Quote of the Month

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

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Ho Ho Humph

It's hard to believe six days have passed since December 25, 2016.  It will be another three hundred fifty-eight days until the next Christmas celebration.  Surely the time will pass quickly with months, days, and hours filled with the expected and unexpected.  While you are waiting for this holiday to approach there is a title you need to consider reading.

We can all agree laughter is truly an antidote to many things, not all but most. When the jolliest elf of all is in a grumpy slump something needs to be done.  The Day Santa Stopped Believing In Harold (Tundra Books, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, October 11, 2016) with words by Maureen Fergus (Buddy and Earl, Buddy and Earl Go Exploring) and art by Cale Atkinson (To The Sea and Explorers Of The Wild) is the ticket to hilarity.  There is a ton of trouble at the top of the world.

One stormy night close to Christmas, Santa and Mrs. Claus were sitting in their cozy little log cabin at the North Pole.  

Instead of going over the line-up of reindeer on his team, Santa was sad and sulking.  Mrs. Claus repeatedly asked Santa what was wrong before he finally admitted the truth.  He no longer believed the boy named Harold existed.  He believed Harold's parents were trying to trick him into thinking the child was actually real.

To say Mrs. Claus was shocked was an understatement.  Santa began his list of reasons noting the letter to him appeared to have been written by Harold's mom.  He then went on to point out the late night snack for him.  Santa was certain Harold's dad had left it for him.  As he grew more adamant, Mrs. Claus made a very valid point.

When the news of Santa's quandary swept through the toy departments, the elves were stunned.  Merpin, the Elf Supervisor in the Computer Gizmo Department was no help whatsoever.  Santa set off to seek the counsel of his reindeer.

As Santa laid out the facts of the matter, his team listened in silence.  Finally Donner stated the obvious.  There had to be proof.  At this point the story switched to Harold's home where a similar situation was unfolding.  Harold had a plan.  Santa had a plan.  Neither one of them planned on the results.

As soon as you read the words

Santa was supposed to be going over the roster for this year's sleigh team.
Instead, he was moping.

you know something is amiss. Santa simply does not mope but Maureen Fergus has a knack for bringing a humorous new viewpoint to what we believe to be true.  It's this comedic contrast which propels the story through all its surprises.  With careful, honest and insightful conversations we gain perspective on the issue at the North Pole and in Harold's home.  Here is another passage.

"Stop!" interrupted Santa in a choked voice.  "Don't say another word.  You don't need to keep pretending on my account because...because...I don't believe in Harold anymore."
Mrs. Claus stared at Santa as though he'd suddenly sprouted antlers.

The grouchy looking Santa carrying and wearing signs on the matching dust jacket and book case is uproariously funny.  His BIG round body and tiny feet and hands plus the look on his face are sure to cause bouts of laughter.  On the back, to the left, we get the rear view of the same image.  On the back of the sign it says


Cale Atkinson rendered the artwork

in Santa's Workshop with Photoshop.

The opening and closing endpapers in a matte-finished paper are identical to the pattern on Santa's shirt under his red coat.  It's a lively print in reds and greens with stripes, diagonals, snowmen, hearts, stars, dots and squares.  Much of the background canvas is a faint stripe pattern like wallpaper.  Prior to the title and verso pages, we see Santa's cat playing Scrabble with Harold's turtle.  Foreshadowing.  The dedication and title page information is placed inside Christmas tree ornaments.

Atkinson alternates between double-page pictures, single page images or a group on two pages to show the passage of time.  His details are marvelous; a bucket of coal next to Santa's fireplace, Mrs. Claus wearing reindeer slippers, Santa drinking hot chocolate from a cup with a Santa-hat-wearing narwhal on it, and Mrs. Claus's skirt covered in holly outlines.  The facial expressions on all the characters' faces are absolutely spot-on.

One of my many favorite illustrations is Harold in his bedroom.  On the background canvas in blue on blue is a series of miniature robots.  His bed is covered in a purple spread with a purple pillow.  On the floor are several Santa Claus books and a picture of Santa's face surrounded by question marks.  On the wall are a bunch of clues connected by string.  Harold, minus a front tooth, is reading a copy of Santa Enquirer.  His turtle is next to him, smiling.

Be sure to get a copy of The Day Santa Stopped Believing In Harold words by Maureen Fergus and pictures by Cale Atkinson to add to your Christmas collection.  Readers young and young at heart are going to get lots of chuckles out of this story.  It's good to know even Santa can have doubts.  It makes him all the more believable.

To learn more about Maureen Fergus and Cale Atkinson and their other work please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Cale Atkinson also maintains Tumblr pages.  You can get a glimpse inside the book at the publisher's website.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Word Play, Hooray!

Nothing is better than a storytime filled with laughter, words and music.  As soon as the little guys and gals (and some of the older ones too) hear the sounds and feel the beat, they are on their feet.  As they learn the words to the story or song, they'll be rocking along with voices loud and strong.

There are some books which naturally have you moving as you read or listen along.  There are others specifically designed to employ the best techniques for engaging children in active learning.  A Toucan Can Can You? (The Kids at Our House, Spring 2016) words written by Danny Adlerman and friends (illustrated by Lindsay Barrett George, Megan Halsey, Ashley Wolff, Demi, Ralph Masiello, Wendy Anderson Halperin, Kevin Hammeraad, Pat Cummings, Dar (Hosta), Leeza HernandezChristee Curran-Bauer, Kim Adlerman and Symone Banks with music by Jim Babjak) is one of those books.  It's a toe-tapping and hand-clapping good time.

How much snow could a snowshoe shoo if a snowshoe could shoo snow?

As much snow as a snowshoe could if a snowshoe could shoo snow!

Using compound words eleven more upbeat verses beckon to readers.  Without the help of humans what can a teaspoon do?  It might be more than a little bit interesting to see a jellyfish out of water, trying to catch preserves.  Does honey have hair?  Why do they need a comb?

Watch out for the shaking and shimmying milk!  I wonder what would happen in many an artist's studio if the brushes they use came to life.  Maybe they did.  Maybe that's how some of the masterpieces were completed.  Grab your nearest resource to discover if a rockhopper flops or hops.

One of my dad's favorite sayings was 

"I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!"

right before he started to crank the handle on the ice cream maker.  There is nothing on this planet like the taste of homemade ice cream.  Although I have to admit I've never heard it utter a sound.

You'll be looking at bow ties with new admiration.  Will a tropical bird be able to collect and count a simple number?  Join in the fun!

All twelve of the compound words chosen by Danny Adlerman are well-known but if any of your readers or listeners are unfamiliar with one or more, what a wonderful way to explore and educate. (My curiosity about rockhopper taught me one or two new facts.)  The fantastic alliteration contributes to the rhythm of each phrase.  Here is another verse.

How much ham could a hamster stir
if a hamster could stir ham?

As much ham as a hamster could
if a hamster could stir ham!

The opened matching dust jacket and book case reflect the title and final phrase of the song.  The bright bold colors indicate the spirited text within the title.  Each of the visuals contains added details as this one does.  Can you see the butterfly and the beetle?  What might they be considering the habitat of the toucan?  To the left on the back, framed in black, is text about this book as well as information about the previous companion title, How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chuck?

The opening endpapers are framed in gold with a white canvas and button style flowers and leaves in corners and at the center.  A cartwheeling, pig-tailed girl points us toward other Alderman titles, music and a game.  The closing endpapers, framed in dusty deep lavender, give readers the musical score, words and challenges for readers.  There is much more to this title than the twelve phrases and song.

