Monday, November 26, 2012

Barnum's Bones

Booklist starred (June 1, 2012 (Vol. 108, No. 19))

Grades 1-4. On February 12, 1873, Barnum was born. No, not that Barnum—Barnum Brown. His parents hoped his “important-sounding” name would lead him to do important things, and it didn’t take long for their wish to come true. As soon as Barnum could toddle, he collected fossils—so many that they overflowed the house. Years later, when he heard about dinosaur fossils unearthed out west, he wanted in on the action. Barnum often went prospecting in “a fur coat, suit and tie, buffed black boots, and a bowler hat,” and he found bones—lots of them—but wasn’t satisfied. A professor at New York’s Museum of Natural History hired Barnum, believing “he must be able to smell fossils,” and sent him on collection trips. But Barnum’s big find would come in the early 1900s with the discovery of bone fragments from a new species, which Barnum named Tyrannosaurus rex, or his “favorite child.” After Barnum later unearthed a perfect T. rex skull, an entire skeleton was pieced together by 1915, drawing millions of visitors. Fern (Buffalo Music, 2008) writes in language brimming with personality and vividly captures the scientist’s over-the-top personality, while Kulikov’s intricate renderings of dinosaur bones are truly breathtaking. This will captivate the masses of kids whose jaws drop in the presence of hulking fossils. An author’s note concludes.

NERDS 4 The Villain Virus

The NERDS series combines the excitement of international espionage with the awkwardness of elementary school as it follows the adventures of a group of unpopular fifth graders who run a spy network from inside their school. With the help of cutting-edge science, they transform their nerdy qualities into incredible abilities, and the results are awesome, inspiring—and hilarious.

A virus has infected Arlington, Virginia, home of NERDS headquarters, and it's much worse than your run-of-the-mill flu. Instead of coughing and sneezing, the victims of this voracious virus are transformed into superintelligent criminal masterminds. Soon nearly everyone—including some of the NERDS team—is plotting to take over the world. And who's to blame for this nasty infection? None other than former NERDS teammate Heathcliff Hodges. With more people breaking out into evil cackles every day, it's up to Flinch, the hyperactive superspy with a sweet tooth, to stop the virus. He needs to destroy the virus at its source, and to do that he's going to have to get inside Heathcliff's head—literally. Flinch will have to miniaturize himself and take a fantastic voyage through the supervillain's body to fight white blood cells, stomach acid, and a nest of nasty nanobytes in the hope that he can save the world from . . . the Villain Virus.

Those Rebels, John & Tom

Booklist starred (December 1, 2011 (Vol. 108, No. 7))

Grades 2-4. It is sometimes easy to think of the Founding Fathers as a bunch of interchangeable guys in wigs and weird pants. This fun, energetic double portrait of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson shines a light on how different these two men were from each other. John was brash, argumentative, and as persuasive as a cudgel. Tom was contemplative, shy, and a wicked wielder of the pen. Together, they formed a bond of mutual respect and used their complementary styles to rally a nation behind them. Showing that even the shining beacons of history are complicated figures, Kerley acknowledges the bitter irony that even as Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence and including a provision to prohibit slavery (later taken out by the delegates), he was likely being served tea by his own slave boy. Fotheringham provides page after page of clever, cartoon-style artwork and skillful compositions—heavily steeped in reds, whites, and blues—that add to the excitement of overthrowing stuffy old King George; an image of Tom skewering the monarch with a giant pen, the newly formed Continental army marching in the background, is especially memorable. A worthy addition to the American history curriculum, this is a terrific book to lead the charge in learning about the Revolution, as well as a lesson in how dedicated cooperation can achieve great ends. An obvious choice to pair with Worst of Friends (below).

You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!

Booklist starred (September 1, 2012 (Vol. 109, No. 1))

Grades 2-4. Winter follows up You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! (2009), a Booklist Top of the List—Youth Nonfiction winner, with an ebullient look at another groundbreaking baseballer. Winter’s squirming-in-his-seat excitement gives this abbreviated bio the feel of a baseball card–wielding kid slapping his forehead in disbelief: “You never heard of Willie Mays?! THE Willie Mays?! Oh, geez, where to begin?” How about here: Mays is a gangly lad in Alabama who idolizes Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, even though blacks aren’t allowed to play in Joe’s league—“craziest rule there ever was.” Mimicking Joe’s techniques, Willie joins the recently integrated New York Giants at 20, lifting the floundering club to new heights before a nation that must finally admit that baseball’s best player is black. Text boxes offer up mind-numbing stats and fearless conclusions (“Yep, they were better,” Winter writes when comparing the Negro League to the pros), but Winter’s forte is describing impossible-to-describe plays: “It was hit too far, too hard, and Willie has his back to it—lookin’ like he might run smack into the WALL!” Meanwhile, Widener’s lumpy, blurry-edged, off-kilter acrylics are perfect for rendering the alternately joyful and fierce Mays as larger than life. The Say Hey Kid had style to spare, and so does this irrepressible book.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Five Lives of our cat Zook

