Thursday, March 29, 2012

Aahh.... The Hunger Games (finally)

I read The Hunger Games trilogy about a year and a half ago, and I've struggled with how to review it on this space ever since. Now that the movies are out, folks keep asking me for my thoughts. Here are my reviews of the books from when they were fresh in my mind (I'm copying and abridging slightly my goodreads reviews--goodreads is a fantastic social media site in which users rate their books on a scale of 1-5 stars; I'll list my star rating with each book).

For those who have not read these yet, the first book is sort of Lord of the Flies (book) meets Lost (TV Show) and Survivor (TV Show). I have not watched the movie, nor, in the immediate future at least, do I plan to. Scroll to the end for why and some general thoughts on the phenomenon/series. This is longer than my usual posts because I'm tackling the entire series in ONE post!

Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes
Jonathan Auxier
Amulet Books

Auxier must have grown up reading the greats--there is much in this book that reminds me of wonderfully told tales, great authors, and wildly inventive persons/places/things. I think it's a touch long--especially the first half, and I also had trouble buying into blind Peter's prowess at being able to navigate a strange castle in the midst of a battle--skilled though he was at sensing events and landscapes around him.

That being said, there is a lot to love in this quirky fantasy novel. It calls to mind Pinocchio (dogfish anyone? the notion of a "real boy" finally at the end), great battles in which the underdogs miraculously triumph (Helms Deep comes to mind), Peter Pan (not the least of which reminders include a prominent fishhook in action and the title character's name), Oliver Twist (poor chap taken in by master thief), anthropomorphic animals with noble or ignoble hearts (too many to name here, but the feel of Narnia comes to mind),.... There's another striking Narnia reference at the end, but I don't want to spoil anyone's fun.

All in all, this is just what a great children's fantasy novel should be--or, the very, very good start. Auxier, give us more! In this fantasy novel, we meet Peter Nimble as a thief working on behalf of his harsh master. No one knows his parentage, and the theory is that ravens pecked out his eyes as a baby. Through a strange turn of events, Peter Nimble finds himself embarked on a magical quest along with Sir Tode--a knight turned into part cat/part horse. Peter and Sir Tode have quite the series of adventures on their quest, sometimes using the Fantastic Eyes (one pair allows them to transport immediately back to the previous place the eyes saw, for example). The final pair of Fantastic Eyes is reserved until the end of the book; suffice it to say that they are a perfect fit for Peter's new role in the kingdom of HazelPort.

Some concerned parents may wish to know that there is some striking violence in this book. I didn't mind it in the least--in some ways, it's reassuring to know that bad guys (who are really, really bad and have just crunched someone up to eat him/her) also get their fair shrift; that war is bloody, but healing tears can sometimes wash that blood away; and that when right triumphs in the end, it is often at a cost. The tone regarding the violence is very matter of fact and there is not a lot of graphic description. It's just what you'd expect if a horde of angry apes is fighting to the death against a horde of loyal, magnificent ravens in a kingdom that had vanished but has now resurfaced....

In addition, this book is filled with some outstanding, quotable material. My personal favorite is this:

"Now, there is a wonderful thing in this world called 'foresight.' It is a gift treasured above all others because it allows one to know what the future holds. Most people with foresight end up wielding immense power in life, often becoming great rulers or librarians." (p. 181)

Book borrowed from my local library; cover image from goodreads; the author's blog; the Peter Nimble book site (which I haven't entirely previewed)

Things to Note/Discuss
  • How often do we turn down (or accept) help because of what the person looks like (like Sir Tode)? 
  • Are there hidden talents in those we come across that might not be readily discernible?
  • Who is your favorite character and why? Do you like the end: particularly the different roles Peg and Peter assume?
  • How do we know when the time has come to fight, and when the time has come to be still? There are examples of both in Scripture! (So, back your answer up)  
Watch the book trailer!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Person + Pet: Winning Beginning Reader Combos

