Quote of the Month

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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Solid As A...

Decades after the first lesson, my eyes are still scanning the beaches.  It needs to be the right shape to smoothly fit in the curve formed by my thumb and index finger.  If it's not the correct weight, too heavy or too light, it won't sail over and bounce on the water.  With the precise angle and wrist action, a personal best is always possible.  It's not simply about skipping stones though but the memories attached to the days.

When gathering rocks for an outdoor fireplace, a garden wall or pathway through the yard, conversations are remembered.  After permission is granted, a farmer may be ready to chat.  There is history within rocks, a history of our earth, but there is history surrounding rocks and their use by humans and other animals.  You have to be ready to look, touch and listen.

Few collaborative efforts express genuine appreciation for natural elements more than the books, A Leaf Can Be... and Water Can Be... written by Laura Purdie Salas with illustrations by Violeta Dabija.  Their third title, A Rock Can Be... (Millbrook Press, March 1, 2015) is as illuminative and inspirational as its predecessors.

A rock is a rock.
It's sand, pebble, stone.
Each rock tells a story,
a tale all its own.

With an introduction as comforting as a beloved sanctuary, readers are enveloped in this new exploration of earth's foundation.

Eleven two-word pairs portray a particular perspective.  We are guests in a conversation created by two gifted artists, one in words and the other in illustrations.  We are awakened to wonders we might never see or those we fail to notice daily.

Rocks offer challenges to be met or vessels for water.  They preserve the prehistoric past or lead us to a destination.  As a fiery rumble or a silent glow, these stones speak.  Game pieces, building adornment, and warmth maker, their uses are numerous.

Rocks provide shelter, form sandy hills, light the night sky and supply the finishing touch on a living planet.  They make mealtime easier, give sanctuary to sailors and bridge boundaries.  Seen on hands, in village squares, on bookshelves and in farming communities, their purpose is apparent.

Now go and discover
what else it can be!

When these marvelous two-word couplets are formed by the masterful Laura Purdie Salas the passion she feels for her subject is there for us to read.  Not only does she reveal how rocks shape our lives but her descriptions ask us to examine how we select words to express ourselves.  I can imagine her thinking about all the spots and spaces occupied by rocks, then choosing the exact combinations to make it a sensory experience for us.  Here are two of her couplets.

Tall mountain
Park fountain

Volcano flow-er
Night glow-er

Using a blend of traditional and digital media, the luminosity seen in the earlier titles returns in these illustrations rendered by Violeta Dabija. The matching dust jacket and book case take us to the seashore where the cheerful crab and sentinel seagull (on the back) direct us to the title and a poetic question, respectively.  It's interesting to compare the three books together.  The solid color endpapers on one become the main background color for the jacket and case on another.  In this instance the blue from Water Can Be... supplies the opening and closing hues.  The golden yellow from this book is seen on the endpapers of A Leaf Can Be... as well as on its title. A circle of pebbles in blue, golden yellow, brown and white frame the text on this book's title page.  The beach from the jacket and case appears as a double-page spread for the verso and first page; two feet resting on sand and pebbles, a fish fossil in view.

With each image Dabija places all the elements with care making strikingly atmospheric scenes.  You want to climb her mountains, walk through the glen next to an ancient fountain, eavesdrop on students in a museum or search for a perfect pebble.  Page turns give us a glorious window into another world.

Delicate details invite closer inspection; scrolled stone pots holding flowers, dust aglow from sunshine stirred by a butterfly's flight, or lace gracing a wrist.  Picture size, edge to edge, shifts with the poetic phrases from single to double.  The larger visuals are a breathtaking blend of two separate thoughts.

You can nearly hear the waves washing against the rock walled harbor in one of my favorite images.  On the left sailboats silently sit in a protective arc, a lighthouse guarding the entrance.  The buildings in the seaside community spread across the gutter from left to right.  A canal runs through the village center, bridges placed at intervals.  Shades of blue, purple and red with splashes of white supply a true feeling of serenity.

A Rock Can Be... written by Laura Purdie Salas with illustrations by Violeta Dabija has you wishing it was a pebble you could pick up and carry in your pocket.  Using our eyes and imaginations first and then using our own senses second, we notice rocks with a brand-new mindset.  This book is a gift from Laura Purdie Salas and Violeta Dabija to us.  Now we need to pass it on to others as often as we can. The concluding five pages showcase informative explanations about each of the two word phrases, a Glossary and a list of five books for Further Reading.  

To discover more about Laura Purdie Salas and Violeta Dabija please follow the links attached to their names.  You will be able to visit Salas's website and an illustrator page devoted to Dabija.  For most of March on a daily basis Laura Purdie Salas has been tweeting about all the things rocks can be.  They are collected on her blog.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Delectable Delight

We grow and shop for it.  We store, clean, freeze and cook it.  We arrange and decorate it.  We consume it.  By definition it is essential to sustaining life, supplying energy and supporting growth.

We have been known to play with it and fight with it.  Songs are sung about it.  Pictures are posted on social media about it.

We write about it and talk about it every single day.  And food, wonderful food, is playfully praised in this new title, The Popcorn Astronauts And Other Biteable Rhymes (Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, March 24, 2015) penned with poetic passion by Deborah Ruddell and illustrated with exquisite energy by Joan Rankin.  Grouped by the four seasons, beginning with spring, these twenty-one poems will have you thinking fresh reflections about food.

You might now look twice when you walk through the fruit section of the market, gazing to spot royalty. Gathered goodies in a basket can supply the classic ingredients for a memorable event.  A bird gives the word on the liquid concoction creation of his frog friend.  Do your furry companions give you a look of longing before you take a bite of your favorite dessert?  That's The Big Question.

Sometimes people will invite you to start eating by uttering the words "dive right in" but I don't think they mean it literally unless of course you are Welcome to Watermelon Lake!  A fussy ogre might remind you of another's eating habits.  I'll bet you've never heard this dried fruit referred to as an article of pirate clothing.  You'll sigh at the comparisons used by a poet ordering a frosty treat to beat the summer heat.

Spud lovers will be ready to travel in these tasty means of transportation but beware of the silverware.  I have to think the organizers of my city's fall festival will be eager to read a particular ode aloud.  What would be on your Menu for a Gray Day? (Think of a distinctive color.)  Despite his attempt to alter his familiar fare, the Count of vampire fame dines on his favorite for dessert.

Perennial comfort cuisine is celebrated in Stand and Cheer for MAC and CHEESE!  I wonder if Hansel and Gretel would have gotten in so much trouble if they had found this healthy house  Gliding and sliding across a pond in winter is ever so much better when sipping this hot blissful beverage.  Each year as candles are blown and wishes are made, how wonderful it would be if the cake described here appeared; to commemorate the passing days and this imaginative collection.

As each poem is read an appetite for the word gathering and blending of Deborah Ruddell grows.  Phrases combine to form a tempo as airy and sweet as meringue.  Line following line, every other line, or every third line rhymes are tantalizing feasts for our eyes and ears. The beat supplied by her structure of two words paired with three words all ending in "it" is an excellent example of her skills.  Here is a sample poem from her section on summer.

Speaking of Peaches...
There is so much to say about peaches,
but it's hard to know where to begin.
Do you start with the flowery fragrance,
or the summery sweetness within?

Or the juice, as it stickily trickles
from your lips to the tip of your chin?
Or the sunset of beautiful colors
on the flannelpajamaty skin?

