Quote of the Month

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

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Blog Tour: Ares Bringer of War

When studies in folklore are offered in classrooms it seems legends and myths are two terms frequently tied together.  In my way of thinking the two are completely different.  A tiny shred of truth, not necessarily verified, over time is enhanced with each telling until fact becomes shrouded in fiction as in the tales of Robin Hood or King Arthur.  This is what legend means to me.

The myths of any particular culture are explanations of why certain historical events or natural phenomenon occur including the origin of the world.  A mythology of a certain people is like a religion which they endorse and follow.  The mythologies of which I have enjoyed reading the most, for as far back as I can remember, are those of the Norse and Greek gods.  

Five years ago author illustrator George O'Connor released the first book of twelve to begin his Olympians series of graphic novels, his retelling of the classic Greek myths.  I recently finished rereading the earlier titles and read the most recent ones for the first time.  The first six, Zeus, Athena, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Aphrodite while seeking to focus on the titular god also introduce other events and beings intertwined in their immortal lives.  The point of view or voice(s) in each volume varies in order to best present the Olympian. 

In Zeus his story is told with respect to the creation of the world and the order of the gods, the battle for power between the Olympians and the Titans and the roles of the Cyclopes, Kronos and Metis. It is the three Moirae who spin the tale of Athena's extraordinary birth as daughter of Zeus, her training in the art of warfare, learning to be thoughtful before taking action, and the downfall and destruction of Medusa by the hand of Perseus.  The story of Hera, Zeus' queen begins with their courtship and her demand for marriage but she is also well aware of Zeus' many infidelities and countless children. One in particular, Hercules and his twelve tasks, becomes the center of revealing to us the personality of Hera.  Demeter and her daughter Persephone assist us in understanding death and Hades.  We are able to see him in a different light as well as the strength of a mother's love.  The children of Poseidon, Odysseys, and the Minotaur are all significant in explaining his position as god of the sea and his unresolved acceptance as ruler of that realm.  In learning about Aphrodite her three attendants, Charites, are the narrators acquainting us with Eros and Eris.  A contest to decide who is the more beautiful, Hera, Aphrodite or Athena, has repercussions which will plague mankind with the ravages of war.

My copies of the first six books.
The front of the case for the boxed set.
The back of the case for the boxed set.
The spine for the case of the boxed set.

This brings us to the release of Ares:  Bringer of War on January 27, 2015.


 Unlike his counterpart, Athena who works with strategy and a plan in her approach to warfare, Ares relishes in the point when in the heat of battle, the lust for blood, the rage of revenge and the desire for all-out chaos overcomes any thoughts of order.  For ten years a fight has been fought between the Greeks and the Trojans.  The presence of both Ares and Athena has been felt by the men on the battlefield but all grow weary of a conflict which seems to have no end.

Zeus calls a council of the gods and their children on Mount Olympus in order to see this Trojan War end.  Regardless of the discussion, arguments between those favoring one side over the other, on Mount Olympus, the mortals have decided to have two men determine the fate of this war.  All is well until Aphrodite intervenes.  Then unbeknownst to Zeus both Athena and Ares return to the field of battle.  Athena has already altered destiny but she asks Ares to stay his hand and avoid the wrath of Zeus.  

From Mount Olympus the gods watch but are unable to keep from exerting their influence.  Heroes from the Iliad spring forth in the narrative, Diomedes and Aeneas, Patroclus and Hektor, and Achilles.  As the battles continue on the mortal plain, a fight begins on Mount Olympus between Ares and Athena, between those favoring the Greeks and those favoring the Trojans.  A barbaric act by one of the earthly warriors costs him dearly.  One by one the gods lose interest in this Trojan War; all except Ares.  In a final conversation between him and his father, Zeus, we come to understand that beneath his apparent thirst for blood is the sure knowledge his actions are a part of his destiny.

In the six prior books and this newest title, for all his reading and research, one might expect George O'Connor to speak above his audience but he does not.  In his writing he provides understanding for his readers, wanting us to develop the same passion for Greek mythology as he has.  He speaks to us.

The narrative and dialogue between the gods is in a contemporary language.  It reveals to us the essence of Ares (and the others) depicting weaknesses and strengths.  Regardless of his desire for the constant conflict with bloody results, when asked to wait, he waits.  He may seem to act without conscience or care for human life but the loss of his son shows us otherwise.  O'Connor, in his interpretation of the most original versions he can find, strives to give us Ares Bringer of War as he is meant to be.  Here are some sample passages.

And that is when Ares takes the field.
He arrives in a chariot driven by his sister-in-arms, Eris, the goddess of strife and discord.
Ares, war insatiate. His armor blazing like fire. Dealing death.

Ares:  I am under no one's sway!  I am Ares! God of War!
Athena:  God of Getting Stuck Like A Pig, you mean!
Ares:  You! You maddening gadfly!  Biting and flitting about the field!  I'll make you eat those words!!
Athena:  Bring it blowhard!

What makes this volume as good as the others are the extras George O'Connor adds.  In the front is a lineage chart beginning with Gaea, earth. At the conclusion O'Connor sets forth a conversational Author's Note informing his readers about his approach in telling this story of Ares.  He is careful to disclose why he includes what he does in each volume.  A page is devoted to Ares; naming what he is god of, his Roman name, symbols, sacred animals, sacred places, his day of the week, month, heavenly bodies associated with his name and his modern legacy.  Explanations for Eris and Achilles are also given.  What is truly interesting to read are the G(R)EEK NOTES.  O'Connor's remarks about pages and panels are not only informative about the series but downright funny.  He wants us to notice all the added details in the text and his illustrations.  There are eight questions for discussion, a bibliography and print sources for younger and older readers.

The color palette shown on the front of the book case is prevalent throughout this title.  (What you can't see on the cover here is the blue foil inlaid in Ares' two spears.) O'Connor's panel sizes and placement create the pace for the story. For the most part straight narrative is placed within rectangular boxes with dialogue in speech bubbles.

O'Connor may have elements from one panel extend into another to direct the flow of our eyes.  Every line and every item are part of a well-conceived layout. There is never any doubt as to the mood of the characters.  The action scenes literally jump from the pages.  You would hardly be surprised to hear the sounds of battle at any moment.

Olympians Ares Bringer of War written and illustrated by George O'Connor is an outstanding volume in an already stunning presentation of the Greek myths.  It's a rare thing when mythology is presented in as a compelling form as this.  George O'Connor's dedication to this subject is evident on every single page.

To learn more about George O'Connor and his other work please visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  This link will take you to the Olympians website. For each title an excerpt can be downloaded, there is a reader's theater and other extensions.  To access the Olympians blog follow this link.  O'Connor is hosting other illustrators' versions of Ares.  On both the Olympians website and blog, you can see the processes used by O'Connor for creating these books.

A link to the publisher's website provides you with a look at interior pages from this title.  At Watch. Connect. Read. hosted by teacher librarian extraordinaire, John Schumacher, George O'Connor stopped by twice; to chat both times with questions, answers and sentence starters and to show readers the new cover and to announce the book release.   Educator Colby Sharp, the man who stands on desks to proclaim his love of reading, interviews George O'Connor here at his blog, sharpread.

