Saturday, June 24, 2017

Saturday Roundup: Animal Tales

I haven't done a Saturday Roundup in a long time and I thought I'd wrapping up the end of the school year (at least here in NYC) with some of the books we read and talked about during the last semester. These are our favorite animal stories and we hope you enjoy them, too.

Mine! written and illustrated by Jeff Mack
Chronicle Books, 2017, 40 pages, age 3+
When a turf war begins between two mice, things quickly escalate. When blue mouse stands atop a large rock and declares “Mine” and even plants his flag on it, orange mouse immediately wants it, too.  Tempting blue mouse away with a chunk of cheese, orange mouse is king of the rock for only as long as it takes blue mouse to get the rock back. With each victory over the other, the mice declare “Mine” but are they in for a big surprise about ownership. “Mine” is the only word used in the whole book, but Mack’s brightly colored, humorous illustrations are long on body language and facial expression even if short on words. A great book for teaching young kids, be they siblings, cousins, friends, and/or schoolmates all about sharing, this is sure to generate some good conversations and wonderful imaginings.
Big Cat, Little Cat written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper
Roaring Book Press, 2017, 40 pages, age 4+
A big white cat lives alone until one day a little black cat comes to live in the same house. Big cat shows little cat everything a house cat needs to know. As time goes by, little cat grows up and becomes bigger cat, but the two feline friends continue to do things together every day. As years go by, the cats are inseparable, until one day, big cat, now much older, had to go and didn’t return. Bigger cat, along with the whole family, felt very sad - it’s hard losing a best friend. But one day, a new little cat comes to stay and it all begins again. This is such a quiet, gentle, poignant story about friendship and the cycle of life. The story is narrated using a minimal amount of words, and with very simple illustrations with thick black inky line drawings set against softly colored backgrounds. I found myself truly moved by this tale, remembering more than a few kitties I’ve loved and lost. A nice book for teaching children that life goes on and should be enjoyed, even after the loss of a loved one.
Adrift: An Odd Couple of Polar Bears written and illustrated by Jessica Olien
Balzer & Bray, 2017, 40 pages, 4+
Polar bears Karl and Hazel couldn’t be more different. Karl thinks Hazel is mean because she’s quiet and likes to read. Hazel thinks Karl is too loud and smells like old fish. So the two bears like to stay far away from each other. But one night, a big piece of ice breaks away and it just so happen, Karl and Hazel are both sleeping on it. What a surprise they have when they wake up in the morning. As the ice floe melts, getting smaller and smaller, Karl and Hazel can’t avoid each other any more. Can they find a way to be friends and appreciate their differences? This is a nice book for showing young readers that sometimes opposites do attract and can become friends, it just takes getting to know each other. But wait, there’s more: in the Author’s Note, Olien talks about climate change and how the North Pole is melting and shrinking just like Karl and Hazel’s ice floe and some of the reasons why this is happening. There is also suggestions for ways to save polar bears and their Arctic home, and also for learning more about polar bears. Olien’s illustrations are pleasing and whimsical, but her message is serious and important.
Pug Meets Pig by Sue Lowell Gallion, illustrated by Joyce Wan
Beach Lane Books, 2016, 40 pages, age 4+
Pug is a pretty happy puppy. He has a good home, lots to eats, and places to play outside. Life is good for Pug, until…Pig arrives. Suddenly Pig is taking over, eating Pug’s food, sleeping in Pug’s doghouse, playing in Pug’s yard. Pug is ready to pack up and leave, but wait, there’s a doggy door in the big door, perfect for getting away from Pig. But when Pig tries to squeeze through the doggy door, he gets stuck. Now Pug has a big decision to make - help Pig through or not? It it possible that this unlikely pair could possibly become friends? Themes of acceptance and sharing are nicely done, and easy for younger readers to grasp. Joyce Wan’s roly-poly pug and pig are delightfully sweet and similar despite their differences. My young readers loved this book, insisting we read it over and over.
A Perfect Day written and illustrated by Lane Smith
Roaring Brook Press, 2017, 32 pages, age 4+
It’s a perfect day in Bert’s backyard, It’s a perfect day for Cat - sunny and warm with lots of flowers to hide in, thanks to Bert. It’s a perfect day for Dog - a nice full wading pool to sit in and cool off, thanks to Bert. It’s a perfect day for Chickadee - the bird feeder is chockablock full of birdseed, thanks to Bert. It’s a perfect day for Squirrel - there’s a nice tasty corncob waiting for him in the grass, thanks to Bert. Uh-oh, here’s comes Bear. Now, it’s a perfect day for Bear - ruining everyone else’s perfect day and enjoying all those treats that Bert put out for them This is a great book for teaching kindness to animals, and for introducing different perspectives and points of view to kids by looking at what makes a perfect day for each animal. I love this book, and so do my young readers. When we talked about it, it really generated lots of ideas about what makes a perfect day, not just for themselves, but for different animals, as well. I was really surprised at some of their ideas. As always, Lane Smith is just spot on with both text and illustrations. So, what makes your day perfect? This is a great book for teaching kindness to animals, and for introducing different perspectives and points of view to kids by looking at what makes a perfect day for each animal. I love this book, and so do my young readers. When we talked about it, it really generated lots of ideas about what makes a perfect day, not just for themselves, but for different animals, as well. I was really surprised at some of their ideas. As always, Lane Smith is just spot on with both text and illustrations. So, what makes your day perfect?