Horn Book (May/June, 2012)

Oona did not acquire the family cat Zook (short for Zucchini) in the most respectable of ways. By hiding his collar, she liberated the animal, skinny and with a BB pellet in his side, from an owner she suspected of neglect. Since that time two-and-a-half years ago, Oona’s father has died, and now Zook is sick. To comfort her little brother, Oona, channeling their dad, "the Great Rebus-Maker and Whopper-Teller," comes up with stories about Zook’s previous lives. The siblings’ own lives are also changing, as their mother has started dating Dylan, a.k.a. The Villain, original owner (Oona thinks) of Zook. Just as she did in One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street (rev. 7/11), Rocklin intertwines her characters so smartly that the many coincidences and serendipitous events feel organic to the story. This time the setting is Oakland, California, where, in Oona’s close-knit, "multi-culti" neighborhood, the local pizza joint acts as the kids’ afterschool hangout and block parties double as family reunions. It’s not all urban gardens and sunshine, though; Oona’s friend starts acting distant; her mother is underemployed; and her father’s absence weighs heavily on everyone’s hearts. Plus, Zook’s failing health leaves Oona, her mother, and brother to make painful decisions about his care. The story’s ending -- bittersweet, inevitable, and true -- offers much-needed catharsis for the family and for anyone who has ever loved a pet. elissa gershowitz

Jangles a Big fish story

Booklist (September 1, 2012 (Vol. 109, No. 1))

Grades K-3. Stories about the one that got away are as plentiful as fish in the sea, but leave it to Shannon to distill one into its essence in this picture book. Jangles, named for the jawful of tinkling lures he’s accumulated over the years, “was so big, he ate eagles from the trees that hung out over the lake and full-grown beavers that strayed too far from home.” Locals have tried everything to catch him—from whole-turkey bait to dynamite depth charges—but no one even comes close until a boy (the narrator’s father) snags the monster trout at the end of his line. Jangles pulls the boy out of his boat, dashes him off to his underwater home, and tells him stories about the young days of the world before sending the boy back to the surface. The big reveal of where the tall tale ends and the truth begins ties it all up with the warmth and magic of a fatherly wink. Shannon’s lustrous paintings are packed full of magic-hour hues, and fairly glow right off the pages. A neat bonding story, this will become a fast favorite.

The French Fry King

Kirkus Reviews (April 1, 2012)

A spotted dachshund with an inquiring mind and big ambitions starts his own French-fry stand, and his fries become popular with customized versions around the world. Though Roger finds fame and fortune with his fantastic fries, he ultimately realizes his life is rather empty and worries that he is esteemed for his fries alone. The whimsical illustrations take on a darker, gray cast as Roger descends into a depressed phase, but then he meets a charming white dog, Charlotte the Corn Cob Queen, who has her own successful food business. The two canine entrepreneurs fall in love and invent a new product to sell, Royal Shepherd's Pie. Both the story and the illustrations are appealingly fantastical, with tall-tale exaggerations and witty interactions with satisfied customers. The illustrations have a chic, urban flair with a muted palette and some hints at the author/illustrator's French-Canadian background, such as a few signs in both English and French. A poster of the dogs with their recipe for shepherd's pie is included on the inside of the book jacket. Roger's story conveys the subtle and salutary message that material achievement and fame does not necessarily include love and companionship, and a shared venture may be sweeter than solitary success. (Picture book. 4-7)

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Case of the Incapacitated Capitals

Booklist starred (October 1, 2012 (Vol. 109, No. 3))

Preschool-Grade 3. Mr. Wright’s students write a letter to cheer up their despondent teacher, but the idea backfires when they use no capital letters. “You’ve forgotten something important,” he prods them, noting that letter writing is different from texting. After a couple of lame guesses and an off-topic discussion of Mr. Wright’s childhood nickname, the now-fuming teacher informs them that certain words need to be capitalized. When the classroom’s capitals are found to be incapacitated (paramedics diagnose “a case of serious neglect”), the children learn their lesson, use the capitals properly, and earn a hilarious prize. Three appended pages explain why capital letters are called “uppercase,” show why each capital is used within a color-coded letter, and list some “useful rules” for capitalization. In the funniest picture book yet from Pulver and Reed’s Language Arts Library series, the students are well meaning, easily distracted, and not without cunning. Childlike acrylic paintings combine with digital elements to make the artwork vivid and colorful. From the conversations between uppercase and lowercase letters to the comedy within class discussions, it’s hard to read the story aloud without laughing, and the humor makes the lesson more likely to stick. A madcap grammar book for kids to enjoy.