Make sure you take the time to watch this interview with George O'Connor by Rocco Staino on KidLit TV.  It's informative and completely entertaining.

Here is a link to the other bloggers participating in this tour.

Friday, January 30, 2015

A Silver Dollar Read

For the most part the suffering is done in silence; wanting to remain unnoticed at the same time as hoping to be acknowledged by the group.  It's difficult to be known for being too tall or too short, too heavy or too thin, too smart or not smart enough, too young or too old or anything outside of the current approved unwritten rules for normal.  Younger children are better able to see a person's true self.  As they get older their vision of individuals might have labels attached.

By the time middle school begins the agony of trying to find out who you are and what you should be doing is complicated by the perceptions others have of you as more layers of labels have been added.  Make no mistake; sometimes the actions and remarks of our peers are brutal.  Fish In A Tree (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), February 5, 2015) a new middle grade novel written by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (One For The Murphys) explores the experiences of a sixth grade student and her relationships with friends, classmates, family and one insightful teacher.

Chapter 1
In Trouble Again
It's always there.  Like the ground underneath my feet.
"Well, Ally? Are you going to write or aren't you?"
Mrs. Hall asks.
If my teacher were mean it would be easier.

Seven schools in seven years have not helped Ally but sixth grade has been even more challenging especially now with Mrs. Hall being replaced by a substitute in November when she takes maternity leave.  She is trying her best to fulfill Mrs. Hall's request to write about herself but the glare of the paper, the beginning of a headache and the difficulty making letters form words, is too much.  In her conversation with Mrs. Hall we quickly meet three classmates, Oliver who bursts out laughing and speaks frequently without thinking, super intelligent with logic like Spock, Albert, and Shay whose words cut like a knife.  As this chapter closes we also know a little more about Ally, she is witty with a keen sense of humor.

It's when Ally mistakenly gives Mrs. Hall a sympathy card at the class baby shower; we are privy to what she has kept hidden for years.  She can't read; letters move and dance whenever she looks at them.  Three more student names become part of the narrative, Jessica, two-peas-in-a-pod pal of Shay, Max, always ready for a good time, Suki, a quieter soul with excellent ideas, and Keisha, a new student, outspoken, brave and a champion for those who are different. After a conference, yet again, with the principal, Mrs. Silver, Ally knows she should tell the truth but how do you tell people you think you're dumb.

Although Ally has the support of her warm-hearted waitress mom, her dad currently deployed overseas and mechanical genius older brother, Travis, who struggles with school too, Ally's constant coping companions are her Sketchbook of Impossible Things where she perfects her artistic skills and the movies she plays in her mind.  When Ally and her classmates meet Mr. Daniels, the new teacher, on his first Monday in their classroom his resounding cheerful,

"Okay, Fantasticos! Take your seats!"

signals a new beginning for everyone but especially Ally.  Within a few days his interactions with the students, his lessons and activities, questions and responses to their answers tell them he is here to help them be their best selves.

Each day in the classroom, during lunch hours and special events a pattern of change begins to take shape.  Keisha, Albert and Ally form a friendship, a trio of strength, brains and not only artistry but the ability to visualize answers "outside the box."  Ally realizes Mr. Daniels is trying to figure something out by his questions asked of her.

On a field trip, when a particularly cruel action by a classmate sends Ally running, Mr. Daniels seeks her out pointing out her creative, inventive and artistic abilities and reveals his theory about her learning differences.  Chess lessons after school expand to include re-learning lessons as a teacher connects with his student enriching her world beyond her most fervent wishes.

The birth of a star, shared secrets, a fox, a chicken and a bag of grain by a river, a class election, a tricky letter, an ant defender, a lesson in dyslexia, a stance against bullies and help for a hero are all ripples from the pebble, Mr. Daniels, thrown in Ally's pond.  The slip of paper given to her with the im torn from impossible is given to another.  We may not always see it but when we give each person we meet value with our sincere attention and yes, love, it has the power to change everything for good.

The worth and capacity of this title to affect an impact on readers, as in Lynda Mullaly Hunt's debut book, is her masterful skill at creating fully believable characters placed in true-to-life situations.  Giving voice to Ally's inner thoughts allows us to feel her every emotion.  The dialogue between all the characters gives you the sense of being a silent participant; Ally's shadow, if you will.  I can't begin to tell you the number of times I laughed out loud at Ally's remarks either said in her mind or as conversational statements.  You find yourself wanting to shout out in frustration or disgust, to cheer for victories and to hug Ally, her family members, her friends, classmates and Mr. Daniels for those moments when their acts of kindness fill you with hope.

A technique Hunt uses excellently is a closing thought or bit of dialogue at the end of each chapter. It expands our thinking as readers.  It also makes us wonder what will happen next.  At the end of chapter 42 Mr. Daniels is speaking to Oliver about him having one of the kindest hearts.  It is followed by a two page chapter which might be one of my favorites in the book.  The kindness Ally and Keisha extend to Albert in the form of t-shirts is almost overwhelming.

The first time I read Fish In A Tree I began to place sticky notes in my favorite spots.  On my second reading I added even more.  Here is a picture of my book, an advance uncorrected galley, so graciously given by the publisher.  I have selected some passages to share with you below.

Mrs. Hall clears her throat.
The rest of the class is getting tired of me again.
Chairs slide.  Loud sighs.  Maybe they think I can't hear their words:  Freak. Dumb. Loser.
I wish she'd just go hang by Albert, the walking Google page who'd get a better grade than me if he just blew his nose into the paper.

Alice in Wonderland---a book about living in a world where nothing makes sense made perfect sense to me.
"I miss Grandpa," I say.  Three words that hold sadness like a tree holds leaves.

He seems disappointed.  I turn to go.
"How about if I excuse you from homework for learning how to play?"
I stop like my feet are strapped to thousand-pound blocks.  Did he just say that?  I turn around.  "What's the catch?" I ask.
"No catch.  If you stay after to learn chess for a few days, I'll excuse you from homework on the days you stay."
"Am I going to have to write a paper or something?"
"No papers.  Promise."
"I just come in here and play a game and I get out of homework?  No catch?"
"Well, you can't tell anyone in the class.  I'll call your mom about it, though."  He holds his hand out to shake.  "We have a deal, then?"
"Yeah.  Okay"
I can't say no to that deal.  Homework is only one step above death.

Fish In A Tree written by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is a tribute to teachers, single individuals, who are forces of change in the classroom.  Everything Ally and her classmates and the adults in their lives learn during the course of this book can be applied to life as a whole.  If you've ever felt singled out because of any kind of difference this book will show you the importance of asking for help, the significance of true friends, and the beauty within yourself.  You are never alone.  Ever.

