Friday, February 28, 2014

Funny Money on the Rock: Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko

No one ever believes I live on Alcatraz. Even my eighth-grade history teacher made me write on the chalkboard "I do not live on Alcatraz" two hundred times. She didn't even apologize when she found out I wasn't lying.

My father had trouble getting his driver's license. They thought he was an escaped prisoner too stupid to fake his address instead of an officer at the most notorious prison in North America.

My friend Annie was kicked out of Sunday school for saying she lived on Alcatraz.

Moose Flanagan is worried. He's used to living on Alcatraz Island, a stone's, or in Moose's case, a baseball's throw, from the Big House, with convicts (even Al "Scarface" Capone) doing their laundry and trustees making repairs in their apartment in Building 64. But when his dad is appointed Associate Warden. Moose has more to worry about than usual. His autistic sister Natalie is now sixteen and in some ways harder to manage than ever, but his main worry is about his father's promotion.

Officer Darby Trixle clearly is angry about being passed over for the job, and his wife, always critical of Natalie's presence, seems to be on a mission to find fault with all of them. And then Piper, the Warden's pretty but pretentious daughter, shows him the cons' point system, found in the kitchen.


Now Mouse has to worry about his dad, too. And then, while sitting with the sleeping Natalie, Mouse drops off to sleep and awakens to find the apartment ablaze. He gets his sister out safely, but most of his stuff, including his history report on President Roosevelt, is gone. And while the family relocates while the cons repair their apartment, other strange events seem to be happening. Mouse finds some bills mysteriously left in the laundry, Piper shows him an expensive cashmere sweater "from her secret admirer," and other people find "gifts" and mysterious bills, tens and twenties, left without a clue. To make matters worse, Mouse's teacher says he has to redo his homework, but even worse, Mrs. Trixle starts a whispering campaign to convince the other residents that Natalie started the fire and that she is a danger to everyone on Alcatraz. Then Mouse finds his history folder suddenly returned to the apartment, with a penciled addition written by Capone himself, a cryptic warning that ends with "It's a state affair."

Mouse and his friend Annie realize that to protect Natalie from being sent away to a residential school, they must discover the identity of the real arsonist, and to do so they must trust Piper, who knows most of what goes on on the Rock. Gradually, they begin to see that the mysterious money is somehow at the root of the mystery.

Then his father is knifed by a convict nicknamed "Indiana," and Mouse realizes what Capone's warning must have meant.

Gennifer Choldenko's third and final book in her series, Al Capone Does My Homework (Dial Books, 2013), has all the qualities--a main character who feels responsible for everything, a mystery set on Alcatraz Island in the 1930s with a cast of believable, colorful, and sometimes murderous characters, among them  Capone, who seems to have taken a shine to Mouse, and a coming-of-age story with all the feelings of a thirteen-year-old protagonist--that earned her first book, Al Capone Does My Shirts its Newbery Honor Medal, and her second book, Al Capone Shines My Shoes rave reviews. This final book in the trilogy is exciting and yet satisfying, with a sense of completion for readers, but also with a sense of regret that the story of Mouse Flanagan has come to an end.  Choldenko spent ten years of her life researching and writing this series, and we can only hope she finds another subject so engaging.

Kirkus Reviews caps it well, saying "A satisfying finale to what has become a cornerstone series in contemporary children's literature."

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Bright & Early! Early Bird by Toni Yuly


She stretches tall as she can and eyes a butterfly, already up and on the wing. The sun is coming up, the sky is blue, and the morning air is fresh.

It's time to see what else is UP!

Early Bird runs across the bright green grass, through the dewy flowers, and dodges under a spider web. She is in luck as she zips by a cat, only one eye yet open and too sleepy for a chase.

But Early Bird is on a morning mission. She soon finds herself in the garden, where she discovers there is someone else up and at it--Early Worm!

Toni Yuly's captivating debut picture book for the youngest readers, Early Bird (Feiwel and Friends, 2014), is a standout, with her digital art bright but classic with a pleasing use of  clean lines and shape. Early Bird herself is streamlined and curvy, with the big head and round eyes of a young one, little symmetrical wings of black and short legs against her red body.  In clean, stylized lines, everything reduced to its simplest essence but still clearly identifiable, each page a pleasure to the eye.  Yuly's story is as fresh as the morning dew, full of  the exuberance of the young.   As Publishers Weekly puts it, "This Early Bird does indeed get the worm, and what she does (and doesn’t) do with it creates some fun moments of suspense and humor in the final pages."

And that Early Worm? Not to worry, as he and Early Bird breakfast on strawberries together! There's only one thing left to make this morning complete. Birdsong! And Early Bird's got that one covered, too! Pair this one for older tots with Jill Esbaum's springy new story, I Hatched! for a veritably vernal story time.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ah, Brave New World! I Hatched by Jill Esbaum





An ebullient baby bird wastes no time on transitions. He stretches as he emerges from his too-tight shell, checks out his gangly long legs and his very far-away feet, and, Hoo-boy, he's ready to go and go and go.



Clearly he's a killdeer, born to run, and run he does, this way and that. Everything is new and wonderful. He studies his reflection in the pond and pronounces himself handsome, as a big green frog goggles up at this new critter. Wait! There's Mom, with lunch! Bugs and worms (a bunch!) Yum!


This exuberant, peripatetic baby plover is full of life, full of himself, full of that joie de vivre that makes him sing out, run about, and inspect a part of himself he didn't know he had.