I've had a soft spot in my heart for early readers because some of my all-time favorite read aloud early memories (and independent reading memories) center around 4 particular books/series: Little Bear books (Minarik/Sendak), Frog and Toad books (Arnold Lobel), Cat in the Hat and similar Seuss titles, and Danny and the Dinosaur. As my children begin to progress through these early readers on their own!!, I'm noticing that the new kids on the block are following some of the same patterns as these old classics. Here is the rough breakdown in which many early readers fit:
  1. Cute stories involving animal protagonists (i.e. Little Bear books)
  2. Stories about two best friends, usually animals and usually incompatible and/or quite different at first glance (i.e. Frog and Toad)
  3. Super simple words/text and, sometimes, zany plots/illustrations (i.e. Dr. Seuss books)
  4. Person + Pet: the more unlikely the "pet," the better (i.e. Danny and the Dinosaur)
Here's a quick run down of the some of the best representations in the Person + Pet category (some new, some old). Stay tuned for the remaining categories! (I'm starting with this category in honor of Danny and the Dinosaur: this was the first book I ever read on my own, and I remember it VIVIDLY.) Updated 5/04/12 to add Rotten Ralph.

Danny and the Dinosaur
Syd Hoff

Danny goes to a museum and longs for the dinosaurs to be real. Guess what!? One comes to life; he and Danny have a busy, fun-filled day until the dinosaur must return to the museum.

Mr. Putter and Tabby books
Cynthia Rylant, author
Arthur Howard, illustrator

Mr. Putter and cat, Tabby, (and their neighbors, Mrs. Teaberry and dog, Zeke) are arguably the most popular Person + Pet books around (OK, except for Ms. Rylant's other amazing books about Henry and Mudge, but I'll get to those). Somehow, these funny, gentle stories about two old people and their faithful animal companions are cherished by children. I haven't figured out why kids are drawn to books about old people, but I suppose we'll just chalk that up to Rylant's talent and enjoy the ride.

Henry and Mudge books
Cynthia Rylant, author
Sucie Stevenson, illustrator

Henry and his giant dog, Mudge, are enormously popular with early readers--whether they start reading at age 3 or age 8. Somehow, Henry and Mudge are consistently fresh and delightful, whether you're reading the 1st or 20th book of their adventures. And, if you have a daughter whose favorite color is pink, be sure to check out the...

Annie and Snowball books
Cynthia Rylant, author
Sucie Stevenson, illustrator

Sensing a theme here? Rylant knows her early reader crowd. Annie is Henry's cousin, and her pet is a white rabbit named Snowball. Annie loves pink, dressing up, and being very girly in general. A nice complement to Henry and Mudge for sure. But, what if your daughter wants to read books about a girl who's a little more rough and ready?

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa books
Erica Silverman, author
Betsy Lewin, illustrator

Cowgirl Kate's pet is a horse named Cocoa--but don't think that because Cocoa is a horse, she doesn't want to come into the house. Cocoa is a quirky horse; Cowgirl Kate is always having to talk sense into her (important things like why the barn is better than a house, why Cocoa can't come to school, why Cocoa should wear her rain sheet, and other life lessons).

Buzz and Fly Guy books
Tedd Arnold

I think only Arnold could have pulled this off: Buzz is a funny kid who has a pet fly... yep, that's right. A pet fly. And, as you may imagine with a pet as small and ... well... bug-like as Fly Guy, Buzz and Fly Guy have their fair share of zany adventures (such as Buzz's grandma eating Fly Guy!). A sure fire winner, especially with boys.

Pedro's Burro
Alyssa Satin Capucilli

A nice, more multicultural addition to the easy reader lineup. I confess that I don't know if this will be a series or not, but it's a nice story about a boy named Pedro and the burro who finds him (instead of the other way around). Very approachable text for emerging readers. (Same author as the wildly popular "Biscuit" books)

Rotten Ralph
Jack Gantos

Rotten Ralph is really the star, but since his owner, Sally, is his faithful sidekick, they also fit in the Person + Pet category. The artwork isn't my style, but it is very kid-friendly. And Ralph is a significant change of pace from the rest of the above lineup. (Some Rotten Ralph books are picture books; some are easy readers)
(all cover images from

What others should we add to this list? 
We want quality writing and quality illustrations--
harder to come by in easy reader land than you might think!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Humor Me!

We had to do a screencast for a class assignment.... Below is my very first screencast: a virtual tour of a few features of goodreads (there are FAR too many things on that wonderful service to explore in a mere 8 minutes). Remember--this is my first foray into screencast land. But if you would like to learn what goodreads is all about, watch the tour...