To discover more about Lynda Mullaly Hunt and her books please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  On July 2, 2014 Lynda Mullaly Hunt was a guest blogger at the Nerdy Book Club where she revealed the cover and spoke about her personal connections to this book.  Here is a Pinterest board created for Fish In A Tree.  On January 22, 2105 Lynda Mullaly Hunt was a guest at teacher librarian extraordinaire, John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read.  She speaks about the ten similarities in making a book trailer and writing a novel.  The book trailer below was revealed at the same time.  Here is a link at the publisher's website for a study guide to this title and One For The Murphys. Update:  Matthew C. Winner, teacher librarian, chats with Lynda Mullaly Hunt at his upbeat informative Let's Get Busy podcast. Update:  Lynda Mullaly Hunt is the guest blogger at the Nerdy Book Club, Who Is Travis Nickerson From A Fish In A Tree?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Salute To Slumber

By its very definition a festival is a call to celebrate.  It's an opportunity for people to band together to enjoy a shared passion, to commemorate a person, place, thing or event or to pause in their everyday lives for a much needed holiday.  Whether it lasts for a single day or a week, a festival is generally filled with laughter, music, dancing and ... NOISE.

What's that you say?  There's a gala dedicated to napping, dozing and dreaming?  SnoozeFEST (Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, January 22, 2015) written by Samantha Berger with illustrations by Kristyna Litten is a joyful look at a sloth whose success at sleeping is unparalleled.

In the center of Snoozeville, dwells the wee one,
the sleepiest sloth, Snuggleford Cuddlebun.

It seems Snuggleford Cuddlebun is one of nature's finest when it comes to rest.  The only thing ever to halt her deep repose is an annual ticket to SNOOZEFEST.  She packs her essentials ready to ride the bus,

right in front of her home,

to the famous NuzzleDome.

Eager patrons patiently wait to enter the arena and then seek to settle in a spot right for the show.  They've gathered their pillows, quilts and cuddliest toys.  The variety of blankets is a sight to see; all of them named with great affection.

Once Snuggleford Cuddlebun locates a splendid nest swaying between two trees, she gathers memorabilia from vendors and makes sure to secure a savory cup of milk and honey to sip.  Now cozily comfortable, she watches with the others as a P. J. Parade of opulent proportions winds through the park.  When it's time for the bands to play, the radiant glare is no more; little lights from the audience blink and beam like a firefly convention.

First one act, then another take the stage and even more singing, playing and reciting poetic words of quiet and calm lull the listeners.  Sweet Snuggleford Cuddlebun drifts into dreamland, content in her hammock.  This sloth is sleeping through all the soothing sounds.

It comes as no surprise to anyone to see Sunggleford Cuddlebun wake last as days later the program comes to a close.  She collects her things, heading home on the very same bus.  Happy but exhausted in the comfort of her abode, she does what Snuggleford Cuddlebun does best.

Readers and listeners will thoroughly relish the way the words of Samantha Berger roll off their tongues.  The rhythm of her rhymes will have you burrowing under a cushy comforter in no time at all.  Sleep-inducing allusions welcome you to join in this fest dedicated to silence and siestas.  The names given to the bands will have you smiling; Nocturnal Nesters, Tranquility Trio or Deep Hiber-Nation.  Here is a sample passage.

It's dreamy to see the stuff everyone brings---
their wumphiest, coziest, comfiest things.
Bundles of blankets and fluffed feather beds---
puffy poofed pillows to prop up their heads.

The deep blues and purples surrounding Snuggleford Cuddlebun all nestled in her hammock between two trees wound with lights, looking down on the festivities, is enough to make you want to ask her if there's room for two.  The soft curve of her smile as she holds her teddy bear sends out a feeling of total bliss.  The second portion of the title, like a concert marquee, is a stroke of design brilliance.  On the back, to the left, the first band is on stage, harp playing and counting sheep.  Squares of fabric pieced together like a quilt lay patterned across the opening and closing endpapers.  The concert theme is continued for the verso, dedications and title page with tickets holding the text.

A warm palette of rich light blue, turquoise, green, red, orange, yellow and brown with a cast of dusk-like hues at night are awash with life. Digitally rendered illustrations by Kristyna Litten colorfully compliment the narrative varying in size from two pages to smaller images liberally framed with white space grouped together to show the passage of time.  Details define the characters and the SnoozeFEST; the matryoshka doll next to Snuggleford Cuddlebun's bed, the poster for the band, Hiber-Nation tacked to a tree, Snuggleford Cuddlebun's bedtime book, Big Bear, Big Sleep, and the signs held during the P. J. Parade, Alexander McDream and Louis Futon.  

One of my favorite illustrations is the panoramic view of the SnoozeFEST after the lights have been dimmed inside The NuzzleDome.  It's as if we are looking from another hammock on another side, seeing Snuggleford Cuddlebun to our left with an array of cozy resting places spread before us as members of the audience mingle below.  In the center of the right portion the stage is nearly empty as a worker cleans it a final time before the first performance.  Lights are strung from tree to tree glowing in the dark.

If you are ready to rest with a smile on your face, filled with dreams of gentle cheer, SnoozeFEST written by Samantha Berger with illustrations by Kristyna Litten is the book for you.  Word choices will sing you to sleep and illustrations will wrap you in pure contentment.  Grab your pajamas, pillows and snuggly blankets; I see a festival in your feature and snores galore.

To discover more about Samantha Berger and Kristyna Litten please follow the links attached to their names to visit their websites.  This link takes you to Samantha Berger's blog where she shows her promotional posts for this title.  Author and illustration Debbie Ridpath Ohi interviews Samantha Berger on her blog, Inkygirl.com  Matthew C. Winner, a busy enthusiastic teacher librarian interviews Samantha Berger at Let's Get Busy Podcast #116.  Enjoy the book trailer.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Cozy Clothing

In the midst of a winter day, sun or no sun, snow or no snow, or wind or no wind, it's not as if you are going to stand still savoring the moment.  It's simply too cold, especially in the northern climates.  You will definitely be moving around; shoveling snow, snow shoeing, skiing, ice skating, snowboarding, running, walking or building snow figures or forts.  Most folks will be dressed in layer upon layer of clothing including boots, gloves or mittens and hats.

In my way of thinking though, hats, with an assortment of tops and bottoms combined with whatever activity you may be doing, will have you working up an unwanted sweat in no time.  The perfect solution is something to cover your ears only.  Earmuffs for Everyone!: How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs (A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, January 6, 2015) written and illustrated by Meghan McCarthy gives us a fascinating look at a man's life and his relationship with earmuffs.

The word "muff" has been around since the Middle Ages.  Starting in the 1700s, people wore muffs on their hands to keep them war, like this:

From hand muffs (I actually had one of those as a little girl...and no I'm not that old.)  From then we skip ahead to 1858, 1873, 1877, 1878 and 1883 noting the types of inventions to keep our ears, cheeks and chins protected from the chilly weather.  A gentleman, Isaac Kleinert, whose company is still in business today designed and promoted

ear muffs, waterproof baby pants and dress guards 

for women's clothing.  He renewed his patent several times for those ear muffs.  Why is it then that most people believe Chester Greenwood is the inventor of earmuffs?

True be told Chester Greenwood got a patent too.  He was only nineteen years old!  His patent was not for the invention of earmuffs but the improvement of earmuffs.  (In case you are wondering what a patent is and how it works, several pages, at this point, are devoted to a definition and a comparison is made between the work of Greenwood and Thomas Edison.)

Having built a good mind for business beginning with his childhood, Greenwood was able to promote and expand his earmuff success, landing him a prominent spot in his community.  The man's creativity branched out to include other items.  I'm pretty sure I could be comfortable in his

"portable" house.

