Monday, September 30, 2013

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: 
A Novel of Snow and Courage
Chris Kurtz, author
Jennifer Black Reinhardt, illustrator
HMH Books for Young Readers
288 pages

This book came out on my birthday this year (January 8) along with titles such as Hokey Pokey, Navigating Early, and The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brockett. Despite the "potential Newbery buzz" for books like Hokey Pokey and Navigating Early (both were on the early "to read" list at Heavy Medal, for instance), my favorite of this group is The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage.

So, why do I like this little chapter book so much? A longheld love affair with Charlotte's Web making me predisposed to like any pig chapter book? A general fondness for talking animal stories? A son who loves all things "pig"? Those are all reasons that helped me pick up this title off the "new" shelf at the library earlier this year. But those are not the reasons that make me like this book better than others I've read this year.

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage is well written. Pure and simple. Characterization is top notch. We first meet Flora as a piglet who dreams of life beyond the pigpen, befriending the barnyard cat (Luna) in hopes of finding out "stuff." One day: escape! And Flora meets Oscar, a lead sled dog. Henceforward, after being returned to the pigpen, Flora dreams not just of exploration but of joining the sled dog team. After all, she has courage, pluck, strength, a stout heart. What more could you ask for in a sled dog team member?

One day, Flora is taken, along with Oscar and a number of other dogs, on board a ship bound for an Antarctic expedition. The reader will pick up on clues that go over Flora's head: her destiny is clearly for the crew's plates. She and her newest cat friend, Sophia, team up in the ship's hold to conquer the myriad rats, and Flora works hard to build up her strength in preparation for her anticipated sled dog/pig role.

Catastrophe strikes the ship, Flora's stout heart and strong legs help save the day, and she becomes essential to the team's survival. Flora forms an unlikely team with old Oscar, prickly Sophia, and the boy Aleric to help save the day in a heartwarming ending that is not at all saccharine.

The best chapter books for the third-fifth grade crowd feature great friendships, often between unlikely characters. You will find that in spades in this delightful book. Flora seeks adventure and finds it beyond her wildest dreams. Her courage is tremendous. Sophia's begrudging acceptance of the role of team player is well done. The scary and tense situations are just the right level for the target age group. As bizarre as the plot line is, it somehow works: we're rooting for a pig and a cat in the Antarctic and we know they will make it.

This book works on so many levels: plot, characterization, "issues" (survival, friendship, teamwork, etc.), setting (from the farm to the boat to the Antarctic). Illustrations are quirky and effective. But it also works on a sentence level: the text is excellent. A well constructed text can be read aloud easily and to great effect; Kurtz gives us that here. In fact, while this book will delight strong third and fourth grade readers (and younger), I think it's real gift will be as a read aloud so that a group can cheer on Flora together. She would like that; she's a friendly type and a real team player.

Recommended as a read aloud to first grade and up; independent read as third-fifth grade.

Book from my local library; cover image from HMH Books.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

One Cool Friend (PBOW)

A Picture Book Of the Week (PBOW) feature

One Cool Friend
Tony Buzzeo, author
David Small, illustrator
Dial, 2012
Caldecott Honor

I wrote a 5 page paper on this lovely gem during my 2013 spring semester. I'll try to keep this post a bit shorter...but you never know! That's what happens when you start talking about a great picture book. The more you study it and read it, the more you see.

Let's start with the cover of this book: Notice the frosty aqua blue spine with hand drawn wavy grid lines? Does it remind you of ice cubes and cold places? Oh--look at that penguin on the front! Yes, we're in for a cold one. But not a dreary cold place: this is a fun cold place. After all the boy and penguin look like they are best friends and also share a secret. The font choice is breezy and playful as well with the word "cool" printed in the same cool aqua shade; is the friend "cool," as in "cold," or "cool," as in "popular, fun, awesome"? Both, as it turns out.

Endpapers are next. The endpapers of this book continue the cool aqua association as well as those hand drawn white grid lines that remind one of ice cubes. Brrrr....

Opening pages: We see Magellan (the penguin) up close and personal, and doesn't he look a charmer? On the next page, we see Elliott (the boy), and he looks dapper as well. The perceptive reader notices that both the penguin and the boy look alike (in palette, at least). The penguin is the "friend" in the title--after all, he's pointing at the word on the title page. And Elliott looks like he's got a little secret. His presence at the far right of that first page invites us to turn the page and find out.

Palette: this book is a terrific example of a well chosen--and well used--palette. Note the frosty blue, the black and white, the spots of red (where the action is!), and the suspicious turtle-green color associated with Elliott's dad. Hmm.... as we look more closely at these colors, we might notice a suspicious-looking turtle shape in a few pictures. Or that the dad is always linked to this color much like Elliott and Magellan are linked to the spots of aqua and red on a black and white backdrop. Huh. Who or what is the father dressed like? Aaaahh... Cook it is.

