Friday, September 28, 2012

Poetry Friday: A review of A strange place to call home.

I studied zoology when I went to university, and one of the things that attracted me to this subject was learning about the many amazing ways in which animals adapt to their environment. Having an interest in animal adaptations meant that I was naturally drawn today's poetry title. In the book, poet Marilyn Singer finds a novel way to tell her readers about a few of the strange and wonderful animals that live on our planet.

Marilyn Singer
Illustrated by Ed Young
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 7 to 10
Chronicle Books, 2012, 978-1-4521-0120-0
Choosing to live in a place that has a temperate climate without extremes is a strategy that many animals have adopted. After all, who wants to deal with extreme temperatures (either hot or cold) and a lack of water and food. The problem with living in temperate places is that so many animals do it, and competition for resources and living space is often fierce. For this reason, some animals have chosen to live in, and adapt to, environments that have “challenging conditions.” Deserts, polar ice caps, steep mountainsides, and salt lakes do present challenges, but at least one does not have to compete with many other animals for food and space.
   This remarkable book looks at just a few of the species that have chosen to call extreme environments home. For example, Japanese snow monkeys live in a part of the world where the winters can be very cold and snowy. The monkeys have, over time, adopted a very strange habit; they sit in the hot spring pools to keep warm. It is a remarkable adaptation, one that we still do not fully understand. What gave the monkeys the idea that sitting in hot springs would keep them from freezing to death?
   Just like those snowy Japanese mountainsides, the zone where the sea meets the land is a very inhospitable place. Here “waves are prone / to be forceful” and animals that choose this place to set up house have to find a way to prevent the waves from washing them away. This the limpet has done with great success. Using “suction,” the limpet is able “to cling” to rocks and thus avoid being washed away by the waves.
   Whereas the limpet has to deal with too much water action, Spadefoot toads live in deserts where “dryness is the norm.” How can these amphibians procreate in such a place where there is no water? Their solution is simple. They wait until rain arrives and then, in a short period of time, they breed, lay eggs, and their young develop.
   In this fascinating book, Marilyn Singer’s memorable poems show us how fourteen very different animal species survive in harsh environments. Using a variety of poetry forms, including free verse, a haiku, and a sonnet, the author presents words pictures of creatures that are truly fascinating.
   At the back of the book, the author provides readers with further information about the animals mentioned in the book, and she also talks about the poetry forms that she used.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fiction Wednesday - A review of Ghost Knight

Most of the ghosts that I have met in books have, at worst, been scary or even terrifying. They look and sound awful, but they cannot really do anything to you. The ghosts I met in today's book are altogether different. They belong in a category of their own, and I sincerely hope that they and their kind only exist within the pages of a book.

