Quote of the Month

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




Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Focus On Folklore

A study of folklore reveals stories to be the lifeblood of a particular culture.   While recurring motifs and archetypes found in these tales may bind peoples around the globe together, the specifics are a direct reflection of their origin.  The belief system of the people is woven into their stories.

This is why I have been a diligent advocate of the use of folk and fairy tales in an educational setting.  They are a bridge to understanding people; with understanding compassion replaces fear.  In support of the We Need Diverse Books campaign my final 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge (hosted by educator Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy) post will feature three titles.


Noted Native American, Debbie Reese, tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico, blogs at American Indians in Children's Literature.  One of the titles she reviewed and selected for her AICL's  Best Books of 2014 is Chukfi Rabbit's Big, Bad Bellyache: A Trickster Tale (Cinco Puntos Press, June 24, 2014) told by Greg Rodgers with illustrations by Leslie Stall Widener.  Rabbit's healthy appetite for good food makes him regret several choices.

Down here in Choctaw Country most folks'll tell you that Chukfi Rabbit is lay-zee. And then they'll say, "And watch your food when Chukfi Rabbit is around.  Blink once and it'll all be gone."

An everybody-work-together day has recently been announced.  Ms. Shukata Possum needs a new house.  Chula Fox, Nita Bear, Luksi Turtle and Kinta Beaver are all going to help.  When Ms. Shukata Possum asks Chukfi Rabbit if he can come, he first replies he will be busy on that day (even though the day has not been mentioned yet).  When she happens to comment on all the food she is making, especially the homemade butter, he suddenly remembers the day is open.

All day long the members of the helpful crew work together.  Each time Chukfi Rabbit is asked to join them, he calls out from behind a pile of rocks saying he is sick.  What he is really doing is discovering the pot of homemade butter left in the stream to cool.  Lick by lick, paw scoop by paw scoop, he consumes every last creamy bit of it.

When Chukfi Rabbit finally announces his wellness, the sun is nearly setting and the house is done.  Imagine that!  Settling down to the meal all are surprised to find the butter pot empty.  Everyone denies being the one to eat it.

In another act of trickery Chukfi Rabbit manages to draw attention to Nita Bear as being the butter-consuming thief.  In the end bodily functions reveal the truth.  You might say a roll and the river play a final part in this everybody-work-together day.  Did Chukfi Rabbit learn his lesson?  Another tale at another time will tell.


Greg Rodgers definitely brings his gift as a storyteller to this narrative.  He welcomes us to the story with the introduction, blending together cultures by using both the Choctaw and English names for his characters.  A mix of narration and dialogue expand our knowledge of individual personalities; especially of the trickster Chukfi Rabbit.

Using repetition of verbs he adds to the cadence he has already created.  A sense of humor is noticeable in the questions asked of Chukfi Rabbit and his replies.  Chula Fox is asking about his health; Chukfi Rabbit is replying in reference to the condition of the butter pot.  Here is another passage from the book.

When the working started, Kinta did the saw-saw-sawing.  Chula did the dig-dig-digging for the corner posts.  Ms. Shukata did the sweep-sweep-sweeping while Nita Bear and Luksi Turtle did the ham-ham-hammering. Since they didn't really have hammers back in those days, Luksi kindly agreed to be the hammer.  And Rabbit?  Well, as usual, Chukfi had disappeared.


Spread across the matching dust jacket and book case is an illustration taken from the interior of the book.  Rabbit is reaching for the butter pot as Fox, on the other side of the rocks, is calling out his name.  All of the double-page full color illustrations throughout done by Leslie Stall Widener wrap around the text.

These pictures look to be rendered in a medium she is said to use, ink, watercolor and pastels.  There is gentleness, softness, in the settings, facial features, and details.  Native cultural designs are mirrored in the animals' clothing.

One of my favorite pictures is when all the animals are gathered around the food table, after discovering the missing butter.  They have decided to eat all the food regardless of its absence.  Rabbit is looking less than eager to eat, his stomach full of butter.

A note at the beginning of this book further informs readers about the story.  Links are embedded in both the author's and illustrator's names allowing you to gather more information about each of them.  Sadly Greg Rodgers passed away this month at a young age.


My second selection, recommended in The Guardian The best children's books for Christmas, is based upon an old Chinese folktale.  The Dinner That Cooked Itself (Flying Eye Books, December 16, 2014) is written by debut picture book author, J. (Jennifer) C. Hsyu with illustrations by Kenard Pak.  Rewards for a life well-lived can come to one by mysterious means.

Long ago in China there lived an honest, respectful and hard-working man named Tuan.  As a child he had lost his parents and his kind neighbors Old Lin and Madame Lin had raised him instead.

In time Tuan left the couple to make a life for himself, living in another home, working in another field.  He found living alone to be lonely and longed for a wife.  Old Lin and Madame Lin sought the services of a matchmaker.

Three times the matchmaker tried to find him the right wife but either their birth animals, the characters contained in their names or their economic status were not compatible.  Tuan continued to work hard as a clerk in the magistrate's court during the day and in his field until dusk.  One evening as the moon was rising a large stone attracted his attention.

On closer inspection he discovered the stone was the biggest snail he had ever seen.  Believing this to be a sign of good fortune, he took it home placing it inside a large jar, feeding it cabbage leaves from his garden.  When he returned from work the next evening, Tuan is surprised by what he saw in his home.

A hot prepared meal was sitting on his table.  He thought Madame Linn must have done it.  She did not.  On two more nights increasingly delicious meals were prepared for him but no one claimed to have made them.  Tuan was determined to discover this kind person.  An altered schedule revealed an astonishing truth bestowed upon a man who had caught the attention of the Lord of Heaven.


The writing of author J. C. Hsyu makes us feel as though we have gone back in time to the source of the story, weaving customs and values into the telling. We learn of the importance of the Chinese zodiac, the basic elements such as earth, fire or wood, social hierarchy and beliefs in heavenly signs and beings.  In describing the meals set on his table for several of the evenings we are given insight into foods eaten in China.  Here is another sample passage.