Each phrase is pictured by the different illustrators noted above.  (Before I looked at the list of illustrators and which picture they created, it was fun to figure it out.)  Lindsay Barrett George's bunny on snowshoes with ski poles looks right at us, challenging us to jump right into the image.  Megan Halsey's teaspoons are four high society women wearing hats and enjoying a tea party.  Ashley Wolff's jellyfish is lazily resting in a boat aptly named the S. S. Toucan with a pole in the water hoping to snag a treat.  It's nighttime with a crescent moon and shimmering stars.  Demi's signature style fashions a honeycomb replete with bees and bees form a frame.  One bee, larger than the rest is set apart holding a hair comb.

You will hardly be able to suppress a laugh when you first gaze at Ralph Masiello's cow on an exercise machine in front of the barn on the farm.  His border is boards nailed to the image edges.  The intricate, delicate montage painted by Wendy Anderson Halperin is exquisite.  You'll be racing to your art history textbooks.  Kevin Kammeraad's space scene will have readers pausing and pondering.  The background for Pat Cumming's rockhoppers is graph paper with an equation attempting to figure out if they can actually hop a rock.  The rocks appear to be a real photograph with the penguins drawn on top.  

Dar (Hosta)'s Puffin Ice Cream truck is as adorable as the polar bear holding a pink ice cream cone as it rolls in the snow.  Musical notes are blaring forth from the truck.  You can almost hear the pigs snorting in Leeza Hernandez's barnyard scene.  Is that a hamster trying to lasso a pig?  Cristee Curran-Bauer fashions darling, vibrant animated bow ties busily at work but also jumping into a colorful bunch of ribbons.  Kim Adlerman's toucan and twos are a collage of eye-catching realistic items.  New artist Symone Banks was chosen to do the final spread asking readers Can you?  There are many items to discover in this final two-page spread.

I have to say that it is impossible to pick only one favorite illustration out of these twelve wonderful representations of each artist's work.  Each one fits the phrase perfectly.  Each one asks readers to stop and look and learn.

A Toucan Can Can You? written by Danny Alderman with illustrations by Lindsay Barrett George, Megan Halsey, Ashley Wolff, Demi, Ralph Masiello, Wendy Anderson Halperin, Kevin Kammeraad, Pat Cummings, Dar (Hosta), Leeza Hernandez, Cristee Curran-Bauer, Kim Adlerman and Symone Banks is the best kind of book to get young and early readers excited about language.  The music provided by Jim Babjak is upbeat and will remain with listeners.  The CD has two tracks; one with the words and one that is strictly instrumental.  There are seven activity sheets available to download at the author's website.

To learn more about each of these creative people please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  At Lee & Low Books you can view a few of the interior images.  Betsy Bird, the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library reviews this title at School Library Journal, Review of the Day.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

No Matter How Small, Retain Them All

When your family does not have a lot materially you learn to use everything you have.  Glass, plastic and cardboard containers are used for other purposes than their original intent.  You get your cousin's outgrown clothing and it's then passed on to your younger sister.  Each school year you are allowed one new pair of shoes for everyday wear and if you've grown another pair just for church or special occasions.  No morsel of food is wasted.  When you leave a room the lights are turned off.  The water faucet and shower are never left running.  Your family has a huge vegetable garden and the summer and fall mean lots of canning and freezing.  Conserving resources means less money, the little money you have, is spent and more is saved.  This life style is not easy for children to understand but it teaches you to appreciate what you do have and to help those who have less than you.

In an equally beautiful companion to Grandfather Gandhi (Atheneum Books For Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, March 11, 2014) authors Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus with illustrations by Evan Turk created Be The Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Atheneum Books For Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, August 30, 2016).  The world saw a man of many talents, a beacon for passive resistance.  A boy saw someone else.

The world knows him as the Mahatma, Great Soul.
To me, he is Grandfather.  

Living at the Sevagram ashram, the grandson learns to live life as naturally as possible from sunrise to sunset.  Morning prayers are followed by days of work to maintain the life style of a simple and nonviolent people, numbering three hundred fifty.  Life in the ashram requires the residents to observe eleven vows.

The grandson struggles with

the vow not to waste.

He cannot see the connection between nonviolence and waste.  Bapuji asks the boy to be patient but a boy can only be patient for so long.  He welcomes the visit to the Nature Cure Clinic with his grandfather.  As he joins thousands listening to his grandfather his confusion on this vow continues but the words spoken by Bapuji still calm his soul.

One day while at Poona the grandson tosses the stub of a pencil away in the grass.  It's too small for him to use any longer.  When the boy asks for a new pencil a kind conversation follows with the child leaving, a flashlight in hand, to try to find the discarded pencil in the dark.  Hours later he locates the pencil, returning to his grandfather.  He still can't understand the tie between the pencil and nonviolence.

Back at the ashram Grandfather Gandhi works with his grandson.

"Waste is a violent action. ..."

He asks him to make a tree with violence as the trunk and branches for passive and physical violence.  The leaves are examples of each.  As the tree grows and grows the visual impact constructs a bridge between the pencil and violence in the boy's mind.  He realizes one of life's greatest truths.

At the close of the title Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus speak about the impact of passive violence.  It is a

fuel supply

for physical violence.  Examples of passive violence are shared.  They ask all readers to take the Be The Change Pledge.

What stands out for us in this story is the voice of Arun.  He speaks with great respect for Grandfather Gandhi but also candidly reveals his confusion.  In his wisdom and love Grandfather Gandhi allows the simplest action to be a catalyst.

Sentences, with vivid descriptions, convey life in the ashram and the interactions between the grandfather and his grandson.  The inclusion of the conversation between Arun and Grandfather Gandhi after he throws away his pencil shows us the true character of both as do the chats back at the ashram.  Grandfather Gandhi provides the impetus but Arun is granted the right to figure out the answer to his question on his own.  This is a powerful lesson taught by a master teacher. Here is a sample passage.

I set off into the dark.  My face burned with shame.  Grandfather had already taught me so much, and here I had more to learn.  I was a disappointment---to him, to myself.
I retraced my steps.  Past the bench with the broken leg.  Past a pack of stray dogs.  I stopped when I came to the scrubby grass that I'd cut across hours earlier.
Kneeling, I ran my fingers through the coarse stalks.
Above, the stars seemed to mock me.  Find it, find it, they twinkled, taunting.

All of the images rendered by Evan Turk in

 watercolor, paper collage, cotton fabric, cotton, gouache, white china marker, colored drawing pencils, and embroidery thread

is a luminous reflection of the life work of Mahatma Gandhi.  The matching dust jacket and book case speak to the single item which launches a valued lesson.  It demonstrates the affection of Grandfather Gandhi for Arun.  At the same time we can see the questioning behind Arun's gaze.  The intricate folds in the clothing and the stitching on the tree are a hint of the astounding illustrations within the body of the book.  On the back, to the left, is a geometric layout of the praise given to Grandfather Gandhi by professional reviews.

There is a deeper, richer sense in the color palette of this title with lots of red, orange, blue and purple.  Swirling blue outlines like clouds or flowers or rolling hills fill a red-speckled background on the opening endpapers.  On the closing endpapers the same pattern is evident but the outlines are red on a pale variegated yellow background.  A gorgeous, textured background in hues of red is the canvas for a single stitched stalk with three leaves and the words Be The Change.  This precedes the formal verso and title pages.

Eighteen striking two-page pictures interpret this priceless journey traveled by Arun. The depiction of light and shadow is marvelous.  The placement of the text never detracts from the visuals incorporated flawlessly into them.  In one picture the text is placed within a tree trunk and branches.  On that same page cotton has been picked by a woman and child.  It looks so real you will reach out to touch the page.

