Friday, September 19, 2014

Poetry Friday with a review of Insectlopedia

I have no idea why so many people dislike insects and spiders. It is true that some of them bite or sting, but most of them don't and many insects and spiders are fascinating and even beautiful animals. In today's poetry title Douglas Florian celebrates insects and spiders by allowing us to get to know a few of them.

Douglas Florian
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 6 to 8
Harcourt, 1998, 978-0-15-201306-6
Most people have a definite aversion to insects and spiders. They are put off by all those legs, the wiggling antennae, and the way in which insects can fly into homes and make a nuisance of themselves. There is also the fact that some insects and spiders can bite or sting.
   In this clever poetry book Douglas Florian pairs his multimedia paintings with twenty-one poems that introduce us to a very varied collection of insects and spiders. As we read, we come to appreciate that insects and spiders are interesting creatures, even if they scare us a little. What probably helps is that Douglas’ poems are often funny, and some are written in the first person from the insect’s point of view.
   For example, in The Dragonfly, we hear from the creature that sees itself as “the dragon / The demon of skies.” It is a voracious predator that “For lunch I munch / On flies and bees,” and it also dines on mosquitoes. We also meet whirligig beetles, who tell us how they “whirl,” “twirl,” “skate,” and “glide” on water. They swim like little toys, but unlike toys they don’t needs “windup keys,” and they make no noise. What makes this poem special is that the text is presented in a circle, giving us a sense of movement, the movement that these cunning little insects make as they spin on the surface of water.
   The inchworm’s narrative is another poem that visually captures one of the insect’s characteristics. Not surprisingly, this poem is shaped like an inchworm inching its way across a surface. We are told how it arches its body and marches along, but it does so so slowly that it never gets “speeding tickets.”
   All the poems in the book are short, full of imagery, and beautifully crafted. Children and adults alike will appreciate the way in which Douglas Florian presents his insect characters. Readers will, at the very least, have to admit that the insects and spiders are certainly remarkable, though we might not consider them to be cute.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Picture Book Monday with a review of Julia's House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke

I have a soft spot for animals that no one wants, which is why I end up with cats and dogs who have been ill-used and thrown away. These cast off always become dear and loving pets. In today's picture book you will meet a young girl who takes in rather unusual creatures who need a home.

Julia's House for Lost CreaturesJulia’s House for Lost Creatures
Ben Hatke
Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
First Second, 2014, 978-1-59643-866-8
One day Julia’s house, carried on the back of a large tortoise, comes to town and settles on a hill by the sea. That evening Julia sits by the fire sipping tea and reading a book. All is still and cozy. All is quiet. Julia sits there and realizes that her home and her life is too quiet, so she runs to her workshop where she makes a sign. Then Julia hangs the sign outside her front door. The sign says: Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.
   Julia does not have to wait too long before there is a scratch at the door. When she opens the door, Julia sees a fabric, and much patched, cat sitting on the other side. The cat moves in and all is well. Then there is another knock at the door and when Julia and Patched Up Kitty go to see who is there they find a very large, and very sad, troll standing on her front porch. The troll has lost its home under the bridge and needs a place to stay until he can “get back on his feet.”
   A short while after, Julia’s door is assaulted by a variety of bangs, bellows, scratches and whines. Waiting outside there are “lost and homeless creatures of every description.” Julia is run off her feet taking care of her house guests and she is driven to distraction by their messiness, their noise, and their sometimes peculiar ways. Eventually Julia snaps. She has had enough and something has to change.
   Readers of all ages are going to love this unique tale. It is clear from the very beginning that Julia is an unusual person, but it turns out that she is also very clever and that she is a skilled problem solver, even when one problem leads to another one. Readers who like the idea of having lots of different and unusual friends will be captivated by the creatures who move into Julia’s house.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Poetry Friday with a review of Happily Never After

When I was young I came across a very old book at a church sale and for a laugh I bought it. The story was about a terrible child who was punished by life because she was such a terrible child. The 'lesson' was very heavy handed and I confess that I laughed my way through the narrative. Soon after, my father told me about Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales and he found me a copy at the library. I really enjoyed the poems, which we read together. Today I have a review of an updated version of these tales that readers of all ages will appreciate.

