Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis

It's 1901 and two 13 year old boys, Benji Alston, an African Canadian living in Buxton, an area settled by former slaves, and Alvin "Red" Stockard, a red-headed Irish Canadian living in nearby Chatham, an area populated by Irish immigrants, are destined to meet…eventually.  Their lives are separated by the woods that fascinates them, even as they hear separate stories about the legendary mysterious "creature" who lives there.  To Benji, he is called The Madman of Piney Woods, to Red, he's the South Woods Lion Man.

Each boy tells his story in alternating chapters.  Benji lives with his family that includes younger twins Patience and Timothy called Stubby, who are gifted at working in wood and apprenticing as carpenters.  Benji has set his sights on becoming a newspaper reporter so all his adventures end with a newspaper headline.  Benji also knows the woods better than anyone he knows, feels them talking to him and is very proprietary towards them.

Red is a lover of factual information and wants to be a scientist.  He lives with his widower father, a judge, and his Grandmother O'Toole, a paranoid mean-spirited somewhat physically abusive racist woman who seems to hate him.  These things and her habit of sneaking up on Red and hitting him with her cane causes him want her to be put into an asylum, but his father refuses.  Now, Red will be happy to just survive living with her.

At some point, both boys have an encounter with the madman of Piney Woods, and both are surprised to discover the monster of their imaginations is, in fact, a kind, quiet, rational man, who has chosen to live in the woods for his own reasons, which are revealed as the story unfolds.  Both when Benji and Red finally meet, the madman becomes a point of connection and friendship and catalyst for adventure. And he has a lot to teach them.

Both boys have been pretty content living in the present.  But when the madman causes the past to come up and wash over them, they begin to realize how connected to their pasts and to their sorrows they actually are.  For Benji, that past is slavery, the Underground Railroad, the American Civil War and the treatment of black Union soldiers; for Red, it's the Irish potato famine and watching helplessly as family began to die, later, it was the coffin ships in the St. Lawrence River where Grandmother O'Toole was forced to remain until a typhus epidemic ended, waiting and watching as more family dies.  

I've always known that Christopher Paul Curtis can really write a moving, spellbinding story and The Madman of Piney Woods is no exception, although when I first started reading it, I had some doubts.   But it didn't take long to get totally hooked into these two boys and their stories and as they do, they will make you laugh, cry and break your heart.  Their stories can be violent in spots, but none of it is gratuitous.  And reading their stories in alternating chapters sounds like it may be confusing, but it really isn't.

At the heart of the story is a mystery that Benji and Red work together to solve.  The mystery is one of those things that to go into any detail would reveal too much of what should be allowed to unfold as you read, so just suffice it say, it takes a while to get there, so enjoy the read knowing you will find out what the mystery is eventually.

Technically, this is a sequel to Elijah of Buxton, even though it is 40 years later.  But it is also a stand alone novel, and anything you needed to know from the first book is included in this one.  And no doubt, the themes of friendship and family with resonate with readers, I think they will also appreciate the intense relationships between the generations.  Also, the theme of prejudice is also explored in some unusual ways, bearing in mind that Canada is not have the kind of intense racial conflicts that the US had in its past.  But again, to say more gives too much away.

This book is recommended for (mature) readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Saturday Roundup #5: Hanukkah Edition

Hanukkah begins at sundown on Tuesday, December 16, 2014 and I thought I would dedicate this week's Saturday Roundup to some lovely holiday books celebrating this eight day Festival of Lights.

