Friday, January 28, 2011

Ten Big Toes and a Prince's Nose by Nancy Grow

Can a beautiful princess with giant feet and a charming prince with a huge nose ever find true love? They can and do when they finally find each other. This is a lovely picture book about looking past superficial imperfections to see the person beneath. It is written with fluid, fairytale prose complete with a comforting repeated rhyme, "I am what I am and that's all right with me./ I don't have to be different, I just have to be." So many pseudo fairy tales these days have silly illustrations. I am glad this one has pretty pictures. Costanza uses rich colors with muted edges to give the illustrations a soft, mythical feeling. He is clever in his composition of the pictures. He makes it so that story of the princess mirrors the story of the prince, using similar compositions for each. Although the moral of this story is less than subtle, little girls will like it and it will remind them that no matter what is on the outside, it is what is on the inside that counts.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dark Life by Kat Falls

If you liked The Lightning Thief, if you liked Twilight, and if you liked Roar (by Emma Clayton) you will probably like this new action/adventure/science fiction by Kat Falls. Ty and his family live in a world after the eastern seaboard has slid into the ocean because of global warming and the destruction of the Ozone layer. Most people left on the earth are crammed into very densely populated apartment buildings, and it is hard to grow food because of intensified UV rays. A few people have started colonizing the ocean floor and developing aqua agriculture. Ty's family are some of the early settlers of the ocean floor and his parents helped design the jellyfish like homes the settlers live in. The settlements are being terrorized by a group of underwater pirates, and at the same time Ty finds a Topside girl, Gemma, who has come to the settlement looking for her lost brother. Ty and Gemma become friends and Ty helps Gemma learn the ways of the settlement and unravel the mystery of her lost brother. Their search is hampered by the pirates who are becoming increasingly bold in their attacks, and by the commonwealth who are threatening to shut down the settlement unless they stop the pirates. One of the cool things about the book is that Falls makes the descriptions of the underwater settlements amazingly believable. I am sure a marine biologist would find lots of faults, but the lay reader is totally transported into another world. The final action sequence is very intense, and the relationship between Gemma and Ty is a fun little romance. This is great for either boys or girls, about 6th grade and up. (297 p.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mock Caldecott Winners

Last Tuesday I held a "Mock Caldecott" at my house. We had about 20 ladies and one gentleman show up. The Caldecott Medal is an award given to the most outstanding picture book released during a calendar year. In our activity I passed around 39 pictures books and gave the guests 1 minute to look at each. Then we had a series of votes to choose what we thought were the winners. Here is what they chose.

The Winner of the Edgemont Caldecott: Chalk by Bill Thomson.

In this wordless picture book some children find a bag of sidewalk chalk. As they each draw pictures on the playground, the pictures become real. One child draws a sun which rises up off the ground and drives away the rain cloud. Another draws butterflies which then come off the tarmac and fly away. When the third child draws a dinosaur, the children find themselves in trouble and have to hide from a giant T-rex by scrambling into the climbing structure. Finally one clever boy draws rain clouds. As the rain falls it washes away the chalk, and the dinosaur disappears. Thomson has amazing skill and his acrylic and colored pencil pictures almost look like photographs. They are done with bright vivid colors and Thomson uses a variety of perspectives to give the story drama. The people at our Caldecott activity loved the book because the story shows the power of a child’s imagination.

Honor Books

The Boy in the Garden by Allen Say

In this story a Japanese boy goes to visit a famous garden. While he is there he sees a crane and tries to sneak up on it. When it doesn’t fly away he realizes it is a statue. Embarrassed by his mistake he runs into a tea house. There he meets a beautiful woman and realizes that she is the crane woman from a well known Japanese folktale. The boy takes the role of the woodcutter in the story and goes out to find wood for the crane woman, but comes home empty handed. Suddenly he wakes up and realizes his adventure has only been a dream. Allen Say won a previous Caldecott medal for his book, Grandfather’s Journey. This picture book has the same realistic style watercolor illustrations as his earlier works. They are done with beautifully subdued greens, yellows and rosey gray tones. The Caldecott group agreed that the pictures seemed restful and did a good job of suggesting the Asian culture.