First the matchmaker suggested the farmer's beautiful daughter.  But she had been born in the Year of the Tiger, and Tuan had been born in the Year of the Dog.  With a cat and a dog fighting for room under such a small roof there would never be peace.

A linen-like textured book case provides the background for Kenard Pak's signature artwork.  The front featuring one of the meals looks good enough to grace the cover of a cookbook.  On the back is a soft mountainous landscape with a tree, a tiger, a dog and a rabbit in the foreground.  The animals, all in a row, are looking to the right.  A lush landscape in greens, browns and black graces the opening and closing endpapers with Tuan's tiny home in the lower right hand corner. It appears to be done in watercolor.

Muted colors, in earth tones, enhance the narrative of J. C. Hsyu, as if we are reading some ancient scroll.  Shifts in perspective elevate the emotions felt by Tuan connecting readers further with his story.  Throughout the images, ranging in size from double to single page pictures, Pak has placed Chinese characters as if brushed by a calligrapher.

One of my favorite pictures is of the scholar's daughter kneeling on her home's porch practicing her calligraphy as Tuan walks to work in the distance.  Three characters have been added to the rabbit in a flame and the nearby dog, each a symbol of the compatibility of the two.  Wealth is the only barrier.  In this illustration, as in many others, readers will feel a sense of peace.

Two pages of explanatory information about Chinese characters are included at the end of the title.  For more information about Kenard Pak please follow the link embedded in his name.  It will take you to his website, offering links to his blog, Tumblr and Facebook pages.  This link is to the publisher's website.  There you can see many pages from this title.  Here is an informative interview of Kenard Pak at Fishink.





On December 3, 2014 Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book magazine announced the 2014 Fanfare selections.  Included on the list is Little Roja Riding Hood (G. P. Putnam's Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group, April 10, 2014) written by Susan Middleton Elya with illustrations by Susan Guevara.  This may be one of the snazziest versions of this fairy tale yet.

There once was a nina who lived near the woods.  She liked to wear colorful capas with hoods.  

Her mother, watching soap operas in the kitchen, calls to her.  She asks Roja to take some very hot soup to her Grandmother who has a bad cough.  She warns her of dangers in the woods.

Hopping on her ATV Roja travels through the forest hearing a voice calling to her.  A wolf, hidden in the hollow of a tree, reveals himself.  He craftily recommends she stop to pick flowers for her grandmother.

Putting down her basket with the pot of soup and taking off her cape, Roja begins to gather a bouquet.  In a blink the wolf dons Roja's cape and sets off through the woods to Grandmother's house.  Of course Grandmother realizes Roja is simply not herself.

Through a series of oh-so-familiar questions and answers Grandmother quickly assesses her situation looking for a way to protect herself.  At the same time Roja arrives peeking in the window and noticing the trouble.  Grandmother and granddaughter act together to foil the wolf's dinner plans.  The value of a good pot of soup is priceless.


Readers are going to relish the way the words in English and Spanish written by Susan Middleton Elya roll off their tongues.  Reading this aloud is a total joy.  At the end of every two lines Elya has placed a rhyming word bringing a musical beat to the narrative.

The addition of more modern elements, soap operas, ATV and a security system, bring this traditional tale into the here and now.  All three of the women, Roja, her mother and grandmother, are strong characters, ready to support and care for one another.  Here is another sample passage.


Then Roja walked up with her lovely bouquet.
Somewhere she'd misplaced her capa that day.

She peeked in the window and saw her red hood,
and inside it, Lobo.  !Caramba! Not good!


There is no doubt about the meaning of roja in the title of this book as Susan Guevara portrays illustrations on her matching dust jacket and book case framed in red scroll work.  Roja's wolf enemy is skulking through the woods on his way to see Grandmother on the front.  On the back in an oval the fearless Roja is riding her ATV to Grandmother's house.  The same bright color decorates the opening and closing endpapers.

Except for the title and final pages all of the illustrations cover two pages.  Rendered in watercolor, ink and gouache they vividly heighten the spirited story. Marvelous details will have readers lingering over every single page.  In Roja's bedroom books of fairy tales are stacked or placed in a basket.  The three blind mice follow her everywhere as does her cat.  Careful viewers will see symbols of love in the steam coming from the soup.

The forest discloses even more elements.  Magpies speak words of warning on ribbons coming from their beaks.  All of the flowers set among flora of the southwest have watchful eyes.  Who are those two little devilish beings who fly along with the wolf?  No page is without the touch of Susan Guevara's artwork.

One of my favorite illustrations is when we first see the wolf lurking in the tree hollow, skull hanging around his neck, kerchief tied on his head.  Roja is traveling on her ATV with her cat in front, the basket and the three blind mice passengers on the back.  Her head is turned listening.  The magpies are calling out care !Cuidado! in Spanish.


Prior to the beginning of the narrative a two-page glossary defines the Spanish words used in the story.  Please follow the links embedded in Susan Middleton Elya's and Susan Guevara's names to access their websites. At TeachingBooks.net you will find wonderful resources about both the author, illustrator and a guide for using folklore in the classroom including this title and others developed by Penguin Young Readers Group.


Each of these books, Chukfi Rabbit's Big, Bad Bellyache: A Trickster Tale, The Dinner That Cooked Itself and Little Roja Riding Hood are excellent titles which should find a home on all professional bookshelves in classrooms and libraries.  For parents I highly recommend them for use in the home to further expand children's understanding of other cultures.  I extend my gratitude to the authors, illustrators, and publishers for bringing them into the children's literature world.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sleep! I Need Sleep!

A good book, a movie marathon, a cleaning frenzy or a game night with friends may be one of the reasons we gladly relinquish the necessary eight hours of rest recommended for adults.  On the other hand sometimes our not-so-good friend insomnia may pay us a call.  Eventually these types of nights catch up with us until we can hardly stay awake; craving rest at all costs.

On those days when we visualize sleeping every waking minute, snuggling cozily under the covers, and drifting off into a dreamless doze, there is a chance our plans may change.  In Goodnight Already! (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, December 2, 2014) written by Jory John with illustrations by Benji Davies, a bear and his next-door neighbor, a duck, have decidedly different desires.  Their needs and wants simply don't mesh.

