Saturday, September 30, 2006

Forgotten Bookshelf: City Poems by Lois Lenski
I once thought I knew something about Lois Lenski, back when all I head read were her still-in-print books – happy little picture books about the seasons and things that go. Then I chanced upon City Poems, and whoa – the genesis of the New Realism movement. Who knew that back in 1954 there was a woman putting poems about street gangs and homelessness next to poems about birthdays and friendly policemen? For a moment, I thought I was re-reading The Inner City Mother Goose.

City Poems comprises a big bundle of verses inspired by Lenski’s life in New York City during the 1950s. Lenski was one of the first children’s poets to put what the introduction calls “honest realism” into her work. Most of the poems are clever little bits of rhyme about the kind of things you usually see in children’s poetry: snow days, making friends, The People in Your Neighborhood, and “Bus Stop”:

Bus stops at the corner,

Just stand right there and wait,

Here it comes, door opens,

Hop in and don’t be late.

Hop in, hop out!

Hear the driver shout.

There’s room for more

Don’t block the door,

Hop in, hop out!

It’s mostly sweet, gentle stuff with a bit of rhythm thrown in for fun – any of them could easily be adapted as a picture book (hint-hint, would-be illustrators out there). But then you stumble along a poem like “Slum Home”:

Faucet’s leaking,

Sink won’t drain;

Somebody broke

The windowpane.

Stuff a rag in

To keep out the rain.

No heat in the pipes,

The roaches play,

Chair’s broke down,

It rains all day.

Where’s my Mom?

She’s gone away.

The overall idea, I guess, is that Lenski is trying to give a loving-but-true image of the city she loves. The odd thing for me, I suppose, is that I don’t seem to see too many books for this age group – this books seems to be written for the 7-and-younger crowd – that deals with this kind of harsh reality. There’s plenty of this kind of stuff for older kids, but little-littles? Not really. (Unless you’re one of those people who considers Smoky Night appropriate for preschoolers, which I don’t.) Also, the rhymes’ sing-songy quality makes a few of the serious-subject-matter poems kind of silly. But some of them still manage to be touching. Anyway, the book is a touch dated (there’s a poem about an automat and another about an elevator boy) but it’s worth taking a look at, especially if you’re already a Lenski fan. Ooooh, and did I mention the always-excellent line illustrations? Here’s a sampling:

Love it. Oh, and please forgive the lousy cover image this time. That book was darn difficult to photograph!

Forgotten Bookshelf: The Dollhouse Caper by Jean S. O’Connell

Okay . . . I admit it, I’ve got kind of a weakness for children’s books about dolls. When I was really little I loved reading Beatrix Potter’s tales of Hunca-Munca and Lucinda Doll, and when I was a bit older I found Behind the Attic Wall captivating (and hypnotically disturbing). Now that I’m grown up, I still enjoy books like The Doll People and The Christmas Doll. So can I tell you how jazzed I was to find The Dollhouse Caper? Especially since . . . wait for it . . . it’s a book about dolls who get played with by boys.

Yeah, boys. No, it isn’t some sappy attempt to make a novel-length version of William’s Doll (although, I like that one, too). Jean O’Connell simply creates a family with three boys which owns a dollhouse that they bring out of the attic every Christmas, and the boys each enjoy playing with it in their own unique ways. For example, the father doll spends pretty much all of his time stuffed upside-down in the toilet (you can see this on the cover illustration, above).

Of course, Father Dollhouse doesn’t mind this – he’s far more concerned that his owners – young Kevin, Peter, and Harry – will soon decide that they are too grown-up to play with dolls. Also, the dolls keep hearing voices outside at night, making plans to rob the house when the boys and their family are away for the holidays. Can the dolls warn the humans of the impending robbery before it’s too late?

As you can see, Connell’s books goes to great lengths to create a story about dolls that both boys and girls will enjoy – and she succeeds. It’s fast-paced, full of humor (especially during the scenes with the somewhat bumbling robbers), and has charming details about the dolls’ life in the dollhouse (there are depictions of them decorating a tiny Christmas tree, eating fake food together in the kitchen). And as a bonus for reluctant readers, it’s thin. Nothing like a good thin book to make the school assignments easier. (It’s also a plus for teachers looking for a good classroom read-aloud.) It’s enough to make even the most jaded little soul want to play with dolls again – or at least read more stories about children who do.

New Book Roundup

Ahhhh – there’s nothing like browsing through a New Book Roundup on a lazy Sunday, is there? So settle back with your hot cup of joe or jane or whatever, and skim away.

The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman

I can’t imagine why some people are making such a big deal out of this book. I’ve enjoyed everything else of Cushman’s that I’ve read, but this book was downright dreary. Set in L.A. during the height of McCarthyism, Francine Green is a quiet, mousy Catholic-school girl nursing a crush on Montgomery Clift when loud-spoken liberal Sophie Bowman enters her life. Add a downtrodden Russian immigrant couple, an blacklisted Jewish actor, and I think you can figure out the rest of the plot yourself. Oh, and as I’ve mentioned before: the research was primarily done via Google. Erlack.

