Quote of the Month

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Seasons Readings-A Trio Of Treats

Thirty years ago graphic artist Mary Engelbreit issued a poster with text reading

a book is a present you can open again and again.  

The saying is attributed to Barry Liebman, an owner of Left Bank Books at the time, located in Saint Louis, Missouri.  The poster was designed for Left Bank Books.  In all these years the popularity of the phrase and its meaning has never waned.  This is due, in part, to the veracity of the statement.

Christmas 2015 has come and gone but there are three titles yet to be highlighted on this blog which celebrate the spirit of the season.  Each is a gift to be cherished whenever the book makes its way into the hands of a reader whether it's the first time or the hundredth time it's been read. The first, Miracle on 133rd Street (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, September 22, 2015) written by Sonia Manzano with illustrations by Marjorie Priceman, focuses on food and a definition of family.

Jose was decorating the tiniest Christmas tree ever.  It was practically a twig---and what was he supposed to do with the leftover ornaments anyway?

A shout from the kitchen has both he and his father, also named Jose, rushing to the room.  His mami is also lamenting the smallness of living in an apartment in New York City and the size of her oven.  She wishes she was back in Puerto Rico.  When Jose jokingly says they need a pizza oven for the size of her roast, Papi agrees.

The two, Jose and his papi, bundle up and place the roast in a large box.  As they move through the building down to the street, their neighbors are not exactly spreading holiday cheer either.  One has children home on vacation who are irritating her into a frenzy, an older couple are sad their children will not be visiting, Mr. Franklin is certain they are not thinking straight to leave the building this time of year, money woes, and shopping stress are expressed by others.  Outside children are enjoying the snow or cranky about having to shovel it.

Mr. Ray is happy to share his oven at the pizzeria.  Jose gazes at the large Christmas tree in his shop and falls asleep waiting for the meat to cook.  Within seconds of Papi waking him up, Jose is cast under the spell of the smell filling the room.  Mami's combination of ingredients is marvelously magical, boosting him and his mood.

On their journey back to the apartment, accompanied by an invited Mr. Ray, stars hang like lamps in the dusky sky.  The trio nearly floats along, the bouquet weaving around others, inspiring good will.  As they travel up the stairs, doors open, moods shift, guests gather and a Christmas miracle descends.

A blend of narrative and dialogue by Sonia Manzano raises awareness in readers of what the season might be for many of us.  We can choose to emphasize what might be wrong or recall the sensations of Christmases in the past and those in the present to lift us up so we can help others.  Page by page Manzano uses this story to increase the lightness felt in the soul of her readers.  Here is a sample passage.

Then she sniffed the air, paused, and turned back.
"Well, it is a beautiful tree.  And just the right size," she said.
And then the aroma formed a halo around Mr. Happy's head and he said, "Oh, just take it, no charge.  It's Christmas Eve."
Jose and his father looked at each other, then continued on their way, weaving and wafting until they got to their building.
"Look at this...ohhh..." Yvonne took a sniff, dropped her shovel, and followed them inside.
"Wait for me!" her brother said.

When you open the brightly colored matching dust jacket and book case rendered using gouache and ink by Caldecott-honor-winning Marjorie Priceman the illustration extends to the left edge.  All the beauty of the snow, Christmas decorations and starry night mix to make us feel the same happiness felt by Jose and his papi.  On the opening and closing endpapers white swirls on rich red elevate the warmth.  Spirals in blue move across both of the title pages as Jose, Papi and Mr. Ray carry the roast homeward beneath and next to the text.  In a stroke of cleverness the verso information is in the shape of a Christmas tree on the next page and also on the following dedication page.

Nearly all the images span two pages in a flow of cheerful hues with the vivid golden yellow prevalent on all the pages along with red and orange.  The emotions attached to these shades reach out and surround readers.  The expressive gestures and facial features on all the characters make their attitude alterations more evident.  To heighten the start of Jose and his father's trip to the pizzeria Priceman makes a design change; a vertical image.

