Monday, October 12, 2015

Roar! written and illustrated by Julie Bayless

One night in the Savannah, as his lion and lioness parents soundly sleep in a tree, a young cub decides he can't sleep and wants to play.  First, he tries to wake up his dad, but, like all dads, his is just too tired to wake up, and just keeps sleeping and snoring.   Next, the cub goes to his mother, who, like all moms, is also tired and simply continues to sleep and snore.

Since his parents aren't interested in playing, the little cub starts to look around from the top of his dad's head.  Finally, he spots a family of hippopotami.  Thinking they might want to play, the cub hops down from the tree.  At first, things look promising, one of the young hippos is as curious about the cub as the cub is about them. but as soon as he opens his mouth and out comes a roar, the hippo family quickly runs off.

Next, the cub sees a tower of giraffes.  These also look promising as possible friends and playmates, but again, as soon as the cub opens his mouth and out comes another roar, the giraffes quickly scatter, just like the hippos did.

Feeling sad and dejected, the cub lies down near a rabbit hole.  The rabbits are all sleeping and snoring, except for one who is thinking how nice a big, yummy carrot would be. When the rabbit sees the cub's tail hanging down the hole in the ground, he mistakes it for a carrot and tries to take a big bite out of it, which causes the biggest roar of all to come out of the cub.  Not intimated or afraid the way the much larger hippos and giraffes were, the rabbit responds.  The result is a friendship between the two unlikely youngsters.  After playing and playing, the two new friends climb up and fall asleep on the lion dad's head.

Roar! is Julie Bayless's debut picture book and what an endearing story of friendship it is.  Using only two words throughout (Roar and More), leaves a lot of space for the young reader to fill in his own narrative about how the lion cub and the rabbit become friends.  In that respect, it reminded me of Yo? Yes! by Chris Raschka, another story of unlikely friendship.

Bayless did the illustrations in pencil and colored them in digitally, resulting in clear, crisp images that really impart a rather comical side to these otherwise scary-to-children animals.  The cubs wakefulness at the same time his parents are just so tired does indeed a mirror real life, though, of course, we wouldn't want our children wandering around at night outside and alone.  It does, however, point to the importance of friends even for the youngest of kids/cubs.

Roar! is a funny and fun book that is sure to please the younger set, who may just be starting out in pre-school and meeting new people who may be different from them but who are also looking for friends and playmates.

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Running Press Kids

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem's Greatest Bookstore by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

In 2012, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson published her documentary novel, No Crystal Stair, about the life and life's work of Lewis Michaux, her great uncle.  Mixhaux opened the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem, NYC, believing that knowledge of black writers and intellects was the way to freedom.  Now, Nelson has re-written No Crystal Stair in the form of a picture book for older readers.

The Book Itch is narrated in the first person by Lewis Michaux's young son, Louie, who likes to help his dad in the store on weekends.  Louie is clearly proud of his father's store, seeing it as quite an achievement, a place that draws some many people that sometimes, he says, you can hardly get inside.

Michaux began, Louie says, with a book itch but with only five books, selling them out of a pushcart and the belief that knowledge is power.  Opening the bookstore wasn't easy, especially since he couldn't get a loan from the bank for a bookstore, because, as the banker said "Black people don't read."

Well, Michaux worked hard, saved his money and opened The National Memorial African Bookstore,  or as he like to call it: The House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda."  And it was a success, a hub of intellectual thinking and African American history that became a popular destination for all kinds of people - black, white, teachers, politicians, writers, and some famous people including heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, poet/writer Langston Hughes and even Malcolm X, who often spoke from the platform outside the bookstore.

Writing The Book Itch from the perspective of Michaux's son may put this into the category of biographical fiction, but it also allows Nelson to provide a lot of information on a more personal, intimate level, which I think young readers will find very engaging.

Nelson has made Lewis Michaux such a engaging, colorful person whose passion for books and knowledge come through so strongly.  I loved reading his aphorisms, of which he was clearly very fond:

Endpapers from The Book Itch
R. Gregory Christie, who did the illustrations for No Crystal Stair, has teamed up with Nelson on The Book Itch.  Christie's bold strokes and bright vivid colors reflect and compliment the ideas that were so much a part of The National Memorial African Bookstore, and which contrast with the darker colors he uses to show the impact of Malcolm X's murder on the bookstore and Michaux personally.