On another page the representations of the eleven vows are placed in connected squares of varying sizes.  We see these shapes replicated on the next two pages when Grandfather Gandhi is speaking and again in the formation of the tree.  Everything and everyone is connected.

One of my many favorite illustrations is the first one.  It is a varied orange background of watercolor.  On the right are the words for the first two sentences.  On the left in front of a large pale yellow sun are Grandfather Gandhi and Arun.  The walking stick Gandhi carries is the same shade as their skin.  Gandhi's glasses are a deeper yellow.  Their clothing is different shades of orange folded fabric.  Shadows extend from the walking stick and their feet.  There is a great deal of love in this scene.

Be The Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story written by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus with illustrations by Evan Turk is the perfect title for this new year.  How will each of us be the change?  How can this true story be used to help everyone seek change?  For myself I am going to try to do one thing actively each month differently (except for October when I do my Halloween book giveaway).  For the month of January my new thing is when I return bottles at the grocery store I am going to leave my bottle slip for the customer behind me in line.

To learn more about Arun Gandhi, Bethany Hegedus and Evan Turk and their other work please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Evan Turk also maintains a blog. Visit this link to view a sketch Evan Turk has on Instagram. To view some of the interior pages please visit the publisher's website.

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


When you close the cover on some books the first time read (and every time thereafter), you sit in stunned silence.  These books have enveloped you in the best kind of emotion.  They are filled with faith, hope and yes...love.  They tell you we are all connected.  Each of our stories is connected to another story.  Some stories, like the stories in these books, cross boundaries and borders in their universality.

These essential, significant stories remind us of stories in our own lives.  They remind us of a fleeting moment when an animal too large to be a coyote moved from the shore of Lake Michigan, out of the brush, and crossed the road in front of you and your dog, of another time when a larger dog charged out of the woods bent on attacking you and your dog but right before your eyes your sweet fifty-pound Labrador pulled back her lips and barred her teeth turning into a wolf and of a long journey to your house after parent-teacher conferences at night during a blinding snowstorm when you pulled alongside a stopped car and a sobbing woman with children begged you to help her get home by following your car tracks.

On Christmas Day 2016 I read a book, a brilliant book, with many points to ponder but first it will, like all great stories, resonate with and awaken memories in anyone who reads it.  This title, Wolf In The Snow (Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan, January 3, 2017), written and illustrated by Matthew Cordell is nearly wordless but the artwork speaks with such depth you can feel its truth and warmth fill you from your head to your toes.  It ties the souls of all beings together.  It asks us to be our best selves.

On the first page after the opening endpapers we are on the outside in the softly falling snow looking inside the window of a home.  A man and a woman are drinking cups of morning coffee as a young girl and her dog exchange affectionate gestures.  In the next two-page image the dog sends his human off to school with three sharp barks.

The snow is still falling as she trudges along.  In the distance a pack of wolves gather, the leader lifting his voice in a howl. We have now reached the verso and title pages.  After school the child all dressed in red heads for home.  The snow is falling more heavily now.  The wolf pack is on the move.

Soon the snow is so thick it's more than difficult to see.  A wolf pup drops back from the pack, unable to keep up with the pace.  Trying to find their way to safety and security the paths of the little girl and the pup merge.  Kindness bridges a gap.  Howls answer a howl.

Placing another first conquers one fear after another.  Then, time stands still in the frozen snowy night.  Fatigue takes its toll.  A link time cannot erase favors a courageous, compassionate heart.

In a conversation with author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast on December 15, 2015 Matthew Cordell shares a single drawing from which this story grew.  It's a testament to his wonderful sense of story, imagination and creativity that this book was born.  The blending of the two worlds, domestic and wild, is flawless and most beautiful.

The opened dust jacket reveals two separate scenes, the little girl in red with the wolf pup and a lone wolf, on the left, atop a hill howling.  The sky and snow carries over the spine to create the effect of oneness between these two images.  The book case is stunning.  On the right and left, framed in white, are five pictures.  They represent the best of two worlds, a possible future.  The opening and closing endpapers are a robin's egg blue.

Rendered in pen and ink with watercolor, Matthew Cordell warmly invites us into the story with his first picture.  His signature style is lively and brimming with emotion.  We get a very real sense of the love shared in this family and between the girl and her dog.  (I love that she waves good-by to her dog as she leaves for school in answer to the dog's barks.)

To introduce the domestic and wild worlds, establishing a contrast as well as a connection, Cordell uses white space and loose circular pictures.  Tension is supplied in moving from two-page illustrations to the circular picture pages.  This also provides pacing.  The placement of the characters and elements present many emotional and pivotal points. (No matter how many times I've read this book, I am near tears more than once.)  The effect created by Cordell's style is identical to being in a real snowstorm or blizzard.  You can almost hear the wind wailing.

One of my many favorite pictures covers two pages edge to edge.  It's a close up of the wolf pack on the move.  Across the top is the pale blue sky filled with snowflakes.  A line of trees divides the sky and the land.  Most of the illustration has a dry, grassy background quickly getting covered with snow.  Four adult wolves move to the left along with the pup.  The leader is very close to the reader on the right.  You can tell how bitter the temperature is by their frosty breaths.  The detail here (in all the pictures) is exquisite.

When Wolf In The Snow written and illustrated by Matthew Cordell is released next week rush as quickly as possible to get a copy for your personal and professional collections.  I will be purchasing multiple copies to give away.  This book is a marvelous, timeless treasure.  Thank you Matthew.  We need books like this more than ever.

To discover more about Matthew Cordell and his other work please visit his website and blog by following the links attached to his name.  Please watch the book trailer which was premiered at Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read.   I think you'll enjoy Matthew's responses to John's sentence starters.  Matthew Cordell chats about this title at School Library Journal: Preview: The Crusty Nibs.  Matthew answers five questions at author James Preller's blog.  Matthew is featured at The Little Crooked Cottage, Miss Marple's Musings, and Andrea Skyberg's website.  Matthew Cordell wrote a post for November Picture Book Month 2016, Why Picture Books Are Important.

UPDATE:  Matthew Cordell visits with Julie Danielson at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast to chat about the evolution of this title and some other projects.  On February 12, 2018 Matthew Cordell received the Caldecott Medal for this title.  Here is an article appearing in Publishers Weekly, A Sleepless Night, A Joyous Morning:  Matthew Cordell on Winning the Caldecott

Here is Matthew's Caldecott Medal Acceptance speech.

Here is an introductory article by his wife, Julie in The Horn Book.

Matthew writes a blog post after the award ceremony on June 24, 2018. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Anchors Aweigh

Sometimes when you aren't paying attention or even making an effort to listen, a portion of a remark or conversation will drift your way.  What you hear may or may not be out of context but it can change everything.  It's as if those very words are exactly what you need to hear at that moment, whether the individuals speaking are directing them at you or not.  It's as if the universe has sent you a miracle.

In a certain wood there is a certain creature that had this very thing happen.  The Friend Ship (Disney Hyperion, December 6, 2016) written by Kat Yeh with illustrations by Chuck Groenink follows a marvelous voyage.  It all begins with a misunderstanding.  

Hedgehog was curled up in a prickly little ball in the lonely little nook of a lonely little tree when she heard someone say her name.

In one of the phrases uttered by one of the animals the word friendship is mentioned.  It is followed by these words:

"---all she has to do is look."

Hedgehog immediately knows what she must do.  She has to build a boat fit for sailing on the seas.