Monday, March 26, 2012

Interrupted: A Life Beyond Words

Interrupted: A Life Beyond Words
Rachel Coker

I must confess I braced myself for the usual brand of Christian romantic historical fiction here. [I grew up on a steady diet of Janette Oke and Bodie Thoene (to name a few).] But I was pleasantly surprised. The plot is pretty good, the writing needs a touch of work (which will come, no doubt, with the author's maturation as an author--this is a first novel), and I didn't find it too preachy.

This is a love story, yes, but it's also a story of a young 13-year-old girl coming to grips with her own spiritual need for God and with the ways in which she has hardened her heart to everyone she meets; the book takes us from this young age of 13 all the way to her late teens/early 20's (and, because of the time period, this is an "older" age than we might think it today). Her physical/emtional coming of age mirrors her spiritual coming of age. Her own mother is dying of brain cancer when the book opens; after she dies, Allie is sent to live with an adoptive mother (Beatrice) in Maine. The book takes place in the 1940's on the before/during/after WWII.

A few quibbles: as I mentioned, the writing is a touch trite at times--or, well, immature sounding. I found Allie's unrecognition of her old friend Sam a bit far fetched (he shows up in Maine after not having seen Allie in a few years). I also wondered why it took SO long for her to come to grips with her adoptive mom Beatrice, to find out more about Beatrice and daughter Irene's background, how Allie seemed to magically end up in Maine after a short-ish car ride from TN (that car ride would have taken FOREVER in the '40's.... just sayin'), why more people didn't try to help her when her mom was sick/dying, and why more people weren't helping her after her mom died.

Overall, though, I like the honesty Allie expresses, the way she "comes to faith" near the end of the novel,* and her relationship with Sam and the other Maine characters. The love story is well done. The Emily Dickinson references at the beginning of each chapter are a nice touch. This will be a fun read (and slightly "deeper" read) for those who enjoy Christian romantic historical fiction!

In stores now and perhaps soon in libraries; I read this as an ARC from netgalley. Cover image from

*What is the best way to communicate a character's spiritual change? Do we really need to repeat their prayers word-for-word--are people reading this kind of book really going to hear the gospel that way? I honestly don't know. I always find it a bit trite. I'm wondering if the author could describe the conversion simply and provide a footnote with the gospel more clearly explained???  
Any thoughts from the peanut gallery? 
Any books you've read in which you thought a conversion was really well done?  (feel free to leave a comment and share some titles/thoughts with us!!)

Monday, March 19, 2012

10 Ways to Teach and Reinforce Reading

Why do we teach our children to read? So that they can read Scripture! Secondarily, they are then able to participate more fully in Sunday morning worship in general. And, of course, reading opens multiple doors to further education, to better understanding of theology and ideas/philosophy, and offers immense enjoyment.

Are you teaching your children to read? Diligently? This is a time-consuming task, I'll be the first to admit--I'm working with three new readers simultaneously.

"But I'm not homeschooling my children," you might say. "Their teachers are teaching them." (I'm not full-time homeschooling, either.)

I've got news for you: it is YOUR responsibility to make sure your children learn how to read--and to encourage them to read the Word. Even if they're in school all day, there are still multiple opportunities at home in which you can reinforce what they're learning in school and provide opportunities for them to demonstrate and use their new skills.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Gyo Fujikawa: Four Books

A to Z Picture Book (2010)
Fairy Tales and Fables (2008)
Mother Goose (2007)
Oh, What a Busy Day (2010)
Gyo Fujikawa

Hip, hip, hooray! Hip, hip, hooray! I love it when publishers re-release books like these. Fujikawa first published these books in the 1970s, and I grew up absorbing them and poring over the intricate illustrations just like many others kids of my day. Guess what?! Kids STILL enjoy poring over them and absorbing them. We saw two of these (nice, hardback) at Barnes and Noble the other night  and snatched them up for a very reasonable price.

Fujikawa mixes color spreads with black-and-white (very common back and then), but her illustrations are still appealing. Her strengths include filling her pages with cavorting young children with a nice multicultural representation (especially given the time period in which she was published). There is always a lot happening and much to take in, but these illustrations remain restful at the same time. Her Mother Goose book contains many rhymes; her fairy tales book contains the best loved and most familiar and well as a nice global sampling of ones not quite so familiar. Oh, What a Busy Day goes through the adventures of a group of children through a busy day, and the ABC book covers a host of activities and objects and events which correspond to the appropriate letter. (Concerned parents may wish to know that there is a big two page spread for Halloween in the ABC Book.)