This bird can't resist exloring everywhere, until he hears a familiar CRACK! It's a shell, just like his, and there's--his sister just peeping out of it. Hoo-boy, the things he's got to show her!


Jill Esbaum's just-emerged new I Hatched! (Dial, 2014) is the perfect picture of any baby just coming into his own, human or bird, full of enthusiasm and energy, exploring everything he sees before him, filled with the exuberance of living in a wondrous world. With joyous, evocative rhymes and Jen Corace's splendid illustrations which portray the heady, headlong urge to experience it ALL at once, this story captures the essence of youth, as invigorating as spring itself. This book is a bouncy bundle of energy just like its boisterous downy protagonist, one not to be missed this season.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Riding the Rails: Locomotive by Brian Floca

made for crossing the country,
a new road of rails
made for people to ride.

It was built "with a grunt and a heave and a swing, the ring of hammers on spikes." The Transcontinental Railroad, linking the middle of the United States with its western coast, was begun under President Abraham Lincoln, a tremendous vote of confidence for the survival of a divided country and the hope for its geographical union.

When it was done, it was a shining road for people to reach the Pacific Coast lands, once a long slog by covered wagon or a perilous voyage around Cape Horn, now possible with what seemed wondrous speed, a trip of mere days.

Brian Floca's 2014 Caldecott Medal book, Locomotive (Caldecott Medal Book) (Atheneum Books, 2013) puts a family, mother, boy, and girl, into a frame story of the first passenger run on that train, from Omaha to San Francisco, where Papa awaits them. In his meticulous, award-winning artwork, Floca takes the reader along, riding those rails, across the wide high plains where at first telegraph lines zing by and later where antelopes race the train, where the tracks trace their way between mountain ranges on each side. Then they cross the desert where wagon wheels and oxen skulls tell the tale of those who failed the trip, until at last they begin the long climb--clickety clack, clickety clack, c-l-i-c-k-e-t-y c--l--a--c--k,--up the slopes of the Sierras, rickety rack rickety rack across scary wooden trestles over deeper and deeper gorges, burrowing into tunnels showing the hand-hewn marks of their hammers and drills, and at last roaring, twisting, down the mountains to their final stop.

Down, down, past orchards and towns,
down to stop at the depot--
Here, where you needed to go,
where where you need to be...

Brian Floca took two prizes for this book, the Caldecott Award for the best-illustrated book of the year, but also the Robert Sibert Honor Medal for excellence in non-fiction writing for young people. Into that story of a family united he includes, in remarkable blank verse, the story of the steel-driving builders, the railroad workers--engineer, firemen, brakemen, conductors aboard, and workers along the route at the water stations and fueling stations and the depot station cooks, where the dubious children contemplate a menu of buffalo steaks, antelope chops, and "chicken" which is likely prairie dog, even the newsboys who come aboard to keep the weary riders amused with the local papers. As he did in his epic book, Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11, (Richard Jackson Books (Atheneum Hardcover)) Floca gives equal attention to the history and geography of the trip as well as its hardware, showing landmarks such as Castle Rock, the 1000 Mile Tree, and Pulpit Rock, and closeup looks at the tickets, the gauges and levers and firebox inside the engineer's cabin, as well as such touches as a view of the mobile toilet (don't flush unless the train is rolling) and the coal stove in the corner of each passenger car. Floca's opening and final endpapers are works of art themselves, especially the meticulous cutaway drawings of the engine itself at the back.

Floca's narrative is lively, rhythmic, and absorbing, mixing sibilant syllables--"Now the train travels trestles," and "through shodowy sheds, long and dark"--and not sparing the delicious onomatopoeia of train sounds--"HUFF HUFF," "BANG," "BOOM," "HISS," "CLICK AND CLACK" and "CHUG CHUGGA CHUG." The whole book is a masterpiece of fine storytelling, descriptive language and detailed illustration which tells the remarkable story of how the transcontinental railroad finally linked the whole land into one country. Floca's iconic final illustration shows the family walking away, hand in hand, while the boy salutes the engineer and his train with a wave of his hat. As The New York Times says "He's a brilliant, exacting draftsman; he also knows how to give his pictures a cinematic energy, especially in the way he "cuts" from page to page…"

Now the country's far corners
have been pulled together...
by the locomotive.

On the Pacific, by that new sea,
you have found a place to call home.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Last Quest: Doll Bones by Holly Black

Alice inhaled sharply, and Zach followed her gaze. She was staring at the doll. Its head was turned like it was looking out the window.

"Poppy!" he said. "Stop messing around."

"What?" She turned back to look at them, like she was oblivious. He hadn't seen her turn the Queen's head, but she must have. The doll didn't move on its own--had never left the case, needed them to bring it to the grave. It didn't move.

He really hoped it didn't move.

"You know where we're going, right? You know which cemetery we're going to, right?" He thought back to the moment they got on the bus back home and how he'd asked her almost the same thing.

"The grave is under a willow tree," said Poppy. "Eleanor will tell us the rest."

For years Zach and Alice had let Poppy direct them in the game. Zach contributed his action figures, William the pirate and his followers, and Alice added her two mermaid dolls. Poppy contributed the game's framework, based on a very old bone-china doll shut up for perhaps a century in a tall case in her house, the one they called the Queen, protected and served by her minions, William and Alice's figures. The game was the center of their friendship, and there was an unspoken pact that no one else must know what they played in their secret place.