As she puts the finishing touches on her vessel, a beaver wants to know if he can come with her.  Hedgehog welcomes the company as she seeks The Friend Ship.  Their first inquiry is made to a group of deer shifting their home for the season.  They have not seen The Friend Ship but they sure could use friends so they set sail with the beaver and Hedgehog.   

Each animal they meet has not seen the ship in question but all want to find it.  More and more animals are passengers searching for pals on Hedgehog's boat.  All are welcomed aboard with a resounding affirmative answer.  They trek to the north, they voyage to the south, and they glide to the east.  

Not finding The Friend Ship makes Hedgehog as sad as she was before this started.  The animals are quick to reassure her.  These critters look at life on the sunny side.  When they arrive at one of the last islands, a very tiny island with a very big sole occupant, Hedgehog receives an answer.  It's not what you might imagine but it will be.

In the character of Hedgehog Kat Yeh creates a universal being.  Everyone at one time or another has been in need of a friend.  Using the word play of friendship and friend ship to propel this story is sheer genius.  Her other choices for words are conversational and less formal; 

"Whatcha doing?" asked a curious beaver. 

With the meeting of each animal, the asked question, their replies and their queries, you can feel a positive force flowing from the pages.  It's amazing what combinations of the word yes can accomplish.  One other thing is the politeness of Hedgehog.  She always says 

"Excuse me."

Here is a sample passage.

"The Friend Ship!" said the rat.
"No...but, pretty please with 
stinky cheese, can I come?"

"Oh, yes!" said Hedgehog.
"Double yes!" said the beaver.
"Yes-yessity-yes!" said the deer.

The scene on the unfolded dust jacket glows.  The varied hue of golden sky shines on the islands and green sea waters.  The ten animals and Hedgehog make for a happy-go-lucky-looking crew.  Even though the images on each of the flaps are different they appear as extensions of the main dust jacket illustration.  The book case is a wavy swirl of glorious ocean blue.  The title text in white appears over the ship with the beaver and Hedgehog as they first set sail.  They are tiny but determined.  

On the opening and closing endpapers Chuck Groenink has placed a map of the seas and islands in pale golden yellow, green and black.  Each of the islands is represented in relief.  Careful readers will see they are labeled.  Those same readers will notice numbers and arrows.  The closing endpapers reveal a little bit more.

One of the first things which captures your attention about the images in this title is the fine lines, delicate details and the expressions on the animals' faces.  These elements give a true sense of place and mood.  In the first two-page picture with Hedgehog curled in the tree, you want to reach out and hug her.  Your love for her starts right here.  

Groenink makes excellent use of white space to frame single illustrations; some of them circular.  Most of his visuals span two pages.  Even now I am smiling thinking about the humor found in some of his pictures; the deer wearing backpacks or holding a coffee cup, the rat fishing off the ledge, and Hedgehog wading in the water at the final island.  It's wonderful how Groenink indicates the passage of time.  You might want to check the mast and bow.  

One of my favorite illustrations spans two pages.  It's a bird's eye view of Hedgehog at the rudder and the beaver in the bow of the ship on the left side.  They are easing toward the shore of an island.  Standing in the clearing with the forest behind them on the right are four deer standing upright on their hind legs.  The color palette is muted but natural.  Seeing those deer with their backpacks will at the very least make you smile or in my case burst out laughing.

The Friend Ship written by Kat Yeh with illustrations by Chuck Groenink is splendiferous.  The characters, the story line and the illustrations all add up to joy.  This is the kind of book you need on your personal and professional shelves.  This is the kind of book you give to those you love.  You need to read and share this title often.

To discover more about Kat Yeh and Chuck Groenink please visit their websites by following the link attached to their names.  Chuck Groenink also maintains a blog on Tumblr.

Friday, December 23, 2016

In A Little Town In Bethlehem

It's the day and evening before Christmas Eve 2016.  It would be a fairly accurate estimate to say I've read or had the Nativity story read to me several hundred times.  Although different interpretations by a variety of authors and illustrators shed new light on the heart of a religious and holiday celebration, the essence remains the same.  It was and is an unprecedented event.

On my personal shelves is a small collection of pop-up books, numbering just over thirty.  Half of them have been engineered by Robert Sabuda.  This year his newest entry honors The Christmas Story (Candlewick Press, September 27, 2016).  It's a luminous presentation in both images and text.

LONG AGO, in the town of Nazareth, there lived a young woman named Mary.  She was soon to marry a carpenter named Joseph.

Mary was visited by an angel with news, unexpected news.  She was to give birth to the Son of God.  Faithful to the Lord she humbly replied,

"I am the servant of the Lord."

After Mary and Joseph became husband and wife, they had to make a long journey to the town of Bethlehem, birthplace of Joseph.  A census had been ordered by Caesar Augustus.  With so many people traveling to Bethlehem for the counting, by the time the young couple entered the city, all places of rest and refreshment were full.

They spent the night in a stable.  Joseph made his wife as comfortable as possible on a straw bed.  She gave birth to a son surrounded by the animals lodged in the humble shelter.  Nearby angels came to a group of shepherds caring for their flock.  They announced the birth of the child in Bethlehem. Far away a bright star guided three wise men.  They sought a King.

The shepherds arrived.  The three wise men found the stable delivering their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Mary and Joseph were astonished but the words of the angel sent by God resonated within their hearts.  This was a night unlike any before or after.

For each of the six displays Robert Sabuda has engineered they are accompanied by beautifully worded paragraphs.  In most of them Sabuda has included exact Biblical quotes.  He draws attention to the human element.  He makes this extraordinary event accessible to readers of all ages.  Here is a portion of one of the paragraphs.

Mary wrapped the baby in a warm blanket,
and Joseph laid him in a manger filled with
fresh, sweet hay.

On the front of the book the circles of light around Mary, Joseph and the Child as well as the star are embossed in gold.  Along the spine the Star shines in gold foil above the title also in foil.  The contrast of deep rich royal blue with the pristine white is striking.

With a page turn a pale blue background highlights an angel in the upper, right-hand corner, wings spread.  Gold trims the neck, sleeves and waist of the angel's attire.  Mary, on the left, looks from one of two arched windows.  Doves are present.  Jars hold small growing trees.  With this first scene we are reminded of the masterful talent of Robert Sabuda.  His intricate details are nothing short of amazing.

When you open the pages a vista or a small vignette rises in front of your eyes; the hills and rolling sands of the desert landscape with buildings in the distance, animals peering at a man, woman and child or three men riding camels with a star reaching high above them.  Gold foil has been placed on portions of all the pictures for emphasis.  The backgrounds are different in all of the depictions.  Unlike the majority of the elements done in white, the clothing worn by the three wise men is a textured pearl color.

These six portrayals are all stunning but one of my favorites is the angels visiting the shepherds.  Eight sheep rise on the dusty green canvas on the left.  On the right two shepherds kneel in front of their fire.  A sheep is to the left of one of them.  Three angels, two playing instruments, speak to the men.  The angels have been placed above a swirl of clouds.

The Christmas Story interpreted and portrayed in a glorious array of pop-up pictures by Robert Sabuda is a book you will want on your personal shelves as a title to be shared every year.  As I have done in my professional collections in the past I would recommend its inclusion.  These books are well-loved quickly but they are most appreciated.  I thank Robert Sabuda for this title and for Candlewick Press for its publication.

