Quote of the Month

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

Monday, October 31, 2016

Heed The Need

There are individuals who by the lives they live inspire those around them.  Their path is not always well-worn by the use of others.  They choose the high road, the road in service to others.  They live by the Golden Rule which means everyone wins.

We observers of these individuals, some of us recipients of their kindnesses, learn regardless of being aware a lesson is being presented.  One such being in children's literature is Otis, the tractor.  His goodness seen in Otis, Otis And The Tornado, Otis And The Puppy, An Otis Christmas, and Otis And The Scarecrow is steadfast and spirited.  Otis And The Kittens (Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, September 20, 2016) penned and painted by Loren Long takes us back to the farm, a place we have grown to love.

It was hot and dry on the farm where the friendly little tractor named Otis lived.

It was a rainless summer with low water levels.  Otis worked with the other farmhands in the fields baling and bringing in straw to the barn near Mud Creek.  While Otis was ready at day's end to rest in a shady spot, the bull was not.  It was time for a good old-fashioned game of tug-of-war.  He gave his signature signal, the ducks looped the rope around his horns and Otis's steering wheel and the fun commenced.

One afternoon as the animals gathered together Otis noticed an orange tabby cat racing to the barn.  Smoke was coming from the upper level!  Reaching the bottom of the hills and seeing the cat in distress, Otis with his remarkable

putt puff puttedy chuff

charged forward.  Inside flames seemed to leap from one bale of hay to the other.  The cat was meowing frantically.

In reply soft meows, like whispers, came from the loft.  There were five kittens.  Otis positioned himself so they could ride on him to safety.  Once outside the mother was still panicked.  Returning Otis found the barn thick with smoke and the fire was fierce but he managed to send the sixth kitten on its merry way.

As Otis struggled to leave, the fire delivered a blow to our hero.  The intrepid tractor was in terrible trouble.  Even the arrival of Fire Chief Douglas did not alleviate his fears.  Outside the barn, Otis's animal friends were in a frenzy.  They had figured out what the people had not.  In the following moments, the fire and fear were replaced with friendship, a friendship forged one

putt puff puttedy chuff

at a time.

When Loren Long writes about Otis, the animals, and life on the farm his descriptions take us into the landscape.  He vividly represents the seasons and the weather which are integral to this way of life.

Water was in short supply, the ground was hard and the cornstalks were half as tall as they should've been.

Long creates a scenario, the animals in a tug-of-war game, with significant phrases and actions which is a part of the rhythm of barnyard playfulness but also is essential to the narrative.  With every sentence, after the discovery of the fire, the tension increases as Otis goes and returns from the barn.  Our hearts are completely connected to Otis, the situation and the other characters.

Otis wheeled around to see if any more kittens were left.  The old boards of the barn's floor creaked, buckled, and moaned.  The walls popped.  He couldn't wait another second. 

But like all master storyteller's Loren Long takes us into a story and back out again, all the better for having been there.

On the matching dust jacket and book case Loren Long features the friendly tractor and the first five kittens he rescues.  Placing two of them inside the fireman's hat gives us our first hint of the conflict in this story.  To the left, on the back, within a circle is the old-style fire truck, hoses being unwound by two firemen.  The ducks, puppy and kittens are anxiously watching.  A tiny Otis at the bottom is racing toward the ISBN.  On the steely gray opening and closing endpapers, Long has placed a single phrase in white.


On the initial title page one orange kitten is inside another fireman's had with the C replaced with a 10.  A stunning two page panoramic view of the farm, looking like an Andrew Wyeth painting but still distinctively a Loren Long work of art, is the canvas for the formal title page.

Single page portraits of life on the farm are loosely framed in a small black line on backgrounds of crisp white. On the two-page spreads the same black line edges the images but Long has some of the elements break outside the confines of those lines.  To intensify a given situation perspective is shifted, pulling us into the scene.  In several frightening moments the illustrations bleed off the sides and top of the page.

The color palette chosen by Long in the Otis books is important to the way we experience these tales.  The shades of brown, gray, and black with splashes of color, the daisies, the ducks' bills, the bull and kittens and Otis's red are particularly pastoral.  Whether you are familiar with farmlands or not, Long conveys their soul.

One of my favorite illustrations of many is when the animals are playing tug-of-war.  To the left of the gutter the bull, rope wrapped around his horns, is pulling away, hooves firmly in place.  He is being assisted by the horse, puppy (clinging above ground) and two ducks.  On the right side Otis, tongue outside his mouth in concentration, is heaving, his front wheel off the ground.  Three ducks, the cow and calf are helping him.  I like that two of the ducks break out of the frame.

Otis And The Kittens written and illustrated by Loren Long is a fine, fine story of life on the farm and the friendships grown there.  It's a tribute to those who place themselves in harm's way to save others.  It shows what I heard repeatedly when growing up...many hands make light work.  These characters are beloved and this story will cause a collective sigh at the end.  Trust me.

To learn more about Loren Long and his other work please visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  There is a special website devoted to all the Otis books.  You can get a peek at the interior at the publisher's website.  Loren Long talks about Why Picture Books Are Important during Picture Book Month 2015.  Several years ago Loren Long was featured at artistsnetwork.  An Otis lesson has been created at TeacherVision.  This is a subscription database but for now this lesson is available.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Master Mentor

There are those things which make perfect sense but they're not lodged in our minds until one singular moment of clarity.  From that time forward we can replay the particular event in perfect detail or listen to a phrase as if it's a mantra.  It can define who we are.

Following a completely different train of thought, perhaps you've read about something.  You've heard it discussed.  You've seen it in person.  Until you experience it yourself, the truth of it does not fully register.

For me the event was a Sunday sermon.  The words spoken were "When you're through learning, you're through."  What I had read about, heard about and even seen was the unbreakable connection between a dog and their human.  It was not until I spent more than fifteen years with a constant canine companion that I fully understood how much learning could be shared.

It's hard to say who is the more fortunate, a dog or a human, when they first meet and their lives become entwined.  Frank And Lucky Get Schooled (Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, June 14, 2016) written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins presents a totally new perspective on life's lessons courtesy of one pooch pal.  It's an unforgettable educational approach.

One day when Frank could not win for losing, he got Lucky.
And one day when Lucky was lost and found, he got Frank.

This was the beginning of true learning for one dog and his boy.  It could be said it was love at first sight.  It could also be said running like the wind and consuming mass amounts of food were traits they held in common.

From that time forward subjects normally taught within the confines of a classroom setting became everyday facts of life for the duo.  Lucky's curiosity lead to several lessons in science.  A romp around their property taught Frank about plants as he was removing burdock from Lucky's fur.  And the skunk incident guided us to not one but two new branches of science.  Astronomy was one of them. (I'm not divulging any more than this.  I'm laughing too much.)

Of course back on the topic of food math came to mind.  This did in fact involve a dreaded story problem but the results were a canine idea of heaven on earth.  Biscuits might have been mentioned.  An examination of Frank's bed at night revealed with accuracy an exploration of fractions.  With surprising insights math (and yes, food) took us to history.

The relationship of dogs and humans and some famous dogs coming to the rescue of humans were noted with the creation of drawings and monuments.  These circumstances happened on various dates in the timeline of human history.  In the case of Lucky and Frank the past was moments ago and it certainly demonstrated there could be more than one interpretation of the truth.  HA!

With ease and the help of the family cat, Lucky influenced Frank's art assignment.  With a change in perspective, a dog's silhouette appeared on the horizon line of the family acreage.  If you will recall running was a shared interest of the twosome.  When Lucky decided to take off and explore without Frank, geography and maps became important.  What developed next was unexpected.  But that was and is when the best subjects are learned; some of them lasting a lifetime.

