Saturday, December 27, 2014

Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age -- From Picture Books to eBooks and Everything in Between by Jason Boog (Goodreads Author), Betsy Bird (Goodreads Author) (Foreword)

Jason Boog cites numerous studies that show interactive reading techniques as best practices for raising your child's intellect and curiosity. Interactive reading isn't just sitting down and reading with your child - even though that is important. Instead, parents need to ask the 5 W's (who, what, when, where, and why), dramatize reading, add music, and read to them every day. Words can give children a way to express emotions and feel control. His book will get children school-ready and he gives great tips or tricks for dealing with tantrums and handling electronic devices. Boog isn't an expert but he quotes enough of them and tosses in practicalness that leaves a little of everything for everyone. I even got a few lesson ideas. For me, the app suggestions were the most helpful. I am a librarian for an elementary school but we have a pre-kindergarten class. I'll try some apps for their age, as well as, buy some of his book suggestions for our school.

The book does tie in with curriculum standards which some parents might like. He lists them for first grade and kindergarten. It was a nice way to conclude his book and show how all his techniques can lead to more success in reading at school. He's not an educator but he gets it. His stories of what he did with his daughter shows how he created a multimedia experience and turned her  on to reading. I got a kick out of how they taught their daughter some sign language and she'd use it to communicate before she could speak. Although he doesn't use the educator lingo, what he identifies as techniques are using multiple learning styles such kinesthetic, audio, and visual, to create an interactive reading experience. He also has a section on nonfiction books which has become more important in school curriculums as a result of the implementation of Common Core standards. He did his research well and the text is easy to read.

Most experts say that digital devices should be avoided until age 2 and that parents should sit down with the device and child; to not use it as a babysitter. Boog stresses not only cooperative play, but independent unstructured play that is "unplugged." Unstructured play allows kids to develop reasoning skills, problem-solve, and be creative. He also suggests keeping digital devices out of the bedroom so children are not using them in the middle of the night. Much of his practical or creative suggestions help keep this text from being dry. I like how he pretended his coffee mug needed help reading and he named it, "Coffee Man," getting his daughter to read a book to it. He talks about the importance of simple storytelling making it easy to do and not some complex deal. More importantly, he makes reading fun.

Books help readers, young and old, process the world around them by articulating feelings, emotions, and issues they are dealing with in life. Many lists are available to readers in his book for apps, books, audiobooks, and more. His website is fantastic and if you don't have time to read it you can just blow through the short introduction that gives 15 guidelines and conversation starters to have with your kid. He even says to rip out the pages (gulp) and cut up the 15 sentences using them conveniently. Actually, I don't have a problem writing in books or cutting them up. My books that are most beat up, are the most loved. They are my "Velveteen Rabbit" books.

4 Smileys

Friday, December 19, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

In journalism school I'd get writer's block from deadlines. I would plop open Patricia Hampl's poetry to any page and no matter what, her words conjured up images and emotions that always unlocked my brain-freeze. This book is more poetry than plot as it jumps around at times following a less sequential structure for a novel-in-verse. That is not to say it is kittywampus. The order is there. I just got confused once in awhile. Plus, reading it in one sitting didn't work for me as well as savoring it in bits and pieces, like nibbling on slices of Tollhouse bars from a cake pan all day. You decide for yourself.

The emotions, history, imagery, and themes are loosely tied together as they chronicle the story of the author, an African American, growing up in the South and North. The history is going to be hard to figure out for some readers because of the sparse text that touches on major civil rights events, but doesn't go into depth. Some background knowledge helps fill in gaps on incidents such as sit-ins and marches, Jim Crow laws, and the Black Panthers, to name a few. This beautifully told story is about a girl trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life as she deals with her parents divorce, the civil rights movement, and three family relocations. I found many of her vignettes causing my own forgotten childhood memories to resurface. Amazing writing. Amazing craft. But some are going to find this book slow.

Jacqueline Woodson was born in Ohio. Her dad is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and his black slave, Sally Hemings. Jacqueline's mother was from South Carolina where her grandma still lives. Jacqueline's parents fight and she goes with her two siblings and mother to live with their grandparents where she develops close ties with her grandpa in particular. He's a smoker that develops emphysema and believes in God but not the Jehovah's Witnesses which is Jacqueline's family's religion. Life is dangerous in the South. It is safer to stay in the back of the bus. White women are hired at department stores to shadow African Americans shopping to make sure they don't steal any merchandise. Segregation is prevalent in public places and schools. Jacqueline notices that revolutions in all cultures are like a merry-go-round and wishes for peace. The end challenges readers to choose which world, which story, and which ending they desire. Readers can step into the many worlds whether it is imaginative storytelling or a revolution, but to remember if "the world explodes/around you - that you are loved..."

When Jacqueline's mom goes to New York she leaves behind her three young children. The text suggests that she has a child with a white man, but nothing is explained. I wasn't sure how long the mom was away from her three children that she left with her mother in South Carolina. Sometimes I got confused by the timing of events. Obviously, Jacqueline's mom was gone nine months, but perhaps longer. Jacqueline's new brother is named Roman and his skin is pale. Later, the boy ends up in the hospital from eating lead paint from the apartment walls. He's one of the character's I wanted to get to know better. There were others in the family as well that are not elaborated on. Maybe there will be a sequel. I hope so.