"I've never been so tired.  I could sleep for weeks. Months, even!"

"I've never been so awake.  I wonder what ol' Bear's up to?"

Being the proverbial bright-eyed and bushy-tailed character, Duck walks over to Bear's front door, knocking and shouting.  A dazed Bear opens the door as Duck rushes in, exclaiming his boredom.  His desire to do something, actually anything, with Bear is the only thing on his mind.

Bear does not want to play cards, watch a movie, start a band, or make smoothies.  He wants to sleep.  He needs to sleep.  After receiving seven negative replies to his questions, Duck leaves slightly annoyed.  Bear, safely nestled in bed again, can feel sleep wrapping around him like a warm blanket.


What?! Who's that at his bedroom window?! What's Duck doing there?!  It seems his feathered friend has acquired a deep desire to whip up a batch of cookies.  As Duck quacks off a list of ingredients, Bear's series of "No." is getting more and more emphatic. This time he makes it clear to Duck

"Goodnight already!"

Sound asleep Bear is startled awake by a white wing tip tap, tap, tapping on his nose.  As you can well imagine Bear is not on his best behavior at this point.  A classic twist in the final pages will have readers chuckling.


Told entirely in dialog by the two characters Jory John reveals to readers his keen sense of humor.  Duck's persistence in the form of his queries, some normal, others outlandish, and Bear's consistent single word responses generate the perfect comedic contrast.  When Duck's initial parting sentence becomes Bear's frustrated, desperate pleas for peace and quiet, the laughter factor is elevated.  Here is another short sample.

"Ahh. Bed. Yes."

"Almost...asleep..."

"Psst! Bear! It's Duck! From next door!"


Most readers are well aware of the look in Bear's eyes as shown on the front of the dust jacket.  The bewildered expression from lack of sleep is familiar.  I can hardly keep from bursting out laughing when I see the tiny pink bunny in his paw.  Duck is curiously peering around Bear giving us a little wave.  On the back of the dust jacket we see one of the interior illustrations of Duck strumming on a guitar, ready to start a band.

On the book case an orange on orange print provides the background for an image of Duck reading this book in his bed.  Bear on the left is in bed but still maintains the stare.  The blue shade from Bear's bedding is used on the opening and closing endpapers.  Benji Davies wastes not a single page beginning the story for readers on the title page.  Bear is seated in his chair, holding his bunny and yawning.  With a page turn the verso on the left and the dedication on the right show the Duck's and Bear's houses at night, a crescent moon hanging in the sky.

Using a limited color palette to great effect throughout, Davies only has three double page illustrations in the entire book.  The impact of each magnifies the moments in which they are used.  The remaining pictures are single pages, backgrounds shifting from Duck's house to Bear's house.

During the Q & A dialogue sections a series of smaller illustrations portray the text.  Davies' interpretation of this narrative adds to the hilarity; Duck carrying a bowl of popcorn, Duck covered in pink goo from a smoothie making gone wrong or Duck stretching out from behind the refrigerator door with butter in his wing.

It's fantastic the way a line or a dot made by Davies conveys an array of emotions on the characters' faces. Careful readers will notice the changes on the pink toy bunny too.  Three of my favorite illustrations are: a wordless visual of duck drinking a cup of coffee sitting on a stool next to his kitchen table reading 101 Ways To Stay Awake, Duck looking in Bear's bedroom window (on the second floor) just as he is drifting off to sleep for the second time and Duck's wing tip poking Bear's nose.  In the first one the stage is set for conflict.  In the second we know Duck's tenacity is going to make Bear crazy.  Bear's eyes and his pink toy bunny's eyes in the third, wide-eyed in disbelief, are sure to elicit giggles and grins.


I've said it before but it bears repeating, there is nothing better than shared laughter.  This title, Goodnight Already! written by Jory John with illustrations by Benji Davies, is sure to result in memorable humorous storytime sessions.  Be prepared to hear a chorus of "read it again."  This is one of those books with appeal across ages.  I am sure parents can readily identify with Bear.  Guys and gals will see themselves in Duck.

For more information about both Jory John and Benji Davies please follow the links embedded in their names to take you to their official online presence.  John Schumacher, teacher librarian extraordinaire, interviewed Benji Davies on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read.  Enjoy the extras below.



Monday, December 29, 2014

Snow...Snow Friends...Snow Marvels

Choosing the next book to read from our TBR (to-be-read) stacks can be challenging especially this time of year.  We are valiantly trying to read those books published in 2014 while keeping our eyes wide open for new titles being announced by our reading colleagues and friends and in professional journals.  We are well aware of those books from previous years still patiently waiting on our shelves ready to join our reading lives.


On this Friday past Julie Danielson, author (Wild Things! Acts Of Mischief In Children's Literature Candlewick, 2014 with Betsy Bird and Peter Sieruta) and blogger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, mentioned a winter title in her post, What Happens When It Snows, at Kirkus.  When I was visiting my favorite indie book shop, McLean & Eakin Booksellers on Saturday, I found it waiting for me.  As I opened the cover of Outside (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 21, 2014) written and illustrated by Deirdre Gill, the quiet talk of the other customers and shopkeepers faded away, replaced by the quiet of a snow covered landscape.  I was caught inside the Outside.  

Outside, snow falls silently on the house.  

In a house there are two boys.  One is ready for some action.  One is ready to play; the younger of the two.  He bundles up in all his winter clothing and heads out the door.  

Without a second thought he first falls back into the deep snow, making an angel.  Feeling in awe of what he sees up and around him, he knocks on the window again asking his brother to join him.  Slighted but determined to make the best of it, he starts to roll a ball of snow.  Winding his way through the nearby woods it gets to be larger than he is.

When it gets too big to move, he shapes a snowy companion.  They don't waste a single minute; building a structure to rival those fabricated in medieval Europe or in our imaginations.  This daring residence, dear readers, invites a creature to swoop into their presence.

The boy soars to new heights with this fantastic friend.  They fly over the familiar landscape until it appears in miniature below them.  As the sun sets that which came from the snow returns to the snow.