Rendered in watercolor the artwork of Joan Rankin spreads in a whimsical array across the dust jacket and all the images within this title.  Using a full color palette her distinctive, quirky characters fashioned with intricate lines will leave you smiling page turn after page turn.  On the matching opening and closing endpapers those very beings populating the poems are traveling across a hilly landscape filled with a broccoli forest, a castle, a cottage, a single shade tree perfect for a picnic and a very, very large birthday cake.

Whether specifically mentioned in the poems or not, she tends to use animals to characterize the portrayed activities and actions.  Their expressions, as are those on the humans, convey a range of emotions.  There is a soft delicacy to each interpretive illustration. Most of the pictures are contained on a single page but there are five double-page spreads as well as a single element placed to tie two separate visuals together.  Careful eyes will see the love put inside featured balloons.

One of my many favorite illustrations is for the poem, Gingerbread House Makeover.  Beautiful hues of green are found in the broccoli forest, the ground beneath the tree branches, along the pathway and on the structure of the home.  Her depiction of the radish roses, pea door knob, garlic clove chimney, and cauliflower stepping stones will have you racing to the vegetable bin.

Absolutely ideal for National Poetry Month but yummy any time of the year, The Popcorn Astronauts And Other Biteable Rhymes written by Deborah Ruddell with illustrations by Joan Rankin is a sensational celebration of food.   Fanciful and fun I highly recommend reading these aloud.  To add to the joy have some simple musical instruments handy.

To learn more about Deborah Ruddell please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  Here is a post about Joan Rankin dated November 8, 2010 at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators: South Africa-Gauteng. At the publisher's website you can view an interior image.

Friday, March 27, 2015

...But The Kitchen Sink

In five days a month long celebration held every April since 1996 begins.  It's a tribute to the power of words, worked in every imaginable form, evoking a plethora of emotion from readers, speakers and listeners.  It's heart with a focus on the art of linking letters.  It's National Poetry Month.

All around the world authors of verse (and illustrators too) will find their work in the spotlight.  On March 17, 2015 a new title by author and illustrator, Calef Brown, was released.  Hypnotize a Tiger:  Poems about just about Everything (Christy Ottaviano Books, an imprint of Henry Holt And Company) will have you toe tapping, giggling and grinning and reading aloud, even if there is no crowd but only your patient pooch pal.  Chapter headings, The Critterverse, My Peeps, The Insect Section, Poems Of A Particular Vehicular Nature, Schoolishness, Facts Poetic, Word Crashes, Good (And No So Good) Eats and Miscellaneous Silliness, containing poems numbering eight-four offer something for everyone.

A picky-eater parrot, a puppy with a yearning for your earnings and a bear with a knack for photographing panoramic views start the initial section in this collection.  We meet frogs that are pigeons and pigeons that are frogs, tadpoles, beavers, ox and geese.  A rooster with a desire to revise his morning edition rendition leads us to personalities with peculiarities.

A wide-eyed couch potato, a gentleman with a larger-than-life arm, a super hero caught in a dream and ladies wearing notable headgear are a few new friends.  Pupae with panache, fortunate ants, wayward bees and a termite with taste hang, crawl, buzz and crunch through the next passage.  People traveling by cycle, board, UFO or truck will have you wishing them all good luck.

Without a doubt you can identify with hallways leading nowhere and everywhere, foolhardy boys and their principals, cafeteria cuisine and gym teachers who've stepped out of nightmares.  An explanation for the exhaustion of a snow day experience will have you nodding in agreement.  It's a school day jubilee.

Oddities abound in these infractions of information.  Did you know thistle growers get assistance from whistle blowers?  Did you know dinosaurs dined on delicacies cooked over volcanoes?  I'm fairly certain mushers are going to want to know their dogs secretly access the Internet.

A passel of portmanteaus invite us to participate as we pause before venturing into the realm of meals and menus.  Catsup making cats, a berry eater who will not utter the word berry and a karate chopping biscotti chief offer up mindless merriment.  How can we resist the final pages of glee when we get to see the title appear in a poem titled Who?

As sweet as honey, as smooth as silk and as sure as stars will shine somewhere tonight, the words written by Calef Brown weave a poetic magic casting a spell over readers.  Timely topics chosen with care reflect typical and extraordinary people, places, creatures and things.  These poems make the absurd appear normal as the rhythms and rhymes beat within our collective minds.  Along the lower section of most pages, Brown adds asides like small variations on a common theme.   Here is a sample poem from the Good (and not so good) Eats section.

Bubble Crumbs
When a soap bubble
goes POP,
the tiny bits that drop
are known as bubble crumbs.
The trouble comes
when they land in a coffee cup
or end up on a piece of cantaloupe.
Do you detect
a hint of soap
in chicken soup
or pickled plums?
The likely culprit
(you guessed it)
is bubble crumbs.

Underneath we read...

This mulligatawny stew
has a subtle whiff of shampoo.

Like the cheerfulness of a sunny day, the golden yellow, sky blue, rich brown, white and gray hues appearing on the dust jacket exude welcoming warmth.  Your curiosity will be peaked as you look at the unique characters, flying saucer and strange dragonfly.  Notable author endorsements are framed on the back.  You are ready to read before the first page is turned.  On the blue, textured cloth book case the tiger is embossed in the lower right-hand corner.  Throughout the remainder of this title the images are rendered in white, blue and black.

Whimsical borders and two uneven fine lines frame the poems.  Each section is given two pages with the title, a poetic introduction and a character is showcased as one of the elements.  Along the bottom of the subsequent pages other stories in pictures and words are being told in blue line work, enhancing the wacky world Brown has created.

Each page turn offers us a new reason to slow down, taking time to look at all the details.  Humor and playfulness are in abundance.  How often do you see a bee hive growing from a man's chin, a skyscraper soaring into space, a bull chasing students around a gym, or a dog wearing Roman garb?

One of my many favorite illustrations is of a glasses-wearing rooster dressed in plaid pants and a jacket perched on a fence.  He happens to be realizing his dream of playing calypso drums as the sun rises over a pastoral scene.

Hypnotize a Tiger:  Poems about just about Everything written and illustrated by Calef Brown is a handful of happiness.  Read them silently or read them aloud.  Share them repeatedly with everyone you know.  This is poetry at its finest and funniest.

To explore more about Calef Brown and his work please visit his website by following the link embedded in his name.  At the publisher's website you can view eight interior images.  Calef Brown was interviewed at Illustration Friday in 2012 and at author and blogger, Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast in 2009.  Calef Brown and his books are featured at the special Reading Rockets, Launching young readers! website.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Monotonous Mirth

Beach glass among a shoreline strewn with dull gray rocks and pebbles stands out like a beacon.  Popping up through dusty brown leaves, the first crocus shouts out the changing season.  A star-studded midnight walk can shift into the realm of science fiction if the Northern Lights decide to pulse across the horizon.

Similarly if you've ever been in a day-to-day situation suddenly shaken from tedium by a glaring contrast, it's hard not to experience a huge emotional shift.  There are those who would gasp at the change in continuity.  Meet the Dullards (Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, March 24, 2015) written by Sara Pennypacker with illustrations by Daniel Salmieri is about such a family; at least the parents.

One day, Mr. and Mrs. Dullard received quite a nasty surprise.

They are shocked to see their daughter and sons reading books.  This is quite unacceptable.  As a replacement the children are given blank, pristine white, paper to read.

The behavior of the children has been rather strange. Mr. and Mrs. Dullard are certain something is influencing them in an unsavory manner.  They've asked to go to school.  They've been trying to play outside.  This calls for drastic action.