Benny and Penny in Lights Out!

Kirkus Reviews starred (August 1, 2012)

It's bedtime for the mouseling brother and sister--but not before plenty of horsing around and a deliciously scary expedition into the backyard. As little Penny quietly tries to wash up and pretend-read a story ("One day the princess was sent to her room for being bratty. But she had a secret door..."), her restless big brother interrupts obnoxiously with warnings about the Boogey Mouse, loud belches and other distractions. When Benny realizes that he's left his prized pirate hat in the backyard, though, Penny braves the Boogey Mouse to follow him out of the window and prod him into reclaiming it from the spooky, dark playhouse. She also "reads" him to sleep after the two race, giggling at their fright, back indoors. Framed in sequential panels that occasionally expand to full-page or double-spread scenes, the art features a pair of big-eared, bright-eyed mites (plus the occasional fictive dinosaur) in cozy domestic settings atmospherically illuminated by the glow of lamps, Benny's flashlight and the moon. As in this popular series' earlier episodes, dialogue in unobtrusive balloons furnishes the only text, but the action is easy to follow, and Hayes provides plenty of finely drawn visual cues to the characters' feelings. Another outing positively radiant with child appeal, featuring a pair of close siblings with complementary personalities. (Graphic early reader. 5-7)

My Robots: The Robotic Genius of Lady Regina Bonquers III

Kirkus Reviews (September 15, 2012)

The creator of useful field guides to monsters (2007) and aliens (2010) turns his attention to an eccentric Scottish inventor's mechanical fancies. Along with images of taped- or tacked-on rough sketches, scrawled notes, product brochures and schematic diagrams purportedly discovered in Lady Regina Bonquers III's mysteriously abandoned castle near Loch MeeAhwey, Olander offers descriptions of over 23 marvelous machines. These range from a 40-foot-tall, garbage-recycling Crocobot Compactor and the protean household helper Chore Master X2000 to a pocket-sized Personal Grooming Robot equipped with pimple popper. Skating even closer to the boundaries of good taste, he also presents a tall and soft-bodied "Hugging Robot" built by the solitary Lady as her personal comfort object. Thanks largely to programming glitches and, often, attendant bad publicity, none of Lady Bonquers' ingenious creations enjoyed commercial success, alas. Nevertheless, budding inventors may find inspiration in these pages (if not specific instructions or even clear details) for labor- and life-saving robots of their own. According to the author, Lady Bonquers is still remembered in "the international circle of pseudoscientists and mad geniuses." Here's hoping that this tribute will expand her renown to a wider audience. (Fiction. 10-12)

Ralph Tells A Story

Kirkus Reviews (September 1, 2012)

With a little help from his audience, a young storyteller gets over a solid case of writer's block in this engaging debut. Despite the (sometimes creatively spelled) examples produced by all his classmates and the teacher's assertion that "Stories are everywhere!" Ralph can't get past putting his name at the top of his paper. One day, lying under the desk in despair, he remembers finding an inchworm in the park. That's all he has, though, until his classmates' questions--"Did it feel squishy?" "Did your mom let you keep it?" "Did you name it?"--open the floodgates for a rousing yarn featuring an interloping toddler, a broad comic turn and a dramatic rescue. Hanlon illustrates the episode with childlike scenes done in transparent colors, featuring friendly-looking children with big smiles and widely spaced button eyes. The narrative text is printed in standard type, but the children's dialogue is rendered in hand-lettered printing within speech balloons. The episode is enhanced with a page of elementary writing tips and the tantalizing titles of his many subsequent stories ("When I Ate Too Much Spaghetti," "The Scariest Hamster," "When the Librarian Yelled Really Loud at Me," etc.) on the back endpapers. An engaging mix of gentle behavior modeling and inventive story ideas that may well provide just the push needed to get some budding young writers off and running. (Picture book. 6-8)