Monday, March 31, 2014

Living in the Fast Lane: Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa's Fastest Cats by Sy Montgomery

A tall, smiling woman, her curly salt-and-pepper hair flowing like a mane, is striding toward us--with a ninety-pound black and gold spotted cat at her side. Walking on a leash as calmly as a dog is a predator who can run as fast as a car races on a highway. It's a full-grown cheetah--the fastest predatory animal on earth, and Africa's most endangered cat.

"I'm Laurie," says the lady in black, "and this is Tiger-Lily."

Walking on a leash is nothing new for cheetahs. They appeared in the tomb illustrations of ancient pharoahs doing just that, as favored pets and valued hunting companions. After all, a courser who can run at seventy miles an hour beside a chariot and bring down even the fleetest antelope is a rare animal indeed.

It was a long way from being a kid who loved animals--horses, dog, cats--to being cheetah expert in Namibia, but after a few months working in a local animal park, raising baby cheetahs, Laura Marker was hooked and had found her life's work with this amazing cat.

Today the cheetah, once found across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, has dwindled from a population of 100,000 in 1900 to 10,000 today, limited to a few arid plains in Africa, with an isolated population hanging on in Iran. Loss of habitat, poaching, and killing by farmers who fear loss of livestock has resulted in this reduced population, and biologists know that a limited gene pool can weaken a species beyond recovery. Animal scientists such as Laurie Marker, working with the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia, do what is the typical work of science, observing behaviors, collecting specimens, identifying individuals, giving them annual health exams much like those humans get (although cheetahs require darting with a sedative first), and doing DNA tests to document their population, the basic science to understand and enable this species.

But scientists in the field working with endangered species have many other roles-- treating sick and injured cheetahs, raising orphaned cubs and introducing them back into the wild to spur population growth, and caring for those too habituated to humans to return to the wild. And in these times, conservation-minded scientists become a sort of social worker at the human-animal interface: Laurie has managed to reduce the killing of cheetahs by farmers dramatically, simply by offering them the chance to obtain dogs, specifically a large and hardy breed of herding dogs called Kangals, native to Turkey, capable of preventing stock loss completely. Laurie's station raises Kangals and makes pups available at low price to local farmers, and presto! cheetahs are no longer threats to farm animals.

As North Americans have learned, mass killing-off of our large predators, cougars and wolves, has led to overpopulation by their former prey, such as deer and rabbits, with a subsequent degradation of habitation that affects the environment negatively in various ways, as any vegetable and flower gardener can attest. In their habitat, cheetahs are essential to prevent overgrazing by herbivores, and one of Laurie Marker's roles is to teach farmers that their goats, sheep, and cattle depend on the cheetah to keep nature in balance to preserve their grazing lands, too.

Sy Montgomery's Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa's Fastest Cat (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) covers the science and the fun of working with college interns in a place where tame cheetahs stretch their legs chasing the van and trained "poop-sniffing" Aussie shepherds lead expeditions of cheetah-spotting and documentation, always hoping for a sighting of the camp's favorite wild male cheetah. Nicknamed Hi-Fi, this wily male admires "the Ambassadors," the resident lady cheetahs, but slips through the post, ghostlike, never menacing their goats, rarely photographed except by "camera traps."

This latest in the notable Scientists in the Field series takes middle readers to meet face-to-face with one of the world's most fascinating and appealing endangered animals.  Plenty of "Fast Facts" pages, such as "Cheetahs by the Numbers," provide substance to the engaging narrative of one of our star environmental warriors seeking to save this amazing animal from going extinct in this century.  This book is a must-have for school and public libraries and for nature-loving young readers. Included are a useful text and photo index and bibliography for student researchers, along with a plea from Laurie Marker to the casual reader:

"Don't wait for 'somebody" to do it. You can do anything.... Don't be afraid to take that first step! Animals need our help. If you don't take care of them, they'll go away."

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Flying High: Freddie and Gingersnap by Vincent X. Kirsch


Freddie is obsessed with seeing what is up there in the wild blue yonder. But Freddie is a long-neck, not a pterodactyl, and he hasn't got either patience to wait or the wings for flying.

Gingersnap, a little purple girl dragon, has the wings, but she hasn't gotten the hang of getting off the ground with them yet.

The two meet rather suddenly when Gingersnap tries to launch herself into the wild blue yonder and lands right on Freddy. The two face off, baring their little fangs and twirling their spiny tales, eyeball to eyeball, growling their fiercest little growls.

Then the chase is on!

But what starts as a face-off quickly turns into a fun game, and round and round they go, as they take turns catching each other and wiggling free. But just as Freddie gets a good hold on Gingersnap's tail, the two tumble over a cliff, endng with twin kerplops, into an unfortunately placed brier patch.

There's got to be a better way to play!

The two new friends decide to join forces and work on the flying thing together, and with Freddie's unique encouragement, Gingersnap's flaps finally turn into flight, and they both see what's above those clouds at last, in Vincent Kirsch's Freddie & Gingersnap (Hyperion Press, 2014).

