Friday, December 31, 2010

The last Cybils reviews post!!!

The final stretch! Don't think these books are any less for coming at the end though...I've saved some really strong stuff for the last! Cybils shortlists will be announced tomorrow - it's been a LOT more work than last year, but totally worth it!

Waiting out the storm by Joann Early Macken, illustrated by Susan Gaber is a little gem I'm afraid has been overlooked this year so far. Lovely, atmospheric acrylic illustrations decorate a simple question and answer text as a mother reassures her daughter before and during a storm. This is a perfect read aloud for toddlers or for any child who's nervous about storms. There are also beautifully shown pictures and text about what various animals do during the storm. Pair this one with Shutta Crum's Thunder-Boomer for a delicious stormy story time or for a good cuddle before bed.

Verdict: Absolutely recommended, especially for toddler story times and rainy days.

ISBN: 9780763633783; Published March 2010 by Candlewick; Review copy provided by publisher for Cybils

I was surprised by how much I liked Snook Alone by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering. I had heard a lot of gushing about it, but it sounded too high concept-y for my taste, plus most people were talking about Ering's illustrations and I haven't cared for what I've seen of his work in the past. Obviously, I haven't looked closely enough or seen enough of his work because this was a lovely book, quiet and reflective, with illustrations that shone with emotion and humor. This is a fairly lengthy book and won't work as a read-aloud, unless you're looking for a longer story to read to a classroom of 1st - 3rd graders.

Verdict: Recommended if you have the audience for longer, more complex and quiet picture books.

ISBN: 9780763626679; Published September 2010 by Candlewick; Review copy provided by the publisher for Cybils

The Dollhouse Fairy by Jane Ray. When have we last seen a really strong fairy book for young children? Or a dollhouse book for that matter? This is a delightful combination of both, sure to please any lover of the miniature.

Rosy and her father have lovingly built and furnished a dollhouse - working on it together is Rosy's most favorite pastime. But then her father gets sick and Rosy can't help but worry...until she finds a remarkable inhabitant in her dollhouse. Thistle is a garden fairy who has hurt her wing and decided to move in for a few days. Rosy is excited and delighted, even though Thistle doesn't quite fit her idea of a fairy. She prefers potato chips to rose petals, spills fairy dust everywhere, and is messy, noisy, and mischievous. But Rosy loves her anyways and Thistle's presence takes her mind off her father's illness and absence. When he returns, Thistle is gone, leaving only her messiness behind.

Verdict: Delicate, intricate illustrations give this story warmth and fascination. It's a lovely story for fans of fairies, dollhouses and miniatures, or for a child dealing with a parent's illness. Highly recommended.

ISBN: 9780763644116; Published May 2010 by Candlewick; Review copy provided by the publisher for Cybils

Oscar and the very hungry dragon by Ute Krause. A hungry dragon demands a princess...but no princess is available! So the dragon gets Oscar instead. Skinny Oscar is no fit meal for a dragon! He needs to be fattened! Oscar begins cooking marvelous meals and the dragon gets hungrier and hungrier...will Oscar trick the dragon out of his meal in the end? Or will the dragon get the better of Oscar?

This is a delightful take on the feeding-a-dragon-meals-to-wean-him-off-humans plot. It's the details that give this story it's charm - the dragon getting glasses, Oscar riding a donkey to his doom whilst wearing a baseball cap backwards. Krause's long-nosed people are the perfect mixture of silly and dramatic and the lengthier parts of the story are beautifully paced so younger children won't lose interest.

Verdict: Definitely add this to your dragon picture books! A new story time favorite!

ISBN: 9780735823068; Published September 2010 by NorthSouth; Review copy provided by the publisher for Cybils

Joha makes a wish, adapted by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Omar Rayyan. Another excellent retelling by Eric Kimmel. I didn't care for his change of the ending of Half-Chick, but I really enjoyed this story. Joha, on his way to Baghdad, finds a mysterious wishing stick. He tries out a few wishes but they backfire horribly. Things get worse and worse until a wise man solves Joha's problems with a simple observation. Of course, that's when the Sultan steals the wishing stick...
This is a fun folktale with a twist for older readers and listeners. An author's note at the beginning explains the story's origin - a combination of a Jewish folktale from Yemen and the Arab wise fool Hoja, or Hadji as I've seen it spelled. Children old enough to appreciate the understated humor of the story will enjoy this folktale. I haven't seen many middle eastern Jewish folktales and this was an interesting and well-told one.

Verdict: A good addition to your middle eastern folktales and a fun read aloud for older groups.

ISBN: 9780761455998; Published March 2010 by Marshall Cavendish; Review copy provided by the publisher for Cybils

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cybils Nominations: Picture books

Another collection of short Cybils nominee reviews!

Yasmin's Hammer by Ann Malaspina, illustrated by Doug Ghayka is a moving, fascinating story of the desire to learn and a young girl's determination to make a better life for herself and her family. Every morning Yasmin and her sister Mita go to work on their father's rickshaw. Every morning Yasmin asks if she can go to school. Every morning Abba says "soon". Yasmin and her family used to live on a small farm in rural Bangladesh, but they lost everything when cyclone hit. Now Mita and Yasmin crush bricks all day, Amma cleans fine houses, and Abba works with his rickshaw. Yasmin doesn't want to be a maid like Amma, she wants to learn to read and have the chance for something better. Yasmin decides she must have a plan. With extra hard work, she earns extra coins and with those coins she buys a book. Now the whole family works harder and longer until Yasmin and Mita can finally go to school and learn.

This is an inspiring story and the afterword, explaining the child labor situation and poverty in Bangladesh is interesting. The text is lengthy, but tells a strong story. The one problem I had with this was the sudden change in Yasmin's circumstances. One moment, her family is barely making enough money to survive. Then, all she has to do is work harder and she has a book. I don't know enough about this situation to know, but that seems too easy. Why didn't she work longer and harder at the beginning of the story? Why suddenly start earning more coins? It seems to imply that Yasmin and other children like her can lift themselves out of poverty if they just work hard enough - which is true, sometimes, but more often not. Still, it's a look at a world most children who read this story won't be familiar with and it is well told.