To learn more about Robert Sabuda and his other work, please follow the first link attached to his name.  The second link takes you to a page his devotes to the making of pop-ups.  You can also further acquaint yourself with Sabuda through this NCCIL essay, an interview at Best Pop-Up Books, Four Questions for ... Robert Sabuda at Publishers Weekly, a video interview at Reading Rockets and a guest appearance at All The Wonders, Episode 308 with teacher librarian Matthew Winner.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


For those who know me personally and for those who only know me virtually my love of dogs is apparent to all.  When I say I love dogs, I mean there has never been a human being as wonderful as any of my four dogs.  If I should meet a human who surpasses the pure generosity, compassion, loyalty, love and joy of a dog, then surely there is reincarnation.  A dog must have been sent back in the form of a human to show us how to better live our lives.

Even before I read the first page of the first chapter of Patricia MacLachlan's new title, the book found a permanent place in my heart.  Here is what I read:

Dogs speak words
But only poets
And children
---P. M.

If I never went on to read the rest of The Poet's Dog (Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, September 13, 2016), I would have been satisfied with those four lines.  But I did read the book...again and again.

I found the boy at dusk.

The individual speaking to us is a dog.  The boy he found is lost in a blizzard; so is his younger sister.  They were left in a car by their mother who sought help.  Someone else told them the car would be towed for the plows.  Frightened they venture out looking for their parent.

The dog goes on to tell us about Sylvan, a poet, who saved him from a shelter.  Sylvan read to him and talked to him until he understood words.  Now it's the dog's turn to save the children.

Teddy, an Irish wolfhound, leads them from the pond, past a large rock and along a path to a cabin sitting in a clearing in the woods.  A light, always lit, shows them the way.  Flora and Nicholas, Nickel, understand words too.  They understand the words Teddy utters.  Now my friends you have the perfect setting for a book you will never forget; a blizzard, two lost children, a lone cabin in the woods and a dog who talks.  But remember only poets and children can hear him.

Over the course of several days as the wind howls, snow falls and the power flickers off and on, through the conversations between Flora, Nickel and Teddy, we come to understand how the relationship grew between Sylvan and Teddy.  We are intimately aware of the special qualities of each child.  We follow along as the three work to navigate this thing we call life.  And what of the poet Sylvan you ask?  You simply must read this book.

Every time I read this book I can feel the sheer beauty of every single line fill my soul with hope, a hope that stays.  (I have always believed everything in our futures depends on children.)  Chapter by chapter you can sense love growing; love between a poet and his dog, love between a poet and one particular student and love between two children and a dog who finds them.  Every word written by Patricia MacLachlan provides an exquisite connection to the next.

Her descriptions of the storm raging outside and the quiet haven created by the children and the dog take you deep into this story.  After a particularly poignant portion (more than one) you will find yourself stopping and thinking about relationships and what makes them endure.  You will also realize if you have not already done so, a single individual, dog or human, can make a difference.  Here are some passages.

"Poets and children" said Sylvan.  "We are the same really.  When you can't find a poet, find a child.  Remember that."

Or was it four days?  Being alone confuses the truth about time.

In the night I got up once to push up the door lever with my nose and go outside into the wind.
Nickel raised his head.
"Where are you going?"
His voice sounded frightened.
"I'm going to pee," I said.
I heard Flora's sleepy, comforting voice in the dark.
"He's a dog," Flora said softly.
"Oh, right," said Nickel.  "I keep forgetting that."
I came back to my red rug next to Nickel.
His arm went around me again.
"Sometimes I forget, too," I said to Nickel.

There was no silence in the cabin, even at night.  The wind was like a wild song that pushed away the quiet.

The Poet's Dog written by Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLachlan with dust jacket artwork by Kenard Pak is one of my favorite books of 2016.  It is a book I will read over and over.  I will read it aloud to anyone who will listen.  It is distinguished.

To learn more about Patricia MacLachlan enjoy this video interview released by the publisher three years ago.

At the publisher's website you can read and listen to an excerpt from the book.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Deep Sea Dreams

A book was published in February of 1974 with one of the most haunting scenes I had (or have) every read.  Serious consideration was given to not completing the story given the fear those descriptive moments created.  As I recall the passage it spoke to those horrific, unforeseen minutes of fear which can happen, when something comes out of the dark to change our lives permanently.

Even knowing what was coursing through the water toward the nighttime swimmer, I was one of hundreds of viewers screaming and lifting my feet from the floor, as we watched Steven Spielberg's movie interpretation of Peter Benchley's Jaws in the summer of 1975.  You don't forget that kind of terror. In her Author's Note Heather Lang talks about her fear of sharks sparked by the movie as a child but also how it drove her to learn as much as possible about a trailblazing woman.  Swimming With Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark (Albert Whitman & Company, December 1, 2016) illustrated by Jordi Solano is one of those stunning picture book biographies highlighting an incredibly brave human being determined to disprove the status quo.

Little Genie stood on the railing and pressed her face against the mysterious glass tank.

While others feared what she watched, she found these fish fascinating.  She dreamt of being in the water with them.  She wanted to swim with sharks!

On Saturday mornings she returned to the aquarium in New York City, chatting with people who came to the tank and educating them about sharks. To support her passion her mother saved money to get her a fish tank of her own.  This girl read, studied and asked questions about sharks.  She was determined to become a fish scientist.  Today this might not seem like an impossible dream but in the 1930s it was unheard of for a woman to follow this career path.

In college she took every class she could to work her way toward her goal, graduating with a degree in zoology.  Fortunately a famous someone recognized her merits.  Genie was a research assistant in California for an ichthyologist!  She lived in the water acquainting herself with every aspect of life under the surface of the ocean.

When she was twenty-seven years old and conducting a study for the US Navy, her dream came true.  Underwater collecting fish, a huge shark swam up behind her!  As still as stone Genie watched it dive deep and away.

She built a laboratory in Florida complete with a shark pen devoting herself to learning as much as she could about these often misunderstood fish.  Specific interactions would prove such things as sharks are clever, some are gentle and sharks are sophisticated.  Eugenie Clark spent a lifetime (actually diving when in her nineties) devoted to sharks and their preservation along with all marine life.

When you read about a woman like Eugenie Clark brought to life by the writing of Heather Lang you are astonished at her accomplishments, one giant step at a time.  Research and a visit with Eugenie Clark prior to her death in 2015 allow her to give us up-close-and-personal information about this remarkable pioneer in her field.  Her depictions of these incidents are vivid enough to bring us into the place and time.  The technique of including pieces of notebook paper with shark notes on them as part of the images brings us closer to her scientific revelations.  Here is a passage.

The ocean became her classroom!  Genie collected fish and studied them.  She took water samples.  She dissected a swell shark to investigate how and why it puffs up.

Wearing a face mask, Genie explored the underwater world for the first time.  Its beauty mesmerized her.  Genie couldn't wait to dive deeper, stay under water longer, and maybe even see some sharks.

Painted digitally after hand-drawn images are scanned into his computer Jordi Solano supplies readers with a world so real we expect the sharks to swim right off the pages.  The illustration on the matching dust jacket and book case on the front, the right, is extended over the spine giving us an expanded view of the aquarium tank and a fourth shark.  Even though Genie is on the outside looking in at the sharks, this initial picture seems to predict her astounding future with these creatures.

The opening and closing endpapers done in two hues of blue feature the outlines of many different types of sharks.  Beneath the text on the title page a loose circle surrounds Genie with her hands pressed against the glass at the shark tank.  Most of the images span two pages.  Solano's use of shading and shadow and his shifts in perspective give each illustration a deep sense of atmosphere and emotion.