Be sure to read Nelson's short biography of Lewis Henri Michaux (1895-1976) at the end of the book, as well as her Author's Note and Selected Bibliography for further reading.

The Book Itch will be available on November 1, 2015.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Monday, October 5, 2015

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

It started again.  This time Crenshaw was riding a surfboard and wearing a t-shirt that says CATS RULE, DOGS DROOL…But, soon-to-be-in-fifth-grader Jackson is the kind of guy who no longer needs or wants an imaginary cat friend.  OK, it was alright that Crenshaw was there when Jackson needed him back in second grade to help cope with his family's money problems when they were forced to live in their minivan for several months.  But things are different now - Jackson is an aspiring scientist who likes facts, just the facts, please,  So why has Crenshaw returned?

Jackson thought things were OK.  His family has a nice enough apartment in Swanlake Village, a place that isn't fancy but it is comforting in its everydayness.  He even has a best friend, Marisol, he can count on and with whom he has a dog-walking service to make a little extra money, and they are really looking forward to being in the same 5th grade class when school begins again.

But little by little worry is creeping in.  Jackson's dad has had to quit working because of his multiple sclerosis  and his mom is working three part time jobs.  Jackson and his sister Robin, 5, are always hungry and one night, there are overheard whispers of moving if the rent couldn't be paid.  But maybe enough money would be made at the forthcoming yard sale, in which everything is to be sold except a bag of favorite thing each kid is allowed to keep.

Later that night, Jackson finds Crenshaw in the bathroom taking a bubble bath.  Hustling him into his room, Robin hears Jackson and Crenshaw talking and it seems that Aretha, the family's Labrador mutt, actually senses the presence of a cat.

Jackson has a lot on his mind with Crenshaw's return, but now that he is older, all he wants is for his parents to tell him the truth about how things stand, the truth about what is going on and their financial situation.  But first, Jackson has a lesson to learn about truthfulness as well, and Crenshaw is just the right imaginary cat friend to give him the sage advice Jackson needs to hear so badly:  "tell the truth to the person who matters most of all."

Now all Jackson has to do is figure out who that person is.

Katherine Applegate addressed an important problem in her book The One and Only Ivan regarding animal abuse through the life and memories of a captive gorilla living in shopping mall for the amusement and entertainment of shoppers.  In Crenshaw, she addresses the problem of hungry and homeless families head on, and to help readers understand how this happens and that it can happen to anyone, she has brought Jackson's old imaginary friend back to act as a catalyst towards that understanding.  OK, Crenshaw is a plot device, but it works here because Jackson can't be trusted to be entirely truthful - not yet, anyway.

The novel is narrated in the first-person by Jackson, who seems to be a relatively honest, understanding and sensible boy.  He's a very good big brother to little sister Robin, reading her her two favorite books, A Hole is to Dig and The House on East 88th Street, whenever she is feeling insecure and is seeking comfort.  Really, the whole family seem like ordinary, good people who really care about each other.  So how did they end up homeless once, with a second time on the near horizon?  Why don't they get help from family, or food from a food pantry?  "There's everything wrong with asking for help." my dad snapped.  " It means we've failed."

Really? With two hungry kids?

And what Jackson needs to do about this is what's at the heart of this coming-of-age story.

A very useful Teacher's Guide has been made available by the publisher Macmillian

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Join the Crenshaw Food Drive during the month of October - find out how you can help HERE

Family homelessness is a serious problem in this country, affecting 1.6 million children just like Jackson and Robin.  You can find out more about this at the National Center for Family Homelessness, as well as suggestions if you or someone you know are in need of assistance.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Baba Yaga's Assistant by Marika McCoola, illustrated by Emily Carroll

After her mother passed away, tween Masha was basically raised by her beloved grandmother, who used to tell her stories about her experiences as a young girl with Baba Yaga, the fearsome old crone from Slavic folklore who flies around in a mortar and pestle.  But when Masha's grandmother also passes away, she is left alone with only a absentee father.

Now, her father has proposed to the woman he's been spending all his time with, and who has a very bratty young daughter, Dani.  After being attacked and bitten by Dani, Masha decides to go for a walk and visit the cemetery where her mother and grandmother are buried.  While there, she recalls her grandmother's stories, then discovers a Help Wanted ad from Baba Yaga, who is looking for an assistant.  The ad finishes with "Enter Baba Yaga's House to apply" so you know this isn't going to be easy for Masha.