Trudging back to his home, the boy, his mind filled with his day's adventures, is greeted by his brother.  In the fading light of day and the glow from within the house, the two decide to do one more thing.  You never know what playing outside will bring into your world.


Deirdre Gill fashions her narrative in such a way to slowly build toward several page turns which astound readers. (There are only ten sentences in the entire book.)  Her sentences start out reflective and observant.  Some are spread over two, even eight pages.  She cleverly lulls you into a pause which makes the surprises even better.  She never waivers from the simplicity of carefully chosen words.


Rendered in oils the illustrations clearly convey the wonder to be found outside in the snow, if you are willing to seek the extraordinary.  Images on the matching dust jacket and book case depict beings formed by our minds' eyes and hands.  A cool wintry blue provides color for the opening and closing endpapers.  A toy resting on the window sill beneath the title foreshadows events later in the story.  Our eyes follow a trail of footprints beginning on the verso and continuing to the dedication page.

To make a point or represent an emotion Gill shifts from double-page pictures to single page visuals or a grouping of smaller pictures on a page.  Several of her illustrations are wordless.  Her perspective of the younger brother looking at the sky contains the faintest hint of possibilities.  These choices coupled with her placement of text supply the flawless flow of the story.

Details, words written on a frosty glass, footprints on stairsteps, evergreen branches laden with snow, combined with her skillful use of light and shadow create the feeling of being a part of remarkable moments.  I think one of my favorite illustrations is when the boy is back in the forest after his flight.  We are looking down on the scene of him small among the gathering of towering trees.  His hand is resting gently on his trusty mode of transportation.  You can feel the awe.


If you are ready to really see what is in front of you every day by using your imagination, Outside written and illustrated by Deirdre Gill is the perfect title for you.  If you are ready to explore the snowy outside world in winter, Outside is the best choice.  If you want excellence in storytelling don't miss Outside.  

To discover more about Deirdre Gill please follow the link embedded in her name to access her website. There are seven other images from this title featured there.  This is her first picture book.  

Friday, December 26, 2014

Quiet As A...

Growing up there was nothing like Saturday morning cartoons.  With limited television viewing allowed during the week, we lived for this first day of the weekend.  Even then there were only certain shows we could watch at certain times.  Whenever my mother did her grocery shopping on Saturdays, she would come home and feel the television set to see if it was warm.  We learned promptly to turn it off when we knew she might return.

A show whose theme song was used in countless make-believe games in the neighborhood and to this day is as clear in my memory as it was then is Mighty Mouse.  As children it's empowering to see someone small with the ability to make a difference for the good of all; a pint-sized superhero to the rescue.  Mini Grey, an author illustrator, who entertains readers with her trio of Traction Man titles and Toys in Space, released a new title in the United States in the summer of 2014, Hermelin the Detective Mouse (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books).  It's good to see a little guy take the lead.

It was a brave new day on Offley Street.

A wee being is viewing all the comings and goings within the row of seven buildings.  The activities of a dozing doctor, a chatty woman of wealth, a creative salad maker, a touch-and-go tea party partaker, a concerned baker, a cereal seeker, a toast tosser, a baffled pet owner and sign setter are duly noted by his watchful eyes.  You might be wondering how someone so small could see all this.  He's using his new pair of binoculars, of course.

Hermelin, so named by the word on the outside of the cheese box where he is born, originally discovers he is able to read.  In short order he sets up residence in the attic of Number 33 Offley Street.  In this attic is a typewriter.  To his utter delight, Hermelin learns he is able to write by pressing the keys.  On this trying-out-my-new-binoculars-day, as he is walking by the Offley Street Notices board, he observes a great deal of postings for missing items.

Hermelin, never one to pass up a challenge, realizes he is the perfect mouse for the purpose of locating all these lost treasures.  A handbag, a pair of glasses, a toy bear, a goldfish and a diamond bracelet are rapidly recovered with type-written notes left so the owners know where to look.  All are signed by Hermelin.  No one in the neighborhood has any idea who Hermelin is.

About to return a missing notebook, our resolute solver-of-mysteries sees a disaster in the making.  His typewriter is stories away.  Quick thinking and paper airplane skills assist in averting a tragedy.  Hermelin is the headline story in the local Offley Times written by Emily, another resident of Number 33 Offley Street.  

The next day our stalwart saver-of-the-day sees another note on the Offley Street Notices board.  It's an invitation to a thank-you party for him.  As you can imagine his appearance receives less than cordial greetings.  Barely escaping with his fur and whiskers intact, Hermelin is prepared to leave him attic home.  Readers soon learn there is another detective with a nose for news who might be looking for a partner.


The first thing readers will notice about the story penned by Mini Grey is the names she imagines for her characters; Lady Chumley-Plumley, Imogen Splotts, Captain Potts and Bernardo Bosher to name a few.  They, like the narrative, roll right off your tongue in a cheery conversational sort of way.  Along with the text for her tale, as told by Hermelin, she freely includes dialogue in speech bubbles, notes and posters making us feel like silent sidekicks.

Her short matter of fact sentences and word choices create a rhythm and pacing, a flow, pause and excitement, as we piece the puzzles together along with the mouse detective.  In using Hermelin as the narrator we develop an affinity for him and his day-to-day adventures.  Here is a sample passage.

Then I found this attic.
It is at the top of
Number 33 Offley Street.
It is full of books and boxes 
and boots,
and also
a typewriter.


According to an interview given at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a blog hosted by author Julie Danielson, Mini Grey enjoys rendering her illustrations like this:

I usually use watercolour, ink, pencils and collage bits and bobs on heavy watercolour paper.  I am keen on Quink ink and bleach.  I love splattering.  And I use a computer quite a lot.

When opening the matching dust jacket and book case this is clearly evident on the back.  It features a portion of the Notices board with not only notes posted by the residents of Offley Street but pieces of information about the story, the ISBN and data normally found on the verso.

Hermelin standing like an explorer on his typewriter is the picture of good-natured determination.  The orange seen on the typewriter keys becomes the color for the opening and closing endpapers.  Beneath the title on the formal page in a loose circular picture we see a Hermelin delivery truck driving down a dark street.  The back doors are open as a carton is thrown out the back to the pavement.