No matter how many times you read this book, you will marvel at the thought process involved in creating this narrative.  If you've been lucky enough to have a dog share their life with you, you'll wonder why your mind did not make the fabulous connections found in this story written by Lynne Rae Perkins.  From personal observations this gifted author links classroom subjects to real life with a great deal of humor.

From science to math to history to art to geography and maps and to the final subject this tale flows seamlessly causing readers to realize, if they did not know it before, how intricately woven together everything is.  Perkins's sentences are conversational, easily understood and enlightening without being, even for a single second, dull.  That's the way life with a dog is...never dull...always illuminative.  Another technique Perkins employs is the blend of an unseen narrator, thought bubbles, and speech balloons for dialogue.  Here is a sample passage.

In Reading, he was best at the listening part. He could listen
more than anyone else in the family.  He could listen for hours,
even when Frank wasn't reading aloud.

How much more could he listen? How many hours?

Wait a minute---aren't those Math questions?

Pen and ink and watercolor paint were used to prepare the full-color art we see on the matching dust jacket and book case.  The blackboard and chalk background highlight the lively images, the larger one of Frank and Lucky running on the front and the smaller illustrations to the left, on the back.  Each of the six circles features a subject.  Be prepared to laugh loud at the comments and captured moments, each different than those seen in the interior of the title.  A cheerful yellow covers the opening and closing endpapers.

Lynne Rae Perkins places nine small pictures of varying shapes and sizes across the verso and dedication pages which set the scenario for the opening of the story.  She continues this with six small squares across the top of two pages conveying without words the events leading to the eventual meeting of Frank and Lucky at the rescue shelter.  This meeting is depicted in two separate pictures at the bottom of the two pages.

In the remainder of the book the images are loosely framed like memories. Soft delicate details create very realistic portraits of the individuals and the settings.  Perkins incorporates dashes for travel, fractions and measurement, lines with illustrative pictures and specific names (as with the burdock), yes and no boxes for scientific experiments, and multiple choice answers in her illustrations as if they are meant to be there.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations is for the text above.  It spans two pages. Outside a window you can see it's a sunny winter day.  Golden light comes through the window shining on Frank and Lucky on the couch.  Frank is leaning against the right arm reading a book.  Lucky is sleeping with his body stretched over a pillow, on his back with his legs sprawled in complete contentment.  Around the room our eyes see pictures on the wall, a filled bookcase with a globe on top, a lamp and table, several chairs, a rug spread on a wood floor with Frank's shoes tossed there and stairs leading to a second story.  In a word, it's perfect.

In her words and pictures Lynne Rae Perkins gives to readers a book, Frank And Lucky Get Schooled, which like the story itself holds endless possibilities.  You can certainly read and enjoy it for the humorous anecdotes but the "what-ifs" will start to scroll through your mind.  Read this one repeatedly, it gets better and better.  And be sure to read it aloud, preferably with a room full of guys and gals.

To learn more about Lynne Rae Perkins and her other work, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  If you stop by TeachingBooks.net or NPR Books you can listen to Lynne and then Lynne and her daughter talk about this book.  At The Horn Book this book was brought up for discussion at Calling Caldecott.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Out Of Love

It is said long, long ago there was a great fire in the land now known as Wisconsin.  Hoping to flee the fire, Mishe-Mokwa urged her two cubs into the vast waters of Lake Michigan.  The three of them swam with all their strength, the parent urging the two younger bears to keep going.  The great bear swam for many days until she reached the sandy shores of Michigan.  For a very long time she waited, watched and swam out into the waters seeking her two children.  Not far from where the mother waited but too far for her to see, the two cubs, exhausted from swimming, had drowned.  In his compassion Manitou, the Great Spirit, caused the mother bear to sleep forever.  As a sign of her love for her cubs and his love for her, he raised the younger bears from the water creating two islands, South Manitou and North Manitou.  He spread sand to comfort and blanket the waiting mother bear forming the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

We have folklore from cultures throughout the planet to explain hauntingly beautiful natural wonders.  Acclaimed author illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh (Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras) presents his interpretation of a legend regarding the origin of Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, two volcanoes found near Mexico City, Mexico.  The Princess And The Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes (Abrams Books For Young Readers, September 20, 2016) is a story of a great and enduring love.

Once upon a time, there lived a kind and beautiful princess named Izta.  

Her royal standing did not keep her from mingling with the people in her father's kingdom. She could be seen walking among them, teaching them poetry.  Although many young men appeared before her promising her all manner of riches if she would marry them, none pleased her.  It was a soldier named Popoca who claimed her heart promising

I will stay by your side no matter what, as long as tonatiuh rises, as long as the cenzontle bird sings."

Her father did not want her to marry a warrior but in his wisdom he recognized the skill of the man.  He proposed an arrangement.  If Popoca could defeat a fearsome enemy of their land, Jaguar Claw, with finality, then Izta and Popoca would be allowed to wed.  This was not an easy task.  The warrior and his men fought battle after battle sometimes wondering if they would win.  The thought of Izta instilled bravery in Popoca which his men could see.

Cunning to the core, Jaguar Claw sensed a defeat in his future and masterminded a horrible plan.  One of Popoca's loyal soldiers was not so steadfast that he could not be swayed.  This soldier went to the princess telling her the worst kind of lie.  He offered her something to soothe her soul.

Returning home victorious, Popoca was shocked by the words spoken by the emperor and even more distraught by what he saw. With hope in his heart the warrior took his princess from her home to a mountain top.  A promise was fulfilled.

For generations listeners and readers have been intrigued and moved by stories of deep and abiding love.  As soon as Duncan Tonatiuh writes once upon a time we can feel magic settle about us.  He immediately connects us to Izta with her affection for the common people and her ability to value the richness of a person's inner self over material wealth.  In the same way we find ourselves inwardly cheering for Popoca due to his warrior status.

Told in a blend of narrative and dialogue we are invited into the lives of these characters of legend. When Tonatiuh uses words from the Nahuatl language within this tale he builds a cultural and historical bridge.  His sentences are not elaborate but carry a storyteller's cadence.  Here is a passage.

"Cool air will surely revive her," Popoca told the emperor.  He carried Izta through the throngs of villagers, who wept as they passed, past the milpas, and all through the night to the top of a tepetl.

Drawn by hand and then digitally colored the artwork in this title evokes a timeless quality, a tribute to the Mixtec codices. In an author's note Duncan Tonatiuh says: Readers may notice how in my drawings as in the ones from those codices, people and animals are always drawn in profile. The muted earth tone color palette is a signature of Tonatiuh's work.  The front of the dust jacket contains many elements referencing portions of the story; the volcanoes, a royal residence and a commoner's home, and the moon and sun representing all time.  The title text and framing are in gold foil.  On the book case a single illustration covers it in its entirety.  It is a close-up of the warrior on the left and the princess on the right gazing at each other, a bird soaring between them and the sun on the horizon.  The opening and closing endpapers are patterned in two kinds of flowers and a single snowflake.

Of the images in this book only six are on single pages; the remainder are remarkable two-page spreads.  Those six visuals signify turning points in the tale.  Each one asks us to pause.  Each one is filled with emotion.

Distinctive lines define facial features and body shapes.  The clothing, tools, homes, jewelry, hair styles and weapons reflect the period and people.  Regardless of the powerful text, the pictures tell a story all their own.

One of my favorite illustrations is the first one in the book.  On the left we see a row of corn growing as a worker sows more seeds.  On the right villagers sit at the feet of Izta listening to her speak about poetry.  A soft circular cloud comes from her mouth, Tonatiuh's symbol for speech.

The Princess And The Warrior written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh is a lovely rendered retelling of a cultural legend.  It crosses time, generations and cultures with its universal motifs.  This book is highly recommended for your personal and professional book shelves.  In addition to the author's note at the end, Tonatiuh includes a glossary and a bibliography.

