Saturday, June 30, 2007

Rabbits 2, Gardeners 0: Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! and Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide! by Candace Fleming

Long before Farmer McGregor took after Peter Rabbit with his hoe, gardeners and rabbits have fought the battle of the growing season. Candance Fleming's runaway hit Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! takes Mr. McGreeley's vendetta against "those naughty wigglenoses" as far as it can go in defense of his yummy veggies, as he first puts up wire fence, then a tall wooden palings, and finally a concrete wall bristling with watch towers and searchlights, all to no avail. The bunnies go over, under, and through McGreeley's defenses, chanting "Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! until the embattled farmer throws in the lettuce leaf and sets aside a garden just for the flopears.

In her sequel,Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide! again illustrated by G. Brian Karas, Mr. McGreeley takes down his hammock, takes in his garden hose, and brings out the snow shovel and storm windows in preparation for winter. McGreeley is ready to snuggle into his easy chair, put up his feet, and enjoy the coziness of winter surrounded by his books. Unfortunately, the three bunnies, plump and sassy from their summer of eating his veggies, think his scenario sounds pretty attractive for them, too.

When they try the polite route to gain entrance, with a "Knocka-Knocka-Knocka," McGreeley slams the door in their faces with a "Hop off, scram, shoo!" As before, the rabbits are the anti-Houdinis, slipping in through the mail slot with a "Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide!" When McGreeley nails up the slot, they slip down the chimney and break in through the windows, but when the hassled homeowner finds "bunny drops" on this pillow, it's an all-out defensive war. McGreeley bricks up all his doorways and finally achieves a bunny-less home to relax and enjoy the winter quiet in--until spring returns. Unfortunately, McGreeley's defenses are so solid that he has to take a sledgehammer to his bricked-up front door to get out. When at last he breaks open a peephole, he finds the bunnies there, ready to share their spring flower salad with him with a familiar "Muncha, Muncha, Muncha."

The bouncy rhymes and appealing alliteration of these two popular picture books have made these stories of man's battles with those "wascally wabbits" a favorite for preschoolers, who love the hyperbole and outrageous onomatopoeia of McGreeley's struggle and final compromise with three irresistible rabbits.

Labels: ,

Friday, June 29, 2007

Saving the World, Part II: John Bellair's Lewis Barnevelt in The Tower at the End of the World by Brad Strickland

In this sequel to John Bellairs' Lewis Barnavelt series, which began with the classic spellbinder The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Brad Strickland continues to write as if John Bellairs were guiding his hand from beyond the grave.

The Tower at the End of World begins with portentious presentiments that the evil Isaiah Izard's evil spawn, Ishmael Izard, is alive and attempting to become master of the world by ending all life on earth by reconstructing his father's Doomsday Clock. Lewis becomes more and more frightened when he and his "parlor magician" uncle Jonathan Barnavelt vacation near friend Rose Rita's grandfather's home on Lake Superior. With the discovery of a magically appearing and disappearing island in the lake, Jonathan involves Mrs. Zimmmerman, their wizardly neighbor, in a search which leads to a midnight mission to Izard's spellbound Gnomon Island.

Mrs. Zimmerman and Jonathan Barnavelt are captured by the evil Izard, and it's up to Rose Rita and Lewis to subdue the wizard and free the captives with just two minutes left on the Doomsday Clock. Although not outwardly as brave as the others, it is Lewis who figures out what and where the Clock is so that it can be destroyed before it reaches the midnight hour of doom.

For fans of John Bellairs' earlier Barnavelt books, including his own sequels The Figure in the Shadows, and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring, this and Strickland's earlier continuing books about Lewis Barnavelt are must reading. Unlike most authors who take on a franchised series, Strickland's writing is at least the equal of Bellairs' and promises to keep Lewis, Johnny Dixon, and (we hope) Anthony Monday fighting evil wizards for decades more.

(Brad Strickland has written a total of seven books in the Lewis Barnavelt series, all featuring a wonderful combination of 1950's coziness and hair-raising gothic mysteries, all of which begin in a comfortable Victorian town in Michigan.)

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Not a Disney Story": Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption by Ralph James Savarese

Yesterday I heard a mesmorizing interview with Ralph Savarese, whose book Reasonable People is subtitled A Memoir of Autism and Adoption: On the Meaning of Family and the Politics of Neurological Difference. Although the title refects the complexity and intense debate currently surrounding the education of autistic children, Savarese's story was such a gripping one that I rearranged my plans to hear it out.