Grey's images are a mix of sizes and perspectives with pictures set inside of other pictures.  This technique invites readers to take the time to look at all the amazing details she includes.  For the voice of Hermelin all the text has been written on a typewriter.  A variety of font styles are used for all the other words.  With every single page turn pictures portray animated characters and action.

One of my favorite two pages is of Hermelin in the attic.  For a page and about a third of the next, on the right, he is shown sitting in a chair reading as sunlight streams in from a small circular window.  Stored stuff from the past and small items relative to him are scattered about the room.  On the far right in the second picture we see him seated on a spool of thread paws outstretched as he touches keys on the typewriter.  The paper on the roll and four others shown below him are the text for this illustration.


How can you not want to read this book over and over again?  How can you not want to share it with everyone you meet?  Hermelin the Detective Mouse as told to Mini Grey (written and illustrated by Mini Grey) depicts a heartwarming hero putting others' best interests first.  He not only saves the day but is saved by someone who recognizes his potential other than the dictionary definition of mouse.

To learn more about Mini Grey and her other titles please follow the link embedded in her name to access her website.  She includes eight pages from this title including my two favorite ones mentioned.   Hermelin the Detective Mouse appears on The CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal Nominations for 2015
UPDATE:  This post at PictureBook Makers about this title is amazing!

In case you don't yet have a melody stuck in your head for the day, here is the theme song to Mighty Mouse.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Gift Freely Given

It simply wouldn't be Christmas morning without hearing the sound of her voice.   We would gather in the living room sitting on the floor in front of an old cabinet-size radio and record player unit.  A melody from an orchestra would introduce the beginning and softly provide background music as Loretta Young, an American actress, read The Littlest Angel written by Charles Tazewell.

For decades this was the only version of the story we knew.  About fifteen years ago I was able to obtain a print edition illustrated by Sergio Leone (text copyright 1946).  It along with the recording provided the basis for a children's sermon I gave on a Christmas Eve.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, a new angel,

...exactly four years, six months, five days, seven hours and forty-two minutes of age...

is residing in the heavenly hosts.  He may be among angels but he acts exactly like a boy his age living on Earth.  The Understanding Angel asks him what he misses most.  His reply is a box of treasures left under his bed.

On the day of the birth of Jesus Christ the only gift this angel has to give is his most prized possession from home, a worn and battered wooden box filled with items from his boyhood.   He is humbled and tearful when he places it with the other glittering presents left by the other angels.  To the littlest angel's surprise the voice of God proclaims it as the gift which pleases him most.  It is raised into the night sky to become the Christmas Star shining over the stable in Bethlehem.

This year a story of another small angel is presented to readers.  Star Bright:  A Christmas Story (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, September 30, 2014) written by Alison McGhee with illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds opens with big news.  Like leaves falling from trees, paper announcements drift through the heavens reading,

The Herald GOOD NEWS Prince of Peace on His Way

It was the end of December, and a baby was soon to be born.

Angels are beside themselves with joy.  On Earth presents are being gathered by men of wisdom.  A new angel, a small girl, wants to find a gift too.  She thinks as hard as she can about those things a baby likes.

First she thinks of light breezes, gentle drops of rain and soothing songs.  These she cannot give.  They don't belong to her; they don't come from her.

As she peers out at the cosmos its sheer size makes her feel tiny in comparison.  Even with the light of celestial bodies there is a lot of darkness.  Sometimes the dark can make you feel alone.  Sometimes the dark can make you feel lost.

Not only do you feel lost, you might be literally lost; unable to locate familiar signposts.  With that thought she knows what she can give to the baby.  With that thought she closes her eyes, opens her wings and soars.


Her sentences are simple but bring us wonder with her words, lovely visual images.  Alison McGhee speaks to the child, the child in all of us regardless of our age.  How many times have you stood beneath the night sky gazing up at the countless stars spread across your view?  Everything seems to float away so it is only you and the stars.  This is what the little girl angel is sensing and we are kin to her in this.  McGhee brings her innocence to the page and her desire to help those in need.  Here is a sample passage.

Rain?
Rain to cool the baby's skin.
Rain to fill the puddles.
But rain was the gift of the clouds. 


The predominant use of purple in the illustrations rendered in pen, ink and watercolor then enhanced digitally by Peter H. Reynolds conveys the significance of the story.  It is also reminiscent of the sudden breathtaking colors seen in the sky as the day ends and twilight shifts into night.  On the front of the matching dust jacket and cover the newest angel sees the three well-known travelers from her celestial perch.  On the back, in a new picture with a white background amid swirls of watercolor at the top and bottom, she is again on her pedestal looking upward this time.  The words beneath her read

One very small angel.
One very important baby
about to be born.
One very special gift
to be given...
but...what?

Red opening and closing endpapers represent the warmth of this story.  On the initial title page Reynolds acquaints us with this angel as she reaches out to grasp one of the announcements. On the formal title page she stands on a platform, a ladder reaching skyward amid clouds tinged in shades of purple.

All of the images span across two pages.  Barefoot and wearing a three-piece suit like the other angels, Reynolds does give this very special being some additional items.  She is wearing an old style aviator helmet with goggles and a scarf around her neck.  (I may be drawing parallels where they are not intended but truthfully I am reminded of brave women airplane pilots of the past.  This little angel has a selfless spirit, a willingness to fly into the unknown for the sake of others.)

Of particular interest is the means this angel has to give vision to her thoughts; computer-like monitors are attached to various circular pedestals among the clouds.  This adds a bit of extra light-heartedness to the pictures.  Each of the Earthly scenes is done with attention to the realistic landscape but reverence to the events.

One of my favorite visuals is of the angel thinking about giving rain as a gift.  In this, as in the two others, the background is entirely white.  We are closer to her than in any other picture.  Her eyes are closed as her extended hands reach out to feel the drops of water.  There is pure peace to be seen in this illustration.