Perspective: Another element Small uses effectively in this book is perspective. Palette goes hand in hand with perspective since it's usually a particular color that is drawing our eye to part of a page. But Small cleverly shields us from noticing the obvious by providing only part of an image. A reread shows us some striking partial turtle-shapes as well as other details (maps and the like) that we missed the first time around because our eyes were drawn to something completely different.

All in all, this is a delightful book to read once, twice, three times--looking closely at the elements mentioned above as you read. When you look for particular elements, like palette, then it's easier to start appreciating why certain books win awards even if at first glance you don't find the book remarkable. (For the record, *I* found this book remarkable before the Caldecotts were announced :-). )

What do YOU think of this book? Like it? No? Why not?

Next PBOW: I want it to be Moonday by Adam Rex (September, 2013--you may need to look at this in a bookstore because libraries won't have it yet), but I'm not sure I'll make it back to the bookstore for another read before then. So, it will be Nino Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales (2013 publication, but should be in local libraries by now.)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library
Chris Granbenstein
Random House, 2013

Even before Willy Wonka is mentioned, readers will note the similarities between Mr. Lemoncello and Wonka: both are as quirky and eccentric as they come, and both enjoy creating a mysterious "playground" of sorts for children to explore. The nice ones survive and move ahead; the mean kids are out of luck.

In Mr. Lemoncello's case, it's a new library for a town that's been without for twelve years. Mr. Lemoncello is a famous game maker--both board and video--who's now a billionaire and decides to create the ultimate library + game for this small town that gave him his own beginnings in puzzle making and solving. In true eccentric fashion, his library will open with twelve twelve year olds playing an elaborate game of "escape from the library" in one 24-hour period. Kyle Keeley, game player extraordinaire but NOT a reader, is one of the twelve lucky participants, and he can hardly wait. His other eleven companions are the types of characters that enable the reader to immediately guess who's going to win and who's going to lose. After all, jerks and wimps are pretty easy to recognize, but team players nearly always get ahead--at least in books!

The game makes this book: it's elaborate, full of tricks like holographic former librarians, and is all being supervised by the actively involved Mr. Lemoncello (albeit from a distance through video cams).

What doesn't make this book are the very things that are probably supposed to make the book: the myriad references to libraries and books. Oh, the books which are referenced! Favorites of this reader, to be sure--grown-up books, kids' books, old books, new books. I had a great time noting the references, some of which are quite obscure. And there's the problem: what twelve year old who really has read enough to get all those references is going to pick this book to read next? And, if you're a gamer like Kyle who doesn't like to read, will you get any of the references? Will you really want to go read all those books?

No, I'm afraid Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, although it's getting lots of praise from professional reviews, is not going to be the crowd pleaser people seem to think it will be. It's a fun read, but it's hard to figure out who the audience will be who really gets into this: grown-up librarians or the type of kids it's about?

I rarely say this, but I think this book--ironically enough--would make a better movie than book. It's high adventure and would beg for terrific special effects. But a good read? Hmm...

Age recommendation: 9-12/middle grades
Book cover from publisher

Friday, September 20, 2013

Spunky Tells All

Spunky Tells All
Ann Cameron, author
Lauren Castillo, illustrator
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011

I'm a dog lover, to be sure. We had two mixed breed dogs (aka "mutts") for the first decade (roughly) of our marriage. Then, after an eight month gap, we recently rescued another mixed breed. So, a book like Spunky Tells All, in which a beloved family dog of indeterminate breed is narrating the story... well, it's a given I'll willingly give it a whirl.

It's easy to be cutesy when adopting an animal's "voice" in a book, but Cameron nails it. That is largely what makes this short chapter book stand out. Spunky is concerned that after the years he's lived with his Human family (2 years in "human," and 10 in "dog"), they still don't understand Dog. After all, he's learned a lot of Human. So, when he tries to argue against their decision to get a cat, the family only hears "Yerf." (sigh) What's a dog to do?

When the family comes home with the new cat (Fiona--who smells Foolish to Spunky), Spunky is determined not to like her. After all, she's a cat and foolish to boot. The second half of the book follows Fiona's and Spunky's begrudging acceptance of--and even friendship with--each other without ever being cheesy or trite. Illustrations are done in heavy black line and are a good complement to the text. It's another great animal friendship story in a long history of solid animal fiction. Animal lovers and especially pet owners will enjoy this one.

This is a terrific early chapter book for those in the transitional reading stage between easy readers like Henry and Mudge but who aren't quite ready for a regular chapter book (along the lines of Charlotte's Web). Recommended for ages 7-11; a good read aloud for younger.

Book from my local library; cover image thanks to goodreads.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Picture Book of the Week

I'm going to attempt a new feature here at LiterariTea: the Picture Book of the Week (PBOW). Megan and I've had many discussions over the years about the intricacies of our favorite picture books as well as how best to teach folks how to read a picture book. Then, I took my second graduate level picture book class this past summer with none other than Seven Imp's Julie Danielson for my professor. Needless to say, I got inspired all over again to spread the picture book dream. 