To Dance by Siena Cherson Siegel, illus. by Mark Siegel.

Ballerinas and graphic novels – who knew that this would be such a winning combination? The tale of Siena’s journey from after-school basement dance classes to performances at the Lincoln Center is just a joy to read and look at. There’s cameo appearances by Balanchine, Baryshnikov, and Suzanne Farrell, plus butterflies, harlequins, twirling toeshoes, and a poignant and heartbreaking ending. Oh, and a gorgeous retelling (and illustration) of Giselle. Yum.

Fire! Fire! Said Mrs. McGuire by Bill Martin, Jr. illus. by Vladimir Radunsky.

Yarrrgh. Martin’s text, published posthumously, was probably inspired by the old nursery rhyme:

Mrs. Mason bought a basin.
How much did it cost? Said Mrs. Frost.
Half a crown, said Mrs. Brown.
Did it indeed? Said Mrs. Reed.

And so on. This one’s about a bunch of mice fretting over a fire seen through die-cut keyhole, (“Water! Water! Said Mrs. Votter”) which turns out to actually be candles on a birthday cake. Yeah, it’s kind of lame, but made even lamer by Randunsky’s dark, confusing illustrations. In one scene, a mouse is talking about where the fire is while pointing in the opposite direction of the firelight. Pleh.

Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker, illus. by Marla Frazee.

There’s been a spate of spunky girls in Easy Chapter Book land. Joining the ranks of Judy Moody and Junie B. comes Clementine -- whose lilting voice and goofy adventures are probably going to be devoured by most third graders I know. This book deals mainly with the ups-and-downs between our heroine and her prim best friend as they have more than one wacky adventure. Hair is cut off, foreheads are Sharpied, pigeons are hosed down, and principals are unamused. Sweet and funny, just like the fruit. (Erm, please don’t make me explain how clementine oranges are funny.) Marla Frazee’s spot illustrations are pure genius, as always. If you haven’t seen Frazee’s books before, run out and buy some right now. Her delicate lines capture the graceful, round sloppiness of children with a wit and energy that is magical.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

How to Get on the Newbery Committee's Bad Side

Okey-dokey . . . so I picked up Karen Cushman's new novel, The Loud Silence of Francine Green a few days ago, and read this in the front acknowledgements:

With thanks to Google for the research help, libraries and librarians for being there . . .

She wrote an entire historical novel using GOOGLE as her primary source?!? GOOGLE?!? And libraries and librarians were just "there"? Is Cushman trying to make some sort of pointed statement about the relative helpfulness of print versus electronic media? (Eh, probably not.) I will be the first to admit the righteous awesomeness of Google, but I don't know if I'd ever have the nerve to come out and cite it as the primary help in my research. To her credit, Cushman includes a list of resources in the back of the book for kids interested in researching the McCarthy era, but still. At least she has good taste in search engines. Heaven forbid that she goes to AltaVista for fact-checking.

Click here for an example of what AltaVista can do.

In the Garden With Edward Lear

I came upon these amusing pictures when doing a book chase at my library. Edward Lear certainly isn't forgotten enough to be on the Forgotten Bookshelf, but I know that very few people are aware of the charming illustrations that he created for his Nonsense Books. Specifically, his "Child's Botany." I simply love them -- and apparently, someone one manufactured ceramic commemoritive plates with these plants painted on them -- some of the set are on display in the Elizabeth Nesbitt Room at the University of Pittsburgh. (If anyone out there knows how I can get my pretty little hands on a set of those plates, please let me know.)

Anyway, I thought you would all enjoy seeing some of these drawings. There's more plants than I could include on this posting, so here are a few of the cleverer ones. While "Enkoopia Chickiabiddia" is awfully nice, I think my favorite is going to have to be "Manypeeplia Upsidownia." It's just darn cute.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Alice in Spamland

Whilst browsing through one of my favorite time-killing websites, The Book of Ratings, I stumbled upon an old article which weighs and measures the merits of various characters from Alice in Wonderland. It's worth a look-see, simply for this quote:

I have to say I find Alice inexplicably charming, but she's still kind of a pushover. She finds something labeled "Eat Me," and down it goes. Someone hands her a flamingo and tells her to start whacking hedgehogs, and she's all over that surrealistic Victorian action. It's a good thing she doesn't get e-mail: "Alice saw that the reports she was to sell were themselves on the subject of selling reports. It made no sense to Alice, but she put her name at the bottom of the list and mailed it to ten thousand people anyway. 'After all,' she thought, 'If someone takes the time to put "MAKE MONEY FAST" in the subject of a letter, there must be money to be made.'"
Check it out here.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

New Book Roundup

Lousy, lame Blogger! This post was supposed to be up and running yesterday, but for some reason, I didn't have a good "connection" to their database or whatever. Yarrrgh. Anyway: I'm back! Forgive me, dear bleaders, for taking so long to post again -- can I beggar pity if I mention that my trip involved 12+ hours of solo driving? Although I was able to fit in a pedicure whilst out and about (ooo, sparkle toes) so I guess I shouldn't garner too much pity. And yes, the wedding was lovely. But -- back to work. Let the new books roll!