The theme of storytelling versus lying is subtly weaved throughout some chapters. Jacqueline gets in trouble from her mom for lying when Jacqueline says she is just making up stories. There's been several children's books published in 2014 on this topic but I think Jonathan Auxier's book, "The Night Gardener," articulates it well when his character says that lies hurt people and storytelling helps them. Jacqueline learns the same lesson. At first, she doesn't know the difference between when someone, such as Cora, is telling a superstitious lie to scare her versus a story. At the end Jacqueline is making up stories to her classmates suggesting that she has figured out that telling stories versus lying depends on intent. Storytelling is an expression of the imagination; whereas, lying is a way to avoid consequences of harmful actions. While storytelling is a great way to nurture creativity and imagination, sometimes it can be hard for kids to figure out when it is or is not appropriate.

Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for this book and in an unfortunate incident, Lemony Snicket who presented the award, made a racist joke when giving it to her. She countered the comment in a respectful response to move beyond stereotypes and learn about painful pasts so people can live with diversity in healthy communities. Her book is about white people showing disrespect to black people, as well as, her discovering her love for storytelling. Diverse books are necessary to teaching tolerance. Books are one vehicle for teachers and parents to open discussions about issues with children about how to respect other people regardless of race, gender, religion, disabilities, or more. Dialogue is necessary so that people can look at their own biases and change. While Lemony Snicket, in an attempt to be funny was demeaning, he did spark public outrage and debate at how the community needs to change hurtful language into words that show respect for one another. I live in Taiwan and my assistants said that until recently it was taboo to discuss Chiang Kai-Shek's massacre of almost 30,000 Taiwanese when he came to power in the 1940s. They said it is so painful, echoing Jacqueline's comments in the New York Times article. The only way to prevent future wrongdoing's is to discuss how to make the world better. As the character in this book says, "I know my work is to make the world a better place for those coming after." How true for all of us.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

El Deafo by Cece Bell

I'm buried in books. About 30 to be exact. Err... about and exact contradict each other. Oh well. Just wind me up for the holidays and watch me SPIN. El Deafo was on my return-pile-so-other-children-can-read-it-over-the-holiday stack. Then I made the mistake of peeking at the first page. Suddenly I'm at page 20 thinking... uh-oh, I won't be able to put this down. I'm a reading junkie. What can I say? A snatch of reading here and there before finishing off this terrific graphic novel on the treadmill in the evening made for a satisfying dayFour-year-old Cece gets meningitis and goes deaf. Hearing aids make her feel like Spock at school and while she adjusts to them she is worried she won't ever have a friend that sees past them to her true self. This author's biography gives a unique look at a deaf person's perspective of how others treat people that are deaf and challenges faced in everyday life. The mix of humor, drama, and an uncommon topic in children's books make this a must for your library.

When Cece discovers she is deaf, she is frightened and stays close to her mother. When she gets hearing aids she is excited to hear people but still has trouble. She explains that it sounds like people are talking to her underwater. Her friend asks if she wants a coke and Cece hears, "Doo yoo wan sumding to dring? ...a goat?" She explains lip-reading with the illustration showing her as Sherlock Holmes, discovering three clues to figure out what people are saying. Television is the hardest for her to understand. The clever illustrations have rabbits with big ears, perhaps a symbol for hearing loss and the importance hearing plays in one's life.

Cece goes to a school with other deaf children for kindergarten but then the family moves away and she is mainstreamed into the classroom. She gets a "Phonic Ear," a big clunky machine that she straps to her chest and wears ear plugs while the teacher wears a microphone. Cece feels that her deafness makes her different or special in a bad way and she spends much of her time trying to hide it. She is lonely in a world where the kids around her can hear. When she's at a sleepover and they turn off the lights she's so upset that she's lost her visual cues and can't understand the girls that she asks to leave the party.

Cece deals with the challenges of making friends with her hearing issues by creating an alter ego, a superhero named "El Deafo." This funny character speaks her mind to friends and is empowered by her hearing loss. Cece is learning to embrace her uniqueness as something good when she starts fantasizing about "El Deafo." The subplot of her having a crush on a boy adds humor and her private thoughts are a kick where she gets back at people who make dumb comments by thinking of using feedback to make her hearing aid squeal loudly.

Her first friend is bossy and possessive, but Cece likes that she doesn't care that she has a hearing aid. Her next friend talks loud and slow to her making an issue out of her deafness. Her third friend is "just right" and never even mentions her hearing aid, treating her like a true friend. When an accident happens her true friend freaks out and it takes over a year for the two to reconcile. Later when she does figure out a way to make her hearing aid "cool" with the kids in class, it is a freeing moment for her where the reader is cheering along with her classmates. Make sure you read the author's note at the end where Cece explains how deaf people embrace their deafness and that there is no right or wrong way. Last year, Vince Vawter of "Paperboy" said that his "was a story that needed to be told." Cece Bell could say the same thing. It is not only worth telling, it is worth hearing.

5 Smileys

Monday, December 15, 2014

Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve, Sarah McIntyre (Illustrator)

It's a bird... It's a plane... It's a seawig! A newfangled superhero you don't want to miss. Ten-year-old Oliver Crisp's parents ironically go missing the day they stop exploring and move into the old family home. Oliver is unpacking the car when his parents spy a bunch of islands in the bay. Jumping into a dinghy, they disappear along with the islands by the time Oliver sets out to rescue them. He sails out to a lone island and meets an albatross named, "Culpeper," who explains that the islands move. Oliver snags a ride and meets a far-sighted mermaid, Iris, who is different from the average mer-person. She's smart, can't see a lick, can't sing, could care less about looks, and is kind. She explains that the only time she "caterwauled" like other mermaids she lured a walrus instead of a handsome fisherman because she thought it a man. She bumps into everything and the reader never knows what silly mishap she's going to have. She meets Oliver because she was on her way to the optician but got lost. Har, har. The gags are nonstop with adult and kid humor. When the island turns into a talking rock-giant... I was hooked... line and sinker. Plenty of action, humor, and odd characters for all.

