Monday, October 24, 2016

Picture Book Monday with a review of They all saw a cat

So many of the world's problems arise because we think everyone thinks and sees things the way we do. We dare to think that they if they don't see things our way, then they are in the wrong. We forget that who we are - our life experiences and our background - hugely affect our perceptions.

This amazing picture book shows us how different characters all see the same thing in very different ways. Their viewpoints are startling, visually, and give us cause to pause. As we look at the artwork we are gently reminded to think about how we perceive our world.

They All Saw a CatThey all saw a cat
Brendan Wenzel
Picture Book
For ages 5 and up
Chronicle Books, 2016, 978-1-4521-5013-0
A cat, wearing a red collar that has a little yellow bell attached to it, goes out into the world with its whiskers ready and its tail in the air. The cat is seen by a child, a dog, a fox, a goldfish, a mouse, a bee, a bird, a flea, a snake, a skunk, a worm, and bat. One would think that they would all see the cat in the same way, but this is not the case.
   To the child the cat is a smiling, benign animal that is there to be patted. The dog sees the cat as a lean, mean looking creature. The goldfish, from its watery home in a fish bowl, sees a blurry shape with enormous yellow eyes. For the poor mouse the cat is a monstrous beast with yellow, slit eyes, huge claws, and sharp fangs. The bee, with its compound eyes, sees a pointillist cat, a vague figure made up of lots of colors. The bat, flying in the night sky, also sees a shape made up of dots, but the dots it sees are white in color.
   Every animal sees the cat differently depending on its perspective and its place in the food chain. The kinds of eyes and senses they have also determine what the cat looks like to them. How does that cat see itself?
   This wonderful picture book takes children on a journey into the imagination. It also presents them with the idea that different characters will see the same thing in widely different ways. We all view the world through eyes that are touched by our biases, interests, and backgrounds, and therefore we have to be sensitive to the fact that other people’s perceptions are not like our own.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Poetry Friday with a review of Animal School: What Class are You?

I have been reviewing books since the early 2000's and over the years I have noticed changes taking place in the children's book world. These changes include the rise of ebooks, the growth of the graphic novel world, and the advancement of what I call nonfiction poetry. These days poets are using their writings to both entertain and educate their readers, teaching them about history, science, geography and other subjects through their poems.

Today's poetry book is just such a nonfiction poetry title. It helps young readers to get to know the animal family that we humans belong to.

Animal School: What Class Are You?Animal School: What Class are You?
Michelle Lord
Illustrated by Michael Garland
Nonfiction Poetry Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Holiday House, 2014, 978-0-8234-3045-1
We humans belong to a group of animals called vertebrates. All the animals in this group have spines, and they are divided up into what are called “classes.” The classes that belong in the vertebrates group are mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. Some fly and some swim, some have fur, while others have skin, scales, or feathers. The number of vertebrate species that live on earth is enormous, and they are very diverse, but they are all nevertheless connected because they have a string of bones running down their back.
   In this splendid poetry picture book, the author uses poems to introduce us to the classes of animals that belong to the vertebrate family. She begins with the reptiles, telling us what makes reptiles special. We learn, for example, that turtles rely on the sun to warm them up, and when they need to “chill out” they find some cool mud to dig into. Reptiles are interesting because they can either lay eggs or give birth to live young. Many reptiles, like cobras, leave their babies to fend for themselves, but some adopt a different strategy. Alligator mothers are very protective of their young, and when their babies are very small the large and fearsome looking mamas carry them around in their mouths.
   We next move on to fish. These animals are able to get oxygen from the water that they swim in. They have smooth skin that is sometimes “cloaked / in flaky scales,” and are cold-blooded animals, like reptiles.
   The next class the author explores in the one we humans belong to; the mammals. Unlike reptiles, fish, and amphibians, mammals are warm-blooded and they always give birth to live young. Most of them get about on legs and they have “stick-out ears,” which none of the other vertebrates have.
   The author then goes on to tell us about birds, creatures with “hollow bones” and “Feathers that take them / through the sky.” Amphibians follow. Though these animals come in many shapes and sizes, they are have to be born in water, and most need to be in or around water their entire lives.
   This book helps children to better understand the family of animals that they belong to. They will see how the animals in the classes are different and yet also the same, and how they have adapted to occupy the niches that they live in. On the pages readers will see pictures of tadpoles and frogs, a rabbit, a sea horse, an iguana, a congregation of alligators and more. They will see the marvelous variety that can be found in our invertebrate family.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Picture Book Monday with a review of Imagine a City

