in English, the sacks said BLOOMINGDALE'S.

Egg & Spoon written by Gregory Macguire is a beautiful blend of Russian history and legend, mystery and magic, the feasible and the unbelievable woven together by a master wordsmith.  It's an exploration of the human condition at its very best and those moments when it leaves much to be desired.  I guarantee there will be portions you mark or underline for repeated readings.  I think this would be an excellent title for a book group.

To explore this title further please follow this link to the publisher's website.  There you will find a sample chapter, a Q & A with Author Gregory Maguire, a discussion guide and author's note.  This link takes you to another page highlighting other works by Maguire.  Teresa Kravtin, a publisher's rep has compiled an outstanding post on her blog, A Rep Reading.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Absurd Astonishing Animated Antics

For fans of games like Scrabble or Boggle mixing and matching letters to create words is not only a challenge but fun.  At the mere mention of anagram, their eyes light up and grins spread across their faces.  Perhaps they see letters everywhere they look as did the creator of Alphabet City (Viking, 1995) Stephen T. Johnson or maybe they see the potential in turning a letter into an object which begins with that letter like The Graphic Alphabet (Scholastic, 1996) by David Pelletier.

Reading the newest alphabet title from Enchanted Lion Books I couldn't help but think of all those people who have love for team twenty-six.  Take AWAY the A: An ALPHABEAST of a book! (September 9, 2014) written by Michael Escoffier with illustrations by Kris Di Giacomo stretches possibility into the world of fantastic.  These animals and plants certainly know how to make the best of a wayward letter.

Without the A
the BEAST is the BEST.

Without the B
the BRIDE goes for a RIDE.

As we move merrily forward, we encounter a chair in need of a brush, comb or even a curling iron, frozen water inhabiting a card game and a group of large mammals trapped for the time being.  There will be scars and love but not scars from lost love.  Climbing of trees and stairs will provide exercise for the characters.

Jelly takes a backseat to jam, a primate prospers, and plants make a fashion statement.  While arriving at the sought after peace of a pastoral setting seems hopeless, well-known nursery rhyme characters could be in for a surprise.  A quartet makes the decision to bundle-up against possible cooler temperatures.

Dinnerware provides doom for tiny creatures in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Believe it or not losing the q leads to a day of fun and frolic.  With a page turn we see a crustacean is in need of transportation.

A drastic change in weather, too many snakes and an insect relative lead us toward the alphabet end.  We have seven, an itch and foes following along.  The value of sharing with others heightens as everyone takes the stage realizing the importance of z to a song forever embedded in our minds.

The ability to find twenty-six words when a letter is removed which make perfect sense when combined with another is mind-boggling.  Which word did Michael Escoffier think of the first?  Did he think of best or beast, dice or ice or moon or moo?  His sentences sometimes rhyme or create an alliterative thought.  Most of the words will be easily understood or, as in the case of FAQIR, will promote discussion or even the use of a dictionary.  By the time the final page is turned readers will come to understand Escoffier has been building sentence by sentence a wildly wacky title brimming with subtle and not so subtle humor.

When you first open the matching dust jacket and book case, the first thing popping into your mind is a monster is loose gobbling up the letters of the alphabet.  It would appear he is the star of a show highlighting this feat.  On the back (to the left) we see a wee white mouse floating above the clouds by means of an umbrella getting closer to a strand of stars in a night sky.  The identical opening and closing endpapers in spring green with white feature rows of typeface, some askew, of the letters of the alphabet in order.  A turn of the page shows the mouse now with a red balloon still floating near the initial title as a taxi driven by a duck carries a rabbit to its destination.  The more formal title page has the crab as the culprit, grabbing the A.

Twenty-six illustrations span double pages for each of the letters in an array of subdued colors providing a soft texture.  Kris Di Giacomo's interpretation of Escoffier's sentences is at times absolutely hilarious, whimsical, tender and may tell a tale of their own.  In the sentence

Without the M
the FARM is too FAR.

a barn is seen in the distance as a road winds over several hills.  In the foreground a pig and a rooster, clearly exhausted, are sitting on suitcases next to the road.  Stopping next to them in a red car is a grinning wolf with the license plate reading LUP 1.