You can download a Teacher's Guide for this book from the publisher HERE and
you can download some fun activities to go with this book from the publisher HERE
They All Saw A Cat written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel
Chronicle Books, 2016, 44 pages, age 4+
After talking about perspective in A Perfect Day, it seemed only logical to read this book next. A cat walks through the world and as it walks, it passes different creatures - a dog, a fox, a bee, a bat, even a fish, among others. Now, a cat out walking is not terribly unusual but what takes takes out of the ordinary and makes it special is that the reader sees just how each creature perceives the cat in their own way. For example, a child may see a soft, furry animal to pet while a fist sees a gigantic blurry cat, and a mouse sees a scary predator. My kids love reading this book over and over and it didn’t take long for them to participate in each reading once they had the repetitive parts down pat. The text may be simple, but the various illustrations certainly led to vigorous discussions and speculation about the animals left out of the book - giraffes, lions, elephants, etc. This may be Wenzel’s debut picture book as author and illustrator, but it has the flawlessness of an old pro, ummm…like Lane Smith.
You can download a Discussion Guide this book from Edelweiss HERE
You can download some fun activities to go with this book from the publisher HERE
Pete With No Pants written and illustrated by Rowboat Watkins
Chronicle Books, 2017, 40 pages, age 4+
Anyone who has raised a child knows that, somewhere around 2 years old, they go through a period when they just don’t want to wear clothes. Well, neither does Pete, a young elephant who does love a good Knock! Knock! joke but is a lonely little fellow. Seeking companionship, Pete looks to other large gray things that are also pantless to find his identity- boulders, clouds, squirrels, a pigeon - only to be disappointed when they don’t respond to his Knock! Knock! jokes. Finally, Mother Elephants shows up with her son’s pants, which he discards everyday, and at last, Pete gets a response to his joke and discovers his true identity - from Mom, of course, who finally seems just barely more accepting of Pete’s desire to be pantless, though more than willing to play with him. This is a charming story for young readers, and parents who will no doubt remember their youngsters early explorations of the world, their discovery about who they are, and the relief felt when they finally gave in to wearing clothes. The smudgy grayish illustrations reflect Pete’s first existential crisis and the subtle bits of color give hope to a more colorful life now that he knows who he is.
The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! by Carmen Agra Deedy,
illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
Scholastic Press, 2017, 48 pages, age 4+
The village of La Paz is a pretty noisy place - “everyone and everything has a dong to sing” and sometimes it is hard to sleep. The village holds an election and the new peace and quiet mayor begins to issue laws against noise of any kind. For 7 years, the village of La Paz is quiet as a tomb, until one day a rooster and his family moves in. And that rooster sings and sings - to the annoyance of the peace and quiet mayor. Don Pepe doesn’t everything he can to quiet the rooster, but nothing works. Finally, when the mayor threatens to make soup with the rooster, the townspeople stage a peaceful revolution and send Don Pepe packing. There is a strong message about trying to silence people in this book and how that just can’t ever really be done, all explained brilliantly at the end by author Carmen Agra Deedy. It won’t be lost on young readers (it certainly wasn’t on mine) and in fact, they even made some interesting connections between the book and how they perceive today’s political landscape. Eugene Yelchin’s mixed media illustrations, done in bright primary colors against a yellow background somehow exude the feeling that this rooster will not be defeated in the face of the screaming, hysterical mayor. There are a few Spanish words scattered throughout the book, which is a nice way to get kids to start learning this important language.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Train I Ride by Paul Mosier

Rydr, 12 but very close to 13, has been living in Palm Springs, California with her not-terribly-warm grandmother because her drug addicted mother had already died of an overdose and she doesn’t know who her father is. But now, Grandma can’t take care of Rydr anymore, and so, she is being sent by train to live with a great uncle in Chicago whom she has never met. 