Happily Never After: Modern Cautionary VerseHappily Never After: Modern Cautionary Verse
Mitchell Symons
For ages 7 to 10
Random House, 2013, 978-0-857-53270-1
In the 1800’s adults were fond of writing tales for children that essentially told them that they should always be good and obedient. The stories would describe how bad children came to sticky ends, and there was always a moralistic ending. These stories were called cautionary tales and many children were forced to read the dreadful things.
   In 1907 Hilaire Belloc decided that enough was enough, and he wrote eleven rhyming tales that made fun of the old cautionary tales. The parodies in Cautionary Tales for Children: Designed for the Admonition of Children between the ages of eight and fourteen years are wonderfully funny, but they are, to the modern reader, rather dated.
   Mitchel Symons grew up reading Belloc’s wonderful poems, and when he ran across his old copy of the book not long ago he wondered if anyone had written modern cautionary tales. He was shocked to find out that no one had, and in the end he decided to try his hand at writing one. It turned out that he is rather good at writing rhyming couplets and telling the stories about children who suffer terrible fates, and thus this book was written.
   The first poem in the collection is about Tiffany “Who couldn’t put down her mobile phone and died a horrible death.” Tiffany, like so many girls, spends hours on her phone surfing the Web, tweeting, texting, updating her Facebook status, and talking. As far as she is concerned her phone is an extension of herself, and she feels that she has to keep in touch with others all the time. One day she is texting one of her friends as she is crossing the road and is hit by a car. “When car hits girl, the former wins” and Tiffany’s days came to an abrupt end. Which just goes to show you that you should “listen to parents and not get vexed / When told not to phone and not to text.”
   Another girl who has a terrible fault is Chelsea who likes to make herself feel big and important by bullying “by exclusion.” She tells people that she is having a party and then explains why they are not invited. Chelsea’s reasons are always cruel and mean, but in the end Chelsea ends up getting a taste of her own medicine.
   Readers are going to enjoy seeing how Mitchell Symons was able to use an old-fashioned storytelling device to create tales in verse that modern day readers can enjoy. At the end of this deliciously funny collection readers will find a few treats that wrap up the cautionary tale experience perfectly.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Picture Book Monday with a review of Doug Unplugs on the Farm written and illustrated by Dan Yaccarino

Being the parent of a teenager means that I have to, on occasion, separate her from her phone and/or her computer so that she actually spends some time in the real world. I am relieved that she usually does not make a fuss when I do this. In today's book you are going to meet a charming little robot who discovers the joys of being unplugged.

Doug Unplugs on the FarmDoug Unplugs on the farm
Dan Yaccarino
Picture book
For ages 5 to 7
Random House, 2014, 978-0-385-75328-9
Doug is a boy robot who lives in the city with his parents. One day Doug and his parents set off for the country where Doug’s grandbots live. When they get in their car, Doug and his parents “plug in” so that they can “learn all about farms on the way.”
   As they drive fast fields and barns plugged in Doug learns about pigs, horses, cows, apple trees, chickens, and sheep. Then a flock of sheep runs across the road and Doug’s family car ends up in a ditch. When Doug sees that the farm girl needs help to retrieve her escaping sheep, he offers to help round them up. After the sheep are back where they below, the girl asks Doug if he would like to help her complete the rest of her chores. Doug is happy to help out and he discovers that experiencing farm animals and farm chores first hand is more rewarding that he expected it to be.
   These days many of us “Google” the Internet when we need some information. It is easy, and we can even use our phones to do it. Often the things we want to know are purely informational in nature, but sometimes we use the Internet to experience things as well. Instead of just reading about what it is like to make bread, we could try making a loaf. Instead of reading about tree planting, we could try planting a tree.  We miss so much when we don’t experience these activities for ourselves.
   This wonderful book celebrates the joys that come with learning how to do things by doing them. Experiencing sounds, smells, tastes and textures when we are learning about something make the process richer and more meaningful.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Poetry Friday with a review of River of Words: Young Poets and Artists on the Nature of Things

I very rarely review books that were written by young people because not many such books get published. For this Poetry Friday I have a review of a collection of poems that children wrote and I am thrilled to be able to share this title with you. These poems are quite exceptional and they focus on a subject that is dear to my heart: the environment.

