Quote of the Month

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

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cherishing The Unwanted

Children notice the littlest details.  They are drawn to sparks of color.  They see their surroundings with their hearts.

As a parent or educator you have undoubtedly received a bouquet of spring dandelions lovingly picked and presented with pride.  Or maybe you were shyly handed a fresh bunch of daisies or black-eyed susans.  You really hoped they were found in a field rather than someone's garden.

Living in a small community or out in the country, those floral gems are easy to notice.  If you live in a city where green has been replaced with gray, it's more difficult unless you are a child.  Sidewalk Flowers (Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, March 17, 2015) written by JonArno Lawson without words with illustrations by Sydney Smith is a journey of receiving and giving, and of kindness and unconditional love.

The story opens with a little girl clothed in a red hooded jacket walking hand in hand with her father down a city street.  As he walks along with groceries in his other hand, she is looking up and down and to the left and to the right, not missing anyone or anything.  She spies a dandelion plant growing from a crack in the sidewalk next to a post.

At this point her dad is talking on his cell phone.  She walks over to the plant, picks a single flower and smells the sunshiny odor.  She continues to find these brave colorful weeds that have found a way to grow through crevasses in walls along a bridge or neglected cement embankments.

Although he waits for her, he seems to be more engaged in his phone conversation than her poesy picking.  As the business part of town turns to a more residential area, the two start to walk through a park.  In the center of the path, she sees a dead bird.  In an act of compassion, flowers are left on top of the bird.

As the father and daughter continue home, unsuspecting others may find delicate surprises left in the wake of this strolling child.  Acts of generosity without thought come from a capacious soul.  The tiniest things, bright hues and open observations can lead to gifts for everyone.

From a personal experience JonArno Lawson conceived the idea for this book.  His perceptions form not only the outing of the father and child but the course readers will follow as they reflect on the story.  The little girl does see beauty in the wildflowers and weeds but she decides to pass it along to complete strangers, to members of her family and to animals she encounters.  From her we learn to look at our world with gratitude and without judgment.

Rendered in pen and ink and watercolor, with digital editing the illustrations of Sydney Smith portray a gentle elegance.  The image on the front of the book case draws you to the characters with the red coat and the tiny bit of color in the flowers in contrast to the black and white, the parent and child walking while holding hands and the look of affection on the father's face.  It's a prelude to wonder.

Framed by fine black lines in a square we see the little girl walking at dusk on the back, a slight smile on her face as she looks at a flower in her hand.  The opening and closing endpapers are patterned in delicate flowers, birds and butterflies.  They are identical except for an addition on the closing endpapers, an extension of the story.  On the verso songbirds are eating tiny seeds.  Beneath the title common wildflowers are placed in a row.

The presentation of the story in a blend of double page, single page and framed paneled pictures is brilliant.  It allows our point of view to change with that of the little girl.  Her red hooded jacket defines her as the focus pointing us to those splashes of color, the flowers, she notices.  For more emotional impact other colors are introduced at appropriate points; in front of the fruit stand, the woman at the bus stop, the glass bottles in the store, the bird with the flowers and the home of the father and little girl. Smith's use of shadow and light amplifies the atmosphere.  Attention to detail will have readers pausing and turning back to look at particular scenes over and over.

Two of my favorite illustrations are on a single page. They are placed one over the other horizontally.   The father is walking along looking straight ahead on the park path.  His daughter notices a man sleeping on a bench.  She drops her father's hand to stick flowers into the man's shoes.

Sidewalk Flowers written by JonArno Lawson with illustrations by Sydney Smith is enchanting in every respect.  It's bookmanship at its best; the book case, endpapers, interior illustrations, the matte-finished paper and a truly beautiful story.  This is one of those stories which will prompt other stories.  It connects us all.

To learn more about Sydney Smith and his other work please follow the link attached to his name to access his website. JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith were interviewed by author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson at Kirkus.  Please follow the link to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast to access this interview, artwork and links to two other great articles, one an interview of JonArno Lawson about this book.  More artwork can be found at Anansi.  At Groundwood we get more of the story behind the story.  Enjoy the book trailer.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Persuasion With A Purpose

Over the course of the last three hundred, sixty-five days your excitement has become enormous.  You've hoped.  You've dropped hints discreetly and not so discreetly.  The Happy Birthday Song has been sung.  The candles on the cake have been blown out and a wish was made again.  Now it's time for presents.  Will it be there?

This scenario is played out more times every day of the year than can be counted.  A determined little girl in One Word from Sophia (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, June 16, 2015) written by Jim Averbeck with illustrations by Yasmeen Ismail is going to leave nothing to chance.  Her wish simply has to be fulfilled.

Sophia's birthday was coming up, and she had five things on her mind---
One True Desire and four problems.

Sophia's One True Desire is not what you would expect.  It's as extraordinary as she is.  She wants a pet, a pet giraffe.  Her problems are her family members, a mom, a dad, an uncle and a grandmother.  Each has a focus in their lives which Sophia finds appealing.

To her mother, a judge, Sophia lays out the facts in legalese heavily laden with reason.  Her final argument involves travel to ballet class complete with a map.  Not swayed in the slightest and pointing out a flaw, her mom says no citing her presentation as too lengthy.

Not one to become discouraged, Sophia rallies for problem number two, her dad, the businessman.  Making money involving poop complete with a profit graph is sure to get her father's attention.  As he points out, Sophia forgot to figure in costs.  He comes to an identical conclusion as her mom.  Sophia is using too many words.

Her uncle, a politician, is not convinced by her poll of cherished toys nor her chart.  When he mentions the word loquacious, she knows she needs to change her tactics.  Approaching Grand-mama with resolve, she begins.  Her grandmother quickly utters a resounding


along with, by this time, familiar firm guidance.

Sophia is going to give one last plea to the entire group.  Her request is refined and defined by nothing more than a single word.  It might also involve kneeling and clasped hands.  Is the perfect pet in her future?

In a book titled about one word, Jim Averbeck uses words to great effect.  Instead of the word wish, he uses One True Desire.  He designates her family as problems, hurdles to be jumped to get the ultimate birthday present.  His heart is aligned with his audience.

We cheer for Sophia because of her bubbling assurance in attaining her goal and her clever mind working to her problems' strengths.  Her proposals are sincere in every respect making us at the very least smile but at other times laugh out loud.  The conversations between Sophia and her mom, dad, uncle and grandmother are appropriately splendid.  The introduction of new vocabulary adds to the authenticity and liveliness of the narrative. (A glossary at the end defines the words in simple terms.)  Here is a sample passage.

Her proposal was accompanied by a compelling graph showing how much money she would make.
"I'm sorry," said Father, "but your business plan is unsound.  You failed to count the cost of care and feeding for your manure producer, not to mention the warehousing of poop.

Looking like laughter perched on top of a giraffe, wearing her every-present tutu, Sophia dances into our hearts on the matching dust jacket and book case.  On the dust jacket little hands will love to feel the embossed portions of the image.  To the left, on the back, an assortment of toys from her room is placed on the page.  They further represent her on-the-move personality.  The opening endpapers are in giraffe yellow with line drawings in black of Sophia in an assortment of activities and moods.  In pure white the closing endpapers feature Sophia riding her new pet on the left pointing at the glossary on the right.

A two-page illustration spans the verso and title page.  Striped ribbon frames the visual of Sophia tying a big, big bow on her pooch pal.  Rendered in watercolor and colored pencil on a white background the pictures' sizes shift from two pages to a series of small vignettes on several pages.  Yasmeen Ismail changes perspective to punctuate the pacing of the story.

The style of the illustrations are altered to depict Sophia's thoughts.  They appear as if drawn by a younger person.  These contribute to the humor and liveliness of the text.  Her portrayal of Sophia is so charming we expect her to leap off the page.