I could easily frame many of these pictures.  One of my favorites is Jose, Papi and Mr. Ray walking home after first leaving the shop.  Our focus is on the three as they cross the bridge; water to the right and the city to the left, both more in the background.  All are experiencing a form of euphoria from the odor radiating from the roast as it is carried.  Stars and spirals dance about them.

Miracle on 133rd Street written by Sonia Manzano with illustrations by Marjorie Priceman is a classic tale of Christmas joy dispersed by the memories a smell conjures in the minds of the characters.  If you wish to learn more about Sonia Manzano please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  At the publisher's website five interior pages are shown including my favorite.  Jama Rattigan exuberantly speaks about this book at Jama's Alphabet Soup. Julie Danielson, author, reviewer and blogger, also talks about this title at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

I was thrilled when Marjorie Priceman graciously agreed to answer some questions about this book.

What influenced your color palette for the story and for Mami’s memories?

The color palette for Mami's memories is meant to evoke the warmth and sunshine of Puerto Rico in contrast to the icy cold New York winter. 

Did you have a particular street in mind when you created Jose’s neighborhood and apartment building?

The street where Jose lives is not actually a particular street (The title Miracle on 133rd St. was chosen long after the artwork was finished.) but an impression of a vibrant and diverse New York neighborhood with a mix of buildings, shops and people.

I really love the inclusion of a vertical picture.   What prompted the decision to do this in the story?

The vertical picture was a way to show all of Jose's apartment building in one spread and is something I like to do as a surprise for the reader.

What is your favorite smell you associate with Christmas?

My favorite Christmastime smell is fresh pine tree.

On the same day, September 22, 2015 Samurai Santa: A Very Ninja Christmas (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) written and illustrated by Rubin Pingk leaped onto the children's literature scene.  It zips and zings with a lively cast of characters.  Holiday surprises abound.

Christmas Eve was the most PERFECT snow day of the year. Yukio had never seen such BIG snowflakes.  They seemed full of magic.

Like the first snow of the season, snow falling on the eve of Christmas Day elicits excitement in young hearts and the young at heart.  Yukio is hugely disappointed to see no one else outside to participate in what he hopes will be an EPIC snowball fight.  None of his ninja companions dare participate, especially on this night, for fear of appearing on Santa's naughty list.  

In Yukio's mind Santa is spoiling his fun.  He, unlike his friends, does not care about the consequences.  This ninja wants an EPIC snowball fight.  The only way this can happen is to rid Ninja Village of jolly old Saint Nick.  

Cautiously, carefully, Yukio waits and watches as Santa goes about his business.  In the quiet of the night a loud large gong sounds as the ninja shouts 


All the young ninjas wake up looking for this mysterious trespasser garbed in red.  He is not to be found inside or outside.  

Suddenly a SAMURAI appears on the hilltop surrounded by a very spirited group of snowmen ready for a fight...a snowfall fight.  For hours the battle rages.  As the sun rises the ninjas and Yukio realize what they have done.  Upon entering their home another shock awaits these snowball-loving young warriors.  

Short simple sentences invite readers to participate in Yukio's Christmas adventure.  Rubin Pingk uses descriptive, highly-charged words to great effect.  It's all readers can do to not jump right in and join the ninja fun.  Here is a sample passage.

All the GOOD little ninjas were asleep, but not Yukio.
Santa squeezed, slouched, slithered, and stumbled DOWN the chimney...
...while Yukio WAITED for the PERFECT moment to surprise SANTA.

A swarm of eager ninjas with Yukio in the lead in pursuit of the EPIC-snowball-fight-wrecking Santa span from edge to edge across both sides of the matching dust jacket and book case.  The limited color palette of red, white, and shades of gray is used throughout the title.  The opening endpapers and initial title pages feature rows of ninja faces mixed with snowman looks and one very special Santa and Yukio.  The closing endpapers tell a different tale.  The more formal title page and verso present a calm wintry landscape in the snowy mountains, evergreens coated in white as smoke rises from chimneys.  