River of Words: Young Poets and Artists on the Nature of ThingsRiver of Words: Young Poets and Artists on the Nature ofThings
Introduced by Robert Haas
Edited by Pamela Michael
For ages 10 and up
Milkweed, 2008, 978-1-57131-685-1
In 1995 Pamela Michael and poet laureate Robert Hass founded River of Words. Every year since 1996 this non-profit organization has hosted a poetry and art contest that focuses on nature, specifically on watersheds. Children participating in the contest have sent in thousands of pieces of art and thousands of poems since the contest was launched, and in this book readers will get a taste of some of the poetry and artwork that they created. The hope would that in creating their poetry and art young children would develop “an informed understanding of place that would help them grow into active citizens.” The hope is that as they look at the natural world around them, children will learn to see its beauty and its fragility, and that they will begin to realize that it belongs to them and that they need to take care of it.
   In this remarkable collection readers will find little poems written by kindergarteners and longer poems written by teens who are on the cusp of becoming adults. We begin with the poems that were written by the youngest poets. First of all we hear from Elijah, a five year old who describes how a waterfall greeted him that day. “The river also talked” to him, wanting to make sure that he knew that his name is important.
   Nine-year-old Richard captures a moment in time, gathering together images of nature into eight lines of verse that are powerful and beautiful. We see a green snake “Slithering on a dirt path,” and a robin sitting in a tree. We watch as the “sun floats down,” and then “the moon’s white eye” can be seen.
   In her poem Royal Oaks thirteen-year-old Lauren takes us on a journey so that we see a redwood, a slough, and a meadow, and she shows us why these places are her special places and why she claims them with the words, “This is where I live.”
   Every so often in the book, readers will encounter one of the many pieces of artwork that were entered in the contest. They will see pictures that are lifelike, and those that are stylized. Some explode with color and movement, and some are quiet, thoughtful pieces.

   This is a collection that children and adults alike will enjoy exploring. It is a collection of voices that belong to young people who all have their own individual picture of the natural world. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Picture Book Monday with a review of My Pet Book, which was written and illustrated by Bob Staake

Taking care of a traditional pet, one that has fur or feathers, scales or fins, is a big responsibility. Pets need to be fed and entertained. You need to clean up after them and take them to the vet. Of course, you could have a pet rock or a pet plant. Such pets are easier to take care of, but they are not very interesting. What would happen if you decided to have a book for a pet? Now that might be an interesting experiment.

My Pet BookMy Pet Book
Bob Staake
Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Random House, 2014, 978-0-385-37312-8
Most people have dogs, cats, birds, fish, or rodents for pets. Some even have snakes, turtles, or hermit crabs in their homes. In Smartytown there is a boy who has a very usual pet, and it is a little book. Since he did not like dogs, and was allergic to cats, the boy’s mother suggested that he should get a pet book. His father agreed that a pet book would be perfect. After all “no pet book / Had ever run away.”
   The boy and his parents go to a bookshop and at first the boy is overwhelmed by all the choices, but then he sees a little red hardcover and he knows at once that this book, with its “pages crisp, the printing fine / Its spine so very taught,” is the pet for him.
   Unlike traditional pets, the little book does not shed, does not have fleas, and does need a bath or meals. It never gets sick, does not make any noise, and doesn’t “even poop.” Best of all, the book is full of fantastic stories that are so captivating that the boy feels as if he is in the stories and not just reading them.
   Like all pets, the book stays at home when the boy goes to school. One day he comes home and he discovers something truly terrible; his book has gone. Something has happened to his beloved pet!
   In this wonderful picture book we meet an usual boy who has a very usual pet. As their story is revealed we come to appreciate how much the little boy loves his book, and we begin to wonder if, just maybe, some of our books are pets too. Are they, like the little boy’s book, “a friend?” Are they dear to us, and would we be upset if we lost them? Of course they are special, and of course we would miss them if they disappeared.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Poetry Friday with a review of Super Silly School Poems

For many children school will be starting up in a few days time. Hopefully they are looking forward to school, but if they are feeling anxious about what is to come, they might want to take a look at today's poetry title. The poems in this book are funny and they will certainly chase away their worried feelings.

Super Silly School PoemsSuper Silly School Poems
David Greenberg
Illustrated by Liza Woodruff
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Scholastic, 2014, 978-0-545-47981-3
For many years children’s lives revolve around their school and the people they meet there. They have wonderful experiences that they treasure, and then there are those incidents that they would like to forget as soon as possible. For this picture book David Greenberg has written seventeen poems that explore school life in creative and amusing ways.
   Every child has days when they realize that they have forgotten something, something that they know they need to take to school that day. In the poem Something you Forgot we meet a boy who has remembered his art project, his new markers and his backpack. He has his video game and his lunch money. He remembers to brush his teeth and yet there is still that something that he has forgotten. He gets “terribly distressed” because he just cannot remember what the something is, and then he looks in the mirror and realizes that he has “forgotten to get dressed.”
   Further along in the book we encounter a poem that will surely resonate with young readers. The poem describes what it is like when you go to the grocery store and see something truly shocking. There is your teacher. Shopping. For food. How can this be? After all, “Teachers live at school,” and that is where they belong. Who is responsible for letting the teacher out?
   Other topics in this book include school lunches, homework issues, show-and-tell, the school bathroom, and the way in which teachers seem to be adept mind readers.

