Sunday, September 30, 2007

Who-o-o's Scared? I'm Not Scared! by Jonathan Allen

It's nothing new when little ones are a bit afraid of the dark, but what if you're a little owl and it's your job to go out at night?

In Jonathan Allen's I'm Not Scared! Baby Owl, clutching his plush lovey Owly, sets out for a walk in the darkling woods. "I am NOT scared!" he tells Owly. "And I should be out in the woods at night. It's what owls do!"

Still, the woods ARE spooky, dark, and deep, and Baby Owl's eyes grow bigger and rounder as he stumbles through the trees, rendered in deep blues, purples, and black. Suddenly he bumps into Badger, who apologizes for frightening him. "I'm NOT scared," Baby Owl insists, and resolutely continues his stroll. In turn he meets up with Bear, big and black in the night, and Bat, who tries to atone for startling Baby Owl.

At last the tension is just too much for Baby Owl. He plops down with his little yellow feet sticking straight up and protests (too much, methinks) that HE'S NOT SCARED! At this point Papa Owl appears to scoop up the little one and reassuringly carries him home to tuck him in. After all, with dawn about to break, it is the proper bedtime for little owls.

"It's OK to be a little scared of the dark," whispers Papa.

"Papa means YOU, Owly," Baby Owl murmurs sleepily.

Allen's illustrations get the maximum emotion out of Baby Owl's little face, and his nighttime landscape is dark but not too scary as he meets other friendly nocturnal creatures out and about. The endpapers are a real hoot, with pictures of Baby Owl's varied emotions as he deals with his fears. Kids who are overcoming their fear of the dark will appreciate the situation of Baby Owl, who knows he has to face the scene when the sun goes down.

I'm Not Scared is the sequel of Allen's 2006 I'm Not Cute! in which fuzzy, cranky, and just darn cute Baby Owl has his "owlhood" insulted by the cooing and gushing of his parents' doting forest friends.

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Buggie Woogie: Beetle Bop by Denise Fleming

Striped beetles, spotted beetles,
All-over-dotted beetles.
Brown beetles, green beetles,
Not-often-seen beetles....
Chewing beetles, sawing beetles,
Noisily gnawing beetles.

Caldecott winning author/artist Denise Fleming takes a generally shunned critter, the lowly and sometimes homely beetle, places her artistically rendered images of them atop a beautiful fibrous collage background, and in step with her chanting, bouncing rhymes, forces us to take a close and appreciative look at the much maligned creepy-crawly beetle in her new picture book Beetle Bop.

Fleming's beetles--fireflies, stag beetles, click beetles, et al--seem to dance right off the page in her celebration of all things beetle-ish! In one terrific spread describing "blue beetles, black beetles, hiding-in-the-crack beetles," Fleming shows just a bit of a child's foot, with five pudgy toes, near a tiny beetle cowering inside a concrete crack. Even the lettering in her text zaps and zags around the page like the creatures themselves, first a flip, then a flop, now fly, as beetles bop!

As she did in her Caldecott Honor Book In The Small, Small Pond, Fleming takes one area of nature science and with her engaging illustrations and energetic text makes her own teachable moment come alive for young children.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

The Fire This Time: Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville

Faith and family are the intertwined themes of Armageddon Summer, set in July of the millennial year. Award-winning authors Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville co-wrote the book, Yolen narrating the story through the thoughts and word of Marina, a girl who turns fourteen on the fateful day, and Coville creating the character of Jed, a slightly older boy on the fringe of the group of believers.

Marina struggles to push back her doubts and live the role of a true believer, to follow the teachings of Rev. Beelson, the charismatic leader who has prophesied that only 144 of his chosen will survive when the fires of Armageddon begin and consume all those left below. Marina's mother is completely under the spell of Beelson, and her attention has turned away from her children to focus solely on the man and his teachings.

Jed does not believe in the coming Armageddon, but has come out of love for his father, whose wife has left him for another man and whose college-age daughter has refused to follow them to the mountain. When Jed and Marina meet, they are drawn to each other instantly, each sensing the other's doubt and needing someone to whom to reveal their silent questions. Watched constantly, they can only meet briefly at night, but in their brief time together the two form a strong bond.