Verdict: There's a limited audience for this type of picture book in my opinion; it's more likely to find use in a school or in connection with fundraising for a related program. However, it's an interesting story and I think many libraries will want to have this book for children interested in seeing how other children live and maybe in making a difference.

ISBN: 9781600603594; Published May 2010 by Lee & Low; Review copy provided by the publisher

I loved Katie Cleminson's Magic Box (which I just bought for myself for my birthday) so I was delighted to see her latest book, Wake up! which isn't available in the US yet (and looks like it might be coming out in February, retitled Cuddle up goodnight?)

Anyways. Cleminson's lovely gray, black and red illustrations follow a delightful little boy on his daily routine, starting with waking up with an elephant! Dressing up, and off to school with a friendly bear teacher, an octopus music teacher, and many more animal surprises. A sweet and delightful book, perfect for toddlers.

I just have one quibble (have you guessed the theme of this review collection? Yep, it's the one quibble collection). I really wish Ms. Cleminson hadn't decided to deck out the little boy in an odd mixture of "cowboy" clothes - checked shirt and bandana - and a little feather headdress and bow and arrow set. These pop up several times throughout the story. I've noticed some odd depictions of Native Americans coming overseas from time to time and this one was fairly innocuous but still annoying. Maybe it's an American thing, but I find very few children play "cowboys and Indians" anymore, thankfully! I'm wondering if these illustrations will be changed for the possible American edition and I wouldn't object to that change.

Verdict: Not a book I can unreservedly recommend - it's not available over here for one thing, and apparently only in paperback. Also, I wouldn't want to deal with explaining the feathers-in-the-hair dressing up the little boy does. But it is a very sweet story and I do love Cleminson's illustrations....make up your own mind, ok?

ISBN: 9781862306288; Published in the UK by Red Fox; Review copy provided by publisher for Cybils

This is another UK import, and I absolutely love pictures in this one! The Day the Rains Fell by Anne Faundez, illustrated by Karin Littlewood is a folktale-flavored story with beautifully colored illustrations that remind me a bit of a softened Trina Schart Hyman style.

Lindiwe looks down from the heavens at the earth and decides to visit and see that all is well. With her daughter Thandi, they visit grasslands and polar regions, forests and mountains. They swim and run with the animals. All seems well until they come to a vast plain where there is a drought. Lindiwe knows just what it needs - rain! Then she creates pots to hold the water and Thandi makes beads from the clay scraps left over. Lindiwe puts her pots into the ground to hold the water so the animals will never be thirsty again - and in gratitude, they each donate some colors and patterns to Thandi's beads to create a beautiful necklace.

There are two end notes, one on how pots are created in Africa and the other on beads. My one quibble (yes, you knew there was going to be one) is the completely lack of information about the story's origins and nationalities. The end notes just say "People all over Africa" and "In many parts of Africa" when referring to the pots and beads. The plot has a folktale-ish feel, but there's no information as to whether the author completely made up the story or if it's based on a particular legend. Is there a female African creation deity named Lindiwe? Is this a creation story specific to a particular tribe or area in Africa? Or did the authors just make up an interesting story and set it in Africa? I thought most people had gotten over lumping the vast variety of cultures, countries, customs, and beliefs contained in Africa into one big "African culture" lump, but apparently not. I checked on the publisher's website and did a quick search for "Lindiwe" and the book title, but didn't find anything.

Verdict: I can't honestly recommend this because just calling something "multicultural" and putting in a mish-mash of "ethnic" traditions isn't something I want to support, but the story was well-written and the pictures were lovely, really really lovely.

ISBN: 9781848530157; Published in the UK by Tamarind; Review copy provided by publisher for Cybils

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Disappearing Desmond by Anna Alter; Henry in Love by Peter McCarty; Willow's Whispers by Lana Button, illustrated by Tania Howells

I'm looking at three books today, all dealing with young characters who are very shy in school. First, I'm looking at Disappearing Desmond.

Desmond if the ultimate camouflage expert. He disappears everywhere, outside and inside. It's a family trait - both his parents and his baby sibling are skilled at vanishing also. Desmond is especially good at hiding during school. Until a new student arrives one day. She's the complete opposite of Desmond and she loves to be noticed. Not only does she like to be in the spotlight, she sees Desmond - everywhere! He's met the first person he can't hide from. Gradually they become friends and then Desmond arrives at school feeling very different; "He couldn't remember why he ever wanted to disappear in the first place." His family also comes out of hiding and Desmond passes on the gift of his new friend by finding another student hiding and inviting him to join their game.

The art in this story is beautiful. If you want a detailed look, check out the author's blog posts on her artistic process.

I'm sort of torn on this story. On the one hand, the art is beautiful and it's a lovely story of friendship and kindness. On the other hand...personally, I get really angry at the consistent message in children's books that there's something wrong with being shy, quiet, and/or introverted. Desmond's skill at disappearing is applauded, but ultimately he becomes much happier when he conforms to the behavior of the children around him, especially extrovert Gloria, and becomes just like everyone else. Obviously, if you don't like to "join in" there is something wrong with you and you need to change. Being a loner and an observer is a negative trait. Being part of the group and a leader is a positive, as we see when Desmond not only changes, but starts pulling other children in. Ok, ok, maybe I'm taking this all too seriously/personally and I'm sure the author had no idea anybody was going to find this in her book! But to me that's a painful message to give any shy child - that there's something wrong with you (and in Desmond's case with his whole family) and you need a social extrovert to save you from your lonely and unhappy existence.

Verdict: The art is beautiful and most people are going to love this story. I was really unhappy with it for the reasons stated above, but frankly I'm really weird and most parents and children will love this story. And it is a nice friendship tale.