But Zach is twelve, becoming a star on his middle school basketball team, understanding that he has to keep the game with two girls a secret from his friends. And when his dad, until recently estranged from the family, decides that he's too old to play with dolls and sends William and the rest of his action figures off in the trash, Zach can't bring himself to explain to Poppy and Alice what has happened and abruptly settles for telling them that he won't play the game anymore.

But then Poppy has a dream--a dream in which the porcelain doll comes to her as a murdered girl, Eleanor Kirchner, a girl whose bones were used to make the bone-china doll in the cabinet. The ghost in the dream implores Poppy to bury her in her family grave, one "under the willow tree," so that she can rest in peace. Pale and serious, Poppy begs her friends to go with her to find that grave and bury the doll. Alice and Zach find themselves drawn into the pact, protesting that they do not believe in ghosts, but somehow drawn by the bonds of friendship and by the intriguing idea of such a daring adventure, a quest.

But disturbing events begin as soon as they board a 2:30 A.M. bus for the nearby town where the doll was made. A crazy homeless man seems to see four of them, Zach, Poppy, Alice, and "the blonde." When they stop in a diner, the waitress tells them she has only one table for four left, and Zach begins to wonder if the ghost of Eleanor is visible to others, if not to them. And when the three hide out in the town library, Zach discovers an out-of-the-way gallery, exhibiting the work of the apparently deranged bone-china artist, Lukas Kirchner, whose daughter Eleanor had disappeared without a trace. Now Zach, too, believes that their Queen, the doll whose porcelain was made from clay and bones, contains the remains of Eleanor Kirchner, and that they have no choice but to finish their quest with her burial beneath her family's gravestone. There is only the hard-headed Alice to convince.

Alice rolled her eyes. "We're not zombies just because we like stuff you don't."

"No, you're right," said Poppy. "We had a story, and our story was important. I hate that both of you can just walk away and do what you're supposed to do ... and leave me behind. I hate that everyone calls it growing up, but it feels like dying.

But Alice goes along, unable to admit that she is drawn into this mysterious adventure as much as the others, and before the three friends find childhood's end together at the foot of a gravestone carved with a willow tree, they find something else that they will always share, in Holly Black's 2014 Newbery Honor Book, Doll Bones (Margaret K. Elderry Books, 2013). The Queen is dead and buried at last, but Holly Black's enthralling story will keep her story alive for many readers. As Zach says, "Quests are supposed to change us." And in Holly Black's cracking-good coming-of-age novel set on the knife's edge of reality and the supernatural, readers will find mystery and challenge; they will be changed, along with the three friends, perhaps perceiving that their reality is also a story that they are creating as well.

Black, the creator of the best-selling The Spiderwick Chronicles series, knows how to spin a supernatural-tinged tale with the best of them, a story that reminds us that there's another dimension just beyond real life in our own  imagination. Says the New York Times reviewer, "For the 10-12 year-old reader...Doll Bones may be perfect....It’s a deep, strange and compelling book, at times lovely, at times heartbreaking and deliciously weird.”

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Little Red Cap Responder: Red Knit Cap Girl to the Rescue by Naoko Stoop

"What's that on the water?" asked Red Knit Cap Girl.

"It's a polar bear cub! He needs our help!"

Red Knit Cap Girl and her forest friends have  been busy crafting origami toys, until through her newspaper telescope she sees a white cub adrift on a shrinking ice floe.

Now she shifts into Red Knit Cap first responder format. Quickly folding a hang glider for herself, Bear and Rabbit fly out over the ocean toward the cub floating far from home. He is crying, and she hugs him quickly and offers her help.

"Your family must looking for you!" she supposes.

But how to find the way to take him back home where he belongs?

The Moon serves as dispatcher, pointing her in the direction of the North Star, toward the land of snow and ice.  Red Knit Cap Girl fashions an origami boat from newspaper, and a pod of whales offer guidance along the way by the glow of the Northern Lights, until the telescope shows a Mama Polar Bear looking anxiously out over the Arctic Ocean.  Baby Polar Bear recognizes her.


My work here is done, Red Knit Cap Girl seems to be saying, as she folds more newsprint into a paper airplane to return home, her red cap still in place, in Naoko Stoop's second book in this carefully crafted series, Red Knit Cap Girl to the Rescue (Little, Brown, 2013).  A simple lost and found story, Stoop's delicate and evocative mixed media (ink, acrylic, pencil, on coarsely grained plywood) achieve an imagined world that is both sweet and daydream-like, a flight of fancy firmly anchored by the solid shape of the resourceful Red Knitted Cap Girl.  The illustrations are soothing, lush and lovely, with a gentle inevitability in the story's happy ending.  As School Library Journal says, "The novelty of this tale lies in the stunning illustrations and the character's imaginative use of origami as a vehicle for adventure."

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Luck o' the Irish! Fancy Nancy: Just My Luck by Jane O'Connor


Nancy's search is not so lucky, but she does find Robert's lost library card. That's lucky for him.

But Grace, the class sourpuss, notices Nancy heading back inside the school:


Grace is all too happy to tell Nancy what terribly bad luck follows such a misstep and warn her about all the other harbingers of ill fortune to watch out for--walking under ladders, opening an umbrella indoors, having a black cat cross her path, and on and on. Maybe it's just her Irish, but suddenly Nancy Clancy is in the clutches of superstition, anxious about all the bad omens she's been apparently ignoring all her life.

At home Nancy checks her mirror for cracks, and almost spills salt when Jojo bumps her arm at dinner. At school the next day she eats 14 potato chips, even though she only wanted 13, just to avoid that unlucky number, and when she's called on to give the sum of 6 + 7, she can't bring herself to say the right answer--because it's unlucky.