   Throughout the book the humorous poems are paired with illustrations that perfectly capture images that appear in the poems.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Picture Book Monday with a review of Flora and the Flamingo

They say that imitation in the sincerest form of flattery. This may be true sometimes, but being imitated can also be really, really annoying. In today's picture book you are going to meet a little girl who decides to imitate an elegant flamingo and who soon learns that her actions are not appreciated. At all.

Flora and the FlamingoFlora and the Flamingo
Molly Idle
Wordless Picture Book
For ages 5 and up
Chronicle Books, 2013, 978-1-4521-1006-6
Flora is a girl who is wearing a pink bathing suit, a yellow swimming cap, and black flippers. In the shallows of a pond there is a flamingo and Flora decides to copy it. When the flamingo stands on one leg so does Flora. When it makes several elegant ballet-like poses, Flora does her best to copy the bird’s moves. Though Flora tries not to be seen copying the flamingo, the wily bird soon sees what she is doing and with a firm squawk it puts a stop to Flora’s shenanigans. The startled girl ends up doing a forward roll and finds herself sitting on her bottom in the water with a flower on her head.
   This could very easily be the end of the story of Flora and the elegant flamingo, but the kind-hearted bird reaches out to the child and teaches her a little about dance and a lot about friendship.
   In this remarkable picture book the illustrator tells a riveting story without using any words or word sounds at all. The expression on the faces, and the body language, of the two characters is so expressive that no words are needed. Children will love seeing how Flora and the flamingo come to terms, and how something special grows out of their interaction.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Poetry Friday with a review of On the Wing by Douglas Florian

Douglas Florian is a poet and artist who has created poetry picture books that explore a wide variety of subjects. Over the years I have greatly enjoyed reading these books, and it is interesting to see how he applies his considerable talent to take on a new topic that interests him.

Douglas Florian
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 6 to 8
Harcourt, 1996, 978-0152023669
Birds truly are remarkable animals. They come in a dazzling array of colors, live on every continent, and make their homes in all kinds of places. In this wonderful picture book Douglas Florian pairs short poems with his artwork to give readers a true celebration of birds.
   Over the millennia birds have evolved to suit many kinds of environments. Some birds, like the egret, sail on water and then rest on the beach making it seem as if there is a “feathered hat” lying on the sand. Dippers love to dip and dive in waterfalls. They are so aquatic that one wonders if they would be happy to “trade / Their oily wings for flippers.” They are such good swimmers that it is possible that the little birds might “think that they are fish.”
   Birds come in all shapes and sizes. The spoonbill is tall and thin with a beak that does indeed look like a long-handled spoon. In his poem about this rather odd looking species, Douglas Florian wonders if the spoonbill uses its bill “for stirring tea” or does it “use it as a scoop / For eating peas and drinking soup.”
   The stork has a bill that is perfectly suited for the environment it lives in. Wading through shallow water, the bird uses it rapier like bill to stab frogs and other creatures. Woodpeckers also have beaks that are perfectly adapted so that they can get to their chosen food - insects that live in wood and sap that runs through wood. Not only are these beaks perfect for creating holes, but woodpeckers also use them to communicate.
   With clever touches of humor and insightful descriptions, this collection of poems will give young readers a colorful picture of twenty-one bird species.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Picture Book Monday with a review of Maple

In my family we like to plant trees on special occasions. Sometimes the trees serve as a memorial to someone we love. These trees almost become members of the family, but not quite. In today's picture book you will meet a little girl who has a tree for a friend who really is a member of her family.

Lori Nichols
Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Penguin, 2014, 978-0-399-16085-1
Before she was born, when Maple was “still a whisper,” her parents planted a little maple tree in their garden for her and when she came into the world they named her Maple. As she grew, the little maple tree grew, and when she needed to be noisy, or sing, or pretend to be a tree, Maple went to be with her tree.
   One fall Maple saw that her tree was losing its leaves, so she gave it her jacket so that it would “stay warm.” No matter what else was happening, Maple always knew that she had her tree, and the tree had her.
   Then one spring something changed. A new little tree appeared in the garden and Maple’s mother had another little whisper growing inside her. Not long after, Maple became a big sister and she learned that life rarely stays the same. Change is inevitable and Maple had to figure out how to be a good big sister, which isn’t easy.
   In this heartwarming picture book we meet a little girl who develops a special connection with a tree. This may seem strange, but the tree and the little girl grew up together and shared many grand times. Young readers are sure to enjoy seeing how Maple deals with a very big change in her life. Thankfully, she has a friend who helps her sort out her problems.