ISBN: 9780375866845; Published August 2010 by Knopf; Borrowed from the library

Our next shy student story is Willow's Whispers. Willow is so quiet nobody ever listens to her. She wishes she could speak up...but her words just don't come out loud enough! She'd like to join in with the other children and tell people what she thinks, but when they can't hear her whispers, they ignore her and think she's unfriendly. Willow decides to find a way to make her whispers louder, so everyone can hear her! With a little creativity and some rummaging in the recycling bin, she creates a "magic microphone". Now Willow can tell the other kids she does want to be friends, stand up to an aggressive little girl, get a turn in the line, and pick her own juice. But then her microphone gets crunched. Can Willow speak up on her own? Yes she can!
While this story is also dealing with a very shy child who's being overlooked, it's quite different from Desmond in several ways. First, Willow has specific reasons she wants to be able to speak up - she's getting overlooked and she wants to stand up for herself. She's not simply a quiet child who enjoys observing, her shyness is causing problems. Secondly, she solves her problem all by herself. Her dad is supportive, but Willow doesn't need an extrovert to bring her out of her shell - she just needs a little creativity and some practice in speaking up for herself.

Verdict: Recommended this is a practical and fun book for children who need to speak up for themselves without having to change their personalities to suit extrovert social standards. I enjoyed the minimalist illustrations and I would hand this book to any child who has this problem - and those who don't.

ISBN: 9781554532803; Published February 2010 by Kids Can Press; Review copy provided by publisher for Cybils

This third story is quite a bit different. Henry starts the day like any other day, although he gets a blueberry muffin for school, which is rather special. On the way to school, he and his brother and friend meet a football player. They stop to throw a ball around and the football player says he has a sister Henry's age - who's fast like him. Henry has a bit of a crush on this girl, named Chloe. With their friends egging them on, Henry and Chloe both show off on the playground and end up in a game of tag. Back in the classroom, their desks get rearranged and Henry and Chloe are next to each other. Henry gives Chloe his blueberry muffin.
Um...I can't remember why I put this story in with the other two, except that McCarty's illustrations always feel "quiet" to me, maybe because there's so much space behind the characters. This is a beautiful and simple story, with lovely illustrations. I like the way flowers bloom around Chloe when Henry looks at her. But I have to say the muffins are a bit for my taste. Anyways, I guess you could say this fits in because Henry and Chloe never say they like each other - but they know exactly how to show it.

Verdict: This is a sweet and beautifully illustrated story, but I don't feel a strong audience for it. This would probably be one for the quieter children to enjoy on their own in a corner.

ISBN: 9780061142888; Published December 2009 by Balzer + Bray; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Ruth is thrilled when her dad buys a car for his job. The car is for his job, but before he begins his new job, their family is going on a cross-country trip to visit Ruth's grandmother in Alabama. They leave Chicago and at first everything is exciting and fun. Mama has made picnics they eat at the side of the road and Ruth is thrilled to see the country pass by the car's windows. Then they stop to get gas and Mama asks to use the restroom. But the restrooms are for whites only. Mama and Ruth have to go into the woods. They can't stay in a a hotel, so Mama and Daddy take turns driving all night long. They can't eat at restaurants, so they eat the food Mama packed at the side of the road. Then they stop at a friend's house and he tells them to look for Esso stations, one of the few service stations where they can get gas. At the first place they stop, the friendly man gives them The Negro Motorist Green Book. It's a list of all the places they can sleep, eat, and shop. Their trip gets better, but it's still not all easy. When their car breaks down, no one will stop to help them and Daddy has to walk a long way into town to find a friendly mechanic. Finally, they arrive at Grandma's house, safe at home with family.

That was a really long summary, but I wanted to pack in the whole fascinating story! There are plenty of nonfiction books about the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans, many of them in picture book form. This, however, is the best one I've seen so far for early elementary students. Or for older children for that matter. It's easy to look with admiration at the people who struggled for equality, but I think a lot of kids - and adults - don't grasp exactly what Jim Crow meant. Segregation was much more than an abstract concept; it was a very real presence that made life dangerous and normal, everyday things we take for granted now difficult or impossible.

This book drives home the impact of segregation and the way it limited the lives of African-Americans, keeping them trapped in certain areas, cutting them off from better jobs, and creating an atmosphere of fear and humiliation. It's also an excellent explanation of the way many people fought segregation in small ways and worked together to create better lives for themselves and other African-Americans.

Verdict: Recommended for every library. I would strongly recommend this book be read aloud to any classes studying the history of civil rights and segregation.

ISBN: 9780761352556; Published August 2010 by Carolrhoda Books; Review copy provided by publisher for Cybils

Monday, December 27, 2010

April and Esme Tooth Fairies by Bob Graham

How does Bob Graham do it? Again and again he brings off stories and art that should be simperingly sentimental...and yet it isn't. What is cuter and more twee than tooth fairies? But Bob Graham's tooth fairies are adorable and sweeter than chocolate truffles while still being determined, tough, relatable, completely real characters.

April and Esme are ready to collect their first tooth. Their parents aren't so sure, but April is seven and three quarters after all and it's time for them to take their first flight. They navigate the city and it's lights, the breezy wind and messy toys only to find the precious tooth in water! Even when the little boy wakes up they manage to avert disaster and successfully take their first tooth!
This book reminds me of Mary Norton's classic Borrowers stories. There's the same exquisite combination of the miniature and the real, the cute and the tough. Like the Borrowers, the tooth fairies' house is full of repurposed items. There's plenty of danger out in the world for tiny beings, but there's adventure and excitement and family as well. Graham adds into the mix his own trademark contemporary family - April's dad complete with pony tail and wings, her mother with tattoos and flowers in her bathing in a teacup. There's gentle humor and a real sense of the excitement and importance of growing up.

Verdict: Perfect. Absolutely perfect at every point.

ISBN: 9780763646837; Published September 2010 by Candlewick; Review copy provided by publisher for Cybils

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Three Little Pigs by Steven Guarnaccia

When I first heard about this book, I was not enthusiastic. Suuuure, we need a version of the three little pigs as an "architectural tale." Then I got a good look at it and fell in love. This is the best retelling of the three little pigs I've seen for quite a long time.

There's a point when you get tired of all the fancy retellings - of course we love Sciesczka's remaginings and Marshall's kooky illustrations, but to really appreciate a fractured fairy tale you have to know where it came from, right? Plus, I think we're so caught up in the retellings and rewritings we lose sight of the basic strength of the story that has made folktales survive for so long.