To learn more about Duncan Tonatiuh and his other work, please visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  At the publisher's website you can view an interior image.  At TeachingBooks.net there are several resources, two audio and two written items about this particular title.  At the time of this writing you could access all of them.  Duncan Tonatiuh chats with Alia Jones, bookseller and student of anthropology, at Read It Real Good.

Update:  November 2, 2016  Duncan Tonatiuh speaks at PBS NEWSHOUR, A Mexican-American artist on why more brown faces are needed in children's books.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Seen And Unseen, Earth's Residents

There can never be enough.  There can never be too much.  The more knowledge and understanding we have about how the natural world works, the better able we are to preserve and protect its riches and value to all life.  The task of caring for our planet and its inhabitants is a continuous challenge.  Sometimes it seems as if we move forward a single step, then back two.

Even a small piece of information can promote admiration or awe.  In a companion title to Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature author and zoologist Nicola Davies has penned a collection of poems which both inform and inspire.  A First Book of Animals (Walker Books, October 6, 2016) with illustrations by Petr Horacek takes us to every corner of the world; we journey beneath the waters, across the land and soar in the air.

Divided into five sections, Big And Small, Colours And Shapes, Animal Homes, Animal Babies and Animals In Action, these fifty poems create a living landscape.  At the close of each of the five portions, two pages are devoted to discussions about animal categories, animal camouflage and warnings, parasites, eggs and animals that use tools.  It's a portable enchanting exhibition.

Blue Whale
Words can't describe a blue whale's size.
Big and huge and large don't work.
Even enormous, vast, gigantic aren't enough.
But when you hear a blue whale's blow---
a deep per-wuffing sound that makes you think
of caverns, caves and concert halls---
and see its breath punch upwards
like a house-high exclamation mark,
you know that it's the biggest creature
there has ever been.

Close your eyes.  Now think of a bird so large and another bird so small that it can fit inside the large bird's eye and you will have identified the ostrich and a particular hummingbird.  Elephants living in Asia and elephants living in Africa have an identical physical trait with one notable difference.  Who knew?  Have you ever wondered how ants can find food so easily? When it is discovered a scent trail is left for others to follow.

When you think of flamingos you think pink.  Why pink?  One hump or two humps, depending on the camel, help them survive.  The clever bird who weaves a nest is waiting for a companion.  It hangs from a branch with an opening at the bottom.  Certainly their shells offer safety but they also keep them wet not dry.  This is the life of a snail.

Anemones which look like colorful stems sting some but are a haven for clownfish.  Animal relationships are a puzzle but also a wonder.  Some mothers lay their eggs and leave, never to return.  Other mothers give birth and cuddle their young.  Would you rather be a sea turtle or a gorilla?  Name two animals with fathers that tend the eggs.  Here are some clues.  One is under the sea and the other is in the coldest place on the planet.  One does not neigh and the other does not fly no matter how hard its flippers are flapped.

A slow moving sloth turns green as tiny plants hook to its fur.  Bees may not know how to communicate with us but they do speak with steps and wiggles to convey distance and direction to their hive mates.  There is so much to learn.  There is so much to know.  This is what we need to do to help our animal friends live and grow.

A variety of poetic styles and use of language depict beauty, even if deadly, in the animal world in this collection. Nicola Davies weaves truth into her free verse, rhymes and alliteration like a master artisan creating an elegant tapestry.  She gives a voice to each animal by connecting us to them with her words.  We zip but do not buzz with the bumblebee bat.  We stalk with the deadly komodo dragon that does not need flames to fashion fear.  We turn streams into a lake with the engineering skills of beavers.  Here is another poem.

The Swiftest Sailfish
Fast and fierce:
Fin flouncing, flashing, flexing;
Sword swishing, stabbing, slashing,
Small fry flinch and die
As the sailfish feeds, swift and furious.

The panda seen on the front of the dust jacket is quiet and contemplative in a setting pleasing to them; among the bamboo in a forest.  The brush strokes, lighting and shading and choice of color create a textured, realistic quality.  To the left, on the back, a canvas is supplied in shades of blue and green.  It appears to be a pattern of beetles. In the center, a loosely-formed circle frames a Monarch butterfly on a pale yellow background.  The book case has the same background with two more loosely-formed elements.  The one on the front features a giraffe.  On the back is a hummingbird.

In hues of blue an interior image of Arctic terns is used for the opening and closing endpapers.  A swarm of Monarch butterflies in flight spans across two pages circling the title text.  You expect to hear the sound of wings in both these pictures.  Beneath the table of contents a scene from an African savanna stretches across two pages as elephants, giraffes and zebras walk and stand.

For each poem a lustrous painting by Petr Horacek spans two pages with the exception of eight single page pictures, the colors used as backgrounds are indicative of the animals' habitats; darkened blues, purples and greens for the bumblebee bat, hot golden yellow for the giraffes, lush shades of green for the leaf insect and chameleon, blowing snow for the polar bears and Emperor penguins and crisp, clean white to showcase particular animals and their poems.  For the five special sections they've been illustrated to look like journal entries; black, gray and two hues of cream.  The heavy, semi-gloss paper is an excellent selection for the pictures and the use this book will receive.

One of my favorite illustrations of many is of the two seahorses facing each other.  One, the male, is releasing teeny babies into the water.  Seaweed waves in the water around them. Soft swirls of greens and blues flow with the current.

A First Book of Animals written by Nicola Davies with illustrations by Petr Horacek reminds us when we are curious we care.  This collaborative team raises awareness in readers of known and unknown animals.  Some of the facts are familiar, other facts will astound readers.

To learn more about Nicola Davies and Petr Horacek and their other work, please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  They both maintain blogs; Nicola Davies chats about her life and work and Petr Horacek includes many posts about this title.  There is a lovely article about this title including artwork and comments by Nicola at The Guardian.  Picture Book Party, a blog maintained by Walker Books, highlights Nicola Davies and Petr Horacek in individual posts about this book.  They are absolutely wonderful conversations and Petr's is full of artwork and insights into his process.   For a pronunciation of Petr Horacek's name please go to TeachingBooks.net.  Petr Horacek is interviewed at Where The Board Books Are.  Enjoy the videos.

Please stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other titles selected by bloggers participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Common Ground

It seems as though in the circle of life those at the beginning and those at the end embrace everything around them with a similar energy and outlook.  When beings are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching something for the first time it's charged with emotion.  Unless the circumstances are threatening, it's usually with a sense of wonder.  As our days become numbered, even if those somethings have been seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched before or perhaps many times, they become sharper, clearer and more meaningful.

The very young and the very old know how to live in the moment.  In Old Dog Baby Baby (A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, October 11, 2016) written by Julie Fogliano with art by Chris Raschka we are gifted with a portrait of this shared experience.  It is a love letter to seeking joy.

old dog
lying on the
kitchen floor

One look at an old dog and you know they have the wisdom of their ages in their faces.  They know when to sleep and when not to sleep.  Watching them rest in ease grants the viewer a feeling of peace.  Comfort caresses them and youthful dreams envelope them.

Although their body posture may not initially acknowledge it, if their space is shared with another, they will be fully aware.  When a baby comes creeping along the kitchen floor, a happy exclamation pushing aside the curtain of quiet, the old dog lifts up her head and looks.  Canine sniffs and canine kisses supply a greeting received with glee.

The two, baby and old dog, play with abandon, touching and clutching, pushing and pulling.  Both are grinning.  It's a best buddies' romp.

As you may expect at their respective ages, it is not long before a change takes place.  The once dynamic duo is done.  Look.  Where there was one, now there are two.  Listen.  Can you hear it?  This is a moment for everyone; a bit of the divine.