The Secret of the Rose by Sarah L. Thomson

There’s a bevy of children’s historical fiction about Shakespeare out there – it’s about time that Christopher Marlowe got his due, if you ask me. The year is 1592, and fourteen-year-old Rosalind Archer is a Catholic at a time when the religion was illegal in England. When her father is hauled off to prison for keeping the faith, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy and heads off to London with her younger brother in order to pay his bail. One there, the children quite literally stumble into Marlowe, who finds them employment – the little brother becomes a player at Marlowe’s Rose Theater, and Rosalind (now Richard) becomes Marlowe’s personal servant. Rosalind soon learns that her master has as many secrets as she. Is Marlowe a devil worshipper? An atheist? A spy? A secret Catholic, like herself? Thomson does a good job giving the details of sixteenth-century London life -- along with its sexual mores, tangled politics, and rather raucous lifestyle – in a way that is clear and easy to understand. With a great deal of overheard secrets, swordfights, secret documents, cloaks, daggers, and – sigh – a cameo role from Shakespeare, Thomson’s novel is an exciting, romantic read.

Five for a Little One by Chris Raschka

I know more than one librarian who refer to Raschka as a “secret boyfriend.” As in his previous picture books, Five for a Little One manages to be whimsical, elegant, and sentimental all at once. It’s basically a description of the five senses, as seen through the perspective of a little rabbit. Raschka uses a combination of ink drawings, watercolor, and block prints to show Rabbit experiencing rather iconic tastes, smells, sounds, etc. The softly rounded, black-and-white rabbit capers about on white pages, encountering a rainbow of cars, flowers, vegetables, and snowflakes. With a gently rhyming text, this atmospheric book would be a great read-aloud for a unit or storytime about the body. “Five senses – just enough – to know the love we have for you,” is the last line in the book. Do you know the love we have for you, Chris?

My Father’s Shop by Satomi Ichikawa

Mustafa and his father run a carpet shop in Morocco. Mustafa loves the colorful rugs, and he admires his father’s ability to converse in many languages with the tourists who visit the shop. But when it comes to actually learning the languages, Mustafa would much rather run around the marketplace. When he does, he meets a rooster – and people from all over the world who tell him how a rooster crows in various languages. It’s “qui-qui-ri-qui” in Spain, but “koke-ko-kooo” in Japan. When Mustafa returns to his father, he’s proud to show off his new “languages.” Ichikawa’s sweet story will bring a grin to the face of many a reader, but it’s the subtly detailed watercolor illustrations that will invite a second and third reading. Ichikawa chooses a palette of earth-tone colors that manages to be subdued yet vibrant – just as a sun-drenched Moroccan market ought to be. Bring a preschooler along for the ride, and enjoy some international barnyard talk together.

Dick Whittington and His Cat, retold by Margaret Hodges, illus. by Mélisande Potter

The world of children’s literature just isn’t going to be the same without Margaret Hodges. An esteemed folklorist (and fellow Pittsburgher), she passed away in 2005. This book, published posthumously, showcases Hodges’ talents one last time – the old story of Dick Whittington’s rise to fame and fortune from the streets of London is told in fine form. We start with Dick as a penniless orphan, who gains a job in the house of a wealthy merchant. When given the opportunity to invest an item for trade on an overseas voyage, Dick contributes his prized mouse-hunting cat, who is later bought by the King of Barbary for a handsome sum, making our hero a rich man. Throughout the text, Hodges uses the Bow Church bells of London to ring out messages of hope or foreboding to Dick as he fulfills his destiny and becomes Lord Mayor of London and spends his time giving relief to the poor. Like her previous works, (most famously her adaptation of Saint George and the Dragon), Hodge’s text is deceptively simple, using only the sparest ornamentation to decorate her story – it’s a perfect read-aloud or read-alone for older children. Potter’s accompanying pastel-and-gray illustrations depict round, goggle-eyed, chunky Londoners dancing, working, and looking altogether rather jolly. As a bonus, it includes a brief history of the real Dick Whittington, chapbooks, and the Bow Church. It’s just a-ringin’ my bells.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Comin' Up

I'm going out of town this weekend, owing to a friend's wedding, and therefore will not be able to send out any more posts until . . . well, probably Monday. But don't worry, my dear bleaders -- tune in next week for more Brookeshelf action! Such as:

  • The New Book Roundup!
  • More Forgotten Bookshelf -- City Poems and The Dollhouse Caper!
  • Botany lessons from Edward Lear!
  • Yet another Booklist, accompanied by the usual Color Commentary!
  • Some very cute Men!
  • And much, much more (erum . . . probably)!
See you next week!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Booklist : Tearjerkers

Who doesn't love a good booklist? They are a librarian's and teacher's boon, they introduce b
ooks you've never heard of -- they're great! Here at The Brookeshelf, I'd like to make it a point to put out a new booklist once a week. And here's the great part: if you Dear Readers know of a book that I missed that really ought to be on the list, you're welcome to leave a comment with the author, title, and brief description. Remember, the book must be appropriate for kids ages 0-14. And so, without much ado, let us go forth to survey this week's list: Tearjerkers

When I was in library school, my advisor told me a story about how she ran into the library, holding a copy of A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and tearfully told the librarian that "it was the saddest book I've ever read, and can I have another one just like it please?" Sometimes kids just want a book that makes them cry a bit -- I call them "emotional books." Here's the list -- read 'em, take two Prozac, and call me in the morning.