Guarnaccia, while keeping a unique viewpoint of the story with a fun twist, has given us a strong, simple retelling - back to the basics! The three pigs, stylishly dressed in suits, set off into the world from their mother's house. They construct their houses of metal scraps, glass, and finally concrete and stone. The big bad wolf, suitably attired in black leather, blows down the first two houses but can't make a dent in the third. So he tries to lure out the third little pig with a viewing of a tomato greenhouse and an orchard of tasty apples - but this little pig gets up way too early for the wolf! Finally, the wolf tricks the little pig into meeting him at Frank's Flea Market...but the pig escapes yet again, rolling down the hill in a rug. The wolf tries to climb down the chimney, gets his tail scorched in the fireplace, and runs away, never to return.

Architectural fans of course will get a big kick out of identifying the various buildings and furniture on the end pages in the illustrations. But for kids, this is one fun story. It has all the classic elements of the original folktale, with plenty of modern pizzaz and flourish.

Verdict: Recommended for the story and the clean, excellent art. Read this one aloud to preschool and up so they'll be able to appreciate Sciesczka's fractured retelling when they're older!

ISBN: 9780810989412; Published March 2010 by Abrams; Review copy provided by publisher for Cybils; Purchased for the library

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Carmen learns English by Judy Cox, illustrated by Angela Dominguez

Carmen tells her little sister, Lupita, all about starting school. On her first day, Carmen was scared and confused. She was the only one who spoke Spanish and she didn't understand the other children. But then her teacher talks to her - in Spanish! Terrible Spanish! Carmen is reassured - if Senora Coski isn't scared to make mistakes, she can try too. Carmen learns new words every day, important words like "restroom" and fun words like "yellow". Carmen is still too shy to talk in school, but she practices at home and teaches Lupita everything she learns. Then, they start to learn numbers. Carmen is excited - here is something SHE knows and she says the names out loud. But the other kids say she's saying them wrong. Carmen wants to explain but she doesn't have the English words. Then her teacher makes everything right by having Carmen teach the other children the Spanish words. Now Carmen is a teacher - she teaches the other children Spanish and she teaches her new English words to her little sister. By the end of the school year, Carmen is confident enough to practice her English in school and stand up to the kids who tease her. Lupita will have an easier time in school next year because of all the things Carmen has taught her and Carmen thinks maybe she'll be a teacher when she grows up - just like kind Mrs. Koski.

This story is ideal for reading aloud in a kindergarten or first grade classroom. It's an excellent picture of how frightening and confusing it is for a child to start school when they don't speak the language and incorporates many practical ideas for teachers to ease the way and for ESL students to practice what they have learned and gain confidence. Hopefully, this will also gently encourage other children to have a little sympathy and patience and not tease kids who are struggling with English. I would like to see this book in Spanish or bi-lingual so it could be used in ESL classrooms and so Spanish-speaking parents could read it to and with their children. However, even in English an older sibling could read it out loud to parents and younger siblings.

Verdict: Recommended - you are certain to have at least some Hispanic children among your patrons, even if it's only a small book, and this is a sympathetic and interesting story for both English and Spanish speaking children as well as a good story for teachers to read.

ISBN: 9780823421749; Published July 2010 by Holiday House; Review copy provided by publisher for Cybils

Friday, December 24, 2010

Cybils Nominations: A collection of reviews

Just a brief reminder that my reviews of Cybils-nominated titles do not reflect the views of the other judges, our committee as a whole, what's going to be on the shortlist, etc. etc.

Another collection of short reviews here...

The Perfect Gift by J. Samia Mair. Sarah is upset because she doesn't have an Eid gift for her mother. She goes on a walk in the woods and finds a beautiful flower. Instead of picking it, she puts a little fence around it and shows it to her family as a gift from Allah. Her family enjoys the beauty of the woods as Allah's gift every year. Like the previous Eid book I looked at....a while ago, this is one for families that are already celebrating this holiday, i.e. practicing Muslims. There's a brief glossary in the back of some Arab words, but if you aren't familiar with this holiday or the Muslim calendar the book is confusing. Recommended if you have a Muslim presence in your community. Borrowed from the library.
Good Night, Little Sea Otter by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Wish Williams. It's time for bed, but Little Sea Otter has to say good night first - to the sea lions, the seagulls, the fish, the clams...then of course he can't forget Mama and all the beautiful stars in the sky...Children will giggle over Little Sea Otter's stalling techniques and ooh and ahh over Williams' colorful and cute illustrations of undersea life. A sweet and funny bedtime story that parents and children will enjoy together. Review copy provided by the author, published by Star Bright Books.
Little Chimp's Big Day by Lisa Schroeder, illustrated by Lisa McCue. Little Chimp is worried - where is Mother? His branch breaks and he goes on a wild adventure through the jungle searching for mother. Finally, they find each other again and curl up for the night. Of course, Mother was safely watching him the whole time, through all his adventures. This is a fun story for toddlers - brisk, bouncy rhyme, lots of action and animals to point out, and the mother chimp to find in each picture. Review copy received from Sterling.
The Glasshouse by Paul Collins, illustrated by Jo Thompson. This was a really...strange book. Clara lives alone in a glasshouse, growing amazing and perfect pumpkins. People come to her and she never leaves her glasshouse, because everything she needs is inside. But one day, a boy peeks in then leaves and she looks out to see where he's going. She's shocked to see broken glasshouses all around and retreats to the safety of her own glasshouse. Clara becomes ever more obsessive, checking for cracks, refusing to allow people in, spending time chasing imaginary bugs and intruders instead of caring for her pumpkins, which become diseased and misshapen. Finally, Clara realizes her pumpkins are ugly and she is lonely. She breaks her glasshouse and goes to the market for the first time. The story has an obvious message, but it's just...weird. The pictures have odd angles and the faces are distorted. I'm not sure who you would give this book to - agoraphobics? Review copy received from Ford St. Publishing, Australia.
Because you are with me by Kylie Dunstan. Another offering from Australia, but this one I really liked. A little girl talks about all the things she can do and be because of her dad's love and support. The text is simple but the real attraction here are the illustrations. Handmade paper collages give a beautifully textured and fuzzy feeling to the warmth and love between father and daughter in the text. There are funny and sad moments, but dad is always there, helping his little girl. A perfect gift for Father's Day or read aloud for bedtime. Review copy provided by Lothian Children's Books
Do you have a cat? by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Geraldo Valerio. A list of famous people throughout history and their cats. A combination of history and adulation of cats. I didn't care for the illustrations, I thought they were awkward and the faces all looked the same. There are quite a few cat picture books out there and the historical personage gimmick doesn't work well enough to set this one apart. Review copy provided by Eerdmans.
Water, Weed, and Wait by Edith Hope Fine and Angela Demos Halpin, illustrated by Colleen Madden. A classroom full of kids grow a school garden with the help of Miss Marigold. At first, they're not sure anything will grow - the ground is hard, the weeds prolific. But their grumpy neighbor has a marvelous garden and they have everything they need - "plans, plants, and people" - to follow Miss Marigold's instructions, "water, weed, and wait." With lots of hard work and help, even from grumpy Mr. Barkley, their garden is a beautiful success! There's information in the back about starting a school garden and some photos of a real Master Gardener and her school gardens. I would have liked a little more information about this lady - she was apparently the inspiration for the book. A fun book for schools or libraries interested in starting a communal garden for kids. Review copy provided by Tricycle Press.
Beach Tail by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Gregory is on the beach. He draws a lion and dad says not to go in the water or leave Sandy Lion. Gregory doesn't...although Sandy's tail gets longer and longer until Gregory realizes he's lost. No need to worry though, he just follows Sandy's tail back to dad and safety. This simple, lovely story is perfectly pitched for toddlers and preschoolers who will completely understand Gregory's experience of getting absorbed and suddenly missing mom or dad. I loved seeing an African-American child portrayed in a non-urban setting, especially with a father. I didn't personally care for the illustrations - I like to see more colors - but I do think the shades of brown are perfect for the sandy story and the beach. This one will be a favorite for many families and children in story time. Recommended. Review copy received from Boyds Mills Press.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Brontorina by James Howe, illustrated by Randy Cecil; Dogs don't do ballet by Anna Kemp, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