A little green dino and a purple dragonette are improbable pals, but as many childhood friendships do, rivalry turns into teamwork, and a lasting bond is born. Kirsch's energetic artwork eschews the conventionally softly rounded shapes usually assigned to little dinosaurs and young dragons, and their spiky and sinuous bodies give this little story its wryly comic edge. Youngsters will especially enjoy Kirsch's well placed three-page vertical gatefold depicting Gingersnap and Freddie's long fall from the cliff, and by the time Ginger gets it together and flies high with her friend on board, kids will be rooting for this unlikely twosome all the way. "This stylish tale of an unlikely friendship has an infectious rhythm," says School Library Journal.

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

RoboPup: Motordog by Kurt Cyrus



A kid with an iPad
under the blanket in bed....
placing orders from the 'Net.
Wonder what pet he'll get?

Flip wants a dog, but when his shipment arrives, it's not exactly a cute little Furby inside. Still, as he sets up his robo-pet, Flip has no idea what this botdog can do.

But he finds out soon enough. Out for a trial run--a harmless little walkin'-the-dog stroll down the sidewalk, Motor Dog spots Scoot the Cat and the chase is on. Scoot (true to his name) is fast enough to make it to the nearest tree first and climbs to a high limb. But Motor Dog unfurls his auxiliary jet pack and with a yank drags Flip, still manfully hanging on to the leash, up, up, and away in full chase.

As he soars, Flip tries to reprogram his pet with the remote in one hand.



Motor Dog only sprouts a rotor for extra maneuverability among the branches. Scoot hunkers down. Flip hangs on, thumb feverishly searching for the right button.



Then things get really serious. Flip the Kid loses his grip on the leash and suddenly he's falling down and down through the limbs. Only Motor Dog has the speed to save him--IF he can reprogram himself from cat-catching to Flip-catching in time.

Kurt Cyrus' new runaway robot story, Motor Dog (Hyperion Books, 2014) has all the cyber-creature features that robot-loving readers could want--a loyal dog equipped with rockets, thruster boosters, rotors, and it seems, even a quick-deploying parachute to save the day. Written in robust rhymes with lots of wham-bam vocabulary, this fast-moving story comes with David Gordon's Marvel-comic retro styled illustrations filled with color and above all, motion.  A vertical two-page spread shows the action from tree top to soft landing, and the ending gives a nod to the joys of conventional pet ownership, as Flip disables the whiz-bang functions and renames his robodog plain ol' Buddy!  Not your average boy-and-his-dog tale, but one modern gadgeteers and dog lovers alike will favor.

Kirkus powers up for this one:  "An amusing fable for the techno-savvy and Luddites alike."

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Problem With Pink: Paulette the Pinkest Puppy In The World by Tim Bugbird



Kermit the Frog may have pointed out that it's not easy being green, but being pink is no day at the spa either.

Potential puppy adopters think her coat is absurd, totally off-putting.  Paulette's family try camouflaging some of the pink with a floppy hat, but Paulette can't see where she's going and keeps piling into things--a trike and then a ladder with an unfortunate painter up top...  and wouldn't you know it, his pail of pink paint spills all over her Paulette's mom and the other puppies!  They're all as pink as Paulette!

But being pink, even temporarily, gives the rest of the pups a new insight into the color of their fur. They're the same underneath anyway, and after all... it was really sort of fun being pink!

Author Tim Bugbird specializes in quirky characters and oddball plots, and his Paulette, the Pinkest Puppy in the World (Winkler/Make Believe Books, 2014), with its rhyming quatrains and pleasing perky pastel illustrations, is another outside-the-box fanciful tale which will have particular appeal to the pinkanista pup fanciers in the picture book public.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

To Bathe or Not to Bathe: The Pigeon Needs a Bath by Mo Willems


Pigeon is incensed that anyone should suggest that he is filthy, stinky, and in need of a douche in the suds.

Never mind that he's just emerged from a splash in the mud puddle.  After all, he had  a bath ... um, last month? And, what is "dirty," anyway. Then Pigeon switches from linguistics to philosophy:

And what smell? Wings akimbo, Pigeon declares that he smells perfectly normal--for a pigeon.

But a flock of flies buzz by and beg to differ.

As they fly off, page right, the final fly has the most unkindest cut of all:

Oh, all right. FINE! Pigeon decides to take the plunge. Except that the bathtub looks as big as an Olympic pool. And getting the water just right is hard. Too hot. Too cold. Too lukewarm. Pigeon fiddles with the hot and cold knobs, back and forth. Add some. Drain some. Add some. And then there are the bath toys. Too many toys. Not enough toys. Dozens of rubber duckies? One duckie?

Mo Willems' latest best-selling Pigeon story, The Pigeon Needs a Bath! (Hyperion, 2014) has his stand-in for the obstinate toddler type in full bath resistance mode, right up to the point where Pigeon finally manages the splash-down. Willems is the reigning master of the cartoon character, and his beginning reader badinage will get giggles from kids and knowing chuckles from parents alike. Like Pigeon, who decides he rather likes it in the bath after all, readers will wonder...