Cornelia Funke
Illustrated by Andrea Offermann
Translated by Oliver Latsch
For ages 9 to 12
Little Brown, 2012, 978-0-316-05614-4
When Jon’s mother tells him that he is going to be sent to a boarding school, Jon feels angry, upset, and betrayed. He blames his mother’s new boyfriend, “The Beard,” for coming up with the plan, and when he arrives at his new school in Salisbury, he is determined to be as miserable as possible. This Jon manages to do with great success until something happens that quite takes his mind of being sent to a boarding school.
   On his sixth night at the school, Jon looks out of his bedroom window and sees three malevolent looking ghosts staring up at him. They are astride horses, and their horrible appearance quite terrifies Jon. The next day, as he is walking back to the school’s boardinghouse, he is pursued by four ghosts riding ghostly horses. In terror, Jon runs from them, and when he explains his extraordinary behavior to his teacher, everyone treats him as if he has gone mad.
  Jon knows that no one believes his story, so he pretends that he was just making it up. Only one person doesn’t fall for this ploy. Ella, a very pretty girl who goes to Jon’s school, believes that he has indeed seen four ghosts. Ella’s grandmother, who fancies herself an expert on ghosts, does not believe that Jon is in danger until she hears that his mother is a Hartgill. Apparently, two of Jon’s ancestors, a father and son, were murdered by a man called Lord Stourton. The lord was executed for his part in the murder, and ever since then male Hartgill descendants have had nasty habit of dying unexpectedly.
   Ella’s grandmother suggests that Jon should go to another school, but Ella thinks that he should ask for some help. In her opinion, Jon’s only hope is to ask the ghost of William Longspee, the illegitimate half-brother of Richard the Lionheart, for his help. Apparently the knight swore an oath that he would “protect the innocent from the cruel, and the weak from the strong.” It is said that he made this oath so that he could make up for the “sinful deeds” that he did when he was alive.
   Not knowing what else to do, Jon asks William Longspee for his help, and to his amazement the ghostly knight appears and promises to help Jon if he is threatened by Lord Stourton and his four minions. Not long after this encounter with the knight, Lord Stourton, his four servants, and two terrible hell hounds appear and attack Jon and Ella. Jon calls for Longspee who comes to the boy’s aid and dispenses with the dogs, the four ghostly servants, and their malevolent master.
   Jon is delighted with Longspee’s success, and is so grateful and that he decides to do what he can to free the knightly ghost from his oath so that he can finally have some peace. Jon and Ella never imagine that their problems with Lord Stourton are only just beginning.
   Full of thrilling adventure, terrifying ghostly doings, and surprising plot changes, this exceptional book will thrill readers who have a fondness for ghost stories. It is not a tale for the faint hearted, and throughout the story the author cleverly weaves fact and fiction together to give readers a thoroughly captivating tale.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Picture Book Monday - A review of Chopsticks

When you are around someone a great deal it is easy to get used to being half of a pair. Most of the time this is a good thing, but there are times a break from the togetherness and connectedness is a good thing. In today's picture book, Amy Krouse Rosenthal explores this idea in a novel and delightful way.

ChopsticksAmy Krouse Rosenthal
Illustrated by Scott Magoon
Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Disney Hyperion Books, 2012, 978-142310796-5
   Chopsticks are a pair of friends who have been together for “forever.” They go everywhere and do everything as a pair and no one, not Spoon or Fork or Knife, can ever remember seeing them apart.
   Chopsticks are very skilled when it comes to manipulating food, and they are always challenging themselves to master “fancy new culinary tricks.” This is what they were doing when one of them accidentally breaks a tip. The injured Chopstick is whisked away to the doctor by Whisk. The doctor bandages up the damaged tip, and Chopstick is told that he needs to rest until the break sets.
   For days, the uninjured chopstick stays by his companion’s side until his dear friend tells him to “venture off on your own a bit.” The uninjured Chopstick cannot imagine being alone, but he does what his friend asks him to do, and goes off to explore on his own. He has no idea then that leaving his friend for a while is going to change both their lives.
   With deliciously amusing illustrations and clever examples of word play, Amy Krouse Rosenthal tells a story that is heartwarming and empowering. Children will see how even the best of friends can benefit from being apart for a while, and why it is important to learn how to stand on your own two feet, or on your one chopstick!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Poetry Friday: A Review of Bananas in my ears

Sometimes life is just too complicated, too full of rules, and too full of chores and responsibilities. Our brains are stuffed with facts, figures, lists, words, numbers....and all that stuff. Sometimes those deep and meaningful books with their challenging characters and their demanding plots are just too much for our brains to handle. We need something lighter and gentler. We need to smile, perhaps even laugh.

Today's poetry title is perfect for those days when you need to lighten up your life.