Chanukah Lights by Michael J. Rosen, paper engineering by Robert Sabuda
Candlewick Press, 2011, 16 pages
Starting with the temple where the oil lamp burns for 8 nights with just enough oil for one night, Rosen and Sabuda travel through time celebrating all the places where Jews have celebrated Chanukah over time.  The only color on each page is the background and the Chanukah lights int he windows, adding to its effectiveness.  This short video will give you a good sense of this lovely book:

As you can see, the only color on each page is the background and the Chanukah lights int he windows, adding to its effectiveness.  This is a book that will be cherished year after year.  Ages 5+

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
Holiday House, 1989, 2014 Anniversary Edition), 32 pages

It's the first night of Hanukkah and Hershel of Ostropol has been walking a long time and decides to stop at the next village.  But he notices that not a single candle in a single menorah is to be seen.  When he asks the Rabbi about this, Hershel is told about the goblins who haunt the old synagogue and who hate Hanukkah.  They blow out Hanukkah candles, break dreidels and throw their potato latkes on the floor.  Not afraid of goblins, Hershel volunteers to clear the goblins out of the synagogue and break their curse.  It will take all eight nights of Hanukkah to do it.  But is Hershel the right man for the task?  Age 5+

I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel  by Caryn Yacowitz, illustrated by Slonim
Scholastic, 2014, 32 pages

"I know an old lady who swallowed a dreidel,
A Chanukah dreidel she thought was a bagel…Perhaps it's fatal"

It's Hanukkah and time for the family to visit Bubbe, but then the cat drops a small dredel on her bagel and, yup, she swallowed it.  So Bubbe begins to swallow more and more traditional Chanukah items to wash down the dreidel.  The rhyme is fun and sure to make readers smile.  Each illustration sets Bubbe in a different work of art (each of which is elaborated in back matter).  Age 4+

Hanukkah Bear by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka
Hiliday House, 2013, 32 pages

Bubba Brayna is 97 years old and her hearing and eyesight aren't just what they used to be, but that doesn't stop her from making lots and lots of potato latkes for the Rabbi's visit on the first night of Hanukkah.  When the good smell of those latkes reaching sleeping bear, he wakes up hungry and pays Bubba Brayna a visit.  Thinking he is the Rabbi with a mighty big appetite, Bear eats all the latkes.  But after Bear leaves, imagine Bubba Brayna's surprise when the real Rabbi shows up.  Includes a latke recipe.  Ages 4+

The Dreidel That Wouldn't Spin, a Toyshop Tale of Hanukkah
by Martha Seif Simpson, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard
Wisdom Tales, 2014, 32 pages

No sooner does a merchant buy a beautiful dreidel from a peddler, who warns him that the miracle of Hanukkah can't be bought, when a selfish girl insists on having it.  But the dreidel won't spin for her, and was returned.  Nor would it spin for the selfish boy who demanded it next and returned it.  A third child, one who can't even afford the dreidel, merely admires its beauty.  Will it spin for him?  Back matter explains Hanukkah, and what the letters on the dreidel mean, and tells how to play the dreidle game.  Age 5+

Candlelight for Rebecca by Jacqueline Dembar Green
American Girl Publishing, 2009, 96 pages

It's 1914 and in Rebecca's NYC public school class they are making decorations for Christmas, a national holiday according to her teacher.  But Rebecca is Jewish, so is she less American because she doesn't celebrate Christmas?   But, she loves to celebrate Hanukah with her family.  Finding herself torn between having to do the school project, and facing her mother and grandmother's disapproval of her Christmas centerpiece that she is so proud of if she brings it home, how will Rebecca reconcile her dilemma.  Ages 8+

By the Hanukkah Light by Sheldon Oberman, illustrated by Neil Waldman
Highlights Press, 1997, 32 pages

Every year, Rachel and her grandfather clean the Menorah together just before Hanukkah.  On the first night, after the candle is lit, grandpa tells the story of the Maccabbees exactly the way his grandfather told it to him.  Next, he tell the story of the Menorah that belonged to his family, but was left behind when they fled the Nazis.  Later, while grandpa was still an American soldier, he returned to the destroyed home of his family and found the Menorah buried in the ashes.  This is a true miracle that his family celebrates every year.  Age 6+

These are some of my favorite Hanukkah books.  What are your favorites?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Chuck Groenick

It's almost Christmas and the air is electric with anticipation.  Sometimes, though, it is nice to step away from all the hustle and bustle, the crowds and the long, long lines, make some nice hot chocolate for everyone (or whatever else tickles your fancy), put the kids into their pajamas and get ready to enjoy reading the calmest, most delightful of Christmas books.