Whether you are familiar with The Littlest Angel or not, this book, Star Bright:  A Christmas Story written by Alison McGhee with illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds is one of the most beautiful narratives I have ever read about the origin of the Christmas Star.  It is not about the giving of something but the gift of self.  You will want to add it to your collection of Christmas titles making the reading of it a yearly tradition.

Please follow the links embedded in Alison McGhee's and Peter H. Reynolds' names to access their websites.  At the publisher's website are more illustrations from this title including my favorite.  

Wishing each of you a very Merry Christmas!  May your life be guided by the gift of a single brilliant star.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Nose So Bright

One of the best things about participating in the 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge each week is learning something new.  This challenge hosted by educator Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy has enlarged my world in the most unexpected ways.  After reading my choice, without fail, I continue to do research about the subject.  This exploration of information leads from one thing to another.  I find myself checking and rechecking facts to uncover the truth, making sure my sources are reliable, just as I have instructed my students to do for years.  This week's selection is hardly nonfiction but it prompted a beloved song which Melville Dewey would certainly assign a nonfiction number in the 700s.


 In northern Michigan this winter's weather, the winter of late 2014, is one for the history books.  Beginning in the second week of November more than a foot of snow covered the ground; even prompting a snow day or two for area schools.  These past several weeks fog, mist, rain and gray cloud cover have persisted. Bare ground, brown grass and sand, are showing in most areas.  It hardly looks or feels like a traditional Christmas Eve.

Each late night when Xena and I walk around our neighborhood, as the fog casts a hazy veil everywhere, a certain song has persisted in my mind.  I keep thinking of a story about a Christmas Eve long, long ago when Santa needed help to find his way around the world on his epic sleigh ride.  This year, 2014, marks the 75th anniversary of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (Little Simon, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, September 30, 2014) written in 1939 by Robert L. May.  This edition has been illustrated with lush, rich pictures by Antonio Javier Caparo,

a Cuban-born illustrator and designer

now living in Quebec, Canada.

'Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the hills
The reindeer were playing, enjoying their spills.

While every so often they'd stop to call names
At one little deer not allowed in the games.

"Ha, ha!" Look at Rudolph! His nose is a sight!
It's red as a beet! Twice as big! Twice as bright!"

Rudolph is aware they speak the truth but their teasing breaks his heart.  Being alone is never fun but today of all days he has hope in his heart.  He knows he has been good.  He knows Santa has noticed.  He falls asleep with a smile on his reindeer face.

Up at the North Pole Old Saint Nick sees the thick layer of fog descending.  He determines they will need to fly slow and low using the lights from homes and streets to direct them.  It is as tricky as he expects.  They nearly hit a plane hurrying to its destination.

As the clock ticks toward midnight more and more homes are getting dark.  Soon Santa is working not quite up to speed wondering how he will be finished by morning.  When he arrives at the home of the deer he barely finds the chimney.  He bumps and thumps his way from one dark room to the next until he opens the door to see Rudolph snuggled in bed.  When he leaves Rudolph's room again walking in the dark, an idea lifts his attitude from gloom to grin.

Rudolph is amazed at Santa's request but does not hesitate.  With lightness to his step he takes his place to lead the way.  All through the night his nose gives them the right amount of light.  In each girl's and boy's room Rudolph's glow helps Santa to give the right gift to all.

At sunrise Rudolph and the other eight pulling Santa in his sleigh return to his home.  All the other reindeer have gathered to greet the hero of the Christmas Eve flight.  Santa sings his praises and Rudolph gives a short little speech,

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

I don't know about you but tonight, on this night of nights, I will be looking for the red glow of Rudolph's nose.


In Chicago back in 1939 Robert L. May was a catalog copy writer for the company Montgomery Ward.  He was asked by a department head to write a little booklet which could be given to customers at the store.  At the time his wife was fighting a losing battle with cancer.  His only child, a daughter, was nearly five years old.  Her love of deer at the zoo was the spark for using reindeer in the story.

I can only imagine how on a night like this Christmas Eve with fog coming in from Lake Michigan, May decided to give this deer wanting to pull Santa's sleigh a bright red nose.  (You can read his story about the idea for the book published in The Gettysburg Times, December 22, 1975.) When he first read his finished work to his daughter, Barbara, and her grandparents, their response told him all he needed to know.  The text in this 75th anniversary edition is nearly the same as the original with some words changed and a few verses omitted to make it slightly more contemporary.  To hear the original read by Robert L. May's daughter and to listen to an interview she gave at NPR Morning Edition last year on Christmas day follow the embedded link.  The original sketches and layout for the book can also be seen there.

Here is another sample passage.

"And you," he told Rudolph, "may yet save the day!
Your bright shining nose, son, can show us the way.

I need you, young fellow, to help me tonight,
To lead all my deer on the rest of our flight."

And Rudolph broke out into such a big grin,
It almost connected his ears and his chin!


All the magic and peace of a Christmas Eve night is apparent in the illustration spanning the dust jacket and book case as rendered by Antonio Javier Caparo.  Raised silver lettering adds a finishing touch on the jacket.  To the left a snowy owl flies over an evergreen forest.  I can almost hear the harness bells ringing as Santa calls out a greeting.  Both the opening and closing endpapers are done in the midnight blue used in the jacket and case backgrounds.  A wintry landscape with two squirrels poking up through the snow as a deer stands behind a cluster of trees graces the verso and title page.

Fifteen double page visuals enhance the narration with seven single page pictures.  Some extend edge to edge; others are outlined in glided scroll work as seen on the dust jacket and book case.  Those pictures taking place in the forest are like walking through the woods; animals featured other than the reindeer are characteristic of the extreme northern region.

There is a majestic, old world quality to these illustrations with particular attention given to details (excellence is in the details).  A close-up of a chair in Rudolph's room shows a snow globe with Santa, a tiny toy airplane, a ruler, pencil and paper with a note to Santa on the seat.  On the next page we look from the outside through a circular window framed in knotty wood at Rudolph sleeping.  You can't help but smile as you look at Santa dressed in wool from head to toe, blanket across his lap, sitting in his chair with the bustling elves around him getting the presents ready.