What happened after Chester Greenwood passed away in 1937 is a testament to people's perceptions of history.  A prominent magazine named him as the inventor of earmuffs several years later.  As little as thirty-five years ago a businessman advocated for a Chester Greenwood day which was eventually passed by the legislature of Maine in 1977.  It is still celebrated today each December in Farmington, Maine.  Who could ask for anything more?  It's a tribute to ingenuity.

If Meghan McCarthy's name is attached to nonfiction, readers can expect solid research and a captivating narrative.  Her sentence structure is conversational with asides to the reader.  She takes nothing for granted, offering additional explanations.  In her pursuit to discover the truth about earmuffs and Chester Greenwood she uncovered many similar inventions leading her to conclusions which she shares with us.  Here is a sample passage from this book.

Obviously, the story isn't quite true, since earmuffs had already been born many years earlier---four months before Chester was!  And there is another story that says Chester didn't like the woolen earmuffs that most kids wore, so he fashioned something else.

Rendered in acrylic paint the full color illustrations of Meghan McCarthy have the same spirit as her writing reaching out to her audience saying, "Look what I've found.  I can't wait to share it with you."  All of the children on the front of the matching dust jacket and book case are wearing an assortment of earmuff styles looking toward the title.  On the left, back, a dachshund sporting a pair of red and white plaid earmuffs is looking straight at the reader.  McCarthy's opening and closing endpapers feature men and women, boys and girls, wearing traditional and outlandish earmuffs in a series of ten geometric frames.  A page turn takes us to the verso and title page with a series of snapshots highlighting earmuff-wearing people.

It's McCarthy's signature portrayal of her character's eyes which draw our eyes to her images.  Her ability to convey a full range of emotion with a black circle, white paint and a dot is amazing.  In depicting her history of earmuffs, patents and Chester Greenwood's life her attention to accurate detail is not just informative but fun to see progress.

A liberal amount of white space is used to accentuate her smaller pictures on single pages.  Five of the seven double-page visuals are at the end of the book as her narrative builds momentum.  If McCarthy wishes to make a point, further tying the illustration to her text, the perspective shifts.

I've been thinking about whether or not she's placing humor in her pictures too.  I wonder about the horse freely walking on the street in front of the US Patent Office.  Is it Seabiscuit from one of her earlier titles?

One of my favorite illustrations is the inside of the newsstand where Mickey Maguire worked.  The items displayed for sale, products and magazines, are right out of 1970s history.  You can't miss the Star Wars posted taped to the counter.

Our classroom, library and at-home bookshelves need to contain books like Earmuffs for Everyone!:  How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs written and illustrated by Meghan McCarthy.  This is the kind of nonfiction which entertains and informs readers.  It makes us excited to know the whole story.  At the end of the book Meghan McCarthy includes a Note about this Book, All about Patents, a Bibliography and Acknowledgments.  This title along with these notes tells readers about the research process and the different twists and turns which need to be followed.  I highly recommend this book.

Please follow the link to Meghan McCarthy's website attached to her name.  There her other nonfiction titles are listed with extras.  This is an interview of Meghan McCarthy at Publishers Weekly about her work and this title which is a must read.  Here is a pdf of the 2014 brochure for Chester Greenwood Day in Maine.

Please read about other nonfiction titles featured by bloggers participating in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by educator Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Sweet Delicacy Travels Through Time

There is an abundance of moments brimming with calm (not to be confused with quiet), comfort and connection when people gather to share a meal.  If it's been prepared by one or more of them, it's even better.  It's almost like a dance when you work with someone in the kitchen making food for family or friends.

Some of my most treasured items are handwritten recipes from those friends and family members.  They are like Valentines, expressions of love and a willingness to share something of value.  A Fine Dessert:  Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat (Schwartz & Wade, January 27, 2015) written by Emily Jenkins with illustrations by Sophie Blackall offers readers an opportunity to follow a recipe from place to place from time to time.

A bit more than three hundred years ago, in an English town called Lyme, a girl and her mother picked wild blackberries.

They picked with purpose but enjoyed an occasional taste as they filled their baskets. Saved cream from daily milk given by their cow was beaten with twigs gathered and bound in a bunch.  Fifteen minutes passed before the cream was whipped.

Washed with cool clean well water the berries were smashed and strained in muslin to remove the seeds.  Added sugar sweetened them before they were folded into the whipped cream.  To wait to be eaten with supper, the confection was stored near ice carefully saved inside a cellar carved within a nearby hill.  It was served to the immense satisfaction of the family with the younger cook later savoring every last taste from the bowl.

This is the pattern painted with words in which the three other places, Charleston, South Carolina, Boston, Massachusetts and San Diego, California are visited.  For each the gathering and assembling of the ingredients alters.  For each the people who enjoy the dessert changes according to the historical period in which they live.

When we move forward one hundred years, a mother and daughter again picked the berries but they were slaves on a southern plantation.  The utensil for beating improved from wood to wire as had the acquisition of the cream.  Storage prior to dinner was now inside in a specially conceived box in a basement.  The mother and her daughter hid to enjoy the last of the blackberry goodness from the bowl.

In the year 1910 a girl and her mother purchased the blackberries from a street vendor.  The cream in a glass bottle was delivered in the morning.  After a cookbook was consulted for the recipe, beaters cut the whipping time to five minutes.  Water for rinsing and storage for cooling were accessible in the kitchen.  When the time was right nothing was left in the mixing bowl.  It was licked clean.

About five years ago a father and his son went to a store to purchase the berries and the cream.  While his dad used the computer to locate the recipe, the boy whipped the cream with an electric mixer.  As you can imagine the time was considerably shorter than in 1710 and not nearly as physically taxing.  Water for rinsing and storage for cooling were modernized.  A diverse array of family and friends gathered to enjoy the meal and this Fine Dessert.  And the bowl left in the kitchen...

Emily Jenkins with the sure knowledge of a storyteller supplies listeners and readers with a guide, like an extended hand beckoning us to follow, for each of the four scenarios.  We are eager to meet the new families.  We want to know how they get the berries, cream and water.

It's interesting to see the time expended and tool used to whip the cream.   For each of the family members whipping the cream, three separate phases are delineated. Word choices vary depicting a sound.  Within three hundred years, once the Blackberry Fool is made, the means for keeping it cool are similar but much more convenient as the years pass.

What makes each of these stories more intimate is the repetition of certain acts and phrases.  The parent asking the child if they want to lick the spoon or spatula, the use of different colored dishes for serving, the

Mmmmm.  Mmmmm.  Mmmmm.

after family members eat the dessert and the final bowl licking in the kitchen or hidden from view in the cupboard.  We find ourselves looking for the changes and ties across time.

The cream color on the dust jacket, used as a backdrop for all the illustrations throughout the book, speaks to us of a shared history.  Sophie Blackall frames the first daughter with the brambles from a blackberry bush, her home in the background.  On the left of the opened jacket, the back, beginning with 1710 each child is holding a bowl of the Blackberry Fool as they walk toward the right above the appropriate dates also framed in the leaves with berries.

Beneath the dust jacket, the book case is a striking array of blackberry branches filled with leaves and ripening or ripened berries.  Small white butterflies flutter among the vines.  For the endpapers Blackall

squished blackberries through a sieve with a spoon and used the purple juice

like paint.  The title page is a swirl of leaves and berries with five circles framed to showcase the title and each of the dates with the homes.

