Friday, November 30, 2007

The Great American Trickster: Two Wileys and That Hairy Man

With the arguable exception of Br'er Rabbit, American folk literature's top trickster has got to be the wily Wiley, who with his mama's help, manages to fool that old conjurin' sack man three times in Wiley and the Hairy Man. According to the retellers' notes, this story was collected somewhere in central Alabama by Donnell Van de Voort and published in the "Manuscripts of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of Alabama." Although Wiley has roots in African folklore, the tale is a fully American "confabulation" in which the plucky boy and his mother use their natural-born sass and wit to rid themselves of a cloven-footed swamp bogeyman.

The tale of Wiley is available currently in two stand-alone versions, both with much to recommend them to the reader or teller. The more recent adaptation, that of Judy Sierra and the Caldecott award-winning artist Brian Pinkney, published in 1996, shows off Pinkney's beautiful oil paintings on scratchboard, featuring jewel-like blues, greens, and golds. Sierra's retelling, which perhaps includes more of the orginally recorded version from the 1930's, is more conversational and meandering, a strong adaptation whose longer text provides ample room for Pinkney's sensuous illustrations to spread out on the large pages.

The older and, to my mind, more satisfying version, however, is the edition retold and illustrated by Molly Garrett Bang, known for her more recent Caldecott book, When Sophie Gets Angry--Really, Really Angry. Amazingly, Bang's powerful version was written as a controlled vocabulary Ready-to-Read edition (Simon & Schuster, 1976), illustrated in her simple but realistic black and sepia drawings. Perhaps the limited language is an asset to the storyteller in this iteration. Although Bang's text is not in dialect, its simplicity and word selection sound authentic to my Alabama-born ear, and in the reading it is easy to fall into a slow Southern cadence which befits the setting. The few but choice words give the text great drama when read aloud, and the suspense leading up to Wiley's and Mama's final tricks will mesmerize any audience:

Then the Hairy Man said,
"I'll dry up your cow.
I'll dry up your spring.
I'll send a million boll weevils out of the ground to eat up your cotton if you don't give me your young 'un.

"Hairy Man," said Wiley's mother, "you wouldn't do all that.
That's mighty mean."

I'm a mighty mean man," said the Hairy Man.

Bang's illustrations are equally strong in evoking the swampy atmosphere. Wiley, in his cutoffs and outgrown shirt, is skinny and long-limbed, and his thin, wiry mother, dressed in a long, skimpy work dress and kerchief, never stops working even as she shares her conjure wisdom with her only son. The Hairy Man himself is a marvelous bogeyman, short and powerfully squat, with a cow's tail and hind feet, and a smugly smiling mouth bristling with long snaggly teeth, his body language full of self-satisfied power until his final comeuppance.

A truly American trickster, the fearful but courageous underdog whose wit sees him through, Wiley is a national treasure, a reminder that size and power and sheer meanness don't always prevail over a hero who knows just how to use what he's got.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Growing Up IV: Jack's Power: Stories from a Caribbean Year by Jack Gantos

Jack Henry is off again on another funny-sad year, this time in Barbados, where his screwball dad hopes to make a million in construction.

The story begins as Jack's father gallantly rescues a British honeymoon couple from the raging surf. Pumped up by his heroic status, Jack, Sr., challenges Jack to conquer his fear of horses and assigns little brother Pete to "help" with the quest. Although Jack succeeds in taking a turn on the hotel's meanest mount, Pete manages to get Jack seriously kicked in the head in the process. Other insults to Jack's person and ego follow, as he chases beheaded chickens for their cook, gets blood poisoning and winds up painted with gentian violet, and is forced to try to make friends under cover of darkness to hide his all-over purple hue.

Jack's ever present journal fills with hilarious and sometimes scary entries as Jack falls hopelessly and helplessly in love with a rich girl who disdains his "immaturity," searches for a missing boy who is found dead beneath his favorite movie house, and tries to make a bundle by becoming joint owner of a fighting gamecock with his dad's hopelessly hooked gambling buddy. As in the other Jack Henry books, Jack takes the eccentric characters who pass through his life with humor and a remarkable ability to ricochet through bizarre events without losing his good nature.

Most of Jack's dilemmas arise from the conflicting advice his dad loves to hand out and the risky behaviors he often exhibits. A man of considerable energy and courage, his grip on reality sometimes seems a bit tenuous. Here's the wisdom of Jack, Sr., when he and Jack's mom return from a near death experience at sea:

"How was it?" I asked. I wanted to know all the scary details. I was hoping he had a couple gruesome stores to tell me.

"Man against the sea," he said gruffly. "And man won."

"I mean, how'd you get a hole in the boat?"

"We hit a floating coconut tree and it stove in the hull."

"Oh." I thought it might be more frightening.

"I'd like to know who threw that coconut tree into the ocean," he said angrily. "Absolutely irresponsible."