Let's pause here for a moment.  Mr. and Mrs. Dullard are exactly as their name implies.  They think a snail crossing the road is

like a circus around here.

Without a second thought the family packs up and moves to a new location.  The neighbor lady, as a show of good will, brings them an applesauce cake which is turned away due to the chunky ingredients.  To calm their nerves the children are instructed to watch television.  It is, of course, unplugged.

When the parents next check on their hopefully dull children in this new boring setting, they swoon from another surprise.  To cover this latest misadventure of their offspring, they head to the paint store.  After a suitable shade is selected and applied at home, they all stare at the walls watching it dry.

When Mr. and Mrs. shake themselves out of this pleasant reverie, their children have vanished.  What the parents discover is indeed appalling.  As quick as a wink Blanda, Borely, and Little Dud and all the Dullard possessions are again loaded into the car and trailer and the family heads back to their original residence.  Relieved that total dullness is restored mom and dad drift off to dreamland as the sister and brothers race toward their dreams.

Throughout the story the three children never utter a single word.  Sara Pennypacker pens a superb setting for comedy to prevail by combining parental conversations with the narration.  Her sentences leave space for visual interpretation by the illustrator by not always stating the specifics but they also leave no doubt as to the dreariness of the Dullard's lives.  Here are a couple of examples.

Mrs. Dullard shook her head sadly.
"Where did we go wrong?"
"Now, now," Mr. Dullard comforted his wife.
"It can't be our fault...we're perfectly dull.
"Perhaps it's this place," he said. "Last fall, remember, 
some leaves turned color. ...

"Please don't use exclamation marks in front of our children," said Mrs. Dullard.

The family Dullards featured on the front of the dust jacket (I'm working from an F & G) is as bland as can be; standing stiffly all in a row, wearing gray clothing, lacking any sort of style, with faces nearly devoid of expression.  The one exception is Little Dud.  His head turned to watch the dog balancing on the ball is the first hint of attitude drifting away from dull.  On the back, to the left, within a circular shape surrounded by blue sits an open box.  Its label reads Interesting Items.  Inside are a game, Monotony, and a book, Cooking Without Flavor.  The title page showcases three photographs, one for each of the children, shown in situations with their boredom in comparison to the other animated children.  With a page turn, the verso and first page of the narrative show the aghast looks on Mr. and Mrs. Dullard's faces as they see their children reading...horror of horrors...books.

Rendered in watercolor, gouache and colored pencil, the images stretch and fuel the text with utmost hilarity.  Daniel Salmieri has a true gift at featuring, through his pictures, insider moments in contradiction to the written words.  Most of the illustrations span two pages with only a few exceptions.  Those exceptions, like the image on the back of the dust jacket, are framed in a smaller circle, delineating a special sequence. Careful readers will watch the children, their body postures, and facial expressions to gather clues as humorous expectations grow.

One of my favorite illustrations is one of several which are wordless.  Mr. and Mrs. Dullard have found their children, after the watching-the-paint-dry episode, playing outside.  Spanning two pages is the open window with them standing on either side.  Against the background of a sky at sunset the children are engaged in activities reflective of their heart's desires, hinted at in their reading choices and their antics at the paint store.  The looks on everyone's faces are laughter inducing.

Meet the Dullards written by Sara Pennypacker with illustrations by Daniel Salmieri is most assuredly not the Extra Boring Edition!!  This title is going to become a story time and bedtime favorite due to what I term a supremely high laughter factor.  The constant comedic contrasts between text and images and the parents and their children make this a picture book prize.

For more information about both Sara Pennypacker and Daniel Salmieri please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Contained Within

Seeing not one but seven robins gathered on the lawn last week was like discovering a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.  Their voices joining the calls of chickadees, cardinals, crows and geese are uplifting.  It's easy to start imagining where they will set up housekeeping in the shrubs and trees around the house.

Perhaps a nest will be near enough to observe the pale blue eggs carefully laid, warmed and watched, the hatching, and the babies' first flight.  Numerous lives in the animal kingdom begin within an egg.  Egg:  Nature's Perfect Package (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 3, 2015), written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page, examines aspects of eggs you may or may not have considered.

Butterflies, frogs, sharks, and humans all begin life as an egg.  So does almost every other animal.

This title focuses on those eggs laid.  It's fascinating to realize a banana slug and a sea urchin lay eggs.  The sizes of eggs vary from those so tiny a microscope is needed to see them to those the size of my two closed fists.  It's also surprising to realize the size of the animal does not determine the size of the egg.  Small animals can have eggs much larger than those of gigantic creatures.

Eggs can be carefully placed where no predators are safe or out in the open.  It's a tad creepy to know where the spider wasp lays a single egg.  There are less than stellar parents who deposit their eggs with other eggs to avoid duties of raising their young.

The number of eggs laid often determines the quality of care received.  The royal albatross lays a single egg.  It will be another two years before they lay another egg.  While I knew the green sea turtle buries their eggs in the sand, I had no idea the number of miles they may swim to find a particular beach.  

Creativity is key for those animals desiring eggs as food.  They may use a rock to crack a shell, throw one between their back legs in order to strike a hard object or make use of a long bill. Knowing this, animals take steps to protect their eggs.  A colored cluster may warn of poison, a dark ink may hide individual eggs or releasing a disgusting liquid may provide discouragement.

Least you think eggs are similar in shape, that is not always the case.  Creatures supply a structure resilient to the environment in which they are laid.  When camouflage or the container for eggs is not sufficient, the eggs are taken with the female or male until birth.  

The black-eyed squid clutches her jelly-like egg sac with sharp hooks on her tentacles.  The sac contains as many as 3,000 eggs, and she will hold on to it for months, going without food until the eggs hatch.  

It's incredible to realize how eggs are kept warm; the maelo buries her eggs, if she has to, in the ashes of a nearby volcano which is active. When babies break free of the eggs, it must be at the right time.  For the brine shrimp it can take up to fifty years.  It can be tricky when you think of how those shells were created to protect and furnish nourishment.  A corn snake has a special tooth to help it break free.  The speed of development, the packaging, size and protection maintained may differ from animal to animal but each egg is a natural marvel, as distinctive as the animal from which it comes. 

When Steve Jenkins and Robin Page combine their talents to write a narrative, we are assured of authenticity through painstaking research.  These two search for the most captivating items of information to present in simple conversational sentences to their audience.  A nice selection of insects, sea and pond creatures, reptiles, birds and land as well as extinct animals are represented to capture the interest of every reader.

Every two pages a new section begins with a short paragraph.  Extra explanatory sentences serve to clarify.  When a specific animal is featured their name is placed in bold type drawing your eyes to their entry.

You can guaranteed readers, even those new to the artwork of Steve Jenkins, will be attracted by the bold background hues on the matching front and back of the dust jacket and book case.  These selected colors serve as the ideal canvas to showcase his slightly cracked egg with a beak poking through the shell.  On the back a long-billed baby bird is emerging.  A bright golden yellow (yolk) covers both the opening and closing endpapers.  The egg seen on the front appears again beneath the title, open, in two pieces and empty.  

Other than the introduction whose text is in the shape of an egg (white on red-orange) and the opposite page in golden yellow with egg types in a row at the bottom, all the remaining pages are pristine white.  Using his masterful technique of

torn-and cut-paper collage

the highlighted eggs and corresponding animals are portrayed in almost photographic detail.  Jenkins' paper choices replicate texture and physical characteristics faithfully.  Layout and design establishes a pleasing flow from page to page.  We may see all or only a portion of an animal.

