Quote of the Month

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

Friday, October 31, 2014

Something New

On October 30, 2014 the Hallmark Channel aired the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards.  One dog is selected to represent each of these categories:  Law Enforcement Dogs, Arson Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Service Dogs, Military Dogs, Guide and Hearing Dogs, Search and Rescue Dogs, and Emerging Hero Dogs.  The Emerging Hero Dogs category is for those dogs who are heroes to their people; ordinary dogs who do extraordinary things.  From these eight winners one champion is chosen for the year.

Several of these dogs had survived incredible hardships reshaping their lives and the lives of the humans they chose.  Madame Martine (Albert Whitman & Company, September 1, 2014) written and illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen is a story about a woman living alone in Paris caught in a comfortable routine.  One rainy day, a Saturday, when she least expects it, change is about to step into her life.

Madame Martine lived alone in a little apartment in Paris.  She took the same walk every day.  She shopped at the same stores.  She wore the same coat.  

She is perfectly content with this arrangement.  Even though she can see the Eiffel Tower from her window, she has never visited or seen the views from its heights.  For each day of the week she eats the same food.  On Saturdays and Sundays she does the same thing without exception.

Standing under her umbrella on that rainy Saturday, the life-changing Saturday, she sees a small, wet and dirty dog looking at her from bushes lining the sidewalk.  When no one appears to be looking for a lost companion, she decides the dog needs her.  He is only too happy to comply with the coziness she offers.

On Sunday she and Max, her name for him, take a short walk, chatting with tourists about the Eiffel Tower.  She gives them directions but does not understand why anyone would want to see it.  Max easily falls into the comfortable routine Madame Martine follows.  Or does he?

On a later Saturday as they are returning from feeding the birds, Max spots a squirrel, pulling his leash from Madame Martine's hands.  It happens they are walking beneath the Eiffel Tower.  The little furry scamp dashes up the stairs toward the second level, flight of stairs after flight of stairs.  Madame Martine has no choice.  She climbs up after Max.

This is not what Madame Martine planned for her Saturday.  Oh, no, not at all.  Max leads her to look with new eyes.  Their Saturdays are never the same again.

For more readers than we probably know Paris is a geographical place name only or perhaps completely unknown. For this reason I am thrilled Paris and the Eiffel Tower are the setting for this story.  It works splendidly with the flow of the narrative Sarah S. Brannen creates.  The technique of repeating the same phrases at the beginning and the end is one readers enjoy; bringing them into the characters' lives.

It's also important to recognize even though Madame Martine is pleased with the ritual of her days, she is open to adding a difference.  Initially Max brings her out of her sameness shell giving her company and altering her focus.  Little does she know how much richer her life will become.

Sarah S. Brannen expertly draws us into the action, keeping us on the edge of our seats as Madame Martine chases Max. Here is a sample portion of a passage from the book.

Madame Martine climbed after him.  One flight,
two flights, three flights.
"Max!" she called. Four flights, five flights, six
flights.  She stopped to catch her breath.
Max saw her resting and also stopped to catch
his breath.

Rendered in watercolor the illustrations throughout evoke an astute sense of time and place.  With the opening picture on the matching dust jacket and cover, we are sure Madame Martine is in for a surprise.  The look on Max's face mirrors the joy of freedom found or a dog on a mission.  On the back the image, a bird's eye view of a part of the Eiffel Tower and surrounding area, extends to the flap edge.  In a series of five different small images of Max, the opening and closing endpapers are styled in rows of diamonds in hues of white and the rusty red of the patches on his coat.

Small brush strokes form the delicate elements in every scene.  Sarah S. Brannen uses a full color palette but in the beginning, before Max, there is a paler overtone with more gray.  Madame Martine's clothing is of darker, duller shades of brown, gray and blue.  The longer Max is with her the more golden glow is added to her days.

Brannen shifts her illustration sizes and our view of the characters creating mood and emotion, framing some with white space.  One of my favorite scenes stretches across two pages.  It is the only one without text but it conveys much about the relationship of Madame Martine and Max.  The little lost dog has accomplished quite a bit as they both see something for the very first time.

If I needed to choose one word to express my impression of Madame Martine written and illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen it would be charming.  This is one of those books which can be simply adored for the story it tells but also can be the beginning of discussion about doing something different.  It asks us to notice the amazing things around us every day which we may neglect.  I can understand completely how Max transformed Madame Martine's world, Xena does the same for me every single day.

If you would like to learn more about Sarah S. Brannen and her work please visit her website by following the link embedded in her name.  On her blog she speaks about her tour for this book.  One thing she mentions is a pack of cards her publisher designed.  It might be fun to try this; having your readers create cards about anything new to do.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Welcoming Song Of Love

It doesn't have to be at the end of the day.  It could be anytime.  Pausing to appreciate someone, something or somewhere simply is not done enough.

Yesterday I wanted to stop at the top of a hill I have descended hundreds of times, so struck by the beauty of the swath of colorful trees bordering along and up from the shores of a harbor in a nearby town.  I knew the other motorists speeding by would not be appreciative.  For more than the thousandth time as I walked my marvelous old dog last night, I felt a huge thankfulness and affection for the sound of her breathing as she slowly paced along a well-known path.   When we acknowledge the importance of someone, no matter their age, both parties are the better for it.

When reading Sweetest Kulu (Inhabit Media Inc., November 1, 2014) by Celina Kalluk with illustrations by Alexandria Neonakis, I felt a sense of deep compassion.  Most notable within the narrative is the birth of a child as an occasion to be revered and celebrated.  The natural world is tightly woven into, an intricate part of, the Inuit culture.

Sweetest Kulu,
on the day you were born, all of the Arctic Summer was there to greet you.  Smiling Sun shone so bright and stayed through the night,
 giving you blankets and ribbons of warm light.

Each element of the Arctic world bestows words of wisdom on the child whether asleep or awake.  From the wind comes the necessity to listen to stories.  Snow buntings bring seeds and flowers to the baby as reminders to grow and bloom having faith in your abilities.

Gifts from the Arctic hare show love can be freely given.  Not a minute is to be wasted nor the opportunities to help others are words spoken by the fox.  Tenderness, creativity, gratitude for the many colors, and the willingness to begin and the bliss at completing a task are offerings shared by creatures of the water.

Sheltered by the muskox, Kulu hears of the importance of standing tall and finding strength in one's ancestry.  Looking toward the night sky is a way to anchor your path, find direction and be a guide.  The polar bear advises the child to honor animals recognizing their importance.

This Earth, the ground beneath our feet, is a support for all things.  As the voice gently continues the song to Kulu, who has again fallen asleep, safety is assured.  Kulu is love and loved.

Every single page turn without exception is an ode to the beauty and blessing of a new baby.  The words of Celina Kalluk radiate calm with their genuine warmth.  Each time a sentence is read, a new adjective is added to the name of Kulu; sweetest, charming, admired or magnificent to name a few.  By having the sun, wind, land, each animal and the mother voice their hopes, readers will understand the value of each.  Here is another passage.

Seal, whose favourite colour is ice blue,
heard about Arctic Char's adoration of you.
Seal loves creativity, and surrounded you with colour, nicest Kulu.

Opening the book case readers see a tender illustration of the baby sleeping on the back of the caribou.  Snow buntings watch from the antlers as a polar bear mother and cub and a fox lean in for a closer look.  The cool soft colors blended with the warm browns radiate peace.  Opening and closing endpapers are a pale green with sketches in gray of all the animals patterned edge to edge.  A snow bunting brings a floral sprig to the baby resting in the grass beneath the title.

All of the images span across both pages altering perspective according to the narrative.  For the opening two pages Alexandria Neonakis brings us close to the sleeping child held by the mother.  We see the entire face of the baby but only a portion of the mother, her hair sweeping outward from the left to provide a background for the text on the right.

In another picture Kulu lies among a field of lupine as the fox approaches from the right.  The tail, a swirl of white, supplies a path for the words.  Each illustration is filled with sensory beauty; a compilation of flowing lines and a natural palette.

As a caribou stands looking out over a mountain lake, snow-covered peaks surrounding the shores, with leaves whirling among the grasses, I immediately knew this would be one of my favorite illustrations.  The majesty of the land and the power of the wind are evident.  Even without the words each reader will feel the presence of something beyond their control, something which needs their attention.