Michael Rosen
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 6 to 8
Candlewick Press, 2012, 978-0-7636-6248-6
Many people think that poetry, real poetry, has to be ‘deep and meaningful,’ and that poems should explore important themes and emotions. Certainly some poetry is serious and thought provoking, but there are also those poems that serve another purpose: they amuse us and make us laugh. Often these poems look at everyday people in everyday situations, and they show us how absurd life sometimes is.
   For this collection, Michael Rosen has created some decidedly quirky poems, which are paired with Quentin Blake’s decidedly delightful illustrations. The poems are divided into four chapters: The Breakfast Book (Hard-boiled legs), The Seaside book (Smelly Jelly Smelly Fish), The Doctor Book (Spollyollydiddlytiddlyitis), and The Bedtime Book (Under the Bed). In each chapter, readers will find many individual poems, and they will also find some recurring sections.    
   In the “What if…” section in each chapter, we are presented with some truly peculiar scenarios. Another section - “Things we say” or “Things they say” or “Things you say” - shows us what people tend to say when they are in a certain situation. For example, I am sure that every parent has heard their child say “Mom, I suddenly feel all right again” when they get to the doctor’s office. Oh, and let’s not forget the times when children say “Just one more story” at bedtime.
   In every chapter you will also meet Nat and Anna, siblings who squabble, argue, fight, and support one another only as siblings can. Young readers will surely laugh when they see what this big sister and little brother get up to.
   Though many of the poems in this book are of the tickle-the-funny-bone variety, there are some that are more contemplative. In Over my Toes, we are reminded of what it feels like to have “the soft sea wash” over our toes as we stand on a beach. In Feeling Ill, we join a child who is stuck in bed, bored to tears and “waiting for the clock to change.”
   Children and adults alike are going to enjoy sharing these poems, laughing at the what ifs, thinking about what people say in certain situations, and marveling at how they behave. Humans really are quite extraordinary creatures.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Fiction Wednesday - A review of Aggie the Brave

There have been times when I have had to leave one of my pets at the veterinary clinic for a few hours or even overnight, and I must confess that every time I have done this I have felt ridden with guilt. I imagine that my dog or cat feels that I have abandoned him or her, and find it hard to concentrate on anything while I wait. Today's story is about how one little boy copes with having to leave his beloved dog Aggie at the vet's office.

Lori Ries
Illustrated by Frank W. Dormer
For ages 4 to 7
Charlesbridge, 2012, 978-1-57091-636-6
   Aggie has to go to the vet to be spayed. When they get to the vet’s office, Aggie refuses to get out of the car and her owner, Ben, has to pull her out. When she is finally out of the car, Aggie tries to hide, and then she tries to run away. Ben tells her that she needs to “Be Brave!” but Aggie has no interest to being brave in the least.
   Ben does not like the fact that he has to leave Aggie at the vet’s office. As he gives her a good-bye hug, he tells her to be good and to be brave. Unfortunately Ben finds it very hard to be brave himself, and in the car on the way home he bursts into tears. He misses his friend and playmate dreadfully, and getting through the rest of the day is very hard. All Ben wants is for tomorrow to come so that he and Aggie can be together again.
   Taking a pet to the vet can be a traumatic experience for both the pet and the owner, as is the case with Ben and Aggie. In this charming chapter book for beginner readers, we see how Ben copes with his own fears, and how he helps his pet to get through a trying experience.
   With three chapters and plenty of illustrations, this is a perfect title for young readers who are eager to start reading ‘real’ books.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Picture Book Monday - A review of Because you are my teacher

Good teachers are a precious commodity. They help children to learn that the process of learning is exciting, that the journey is like a adventure. Today's picture book reminds us just how valuable our teachers are and how much we owe them.