A couple of my favorite illustrations are of the black-spotted sticky frog and the gray partridge.  The former is shown peeking out of an orange carnivorous pitcher plant.  The tiny baby bird in the second sits among three other eggs in a nest.  The feathers look as soft as down.

From the title, Egg:  Nature's Perfect Package, and including every single page between the cover, authors Steve Jenkins and Robin Page and illustrator Steve Jenkins have given readers of all ages an absorbing look at the subject.  The quality we have come to expect in their words and illustrations is decidedly present in this book.  They continue to inspire us to increase our appreciation of the natural world.  You must be sure to find a place for this on your bookshelves.  It will captivate you every single time you read it.  At the close of the book a comparison of the growth cycle of a chicken and an alligator inside the egg is displayed.  Following this three pages show tiny thumbnails of the animals, their length and habitat.

At Steve Jenkins' website, which you can access by following the link attached to his name, the process used to create this book is outlined in a series of slides.  Three interior double page spreads are available for you to view.  By following this link you are taken to a document prepared by the publisher which includes teacher's guides for five Jenkins' books including this new volume.

Be sure to visit educator Alyson Beecher's blog, Kid Lit Frenzy, to see what other titles were featured by participating bloggers this week in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

To Nap Or Not To Nap

It's curious to see how life circles back around.  As a child the only thing eclipsing resistance to bedtime would be the dreaded afternoon nap.  Nowadays curling up in a cozy chair, underneath a comfy blanket, in the sun reading a book and not worrying about drifting off to sleep, seems like a perfectly good option.

In some cultures a mid-day snooze is completely acceptable whether due to climate or practiced traditions.  We need only look to our primate relatives living in the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra to understand the value of short snatches of sleep in the animal kingdom, too.  Orangutanka:  A Story in Poems (Henry Holt and Company, March 24, 2015) written by Margarita Engle with illustrations by Renee Kurilla is a cheerful nod to naps and to rest rebels.

cozy morning
baby orangutan cuddles
with mama
in their leafy nest
while a breeze sways green trees

The two siblings are ready to move but their mother is perfectly content to snooze.  On a lower level the father rests on branches able to bear his weight.  Handy vines assist the older sister in her airborne antics.

Rangers have piled delectable fruit treats for the family, enticing them from the treetops.  A hand is extended. A tasty pineapple is enjoyed.  Carried on mama's back, baby watches, eyes alight with wonder.

Appetite satisfied, the slumbering family does not see sister slip away.  A beat inside won't let her sleep.  This girl is taking a chance to satisfy her need to dance.

It happens someone does notice the jiving gymnast.  An unforeseen rain shower finds her surrounded by men, women and children.  Suddenly shy, the dancing stops.

An elder with an open eye decides to dodge the drops.  The duo, reunited in their desire, lift arms and stomp feet.  Sun shines on a new troupe.

In an opening note, Margarita Engle explains to readers the poetic form, tanka, she uses to tell this story.  Consisting of five lines, she adheres to the modern writing of short, long, short, long, long rather than an actual syllable count.  Her word selections describing the family reflect personal observations of orangutans while visiting the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Sarawak, Malaysia.  She writes as if speaking to us in conversation but heightens the fun with alliteration and rhyming. Here is another sample poem.

in afternoon heat
sly, mischievous big sister
sneaks all the way down
from an enormous tree's height
to explore the forest floor

You just know a whole lot of happy is going to be happening in this book as soon as you look at the matching dust jacket and book case.  This group of orangutans is full of playfulness in their favorite place, a rain forest home.  On the back, to the left, two tall trees, an orangutan climbing each, frame another book title written by Margarita Engle with accompanying endorsements.  Matching green on green with white for light forest scenes decorate the opening and closing endpapers.  An introductory title page reading


features sister walking on her hands.  Mama and baby with another are swinging through the trees in the double-page picture on the formal title page.  We see them again climbing on a single page opposite the note about tanka poems.

Rendered with pencil and ink and colored digitally, Renee Kurilla's illustrations depict the nature of her subject within their habitat as well as capturing the mood of the narrative.  Deep lush greens, warm shades of brown and orange, cool blue hues and colorful flora and fauna span two pages, single pages or smaller images framed in a circle.  This circular theme seems to be carried out in the larger images by placing luminosity in their centers.

Readers are drawn to the expressions on the faces of the orangutans and the caretakers and visitors of the rain forest.  To portray motion we see elements frequently extend from the frame.  White space is used to create extra energy in the smaller illustrations.

One of my favorite images is the one selected for the formal title page.  You are transported to the rain forest, feeling the humidity, hearing the creature noises and watching in awe as the orangutans swing from tree to tree before your eyes.  Renee Kurilla represents their skill, their form and their feeling of happiness in their home.

This, Orangutanka:  A Story in Poems written by Margarita Engle with illustrations by Renee Kurilla, is a wonderful title to share for its spirited story, an introduction to a poetic form and for heightening awareness about these endangered creatures.  Every poem is a read aloud joy.  Each illustration makes you wish you could whisk yourself away into the wild to visit these amazing beings.  Included at the end is a page of Orangutan Facts, and Learn More About Orangutans through online and print resources.

To learn more about Margarita Engle and Renee Kurilla please follow the links to their websites attached to their names.  This link to the publisher's website offers the opportunity to view eight interior illustrations. This book is part of a trifecta featured at teacher librarian extraordinaire, John Schumacher's Watch. Connect. Read. (Don't miss the book trailer), super third grade teacher Colby Sharp's sharpread (an interview with Margarita Engle), and Renee Kurilla is a guest at the Nerdy Book Club.  Here is an interview of Renee Kurilla at Parka Blogs.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Prophecy, A Curse, A Messenger

I spent many hours out in the garage; banished as an early musician struggling to get mouth position and finger position to coordinate.  I have to admit sometimes the sound of a clarinet in the hands of an early learner replicates a goose lost from the flock.  I don't recall ever making first chair, in our junior high or high school band, but I was finally able to garner some first places in Solo & Ensemble for several years.  When you are a part of a larger whole in a band or an orchestra, a whole with sound swirling in created emotion around you, it's indescribably wonderful.

Late Friday night I began reading Echo (Scholastic Press, February 24, 2015) written by Pam Munoz Ryan with dust jacket, book case and interior artwork by Dinara Mirtalipova.  I read until 3 AM Saturday morning, woke up early and finished the book by early evening.  As I chronicled where I was in the book on Twitter a chorus of voices spoke up about their reading experiences with this title.  Others decided to move it to the top of their TBR pile starting and completing it, joining us in their admiration.  We became a part of a larger whole; a whole born from a story with words swirling about us.

Fifty years before the war to end all wars, a boy played hide-and-seek with his friends in a pear orchard bordered by a dark forest.

This boy, Otto, in an attempt to win the game becomes lost in the forest with only a book and a harmonica as companions.  A tale from fairy, a shift in time and an encounter with three sisters puts a series of events in motion spanning more than seven decades.  In compassion a midwife delivers a prophecy and in anger a witch speaks a curse.  Three other children face uncertain, even terrifying futures, as readers follow their lives through four separate parts beginning in October 1933.