One of my favorite illustrations spreads across two pages.  Sophia is standing in front of her shelves speaking to her favorite stuffed toys.  She is posed on one foot, like a sprightly ballerina, with a checklist and pencil in her hands.  A blue stool and a scattering of toys are spread behind her.

One Word from Sophia written by Jim Averbeck with illustrations by Yasmeen Ismail directs our attention to the power of persuasion and the impact of our word choices. In a completely winsome story with a character you can't help but embrace, you realize the value of less is more especially backed by genuine emotion.  You'll want to add this to your must-read-aloud stack.

To discover more about Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  You can view several images from the book at the publisher's website.   You can view loads of art at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast hosted by author and blogger, Julie Danielson, along with a link to her Q & A with Averbeck and Ismail at Kirkus. Enjoy the book trailer.

In a search on birthday traditions I located this video by John Green for Mental Floss. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

From Mystery To Marvelous

Shortly after 12:30 this morning Xena and I stepped outside for our final stroll before bedtime.  Unlike during the day when breezes are steady, not a leaf stirred.  Temperatures and humidity had dropped bringing clarity to the air.  A half-moon was framed in the sky by birch tree branches now black.  The few stars not affected by the light of the moon were as bright as ripe berries waiting to be plucked.  The rest of the neighborhood was quiet.  We were two lone observers.

During such unexpected moments as these it's easy to believe you are someplace entirely different than you are during the morning, afternoon and early evening.  The Night World (Little, Brown and Company, June 16, 2015) written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein follows a cat and her boy on an excursion.  Nothing is the same.

"Good night, Sylvie."

A cat sits on her boy's bedspread gazing out the window as stars begin to appear in the sky. The yard is still filled with light from the setting sun.  Sometime later the boy is awakened from a sound sleep by a questioning call from his cat.  The boy does not know the hour but the cat cries to go outside.

She leads them both through the darkened house; the rest of the family, even the dog and parrot, eyes closed, are at rest.   As they make their way downstairs the boy looks in wonder around the rooms.  It looks so strange at night.

Urging him to hurry, the two go into the yard.  Everything is cloaked in shadows.  The boy guesses at the identity of the shapes he sees.  Anticipation fills the boy's senses.

Nocturnal creatures begin to cautiously make their way toward the cat and her boy.  They whisper words brimming with expectation.  Something is coming.

First one bird, then another and then an entire chorus announce an arrival.  Sylvia asks her boy to look.  And then he sees it.  His animal companions slip away.  Through its radiance a new world comes into focus.

I imagine the first sentence will be spoken in a whisper.  With those words Mordicai Gerstein lifts a blanket called hush over us all.  As it settles easily around us we feel the gentle warmth and curious awe the world of night brings.  Using a blend of first person narrative with conversation, Gerstein involves us intimately with the story.  We are tiptoeing right along with Sylvie and her boy.  Here is another sample passage.

That shadow is a deer.
Is this one a rabbit?
A porcupine looks up and
whispers, "It's almost here."

Rendered in acrylics, pen and ink and colored pencil on Strathmore gray Artagain paper the softly-textured illustrations are a sensory joy.  The inky black fabric on the front and the back of the dust jacket extend to the flaps where outlines of the boy, Sylvie and a bird are highlighted.  We want to stand with the cat and boy at the window peering into the star-studded night.  On the back, to the left, some of the animals, an owl, a bear, a porcupine, a rabbit, a skunk and a deer, are placed on the outside of the window frame.  They too are watching the sky.

For the book case Mordicai Gerstein places Sylvie and her boy outside surrounded by a swirl of stars.  It's like they are standing in the Milky Way.  They are looking up into the night.  The opening and closing endpapers are filled with the dark and stars.  With the first page turn the boy speaks the first sentence.  There is still enough light outside and inside to see color.  For the verso and title page, the boy is deep asleep.  It is now completely dark.

Before Sylvie and the boy leave the house the illustrations are framed with about two inches of a gray shade regardless if they are single or double-page images.  Gerstein shapes them geometrically, usually narrower at one end of the rectangle.  The first two-page visual, edge to edge, is when they are in the yard together.

It is followed by nine more stunning portrayals of night gradually easing into the light of a glorious new day.  The eyes on each living being convey the peaceful quiet of every moment and their mood.  Gerstein's lines flow masterfully from one element to the next.

All of these illustrations are superb.  One of my favorite ones is when the animals gather around the boy and Sylvie.  They are all looking intently in the same direction, waiting.  (I can already see readers and listeners pointing to each one and naming them.)  Stars dazzle through the trees.  The house sits in the background, all the windows dark.

The Night World written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein is breathtaking in its recognition of a night wrapped in beauty, of the nocturnal creatures and the simple gratitude of greeting a sunrise.  Moving slowing from the absence of color to the glow of a full spectrum we appreciate the gift Sylvie has given to her boy.  Please share this book as often as you can.  I know you will be asked to read it more than once.  In an author's note at the end, Gerstein speaks about what prompted the creation of this book.

Mordicai Gerstein has been interviewed at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Massachusetts School Library Association, and Barefoot Books, Living Barefoot Blog.  For the pronunciation of his name please visit TeachingBooks.net.  UPDATE:  There is loads of artwork at Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast on July 12, 2015.

This book is so spectacular I am giving away a copy.  Good luck to you all.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's A Relative

Holidays, summer reunions, weddings and funerals bring together kin who may or may not see each other often. There will be those relatives you avoid at all costs.  There will be those relatives you wish you could see every single day.  There will be those relatives you hardly know at all.

Visits with certain relations, those with notable standing on the family tree, are highly anticipated.  My Cousin Momo (Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), June 2, 2015) written and illustrated by Zachariah OHora depicts an unforgettable stopover by a rather unique individual.  They broke the proverbial mold when this squirrel was born.

This is my cousin Momo!
He's a flying squirrel!

The excitement of a boy squirrel and his younger sister (Mom and Dad too) at the arrival of their cousin is noticeable.  His capacity for flight heightens their happiness.  They tell everyone in the neighborhood about his special talent.

All requests for him to demonstrate his skills are met with silence.  Momo is hesitant to perform.  Mom and Dad offer encouragement to the siblings.

To make Momo feel more at home they suggest a rousing game of superhero.  Momo's costume would make more sense in a shop selling confections.  A healthy competition of Acorn-Pong ends with a crunch.  A final attempt, playing hide-and-seek, finishes with a frustrated outburst by sister squirrel.

Feelings hurt; Momo packs his suitcase leaving their house.  Realizing the wrong they have done, the two beg Momo to stay.  The duo decides to approach activities grooving in the Momo mood.  Superheroes, Acorn-Pong and a game of hide-and-seek are definitely different.  Life explored with a shift in point-of-view results in more fun than you can imagine.

Simple, straight forward statements by the narrator provide the perfect contrast to the images shown by Zachariah OHora.  By including dialogue and comments shown in speech bubbles OHora increases the emotional impact and elevates the humor.  The placement of the text provides splendid pacing.  Here is a sample passage.

So we decided we should
play superhero.


But Momo's idea of "superhero" was a little strange.

EVEN MAKE SENSE! (sister squirrel)

Unfolding the dust jacket reveals a continuation of the bright retro palette used by Zachariah OHora on the front and throughout this title.  Initially your attention is caught by the colors and the camera-exercise-band wearing squirrel.  On the back, to the left, we get a peek at the residence of the squirrel family; a tree house with a variety of rooms anyone would love to visit.  A real treat is seen on the book case.  The background is the green from the grass (love the avocado shade).  On the left is the opened suitcase of Momo complete with stickers illuminating his travels.  To the right his suitcase is flipped to reveal the contents.  Both offer gems for the reader who notices the "little" things.  The opening and closing endpapers are the same hue as Momo's shirt with tiny drawings in white placed in the lower right-hand and left-hand corners.