Released ahead of publication schedule, this latest Pigeon tale is just in time for an funny April Fool surprise.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Phantom at the Opera? The Haunted Opera (A Marie-Grace Mystery) by Sarah Masters Buckey

"None of us had crossed the Atlantic before, and we were all quite excited about our American debut!" said Miss Bell.
But, she continued, during the trip Henrietta, one of the major singers, had come down with a fever. Mr. Foxcroft had canceled their performance and arranged for her to recover in Cuba.
Now the company need a local singer to replace Henrietta, and Marie-Grace's Aunt Oceane had been chosen.  She would also be Miss Bell's understudy.
Miss Bell pursed her lips.  "I've heard that there were--er--some problems the last time The Crown Diamonds was performed in New Orleans...  but I'm sure nothing will go wrong this time." She gave a little nervous laugh.
Marie-Grace and Cecile exchanged a glance. Marie-Grace wondered, "What did happen last time?"

It is 1843 in New Orleans, and the town is abuzz with talk about the British opera company, with a famous soprano and dashing leading man, soon to open at the St. Charles Theatre.

Marie-Claire and Cecile look forward to their Saturday voice lessons with Mdme. Oceane Rosseau at the opera house.  They both love singing, and the friends are delighted to get to visit with each other over tea and cookies afterward.  But with the short time before the opera's grand opening, Aunt Oceane must begin rehearsals and instead offers the two girls a chance to be her assistants during the week of preparation for the big opening.  Thrilled, Marie-Claire and Cecile decide to try to sneak a peak of the rehearsals from backstage. But the two are spotted peeping through the curtains by Mr. Foxcroft.  With a quick whispered "Allons-y," they duck down the back stairs and make their escape for the moment and decide to stay far away from the cranky director if they can.

But bad luck does seem to have followed this ill-fated opera to New Orleans again.  The girls hear the whispered story of the earlier aborted performance, when the prima donna soprano, Angelique Beaupre' died suddenly just before the opening, and some of the costume crew tell stories of sightings by her ghost from the graveyard across the street. Mr. Foxcroft rails at the chorus, the orchestra, and even leading man, Roberto DiCarlo, and the costume mistress Ida hurriedly finishes the sumptuous gowns for the leading ladies and leaves mysteriously. Gossip and rivalries break out among the anxious troupe. And the day before the opening, the two leading ladies' costumes are found soaking a vat of blue dye, ruined.

And then the costume coronet which Miss Bell has always worn disappears from Aunt Oceane's wardrobe chest. Some of the players seem to believe Oceane has hidden it in hopes that Miss Bell will be too upset to perform, and that she will be able to assume the starring role. Marie-Grace and Cecile see that they must discover the real thief or The Crown Diamonds may never open.

In Sarah Masters Buckey's The Haunted Opera: A Marie-Grace Mystery (American Girl Mysteries (Quality)) (American Girl Books, 2013), the author takes her two young friends backstage and even into the twilight graveyard as they follow a ghostly figure to solve the mystery of the missing crown.

Pre-Civil War New Orleans provides a colorful setting for this story, the home of the premier opera company in the country, the historic St. Charles Theatre as its backdrop, and the curious mixture of whites, Creoles, and slaves who mixed and mingled in the day-to-day life of the city. The two unlikely friends--Marie-Grace a white doctor's daughter, and Cecile, the pampered daughter of a prominent Creole family--are unusual girl sleuths, thrilled to have the chance to spend so much time together and caught up in an adventurous detective story with a surprising conclusion.

As always, the author appends a historical section, "Looking Back: A Peep into the Past" and a short pronouncing glossary of the French words which she uses to add spice to her narrative.

Fantastique, mes petites filles!

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Easy Being Green! I'm A Frog! by Mo Willems



Gerald is worried.

Gerald is nearly always worried, but this is serious! Piggie looks like Piggie, but she's acting like a... frog! She's hopping all over the page, and between ribbets, declares that she IS a frog!

That is a worrying thought for Gerald, who tends to take things literally. If a pink pig can become a frog, hopping all over and (shudder) eating flies, could the same thing happen to an elephant? Gerald most certainly does not want to be a frog. He can't even imagine acting like a frog. It's not a pretty picture!

The horrified look on Gerald the Elephant's face is priceless!

Piggie, who enjoys being the center of attention, is enjoying her little masquerade for all it is worth.

But at last she takes pity on poor Gerald and tries to explain what she is doing.


"AND YOU CAN JUST DO THAT???"says Gerald incredulously.

Piggie hastens to persuade her stodgy friend that anyone can do it. Pigs do it, even grownups do it sometimes. She tries to encourage Gerald to take that leap of faith and pretend to be a frog along with her. Gerald proclaims he can't be a frog, and Piggie retorts that Yes, he can!

But when Piggie demands to know why not, she finds that Gerald has already m-o-o-o-v-e-d on, taking fantasizing to another level.