The white mouse first introduced to readers on the dust jacket and book case is a recurring character in most of the illustrations as are a number of its companions.  Characters seen in one illustration may pop up in another with their role changed; the dog for the letter C is later seen driving an airplane.  Like Escoffier Di Giacomo brings in her own style of humor; for


it's animals at a tea party dressed to the nines in fur-trimmed coats.  Elements from nursery rhymes or fairy tales appear too.  The final two pages before the closing endpapers are very clever.

One of my favorite illustrations is for

Without the I
STAIRS lead to the STARS.

The illustration from the back of the dust jacket is expanded to show a staircase on the right coming from the clouds.  At the tip top an owl is reaching out a wing to touch a star.  Careful readers will notice the stars are hanging by tiny strings.

This is by far one of the more unusual but utterly fun alphabet books, having appeal for all ages.  Take AWAY the A: An ALPHABEAST of a book! written by Michael Escoffier with illustrations by Kris Di Giacomo is a must purchase for word lovers.  Besides the entertainment factor, the potential for use in the classroom is high.  I can't imagine not having this on my personal or professional shelves.

If you want to see several spreads from the book head over to a review by teacher librarian and blogger Travis Jonker at 100 Scope Notes.  This link takes you to a Facebook page where Enchanted Lion Books has posted a book trailer.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

One Great Forest

I am a collector of words; not necessarily individual words but words put together in ways meaningful to me.  Collections of quotations hold space on my bookshelves.  In my dining room hangs a chalk board with a favorite saying welcoming guests into my home.

Either spoken or written my most cherished collections of words are stories, especially folklore. These tales were the first I heard and learned to read.  I haunt the 398.2 sections in libraries seeking out new narratives or derivatives on old ones.  One of the most enjoyed units working with students is the presentation and comparison of folktale and fairy tale variants.  It's fascinating to listen to the discussions of their viewpoints and to see them realize how each story is a reflection of the culture from which it comes.

When I learned Neil Gaiman was writing Hansel & Gretel (A TOON GRAPHIC, October 28, 2014) with illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti, I knew I not only had to read it but needed to own a copy.  First I read it quickly; then again more slowly marking specific sentences which wrapped me in the atmosphere of his telling.  I sought out other versions; locating my copies of Best-loved Folktales Of The World (Doubleday & Company, 1982) selected by Joanna Cole, Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm (Puffin, 2012) introduction by Cornelia Funke and Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm: A New English Version (Viking, 2012) by Philip Pullman.  For the third time I read Hansel & Gretel told by Neil Gaiman knowing I was reading pure magic.

This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother's time, or in her grandfather's.  A long time ago.  Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest.

With this beginning Gaiman departs from other versions.  With this beginning he invites us to gather close and listen.  This beginning is his once upon a time.

He then describes in detail, in a separate paragraph, the work involved in earning a living as a woodcutter.  When the woodcutter marries we are assured she does her best to support her husband.  When Gretel and then Hansel are born, we are told how they acquire their names.  Their daily childhood routine is laid before us as is the financial stability of the family.  Within these two pages Gaiman has acquainted us more intimately with these characters. We are bound to them.

Poverty strikes not only these four people but the entire land because of the ripple effect of war.  This we can understand through Gaiman's telling; history is replete with battles fought on every continent.  The true horror begins when Hansel overhears his parent's whispered conversation one night.  The suggestion his mother makes and the logic used to reach her conclusion go against most laws of nature.  The father perhaps exhausted by work and worry, hesitantly agrees.

Rather than leave their home in the dead of night Hansel, without telling his older sister, collects white stones in the morning.  She believes they are going to help their father, even though before they were told it was too dangerous.  When left by a fire for warmth, Hansel immediately tells Gretel the truth.  She denies his claims. Thankfully, as you all know, Hansel is able to lead them back home in the moonlight. The response of both parents is more vividly portrayed; again this is Gaiman tying us closer to the events and the people involved.