Jed becomes more and more disturbed as he watches Beelson order the construction of a barbed and electrified fence to keep the "Brethren" inside and the rest of the world out. As the day of prophecy arrives, a crowd of "Last Minute Christers" begging entrance surround the gate, swollen by numbers of estranged parents demanding the release of their children inside. As the armed crowd grows more and more angry, the local police call for reinforcements to control a violent showdown as midnight of what Rev. Beelson declares to be the Last Day approaches.

Brief chapters which consist of police records, local radio broadcasts, and FBI transmissions are interspersed with the alternating narratives of Jed and Marina, a device which adds to the realism and tension of the story. Co-authors Yolen and Coville use their different voices to create two diverse but realistic characters. Jed and Marina emerge as very believable teens caught up in a situation not of their making but within which they must come of age as they struggle with the ultimate questions of life and death.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Big War: Books for Kids About the Kids of World War II

For those young people who may be following the documentary now in progress on PBS, Ken Burns' The War is a great way to gain an intimate understanding of World War II and some of the real people who lived through it.

As a valuable adjunct to the documentary's personal narratives and black-and-white film images, quality fiction can help the facts come alive as the war is portrayed through the eyes and voices of children who experienced it as the most significant event in their young lives. From the homefront to Hiroshima, from Norway to Korea, Hawaii to Berlin, France to Los Alamos, the English Blitz to the concentration camps of Poland, there are many great novels of the big war in children's literature which put readers in the midst of those events which shaped our world.

To track those novels I have previously reviewed, enter the tag The Big War or the subject heading World War II in the search box beside the Blogger icon at the top of the web page. The reviews of these books will come up, arranged with the most recent reviews first. Books may also be searched by title or author.


Girls and Math: the Novel: Do the Math: Secrets, Lies, and Algebra by Wendy Lichtman

The main character of Wendy Lichtman's new mystery for middle schoolers, Do the Math: Secrets, Lies, and Algebra, seems to have taken the message of Danica McKellar's new book, Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math, (reviewed here September 24) seriously. Unlike her best friends Sammy and Miranda, Tess loves algebra and finds that its concepts often apply to her daily life:

"In math, if a number is > or < another one, that never changes. But with people, that is not the way it works.

We're spending a lot of time studying inequalities in algebra now, which makes sense, since who you're greater than (>) and who you're less than (<) is kind of the point of eighth grade. So when I finished putting more paper in the top tray, I stepped aside and said "Go ahead" because we both knew that Richard was > me (R>T).

While making copies of her school newsletter, Tess finds herself in a sticky situation when mega-popular Richard asks her to let him photocopy a sheet which he tries to conceal from her. Tess knows she's not supposed to let anyone else use the copier, but Richard's charm and good looks make it hard to turn him down. But as she pretends to fill the stapler, she sees that Richard's master copy looks like an important test set for the next day in social studies. If Tess tells her teacher that Richard copied the test, will that change the situation to T>R? Or will it turn out T < Everyone at middle school?

Still stewing over what to do about the test, Tess arrives home to find her mother very upset. An artist with whom she works has found his wife dead in the garage of carbon monoxide poisoning from the still-running car, and his disconnected comments seem incriminating. But still, Tess's mom doesn't think her friend is guilty and is hesitant to talk to the police. Tess breaks her promise to her mother to stay quiet about the situation and asks her best friends and a teacher at school for advice about what to do. The girls even find a way to sneak a look at the garage where the supposed suicide occurred and talk to the artist, who seems more relieved than grieved over his wife's death.

Tess's ethical dilemmas grow after Richard and two of his best friends unexpectedly get perfect scores on the big social studies test. Tess notices that the three boys have the same intricate hand-drawn fake tattoo circling their wrists and determines that these must be a code for the test answers.

As she works her way through these serious real-world problems, Tess uses math concepts to help her think her way through her perplexities, doodling Venn diagrams, parallel lines, infinity and imaginary number symbols in her notebook and utilizing the Additive Property of Equality and axioms and theorems to arrive at her best way to find solutions in her own life. As Tess explains the infinity symbol to her math-challenged mother as a character which means "always changing forever," her mom replies, "Maybe that is the real lesson of algebra, Honey, that everything changes."