  1. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Probably the one tearjerker for kids that’s withstood the test of time. Most movie versions have Sara Crewe’s father returning from the dead, but be aware: in the book he is really, truly dead. Will that be Puffs, or Kleenex?

  1. Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Another riches-to-rags story, only set among Mexican immigrants in the Depression. Esperanza’s dad is killed by bandits. A rather romantic way to die, for a vintner.

  1. Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Anybody who can make it through this tale of poverty, racism, and childhood illness without getting just a little misty-eyed has a heart of stone. Stone, I say!

  1. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

What is it with Newbery winners and dying? This one, set in the Depressino-era Dust Bowl, has its protagonist accidentally throwing flaming oil on her pregnant mother. If it weren’t so heartrending, I’d call it sadistic on the part of Hesse. As it is, it’s totally gripping.

  1. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

I actually avoided this one in grade school because my friends all said it was so sad. Then I grew up, became a librarian and found out the truth: it’s really, really, really sad. This one has a kid whose best friend dies for no particular reason. And yet it’s a totally wonderful book. How does that work, anyway?

  1. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

Yeah. Paterson really knows how to pull the ol’ heartstrings. Gilly the foster child’s bumpy journey to finding a family just made me all wobbly inside. Bonus: probably the only children’s protagonist named after a character from Lord of the Rings.

  1. The Loner by Ester Weir

Like The Midwife’s Apprentice, this one’s about a child so abandoned that he does not even have a name. Unlike Apprentice, this one’s set in the Depression, and might even make Steinbeck cry. Never heard of it? Don’t worry, I’m planning a “Forgotten Bookshelf” review in a few days. Stay tuned. (I'll include a picture then, as well.)

  1. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck

Gah – about every kid in my junior high used this book for the Oral Interp. Speech competition – simply because it got everyone to cry. The scene when they kill the pig is just – sooo sad! You’ll never eat bacon again . . . for three months.

  1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Remember the first time someone read this book to you? And when Charlotte the spider dies, didn’t you feel kind of betrayed? Katherine Paterson, queen of weepies, said herself that she always cries when reading this book to her kids – to the point of where the kids run and fetch tissues as soon as they get to page where Charlotte dies. (Hmmm. So that’s where she gets it.)

  1. Old Yeller by Fred Gipson

See #8. Same thing, only this is with a dog. Er . . . they don’t eat the dog. They weren’t that desperate. Yet.

  1. Girlhearts Norma Fox Mazer

Imagine if The Gilmore Girls’ first season had ended with Lorelai Gilmore dying, leaving her cute, vulnerable teenage daughter all alone. You’d end up with this book, wouldn’t you?

  1. Nory Ryan’s Song by Patricia Reilly Giff

I don’t know why Pictures of Hollis Woods was a Newbery Honor, and this book wasn’t. This story of the Irish potato famine is the pinnacle of poignancy.

  1. Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes

See my comments for #4. This rumination on a twelve-year-old facing mortality is just breathtaking. Kevin Henkes is a children’s literature GOD. I still can’t understand why it got beaten out by Despereaux for the Newbery. It’s about dying, people! Dying = Newbery Gold!!

Forgotten Bookshelf: The Church Mice Books

FINALLY! For some reason yesterday, Blogger wouldn't let me post this article with the pictures. But it's working now, and you can bask in all the glory that is Graham Oakley.

What do you get when you have 200 cute mice and a ginger-colored cat? The Church Mice will tell you. This series of a dozen-or-so picture books are just what anybody needs if they want a laugh, or are feeling just a bit like an Anglophile.

Here's the premise:
Arthur and Humphrey are the unofficial leaders of the church mice, a large brood that dwells in the vestry of the church in the small town of Wortlethorpe. In exchange for keeping the brasses on the vestry floor polished, the vicar gives the church mice food and protection. When they aren't on the job (that is to say, most of the time) they enjoy bossing around Samson the cat, who has listened to so many sermons on Christian charity that he was foresworn off all m
ouse-hunting. And, of course, they all have wacky adventures together.

Between all the books, they are lost in the desert, attacked by horrible rats, sent to the moon, and are abandoned on a desert island. They capture a burlgar disguised as Santa Claus, auction off Samson, kidnap the long-suffering Sampson back again, and drive off a mouse-hating, sitar-playing, hippie replacement vicar. (That last one's the plot of my favorite of the series, The Church Mice at Bay, pictured above.)