Sweetest Kulu written by children's book debut author Celina Kalluk with illustrations by Alexandria Neonakis is a gift.  It's perfect for any time of the day but truly lovely at bedtime.  For children living in the Arctic it's wonderful to see themselves and their world depicted in an outstanding book.  For other children it's an open door, an invitation to enter another culture.

If you would like to learn more about Celina Kalluk please follow this link to Debbie Reese's website, American Indians In Children's Literature, for her review and further links.  Alexandria Neonakis has many more pictures of her work at her website; the link embedded in her name.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Let It Shine

At least half of our days in northern Michigan are without sun.  We have quite a bit of cloud cover even if there is no form of precipitation.  You can't help but crave the feel of those warm rays after a chain of dull gray skies.  No wonder plants bend toward those welcome shafts of light.

On September 30, 2014 the fourth title in an outstanding series, My Light (Blue Sky Press, 2004), Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life (Blue Sky Press, 2009), Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas (Blue Sky Press, 2012) was released.  Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed The Earth (The Blue Sky Press) written by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm with illustrations by Molly Bang is a remarkable, informative piece of nonfiction.  Readers of any age will benefit from this title, enjoying every single minute spent within its pages.

Even from 93 million miles away,
I warm your land, your seas, your air,
and chase the darkness from your days.

So begins our journey of understanding narrated by the sun itself.  Not only do we, and every other living thing, need energy to exist but we consume it to maintain basics and to bolster our expanding technology.  This energy comes from coal, oil and gas, fossil fuels.

Very simply explained fossil fuels are plants, old, very old, plants buried beneath the surface of the Earth chock-full of sunlight.  When we burn these, the stored energy is unleashed.  In case you are wondering how all this sunlight is kept by those plants, look no farther than one of your first lessons in plant life, photosynthesis.  It's the give-and-take dance performed by carbon dioxide and oxygen creating chains of carbon---sugar.

Did you know this creation of carbon chains and oxygen is almost, yes almost, in balance?  Over millions and millions of years the little bit more of each is Earth's blessing.  But...over the course of life developing on Earth, those millions and millions of years, the imbalance begins to shift when humans start to use the fossil fuels.  All this consumption is releasing more carbon dioxide into the air than can be recycled through our flora and water.

This carbon dioxide, as explained by Bang and Chisholm, is one of many gases creating a cover around the planet.  When sunlight passes through this covering it works its magic, zipping back into space. The problem which is growing at an alarming rate is carbon dioxide is not allowing the heat to go back trapping it underneath the covering.  More carbon dioxide caused by more burned fossil fuels is causing the over-heating of Earth.  Further commentary about the cycle of temperature changes in the life of our planet ends with an undeniable fact and questions asked by the sun.  We need to think.  We need to make choices.

This discussion of fossil fuels written by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm (who has been a professor at MIT teaching Ecology for thirty-eight years) is exemplary in every respect.  After several sentences of conversational factual observations, they follow with a question.  At the turn of the page, an answer is given.  The answer is clearly explained concluding with another question.  Each time a question appears and each time an answer is given we learn more about the balance of life, the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide on Earth.  They take us back to the very beginning before life existed on land up to the present.  Told from the point of view of the sun provides for a broader and more in-depth overview.  Here is another passage.

What makes them "FOSSILS"?
Like dinosaurs, they 
are ancient life that was
buried deep underground.
But fossil fuels are ancient
PLANTS.  They captured
light I shined on Earth
millions of years ago.
All this time, those fossil
plants have kept my
sunlight-energy locked
inside themselves.

The artwork Molly Bang provides for this title is absolutely astonishing beginning with the matching dust jacket and book case.  The front features Earth wrapped in gasses moving in and out from the surface with life forms spread across the continents.  The back showcases an illustration highlighting the formation of fossil fuels with praise for the other three titles in the series.  Opening and closing endpapers are star-filled space.  The two pages dedicated to the title page are a breathtaking view of a sea coast city alight at night.  Beneath the surface spots of energy, fossil fuels, sparkle like tiny suns.

Seventeen pages of pictures spanning both pages, several with smaller images framed as squares and rectangles inset, visualize in intricate details the magnificence of the sun, the array of development on our planet, how fossil fuels are extracted, photosynthesis, the cycle of life, the formation of life on land from the sea, the effects of warming, the gaseous "blanket" and alternate forms of energy. Shades of blue, green, and yellow are prominent but Bang adds other earth tone colors to fill in her palette.  Everything is done with a wide perspective, in miniature, as if we are the sun looking down on Earth.

One of my favorite spreads is for the cycle of life.  Spread across both pages we see huge pale white arrows filled with carbon dioxide and oxygen moving over plants and animals on the land and the sea.  It's a stunning image of the balance needed to sustain life.

Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed The Earth written by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm with illustrations by Molly Bang is a must read.  The only way we can become sincere stewards of our Earth is through greater understanding.  This title fills our need to know building a bridge from the science community to younger readers.  But rest assured everyone can benefit from reading this book. Extensive author notes over six pages give additional information.

To learn more about both Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm please visit their websites linked to their names.  There is a special site dedicated to all the titles in this series linked in the introduction.  School Library Journal supplies this post, Earth Day Q&A: SLJ Talks to MIT Professor Penny Chisholm About Her Upcoming Picture Book with Children's Author Molly Bang, for further insights about the book.  TeachingBooks.net has a few links for more details about Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm.

This book, this recommendation, is one of the reasons I am thrilled each week to participate in educator, Alyson Beecher's 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.  I continue to be amazed at the quality of work and information given to readers in each title.  Please visit the other blog posts linked to Kid Lit Frenzy this week.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Cozy Cooking Comfort The Bear-y Best Kind

With golden leaves whirling about in the stiff breezes, pumpkins and mums decorating home entrances and snow predicted for the end of the week, it's easy to get in the mood to fill the house with the scent of fresh-baked goods. Welcoming warmth fills the kitchen spreading to nearby rooms in contrast to the chilly temperatures outside. This is what makes a house a home.

To share this cooking adventure with others is a memory worth making.  Baking Day at Grandma's (Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), August 14, 2014) written by Anika Denise with illustrations by Christopher Denise follows three bear children as they happily traipse through the snow to their grandmother's home.  Anticipation whispers promises in the air.

It's baking day!
It's baking day!
It's baking day at Grandma's!

Dressed from head to toe in hats, coats, mittens, scarves and boots they pull their sled from a cottage to a cabin, past the pond and up and down hills.  Grandma Bear is ready and waiting for their arrival.  A crackling fire gets them warm on the outside as quickly as grandmother's greeting warms their hearts.  

Utensils and ingredients are gathered.  Aprons are donned.  A recipe is read. Can't reach the table?  Then stand on a chair to blend everything together.  You can even sneak a taste.

Delicious smells come from the oven; a cake is rising.  Grandma gives steaming cups of hot chocolate to her treasured trio as Jack Frost paints patterns on the windows.  Singing, dancing and smiles add to the merriment.  

A timer signals this confection is done to perfection.  Shapely gifts are decorated, covered in paper, tied with a bow and gently placed in personalized pouches.  Dressed from head to toe in hats, coats, mittens, scarves and boots the three, glowing inside from exchanged hugs and their sled brimming with hand-made goodies, head home, the path lit by a full moon.

Get ready for some audience participation! Anika Denise begins with a refrain echoed throughout this story which your readers are going to voice with unbridled enthusiasm.  In-between she tells the story with rhymes rich in rhythm, a spirited beat.  Words express the mood and emotions connected to the day as well as conveying the steps taken to create this delightful delicacy.  Readers will understand love is the most important element in making this cake but the pleasure of the day is doubled when it is given away.  Here is a three sentence sample of her writing.

Pass out aprons, "One-two-three."
Grandma reads the recipe:
flour, sugar, butter, eggs.
Stand on chairs with tippy legs.

Rendered in Adobe Photoshop each illustration exudes luminosity.  Those on the matching dust jacket and book case are taken from interior pages.  Looking at the children and grandma dancing in the kitchen makes you want to do the same thing.  On the back they are on their way to the cabin singing the baking song.  The cool steel blue on the opening and closing endpapers match shades found in the morning and evening skies.  The still life of the measuring cup, bowls, wooden spoon, recipe book and checkered towel foreshadow the activity to come.