I've found these at my public library recently (as well as finding them at Barnes and Noble). Look for them if you have young children in the house!

Cover images from goodreads

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Don Freeman

Some picture books are still around because we're all too sentimental to give them a gentle nudge into obscurity. After all, if I loved it so much as a kid, surely little Sammy will, too. But that's not always the case. Different time periods produce different people, to some extent. Our children have seen far more images (and moving ones, at that) than we had at their tender age. Text is written and communicated differently, too. Some older picture books don't reach contemporary kids the same way that they reached those same children's parents or grandparents.

BUT, some books DO stand the test of time.... Corduroy (and A Pocket for Corduroy) are just such books. I am amazed each time I reread these gems: Freeman "gets" preschoolers. The text and illustrations are pitch perfect. Seeing Corduroy's little ears poking out of the blankets on the big bed in the department store, looking at the inevitable discovery in the laundromat--perfect. What a tender testimony to love, acceptance, belonging. Freeman manages to achieve just the right amount of tension for a preschooler (a lost button, the desire for a pocket) and then wraps it all up with just enough ending to restore balance. It's also a rare book from this time period that showcases a family that is nonwhite, non house dwelling, non dual parent--and three cheers for Freeman managing to do this without making the books agenda driven.

(I wrote this post quite a while ago--don't know why I didn't "publish" it; but my apologies for no credits for the cover image....)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Warriors and Wailers: One Hundred Ancient Chinese Jobs You May Have Relished or Reviled

Warriors and Wailers: One Hundred Ancient Chinese Jobs You May Have Relished or Reviled
Sarah Tsiang, author
Martha Newbigging, illustrator
Annick Press

Warriors and Wailers is a well-organized compendium of just exactly what it says: one hundred ancient Chinese jobs you may have relished or reviled. You have your standard imperial jobs, some peasant jobs, a host of civil service type jobs, jobs for men or women, jobs for which you are trained, jobs for which you have to be born in the right family, and so forth.

I found the information to be well presented. I think the reading level is just fine for middle grades, and I think there are some interesting jobs presented that will hold students' interest. However, some of the jobs are a bit sketchy. I don't know if the author is trying to give equal treatment to men and women, or if she is trying to scrounge up 100 jobs...but Imperial Consort and similar such jobs might make this book chosen by parents less often. Certainly there were some women warriors and scholars, but these were few and far between. In fairness, for jobs such as Imperial Consort, the author is discreet--saying things along the lines of a girl needs to be pretty, will keep the Emperor company, and/or needs to provide a son.

The weakest point in the book is the illustration style--many of the cartoonish characters don't even look Chinese...which is kinda the point, isn't it? After all, this is a book about ancient Chinese jobs. I found them distracting and unhelpful. It's a shame because the right illustrations would have really made a difference.

All in all, this is a book that will no doubt be a fun extra Social Studies resource for classrooms and school libraries; I don't think kids are going to pick it up to read just for fun.

ARC from netgalley; cover image from AnnickPress

Monday, March 12, 2012

Death in Children's Literature

I've read many reviews lately of children's books in which the reviewer claims the book's subject matter "isn't appropriate for young children." I've even seen people comment that certain story Bibles have "too many violent stories" in their collection. Certainly, there is plenty of subject matter that isn't appropriate for young children (things of a sexual nature, for instance, come to mind), but I would submit to you that death and tragedy are not inappropriate for young children.

A vast majority of well known fairy tales include the death of a parent, the death of a villain, and/or the death or near death of the protagonist(s): "Rapunzel," "Snow White," "Hansel and Gretel," "The Little Matchgirl," "The Little Mermaid," .... Children seem completely unfazed by these fairy tale caricatures of death and dying. "But those are fairy tales and aren't supposed to be real," you say.

What about some of the all-time favorite books for children and young adults, books grownups come back to again and again: Charlotte's Web, Little Women, Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terebithia, Old Yeller, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,..... All of these deal with death, dying, or tragedy and seeming injustice. Are these books inappropriate for children and young adults? There are even picture books well worth reading that grapple with these ideas. Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola is an outstanding example.