Santa Clauses is a collection of 25 haikus written by Santa as he prepares for his big travel night.  There is a short introduction explaining how Santa was inspired to write his own poems about life at the North Pole in the month of December, after Mrs. Claus had given him a book of them.  Santa loved these Japanese haikus so much, he decided to try his hand at writing this particular form of short but expressive poetry.

And so each day, Santa finds something around him that is inspirational.  Maybe it's Mrs. Claus making snow angels on December 3rd (my personal favorite), or moving names from the naughty to the nice list on December  6th.  How about a kiss under the mistletoe from Mrs. Claus on December 11th.  All the big and small joyful moments that go into making Christmas a magical time are recounted in Santa's poems.  Even practical moments, like untangling the Christmas tree lights, or making toys in the workshop with the elves while listening to holiday music on the radio, become the stuff of poetry.

And lets not forget the beauty surrounding the North Pole, even if a reindeer does come along and eat the snowman's carrot nose, there are trees trimmed with pine cones, snow and icicles, and the stars overhead the outshine the lights on even the largest of outdoor light decorations.  It's all there.  Santa is an astute observer of life around him and he writes about it all happily and tenderly.

Santa Clauses is a wonderful book to read as at bedtime, or anything time holiday anticipation gets too high, or toy commericals threaten to overwhelm.  Readers are sure to sigh, to laugh and to just get that overall good feeling that should be so much a part of Christmas and that Bob Raczka has captured so well.

The 25 haikus are a real window into Santa's life that kids are sure to love seeing.  And, since the form of the haiku is described in the introduction, parents and kids might want to try their own hand at expressing the moments or traditions that mean much to them during the holiday season.

And, since there is one haiku for each day, you might even use this beautiful book as an advent calendar, reading one poem a day as a family.

The illustrations so perfectly match the mood of the haikus.  Artist Chuck Groenink used a muted palette to create illustrations that remind the reader of folk art using pencils, gouache and photoshop.

Santa Clauses is a welcome addition to any collection of holiday books, and is sure to become a family favorite and reading it a yearly tradition.

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Monday, December 8, 2014

Magic in the Mix by Annie Barrows

Molly and Miri Gill are fraternal twins, unlike their identical older twin brothers Ray and Robbie and their identical younger twin sisters Nora and Nell.  The only difference is that Molly was originally living in 1935 when Miri traveled back in time and found her.  Both girls traveled forward to Miri's time and have lived as twin sisters ever since, and luckily, everyone has a little mind adjustment so no one except Molly and Miri remembers what it was like before Molly arrived - they remember only that she was always there.

OK, that and more is what happened in Annie Barrows's first book The Magic Half.  Now Molly has lived in the present long enough that she doesn't make too many slip ups about her former life.  But suddenly, during some house renovations, the magic comes back, the girl time travel back to 1935 again.  But why?  Then, they are also sent back to 1918 and Molly meets her real mom as a teen.  Molly's mom had died after marrying and having Molly, which is why she was living with mean Aunt Flo in 1935.  When Molly realizes that she could possibly change her mother's fate by going back to 1918 again and preventing her from meeting her future dad, she begins to believe maybe she needs to do, even though it would mean giving up Miri and her new, great life with the Gills.

Meanwhile, twins Ray and Robbie are in trouble in history class, and have to participate in a Civil War reenactment to help bring up their grade.  Turns out, the boys really like enacting the Civil War, but then they get in trouble (again) for not doing their homework, and they are not allowed to go back to the battlefield until all it's done.  So the boys try to sneak out of the house when the parents and youngest twin sisters are out.  Suddenly, Miri realizes that her brothers have time traveled back too, but to where?  When she and Molly follow them, they discover they are in the midst of the Civil War as it happened in their neighborhood.  And Ray and Robbie, dressed in Union uniforms for their reenactment, have just been captured by Confederate soldiers.