With visuals other than his edge-to-edge double page spreads Christopher Denise uses white space as an element to frame his one page illustrations and smaller insets on pages containing text.  A very fine red line also delineates his one-page pictures.  His characters' features are lively and lovable.  The bears' physical traits are realistic even if they are wearing clothes.  

What readers will notice are his careful details in his landscapes and the interior of the cabin.  The little bear in the rear watching his reflection in the pond as they pass a group of birches with trees and mountains in the distance is absolutely perfect. The rag rugs, the cuckoo clock and sampler handing on the wall, the wooden table and chairs, the copper tea kettle on the old stove and oven, and the Victrola are charming. (Count me in when everyone heads to Grandma's for a day of baking.)

I would gladly frame any one of these illustrations but one of my favorites is when the three children are dancing around the table carrying the recipe book, wooden spoon and whisk and the bowl above their head.  Grandma Bear is clapping in time to their song, the table covered with other baking ingredients and utensils behind her.  The cabin is awash in light from the fire, the sunny day and glee.

Make sure you have everything on hand to bake Grandma Rosie's Chocolate Cake.  I know readers and listeners will hardly be able to wait to cook and taste after reading Baking Day at Grandma's written by Anika Denise with illustrations by Christopher Denise.  This book is pure one hundred percent comfort.  What a treat it is!  The recipe is on the last page above the publication information.

To enjoy more about the work of Anika Denise and her husband, Christopher Denise, please visit their websites by following the links embedded in their names.  Several days ago Anika Denise tweeted about extras available at her website which are linked here.  Anika Denise is interviewed by Stephanie Bernaba.  Christopher Denise is interviewed about this title and his other work at all creativelike and Writing and Illustrating. When I first saw this book at my favorite independent book shop, McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan, I immediately thought of Jama Rattigan and her blog, Jama's Alphabet Soup.  After her blog post about this title which contains even more links and several illustrations from the book, I went back to get a personal copy.

Update: Author Anika Denise shares with her readers one of the best kinds of frosting to put on the cake.

Monday, October 27, 2014

One Small Fowl And Feathered Friends Are Lead Astray

Our senses and sensibilities really do make the days of our lives more enjoyable while still being key to our basic survival.  At times they seem to go above and beyond the real truth when it comes to alerting us to danger.  For a moment imagine you are groping about in a basement suddenly gone dark when the power is lost.  Something brushes against the bare skin of your arm.  You yelp believing it to be a spider of gigantic proportions, only to discover when the lights come back on it was only a piece of fuzz.

The combination of our hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, smelling and mental perceptions can take us down the path leading to the imaginary realm.  Brave Chicken Little (Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), August 7, 2014) retold and illustrated by Robert Byrd takes the familiar broadening and deepening the story line.  This story, his vision of a classic, rekindles our love of folklore and its capacity to entertain and expand our thinking.

One fine day Mrs. Chicken Licken decided to bake a cake.
But there was nothing to make it with, so she sent Chicken Little off to the market to buy honey and flour and milk.
"Do not dillydally," she said.  "Come straight home."

As life would have it, dillydallying is going to be the least of Chicken Little's worries.  An acorn falls from a tree landing squarely on his head.  That had to hurt.  The little guy harboring this new pain is certain the sky is falling.  He hurries down the road to report this news to the king.

Rushing with all due haste he first meets Henny Penny who willingly agrees to go with him.  In short order Ducky Lucky and Turkey Lurkey are coming along to offer additional assistance.  When the sky is falling the ruler of the land needs to know.

Piggy Wiggy, Rabbit Babbit and Natty Ratty, fellow friends, are sure the greater number carrying this message will give it more meaning. The total has now swelled to seven.  As they wind their way toward the palace two moles, Roly and Poly Moley, and one frog, Froggy Woggy, join their ranks.

Meeting a too cheerful and hungry Foxy Loxy, offering help and an invitation to dine at his home, the parade is lead in a different direction.  Can you picture the surprise on all their faces (and a shiver of fear) as they are introduced to Mrs. Foxy Loxy and seven little foxes eagerly waiting their next meal?  Before they can even predict what will happen next, they are locked in a dimly lit basement.

One small window high above them next to the ceiling is their only hope.  Junk, apples and foolishness multiplied boost bravery.  As to the falling sky, not another word was ever heard about it.

A cumulative tale with repeating refrains enriches the storytelling experience.  When you add in the two word rhyming names of the nineteen animal characters you will have your listeners chanting along with you over and over again as the narrative continues.  Robert Byrd's use of dialogue with narration keeps the action moving along seamlessly; the tension increasing until the sleepy resolution. Here is another sample passage.

So down the road ran Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Turkey Lurkey, Piggy Wiggy, Rabbit Babbit, Natty Ratty, Froggy Woggy, and Roly and Poly Moley.
And whom should they meet but---Foxy Loxy.
"Hello, hello," he sang out.  "Good day and cheers! Where are you off to, my scrumptious little dears?"
"The sky is falling," said Chicken Little. "And we are going to tell the king."

The first thing you notice when you open the matching dust jacket and book case of Brave Chicken Little is the exquisite detail on the illustration spanning across the back to the front.  Every bit of flora and fauna native to this area is shown; butterflies, bees, caterpillars, dragonflies, flowers, ferns and other bugs.  On the left the six remaining friends not on the front are following the twists and turns of a path through the woods.  Watching from behind a tree with a crafty grin on his face is Foxy Loxy.

A pattern of a tiny single acorn, gold and brown, is placed on a teal background for the opening and closing endpapers.  The story opens with an illustration on the title page; the window of Chicken Little's home is featured as his mother speaks to him.  Robert Byrd's color palette and his delicate fine lines have a softness, old-style feel, to them.  Having his characters clothed in apparel reminiscent of the old English countryside contributes to the classic quality of this tale.

Byrd chooses to alter his picture sizes, extending some edge to edge on two pages or a single page.  At times his images will be loosely framed or a rectangle framed in pristine white.  Light and shadow are skillfully integrated into each illustration.  The quality of paper, a matte-finish, increases the timeless aspect of his work on this story.

One of my many favorite illustrations is of Chicken Little leading six of his friends down the road lined with stone-bordered fields.  Carrots, cabbages and heads of lettuce are laid out in rows, small white butterflies, caterpillars and worms move in and above the dirt.  Hills and trees extend into the distance, a pale blue sky filled with puffy clouds.  On the right a frog and two moles greet the group hurriedly making their way to the king.

I am confident every book shelf, classroom, library, professional and personal, will want a copy of Brave Chicken Little retold and illustrated by Robert Byrd.  Foxes, friends, a king, a cake and courage make this a new classic.  I think it's time to give new meaning to the words Chicken Little.

For further information about Robert Byrd and his books please follow the link attached to his name.  This link takes you to a portion of his site highlighting more pages from the book as a slide show.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Put A Hold On Hibernation

There is only one more thing which tests the bonds of friendship as much as time; distance can make it tricky to maintain a relationship.  When you take away the ability to Skype, text, tweet, send a message on a social network or via email, this leaves you keeping your connections alive through letters.  When writing, words need to be carefully chosen so any reading between the lines conveys the right sentiment.

Sometimes the promises made between friends are hard to keep.  Herman's Letter (Bloomsbury, November 11, 2014) written and illustrated by Tom Percival poses the perennial problem between friends of one moving away from the other.  Missing someone is different for everyone, isn't it?

Herman and Henry had been 
best friends for as long as 
anyone could remember.

Herman is a big brown bear.  Henry is a pink...yes pink...raccoon.  As long as anyone can remember means all the way back to birth.  That's a long time to be friends.

They master game playing, form an exclusive club and devise a TOP SECRET handshake.  It looks like nothing is going to change their wonderful days together until Henry moves far, far away. They, of course, will write letters and pledge to be best friends always.

When Henry's first letter arrives Herman is not so sure Henry misses him as much as he misses Henry.  Herman focuses on one particular part in the letter instead of the other sentences written by his raccoon buddy.  The green-eyed monster is threatening to take up residence in Herman's heart.  With every cheerful letter from Henry, the bear sinks farther and farther into loneliness.

