Monday, October 26, 2009

Please, Puppy, Please

Kirkus Review (October 15, 2005)
Two adorable African-American preschoolers, a boisterous puppy and a marmalade cat are the characters in this exuberant story suitable for children from toddlers to those just learning to read a few words on their own. The two children care for the puppy as he gets into mischief: escaping from the yard, rolling in the mud, getting a bath and fetching a ball. The deceptively simple text features short, rhyming couplets of the children's pleas for the puppy to behave, interspersed with a refrain of variations of the words in the title. The words in the refrain are printed in varying type sizes corresponding to the level of the puppy's antics and the children's resulting frustration, adding an extra dimension to the repetition. Nelson employs a wide range of perspectives in his vibrant oil paintings, sometimes showing the children as the puppy would see them, from below. A memorable climactic spread (with no text) shows the puppy bringing his ball back to the children, showing that the kids really can control their puppy after all. (Picture book. 2-6)


School Library Journal (August 1, 2008)
K-Gr 3-All of the students in Miss Hawthorn's art class draw trees that are alike, except for Willow, a rosy-cheeked little girl who paints what she sees when she closes her eyes. When the rigid, unimaginative teacher tells her that blue apples do not exist, Willow brings her one the next day. "Horrid little girl," Miss Hawthorn says. Yet at Christmas the only gift Miss Hawthorn receives is from Willow. The child presents her with her beloved art book, which begins a transformation in the dour, unhappy woman. Miss Hawthorn begins to doodle and then to paint. Pictures are everywhere. When the children come back to school in January, they discover an inspired teacher in paint-smeared jeans and smock who invites them to help her change their room into a work of art. Soft-toned watercolors contrast colorful, autumn trees with the all-the-same green ones, show snow-covered trees that "broke when they could not bend," and finally present the willow tree in the art room, which is a tribute to Willow. Expressive faces show wonderment and joy as teacher and students discover-as Willow has-the intense power of imagination. This book can be read alone or read aloud and is a solid choice for elementary collections.-Mary Jean Smith, Southside Elementary School, Lebanon, TN Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

The Year the Swallows Came Early

Booklist starred (February 15, 2009 (Vol. 105, No. 12))
Grades 4-6. In San Juan Capistrano, the swallows return each year, but 10-year-old Eleanor, aka Groovy, is more concerned about her father, who was arrested before her eyes. It’s shocking enough to learn that he’s taken a $25,000 inheritance left to Groovy that she could have used someday for cooking school, but it’s equally hard to hear that her mother is the one who called the cops. Meanwhile, Groovy’s friend Frankie has his own parental problems. Fitzmaurice, a first-time novelist, offers readers a small, quiet, yet empowering story with an underlying message of forgiveness. The plotting is sometimes creaky. Groovy’s father is arrested for something that is seemingly not illegal, since he is the guardian of his minor daughter’s money, and he’s released from jail without a trial; but these details will be problematic for adults more than children. What all readers will appreciate are the beautiful portraits of the characters, young and old, and the way the story delicately weaves its seaside setting into the story. Groovy’s first-person narrative sensitively shows both her strength and her uncertainty, and in the end readers will understand when she finally embraces what she knows to be true: You gotta forgive.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

Booklist (February 1, 2009 (Vol. 105, No. 11))
Grades 4-8. This young-reader’s edition of the eponymous New York Times best-seller for adults presents an abbreviated, simplified account of Mortenson’s life-saving mountain rescue by Pakistani villagers that inspired his life’s work: building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most significant in this version is the emphasis on young people, evident in new photographs of youth and in the extended interview with Mortenson’s 12-year-old daughter, Amira, who describes her overseas experiences with her parents, and then waiting at home while her father travels the world. Amira’s substantive answers show her direct involvement with her father’s work: “I got my dad to start a lunch program in some of the schools.” And they also reveal the deep, personal impact of global tensions on the family: “My dad’s a peacemaker, and some people hate him or are jealous. He has been threatened to be killed.” With all the recent buzz about Mortenson’s story, this accessible title is sure to draw attention. For the picture-book audience, suggest Mortenson’s Listen to the Wind (2009), coauthored and illustrated by Susan L. Roth.