Brontorina dreams of dancing - but she's a dinosaur and she doesn't have the right shoes. With the ballet students' encouragement, Madame Lucille takes her as a pupil anyways, but it's a disaster! Although she's dedicated and graceful, she's just too big and Madame Lucille asks her to leave. Then a student's mother brings a pair of shoes that's just right for Brontorina and the whole studio decides to find a place big enough for Brontorina to dance. Finally, they set up an outdoor studio for "girls and boys and dinosaurs", incidentally providing Brontorina with a male dancer big enough to lift her.

This is a cute and funny story about following your dreams and making sure everyone's included. It's a bit silly for my tastes and I found the weird placement of eyes on the people odd - I think they're supposed to be looking sideways, but they just look like they have 3 eyes. Still, dinosaur and ballet lovers will enjoy this sweet story.

Verdict: Recommended, this will be a good storytime read to satisfy both your dinosaur lovers and ballet lovers - as well as parents who want a story with a "message".

ISBN: 9780763644376; Published August 2010 by Candlewick; Review copy provided by publisher for Cybils

This second title is another story of an unconventional dancer, but this one's just plain fun!

A plump and solemn little girl explains about her unusual dog, "My dog is not like other dogs....My dog thinks he's a ballet dancer!" As the little girl goes to ballet and then to a special performance by the Royal Ballet, her dog Biff sneaks along, but everyone says the same thing, "Dogs don't do ballet!" and out he goes. When there's a sudden emergency, guess who pops up on stage and wows the crowd?

I love the colorful illustrations and the sneaky little dog. The whole story is simply incredibly funny - something about the placid faces of the people and Biff's expressionless doggy face combined with the wild antics make me giggle the whole way through.

Verdict: Perfect for story time and endless giggling!

ISBN: 9781416998396; Published June 2010 by Simon and Schuster; Review copy provided by publisher for Cybils

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Kindergarten Diary by Antoinette Portis

Antoinette Portis is a genius. Even though we all know this, I feel it must be remarked upon. First, you have the stunning classic Not a Box. Then the remarkable sequel, Not a Stick. Then, in a complete departure, the artistic magic of A Penguin Story.

And she's done it again. A completely new style and medium (I am just saying what it looks like to me, not an art critic here folks!) a completely new plot and storyline. "Not another first day at school book" you groan. Ah, but this one is different, for the following reasons.

It's written and drawn on handwriting practice paper - you know the kind with the dotted lines? So cool. It's a fascinated collage of textures and art. It's written in diary format. It covers the first month of kindergarten. It's completely, completely from a child's perspective. Annalina is scared of silly things - like her teacher being a monster - and real things, like the bigger kids being bullies. Some of the thing's she's scared about don't happen. Some of them do. This is REAL first time at school folks, not the sappy sweetness that drips out of most new school books.

Annalina enjoys some things about school and she hates other things. She likes her teacher most of the time, but Ms. Duffy isn't an angel from heaven with unending patience, surrounded by adoring children. Annalina makes growing up decisions, like shortening her name to Anna. She makes not-so-grown up decisions when she cuts her hair. She gets teased by the first graders. She makes friends. Some friends don't last very long!

Verdict: This book is REAL. Funny, contemporary, exuberant, scary, it encompasses all the first school experiences in a way that's both reassuring and honest. Every kindergartener should read this book before the big day! Don't forget to show it to preschoolers who want to know what kindergarten will be like, and to your 1st and 2nd graders to remind them how they felt when they were starting school!

ISBN: 9780061456916; Published June 2010 by HarperCollins; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Thingamabob by Il Sung Na

There seems to be an unlimited number of books with animals discovering an article of human apparel - mittens and underwear seem to be the favorites - and then coming up with humorous uses for it. Just when I thought there couldn't possibly be another book on this subject, along comes this scintillating gem!

A plump and delightful white elephant finds...a thingamabob. It's unexpected, surprising, and mysterious. His friends don't understand it, so he decides to experiment! Can it fly? Float? Hide him? Then, suddenly, he discovers exactly what this strange thingamabob is stay dry!

The simple text points to the humor in each picture, adding a tongue-in-cheek accompaniment to the deliciously textured pictures that will have children rocking with laughter. I think my favorite part is the umbrellas on the endpapers. I want every one of them. So...umbrellaish!