In Trossingen, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany Friedrich Schmidt has spent twelve years of his life in the company of his father and older sister Elisabeth along with their Uncle Gunter.  For four years, due to circumstances caused by a birth mark on one side of his face, he has been an apprentice at the largest harmonica factory in the world.  On the first day of work after his father's retirement, during a lunch break, Friedrich makes a discovery under haunting circumstances.  Within days the dark cloud of Hitler's rising regime makes a family homecoming, a casual musical gathering and an innocent remark to another boy cause for serious alarm.

It is now June 1935 in Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.  Two brothers, Mike and Frankie Flannery are placed in The Bishop's Home for Friendless and Destitute Children due to the failing health of their Granny.  Desperate to stay together and worried about threats of changes made by the woman in charge, Pennyweather, Mike knows they need a plan for escape.  A visit by two gentleman, an impromptu piano recital, a wealthy woman of mystery, a will and a pact set in motion events more beyond their control than they can have imagined.

When Ivy Maria Lopez and her Mama and Papa leave La Colonia near Fresno County for Orange County in southern California in December of 1942, the full force of World War II falls over the family like a cloak of unease.  With her brother, Fernando, serving in the army and having left a best friend, Ivy needs to dig deep to find the necessary strengths.  As caretakers of a large citrus farm belonging to a Japanese American family placed in an internment camp, the Lopez's find themselves battling over-zealous spy seekers and prejudices prevalent at the time against Mexican Americans.  Even though her musical talent lifts Ivy's spirits and the spirits of those around her, she carries a secret which could crumble the very foundation of their new life.

We are taken forward a final time to April 1951 in New York City, New York.  It is to be an evening like no other.  It is an evening where

the same silken thread

began in a fairy tale stretching from one country to another and from one state to another completes a tapestry of sheer brilliance.

Three separate gifted children, Friedrich, Mike and Ivy, living apart in time and place, living four separate stories, are bound by the meticulous, marvelous writing skills of Pam Munoz Ryan.  The idea to frame their histories within the beginning and ending of an original fairy tale tied together by the travels of a harmonica steeped in magic brings readers deeply and completely into this title.  Starting each of the four sections with the lyrics of a song which figures prominently in that particular portion further binds the characters together.  A cliffhanger not once but three times has you gasping for air.

Research by Ryan supplies the historical basis for the situations in which Friedrich, Mike and Ivy find themselves; a Germany under the rule of Hitler, the Great Depression in the United States and an America at war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor as well as the segregated schools found in southern California.  Conversations between all the characters in their individual settings, the thoughts of Friedrich, Mike and Ivy and the explicit word choices in the narrative suspend reality for readers page after page.  Our world vanishes as we eagerly step into their worlds.  Here are several examples of the writing of Pam Munoz Ryan from this book.

Once, long before enchantment was eclipsed by doubt, an anxious and desperate king awaited the birth of his first child.

How simple an instrument, yet with such capacity.  He studied the shiny metal cover plates and the black-painted pear wood.  He turned the harmonica over and ran his thumb across the symmetrical holes.  What an improbable journey from pear tree to lumberyard to assembly-room floor to become something that could make music.

After a night of wrestling the heat in the Upper Boy's dormitory, Mike Flannery nuzzled into his pillow, savoring the cool air that finally drifted through the open windows at The Bishop's Home for Friendless and Destitute Children.
A mourning dove cooed.  Sink faucets dripped.  Bedsprings creaked as the lads shifted and settled in their narrow cots.
Through a cobweb of dreams, Mike heard Frankie's distinctive whistle---the last six notes of "America the Beautiful," their signal for emergencies.

As the car pulled away, Ivy said, "Mama, Mr. Ward does not look very friendly."
"No," Mama agreed. "He looks the opposite.  But you cannot trust appearances.  When someone wears a face like that, it is often hiding a reason we cannot see."
Ivy watched the car disappear.  What could Mr. Ward be hiding?

It has been nearly two days since my completion of Echo written by Pam Munoz Ryan but this book with these stories is not easily forgotten.  This book is going to be placed with a few other titles on my personal shelves.  This book is going to reside with the best books I have ever read.  Recommend this book whenever you can.  Read it aloud.  Share it and share it often.

To learn more about Pam Munoz Ryan and her other work please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  Please take a moment to read two conversations with Pam Munoz Ryan at School Library Journal, Pam Munoz Ryan's "Echo" Reverberates With Hope|Interview, and at Publishers Weekly, Q & A with Pam Munoz Ryan.  Reading Rockets has a series of older videos about the work of Pam Munoz Ryan.  Update:  Pam Munoz Ryan Talks with Roger at The Horn Book about this book.  Here is a special site from the publisher dedicated to Echo.  Pam Munoz Ryan talks about the book plus there are excerpts, a discussion guide, a harmonica how-to guide and a reading from the audio book.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cat One, Dog Won

One late summer afternoon as I was strolling down the streets in a tiny town located along the shore of Torch Lake in Michigan, a tiny kitten followed me wherever I went, purring and rubbing against my legs.  After some inquires with the local shop owners, it appeared this wee bundle of fur was an orphan.  By the time I decided to give it a home, someone else with children offered to take it.

Apparently fate already had another companion ready to become part of my family.  I just didn't know it yet.  The winning team of author Lee Wardlaw and illustrator Eugene Yelchin who gave us Won Ton:  A Cat Tale Told in Haiku has followed with an equally engaging and humorous companion title, Won Ton and Chopstick:  A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku (Henry Holt and Company, March 17, 2015).  Like me, Won Ton has no idea about the canine creature about to take up residence in his home.

The Routine
It's a fine life, Boy.
nap, eat, repeat.
Practice makes purrfect.

When Won Ton awakens from one of his naps, sights and sounds alert him to a disturbance in his household.  A closed door appears to hold the answer to his question.  When it opens, he is aghast!  His boy...yes HIS boy...is holding a puppy.  This simply cannot be true.

Running from the room yowling in protest, Won Ton finds out who is taking center stage now.  He is gently put aside.  When his boy and sister try to name the canine intruder, Won Ton's suggested name, as you may guess, is not even close to their proposals.

When Won Ton attempts to lay down the law, as to what is what in the four-footed realm, he finds himself on an unwanted vacation in the great outdoors.  Not even the prospect of a wayward mouse can lessen the cat's loneliness.  Back inside for another day, our feline friend decides to take a different approach.

The toilet paper caper does not end well.  With both cat and pup now relegated to the joys of fresh air, Won Ton is delighted to encourage the youngster in a variety of "oh no" activities.  Bath time, rain time and trash time follow with the duo striking a tentative partnership.

What Won Ton knows to be true is pups make good pillows, their language of arfs, howls and whining is almost incomprehensible and

practice makes purrfect.

Only time will tell how this tale unfolds.  And the pup's name, given by Won Ton, you ask?  It's a poetic masterpiece.

In an author's note contained in the verso, Lee Wardlaw explains the form, senryu, used in writing these thirty-seven (haiku) poems, the later favoring nature over the imperfections sometimes present in relationships which is showcased in the former.  Each selection focuses with appreciation on feline features while emphasizing the apparent "que-sera-sera" nature of the newcomer.  The contrast between the two depicted in the thoughts of Won Ton provide for numerous humorous moments.  The pacing prevalent through word selections will have readers feeling like the characters portrayed.  Here are two poems from The Naming.

Sis goes first:  "Sushi,
Cookie, Noodle, Scraps,"  Great Rats!
It's a dog, not lunch.

Brutus?  Ninja?  FANG?
Cats don't laugh, Boy, but I might
make an exception.