What really shines here, though are the double gifts of Graham Oakley -- first, he's a master at creating beautiful, finely detailed illustrations, as shown below:

This picture, from The Church Mice Spread Their Wings, is beautiful enough to make adults lose their breath for a moment, but funny and intricate enough to please the most die-hard Where's Waldo? fan. Can you find the mice playing "Ring Around the Rosies?" The mice falling asleep to a lecturer? The group of mice playing "ninepins" with little berries? I could stare at Oakley's adorable creatures all day long. But what makes it really sparkle is the accompanying text:

Humphrey the Schoolmouse had been reading again, and one pleasant afternoon in Wortlethorpe Churchyard he began to lecture his fellow church mice. "We have become Victims of the Rat Race," he told them, "crushed by the Pressures of Modern Life. Our nerves are being torn to shreds in the Mad Struggle for Survival."
At this moment, everyone went indoors for tea.
Oakley also loves to hide humorous details to his illustrations: you'll find funny inscriptions on the tombstones in the churchyard, goofy headlines in the newspapers, and a statue in Wortlethorpe Park memorializing a garden shed that once heroically burned to the ground. It's enough to genuinely amuse both kids and adults -- something kind of rare in this world, if you ask me.

Admittedly, the books are a little dated (there's many an illustration of people in bell-bottoms) but it isn't enough of a distraction to dim the enjoyment of these books. If you get a quiet afternoon to sit with these books side-by-side with a young reader, consider yourself in for a treat. They're something to explore together, to laugh about together, and fall in love with together. You won't be disappointed.

Full list of the titles in this series:
The Church Mouse
The Diary of a Church Mouse
The Church Mice Spread Their Wings
The Church Mice Take a Break
The Church Mice and the Moon
The Church Mice in Action
The Church Mice at Bay
The Church Cat Abroad
The Church Mice Adrift
Humphrey Wins the Lottery
The Church Mice at Christmas
The Church Mice and the Ring

You can probably find some of these at your local library, but I'd recommend looking for cheap used copies through Amazon or Amazon UK.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Hep Cat Alphabet

This morning on the child_lit listserv, a posting was made about "modern design" alphabet flashcards -- a series of tiny cocoa-colored cards with groovy terms like "B for Bauhaus" and "W for Wunderkabinett." I immediately toggled over to my blog to share this odd finding with you all, only to discover -- rats! -- fellow blogger fuse#8 had beat me to the punch. She dislikes the cards:

But where do you draw the line? Today I'm drawing it in front of these here flashcards. Pull the other one, design lovers! I'm not buying it anymore!
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I actually have to say that I kinda like the flashcards -- anything that can find something for the letter X besides "xylophone" or "X-ray" is just fine with me. (The modern deck uses "xeroxography.") At least these cards are functional, which is more than I can say for a lot of "modern design" stuff for kids.

Like, for instance, this book. It's designed to be undreadable. It's called "a pocket-sized paper scuplture." Oh, ho, ho, the cleverness of it all. Ugh.

Monday, September 18, 2006

New Book Review Roundup

Here at The Brookeshelf, I've decided not to give full-length reviews to all the recently-released books I read. Why? Because every single other children's lit. blog does this. Why add my fodder to an already well-tended field? So I spend most of my review-time on "forgotten" books: books that are at least a couple of decades old and still worth reading. However, I still enjoy adding my two cents to the general contemporary-literature discussion. So, once a week or so I will give mini-reviews of whatever new books I've read. And by "new," I mean any book that's been published this year. Here we go . . .

River Secrets by Shannon Hale
Ah, another book about Bayern! If you haven't read the first two books in this series, (The Goose Girl; Enna Burning) you're going to be kind of lost with River Secrets. But it's worth the trip. Here's the plot: Razo of the Forest is a terrible soldier. He's small, awkward, a lousy swordsman, and can't seem to keep from being picked on by bullies. He can't imagine why his commanding officer selects him to accompany his country's ambassador into Tira, an enemy territory. But his commander knows that Razo's other skills -- his friendliness, his keen observational skills, and his wicked sling action -- make him the perfect spy.
Hale announced on her blog some time ago that River Secrets was going to be "different" fro
m her other novels, and she's right in many ways. River Secrets is just as much a mystery novel as a fantasy novel -- as soon as Razo and his friends arrive in Tira, burned bodies keep showing up around the Tiran palace. Razo uses all of his sneaky skills to find out whodunit. With beautiful, well-crafted writing as well as an exciting storyline, and a much-needed sprinkling of humor, River Secrets is simply delightful.

Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley
n there really be any other novelizations of "Cinderella" after Ella Enchanted? Or Just Ella? Or Bound? Or . . . you get the idea. But what the hey -- Cinderella can always use another-go-round. Stanley tackles this challege with a novel that is much more somber and heartrending than I expected. There isn't a lot of laughter here -- Bella at Midnight is a rather serious premeditation on social castes, parental responsibility, and the terrors of war. In this book, our heroine, Bella, is the daughter of a knight who is so grief-stricken over the death of Bella's mother that he sends her away to a peasant foster-family and then apparently forgets about her. However, Bella's foster mother was also the wet-nurse for Prince Julian, and the two children become best friends. When they reach adolescence, Julian is sent abroad as part of a peace treaty, and Bella is called back to her father, who has recently remarried a resentful woman with two daughters of her own. Will Bella and Julian ever be reunited? Stanley tells the story from the point-of-view of many different characters, with the effect that they are all rather sympathetic -- there's no one-dimensional "wicked stepmother" here. On the down side, I thought the second half of the story was kind of rushed. But whatever -- if you're in the mood for a good fairytale, step right into Stanley's world.

A True and Faithful Narrative by Katherine Sturtevant
Okay, I stayed up until 12:30 a.m. finishing this one. You needn't have read its predecessor, At the Sign of the Star, to appreciate this novel of Restoration-Era England. Meg Moore is sixteen years old, the daughter of a bookseller, and contemplating her future -- as both aspiring writer and marriage prospect. Meg deals with two suitors -- merchant Edward Gosse (who is later captured by pirates on a sailing voyage and sold into slavery) and Will Barlow, her father's apprentice -- and secretly scribbles verses and stories, risking ridicule and her father's anger if her desires to write were discovered. Sturtevant has done an incredible amount of period research here, but what really impresses me is her ability to create believable 17th-century characters -- these aren't 21st-century people costumed in long-ago dress and speech. And while I've seen many a book for young readers with a love triangle, this is one of the few that keeps me genuinely guessing until the end. What a love story! If anything, this book has convinced me that I definitely need to check out the love poems of Catullus -- which Edward buys from Meg. Them poems be sexy.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Special Report: The ALSC Institute

Brains. Passion. Two hundred librarians singing "Wahoo." In a nutshell, this was my experience at the institute held by the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) held here in Pittsburgh this weekend. And lucky me -- I was able to finagle the funds and the childcare to go! And I'm going to spill all the juicy bits for you right here.

Day One: Language of the Heart

Okay, let's get a few things straight for those of you who don't know: the ALSC is the children's librarians' division of the American Library Association. This is a big deal. The ALSC, among other great things, decides who gets to win the Newbery, Caldecott, and a passle of other big book awards every January. It has a tremendous amount of influence on how kids interact with books in the U.S. Plus, they are some pretty darn nice folks.

The workshop I went to on Friday morning was all about Dia de los niños/Dia de los libros (Children's Day/Book Day), ALSC's big outreach program to Hispanic families. Dia is celebrating it's tenth anniversary this year, and so ALSC brought in a bunch of fabulous librarians to tell of the frustrations and successes they've had running this celebration of kids, books, and community.

I must just give Mad Props to the lovely ladies who told us about their programs. Elva Garza runs a very fun, very large citywide program down in Austin, and Tammy Pineda gave an informed administrator's view of the Dia celebrations (and the amazing exponential growth thereof) in Portland. But I think Tammy Pineda stole the show with her heartfelt story of the Hispanic outreach programs she runs out in Minnesota. She had to twist families' arms to get them to come to the library -- but come they did and love it they now do. Pineda has a passion for her work that is infectious. During her lecture, she said that she has what she considers a rather controversial belief: that bilingual families should always speak the language of the heart -- it doesn't matter if it's English, Spanish, Russian, or Chinese -- the important thing is for parents to let kids know that they love and care about them. In a country where more and more states are putting "English Only" laws on the rolls, Pineda's voice is one that needs to be heard far more often.

Also, the workshop's information packet contained a booklist from ALSC's International Relations Committee. Entitled "Growing Up Around the World: Books as Passports to Global Understanding for Children in the United States," it is one of the most thorough booklists on world culture I've seen in a while. Click here to download it.

Lunchtime: Gossip & Flotsam

At lunch, I found myself sitting with librarians who were mainly from the East Coast, and they were all pretty lively talkers. The conversation centered mainly around prima-donna children's authors who are a pain to host. I'm not naming names, but one author wouldn't carry her own luggage, refused to walk across a parking lot to the hosting librarian's car, and then asked prying questions about the host's personal life. Another author refuses to stay in hotels and requests expensive bed-and-breakfasts. Ai-yi-yi.

But the keynote speaker was there to lighten up the mood -- one of my favorite author/illustrators, David Wiesner. What a charming, unassuming man -- and with such a lovely, subtle sense of humor. He showed us a bunch of early works from his portfolio, and read his newest book, Flotsam. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking up a copy. Plus, we got to find out exactly where he was on June 29, 1999 -- at the New Jersey Agricultural Center, celebrating giant vegetables and everything else that might float down from the sky.

Day Two: Baby Brains, Wahoo.