Verdict: Recommended. Toddlers through teenagers will giggle, snicker, and howl at this slyly silly story.

ISBN: 9780375861062; Published March 2010 by Knopf; Borrowed from the library.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Soup Day by Melissa Iwai

Maybe I should have posted this one yesterday because I love, love, love it. And I don't even like soup. I mean, I've tried to like soup, and I love the idea of soup, but somehow it never works for me. Anyways.

I want to hug this book. It is so warm and comfy, but sturdy too. It is not precisely a board book, but its pages are sturdier and stiffer than normal picturebooks, kind of a thin cardboard. The simple text is bold and marches strongly across the collaged and colorful illustrations.

On a snowy day, it is soup day. Counting up to six, a little girl and her mother pick out vegetables. Coming home, the vegetables get cut into different shapes. The vegetables cook in the pot and the little girl and her mother play together. Then it's time to add noodles and spices, clean up toys, and Daddy's home and it's soup time!

A recipe for soup is included in the back of the book. There are several reasons I like this story, apart from the endearing text and illustrations. First, I'm pleased to see the depiction of an Asian girl with Caucasian parents. Even in our fairly small, homogeneous community there are quite a few adopted Chinese girls and I have not found many stories that portray these children naturally, without making a huge issue of their adoption. Second, I really like the inclusion of concepts. This is a perfect toddler book and concepts are always good in books for little ones. They like to pause and count and identify. Third...I just really like all the elements together in this book.

Verdict: It's like really good soup - lots of different parts making one yummy whole!

ISBN: 9780805090048; Published September 2010 by Henry Holt; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

Incidentally, it is my birthday. No, I am not writing reviews on my birthday. I am a great review scheduler. At this exact moment, I am probably asleep. Or at the zoo looking at tigers and the octopus.


Like many of Patricia Polacco's stories, this deeply emotional and intense story is drawn from her own experiences as a child. In the story, a girl named Trisha decides to stay with her father and grandmother instead of returning to her mother in California. She wants this because she hopes to be in a "normal" class at school and finally have friends. Unfortunately, she immediately finds herself in "the junkyard" and completely deserted by her summer friends. In this class are all the kids who don't fit in; they have learning disabilities, physical illnesses, and other problems. Scorned and bullied by the other students and ignored by the rest of the school, Trisha and her classmates nevertheless blossom under the determined love and care of Mrs. Peterson. They become friends and start having hope that they are, as Mrs. Peterson claims, geniuses. They even visit and junkyard and get a wonderful idea; to reclaim a broken model airplane and make it "bigger and better." But then things go wrong. Jody, the boy who protected them from bullies, dies. One of the bullies tells the principal about their plans to fly the reconstructed plane in Jody's honor and the flight is cancelled. But Mrs. Peterson always has a plan...

In the author's note at the end of the story, Patricia Polacco tells us how her friends in the "junkyard" became amazing, successful people - Junkyard Wonders.

The length and plot of this story are not going to appeal to younger children. The youngest age I would hand this to would be a mature 1st grader. This story is best suited for older elementary ages up through middle school, as well as for teachers. Although some people are going to want to try to use this as a deterrent for would-be bullies, I don't think it will make much difference there. Children who lack empathy and compassion are rarely changed by a story, not matter how much emotional punch it packs. They simply won't draw a connection between the "weird kid" they tease in the hallways and Trisha and her friends. This story is for the kids who think they don't matter. For the ones who are told they're useless and damaged. For the kids who get left out and overlooked. It gives them hope that they do have potential, that they can overcome difficulties and realize their dreams. That they too can become Junkyard Wonders.

Verdict: Recommended, if you happen to have a juvenile picturebook section, this would be a good place to put this book.
ISBN: 9780399250781; Published July 2010 by Philomel; Borrowed from the library.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

You are the best medicine by Julie Aigner Clark, illustrated by Jana Christy

A mother diagnosed with cancer reassures her little girl that she can endure all the bad things by thinking of the good things they have together and how much they love each other.

I'm always a bit ambivalent about "sick parent" or similarly themed books for several reasons. This particular book is probably the best of the ones I've seen. It deals with various aspects of cancer and chemotherapy - losing hair, being tired, feeling sick - in a gentle and reassuring way by having the mother remember all the good things about her daughter and the fun they've had together that she loves. It's hopeful and comforting, finishing with the message that "love and kindness really are the best medicine." The soft pastel illustrations fit the hopeful, gentle theme of the book.

What bothers me about this type of story, is how focused it is on reassuring the child that their parent will, of course, eventually recover. This story seems to say that the mother's memories, hope for the future, and mutual love between her and her daughter will triumph over her illness. Now, I'm going to assume this book is referring to breast cancer, on the rather flimsy basis that there's a strong pink theme, plus it's the most common cancer for women. Now, just grabbing some random percentages off the internet - 20% of women with breast cancer die (random stats! do not call me on them please!) the point is - sometimes your parents do not get well. Sometimes all the love and kindness you have to offer isn't enough.

So where does that leave the child whose mother has died? Wondering if they just didn't love mommy enough? If she didn't have enough happy memories to help her through?

Of course, on the other hand, how on earth do you convey the possibility of death in a picturebook to a young child? Do you really want them to be aware of their mortality at that age, even if they're capable of grasping it? I guess somehow I want something a little less definitely "you will get well" and more focused on the warm memories and togetherness of the earlier parts of the story.

Verdict: While I have reservations, this is still probably one of the best dealing with cancer in a parent books I've seen up until now, so I would recommend it for your tough topics or parenting collections.

ISBN: 9780061956447; Published September 2010 by Balzer + Bray; Borrowed from the library

Friday, December 17, 2010

Hot Rod Hamster by Cynthia Lord, illustrated by Derek Anderson

This story has no deeply moving plot, no depth of character, no exquisitely artistic illustrations.
It's one of my absolute favorites this year.
It's pure, glorious, delightful, uninhibited, FUN!!
An exuberant, excited hamster is building a car for the big race. "Great day, grin day, build a car to win day,/Cheer day, chase day, gonna have a race day!" With the help of an eager friendly bulldog and the audience, he chooses his car, wheels, engine parts, paint, and one last important detail - a helmet! Then he's off to the races...but oh no! His marvelous racing car is practically invisible among the big dogs! But this little hamster isn't daunted; he's ready for anything! It's a wild race, but Hot Rod Hamster wins!