In the PBOW posts, I'll try to walk you through the elements that make a particular picture book stand out to me or that possibly helped it rise to award status. Now, I'm no expert. I've never served on an official picture book committee (such as the Caldecott), I'm not an illustrator, and I sometimes just love a book because, well, it's so darn cute. But I do pay attention to things like endpapers, gutters, palette, composition, and the like. Do you? If those words are foreign to you, then hopefully you'll learn something.

If you can get your hands on a given book, the post will make that much more sense. For brand new releases, your local bookstore is the best bet. For older books, libraries are a good option. If you have children in your life (your own, your students, your patrons, etc.), then I encourage you to walk through a picture book in depth with them the way I will be doing in these posts. I do this with my own children, and they are becoming astute readers and observers!

Finally, I recommend this excellent "How to Read a Picture Book" post by Robin Smith over at Calling Caldecott.  

In case you want to be ready, the first book I'm discussing is One Cool Friend by Tony Buzzeo and illustrated by David Small.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things

Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things (Mister Max, Book 1)
Cynthia Voigt
Iacopo Bruno, illustrator
Knopf, 2013

Voigt is a well known author, to be sure (especially for her Tillerman books--Dicey's Song was a Newbery winner from back in the day). She also won the Margaret A. Edwards award in 1995 (for lifetime achievement). And yet, we haven't heard much from her in recent years.

There's no question that Voigt can write, and write well at that. On the surface, her latest book seemed tailor made for me: I love a good mystery. I enjoy historic time periods and settings. I relish a good, open ending. Quirky characters, a dog, some art, the life of the theater--what's not to like?

When the book opens, Max's parents--both actors and owners of the Starling Theater Company--are planning a monumental trip to India. Max gets to go along. Until the day his parents board the boat and the boat leaves...without him. But, because Max is a quick thinker, he soon finds out that the boat they were supposed to board didn't exist. Therefore, did the whole trip exist? Are his parents in trouble? Did they know about this ahead of time? Is this an elaborate game or some nefarious plot? The reader doesn't know either, and we spend the next several hundred pages working on this mystery along with Max.

Thankfully, Max's grandmother lives close by, so he's not completely alone at the tender age of 12. He also has his painting instructor, a new tutor, and a new spunky girl to help him make sense of life and survive. And survive he does through his newly created "Mister Max" business: he solves minor mysteries for hire. Each time Max shows up for a new job, he's crafted a new disguise using his parents' many costumes. Thus, no one knows it's really a twelve year old boy underneath.

By the end of the book, we've learned a lot about Max and his parents (including where they are, although not how/why they got there), and Max has helped long lost lovers reunite, his painting instructor discover a new technique, and made some good friends. We're nicely set up, too, for the next book in the series.

And yet... Frankly, this book was too long. I finished it several weeks ago and am still mulling over just what didn't work. I enjoyed the characterization both of Max and the supporting cast. I enjoyed the overall dramatic framework of the book ("Act I"). But the length of the book draws out the mystery surrounding the parents' disappearance a little too long. We're bored with where his parents might be by the end and are much more invested in the here and now with Max and his new friends.

Age recommendation: 9-12/middle grades
Cover image from publisher
Thanks to publisher via netgalley for ARC!

Monday, September 2, 2013

For Good Measure: The Ways We Say How Much, How Far, How Heavy, How Big, and How Old

For Good Measure: 
The Ways We Say How Much, How Far, How Heavy, How Big, and How Old
Ken Robbins
Flash Point, 2010
48 pp.

With the Common Core requirements sending teachers and librarians scuttling for the information books on the shelves, even picture books about math are become sought after. It's unfortunate that it takes something like the CCSS to bring books like For Good Measure to our attention. This is a really cool concept book all about measurement terms that children will enjoy even if it's not in the context of a math-class-related-informational-text.

Take a look at that gorgeous cover: the photography there is indicative of the quality in the rest of the book as well as the cleverness of the compositions. After all, the familiar refrain about comparing apples to oranges stares us in the face on this cover--and it proves you can compare them. Robbins examines many different units of measurement in this well-designed book and provides very concrete examples for each of them. Students in any elementary school grade will benefit from these comparisons since measurement terms sometimes seem hopelessly abstract. Robbins even gives some historical measurements (i.e. a "span") and tells the origin of many of our terms. The book is clearly laid out and well organized, too.

Look for For Good Measure next time you need to explain measurement terms to a child. And look for it when you need a beautiful and interesting picture book just because! For more math-related picture books, check out the recent math picture book coverage on RedeemedReader. Robbins has created more beautiful photo-essays in picture book form I can't wait to check out.

Recommended for 1st grade and up.

Book from my local library; cover image from