Molly and Mire can't help but wonder why all this happened?  After all, the magic is supposed to set things right, not make them more complicated.

I really thought Magic in the Mix was a very readable middle grade time travel novel that will probably have lots of appeal to young readers despite or even maybe because of the amount of Civil War history included.  The real story, however, revolves around the tough dilemma the girls are facing that would separate them for life, and on solving the mystery of what the magic needed to set right with their help in 1864, 1918 and 1935.

One of the things I liked about Magic in the Mix is the way the girls arrive right where their house is each time they travel back in time.  Barrows describes the area through Miri's observations so that the reader get a sense of time as far as how the house, the yard and the people living there change over time.  By connecting it all to the Gill family, it really shows how the past is so connected to the present (and presumably the future).

I had never read The Magic Half, so I was afraid that maybe I wouldn't really be able to appreciate this novel completely, but it really is a good stand alone story.  The reader is given just the right amount of information they need to understand the history of Molly and Miri and how they became twin sisters.

Twins are always popular in literature for young readers and they seem to be gaining in popularity these days (because there are so many more twins being born nowadays? Perhaps).  That special bond they have with each other makes the idea of twins very appealing.  Young readers don't have to be a twin, though, to enjoy this fun novel.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Friday, December 5, 2014

Two Books about Words

For as long as I can remember, there have always been a dictionary and thesaurus sitting on my desk, just waiting to be used.  The editions have been updated and replaced, but they are always there and like best friends, they got me through elementary, junior high, high school, college, MA and, finally, PhD.  One Christmas, when my Kiddo was old enough, I gave her her own dictionary and thesaurus, and they have been her constant companions ever since.

Naturally, I found these two books to be very interesting.  I hope you do, too.

Noah Webster & his Words by Jeri Chase Ferris, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch

So many times, I am sitting here writing a post and  find myself needing to double check the definition of a word I am about to use.  So I go to my trusty dictionary and look it up.  What would I ever do with my Webster's Dictionary?  But who is this Webster guy?

Born in Connecticut in 1758, by the time Noah Webster was a boy of 12, his father wanted him to become a farmer and follow in his footsteps.  But Noah didn't want to farm, he wanted to go the school and study.  Luckily for the world, his father was persuaded to send Noah off to Yale to study Latin and Greek when he turned 15.

During the American Revolution, Noah taught school, but all he and his students had were some old schoolbooks from England.  When the war ended, Noah decided to write an American speller, a book that would no longer use British spellings- for example, favour would be spelled favor, dropping the British u.  Not satisfied even after publishing an American grammar book, after marrying, Noah went to Paris, London and Cambridge to study 20 languages while collecting and defining all kinds of words, including where they originally came from.  Eventually, this work became Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language.

Noah Webster and his Words is a wonderful multilayered biography and vocabulary builder.  In what could easily have become a dry, dull biography, Ferris has tempered this picture book for old readers with humor and historical details from Webster's time, creating instead an interesting and very readable book.  But, vocabulary builder, you ask?  Yes, indeed.  The book introduces the reader to new words and their meanings right in the text, for example: Noah was EC-STAT-IC [adj.: filled with pleasure; delighted; thrilled]!  No flipping back and forth from text to back-of-the-book glossary here.

There is, however, information timeline that parallels Webster's life and the same years in American history, as well as a nice bibliography and websites for the curious, as even a bit more information about Noah Webster.

The illustrations do much from this text in visually presenting Noah life history and work.  Using fun, whimsical, cartoon-like mixed media illustrations, Vincent X. Kirsch has given Noah a very large head,  in comparison to his body and making me think that perhaps it was big because it was so full of words, but also extending the playfulness of the text.

America was still a young country when Webster began his work and, through his speller, grammar and dictionary, he certainly played an important part in giving the United States her own word personality.

An extensive discussion and activity guide is available for Noah Webster and his Words HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 4-8, but I have to disagree and recommend it for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jennifer Fisher Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

A dictionary is good for giving us the definition of a word, but what if we need to find just the right word for what we want to say?  For that, we turn to a book of antonyms and synonyms called the thesaurus and we owe a rousing thanks to Peter Mark Roget.