I guessed that it was possible that some nut threw a tree into the ocean, hoping it would sink a boat. But it seemed more possible that it had just been washed off the shore by waves. "Could have been an accident," I ventured.

"There's no room for accidents on the ocean, son," he replied. "It's a serious world out there."

As cane fires spread through the island, Jack, Sr., admits that the family is bankrupt, and Jack watches their cat Celeste and dog BoBoII loaded up by the Humane Society and taken away. As their plane spirals up over the island on the way back to Florida, Jack looks back on the island and on his year:

Once we were up in the air I looked out the window. The sugarcane fires were still glowing. As we traveled farther away I thought Barbados would look frightening, as if we had just escaped a burning ship. But I was wrong. The fires stretched from coast to coast like party lights strung across the deck of a beautiful luxury liner. It wasn't the island that was sinking. It was us. The plane banked to the west. I looked out the window. The island was gone.

Luckily for his many fans, Jack's Power is a pleasant vacation interlude which prefaces his next mainland adventure at his new school, Sunrise Junior High School, which Gantos points out ironically is a slightly refurbished state prison. In the final book in the Jack Henry series, our hero tries to pass seventh grade at last and get through the coming throes of adolescence.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Playing It Safe: Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt

Scaredy is a neurotically risk-averse squirrel who knows all about the dangers of the "unknown." He knows there are killer bees, and sharks, and germs, and green Martians and all kinds of hazardous stuff just waiting to do him in if he leaves the safety of his tree. To avoid a potentially fatal mistake, he's made one of those pros and cons lists just to make sure he's doing the prudent thing.





It's a boring but safe life.... Wake up, eat a nut, look at view, go to sleep (repeat).

Of course, there are unforeseen contingencies in the most carefully planned life, and just in case, Scaredy has planned for those, too. He has a emergency kit, complete with parachute, Band-Aid, hard hat, can of sardines.... [Wait a minute--sardines? Yes, sardines are useful for distracting sharks (see above).]

When an unforeseen bee bumbles by and Scaredy drops his emergency bag, though, he inadvertently falls from the tree and discovers that he has one more contingency quality he hasn't planned for--Scaredy is a flying squirrel! Scaredy enjoys the glide all the way down, but just in case there might be something dangerous around, he pretends to be dead for two hours.

The newly intrepid flying Scaredy Squirrel cautiously adds three items to his daily schedule:

--jump into the unknown
--play dead
--return home

Hey, it's a start!

In addition to this 2007 ALA Notable Book, Scaredy Squirrel, (Kids Can, 2006), Scaredy widens his world in Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend and Scaredy Squirrel At the Beach.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Student Teacher: The Last Holiday Concert by Andrew Clements

By Halloween sixth-grader Hart Evans has the intermediate school thing under control.

It was almost Thanksgiving, but to Hart, it felt like the school year was practically over. The days flipped by, and sixth grade at Palmer Intermediate was turning out to be a breeze. His friends were good, his classes were only a minor disruption in his busy social life, and the homework wasn't too bad either. In short, school was great. Hart felt like he owned the place.

The one minor glitch in Hart's perfect school day is choral music class. Hart likes music, but he doesn't like doing it Mr. Meinert's way. As Hart sees it, Meinert is a control freak whose boring, structured vocal music classes need a bit of jazzing up. To spice up the class, Hart brings perfect-sized rubber bands to class one day and gets off his first shot undetected. Mr. Meinart is hilariously oblivious to the first rubber band, which sticks prominently to the front of his sweater, but when the second hits him right in the neck, he erupts like Mt. St. Helens, and Hart is lucky to get off with only two detentions.

What Hart doesn't know is that Mr. Meinert loves his job but has just been notified that his position is being terminated for lack of funding. When, on the next day, the kids in the chorus ignore his lesson to rush to the windows to watch snow begin to fall, he has a pedagogical meltdown. He angrily scrawls the date of the winter holiday concert--DECEMBER 22--on the board and hands total responsibility for it over to the class.

After a few days of pleasant chaos, the kids begin to worry about the upcoming performance. Looking for a leader, they hold a vote and choose Hart to be their concert director. For the first week, Hart is in his element. He solicits suggestions for songs, recruits decoration committees and individual performers, and manages to keep things moving. But as the early days of December fly by, Hart realizes that he's promised too much and will never be able to shape all the in-fighting wannabe acts into a thirty-five minute time frame.

Finally, in a bit of an epiphany, Hart sees class management and his earlier smart-alecky behavior from his teacher's viewpoint. Somewhat surprised, Hart realizes that he needs Mr. Meinert's experience and expertise. Impressed with the class's ideas, their teacher helps the group choose a unifying theme to pull all the diverse songs, acts, and skits together under the title they chose, Winterhope, with its wish for world peace. Finally the kids really have ownership of the holiday concert and take their roles seriously, and the concert concludes with a standing ovation from the audience.