Looking at the front of the identical dust jacket and book case, one thing is obvious.  The puppy is looking at Won Ton with perky curiosity.  The cat, on the other paw, is reserving judgment for now...maybe forever.  To the left, on the back, on a sky blue background, the first title with endorsements is highlighted.  At the bottom a smaller picture of Won Ton shows him with head bowed, one paw resting on his forehead.  The opening and closing endpapers, alternating in another shade of blue and green, are patterned in a mouse toy and a red Kong.  Beneath the text on the title page the backs of Won Ton and Chopstick are shown sitting side by side on a bright pale yellow canvas.

With only a few exceptions the illustrations, rendered in

graphite and gouache on watercolor paper,

spread over both pages either as a single image or two separate pictures joined by an element from one crossing the gutter into the other.  Only three times does the background hue remain the same designating important events in the story.  Eugene Yelchin has a discerning eye for pairing background colors together creating an enjoyable sequence and extending the text.

His lines used for Won Ton and the puppy capture the essence of cat and dog.  Sometimes only a portion of one or the other is needed to convey their presence.  The body postures and eyes for both Won Ton and Chopstick speak clearly about their personalities.

One of my favorite two pages is of the puppy wrapped in a towel in the bathroom after his encounter with a rather smelly wild creature.  The blend of pastel tile work with the polka-dotted towel and the placement of bones, rubber ducky and brush are perfect.  To the right on a plain pale spring green background is Won Ton cleaning himself.  His tale extends into the bathroom scene.

Both cat and dog lovers, anyone of any age who enjoys our furry friends, is going to thoroughly enjoy repeated readings of Won Ton and Chopstick:  A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku written by Lee Wardlaw with illustrations by Eugene Yelchin.  With each reading the humor grows as you come to know each of the characters.  Practice reading it aloud so you get the voice of Won Ton right as well as the cadence of these poems.  Be sure to pair it with the first title.  You might also want to use in with My Big Dog by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel.

To discover more about Lee Wardlaw and Eugene Yelchin and their work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  This link takes you to an interview of Wardlaw, Three Questions For Lee Wardlaw:  Advice For Young Writers And Illustrators, life advice and WON TON AND CHOPSTICK at author and illustrator, Debbie Ridpath Ohi's website.  Yelchin includes the entire dust jacket and four double-page interior visuals at his site; one of which is the favorite I mention.  If you follow this link to the publisher's website you can view more interior pages.  Links here are for a printable teacher's guide and an activity kit.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


If my eyes had been closed, I would still have known it was there.  The air smelled differently as soon as I stepped outside.  Quite by surprise but really when needed the most, last week it rained.  It had been long months since the roadways, yards and rooftops were wet with anything but snow.

April Sayre’s Book Raindrops RollBy the time Xena and I finished walking, our coats were soaked but we both were filled with the sheer joy of this, however brief, change in the weather. Raindrops Roll (Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, January 6, 2015) written and illustrated by April Pulley Sayre is a lush lyrical and pictorial ode to the fascination of rain.  It will have you yearning for all the sensory wonder this experience brings.

Rain is coming.
You can feel it
in the air.

If you look you can see the difference in the sky. Other life, tiny beings, knows to seek shelter under and within nature's umbrellas.  If you listen closely, it makes remarkable music when it begins.

Rain quenches thirst, cleanses and holds things in place.  It makes a dirt stew.   Every nook and cranny is a vessel for this precious liquid.

When it finishes, it still remains.  We need to zoom in, get close to the earth and see the transparent jewels hanging from grasses, edging flowers and marking pathways.

These delicate drops shape and sharpen.  Some of them stick, others slide.  They may be visible above or soak into the ground.  Until the sun pushes aside the clouds, they are another fragile, vital element in the cycle of life.

With the grace of a gifted wordsmith April Pulley Sayre takes readers into this particular portion of the water cycle.  Among the pages of her text for the minutes we are reading (and lingering after the book is closed), we feel the rhythm of the arrival of rain, the transformations as it falls and the noticeable differences when it stops.  She creates a beautiful blend between rhyming, alliteration and simple statements with a specific beat.  Her sensory word choices take us to each and every moment.  We are observers right beside her.  Here is a sample passage.

Raindrop spangles
mark angles.
They cling to curves
and cover cocoons.

Every single page holds visual representations of April Pulley Sayre's words in the photographs she took.  The matching dust jacket and book case highlight leaves speckled with watery spheres.  On the back, the left, a single bird sits at the bottom of the page as rain falls.  Perhaps the rich deep purple opening and closing endpapers signify the worth of rainfall.  One of many close-ups showcases a red, heart-shaped leaf on the title page against an unfocused green background.

Striking images are captured on all of the pages, sometimes spanning across both pages or grouped, edged in thin white lines, like a gallery collection.  Most of them take us as near to the subject as possible.  The lighting, perspective, framing and focus are exquisite.  I can only imagine the hours dedicated to getting the exact shot necessary to complement her poetry.

Spread over two pages is one of my favorite images.  Sayre has taken a picture magnifying the leaves on a plant, bush or tree. The raindrops are generally larger than the size of your thumb.  In them we see a reflection of the branches.  In a word, this is stunning.

Raindrops Roll written and illustrated with photographs by April Pulley Sayre is a treat for our senses.  You can't help but acquire a new appreciation, or enhance your gratitude, for this natural occurrence.  The next time the forecast calls for rain, you'll be ready with new eyes and ears.  At the end of the book Sayre includes two pages of scientific explanations about sections of her text along with a short bibliography of other related titles.  I highly recommend this title.

To learn more about April Pulley Sayre and her other work, please follow the link attached to her name taking you to her website.  April Pulley Sayre's pictures are featured at author and blogger Julie Danielson's blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  A portion of my favorite illustration is shown.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dude Of Deception

If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer...
If you are a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!
Shel Silverstein

It is a tradition in some cultures to open storytelling with a poem or riddle.  These words penned by Shel Silverstein ask us, for the moments we read or listen to a book or gather to hear a teller of tales, to suspend what we believe to be true.  We are stepping into a world created by an author, an illustrator or a storyteller.  

History has revealed those with the same skills as authors, illustrators or storytellers whose desire is most definitely not entertainment or education.  These people excel at the art of deception with unlawful results as a goal.  The Impossibly True Story of TRICKY VIC the Man Who sold the Eiffel Tower (Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), March 10, 2015) written and illustrated by Greg Pizzoli chronicles the work of one of the best in the con business.

In 1890, the man who would one day be known by forty-five different aliases was born to the Miller family, in what is now the Czech Republic.  His parents named him Robert.

His talent for learning presented itself at an early age, but he had no desire for formal schooling.  He wanted to learn from life; perfecting his mastery of gambling.  Prior to World War I he would travel back and forth on ships, pretending to be a man of wealth and gaining the trust of other travelers, leaving him free to readily steal from them.

Count Victor Lustig, as he called himself, adapted to conditions moving throughout Europe and finally locating in the United States during Prohibition.  After securing the blessing of the country's most infamous criminal, Al Capone, through a con no less, Tricky Vic devised a plan to earn him more cash with each mark (victim).  Through his ability to assess people and his superb fabrication savvy, he actually convinced them he had a box which could replicate one hundred dollar bills which he sold for ridiculous sums. In time his escapades appeared on the radar of law enforcement.  It was time to cross the ocean again.