Sherry North
Illustrated by Marcellus Hall
Picture Book
For ages 6 to 8
Abrams, 2012, 978-1-4197-0385-0
   When you have a clever and imaginative teacher, the time you spend in school can be full of adventures. One group of children feels very lucky because their teacher is able to take them to places all over the world, and they never actually leave their classroom.
   Because she is their teacher, the children study the Atlantic “where the great blue whales roam free.” On the backs of imaginary camels the students travel across desert sands to visit the ancient pyramids of Egypt. Thanks to their teacher they are able to tour the Amazon travelling on their make-believe river raft. As they float along they hear “the howler monkeys growl their spooky song.”
   This delightful picture book serves as a tribute to all those teachers who find unique and engaging ways to explore distant lands with their students. With the teacher and her four pupils, we visit two of the world’s five oceans and all seven of its continents. In some of the places we visit we meet bizarre animals, while in others we marvel at man-made wonders.
   With beautiful color illustrations and an engaging rhyming text, this is a perfect picture book to read aloud in a classroom.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Poetry Friday - A review of Dark Emperor and other poems of the night

I used to live in the city, where ones connection with nature and with nature's rhythms and cycles often is very limited. Here, in my home in southern Oregon, I can see how the light changes on the mountains as the sun sets, and how the sounds I hear shift when it gets dark. Instead of the warbles of the swallows, I hear the shriek of the owls. Instead of smelling the sun warmed earth, I smell the skunk as it wanders by!

Today's poetry title explores a woodland at night. The combination of the gorgeous illustrations and beautiful poetry makes this book a title that I know I will enjoy looking at again and again.

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the NightDark Emperor and other poems of the night
Joyce Sidman
Illustrated by Rick Allen
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 7 to 12
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, 978-0-547-15228-8
The sun is setting, and the world of light fades and becomes a world of shadow. Creatures that were asleep during the daylight hours emerge eager to find a meal. This is the time when raccoons shuffle out into the open, when mice dart from shadow to shadow, and when moths flutter towards any light they can find.
   A snail “unhooks itself from earth” and inches up stems and leaves looking for “tasty morsels of green.” Above in the trees, an” owl, a “Dark Emperor” sits, listening to the “squeaks and skitters” below, waiting for that moment when it is ready to start hunting.
  Unlike the creatures that move around beneath its bark and that roost in its branches, the oak is quiet, drinking its fill “slowly, slowly.” As the moon rises behind the tree, a baby “porcupette” comes out with its mother. The baby nurses and then its mothers goes off to find herself a meal. Though the youngster cannot climb trees yet, it knows it is safe, protected by its coat of quills.
   In this award-winning title, poet Joyce Sidman takes readers on a special journey into a woodland at night. She introduces us to some of the sights that you might glimpse in such an environment after the sun sets. We meet a snail, a moth, a frightened mouse, an oak tree, a spider, a porcupine, a cricket, some mushrooms, an eft, a bat, and the moon. A section of informative nonfiction text accompanies each poem, providing the reader with further information about the topic mentioned in the poem.
   Throughout the book, Rick Allen’s gorgeous woodcut illustrations provide a perfect backdrop for the poems and text. Layers of color and texture-filled details give the prints a depth that is both beautiful and startling.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Fiction Wednesday - A review of Dear Max

When I was a child most of the grownups I knew had no idea how to communicate with a kid. Or at least that is what it felt like. They had no idea how to listen, or how to respond in the appropriate manner. My father was one of the exceptions. He really wanted to know what I felt and thought, and made me feel that my opinion mattered.

In today's book you are going to meet a boy who develops a close friendship with a children's book author. They write to one another, and though they are very different, they are able to help one another.