Like Emily Jenkins with her words Sophie Blackall has formed a lovely layout depicting the expected shifts but also featuring the timeless quality of making this dessert between the generations.  Using Chinese ink, watercolor, and the blackberry juice she varies her images in size from two pages, to smaller pictures on a single page, to three images on one page showing the passage of time, to four small vignettes encased in delicate blackberry vines done in two colors, to a single page and finally to a large visual crossing the gutter to form a column for text on the opposite page.  Her fine lines draw attention to all the detail given to each home, the clothing worn by the families, and the furniture and decor in each dwelling.

The facial expressions, body movements and actions of the family members endear us to each of them.  We smile knowingly at the son giving a scrap of food to a nearby cat at the table, we join in the cheerful conversation of a mother and daughter picking berries, we can't help but giggle at the baby tugging on his sister's skirt and gaze longingly at the gathering beneath glowing jars hung in a garden as a child chases a firefly.   The matte-finished paper adds to the sensory texture of Blackall's pictures.

One of my favorite scenes is of the mother in 1910.  She is first shown reading a recipe book with the bowl and beaters in front of her on the table.  She is next using the beaters to whip the cream intent on her task.  In the final element in this image she is holding the bowl of whipped cream with the beater standing up in the bowl.  I love the expression on her face!  She's looking off the page.  You don't know if someone else has got her attention or if she is looking to see if she can sneak a taste of the cream unnoticed.

Every aspect of A Fine Dessert:  Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat written by Emily Jenkins with illustrations by Sophie Blackall is scrumptious.  The dust jacket, book case, endpapers, interior illustrations and fascinating narrative will captivate and charm readers of all ages.  It's a delectable blend of history, family and food.  This title will be placed on my 2016 Mock Caldecott list.  Both Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall include wonderful notes at the book's end.

To discover more about Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  Sophie Blackall chronicles her illustrative process on her blog. On the School Library Journal Curriculum Connections blog a post provides for educational extensions.  TeachingBooks.net lists numerous resources including four interviews.  At Publishers Weekly both Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall are interviewed about this book.  Here is a link to This Picture Book Life paying tribute to the work of Sophie Blackall. UPDATE October 23, 2015 Sophie Blackall writes a response to comments on Calling Caldecott on her blog.

I am about to clean my purchased blackberries with water running from my kitchen sink.  I will strain the berries with a spoon in a small-holed colander.  Whipping the cream with my electric mixer, I will gradually add in the sugar and probably double the amount of vanilla listed in the recipe at the back of the book.  There is no doubt in my mind I will be spooning this treat directly from the mixing bowl into my waiting mouth. Yum...yum...

Monday, January 26, 2015

Keep Looking

Nearly forty years ago I found myself exploring the Jordan River (Michigan) when canoeing with friends.  This vantage point, being in the valley and on the water, was breathtaking.  To fully experience the vastness of this 18,000 acre block of state-owned forest land a drive down one of the nearby county roads, cruising up hills and down again and winding around corners, provides you with stunning vistas.  On a clear day with the sun at the right height the hues of red, gold and orange in autumn are stunning.  In the winter months all the bare branches look like a border of black lace between the ground and sky.  As the days get warmer and longer hints of green begin appearing until, seemingly overnight a variety of shades spreads throughout the trees like delicate filigree.

Fairly early I learned not to wish my life away but the waiting between seasons, knowing the beauty each one brings, is never easy.  In Carin Berger's latest title, Finding Spring (Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, January 27, 2015) a cub can't wait to experience this change.  Curiosity leads him on a merry chase.

The forest was growing cold.
Mama said that soon it would be time to sleep,
but all Maurice could think about was his first spring. 

He makes a melody of the word, singing as they follow the path through the woods. Maurice wants spring more than he wants to sleep. Mama softly speaks to him before she drifts into slumber.

Wrapped in his red scarf Maurice ventures outside to find spring.  All his forest friends are busy getting ready for winter.  Squirrel, rabbit, deer and robin each advise him to wait as they bury, dash, eat or fly.  Fueled by the eagerness of his age he keeps on walking but he begins to sense something unfamiliar.

This newness must be spring. First one than another of those frosty flowers, no two alike, touch Maurice before quickly disappearing.  Racing after them through the woods and over an ice-covered stream to stand on the Great Hill, he is very nearly speechless at the spectacle before him.  He breaks into song.

Taking off his scarf he tucks some spring inside. Returning to their cozy den, he sleeps contentedly next to Mama.  Maybe because he got a late start, Maurice is the last to wake up.  His collected proof has vanished.  With maternal wisdom, Mama asks the right question.

With her words Carin Berger brings readers into a story soothing but sprightly in tone.  She blends a world coming to rest with a little bear ready for adventure.  Eloquent descriptions of place and Maurice's experiences make us feel as though we are there with him.  Here are two sample passages.

"I am looking for spring,"
Maurice told Squirrel.
"That might take a while,"
Squirrel chittered,
turning to bury
a large acorn.

The woods 
smelled musky,
and there was 
something new
and tangy
in the air.

The rolling hills dotted with flowers extend flap edge to flap edge on the dust jacket (working from an F & G). Carin Berger portrays the flowers spinning in the air above Maurice's head to replicate his observations of winter.  On the left (back) of the jacket on the creamy background we read

Spring is all a little bear
named Maurice
can think about.
Where is it?
What is it?
When will it arrive?

On the opening and closing endpapers Berger uses old-looking dark tan lined paper with the lines running vertically.  A single path of tiny seeds blowing in the wind twirls from edge to edge along the upper half.  (On the verso at the back we see from where the seeds come.) Maurice is running along past a patch of grass and flowers placed under the text on the title page.

Using cut-paper collages made

using ephemera, such as catalogues, old books, receipts, letters, and ticket stubs

Carin Berger fashions a world of gentle, playful wonder using a full color palette leaning toward more natural colors.  Fine lines, exquisite detail and marvelous points of view invite readers to look at each illustration carefully.  Image sizes span across two pages or several smaller visuals may be grouped together to match the rhythm of the text.  The articles of clothing worn by the forest animals add to the overall whimsy.  Matte-finished paper lends itself beautifully to the overall softness of the narrative.

One of my favorite pictures of many is a single page.  We are looking down at Maurice as he stands between two trees.  Berger has cut out dainty branches in circular shapes.  A single small snowflake is touching the tip of Maurice's nose.  The text arcs around the top of the bottom tree.  This announces a shift in the story line.

With every reading of Finding Spring written and illustrated by Carin Berger the story becomes more endearing.  It reminds us we might find something special and beautiful when looking for something else.  It reminds us to enjoy every single day of the present while anticipating the future.  Everything about the illustrations, the texture, the blend of light and shadow, colors, intricate elements and layout, is remarkable.