The trip from LA to Chicago is supposed to take 3 days, but it doesn’t take long for it to fall behind schedule, the longer for Rydr to get to know the wonderful assortment of eccentric characters. She will be accompanied by Dorothea, a “stickler for the rule” Amtrak employee, who is required to accompany minors like Rydr, but not take care of them.   

Because she has no money, it becomes incumbent on Rydr to figure out ways of getting food to eat. Day one finds her meeting Carlos, an elderly poet and crossword puzzle fan who shares his puzzles and his donut holes with her. Carlos rides the train in order to write his poetry.

Making her way down to the snack bar, Rydr meets Neal, the in-the-closet gay counter person who quickly figures out that she has no money and is very hungry, and who simply looks the other way when she pockets food to eat. And who genuinely looks forward to her visits to the snack bar, even though she constantly pretends she can’t remember his name and also tells him fabrications about her family life while secretly wishing she had a dad names Neal.

Among the Boy Scout troop traveling on the train are a group who invite Rydr to play an illegal game of Blackjack with them that night. Luckily, she mentions it to Neal, who gives her some important pointers on how to play. Unluckily, Dorothea makes Rydr give back all her winnings.

One of the illegal Boy Scout gamblers, nicknamed Tenderchunks by the boys who made him eat dog food, finds himself attracted to Rydr, and it seems the feeling is mutual. Like Rydr, Tenderchunks has always felt like a misfit and the two hit is off, if only for a short while. Compassionate Tenderchunks also has a bit of the poet in him, and before getting off the train, he gives Rydr his well read (and it turns out, valuable) copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, a anguished poetic protest to societal conformity.

Mixed in among Rydr’s adventures and encounters on the train, are flashbacks to her life with her mother, her grandmother and her therapist from Palm Springs, Dr. Lola. Rydr may have boarded the train with very little physical baggage, but she makes up for it with all her emotional baggage. And who could blame her for some acting out. Yet, Rydr has met, and emotionally formed a family with the people she has come to know on the train, and they, in turn, seem to see a young girl struggling with the rotten hand life has dealt her and are more than willing to lend their support.

This is a debut novel for Paul Mosier, and this coming of age story captures not just the turmoil of being a kid, but the particularly heartbreaking life so many are subject to nowadays, with elderly, tired and emotionally distant grandparents and parents with drug problems and overdosing. But as Mosier demonstrates with Rydr, kids can be resilient and sometimes, they can move forward in their lives. The novel may begin on an uncertain note, but as Rydr begins to discover who and what she is, it ends on a decidedly hopeful note. 

Ryder is of course not our protagonists real name. Her train ID identifies her as an accompanied minor, reading Rider + Last Name. But, the pseudonym seems to allow Rydr to freedom she needs to find herself.  

Train I Ride is an emotional, edgy coming of age journey, and although it is recommended for readers age 8+, I would hesitate giving this book to any readers under 10. There are some tough emotionally demanding scenes in it that may require more maturity than 8 or 9 year olds tend to have. 

I would pair Train I Ride with Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish, even though that is a fantasy. Both are spot on in dealing with the impact a family member's drug addiction can have on a tween girl struggling to come to terms with it.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Monday, June 19, 2017

Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh

In this anthology, Ellen Oh presents 10 short stories, all written by authors whose work we already know and admire for their honesty and integrity, not to mention their talent, and for their belief in the We Need Diverse Books movement Oh began just a few years ago in response to the underwhelming number of books by diverse authors that are being published. 