The imagination is a powerful thing. Indeed, if people did not have an imagination many books, pieces of music, and art would never be created. Today's picture book celebrates the imagination in a unique and exciting way. Readers of all ages may find themsleves wishing that they too could create a city, through their imagination, that is like the one that they visit in this title.

Imagine a CityImagine A City
Elise Hurst
Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Random House, 2016, 978-1-101-93457-9
Imagine if you can what it would be like to get on a train, a train that is going to take you to the city so that you have a special outing. It is an ordinary train that stops at an ordinary train platform. You get on board and off you go. It is not long before a waiter comes around and serves you a luscious tea. You sit on the comfortable seats sipping hot tea and eating delicious little cakes and treats. Perhaps you notice that one of the passengers in the car has rather long ears, and paws instead of hands. Or perhaps you don’t.
   When you get to the city ordinariness disappears. Here humans and animals live side by side, and there are many strange and wondrous things going on. The pictures in a gallery that you visit refuse to be contained by their frames. Here the buses are fish instead of machines and they swim through the sky above the streets. Here the stories in books, like the pictures at the gallery, will not lie down quietly on the paper. Instead they hop off the pages and sometimes you get quite a shock!
   When you stop for a bite in a little restaurant you find that the tables and chairs are little trees. In addition to the now no longer unusual assortment of animals, there are gargoyles partaking of drinks and snacks.  It is important to remember that when you can imagine a city there is no accounting for what might happen.
   In this visually stunning picture book, the author takes us on a journey full of wonderful impossibles and glorious imaginings. A minimal, lyrical text accompanies the art, and together they capture the sense of a place where adventures lie around every corner and where “The World is your teacher.”
   This celebration of the imagination will delight readers of all ages, many of whom will wish that they could jump into the pages and visit the land that lies therein.


Friday, October 7, 2016

Poetry Friday with a review of Applesauce Weather

Every September I look forward to fall. I am eager for cooler days, rain (after weeks and weeks of dry weather), and the treats that the fall season brings. Apples, pears and pumpkins start to appear in the farmer's market, and I start thinking about making apple and pumpkin breads and coffee cakes. It is a time of change and new beginnings for me.

Today's poetry title tells the story of a young girl whose uncle has suffered a great loss, and who comes to visit her and her family as the apples are starting to fall from the tree in their yard. For him this is a time for reflection, and though he does not know it at first, it is also a time for new bittersweet beginnings.