For the first two page image we again see Genie, face against the glass at the aquarium, but this time we are closer to her and seeing her as if we are in the tank; it's a shark's eye view.  When Genie dives it's as if we are there with her.  All the shimmering shades of the ocean depths are shown.  Each picture is a study of Genie and her love of sharks.

One of my many favorite pictures is after Genie's mother buys her a fish tank.  On a single page, taking up nearly the entire area, is the tank filled with plants and tiny fish.  Behind them is the face of Genie, eyes wide open and watching everything in motion.  Solano has her hair on the outside blend with the plants on the inside.  The play of dark and light is wonderful.

After reading a title like Swimming With Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark written by Heather Lang with illustrations by Jordi Solano you find yourself first thankful for this woman and second hoping this story will inspire other women to pursue their heart's desire no matter what road blocks attempt to dissuade them.  Eugenie Clark fought against norms and prejudice and won herself a place as a highly respected scientist.  This is an excellent picture book biography!  There is, as mentioned above, an Author's Note, a More about Sharks page and a list of Selected Sources.

To learn more about Heather Lang and Jordi Solano please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  Heather Lang has a multitude of resources about Eugenie Clark and sharks on the page for this title.  There is a six page teacher's guide.  At the publisher's website you can get a peek inside the book including one of my favorite illustrations.  At the publisher's blog illustrator Jordi Solano talks about his process for this title.  This is his first picture book.  Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher, showcases the book trailer premiere with commentary by Heather Lang on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read.  Heather Lang is a guest writer at the Nerdy Book Club speaking about research for nonfiction and fiction children's literature titles.  This title has been nominated at the Amelia Bloomer Project.

As this year is nearly at a close please be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see the other titles selected this week by those participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Barely Aware

It's downright spooky when you are looking for something and it seems to have disappeared before your very eyes, only to turn up in a place you've checked multiple times.  You are befuddled by this mind quirk.  If you happen to be alone, you will most definitely be giving your canine companion an appraising glance or two.

In my humble opinion there is no such thing as too many bear books, but an outspoken character in a recent publication feels differently.  The Bear Who Wasn't There (Roaring Brook Press, November 15, 2016) written and illustrated by LeUyen Pham will keep you guessing every single second.  Characters past and present make an appearance; some with unwavering viewpoints.

This is the story of the Bear
who wasn't there.


This is not a Bear.

Where is the Bear?

Immediately Duck steps in stating the obvious and reinforcing the point ducks are more dependable.  In fact Duck thinks a Duck story would be highly interesting.  Before he can get out a once upon a time, the unseen narrator turns the page asking two other animals if they have seen a Bear.

They have not and a sign hanging on a nearby tree, signed Anonymouse, directs us to page 9.  The narrator decides not to skip pages and with a page turn there's you-know-who with stacks and stacks of books titled The Duck Who Showed Up.  

The humor is about to hit a higher level when the next two pages reveal a giraffe in a rather private situation. A prankster mouse is the cause of this tomfoolery.  Wait a minute!  Duck is back as a magician?  It sure is hard to get away from him.  Let's keep looking for a Bear.

A boar, pear-holding hippopotamus, a naked rabbit and a disgusted cow add their two cents worth to the conversation. When the narrator is finally sure a Bear is spotted, it's another dupe by Duck.  Bringing the author and a multitude of animals into the mix stirs up the comedic cauldron, delivering a delightful concoction when you least expect it.

From dust jacket, to flaps and within the body of the book (the book case too) LeUyen Pham supplies one laugh after another. (Her word play is outstanding.) Duck and the company of animals join the discussion in a continuous stream of dialogue in reply to the narrator.  You can feel the tension slowly build between giggles and grins as everyone wonders if the title is the truth or a lie.  Is there or isn't there a Bear?  Not knowing makes the conclusion all the more hilarious.  Here is a sample passage.

Excuse me, but have
either of you seen a Bear?

I haven't see a bear
around here.
Are you sure you are
in the right book?

Try the next page.

Obviously looking at the opened dust jacket Duck is disgruntled about all the attention given to a Bear who, by his account, is not even going to make an appearance.  His rant continues on the right flap of the opened jacket:

...And I'm telling you now, the Bear does not even show up!
So save your money!

The color palette, distinctive line work and bright speech bubbles continue throughout the book.  The book case (as does the inside of the dust jacket) tells a completely different story but my lips are sealed.

On the opening endpapers a cranky crocodile up on a ladder and carrying a broom complains about the dust in the upper, left-hand corner.  Bear paw prints travel across the bottom of the page.  The paw prints continue on the closing endpapers, also with a gold background.  But again I will not reveal the other elements featured.  On the verso a crew of mice, workers in the book's production, asks curious questions about the title on the opposite page.

Varied background hues and liberal amounts of white space highlight the characters and their comments.  Their facial features and body postures will have you laughing out loud.  LeUyen makes excellent use of turned up and down page corners, signs, closed and opened doors, the continuation of paw prints, silhouettes and thrown toilet paper rolls.

One of my favorite illustrations spans two pages.  Duck is seated at a table with his feet crossed holding one of his books up in a wing.  He has a HUGE grin plastered on his face.  Surrounding him are stacks and stacks of his book, a Duck stuffed toy and a Duck mug.  Careful readers will get another laugh out of the text on the page of one of his opened books.

Read The Bear Who Wasn't There written and illustrated by LeUyen Pham out loud as often as you can.  Readers will be rolling on the floor at the antics and answers of the animals along with their expressions.  Who knew that a Bear who may or may not be present could be so funny?  This is one bear book you need to have.

To discover more about LeUyen Pham please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  She also maintains a blog you can access from her website.  At the publisher's website you can view four separate page turns.  (I dare you not to laugh.)  LeUyen is showcased at On Our Minds: Scholastic's blog about books and the joy of reading and We Need Diverse Books.

Monday, December 19, 2016

One By One...

There are no other books quite like her books.  Each year she and her signature artwork is the subject of a much-loved author study in elementary schools.  The younger students are fascinated with her illustrative techniques.  They love the rhythm, rhyme and pacing of her text specifically written for them.  Within moments of beginning to read aloud any of her titles, you can see the listeners caught up in the cadence of the story.

In her second book released this year, we are captivated by a charming family of waterfowl.  5 Little Ducks (Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, November 8, 2016) written and illustrated by Denise Fleming is a lively trek from the pond, through the woods and around the farm.  It's an adventure filled with beings from the animal and human worlds.

5 little ducks went out Monday.

They leave the cozy comfort of their nest on the shore of the pond, moseying through tall trees.  A green frog, rabbit, flying squirrels and doe note their passing.  Their papa utters his

"Quack, quack, quack!"

and they all don't return.  One wanders.

Only four venture out on Tuesday.  Later four minus one head toward Papa Duck heeding his call.  On Wednesday the remaining ducklings set out for sights unseen.  What's that on the little duck's back?  Who is the little duck's new friend? Oh, oh only a duo listen to their daddy.

On Thursday and Friday explorations continue and the diminishing numbers dwindle.  On Friday when Papa Duck gives his cry, there is no answer.  No little ducks wiggle and wobble home.

On the sixth day of the week two mallards have an empty nest.  To bring their youngsters back, one male duck gives three mighty quacks.  Will one, two, three, four, five wayfarers wander back?  On Sunday if you happen to be quietly walking around the pond or slowly paddling by in your tiny boat, you'll have your answer.

A children's nursery song is given new wings and waddles in the masterful hands of Denise Fleming.  The little ducks walk their way through the days of the week inviting readers and listeners to participate.  More interest is supplied in having the little ducks explore new places each day.  By the time Wednesday is reached readers can anticipate the refrain while predicting their next point of interest.