Verdict: This is the kind of book that definitely deserves the word "rollicking." It's just so much fun! Fun to read, fun to look at, fun to listen to! Perfect for storytimes with toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners. Perfect for quiet perusing and giggling. Perfect for displays about cars and hamsters. All-around pitch perfect in every point.

ISBN: 9780545035309; Published February 2010 by Scholastic; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How Rocket learned to read by Tad Hills

Rocket, an endearing little white dog with black spots, loves to chase sticks and listen to the birds, smell his favorite smells and nap under his favorite tree. But one day...a little yellow bird appears and delightedly tells the confused Rocket that he is her student. Rocket is reluctant to listen to this strange bird, and tries taking his nap under a bush instead. But it's hard to sleep when she starts reading a fascinating story about a dog...and soon Rocket finds himself learning the alphabet and then sounding out words. Just when Rocket is getting the hang of it, the little bird leaves and it is winter - but he doesn't forget his lessons and spends the winter practicising his alphabet and spelling out new words. When the little bird returns, they read together in the warm summer sun.
This story has so many different things to enjoy. The reluctant Rocket and chirpy little bird, gorgeous artwork in the changing seasons, and the many, many words just waiting to be spelled out. It's a celebration of reading and learning, but also an appreciation of the beauty and excitement that's everywhere, just waiting to be explored.

Verdict: Recommended for preschool through 1st grade.

ISBN: 9780375858994; Published July 2010 by Schwartz and Wade; Borrowed from the library

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Eeeek, Mouse! by Lydia Monks

When a mouse shows up at breakfast one day, everyone in the family screams "Eeeek, Mouse!" except Minnie. She likes mice - why not? Daddy decides to build a cunning trap, assuring Minnie that the mouse won't be harmed, but Minnie isn't so sure so she comes up with a cunning plan of her own...and soon she has a whole family of mice in her little mouse house! But someone else has a cunning plan of their own - the cat! Can Minnie save her mice?
There's something inherently funny about mice traps, and this story is delightfully familiar and yet new at the same time. The child saving the mice from her parent's trap and the cunning cat has been done before, but Lydia Monks breathes new life into this story with her hilarious depictions of mad inventor Daddy, the cat's violent daydreams, and Minnie's ingenious solutions. "Mouseholes" cut into different pages pull the reader's eyes into the next segment of the story and there are funny asides and details from all the different characters.

Verdict: Recommended - a sweet and funny read with something for everyone to enjoy.

ISBN: 9781606841228; Published May 2010 by Egmont; Borrowed from the library

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Feeding the Sheep by Leda Schubert, illustrated by Andrea U'Ren

In simple, rhythmic prose, a little girl learns from her mother the cycle from sheep to wool to sweater. Each picture shows a different part of the process, starting with feeding the sheep and ending with knitting a sweater, including sheering, carding, dyeing, and more along the way.

This is an educational story to read to young children who will be fascinated to see the process that leads up to the finished process. It's also a sweet and warm story showing a mother's love for her daughter and the passing of the seasons on a farm. The simple rhymed refrain at the end of each section of text is perfect for making this a gentle bedtime story.

U'Ren's art is simple and clear enough so that children can understand the various processes, but also includes fun pictures of the little girl playing with the wool and her dog and snuggling up to her mother.

Verdict: Recommended. I haven't seen any other sheep stories, especially not any that manage to be both informative and entertaining.

ISBN: 9780374322960; Published March 2010 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Borrowed from the library.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Clever Jack takes the cake by Candace Fleming

Jack is poor but clever and when he gets an invitation to the princess's birthday party, he's determined to go, even though he doesn't have a present or the money to buy one. Instead, with lots of hard work, sacrifice, and a little cleverness, he bakes her the most wonderful cake.
Then he sets out for the party...but on the way, his cake disappears one piece at a time. When he finally arrives, he has nothing but a story to tell, which turns out to be exactly what the princess wants.
From an adult point of view, one wonders why a poverty-stricken peasant boy finds it necessary to give a present to the princess who is receiving gold, jewels, and tiaras. The invitation doesn't say anything about a present, but Jack's mother is quite sure he needs one - which turns out to be true, when the princess's first words are "and what have you brought me?" plus, if all the children in the kingdom are invited, they can't all be bringing gold and jewels - what are the other poor children bringing. But, of course, that's the adult point of view.
Children are unlikely to see the socioeconomic implications of the story. Yes, I spent too much time in college analyzing fairy tales, obviously. This completely original story has the cadence and elements that make folk tales so alluring to children. The rhythmic language, the building up of events to various conclusions, and the satisfying ending of the plot.

Karas' simple illustrations focus on Jack's feelings as he experiences a series of disasters, the princess's bored face, and the various creatures Jack encounters rather than the background, focusing the story on the different characters.
Verdict: This is a longer picture book, but because of the plot it will work fine even with very young children. Recommended.

ISBN: 9780375849794; Published August 2010 by Schwartz & Wade; Borrowed from the library.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fall 2010 Library Programs Recap

Whew! We have had quite an exciting fall - and that's not even counting visits from the police, blood (mainly from assorted fingers), knee surgeries (thankfully not mine), and new staff.

My biggest success this fall was the implementation of after school programs. I tried a few of these last winter/spring and averaged about 2 kids attending. But I changed the format and programming and this fall they took off!

Lego Building Club: I started this with the laudable intention of having a theme and books for the kids to check out. I opened the door the first day and 30+ kids nearly knocked me over. We've met about 5 times and have abandoned any ideas of themes, moved into the Community Room, and are averaging 40-50 attendees, mainly boys age 6-10, but there's a faithful contingent of about 10 little girls (having some pink legos donated helped) and a ragtag group of middle schoolers who help me set up and clean up and occasionally hang around to build stuff.