Beneath the title with a canvas of white OHora begins his story with the brother and sister making the sign they will display at Momo's arrival.  A page turn reveals the first double-page illustration of fourteen containing the publication information and the beginning of the narrative.  There are three single page pictures, other than the first, supplying pauses and a truly satisfying conclusion.

The details OHora includes in all these visuals invite readers to stop.  They extend the story with charm, liveliness and laughter.  Dad using a rotary push mower, a chipmunk with a video camera, the bookshelves and bunk beds, the capital F on the siblings' superhero costumes and the tools held for the new superhero scene all contribute to the overall sense of playful purpose.

One of my many favorite illustrations is the one displaying the passage shown above. Cousin Momo, the brother and sister are playing superhero.  They are in the children's bedroom. Through an archway on the left you can see into the living room.  On the left, bigger than life, is Momo wearing an enormous muffin costume holding a spatula.  A tree truck is placed to the left of the gutter.  On it are shelves of books.  Sister wearing a mask, hero shirt and cape is climbing the bunk bed ladder.  Brother, looking like Batman with a capital F on his shirt, is standing on the rug below her.  I burst out laughing every time I look at this picture and read the text.

My Cousin Momo written and illustrated by Zachariah OHora celebrates embracing differences.  It is full of funny moments but also depicts, especially on the wordless two-page visual, real-life sadness.  It brings into focus the importance of what we say and do.  At story time, bedtime or any time of the day this title will be a joy to read.

To learn more about Zachariah OHora and his work please follow the links attached to his names to access his website and his Tumblr.  Zachariah OHora has been interviewed about this book and his other work at Juana Children's Illustrator, Picture Book Builders, The Little Crooked Cottage, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and Brightly.   

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

To See In The Sea

Marine biologists study all life in the earth's oceans and other saltwater habitats.  Exploration of a world containing more than ninety-six percent of earth's water increases understanding and assists in preservation efforts.  The adaptations made by the fauna in the given conditions are nothing short of incredible.

According to this statement

Scientists estimate that no more than 5% of the oceans have been explored. (MARINEBIO)

we've many, many more wonders to discover.  Author Brenda Z. Guiberson and illustrator Gennady Spirin (Frog Song and The Greatest Dinosaur Ever) present to readers an array of underwater residents in their newest collaboration, The Most Amazing Creature In The Sea (Henry Holt And Company, June 6, 2015).  Some of them will be familiar to most readers, others will be enchantingly different.

Who is the most amazing creature in the sea?

Twelve creatures speak with a voice of authority about assets which elevate them to the honor named in the title.  As their characteristics are revealed your respect will grow.  It will give you pause to realize something with no brain backbone, lungs or gills can be so deadly.  Having a large number of eyes and lethal venom more than compensates.

Can you name the reptile which dives up to 4,000 feet?  They also have no fear of the aforementioned creature, dining on them with relish.  One blue-blooded being uses blue light and blue goo to discourage predators.  In the search for food eyes which rotate, looking through the top of your head, then shifting to the front again, might come in handy.

The mimic octopus does exactly as the name implies replicating the appearance of other sea neighbors.  It's a tad bit creepy to learn about the young male anglerfish and their attachment to larger females.  The word gross will quickly spring to mind when learning of the habits of the hagfish, also known as the snot fish.

If you think a being would need to be big to carry 300 million eggs, you would be right.  It's a record holder.  Can you name the largest shark and its size?  In one big gulp this largest creature to ever live on earth holds 17,000 gallons of water.

You will have to be vigilant to spot a leafy sea dragon but it will be well worth the trouble.  Physical characteristics make it seem to be seaweed.  Teeth in their throat?  Wolffish live up to their name.  Seven other smaller inhabitants are named helpers.  Without them the previous twelve would find survival difficult.  The chain of life from the largest to the smallest is essential under the sea.

For the twelve selected creatures Brenda Z. Guiberson begins with I am a... followed by carefully-chosen, intriguing, and sometimes cringe-worthy, facts stated in conversation.  Each animal is speaking directly to the reader.  They are trying to convince us they are

the most amazing creature in the sea!  

Using the same format for each presentation creates a sense of anticipation as well as a cadence in the narrative.

Gennady Spirin opens his artistic portrayal of the text with an illustration spanning across the spine from the back to the front, left to right.  He takes us down into the depths of the ocean with shades of green, gold, brown and black.  Luminous and textured the intricate details invite us to reach out and touch the pages.  (I am working with an ARC.) On the title, verso, dedication and author's note pages, text is displayed on a marbleized swirl of blues and greens depicting a watery background. 

Fourteen two-page images, the creatures, helpers and conclusion, gorgeously mirror the world in which these beings live.  Rich colors and nearly photographic portraits of the marine life will captivate readers.  Spirin shifts our viewpoint from an encompassing scene to being so close we can look the animal in their eyes.   Little more than two inches are reserved at the bottom of each picture to serve as a canvas for the narrative.

One of several favorite illustrations of mine is the leatherback sea turtle.  For this picture Spirin elected to bring us close to the animal.  The turtle is at the edge of the shore, one flipper dipped into the foamy swirling water.  Patches of grainy sand spot the tough skin.  One lively eye is peering at us.

The Most Amazing Creature In The Sea penned by Brenda Z. Guiberson with pictures by Gennady Spirin is a must read and must have for all professional collections.  If you have a lover of weird and wonderful animal facts in your home or classroom, they will certainly enjoy this title.  This is one of those books which will inspire readers to search for more information such as supplied in the author's note, bibliography and online sources listed at the back of the book.

To discover more about Brenda Z. Guiberson and Gennady Spirin please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  At the publisher's website you can view eight interior images.

Please visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see the other titles selected by participating bloggers in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Students in my library have a fondness for objects folded from paper.  At the beginning of each year kindergarten students leave wearing sailor hats fashioned from newspaper so they can tell their parents about reading Tom Goes To Kindergarten by Margaret Wild.  Second grade students are amazed at the forms paper takes in the telling of The Something Special.   In the upper grades during April Is Poetry Month the guys and gals shape origami items to go with their written haiku.  For the oldest students, as a culmination to a study of the Dewey Decimal System and earning their pilot licenses (Library Sparks lesson), we have a day of competitive making and flying paper airplanes to earn gift certificates to a local book shop.

A single piece of paper with words, pictures or both words and pictures can hold a story.  A single piece of paper can represent a real or imagined person, place or thing.  In Daniel Miyares new title, Float (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, June 9, 2015) without words readers enjoy a day with a boy who sees wonder in folded paper.

An open newspaper has been placed on a table.  Adult hands tear a piece, crease and fold it as a younger child leans in to watch.  Now clothed in a yellow rain slicker and hat, the day promising rain, the boy holding a paper boat begins his daily excursion.

As the sky darkens clouds heavy with moisture roll in.  Soon drops of rain prompt him to hide the boat inside his coat.  It's a downpour.

Large puddles are left in the wake of the storm; a perfect place for sailing and stomping.  Along the edge of the roadside curb, swift currents of water pass.  The boy sets his boat on the speedy path.  To his surprise it's moving more quickly than he thought it would go.

Within seconds it is out of his reach.  Racing down the sidewalk he tries to retrieve his runaway vessel.  Where is it?  There it is!  Oh no!  Down, down it drops into the storm drain.

Like a lone sentinel he stands vigil on the small brick arched bridge; watching and waiting.  Heartbroken he heads back home, the happiness he lost mirrored in the new rain showers.  Welcome, compassion, warmth and more creativity bring new light into the day.