As spring, summer and fall pass, Herman finds himself getting ready for his winter nap.  Settling into his favorite chair ready to drift off to dreamland, he is startled by a familiar sound.  A letter has been delivered.  It's from Henry!

Herman is overjoyed with the words he reads.  Penning a reply to his pal he hurries out to put it in the forest mailbox.  What?!  How can it be closed for the winter?  If Herman wants Henry to get this letter there is only one thing he can do.

Drifts are getting deeper.  Winds are howling.  Temperatures turn everything icy.  Herman is far, far away from home and hibernation.  A suitcase gone wild spells trouble for Herman.  Will the mail go through?

The friendship of Herman and Henry is laid before us in the first expressive four sentences. Tom Percival knows the importance of shared laughter and playful memories in joining two beings together.  With each letter and the matching narrative after Henry moves, Percival heightens Herman's despair laying the foundation for total elation when the final letter is received.  It also makes perfect sense for the ensuing trek but he doesn't let us rest, providing the final two twists.

Upon opening the book case readers are treated to a two page illustration with letters as the background for the title and story line promotion.  One of the interior photographs used to portray Herman's and Henry's friendship is attached to the back letter with tape as if in a scrapbook.  While the cover shows winter as the season, the story begins in spring as shown on the initial title page.  The formal title page and verso are a collage of photographs of Henry and Herman and letters.

Alternating the illustrations' sizes and the number on each page or across two pages compliments the rhythm of the narrative and the lift-the-flap letters.  Full color pictures, with the weather and the background colors depicting moods, provide splendid pacing especially in the sequence of smaller images as Herman travels.  Of importance is the insertion of humor to maintain the faithfulness of the hopeful story line; Herman standing in the rain over a smoking barbecue, the words Oh bother in a speech balloon as Herman stands on a mountain range peak and results of the suitcase ride.

One of my favorite illustrations takes place in the springtime.  Herman and Henry are wearing appropriate pirate garb sitting in their tree house which looks like a ship on the ocean blue.  Henry is looking for bounty with a spyglass as Herman sips a cool drink.  It illustrates the phrase

Everything was just perfect...

Yes it is.

Who doesn't like to get letters?  Who doesn't like to interact with a book by opening and closing written greetings? Herman's Letter written and illustrated by Tom Percival will be a hit with readers who need to see how moving away may challenge a relationship but true friendship does last forever...even across the miles and through hibernation.  I would pair this book with Sergio Ruzzier's newest title, A Letter For Leo, Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School by Mark Teague (first of a series) or the classic The Jolly Postman or Other People's Letters by Janet and Allan Ahlberg.

For a little bit more information about Tom Percival follow the link to his website embedded in his name.  John Schumacher, teacher librarian extraordinaire, interviews Percival on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read.  An eight page activity kit has been developed by the publisher.  Enjoy the videos below.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Just In Case...

When you have a dog there are several blocks of time in your day delegated to taking walks.  The difference in these blocks of time depends on the age of the dog.  When they are younger greater distances are covered in a shorter amount of time.  As they age twice as many minutes are given to one-sixth of the distance.  These slower walks with lots of stops and starts allow for the best kind of observations of your surroundings.  The simplest thing which captures your attention can lead to wonderful flights of the imagination.

As far as I'm concerned the value of daydreaming is without question.  It's the key to some of my best ideas.  It's the reason I've seen wonderful artwork and writing done by students.  If You Were a Dog (Farrar Straus Giroux, September 30, 2014) written by Jamie A. Swenson with pictures by Chris Raschka gives our minds permission to pretend.

If you were a dog, would you be speedy-quick,
frisbee-catching, ...

Readers get to place themselves within the characteristics of seven animals in the course of two questions asked of them.  For those who have canine companions or have taken the time to observe them, the other descriptions in the initial inquiry will bring smiles and knowing nods of recognition.  The next sentence wonders if you would do what dogs might do.

Cat fur, tongues, delectable meals, and day-to-day work and play follow with their duly-noted behavior toward the aforementioned dogs.  We bear witness to the fun and frolic of fresh water or ocean-going fish.  Little birds and big birds feeding, flying and watching lift us to new heights.

We can almost feel ourselves growing smaller as we become a butterfly, caterpillar, bee, grasshopper or cricket chirping out a familiar melody.  Quickly our hearts beat faster as we spring into action above and below the water as frogs.  Then we get to stretch our thoughts back into time as we roam, romp and roar the lands as a mighty dinosaur.

Even if it's only for the moments within the pages of this book, we understand the opportunity handed to us to be more than ourselves.  As humans, kids or kids at heart, can we do all those things these animals can do?  Or can we do a little bit more?

On her website Jamie A. Swenson tells the story of her inspiration for this book; one of the visitors to her library many years ago planted the seed that would not stop growing.  Through her selection of spirited words she not only understands each of the animals presented but she knows her audience.  With little stretch of YOUR imagination you can picture the amount of fun she must have had creating the text for this title.  Each of the phrases mirrors the definitive characteristics and actions of the animals.  Each section closes with the same sentence summoning listeners to participate.  Here are a couple more portions of passages.

If you were a bird,
would you be a
sky-circling, ...

Would you spring and zing
and hop all day?
Some frogs do.

Using cooler colors as a backdrop with splashes of warmth Chris Raschka extends a hand through his illustrations on the matching dust jacket and book case, asking readers to open the book.  There is an uplifting sincerity which permeates his work here and in all the images in this title. Smaller visuals have been placed on the jacket flaps and above the dedications.  The dog on the front imagined by the child covers the title page in shades of warm brown with outlines in the same blue as seen on the jacket.  The plain red orange color on the opening and closing endpapers is used frequently within the interior.  Everything flows together.

When the first question is set forth, each of the hyphenated descriptors is given its own loosely outlined space on a page expertly designed to direct our eyes from one to the other.  The second inquiry and repetitive reply spreads across two pages supplying the closing beat to the text's tempo. The entire color palette inspires readers to dream.

One of my many favorite illustrations (besides the dogs, of course) is of the cricket.  I'm not sure I've ever seen Raschka use this color combination in previous titles.  It's a close up of a cricket on blades of grass at night.  Loose musical notes are near it.  Hues of brown, blue, golden yellow and peach create a marvelous atmosphere.

I know this book, If You Were a Dog written by Jamie A. Swenson with pictures by Chris Raschka, will be a story time favorite.  I can already hear the howls, hisses, splashes, swooshes, chirps, ribbets, and stomps.  You have to wonder what other animals readers and listeners will imitate.  This would be a great title to use to invite audience participation, reader's theater or to spark drawing and writing adventures.

To discover more about Jamie A. Swenson please follow the link embedded in her name taking you to her website.  Here are links to two interviews of her about this book, Elizabeth Caulfield Felt's Blog and The Storyteller's Inkpot.  If you visit the publisher's website eight more images can be viewed.  If you haven't watched these Reading Rockets videos about Chris Raschka, here's your chance to do so.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Facing The Facts

There are some animals I would not mind seeing face to face if my safety is assured.  There are other animals I would never want to see face to face even if my well-being is absolutely guaranteed.  For the most part I am grateful to be able to roam among their habitats keeping myself from infringing on their space; happy for their unexpected nearness unless they are one of those critters I would rather avoid.

Truthfully, considering the changing conditions on our planet, I stand in awe of the adaptability of animals as they strive to survive.  A husband and wife team from whom we have come to expect the very best have a new title.  Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 7, 2014) by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page clarifies what we can expect to see when we look certain animals right in their eyes.

Dear tapir:
Why is your nose crooked?
The tapir has a funny nose.  At least, it looks funny to us.  To the tapir, however, its nose is not a joke.

With this first page the illuminating format used by this author illustrator team is revealed.  Each animal is given a question by the narrator.  They, in turn, provide a short, but descriptive answer.

From South America, home of the tapir, we travel across the ocean to locate an Egyptian vulture whose face is absent of feathers, to discover why a bold red and blue color the countenance of a mandrill, and visit a frilled lizard to discuss the odd arrangement around his neck.  We journey back to where we started to ask the red fan parrot why they may or may not be wearing a hat. While we are there we are astonished to note feathers on a harpy eagle direct sound to their ears.