 Simple but enlightened words written by Julie Fogliano convey the essence of an old dog, a baby and their happy meeting.  Surely she is a student having studied the behavior of babies and old dogs.  Their mannerisms and behaviors are adeptly defined.  Words are repeated for emphasis and pacing.  Words rhyme to create a lively and sweet beat.  Here are two passages.

old dog dreams
old dog twitches
old paw scratches
old ear itches

baby fingers
baby toes
"puppy! puppy!"
baby goes

When Chris Raschka paints we see life in every brush stroke.  Every line is with intention and purpose.  Upon opening the matching dust jacket and book case, the baby and dog are stretched perfectly over the spine to the left on the back.  The affection they have for each other is evident in the child's smile and in the dog's patience.  The basic color palette of red, green, blue, yellow and white of the title text and the child with the white, black and gray of the dog conveys the gentleness and playfulness of the narrative.  A burnt orange covers the opening and closing endpapers.

On the title page the baby is leaning over a green chair, finger touching the old dog's nose as it sits on the other side.  Raschka begins his interpretation of the narrative with a two-page picture on the verso and dedication page.  A child is seated at the kitchen table looking at a photograph album with the old dog sleeping on the floor.

All of the images span two pages with the exception of seven single-page pictures.  All supply us with varying perspectives.  With a page turn we zoom in on the girl and old dog as a woman stops to speak with her.  We get a glimpse of another woman via a single foot and red shoe in the upper, right-hand corner.  With a second page turn we are very close to the dog, now beneath the table.

When the girl leaves we can see she has been viewing pictures of the dog as a puppy. As the baby crawls through the door, our view is larger showing the kitchen counter, an appliance and another table.  On this table is a family photograph, two women, two children and the dog, and a potted flower. It's this dedication to detail and design which makes these illustrations remarkable.

One of my many favorite images is of the old dog and baby rolling on the floor.  Raschka has chosen to only show us the upper portion of their bodies.  On the left, upper section of the visual the dog is positioned with his head upside down, ears flapped to the sides and tongue hanging out, paws pushing.  The baby is on the right toward the bottom.  Arms are wide open, eyes are closed and a huge grin is on the child's face.  You can almost hear the giggles and soft woofs.

Old Dog Baby Baby written by Julie Fogliano with art by Chris Raschka is the best of both worlds, baby and old dog with the heart of a puppy.  The warmth of a happy home in which joy can be freely expressed is evident on each page.  I've lost count of how many times I've read this book.  You'll lose count too.  It's a book to be shared often.

To view two interior pages please follow this link to the publisher's website.  Julie Fogliano maintains a page on Facebook.  Chris Raschka can be found on Twitter.  Julie is interviewed at the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation site.  Lydie Raschka, Chris's wife, talks about his artistic life at The Horn Book.  Chris Raschka is interviewed at Reading Rockets in a series of videos.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Fear Flies In The Face Of Friendship

Most of us have things which we wish to avoid at all costs.  These ask us to leave our personal zone which is far too comfortable.  The number of these things on our list of risks to never take can be very few or vast.  What one may fear, another might find completely enjoyable.

It seems it would be difficult to fully appreciate your world if you had the jitters more often than not.  Peep and Egg: I'm Not Hatching (Farrar Straus Giroux, February 9, 2016) written by Laura Gehl with pictures by Joyce Wan presents to readers two cute little cheepers.  As the title suggests one has no wish to get cracking.

"Are you hatching yet?" Peep asked.  "We're going to have so much fun once you hatch!"
"Too scary," said Egg. "I'm not hatching."

Peep speaks of all their possible adventures on the farm beginning with watching the sunrise.  In response Egg whispers a refrain which will become all too familiar.  Egg also starts to add reasons, believing they justify apprehension.

The puddles are too wet.  There will be no duck watching because the walk to the pond is much too long.  Noise in the barnyard is much too loud to even consider a game of hide-and-seek.  It's not for lack of mathematical skills but the night is dark, dark, dark.  There will be no star counting.

With a final attempt, appealing to a youthful appetite, Peep implores Egg to join in the proposed good times.  Egg's shouted retort and Peep's answer seem to end the entire discussion...or do they?

Laura Gehl has perfected with supreme simplicity and clarity the mindset of an individual, initially through nervousness and later perhaps due to stubbornness, unwilling to take a step forward.  In the character of Peep she reveals to readers a tender-hearted soul that entreats by example.  By having Egg repeat the signature phrase, supplying a subtle but welcoming beat, this is an invitation to readers to participate in the story.

The thick outlines in black (and other colors within the interior pages) are a marvelous artistic choice by Joyce Wan when illustrating a title for a younger audience.  In the matching dust jacket and book case, these draw the readers' eyes immediately to the two characters.  The pastel color palette here and bold, cheerful hues throughout are joyfully and playfully splendid.  You already know Peep is as determined as Egg, providing tension and comedy.  To the left, on the back, you are given a bit of a hint of events to come with Peep offering a tasty pastry to Egg.

On the opening endpapers is Egg presented in rows with one small exception; a surprise under the lower, left-hand flap.  The closing endpapers showcase the resolution in an image asking us to join in the scene.  On the verso Peep is peeking over the upper, left-hand edge looking at the reader.  On the opposite page, the title page, Egg is, well, an egg but an egg with an opinion.

Wan makes wonderful use of white as a powerful element in her images.  She brings the reader closer to the characters at key points in the storyline; the better to see Peep's expressions.  The sizes of her pictures, single or double page, create a tandem cadence with the text. 

One of my favorite illustrations of many is when Peep is pointing out to Egg how much fun it would be to count the stars.  The background is a rich purple dotted with stars and a crescent moon.  Peep and Egg are perched on the front of a red tractor.

Peep and Egg: I'm Not Hatching written by Laura Gehl with pictures by Joyce Wan is an endearing view of how friendship can help overcome fear.  The excellently paced narrative with equally delightful illustrations is sure to be a favorite read aloud.  It would be wonderful as a reader's theater.

To discover more about Laura Gehl and Joyce Wan and their other work please follow the links attached to their names.  You can see some interior pictures from the book at the publisher's website.   Here is an extensive teacher's guide for this title written by Marcie Colleen.  Laura Gehl and Joyce Wan chat at author Tara Lazar's Writing for Kids (While Raising Them).  Laura Gehl wrote a guest post at Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read.  Joyce Wan is interviewed at KidLit411.  There are illustrations and process art.  Enjoy the book trailer.

Some individuals can hardly contain their excitement and are thrilled with Halloween.  There are also those who view the entire holiday through eyes covered with their hands ninety-nine per cent of the time.  For them the spooky celebration and particularly the eerie guests (costumed and imagined) are too frightening.

The darling duo has returned in a companion title, Peep and Egg: I'm Not Trick-or-Treating (Farrar Straus Giroux, August 9, 2016) written by Laura Gehl with pictures by Joyce Wan.  Having conquered a fear of hatching, Egg is now worried about October 31st.  It's only once a year but thoughts of those things which go bump in the night give Egg the shivers.

"Trick-or-treating is going to be so much fun," Peep said.
"Are you ready yet?"
"Too scary," said Egg.
"I'm not trick-or-treating."

Initially Egg refuses to dress in a costume.  When Peep suggests their first place to visit, Egg believes it will be occupied by vampires.  Peep, obviously disappointed, suggests a much drier spot.  Egg is not convinced and issues a resounding negative answer.

Remembering how a different approach assisted Egg in breaking through the shell, Peep believes humor might work.  There is not the slightest hint of a smile on Egg's face.  This attempt appears to backfire, actually prompting another outburst.

Peep is a persistent pal though.  Was that a teehee? Peep keeps going.  Was that a guffaw?  This could be working.  Oh, no.  Well, Peep did try.  Finally using a proven technique, fright in the night might make everything all right.