We cannot hide death from our children; sooner or later, they will experience the death of someone they know, perhaps even a beloved pet, friend, or family member. Instead of shielding your children, read books like the ones mentioned above along with your usual book selections. Read Scripture to your children and don't skip stories like Abraham and Isaac, Cain and Abel, the Passover. After all, if you skip all stories of people dying, you'll skip the Cross and, ultimately, the source for our hope in the midst of death: the Resurrection. You can't have a Resurrection without first having had a death. Read books that cover the whole array of human experience and, when you and your children come to death and tragedy in a book, discuss our hope in the midst of death! The great books reflect this redemptive worldview; that's where the term "Christ figure" comes from. Think about this as Easter approaches, and we take special time out to celebrate the Resurrection.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa
Erica Silverman, author
Betsy Lewin, illustrator
Geisel Honor

Giddyap partner! Cowgirl Kate and her pet horse, Cocoa, live on a ranch out west and engage in ranch-y sorts of things (like checking cow pastures, going on trail rides, etc.) while also dealing with more familiar tasks (going to school). And Cocoa can talk, of course! This series is cute and a fun change from the boy-heavy early reader canon (ever notice that there are more boy characters--even in animal form--than girl characters? Especially if we're talking main characters here... I won't even mention the heavy preponderance of white characters--that's another post for another day).

At any rate, check these titles out when your young reader is moving in the Henry and Mudge stage (these are just a teensy bit harder than those). Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa focus on the usual friendship themes found so often in the early reader canon (and yet, those themes just don't grow old, do they?).

Titles in the series (so far)--and no need to read them "in order"
  • Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa
  • Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Partners
  • Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: School Days
  • Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Rain or Shine
  • Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Spring Days
  • Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Horse in the House 
Cover image from goodreads

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Geisel Winners 2012: An Examination

Tales for Picky Eaters
Josh Schneider
Geisel Award

The Geisel Award (so named in honor of Dr. Seuss) is given to the "best" early reader book each year. In my opinion, an early reader is like Frog and Toad, Henry and Mudge, or some other similar title. Tales for Picky Eaters works better as an early chapter read aloud than an early reader.

It's funny and quirky; a kid is wondering why he should eat his broccoli, his lumpy oatmeal, and other similarly "disgusting" things. His dad is coming up with off-the-wall explanations for why (ranging from a troll living in the basement that would soon be out of work to oatmeal that will continue to grow and expand every day until it's consumed). Illustrations are delightful--the best part of the book. But, I think that by the time readers are ready to read this title on their own, they may find this book a touch juvenile. The Honor Books are much better examples of books that emerging readers will thoroughly enjoy....

I Broke My Trunk
Mo Willems
Geisel Honor

I've lauded the Elephant and Piggie books before, so I'll spare the effusive praise. In sum: Go. Read. This. Book. With. Your. Child. One of Willems' best in this series (although Should I Share My Ice Cream?, also published in 2011, is even better!!). How does that man manage to communicate so much in such simple language and illustration??

See Me Run
Paul Meisel
Geisel Honor

Remember those (boring) easy readers that run something like this: "See me run. I run. I see a ball. I run to the ball..." (yawn).

Meisel gives us a similar text in terms of reading level and complexity, but his illustrations make this book a lot funnier than those boring reading texts of old. Watch the dog run, watch other dogs run, watch them dig...up a dinosaur skeleton that comes to life and chases them out of the park!

Cover images from goodreads

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Usborne and Kane-Miller

Usborne consultants are similar to other direct sales consultants (Mary Kay, Pampered Chef, Tupperware) in that you can host a party, they come to your home and demo some books, and you all end up with new goodies. Their catalog is comprised mostly of Usborne books, Usborne games and activities, and a selection of books in partnership with Kane-Miller.

Where Usborne really shines, in my humble opinion, is in their partnership with Kane-Miller. Oh, the books Kane-Miller brings to us! Mining the far reaches of the globe, they are the folks we have to thank for some truly amazing, wonderful books from other countries. Below are some of the ones I've "met" this past year. If you are invited to an Usborne show sometime in the next few months, keep these titles in mind. I own many of them (some bought from Usborne shows, some through amazon), and recommend them highly. I've also found many of these at my local library--so keep an eye out for them! (Some I've already reviewed more at length; some I will review in days to come)

Waiting for Winter
Sebastian Meschenmoser

This marvelous, beautifully illustrated picture book with an early-reader-level text hails from Germany originally. This is one of my all-time favorite picture books of the past year. And my kids are quite enamored with it, too. Some forest animals who usually sleep through the winter are waiting for the first snowflake to fall...but they don't really know what they are looking for....