The rock-giant character reminds me of trolls. We used to look for troll heads on the rocky bluffs by the Mississippi River as kids. My grandma said trolls slept as rocks. We told troll stories to scare each other. Trolls lived under bridges and could be ferocious or dumb. I even had a creepy troll doll with pink hair. A seawig is like a troll and can be kind or mean. A seawig is a floating island with the grassy top being its hair and its nose and eyes on the rocks underwater. Seawigs talk, but not often. When Oliver hears his parents are headed for the Hallowed Shallows where a wig competition called, "The Night of the Seawigs," is held every seven years, he's determined to get there. He must talk the seawig that they are on into entering the competition. Oliver gives the seawig a name, Cliff, and concocts a plan with Iris to get Cliff the best wig for the contest.

The characters are distinct and memorable. Mr. Culpeper is an overbearing curmudgeonly albatross that can be a pain in the neck, but also a friend to count on. He blames Oliver when things go wrong, verbally opposes risk-taking adventures, is a know-it-all, but he supports their rescue and helps navigate through threatening fog. The sea monkeys are mischievous, not-so-bright creatures that are fast, "Sea monkeys spilled down Thurlstone's face like a river of snot." Nothing like a splattering of snot humor to draw in the young readers. Seawig Thurlstone is a villain that turned wicked when human sacrifices were made on the temple at its top and the blood trickled down inside him.

Stacey de Lacey is Thurlstone's partner and the two will cheat, lie, and steal to win the contest. The two villains have captured Oliver's parents and are going to sacrifice them for the contest. All you readers traumatized by having a tease-me-till-I-scream name will nod in understanding or shake your head at Stacey de Lacey's inferiority complex as he explains turning to evil after kids teased him about his girlie name. When he frees the sea monkeys from their pods therefore getting their zealous loyalty, the narrator says, "If Stacey de Lacey had been a different sort of boy, he might have thought, 'I've found a friend!' But Stacey had never really wanted friends. He thought, 'I've found a servant!'"Swirl into the current some Sarcastic Seaweed and you'll be snort-laughing snot down your own face. Dive right in. 

The winner of the contest gets to be Chief Island and tell the other Rambling Isles, as they are nicknamed, where to travel. They can take the best flotsam to add to their wig too. When a seawig stops meandering, he or she settles in a certain place. This is more like dying. Oliver describes settled islands as "lifeless." When Cliff decides to "settle" because Thurlstone stole his wig, Oliver and Iris are desperate to get him to change his mind and not give up. Sometimes I feel like my life overseas is like being a seawig or Rambling Isle. I'm like Oliver's parents who are addicted to exploring. Some day, we too, will have to settle and stop traveling. Ummm... that doesn't mean I want to "settle" and die. Just so we are clear.

The author cleverly adds child-appealing touches such as having a resolution that involves tickling or a villain turned bad from name-calling. Add in shipwrecks, seawigs that look like grass-covered Easter Island statues, hyperactive monkeys, crotchety seaweed, and a mermaid that can shatter glass with her singing and you have a great rumpus. Sarah McIntyre's black, white, and blue illustrations add so much humor to the story. The big eyes on the children make them look curious, while on the parents overexcited or scared. The seawigs are my favorite. Cliff looks like a baby Pacman and Thurlstone looks like a petrified globmonster.

Add in themes of friendship and perseverance and you've got some depth to the plot. When Cliff decides to rescue Oliver, he does so out of friendship and doing the right thing. He chooses to not be a victim, but try and make a change whether it works or not. When Cliff's being threatened, Oliver in turn saves him. That's what friends are for. Friends are also good to go swimming with in the ocean. Grab your flippers and goggles and flip into the pages of this book with its unusual superhero. Glub, glub, glub.

4 Smileys

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Vanishing Coin (The Magic Shop #1) by Kate Egan, Eric Wight (Goodreads Author) (Illustrations), Magician Mike Lane

Mike needs drugs. I'm serious. Poor guy. He shows symptoms of Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Okay... maybe drugs aren't the answer. In this case he needs magic. Magic tricks. Magic books. Magical moments. Ah yes, Mike is struggling in school. He can't control himself and is bullied by Jackson a kid twice his size and in his class. Mike can't understand why he just jumps up and has to move in class, but he does. He can no longer be on the soccer team because of his poor grades and he has low self-esteem. He ends up meeting Nora when their mom's decide to carpool and share watching each others kids after work. Mike discovers that Nora is quite smart, but she is also confident and kind. When the two go to a magic shop, Mike finds that he is not only good at magical tricks, he's better than Nora. He teaches himself how to perform and entertains other students at school making new friends and learning to believe in himself.

Students will love the inserts that explain how to do magic tricks. I thought this read would take me longer than 45 minutes, but the big font and illustrations make it a quickie. A magical twist at the end shows that this is the first book in a series. While Mike is a fourth grader, the book is also a good read for younger students.