Savarese, a professor of American literature at Grinnell College, and his wife, a professional in the field of autism, had no plans to have children when she encountered D.J. at the age of two and a half years. Even though D.J. had been deserted by his parents and abused in the foster system, the couple were drawn to him by some intangible thread which finally led them to adopt, a process which took over three years. D. J. was totally non-verbal and obviously disturbed by the experiences of his short life, but the Savareses threw themselves into learning how to help him. The breakthrough for D.J. was through the controversial technique of computer-facilitated communication, in which the computer speaks the words he types. Now in early adolescence, D. J. still speaks only a few words but is an outstanding student and writes fluently, even adding his own chapter to the book.

"This is not a Disney story," Savarese honestly admits. But if the book is as riveting as the hour-long interview I heard, it is well worth reading for its insight into the role of nurture and communication in the human story and should be invaluable to parents and others working with autistic children.

Interestingly, one of this year's Newbery Honor books, Rules, reviewed here along with another Newbery winner in my post of February 18, also deals honestly with autism from the viewpoint of an older sibling.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Big War: Good Night, Maman by Norma Fox Mazer

Karin Levi, her older brother Marc, and their Maman have been hiding from the Germans in Mme. Zetain's attic for a year when she confronts them:

Madame Zetain folded her hands over her belly. "You have to leave," she said. "People are talking. This is a small town, and they talk.... they are saying that I'm hiding Jews. You have to go, all of you. Tonight."

With that matter-of-fact dismissal, the Levis begin a dangerous journey to the south, hoping to escape across the Italian border. Sleeping in barns and helped occasionally by sympathetic farmers, they finally arrive in the Provence city of Valence and are taken in by a member of the Resistance who is hiding Jewish families in his house, sometimes beneath a false floor under his coal bin. Jean Taubert has fallen under suspicion, however, and after the house is searched by the Germans repeatedly, the Levis determine to try to walk to the Allied-held areas of southern Italy. Maman, however, is very ill and she begs the children to go on without her.

Marc and Karin keep to the mountainous backbone of the Italian peninsula and miraculously, with the help of Resistance sympathizers, finally arrive in Naples where a ship commissioned by President Roosevelt, the Henry Gibbins, is loading Jewish refugees to take to America. Because they have a great aunt in California, Marc and Karin are allowed to board and make the perilous Atlantic crossing. They then begin a year in a detainment camp in Oswego, New York. Despite the trauma of losing their mother, whom Marc finally admits is dead, Karin and Marc thrive and make friends in their American school. The novel ends with the children, grieving still for their lost parents and lost lives, ready to move on to a new life in California.

Based on the historical records of the Henry Gibbins' refugees, Norma Fox Mazer's Good Night, Maman, like the previously reviewed When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and A Pocket Full of Seeds, adds to the literature of the French Holocaust and the French Resistance who helped thousands escape to find their future in the postwar world.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bellairs Reincarnated: The Wrath of the Grinning Ghost by Brad Strickland

Back on January 15, I posted some alternative fantasy writers to help readers while away the time waiting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, to be published July 21. One of those masters of the (little g) gothic genre recommended was John Bellairs, whose three related series are deliciously dark. In the spirit of his novels, Bellairs, who died in 1991, seems to be currently channeling new novels through the hand of author Brad Strickland, under contract with the Bellairs estate to continue writing novels in Bellairs' style and featuring his three main characters. In writing eerily similar to Bellairs' distinctive voice, Strickland completed two of Bellairs' manuscripts, wrote two more fantasies from the master's outlines, and has gone on to create whole sequels on his own.

One of the Strickland's Johnny Dixon strands is The Wrath of the Grinning Ghost, in which an idyllic vacation on Live Oak Key in Florida is marred by Johnny's encounter with a fortune teller who warns of grave danger to Johnny's father from an evil force and the appearance of an old book which morphs into a sinuous and terrifying serpent before it conceals itself in Johnny's room.

Johnny is frightened but keeps the story to himself until he returns home and tells his mentor, Professor Childermass of the warning. The Prof recognizes the hand of the visible form of Horus, an ally of his from the spirit world first met in Bellairs' time-travel tale The Trolley to Yesterday. As word comes that Johnny's father lies unconscious in an Air Force hospital, Johnny and Professor Childermass realize that the prophecy is indeed working itself out and that a powerful force from the dark side, Nyarlat-Hotep, in the form of evil pirate Damon Boudron, must be defeated before Johnny's father's soul is destroyed and his body dies.

Johnny Dixon, the Professor, and Johnny's friend Fergie use the "portkey" of the mysterious book to travel to the spirit world and defeat the evil spirit in the best fantasy style, forcing the evil one to swallow liquid from the River Lethe. As with Bellairs' own writing, Strickland succeeds in creating a plot with horrifying enemies defeated through the ordinary courage and goodness of Johnny and his mentor. Professor Childermass, like Bellairs' other adult figures, provides a humorous quirkiness and comforting guidance which allay the horror of the evil which the young boy faces.