Relocated in Paris, France, he masterminded his biggest scheme yet.  He did in fact persuade five prominent scrap metal dealers of his government affiliations and the secret project.  Fortunately for Tricky Vic pride figured prominently in his success.  Trying to stay one step ahead of capture, he headed back to the United States.  

There seemed to be no end to what Victor Lustig was capable of doing.  If he couldn't manipulate people to get their money, he made his own.  Bed sheets allow him his last small success while a key and a scar are his undoing.  Robert Miller most assuredly received and delivered invitations.

 Who wouldn't want to know about a man who used forty-five different aliases during his lifetime?  With this single sentence Greg Pizzoli creates a flood of the basic "w" questions in readers' minds. Layer by layer he supports his introduction providing answers with meticulously researched events in Victor Lustig's life.  With each paragraph he is painting a picture of this man's personality and his skills as a con artist.   Five sidebars give readers more insight into Prohibition, The Tower Critics, Hotel De Crillon, Counterfeiting and Alcatraz.  Here is a sample passage.

"Victor" was a convincing count:  exceedingly well dressed, soft spoken, and always with lots of money to spare at the game tables.  Once the ship docked and the passengers disembarked, "Count Lustig" would disappear, along with their money.  

The artwork in this title 

was created using pencil, ink, rubber stamps, halftone photographs, silk-screen, Zipatone, and Photoshop. 

While in Paris many of the photographs Greg Pizzoli took make an appearance in the pages of this title.  Unfolding the dust jacket a design is spread across from flap edge to flap edge with the tri-colors (French flag?) acting as the background; each item is significant including endorsements by Lane Smith and Jon Klassen on the back.  The book case is entirely different depicting the front and back of the envelope which played an important part in the Eiffel Tower scam.  On the opening and closing endpapers a red background of bricks supplies the canvas for a series of wanted posters.  In each of them (actually everywhere in the book) Tricky Vic's face is a thumbprint wearing a bowler hat.  (I can't help but think of movie The Thomas Crown Affair when I look at these hats.) The only difference in these endpapers is at the end on the right hand side. Readers can view Ten Commandments for Con Artists credited as being written by Count Lustig.

The more limited color palette on the matte-finished paper adds to the effectiveness of the visuals.  All of the images contribute to the story extending the text; saying what is not said.  As an example the narrative reads

But, before finishing his studies, and against his parents' wishes, he left home to become "an artist".

An elderly couple off to the side is shouting 


Tricky Vic is pictured raising his arm and pointing 

Ah yes, 
But an artist
all the same.

Many of the pictures depict a touch of humor such as the fish head on the mark in Paris.  The detailed diagram of The Romanian Money Box is exactly what readers need at that moment.  Every tiny element asks us to stop and read its meaning.  It's like piecing together the puzzle that was this man's life and his work.  

One of my many favorite illustrations is opposite Victor Lustig reading a paper sitting on a park bench in Paris.  It's a picture of the Eiffel Tower breaking apart but held together with pieces of tape.  A single sentence is attached to the picture.

This gave Lustig an idea.

This picture book biography, The Impossibly True Story of TRICKY VIC the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower written and illustrated by Greg Pizzoli, is going to be exceeding popular with readers.  Pizzoli's gift for speaking the language of his intended audience combined with his signature artwork makes for an exceptional story.  The best part is it's all true.  A glossary, extensive selected sources and an author's note are included at the end.

Please follow the attached links to Greg Pizzoli's name to access his website and blog.  This book is featured at Design of the Picture Book hosted by author and teacher librarian, Carter Higgins.  Author and blogger, Julie Danielson, highlights Greg Pizzoli and this title at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Pizzoli includes lots of information and images.  Greg Pizzoli was a recent guest on super and busy teacher librarian Matthew C. Winner's Let's Get Busy Podcast

Don't forget to stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other blogger's selections for this week's 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Shaping A World

As a child many summer and autumn vacations were spent in northern Michigan, particularly in Benzie County around Crystal Lake, Big Platte Lake, Little Platte Lake and the Platte River.  One of the highlights of trips in later years was visits to the studio and home of Gwen Frostic.  A Michigan born artist, her unique perspective on the natural world, in both words and pictures, had captured the heart of my mom years earlier.  Her vision matched the views held by both my parents on noticing all the little things to be found in our natural world every single day.

When I first read In Mary's Garden (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 17, 2015) written and illustrated by Tina and Carson Kugler I sensed a parallel in the lives of these two women.  Although their work is completely different both chose to focus on making art based upon their observations and interpretations of the natural world.  Both of these women chose to follow their own path.  (Xena wants me to add that they both had dogs as friends.)

Mary was a little girl with big ideas.

Regardless of the expected norm in schooling at the time, she took classes which were most interesting to her.  When her parents built a cottage along the shores of Lake Michigan, it was Mary who helped her father.  At an early age Mary had found what filled her heart with joy.

Mary loved to travel, drawing all that she saw.  Art filled Mary with contentment.  Making art made Mary even more thrilled.

Sometimes during the coldest, snowiest parts of winter in that home along with shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, Mary longed for those places seen in her travels.  When the change of seasons came one year, as Mary and her two canine pals, Sassafras and Basil, were exploring, a discovery was made at the beach.

It was a part of something bigger.  As the trio searched their wagon filled with other treasures.  Mary had an idea.  Taking skills learned when she was a little girl; all those parts went to create a truly spectacular being.

As is the case when a spark from our imagination is allowed to grow, more and more companions for the unusual sentinel filled Mary's yard. Whimsical but sturdy, each was fashioned from a little of this and a little of that.  Unlike the other Mary there is nothing contrary about this garden, it grew in happy harmony.

Tina Kugler and Carson Kugler, husband and wife, inspire readers from the first sentence.  To begin we are curious as to what big ideas Mary had.  When we are given specific incidents where Mary elected to be distinctive in her choices, we already see her life taking shape.  The Kuglers' decision to include her love of travel, documenting it with drawing, builds a bridge to the beach excursions and the resulting sculptures.

 Each sentence and the placement of those sentences build a story; a little at a time exactly like Mary Nohl's art.  The repetition of a single phrase ties two separate events together seamlessly.  By including the two dogs and their names we realize their importance in Mary's life and her love of nature.  Here is a sample passage.

One spring morning, 
Sassafras and Basil discovered
a marvelous creature
washed up on the sand.

Only, it was just a little piece of him.

But Mary understood.

When you open the dust jacket (I'm writing based upon an F & G.) it reveals a delightful depiction of Mary and the unique gateway to her home across the spine to the flap folds.  It's meaningful to have her first creature depicted as an element on the front.  The bright red text is reflective of the red accents found in Mary's actual home and yard.  The extra touches in her scarf and the dogs' collars are good design choices.  On the title page a close up of the being's legs are shown with Sassafras, stick in mouth, gazing upward.  Wildflowers are clustered around the statue's feet.

The following double page spread begins the narrative on the right with the verso on the left.  All of the illustrations by the Kuglers are rendered

in traditional watercolor with digital painting, collage, and vintage papers.  

Visual sizes shift according to the story but most span across two pages.  The color choices and perspective convey mood and emotion with much affection.  The matte-finished paper allows for a texture in many of the illustrations like that used by Mary in her art.

At one point readers need to move the book to view a vertical image which is breathtaking.  I remembering gasping the first time I saw it.  The final two pictures of Mary's home, one at night with the gate closed and the either during the day with the gate open, are a pictorial tribute to an amazing woman and her creativity.