Mo Willems' latest, I'm a Frog! (An Elephant and Piggie Book) (Hyperion Books, 2013), in his award-winning series shows beginning readers that it's easy to jump into reading with the help of Piggie and Gerald, two very different but very good friends. Willem's minimalist black-line drawings look simple, but the artist is a master of the cartoon trope, using expression lines in the faces of his characters which show everything they are thinking, providing plenty of contextual cues to help his readers. Willems keep the action lively, with characters entering and exiting from the page and with action lines showing Piggie's every hop and sweat spouting from Gerald's nervous face as he contemplates catching and downing flies. Emergent readers will love reading out loud Piggie and Gerald's two-page spread of repeated "Yes, you cans" and "NO, I CAN'TS," and joining in joyfully in Gerald's surprising MOOOing denouement. Yes, reading about out-pretending Piggie can be FUN!

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Messie Nessie! The Loch Mess Monster by Helen Lester






The three were Nessie, her husband Fergus, and their baby, wee laddie Angus.

Now most babies are messy. They drop Cheerios one by one from their high chairs. They spill their sippy cups, and  the worst of them even flip gooey green peas onto the wall.

But as long as Angus ate in his high chair, he was pretty good.  He sweetly observed the BASIC MONSTER RULES: He didn't behave in a monstrous manner; he didn't eat with his thumbs; he said "Excuse me!" when he burped. There were two more rules--Always pick up after yourself and Never EVER go up to the surface of the lake--but being a baby, Angus didn't have to bother with those.

But when Angus becomes a terrible two, toddling around, leaving fishy lochweed on the floor and dropping his puggy-nit (peanut) shells all about, scattering grottie laundry everywhere, his parents have to stage an intervention.

They order him to stay in his room until he learns to keep the rule about picking up after himself.

Angus doesn't mind.  He has plenty of toys and Mama Nessie brings milk and tatties-in-a-can to his door daily.  And he is free to ignore the rules, and ignore them he does. Soon his floor is so full of mess that he has to start to throw his mess on his bed.

But the pile unpicked up things grows from a molehill to a mountain of mess. Angus has to scale it each night just to sleep.

Books and toys, rock collection  
Slimy lochweed, ewwww!
Fishy dolls, tattie cans,Hummie-doddies, too.
Grottie laundry, puggy-nits,Spoon and skirpy cup--

And then, one evening, when Angus scales his Mess Mountain, his head pops up, above the surface of the loch.

Angus realizes that he is breaking Rule #1, but he can't help noticing that he is being watched from the cliffs above by three curious figures equipped with telescopes, binoculars, and camera, eager for a sighting of the Loch Ness Monster.


To Angus the three (a loon, a goat, and a cow) are land monsters! One has two sharp spikes on his head, and the big one makes a monstrous MOOOOING noise.

Time to moooooooooove! Suddenly Sloppy Angus wanted to clean up!

Scared straight, Angus begins to straighten up his room, and after a bit of a learning  curve, he dis-assembles his mountain of mess, organizing, putting away, recycling, and washing up his grottie dishes and duds.  All is well that ends well down at the bottom of  the loch, in Helen Lester's latest, The Loch Mess Monster (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

In the trademark style of her popular Tacky the Penguin series and her beloved Wodney Wat books, this new one again has the help of noted artist Lynn Munsinger's familiar expressive and comic ink and watercolor illustrations, alternating between spot art set against bright white and full-bleed pages which pace this story perfectly.  Lester even includes a wee glossary of Scottish words to help sort out the fun.  Another winner from the peerless pair, Lester and Munsinger, with a nice little cautionary message about keeping your mess under control.

For little listener-readers unfamiliar with the legends of Loch Ness, pair this one with Richard Brassey's simple non-fiction book, Nessie the Loch Ness Monster.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Getting the Gig: Here Comes the Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood



This grumpy cat has a gripe. Why should bunnies get all the good gigs? Everybody loves that guy with the powder puff tail and the chocolates. Cat can deliver the goods, too!

Cat thinks he's got a shot at the Easter Bunny thing.

He looks good in a bow-tie and sparkly vest, and he's got a swell Harley to speed up deliveries. No need for all that tiresome hopping!

But ... Easter basket delivery is a hard job--hours and hours of busy work--all night long, actually.

What's that, Cat? You need at least seven naps?



Undesirable workplace conditions! Cat rethinks the whole audition. Maybe it's better if he just drives the Easter Bunny around on his motorcycle. E.B. can nap between stops, and Cat can nap during the deliveries. That could work!



Picture book star Deborah Underwood has another charmer in her latest, Here Comes the Easter Cat (Dial, 2014), a sort of storytelling tour de force in which Cat communicates solely by means of signs, with wry commentary by the off-page narrator.

Illustrator Claudia Rueda shares the honors for this droll spoof on the would-be Easter Bunny story as Cat discovers that there are some conditions of employment he hasn't yet considered. The interplay between the non-verbal Cat and the interlocutor makes for plenty of wry humor, while the body language and facial expressions that Rueda creates in her simple ink and colored-pencil drawings tell the tale with wit and style. In the best vaudeville style Underwood and Reueda leave 'em laughing on the last page as Cat appears costumed and ready for yet another high-profile job audition. (Think cap on head, suit of red?).

School Library Journal gives this alternative Easter Bunny story a starred review, remarking "The combination of witty text, plentiful white space, and brilliant images make this a truly winning book, especially for libraries looking to expand their Easter collections."