Do the Math: Secrets, Lies, and Algebra is a first-rate middle school novel which manages to blend mathematical concepts into a fast-moving teen mystery. The author ably sums up the book's theme: "[For] a teen realizing that some questions have more than one right answer, algebra, with its unknowns and variables seemed a perfect metaphor." Danica McKellar would agree!

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

And Then, What? The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

Kevin Brockmeier takes the aphorism that the dead live on in the memories of the living as premise and upon it builds a fascinating, disturbing, and intricately interwoven fantasy.

In alternating chapters, Brockmeier builds parallel universes. In one, set in our near future, population pressures and environmental degradation generate constant war and finally a viral pandemic. In the second, an alternate world called simply "the city," people who have died in the "real" world find themselves in a metropolis without discernible boundaries populated by the dead, many of whom have resided there for decades. There they find old friends or form new relationships, find work, dine in restaurants, read, play, and talk endlessly over coffee and pastries. New people of all ages arrive, speaking of varied "crossings" from the living world, and people eventually disappear unobserved, leaving no physical trace.

In the world of the living, zoologist Laura Byrd is dispatched to a public relations-driven expedition to the Antarctic, purportedly to research the use of pure glacial water for the Coca Cola Company. Assigned to work with two male scientists in a remote facility, the three lose radio and Internet contact with the outside world, and when re-supply helicopters fail to appear, the two men take their power sledge to try to return to the expedition's base camp on the coast. When, after weeks alone, her power system fails, Laura, too, sets out across the icy waste to try to find the coastal station, only to discover when she arrives that everyone there has died. From a printout of a newspaper front page and a personal journal she finds there, she learns that billions of people around the globe have already died of an unknown and invariably fatal virus. Laura's mind gradually accepts the possibility that she may be the only human left alive, but she feels driven to try to reach a remote radio transmitter station to attempt to establish communication with others.

Back in "the city" newspaperman Luka Sims realizes that unusual numbers of people there are disappearing daily while strangely, many thousands more are arriving, all telling of vast numbers of deaths from a fast-moving mystery virus which has swept the Earth. Most of these remain only for a day or two and then are gone, but Luka and his girlfriend Minny slowly realize that the dwindling number who remain, like themselves, are those who have some memory of a woman named Laura Byrd. Sims is a journalism professor with whom Laura had a freshman romance; Minny is her childhood best friend; and Laura's mother and father, who had drifted apart in the later years of their marriage, have rediscovered a deep love in "the city." Compelled by his old vocation's drive for the "facts," Luca continues to write for the remaining population, becoming firmly convinced that this remnant's existence depends on Laura's continued survival.

After several nearly fatal mishaps, however, Laura finds only wreckage when she reaches the transmitter outpost, and as her strength wanes, her mind wanders between memories from her past and the surrealistic landscape of dry snow and weak sun before her. As a delirium takes over her failing thoughts and her consciousness wanes, the alternate world of "the city" begins to shrink also. Whole districts and parks beyond roadways become a void, and even parts of buildings cease to have existence. Luka, Minny, and the remaining people find themselves in an ever-constricted vortex of tenuous being, held together only by their relationship with each other and a failing link to the old world.

Despite the bleak nihilism which his plot requires, The Brief History of the Dead is a compelling read, with flashes of hauntingly beautiful writing bathed in the slippery sheen of memory. He describes the memories of former lives as breaking through to the residents of "the city," "like a fish smacking its tail on the surface of a lake." Of the "real" living, he has Luka remark that "the living carry us inside them like pearls. We survive only as long as they remember us."

Although most praise the audacity of his premise and the quality of his writing, some critics have found disappointment in Brockmeier's pessimistic ending. The book does, however, have a redeeming theme, that our connectedness to others is where we all truly live and ultimately the only reality we know. He closes with these words:

They would listen to each other's voices, and they would breathe each other's breath. And they would wait for that power that would pull them like a chain into whatever came next, into that distant world where broken souls are wrenched out of their histories.