The nose of a leaf-nosed bat, the mouth of a horned frog, the cheeks of a hamster and the body of a pufferfish are closely examined.  Oddly enough the horns on the bighorn sheep come in handy rather than being a detriment to movement.  Did you even know there is a type of pig called a babirusa living in the Indonesian Islands?

Below ground the star-nosed mole and mole rate us exterior physical characteristics to navigate, find food and dig.  Whiskers and gills not feathers allow two animals to function properly under the sea.  The wily spicebush swallowtail caterpillar sports spots on their tails to trick predators into thinking they are snakes.

Black-eyes, furry ears, and purple tongues help to discourage enemies, provide warmth and give protection from the sun.  The blobfish is a victim of gravity out of the water.  Ending up on the Pacific side of the globe we learn of the importance of a sun bear's long (more than nine inches on some) tongue, the cleverness of the shoebill stork's beak, the advantage of the thorny devil's spikes and the two main assets of the rock hyrax.

The comedic wordplay used by Robin Page and Steve Jenkins takes learning about these twenty-five creatures to the best level.  If your interest is held when you acquire new knowledge because you are laughing and it's fun, why wouldn't you remember the actual facts or the experience?  Page and Jenkins form their sentences with a specific audience in mind; an audience eager to explore the fascinating world of animals.  Read a couple of excerpts shown below.

Dear Egyptian vulture:
Why no feathers
on your face?
Are you sure you
want to know?
Really? Okay, I'll
tell you. ...

Dear leaf-nosed
Seriously, is that 
your nose?
I know, I know---it
looks strange. ...

This will be the eighth book illustrated by Steve Jenkins honored in a post on my blog.  His torn-paper and cut-paper collage pictures never fail to amaze his readers.  Authentic colors and characteristics are highlighted with vivid, bold backgrounds.  On his matching dust jacket and book case the red used in the text for the title becomes the canvas for the image on the left or back.  A pufferfish is speaking to the reader in reply to a question shown in speech balloons.

What's happening
to you?

I'm inflating! It's
just something I do.
I don't have time to
explain right now, but
read the book and I'll
tell you more.

Hues of gold, green, black, red, orange, blue, and salmon supply the backdrop for these animal portraits appearing on single pages throughout the title.  Only two, the horned frog and the blobfish, extend across two pages.  Texture and the smallest of details are portrayed through the choice of paper and intricate handiwork.  Research through reliable resources assists in the accuracy of the images.  They appear as if alive.

One of my favorites of the twenty-five has to be the red squirrel.  The quickness of movement is frozen in this illustration.  You can almost hear the squirrel chattering at you for interrupting what must surely be a day spent in storing food for the upcoming winter.

Steve Jenkins and Robin Page have delivered a stellar work of nonfiction in Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do.  We feel like listeners of a chatty, informative, humorous talk show.  The final two pages give diet and location of each animal depicted by their silhouettes.  A bibliography is included.  I have a feeling you are going to need more than one copy of this title for your shelves.

By following the link attached to Steve Jenkins name you will be taken to his official website.  This link takes you to an explanation of how the book evolved.  The publisher has produced a series of masks to wear taken from five of the pages.

Be sure to head on over to Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see what other bloggers have highlighted today as part of the 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Tribute To The Power Of A Single Book

In the world of children's literature if you don't keep a list of forthcoming books, you will forget what you wanted to read.  In a post on April 28, 2014 teacher librarian Travis Jonker, who blogs at 100 Scope Notes, brought to his readers the 2014 Preview Interview: Flying Eye Books.  In that post I saw several books I knew I wanted to read, but I neglected to list them.  It wasn't until I was at my favorite independent book shop, McLean & Eakin, last week I saw one of those books on display among the shelves.

The colorful book case design immediately gets your attention.  The title, while not asking a question, is intriguing. Who is reading?  What are they reading?  Where are they reading? When are they reading?  Why are they reading this book?   The Best Book in the World (Flying Eye Books, July 29, 2014) by Rilla (Alexander) is irresistible even before you open it up.

Take the first step.
Turn the first page.

With those two sentences on the first two pages, readers are invited to join in the journey being taken by an unnamed girl.  We gladly follow her patterned footsteps out and about her neighborhood to the bus stop.  The entire time her head is bent as she reads an open book.

Like her we can read aloud, read along or read silently the written words.  Never glancing up from the book, she travels with no specific destination in mind.  Or does she?  Perhaps the book is about a trip taken by airplane.  Perhaps the book is about an adventure high in the sky.

Is she wandering in the snowy mountains?  Is she trudging through the sifting desert sands?  Is she floating up and down and up and down watery waves?  Where is she navigating to next?  There are answers to be found with every page turn.

There are bicycles.  There are balloons.  There are wild animals in the deepest, darkest forest.  People, places and moments to remember are multiplying.

The day is coming to close.  The story is almost finished.  But...a story is never really over.  All you have to do is...

With limited text Rilla Alexander guides readers through her story better than any map does when we seek a destination.  She implores us to keep going.  She knows the value in books and in reading them.  Her words encourage us to find the pure elation.  When you read her text aloud (even to yourself), there is an undercurrent of cheerful comfort.

Page by page you're carried away.
So let yourself go!

It's no secret red is Rilla Alexander's favorite color; finding a prominent place in all her published work.  Eye-catching and warm it beckons to readers.  A character she has placed in previous books, though never named within the pages of this title, Sozi sits reading an open book on the front of the book case.  On the back another open book is read by grinning characters found within this title.

Shades of yellow, red, orange and blue and pristine white create squares of graphic designs on the opening endpapers, three featuring Sozi oblivious of her surroundings, as she begins her day, so fully engrossed in her book.  Darker hues of green, blue, purple, red and black conclude the story on the closing endpapers as sleep comes to the characters.  Across the verso and title page, Alexander begins her narrative with the girl reading as she walks away from her home.  This two page spread zooms in on the reader bringing us close to her.

All of the remaining illustrations span double pages, edge to edge, shifting the color spectrum as the book is read and the trip is taken.  You realize time is passing and slowing with the change from a blue font to a white font; white necessary to be seen on the darker palette used.  Bold lines, easily defined shapes and altered perspectives dictate a lively mood on every aspect of this book.

I have two favorite illustrations. One is of the girl floating on the waves, wearing sunglasses, holding and sipping a drink through a straw while sitting in her long-necked bird inner tube with other creatures and characters moving beneath her in the water.  White, black, red, yellow and a turquoise blue are the only colors.  Ten pictures forward only red, black, white and a small bit of pale blue color a peaceful illustration of the girl sleeping in an open book.  It surrounds her like blankets on a bed.

The Best Book in the World written and illustrated by Rilla (Alexander) is a charming, heartfelt appreciation of the gift books are to individual readers.  When readers connect with the right book, everything else passes away, nothing else matters but the story.  The essence of a book is it never ends but begins over and over each time the cover is opened; each time it is shared.

To learn more about Rilla Alexander and her work please visit her website linked in her name.  To enjoy Sozi follow the link embedded in her name.  At the publisher's website fifteen images are posted for your viewing pleasure.  Elementary teacher librarian Matthew C. Winner interviews Rilla Alexander on his Let's Get Busy podcast giving listeners insights into this book and her work in general.  Another informative interview can be found at Look/Book.

The Best Book in the World! from Sozi on Vimeo.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Homonyms, Rules, Numbers and One Dog

Sometimes you are so taken with what you are reading hours pass by without you even moving a single inch.  The characters' story has become intertwined with every breath you take.  When the final page is read you know this is one of those books, rich and rare, which needs to be shared.

Yesterday morning I finished such a book. As I was thinking about it during the day, this tweet appeared in my feed.

 I am certain this book will create a lifetime reader.

The First Part
Who I Am---
A Girl Named
Rose (Rows)
I am Rose Howard and my first name has a homonym.
To be accurate, it has a homophone, which is a word that's pronounced the same as another word but spelled differently.  My homophone name is Rows.