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Loading by the Letter: Alphabet Trucks by Samantha Vamos




Some like their alphabet costumed as cozy critters. Some desire alphabetical dinosaurs. But in Samantha Vamos' Alphabet Trucks (Charlesbridge Press, 2013), the letters (upper and lower case as well) show up on jaunty trucks rolling down the road.

There are some familiar haulers in their proper order--Ice cream trucks, Tow trucks, Dump trucks, Pickup trucks--but there are some more exotic vehicles for the customers' consideration.



There are plenty of unusual trucks to see at work--knuckle-boom trucks, quint trucks with five different gadgets to deploy, even an X-Ray truck bringing the lab to rural lands, and of all things, a zipper truck, lifting and lowering those temporary barriers along the roads. For youngsters who like to learn their letters on wheels, Vamos' clever quatrains and artist Ryan O'Rourke's jolly and bright toters and haulers, lifters and loaders, movers and mixers, are just right to get young gearheads on the road to reading.

Convoy this one with Brian Floca's top-of-the-line Racecar Alphabet (Ala Notable Children's Books. Younger Readers (Awards)) Jerry Pallota's The Construction Alphabet Book and Audrey and Bruce Woods' Alphabet Rescue.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

How 'bout a Lift? Please Bring Balloons by Lindsay Ward

On her way to school, Emma just happens to pass a carousel with a handsome polar bear mount. She can't help noticing a piece of paper peeking out from under his saddle. It shows a simple line drawing of a balloon on a string. The note says


Obligingly, Emma brings a helium balloon by the next morning and ties it to the saddle.

The next morning there is another note, with a drawing of a bunch of balloons.


It's a bit of a trick to tow a bunch of flighty balloons along on her way by the carousel, but as the bemused Emma tells herself,


When she finishes tying each of the strings to Polar Bear's saddle, Emma cannot resist hopping up on his back, but when she does, the bear lifts off his spot on the merry-go-round and floats up into the sky for a fanciful flight to the stars. As they fly toward the North Star, Emma warms herself by leaning forward against the bear's furry neck, and they soon land in crunchy white snow, where she finds her school shoes have become red snow boots.  And as she follows in the bear's snowy prints, she finds herself where a bunch of polar bears in colorful costumes dance for her in the snow under the midnight moon.

It is a pretty good adventure, all in all,  although Emma falls asleep and finds herself back in her own bed, with morning already breaking. She hurries into her school clothes and hustles toward school. But there's another note stashed in Polar Bear's saddle. Emma just has to check it.


It sounds as if more adventures are in store for Emma, in Lindsay Ward's Please Bring Balloons (Dial, 2013). Is Emma's adventure a dream or a fantasy trip to the far North? Lindsay Ward's dreamlike illustrations don't give anything away, and that will just fine with young dreamers who enjoy her stellar artwork. "Lined paper, spattered night skies, and washes of white paint over maps and algebraic equations infuse Ward's cut-paper, pencil and watercolor collages with texture and interest," writes Kirkus Reviews.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Born to Bloom: Weeds Find a Way by Cindy Jenson-Elliott

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Cindy Jenson-Elliott is not the first poet to sing the praises of the lowly but tenacious weed, sometimes the first flower of spring, which finds a way to bloom and seed our world with green, nor is she the first to find a larger theme in their relentless will to live.


As her barefoot girl and her dog explore her world, she finds four dandelions and can't resist blowing their parachute seeds, sending them wind-borne into the world. As she goes through late-summer days, she and her dog help spread the seeds of the weeds they pass through, one sticking in the sole of her sneaker, several burrs clinging to her dog's fur and her clothes, to fall perhaps on a fertile spot, sleep under the snow, and sprout next spring.

Weeds fight for their rights, with hooks and thorns, with hard shells, with bitter or sticky sap that defeat their enemies and co-opt their allies into distributors. They hide inside sweet fruit and let the birds do the rest of the work, sowing and fertilizing them at the same time.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Jenson-Elliott reminds her readers that in their way, weeds are wonders, softening bare fields, sweetening sour soil, and embellishing rocky hills with greenery and sometimes glorious flowers...





Part nature study, part a hymn to the resolute drive to thrive in nature, Cindy Jenson-Elliot's Weeds Find a Way (Beach Lane Books, 2014), illustrated in evocative expressionistic mixed-media paintings by Carolyn Fisher, will increase the child's appreciation of the ubiquitous, plucky weed in whatever form it takes to survive, and in so doing, suggests, as did Tennyson's "all in all,"  that weeds represent the steadfast will to live found throughout nature, even among us humans.

The author adds an appendix, "Meet the Weed," which provides thumbnail color drawings and factual entries detailing the scientific name, habitat, form, and physiology of common weeds, which makes this book useful for classroom field studies and projects as well as simple backyard exploration. School Library Journal gives this one its hearty thumbs-up: "Poetic imagery describes how they are "shot out of tight, dry pods like confetti from a popped balloon" and "baking in shimmering summer heat on a white-hot sidewalk without a whisper of wind"), and the bold colors of the mixed media/digital collage illustrations do an admirable job of making the ordinary become stunning..... Expect to have readers rooting and exploring for the ubiquitous plants."