The making of a boat from newspaper is an activity passed from generation to generation, child to child.  With this act, requiring only a piece of paper and a learned skill, Daniel Miyares shows readers how a day, even a rainy day, can evolve into one filled with joy and sadness and joy again through our imaginations.  The beauty of this story is in the timelessness.

Rendered digitally with a limited color palette, gray, yellow, white, pink, black and shades of brown, Daniel Miyares begins his illustrations with the dust jacket, an image spanning across the front and back.  The rain is diminishing as the boy sets his boat afloat in the puddle.  The tree-lined street is reflected in the water.  The book case picture, also covering both the front and back, moves in closer to the boat as it drifts on the water.  A hint of sun peeks from a cloud in the upper right-hand corner.  On the endpapers Miyares gifts readers with step-by-step instructions for folding the two objects highlighted in his story; one on the opening pages and the other on the closing pages.

Not wasting any space the narrative without words begins on the title page and verso with the newspaper.  Careful readers will take note of the pictures on the newspaper pages when an item is made.  With each page turn the tale is revealed in a series of visuals moving across two pages or two pages divided into panels supplying pacing.

Miyares invites us to be participatory readers with alterations in perspective.   We see only hands and the newspaper when the folding begins.  As the boy walks down the street we notice the top of his head above a white picket fence, his hands holding the boat high.  When the boat begins to move away, out of reach, our eyes start at the left with smaller images until on the right the boat is prominent.  Emotional impact is achieved with these shifts in point of view.

One of my favorite illustrations spreads across two pages.  The boy has picked his boat up from the puddle.  Holding it in his hand, in a series of six images, we see him gleefully jumping, splashing and leaping in the water.  In the lower right-hand corner a frightened bird squawks and moves out of his way.  I think I can hear the laughter, sloshing and chirping.

Truly uplifting, an ode to the simple joys in life, Float a wordless story conceived and illustrated by Daniel Miyares is marvelous.  While the focus is on the boy, the parent (adult or older brother) (The book dedication reads For my big brother.) plays a part as creator of folded objects and as a conveyor of compassion when needed.  This is a book for all ages.  It has the feel of a classic.

Please take a moment to visit Daniel Miyares website by following the link attached to his name.  You can view his other illustrative work, his blog, and news.  Stop by the publisher's website to see eight interior illustrations from this title including my favorite one and another one causing me to sigh and get a little teary. At TeachingBooks. net an audio tells us how to pronounce his name.
UPDATE:  Author, reviewer and blogger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Julie Danielson features Daniel Miyares, this title and artwork.  Julie Danielson conducts one of her classic feature interviews with Daniel Miyares at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Listening For Pipes And Drums

Depending on whom you ask, the word magic will have a variety of meanings.  According to Merriam-Webster, magic is:
  • a power that allows people (such as witches and wizards) to do impossible things by saying special words or performing special actions
  • tricks that seem to be impossible and that are done by a performer to entertain people
  • special power, influence, or skill
Regardless of how you define it, the real question is, "Do you believe in magic?"

There are many things clarified by science but there are extraordinary happenings which defy a logical explanation; there is simply no reason.  In Circus Mirandus (Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), June 2, 2015) debut author Cassie Beasley brings readers deep into the realm of belief.  We become involved on a personal level with a family touched by magic.

Four small words.  That was all it took to set things in motion.

Ephraim Tuttle is very ill, bedridden and finding breathing difficult.  He has written a letter addressed to The Lightbender (The Man Who Bends Light, Son of the Sun, Master of Illusions) care of Circus Mirandus.  As a ten-year-old boy Ephraim spends a week at Circus Mirandus, a place filled with magical wonders, people and animals.  Not all children are able to attend or be invited to this place of enchantment.

You have to believe it to see it.

On his last day there he musters the courage to speak with The Lightbender.  He, in turn, is taken with Ephraim and his magic trick granting him a miracle.  Unlike other children Ephraim defers his miracle...until now.

At the age of four Micah Tuttle lost both his parents in a boating accident.  His grandfather, Ephraim, is the only family he has really known.  Great-aunt Gertrudis, his grandfather's younger sister, arrives at their home to help care for Ephraim and Micah.  After several weeks in her company, Micah knows she is the opposite of his grandfather in every respect.  She sees no joy in anything, does not care for children and definitely does not believe in magic.

In one of their rare moments together, great-aunt Gertrudis keeps them apart due to the nonsense of the Circus Mirandus stories, Ephraim tells Micah about the letter, the arrival of the messenger Chintzy, a rather saucy red parrot, and the truth.  Circus Mirandus is real.  The promise of a miracle is real.

With a mind filled with hope and worry, Micah forgets about making an artifact for the ancient Inca project he and Jenny Mendoza, a highly intelligent new girl in his class, are working on together.  Their presentation is the next day.  He wants to make a quipu due to the gift the Tuttle family has with knot tying.  When he arrives at school he quickly finds some string in the craft closet, trying to make the object.  To his surprise every knot he ties looks like his grandfather.  It's as if he has captured his essence.  And the knots feel nearly alive.

A night spent with Jenny working on their assignment in the unfinished tree house he and his grandfather are building, the arrival of Chintzy again, an unusual wind, words written in string, a midnight journey, Mr. Head's menagerie, the Amazing Amazonian Bird Woman, The Lightbender and Circus Mirandus swirl around all the characters at an every-increasing pace blending the past with the present and good with evil.  Can The Lightbender fulfill Ephraim Tuttle's request for a miracle before he takes his final breath?  People are capable of more than they think is possible when they believe.

By the last sentence on page two, Cassie Beasley, has readers anxious to continue, completely captivated by a narrative filled with possibility.  There are questions and we long for the answers.  In chapters alternating between now and then, the village of Peal and Circus Mirandus, the connections between all the characters are beautifully revealed.  The flow between these spaces in time and place is formed naturally by sentences rendered with skill, as if the magic from the story and the writing of Beasley are one in the same.

Each character, Ephraim, Micah, Jenny, Gertrudis, Chintzy, (and other animals) the Amazing Amazonian Bird Woman, Mr. Head and The Lightbender (and other people at the circus), are depicted with full and rich personalities binding us to them in happiness or leaving us feeling shock and sadness. The conversations further disclose the attributes we will embrace or abhor about each person or animal (of course the animals talk).  Beasley portrays each event, especially those at Circus Mirandus, with a vividness, taking us willingly into the story. Here are some sample passages.

On the inside, Aunt Gertrudis was probably cough syrup.
She wore her dust-colored hair twisted into a bun so tight it almost pulled her wrinkled skin smooth, and she starched her shirts until the collars were stiff enough to cut.  She made black tea every day in a bright steel kettle.  The tea was scalding and bitter, a lot like her, and she wouldn't let Micah add sugar because she said bad teeth ran in the family.

"All this rain!" she squawked once she was safely atop her perch.  "I don't know why the Head allows it.  Gray, cold, wet.  Ruins the mood of the place.
She ruffled her damp red feathers and glared with one beady yellow eye at the Man Who Bends Light, who was fiddling with an ornate silver coffee service beside her perch.  He looked as he had for centuries.  His sandy hair was a tangled nest, and his beaten brown leather coat swept the ground.  His nose was strong---almost, Chintzy had been known to admit from time to time, like a proper beak.
"The meadow around the circus needs rain as much as any other living thing," he said.  "You're in a snit because you wasted your day on a fool's errand.  Not every twitch of your tail is a magical event.  I told you I wasn't expecting any messages."
Chintzy snatched a lemon cookie off the coffee tray with one clawed foot.  "Shows what you know," she muttered around a beakful of crumbs.
"I told you," he said again, then paused.  "Wait.  There was a message?"