To discover more about Carin Berger and her work please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  Julie Danielson, author and blogger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, features her in an interview at Kirkus.  Artwork will follow on her blog this week.  She also talked with Carin Berger last year at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast about this title.  There are several illustrations about the process in making the art for this book. UPDATE:  HarperCollins Childrens blog posted this activity for making shadow boxes to go with this title.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Then And Now

In fifty-six days the spring equinox will arrive in northern Michigan.  On most days slower walks and careful eyes will reward you with signs of life in the snow, deer and rabbit tracks, and zig-zag lines just under the top of a small animal moving from one place to another.  By holding branches on shrubs and trees, tiny buds are seen waiting for a chance to alter their appearance.  On milder nights a whiff of skunk in the air reminds you to be wary.  The end of the long pause is getting closer.

The shift of winter to spring, spring to summer, summer to fall and fall back to winter year after year are a promise of what will come.  Expectations are measured by what we know.  French artists Anne-Margot Ramstein and Matthias Aregui have designed and published a unique look at change in their title Before After (Candlewick, October 14, 2014).

Without a single word we wander through the pages and wonder about the differences time brings to animate and inanimate things.  The first two pages show us, left to right, a moon surrounded by stars and a constellation in a black sky followed by a pale sky blue with a fiery sun in the center.  A bud on a green stem reveals a daisy in full bloom.  These concepts are easy to understand.

The birth of a jungle near a towering mountain and the building of a city across an empty skyline have a common element in the next two images.  Can you guess what it might be?  A caterpillar consumes a leaf but a page turn has the same caterpillar in a new spot flying away as a butterfly.  Two separate shifts sharing something in common.

A single word, rocket, depending on the definition, can have dissimilar results.  Our mind is taken from items needed to bake a cake, to the origin of the item, to the presentation, representation, of this point of origin and back to a single slice left of the cake.  A series of pages take us through the seasons in obvious and unusual approaches.

The passage of time, the introduction of heat, and the effects of weather are depicted with normalcy and drama; fishing through the ice and fishing from a boat and a ship caught in a storm ending up beneath the waves on the bottom of the sea.  Sheep wandering among the hills produce yarn but hands holding needles knit a hat made from yarn.  A scene in a wintry forest with an axe stuck in wood becomes a crackling blaze inside a fireplace.

Exploration of thought processes goes from octopus to a volcanic mountain island in twelve pages.  Vision is given to building something and how it is broken.  A more essential form of light is lost but inventions change how light is delivered in homes.

Like the caterpillar, a chameleon is shown with instinctive skills but also as an agent causing loss of life.  Pages representing a well-known fairy tale rely on the familiar.  Eight illustrations on twelve pages close the book much as our day closes taking us back to the beginning.

The variety of viewpoints conceived by Anne-Margot Ramstein and Matthias Aregui cover a wide range but a connective thread runs through all the pages.  Their presentation of what we know is stretched asking us to look deeper.  Their visual interpretation of time is classic but refreshing in the combinations.

The book case when opened asks us to take the usual and flip it around.  On the back the acorn, caterpillar and chicken are beneath the tree, butterfly and egg. The endpapers are also opposite; the opening pages, left to right, are black and white.  At the end we see white, then black.  To the left of the title page, the verso holds a picture of an hourglass nearly full.  On the final page it is empty; all the sand rests on the bottom.

Rendered digitally all the pictures captivate readers with a design which moves our eyes from left to right in an easy flow.  Ramstein and Aregui, for the most part, use single pages to contain their images but nineteen visuals span two pages for more impact asking us to stop before the next illustration. A full color palette on heavy matte-finished paper invites repeated readings.

Several of my favorite illustrative combinations are the chimney for the fireplace on the following page showing smoke coming out during a snow storm with a stork safely nesting on the top in the spring.  The humor of the duo comes through in the four pages where we view an egg, a chicken, then a chicken and an egg.  The woodland scene near a pond during daylight and then at night is lovely; a prelude to the end of a day and the end of the book.

Before After created by artists Anne-Margot Ramstein and Matthias Aregui is a fascinating look at the minutes, hours, days, week, months and years of our lives portrayed by inviting us to alter our perceptions.  The possibilities for use in the classroom are only limited by your imagination; discussions and opportunities for creativity.  As I read this over and over I kept thinking about how these two planned out the pages; what lead them to go from one concept to the next.  You could pair this title with Tomorrow's Alphabet written by George Shannon with illustrations by Donald Crews.

The websites for Anne-Margot Ramstein and Matthias Aregui can be accessed by following the links embedded in their names.  They appear in French but can be translated.  At Matthias Aregui's site there are fifteen double page spreads from the interior of the book.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On The Inside

Labels are helpful when wanting to know the ingredients in a particular food product, how often to take a specific medicine, or the needed number of applications for a foolproof fertilizer for the lawn and garden.  These labels are designed to inform and protect. When labels are given to people rather than things their value diminishes.

Even if the label for someone is good, it might tend to stop us from truly knowing them.  If we are told over and over we are one thing, it might be hard to uncover who we are and how best to use our gifts.  Red: A Crayon's Story (Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, February 3, 2015) written and illustrated by Michael Hall follows a crayon's journey to self-discovery.

He was red

So says pencil, chief narrator of this tale.  For reasons obvious to the reader or listener Red lacks the ability to be as the paper wrap suggests he should be.  Everything he draws is blue.

His teacher believes practice is the answer.  His strawberries look like weird-shaped blueberries.  His mother tries her best by encouraging Red to mix with others like Yellow.  She is hoping to see a nice orange orange.  It's not quite ripe yet.

Silver and Gray, Red's grandparents, make him a gift of a scarf to ward off the chill they are certain he is feeling.  It's going to take more than apparel to make this crayon red.  It seems every crayon in the box has an opinion but nothing seems to work.  Even when other members of the art table, tape, scissors and a sharpener, get involved the result is the same.  What Red reads is not what Red sees.

But...on a very special day, a day Red will always remember, a new pal in the pack, Berry, asks Red to color the ocean beneath the boat.  Red denies he can do it because he is red after all but with Berry's encouragement Red draws wavy water.  And it's blue.  And it's easy for Red to do!

Red can't stop now; everything he creates is correctly colored.  Pencil and the box crowd change their words as fast as a finger snap.  His teacher finally understands uttering a prophetic truth.

With those first three words Michael Hall captures our undivided attention; conflicting with the image seen, a bright blue crayon wrapped in a Red crayon label.  With nearly all the narrative phrases he includes comments from another crayon or group of crayons adding an emotional layer to his story.  These candid observations readily define their personalities.  Here is a sample combination.

His mother thought he needed
to mix with other colors.

Why don't
you two
go out
and draw
a nice,

A really
big one. (Yellow)

A really
one! (Red)

Opening the dust jacket of the F & G the solid blue on the front carries across to the left and extends into each flap.  The comments of the orange and yellow crayons at the bottom on the front announce the contrast between the color and the color tag.  On the back the berry and purple crayons make comments foreshadowing the story's outcome.  The blue used in Red on the front is used again on the title page.  A stark white background provides a canvas for the pencil's words

As told by me!

 written in gray on black paper taped to the page.  In the lower left corner a portion of scissors can be seen near scraps of black paper.  This is clearly a story told by items of interest to artists.

The illustrations are placed on either a black or white background with lots of empty space drawing readers' eyes toward the individual elements and the text.  All drawings made by Red, Scarlet, Yellow, the other students in class, and Berry look as if they have been drawn using crayons.  Simple but purposeful in layout, the perspective does not shift except at the explicit turning point.