Sewing Club: This was successful, but it didn't work. The idea was for kids to come every other week for an hour, pick out a sewing project, and work on it each time they came until they finished. We had an average of about 15 kids attend each program. They had great ideas of what they wanted to make, were very enthusiastic, and parents loved the idea...but it was quickly apparent that the average sewing ability was in the negative numbers. None of the kids could thread a needle and the group was too large for me to teach the basic sewing skills they needed, especially for the kids who needed one-on-one help. Knitting or crocheting was waaaay beyond their abilities as well, although I was able to teach a couple older kids how to hand-knit. We did make a lot of stuffed animals and little pillows out of flannel, but I never want to thread another needle in my life! I'll do more sewing projects in the future, but they'll be one-time things, part of the Make it and Take it program (I also bought a second copy of Jane Bull's Made by Me - if you ever do sewing programs of any kind, get this book!) I plan to try sewing club again some time in the future, but I will make it an actual class and start out by teaching the kids how to thread a needle and do basic stitching, then we'll all work on the same project at once.

Make it and Take it: This is basically the same program I did last spring, but for some reason people are coming now! The average age is 6 - 9, although sometimes the middle schoolers will drop in and make things...exciting. We did a lot of different crafts...

  • Artist Trading Cards - the kids didn't get the point of this at all, but they really liked playing with paint.
  • Locker magnets and pencil holders - I cancelled the pencil holder part, which involved paint, and we just used massive amounts of glue. It took a little time to explain exactly what this craft was and how it worked, but once they figured it out they really liked it.
  • Beading - always a popular one. It quickly changed into "braiding pipe cleaners" since several girls had just learned and wanted to show off their skills...
  • Chester stories
  • Button men - this required some explanation, but was popular once they figured it out.
  • Scarecrows - one of our library staff lives on a farm and donates corn stalks. I forget every year how horrifically messy this is! The kids like it, but some of them get frustrated on how to attach the things together. I think next year we'll paint small pumpkins instead.
  • Masks - always a popular craft for all ages
  • Alien crafts - we made goo, which is easy to make but kinda messy, and then the kids played around with foil and pipe cleaners while they were waiting their turn. Make sure you take an apron and are prepared for messiness if you do this.
  • Cards/suncatchers - this is an easy and popular craft I've done many times. The kids cut a die cut shape out of the paper, then use tissue paper to make a sort of iris folding thing. It also works as a suncatcher. This time, we had a boy mysteriously cut his finger on the die cut machine (seriously, how exactly does that happen? We even had him show us what he did and I still don't know how it happened!). So, next time we do this I'll have to have an extra assistant to man the die cut machine - if it's happened once, it will happen again.
  • Treasure boxes - I collected a bunch of shoeboxes and had the kids decorate them. They decided they really wanted to cover them with cloth, so that's what we ended up doing. We used a lot of staples and tape!
  • Gingerbread houses - in a moment of what I can only think of as complete lunacy, I decided to bake all the houses. From scratch. That's 16 houses, 6 pieces each...64 pieces of gingerbread, plus 3 extra pieces in case of breakage. Not to mention the 15 cups of royal icing, including the breaking and separating of 14 eggs. It was messy and the kids were frustrated by how hard it turned out to be to put the houses together, but once they solidified, all was well! I wimped out on making another 20 cups of icing and bought regular icing from our locally-owned grocery store, Frank's Market, who are always super great about helping out the library! Next year we'll use graham crackers though.
Teen Book Club - we had two meetings and I had 7 kids at the first and 4 at the second. All different, except for one boy. It turned out to be a middle school book club, so in the winter/spring we'll be renaming it Reading in the Middle and meeting the first Tuesday of each month. The genre of choice seems to be adventure fantasy. We read Skulduggery Pleasant and Kiki Strike.
We had a few other programs, Storywalk (wasn't successful and will probably be combined with the craft fair next year) baby and toddler birthday parties (low attendance) and holiday crafts (next year this will be the gingerbread workshop, I think) but these were the highlights!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Goal! by Mina Javaherbin, illustrated by A. G. Ford

Six ragged boys play soccer in the hard dirt street of their South African home. They have a real soccer ball, won by Ajani for being the best reader. But Ajani is worried - if the bullies find out, they will steal the ball. How can the friends keep their ball and their game?

This is a stunning book. Beautifully understated text, gorgeous pictures, celebrating friendship, resilience, and the universal love of soccer (or football, depending on where you're from).

The poverty of Ajani and his friends isn't emphasized; they're presented in a way that a child in similar or very different circumstances can empathize with. Every child has to make compromises when they play with friends, every child has to deal with bullies, every child has a friend who makes mistakes and has to be forgiven. Children in very different circumstances in the US will be able to compare themselves to Ajani and his friends and understand where they're coming from while still getting a glimpse into a different world.

Verdict: Recommended, especially for older children in grades 1 - 4.

ISBN: 9780763645717; Published April 2010 by Candlewick; Review copy provided by another Cybils panelist

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rufus the Numbat by David Miller

Australian marsupials are inherently funny. They just ARE. When I took Nic Bishop's Marsupials on my school visits, all I had to do was list the names and the kids went nuts. They especially loved the betong. I mean, you just have to say that out loud, don't you? BeTONG!
Anyways, my new life's ambition is to find a zoo somewhere which harbors a numbat and see a real, live one. This story was adorable!
Rufus the Numbat trots through an ever-increasing scene of chaos. He likes peace and quiet...but that's not what he leaves behind! The illustrations are fascinating, cut paper and paper sculptures. If you look closely at the cover image you can see that Rufus' "fur" is actually sort of shredded paper. I think the pictures will work best in a group situation, where the kids can sit back and see the whole picture. The text is simple but adds humor just at the right moments. Accompanying the line "Rufus doesn't like cream cakes" is a background of a paint-bedabbled painter and his ladder collapsing on top of a tea table and it's occupants, while paint brushes and cream cakes fly through the air. Rufus, of course, just keeps walking.

Verdict: You might need to explain to the kids what a numbat is - refer to Nic Bishop's excellent Marsupials for further information - but even if they can't identify the animal, this funny and beautifully illustrated story speaks for itself.

ISBN: 9781876462963; Published 2010 in Australia by Ford St.; Review copy provided by publisher for Cybils

Look! Cute trailer!