Monday, September 24, 2007

Comma One, Comma All! It's National Punctuation Day: Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss

A giant panda walks into a bar. "You can't drink here," the bartender says. "You're a panda. My liquor license doesn't cover pandas!"

"I'm a panda?" says the panda. "Prove it!"

The bartender pulls a dictionary out from under the bar, looks up "panda," and slaps it down on the counter, jabbing at the definition with his forefinger. "See!" he says. "Read it yourself. Sounds like you to me!"

The panda grabs the book and reads carefully. "Geez," he mutters. "I didn't know about this! Well, gimme a burger, then," he growls. "That ain't illegal, is it?"

The panda slams down the burger, yanks a pistol out, and shoots out all the bottles of booze lined up behind the bar. "So long," he mumbles, and starts for the door.

"Why the heck did you do that?" the flabbergasted barkeep yells.

"Just doin' what Webster says I'm supposed to do," the panda replies laconically, as he stomps out the door. "Says right there a panda eats, shoots, and leaves!"

See what happens when incorrect punctuation causes major misunderstandings? If author Lynn Truss has her way, misapplications of the comma, semi-colon, and apostrophe would shrink faster than a panda's habitat. A self-admitted stickler, Truss's little book Eats(,) Shoots and Leaves has become the bible of persnickety punctuation prudes all over the English-speaking world. Her examples of misapplied punctuation are hilarious, and her style is pugnacious but jolly, making the book a pleasant read for teenagers and adults. Within the humor, however, the point is made effectively that punctuation matters!

So think about it. What would you rather see on National Punctuation Day: a panda who eats shoots and leaves or a panda who eats, shoots, and leaves?


Girls and Math: Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail by Danica McKellar

Danica McKellar's best-selling new book Math Doesn't Such: How to Survive Middle-School Math goes against the grain of the popular wisdom and decades of folkways to insist that girls can master math as well as boys and that math mastery provides life skills which are beneficial to young women. McKellar, a summa cum laude UCLA graduate in math and an actress with TV credentials from The Wonder Years (where she played Fred Savage's friend Winnie Cooper) to The West Wing to How I Met Your Mother, reveals in her first chapter that she had an attack of math phobia early in seventh grade, totally blanking out on a test she'd prepared for diligently. With the help of an empathetic teacher, however, she successfully navigated advanced courses in high school and came to enjoy math on the college level enough to switch her major, even co-authoring the publication of a new math theorem.

The scientific jury is still out on whether there are neurological differences between males and females in the area of mathematical thinking, with findings pro and con all over the landscape. What is not in question is that American females score thirty-something points lower than their male counterpoints on the SAT and that females tend to take fewer advanced mathematics courses and tend not to follow careers in math and engineering as often as do males.

McKellar clearly comes down on the nurture side of this debate, arguing that attitudes of girls in middle school and ideas about girls in middle school determine their success or failure in mathematics classes. She offers techniques for dealing with teachers and mastering those bugaboos--fractions, decimals and percentages, ratios, and algebraic computation--that most students encounter.

In a format clearly directed at young women--a classy cover photo of the cool-looking actress-author, personality quizzes, math horoscopes, and advice on math behavior around guys--McKellar aims her message at the middle-school student in those years when math aversion and underachievement rear their ugly heads. McKellar points out that mathematics mastery goes a long way in giving young women self confidence and an opening into many satisfying, lucrative and even glamorous careers requiring skills which adolescent math phobias make inaccessible to young women. In an interview with Newsweek, she says:

I'm trying to reach the girls whom traditional mathematical instruction isn't reaching. The ones who love fashion, who love accessories, and who believe that they simply aren't good at math. I want to tell girls that cute and dumb isn't as good as cute and smart.

Clearly, the world needs the talents of all its young people. Phobias and educational myths have no place in the preparation of our children for their future lives. Math Doesn't Suck is a good starting place to begin stamping out that old belief that "girls can't do math."


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Broken Arrow: The Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac

In October of 1777 a battle between a war party of Indians loosely allied with the English generals and significant assemblage of American settlers did not take place.