It's important, when you first see magic, to recognize it.  You don't often get a second chance.

I can say with certainty one reading of Circus Mirandus written by Cassie Beasley will not be enough. ( I finished it for the second time this morning.)  You will want to read it over and over, filling the pages with post-it notes.  It is a story about family, life and death, friendship and most importantly love.  It is about believing in those things which you find hard to believe.  You will hold fast in your heart the desire to meet a grandfather who sees truth and silver linings, a friend like Jenny, grounded in logic, who makes difficult choices for someone who needs her, and The Lightbender who spins illusions to make miracles happen.  If you hear pipes and drums, do follow the music.  I believe this will make for an amazing read aloud.

I need to also speak about the dust jacket, book case, endpapers and interior illustrations by Diana Sudyka.  The red and cream colored stripes on the front of the jacket with deep blues and touches of gold allude to specific events and people within the story.  On the book case with a white background the phrase about believing quoted above is shown again on the back. (It's on the dust jacket back too.)  On the front birds including Chintzy, the rather large white tiger, the elephant, The Lightbender and the Amazing Amazonian Bird Woman are featured.  In two hues of blue the opening and closing endpapers showcase a large sun, the word Believe and a string of knots respectively.  Exquisite black and white single-page illustrations spaced throughout the book, many beginning chapters, foreshadow or replicate specific moments.

To learn more about Cassie Beasley please follow the link embedded in her name to access her website and blog.  You will find a link to a dedicated Circus Mirandus website.  If you want to read an excerpt follow this link to the publisher's website.  Cassie Beasley stops by teacher librarian John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read., for an interview.  There is an interview of Beasley and discussion about the book at BookPage.  There is another interview at Project Mayhem.  

UPDATE:  May 12, 2016 Here is a link to a new Educator's Guide.

Friday, June 19, 2015

There's No Doubt About It

Our neighbors have a new jet black puppy.  To say it's energetic would be an understatement.  It bounces around in a constant state of motion as if its legs are pogo sticks.  They also have an older Golden Retriever who wanders about the yard trying to ignore the relentless invitations from the youngster to play.  As the one jumps up and down in the face of the elder, she regally walks away, chin lifted high.

Older dogs, if they so desire, have earned the rightful place in their households to savor every second of the day in silence, drifting in and out of sleep.  Their presence is a cornerstone of what home means.  When you introduce a young boy into the mix, the results are utterly charming.  My Dog Is The Best (Farrar Straus Giroux, June 9, 2015) written by Laurie Ann Thompson with pictures by Paul Schmid tells the story of this enchanting companionship.

My dog is the best.  He does tricks.

This little boy walks up to his dog, blanket and ball in hand.  When he encourages the dog to chase the ball, the dog dozes.  Next the dog continues to rest with the blanket on his back.  This is 

playing dead.

As the child lists all the things his dog can do, his pooch pal merely moves from one peaceful pose to the next.  On his back, his trick is rolling over.  Curled up tail to nose, his trick is playing ball.  This boy not only says his dog is the best, he looks for the best.  

As the boy pulls the dog on his blanket or runs away with it, he labels this as forms of fun.  He sets the stage for the napping canine to be a hero.  The intelligence of the dog is never in question.  He patiently participates in quiet time activities.  He even allows himself to be costumed as a stegosaurus.

All this hustle and bustle finally tuckers out the little guy.  With a yawn he tells us one final, special quality of his dog.  It ends as it began with a tail-wagging twist.

With the simplest of sentences Laurie Ann Thompson allows us to participate in this child's appreciation of his cherished friend.  After each declaration of 

My dog is the best.

he follows with what his dog is.  Each of these five statements is supported with examples straight from the heart of what dogs and their young people do together.  Here is a single example.

My dog is the best. He is strong and brave.
He helps the fireman.
He scares away monsters.

Readers are promptly endeared to the characters when viewing the muted colors, round shapes and soft, sketchy lines seen on the dust jacket.  On the back, to the left, the boy with eyes closed is giving his dog a big hug.  A pale, mint green provides the canvas for the boy and his dog at play on the book case.  The dog, rolling on his back, is giving the boy a quick lick.

An even lighter shade of green covers the opening and closing endpapers.  On the first in the lower right-hand corner a drawing of the boy shows him reaching for the ball with his blanket in his other hand.  On the back in the lower left-hand corner the ball is placed on top of the blanket.  The child and his dog are not featured.  Paul Schmid continues his illustrative story with the boy offering the ball to his yawning dog on the verso and title page.  

Throughout the book a cream color is used for the background on matte-finished paper focusing our attention on the little boy and his canine companion.  The text may be alone on the left with an illustration on the right or vice versa.  Sometimes the boy will be on the left with the text and the dog on the right.  Or Schmid may choose to have the image be a part of both pages with the text on one side.  The placement of the image and the text mirrors the cadence created by the narrative. 

Tiny details add to the overall emotion readers feel when reading this book.  The red star on the ball, the dog's tongue hanging out in sleep when he's playing dead, the dog's one eye opening as the child falls asleep, and the dog looking at the ball all contribute to the pure joy of reading this book.  Every element of these pictures blends together beautifully.

One of my favorite illustrations of many is of the smiling boy, sitting among cut-up green paper, an open dinosaur book, a bottle of glue and tape, holding scissors in one hand.  On the opposite page the dog is sleeping.  A series of stegosaurus spikes have been taped to his back.  You can't help but smile along with the child.

Words like cuddly, cute and clever, of course, come to mind when you think of My Dog Is The Best written by Laurie Ann Thompson with pictures by Paul Schmid.  This combination of words and images is superbly delightful.  This is one of those rare books about the relationship between a child and their dog which spells classic.  Readers and listeners of all ages will find themselves smiling and laughing out loud from beginning to end.

Please access the websites of Laurie Ann Thompson and Paul Schmid to discover more about them and their other work by following the links attached to their names.  You can read posts on Schmid's blog.  Eight interior illustrations from the book are shown on the publisher's website.  As part of the blog tour Laurie was interviewed by teacher librarian extraordinaire, John Schumacher at Watch. Connect. Read. and by dedicated educator and children's literature promoter Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy.  Paul was interviewed at Emu's Debuts about this title.   I think you will enjoy the guest post between Laurie and Paul at author Kirby Larson's blog.

Update November 4, 2015:  John Schumacher, Scholastic Ambassador for School Libraries, announced the release of the book trailer.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

When You Thought It Couldn't Get Any Worse...

Surviving seventh grade with your dignity and inconspicuousness intact is no easy feat.  Sometimes you get to keep one but not the other.  If you have new friendships in place, it's all for the good.  With the months of June, July and August acting as a buffer to the upcoming final year of middle school, you should be able replenish your mindset ready to tackle all the new firsts which come your way.

When the anticipated sequel to a well-received middle grade novel is released you know you're in for a treat when the dedication reads:

To the brave kids, the weird kids, and the cool kids.
Especially the ones who don't yet realize they can be
all three.

Jess Keating's debut novel, How To Outrun A Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied, presented to readers twelve-year-old Ana, short for Anaconda, whose life is like the place where she lives, a zoo.  In the sequel, How To Outswim A Shark Without A Snorkel (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, January 6, 2015) her high-profile grandfather, Shep Foster, springs a surprise on the entire family focusing on Ana's newly acquired bravery at speaking in front of others.  Swimming with sharks is going to be the least of Ana's worries.

I love the smell of the universe in 
the morning.
                -----Neil deGrasse Tyson

Really, Mr. Tyson?  Really?  What about the smell
of hippo poop wafting into your bedroom
window in the morning?  Or the wet-dog stink
of a flock of pelicans who strut around like
they own the place, and no matter how often
you try to shoo them out of the way, they
get even more puffed up and snooty at you? ...