Suddenly Nancy feels like she has a black cloud of bad fortune floating over her head!

In Jane O'Connor's brand-new I-Can-Read Fancy Nancy story, Fancy Nancy: Just My Luck! (I Can Read Book 1) (Harper, 2014), it's her good luck that her empathetic teacher Ms. Glass guesses her problem with saying "thirteen"  and  in a quiet moment, assuages her worries over these superstitions. A black cat is just a lost kitty, but a penny she finds on the sidewalk? Well, if she is lucky enough to find 99 more, she'll have a dollar! That's not so bad!  Robin Preiss Glasser  provides the cover art, and illustrator Ted Enik does the page illustrations for this Level 1 beginning reader, just in time for seasonal (St. Patrick's Day and April Fools' Day) reading.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Little Dog Lost Tale: Daisy Gets Lost by Chris Raschka


And with those four words little Daisy is off, chasing a blue ball this time out, ears flapping and stubby legs flying across the park. She snares the ball, mouths it, and is ready to fetch, when she sees something that stops her in her tracks.

It's a squirrel, for the moment absorbed with the fat acorn in its mouth. Fetching forgotten, Daisy drops the ball and charges toward the squirrel, who drops his acorn and makes a run for it into the woods and up a tall tree.

Daisy reaches the tree, barking, with front legs scrabbling at that pesky tree between her and her quarry, her tongue lolling with the joy of pursuit.

But her ardor cools as she looks around, and a worrying thought crosses her mind.

Daisy doesn't know where she is.

Daisy's girl does know where she is, either! She runs into the trees and undergrowth to look for her dog, calling her name!

Daisy runs frantically this way and that, getting more confused and lost as she goes. There seems to be no way out of the underbrush.

Suspense builds quickly in Chris Raschka's second Daisy book, Daisy Gets Lost (Schwartz and Wade, 2013), as girl and dog search blindly for each other in the tangle of the woods. Amazingly, Raschka's inimitable art style manages, with a minimum of seemingly careless brush strokes and dabs of color to portray high emotion as the two friends frantically try to find each other. Using double-page spreads and one bird's-eye view, the illustrator shows their frenetic hunt as they circle each other, lost. Only the squirrel knows where they both are, and he's not telling! Of course, it's not long until there's a happy pup and a girl hug in a joyful reunion to end this lost dog story, with even Daisy's blue ball found on the way back to civilization.

As he did in his Caldecott Medal-winning A Ball for Daisy, Raschka's minimalist text and artwork tells the tale well. Says School Library Journal, "As in his previous work, "Raschka masterfully imbues his ink, watercolor, and gouache illustrations with a stunning range of emotions…this book is a must for Daisy fans everywhere.”


Without A Word: Journey by Aaron Becker

It is a sepia sort of day, on a drab street where even the traffic light can't quite manage to be red. A lonely girl slumps on the stoop in a tableau in which the only color is her red scooter leaning against the stairs and a red chalk in a boy's hand on the street.

Inside, Mom yaks on the kitchen phone and stirs up something in a large stew pot. The girl takes her red kite hopefully to Dad, who is hunched over his computer. Her sister ignores her red ball as she punches at her iPad. Ignored. the girl flops like an abandoned rag doll on her bed. But when her snoozing cat suddenly stirs and stalks out the door, the girl sees a red chalk in the spot the cat just left.

Suddenly animated, the girl draws a rounded red door on her wall. It opens and she runs through it, emerging from a wide and tall tree into a green-gray forest lit by Japanese lanterns, where she follows a road to a stream. There she draws herself a red rowboat, and the adventure is on.

Down canals to a fairy-tale castle she floats, and inside a walled citadel, where a series of locks lift her boat higher and higher, until a sluice ends in a waterfall. Improvising as she falls, the girl draws a red hot air balloon, which floats over a series of robotic steampunk vehicles and armored defenders,
until she spots an imprisoned rose-colored bid of paradise. Freeing it from its gilded cage, the girl lets it fly away as she is captured and herself imprisoned.

But the bird returns, bearing in its beak--the red chalk,  with which the girl draws a crimson flying carpet, which flies back to the door in the tree, which opens out as the postman's locked door on a mailbox, back onto the sepia street, where she meets the boy, this time with a rose-colored chalk to match the bird. Together they draw two circles which become a tandem bike which takes them (and the bird) away together, page right, into what the reader supposes to be more adventures.

In a medium such as mine, made for words, where there is no dialogue to quote and the only illustration allowed is a book cover, it is hard to do justice to a book like Aaron Becker's Journey (Candlewick Press, 2013). But now that Becker's little tour de force has been awarded a Newbery Honor Medal, it is getting the attention it deserves. Becker's illustrations are inventive, with ordinary story book people, in an almost surrealistic world that reveals more than is usually seen. Becker's story moves inerrantly left to right. Walls can be solid or transparent to what lies inside or below, and his paintings of the castle and the cloud-borne mechanical inhabitants are quite detailed, quaint, yet surprising. It is a modern, dreamlike outing built upon the same premise as Crockett Johnson's classic Harold and the Purple Crayon, 50th Anniversary Edition (Purple Crayon Books) a quite avant garde piece of meta-fantasy in its own time in its own way. Becker's fantasy takes advantage of the advances in picture book art and printing since, which allow stunning layouts and almost cinematographic movement, while keeping the same sense of childlike openness to imagination and adventure.