Clements is a master of the novel in which pre-teen kids and the adults who work with them learn to walk in each other's shoes and emerge with greater empathy and self knowledge at the resolution. The Last Holiday Concert is a holiday story minus the usual trappings which nonetheless affirms the message of the season.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Story with A-Peel: Once Upon a Banana by Jennifer Armstrong and David Small

In a wordless picture book sure to please devotees of the I Spy genre, Jennifer Armstrong has luckily teamed up with Caldecott Medalist David Smalls to create a hilarious chain reaction street saga.

The story begins with a street performer juggling for passers-by just as his monkey takes it on the lam. In the first two-page spread, which precedes the title page, as the monkey heads for the tempting bananas on a grocer's sidewalk display and his owner gives chase, we see a gawking waiter spilling soup on a diner's lap. While the storekeeper berates the juggler, the monkey tosses the peel to the sidewalk, and a bunch of aloof cats look on from a fire escape, we see a couple of over-the-hill motorcyclists looking to park their bike. One of the cyclists slips on the peel, knocking down a painter on a long ladder who lands in the shopping cart of a muscle-bound pedestrian who never misses a word on his cell as he joins in the angry crowd.

Traffic snarls, horns honk, dogs get loose from two dog walkers, and a bicyclist is upended in short order. As the cyclist loses his shoes, violating the dress code (NO BARE FEET) at City Hall where he lands, a discombobulated judge steps onto a boy's skateboard, careening through an underpass and sending a baby in a carriage airborne as the hysterical mother and frenzied dogs give chase.

Just as the juggler reaches up to grab his monkey from atop a pay phone, the baby comes down safely into his arms, the irate diner gets his second bowl of soup (right in his lap, of course), and the horde giving chase arrives at the intersection where it all started, just in time to dodge a garbage truck colliding with a delivery van loaded with replacement bananas. It's an instant banana-rama street party with free bananas all around. The dog walkers flirt with each other, the dogs make friends, the street performer juggles bananas, and, of course, the cats watch the whole scene from their balcony.

Kids will love spotting the next potential victims of the fray as they unknowingly move into the scene, and it will take readers more than a few times through the book to observe all the humorous details. A map with key of the story forms the endpapers to help the reader follow the action from incident A to incident Q. It's all in good fun, with a Rube Goldberg-type lesson in cause and effect as a bonus.

Once Upon A Banana (Simon & Schuster, 2006) was named an ALA Notable Book for 2007.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Growing Up III: Heads or Tails: Stories from the Sixth Grade by Jack Gantos

Jack is back, in his ninth house and fifth school in his brief eleven years, and, as the title suggests, things can go either way, heads or tails, this year, too. Although Heads or Tails: Stories of the Sixth Grade was the first written in the Jack Henry saga, it actually follows Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade without a Clue and Jack on the Tracks: Four Seasons of the Fifth Grade in the semi-autobiographical story of Jack Henry and his peripatetic family's life. No matter. Jack is still the new kid at a new school, still accident-prone and a disaster magnet, still funny as a crutch, and still looking for the secret of young manhood in all the wrong places.

In his on-going search for lucrative employment, Jack, Sr., moves his family again, this time to a scruffy but wacko late 'sixties neighborhood in Ft. Lauderdale. Jack's sister Betsey is still cynical but smart, his little brother Pete is still pesty but persistent, Mom is pregnant again but still perky, and Jack is--well, still Jack. When he demands a diary like Betsey's, Jack finds he has major writer's block, so he fills the pages with dead (or almost dead) insects, bits and pieces of other animals, stamps, ticket stubs, and other detritus from his daily life, and eventually some back-slanted handwritten entries to prove to his teacher that his incomplete copybook work is at least his own work.

As he stumbles through the year, Jack leaves his expensive bike out in a hurricane, becomes convinced he's dying of rabies after a dog bite, leaves his sister's dog to guard his fishing gear only to see BoBo dragged into the canal by an eight-foot alligator, tricks his little brother into trying circus tricks which result in a broken arm, and makes up for that stunt by rescuing Pete from a possibly fatal jump through a flaming hula hoop.

If Jack's family is a little off beat, his neighbors, the Pagodas, are total weirdos. Not only is their oldest son a convicted but escaped felon, but their parents keep a breeding kennel of poodles inside their house, so Jack's visits inside are limited to the amount of time he can hold his breath. Still, Frankie Pagoda is Jack's only friend, unless you count Donna Lowry, who gives him her coveted job as sixth-grade crossing guard and then takes it back the next day when Jack turns out to be too nice for the safety patrol.

The story ends with a bang and a whimper when Jack Henry, Sr., gets and then loses a high-paying job with a government contractor and the family settles for yet another rented house, albeit in a less goofy neighborhood, celebrating at the drive-in by watching, appropriately enough, The Planet of the Apes. Jack has his seventh grade year to look forward to, this time in a new, super-tough junior high, which we can guess is going to be another memorable year in the life of a good kid who, in the words of one critic, "takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin.'"