Born in London in 1779, Peter's father died in 1783 when Peter was only 4 years old.  The family moved often and Peter found it hard to make friends because of that, and it wasn't helped by his shyness.  But he found comfort in books, and later, he brought order to his life by making lists that classified and organized words and concepts, for example, things that fly, things in the garden.  Peter was only 8 when he wrote his first book of lists; with his lists, "the world itself clicked into order."

Later, Peter would go to Scotland and study medicine, becoming a well-known, well-respected physician, but he never stopped creating new lists of concepts and words.  Finally, in 1852, Peter published his first thesaurus.  It became an immediate best seller.

 Webster defines the word thesaurus as a book in which words that have the same or similar meanings are grouped together.  But Roget picked the word thesaurus for his lists based in the Latin meaning of "treasure-house." And both are right.

The Right Word is a treasure house of biographical information about Peter Roget.  As a physician, teacher, writer of scholarly articles and family man, it seems amazing that he found any time at all to keeps his passion for making lists going, but his love of words and order were clearly too compelling for his to not do it.  And Peter succeeded in making it a book that anyone can use, not just scholars.

Melissa Sweet's incredible watercolor, mixed media and collage illustrations are a perfection reflection of the text and of Peter Roget's life.   Her playfulness with the words and lists, and with the biographical events of this quiet man's life add a clarity despite their seeming disorder - but that's the point, isn't it.  Life is disorderly, but ordered in Roget's lists.  Sweet's artwork never fails to amaze me and if parents or teachers read this beautiful picture book for older readers with young people, be sure to linger over and discuss each illustration to appreciate their full impact, and don't forget the endpapers.

At the end of The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus is a list of the important events in Roget's life, an Author's Note and Illustrator's Note that should not be skipped and a bibliography, suggestions for further reading as a list of quoted sources.

A classroom guide is available for The Right Word HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

These are books 9 and 10 of my Nonfiction Picture Book Reading Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy

Monday, December 1, 2014

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

When my Kiddo was around 8, we were at the beach, sharing a vacation house with family from Washington DC.  Her older cousin Mary was a gymnast with a few nice wins under her belt and her cousin Daniel was quite a good artist.  One day, after watching Mary do gymnastics all over the house, the beach and the street, and after watching Daniel sit with his ("no, I don't share them") art supplies, she turned to me and, with a crestfallen face, asked why she didn't have a talent, too.  "Talented" was a word she heard a lot that summer, but not about her.

I thought about that summer the minute I started reading Absolutely Almost.  There are so many real kids as well as protagonists out there that are smart, clever, sassy, snarky, funny, talented.  They are admired and bragged about ad nauseam, and the ones who do not fit into these attributes, usually get the job of taken-for-granted best friend, crowd follower, narcissistic extension of parents, or the school/street bully.  But now, there is ten year-old Albie, half-Korean, half-Swiss, and absolutely almost good at anything.

Albie has just be kicked out of the private Manhattan prep school he attended with his best friend Erlan for poor academic performance.  Now, he's on his way to PS 183.  He won't be seeing Erlan much any more and not just because of the new school, but because Erlan's family is going to be the subject of a new reality TV show.  And Albie's mom has just hired a babysitter/tutor for him, Calista, an art student in college.  Oh yes, and his mom has taken away his newest copy of Captain Underpants, the one book her very reluctant reader son likes, and replaced it with Johnny Tremain, the book SHE liked at his age.

All this sounds like it would spell disaster for him, but things absolutely almost don't turn out so badly for Albie.  For one thing, Calista is kind of a lossey-goosey companion, who doesn't mind changing his mom's plans and who really gets Albie.  So, right off the bat, instead of going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she lets Albie show the new-to-New York Calista the ropes for getting around the city and all kinds of fun stuff to do - both areas of expertise for him.  Naturally, it doesn''t take long for a bond to form between them.