One of my favorite illustrations is after Mary finishes her first sculpture.  The creature is in the left corner, back to the reader, as if peering down at Mary and Sassafras.  Both look up at it thoughtfully; making a decision.  Off to the right Basil is dragging the wagon into view, ready for another adventure.  Green is a predominant color with the woods in the background.

In Mary's Garden written and illustrated by Tina Kugler and Carson Kugler is a striking example of an excellent nonfiction picture book biography.  It features a woman who followed her passion with intention.  It gives readers permission to dream and dream big as did Mary Nohl.  I have a feeling this is going to enrich every single reader.

For more information on Tina Kugler and Carson Kugler please follow the links attached to their names which take you to their website or blog.  From each of these you can navigate to other online venues for their work; one of which is Studio Kugler.  The Kuglers created an image at Celebri-Dots. The cover was revealed at author and teacher librarian, Carter Higgins' blog, Design of the Picture Book.  You can see both the front and the back.  Teacher librarian extraordinaire, John Schumacher, highlighted the book trailer on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read. along with a wonderful interview of both Tina and Carson Kugler.  Today super and busy librarian, Matthew C. Winner featured the Kuglers in a fun conversation on his Let's Get Busy Podcast.  I hope you find this article, 'In Mary's Garden' imagines young Mary Nohl creating her artistic world, as interesting as I did.
Update:  There is now a downloadable Teacher's Guide and Activities. July 28, 2015.  UPDATE:  Tina Kugler is interviewed at KidLitArtists on June 20, 2016.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Skating For The Win

You had to have a key.  For this reason we wore them around our necks on a string where they would swing from side to side as we careened down neighborhood sidewalks.  It was the chief mode of travel, other than bikes, in our little town for all the younger guys and gals; those metal roller skates with a single strap to hold your ankle in place.  The key was needed to tighten the clamps securely around your shoes.

These excursions around the quiet village streets were training for the big time, Edru Rolling Skating Rink on Saturdays.  Friends and classmates of all ages met there to roll around on the wooden floor moving to your favorite music, speed determined by the song.  We slowed as the large disco ball spun in the center, gathered in a large circle at the center to do The Hokey Pokey or made a huge line as we jumped to The Bunny Hop. 

Yesterday as I zipped through one of the newest graphic novels of 2015, it was like I was back coasting down the hilly sidewalks, watching for cracks and gathering speed for the climb back to level ground.  Roller Girl (Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, March 10, 2015) written and illustrated by Victoria Jamieson introduces readers to twelve-year-old Astrid as she navigates through a summer of changes.  We are there with her, every fall, slide, bump and skate of the way.

As the first page is turned Astrid is sitting on a park bench, helmet at her side, lacing up her skates.  Off to the right are two girls, Rachel and her (former) best friend Nicole.  Nicole stands silently while Rachel makes several snide remarks before they leave.

With another page turn we are at the title page as Astrid is skating across the top of a scene in the mall like a larger than life superhero, scaring the two other girls.  With these two double-page illustrations and narratives, we are well aware of the relationship conflict and Astrid's strides into the world of roller derby.  In the next sixteen chapters the story is disclosed at pure adolescent speed.

Before the fateful summer vacation begins Astrid and Nicole venture one evening with Astrid's mother on one of her

  ECEs (Evening of Cultural Enlightenment) 

but this time Astrid is thrilled with attending a roller derby bout between the Oregon City Rollergirls and the hometown Rose City Rollers.  She initially does not notice Nicole's less than enthusiastic interest.  When Nicole decides to sign up for ballet camp with Rachel instead of roller derby camp with her, Astrid is devastated.  Astrid also neglects to tell her mother of Nicole's absence at roller derby camp; keeping it a secret.

On that first day within short order Astrid is more than aware of her shortcomings as a skater; let alone a major player on the rink. The day is painfully long and the trip home walking (without a ride from Nicole's mom) is exhausting.  Her arrival the next day is greeted with encouragement from the other girls, particularly Zoey who makes her a gift of a Hugh Jackman sticker for her helmet thus beginning a new friendship.

When the girls are told they might be chosen to play in an actual bout, through the challenges of weekly practices, Astrid slowly makes enhancements in her thinking and physical appearance.  A series of secret communications, hair dying (shades of Anne of Green Gables), references to movie and theater productions, a startling revelation about long-time friends, clothes shopping and a parental confrontation compel Astrid toward finding her true self.  A last minute effort to make amends and some monumental hip action make all the difference.  Three cheers for Roller Girl!

Through a mix of conversational dialogue and the first person point of view of Astrid we are privy to the true-to-life situations of this twelve-year-old girl.  Even though this story is told within the venue of a roller derby camp, the challenges of peer and parent relationships as presented are timeless.  All the characters feel genuine.

What seems important to me are the personalities of the adults in this story.  The positive support offered by Astrid's single mom, the coaches at the camp, and the professional roller derby player are refreshing and believable.  When Astrid and Zoey are distanced at one point, the significance of their bond is revealed in their willingness to go the extra mile for one another and in the art of compromise they develop.  I have to add that in addition to spot-on dialogue and point of view,  Victoria Jamieson adds the perfect amount of humor; allowing readers to see themselves in the characters and be able to laugh about it.  Here is a sample passage.  The girls are practicing outside by skating around the town near the park.

Astrid (as narrator):  At this point in the story, I should probably mention one little fact about my skating...
Coach:  OK everyone, we're at our first hill.  The key to going down hills is to use your plow stop.  We're going to start slowly---I'll go first to demonst----
Astrid (as narrator): that little fact being...
Astrid (as narrator): I'm not so great at stopping.
Coach: Get low!
Teammate:  Plow stop! Plow stop!
Coach: Astrid! Are you OK?
Astrid:  I fell small!
Teammate: Oh my gosh, that was insane!
Zoey: That was amazing!
Coach:  Thanks, Astrid, for my daily heart attack.

The matching dust jacket and book case take readers into the realm of roller derby with pizzazz.  The bright yellow background, full color images and bold lines pair perfectly with the text.  The red opening and blue closing endpapers signify change and parallels between fact and fiction worlds.  When Victoria Jamieson elects to begin her story on the opening four pages (including the title page), she establishes a framework in which to place events leading up to and after that particular incident.

The design and layout of her panels allow for an easy flow; you will find yourself turning the pages faster or slower depending on the illustrations and narrative.  She may frame a series of pictures or place a frame within a larger visual.  Many times the smaller insets will focus on facial expressions or body language.  Everything is intentional and specific.  Delineations between Astrid's narrative, thoughts and the dialogue are easily understood with framing and shape of speech balloons.

One of my favorite illustrations comes early in the book.  It's when Astrid, Nicole and Astrid's mother are at the roller derby bout.  The lights are dimmed except for the center of the rink.  Across two pages we see the announcer and his words.  A series of three groups of three smaller visuals set the tone of the audience and players; close-ups of feet, elbows, arms and determined looks.  You can almost feel the air sizzle and crack with excitement.

Roller Girl written by Victoria Jamieson is graphic novel gold.  On the first read through and on the subsequent read of certain sections, I kept thinking how much people are going to enjoy this book.  It's not just for the intended audience but for anyone who enjoys superb storytelling.

To learn more about Victoria Jamieson please follow the links attached to her name to access her website and blog.  She includes lots of extras about the making of this book.  For a more in depth look at Victoria Jamieson please follow links here and here to view an interview with Julie Danielson at Kirkus and artwork on Julie's blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Enjoy the video interview at Fuse #8 TV.