Chapter 1

Some sharks can never stop moving, or else
they will suffocate and die.
                  -----Animal Wisdom

Whoa, sucks to be them! Can you imagine
never getting to sleep in?  Or laze around on 
a Saturday morning in your jammies watching
cartoons? ...

Ana, her twin brother Daz, her mom and dad, Sugar, her grandfather's girlfriend, and her grandfather have all gathered outside near the polar bear exhibit.  Moving toward some constructions signs, her grandfather raises a tarp leading them inside to view the secret project. With available resources and renovations The Marine Adventure Zoo has been built.  He, of course, wants Ana to give presentations here like she did with the reptiles.  To make matters even more uncomfortable, she is to interact with the sharks.  Yikes!  Not wanting to be the weak link in this new chain of events, she agrees.

Barely accustomed to this switch in her summer plans, while video chatting with Liv, her best friend who moved to New Zealand from Denver, another bit of stressful news is revealed.  Liv is skipping a grade and moving to ninth grade next year.  This means their pact to kiss a boy before high school is on fast forward.  Double yikes!  Kevin, her brother's best friend, is clearly a candidate but he and Ana are just getting to know one another better.

The final blow comes about a week after Grandpa's big reveal.  Apparently the zoo has been getting calls for volunteers after Ana's fabulous presentation.  A student from Ana's class has been chosen to work with her at the new marine facility.  Imagine Ana's shock when in walks Ashley, the leader of the pack of bully's, a Sneerer.  Triple yikes!  (cue Twilight Zone music)

Each experience, each interaction, with her parents, Grandpa and Sugar, Daz, Kevin, Bella, a new friend, Ashley, Patricia, the keeper, Logan, an older student intern and his girlfriend Danielle, at times clarifies and other times muddies Ana's thoughts and opinions.  One decision after another is shaping her summer and the person she can be.  Two mysterious incidents at The Marine Adventure Zoo nearly derail every step forward she has made.  Being brave is not always easy, but it produces the best kind of things.

The voice of Ana is one of the most genuine personalities in middle grade literature.  Jess Keating has demonstrated her true wizardry with words in shaping this girl's world, the people in it and every single moment during the summer weeks. We are brought into this story through realistic conversations between the characters and Ana's thought processes.  As in the first book, humor is liberally used.  Readers will find themselves laughing out loud repeatedly because the truth can be hilarious.  Keating uses our collective memories of being twelve beautifully.

Each chapter begins with a bit of Animal Wisdom about marine life followed by Ana's comments.  These are placed on a piece of paper taped to the page full of her special brand of teenage wit and wisdom.  Woven into the chapters is a Creature File about important people.  Opposite Species Name, Kingdom, Phylum, Weight, Natural Habitat, Feed On and Life Span are her candid remarks.  As a writer of lists to help make proper choices, several chapters contain Ana's numbered possibilities.  Here are some passages from this book.

Please.  Reptiles can't fool me.
The babies had hatched only minutes ago, just in time for Grandpa to call us at home in a frenzy, giddier than a dog in a Milk-Bone factory, yammering on about "the miracle of life' and all that.  From what I could tell, the miracle of life came with a lot of ...goo.  The hatchlings were already chirping up a storm and nipping at fingers when Daz and I got there.  That's the thing about living in a zoo.  You've got to be ready for everything. 

I stared dumbfounded.  "You're talking about a dead guy at a time like this?"  I shook my head.  My friends, the people who were supposed to care most about me, were telling me not to worry about Ashley.  Doesn't that sound wrong?  That's like saying, "Oh, that's just a river full of piranhas.  Why don't you hop in?" Or, "Hey, I've got some expired milk here.  Let's have a smoothie!"

How To Outswim A Shark Without A Snorkel written by Jess Keating will captivate fans of the series (and generate new ones) leaving them eager for the third book, How To Outfox Your Friends When You Don't Have A Clue, being released this October.  On the first page the spirit of Ana seeps out lifting you up, chapter after chapter.  There is much to love about all the characters and the way they each grow throughout the story.  If you are looking for an outstanding middle grade series, this one comes with my highest recommendation.

To discover more about Jess Keating be sure to stop by her website by following the link attached to her name.  To celebrate the release of this book Keating produced a series of videos found here.  Jess Keating was a guest at teacher librarian extraordinaire John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read.  During the blog tour for the title she was a guest blogger at Watch. Connect. Read. and was interviewed by I Love Reading teacher, Colby Sharp, at sharpread

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

In Flight

Early Monday morning as Xena and I strolled down the neighborhood street, birdsong surrounding us like a symphony, I caught a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye.  It's a rarity to see this particular shade of blue.  It was all I could do not to gasp out loud.

Moving slowly is our preferred pace these days; Xena sniffing the new smells as she ambles along. Quietly I tried to get my camera ready hopeful for a picture of the allusive bluebird.  Every time we got close enough, he flew farther ahead until finally vanishing into the woods.

Those glimpses were like small miracles.  To know someone devoted their life to painting birds alive in their natural setting seems amazing.  The Sky Painter:  Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist (Two Lions, April 28, 2015) written by Margarita Engle with illustrations by Aliona Bereghici chronicles the life of such a man.

Helping Birds
I love the bright wings of birds
as they fly, wild and free,
high above me.
When I watch birds in flight,
I dream of soaring too!

It began when Louis Fuertes was a young boy fascinated with birds, taking the time to care for those injured despite the lack of parental support.  He even rescued a small owl.  The owl in turn allowed one leg to be tied to a table so it could be sketched.

A visit to the local library opened up more possibilities in the form of a large book with bird art.  By the time he was fourteen picturing birds using pen and watercolor was a passion needing practice and more practice no matter where he was.  In college drawing birds was like breathing; professors might find themselves caricatured as birds.

Rather than follow in the footsteps of previous bird artists, Fuertes taught himself to paint quickly as the birds moved about him.  He desired to preserve them, not hunt them.  He even swam underwater to see how tails and feet functioned.

His work was noticed by others who invited him to travel from his home in New York to the northern realm of Alaska, the islands of the Caribbean, the jungles of South America and Africa painting local birds in their native habitats.  He, his wife and children even entertained a loon in their bathtub so Fuertes could depict the proper details.  Known to be shy, Louis Fuertes nevertheless enjoyed speaking with children encouraging them to notice and draw their own versions of birds.

The caring personality of a young child nurtured a lifelong passion.  This dedication in turn ignited a national pastime of bird-watching as people looked for and used his collectible cards.  He noticed so we would notice.

In a collection of fifteen poems Margarita Engle selects specific memories from the life of Louis Fuertes which characterize him.  Each of these singular truths are retold through her beautiful use of words; words replicating the essence of birds.  She brings us into each of these defining moments with vivid description and the voice of Louis Fuertes.  Here is the last sentence from one of the poems.

The beauty
of flight
like a dance
in the clouds,
a graceful ballet
of wild swans.

When you open the matching dust jacket and book case the blue-green flora and blend of cloud-filled sky showcased on the front continues to the back.  Young Louis featured beneath the title on the front is an adult on the back, encased in a smaller oval frame, painting birds along a shoreline.  The opening and closing endpapers are in the soft golden yellow found in Louis's shirt from the jacket and case.  The introductory title text sits among birds nesting in tree tops.

With a page turn the formal title page and verso are placed in a gorgeous display of Louis Fuertes among birds across the two pages.  All of the interior illustrations rendered in watercolor and ink by Aliona Bereghici span edge to edge across both pages.  Soft brush strokes, fine line details and a natural color palette heighten each poem with exquisite pictures.