The rhyming of quack and back and the repetition of far away after each day supply a catchy cadence.  The pacing and pause when no little ducks come to the nest and Saturday will have readers unfamiliar with the rhyme wondering what will happen next.  This is a wonderful way to build anticipation.  Having Papa Duck give the shout and Mama Duck having the final say shows the parents working together.

When you run your hands over the opened dust jacket the red title text is raised.  The scene of pond reeds and sandy shore extends on the other side of the spine with the ISBN nicely nestled in a stone.  The inquisitive body postures, eyes and open bills leave no doubt that these little ducks are going to be on the move.  Even though the text is not raised on the matching book case, you will find yourself reaching out to feel the imagined texture Denise Fleming makes in her illustrations.

On the matching opening and closing endpapers the reeds are sticking up through the water.  Lily pads float in a swirl of current.  Dragonflies hover, beetles scuttle and a green frog watches.  With a page turn the five little ducks swim into view.  The text on the verso page on the left is wavy like the surface of the pond.  The color of the title text shifts to golden yellow.

All of the following images stretch, edge to edge, across two pages.  Denise Fleming always tucks Papa Duck into the picture letting readers know he is keeping an eye on his family.  You are going to enjoy seeing each inquisitive little duck imitating the creatures they meet.

Although the colors are lively with hints of blue in many of the outlines, there is also a sense of peace and security in each spot the little ducks visit.  Careful readers will notice many other animals in each image other than those specifically greeted; sheep, a horse, crows, flies, cows, kittens and their mother, butterflies, a puppy, and red squirrels.  (In fact, Fleming asks you to find them at the close of the book.)  Each character is fully animated to the point you can almost hear them quack, buzz, croak, chew, gobble, caw, moo, meow, oink, chatter, bark or giggle.  If you are very, very quiet perhaps you can listen for a rabbit hop or a butterfly to glide nearby.

One of my favorite of many illustrations is when we are very close to three of the little ducks.  Two are walking away.  A third has a petal on his back trying to be like the box turtle trudging beside him.  Along the bottom of the page is a darker, rusty red path.  Above this is a row of colorful flowers acting as a background.  Perhaps it's a garden.

It seems to me the books written and illustrated by Denise Fleming, this book, 5 Little Ducks, is each equally engaging and spirited.  Her specialized work

pulp painting---a paper-making technique using colored cotton fiber poured through hand-cut stencils

accented by

pastel pencil

is perfect for the intended audience.  These books appeal to all the senses welcoming us into the extraordinary worlds found in each title.  You will want to add this to your personal and professional collections.  I did.  On the final two pages Denise Fleming includes seven paragraphs about certain aminals along with their pictures taken from the interior.

To learn more about Denise Fleming and her body of work please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  At her website she offers activities for this title and for her other books.  She has a page dedicated to pulp painting.  At the publisher's website you can view five interior images.  Be sure to visit author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast for A Peek into Denise Fleming's Studio.  This September Denise Fleming was showcased at KIDLIT 411.  There is a series of video interviews at Reading Rockets.  Enjoy the book trailer.

I previously wrote about Sleepy, oh so Sleepy, underGround and Go, Shapes, Go! all by Denise Fleming.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Cost Of Becoming

When you look at the definition of perfect the one thing constant in all the synonyms is there is no room for error.  To be perfect is to be flawless, the ideal, exemplary, the best and the ultimate.  To be fair, depending on the individual, the interpretation of each of these may be measured differently based on that person's perceptions.  What is perfect for one may not be perfect for another.

Perfection in one particular area can be a life goal.  Perfection can be a certain moment.  For some perfection is a way at looking at everything on any given day, every single day.  Finding Perfect (Farrar Straus Giroux, October 18, 2016), debut novel written by Elly Swartz, follows twelve-year-old Molly as her beliefs in what makes perfection and the results of striving for perfection shift dramatically.

blue pixie and the
siamese fighting fish

My cowboy boots scuff the wooden floor as I walk onto the stage, and for the next ninety seconds I won't think of anything but the rhythm and sound of each syllable in my poem.  Today is Round One of Lakeville Middle School's Poetry Slam Contest.

Molly has a plan, to win the Lakeville Middle School's Poetry Slam Contest, to bring her mom home earlier than the three hundred, sixty-five days she said she will be away.  (Her mother has left the States to keep her job by working and living in Canada.)  Molly also avoids odd numbers, loves even numbers, aligns her glass animal collection on her dresser by using a ruler, abhors dirt and craves cleanliness.

Her dad is constantly wrapped up in his own work with deadlines, conference calls and meetings.  Her older sister, Kate, a freshman in high school, is convinced their mom is not coming home at all; this job in Toronto is merely an extension of their parent's six-month separation.  Ian, her younger brother, a kindergarten student, can hardly sleep at night from the loss of his mother's presence.  Molly believes it's now her sole responsibility to keep Ian safe from harm and healthy.

Hannah, a nearby neighbor and Molly's life-long friend, knows Molly better than anyone else, offering her support.  Their bond is unshakable.  Bridget another of Molly's friends is more focused on herself and a decidedly unhealthy preoccupation with obituaries.  Both of these girls care for Molly in their own way but they don't necessarily like each other.

Chapter by chapter we step into the world of Molly's mind, how she views every aspect of her day.  Her habits increase as the stress of her mother's absence, her plan and the care of Ian weigh on her heavily.  It is becoming progressively harder for her to present perfect Molly to the world and keep obsessive-compulsive Molly hidden.  She is inwardly frantic about what is happening to her.  She thinks she is truly crazy.  She feels trapped, backed into a corner of herself she wishes is different.  She wants her old self back.

With the passing of each day, she strives to focus on her plan.  Another habit comes charging into her mind, counting by twos.  Her poem during Round Two of the Poetry Slam Contest is one more attempt to share her rising fear at her mental state.  One lie builds on another lie, day after day.  Secrets are discovered and secrets are revealed.  With the ending of one chapter and the beginning of another, the tension builds silently screaming for release.  Numbers erupt.  Exposed.  Nothing will be the same.

One of the first things you realize when reading this novel by Elly Swartz is the exquisite care taken to include a multitude of small but equally important moments in Molly's day to day world.  We are intimately aware of the changes the entire family, but especially Molly, endures with the void left by her mother's absence.  Descriptions of how the kitchen looks and smells when her mom is home compared to now are vivid and heartbreaking.  We are beside Molly when she sits in her mother's now empty closet to clear her mind.

I loved my tenth birthday.  Everything was perfect if you ignored the brownish-green swamp juice we had with my cake.  I'd just turned ten, our whole house smelled like chocolate, and Mom and Dad made me a birthday scavenger hunt.  That was long before their official temporary separation that started just six months before Mom fled to Toronto and our kitchen smelled like takeout all the time.

I crack open the doors and slide onto the honey-colored wood floor.  There are no clothes, no shoes, not even a belt left.  I set my special sea glass down on the bare wood.  Mom and I found it together on Chapin Beach when I was six.  Two pieces had washed up on the sand next to each other.  One turquoise and one gold.  Mom kept the gold and I have the turquoise.  It's always with me, so I never have to be without it and her.

Not a beat is missed from one chapter to the next, minutes flowing into other minutes.  This increases our involvement with Molly and the other characters.  Chapter titles hint at the events to come.  We get a very real sense of the growing concern Molly feels inside through the private poems she writes in her journal.  We are her but also we are separate in wanting to reach out to her, to help her.