On the eve of the pivotal Battle of Saratoga, a confrontation between the English generals and the rebel forces seemed certain. Loyalists and rebels both sought support from Native American tribes in the regions, and innocent Indians and settlers were slaughtered in terrorist raids on small villages throughout the region. Indians loyal to the French in what is now known as the French and Indians War were being hastily recruited by both sides in the ongoing struggle with what the British held to be an insurgent rebellion.

Into this setting of hostility and unsettled loyalties Bruchac puts his two characters. Sam is a Quaker boy of fourteen, who is stung by the charges of cowardice hurled at his family by the supporters of the rebellion and who is determined to fight, against his faith's injunction against violence, in defense of his family. Stand Straight is an Abenaki boy of the same age, whose family was killed by the English, and whose uncle Sees-the-Wind is leading a scouting party in rebel territory in a loose alliance with these same English forces.

When the armed Indians, accompanied by two French allies, approach a large log structure filled with settlers, they do not know what to expect. Inside the rough shelter an assembly of Friends prepare to hold a regional meeting with the noted Quaker leader Robert Nisbet. As the Quakers wait in their customary silent worship, seeking inspiration from the "light within," the Indians approach the structure. Noting that the door has been left open and the settlers are unarmed, they enter quietly. Surprised to be welcomed with the usual egalitarian handshake of the Friends, the scouting party take seats among the congregation quietly and seem to join in the silent worship. Later they share a simple meal of bread and cheese with the Friends, and leaving an arrow shaft, feathered but with the point removed, over the door as a sign of peace, quietly leave.

The event, revered in Quaker history as the "Easton Meeting," is one of the few instances of peacful encounter in what was a series of bloody and vengeful skirmishes between the army of the Crown and the American rebels. Bruchac tells the true story simply and with insight into the minds of both sides through alternating narratives of the boys who witnessed the peaceful meeting. In a time of war, in which the combatants demonized each other as irrational, souless, and murderous, The Arrow Over the Door tells another story of thoughtful humans finding an inner light of peace and understanding in each other.

The Arrow Over the Door is a short, suspenseful piece of historical fiction which should appeal to middle graders because of its skillful use of exciting setting and characters who face the kind of moral decisions which engage young readers.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Still More Doggone Good Tales: Wag-a-Tail by Lois Ehlert

Lois Ehlert's latest collage art picture book is as joyous and bouncy as a bunch of dogs out for a walk. Constructed from cloth and paper cutouts, a few buttons, and a lot of imagination, the various breeds of dogs pictured on a stroll through an urban farmers' market are amazingly recognizable, by shape and by personality, as they strut their newly graduated obedience skills.

How are you?
We are cool,
We never drool,
We're graduates of Bow Wow School!

Not that the canine cruisers are perfect. Behavior skills slip a bit here and there among the many temptations of the city streets. One dog gives in to temptation as he breaks free to chase a cat.

Dog gone?
Moving on.
Big dog broke a rule.
"So sorry. Lost my cool!"

The dogs are finally rewarded for their good behavior by a romp in the city dog park.

We do tricks,
Pick up sticks,
We are very cool.
We chase squirrels
Meet furry girls,
But we never drool.

Ehlert's dogs and dog walkers are rendered in crisp, bright colors against a steady green background and they zip and zag through their cityscape with verve and pizazz. The author's afterword includes both a list of breeds with their characteristics and a description of the materials and techniques used to create the wonderful collages which fill Wag A Tail with all the fun of a walk in the park.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Big War: The Last Mission by Harry Mazer

When 15-year-old Jack Raab's older brother fails his physical for the draft, Jack feels that it is his duty to uphold his Jewish family's honor by entering the war to defeat Hitler. Using his brother's birth certificate, Jack conceals his real age and fakes his way through flight training. Despite being underage, he manages to to qualify as a waist gunner in a B-17 crew assigned to fly missions against Germany in the last year of World War II.