I've seen ADHD handled in many ways and Mike doesn't really get good support or the adults don't seem to be giving him behavior strategies for dealing with it. Many times teachers will warn me if a kid with it is having a bad day and they torpedo around out-of-control. They get sent to the counselor's office where they can blow off some steam if it is really bad. Mike gets scolded and sent to the principal's office. At this point it has been identified that Mike had problems last year so it seems that the adults are not treating it as ADHD. But then no one ever says Mike has ADHD, that's just my interpretation of his symptoms. Mike is more of a borderline kid and says he can't control himself. Usually by 4th grade, kids have grown out of hyper, impulsive behavior which is why it seems that he has a disorder. The adults are not implementing any behavior interventions such as helping him stay organized and helping with a book report. It appears they think he can control himself and be more responsible. I'm not so sure. Mike's the kind of kid that falls through the cracks at school not getting the help he needs because he isn't severe enough, but he obviously needs help.

Nora helps Mike the most showing him one-on-one how to take notes on index cards and how to write a report for class on the magician Houdini. She takes his interest in magic and turns the homework into something doable for him. She even plays soccer with him to pick up his spirits one day. She's the voice of reason and becoming a friend he can count on. So much so that when his friends ask him to return to the soccer team, he isn't sure he wants to because it means not spending time after school with Nora. A good story for readers that are not ready for a challenging text but need some depth.

4 Smileys

The Cat at the Wall by Deborah Ellis

A thirteen-year-old American girl dies in a car accident and is reincarnated as a cat living in West Bank in the midst of the Israeli-Pakistan conflict. I know. Bizarre premise. But the author pulls it off and the plot is not about religion - it's about redemption. It's about getting a second chance to do the right thing and doing it even though you are a cat. It's a sad story about a girl that blames herself for her grandma's death and bullies those around her to feel secure and powerful. It's about the choices made in life and knowing when to act for hate or peace. You'll have to try this quirky book yourself. While sometimes the teacher got a tad preachy, it has a good mix of action and deep-thinking. Surprising, because it is only 150 pages.

Two Israeli soldiers, Simcha and Aaron, break into a Palestinian house to spy on the neighborhood. Clare, the cat, sneaks in with them and finds a boy, Omar, hidden under the floor. When the two soldiers find him they try to sneak out with him, but their plan is foiled when they get discovered by villagers. The tension escalates when they start firing bullets at each other. Because the point of view is from a cat, the violence is buffered by the creature's nonchalant attitude, "If people insist on shooting other people, they should do it quietly so that a cat can have a decent nap." Simcha is somewhat stereotyped as the California surfer dude. I would have liked him and Aaron fleshed out a little more. Omar recites the Desiderata poem to control his fear. It is a poem about being happy and treating others fairly and says that fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Alternating with this tense situation is the cat, Clare, having flashbacks to when she was a girl and having problems at school. We find out that Clare lacked character and motivation. She wasn't responsible or honest or kind. A new teacher tried to get her to see the value in character but most of the year was just a power struggle. The teacher made students copy Max Erhmann's Desiderata poem as punishment. While this is not generally how character education is taught today, I see why the author used it to tie it in with the alternating plot. It shows Omar using the poem as comfort in contrast to the self-centered, bully Clare. When Clare thinks about why she took the girls wallet instead of returning it to her it is the first time she questions why she does things "without thinking." At the end when she looks at how the universe is unfolding she thinks it is wrong that she should be alive and her good-hearted grandma dead.

Omar has built an elaborate "City of Dreams" out of cardboard, his refuge and desire for a safe world from his war torn one. Simcha, the American, comes in and kicks down Omar's city not realizing what it was. The author seems to suggest that the United States oftentimes flexes its muscles without thinking of consequences. More importantly, it ties in with the theme of understanding context before taking action. Tragedy results from fears and misunderstandings throughout this story. The teacher doesn't understand the context of Clare's misbehavior. The Israeli soldiers don't understand the context of the boys parents at check point. Simcha and Aaron don't understand why Omar is alone. Clare realizes that hostility and fear create paranoia that will lead to certain death for others and she decides to change the context. It is the first time she chooses to do something because she cares. A terrific novel for studying character development and discuss current events.
4 Smileys

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Twelve Minutes to Midnight (Twelve Minutes to Midnight #1) by Christopher Edge

At twelve minutes to midnight, the mental ward patients at Bedlam Hospital get up and scratch future writings on any surface they can find using a writing utensil or wearing the skin off fingers leaving blood scribblings. Penelope Tredwell, thirteen-year-old literary genius, owns The Penny Dreadful magazine where she writes macabre stories under the pen name of Montgomery Fitch. It would seem that women during the 1800's did not write this type of cheap fiction. Penelope is looking for her next sensational story when she gets embroiled in the Bedlam mystery that threatens her life. While I appreciate the author's attempt to mimic the penny dreadfuls of the past, it doesn't quite work. I was vested in the first half of the story but didn't enjoy the plot of the second part nearly as much.

The Victorian era had a publishing revolution as masses became more literate. The Pickwick Papers was an extremely successful serial that was published in monthly installments during the early 1800s.  It launched the start of many published serials or "penny dreadfuls" with sensational plots and fanciful illustrations printed on cheap pulp paper. Costing only a penny, they were popular with the working classes and contained violent adventure and crime. Lots of blood in the pictures was good for business too. Penny "bloods" was their original name. Out of this history, author Christopher Edge tries to recreate the penny dreadful. He succeeds with the invention of a gothic, creepy setting in London, but he doesn't quite do enough with character development and plot. That said, it is still an entertaining read.