The use of light in all the paintings particularly on Louis's face and the realistic movements of the birds give a sense of everything bursting into life on the page at any minute.  I can't imagine the hours of study it took to depict the bird images with such meticulous care.   Bereghici shifts her perspective from showing us a hand holding a pencil above a sketch as the subject sits nearby to an aerial view of swans gliding across an Arctic shoreline as Louis watches from a boat.

One of my favorite visuals is of Louis Fuertes in a small boat on a river in South America.  We are looking at him from above as he paints a macaw.  Around him among the trees are featured parrots, macaws and a toucan. Each of these birds (all of the birds in the book) is labeled in cursive lettering on what appears to be folded ribbon.  With little imagination you can hear their chatter.

How fortunate are readers to learn about this man in The Sky Painter:  Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist written by Margarita Engle with illustrations by Aliona Bereghici.  The words sing off the pages and the pictures take wing.  Readers of all ages will be inspired to appreciate our feathered friends or draw or paint them.  One person truly made a difference. We can too.  I believe readers will enjoy reading the dedications and acknowledges found on the verso.  At the close of the book a Historical Note provides more information about Louis Fuertes.

To discover more about Margarita Engle and Aliona Bereghici please access their websites by following the links attached to their names.  You can see more of the artwork of Aliona Bereghici at her blog.  Many images from this book can been seen here.  An activity kit has been created.  Enjoy the book trailer.

I am thrilled to be participating in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by Alyson Beecher each week.  Please take a few moments to view the choices of the other participating bloggers.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Deserted In The Desert

If you've ever been lost it's not a very good feeling.  Your surroundings, if you happen to be in the woods, start to look the same no matter which way you turn.  You have a hard time finding something familiar.  If you are traveling by car, fortunately with advancements in technology, you can usually find your way back on track.  Even with a road atlas, the highways and streets will eventually make sense.  You can discover your mistake.

As a child being separated from an adult, even if it started as a hide-and-seek game, can become terrifying.  The sense of detachment is overwhelming.  In Jen White's debut novel, Survival Strategies Of The Almost Brave (Farrar Straus Giroux, June 9, 2015) two sisters are deliberately left alone at a gas station somewhere in the southwest.

Survival Strategy#1:

That's definitely number one in my notebook.  All people do it.  Faking it could save your life.

Twelve-year-old Liberty and her eight-year-old sister, Billie, have come out from the restroom at a gas station to find the camper truck and their father missing.  A truly horrifying incident earlier in the morning has both girls on edge.  There are parts of them hoping their dad will return but knowing he probably won't.

Three months earlier their mom was struck by a car after leaving the hospital having completed her last shift.  Their mom's best friend and boss, Julie, is taking care of the girls when she happens to find their dad's address among their mom's things.  It has been six years since they have seen him.  Believing it would be best for the sisters to be with a parent, Julie leaves them in the care of their well- known photographer dad.  They have been traveling around the southwest from one picturesque place to another.

Using skills like animals acquired from watching endless hours of Hunter and Hunted and faithfully written in her notebook, Liberty determines the creepy gas station attendant and the newly arrived cowboy-looking man are not to be trusted.  She and Billie run for their lives.  After nearly being discovered outside, they hide in the backseat of a car loaded with clothing hanging from a bar.  At least for now they are leaving the gas station in safety.

Every chapter is more gripping than the previous chapter.  Bits and pieces of the time with their mom and the months with their dad are woven into their struggles to get home, to secure stability.  A harrowing night spent outside a hotel coupled with an equally frantic episode in the morning has them on the run again.

People, places and incidents, several angry guests, a waitress, a boy obsessed with Star Wars, a hidden tunnel in a hedge, a bullying brother, a tattoo-covered truck driver, a woman with a horde of unusual pets, a failed escape, injuries and lack of water, one at a time stack against the two girls like a handful of cards in a losing game.  Every attempt to communicate with Julie is met with silence.  In the heartbreaking final chapters, a place brings everything into focus for Liberty.  All the shattered fragments form to fill her heart with certainty and hope.

When finishing this book for the first time one word rang like a bell in my mind, intense.  There are many skillful means employed by Jen White to create this acute sense of needing to turn the pages.  Each chapter is a numbered survival strategy.  The titles, Beware of "Skip To My Lou", Panic Is Not Your Friend, Hide or Beware of Sharks, give us a hint as to what we might experience in each one.  We are privy to Liberty's thought process for every decision she makes to keep her and Billie safe.  The addition of dialogue between Billie and Liberty and the girls and the other people heightens the tension.

Fairly early we know something has happened causing the girls to be in this predicament.  Through flashbacks about their mother and father, White builds the action to a point where the event is revealed but it is not until nearly the end.  Instead of giving specific names to her cast of characters Liberty gives them descriptive names, Shiny Head, Lavender Lady or Spoon Guy.  This is a realistic approach as the girls have no idea who anyone truly is.  It creates an atmosphere of being alone.  Here are a few sample passages from the book.

After living in a camper for the past two months, San Diego felt light-years away.  Like we had slipped through a crack in the atmosphere and dipped ourselves into this strange summer, sticky with newness.  And still after everything, we were alone.  Just the two of us roasting in clay on this quiet, dusty road.

Not even for a second did I believe that.  Maybe it was the way his voice crept up my spine and stayed there.  Pebbles and stones cut into my hands and knees.  Before I came here, I though desert sand was like beach sand, but it wasn't.  It's hard and dry and rocky.  Nothing at all like the beach.  Dry brush scratched my face, and my dirty T-shirt blended in perfectly with the weeds that were as high as my body.  Camouflaged.

Survival Strategies Of The Almost Brave written by Jen White is an outstanding middle grade novel.  It is a gripping portrait of sisters trying to cope with grief, navigate a precarious relationship with an unstable parent and outlast the circumstances in which they find themselves.  I predict this book will rarely be on the shelves, passed from reader to reader.

To learn more about Jen White, the story behind this story and more, please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  At the publisher's website you can read the first chapter.  Here is a seventeen page Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards Aligned Presentation Packet for an author visit.  It's a fantastic teacher's guide.  Here is a link to a reader's guide with discussion questions.  Teacher librarian extraordinaire, John Schumacher, hosted Jen White on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read.

Monday, June 15, 2015

You Said What?

As a parent with young children or an educator working with elementary students, you develop a particular set of listening and translation skills.  When the little gals and guys are first learning to speak, what they say and what they mean are sometimes open to interpretation.  More than once I've stood still for a few seconds running a phrase over in my mind trying to match what I've just heard with what I know.

When it finally dawns on me what they are attempting to communicate, I repeat it back correctly.  Sometimes they will smile along with me in recognition.  Other times they repeat the original sentence.  I YAM A DONKEY! (Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June16, 2015) story, pictures and bad grammar by Cece Bell is a hilarious sequence; the rules of language broken with every utterance.

I yam a donkey!
What did you say?
"I yam a donkey"?
The proper way to 
say that is "I am
a donkey."

After the bespectacled Yam points out the error of Donkey's speaking, Donkey replies with an equally cringe-worthy phrase.  What makes it even funnier is he thinks Yam is a donkey; a tad weird-looking but a donkey.

Yam immediately clarifies his true status.  Donkey again hears what he wants to hear and asserts his belief the yam is a donkey.  With increasing frustration Yam tries to correct Donkey's mistake.

Donkey switches gears focusing on

"I yam a donkey."

This makes Yam crazy.  He says am over and over hoping Donkey will not use yam when he should say am.

To add to Yam's growing agitation, Donkey messes up his use of pronouns, using a singular when he should be using a plural.  Donkey thinks Yam's repetition of the subject and plural verb combination is a hee-haw gone wrong.  Stomping his feet Yam says once and for all he is not a donkey.  He is a yam.  Donkey's wordy assessment of the situation causes Yam to fall to the ground in exhaustion.  He is at a breaking point.  All Donkey can do is make jokes.