In this companion title Laura Gehl shifts her narrative rhythm. Told entirely through dialogue, as in the first book, you can see both of her characters growing.  Peep tries three different approaches to persuade Egg.  While Egg's reactions are ultimately the same, readers can begin to see trust growing a bit sooner.  The insertion of a form of a comedy routine is highly engaging.

Whether you are acquainted with these two characters from the previous book or not, you have to admit that the front of the matching dust jacket and book case is cuter than cute.  Peep looks downright adorable in the butterfly costume and the contrast with a determined and negative Egg begins the laughter in readers' hearts.  The larger lines and the rounded shapes are a huge draw for the intended audience.

A pattern of the whites of scary eyes in a black space covers the opening endpapers.  Be sure to peek under the lower, left-hand corner of the flap for a little gift.  The closing endpapers continue the story with a purple canvas covered in happy-go-lucky jack-o-lanterns.  Peep and Egg are there too.  On the verso a calendar with October 31 circled hangs above a costumed Peep dashing toward Egg hiding behind a bale of hay on the title page.  A pumpkin trick-or-treat basket sits next to the hay.

Fully animated Peep and Egg are presented in a variety of image sizes, alternating from two-page pictures with white or bright-colored backgrounds, to single page close-ups framed in orange and sometimes several visuals will be placed on one page to provide pacing.  As in the first title, readers can enjoy looking at the tiny details provided by Wan; the itsy-bitsy "vampire teeth" on the ducks, the pumpkin lights hanging in the trees and Halloween pennants draped in the barn and along the fence.  Careful readers will notice a particular small, eight-legged arachnid as it journeys throughout the story.

One of my favorite illustrations spans two pages.  Peep is encouraging Egg with the suggestion of a visit to the cows.  Egg imagines Peep crawling between the fencing as he stays hidden.  The smiling cows looking straight at the readers are wrapped to appear like mummies.

Peep and Egg: I'm Not Trick-or-Treating written by Laura Gehl with pictures by Joyce Wan is a charming confection.  Readers will laugh and sigh in all the right places; Gehl's text and Wan's pictures are a flawless mix.  This is a marvelous choice for younger readers and listeners at Halloween.

You can view interior pages at the publisher's website.  Laura Gehl visits YA and Kids BookCentral.  Joyce Wan stops to chat at The Little Crooked Cottage.  Joyce Wan stops by KidLit TV to teach us how to draw Peep and Egg.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Who's House Is This?

Certainly we can use more laughter in our world.  It's a better cure than an-apple-a-day for nearly everything and it's free.  If you should be fortunate enough to share grins, giggles and guffaws with children, well your life is pretty much the best it can be.

At the tail end of November last year Mother Goose  Bruce written and illustrated by Ryan T. Higgins was released to readers who could hardly get from one portion of the story to the next without breaking out into peals of laughter.  That's what happens when a crabby bear, with a craving for gourmet meals prepared with eggs, ends up becoming a mother to four goslings.  As spring moved to summer and then fall, Bruce was still not relieved of his parenting duties.  The only solution was five bus tickets to sunny Miami.

In a companion title Bruce is unenthusiastically continuing the sojourn to sunny Florida each year.  Not for the first time, Bruce longs for the good old days of hibernation.  Hotel Bruce (Disney Hyperion, October 18, 2016) chronicles the surprise awaiting the bear and four geese on their return.

Bruce was a bear
who lived with four geese...
But he was their mom.

The northward trek from the bustling beaches was exhausting. To say Bruce was shocked to find his humble home turned into a hotel in his absence by three mice was an understatement.  His cranky-o-meter was on the rise as he broomed them out of his abode.

To heighten his anxiety his bed was already occupied by guests, a moose, rabbit, porcupine, raccoon and slumbering turtles who assumed he was there for the sole purpose of attending to their every need.  His "alarm" in the morning took the form of opossums engaged in a hearty battle...with pillows.  With each new surprise the situation escalated.

Apparently the three mice had regained control and turned the four geese into attendants.  In the midst of a heated discussion, the fox, who was attempting to lure the turtles into a soup pot with a promise of a spa-like experience, interrupted them, scared witless and running like the wind. It was revenge of the reptiles.

As you can surmise Bruce was on the verge of a major eruption but even that was misunderstood. When the bear thought he must surely have stepped into some woodland version of an alternate universe, his fears were confirmed.  The expected and unexpected blend into a conclusion that's all Bruce.

When Ryan T. Higgins writes, especially in this book, an undercurrent of hilarity runs through the text waiting to bubble to the surface.  Meticulous pacing and short sentences build toward the inevitable. The mix of narrative by someone we can't see with characters' dialogue elevates the story's capacity for comic results.  Here is a passage.

It was a long night.

Can I have a drink of water? (raccoon)
You're hogging the sheets. (moose)
I want to snuggle. (porcupine)
I need to pee. (rabbit)

Nobody draws a grumpy bear like Ryan T. Higgins.  Clearly Bruce is not a "happy camper" with the residents in his home. One of the geese wearing the bellhop attire is the crowning touch.  The anxious looking guests peering out the window are in sharp contrast to the chatty mice.  To the left, on the back of the dust jacket, placed on a textured blue background is a scene of the remaining three geese in the caps and coats, saluting the third mouse, who happens to be wearing glasses and has a mustache.  This image is varnished.

On the book case it's as if we are inside Bruce's house looking at the newly wallpapered walls which you only glimpsed on the jacket.  A variety of photographs are hanging along with a ticking pendulum clock.  The NO PETS sign is a classic touch.  The opening endpapers are a sunny fall day outside Bruce's then quiet home.  A serene summer vista spreads across the closing endpapers, absent of any life.

The heavier matte-finished paper enhances Higgins's use of white space, the fine lines, animated details and general physical traits of the characters.  The body postures on all of them and their exaggerated facial expressions, particularly those on Bruce, are priceless.  Just when you think you can't laugh any more, he places something in an image like a feather sticking to Bruce's nose, which makes you laugh even more.  The size of the illustrations is alternated to showcase the text and place emphasis on a given situation.

One of my many favorite illustrations is toward the beginning of the story. It spans two pages.  It is the beach scene with a Welcome To Miami sign stuck in the sand.  The sand is loaded to the beaks with honking geese, some in Hawaiian shirts.  Two alligators are singing and dancing while playing a ukulele and tambourine.  A third alligator is throwing a beach ball in the air. Bruce is in the middle of this chaos wearing his Hawaiian shirt looking rather gruff and grim.

I'm surprised this book, Hotel Bruce written and illustrated by Ryan T. Higgins, does not shake with chuckling and chortling in your hands even before it is opened.  When Bruce and the geese are back it's the best of the best.  You should be prepared for a resounding "read it again" as soon as you are finished.

To learn more about Ryan T. Higgins please visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  The cover for this title is revealed along with an interview at educator and director of the Plum Creek Children's Literacy Festival, Dylan Teut's website, Mile High Reading.  Author and teacher librarian Carter Higgins features this book on her website Design of the Picture Book including some interior images.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Sending Out Hope

You are ready with all appropriate preparations completed.  Taking no chances you decide to wear your lucky jewelry, favorite underwear, shoes, socks, pants and sweater all day.   You have placed logic aside letting superstitions rule the day.  That night you wait for the first star and make a wish.  You put on your pajamas inside out and backward.  You slip a spoon under your pillow.  As you try to fall asleep you sincerely desire, for the eleventy-hundredth time, the skills of Dumbledore.

We attribute this routine to children alone but you might be surprised by the number of adults longing for the very same thing who would consider, or have done, one or more of these particular actions.  Before Morning (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 4, 2016) written by Joyce Sidman with illustrations by Beth Krommes is a plea.  It's a petition for one very special something.