One of my favorite illustrations is for the phrase

But he didn't catch on.

Green draws a

Green frog!

Black draws a

Black sheep!

 Brown draws a

Brown cow! 

Red draws an ant that is blue.  For his text we read...


If you've ever felt like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, Red:  A Crayon's Story written and illustrated by Michael Hall is a perfect pick.  It's a story highlighting the journey necessary to find your true self.  It's about that one person who might help you make the discovery.  This is a story when shared will be appreciated by any age.  Wonderful!

If you are interested in learning about Michael Hall and his other work please visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  This link takes you to the book trailer reveal by author, New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collection Specialist and blogger at A Fuse #8 Production, Elizabeth Bird.  Here is a link to 7 Reasons Why Your Child's Bookshelf Needs RED courtesy of the publisher.  My posts for his other titles, Perfect Square and It's An Orange Aardvark can be read by following the links.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Portrait Of A Prodigy

Sitting among other musicians as sounds swirl around you and feeling the beat deep in your bones is one of the finest things in the world.  Our band director was a master at bringing the best out in all of us.  Memories of practicing and performing with classmates for more than six years are lasting for all the right reasons.

In the beginning it is not always easy to perfect your musical abilities but for some their special gifts shine at an early age.  It's as if the rhythms of the world are calling to them.  Little Melba and Her BIG TROMBONE (Lee & Low Books Inc., September 1, 2014) written by Katheryn Russell-Brown with illustrations by Frank Morrison is an uplifting tribute to the life and work of an extraordinary instrumentalist and composer.

SPREAD THE WORD! Little Melba Doretta Liston was something special.

From the time of her birth, 1926, and

as far back as her memory would go,

Melba was surrounded by music; raised in an era and home thriving on beautiful beats.  As early as seven years old she knew she wanted to study this in class at school.  Looking for an instrument to play, a trombone caught her eye.  Her mother simply could not say no.

Her grandfather, a guitarist himself, gave her pointers and encouragement.  There was no bedtime for Melba the first night she owned her trombone.  She worked and worked until an easy melody could be heard.  And she kept right on practicing.

Within a year her talent was noticed by a local radio station; her horn's sounds broadcast over the airwaves.  The effects of the Great Depression caused Melba and Momma Lucille to move from Kansas City to Los Angles.  Changes were coming to eleven-year-old Melba.  Her intelligence was noted moving her up two grade levels.

By the time she was in high school her abilities as a trombonist were superior to all others her age.  Her skills as a player continued to grow as did her accomplishments at composition.  At seventeen she left home to begin playing with a band led by Gerald Wilson on tour in the United States.  She toured in another band with Billie Holiday through the south.  When tough times came, the tunes helped to sustain her.

Even when she wasn't sure, people were certain they wanted to hear the sound this remarkable woman made with her trombone.  They wanted to play the music she created.  Her notes were heard then and now around the world.

The first thing you notice when reading the words penned by Katheryn Russell-Brown in this title is the passion; passion she has for Melba Liston and the passion Melba Liston had for music.  Specific details reveal Russell-Brown's  meticulous research.  She is as much a composer as Liston using word choices rather than notes to supply a tempo throughout her text.  Beginning and ending her narrative with the same sentence is further evidence.  Here is a sample passage.

Traveling with the band was a thrill.  Each city, from Salt Lake to New York, was an eyeful of something new.

Melba became a master musician.  She composed and arranged music, spinning rhythms, harmonies, and melodies into gorgeous songs.  And when Melba played the trombone, her bold notes and one-of-a-kind sound mesmerized the crowd. 

When you look at the matching dust jacket and book case painted by artist Frank Morrison you immediately want to know who this girl is playing an instrument bigger than she is.  Her happiness revealed by her body posture very nearly sings off the page.  On the left, back, is the complementary color purple with only the trombone and a quote from Melba Liston about her first trombone.  The golden hue on the opening and closing endpapers appears frequently on other images.  In fact all the illustrations painted in oil by Frank Morrison seem to glow.

The layout and design of Morrison's art is marvelous, shifting from two-page pictures with framed text, to visuals crossing the border to make a column on the left or right for the narrative, edge to edge double-page illustrations with embedded text, framed smaller images on a page with text above and below and full page wordless pictures.  Details reflecting time and place take us into Melba Liston's world.  His people's faces are beautiful in their expressions and in the play of light and shadow.

Two of my favorite illustrations are of Melba playing her trombone.  The first is of her and her grandfather working together the first night.  His arms are stretched to hold the instrument for her as she stands close to him.  He is seated on a bench next to the brick wall of their home, a guitar leaning against the side.  In this picture the word stretch breaks the border of the image mirroring the slide on the horn.  In the second picture Melba is older with a closer perspective as she plays.  Behind her are a keyboard with notes and memorabilia, playbills of her shows.  With little imagination you can hear her song.

Little Melba and Her BIG TROMBONE written by Katheryn Russell-Brown with illustrations done in oil paint by Frank Morrison is one of the most inspirational biographies of 2014.  This girl crossed barriers with a heart full of music, determination and perseverance.  It makes you want to find your own music and follow it the best you can for the rest of your life.

To explore and discover more about Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Follow these links to the publisher's website to read an interview with Katheryn Russell-Brown about her research, an interview with Frank Morrison about his process and a post about his playlist when working on this book. John Schumacher, teacher librarian extraordinaire chatted with author Katheryn Russell-Brown about this book on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read.

Please remember to check the other books featured by bloggers this week who are participating in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by educator Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

You Don't Look Like A...

Before the first word is read at story time, the guys and gals are asked to stand, hold hands and make a circle.  Then those words they love are uttered, let's pretend.  You are a baby elephant wanting to get your mother's attention; put your hands together forming a trunk and trumpet.  You are a puppy outside for the final time that day with your human; raise your nose to the moon and howl.  You are a duckling who just can't keep up; waddle and quack to tell your siblings to slow down.  You are a kitten trying to catch a dragonfly; you move with caution, pounce and swipe with your paws.

If you've ever watched newborn and young animals, they mimic their parents instinctively knowing this will increase their chances of survival.  They are constantly being coached to sharpen these skills.   What if they like the children pretended to be other than themselves?  Those two darling characters first introduced to readers in Hey, Duck! (Random House, January 22, 2013) written and illustrated by Carin Bramsen have returned in a companion title, Just a Duck? (Random House, January 27, 2015).  

My good friend Duck!
Why slink like that?

Well, can't you see? I am a cat.

Cat brings to Duck's attention his lack of similar physical characteristics.  Ever the optimist Duck says he will look like Cat once he grows up.  His ears are simply tiny but Cat sees no ears whatsoever.

Noticing Duck's crestfallen look Cat decides to agree with Duck.  With a whoop of joy, Duck joins Cat in a favorite pastime.  Tree climbing proves to be a bit of a challenge though.  Like a true friend Cat again suggests Duck needs time for claws to grow.

When Duck suggests they try to play canoe on the lake, Cat's eyes widen.  Another idea seems much better; run, jump and catch a leaf.  Oh! No!   A last leap off the end of the dock results in a resounding splash.  Water and cats don't go together.