In the middle of a heated discussion between Donkey and Yam, three green beans, a carrot and a turnip stroll up to the duo.  In full professorial mode, Yam uses a series of labeled pictures to prove his point.  Donkey's take is that everyone is a donkey.  Yam's last-ditch effort to rectify Donkey's bad grammar is met with a surprise no one could have predicted. Donkey's mind works in mysterious ways.

Told completely in dialogue Cece Bell exhibits a gift for word play.  With the addition of a single letter, y, to a declarative sentence she has fashioned a story using characters displaying contrasting knowledge of the use of language.  With each exchange between the two the tension, humor and pace increases.  Donkey's misconceptions multiply in equal measure to Yam's annoyance.  Here is another sample passage.

Okay.  So what you is saying is that you is a donkey, right?

NO! I am not a donkey!
And it's not "you is"!
It's "you are"! You are,
you are, you are!

Rendered in china marker and acrylics on vellum the bold colors and thicker black outlines seen on the matching dust jacket and book case grab your attention.  Hands on his hips Yam is obviously disgusted.  To the left, on the back, the three beans are featured in a small circular image.  The opening and closing endpapers are done in a spring green.  Each has a pattern of carrots, end to end in rows, and the three beans framing the single turnip.  Are these indicative of the conclusion?

Cece Bell begins the story on the title page with Donkey's proclamation.  On the verso and the first page in a double-page illustration we read Yam's reply.  With only five exceptions all of the pictures are two-page; the others are framed as if panels in a graphic novel or are single-page pictures.  The dialogue between Donkey and Yam is shown in speech bubbles.

Donkey's big toothy grin, large yellow teeth highly visible, and his eyes drawn with a circle and a dot depict his singular personality.  With his arms, legs and glasses Yam manages to look downright scholarly.  His body language portrays his every mood.

Two of my favorite illustrations are horizontal panels, one over the other, on a single page.  In the first with an orange background Donkey is taking a long, loud SNIFF! of Yam.  In the second with a teal background Donkey speaks to Yam in several sentences questioning whether Yam is a donkey or not.  Yam is looking rather resigned which sets the tone for his outburst on the next page.

At home or in an educational setting  I YAM A DONKEY! written and illustrated by Cece Bell is sure to ignite laughter in readers and listeners alike.  For sheer entertainment, a lesson on the power of story or to introduce a unit on grammar, this book provides opportunities.  This would make an excellent reader's theater.

If you would like to learn more about Cece Bell, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  At this publisher's page you can print off a set of stickers about this title. Update: July 19, 2015 Cece Bell and art from the book are featured at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast hosted by author, reviewer and blogger, Julie Danielson. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Papa Problems

On Sunday June 21, 2015 across the United States people will be observing Father's Day, a day not officially declared a national holiday until 1972.  When I think of my Dad I remember his keen sense of humor, hearing him laugh at The Red Skeleton Show, his patience in showing me how to cast a fishing lure or throw a softball, "It's all in your wrist, Margie.", his knowledge on our walks in the woods and sitting for hours waiting for a deer to pass, one never did but he taught me the names of trees and plants, his persistence when we sat in a boat trolling for fish in near silence, his pleasure in working in the vegetable gardens, I have yet to grow tomato plants as tall as his were,  his cleverness in being able to fix everything and his love of reading.  I can still see him sitting in his favorite chair after a hard day of work, his undivided attention given to the plot or the provided information.

Most of us can learn much from our fathers, value their opinions, bask in their praise and feel secure in their nearby presence.  Tad and Dad (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) April 21, 2015) written and illustrated by Caldecott Honor award winner David Ezra Stein (Interrupting Chicken) is an oh-so-true representation of a "growing" relationship between a tadpole and his frog father.  Let's leap on over to the lily pad.

My dad has big, buggy eyes,
strong legs, and a huge mouth.

When Tad's dad sings, it booms out over the pond.  Tad most certainly admires his dad's eyes, legs, mouth and music but most of all, he loves him.  Having mastered wiggling, Tad swims near Dad asking him to look and happy with the answer.

At bedtime Dad tries his best to get Tad all cozy in his own little spot nearby but Tad wants to sleep right next to his dad.  Dad's not too sure about this arrangement.  He wants to know why Tad is there.  The child simply wants to keep his parent company.  Of course his dreams of swimming don't exactly make for a comfortable rest for Dad.

Before Tad or his Dad knows it, Tad has legs.  His hopping garners the best kind of compliment from his dad.  Although his insistence at sleeping with his dad makes for yet another restless night for the elder.  When Tad discovers his mouth has grown, his replicates his dad's singing.  Poor pop can't believe the night has turned to morning.

With each new development in his growth, Tad is thrilled to show his dad what he can do.  To his credit Dad is quick to admire Tad's accomplishments.  When it's time to sleep after enduring nights of dream swimming, hopping, and singing, Tad's final bedtime fiasco is the last cattail for Dad.

Both Tad and Dad have their say.  Both Tad and Dad are mad.  Sometimes you need to be apart to be together.

David Ezra Stein writes with the voice of experience.  His dedications read

This is for Sam.
for all our daytimes and nighttimes together.

And to all the dads who are sleeping on the couch tonight.

Having Tad narrate the story reaches out and embraces younger readers.  The conversations between Tad and Dad and his dad's commentary will have adult readers grinning knowingly.  With the skill of a consummate storyteller, Stein supplies a pattern with each growth spurt, a question, an answer, a bedtime ritual and a dream sequence.  Here is a sample passage.

And then,
I grew legs.

Surprise, Dad!

So that's
what was kicking me...

The look in Dad's eyes on the matching front dust jacket and book case tell a completely different story than the gleeful grin on Tad's face.  You realize even before you open the book, something funny is coming in the form of a contrast.  To the left, on the back, at the top is an interior illustration of Tad looking a little wild-eyed during the night.  A deep dark green supplies the canvas for the opening and closing endpapers.  Black marker drawings of pond flora cover both but there is a difference with a page turn between the front and the back.  In a loosely framed oval beneath the title we see Tad gazing into his dad's eyes, closely...very close.

The verso and first page are a double-page image of Tad swimming under water to greet his mostly-submerged dad.  Shades of green, yellow, blue, pink, purple and brown color the pictures; some double-page edge to edge, double-page framed in wavy brush strokes, single framed pages or smaller circular images.  When Tad splashes it simply stands alone in a watery splish, gradually getting larger as his size increases.

Rendered by copying

Crayola-marker line drawings onto watercolor paper, then watercolor was added using a single, large, round brush, building up many layers of transparent color, (please read entire message on verso)

these visuals heighten the humor, provide a proper pond atmosphere, and capture the many moods of Tad and Dad.  The expressions on Dad's face, sometimes we only see a single eye, convincingly depict his frustration at bedtime causing readers to chuckle more than once.  What endears us to this dad is the portrayal of his gusto during the daytime activities with his child.

One of my favorite illustrations is a two-page spread framed in black brush strokes.  The shores of the pond surround an area of water.  Tad and Dad are seated on a large lily pad with their mouths wide open singing; quality time cranked up full volume.

Tad and Dad written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein is a heartwarming look at the highs and lows of fatherhood.  Both children and parents will see themselves in this story triggering merriment.  This is absolutely perfect for a frog story time theme or to send your child off to dreamland.

To learn more about David Ezra Stein and his other titles please follow the link attached to his name to access his website.  David Ezra Stein is interviewed at Brightly, Meet the Illustrator:  David Ezra Stein.