In the deep woolen dark, ...

The day is done and a city and its people are sleeping.  As they dream, Mother Nature works her own kind of marvels with clouds and wind.  The swirling leaves are being replaced with others, no two alike.

As softly as milkweed pods releasing seeds, it falls.  It covers and coats and comforts.  To the touch it's like the fur on a lamb, duckling, kitten or puppy.

Quiet descends.  Everything stops.  It's morning.

Four eloquent lines in a single poem read like a prayer when the writer is Joyce Sidman.  Taken as a whole it flows as we wait for the word which rhymes at the end of each line.  In the first three phrases a gentle cadence is supplied with the use of commas, dividing each one into thirds.  We wait in anticipation for the final sentence, hoping.  In this one the use of other punctuation mirrors the requested results.  It's not written but there will be an audible sigh from readers.

Appealing to all our senses the matching dust jacket and book case create warmth where it is cold, quiet within noise, brightness over dullness, and new and clean in place of old and used.  On the front they tell us of a sleeping child nestled in coziness cuddled by their cat.  We might wonder about the globe, Amelia Earhart book and toy airplane on the floor.  To the left, on the back, is a scene from the city as horses draw carriages through a park with drivers and passengers bundled against the chilly night air as in the distance travelers await transportation.

On the opening endpapers more than two-thirds are covered in dark, gray clouds threatening a change in the weather.  They hang over the expanse of a large city and the surrounding tree-covered hillsides. On the closing endpapers the scene is similar but with a significant difference.   With a page turn at the beginning illustrator Beth Krommes expands the visual story with her signature scratchboard and watercolors images. On the left, the verso, pigeons are gathered on cobblestones.  On the right, the title page, the feet and legs of an adult and child are shown as they walk a dog.  The dedication page is a two-page picture of people, the adult, child and dog included, sitting, walking and leaving a park. Before them is a street filled with cars, a bicycle, a scooter and a bus with all their lights shining. People on the opposite side of the street stroll, window shopping.

Four single page visuals follow framed in white borders.  This is Krommes leading us into the interpretation of Sidman's words.  The child pauses in front of a bakery window, the trio climbs steps into an apartment building, a father has prepared dinner and a mother dressed as an airplane pilot sits on the bed of a child who does not want her to go.  For the words quoted above the scene is early in the morning, the father and daughter are asleep.  The cat, dog and pilot are awake; she is folding laundry on the kitchen table.

For those pages with Joyce Sidman's words we are given double-page illustrations.  On the wordless pages, seven in total, they are single images on one page.  The experience of viewing illustrations created using this artistic technique is astounding.  Krommes includes the tiniest details enhancing what is taking place in the moment inside the apartment, on the streets of the city, within the park, at the airport and over the entire area.  You are invited to pause at each picture.  This is in keeping with the peaceful pace of the poem.  You will notice the dog barking at squirrels in the park, a single snowflake falling as they enter the building, a pie cooling on the kitchen counter, the street sign indicating airport ahead, a book of poems in the living room and a key on the table as the pilot returns home to embrace the child.  

One of my favorite pictures (They're all my favorite pictures.) is looking inside the apartment windows in the evening as the pilot leaves for the airport.  On the left the child is in bed in a scene nearly identical to the front of the jacket and case.  To the right we peer into the living room.  The father has fallen asleep wearing his glasses with the newspaper draped across his body and a mug on the nearby table.  The dog is curled up on the couch.  Snowflakes are starting to fall more frequently outside the windows. Pigeon feet and a very slight portion of their lower bodies are shown above the left window.  This gives us an idea of perspective.

This collaborative team, poet and author Joyce Sidman and illustrator Beth Krommes, have given us another treasure in Before Morning.  As Joyce Sidman talks to us in her author's note, this is indeed about wishes and invocations. On the opposite page Krommes illustrates it appropriately with two kinds of angels.  It does not get better than this.  To date this title has received five starred reviews in School Library Journal, Booklist, The Horn Book, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

To learn more about author and poet Joyce Sidman and illustrator Beth Krommes and their other work please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  You might be interested in reading Five questions for Joyce Sidman at The Horn Book.  Jama Rattigan features Joyce Sidman in her hotTeas of Children's Poetry: Joyce Sidman at Jama's Alphabet Soup.  Beth Krommes is highlighted at artistsnetwork.  Beth Krommes is highlighted by author, reviewer, and blogger Julie Danielson at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Process art is shared.

I wrote about their other work Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Not To Be Sold, Not To Be Purchased

The capacity for individuals to endure is never known until it is tested.  When we imagine a specific situation in which it's hard to believe anyone can survive but know millions did in historically-verified horrific conditions is cause for heartbreak and supreme admiration.  To read about the Middle Passage is to see humans at their very worst and to see greatness in others.

On September 13, 2016 a title was released which has garnered five starred reviews in School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, The Horn Book and Publishers Weekly.  It is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize.  Freedom over me: Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life by Ashley Bryan, esteemed author and illustrator, is a stunning work based upon a single original document, the Fairchilds Appraisement of the Estate dated July 5, 1828.

Mrs. Mary Fairchilds
I mourn the passing of
my husband, Cado Fairchilds.
He managed our estate alone.
Eleven Negro slaves,
they carried out the work
that made our estate prosper.
He never hired an overseer.

This is a portion of the initial poem in this collection introducing readers to the widow of the estate owner.  It is followed by twenty poems, also in free verse, acquainting us with the slaves.  For each of these people we are given their name and their value as seen on the appraisement.  Mr. Bryan has added what he believes to be their age based upon the words woman, girl, man and boy.

Of the eleven there are people ranging in age from sixty-two to eight. There are six women, one girl and four men, of these men one is sixteen.  With the exception of the child, for each of them a poem describes their position, their work on the estate, and a second piece allows us to see into their hearts through their dreams.

The first slave poem is titled Peggy.  She is the Fairchilds' cook working at the Big House.  She toils as long and hard as those people in the fields, preparing special foods for the Fairchilds, their friends and much plainer meals for the slaves. As their cook she is allowed to freely walk on the estate and nearby woods, learning the value of plants local to the area.  On these walks memories of her homeland, Africa, come to her.  Thoughts of the day she and her mother were captured and her father killed, the auction when she last saw her mother and the name given to her are vivi in her mind.  She does find strength in knowing she honors her family with her acquired skills.

In the second poem, Peggy dreams, she tells us of the naming day celebration when her parents gave her the name Mariama, Gift of God.  We learn of her room attached to the shed behind the Big House but we also learn of her determination to remain a vital part of the lives of the other slaves on the estate.  She teaches the slave child Dora all she can about the healing power of the plants.  To be able to pass on the knowledge she has acquired to another is a source of great happiness.  To heal another member of her "family" fills her heart more than the words of the Fairchilds and their guests about her cooking skills.

The praise, however,
that touches my heart
is to hear the slaves
call me Herb Doctor.

We become familiar with Stephen the carpenter, his gift for working with tools, his love for Jane and John and their secret.  Jane is the estate seamstress who returns her love to Stephen and John.  John tells us how when he was eight years old he was a birthday gift to Mrs. Fairchilds. He excels at artwork.  Athelia is the laundress who believes in her African traditions of passing on knowledge

by example and voice.

Charlotte, a basket maker, and Bacus, the blacksmith, are married in their hearts by "jumping the broom."  Their daughter is Dora.  The two parents weave and hammer their past and present into their work, teaching their daughter and talking of freedom.  With each page turn as readers we become more connected to the lives, the personalities, hopes and dreams, of eleven individuals.  They were and are people. People.