This is how Ann M. Martin, Newbery Honor winning author of A Corner of the Universe, begins her newly released title, Rain Reign (Feiwel and Friends).  Continuing in this first chapter Rose introduces us to her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Kushel, her aide, Mrs. Leibler, her father, Wesley Howard, and her Uncle, Weldon Howard.  Rose has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism, Asperger's syndrome.  Her best friend is her dog, Rain.

Rose has a passion for collecting homonyms, following rules and using numbers to define people, places, events and help her cope with stress.  Her father works as a mechanic at the shop near their home and is a frequent patron of the local pub, The Luck of the Irish.  One evening on his way home from The Luck of the Irish, he finds a dog with no identification, giving it to Rose as a gift.  It was raining that night, so Rose named her Rain.  The two of them know Wesley Howard's moods, having learned to navigate around them with care.

Due to several misunderstandings with the bus driver, Rose needs to be driven to and picked up from Hartford Elementary School.  Her Uncle, who works for a construction company doing their computer work, has an arrangement so he can do this for Rose.  Apparent in their conversations and time spent together on the weekends is his compassion for Rose.

Even the daily occurrences in the classroom, Rose's take on the days with the adults and students, pale in comparison to what happens when Hurricane Susan moves up the eastern coast and heads inland to Hartford, New York.  During the storm toward morning, Rose's dad lets Rain outside without her wearing her collar.  Rain is missing when Rose wakes up.

The devastation left in the wake of the hurricane, the lost homes, the lack of electricity and use of phones, the flooding and destruction to vegetation (trees) and the roads, will take weeks to restore any sense of normal.  For Rose, a life without Rain seems like no life at all.  She methodically devises a plan.  With the help of Uncle Weldon good and not so good things happen.  Rose, her dad and uncle need to make some decisions; life-changing choices affecting the lives of each of them.

Having Rose tell this story in her own words, orderly with precision, is a wonderful technique employed by Ann M. Martin.  It allows readers to experience Rose's world as closely as we can giving us insights into autism.  It also explores the reactions of people to Rose as she perceives them.

 Divided into four sections, The First Part, The Part About the Hurricane, The Next Part and The Hard Part, with forty-nine succinct chapters we are able to easily connect to the rhythm of life in Hartford, New York. By including the homonyms in parentheses and the number values assigned to Rose's thought processes as well as her need for rules and routine, we have a clear image of Rose Howard in our minds.  Rose's descriptions of the characters now and her knowledge of their pasts, give us a greater understanding of their actions.  We don't like how Rose is treated but we can see how events and choices made could lead to the circumstances in which she lives.

Here are some sample passages from the book.

When Rain and I are at home alone together, we sit inside or on the front porch and Rain puts one (won) of her front feet (feat) in (inn) my lap.  I rub her toes (tows), and she gazes into my blue (blew) eyes with her eyes, which are the color of a chocolate bar.  After a while, she starts to fall asleep.  Her brown eyes squint shut until they're completely closed.  At bedtime she crawls under the covers with me.  If I wake up during the night, I find that Rain has smashed her body against mine and rested her head across my neck.

Her head is resting on her front paws (pause), but her eyes are alert.
"Bye," I say to my uncle, and because I like him, I lean back inside the truck before I close the door, and I look directly into his eyes.  "Thank you for the ride," I say clearly.
Uncle Weldon smiles at me. "You're welcome.  I'll see you tomorrow." Finger crosses, heart touches.
My uncle waves to my father through the windshield and turns the truck around.
"You're not at work," I say to my father.
"Nope, not at work. Very observant."
This might (mite) be (bee) sarcasm, which is like mockery.

Rain is not there.  I call her name again.  Then I step onto the porch in my bare feet.  I stand at the top of the steps and call, "Rain! Rain! Rain! Rain!" into the gray morning.
The only sound I hear is dripping.
I begin to breathe very fast.
I think this is a sign of panic.
"Two, three, five, seven, eleven," I say. "Two, three, five, seven, eleven."

Just like life Rain Reign written by Ann M. Martin is heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Once you start this, you won't be able to put it down.  Readers will feel complete empathy for Rose Howard and her beautiful soul.  This book is a must read and should find a place on every bookshelf.

Ann M. Martin dedicates this book

In memory of sweet Sadie,
March 11, 1998-October 7, 2013

Sadie was her beloved dog.  In an author's note at the end she explains the inspiration for this book as well as the assistance she received.  If you follow the link embedded in the title, the publisher has created a special page for this book with excerpts and a discussion guide.  Publisher's Weekly provides Q & A with Ann M. Martin in an informative post.  Readers also might be interested in this article from ELLE magazine, Writing About Autism and Remembering 'The Babysitter's Club': A Q & A With Ann M. Martin.

Update November 21, 2014 Macmillan has released a discussion guide for this title.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Way...Way... Down South

For followers of this blog, readers of my recommendations, you know I place a high value on laughter.  My fondest life memories are generally those spent in laughter, especially shared laughter.  To become acquainted with characters whose escapade-filled lives and corresponding dialogue elicit grins, giggles or guffaws is a gift from an author and an illustrator.

We don't want these stories to end.  When they do, it's our fervent hope a sequel, or even better yet an entire series, is in the making.  On September 30, 2014 wishes were granted when James Burks' Bird & Squirrel On Ice (Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic) was released.

When the fearless and fearful pair were last seen, they were making their way south for the winter.

Somewhere high above the South Pole...

I don't like this!
It's cold!
And I'm pretty sure we're...

It's safe to say Bird's flying abilities have taken them farther south than originally intended.  Squirrel's pessimistic assessment is definitely correct.  Within seconds of this conversation, they crash into an iceberg, cause an avalanche which they ride with hair-raising reckless abandon and meet a warrior penguin named Sakari.  She is quick to assume Bird is The Chosen One fulfilling the elements of a legend told for generations in her village.

When the moon is full in two days, it is said The Chosen One will defeat The Great Whale in battle.  This orca of enormous proportions eats most of the fish the penguin population catches each day in exchange for not placing them on the main course menu.  Of course Bird readily falls into his role as the champion for these South Pole residents but true to form Squirrel sees the worst-case scenario.

Ice sculptures, ceremonial regalia and tales of daring-do occupy Bird's days and nights as Squirrel, nerves on edge, knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that doom is coming and coming fast.  With Bird ignoring all his pleas to get help or formulate any sort of plan other than winging it, Squirrel, in the dead of night, seeks Sakari's counsel.  She in turn leads him underground to visit the local wise man...er, penguin.  In the light of the fire Squirrel sees that his worst fears will be realized.

Still in optimum optimism mode Bird does not believe a single word Squirrel says until it's too late.  A warrior and a worrywart need to hatch a winning plan or our daring flyer will be The Great Whale's next tender treat.  Will the trio be trapped by tradition or will they triumph?

As soon as we open the cover and flip the title page, James Burks does not miss a beat, whooshing us right back into the action.  Dialogue driven, with spare narration, the story moves at breakneck speed with purposeful pauses in all the right places.  The clash of personality traits between Bird and Squirrel generate humor and gentle tension.  Introducing the penguin warrior, who has troubles of her own as the daughter of the chief, and The Great Whale with a matching appetite in this setting of ice and snow heightens the appeal of the already-loved duo.  Here is a continuation of the opening lines to demonstrate the relationship of the two.  Bird is replying to Squirrel.

Don't be ridiculous!
I know exactly where we are.
My bird senses are never wrong!  SLAM
My bird senses are telling me we hit a mountain.  CRACK

What was that?
I think we broke the mountain.

James Burks' cover, front and back, tells a story.  On the front Squirrel is not even remotely happy to be on the ice.  Bird, true to his happy-go-lucky self, oblivious to the danger, is fishing as The Great Whale gets ready to have them both for dinner.  On the back the enemy is leaping over a terrified Squirrel, the ready fighter, Sakari, with spear unraised and Bird grinning with glee.

In speaking with Matthew C. Winner, elementary teacher librarian, and host of the Let's Get Busy podcast (which is fantastic), James Burks talks about incorporating panels on top of full bleed pages.  I have to say this technique, which he employs masterfully, increases the sense of the action swirling about you.  Each panel, placed precisely and varied in size, on all his pages are absolutely captivating.  It's like watching a movie; seamless motion.