Three Little Kittens by Jerry Pinkney

This is an illustrated version of the favorite childhood rhyme of the same title. Jerry Pinkney, who won the Caldecott Medal last year for his book, The Lion and the Mouse, uses watercolor to create three very cuddly looking kittens and the stern but loving mother cat. The pictures are loaded with charming detail like hidden mice and birds who don’t want to get too close to the cats. Pinkney manages to give each of the kittens, and especially the mother cat, a lot of personality. The Caldecott group felt like this book would appeal to very small children, and could be read and enjoyed over and over again.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator by Jennifer Allison

13 year old Gilda Joyce wants to be a psychic investigator. Following the suggestions she finds in a psychic handbook, she feels that she should visit her mother's cousin in San Francisco over the summer. While there she meets her second cousin, Juliet, who is Gilda's age, rich, refined, and very depressed. The two girls make an uneasy friendship, and together they work to uncover the mystery surrounding the suicide death of Juliet's aunt ten years earlier. As they explore the mystery, they both struggle with emotional problems in their own lives. The strength of this book is the interestingly quirky characters. Gilda and Juliet seem to be polar opposites. Gilda is at the same time bombastic and insecure. Juliet is bratty, lonely and deeply troubled. The girl's opposite natures attract, and they learn from each other's strengths. Allison adds just enough supernatural element to the story to keep the reader guessing whether there really is a ghost involved, or whether the girls are projecting their own fears and hopes onto the world around them. The author leaves the question tantalizingly unanswered. This is a good read for girls ages 11-14 who like books that are a only a little spooky. (321 p)

Monday, January 17, 2011

No Place for Magic by E. D. Baker

This is book four in the Tales of the Frog Princess series. This is another series that I started a long time ago and every once in a while I go back to it and read another in the series. It is pretty typical children's fantasy. The first book, The Frog Princess, is a reworking of the story of the Frog Prince, but after that Baker just follows the characters, their ancestors and descendants on a variety of adventures in her fantasy world. The characters have various magical powers, and turn into various creatures while they seek to end various curses, or find various lost people. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the series, but it is solidly written and a good read. It is another series that is good for the kind of children who love to devour fantasy books because there are at least 8 in the series, so it will keep them busy for...say... a week or two. (244 p.)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen

Usually when you think of Gary Paulsen, you think of survival books, where someone learns how to hunt rabbits with a homemade bow and arrow, or to kill and skin a moose, (e.g. Hatchet, Brian's Winter etc.) In this book, however, Paulsen explores a different wild and untamed environment--personal finance. The 12 year old narrator of the book receives a used lawn mower from his grandmother for his birthday. He decides to use it to earn a little money by mowing other people's yards. His services are in high demand, and soon he has more yards than he can handle. With the help of one of his customers, who is a hippy stock broker, he gets other people to help him, and soon is the boss of a small company. His stock broker invests his income in risky penny stocks, that immediately sky rocket. In just a few weeks the boy is richer than he ever imagined, but in way over his head. This is a very funny story about one kid's amazing summer, when everything just happened to fall into place.

Gary Paulsen doesn't do very many speaking engagements. He would rather be out on his 40 ft schooner trying to circumnavigate the Americas or running the Iditarod. I was lucky enough to hear him speak once, and I can't help but think the way the boy in the book is baffled by finances is probably autobiographical. When he spoke to us, Gary Paulsen seemed to be overwhelmed by his own financial success. This is a great book for reluctant reader boys (as are all Gary Paulsen's books), especially since it is only 88 pages long, and written for a preteen audience.

Welcome to the Zoo by Alison Jay

I was first introduced to the books of Alison Jay when I wrote a review of her book 1 2 3 A Child's First Counting Book back in 2007. I became enchanted by her illustration style. Her style is very consistent; always the same stylized figures, transparent colors, and crackled surface. The reason I like them is because you can enjoy them on many levels. A small child could enjoy them because they are simple, but curiously unusual. An older child will start to notice the interesting detail she includs in each spread. There is a dog chasing a mouse, and here is a little girl looking at a bee in a flower. The thing that amazes me about her illustration is that she always (or at least the books I have looked at have this quality) does her pictures as if she were taking photographs as she walked along a path. So in one picture you see, up ahead, some object in the distance. Then in the next, you have arrived at that object, and the previous page is in miniature behind you. Up ahead is a picture of what you will be seeing in the next spread. She must think in three dimensions, always aware of what would be around here if she were standing in one of her illustrations. This Alison Jay book is a wordless book, where a family walks around a zoo. It is a very special zoo, because there are no fences or cages. The animals and people look at each other without fear in perfect harmony. All of her books have a very calm, peaceful feeling. This is a great book for dialogic reading or for a child look at by himself.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Larklight by Philip Reeve

One week from today I am doing an after school program based on Larklight by Philip Reeve. In preparation for the program I thought I better read the book again, or rather listen to the book on CD. I am so glad I did. I had forgotten what a delight the book is, and the talented reader of the recording made it even more fun.