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Give 'Im the Hook! The End (Almost): Starring ME, Donut by Jim Benton

To say Donut is an attention-seeking blue bear is putting it mildly. Getting him off the page practically takes an act of Congress.

Jim Benton's just published The End (Almost) (Scholastic Press, 2014) features a disgruntled author who tries to fire Donut when his opening-page audition begins with a big BURP!

"The END!!"

One BURP?"

YES! This story is OVER!"

No way, Dude! Determined to be a star, Donut is not going, at least not all of him. He exits page right but returns to stick his head back into the page to plead his case. Ordered to go home, Donut heads off page again, "losing" one red sneaker as he goes.

But he's not off-page long! Donut tries to sneak back, disguised in a big mustache and green Derby.

"I KNOW it's you, Donut."

A big sign [YOU CAN'T SEE ME!] appears, mostly covering someone with blue feet in red sneakers!

Finally the author comes up with the perfect ploy to get Donut out of his book! Sorry, Buddy, but...

"We're out of PAGES!"

But even running out of print space isn't enough to deter Donut, who right away is ready for a retake or a rewind. Or maybe a re-read?

Like Mo Willems in his We Are in a Book! (An Elephant and Piggie Book) Jim Benton joins those picture book creators who make the limitations of the printed page part of the fun of telling the story, (literally "thinking outside the box") even when their characters don't follow the script.  Perfect April Fools fare, Benton's story is easy beginning reader book, while offering plenty of room for hamming it up while reading it aloud. Pair it with Willem's book or with Lane Smith's hilarious look at reading, It's a Book! on page or on screen. (Read the review here.)

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Double-Teaming: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Houston, we have a problem!
I catch him
and slap
the ball on the glass.
Ever seen anything like that from a seventh-grader?
Didn't think so!
Me and JB are stars in the making.
The Rockets full-court-press me.
But I get it across the line just in time.
Ten seconds left.
I pass the ball to JB.
They double-team him in a hurry--don't want to give
him an easy three.
Five seconds left.
JB lobs the ball.
I rise like a Learjet--
seventh-graders aren't supposed to dunk.
But guess what?

Who's Da Man?

Josh and Jordan Bell are twins and the stars of their middle-school team and the pride of their dad, who played with Michael Jordan until an injury knocked him out of the NBA draft, Josh is an inch taller, can dunk when he's not doing his signature slashing crossover to set up his famous three-pointer, and sports long dreadlocks until Jordan wins a free-throw-shooting bet and the chance to whack them off.

On court Jordan shoots free throws at will, sports a shaved head, and specializes in trash-talking, but he switches to sweet-talking when a new girl in pink Converses shows up at the rec center to shoot with the others. Josh is drawn to her, too, but the easy-talking JB beats his time with Alexis, as Josh simmers on the sidelines.

But the two are almost unbeatable together on the floor as their team works their way toward the county finals. But underneath the teamwork, Josh still stews about the haircut and about his brother's fast moves with the new girl.  Now Jordan's got a girlfriend. Heck, even team goofball Vonnie's got a girlfriend.  Josh's anger finally flashes on court when he makes a pass to his brother that almost breaks JB's nose. Then JB passes a note to Josh to hand to Alexis during a math test, and when he's caught with it, Josh has to take the rap for his brother. The coach benches him, which is bad enough, but his mom, who is also the vice-principal, suspends him for the regular season from the team, and Josh has to do hard time from the stands as his brother become the superstar, taking the team to the finals, and with a swagger he leads Alexis to the team's table in the cafeteria every day while Josh eats alone.

without u

i am empty
the goal

with no net
i can no longer fit.

can you
slash with me

like we used to?
like two stars

stealing sun
like two brothers....

And then, as his mom has feared, something happens inside their dad.  He wouldn't go to the doctor, and then he's in the hospital.  Josh and Jordan  push through their rivalry, but still they show their love for their dad in different ways. Mom texts Josh as he decides to play in the final game:
Dad's having complications
But he's gonna be fine
and says
Good luck tonight.
Jordan says
he still doesn't feel like
playing, but I made him
go to the game to show
support. Look for him and
don't get lazy on your


The title of Kwame Alexander's forthcoming The Crossover (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is triply apt, a metaphor for a basketball move, for the coming-of-age premise of the novel, and a description of the author's unique style, a hard-driving sports story told solely in poetic form.  Despite the novelty of the narrative, Alexander's blank verse is dramatic, sometimes lyrical, sometimes falling into the rhythm of speech which skillfully delineates all of the strong characters in this novel, giving all of them their own voices. This is a powerful story of two emerging young men and their parents at a crossover point in their lives, one that uses basketball brilliantly to tell their story, but one in which winning the big game is not the end of the story, an ending which will leave readers a bit shaken and yet satisfied.  Watch for this one to take some honors in the awards for books debuting this year, because it's definitely got game--on-court suspense, real-life characters, and a moving narrative that confronts life changes with all the right moves.  Slam-dunk!