Dear Max
Sally Grindley
Illustrated by Tony Ross
For ages 6 to 9
Simon and Schuster, 2004, 978-1-4169-3443-1
   Not long ago Max’s uncle gave him a copy of a book by the author D. J. Lucas, and now Max is writing to D.J. to tell her how much he likes the book. He also tells the author that he, Max, would like to be a writer when he grows up. D.J. writes back to tell Max that she has written thirty-five books and that she is about to start writing another one.
   The two correspondents, who are both having a hard time coming up with a story, decide to help one another. D.J suggest that they should both write about “what interests us most.” Max decides to write about a spectacled bear, and over time, as letters go back and forth between the boy and the writer, his story evolves.
   In addition to his story, Max tells D.J about his uncle and the new puppy his uncle got who “wees” in shoes. Max incidentally lets slip that his father is “never coming back,” and that he has to go to the hospital a lot. He thinks that these visits are a waste of time because the doctors never do anything to make Max better. He also talks about a boy at school who enjoys bullying Max because Max is small for his age. Then he tells D.J about his friend Jenny, who is behaving less and less like a friend.
   Recognizing that Max’s life is sometimes hard, D.J offers him support and her friendship, and she does her best to cheer him up. She is there for him when he feels very alone, angry, and scared.
   One would never think that an adult lady author and a nine-year-old boy could have much in common, but in this book they do, and they both benefit from the friendship. It is fascinating to see how Max’s very lifelike story evolves, and how he learns how to deal with his problems himself, finding the courage that lies within him.
   With a story that is funny, touching, and punctuated with little doodles and pictures, this is a tale every child can relate to.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Picture Book Monday - A review of Who wants to be a poodle

Sometimes, often with the best of intentions, we push people into being what we want them to be without once considering that perhaps they might like to follow a different path. We assume that we know what is best for them, and don't take the trouble to listen to what they have to say.

In this delightful picture book you are going to a meet a poodle whose owner assumes that she knows what is best for her pet. Unfortunately this is not the case.

Lauren Child
Picture Book
For ages 5 to 8
Candlewick Press, 2009, 978-0-7636-4610-3
   Trixie Twinkle Toes Trot-a-Lot Delight is a poodle who lives in a posh apartment with her owner, Verity Brulee. Trixie is pampered and primped, waited on and indulged, but she is not in the least bit happy. The truth of it is that Trixie is not a poodly sort of dog, even though she is a toy poodle. She wants to be able to run on the grass, paddle in puddles, and chase “nothing in particular” like other dogs, but she is not allowed to.
   Finally, despondent about her poodly existence, complete with pompoms and pink velvet ribbons, Trixie begins to howl. She howls and howls. Then she decides to take her life in her own paws, and she tries to figure out who she truly is on the inside.
   Not being able to communicate with humans must be a very frustrating thing for dogs, and in this picture book we meet a poodle whose owner just doesn’t get it. She doesn’t understand what Trixie wants at all.  
   Sometimes people don’t understand other people, just as Verity does not understand Trixie. For this reason this book will resonate with everyone who feels misunderstood and unheard. Readers will be reassured by Trixie’s story, and they will surely love Lauren Child’s quirky and distinctive multimedia art. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Poetry Friday - A review of My America

One of the things that still amazes me is how huge the Unites States is. The country has mountains, lakes, rivers, canyons, deserts, big cities, tiny hamlets and almost everything else that you can think of. There are huge differences between the different regions, and when I drove across the country, from Virginia to Oregon, I felt as if I have driven through several countries.

Today's poetry title celebrates the diversity of the United States in a new way, and it is a title that children and adults alike will enjoy looking through.

Selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins
Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 8 to 12
Simon and Schuster, 2000, 978-0-689-81247-7
When most of us think of an atlas, we think of a large format book that is full of maps of all kinds. If the atlas is about the United States, there will probably be maps showing the geographic regions, the states, and then in-detail maps of each of the states. This atlas is very different. There are maps, eight of them in total, but most of the book is taken up with words and illustrations rather than maps. Poet Lee Bennett Hopkins wanted to give readers a unique picture of the United States; one that uses poems to take people from “sea to shining sea;” one that captures how exciting and diverse this country is; and one that celebrates the many natural  and manmade wonders that can be found throughout the United States.
   The book is divided into eight sections, each one of which focuses on a particular region. Each section opens with a map and some basic statistics about the states that can be seen on the map. For example, the first chapter is about The Northeast States and in the opening, we find out a little about Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Then the poems begin, and they show us a little about this region, often capturing the flavor of the states. We read about how “Red lobster boats bob above barnacled anchors” in Maine, and how a New England lighthouse serves as a “compass for ships / as they pass / through the night.”
   In the section about the Pacific coast states, we visit some California missions, which “hold tales / of ancient years.” Here we can travel from the “Ice built, ice bound, and ice bounced” lands of Alaska to the island of Hawaii where the Mauna Loa, the live volcano, rumbles “A tumbled tune,” and sends “Fire!” into the air.
   This extraordinary collection of poems brings together the words of many poets including Lee Bennett Hopkins, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and Douglas Florian. Together they give readers a vivid picture of an extraordinary country.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fiction Wednesday - A review of Gus and Grandpa