Art and Myrtle Mumby live on Larklight, a Victorian space home orbiting the moon, with their father who studies space animals. In this story it is the middle of the 1800's and the British Empire rules the Solar System. This is because in the 1700's Sir Isaac Newton discovered the mysterious chemical process that allowed his compatriots to build the first interplanetary space ships and bring most of the solar system under British control. Although she was raised on Larklight, Myrtyle tries very hard to be a proper English young lady. Good manners and old fashion British pluck go a long way to help her and her brother through many harrowing adventures like being captured by an interplanetary pirate (a rather dashing one named Jack Havock) and fighting giant space spiders. The juxtaposition of the Victorian theme and the space theme is a hoot. Reeve has created his universe based on 19th century beliefs of what space was like. In the story space is filled with "aether", Art and Myrtle seem to be able to breath wherever they go, even outside of their ship, and there are different races of beings on each of the planets. I laughed out loud more than once. Even though the story is told from the point of view of the boy, Art, girls might enjoy this story more than boys, especially girls who are familiar with period romances like the Jane Austin books. (399 p)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Magic and Other Misdemeanors by Michael Buckley

This is #5 in the Sisters Grimm series. I started this series about year and a half ago but I haven't read them straight through. I just pick one up when I don't have anything else to read, or when I have been reading something heavy and need a reading snack. The premise of the series is that there are two girls who are the descendants of the Brothers Grimm, the fairy tale writers. In this world the fairy tales are all real, and the Grimm sisters live in a town with the "Ever Afters," fairy tale characters who are immortal. The Grimm sisters and their grandmother are detectives, and solve mysteries related to the Ever Afters. In this installment someone has stolen three magical items from three different witches and is using them to create disturbances in the fabric of time. The sisters have to find out who is causing the disturbances and reverse their terrible effects. This installment is fun because the reader starts to see a romance the author has hinted might happen in the last few books. One of my favorite parts was when Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel, all ex-wives of Prince William Charming, get together and give counseling to Snow White, Charming's current love interest. (304 p)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kinney

I read the second in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. I found the first book mildly amusing, but I did not enjoy this one as much. In this book the focus moves from Kinney's interactions at school to his relationship with this older brother at home. There were a few parts of the story that ring true, like the fact that they fought, but then became allies occasionally when they needed to. One thing that is beginning to bother me about the series is that the boys are so utterly without principals. Didn't their parents teach them right from wrong? All they ever consider when making a decision is personal gain. At times the author adds a statement like, "I kind have felt a little bad about..." but then quickly follows it up with some justification. Maybe it is the lack of morals that is supposed to be funny. Maybe nobody really is that morally clueless and that is why we laugh at these characters (except I didn't really laugh during this book). Anyway, I have read book one and two and I am done. I have no desire to read more Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mirror Mirror: a Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer

This one wins the prize for the most clever poetry book of the year. In this book the author writes a free verse poem (really, just a few well crafted sentences) that can then be read with the lines of the poems in reverse order. The first poem tells about a fairy tale from one character's point of view, and the other (the reverse one) tells the story from another character's point of view. No kidding. For example, in the poem about Red Riding Hood, the last few lines of the first poem say,"picking berries to eat-/juicy and sweet/what a treat!/ But a girl/mustn't dawdle./ After all, Grandma is waiting." and then the first few lines of the next poem (the Wolf's poem) "After all, Grandma's waiting./mustn't dawdle.../But a girl!/ What a treat-/juicy and sweet./picking berries to eat." Isn't that wicked? The illustrations are cool, too. They are each divided in half, each half showing one of the points of view, but still related to each other. If I were to actually purchase a poetry book this year for myself, this is the one I would buy.

R is for Rhyme: a Poetry Alphabet by Judy Young

Back to the poetry books. You can find an alphabet book about almost anything under the sun, so why not poetry? For each letter of the alphabet Young chooses a vocabulary word related to poetry. Most of the words are forms of poems, like haiku for H and cinquain for C. A few of the vocabulary words are poetic devices, like end rhyme for E and onomatopoeia for O. For each vocabulary word, Young provides a poem that contains or is an example of the word, and a three to four paragraph explanation of the term. Now, last summer, as my blog readers know, I did a poetry study with my kids, and I can tell you, I wish I had known about this book when I did that study. The poems in the book are decent, but the explanations and the variety of terms is very impressive. If there were someone who, like me, wanted to study poetry at home, they could get this book, take a letter a week, and there would be half a year of poetry lessons. The book is illustrated with full color, pastel drawings that are slightly stylized and fairly amusing. (about 56 p)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