Each poem, written for us in first person, by the masterful Ashley Bryan takes us to that place, that time and into the lives of those slaves.  It's as if their spirits guided his every word giving us small journal entries into their lives. (He writes about his process in an author's note.)  But oh, make no mistake, in the two poems written by Bryan for each person, he gives us a whole picture.  They are as real as if they are living and breathing today.

He uses the pronoun "I" repeatedly to bring us closer to these people.  He has them speak about the outrage they feel at having new names given to them, the supreme sadness at the loss of family members, the hope of escaping to freedom, the fear of being sold but what shines the brightest is their resilience, their pride in their African homeland, traditions and in their work and skills.  There is so much love in these pages.  Here is another partial passage from Jane dreams.

At the estate,
weaving became my salvation.
Working with cloths
became the song
of my hands.

I have grown in artistry
through the clothes I create.
The praise I receive,
I offer as a tribute
to my ancestors.

Stephen and I
treat the young slave John
as our son.
We never lose hope
that we will one day
live free.
I weave these thoughts
into dreamcloths
of Freedom.

Rendered in pen, ink and watercolor, plus collaged photoreproductions of historical deeds, all the illustrations beginning with the matching dust jacket and book case speak to the moving portraits contained in this book. The raised portions on the jacket of the links and Ashley Bryan's name symbolize his connection to these people.  Each element of the design on the front is there for a specific purpose.  To the left on the back is a picture of The Fairchilds Estate 1828.  The opening and closing endpapers are enlarged reproductions of a document.  These are followed by document reproductions on the title page, smaller and more complete.

The document and other publications are used as a background for the portrait of each slave to the left of each initial poem.  Heavy black lines define their features. The technique Mr. Bryan uses is reminiscent of stained-glassed windows.  To the right of the following poem we see them at work; surrounded by an environment they have made their own.  These pictures are framed in what I like to call flames of hope.

The vibrant colors in the dream illustrations speak to the individual personalities of the people; they swirl and flow with life.  The facial and body features, their eyes, mouths and hands, connect to others and that which they love.  Each one is simply beautiful.

One of my favorite illustrations of many is of Peggy inside her kitchen.  Behind her on the left is a shelf filled with ingredients, then moving right, a window looking outside and finally hooks from which hang plants to be used in her professions. Working at the table with her kneading and forming loaves of bread is Dora. Resting his hand on her is John, a bandage around his head from the healing poultice she placed there.

I know these free verse poems are works of fiction written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan in Freedom over me: Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life.  Before I wrote a single word of this post though, after several readings of the book, I was compelled to know more.  What I found in my research and what I listened to and read about Ashley Bryan's process prompted me to place this book here.  It is based on a primary resource Mr. Bryan has in his possession. I believe it will inspire discussions and further searching by all readers.  I am very moved by this book, brought to tears more than once.

To discover more about Ashley Bryan and his work please follow the link attached to his name to access The Ashley Bryan Center established in 2013.  At the publisher's website you can view multiple interior images. At TeachingBooks.net Ashley Bryan has recorded a message about this title.  There are several video interviews of Ashley Bryan at Reading Rockets.

Please visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see the other selections by bloggers participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

It's An Officer Katz and Houdini Celebration and Giveaway

Who can say for how many centuries dogs and cats have had a less than amicable relationship?  Storytellers from numerous cultures have handed down explanations for generations in folktales.  Some scientists have offered up the canines' prey drive as to why some dogs chase cats.  When people with both cats and dogs in their households say they get along fine, you wonder if instinct and survival has been put aside in favor of a truce.

In similar discussions people have pondered which of the two, cats or dogs, are more loyal, lovable, intelligent or clever.  Officer Katz and Houndini: A Tale of Two Tails (Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, October 18, 2016) written by Maria Gianferrari with illustrations by Danny Chatzikonstantinou is about a long-standing rivalry in a very specific place.  Time is dictating a call to action.

Officer Katz was an inventor extraordinaire.
His Katz-traptions were the best in Kitty City.

Even with his imagination and skills Officer Katz was no match for the Great Houndini, an escape artist of exceptional talent honed over decades of experience.  Each year the mustached magician visited Kitty City with his traveling show, The Great Escape.  Each year the town founder's portrait was vandalized with a telltale mustache.

As Officer Katz watched the arrival of the familiar wagon, he knew this was the year he needed to make a decisive move as his retirement loomed on the horizon.  Crowds of cats converged to gasp and applaud the marvels performed by Houndini.  Journalists and photographers were there to record his stunts in print and on film.  They all saw there was nothing that could hold this canine captive.

Backstage after the curtain closed on the final act, Officer Katz stopped Houndini in his tracks with a challenge; a three-part challenge to test the dog's breakout abilities against the canine's ingenious inventions.  There were consequences for Houdini if Officer Katz won and likewise for Kitty City and Officer Katz if Houndini was the victor.  The press was ready and waiting in the wings.

On days one and two

 a bow and a wow and a tip of his top hat

told the tale but the third day was not quite the same.  A misplaced piece of the Katz-apult caught both parties up in an unexpected consequence.  The conclusion is paws-itively unprecedented.  Even Squirrel and Deputy Catbird were perplexed but the show must go on.

No matter how many times you read this title, you can't help but be amazed at the wordplay penned by Maria Gianferrari.  Her use of alliteration and puns provides non-stop appreciation for her skills with language.  One clever technique this reader enjoyed is having newspaper headlines incorporated into the narrative.  A true passion for portraying animals, especially dogs and...okay...cats, in her books makes this story a win-win for everyone, characters and readers alike.  Here are two passages from the book.

Houndini hurtled into town,
tipping his top hat,
his cape billowing in the breeze.

On the first day, Officer Katz strung his
new-and-improved Katz-net in Cat and Mouse
It was as sticky as a spiderweb and as stretchy
as a cat's cradle.  

The dust jacket (I am working with an F & G.) introduces readers to the muted full color palette used for all the images.  We also get a first peek at the attention to detail provided by Danny Chatzikonstantinou in each illustration.  Note the rope in the sub title, the wood used in Officer Katz's inventions as part of the title text, the two intertwined tails of the cat and the dog and the placement of their partners, Deputy Catbird and Squirrel.  To the left, on the back, the two assistants are sleeping next to one another on top of the center of three suitcases framed by stage curtains. Their dreams appear above each in a circular speech balloon.

The opening and closing endpapers are several hues of teal. It's a large representation, a map, of places on The Great Escape's tour with names like West Cheddar and Nutbury.  Beneath the words on the title page, Officer Katz and Houndini with their tails still wrapped together are glaring at each other, paws on hips.

Chatzikonstantinou alternates his picture sizes to supply pacing and to elevate the narrative, using a variety of background hues, white, deep blue, purple, mint green, turquoise, teal and rose.  He shifts his perspective also; as if we are looking from an upper window down at Houndini's arrival, as one of many members in the evening audience viewing the stage from a distance, or a cross-section of Houndini's routes inside a maze.  Careful readers will notice other elements such as the cat trees around the performance venue, the opera glasses used by two leading characters, Officer Katz's special rope and the shape it forms, and the pawprint emblem on Houndini's cape.

One of my favorite illustrations is of the Tabby Times front page on day two.  The headline reads


In the lower left hand corner Houdini is lifting his hat, twirling and winking at the audience.  In the upper right hand corner Officer Katz is proudly posing for his victory picture.  Beneath this is an image containing a small pile of dirt, a hole and a dog paw lifting out to grab a signature hat.  This is one of many times when humor is prominent in the pictures.

If you appreciate an original take on an age-old conflict, Officer Katz and Houndini: A Tale of Two Tails written by Maria Gianferrari with illustrations by Danny Chatzikonstantinou is a title perfect for you.  The clever narrative and spirited illustrations bring to readers a new paw-spective.  It might be fun to perform this as a reader's theater or to challenge readers to think of other puns.