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Friday, November 23, 2007

"Oh, How It Lights Up the Night": Sky Boys by Deborah Hopkinson

Through the eyes of a schoolboy, scavenging for stove wood and finding a bonanza of scrap at the corner of Thirty-Fourth and Fifth Avenue, Deborah Hopkinson's 2007 Notable Book Sky Boys (Schwartz & Wade, 2006) begins the story of the Empire State Building from its human perspective, from many angles--the jobless in line, hoping for a chance to work, the rivet crew, catching red-hot steel and driving it home, the surefooted sky monkeys who know hundreds covet their jobs if they falter or fall, and the jubilant workers clinging to the mast at the top for the photo op when the steel work is done.

In poetic prose we hear the story of the construction--huge machines and unbelievably brave men--who put together the outer shell with incredible speed.

"First come the rumbling flatbead trucks
bundles of steel on their backs,
like a gleaming, endless river
surging through
the concrete canyons of Manhattan. . . .,

Before your eyes a steel forest appears.
Two hundred and ten massive columns....

Then it's the sky boys' show....

High overhead they crawl
like spiders on steel,
spinning their giant web in the sky.

Wouldn't you love to be one of them,
the breeze in your face
and your muscles as strong
as the girder you ride?"

Hopkinson provides the statistics and the history of the high steel which would be daunting in any time, but she also tells the story of the Empire State Building as a symbol, a national monument to the courage and hope which built it in the depth of the Great Depression. James Ransome's acrylic oil paintings are equally monumental, full of the solid realism of the period, angled from below looking up, from high on the steel looking down on the rooftops of the city, and with the jaunty strength of the time, looking straight out as if into the future of our own time with their message:

"If we can do this, we can do anything."


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Floating Below the Surface: Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos

"If I say something angry, I should never be surprised by the harm. And if I say something good, then it is like watching my own garden grow, and that is the greatest pleasure ever. That is what Aisha and I are doing. Our future. Everything careful and chosen well so the shoots come up strong and straight."

Living on expired tourist visas, sisters Aisha and Nadira and their family exist in the shadow world of illegal immigrants, working overtime, excelling in school, and always, always, swimming below the surface of public notice. But dishonest and incompetent lawyers have taken their father's carefully saved money and failed to gain legal residency for them, and in the time after 9/11, when all Bangladeshi resident men are forced to register, the Hossain family flees to Canada hoping for political asylum. Swamped with applicants, the Canadians turn them back after they cross the border, and when they try to re-enter with their lapsed passports, their father is jailed by the INS. While he waits for a hearing, their mother sends the girls back to live with their aunt and uncle and attend school, sworn to tell no one of their Abba's detention.

Nadira, at fourteen, has always lived in the shadow of her slim, beautiful, and brilliant sister Aisha, who is on track to be senior valedictorian and begin pre-medical studies at Barnard. A good but not outstanding student, Nadira is overweight and slow to act, and at first Aisha takes the lead in rounding up documents that can exonerate her father of any suspicious activity, but when the long wait and the growing fear of deportation finally overwhelm Aisha, she lapses into a deep depression, unable even to go on with her studies. Unused to taking the lead, Nadira is forced to manage their father's defense to preserve their dream of a good life in America.

After much struggle, Nadira obtains information that proves that her father is the victim of mistaken identity, the result of an error involving one letter of his last name. She is then able to prove that suspicious contributions to a Muslim fund were savings for their college education, and at his long-awaited hearing the judge allows her father to resubmit his application for legal residency.

Ask Me No Questions, an ALA Notable Book for 2007, tells the moving story familiar to many immigrants through the honest, vital voice of a child who comes of age in the crucible of the clash between her family's hopes for a better life and the letter of the law.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Perfect Blendship: Two Houndsley and Catina Stories by James Howe

Children's literature can't have too many friendships like those of Pooh and Piglet, George and Martha, Frog and Toad, and Mr. Putter and his cat Tabby. James Howe's 2007 Notable Book Houndsley and Catina introduces a dog and cat who enjoy a novel friendship portrayed with droll wit and sweet simplicity.

The story begins when Catina finally delivers her 74-chapter memoir to friend Houndsley, extravagantly announcing that it's going to make her rich and famous.

"Here is my book," she said proudly. She gave him all seventy-four chapters, a cup of ginger tea, and a plate of cookies.

"I will need more cookies," said Houndsley.

Catina's writing is so bad that Houndsley has to phrase his comments carefully to avoid hurting his friend's feelings.

"I am at a loss for words," Houndsley told Catina. "I am speechless."

Of course, Catina hears the comments as reinforcement for her overblown ambitions. Feeling beneficent, she encourages her friend to take his wonderful cooking skills into a televised contest, where Houndsley chokes in the clutch, turning out his signature three-bean chili with raw rice and no beans, and gets harshly panned by the judges.