I originally signed up to take a workshop about "Designing Dynamic School-Age Programs," but it unfortunately didn't contain any information that I didn't already know. Plus, they made everyone sing a song entitled "Wahoo, Wahoo, Pittsburgh is Fun." I ordinarily don't mind singing songs -- even at professional conferences -- but I was seated at a table with a group of librarians who gave me a look that said "If you get up and sing that song, I will throttle you with my complimentary conference tote bag." So we all sat sullenly while everybody else sang. I skipped out after the song.

Down the hall there was a delightful workshop entitled "Storytime Programs Transformed!" It explained ways to incorporate early literacy skills from ALSC's Every Child Ready to Read project. The workshop was taught by Sue McCleaf Nespeca, and while the workshop again didn't contain information I hadn't heard before, it was presented in a clear-cut, constructive way that changed the way I look at baby and toddler programs. In a nutshell: the way you present the material can be tied to six basic early literacy skills: vocabulary, narrative awareness, print awareness, letter recognition, phonological awareness, etc. Nespeca is a person of seemingly boundless energy, and she read her toddler books to us with gusto. If you have an opportunity to hire her to teach a workshop at your library, do it. It's a good investment.

And after all that, I ran back home, gathered up my littl'uns, and went to the Pittsburgh Dragon Boat Festival. Wahoo, Pittsburgh is fun.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The American Girl Dolls Get Political

I stumbled upon this lovely article while perusing McSweeney's, one of my favored Internet haunts. In this article, the American Girl dolls pen letters to President G. W. Bush.
Pretty funny yet sobering stuff; it's worth a read.

Click here, baby!

This Just In!

Okay, here's another oldie-but-goodie from Internet Land. According to, a local puppet has made headlines at a local library.

Click Here for the full account!

(And can I say how much I love that Folkmanis dragon puppet? I gotta get me one of those someday.)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Forgotten Bookshelf: Gyo Fujikawa

Ah, how I pity the toddler who doesn't get to (literally) cut their teeth on a Gyo Fujikawa board book. Did you manage to live through the 1970s and miss her books? Don't be afraid to pay a visit to Fujikawa-land; her illustrations manage to be as lush and charming now as they were then.

Granted, the texts to Fujikawa's works were nothing fantastic. Most of her books run the gamut of toddler literature -- they have titles like
Let's Eat; My Favorite Thing; Can You Count? and the selection pictured here, Sleepy Time. Most of the text is simply there to label the actions and items shown in the illustrations, but there's a kind of clean simplicity to it that manages to make it endearing.

Now let's get down to what's really important here: the illustrations. They're kind of like a cross between Leonard Wisegard and Helen Oxenbury -- Fujikawa poplulates her books with rosy-cheeked multiethnic kids and gentle animals, and uses a palette of soft pastels and vibrant jewel-tones that is simply gorgeous -- you just want to look, look, look. And despite all of the chubby-chubby kids and roly-poly puppies you see in her pages, the images manage to avoid being too-cute and trite. They're just like a big comforter -- warm, embracing, and secure.

Most of Fujikawa's books can be found through online used-booksellers for less than $5 -- a perfect excuse to snap up a bunch for a baby shower or a lucky toddler's birthday.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ten Children's Books that Oughtta be Movies

That's right, they oughtta! Well . . . I'm not saying that they would make better films than books. . . these are just a few titles that I've read and enjoyed so much that I would love to see them on the big screen someday. I've narrowed down the choices to ten. Anybody who reads this post is welcome to make their own suggestions, and perhaps do some fantasy casting. Yay, speculation!

1. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale - - -- Just about everybody I know who has read this book has come up to me and said something like "this book would make a great movie, but Hollywood would probably ruin it the way they did Ella Enchanted." Yeah. Anyhow: this novel is a wonderful fairytale/school story hybrid that would bear up remarkably well as a screen adaptation. You hear me, Hollywood? REMARKABLY!

2. The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman -- -- If we didn't see it on the big screen, then at least it would make a great episode on that PBS "Mystery" show. It's got everything: opium dens, a fabulous jewel, people in big wool cloaks running down dark London streets in pouring rain . . .

3. Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko -- I think there's a definite lack of movies in the "comic-events-in-Depression-era-prison" genre of children's films. Let's amend that, shall we?

4. The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander -- I know what you're saying: "But Disney already maaaaade this movieeeeee," in a high-pitched whiny voice. Ugh! If there was a way for me to banish all memories of the Disney adaptation of The Black Cauldron out of the collective conciousness, I'd do it. (Remember the animated version of Gurgi? Shudder.) If Them Movie Folk can serve us up decent adaptations of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, then I think Prydain's moment has come. Bring on the oracular pigs!

5. Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary -- The only "film" version I could find (on was the old 80's television series, which apparently didn't run for very long. Why shouldn't Ramona be treated to a big-budget film adaptaion? They made one out of Harriet the Spy, for crying out loud. You know that scads of eight-year-olds would be more than happy to get their parents to slap down the cash to see Ramona in the theatres. And I choose this particular volume of the Ramona books because it's the most interesting, most nuanced, and least dated. (Except maybe for that part when she quotes TV commercials. Maybe.)