Benjamin is reading this book for his English class. I had seen the movie, and the musical, so I decided to take the opportunity to read the book. Actually, I listened to the book in audio book form. It was great fun and I enjoyed it very much. Where as the play and the movie are portrayed from the point of view of the hero, the book is written entirely from the point of view of Marguerite. That makes it much more a book about how two people grow to love and respect each other, and less a book about a wily Englishman who outsmarts the French Revolutionists. I loved the ending, which was different from the movie and the play. It speaks to the heart of the real historical romance lover in me. Of course, it is not a children's book, but really, there is nothing in there that would make it inappropriate for teens, even tweens. (270 p.)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

Here we take a mini break from my poetry selections. I just finished The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud. This book is in the same world as Stroud's earlier Bartimaeus trilogy (e.g The Amulet of Samarkand, 2003), but is a stand alone book. Whereas the earlier trilogy was set in the fantasy equivalent of the 19th century England, this book happens in ancient Israel during the reign of King Solomon. In Stroud's fantasy world there are powerful magicians who do magic by summoning djinni and other Mideastern style magical beings, and forcing them to be their slaves. In this book the most powerful magician of all is King Solomon who wears a ancient ring that allows him to control many of these powerful magical creatures. One of the djinni, Bartimaeus, is more mouthy and sarcastic than the others and is always getting in trouble. He somehow gets in league with a young girl warrior, sent by the queen of Sheba to kill King Solomon and steal his ring. It is an audacious quest, but Bartimaeus is an audacious djinni. Stroud's writing is so clever and snappy. It is very intelligent humor, complete with footnotes. (don't miss the footnotes, they are the funniest part.) Even though you know how it must end, he takes so many twists and turns getting there that it doesn't feel predictable. Be warned that Stroud is not shy of having minor characters killed in ghastly ways, but it is all done tongue in cheek. In a way I like this book even better than the first trilogy, because the main character of that trilogy started out pretty snotty (he got better as the series progressed). You don't have to have read the first group to enjoy this. This is a great choice for the kind of kids, boys or girls, who are voracious fantasy readers age 11 and up. (398 p.)

Guyku: a Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka

One form of poetry all children learn at school is haiku. In fact, my children studied haiku several different years, and by the second or third, they were pretty tired of it. They would just roll their eyes, and then start spouting spontaneous horrible haiku at the dinner table. (I am thinking mostly of Benjamin, who often spouts poetry spontaneously). So why am I highlighting a haiku book on my top 5? Well, like all forms of poetry, there is good haiku and bad haiku, and this is actually pretty good haiku. What makes it fun is that with his haiku Raczka shines a flashlight, so to speak, on wonderful experiences of growing up a boy. He talks about all the simple pleasures boys (and girls) do when they have all the time in the world and live in a world that is safe and inviting. The poems are arranged by seasons. In "spring"he talks about catching a grasshopper, riding a bike and flying a kite. He talks about climbing trees in summer, playing in leaves in fall, throwing snow balls, and hiding under a snow laden pine tree in winter. I remember doing all that kind of stuff when I was a child and I hope children still go outside and enjoy nature that way. The book is illustrated with very simple cartoon drawings colored in with understated pastels. The text is printed in a large, child friendly font. I think the idea there was to focus attention on the words, not just on the illustrations. For adults, the book is nostalgic, and for children, I hope it will give them some ideas of what to do beside playing computer games.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman

Here is a more serious poetry book that couples really good writing with lovely illustrations. Sidman has written 12 poems about the night in a forest. Some are about animals, and others about trees or the moon. Some of the poems are rhymed and metered, while others are free verse or concrete poems. The rhyming poems are really well done, with careful attention to meter and form. The free verse poems are also good with sensitivity to the sound and rhythm of the words. A good poet manages to make the words flow naturally, and you never get the sense that they were forced into a certain word choice by the structure of the poem. Sidman pulls this off really quite well.

Each of the poems are accompanied by a beautiful illustrations done using the technique of etching. The artist puts down color, and then covers it with a black overcoat. Then he (Rick Allen in this case) scrapes away some of the black to reveal the color beneath. It is a good technique for a book about the night.

Finally, each spread had an information paragraph about the subject of the poem. The informational paragraphs are written in prose, but they is well crafted, and almost poem-like. They contain some interesting facts that I had never heard before. The three elements combined--the good poetry, lovely illustrations and interesting information paragraphs--make this probably my top pick of my top five.