Penelope is very fixated on solving her mystery. To the point that we don't really get to know her. She "fumes" quite a bit over being overlooked as a teenager and writer. Young readers will probably identify with her on that point, but I never saw her in a sympathetic light. I didn't quite understand her backdrop and relationship with Alfie and Wigram, who obviously care for her. She's lost her parents and as she pursues the villain, she makes connections with her own situation but never digs deep enough into her past to satisfy my curiosity. The villain and journalist are one-dimensional remaining flat characters versus complex ones. Penelope is somewhat flat too and a reclusive hero.

The plot at first is interesting and I wondered how the heck the author was going to pull it all together. The idea is out there but then the penny dreadfuls were out there too so I could see the connection. Some was predictable but the second part was when I lost interest. Some of the plot turns happen with something conveniently happening that was fantastical. It seemed like the easy way out. Still the story is fun and students will like the action and being scared.

3 Smileys

Fly Away by Patricia MacLachlan

Every spring the Red River would crest stretching its murky water over the school's football field where I worked in North Dakota. Many of the students lived on farms and dealt with yearly floods. I just read the picture book, "Blizzard," by John Rocco to 4th graders and told stories about surviving seven blizzards one winter followed by the North Dakota flood of 1997. This story is about a family that travels to North Dakota to help their Aunt Frankie fight the Red River from flooding her farmstead. Patricia MacLachlan brought back many memories of the prairie and rising river. Her word choices create a rhythm and beauty that lulled me into the quiet start only to end with some big drama. Likewise, the protagonist Lucy, creates melodies with words; poetry to be exact, but she can't carry a tune in a musical family. Even though this intermediate reader has 100 pages, it would be a good read aloud as it carries much emotion and depth in a solid setting.

Lucy is traveling in an old Volkswagon van to her aunt's farm with her parents, two-year-old brother, and six-year-old sister to North Dakota. Her dad loves cows and opera while her mother loves musician Langhorne Slim. Her sister can sing in a "high perfect voice" and her selective mute brother can sing perfectly in tune. It's their secret. No one knows that he can hum in tune. They think he's mute. "Teddy has music but no words." She explains. "I have words but no music. We are a strange pair." When Teddy sees a cow for the first time he speaks to the amazement of his family. As the trip continues, he starts to say more aloud.

Some factors in selective mutism are anxiety by being overwhelmed in an unfamiliar situation or trouble processing sensory information. We see this at our school quite a bit and it is usually temporary. Teddy suffers from the same issues but will "talk," so-to-speak with Lucy. He says her name, "See" and sings to her a song every night using "la" or "ba." When Lucy tells the adults he can speak, he refuses to show them. At first annoyed, Lucy later likes their secret. It is like their secret language and makes her feel special. She obviously adores Teddy and looks out for him, perhaps more than the average sibling. When Teddy does start to talk he turns the tables on Lucy and forces her to sing. The message of facing your fears and having the courage to be bad at something makes for good discussions.

The subplot about writing and the fear of rejection is subtle, but apparent in Lucy's character arc. She might hate singing but Lucy loves to write poetry; however, she is afraid her family will criticize it and she's reluctant to share it with them. She keeps a journal and uses poetry to sort through her feelings about her Aunt's farm. Writing is hard, "I stare at the blank lined page. I feel the same way about a blank page that my Mama feels about her old home in North Dakota. I love it because it is fresh and clean. I hate it because I have to fill it." Lucy's mom doesn't like to go back to her family farm and Lucy tries to figure out why as the story progresses.

The beautiful descriptions McLachlan uses for emotions or places or things lifts the words off these pages making memorable images. She takes small moments and stretches them into tender, emotional ones; whether Teddy is slipping a hand into his big sister Lucy's or Aunt Frankie is talking about the beautiful singing she heard through the vent at night in her room below. Lucy describes the water slowly turning the farm into an island. When she looks at the cow it is her eyes that capture Lucy's attention, "Her eyes are so big I can see my own reflection there, looking tiny next to this huge cow." The author reminds me to slow down and look at the details in each day. A good addition to your library.

4 Smileys

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman

Isabel is the best bunjitsu bunny in her school.  She may appear like a cute little thing, but don't be fooled. She'll high kick and outsmart anyone. Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny is an early reader with a unique mix of 12 fable-like tales and martial arts. I have never come across anything quite like it. The bunny's skills come from an ancient Japanese martial art called, jujitsu, that teaches self-defense while building individual awareness and self-confidence. It does not rely on strength or weapons, but hand-to-hand combat and technique. Each chapter has a moral that the reader has to figure out along with Isabel who is is either practicing jujitsu techniques or in a contest or combatant setting. The humorous illustrations show a bunch of pirates sinking in a boat as Isabel outwits them to her brother accidentally pole-vaulting himself several miles away. The cartoonish characters and situations make for great fun.

The first chapter has Isabel thinking creatively when faced with a problem. The reader gets dumped into the middle of the story with not much setup. Short like a fable and designed to impart wisdom, it looks at issues children deal with or is funny. At the start, the pack of martial art student-bunnies are trying to use their strength and varied jujitsu moves to break down a door. The last move is a good laugh as they try the "running bunjitsu head butt!" at which point Isabel opens the door and lets them in. She ditched the group in the middle of their efforts and climbed through a window into the locked room. Not only does this show the lesson to not rely on strength, which is a teaching of jujitsu, but it shows creative problem-solving.