The title of the anthology, Flying Lessons, comes from the story by Soman Chainani, author of the School for Good and Evil series, by the same name. A shy young Indian boy is traveling through Europe with his grandmother, a rather colorful women who insists on wearing a couture dress, red stiletto heels and a white fur coat to the beach after outfitting her grandson, Santosh, in a tiny striped Speedo. She has other things to do, so she deposits Santosh on a nude beach with the admonishment “make friends.” Santosh finds himself drawn to a boy about his own age, not sure why he finds him so attractive. But Santosh’s Nani may just understand him better than he understands himself. She is like a (grand)mother bird teaching her young that he is meant to soar, to be who and what he is by nature, and the European trip is her flying lesson.

And so it is with all the stories in this anthology - each story features a young main character who has stood on the margins of society until they come into their own and take off. For instance, in Matt de la Peña’s “How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium,” a smart 8th grader knows what to expect when he decides to play basketball with the best at Muni Gym during summer vacation- to be told that he’s too young, too light, too short, too skinny, too Mexican. At the end of summer, he definitely does leave his mark on the basketball court, but what he learns off the court is the most important lesson of all.

In “The Difficult Path,” Grace Lin takes the reader to long ago China, where Mrs. Li promises to educate the female child, Lingsi, she has just bought. Though a servant to the family, Lingsi turns out to be a formidable student, unlike Mrs. Li’s lazy, uninterested son FuDing. Eventually, when no one will marry FuDing, it is decided that Lingsi will be his bride. But fate has another path for Lingsi - and all because she can read - and what a path it is.

The last story in this collection is called “Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” by Walter Dean Myers. Chris knows his father’s dream was for him to become an athlete and follow in his footsteps onto the basketball court. And although an auto accident has left Chris in a wheelchair, it does not keep him off the court. Chris plays in a wheelchair league, but his dad seems to have trouble accepting it. When his dad must take him to a game, things change. Slowly, a dream comes true - but whose dream?

As a rule, I’m not a big fan of short stories. I like the depth and meatiness of a novel. Besides, when a collection of stories is put together, it’s a sure bet that not of them are going to be good. But, Flying Lessons sounded just too good to pass up. After all, some of my favorite authors have contributed to this anthology and, to a teacher like myself, I know how important their diverse characters and variety of themes are for  the young readers who, after all, will shape the future. And I wasn’t disappointed reading Flying Lessons - the stories have  substance, the characters are well developed and the themes are universal, and each one is unique. 

There is a short biography of each author at the end of the book, plus a short history of why and how the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) movement began written by its founder and editor of this anthology, Ellen Oh. After reading it, you may want to refresh your reading of Walter Dean Myer’s New York Times article “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” written shortly before his death, an article which he ends with the exhortation "There is work to be done." And finally, publishers are beginning to listen to that.

The stories in Flying Lessons are aimed at middle grade readers, but could certainly be read and enjoyed by high school kids and adults.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

One Amazing Elephant by Linda Oatman High

Lily Pruitt, 12 almost 13 and already over 5 feet 7 inches tall and an asthmatic, has been living with her father in the Magic Mountain Campground in West Virginia. Her mother, Trullia Lee Pruitt, left them a number of years ago to return to the circus and her trapeze act. Lily’s grandparents are part of a small traveling circus, he is 7 feet tall and has an act called The Amazing Queen and her Best Friend Bill the Giant. Queenie Grace is a 9 foot 3 inch tall, 58 year old elephant, but has only been owned by Bill for 28 years. Before that, Queenie was owned by people who treated her cruelly.   And Bill is married to Violet, 4 feet 9 inches, who has an act of her own.

Lily has always been afraid of Queenie Grace, much to her grandfather’s unhappiness. More than anything, he would like them to get along. When Grandpa Bill dies suddenly, Lily travels to Gibtown, Florida, where the circus stays when not traveling, for his funeral. Over the course of time she is there, she meets a boy, Henry Jack, who is part of the circus, billed as the Alligator Boy because of a skin condition he was born with. She also meets her chain-smoking mother’s boyfriend, Mike, also a smoker. who dislikes Queen Grace and wants to get rid of her as quickly as possible. Until then, he puts her in chains, even though in Gibtown, animals are chained or caged, and then burns her with a cigarette. 

Slowly, and with the help of Henry Jack, Lily begins to overcome her fear of Queenie Grace, and even to feel rather protective of her. In fact, Henry Jack helps Lily overcome a lot of her fears and find strength within herself to try new things. In the end, Violet decides to send Queenie Grace to a elephant sanctuary, where there is a nice surprise awaiting her. And there is a nice surprise awaiting Lily in Gibtown, as well.