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sounds of Spring! Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? by Rita Gray





There's something in the air, and the birds are busy announcing the coming of spring with a busy cacophony in the trees. Crows caw, woodpeckers drum, and sparrows cheep their repetitive chirp.

But a boy and a girl, out for a walk in the greening woods, notice something strange.

The only quiet one in the trees is that time-honored harbinger of spring, the robin, sitting low and silent, on her nest.

Why is that? they wonder.

But then, something big begins to happen up there in that nest. There's a cracking, breaking sound, and the robin hops up and about, excited by something going on inside. Then the kids see the robin surprisingly flying swiftly away from her nest--with something blue in her beak. And another robin suddenly flies to the nest, where there is noticeable peeping and cheeping noise to be heard.


Rita Gray's Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), forthcoming today, takes two youngsters on a bird -watching walk where all the birds are telling them that spring is here--all except one. Gray's intriguing rhymes and onomatopoeic bird calls work perfectly with artist Kennard Pak's subtle watercolor illustrations. Pak keeps his palette quiet--with soft browns, grays, and greens--befitting the hushed admonition not to disturb the sitting bird.

But half the fun of the book is in Gray's appended interview with Mrs. Robin, "A Word with the Bird," as she explains that she keeps a low profile so as not to be noticed by predators, how she warms her eggs with her "brood patch" a spot on her breast that sheds its feathers so that her warm skin is in direct contact with the eggs, and how she removes the blue eggshells from the nest to keep it clean for the health of the hatchlings. In a FAQ format, readers ask Mama Robin all about egg care, just what the father robin is doing while she rests, whether they always sleep in nests, and how the parents care for fledglings even after they learn to fly on their own.

This is an exceptional book, assonant in text and enticing for the eyes, with lots of information about our feathered friends for classroom seasonal nature study units or potential beginning birders. No wonder American Library Association's Booklist calls it "A beautifully crafted, informative picture book."

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Baby Elephant Walk: A Baby Elephant in the Wild by Caitlin O'Connell

Like all newborn elephants, Liza is hairy--much hairier than her older brother and cousin.

And the backs of her ears are bright pink.

Even her belly and toenails are pink.

And even though at birth she weighs 250 pounds and has the gray, wrinkled skin of a grown-up pachyderm, little Liza is every bit as winsome and adorable as any baby animal. Leaning against her mother's strong legs, she learns to stand soon after birth and walks in a few hours, and within the day she is able to keep up with her mother and the rest of their family group--an aunt, a half-grown brother, and young female cousin.

Looking tiny as she travels beneath her 8000-pound mother's belly for protection from the hot sun and from predators, her first journey ends at their watering hole, where she waits in line with earlier-arriving elephant families before she learns to use her trunk to get her first drink of water. Little Liza loves her first water bath and then is treated to a mud bath to protect her tender baby skin from insects and sunburn. The other females stay near to help if the baby should get stuck in the mud or slip into deeper water.
A baby female elephant will live with her mother for life. It will take Liza twenty-five to thirty years to get as big as her mother is now.

For as long as she is strong enough, her mother will protect Liza.

As they move across the Namibian desert landscape, Liza meets and plays with the other babies in their little herd and rests in whatever shade they can find while the adult elephants form a outward-facing circle around the sleeping little ones. Hunting lions and hyenas can cut a straggling baby elephant out of the group, and all the adults take a role in parenting the youngest ones. Besides the hunting animals, predatory poachers, killing for elephant ivory, can leave an orphaned baby, too young to survive alone, to starve.

But predators are not the only danger for young elephants. Once widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, elephants are now limited to the Congo basin and the Namibian scrub desert. Loss of food sources from wildfires, climate change, and forest clearing can eventually reduce their numbers to the point of extinction outside the protected preserves. Members of the ancient order Probiscidae, elephants and their ancestors have been on earth for 55 million years and may yet face extinction in this century without human intervention in their protection.

Caitlan O'Connell's photo essay, A Baby Elephant in the Wild (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), offers much information about this fascinating animal, so like humans in their long lives and close family relationships, in simple text easily accessible to the younger readers. Up close and personal photographs by Timothy Rodwell show the young elephant in her first few months of life, saying her first hello to her cousins with a trunk salute, learning to splash and play in the watering hole, and being baby-sat by her big brother just as a young human might be. Photographs appear in two formats throughout--as full-page photos and as appealing snapshots in mounting brackets "pasted" against a pink background, album-style.

For slightly older readers, see Caitlin O'Connell's The Elephant Scientist (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), an entry in the much lauded Scientists in the Field series and which was awarded the American Library Association's Sibert Honor Award for young people's nonfiction in 2012. In this book O'Connell traced the migrations of an elephant family in Namibia's Etosha National Park and published her groundbreaking research in elephant communication through ground vibrations.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Night Shift: Little Owl's Night by Divya Srinivasan


The sun and Bear have already called it a day and the birds have gone to roost. But Little Owl is wide awake and ready to join the night shift in the forest.