Filled at first with heroic dreams of becoming a fighter pilot ace, Jack finds flying missions over Europe terrifying for himself and the rest of his young crew. In their twenty-fifth mission, their B-17 is badly damaged and ditches in the North Sea near the English coast. Picked up by British sailors, the crew is immediately re-assigned to a new aircraft and takes off for a bombing run over Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. In a horrifying scene over their target, the plane suffers a direct hit and Jack sees his best friend killed and the others scrambling to bail out.

Jack follows and is the only crew member to survive ground fire and land safely. Injured and frightened, he hides for several days before being taken prisoner by a ragtag group of disheartened Luftwaffe airmen. Jack is suddenly freed when the disorganized German army flees before the advancing Russians and eventually makes his way back to the American lines. When Jack is rotated back to the States and reassigned to the Pacific theatre, he finally decides to reveal his true age, now sixteen, and goes back home to begin his adjustment to civilian life as a high school student again.

As always, Harry Mazer's writing is taut, packs plenty of action, and sticks to the main story line without digression. Readers who are fascinated with the bombers which dominated the air war in Europe will enjoy reading The Last Mission, in tandem with Iain Lawrence's B for Buster reviewed here on April 6.

For serious World War II buffs, The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945, the companion book to Ken Burns' soon-to-be-aired PBS documentary, is now available. This book deals with "the necessary war," not from the point of view of leaders and campaigns, but from the intimate accounts of over forty people who describe their own personal experiences, from prisoner-of-war camps, the air war, the home front, and the slog war of grunts in the Pacific theatre. First-person narratives and original photographs should bring The War home to those generations who did not experience it in person.

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A "Step" Up: The Steps by Rachel Cohn

If you thing it's hard keeping track of all the Steps in my life, try being me.

The Steps are the bazillion stepbrothers, stepsisters, and half siblings my parents keep laying on me.

From Cinderella to the Brady Bunch, learning to live with step-parents and step-siblings has been hard for kids, and life for Annabel Whoopi Schubert is no different.

Annabel is just hoping for a great Christmas break in New York, shopping and skating at Rockefeller Plaza with her B.F. Justine, but everything turns upside down when she learns that her mom Angelina, plus her Grandma Bubbe, with whom they live, agree that what she needs is to visit her dad and step-family in Sydney,--the one in Australia! Anabel thinks their sudden decision has something to do with Angelina's new romance with Harvey, whose dorky son "Wheaties" is in Annabel's class at school.

Wannabe designer Annabel loves Sydney, with its trendy fashions and cool little shops, but she can't help feeling some jealousy when her same-age stepsister Lucy and little brother Angus call her father "Dad," and she painfully realizes that her dad Jack is happy and settled in Sydney and will never move back to New York. Although she loves holding her baby half-sister Beatrice, her step-mother Penny seems to be trying to keep her from feeling like a member of the family. While she has to admit that Lucy seems like a fun girl, she notices that Lucy, too, is angry over being forced to entertain her rather than visiting her Granny Nell in Melbourne as she always does at Christmas.

Things come to a head on New Year's Eve, when both girls feel so put-upon that they decide to get even with Jack and Penny, sneaking out and taking the train to Grandma Nell's in Melbourne anyway. Before they show up for the expected showdown at Nell's, Lucy stops to hang out with her old school friends a bit, and Annabel finds herself smitten with Lucy's ex-step-brother Ben, whom they meet in the park.

Grandma Nell draws out the girls' stories and firmly but sympathetically assigns them the penance of cleaning out her garage while she makes dinner for her former son-in-law and, much to Annabel's delight, his son Ben. When Grandma Nell flies back to Sydney with the repentent Lucy and Annabel, they find a crowd of concerned and disgruntled family members, including Bubbe and Angelina, as well as her now official fiance' Harvey and Annabel's now future step-brother Wheaties. Having shared an amazing adventure, Lucy and Annabel have finally become friends, and former exes Jack and Angelina make an effort to put their anger and hurt behind them.

In The Steps Rachel Cohn doesn't gloss over the real pain and loss for children involved in divorce and remarriage, but she also manages a laugh a page as Annabel attempts to deal with a trans-hemispheric family and a convoluted family tree of step-relatives. Annabel (nicknamed "Whoops" by her almost boyfriend Ben) finds that there's some bitter, but also some sweet, in her blended family.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Talk Like a Pirate Day: Everything I Know about Pirates by Tom Lichtenheld

It's Talk Like a Pirate Day, and if you need to extend your piratese beyond "Yaarrrrr!", take a look at Everything I Know about Pirates, which features an Official Pirate Glossary and a guide to pirate haberdashery.