In the final chapter the two friends reflect on their grab for glory and conclude it's not for them. As Houndsley and Catina share a firefly-lit evening, they philosophize together.

"I just enjoy cooking. Trying to be the best made me nervous, and I did not have fun," said Houndsley.

"I do not have fun writing," said Catina. "My mind wanders and I get bored."

When Catina adds that she will find something she loves to do and do it until she is good at it, the two friends agree that they are good at enjoying being together and that, at least for this lovely summer evening, is enough.

In a worthy sequel, Houndsley and Catina and the Birthday Surprise,Howe begins with a sad Houndsley. After a bit of probing by his good friend Catina, he admits that he's feeling down because he doesn't know when his birthday comes.

"Oh," said Catina. She wanted to say something to cheer Houndsley up.

But all she could think of to say was "I do not know when my birthday is either."

When Catina becomes reclusive and seems to be avoiding him, Houndsley concludes that he is guilty of making Catina sad, too, and decides to atone by baking her a special cake. Suspense rises as their mutual friend Bert becomes a clandestine go-between to reunite the friends for a special event, an event which turns out to be Catina's surprise birthday party for Houndsley and Houndsley's surprise birthday cake for Catina.

"We did not know we had the same birthday before this," said Houndsley.

"But we do now," Catina said.

Mary-Louise Gay's pencil and watercolor illustrations are lively and expressive, interacting with and amplifying the text wonderfully. Howe's two titles are a wonderful addition to the canon of beginning-to-read books.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Pleasure Readers Do It All, and Do It Better!

Your English teacher was right! Reading is good for you!

An NEA paper, "To Read or Not to Read," surveying 40 studies of child and adult reading, reports that reading for pleasure and personal interest has declined drastically over the past few years. Unlike the 2004 report, this study included literature, informational reading, periodicals, and internet reading and still found that the average adult spends only seven minutes reading anything by choice per day.

As most parents and teachers know firsthand, pleasure reading drops off almost instantly when children enter middle school. No problem? Think again. The study reports that middle and high school readers do overwhelmingly better on standardized testing than do reading-averse students. Fifty-five percent of adults who read below the basic level are unemployed. The single factor which correlates best with academic performance is the number of books available to the child at home. To listen to a brief summary of the report, click here.

These statistics on voluntary reading are rather grim. There are great authors and illustrators and book publishers, editors, and the rest of the book biz out there, working to bring a great product to market. Need a Christmas gift suggestion? Give every kid you love a great book.

Maybe the Amazon Kindle (see previous post) will lure some kids back into reading. They already know how to download whatever they want. Maybe having it available electronically will make books more cool. It can't hurt.


New Way to Read! The Amazon Kindle Debuts

I'm not exactly an early adopter, but the Amazon Kindle sounds like an idea whose time has come to me. Amazon's version of the e-book has one non-hardware feature that is appealing: there's no monthly fee or service contract. Books downloaded through Amazon's service are competitively priced--bestsellers at $9.99 (with older books presumably cheaper, one would hope). Many periodicals such as Newsweek or the Wall Street Journal and popular blogs would also be available.

Downloads are said to be very swift, approximately one minute per. As a nod to us old librarians, the Kindle comes with the complete Oxford English Dictionary (hur-ray for the OED!) and access to Wikipedia. This little marvel will sell for $399, which is pricey, but if you figure you'll save $10 to $15 per book purchase, it'll pay for itself after you download 25-40 volumes. The device is said to hold about 200 titles. No information is out on the price of individual periodicals, but, hey, when you're done with them, you don't have to take them to the recycling center. Wah-hoo! Trees are rejoicing all over!

A full review and links to more photos and more technical information can be found here.

Hot Topic: The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming by Laurie David and Cambria Gordon

An entertaining but serious book for kids on climate change is already generating its share of praise and controversy. The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming (Scholastic, 2007) neither oversimplifies nor obfuscates the interconnected factors contributing to climate change. Aimed at elementary and middle school readers, the book deals with the serious problems caused by changes in average temperature and rainfall with humor, hope, and plenty of photos and graphics.

Whether we can agree that humans have a major role in the earth's rapid warming trends or not, there is no supportable argument against doing what we can to avoid adding to a problem with an as yet unforeseeable outcome. The authors point out practical actions, such as unplugging phone chargers and other appliances when not in use, and it's hard to argue that consuming electricity for no purpose is a good thing! David and Gordon include a glossary and generous bibliography, including relevant websites for student use.

Another kid-friendly guide to significant and easy ways to conserve energy and protect the environment is 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Thankful: The Thanksgiving Bowl by Virginia Kroll

Veteran writer of holiday stories Virginia Kroll has a little gem in her newest picture book, The Thanksgiving Bowl.