Caparo shifts his perspectives giving us breathtaking landscapes and heartwarming personal peeks.  A full color palette making use of shadow and light create remarkable scenes.  His Santa faces are wonderful.  I love that he has him wearing red tennis shoes.  Careful readers will notice the compass hanging from Santa's pocket.  You should see the room of the boy who loves flying and rockets; pictures on the wall, mobiles, his bed spread and a drawing in his hand as he sleeps reflect his passions.

One of my favorite illustrations is a double page image of Santa talking to Rudolph about the foggy night.  Their two faces are filled with pure joy; the one for actually seeing Santa in front of him, the other for knowing he has a solution to his problem.  It truly is a moment to go down in history.


Even if you already own a copy of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer written by Robert L. May, you need to make sure this edition illustrated by Antonio Javier Caparo finds a place on your personal and professional book shelves.  This lyrical rhyming charming story of a reindeer who finds his way by guiding Santa's sleigh is marvelous.   I've been smiling the entire time I've been writing this blog post.  I can also hardly wait to walk Xena on this foggy Christmas Eve.

Please visit the website of Antonio Javier Caparo to discover more about his additional illustrations.  You will be pleasantly surprised at how much of his artwork in which you are already familiar. The publishers have provided an eight page activity guide.

I wish all my readers a wonderful holiday evening.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Blasting Into The Cosmos

It was in the summer after college graduation when I owned my first car, a forest green Chevy Nova.  Up until that point, I walked or rode my bicycle everywhere.  Having had years of practice in the fine art of hand car washing (My dad never used an automated car wash in his lifetime), my automobile shined on the inside and on the outside.  Dad even made sure I could change the oil in my new set of wheels all by myself.  That car was my pride and joy.

Even today I can appreciate the sight of an elaborately detailed automobile or the throaty rumble of a finely tuned engine.  With this in mind I was excited to begin reading Lowriders in Space (Chronicle Books, November 4, 2014) a new graphic novel written by Cathy Camper with illustrations by Raul The Third.  Hang on folks; you are in for a ride out of this world!

WAKE UP, LUPE!
WAKE UP, ELIRIO!
WAKE UP, CHAVO!

Three friends, an octopus, El Chavo Flapjack Octopus, a mosquito, Elirio Malaria, and an impala, Lupe Impala, are off to their jobs at a car dealership, stopping for breakfast as Lupe rides a bicycle transporting them all.  Each excels in a particular area.  None can beat the mechanical talents of Lupe, the shipshape soap and shine cleaning skills of Flapjack or the exquisite line work of artist Elirio.  Six days a week the trio work for another; wishing they had a garage of their own.

Nearly all their conversations also include the dream of having their own car, a first-rate lowrider.  The threesome feels as though this is clearly wishful thinking until they simultaneously notice the posting for a Universal Car Competition.  First prize is a carload of cash and a solid gold steering wheel but there is the problem of needing a car.

Do not worry readers.  A found hunk of junk has potential.  In their hands the magic can happen.  In search of spare parts, los amigos visit an abandoned airplane factory.  Leaving, discouraged at what they find, their feline companion, Genie, unexpectedly points them to a box of rocket parts.  Working every possible minute, they turn nothing into something. Will it run?

Holy hubcaps!  Not only does this engine hum, moving the car low and slow, it roars transporting the pals into outer space.  They move from one interstellar point to another with extraordinary results.  A tense-too-close-for-comfort brush with a black hole nearly foils their return trip home.  

Spectators and contestants gaze skyward as Lupe Impala, El Chavo Flapjack and Elirio Malaria cruise in for a landing at the competition already in full swing.  Judges make their marks as they pass from each outstanding entry to the next. Be prepared for an astounding display and results that will have you cheering.


This graphic novel conceived and written by Cathy Camper, a blend of her desire to combine science, the Spanish and English languages, and the Mexican-American lowrider culture, flows from start to finish.  As soon as you meet the characters you know this book is going to be unconventional in a very good way.  It's not often an impala, a mosquito and an octopus are best friends.

Their personalities shimmer in the good-natured dialog.  The use of both Spanish and English in their conversations supplies a rhythm to the reading.  A team approach to every decision made, along with their positive support of one another, cements our wish to know as much as we can about them.

In the narrative Camper uses language peppered with alliteration and simile.  Another technique she employs is to tie three sentences together with tasks each are completing.  All these things contribute to an upbeat story.  Here is a sample.

"EVERY BROKEN PART, I REPLACED OR FIXED,"
"AND I BUILT THE ENGINE UP."

"I PAINTED THE BODY A DEEP SKY BLUE."

"I BUFFED THE PAINT JOB SMOOTH AS AN IRONED SHIRT."


There is no denying the wow factor of the dust jacket.  Your mind is immediately filled with questions and possibilities.  Who are these characters?  Why are they riding a car rumbling among the stars and planets?  It's a given they are happy to be there; faces smiling and hands high-fiving each other.

The book case has been designed to resemble a notebook with lined paper in keeping with the heart of this book.  The illustrator, Raul The Third, (and Cathy Camper) wants readers to realize the importance of drawing with limited supplies at hand, notebook paper and pen.  His opening and closing endpapers are a marvelous cosmic swirl of stars and planets, lines framing lines framing lines.

Matte-finished paper in the same pale tan shade as the book case supplies the background for the illustrations done entirely in black, blue and red pen. Every page turn is a welcome surprise in layout with panels of varying sizes; some placed on the top of other larger images.  Dialog is distinguished by placing it in speech bubbles.  The narrative and explanatory translations of the Spanish are framed in black lines.

I cannot say enough about the details in this graphic novel.  They are amazing!  Every time you read this you will see something new.  Lupe has a pail attached to her bike to carry El Chavo Flapjack, a frog who recently ate at a local restaurant is breathing fire standing on the sidewalk outside, Lupe has her name etched in her tools (just like my Dad did his), Genie has a heart shaped patch on the front of her fur and all the clothing and accessories worn by each character are a reflection of their personalities.