Each illustrative image rendered digitally by Rubin Pingk, shifting in perspective and size, pairs with the text to create a flawless flow.  Within the narrative the use of a larger font and capital letters places emphasis on specific words also contributing to the pacing.  Anticipation grows as the pages turn.  There is not a wasted moment or movement.  

One of my favorite picture sequences is for the passage cited.  On a background of black we first see Santa climbing into the chimney within a circle of gray.  Beneath him in a smaller circle of red, Yukio waits.  To the right as Santa moves down the chimney it twists and turns like jumbled pipework before he drops, looking quite surprised.  These images, like many, are full of humor.

Samurai Santa: A Very Ninja Christmas written and illustrated by Rubin Pingk is pure fun from beginning to end.  I know everyone will want to read it more than once especially aloud.  Please visit Rubin Pingk's website by following the link attached to his name.  At the publisher's website are six interior illustrations.  My favorite is one of them.  At Scholastic's Ambassador for School Libraries, John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read., Rubin Pingk reveals the book trailer for this title.  Don't miss it. 

Running as fast as he can The Gingerbread Man Loose at Christmas (G. P. Putnam's Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), October 13, 2015) written by Laura Murray with illustrations by Mike Lowery races toward readers.  Christmas is coming.  The Gingerbread Man, his teacher and classroom chums are busily working like elves.

 One white snowy morning, I popped from my bed.
My teacher was calling.

She is announcing to the class a plan to

make, say, or do

something unique for people in the community.  They all put on their collective creative thinking caps.  The Gingerbread Man is making a special treat for a special someone. 

Wrapped in coats, hats, scarves and mittens they walk from school through the city streets singing songs, handing out baked goods and homemade cards.  Prominent figures in their city, a police woman, the garbage man and public librarian receive their gifts.  The dentist, grocer, and veterinarian are greeted with smiles.  Everyone is uplifted by their cheerful gestures.  

Suddenly the weather changes prompting the teacher to turn the group back toward the school.  The Gingerbread Man tries to tell them he still needs to present his present.  He's not heard.  Without another word he runs, as fast as he can, to find one special shop.  The wind and wet take a toll on our sweet friend.

Will his goodness be noticed? Cleverness gives The Gingerbread Man the help he needs.  At the conclusion he and his student buddies make merry magic for a distinctive individual.   

Readers and listeners will want to clap and tap as the words penned by Laura Murray playfully romp off the page.  Her rhymes effortlessly elicit the gladness felt by those who spread and receive gratitude.  By taking readers on a tour of the town we are introduced to those members meaningful to the students and The Gingerbread Man in their everyday lives here and in other communities.  Here are a couple sample passages.

The town was so merry! The storefronts aglow. Each window was frosted with icy snow.
We stopped a police lady, sang her a song.  She smiled really big as she waved us along. 

No matter the season, the front of the matching dust jacket and book case is sure to bring on grins as The Gingerbread Man gazes.  The toy shop window all decked out in holiday decor is brimming with glee.  On the back, to the left, The Gingerbread Man, away from the rest of the group is trying to make one final stop as the chilly wind blows.  The opening and closing endpapers, the first in green and white and the second in red and white, are labeled maps of important places in the town.  

Mike Lowery created these images in pencil, traditional screen printing and digital color.  Some are full page or cover two pages.  Many are framed like panels in graphic novels or comics.  Dialogue appears in speech balloons.  The layout and design create energy like the story.  

One of my favorite illustrations is of the town and the streets covering two pages.  At the top on the left a small image shows some of the students and The Gingerbread man ready to leave the classroom.  Residential and business sections of the community are shown and appropriately labeled.  Among the snow, several snowmen make an appearance. 

The Gingerbread Man Loose at Christmas written by Laura Murray with illustrations by Mike Lowery is a jolly journey of thankfulness with students, their teacher and The Gingerbread Man among townsfolk.  At the back of the book in a pocket is a poster.  On the back are four story stretcher activities.  For more information on both Laura Murray and Mike Lowery be sure to follow the links attached to their names to access their respective websites.  

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