When I was a child, my grandmother lived on the other side of the world, so I didn't get to see her very often. I envied the children I knew whose grandparents lived in the same city or at least in the same country. Thankfully the grandmother who lived downstairs decided to adopt me. It did not matter that she spoke Greek and that I, at least at first, couldn't speak a word. We would sit together watching TV, I would hold her crochet yarn for her, and she would let me help her bake bread and make homemade pasta.

Today's fiction title is about a boy who has a very close relationship with his grandfather. This is just one in a series of books about Gus and his splendid grandfather.

Gus and GrandpaClaudia Mills
Illustrated by Catherine Stock
For ages 5 to 7
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, 978-0374428471
Gus loves to go and visit his grandfather. There are so many wonderful things to do at Grandpa's house, simple yet special things. There is the ditch to jump over again, Skipper the dog to play with, shopping trips to go on, and much more. Best of all there is Grandpa with his gentle and often funny ways.
   The author of this charming little book beautifully succeeds in showing us the closeness of the relationship between Gus and his grandfather, the comfortable nature of their relationship, and the ways in which they enjoy one another's company. She does this with short sentences and simple language, which makes the story very accessible to early readers. At the same time, she introduces early readers to chapters, giving them several Gus and Grandpa stories to enjoy in one volume.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Picture Book Monday - A review of I will come back for you

In this day in 1939, the Allies declared war on Germany. Germany had invaded Poland on September 1st, and the Allies were forced to respond to this act of aggression. Following the declaration, not much happened for a time, but then Germany launched its Blitzkrieg, or lightening war, which left many countries in Europe reeling.

One of Hitler's allies was Bennito Mussolini, the leader of Italy, who was happy to adopt Germany's methods and policies. Today's picture book is about how one Italian family was affected by these changes.

Marisabina Russo
Historical Fiction Picture Book
For ages 7 to 10
Random House, 2011, 978-0-375-86695-1
When Nonna was a little girl, she lived in an apartment building in Rome, Italy, with her parents and her brother Roberto. In the afternoons, Mamma used to take Nonna and Roberto to the park, and every evening their Papa would play the piano for them before they went to bed.
   Then war broke out in Europe and life for Nonna and her family began to change. New laws were created that targeted Jews like Nonna. There were many things that Jews were no longer allowed to do, and then Papa was told that he had to leave his family and go to live in a village in the mountains.
   For a while, Nonna, Mama, and Roberto went to the village every weekend to spend time with Papa, but then Papa learned that the Germans were coming to the village. He knew that the Germans were sending all the Jews that they found to concentrations camps, so he decided that he would go into hiding. He told his family that he would leave a note for them in an old beech tree in the village so that tgey would know that he was well.
   When the local officials found out that Papa was gone, they got very angry and announced that they would take Mama in his place and hand her over to the Germans.
   This story is based on the real life experiences of the author’s mother, who fled to Italy from Germany in the early 1930’s, and who had some extraordinary adventures during World War II. The narrative describes very difficult times, but it also shows children how hard times can bring out the best in people. Thanks to some very brave Italians, the author’s mother and her two children (like many other Jews in Italy) were hidden and survived the war.
   This powerful and informative book serves as a fitting tribute to the people who found ways to survive Nazi and Fascist aggression both before and during World War II. It is also a tribute to those who risked everything to help others during this difficult time.