Snake and Lizard
Joy Cowley (author), Gavin Bishop (illustrator)

Frog and Toad grown up and hailing from Australia! Snake (girl) and Lizard (boy) are best friends in the standard seemingly-incompatible-at-first-glance way that is often found in beginning readers. In this early chapter book, occasional colorful illustrations offer a little punch to an often hilarious series of adventures. The circle of life happens here; bugs and other small creatures are eaten, snake and lizard fight and have to make up, and along the way, they learn how to be friends.

Anna Hibiscus
Atinuke (author), Lauren Tobias (illustrator)

One of our all-time favorite early chapter book series in this house, Anna Hibiscus books are about a little girl named Anna Hibiscus who lives in Africa with her large family (including her twin brothers!). Great stories, fascinating insights into another culture, and good reminders of some things we all need to learn are found in this series of 4 books. Atinuke lives in Wales but grew up in Africa.

The No. 1 Car Spotter
Atinuke (author), Warwick Johnson Cadwell (illustrator)

By the same author of the Anna Hibiscus books, this series about a boy nicknamed No. 1 Car Spotter takes us to rural Africa (as opposed to Anna Hibiscus's city life). In similar fashion, Atinuke gives us more great stories, more fascinating insights into another culture, and more good reminders of some things we all need to learn.

Cranky Paws and other Pet Vet books
Darrell and Sally Odgers

This simple early chapter book series is for those kids who love animals. Cute stories, little word box definitions, and lots of animal love will engage newly independent readers who aren't ready for more complex stories and/or who have lots of pets at home. From Australia.

Crocodile Attack, Extreme Adventures Series
Justin D'Ath

Oh my goodness... if you want near death experiences every chapter, harrowing rescues, man v. wild scenarios, and a cliff hanger before the super-human finale, then this is the series for you. Perfect for upper elementary and middle grade boys, this is a fun series for reluctant readers who need a fast-moving plot to keep them going.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Retro Reads: Mixed-Up Files and View From Saturday

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
E. L. Konigsburg
Newbery Medal

The View From Saturday
E. L. Konigsburg
Newbery Medal

Recently, I read these two books for the first time. I know, I know.... Having grown up in the 1970s and 1980s, there is no good reason for how I managed to miss Mixed-Up Files. I mean, really. I lay that blame firmly on the shoulders of my school teachers! I've always felt like everyone was in some secret club--my peers as grown-ups talk about Mixed-Up Files with the kind of nostalgia and delight they shower on Wrinkle in Time or even Narnia. View From Saturday didn't appear until I was graduating from college--that blame I lay solely on my children's literature professors who were teaching me in graduate school a few years later!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The World in Your Lunch Box

The World in Your Lunch Box
Claire Eamer, author
Sa Broothroyd, illustrator
Annick Press

Ever wondered where tomatoes originated? I'll give you a hint: it's not Italy. What about ice cream? Watermelon? Vanilla? Pita bread?

The World in Your Lunch Box is a delightful exploration of some of the foods your student might have in his or her school lunch in a given week. A teacher assigns his students the following: keep a diary of your lunch for a week and look up information about each of the parts of your lunch. Brief history, scientific information, and weird facts are presented about foods as diverse as those mentioned above, plus parts of a pizza, chocolate, corn, .... Funny little drawings punctuate the text including little jokes (i.e. Pita bread says to regular bread, "Bread, you'll never understand, you were just raised differently." Bread responds, "Pita, you're full of hot air." yuk yuk yuk)

Middle school students will enjoy this little nonfiction gem--and may come home requesting some new foods! I appreciated the way certain periods of history (i.e. colonization, spice trade, etc.) and the balance between organic and conventionally grown produce was handled. Information was given, but no judgment passed. The point of this book is not to convert anyone to a particular perspective, but to open a kid's eyes to the interesting background of a seemingly ordinary school lunch. There is a nice bibliography and thorough index in the back as well; books recommended for kids definitely come from the more politically correct persuasions, but they seem fairly well rounded.

I think a nice touch would be the addition of some kid-friendly recipes (for instance, there's a suggestion to make your own pizza...but no recipe! The making of mayonnaise is discussed--another potential recipe to try would be great there).