Applesauce WeatherApplesauce weather
Helen Frost
Illustrated by Amy June Bates
For ages 8 to 10
Candlewick Press, 2016, 978-0-7636-7576-9
Faith has been waiting for this day, the day when the first apple falls from the apple tree that Aunt Lucy planted all those years ago. Over the years Uncle Arthur and Aunt Lucy would always arrive at Faith’s house on this day. Somehow they always knew when the first apple fell. Then Aunt Lucy died and Faith’s parents and brother believe that maybe Uncle Arthur will not come this year. Little Faith does not lose hope though. She waits for Uncle Arthur.
   At his home Uncle Arthur thinks about his beloved Lucy and remembers how his wife always knew when the first apple had fallen, when it was time to gather with the family to pick apples and make applesauce. He does not know if he can bear to go without her, or if the family is even expecting him.
   Faith’s big brother Peter thinks Faith is being silly. She should give up waiting and accept that Uncle Arthur is not coming. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Faith’s faith in Uncle Arthur is rewarded, and in the evening of that day the old man arrives.
   Every year Faith asks Uncle Arthur what happened to his missing finger - he only has four and half fingers on his right hand – and every year he tells her another story (a tall story) of what happened to his finger. This year he seems reluctant to tell the stories so beloved by everyone in the family. This year he is quieter. He is wrapped up in the memories of the times he shared with the girl and woman who became his wife. He remembers how he and Lucy, who were neighbors, became friends, and how their friendship grew into love when they were teenagers. He looks at the house where she used to live and remembers how he used to wait at night to see a light blinking in her window, which was her message telling him that she loved him.
   Faith seems to know that Uncle Arthur is feeling lost and so she holds his hand, the one missing half a finger, and she says nothing. Faith wonders if her uncle has no more stories to tell but she does not ask. Instead, she walks down the road with him every day and she tells him that Peter is sweet on the girl who is living in the house that Lucy lived in all those years ago. Once again a boy in her house, Uncle Arthur’s old house, is falling for a girl who lives in the house a few doors down. Uncle Arthur smiles and he starts to tell them a story, a true story about how he got a knife when he was Peter’s age and how he used the knife to carve his initials, and Lucy’s, into the bark of the apple tree. The initials are still there.
   The apples start ripening “faster / than we can pick them” and Faith and Peter go to the tree to collect as many as they can. Uncle Arthur then indicates, in his own way, that a story is in the offing and so Faith sits with him on the bench under the tree and asks the question that they have all been afraid to ask: “what happened to your finger?”
   This wonderful story is told from the points of view of Faith, Peter, and Uncle Arthur. We also hear from Aunt Lucy, who gives us a wonderful picture of what her life with Uncle Arthur had been like. The narrative is presented in the form of rhyming and blank verse poems, and we are taken on a journey that spans decades, and also on a journey that encompasses a few autumn days when the apples are ripening. We see, through the words of Faith, Peter and Uncle Arthur, how healing after a loss can begin and how there is much joy to be found in stories. Sometimes these stories help us to connect with the people who are no longer with this, making it possible for us to stay linked to them.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Picture Book Monday with a review of Madeline Finn and the library dog

When I was a child I struggled to understand mathematics. Numbers became my worst enemy and it did not help that I was often ridiculed by my peers when I made mistakes. I even had a teacher who made fun of my struggles, which was terrible. If only I had had the kind of help the little girl in today's book gets when she is trying to learn how to read. Kind, non-judgmental support goes a long way when it comes to learning how to do something that is difficult.

Madeline Finn and the Library DogMadeline Finn and the library dog
Lisa Papp
Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Peachtree Publishers, 2016, 978-1-56145-910-0
Madeline Finn does not like to read. At all. Anything with words, including the menu of the ice cream truck, is to be avoided. Reading out loud is the worst because then people can hear how she sometimes struggles to make sense of the words, and on occasion they “giggle” when they hear her mistakes. No matter how hard she tries, Madeline Finn’s teacher never gives her a star sticker. Instead, she gets a heart-shaped “Keep Trying” sticker, which is so frustrating.
   Madeline Finn wishes very hard that she will get a star of her own, but day after day her reading efforts just aren’t good enough. On Saturday Madeline Finn and her mother go to the library. Madeline Finn reminds the librarian that she does not like to read, which is when the librarian, Mrs. Dimple, shows her a surprise.
   The children’s reading area is full of dogs. Real live dogs, and apparently they are there to be read to. Mrs. Dimple introduces Madeline Finn to Bonnie, a beautiful, big, white dog who is apparently a “great listener,” and in spite of herself Madeline Finn decides that she would like to try reading to the dog. She never imagines that Bonnie is going to be more than a good listener.
   This wonderful, heartwarming picture book explores one little girl’s reading journey. It is a journey that is full of struggles, frustration, and heartache, but it turns out that a patient and accepting dog is just want the little girl needs.
   With an authentic first person narrative and wonderful illustrations, Lisa Papp tells a story that will resonate with everyone who has struggled to learn how to do something new.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Poetry Friday with a review of Rufus and Friends School Days

Over the years I have encountered several poetry collections where poets have take other people's writings and have changed them in little ways to make them accessible for young readers. Often the changes add touches of humor to the poems. In today's poetry title, Iza Trapani does this to great effect, taking young readers into the school life of a little dog character.