That night, after leaving a note for her dad, Masha sets off to find Baba Yaga's house located somewhere in a dark, creepy forest.  Finding the house, Baba Yaga tells Masha that in order to become her assistant she must pass a series of tests, but first she must find a way to get into a house which stands high up on long chicken legs without any steps.

Using flattery and cunning, not to mention a cherry lollipop for the keyhole, Masha finally makes it into the house.  There, she faces a series of very tricky tests - cleaning the house, caring for the pets and finally preparing dinner.  Did I say tricky tests?  Oh yes, and passing them won't be easy with Baba Yaga thwarting everything Masha accomplishes.

It is the third test that really taxes Masha creativity and ingenuity when dinner consists of three children, one of them her soon-to-be stepsister Dani.  Will Masha be able to trick Baba Yaga or spare the children and still get the job of assistant?

Baba Yaga Assistant is such a fun graphic novel to read and Marika McCoola has done a wonderful job of re-imagining Baba Yaga and adding to the tales people tell about this old witch and her tricky magic while retaining her nature as a fickle witch who may or may not help those who ask for help, but who will reward those who trick her.

Young readers who like their fairy tales witty and somewhat dark or who enjoy stories like Neil Gaiman's Coraline and The Graveyard Book, will find themselves attracted to and enjoy reading this book that mixes modern reality with old fashioned fantasy.  I personally don't think it is creepy, or scary, and kids will like seeing that even without magic,  Masha is a strong opponent to Baba Yaga's witchery.

Artist Emily Carroll has added to the story with her wonderful digital illustrations.  Largely using earthy tones of bright, light oranges and yellows for the reality of Masha's life, and dark ethereal  shades of greens and blues for the fairytale part of Baba Yaga's story, Carroll manages to perfectly compliment and highlight their differences, giving depth and width to the tale.

And as with all fairy tales, there's a lesson to be learned in the end.

Oh, you want to know if Masha get hired as Baba Yaga's assistant?  Umm...

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Candlewick Press

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

It's Cybils Award Time: On your marks, get set…get ready to Nominate!

Remember that middle grade book that made you sigh when you finished it because it was just so good and now you have to say good-bye until you re-read in the future?

Or how about that picture book that made you laugh out loud?

And that YA book that made you shake you head in agreement and think, yes, that is just how it is when you're a teen?

Or maybe you've gone tall crazy techno and have discovered how much fun using book apps can be?

Well, if you have a favorite in any of the 11 categories that make up the Cybils, now is your chance to…NOMINATE THEM FOR A CYBILS AWARD!

What are the 11 categories, you might ask?  They are

Fiction Picture Books
Early Reader/Early Chapter Books
Book Apps
Middle Grade Fiction
Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction
Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction
YA Fiction
YA Speculative Fiction
YA Nonfiction

Of course, there are a few rules, but nothing too complicated:

1- You (and you can be anybody, even you) may nominate any book published in the contest year in
     English.  This includes bilingual books;

2- The book must be published in the US or Canada.  It's just more aggravation and expense than we
     can stand to wheedle free copies from foreign publishers;

3- Only one book nomination per category.  Get your friends and co-workers in on the act if you can't
    make up your mind;

4- Nominations open October 1st at 12:00 PST and close October 15th.

If you still have questions, you can check out the FAQs

Once again, I am so happy to be a part of the Cybils Awards.   It is the 10th Anniversary of the Cybils and it is my third year as a Round 2 Judge for Middle Grade Fiction.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Commentarii de Inepto Puero by Jeff Kinney, translated by Monsignor Daniel Gallagher

I haven’t been in a Latin class in a long time, but I always enjoyed the classes I took.  I basically stuck to classical or ancient Latin, with a one semester foray into ecclesiastical or church Latin.  But I have to admit it was while translating some Cicero that ultimately caused me to throw up my hands and say Finito.  

Still, in 2003, when Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis was published, I did buy it and I enjoyed reading it very much.  Heck, I was already familiar with most of the spells anyway - accio, Lumos Maxima, and my favorite Expecto Patronum.  Latin and Harry just seemed made for each other.  Imagine how much fun Latin class could be now, I thought.  Book I was quickly followed by book 2, Harrius Potter et Camera Secretorum and yes, I read it and enjoyed it as well. 

But now, the fun doesn’t stop with Harry.  Now, Greg Heffley and friends have joined the Latin library of popular fiction that includes not only Harry, but such other greats as Hobbitus Ille, and Winnie Ille Pu among others.