Recommended for upper elementary and up (reading level is not difficult, but kids will get more out of this book if they have a working knowledge of history; references are made to things such as "when the Spanish conquered the ..." without any further elaboration). Book is in stores now and hopefully will be in libraries in the near future!

Advance review copy from netgalley; cover image from goodreads

Friday, March 2, 2012

Amelia Lost

Amelia Lost: the Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
Candace Fleming
Schwartz & Wade Books

This book received a lot of blogger buzz last year, but it didn't receive much awards attention (OK, none, really) when the Caldecott/Newbery/et. al. were announced earlier this year. Now that I've read it, I can see why the buzz!

Fleming tells us the story of Amelia Earhart in an engaging, readable format. Amelia's biographical story is broken up into chapters and interspersed with "chapters" of her disappearance and subsequent rescue attempts. I liked this dual plot thread which all coalesced at the end of the book. Knowing she is missing heightens some of the details Fleming gives us about her character and her decisions in her earlier life.

Fleming manages to give us a very likable and sympathetic heroine--but also a very real one, complete with faults and poor decision making. This is a true story of a brave woman, but it is also the true story of a human being like the rest of us. There are mild feminism undertones, but they are also reflections of a time during which women did need to gain a bit more independence (i.e. the right to vote!).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Grandpa Green

Grandpa Green
Lane Smith
Caldecott Honor

I'm partial to books which celebrate grandparents and their legacy. Some picture book classics along these lines exist (Tomie dePaola's Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs is one). This year, the Caldecott committee honored a grandparent book, and I am delighted! Grandpa Green tells the story of one great grandfather's legacy to his great grandson--all found in his expertly clipped and trimmed garden.

Grandpa Green is one of those books that grows on you. When you finish it the first time, you are touched and may think a "sweet story." Upon a reread, however, new images strike your eye, new revelations perhaps. When you finish it the second time, you may just open it and reread it again! And, this is true for kids, too, if mine are any indication. Repeated requests for the "green grandpa" book heralded me at every home storytime whilst this book was in our house. They pored over it during rest time. They laughed and pointed out the new images they noticed.

Did my children "get it"? I don't know. I tried to point out what the child was doing at the end of the book in honor of his great grandfather. Maybe the sweet, restful nature of the images will sink in, and this book will come back from memory at a time in the future. But I am also content to reread a gentle, grandparent-honoring book with them and know they appreciate it at some level even now.

Book from library; cover image from goodreads

Freddie Ramos Makes a Splash! (Zapato Power #4)

Freddie Ramos Makes a Splash! (Zapato Power #4)
Jacqueline Jules, author
Miguel Benitez, illustrator
Albert Whitman and Co.

I am definitely going to check out the Zapato Power books 1-3! This is my first introduction to funny little Freddie and his amazing shoes (zapatos). The first Freddie Ramos book apparently won a Cybil award for Early Readers in 2010 (the Cybils are like the big-time ALA awards only given by bloggers!), but I missed meeting little Freddie until now.

What I like about Freddie Ramos and his crazy shoes are (1) an approachable early reader/chapter book centered around a boy that (2) doesn't depend on bathroom humor and (3) features a nonwhite main character that is still (4) very approachable and "relatable" to a wide audience. The illustrations aren't my favorite style, but they work nicely nonetheless. The graphic novel feel will no doubt appeal to the kids who pick up this series. I like that Benitez makes Freddie look like any kid--no real identifying markers as to ethnicity or economic state. The text lets the reader know enough of Freddie's background for the story to make sense (single parent home, words like "zapato"), but anyone, anywhere in the U.S. can probably relate to Freddie. Freddie is still definitely Hispanic (or, at the very least, conversant in Spanish); it's wonderful to have a book like this with a main character like Freddie on the early reader scene, especially since it doesn't feel like Freddie's heritage is the "point." It's just one more facet of who Freddie is.

Freddie is busy solving "crimes" and figuring out mysteries (such as, who left the big globs of bubblegum on the sidewalk and who "stole" his backpack); his shoes can make him as fast as a superhero--a responsibility Freddie takes very seriously. His adventures are a perfect fit for the age range/reading level range for this book (my bet is 1st-3rd grade or so, give or take a year). Younger kids will probably relate better than those at the older end of the range.

This book comes out this month! Keep an eye out for it; it may take a little while before it appears on library shelves, but you can always ask for it.

ARC from netgalley; cover image from Albert Whitman