If any of ye lubbers can't get beyond "Yo ho ho!," here's a site that'll give ye a quick fix fer yer pirate lingo!

Avast ye! Get yer dungbies off the poop deck and talk like a pirate today!


New Girl in Town: Meet Julie by Megan McDonald

The 1970's were a time of transition in the United States, and all that change comes down on Julie Albright in the fall of 1974. Her parents have decided to divorce, which means that instead of starting fourth grade with her best friend Ivy Ling, Julie is moving across San Francisco to live with her mom in an apartment above her shop, Gladrags. Julie is leaving behind her rabbit Nutmeg and her familiar house and neighborhood around Sierra Vista Elementary. Although she can see Ivy when she visits her pilot father two weekends a month, Julie has to face the first day of school alone.

Her first day at Jack London Elementary is scary. Her teacher, who proclaims that she must be called Ms. Hunter, is very strict, the principal seems always to be stalking the halls for rule breakers, and three snooty girls in her class whisper loudly that her parents are divorced. The only person who seems friendly is a boy named T.J., who mentions the upcoming tryouts for the school basketball team. But when Julie tries to sign up, the testy buzz-cut coach cuts her off with a brusque "No girls! In this gym, I'm the law!"

Inspired by a street activist she meets gathering signatures for a petition, Julie decides to fight for her right to play basketball under the recently passed Title IX law. Despite Ivy's reluctance to help, Julie manages to present the coach with her filled petition, only to watch him wad up the sheets and toss them into his wastebasket. At the end of the school day, Julie, with the help of T.J., goes through the custodian's trash bag, finds the crumpled petition, and bravely takes it to Principal Sanchez himself, who surprisingly approves her request and applauds her courage.

With a nostalgic background of Viet Nam vets, Beetles tunes, handmade appleseed jewelry and blue-jean handbags, Julie brings the 'seventies to life again in this new series. Like the 1905 American Girl Samantha in the early days of women's suffrage, Julie, inspired by her entrepreneur mom and her sports-loving sister, begins to find a new way to become a woman in her own turbulent times.

As in all American Girl books, an illustrated appendix documents life in the 1970's with photos of artifacts, events, and people from the period, including early groundbreakers Billy Jean King, Sally Ride, and Gloria Steinem and, more importantly, three young girls who first broke the gender line in youth league baseball and basketball.

Also available in the Julie series are Julie Tells Her Story, Good Luck, Ivy, Happy New Year, Julie, Julie and the Eagles, Julie's Journey, and Changes for Julie. Author Megan McDonald is also the creator of the popular Judy Moody series of beginning chapter books.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Come, Little Leaves: Two for Fall by Lois Ehlert

The first waves of the coming tsunami of fallen leaves are beginning to break, reminding us that the season is changing. It's time to turn to the science of leaves, which, thanks to the uproarious display offered by North American trees, is always a pleasant occupation.

There's no better source for the picture book set than the artful books of Lois Ehlert, whose earlier Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf takes the reader along on a close look at the life cycle of a maple tree through the eyes of a child who plants and tends it. Ehlert's collage technique utilizes unique materials as well as stunning paintings to make us look, really look, at the wonder that is the leaf and the tree.

In her 2006 book Leaf Man, Ehlert has found a new medium for her collage. Despairing of the possibility of incorporating the fragile texture and colors of real leaves in her collages, she hit upon the idea of photocopying autumn leaves as she found them and using the copies to create the layouts which fill her pages. Set against gorgeous backgrounds using varied texture and color, her charmingly witty leaf art collages fill her die-cut pages, which ripple like river banks, curve like hillsides, and zigzag like the tops of fir trees.