Rufus and Friends: School DaysRufus and Friends: School Days
Iza Trapani
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Charlesbridge, 2010, 978-1-58089-249-0
It is a rainy day, Rufus is off to school, and he “can’t wait,” because “My teacher and my friends are great.” As he hops on the school bus he invites us to join him. When they arrive at school the little dog children march into the building and head to their classrooms, though Rufus has to pause for a moment “to suck his thumb.”
   Once Rufus and his friends are in their classroom they begin their day. They have a “busy day” ahead full of writing, reading, drawing, and will learn “some things worth knowing.”
   Presiding over the classroom is a “neat little clock” which “points to the time / With its two little hands.” The clock always has a clean face and those hands are always ready “To do what is right.” One can hope that the children in the class will have similarly clean faces and ready hands, but sometimes things do not go “as we planned” and the students, despite all their good intentions, end up with paint and glue in unexpected places.
   After several hours of laboring away, the children have lunch, which is most unappetizing, and then they go outside to play. The children jump rope, throw a ball around, or play on the swings and slide, but Joan, who loves “books a lot” finds a spot under a tree to read a book. With a book in hand Joan never feels alone.
   In Mrs. Alegro’s music class the children have a grand time playing musical instruments of all kinds. Tom-Tom is a wonderful flute player and he tootles away to the delight of his classmates. Later, in the library, the children are not as well behaved as they should be. They talk, wriggle, and giggle. They are rambunctious and the librarian is not at all happy.
   In this splendid poetry picture book Iza Trapani presents children with some traditional poems which she has “extended” in creative ways. Taking us through the school day, she gives us familiar poems such as One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, and songs such as The Ants go Marching. There are also poems that children may not be familiar with, but which offer readers wonderful opportunities to enjoy the written and spoken word.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Picture Book Monday with a review of It's a book

For many young people today a book is digital file on a tablet. Print books just aren't a part of their lives. I read books in both formats but I generally prefer a printed book. There is something about how a book feels, how it looks sitting on a shelf, and even how it smells that I love. I have books in almost every room in my home, and book cover images appear in frames on my walls.

In today's picture book you will meet a character who has no idea what a print book is. He is puzzled by the book that his friend is reading because it cannot be twitched on, it doesn't noises, nor can you play games on it. What is the point of a book he wonders. What indeed!

It's a BookIt’s a book
Lane Smith
Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Roaring Brook, 2010, 978-1-59643-606-0
One day Jackass comes over to where Monkey is reading. Jackass asks Monkey what he has in his hands. Monkey explains that it is a book. Jackass is not sure what a book does so he asks Monkey a lot of questions about the strange object that he is holding.
   Jackass wants to know if you can scroll down with a book or blog with it. Does it have a mouse? Can it make characters fight? Does it tweet or use wi-fi- or make noise like Jackass’s laptop? It turns out that a book cannot do any of these things. Monkey shows Jackass that the book he is reading has a story in it about pirates. In Jackass’s opinion there are too many words. As he takes the book and goes to sit down, Jackass learns that the book does not even have a screen name, nor do you need a password to read it. How bizarre!
   This wonderful book shows young readers all the things that a book isn’t. Then, in a sneaky and completely silent way, it shows us the wonderful magic that can be found in an object that does not need a power cable, upgrades, or a mouse pad.
   With a minimal text, delightful characters, and touches of humor, Lane Smith gives readers a fantastic reading experience.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Poetry Friday with a review of Beastly Verses

Animal characters play important roles in many children's books, allowing authors to connect with their young readers on many levels. Children begin with Babar the elephant in picture books and work their way up to to the gripping animal-rich adventures in the Redwall novels. Poets also love to write about animals, and in today's poetry title animals of all kinds can be found on the pages to offer children a wonderful poetry-filled book experience.