"A masterwork," says The New York Times. "An imaginative adventure story whose elaborate illustrations inspire wonder, careful examination and multiple reads," adds Kirkus Reviews.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Please Do Not Excite the Animals: Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo by John Lithgow

It's off to an orchestra concert in the park for a boy whose initial expectations are actually not all that high. Sitting next to his sister while violins fiddle and French horns tootle--how exciting can that be? And in fact, the sensory experience is indeed all too soporific!

The soft summer air was so balmy and sweet
And the program was running so long
That I found myself falling asleep in my seat.
Despite all the music and song.
But just as he's dozing off, fate steps in to change the scene:
Oh, children, remember, whatever you do.
Never play music right next to the zoo!
They'll burst from from their cages, each beast and each bird.
Desperate to play all the music they've heard!

The zoo critters storm the bandstand. The musicians, in long gowns and tuxedos, put up a good fight to hold on to their instruments. The tubby lady bassoonist wields a mean music stand in the face of the bear, but the zoo animals finally overpower them and take their places. While the goat makes short work of the sheet music for the staid numbers in the program, the hippo, who definitely has the lip for it, takes up the tuba and heads up the rhythm section.

The monkeys played fiddle, the bison played bass.
The percussion were manned by the camel.
The yak played the sax until red in the face,
A surprisingly musical mammal.

The animals have a blast, the grownups are enraptured, but the boy wonders with  horror  how the animals will be recaptured, in John Lithgow's latest picture book, Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

Not to worry, though, as the boy finds himself emerging from a nice symphonic nap with all the human bandsmen right where they should be. But despite the oft-employed "it was all a dream" motif, Lithgow proves himself more able than the average celeb author to put over quatrains whose rhythm and rhymes, like those of Dr. Seuss, are an intrinsic part of the fun and appeal of the story. Leeza Hernandez (who did up the dandy dogs in Lithgow's earlier best-seller, I Got Two Dogs: (Book and CD)) provides the comic critters that supply the engaging visual fun for this story. Lithgow has a real knack for performing children's songs with just the right touch of sincerity spiced with irony, and does so again in the CD included in this book.

The introduction of the orchestral instruments makes this story a great lead-in to primary graders studying symphony music as well as zoo animals, both of which add to the uses for this jolly storytime treat. As Kirkus Reviews reports, "Move over, Carnival of the Animals (illustrated by Boris Kulikov, 2004); here's another snappy, yet lighter and younger, zoological fantasy to add to Lithgow's repertoire." For young symphonic sophisticates (savvy third graders, for example), pair this one with Lemony Snicket's terribly clever The Composer Is Dead. See my review here.)

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Movin' It: Digger, Dozer, Dumper by Hope Vestergaard



Kids who long for BIG and powerful construction behemoths will find lots to love in Hope Vestergaard's
Digger, Dozer, Dumper(Candlewick Press, 2013). With plenty of friendly-looking but detailed illustrations of such power movers, the usual suspects--dump trucks, garbage trucks, and power shovels going all the way back to Virginia Burton's Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, --illustrator David Slonim adds more exotic earth movers--skid-steer loaders, excavators, and backhoes, who prep the site for the steam roller and cement mixer to step in and lay the foundation for the steel monkeys to build upon.

Meanwhile, out on the road, there are semis, ambulances, fire trucks, cherry pickers, and tow trucks to choose among.

But in addition to her catalog of big machines, it is in her savvy rhyming descriptions that Vestergaard's text shines.


With a street sweeper whose "steely whiskers whisper/ as they gather dust and dirt," and the dump truck who, when "the gravel starts to spill...makes a little hill," Vestergaard's narrative sings, positively poetic. A super storytime companion to Sherry Duskey Rinker's modern classic, Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site. (Read my review here.)


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

It Takes Two: Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle

It takes two to tango!

But Flamingo looks down his nose (quite a honker there) at the chubby Flora, apparently enchanted with his elegant one-legged pose, balanced awkwardly on one swim fin, the other flapping as she wobbles. Caught in the act of copycatting, Flora nonchalantly looks away as if unaware of the tall pink bird in front of her.

But when Flamingo haughtily high-steps away, Flora follows suit. Flamingo performs a perfect arabesque, and Flora struggles for the proper straight-legged extension.

In Molly Idle's exquisite lift-the-flap, wordless book, body language tells the tale. At first miffed by this awkward imitator, Flamingo's moves flow with elegant ease into his sleeping pose, one leg folded up and head under wing, and Flora forces her body into her own imperfect version. Flamingo steals a peek from under his wings.

And it's game on, with Flamingo challenging Flora into poses that are difficult for her, head down, peering at him through her legs and slipping into a not-go-graceful somersault.  Flora turns her back to the big bird, blushing at her faux pas, as Flamingo seems to reconsider his moves.  Finally, he beckons to her with one wing. Flora follows again.

Flamingo leads his pupil in a plie' and a lovely eleve', and the two, a tall pink flamingo, and a tubby girl in pink swimsuit, yellow swimcap, and floppy flippers finally perform a more than passable pas de deux.

It's huge fun, and the two celebrate their finale with splashing cannonballs into the water!  Ballet partners and friends at last!