A Taste for Red

Booklist (September 1, 2009 (Vol. 106, No. 1))
Grades 4-6. In the glut of novels about vampires and other supernatural beings, it’s refreshing to find such a slim, sharp tale. Harris’s debut offers up an appealing sixth-grade narrator, recently moved with her parents to suburban California, who believes she’s a vampire. How else can Svetlana (formerly Stephanie) explain her desire for red foods, heightened senses, and need to sleep under the bed? Already bewildered by her forced interaction with other students (she has previously been home-schooled), Svetlana is chilled to the bone when her last teacher of the day, a raven-haired, ivory-skinned stunner, can read her thoughts. But Svetlana can pick up on Ms. Larch’s unsavory smell—“There was a whiff of something slightly rotted about her”—and Svetlana’s elderly neighbor convinces her that Larch is the vampire and that she, Svetlana, must destroy her. With concision and wit, Harris has great fun with Svetlana’s wry narration, the dastardliness of Ms. Larch, and Svetlana’s efforts to convince two nerdy boys to help combat a great force of evil. A tasty read indeed.

Sparrow Girl

Booklist (January 1, 2009 (Vol. 105, No. 9))
Grades K-3. In 1958, Chairman Mao declared war on sparrows. He blamed them for devouring the nation’s wheat crop, and he required all citizens, armed with pots and pans and firecrackers, to take to the streets and literally scare the birds to death. The successful campaign brought on a plague of locusts and a three-year famine that resulted in the deaths of almost 40 million Chinese. The author takes these actual events as inspiration for a resonant, contemporary fable about Ming-Li, a girl who feels for the sparrows under attack, defies the leader, and rescues seven birds as they fall from the sky. Pennypacker strikes a suitably moralistic tone and tells her story with rich, descriptive detail. Tanaka matches the somber elegance of the text with opaque, folk-inspired paintings in a subdued palette. An author’s note explains the difficult facts behind the story. Opposite the grave historical account, though, is an uplifitng image: on a field of white, a small nest with seven eggs promises the hope that springs from the simple actions of one empathetic heart.

The Plot Chickens

School Library Journal (March 1, 2009)
K-Gr 2-Henrietta the chicken, star of Souperchicken (Holiday House, 2003), is an avid library user and decides that because reading is so much fun, "writing books must be eggshilarating." She finds a manual of writing rules and creates her own story-with the unsolicited help of the other fowl. When it is rejected by a publisher, Henrietta decides to self-publish. She takes a copy to her librarian, who tells her to send it to The Corn Book Magazine for review. Henrietta gets another rejection: "odoriferous." Then she wanders into the library at storytime and sees that her book was chosen best of the year by the children. Henrietta is asked to read it aloud. "She read with dramatic expression. Of course, all the children heard was BUK, BUK, BUK.." The illustrations, a combination of oil paints and digital technology, are bold and colorful. The pictures are busy, with Henrietta at her typewriter while her friends cavort around her. There are imagined scenes in cloud shapes, word balloons, and jokes aplenty. A droll chicken with a repeating line adds to the humor. This offering works on two levels. It's a funny picture book that could be used as a manual on writing.-Ieva Bates, Ann Arbor District Library, MI Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Standing For Socks

Booklist (March 15, 2009 (Vol. 105, No. 14))
Grades 4-6. When Fara Ross accidentally wears mismatched socks to school one day, everybody talks. But, she realizes, continuing to mismatch is a fun way to promote her ideals: freedom of expression, originality, and celebrating differences. However, as her sock fame spreads from the classroom to the community, she worries that the novelty is overtaking her purpose. When she runs for sixth-grade president, the attention backfires and impacts both the election and her friendships, and Fara wonders if she’ll ever be known as more than “sock girl.” Fara’s appealing, lively, third-person narrative occasionally highlights other characters’ experiences and includes local newspaper articles. Readers will appreciate the familiar scenes at home and school, from dealing with a class nemesis to feeling pigeonholed and working through friendship issues. Though the sock theme, carried out in frequent puns (“Sockinental Congress”), occasionally seems forced, this enjoyable debut novel includes diverse characters and thought-provoking ideas that will engage young people. Readers will recognize Fara’s growing awareness of herself and the rewards of working with others for support and positive change.