Commentarii de Inepto Puero (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) has  been translated, with the blessing of the Vatican, by Monsignor Daniel Gallagher, an American and Vatican official assigned to the Office of Latin Letters, and who also happens to manage the Pope’s twits on Twitter.  And I think he has done a pretty good job of navigating pop culture words and phrases and turning it into authentic Latin - even if the meaning is just slightly different, it can be understood in context.

Father Gallagher presenting a copy of Commentarii de Inepto Puero
to Pope Francis in June 2015 
I have to admit, my Latin is a little rusty and it took me a while to get through the book, but what a feeling of satisfaction I had when I was done.  I did share Commentarii de Inepto Puero with my niece, a high school junior who is in her fifth year of Latin, and she pretty much zipped through it, and laughed all the way to the end.  Of course, she is more familiar with the Wimpy Kids books than I am.  In fact, this is the first one I’ve ever read, but now I tempted to try one in English.  

I loved Latin and I really hope that offering kids a Latin edition of favorite books may make learning Latin more enticing and fun to learn.  

What does pop culture look like in Cicero's native tongue?  Cheese touch becomes tactus casei and heavy metal music translates as musica metallica gravis, which only goes to show you the omnia dici possunt Latin (Everything can be said in Latin)

This book is recommended for anyone who loves Latin and Middle Grade Books
This book was received as an EARC from NetGalley

Friday, September 25, 2015

Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

This second story from Deckawoo Drive (Leroy Ninker Saddles Up was the first), young readers meet Francine Poulet, the fearless and fearsome animal control officer.  Following in her father and grandmother's footsteps, Francine is a first class animal control officer,  in fact, she's won 47 animal control trophies, more than anyone else.

Since nothing scars Francine, when she receives an hysterical call from Mrs. Bissinger that there was a most unusual raccoon living on her roof and tormenting her by screaming her name all night long, she is immediately on the job.  Undaunted and unafraid, Francine arrives at Mrs. Bissinger totally confidant the she will be able to capture the raccoon.  That is, until it begins to scream her name, too.  Suddenly, for the first time ever, Francine is afraid, so afraid she falls off the roof and lands in the hospital with several broken bones and a very broken spirit.

When Francine recovers, she quits her job as animal control officer and takes a job as a cashier at Clyde's Bait, Feed, Tackle, and Animal Necessities store.  One day, two children, Frank and Stella, come in looking some sweets.  Frank immediately recognizes Francine from a newspaper story about her and knows all about her exploits as an animal control officer and her fall from animal control grace and Mrs. Bissinger's roof.  But why quit?  Frank explains to her that the raccoon is a screamer, and suddenly Francine remembers her father talking about a screaming raccoon.

The raccoon had gotten the best of Francine, an otherwise outstanding animal control officer.  Maybe, Frank suggests, she is still a great one.  Could that be true, Francine thinks, could she possibly go back and get that screaming raccoon, despite everything that happened.

What do you think she will do?

Kate DiCamillo really knows how to write great transitional books for young readers, first with her Mercy Watson series, and now with Tales from Deckawoo Drive.  What is especially nice for these young readers is that they will recognize some characters from the first series in this second one, providing connection and continuity, a great support for developing readers at this age.

And this sense of continuity carries over to the illustrations by Chris Van Dusen, who has done the same type of spot black and white gouache illustrations throughout this book, just as he has for the Mercy Watson and Leroy Ninker books.

Some of the vocabulary will be a little sophisticated for some readers, but will hopefully encourage them to look up words they don't know.  And some kids might be reluctant to read a book with an adult main character, but I think Francine is a humorous enough character that they will overlook that (just look at the cover), particularly if they see her in comparison to the other adult in the story, Mrs. Bissinger.  

Like Leroy Ninker, this is a fun story that has a nice quiet message about not giving up even if you don't succeed the first time around.  And they may enjoy learning that Francine's last name, Poulet, means chicken in French (lots of potential classroom discussion about that, I think).   I also liked seeing the encouragement that Francine receives from Frank.  Sometimes kids just see things more clearly than adults - in this case, Frank reminds Francine to just be herself and be proud of it - and it works.

I'm curious to read the next installment of Tales from Deckawoo Drive, and I hope young readers like this one so much that they will be as well.

A useful Teacher's Guide is available to download HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Candlewick Press

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