Molly Idle's expressive illustrations for her wordless Flora and the Flamingo (Chronicle Books, 2013) earned her a 2014  Caldecott Honor Award.  In a controlled palette of pinks, with just a bit of brown for Flamingo's beak and Flora's flippers and a fresco of pink blossoming branches across page tops and a bit of spot art of pale pink water lilies, Idle puts her two unlikely partners in action as they perform a lively duet.  Idle uses the flap device to advance the plot, letting her characters' subtle movements tell the story in increments, as Flora's steps become more and more skilled. A four-page gatefold spread shows the two hitting the water, derrieres first, opening to two glorious, giggling splashes, and the book closes as the two salute each other with a graceful reverence as Flamingo bows, and Flora drops a charming curtsy to her teacher.

Brava, Molly Idle!

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Monday, February 17, 2014

Paper Trail: Paperboy by Vince Vawter

I'm typing about the stabbing for a good reason.

I can't talk.

Not without stuttering.

The funny way I talk is not so much like fat pigs in cartoons. Sometimes I turn red in the face and lose my breath and get dizzy circles going around in my head.

Otherwise, life is not too bad in Memphis in the summer of 1959. It's hot, but it's baseball season, and throwing his fast ball and winning games doesn't involve talking. And his best friend Rat has given him his newspaper route while he's away at the family farm, so he's officially a substitute paperboy.

His parents, busy with their own lives, think it's a good idea, and he's not worried about throwing the paper to just the right place. He's good at that. He's worried about collecting from his customers every Friday night. What if he can't say the words?

He has another problem. His parents and their maid Mam have warned him to stay away from Ara T., the itinerant junk man who pushes his cart up the alleys nearby. But Ara T. is known as an ace knife sharpener, and the boy's knife is so dull that even Mam says it won't cut hot butter. A good newspaper boy needs a sharp knife to cut the twine around his daily bundle, so he takes a chance and asks Ara T. to sharpen it. And that is beginning to look like a very bad idea.

But there are two good things about collecting. One is the boozy but beautiful Mrs. Worthington, who gives him lemonade and calls him "Sweetie." The other is Mr. Spiro, a retired merchant sailor whose house is as stacked full of books as his brain is filled with information, calls him "Messenger," and gives him a piece of a dollar bill each week with one cryptic word inked along the side.

But when Ara T. steals the saved paper route money that he is supposed to share with Rat right out of his room, the boy has to tell someone. He tells Mam. Mam's face goes cold.

Mam untied her head in and jerked the window down so hard that the weights on the ropes banged inside the wall.

Mam untied her apron while she walked down the hall. It was the first time I had ever seen it not hanging in its place on the back of the pantry door. She may have been walking but I had to run to catch up with her.

Even more strange than where she put her apron was seeing her leave the house in her white uniform without her little round black hat.

I can't leave you here, Little Man. You get right on up to Mr. Rat's house and wait for me there.

I didn't move or say anything at first.

When I came to the corner to turn onto Rat's street, I saw Mam was almost to Ara T.'s alley. A new plan came to me.

Something important happened that summer of the paper route in Vince Vawter's 2014 Newbery-winning book, Paperboy (Delacorte Press, 2013), in which Little Man changes into a boy who can bravely say his name and stand up to defend someone who loves him. In spare prose, with unusual characters, Vawter's character begins to change from a anxious child to a young man who understands much more about the world around him, someone who also is beginning to understand himself, a seventh grader who can introduce himself out loud.

My... name... is Victor... Vollmer... the Third. I stutter... when... I talk ... but I... like ... words...anyway. I... also...

As Booklist writes, “The well-crafted characters, the hot Southern summer, and the coming-of-age events are reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird… This paper boy is a fighter and his hope fortifies and satisfies in equal measure.”

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Cattails! Splat the Cat Dreams Big by Rob Scotton




But listening to daring adventures has its downside. As soon as Mom kisses him and closes the door, Splat starts to worry--about dreams in which he was not up to the job of being brave and daring. What if he can't save Princess Kitty from the evil King Spike in his dream tonight? What if there are monsters hiding in his room? Dad comes in to check the closet and under the bed and starts to laugh.

""JUST SOME DUST BUNNIES!" he chuckles.

Splat's nervous tail starts to quiver anxiously when he hears a strange noise. He calls Mom and pretends to be thirsty. She gives him a drink, tucks him in, and firmly tells him to go to sleep...NOW!

Sleep finally comes, and so does a dream of an evil King Spike, but this time Splat gets his chance to be the the Hero Cat in in this story of Rob Scotton's bedtime boy, Splat the Cat Dreams Big (Harper Festival, 2013). For kids worried about what their dreams may bring each night, this cat tale makes the point that good dreams and not-so-good dreams come to everyone, and some of them can be worth waiting for. Just right for early readers and bedtime resisters, Scat is the cat of the hour when sleepytime rolls around.

Pair this one with Scotton's wish-fulfillment tale, Splat the Cat: On with the Show (Harper Festival, 2013), in which Splat gets the chance to live his favorite dream of being the brave hero who rescues Princess Kitty in the school play--if he can just land the right part!

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Pooch Par Excellence: The Perfect Dog by John O'Hurley

"Is there a dog that is perfect?” my son asked on a whim."

Perfect for what? If you consider all the curious cross-breeds and marvelous mutts, as well as the plenitudes of purebreds, there is no doubt there is a dog that is perfect for every purpose.

John O'Hurley's photographic essay, aimed at canine-loving kids, uses double-page spreads to set off charming illustrations of each dog against a one-line description of a desirable doggy quality:

Ears that are floppy....

Or cropped and alert...

Eyes that are sleepy...

Or perky and pert....?

Some of the breeds, such as the Labrador and golden retrievers, Dalmatians and Chihuahuas, will be identifiable by youngsters, and others, like the sleepy, wrinkly Shar Pei, will take a bit of research to identify, since the author offers no glossary of the breeds shown.