The next chapter has pirates underestimating Isabel's bunny power as they try to bully her into giving them her boat. She overthrows them all using several different jujitsu moves and watches them sink in her boat. The twist on the Tortoise and the Hare fable has the moral that winning comes from envisioning yourself victorious and having positive self-talk. Other lessons are on how to avoid a fight, practice hard to improve skills, and face your worries. In an ironic twist, Isabel plays hide-and-seek with her friends but is so good at "disappearing," they can't find her. Bored she lets herself be easily found the next time they play. When her friend confronts her, she replies, "Its more fun to be found by friends than lost by friends." Young readers love books on friendship and will be able to relate to this message. I oftentimes find fables somewhat terse and too short, but that isn't the case here. While I did think the first two chapters were abrupt (as I usually feel with fables), John Himmelman does a terrific job with craft and I slipped into the action-packed storyline and illustrations quickly.

Another short chapter has a metaphor of an angry wave that can be applied to something upsetting in life. Bunjitsu bunny discovers that anger is best dealt with by not fighting it but letting it run its course. At first she fights the wave, but later rides it and learns to have fun. She is learning to control her emotions and build confidence in herself. Again, young readers are trying to control their emotions, as well as, make friends and gain confidence as they grow older. These messages are cleverly hidden as the reader enjoys the surface story. This book could also be used with older students that struggle to find depth in novels. One could simplify the concept with the short chapters.

Perhaps bunjitsu bunny is really more like judo which was invented by a man that learned jujitsu and then created his own moves. Here, the bunny creates her own fables mixing in martial arts. At the end when a boulder crushes her flower garden, she responds by turning it into a rock garden. Flexibility and adapting to changes is another jujitsu skill that any person can apply to different situations in life. Kids should love the simple black, white, and red illustrations, fun storyline, messages with some depth. Because it is for younger it might require an adult explanation. A good read aloud with your child or class.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mikis and the Donkey by Bibi Dumon Tak

This is a quiet book that paints a picture of a young boy living in a Greek village who falls in love with his grandfather's newly purchased donkey. While the grandparents mean to use the donkey for working the farm, the boy treats it like a pet and takes great responsibility in its welfare. The grandfather laughs at Mikis sentimentality at first and treats him like a child. Later he gives him more and more responsibility in caring for the donkey because he cares so much for the animal. When the grandfather overworks the donkey the boy gets upset and brings it to the doctor for healing. He teaches the grandfather how to care for it and even convinces him to build a brand-new deluxe stable for it. When the boy dreams of owning a donkey farm, the grandfather is no longer laughing but helping him pursue his career.

Mikis age is never determined but he and his grandfather have differences that can occur between generations. At first the grandfather laughs at the boy who claims the donkey chose its name, but later grows to respect how he treats and cares for the donkey. He no longer looks at it as an animal that he can do whatever he wants to, but one that he needs to not abuse. Working animals that are used to perform human tasks can oftentimes be cruelly treated and the author actually wrote this book while staying on a donkey refuge on the Corfu Greek island. In the author's note he says that the name of the donkey is after the first one retired or rescued after becoming lame from overworked conditions.

There is not much character development and the illustrations are in black and white aiding the reader in visualizing the looks of a Greek village. The steep climbs, tiled roofs, and narrow streets with the Mediterranean Sea as the backdrop add to the flavor of Mikis life. A subplot hints at Mikis' teacher's romance with another man and Mikis romantic feelings for Elena, a girl in his class.  I finished this transitional reader in about 30 minutes. While it was sweet, I think it will absorb into the quicksand part of my books-I-can't-remember brain.

3 Smileys

Dory Fantasmagory (Dory #1) by Abby Hanlon

Remember building forts out of the couch cushions? Or having your siblings holler, "Mom! Barbie (insert your name) is bothering us!" Or being told you were a baby? Or wanting to play with your siblings so badly you let them trap you under the covers even though you were claustrophobic? I used to scale the sides of the doorway to the top and hold on to the ledge because my siblings thought it was cool. It was rare I was cool. I was number four out of five kids. I followed my siblings around asking if I could play with them and getting a resounding "No!" over and over again. Similarly, Dory Fantasmagory is a cranked up Tasmanian devil that is annoying and sympathetic but who desperately wants her siblings to play with her. They finally do when she shoves her hand down a toilet to retrieve a errant bouncy ball. Dory reminds me of a younger version of Roscoe Riley or Junie B. Jones. Her imaginary life is blurred with reality to the point where she doesn't know when to turn it off.

Dory has pretend friends that are monsters or witches or gnomes. She plays with them all day long and there are even extra chairs at the kitchen table for them. Her best friend is a monster named, "Mary," that reminds me of the creatures in Maurice Sendak's, "Where the Wild Things Are." The witch, Mrs. Gobble Gracker, looks like Viola Swamp in Harry Allard's, "Miss Nelson is Missing." The gnome is called Mr. Nuggy and reminded me of all the nuggies I got on the head from three older siblings. If you don't know what a nuggy is it is when an annoyed sibling puts you in a headlock and painfully rubs his or her knuckles hard on your scalp.

Dory desperately wants to play with her siblings and is so excited when her brother likes it when she pretends that she's a dog that she goes overboard pretending she is one. When her mom wants to take her to the doctor she refuses and barks at her. A terrific illustration captures Dory's mom carrying Dory down the street forcing a dress on her. Shoes and purse are scattered on that front steps as Dory's flailing arms fight her mom with her dress over her head. At the doctor's office Dory stays in her hyperactive mode explaining that "I was stuck as a dog and there was nothing I could do about it. These things just happen to me." She woofs at all of the doctor's questions, pants like a dog, and thinks about licking the doctor. She even pretend-stabs the doctor with a lollipop stick but you'll have to read the story to find out why.