6. The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer -- Yeah, this would make a kick-butt movie. But the book gave me the willies, so I probably wouldn't see it. As long as they don't call it "Scorpions on a Plane," I'm fine.

7. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry -- I was kind of dumbfounded with disbelief when I found out that this book hasn't already been made into some kind of film. Not even "Hallmark Hall of Fame" has done this one. Which is weird, considering that there must be a law or something requiring at least one new movie about World War II to be produced every year. Huh.

8. The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder -- I can just see a cinematographer having a ball filming cute kids lost in costumed fantasy play. Plus there's that weird subplot with the serial child killer. Nothin' says "hot movie action" like a serial child killer subplot.

9. Half Magic by Edward Eager -- -- Eager stated that this book was inspired by E. Nesbit's novels (The Enchanted Castle, Five Children and It) but every film adaptation I've seen of a Nesbit novel has been ah, not so great. However, Half Magic, with its small-town mid-20th-century American setting, seems like it would be easier to adapt for modern audiences. The scene in the movie theatre! The half-talking cat! Think of it! Plus, I just think it's flippin' funnier than the Nesbit novels -- which I love, but . . . um, okay . . . I think I'm getting in over my head here.

10. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine -- Yeah. And let's get it right this time.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Children's Books in the Hands of a Master

Here's a bit of fun for you all -- a short from Many of you will probably have seen it before, but it's worth a second-go-round, if you ask me.

Rumor has it that author Shannon Hale ("Princess Academy") showed this clip at BYU's Books for Young Readers conference earlier this summer. And hilarity ensued.

Put the pointer here, click away. . .

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Don't Let the Steelers Drive the Bus

This weekend I went to Storywalk, the annual outdoor celebration of read-aloud glee that's sponsored by Beginning With Books, a early literacy program based here in Pittsburgh. It works like this: giant dioramas of picture books are set up all through a park, and volunteers are stationed at each one, reading the stories again and again to whomever happens to stroll by. (There's also scads of craft tables, cookies, fruit, and free books. And it's all free. See why we go every year?)

Anyway, one of the dioramas was devoted to the preschooler-giggle-inducing Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems. Here's the thing: there's a spread in the book wherein the pigeon screams, "PLEASE LET ME DRIVE THE BUS!" When the Storywalk volunteer reached this moment in the book, she took time to stop and point out how Willems emphasized the pigeon's words by drawing them big, bold . . . and black-and-gold.

Now this may not mean anything to you, but as soon as the volunteer pointed this out, about half of the audience -- kids and adults alike -- immediately began to shout the Steelers fight song.

Yeah -- it took me a second to get it -- the pigeon's words were the same colors as the Pittsburgh Steelers' uniforms. Arrgh. Not that I have anything against the Steelers or team spirit or whatever, but come on. Football season just started. And it's a picture book about a pigeon.


Forgotten Bookshelf: The Little Book Room

Hey, I want a little book room. Who wouldn't? Some sequestered little nook with lots of dark wood furniture and plump cushions, always available for reading escapes. Eleanor Farjeon's father had a "little book room" that he kept as a private library, and her fondness for the space lead to the moniker for this delightful book of short stories for children.

Now, many of you may not have heard of Farjeon. Fair enough -- but she's freakin' amazing, people! She's won all the big book awards: the Carnegie Medal, the Hans Christian Andersen, what have you. She wrote scads of poetry, plays, novels and short stories for kids -- most of which remains just as fresh and whimsical today as it did when it was first written -- but she has, for some reason, faded into obscurity in the child lit. world. Well, it's time to change all that. The smart people down at the New York Review decided a while back to bring this sweet little volume back into print. And there was much rejoicing.

The Little Book Room is a perfect introduction to Farjeon's work. She compiled this collection when she was seventy-three -- it contains her favorite stories selected from decades of work. As such, there's a big range of different styles on exhibit here. Some of the stories take place in our world -- "The Connemara Donkey" is a heart-wrenching tale of an Irish immigrant boy reminiscent of Eleanor Estes' The Hundred Dresses, while "Pennyworth" is the chronicle of a toddler's "day out" in the English countryside. Other tales take familiar fairy-tale conventions and turn them upside-down. "The Little Seamstress" is a Cinderella story where the Prince is the matchmaker; "The Seventh Princess" is about a kingdom wherein the girl with the longest hair will inherit the kingdom. And there are even a few stories that work as charming old fables: "The Kind Farmer," a story of a miser whose innocent daughter prompts him to help the poor, is a tale of such emotional power that it should rightly be on the shelf next to "A Christmas Carol" and "The Happy Prince" for its depiction of the transformative power of generosity.

So: buy it. Buy it and read a story to your kids every night at bedtime, or on picnics, trips to the seaside, or whenever a bit of whimsy and romance is needed. J. S. Beresford put it best: Farjeon's work is "a world of sunlight, of gay inconsequence, of emotional surprise, a world of poetry, delight, and humor." Amen.