The unifying story is slight but evocative. "Leaf Man," an anthropomorphic fellow made up of maple, beech, and gingko leaves, with a sweet gum ball for a mouth and acorns for eyes, is blown away by the autumn winds, leaving "no travel plans." "A Leaf Man's got to go where the wind blows," is the recurring refrain as Leaf Man sails past leaf chickens, leaf geese, leaf pumpkins and squash, leaf turkeys and cows, and leaf turtles and fish. Where does he land? Ehlert doesn't tell, but she does advise "...listen for a rustle in the leaves. Maybe you'll find a Leaf Man waiting to go home with you."

Again, Ehlert's art summons forth our ability to see the detail in a pile of windblown leaves, to see the individual colors, spots and all, and the shapes of the fall leaves all around us. Backing up the sensual experience of her text, the endpapers are filled with colorful leaves identified by their source tree, while the dust jacket flaps display "mystery leaves" and the various places they were found, from Santa Fe to Wisconsin to Orlando.

Just right for early childhood education, these books combine a playful and aesthetic experience coupled with botanical information, but their lasting value is that of inspiring a walk among the trees to look for, and really see, those "signs of fall."

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Blume's Back! Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and the Great One by Judy Blume

Welcome back, Judy Blume! After a five-year hiatus from children's books, Blume's new sequel to her 1985 hit The Pain and the Great One takes the rival siblings from the picture book to a early chapter format, all decked out with the unique illustrations of the venerable James Stevenson, whose sketchy, squiggly, characters seem always to be in motion.

Main characters Jake, now aged six, and Abigail, now eight, are a bit older, but both are still convinced that their parents love the other best. Jake, named "The Pain" by his slightly supercilious sister, and Abbie, sarcastically nicknamed "The Great One," by pesty younger brother Jake, battle over minor matters as all siblings do. Each, however, learns a lot from the other, and in the way of brothers and sisters everywhere, each adds a lot to family life.

The seven chapters are split between first-person narrations by Jake and Abigail. Jake deals with his newly-acquired phobia of Mr. Soupy, the barber, which his sister finally figures out is caused by a fear that Mr. Soupy will accidentally cut off an ear or two while trimming his hair. Abigail, on the other hand, can't summon up the courage to ride her spiffy blue bike, not because she's afraid of riding, but, as she puts it, "she's afraid of falling." Abbie has to come up with some fancy "pretending" to keep her friends from finding out she can't ride. At last, spurred by the galling fact that Jake rides a two-wheeler like a pro, Abigail fearfully allows her Uncle Mitch to dress her from head to toe in protective garb and finally faces her fear of falling. Despite Jake's jeers of " Weirdo on Wheels," Abigail learns to ride.

Jake and Abigail quarrel over who is best at babysitting their baby cousin, and both are disappointed to find out that what their family is babysitting is actually their aunt's smelly old dog Olive. When Jake can't get Olive into the bathtub, he decides on a shower and a shampoo to shake the stink. The shampoo part goes fine, but when Jake turns on the shower, Olive bolts and Jake gets soaked. Abigail intervenes to get the final rinse job done.

Despite their mutual assistance pact, Jake and Abigail are still a bit jealous over which one of them their parents--and their cat, Fluzzy--loves the best, but their sibling skirmishes are the stuff of normal family life and they can't help occasionally learning from each other. Blume is still the master of telling it like it is when it comes to the problems of childhood, but despite their problems, the Pain and the Great One are doing just fine! In Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and the Great One, Blume gives Jake and Abigail equal time, but their cat Fluzzy actually gets the last word!

More hilarious tales of sibling rivalry by Judy Blume have recently been reissued in brand-new, dressed-up paperback editions for slightly older readers. Her series about Peter Hatcher, his little brother Farley Drexel Hatcher (a.k.a. Fudge), and his friend Sheila Tubman include Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Superfudge, Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great,Fudge-A-Mania and Double Fudge.

Two of Blume's noted books for middle school readers (originally titled Just As Long As We're Together and Here's to You, Rachel Robinson) have been republished in one volume under the title BFF*(Best Friends Forever). These and the new editions of her other popular classics should ensure that Judy Blume's books will continue to be read by lucky kids--forever!

For a look at Judy's life and work, her notorious experiences with censorship, and her blog, click here.

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