On their second journey into the woods things are changed; no warning is given, a river is crossed and Gretel is much wiser.  A more sensory element is added for their discovery of the witch's home.  An independence is assigned to the children; an extension from what we learned about them in the first several pages.

Emerging from her home to discover the children eating portions of it, the old woman is portrayed as kindly and sympathetic to the children's situation.  Double meanings, reading between the lines, are easily understood by the reader in a conversation about her eyesight and the lack of any meat in the meal on the table before them.

After the children are sleeping, the wily crone does take Hansel to a cage in a nearby stable and does chain Gretel to a table forcing her to slave about the one room cottage.  Neither child sees the other for weeks and weeks.  Gretel is frequently told of her plans for Hansel while promising to teach Gretel as if she were her daughter.

When the old woman's patience ends at Hansel failing to fatten (the clever boy using a bone instead of his finger to measure his weight) Gretel fires up the oven as instructed, tricking her captor into thinking she is witless and ending their imprisonment.  Upon Hansel's release by his sister and opening the oven to make sure the hag has not survived, they discover a gift which leads to riches.  Their trip home is successful and made happier by the welcome they receive from their father.  As the tale draws to a close Neil Gaiman includes more personal details about the father, mother and siblings making this version all the richer for readers.

The rendition of this story by Neil Gaiman is broader and deeper taking us into the darkest parts of people's hearts mirroring the forest in which they dwell.   Like all good stories it prompts thinking by the readers; the mother's logic and the father's horror at what is suggested but his completion of the abandonment of his children.  Why does only the father take them into the woods in this telling?  Why does only Hansel hear his parents talking?  Why does Gaiman choose to have both children unaware of the second journey?

 Gaiman's decisions to include elements from the original story, leave out others and add his own signature spin are stunning; each choice intricately tied to another. The woman is the children's mother as written in the original not a stepmother, elevating the frightening turn of events for the brother and sister.  Gaiman mentioning the food was drugged when the children first arrive at the home in the forest adds to the sinister intentions of the old woman.  Leaving out the duck assisting them in crossing the river (lake) on their return maintains the resilience they learned from their father.  Here are some sample passages from this title.

The day waned and twilight fell, and the shadows crept out from beneath each tree and puddled and pooled until the world was one huge shadow.

They went so deep into the old forest that the sunlight was stained green by the leaves.  They pushed through brambles, and the thorns tugged at their clothes as if to say "Stay here! Stay here!
But they plunged deeper into the forest.

 She dropped him onto the straw, for there was only straw on the floor, along with a few ancient and well-chewed bones, and she locked the cage, and she felt her way along the wall, back to her house.
"Meat," she said, happily.

We all know of the wickedness found in this story, the lack of light which dominates nearly every portion.  For this reason the illustrations of Lorenzo Mattotti, swirls of black and gray with only small holes of white, are exceptional.  The brush strokes, the play of lines from left to right and top to bottom, of his paintings rendered in India ink create an appropriately eerie atmosphere.  His use of shadows makes the story even more haunting.

All of the images span two pages.  It's the suggestions of things, rather than numerous details, prominent in each, relying on the minds of readers, which adds to their impact.  It's interesting to note Mattotti does include Gretel riding on a duck across the river with Hansel on the shore watching even though Gaiman does not include it in his telling.  What portions of the tale Mattotti selects to illustrate enhance every single moment.

For me this is the most accomplished writing of this Grimm story I have ever read.  Hansel & Gretel written by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti is memorable, eloquent and truly frightening.  It maintains the classic structure of the original but gives it an immediacy not felt previously.

To learn more about Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti please follow the links embedded in their names to access their websites.  There is a video at Lorenzo Mattotti's website explaining his illustrative work on this title.  It is in Italian but you can follow the main ideas.    This link to Toon Books includes a wonderful array of information including several pages for reading, a teacher's guide about Hansel & Gretel and several videos with Neil Gaiman.

This telling of Hansel & Gretel is so remarkable I am giving away four copies.  Two will be the deluxe edition signed by Neil Gaiman.  The others are the standard edition unsigned.