But in John O'Hurley's latest, The Perfect Dog (Grosset & Dunlap, 2013), the color photos of dogs doing what dogs do are  quite charming. O'Hurley's brief rhyming narrative is easily accessible for beginning readers, some of whom will undoubtedly fall in love with their perfect dog before this little book ends, while the wondering child character settles for his stuffed dog as the perfect bedtime buddy.

The dog that is perfect is the one next to you.

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Funderstudy: The Very Fairy Princess Sparkles in the Snow by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton




It's a hard job, but somebody has to do it, and Jerry is on the job. When she learns that her chorus is performing in the annual school Winter Wonderland Festival, she's sure that they need her to be their soloist.

Jerry goes into instant audition mode. At rehearsals she steps out just a little in front of her row, singing very loudly, showing that she has the most enthusiasm for the number. A bit grumpily, her teacher reminds her that all the voices in a chorus are supposed to blend into one. On her way to lunch, she stops to pretend to tie her shoe which singing right in front of his office. At recess she belts out the melody under his window.

Poor Mr. Higginbotham, ambushed at every turn by Gerry's obvious hints that she's available! But it's all for naught, as Mr. Higginbotham soon announces that a professional singer has been engaged to sing the solo with the chorus. Gerry is terribly disappointed, and when a big snow covers the roads, she's almost glad. Ever the optimist, Gerry warms up before she leaves. After all, a very fairy princess is always well prepared!"

And as if her unspoken wish is magically granted, when they arrive at the school for the performance, Mr. Higginbotham announces that the soloist is stuck somewhere in the snow. But the show must go on, and her teacher turns to Gerry. Can she step in to sing the solo part?

Fairy princesses are ever plucky, with a platitude for every turn of fortune, and Gerry's got one for this occasion as well:


But when Gerry heads to the art room to get ready for her big chance, she finds she has a wardrobe malfunction. She's left her dress-up shoes at home! Snow boots are not at all appropriate for this occasion. Looking around the room, however, Gerry spots some paints and several brushes soaking in a jar, and has an idea born of desperation.  She paints her socks, one with a hole in the toe, a lovely shade of lavender, adding purple ballet shoes to her feet, and to the giggles of the other singers, leaves a disconcerting trail of purple footprints across the stage. Gerry steps in front of the other singers and looks out over the festively decorated auditorium, hoping that the paint still covers her big toe. Suddenly, her sparkle sinks. Can she really do this? she wonders, as the orchestra begins the introduction.

But not even a snow storm can dim a very fairy princess's sparkle for long, and in the best show business tradition, Gerry doesn't miss a note and even manages to have fun, in Julie Andrews' and Emma Hamilton's latest in this series, The Very Fairy Princess Sparkles in the Snow (Little, Brown, 2013).  Done up with sparkly snowflake cover and Christine Davenier's bright ink and pastel pencil palette, this latest in the series makes use of some well-used story elements in a story that nevertheless celebrates the power of preparation and good old-fashioned pluck. Kirkus Reviews even gives this title a starred review (for show-biz *sparkle*, no doubt), saying "Kids are sure to applaud this encore performance."

For the rest of the picture books in this popular series, see my reviews here.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Back in '71: One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

So it comes to this, I remember thinking on Wednesday, June 7, 1871. It was the day of my sister's first funeral, and I knew it wasn't her last--which is why I left. That's the long and short of it.

It all began with the passenger pigeons.

They came in unnatural hordes in the spring of 1871, darkening the sky in a sudden avian twilight. People just went crazy. Some huddled gasping in the doorways, dodging the rain of bird droppings that fell, as tens of thousands of birds flew by, five feet above the ground,. Some people grabbed their shotguns and fired wildly into the flock, dropping dozens with one shot. Even Georgie fired her single shot rifle into the mass without even needing her dead-eye aim.

But her sister raised her parasol above her head and ran out into the bird storm, and laughed wildly as the bird stream parted and flowed around her. Laughed and twirled under her parasol, and the next day she went off with the pigeoneers down to road toward Dog Hollow, and a few days after, the Sheriff came back with an unrecognizable, dismembered body, but with red hair like Agatha's, wrapped in what was surely her silk gown sewn with her mother's own stitches.

Georgie is sure that it's not Agatha who is dead. She knows that Agatha left because of her telling Agatha's intended, Mr. Olmstead, that she, Georgie, had seen Agatha kissing Billy McCabe in the twilight, right in front of their house. She'd seen Billy smiling and whistling as he left, and Georgie felt it her duty to tell, but now she feels she's the reason her sister left, and she knows it's her duty to find her sister alive.

But despite her sharpshooting skills, thirteen-year-old Georgie needs help--in particular a mount to carry her on her search--and for that she turns to the only person who has one to spare. Georgie swallows her pride and her dislike for Billy McCabe, who teased and always called her "Fry," short for "Small Fry," and reluctantly accepts Billy's offer of a mule. Arrogantly Billy insists that he has to go along with her for her own good, and since he knows her plan, Georgie has no other choice.

The two set out near midnight, heading for the small railroad town of Dog Hollow, where no one but a taciturn railway ticket seller admits to having seen a red-haired girl, but despite the stubborn mule, a scary encounter with a cougar, and discovering a counterfeiting cache in a cave along the way, Georgie and Billy become grudging comrades, and when the outlaws suspect what they know, it's Georgie who figures out who the counterfeiters really are and rescues the captured Billy with her sharpshooting skills.