The Magician's Elephant

Booklist starred (July 2009 (Vol. 105, No. 21))
Grades 4-7. From the unexpectedly miraculous feats of a two-bit illusionist to the transformative powers of love, forgiveness, and a good mutton stew, there is much magic afoot in this fablelike tale from the author of the Newbery-winning Tale of Despereaux (2003). In DiCamillo’s fifth novel, a young orphan named Peter Augustus Duchene suspects that the sibling he long thought dead is actually alive. Peter seeks out the services of a fortune-teller, who informs him that his younger sister, Adele, lives and—even more astoundingly—that an elephant will lead him to her. The winter-worn city of Baltese seems the last place Peter could expect to find such an exotic creature, but that very night a magician performing at the local opera house conjures one out of thin air, a wondrous but cataclysmic event that proves to have dire consequences. When the displaced elephant is put on public display, Peter is so stirred by her obvious suffering that he is compelled to risk the one chance he has of finding Adele to set things right. Although the novel explores many of the same weighty issues as DiCamillo’s previous works, characters here face even more difficult hurdles, including the loss of loved ones, physical disabilities, and the cost of choices made out of desperation and fear. The profound and deeply affecting emotions at work in the story are buoyed up by the tale’s succinct, lyrical text; gentle touches of humor; and uplifting message of redemption, hope, and the interminable power of asking, What if? Tanaka’s charming black-and-white acrylic illustrations have a soft, period feel that perfectly matches the tone of this spellbinding story.

The Last Olympian

Horn Book (July/August, 2009)
The battle between the Olympians and the Titan Kronos (inhabiting the body of the demigod Luke) comes to a head in this fifth (and final) installment of the Percy Jackson saga. Percy and the other demigod campers at Camp Half-Blood are running military raids on Kronos's monster forces, but Poseidon is under attack, a Titan disguised as a storm system is bearing down on Olympus in New York City, and Percy's sixteenth birthday, on which it is prophesied that he will make a fateful choice, is approaching. Faced with overwhelming odds, Percy follows Achilles's route, dipping himself in the Styx to achieve near-invulnerability, and becomes an unstoppable leader for the demigod defenders as the monsters attack New York. It is Percy's visions of Luke's past life and his friend Annabeth's involvement, however, that help him make his birthday choice. Once young and unsure, Percy and his friends have matured into battle-tested veterans with easy strength and a foxhole sense of humor, a summer-blockbuster sensibility that helps explain the popularity of the series. The companions who aided Percy through his adventures in the previous books are strong allies here, and Percy's romance with Annabeth, long in the cards, heats up at last. At book's end, Kronos is defeated and peace reigns -- but there are enough openings to believe the demigods will still be adventuring long after this popular series has drawn to its conclusion.

How To Raise Mom & Dad

Booklist (March 1, 2009 (Vol. 105, No. 13))
Grades K-3. Grown-ups need lots of green vegetables, especially spinach, so if you eat less, there will be more for them. In this irreverent picture book, an older sister shows a preschool boy how to help her manipulate their parents. Exercise is healthy for grown-ups, the sister says, so when you need to talk with Mom and Dad, shout really loudly from your room and ask them to come to you; don’t go to them. The girl says that her advice is all for Mom and Dad’s own good, of course, although she also demonstrates how to nag for a puppy (“Ask for things . . . ask for things . . . ask for things again”), and how to interpret the meaning of “no” and “we’ll see.” Some of the humorous scenarios may appeal more to parents, who will recognize their own child-raising challenges. But the colorful cartoon pictures of the big-eyed family will draw kids, as will the story’s exploration of sly power games that undermine authority and put the young ones in charge.

The Dunderheads

Booklist (June 1, 2009 (Vol. 105, No. 19))
Grades 3-5. Browbeaten by one of the more frightful teachers imaginable (among other deterrents, she keeps an electric chair in the classroom), a group of misfits endeavor to stage a mini-coup in this outlandish older-reader picture book. As the mastermind narrator notes, if Miss Breakbone’s first mistake was calling them all “fiddling, twiddling, time-squandering, mind-wandering, doodling, dozing, don’t-knowing dunderheads,” her second mistake was having appreciation for each of their unique talents. And talented they are, as each kid in the class contributes his or her specialized skills to sneak into her heavily fortified lair and recapture a trinket she’d grifted off of a boy nicknamed Junkyard. Pencil lays out the blueprints, Spider and Clips get the kids over the wall, and Google-Eyes hypnotizes their way past the guard dogs. You can almost hear the Pink Panther theme thrumming in the background. Roberts’ illustrations match Fleischman’s quirky tale tone-for-tone, drafting each kid in a signature style and breaking up page compositions to bring some pizazz to the caper. A fun, stick-it-to-teacher romp with no redeeming message, but cleverness in spades