The story begins on the title page, where we see a car loaded with parents and kids driving up to an old farmhouse whose yard is aglow with autumn leaves. Inside, Grandma Grace is ready to preside over a family feast whose delicious smells fill the house. As the relatives pitch in to serve Thanksgiving dinner, Grandma urges everyone to drop an unsigned note telling what they are most thankful for into her big, yellow plastic bowl.

After dinner all adjourn to the outdoor picnic table for pumpkin pie, where Grandma draws out and reads each note and the diners vie to guess the author of each thankful statement. "I'm thankful that everyone I love is thankful," says Grandma Grace. Unnoticed as the family clears the table and hurries back inside to escape the sunset chill, the yellow bowl blows away in the wind.

Thus begins the yellow bowl's yearlong adventure. In December it becomes a safe haven for a mouse fleeing a diving owl; in January it becomes a hat for a neighbor's snowman. As the year proceeds, it floats away in the spring thaw, becomes the base of a nest for Canada geese, a pot for an April seedling project which becomes a blooming Mother's Day gift, a tank for tadpoles taken to school, a boat for a toddler's wading pool, and the perfect mold for a sandbox castle. As the September wind blows it from the sandbox and across the parking lot, it is dutifully placed in a recycling bin, only to blow off the truck and become an October toy for baby raccoons, who push it across the road and leave it in a pile of leaves near an old farmhouse.

Of course, that farmhouse is the home of Grandma Grace, where last year's baby Joshy, now a TV-savvy toddler back for his second Thanksgiving, finds it and inverts the yellow bowl on his head like a hard hat. "I'm a builder!" he proclaims. "My helmet!"

"Mercy," Grandma Grace exclaims. "I've been looking all over for that. Wherever did you find my Thanksgiving bowl?"

"Right where we left it last year!" replies granddaughter Sara with great certainty.

Kroll's book, with its curriculum ties to the cycle of the seasons, is a perfect read aloud for preschool and Kindergarten children and a great way to introduce Grandma Grace's "grateful game" to our own families at Thanksgiving. "What goes around comes around," and even a humble plastic bowl has much to give.


Two Turkeys at the Table: A Turkey for Thanksgiving by Eve Bunting and 'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving by Dav Pilkey

As Mrs. Moose decorates her Thanksgiving table with a fold-out crepe paper turkey, she confides to her genial husband that she's always wanted a real turkey for Thanksgiving. In his most earnest "yes, dear" manner, Mr. Moose sets out, guest list in hand, on a quest to satisfy his spouse's heart's desire.

Mr. Moose invites the neighbors to dinner--Porcupine, Rabbit, and the always ravenous Goat--as he plods through the frost-nipped landscape, and they join him in scouting out a turkey. At last they find one trying to hide behind warning signs ("No Turkey Here") in the tall grass by the river. Understandably unwilling to provide the provender for their Thanksgiving feast, Turkey resists arrest, but Mr. Moose propels the reluctant turkey homeward, where Mrs. Moose is most appreciative when she sees the appealing plumpness of his pick.

Of course, when the table is set with delicious vegetarian treats for the Mooses and their guests, Mr. Moose pushes Turkey into the guest of honor's seat, and Mrs. Moose solicitously murmurs that she hope he will find something to his taste at her table. Turkey, who has been sweating bullets over his fate, replies with great relief that he had feared the diners would only be concerned about HOW he would taste! All's well that ends well, and Mrs. Moose has her turkey for Thanksgiving at last.

Eve Bunting's take on this old story line flows effortlessly with gentle humor, and Diane deGroat's watercolors perfectly capture the pleasantly frigid autumn landscape and the cozy folkloric cottage interiors as her characters prepare to chow down on their harvest feast together.

For a wackier take on this plot line, humorist author and illustrator Dav Pilkey has a holiday offering which has real kid appeal. 'Twas the Night before Thanksgiving parodies the Clement Clark Moore classic with plenty of pizzaz. If the rhymes are a bit off and the scansion is less than Shakespearean, the vervey verse only adds to the hilarity.

A group of eight kids set forth in a stubby yellow school bus for a pre-Thanksgiving field trip to--you guessed it--Mack Nuggett's Turkey Farm, where they are introduced to the seemingly jovial farmer:

He was dressed all in denim
From his head to his toe,
With a pinch of polyester
And a touch of velcro.

The kids are then introduced to the turkeys,

Ollie, Stanley, Larry, Moe,
Wally, Beaver, and Groucho.

who gleefully join the kids in frolicking through a tour of the farm. But when the kids spot an anxiety-provoking axe gleaming at-the-ready nearby, they suddenly make the fatal connection between turkeys, axes, and Thanksgiving dinners and see that it's time to mount a turkey takeover. Suddenly the kids look a bit plumper, with turkey feet and feathers barely visible under their sweaters as they re-board the bus for the trip home.

When their families sit down for their holiday feast, the emancipated turkeys are at the table, not on it, as all "feast on veggies, with jelly and toast."