A color palette, bright and lively, highlights the animated features on each character; features conveying the emotion associated with every single thought.  If the first ten pages don't hook you, you might want to check to see if you have a pulse.  They are absolutely hilarious.  Another sequence I enjoyed is down in the cave when Squirrel is looking into the fire to see Bird's future.  All Burks' wordless images like this tell a story as compelling as the text.

Bird & Squirrel On Ice written and illustrated by James Burks is an outstanding companion to his first title, Bird & Squirrel On The Run!  It has all the thrills and chills (literally), laughter and companionable bantering between the unlikely friends we love.  The I-can't-believe-this-is-happening twists and turns via the penguin village, the chief, Sakari and The Great Whale are top notch.

Be sure to follow the links embedded in James Burks' name and Let's Get Busy to discover more about this work.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Aerial Adventures

After a read aloud or storytelling, inevitably requests for scary stories (or more scary stories), are voiced by the listeners.  These are perennial favorites.  The next activity most enjoyed is when the listeners become tellers; feeling secure in sharing their true or imaginative tales.

Taking it one step further is a collaborative effort with each person contributing one or two sentences as we pass the story around a circle.  With few boundaries, their minds working together create the most outlandish but ultimately funny and rewarding chain of events.  When reading Sebastian and the Balloon (A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, October 7, 2014) written and illustrated by Philip C. Stead, I couldn't help but think how utterly perfect this adventure is suited for the uninhibited imaginations of the young at heart.

Sebastian sat high on his roof---something he was never supposed to do.

Clearly Sebastian's sense of adventure is near to bursting from his small self to tackle sitting on the top of his house.  What he sees from this vantage point is disappointing.  He knows it's time for a new view, a view filled with amazing possibilities.

Resourceful to the depths of his young soul, he gets together

all the things he would ever need.

Once it's dark outside, because this is the very best time to begin an adventure, Sebastian heads to his very own hot air balloon he has carefully constructed using his Grandmother's handiwork.  Cautious but resolute he is soon drifting along high in the night sky.

Feeling the need for a snack stop the next day, he puts the balloon down next to a rather odd tree, a tree without a single leaf.  A large real bear begins a conversation with Sebastian.  Pickle sandwiches are consumed by the duo.

When the balloon lifts off in the fog, the real bear is now a passenger.  Disaster strikes in the form of a very tall bird with a very pointy beak.  Finding themselves on a rooftop, the trio is questioned by another trio, three sisters who happen to be highly qualified knitters, repairers of hot air balloons with holes.  When they bemoan the absence of needles, Sebastian is ready.

As the balloon and the travelers follow the wind this time, their numbers are six.  On the other side of the mountain, a thrill they are seeking awaits them.  Combined efforts and Sebastian's ingenuity create a ride to remember until...

The words Philip C. Stead has selected to use in this story are filled with wonder.  It's as if his mind like the balloon has floated freely through the anything-wonderful-could-happen world.  Repetition of significant phrases summons readers to the story.  They are more than willing to stay.  Here is a sample passage.

And they fell down, down, down---out of the fog and onto the roof of a ramshackle house.
"I'm sorry," said a very tall bird.  "It was my fault."
"It's okay," said Sebastian.  "Would you like a pickle sandwich?"

If you have never taken a ride in a hot air balloon you really should.  Philip C. Stead captures the sense of awe, the feeling of gliding on the air at night against a full moon, marvelously on his matching dust jacket and cover.  When you open them up you discover Sebastian is holding the string to a kite he is flying, red-ribboned tail streaming outward.  The opening endpapers are the same shade as the bear.  The deep golden yellow used as a background for several of the daylight pictures appears on the closing endpapers.

Rich rustic hues of red, yellow, blue, a muted white, gray and green blend flawlessly in illustrations rendered in pastels, oil paints and pressed charcoal.  Stead's accomplished use of this medium on the heavier matte-finished paper gives each picture the kind of texture you want to stop and touch. Nearly all of the visuals cover two pages, expansive like the journey Sebastian and his newly-acquired friends are taking. The presence of a tiny red bird from the beginning to the end brings comfort and continuity.

One of my many favorite illustrations is of Sebastian, the real bear and the tiny red bird sitting on a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth eating their snack.  Hands holding pickle sandwiches Sebastian and the real bear are happily content.  The red bird has a single pickle in its beak.  The glowing golden background adds to the pleasure of this shared moment.

Sebastian and the Balloon written and illustrated by Philip C. Stead is brimming with heart-melting charm.  Careful readers will see Stead's sense of humor present in smaller details in his illustrations.  Sebastian's faith in anything is possible will be passed from reader to reader.  You might start to see those family heirloom quilts and afghans start to disappear around the house.  You also might want to make sure you have a healthy supply of pickles and bread and strawberries too.

To learn more about Philip C. Stead and his work please follow the link to his website embedded in his name.  By following this link to the publisher's website you can view eight images from this book.

Update:  Julie Danielson, author and blogger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, interviews Philip C. Stead about this new title on October 22, 2014.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lessons From A Gorilla #2---The True Story

On January 28, 2013 I, like many others around the world, was unable to attend the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting And Exhibits in Seattle, Washington. I was however sitting in front of a computer screen listening intently to every single word during the Youth Media Awards ceremony. For the first time in my life when the winner of the John Newbery Award was announced I burst into tears.

Katherine Applegate's book The One and Only Ivan (Harper Collins, January 17, 2012) (my review) is one of those books you will always remember reading for the first time.  You will read it more than once.  You will probably also listen to the audio book.  I knew I needed to share it with as many of my students as possible.  When Ivan passed away I wrote a post, Ivan, Katherine Applegate and Mr. Schu, talking about the impact of reading this aloud to our entire fourth grade student population.  Attending the American Library Association Annual Conference & Exhibition Banquet to hear Katherine Applegate give her acceptance speech was definitely a lifetime highlight for me.

On October 7, 2014 Katherine Applegate continued the story of Ivan with the release of a new picture book.  Ivan The Remarkable True Story Of The Shopping Mall Gorilla (Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) with illustrations by G. Brian Karas.  It is a worthy companion making Ivan's story accessible for a larger audience including younger readers.

In leafy calm,
in gentle arms,
a gorilla's life began.

When Ivan's story began he had no name.  He was part of group, a family, of gorillas living their lives in central Africa among the trees of a tropical forest.  As a young gorilla he played with and watched and learned from the other members, sometimes riding on his mother's back.

Before he was old enough to know fear of humans, he and another young female were captured by poachers. They were placed in a crate and taken to Tacoma, Washington.  They had been purchased like things by a man who owned a shopping mall.

At first due to their size they were treated like human babies and children, even given names after a contest was held.  The young Burma did not survive for very long.  Alone and growing larger Ivan was placed in an enclosure at the mall.

His singular life was not that of a normal male gorilla, a mighty silverback.  Within the confines of his cage he sometimes watched TV, played with a tire and finger-painted pictures using his thumbprint as a signature.   After many, many years of this existence people, children in particular, began to protest against his treatment.

After twenty-seven years in this environment in Tacoma, Washington, Ivan was placed in Zoo Atlanta, Georgia.  Under the care of professionals he became accustomed to his new home until the wonderful day he got to see grass and sky and be present in the company of other gorillas.  How fitting that Katherine Applegate dedicates the book

For everyone who loved Ivan

I believe the love for Ivan will continue to grow as others learn his story through this book.

With the same adept use of words found in her Newbery title, Katherine Applegate brings the facts of Ivan's life to light.  Each sentence, simple enough for her audience to understand, evokes understanding and compassion.  Older readers will notice the authenticity of her research.  Here is a sample passage.

Ivan was about thirteen
when his coat began to shimmer
with silvery-white hairs.
He'd grown into a silverback gorilla.
In the jungle,
he would have been ready 
to protect his family.

But he had no family
to protect.

Through multiple character sketches, viewing videos and spending a day watching gorillas in a zoo habitat, G. Brian Karas is able to open this book with the close-up of a baby gorilla being held in the arms of a caring adult as seen on the matching dust jacket and book case.  Sky blue opening and closing endpapers compliment his scenes from the African jungle and to me signify freedom lost and freedom found.  His artwork of the tropical forest continues, framing the title page, verso and dedication page.