No one is afraid of the dark here, as his nocturnal neighbors turn out to begin the swing shift. A mama 'possum waddles by with her babes in a row behind her.   Skunk is already breakfasting on some ripe berries. Hedgehog rumbles by, sniffing for 'shrooms. Beaver is up and at it, already busy at the building trade, the frog and cricket choir is warming up for a little night music, and Raccoon is ready to ramble.

There is a beautiful moon rising, and Little Owl longs to show it to his sleeping friend, but this Bear snores on! As Little Owl looks up at the starry sky, he wonders if Bear knows what he is missing.

At last Little Owl flies home, still thinking about what Bear never gets to see, but then he realizes that the daytime animals must see things that he is unaware of. Little Owl asks his mother:


It is a poetic recital, but before Mama gets to the part about black skies brightening to blue, Little Owl is lost in dreamland, his shift done for this day, in Divya Srinavasan's new board book edition of Little Owl's Night (Viking Press, 2013), a flip-side bedtime story in which kids who may be afraid of the dark can experience what the nocturnal animals know, the music of the night. Set against shiny black pages, artist Srinavasan's stylized green and brown illustrations are eye-openers, seen through the Little Owl's large green eyes, and the author's lyrical storytelling does justice to the beauties of both day and nighttime.

Read this one last, following Jonathan Allen's sleepy-time priming I'm Not Sleepy! (Baby Owl).(See review here)

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Duck, Duck, MOOSE! by Sudipta Bardhan-Quillen

Duck and Duck have it all under control.

It's morning, and the two dapper ducks sit down at their tidy table to sip their first cups of coffee, peruse their newspapers, and...


Moose barges in and takes out the table, sloshing their coffee all over himself, both Ducks, and the tidy tablecloth as well.

Duck and Duck quietly begin to put things to rights. Moose's mess all mopped up, they sweep, do the dishes, polish the silverware, and step back to admire their work, just as Moose returns.


Moose makes another dramatic entrance, this time right through the wall and takes out the table yet again.

Duck and Duck quietly make repairs, paint the repaired wall, and then begin preparing for what looks like a party. Duck makes a lovely cake, while Duck blows up helium balloons and ties on the strings. Just as they have a proper bunch of them, Moose charges in, gets his antlers and hooves tangled in the balloons, and starts to float away. Luckily, Duck brings him down, but Moose chooses the table with its decorated cake as his emergency landing pad!


Crestfallen, Moose is banished from the Ducks' domicile, properly chastened, and Duck and Duck do it all over again inside, hanging garlands, wrapping gifts, mixing punch, and even hanging a pinata. A new cake is baked and frosted, this one with three tiers and bright birthday candles.

Will Moose make it back inside to enjoy his own birthday party before disaster strikes? Yes, and no, in Sudipta Bardhan-Quillen's Duck, Duck, Moose! (Hyperion Books, 2014). Author Bardhan-Quillen makes the most of her words, limited totally to "Duck! Duck! Moose!"  and artist Noah Z. Jones' rowdy illustrations make the best of the bedlam, setting the prim and proper, bow-tied Duck and Duck off against the galloping blunderbuss that is Moose.  There's a surprise ending at the last page turn, with Moose as the Prince of Pratfalls, to keep kids laughing all the way.  "Good fun that gives a whole new meaning to the word 'duck,''' says School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews sums it up this way: "Two ducks plus one moose equals mayhem, mischief and true friendship. Fun, Fun, Fun!"

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Friday, March 14, 2014

What to Say If You Don't Have A Dog: I Didn't Do My Homework Because... " by Davide Cali

My baby sister used it for a teething ring?... My mom cleaned out my backpack?... It's in my backpack--somewhere! Honest!... My big brother used it to make paper planes and flew them over the river?....

Lame-O excuses for the lack of homework are legion, but Davide Cali's I Didn't Do My Homework Because... (Chronicle Books, 2014) comes up with some creative lollapaloozas for the lexicon.

"We had a problem with carnivorous plants."

"We were attacked by Vikings."

"Giant lizards invaded my neighborhood."

"My family discovered oil in our backyard."

While Cali's lamentations are quite inventive, the real fun with this one is in the playful artwork contributed by Benjamin Chaud, whose retro-styled character struggles valiantly against interlopers determined to get him in trouble with his teacher. In single- and double-page spreads, Chaud extends the text by hiding the textbook and homework in question somewhere in his elaborate illustrations--at the end of the giant lizard's tongue, for example, just before he swallows it.

Most teachers can honestly say they've read the book on homework excuses, and this one is no exception. Teacher, it turns out, spots a book on the boy's desk and holds it up for the class to see, and fittingly, its title is I Didn't Do My Homework Because..... and she's read it!

Fans of clever artwork will find much to peruse on each page as they search for the missing homework in the midst of the melee, and crafty teachers may even turn the tables and turn the premise of this book into a writing prompt, such as "I didn't clean my room because..." or "There were raw eggs in my lunch box because... "

School Library Journal says, "This well-crafted book should find an appreciative audience."

And for extra credit, pair this one with Lisa Broadie Cook's Peanut Butter and Homework Sandwiches. (See review here).

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