Pilkey packs in plenty of verbal and visual gags, such as his goofy illustration spoofing "American Gothic" and the pun on kids' favorite fast food in the farmer's name, which give older kids and grownups some bonus chuckles while the tale bounces along to its kindhearted conclusion. As he did in The Hallow-Wiener and in his holiday book for all seasons, The Dumb Bunnies' Easter, Pilkey's cheery slapstick style lightens up the holiday fun with plenty of laughs for all.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

National Book Award Finalist: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Hugo is a desperate orphan, living inside the walls of a Paris railroad station with the broken, flame-singed, and corroded figure of a mechanical man, an automaton created by his father. Hugo also lives with persistent mysteries. The automaton and a notebook of related diagrams and drawings are all that are left of Hugo's father, who died in a fire in the museum where the robotic man had been warehoused, and the tiny apartment within the station is all that is left of Hugo's uncle, the drunken timekeeper of the station's clocks who disappeared suddenly, leaving Hugo alone to carry on his work.

Fearing life in an orphanage, Hugo conceals his uncle's presumed death by keeping the clocks running and survives by stealing food from the station's shops. When he can, Hugo also steals mechanical parts from a crotchety old toy maker's kiosk to repair the automaton, a seated humanoid figure which apparently was designed to write or draw when wound up with a now-lost key. When Hugo is seized during a theft, the storekeeper confiscates his notebook and warns him to stay away. The toy maker's goddaughter Isabelle, however, secretly returns the notebook and, discovering Hugo's hideaway, becomes involved in solving the mystery of the robot's design and purpose.

The clues begin to fall together as Hugo realizes that Isabelle is wearing the key to the automaton as a pendant, and when the two children finally make the machine work, they determine from the picture it draws that the machine was indeed made for a work of the renowned early filmmaker Georges Melies. Investigations by the two determine that Melies is in actuality Isabelle's godfather, the irascible toymaker, and when the French Film Academy becomes aware of their findings, Melies is paid for his long-unclaimed work, adopts Hugo, and presides over a gala showing of his 87 early works which had been unrecognized for years. At this glittering affair a new automaton, created together by Melies and Hugo Cabret, proceeds to produce a complex work of 159 illustrations and a story of 26,159 words, entitled, voila', The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

What has made this tale a sensation among reviewers is not simply the story itself, but the way it is told in text and in an intricate series of graphic illustrations. The Invention of Hugo Cabret has been described as part graphic novel and part film, a masterwork which may change the nature of children's fiction.

Selznick's book was a 2007 National Book Award Finalist and is likely to be considered for one of the Newbery awards as well.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

National Book Award Finalist: Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic, Book One by Kathleen Duey

This post reviews the fourth of five National Book Award finalists, Skin Hunger, by Kathleen Duey.

In a dark and disordered world, in which magic has been banished except for the practice of charlatans and vestiges of nonsense jingles and Gypsy songs, Kathleen Duey has woven the story of two young people separated by generations but bound to the quest for the resurrection of magic, a magic which is a cruel and pitiless master, but one which promises to redeem mankind from suffering and death.

Skin Hunger (Atheneum, 2007) is the story of two teens, Sadima and Hahp, told in alternating chapters in seemingly unrelated plot lines. Sadima, whose mother died at the hands of a quack magician at her birth, has grown up under the care of her loving older brother, avoiding her sad and bitter father who still grieves the loss of his wife. In a chance meeting with a compelling young man named Franklin, Sadima reveals her ability to understand the "silent speech" of animals, and with the death of her father Sadima feels free to follow Franklin's request to join him in the city of Limori, many days away by foot. Reunited with him, she learns that Franklin is bound for life to a strange master, Somiss, a driven young man consumed with the quest to recover the lost magic of the distant past.

In the city Sadima is taught first to copy and then teaches herself to read the remnants of magical songs and chants which Somiss is assembling. Although she yearns to escape Somiss's domination, Sadima becomes hopelessly bound to his obsession because of her love for Franklin, who knows that he alone has the power to mitigate Somiss's monomaniacal search for control of the lost magic. Finally, pursued by his cruel father, Somiss, bearing his precious copies of magical song, leads Franklin and Sadima into a cavernous redoubt where they will piece together the secrets of the ancient wizardry which Somiss believes will restore health and end war on earth.

The second strand of the story is the first person narrative of Hahp, a wealthy but indifferent student, the unloved second son of a rich merchant who is abruptly turned over to a wizardry school in an vast, dimly-lit, underground cavern. With nine other bewildered and terrified students, Hahp is brutally treated by the wizard masters Somiss and Franklin, who allow four of the group to starve when they are unable to learn to conjure up food for themselves. Because the boys are told that they will die if they help each other, Hahp, the first to learn the food-spell, despairs of being the one apprentice who survives to become a wizard, an achievement which he learns will entitle him only to lifelong vows of chastity, poverty, silence, and cloister. Yet, as the first year passes, Hahp and his roommate Gerrard, who rivals Hahp in mastery of the wizards' teachings, make an almost unspoken compact, despite the fearful penalties, to work together to survive their ordeal.