Beastly VerseBeastly Verse
Poems selected and illustrated by Joohee Yoon
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Enchanted Lion, 2015, 978-1-59270-166-7
Children love poems about animals, especially ones that are about creatures that a big and scary. Over the years poets have chosen to write poems about animals of all kinds, including those that we love to be afraid of. In this collection Joohee Yoon has brought together some of these poems and paired them with her colorful print illustrations.
  We begin with Lewis Carroll’s poem about the “little crocodile” who seems to grin so “cheerfully” and who “neatly spreads his claws.” So friendly does the crocodile seem that it is as if he is welcoming fish to swim into his “gently smiling jaws.”
   Another creature with claws and teeth is a tiger and William Blake’s famous poem about a tiger perfectly captures the awe that the poet feels for the animal that has fire in its eyes. He wonders what “immortal hand” created the tiger’s “fearful symmetry.”
   The mood is lightened in the poem that follows, where we meet a happy hyena. This animal can play the concertina and is very particular about his appearance. A master of sartorial elegance, the hyena even has a flower stuck into his lapel.
   A few pages later we encounter someone who is trying to tell us about an elephant who “tried to use the telephone.” It turns out that a trunk is not the best of appendages to use when one is trying to make a telephone call. It also turns out that the narrator of this poem cannot help getting his or her words frightfully, and hilariously, mixed up.
   For children who fancy having an unusual animal for a pet there is the poem The Yak. In it we hear about how a yak is a perfect pet for young people. After all it “will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back, / Or lead it about with a string.” The Tartars who live in Tibet have been keeping yaks as nursery pets for centuries, so if they can do it why can’t you?
   Animal loving children are sure to love this clever collection of poems. On the pages they will find verses that are often humorous, that offer up wonderful descriptions, and that sometimes give readers cause to pause.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Picture Book Monday with a review of Fuddles and Puddles

Not long ago we brought a new kitten into the household. Our two dogs were thrilled to bits to have a new playmate, but the two cats were appalled and disgusted. They behaved as if a fate worse than death had been placed upon them, and were rude and anti-social for days. Thankfully, the kitten's charms have started to wear down the older cats' standoffish behavior. There is only so much you can do when a little furry person snuggles up against you.

In today's picture book you will see what happens when a large and indulged cat called Fuddles gets a new housemate who is.....prepare yourself.....a puppy!

Fuddles and PuddlesFuddles and Puddles
Frans Vischer
Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Simon and Schuster, 2016, 978-1-4814-3839-1
Fuddles is a fat, lazy, and utterly content cat. His people spoil him rotten and that is exactly how things should be. According to Fuddles. Then one day Fuddles wakes up from a nap, he goes into the kitchen, and he sees that there is a puddle on the floor. Worse still there is a little dog that goes with the puddle. A dog that barks and drools, and makes puddles. Fuddles is “disgusted” and he wants nothing to do with the dog.
   Unfortunately, Puddles does not seem to understand how much Fuddles dislikes him. The little dog follows Fuddles everywhere, even to the litterbox. Fuddles hardly gets a break from the little pest and one day, when Fuddles catches Puddles eating his food, the cat loses his temper. He has had enough, and so he yowls and is so frightening that the dog runs away and he stays away. Fuddles is “delighted.” He has got rid of the dog pest and now life can settle down and go back to the way it was.
   All is well until Fuddles gets himself into a dreadful situation; a situation that means that he needs help and he needs it quickly.
   Many of us hate it when change comes into our lives, especially when that change brings inconveniences and perhaps a little chaos with it. What we often don’t realize is that change can actually be a good thing; it can bring unexpected gifts with it that we did not even know about.  
   With wonderful touches of humor and an appreciation for human (and cat) nature, Frans Vischer brings us a third Fuddles story that will delight readers of all ages.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Poetry Friday with a review of Somewhere Among