I knew what I had to do. I put my right eye to the sight of the gun and aimed the barrel at Mr. Garrow's chest. My index finger wrapped around the trigger.

There's no forward or backward from dead. My own thoughts.

May I remind you that Billy was tied to that tree? Suddenly I saw what Mr. Garrow saw. Bowler Hat swung the butt end of the Springfield rifle into his palm. He walked to Billy and raised the butt end over Billy's head.

I found my mark.

It's not every thirteen-year-old who can shoot the thumb off an outlaw at 300 yards, but Georgie Burkhardt is not your average heroine.  Opening to raves and starred reviews all around, Amy Timberlake's One Came Home (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), went on to take a 2014 Newbery Honor Award. Her Georgie is a funny, smart, and outrageously self-possessed girl who manages to round up the outlaws, locate her sister (enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, studying ornithology all along), sleuths out the identity of the red-haired girl, and help sort out the romantic confusion, including her brief crush on Billy McCabe. History, mystery, wit, danger, a romantic triangle (and even a touch of middle-aged love), and an irresistibly plucky heroine who figures out her own way, all combine to make thisbook a real rip-roaring winner and more than deserving of its silver Newbery Medal.

As Kirkus Reviews says, “Georgie's story will capture readers' imaginations with the very first sentences and then hold them hostage until the final page is turned.”

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Frenchy Dog Has His Day: Fancy Nancy: Puppy Party by Jane O'Connor



Fancy Nancy Clancy is a gal for whom almost any occasion is an opportunity for celebration!

So when her dog Frenchy's natal anniversary rolls around, a can of Chow Hound Dog Food with a Milk Bone stuck on top for a candle won't do.

Nancy's mom, ever game, shapes canned dog food into three layers, frosts them with yogurt, and pops in rawhide chews for candles. Nancy sends her handmade invitations to Frenchy's canine (that's fancy for dog) friends--Bree and little Freddie's dog Rusty, Sam's Scamp, and her babysitter Alex and his beagle Buddy.

Frenchy gets beautified with a doggy bubble bath, a blow dry, and a thorough brushing and is the reluctant recipient of a doggy manicure, (fancy for a toenail trim).

Nancy's Frenchy is all set to be the hostess with the mostest, but after they sing "Happy Birthday," she can't resist lunging for her delicious-smelling birthday cake as soon as Mom appears at the door, struggling to keep it upright.

Down come the three layers, and all the guest dogs dive in to help Frenchy divvy up her birthday treat the way dogs do it.


With her usual elan', Nancy wades in to save the party with a sign that advertises NANCY'S DOG GROOMING CENTER! FREE! FREE! FREE! Mom mops up while Dad hoses down the dogs and Mrs. DeVine, Nancy, and Bree give them all glamour shampoos and combouts as party favors, in Jane O'Connor's inexpensive little paperback, Fancy Nancy: Puppy Party (Harper Festival, 2013), with internal illustrations by Carolyn Bracken. As in most of her adventures, Nancy takes life's lemons and turns them into lively lemonade for all.  For more giggle-provoking canine corralling, pair this one with the similarly themed OLIVIA and the Dog Wash (Olivia TV Tie-in) for plenty of tail-wagging fun.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Bunnies for Lunch?: Don't Play With Your Food! by Bob Shea





Buddy gets right down to business. Bunnies are for eating. Period.

Although the three white bunnies quail at the idea of jumping into his mouth for lunch, they're smarter than Buddy.


Buddy has more bravado than brains and grudgingly decides to let the baker bunnies finish the cupcakes, so he'll have bunnies as his entree' and a dessert besides. He agrees to play with the bunnies until the cupcakes come out of the oven, and the cakes are so irresistible that, after eating most of them himself, he decides to save the bunnies for breakfast.

But when he returns the next day, the bunnies invite him to go swimming with them and warn Buddy that he'll get a cramp if he swims with a stomach full of bunny. He has a great time splashing and sunning with the guys, and falls asleep before he can eat them. When he awakes, he can't quite bring himself to do the deed.


But the next day the bunnies are all wearing orange-stripey Buddy Fan Club sweaters. A monster can't eat his fan club, can he?

Then the bunnies invite Buddy to the carnival and choose the most nausea-inducing rides, and Buddy is too queasy to stomach any sort of bunny for the rest of the day.

The bunnies seem to have more tricks up their sleeves than Buddy has appetite for eating them, in Bob Shea's latest monster giggle fest, Buddy and the Bunnies in: Don't Play with Your Food! (Hyperion, 2014). Buddy even loses all street cred with the other monsters, who point out his obvious mistake:


Bob Shea's scary-cute monster is no match for the clever bunnies, who seems to keep multiplying with each page turn, until even dim-bulb Buddy finally takes notice. Shea's theme, that fun friends trump even lunch and dinner, will please kids, and the bunnies' increasing numbers and creative main-dish-avoidance techniques make this trickster tale a winner with the preschool/primary set. Shea's art is as wild and woolly as his main character, and judging from the title, he plans a new series built around Buddy and the bunnies.  Kirkus Reviews writes, "Shea's storytelling still shines. Children often see themselves as the underdog in an adultcentric world; they'll be rooting for the bunnies (all three... wait, 72 of them)".

Pair this new one with any of Shea's similarly slapstick Dinosaur stories, such as Dinosaur vs. Bedtime and Dinosaur vs. the Potty (Board Book). (Read my rip-RAHHR-ing reviews here!)

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