Duey's storytelling skills keep the reader riveted through these separate but engrossing narratives. As the two seemingly unrelated strands progress, it becomes apparent that Sadima's story is indeed the prequel to that of Hahp, who is forced to master the secrets which Somiss and Franklin, now old, yet ageless, and empowered by their merciless and imperfect mastery of magic, seek to guard and transmit.

For those mature young readers who become involved in this first story, which ends abruptly without resolution, the books which follow in this trilogy are sure to be welcome. As Tolkien warned, the possession of magic has the power to destroy the soul, and Duey's tale leaves the reader hoping that Hahp will find a way to gain knowledge without losing his own humanity in the quest.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

National Book Award Finalist: Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin

This post reviews another of the finalists for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature which was awarded last night to Sherman Alexie for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (reviewed in my post of November 13).

"The way to avoid being picked on by high school bullies is to kill someone."

It's a hard-knock life for real for middle child Karina, caught between dutiful older sister Enid and bright, pious Delta, her hard-working Haitian immigrant mother and her step-father "the Daddy," who beats them all mercilessly, even the babies Roland and Gerald, for violating any of the household's capricious rules.

When Enid is attacked so violently that her aunts and grandmother fear for her life, an anonymous caller tips off the welfare authorities and the police, who charge Gaston with child abuse. Fearing the loss of his income and their modest but safe house in a New York suburb, Karina's family encourages her to deny the abuse by claiming that Enid's injuries are the result of a argument between the sisters.

When Gaston returns to the household, the sisters turn to a local community center as an after school refuge, where Karina has found an ally in Rachael Levinson, the director's daughter. But as they dress in costumes to go to Rachael's Halloween party, the Daddy's imminent attack on Karina forces the girls to make an irrevocable decision, one which will change their lives forever.

This is a moving first novel which from its first words draws readers into a river of hypnotic dialog and description. Dealing honestly as it does with a girl's coming of age in a family caught between their Haitian customs and life in America, poverty and hope, subjugation and freedom for women, and the ultimate choice between two evils, Touching Snow is a tough novel worth of its designation as finalist for the 2007 National Book Award.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sherman Alexie Is Winner of 2007 National Book Award

THIS JUST IN! Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown) has just won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. For a full review of Alexie's book, see my post for Tuesday, November 13 below.

Congratulations to Sherman Alexie for his truly awesome first venture into literature for young people!

Other winners just announced are as follows:

POETRY: Robert Hass, for Time and Materials (HarperCollins)

NONFICTION: Tim Weiner, for Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Doubleday)

FICTION: Denis Johnson, for Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)


National Book Award Finalist: Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

In observation of Children's Book Week, today's post honors another of the five finalists for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature to be awarded November 14.

It begins like a lot of teen stories--a young girl with a callous older guy, an angry father catching them together. The story doesn't continue with a pregnancy or a shotgun wedding, but in a long, sullen silence between father and daughter in a family whose life together is as drab and sad as their stained green shag carpet.

Laid off from his decent manufacturing job, Deanna's father feels diminished in his new job as an auto parts clerk; her older brother Darren is living in the basement of their rundown house with his girlfriend Stacy and baby April; and her mother seems lost in the futile role of peace-keeper in a household where no one seems ever to look at each other. Deana feels isolated at school, where she's spent her freshman and sophomore years suffering under her reputation as school slut earned as an eighth grader with 17-year-old Tommy. The only good things in her life are her close relationship with Darren and Stacy, her fondness for little April, and her closeness with old friend Jason and her girlfriend Lee, who have just become a couple, leaving Deanna feeling like a fifth wheel.

Determined to escape her depressing home life, Deanna takes the only summer job she can find, waiting tables at a dingy beachfront pizza shop where she finds herself forced to work with Tommy, whose smirking grin reminds her of the one mistake which has damaged her whole family. Deanna toughs it out there, holding on to the hope that with her financial help Darren and Stacy will be able to move into a place with room for her as well.

There is no dramatic breakthrough for Deanna, no flash of light, no sudden epiphany that changes her life. The moments of change are small--a conversation with Tommy in which he makes an oblique apology for using her, a look and an awkward attempt by her father to make contact with her over the abyss of his anger and disappointment, a loving touch from her mom which Deanna is finally able to accept, and acts of understanding from her two friends--through which Deanna is able to forgive and be forgiven and begin again.

Sara Zarr's storytelling is a slice of life so intimate and heartfelt that one reviewer has called it "realistic writing at its best." Real life is messy and sometimes as mismatched as the yellow tile and pink paint of Deanna's family kitchen, and in her portrayal Zarr nails the day-to-day life of a resilient girl who refuses to be defined by one event in her life.

Sometimes a good work of fiction has the power to reveal the human heart in a way which offers a new understanding of self and of others. Story of a Girl is one of those.