The pacing, humor, and illustrations make this a hoot. Grade 2 students couldn't stop laughing at it as a read aloud. Three students asked to check out the book in grade 1 when I finished half the book. The small pictures make me wonder if I should put it on the document projector so they can see the illustrations better. Everyone crowded around me to see the worm in Dory's brother's underwear. The book is 150 illustrated pages and I went through 55 of them in 20 minutes. You could easily finish it in 2-3 readings. Earlier in the fall I read the picture book, "No Fits, Nilsen," by Zachariah OHora that is about imaginary friends. This was a good follow-up. This is good for children dealing with siblings, hyperactivity, self-control, and pretend play. A must for your library.

5 Smileys

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora

Eighth graders Lucy, Elena, and Michael want to get people excited about reading their late teacher's favorite book and one on the summer reading list, "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee. It is the beginning of summer vacation and they hatch a conspiracy named, "I Kill the Mockingbird," where they make it hard to get the book by hiding them in bookstores and libraries; hence, limiting the supplies to the public.Then they setup a website and social media campaign inspiring others to do the same. When a famous man tweets about it the campaign goes viral and escalates out of control. The three decide to end it with a big bang having a book burning party. I've acted out books before, but never imitated a book burning bonfire. Thank goodness the characters change their minds on that thought. Book burning is not a good idea and would have landed 'em in a heap o' trouble. Their initial idea is to burn a thousand pages of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and create a big finish to their scheme of getting people excited over reading it. They take old weeded library books from a dumpster and are going to burn them saying it is Harper Lee's book. Their intentions are to honor their dead English teacher through the creation of a funeral pyre in memory of his favorite book, but most are going to misconstrue it as rebellious behavior against reading or think of it as a metaphor of demagoguery, censorship, and suppression.

While the plot is somewhat silly, the character development and dialogue are powerful. I laughed time-after-time with the author's unique phrases and hilarious banter between the threesome. Elena is a hoot and culprit of most, while Michael offers opposing viewpoints and is his own person, and Lucy narrates while dealing with her mother's cancer. While discussing their book burning Elena jumps on the tricycle that African American Michael is peddling and he turns and says, "This isn't Driving Miss Daisy." Earlier Elena is described as looking like a doll that Santa leaves under the Christmas tree. She is also described as a black-haired bulldozer in a pink dress. She's a bit out-of-control which makes her a gas. Michael is figuring out his Little League options and what is best for himself as he and Lucy deal with feelings they are having for each other. All three are anxious about starting high school next year. The trio call themselves "literary terrorists" and the nonstop references to literature are great fun. Oddly, the dead teacher is stereotyped as fat. The author does a great job not making the characters sound too adult. My favorite line is Mark Twain being referenced as an "equal opportunity buffoon maker."

Lucy's mom is recovering from cancer and doesn't take care of herself. Lucy nags her about her unhealthy eating habits and at the end shows how scared she is of her dying. Her mom has a pretty healthy attitude on death even if she doesn't on eating right. The irony adds depth to the storyline. The conversations on religion do not moralize but tend to be funny. When Elena and Lucy are doing a photo-shoot for Lucy's mom as Joseph and the Virgin Mary, she asks Elena to have more "wonder" on her face. Elena quips, "'If I am the Mother of God, then I wonder why I just gave birth in a barn.'" She turns to me [Lucy]. "'Joe, you couldn't do a little better with accommodations?'" Joe [Lucy that is] responds that is what you get for falling for the first angel that came along. "Elena gazes up at the sky and sighs. "'He looked like Johnny Depp, and he promised he'd show me heaven." Later Lucy describes praying to St. Lucy, "My namesake is the patron saint of eye disorders, and her statue is supposed to remind us not to sit too close to the TV screen." She goes on to describe the statue, St. Lucy, holding a tray with two gouged eyeballs on it. St. Lucy poked out her eyes to avoid marrying a pagan. "Now I know that the Catholic thing can be seriously weird sometimes." Another time when Lucy discusses faith she says she doesn't know if it is better to believe in miracles or the randomness of life. Nothing is forced down the readers throat.

Michael presents a fresh opposing viewpoint to Harper Lee's book that is thought-provoking. He calls the protagonist a white tomboy that "worships her father in a town filled with whacky racist Christians and lynch-mob farmers. It's a comedy about old-timey southern people who treat each other badly." He goes on to point out that Atticus Finch isn't a very good lawyer ending up with three executed clients and letting a murderer go free. Later Elena's father, Mort, points out that mockingbirds are aggressive, liars, unconscionable,and territorial as opposed to being a symbol of innocence. When Michael asks if he is joking Mort replies, "contradiction and paradox are the building blocks of great humor." The author practices what Mort preaches as this is found throughout the text.While the short text makes for a good read aloud and discussion, I did wish the plot was longer than 166 pages as I wanted to spend more time with the characters. I know I'll be looking for more books by this author.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

As a kid I would pretend I was a great athlete or genius. My dad is a genius. Really. He's been tested and his IQ is in the 140s. Of course I can't remember the exact number. I am not a genius. I am average. I didn't go to Harvard like dad. I wasn't a straight A student like dad. I didn't get high scores on college entrance exams. I was plain ole boring ...average. It took me a long time to be okay with that. As a kid, I would deal with it by reading books and vicariously become a superhero through the eyes of the characters. Add in some red-hot action and I was having a yippee-ki-yay time. I remember at times thinking I needed to try harder. Focus more. Be more competitive. I'd chew my nails to nubs trying to sit still and go overboard trying to be the best (which I never was). Albie is a unique character in this book because he isn't just average in school, he's below average. He hopes that it is a disability, but it isn't. He's just not good at subjects in school. He's not too bright at figuring out other people or situations, but he is good-hearted and kind which is where his true powers lie. He doesn't know it but he's the kind of hero that is hard to come by. Lisa Graff pulls off something unique here, a hero of great character but lacking smarts. Check out this book that is bursting with discussions and would make a great read aloud with its short chapters and beautiful writing.