Down Down Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea

Booklist (April 1, 2009 (Vol. 105, No. 15))
Grades 2-4. In this plunge into the deep, Jenkins displays his usual keen awareness of what is fascinating about biology and imparts it without sensationalism—the facts speak for themselves. Light becomes an impossibility only a tiny fraction of the way down into the ocean, and the deeper this book goes, the darker the palette and the scarier and stranger the beast encountered. Sophisticated cut- and torn-paper collage-work fit the alien qualities of the subjects well; it’s equally at home capturing the tiered needlepoints of lizardfish teeth as it is delivering an impressive and illuminating display of bioluminescence. The scale of just how staggeringly deep the ocean is, and how little we know of much beyond what happens at the surface, is conveyed by sidebars on each page that drop precipitously from sea level to the ocean floor many miles below. Thorough endnotes give greater detail on each of the featured creatures and help make this a most welcome introduction to the sometimes-surprising world of marine biology.

Dot In Larryland: the big little book of an odd-sized friendship

Kirkus Review (December 1, 2008)
A wee girl and a gargantuan boy prove that pals come in all sizes in this offbeat exploration of friendship. Miniature Dot is "just one jot bigger than invisible" while extra-large Larry's so huge he doesn't realize he's standing in a puddle until the next day. Both are "totally miserable" and lonesome in a "BIG way," because they can't find friends their own size. Dot's invitations to grains of sand and fleas and Larry's overtures to a house, a tree and a cloud are similarly rebuffed. But one day when Larry's consuming his usual enormous breakfast, the teeny, sneezing Dot flies out of his pepper shaker and the unlikely duo meet and discover they have a lot in common. Chast's hilarious cartoon-like pen, ink and watercolor illustrations exaggerate the outrageous disparity in size between protagonists, showing mini-Dot scaling a blade of grass and maxi-Larry towering over his landscape. Marx's breezy, tongue-in-cheek text bristles with humorous metaliterary asides (Dot's half of the story is in verse, but Larry's is not, for instance), but successfully shows that size doesn't matter between friends. Eccentric fun. (Picture book. 5-8)

The Bone series

Publishers Weekly (February 7, 2005)
The nine-volume Bone graphic novel series was the toast of the comics world when it was published by Smith's own Cartoon Books beginning in the early 1990s; in this first volume of Scholastic's new edition, the original b&w art has been beautifully converted into color. Smith's epic concerns three blobby creatures who have stumbled into a valley full of monsters, magic, farmers, an exiled princess and a huge, cynical dragon. The story is something like a Chuck Jones version of The Lord of the Rings: hilarious and action-packed, but rarely losing track of its darker subtext about power and evil. This volume is the most lighthearted of the bunch, though, featuring some of the wittiest writing of any children's literature in recent memory-a few of Smith's gags are so delicious that he repeated them for the rest of the series. It also introduces the Bone cast's unforgettable supporting characters: the leathery, tough-as-nails, racing-cow-breeding Gran'ma Ben; the carnivorous but quiche-loving "rat creatures"; a spunky trio of baby opossums; and Ted the Bug, whose minimalist appearance (a tiny semicircle) exemplifies Smith's gift for less-is-more cartooning. The way his clear-lined, exaggerated characters contrast with their subtle, detailed backgrounds is a product of his background in animation, and so is his mastery of camera angles and choreography. This is first-class kid lit: exciting, funny, scary and resonant enough that it will stick with readers for a long time. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

100 Cupboards

Kirkus Review (November 15, 2007)
Henry York awakens one night to find that two knobs have popped out of the plaster at the head of his bed. Having lived a sheltered existence thanks to his overprotective parents, the boy is currently staying with his aunt, uncle and cousins and is up for a little adventure. Scraping the wall reveals 99 cupboards of varying shapes and sizes, each one a connection to another world. Unfortunately, opening one of the doors means the release of an unspeakably evil presence, causing the secrets of both the cupboards and Henry's past to come to light in the face of great danger. Wilson takes the concept of finding a door to another realm and simply extends it to its logical extreme. The result is a highly imaginative tale that successfully balances its hero's inner and outer struggles. Wilson's writing is fantastical, but works with clever sentences and turns of phrase that render it more than just another rote fantasy. The ending concludes the adventure satisfactorily but leaves plenty of room for a sequel. (Fantasy. 9-14)