Karas alters his background colors, cream, white and taupe, to assist in creating an atmosphere.  His illustrations vary in size to heighten the emotion behind the truth of the text.  A full realistic color palette enhances his artistic style, his use of lines and shading, to create a wonderful visual memory for readers.

Two of my favorite illustrations are very moving.  Both cover two pages edge to edge.  The first shows the tiny baby gorillas inside the crate, the darkness surrounding them, as the journey is made from Africa to the United States.  The other is of Ivan at Zoo Atlanta on the day he first steps outside into his new home.  He is seated his silverback to us, looking over his shoulder.  The contrast between these pictures is evident; showing two sides of humanity.  I'll take the one signifying hope.

Ivan The Remarkable True Story Of The Shopping Mall Gorilla written by Katherine Applegate with illustrations by G. Brian Karas is not only a must read but a must own.  The care taken by these two gifted creators in the field of children's literature is obvious on every single page.  Photographs of Ivan are included on the back of the jacket and cover, at the end of the story and as part of the pages dedicated to the author's note.  The final page is four paragraphs from Ivan's keeper, Jodi Carrigan, at Zoo Atlanta speaking about their relationship and the importance of Ivan's life.

Please follow the multiple links in this post to gather more information about both of the Ivan books, the author and the illustrator.  Of particular importance is the blog post written by G. Brian Karas.  It speaks about his process in creating the illustrations for this book.

I am happy to participate in Alyson Beecher's 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted at her blog Kid Lit Frenzy each week.  When I went to link up with the other bloggers, I noted several others talk about this same book today.  Alyson highlighted it last week.  Make sure you read all the wonderful posts.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

To The Rescue

Heroes and heroines are created every single day.  Surely the simplest act of kindness is part of the code of champions, consciously or unconsciously.  Being brave, stepping out of your comfort zone, in little or big ways is a deed worthy of notice; even if you are the only one who knows.

Every time I hear my dog snoring at night, see the array of autumn colors spread across the horizon, taste the first sip of hot chocolate, smell the lilac blooms on the bush given to me by my students or feel the cozy softness of a blanket received from a friend, I am grateful for the full use of my senses.  To have all this and lose one of them at a very early age used to be beyond my comprehension.  In a single day understanding was given to me by Cece Bell when I read her new graphic novel, El Deafo (Amulet Books, color by David Lasky), released September 2, 2014.

I was a regular little kid.  I played with my mom's stuff.
I watched TV with my big brother, Ashley, and my big sister, Sarah.
I rode on the back of my father's bicycle.

With the next twenty-one chapters Cece Bell opens up her life experiences to readers beginning with her hospital stay for meningitis, which robs her of most of her hearing at age four, up through fifth grade.  We realize when she does her world is filled with too much quiet.  The trip to the first audiologist, the tests and molds made for her first hearing aid are shared by her four-year-old self, depicted with clarity and sincerity.  As she enters kindergarten but attends a different school other than her best friend Emma, we learn every step of the way with Cece as she faces the challenges of her deafness.

Before the beginning of first grade her family moves to a new town.  This year Cece will be attending a regular public school.  To assist her hearing, she is wearing a new Phonic Ear.  Her teacher wears a microphone around her neck so Cece does not miss a single word of class instruction.  What Cece does not know until the first day is this device gives her the ability to hear people, Mrs. Lufton, outside of the classroom.

Just like Bruce Wayne uses all that crazy technology to turn himself into Batman on TV...

Even though her hearing feels like super hearing, she is still lonely.  She is still different.  She becomes friends with a classmate who tends to be more bossy than attentive to Cece and her ideas.  In fact when third grade starts, she is relieved Laura has another teacher.

For a while another girl seems to be the kind of friend Cece needs but her way of talking to her is very annoying.  Ginny's friends (and Ginny) can't understand how Cece feels.  It is during one of her low moments watching TV with her brother and sister, a character gives her the idea of becoming El Deafo.  Readers once again see the courage of Cece Bell.

We follow her through fourth and fifth grade ups and downs, inside and outside the classroom. We feel her frustration when required to take a signing class, her excitement meeting a girl across the street, Martha, her giddiness of a first crush on a new neighbor, Mike Miller, her sadness at being thought a cheat, her helplessness with an insensitive physical education teacher, her panic at the loss of the Phonic Ear and her joy when using her super powers and regaining the presence of a treasured friend.   How fortunate for us in reading El Deafo we spend six years with Cece Bell.  We get to read and reread passages deepening our sensitivity toward differences in all of us.

 Readers can easily and quickly identify with Cece Bell in this memoir.  Her blend of dialogue shown in speech bubbles, whether in real time or in her mind's eye especially as El Deafo, with her first person narrative text causes us to feel an array of emotions identical to hers or in response to her situations.  We see the warmth and humor of the adult Bell present throughout this book.  No matter her age, Cece Bell is the real deal.

Here is a sample passage from her first school class in kindergarten.  What I like about this is we not only get to see Cece's observations but her resilience rises to the top.  Even before El Deafo makes an appearance Bell tends to look for the silver lining in any given situation.

But everything is still so new, and so different, for all of us.  Most of the time we are lost, drifting along on our own planets.
But we are together in the same universe, at least.

Each page is composed of a series of panels in varying sizes with a small white border around each, for the most part.  Bell designates the difference in her imagined scenes by using a pale green scalloped edge around each of the clustered elements.  When she is hearing something through the Phonic Ear golden yellow edged in red jagged edges defines these sections.

Larger illustrations are used to draw focus to the most memorable moments, not so good and spectacularly wonderful.  I love the animated facial features and body movements on each bunny person in this book.  Bell is able to convey every nuance of every situation to her readers.

I have so many favorite pictures but the series on pages 137 through 140 when she and Martha are jumping on the Miller's trampoline are particularly heartwarming.  We are privy to the real Cece Bell's and El Deafo's feelings about Mike Miller.  We can't help but smile because every single person can identify on some level with her feelings.  That is what makes not only these visuals but all of them so special.

To me El Deafo written and illustrated by Cece Bell is a gift freely and masterfully given to all readers.  It is a memorable and rare opportunity to gain insight into another person's life.  Any individual who reads this book will find their lives enriched tenfold.

In a series of blog posts listed below, Cece Bell shares her experiences in creating El Deafo.
El Deafo Honors David Lasky, colorist extraordinaire!
Check it out: Sock Monkey tries the Phonic Ear in a photo comic!
El Deafo Extras: Don't judge a book by its rejected covers! Plus Decatur Book Festival Stuff!
El Deafo Extras: The Bell family looked a lot like the Addams Family back in the day!
El Deafo Extras: Childhood drawings from my time in the hospital, and superhero origin stories
El Deafo Extras: Childhood photos through the ages
El Deafo Extras: The George and Barbara Bell Show
El Deafo Extras: Audiology and ephemera from Mom's vault
El Deafo Extras: Speech therapy
El Deafo Extras: From outline to finished product
El Deafo Extras: A quick post!
El Deafo Extras! BIG EVENT!!! The real Martha Ann Claytor Chadwick came to see me today!
El Deafo officially comes out tomorrow!   Yeehaw, book birthday!
It's here! It's finally here! El Deafo arrives via Pony Express...er, UPS!
El Deafo Extras: What did El Deafo first look like?
El Deafo Extras: Mrs. Lufton revealed! (Well, kinda.) Plus MINI BOOK TOUR only a week away! (DC area peeps, I'd love to see you!)

To discover more about Cece Bell and her work you can head over to a chat she had with Erin E. Stead and Philip C. Stead at Number Five Bus Presents... .  She recently was a guest at Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast sharing artwork from this book. Crafting a graphic novel-memoir is the title of an interview at the A. B. Westrick site.  She stops in for a visit at author Kirby Larson's blog, Kirby's Lane: Friend Friday.  In Sneaky Peeks Video #15: Cece Bell discusses El Deafo at the Wild Things! Acts Of Mischief In Children's Literature site we learn even more.  Update:  Here is a recent post at School Library Journal,  SLJ Chats with Cece Bell About her Graphic Novel Memoir 'El Deafo' | Up Close.  Cece Bell was interviewed on NPR Books.  Cece Bell stopped by teacher librarian Matthew C. Winner's Let's Get Busy Podcast.