At school, Albie's new teacher, Mrs. Rouse, signs him up for Math Club.  It is really a class for students struggling with math run by Mr. Clifton, but no one ever lets on that that is the case, much to their credit.  Albie is also tested to see if he is dyslexic, but that turns out to not be the case.  And Albie even makes a new friend at school.  Betsy doesn't speak often because of a severe stutter, but she does give Albie a big smile and she shares her gummy bears with him at lunch.  And, of course, he meets the class bully, Darren Anderson.

Albie's change in circumstances after being kicked out of prep school means that each of the newcomers in his life, including Hugo at the bodega where he and Calista stop into every day to buy Albie a donut, will enrich Albie's life in their own different way and contribute to Albie's self-acceptance.

Absolutely Almost is narrated by Albie, which gives the reader insight into his thought processes and what a privilege that is.  As Albie tells his story, you realize what an astute observer he is, noticing things around him that others don't even see.  Which also makes you think that perhaps his problem is not intelligence, but focus, or rather, not focusing on the main thing, but on what is surrounding it.  I think Albie has something to learn and to teach us about the uniqueness of our kids.  Sometimes, no matter what, they are just not going to fit into a preconceived idea about who they are or should be.

There are lots of Albie's in classes all over the country.  They are fun, lovable, kind kids, just like he is.  It used to be that these kids would fall through the cracks and no one would notice it or them.  Thanks to Absolutely Almost, and Lisa Graff willingness to write about book about an average hero, maybe we will start noticing them more.  You never know how a child can bloom until you really see and accept them for who they really are.

This is a great middle grade novel that kids and parents might really benefit from reading aloud together.

There is a wonderful reading guide available for Absolutely Almost, which you can find HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Thanksgiving Dinner Platter by Randa Handler

It's 1941 and Thanksgiving has just been declared a national holiday.  Takari, an 8 year old Japanese American girl, is very excited about it because for the first time all her relatives are coming for Thanksgiving dinner.  Takari just wants to help her mom get ready, but when she accidentally breaks Grandma Toshi's big white platter used in Japan to celebrate a similar day of thanksgiving, she gets told to go visit her friend Little Sparrow instead.

When she tells Little Sparrow about the platter, he suggests she bring the pieces over to see if his dad can mend it.  Meanwhile, Little Sparrow is making cornbread using a tree stump and thick stick as a mortar and pestle to grind the cornmeal, just like the Wampanoag did for the first Thanksgiving with the  Pilgrims.

Little Sparrow is bringing his cornbread to the patients at VA hospital with his neighbor General Williams and his friend Samoset, who is actually a Wampanoag Indian from Massachusetts.  The Thanksgiving dinner at the VA hospital is a success and as everyone tells why they are grateful that day, Takari begins to understand that the real meaning of Thanksgiving is indeed gratitude, sharing, and helping.

The Thanksgiving Dinner Platter is an interesting multilayered, multicultural picture book for older readers (age 6+).  It includes lots of information about different traditions among people.  Takari learns about how in Japan set aside a day for giving thanks for one's blessings and eat traditional food, just as she does in America on Thanksgiving Day.  Little Sparrow tells Takari about some American Indian traditions and the history behind them.

But, the story also demonstrates how people can help each other, even in little ways.  Little Sparrow's dad fixes Grandma Toshi's valued platter; he helps Little Sparrow with his cornbread by turning the stove on and taking the cornbread out of the hot oven; Takari helps Little Sparrow clean up the kitchen and both children help General William's serve Thanksgiving dinner at the VA.

Both of these are great messages for kids to read about.  This would make a great read aloud at home, at school and for home schooling because there are some many teachable moments in the story.  But it is a nice pleasure read as well and kids will most likely get the point on their own.

The Thanksgiving Dinner Platter would be an ideal book to share with your kids on Thanksgiving Day.  And Little Sparrow's cornbread recipe is included in the story.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was provided by NetGalley

I wish everyone a happy and bountiful Thanksgiving.