The situations each of the characters find themselves in are very real; a parent who is not sure of her way or place, single parenthood, a new high school student with an older boyfriend, a young child feeling afloat in a miserable sea, missing his mother, a girl whose father lost his job and changes loom in her future and another friend who has lost a parent through death.  Their lives are pieced together with Molly's in a truthful tribute to the ups and downs life delivers.  We understand this through the narrative, Molly's thoughts and dialogue.  When Molly's state of mind hangs bright and clear like a Fourth of July firework blooming outward, each person reacts completely as we would expect.  The meticulous and powerful results bring hope...to everyone.  Here are several more passages.

It was the start of last summer and we spent two hours making lemonade and waiting in the hot sun for the customers who never came.  I washed my hands forty-four times that day.  I don't know what was weirder:  that I washed my hands so many times or that I counted.  I remember standing at the sink in Hannah's kitchen.

It takes us just five more minutes to get to the bench outside of school.  Hannah looks all serious.  "I need to tell you something.  It's big.  Sit with me."
I stare at the bench.  Peeling paint.  Dried mustard.  Dirt.  I stuff my hands into my pockets and try a cleansing yoga breath, but my Zen moment sticks in my throat.  "Um. I'm good here."
Hannah dumps her backpack next to her and I silently pray it doesn't land in the mustard.  She leans in to tell me her news when Bridget shows up.

We get off at the next stop and I check my phone.  Nothing from Mom.  I know she's probably selling her Beet-Kale-Pumpkin blend someplace where there's no reception, but I get a tug of worry that she's forgotten about me.  I tuck my fear into my back right pocket.  Mom says that's what you do with worries that you can't get rid of and can't control.

When I read Finding Perfect written by Elly Swartz the first time, I was on high alert monitoring the increase in a reaction my puppy was experiencing due to vaccines.  Throughout the wee hours of the morning, while there was still a part of me watching her, I firmly stepped into Molly's life; drawn there by the writing skills and research conducted by Elly Swartz.  I was crying out for people to help her, to notice her beyond her neat-and-tidy actions.  Most of all I cared for her as if she is a flesh-and-blood person.  This middle grade debut novel has my highest recommendation.  Everyone needs to read this...more than once.  Trust me.  Elly Swartz includes experts consulted and resources consulted at the close of the book.

To learn more about Elly Swartz please visit her website by following the link attached to her name. At the publisher's website you can read an excerpt.  There are also a reading group guide and a teacher's reading guide available there.  The cover reveal for this title is at Emu's Debuts.  Elly Swartz stops by Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read.completing his sentences.  Elly Swartz is interviewed at DEBtastic Reads!, Literary Rambles, and Beth McMullen Books.  At School Library Journal, The Yarn, educator Colby Sharp introduces us to the audio book trailer for Finding Perfect.  Elly Swartz chats with teacher librarian Matthew Winner at All The Wonders, Episode 299.  Debut author Bridget Hodder (The Rat Prince) reviews Finding Perfect at the Nerdy Book Club.

Friday, December 16, 2016

December Dreaming

During the month of December the winter season brings us more than enough wind, bitter temperatures and lots of snow.  It's also a time for reflection on the past year.  It's a time to observe holidays full of tradition with family and friends.  Children celebrating Christmas pen letters to Santa Claus hoping he will grant their requests.  As they get older they realize being "Santa" is far better and offers much more joy.

During the month of December the air seems to be charged with something extra special.  There is a feeling that anything is possible.  A character we met in Penguin and Pinecone: a friendship story (Walker & Company, October 2, 2012) has returned in a sixth title to welcome this wonderful time of year.  Penguin's Christmas Wish (Bloomsbury, September 6, 2016) written and illustrated by Salina Yoon (whose heart is surely filled with as much compassion as Penguin's) takes us on another adventure where Mother Nature, as she is apt to do, has plans of her own.

It was Christmas Eve.  Pumpkin was getting ready for the best holiday ever.

As a penguin what she would really like is to have a real evergreen tree to decorate for Christmas.  Penguin knows exactly what to do.  He gathers the group, Bootsy with her decorations, Pumpkin with the star and Grandpa with the gifts.  With his sleigh loaded with supplies, Penguin leads the way up north.

When they arrive at the home of Pinecone, they are greatly surprised. Pinecone is huge but the scarf made by Penguin is clearly visible as is the heart-shaped circle of stones. In short order, they have Pinecone looking very festive indeed.  As the Christmas Eve night settles around them, Grandpa, Pumpkin and Bootsy murmur their hopes for Christmas surprises.  Penguin seated around a cozy fire has his own wish.

During the night Mother Nature sends a horrible snow storm with wild winds.  On Christmas morning, the penguin foursome is disappointed to see the handiwork wrought by the weather.  All their Christmas trimmings have disappeared.

Wise words from Grandpa give Penguin an idea.  He makes use of the storm's wily deeds.  As Christmas night descends and the crescent moon rises, Penguin realizes how magical Christmas can be.  Every wish is granted in ways never imagined.

Salina Yoon's Penguin books (all her books) are bundles of love.  In the character of Penguin we see how glorious life can be when in service to others.  We come to understand the simplest things make us richer beyond any monetary amount.  In Penguin's world all living beings are equal; everyone (everything) is important and has worth.

Her simple sentences, excellent for younger and beginner readers, are full of meaning.  In addition to the narrative text and dialogue, Yoon includes exclamations, observations and sounds in smaller speech text in the illustrations.  Here is a sample passage.

The penguins 
decorated Pinecone
with all the trimmings.
"What a fine tree," 
said Grandpa.

Now we're ready 
for Christmas!  (Penguin)

WOW! (Pumpkin)

Digitally rendered in Adobe Photoshop using heavier black outlines and bright colors, our present-carrying roly-poly friend Penguin walks toward his friend, Pinecone.  The scene extends over the spine to the back of the book case, highlighting the previous five titles.  Careful readers will see a very tiny Penguin and Pumpkin on the spine bookending the title.  The opening and closing endpapers are a pattern, on deep sky blue, of alternating rows of crossed candy canes and a string of colored lights.  There is a difference with the final endpapers courtesy of Mother Nature.

Beneath the title text Yoon has placed one of the interior images of Penguin.  Under her dedication

In memory of 
Debbie Alvarez

(a wonderful champion of children, books and reading as a teacher librarian extraordinaire)

is a tree-topper in the shape of a star.  Her images throughout the book cover two pages, single pages, edge to edge or framed in a black line and wide area of white or a series of small pictures might be placed on a single page.  These variations in illustration size create a flow for her story.  Readers will particularly enjoy her shifts in perspective; looking at the forest from above, being near the penguin group as they decorate the tree, or extremely close to Penguin as the sun melts the snow.

One of my many favorite illustrations is on Christmas night.  Penguin is seated in front of the fire, holding a steaming mug of hot chocolate.  He is wearing his signature scarf and a red, green and yellow blanket.  Behind the hill of snow where he sits are evergreens against a starry sky.  Small plumes of snow indicate a breeze is rising.

You all are going to want to have this newest Penguin volume, Penguin's Christmas Wish, written and illustrated by Salina Yoon in your personal and professional collections.  Even amid the bitter cold and the remnants of a snow storm, Penguin, his family and friends can find Christmas magic.  This is the true meaning of Christmas.  I encourage you to read this aloud often.

To learn more about Salina Yoon and her other books, please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  Penguin (and Pinecone) have their own Facebook page.  MerryMakers have a Penguin doll now.  Salina Yoon maintains a Twitter account at @SalinaYoon  Penguin on Vacation and Penguin in Love are showcased on my blog here.