You can view interior images from the book at the publisher's website.  Maria Gianferrari was a guest at Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read.  She was also featured at Jama's Alphabet Soup maintained by Jama Rattigan and at KidLit411.  Yesterday Maria Gianferrari started this blog tour at author Tara Lazar's Writing For Kids (While Raising Them)  Be sure to visit this site and the other's listed below on the tour.


Monday, Oct. 17th:                      Writing for Kids (While Raising Them) THREE GIVEAWAYS: a query pass from the amazing Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary; picture book critique from me, and a copy of Officer Katz & Houndini!!
Tuesday, Oct. 18th:                     Librarian’s Quest
Wednesday, Oct. 19th:              Bildebok
Thursday, Oct. 20th:                   Mamabelly’s Lunches with Love
Friday, Oct. 21st:                          Pragmaticmom + THREE book giveaway
Monday, Oct. 24th:                      Homemade City
Tuesday, Oct. 25th:                     ReFoReMo THINK QUICK Interview with Carrie Charley Brown

This photograph credit goes to Monogram Arts.
Hot diggety dog!  Maria Gianferrari's a lucky dog---she gets to write stories about cats and dogs, and when she's dog-tired, she can catnap in her office.  Maria lives in northern Virginia with her cat's meow of a family:  her scientist husband, artist daughter, and top dog, Becca.  She is the author of the Penny & Jelly books as well as Coyote Moon and the forthcoming Hello Goodbye Dog.  To learn more about Maria, please visit her website at mariagianferrari.com, Facebook or Instragram.

Monday, October 17, 2016

What Remains True?

Very early Sunday morning a string of storms brought noise and rain to our area for hours.  This provided the ultimate opportunity to read wrapped in a blanket on the couch.  Soon the sounds of the showers and thunder and flashes of lightning faded into the background as a book was started and consumed, cover to cover in one sitting.

All lifelong readers have toppling stacks or shelves filled with books to be read.  Sometimes books call to you immediately but you wait to read them letting the anticipation build, knowing they will be filled with something powerful and memorable.  This is the way it was with Jo Knowles new middle grade title, Still A Work In Progress (Candlewick Press, August 2, 2016).

"I am not afraid of Molly Lo," Ryan tells me from inside the stall of the boys' bathroom.  He refuses to use the urinal, just like everyone else.

"Then why are you hiding in the bathroom?" I ask.

"She's stalking me," he says.  "Stalkers make me nervous."

With those five sentences we are whisked into the world of seventh grader Noah and his two best friends, Ryan and Sam.  Very quickly we are introduced to other students in this small New England school, Lily, Belle, Small Tyler and Big Tyler and their social studies teacher, Mr. Sticht, nicknamed Tank.  Initially they are addressing the fairly common but gross problem of what is causing a revolting odor in Small Tyler's locker.

Later the entire school gathers for their once-a-week Community Meeting where we meet Ms. Cliff the principal and art teacher, Mrs. Phelps, the science teacher with knock-you-dead breath, Madame Estelle, the French and math teacher and Mr. Marshall, the English teacher.  The most interesting member of this new cast of characters is Curly, the school pet, a hairless cat who wears an assortment of vests to keep warm.  What prompts these meetings and what keeps the discussions lively is the Suggestion Box.

By the end of the first chapter we are given a single sentence hinting at events to come.  Noah's older sister, a vivacious, nearly-perfect-in-every-way and determined vegan, Emma is the reason behind the unease readers begin to feel and the Thing We Don't Talk About.  While conversations at school are about girls, dating and the school dance; conversations at home revolve family meals and wondering if Emma is okay.

This year is when Noah's star starts to shine as his gift for sculpting with clay and drawing are noticed and praised by Ms. Cliff.  It's in art class when Noah feels the best as his concerns drift away.  This lasts until during winter break on Christmas Eve.  As Noah, his mom and dad wait for Emma so they can leave for church, their worst fears are confirmed.

For months with no sure end in sight Noah and his parents try to swim through worry, sadness, helplessness and guilt.  Noah's emotional turmoil reaches to his friends, classmates and the staff at his school.  It's a time when people try to be the best they can, not always sure what to say or do.  It's all part of being human.  It's when true friends and family remain true.

Jo Knowles must be the ultimate observer of human nature because she gets it supremely right in the pages of this book.  As an educator in middle school for several decades, I can honestly say her portrayals are refreshingly genuine and brimming with humor.  Although the struggles of Noah, Emma and his parents are heartbreaking, Knowles nevertheless uses humor here too in the beginning to show us how this family can be when they are at their best.  The school cat, Curly, and the family dog, Captain, are the comfort and comic relief the characters and readers need.

Noah's thoughts, his point of view, and the conversations with friends, classmates and family members will envelope you with all the emotions of the moment. We are very personally involved in this story.  As each individual grows and changes, we can't help but assess how we might be in a similar situation.

Each chapter begins with a heading as if it's a suggestion from the school's box.  This leads us into the dialogue and events within that section of the book.  Knowles ends the chapters with a thought to ponder, a link to what follows.  Here are a few passages from the book.

When he tosses it in, an even stronger smell hits me all at once, and I stagger backward into Max, who staggers into Lily.  We are like dominoes falling into one another and gasping, eyes watering.  I try to think of a worse smell but can't, and that's saying something.  There are three things I can think of off the top of my head.  A dead mouse whose smell spread through the whole school the day the heat kicked in for the first time in the fall.  Tyler Gingritch's farts after his parents had a chili-contest party in October and he wandered through the school leaving gas in every room just to torture us all, and then Zach Bray and Max Fitzsimmons, who were also at the party, formed a group called the Fart Squad and went around leaving stink bombs right before class. And finally Mrs. Phelps's coffee breath, better known as Death Breath.  It fills the science room every morning and makes even Miranda-with-the-Always-Stuffed-Up-Nose gag.
This is the smell of a thousand dead mice.  A million Fart Squad bombings.  And worse than a fan blowing Mrs. Phelps's Death Breath straight into your mouth.

The girls' room is like a mystery cave to the boys.  All we know is that it smells like twenty kinds of body spray vying for air domination.  You literally taste it when you walk by the door.

"What's that smell?" Belle asks.
Sam and I look at Ryan. He could say it's him and maybe gross Molly out.  But instead he points to the sandwich like a traitor.
"What?" Sam says.  "I think it smells good."
"What kind of sandwich is that?" Lily asks, wrinkling her nose.
Sam sighs. "Liverwurst and onions.  With mustard."
"Gross," Belle says.  "No offense."
It seems like we all say "No offense" a lot around Sam.
"My grandfather used to make those!" Molly leans forward and sniffs.  "Can I have a bite?"
Sam looks shocked.  "Really? Yeah!" He hands it over and she takes a huge bite, nodding as she chews.
"Oh, yeah," she says through a mouthful.  "Mmmm."  She smiles at Sam as if this is the first time she's noticed him.  "He made these for me whenever I visited him."
Molly hands what's left of the sandwich back to Sam, who smiles at her dreamily.
Ryan watches them in disbelief as they fall in love over a liverwurst sandwich.

With the eloquence and precise care of a master photographer Jo Knowles gives us rare and rich glimpses into Noah's life and times during his seventh grade year with her words in Still A Work In Progress.  You will read this book in great gulps until you have finished, then you will go back and reread favorite portions.   Some are full of laugh-out-loud hilarity and others with deep clarity and moving impact.

To learn more about Jo Knowles and her other work please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  Here is a link to Jo Knowles blog.  You can read nearly four chapters at this publisher's website.  At the Candlewick Press website in addition to several chapters for reading, there is a discussion guide.  I think you will like this conversation at the Nerdy Book Club between Jo Knowles and Kate Messner about their two new titles and the subject matter in each.  Enjoy the videos.