Concern for a cherished companion has Duck splashing into the pond regardless of a cat's dislike of all things wet.  With a death grip on a nearby floating log, Cat looks wild and wide-eyed at the little duck.  Dry land is definitely a desired destination.  Heroic efforts and a little rock 'n' roll make for a wonderful watery outcome.

This story starts, as did the first title, with the slinking of cats.  Rather than wanting Cat to be a duck, Duck now thinks and acts like a cat.  This ties neatly to the last word of Hey, Duck!, MEOW!  Lilting, rhyming sentences by Carin Bramsen wrap readers in the warmth of Duck and Cat's friendship. Their conversations reveal a strengthening in their relationship; a give-and-take banter.  Here is a sample passage.

Oh, dear! This
really is a shame.
I think I'm off my
climbing game.

Now, now. We climb with
claws, you know.
Your claws might need some
time to grow.
On, yes, I think they're still
too small... 

Unfolding the dust jacket, we are treated to an illustration spanning both pages of the weathered boards of the rustic, rich red barn as a background for Cat and Duck.  Added details of the forget-me-nots, poppies, pansies and sunflowers along with the battered green bucket with garden tools provide readers with more information about the home of the two pals.  Carin Bramsen's meticulous details add texture to this and all the pictures throughout, inviting you to touch each one.  Downy yellow duckling feathers cover the opening and closing endpapers. Splashing water is the backdrop for the verso.  On the title page, as on the front dust jacket, Duck's wings are uplifted; he's looking at them wondering if they are paws.

Bramsen shifts the image sizes to enhance the cadence of her story; two page spreads, smaller illustrations on a single page, a single page visual or a single image like a cutout surrounded by white space.  For the sequence of Duck trying to climb a tree and Duck and Cat in the lake there are eight wordless squares on two pages.   Facial features of each character are so expressive no words are necessary.

Every single image exudes enchanting appeal but one of my favorites is the first one in the book.  Duck is bent over raising his tiny legs to replicate the smooth movements of a cat.  Close behind in the grass is Cat.  As usual they are engaged in a chat.  In the distance we can see the barns, brilliant blue sky and rolling green hills.

Just a Duck? written and illustrated by Carin Bramsen continues to explore the themes of personal identity and friendship through a story brimming with charm in text and illustrations.  You keep hoping the characters will walk right off the pages into your presence.  So lovable are Duck and Cat, this book will be read and read again preferably with distinctive voices.

To explore more about Carin Bramsen and her other books please visit her website by following the link embedded in her name.  At the publisher's website you get a sneak peak at more interior pages.  Here is an interview of Carin Bramsen at Frog On A Blog posted shortly after my review of her first book.

Monday, January 19, 2015

It Wasn't Me

When you are the oldest child in the family, blame for seemingly everything lands squarely on your shoulders.  It's obvious you can't point the finger at a younger sibling when the mishap in question involves writing or reading and they can't do either yet.  (In one of my not-the-sharpest-tack-in-the-box moments, I tried this very thing.) When it comes to the disappearance of all the chocolate chips from the package it's an entirely different story.  Anyone can accomplish this feat, even if they are too short to reach the cupboard.

As I have mentioned before if it gets to the point when no one is willing to take responsibility, the "ghost" is blamed. The Bear Ate Your Sandwich (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, January 6, 2015) written and illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach is about a bear's apparent quest for an irresistible meal.  Anyone who has watched Yogi Bear running, jumping and swinging his way around Jellystone Park knows bears simply can't help themselves when it comes to lunch boxes and picnic baskets.  Right?

By now I think you know what happened to your sandwich.  But you may not know how it happened.  So let me tell you

This unseen narrator confidently relates how a bear gets a whiff of something delicious as he steps outside his den.  A bed of a pickup truck is loaded with boxes of plump berries.  He climbs inside, eats every last one and dozes off to sleep full and happy.

When he awakens the sounds of the forest have been replaced with a distinctive grumbling vibration.  Trees are no longer visible but tall rock-like structures appear on all sides.  When the grumbling vibration is silenced, he sets off to explore this amazing place.

It is definitely different but he is blissfully replicating some of his same activities.  The smells are out of this world, leading him to another open place filled with fun.  This is when, according to the narrator, the bear notices the sandwich, unattended.  It's like it is asking him to eat it; which he does without a second thought.

As the last bite is being swallowed, he hears unmistakable sounds of witnesses to his deed.  He skedaddles as fast as he can to the closest, tallest tree; searching and sighting his woodland home.  Another journey using another mode of transportation brings him back to the sights and sounds he knows so well.  But dear readers, as you may have guessed, this is not the end of the story.  There is more.  It might involve a piece of lettuce.

Like squirrels scampering along a trail of nuts, we readers follow the words written by Julia Sarcone-Roach.  Her nearly poetic descriptions of the bear, his ride in the back of the truck, his ventures in the city and the nearby park, his theft of the sandwich and subsequent return to his den are so meticulously conceived we are hard-pressed to contain our astonishment (and laughter) at the conclusion.  She surrounds us with the story rather than the truth.  Here is a sample passage.

He was being quickly swept
along like a leaf in a great river.
The forest disappeared in the 
distance and high cliffs rose up
around him.

As I am awaiting the arrival of my book and currently working with an F & G, the illustrations rendered in acrylic paints and pencil by Julia Sarcone-Roach are rich and luminous beginning with the dust jacket.  From the front with the bear eyeing the sandwich with obvious interest, we move to the left with a shift in perspective.  Sarcone-Rich has zoomed in on the sandwich in the lunch box placing a shadow of the bear squarely in the center with the word


Eighteen squares on the opening and closing endpapers feature seventeen different kinds of sandwiches.  Initially we see them in all their uneaten glory; only to see mere crumbs at the end.  Revealing noses in the eighteenth place divulge the secret.  The pictorial story begins on the double-page picture for the title page; a bear is curled in his den framed by leaves.

A vivid color palette of golden yellows, spring and forest greens, turquoise, red, orange and rustic browns create sensory images.  Even though not all the illustrations span across the gutter edge to edge, our eyes flow easily from image to image even if they are single pages or smaller pictures grouped together.  From fluid brush strokes to tiny details Sarcone-Roach defines every single scene telling us more than the text states.

For the words

This forest had many great climbing spots.

we see Bear going up the side of a building, perched on the edge of a fire escape, moving paw over paw hanging upside down on a clothes line between buildings, climbing a roof and squeezing through the O opening in the word HOTEL on a sign.  His body positions, stretching by his den, in the city alleys, on the playground and when he sees the sandwich, will have you grinning not to mention his facial expressions.  Two of my favorite visuals are the panoramic view as the truck moves from the forest across the bridge into the city with bear sitting up in the back of the truck looking around and of him returning home, touching his paw to the water.  They are two varied viewpoints both having emotional impact.

 The Bear Ate Your Sandwich written and illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach is a spirited blend of text and pictures.  The twist, the final reveal, will have readers and listeners gasping first, and then giggling.  I think it's time to start my Mock Caldecott list for 2016.

To learn more about Julia Sarcone-Roach, her artwork and her other titles please follow the link embedded in her name to access her website.  This link takes you to the publisher's website where you can get a peek at some of the interior pages.  If you want to see lots of behind the scenes and process images for this book head on over to author and blogger Julie Danielson's site Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.