One of my many favorite illustrations is of the friends make some adjustments after visiting two particular spots in space.  Their ingenuity and knowledge makes their cosmic car dip and hop like none other.  Without spoiling it for you, the illustrations nearly jump off the page, loaded with action.  You can feel the speed and hear the engine sing.

Lowriders in Space written by Cathy Camper with illustrations by Raul The Third is a super-charged remarkable ride.  Three friends follow their dream no matter where it takes them.  Fortunately they decide to take us readers along on their journey.  We are enthusiastically glad they do.


Please visit the websites of Cathy Camper and Raul The Third by following the links embedded in their names.  They both share extras.  John Schumacher, teacher librarian, interviews Cathy Camper on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read.  A quote from the interview is 

Art has the power to change people.  People's actions are influenced by what they see and read, but also, people are often encourage to write and create art themselves, by what they read and the art they see.

Raul The Third is interviewed by teacher librarian, Matthew C. Winner on his Let's Get Busy Podcast, Episode #108.  I enjoyed the entire chat but this line by Raul set the tone for the entire listening experience.

...something that you know you were born to create."

LITPICK conducts a question and answer interview with Raul The Third.  A favorite thought is

I love how artists are linked to one another across time and space and that we are each adding to the conversation with every new work we create.

Lowriders in Space has its own website.  Here is a link to a common core aligned teacher's guide generated by the publisher.  Raul The Third is interviewed at School Library Journal.  In answering one of the questions he includes this in his reply.

I want to inspire our future artist from all walks of life that can see our book and realize that you don't need anything other than their dreams and hard work to realize their dreams.

Cathy Camper is interviewed at Huff Post Books.  I like these sentences in response for how the idea of the book came to her.

Daydreams.  I'm a prolific daydreamer, and all my books start with stories I tell myself.

Matthew C. Winner also interviewed Cathy Camper on his Let's Get Busy Podcast Episode #95.  One of my favorite parts is

I have to say that both Raul and I really love comics and we really love the possibility that comics give you...



Monday, December 22, 2014

Do What You Love

There are things we love to do with all our heart but no one knows about it.  We take every opportunity to do it as long as we are alone.  Despite the fact we practice and practice, we are not sure the world will share our same enthusiasm for a particular talent.

Our household pets may be privy to our gifts but our secret is safe with them.  In her newest title Birgitta Sif, author of Oliver, introduces readers to a girl who longs to listen to the song in her soul.  Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance (Walker Books, August 7, 2014, Candlewick Press, August 26, 2014) will leave you with the urge to start or continue to twirl and whirl whenever you get the chance.

Once there was a girl, whose name was Frances Dean.  She loved to dance and dance.

It was all she could do to sit still in her school classroom each day.  Without her even knowing it, her fingers might start gently rapping on her desk or her toes might start softly tapping on the floor.  When she finally got outside the wind would be her witness.  The birds would be her accompaniment.

She would dance and dance and dance as long as the feathered park residents were her only audience.  If any people walked by, Frances Dean would stop dancing.  She felt like everyone was watching her.  She felt like everyone was not as excited about her dancing as she was.

Her joy vanished.  Frances Dean danced no more.  Her friends, the birds, who really enjoyed seeing her swing and sway and leap and pirouette decided to take matters into their own hands...or...wings.  They lead her to another girl, much younger than her.  Soon Frances Dean was humming along to one of the loveliest songs she had ever heard.  This made Frances Dean start thinking as she lay in bed that night.

When she woke up Frances Dean noticed the wind, heard her flying park pals singing and remembered.  Her delight blossomed spreading outward to creatures and people along her path.  Following your dreams with happiness is contagious.


Each simple sentence written by Birgitta Sif takes readers into the lively world of Frances Dean.  It's as if we are experiencing each emotional belief along with her.  The kinship Frances Dean maintains with the birds and the wind shows us how in tune she is with the natural world.  Her gentle soul as portrayed by Sif is easy to love.  Here are two more sentences.

And when she was ready she let the wind move her.
And shyly she asked the birds, "Can I show you my dance?"


Opening up the book case readers see an illustration spread across the spine to the left.  Frances Dean is dancing wearing her button-down red coat with purple and white stripped socks and purple tennis shoes.  Her braided pig-tails are straight behind her as she dances.  Around her the birds watch and sing.  On a nearby park bench her cat sleeps with one eye open.  A radio (foreshadowing) is next to the cat.  The tiny details seen in this initial picture are prevalent throughout this title; the delicate flowers and tiny spotted mushrooms are examples.

Exquisite opening and closing endpapers in two shades of pale turquoise feature a tree trunk with seven branches spreading to the left and right of the center.  Each branch holds birds awake or sleeping in companionable fellowship.  Two squirrels are curled together resting.  The initial title page has a rabbit running across the bottom as birds fly left to right overhead.  The verso and title page make liberal use of white space highlighting the text, Frances Dean looking upward at a bird perched on the "e" in her name.  Her cat peers from behind a tree on the left.

The majority of the images cover two pages.  A muted color palette focusing on natural hues enhances Frances Dean's softhearted persona.  Fine lines add to the noticeable animation, the spirited feel, of each picture.  The park scenes with or without people are full of activity.

Sif places smaller images surrounded by white on nine of her pages.  These serve to focus on a specific point in the story.  Only two single page pictures appear in this title.  Some of the elements in these (as in all of them) will have readers smiling or laughing out loud.

One of my favorite illustrations (I love all of them) is of Frances Dean looking out her window in the morning noticing all the birds filling the branches of a nearby tree.  They have gathered to remind her of the joy she took in dancing.  The odd shape of her house is absolutely charming.  Her mailbox in the shape of a mail truck is as cheery as she is.  Two rabbits and a couple of roosters are watching.


If you are looking for happy inside of book covers, Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance written and illustrated by Birgitta Sif is the perfect choice for you and your readers.  This title shows readers how to keep their bliss and stay true to their heart.  Sometimes you might need a little help from your friends.

Please follow the link embedded in Birgitta Sif's name to access her website.  Another beautiful illustration from this book is featured on the home page.  These links here and here are the publisher's websites. Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance appears on the long list for The CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal Nominations for 2015.

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,
                                                          anywhere,
                                                                                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.