Many adults and children in the Unites States can remember where they were on September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked targets in the United States using commercial airplanes. What we sometimes don't realize is that the ripple effects of the tragedy spread far from our shores to people all over the world, many of whom were profoundly effected by what happened.

Today's title is a novel in blank verse that takes us to Japan where a young girl, a half Japanese and half American girl, is facing a lot of personal problems of her own in the months leading up to the September 11th attacks. The appalling events of that day add to what is already a painful situation, and we see, through her eyes, how violence damages people's ability to hope, and takes away their ability to feel safe.

Somewhere AmongSomewhere Among
Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu
For ages 12 and up
Simon and Schuster, 2016, 978-1-4814-3786-8
Ema lives “between two worlds.” Her father is Japanese and her mother is American, and sometimes being “half this / half that” is not easy to manage.  Though her mixed heritage makes her life interesting at times, the fact that she is different also means that at times she feels “alone / on an island / surrounded by multitudes / of people.”
   Every August Ema and her mother go to California for a month to spend time with Ema’s maternal grandparents. This year is going to be different. Ema’s mother is pregnant and it has been a very hard pregnancy with scares and all-day-long morning sickness. Her mother has lost babies in the past and so this time they are going to be very careful, which means that the family is going to go and stay with Ema’s paternal grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan, until the baby is born. Thanks to these new arrangements Ema will miss six months of fifth grade in her school, she and her Papa will not be having a vacation by the sea, and she and her Mom will not being to California.
   Ema and her parents travel to western Tokyo to Obaachan’s house, and it isn’t long before Obaachan stars fussing, criticizing, and complaining. She likes everything to be just so and she has very strong opinions about how things should be done. Often she does not understand that Ema’s mother, being an American, does things differently. For example, Mom does not like to use bath water that other people have used, and she prefers western cakes to Japanese desserts. The differences between the two women creates tension and this tension only becomes worse when Ema’s father goes back to the city. Commuting to and from his parent’s home simply isn’t going to work and so Ema and her mother are going to have cope being in Obaachan’s world as best they can. Ema often wishes that she and her mom could be back at home, even though home is only a small one-room apartment. At least the TV is not on all day long, and at least there they don’t have to deal with Obaachan and her persnickety, old-fashioned ways.
   The summer is hot and hard on everyone but when school starts things get even harder for Ema. There is a boy at school, Masa, who goes out of his way to make Ema miserable. He hits her, steals the NASA space pen that Grandpa Bob gave her, trips her, and is generally disagreeable as much as possible. Ema is not sure how she is going to cope with this and then something happens that makes everyone forget about the little things. Terrorists attack the Twin Towers in New York City and in two other places. Mom is distraught, Ema is upset, and everyone is in shock over what has happened. Ema, Papa and the grandparents all worry that the anxiety and distress that Ema’s mother is experiencing will hurt the baby. How can all the hurt, both in their home, and in the wider world, not affect them? Ema wants to protect her mother but it would seem that there are some things that she cannot prevent. Sometimes Ema wishes she could escape the world and go out into space where she won’t have to “see or hear or feel / any more sadness.”  

   This remarkable book takes us into the life of a Japanese child whose world is in a state of flux. The things that make her feel safe and secure are taken away from her and then, just to add to her distress, the attacks on 9/11 take place. Written in blank verse, this extraordinary narrative is touching and often painful, but ultimately Ema comes to learn something very valuable that she is able to pass on to the grownups in her life.  Anyone who has had their life disrupted by change and loss will appreciate what Ema goes through.