Fifth grader Albie has been kicked out of private school for failing in subjects and is going to a public school. His parents have hired a college-aged nanny, Calista, to take him to school and help with his homework. Albie doesn't really get it that he was kicked out of school for poor performance in the beginning. He realizes it later when he feels like his world is falling apart. He struggles to fit in at school and make friends and his parents give him a tough time for not being good in school. The nanny helps him deal with all these issues, but she's a kid herself. She does a kind thing for Albie, but it is also irresponsible and the fallout leaves many unhappy.

Albie is biracial. His mom is Korean and his dad's ethnicity isn't given. While Albie doesn't explore what this means, the author draws on some Korean customs that add to the flavor of the setting. When Albie brings kimchi to lunch and doesn't take it out, I laughed. This spicy Korean dish is a staple in their diet and its distinct odor would definitely draw unwanted attention to Albie from the bully, Darren. While most of the Asian backdrop is spot on, I did wonder about Albie's Korean grandfather giving up on Albie. It didn't jive with the Asian parents I've interacted with at our school. They'd hire more tutors and tell Albie to work harder. They wouldn't give up. Of course Albie's mom explained that Gramps was a grump. He's obviously an exception and the reader isn't privy to why he acts this way.

Albie's parents desperately want him to do better in school. Dad tries to shame Albie into improving his spelling scores, while mom does it with his reading log. Shaming never motivates kids but so many adults resort to it because they don't know differently. Constructive criticism that focuses on progress is something that is not easy to do if you've never been exposed to it. The dad says that only an A is acceptable and the mom wants him to read "Johnny Tremain" over "Captain Underpants." As a librarian I see adults taking away children's reading choices all the time. Usually they are trying to make them better readers and push them. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect on most children by turning them off to reading completely. It is not easy nurturing positive reading habits and sometimes adults have to interfere. But if the goal is to make reading a part of a child's life, then adults need to nurture the joy of reading and that starts with helping them find books that interest them. It works best for me if I have a stack of eight or more books that I quickly summarize for the kid then let them choose the one that grabs their interest.

At times the parents are too concerned with how Albie makes them look versus looking at what is best for Albie. Oftentimes parents project too much of themselves onto their children and do not let them be themselves. Albie's mom wants him to run for a school office because she was treasurer in school. When Albie says he isn't interested she doesn't want to hear it. Being a parent isn't easy. Sometimes kids need to be encouraged. Other times parents go overboard. Albie has loving parents that not only misstep, but give good advice as well. Albie's mother is crushed when she finds out he doesn't have a disability. After this climax, she seems to except Albie's academic shortcomings and not push him so much. When Albie's dad buys him the same birthday present (I've done that to my dad before), Albie is so disgusted he tosses the plane out his 8 story bedroom window. When Albie's dad teaches him how to make the family recipe of delicious grilled cheese sandwiches, he tells Albie that he won't have problems getting what he wants in life, but figuring out what he wants. Albie appreciates the support. When Albie comforts his mom and Calista he shows how deep his kindness runs. He is forgiving and gentle. Parents, nannies, teachers are trying to do the best they can for Albie and sometimes they shine and sometimes they fall short. This message that adults make mistakes just like kids adds depth and authenticity to the character development.

Friendships can be tricky like parenting. Albie's best friend is Erlan who goes to Albie's previous school. The two remain friends and Erlan likes that Albie always treats him "normal." Albie gets bullied at his new school by Darren. He makes friends with Betsy, a girl who stutters, and Albie is kind to her when others pick on her. When Darren thinks Albie is going to be on television because of Erlan's family being in a reality show, he makes friends with him. The nanny, Calista, tries to warn Albie to be careful of Darren's motivations. She doubts Darren's sincerity at being a friend, but Albie is too kind to understand that Darren might want something in return. Darren convinces Albie not to be friends with Betsy because it isn't "cool." Albie finds out the hard way that friendships are not based on a set of rules, but on acceptance. He deals with Darren's meanness by deciding what words hurt and how to smooth out their edges. Albie stays true to Erlan as a friend, but he blows it with Betsy. He makes amends and learns from it, just like the adults.

Calista is caring and kind, but misguided in her good intentions. Like everyone else in this story, she makes mistakes too. When she acts irresponsibly by lying to Albie's parents even though her intentions were good, any adult with a kid is going to understand Albie's mother's actions. But kids are going to think his mother was horribly unfair. What they don't know is how the situation could have been easily handled with a phone call. A nanny's top priority is to ensure the safety and trust of the parents. If that is violated, then they have shown they are not up to handling the responsibility of taking care of a younger child. Albie's mom didn't really have a choice.

The theme of accepting yourself is a powerful one. Albie is a great kid that learns his worth. He's "absolutely almost" certain of it. He's okay with who he is. Are you?

5 Smileys