This was a well-written coming of age novel, alternately narrated by Lily and Queenie Grace, so readers get to see Lily’s transformation from both points of view. The descriptions are clear and easily envisioned; Trullia is distant to Lily, but not so distant that a mother-daughter reconciliation is impossible to imagine; Mike the smoker is just despicable; and Henry Jack is ultra sweet and kind. Lily, on the other hand, is unlikeable from the start. She seems to be consumed with self-pity which dissipates over the course of the story, but really goes on for too long to be a sympathetic character for me.

In the end, I really disliked this novel. I had so much trouble with the freak show element to it, and the idea that a 12 year-old boy would be put on display for having a skin disease that had killed his twin brother. But as Lily explains: “Not a lot of circuses still have ‘freak shows’ these days, but the Hass-Millard circus does.The ‘freaks’ are a big attraction for this little circus.”

The best part of the novel, for me, is when Queenie Grace discovers her surprise at the elephant sanctuary - keep tissues handy.

I was rather curious about Gibtown and found an article about it in The Guardian from 2015. It was written for adults, so I would be careful about sharing this with students, but it is informative.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss Plus

Monday, June 12, 2017

Two Allegories of Home

The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild, illustreated by Freya Blackwood
Candlewick Press, 2013/2017,  32 pages, age 5+

When war comes to the town where Peter and his father live, everything is bombed and destroyed, including the library. As the burnt pages of library book flutter through the air, one book survives - a library book Peter’s father loved and had been reading at home. Placing it in a iron treasure box for safe keeping, Peter and his father set off with other refugees to find a place of safety. 

On the road, Peter’s father become ill and passes away. The treasure box is too heavy for Peter to carry over the mountains and beyond to safety, so he buries it under a linden tree for safekeeping until such time that there is peace again in his country and he can return to bring the put the book back on the shelf at the newly rebuilt library in town.

It seems so fitting that Peter would bury the box at the foot of a tree, since the paper made from  trees are a books very beginnings, and leaving the book about who the people of his country (never names) are, promises a hopeful future and a connection to the past interrupted by a war that tried to destroy it. In that sense, Peter’s father was right to tell him that the book was a real treasure, “rarer than rubies, more splendid than silver, greater than gold.”

Freya Blackwood’s delicate pencil, watercolor, and collage illustrations compliment the text, while the collage give the pages a three dimensional feeling. Blackwood also has used pages from The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett and Once by Morris Gleitzman to illustrate the burnt, fluttering pages from the burning library.

The Treasure Box is an allegorical tale about resilience, resistance, and the importance of knowing who you are and where you come from, even as enemies try to destroy that. 

Teacup by Rebecca Young, illustrated by Matt Ottley
Dial BFYR, 2016, 40 pages, age 5+

A young boy is forced to leave his homeland, sailing away in a rowboat with a book, a bottle and a blanket as well as a teacup full of some earth where he used to play. The boy’s journey is long, sometimes dangerous when the sea is wild, other times tranquil, when the sea is also calm, and always holding tight to his teacup of earth from home. He continually looks for land in the distance, a place to call home, again, but sees nothing in the distance, but is comforted by the song of whales and the flight of an albatross. 

Eventually, a tree begins to spout from his teacup, growing into a tree that provides shelter, shade, and apples to eat. When land is finally spotted, the boy plants his tree there and begins to built. And then, one day, a girl shows up with an eggcup full of earth from her home.

Matt Ottley’s pale, almost opaque illustrations have a dreamlike quality to them. They are done in a palette of blues, ranging from almost a whitish blue to a darker, more menacing blue when the sea gets rough and sky becomes overcast. It is only as the boy approaches land that greens and yellows are added to the blues.

This allegorical story can be read in different ways, as a journey from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, which seems a little young for a picture book. It can also be read as the journey one takes into the unknown whenever they are faced with new beginnings.  I read it as the plight of refugees forced to leave their beloved homeland, and seek a new home where they can put down roots. Whichever you read it, Teacup is an allegorical story about the difficulty and the loneliness felt on a long journey, and one's eventual assimilation into their new circumstances without forgetting where they came from. 

When my father left his homeland to come to the United States, he brought some of his country's recipes, which we all grew up eating and loving. 
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