Brad Strickland continues to write Bellairesque novels in the Johnny Dixon and Lewis Barnavelt series. Fans, particularly librarians, also hope that he will turn to the Anthony Monday sequence (which begins with The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn) as well, a series which features as mentor Miss Ells, town librarian and dabbler in things magical and mysterious.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Beginning-to-Read Books: Mystery Fiction-The High-Rise Private Eyes series by Cynthia Rylant

For early independent readers, the mystery format is perfect for pulling the reader along through the early pages. Mysteries create suspense, the "then what happens?" response in the reader, which keeps interest high. Character development is uncomplicated, secondary to plot, with sleuths and malefactors playing predictable roles, and the "ah ha!" moment which occurs when the mystery is solved leaves the reader with a sense of satisfaction.

All of which is to say that the mystery genre is ideal for early readers. Versatile Newbery winner Cynthia Rylant has taken advantage of the form in her eight-title series The High-Rise Private Eyes, illustrated by G. Brian Karas. The urban detectives are Bunny Brown, the brains of the duo, and Jack Jones, the snoop and leg man. The cases take place in a city setting, with neighborhood friends, bus drivers, and shopkeepers figuring in the plots.

In The Case of the Troublesome Turtle, for example, the call for private eyes comes when Mr. Paris, local toy store owner, reports the recurrent theft of green and yellow balloons tied to the store front each day. Bunny carefully notes the color of the balloons and the fact that they are only stolen on Fridays in the fall. From these clues he deducts that a student whose school colors match the balloons is "borrowing" them to take to his Friday night football games.

Going undercover, complete with green and yellow turtle caps and green and yellow pom-poms, the High Rise Private Eyes quickly locate the perpetrator with the missing balloons. Gently they pass a note in a bag of popcorn to the young suspect and watch with satisfaction as he guiltily returns the balloons to the toy store after the game.

The High Rise Private Eyes books are well-written, within controlled vocabulary (Accelerated Reader grade levels 2.3-2.5), and provide an easy step for young readers into the mystery genre.

Labels: ,

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Nancy Sleuths Again! Nancy Drew, The Movie

Kids! They're unpredictable! My eight-year-old grandson, whose recreational taste runs to playing army, Spiderman X-box games, and pony riding on mountain trails, on this midsummer's eve declared that he wanted to see the movie Nancy Drew! So off we went to see the movie, swallowed up by a dark cineplex under a brilliantly blue summer sky!

Full disclosure: my childhood reading was Nancy-less! I fell into the crack between the waves of popularity and neglect which have befallen Nancy and the Hardy brothers over the years, and my first experience with the series was in library school, where we read one or two as examples of formulaic series fiction.

Despite my glaring lack of expertise, my opinion of the movie pretty much paralleled reviewer Ty Burr's, whose The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together was featured in my post of June 17, when he said, " could have been worse." Although Nancy's persona in the film is definitely that of the consummately serious nerd, the tone of the movie is pleasantly campy. There's a bit of irony provided by two cliched California girls who provide comic relief as they struggle to "get" Nancy's sincerity (one IM's the other "OMG, I sitting next to Martha Stewart!") and attempt to restyle her preppy plaid skirts and penny loafers.

The plot, which takes Nancy to L.A. with her lawyer father, has Nancy violating her dad's ruling that she cease detecting and be a normal teenager as she secretly locates the lost will of a murdered movie star and restores her fortune to her long-lost daughter. This plot line is typical enough to make any Drew fan feel right at home, but it pretty much gets lost in the muddle of scenes as Nancy escapes slow-footed bad guys, steals through secret panels and dark passages, and has the requisite California car chase in her famous blue roadster. No matter. The fun is in watching one conventional mystery element after another appear on screen as Nancy remains primly perky and resourceful through it all.

Emma Roberts, who plays Nancy, is reputed to be the niece of Julia Roberts and does share that luminous Roberts' smile which just lights up the screen. Nancy is supposedly sixteen (at least she's apparently a legal driver), but Miss Roberts looks more like a chaste twelve or thirteen-year-old. My grandson was much taken with her incredible cuteness, an actressy aspect which he's certainly never remarked upon before!

Nancy Drew is rated PG, supposedly for the occasional "violent" pratfalls among the villains and the "thematic elements" which in one scene touch upon the possible long-ago pregnancy of the movie star just before her murder.

There were worse movies on the marquee than this one, and it's certainly not a bad way to spend some time with the kids this summer. My advice? Save it for a rainy summer day! Then buy them a few Nancy Drew mysteries for those dark and stormy summer nights.

Oh, yeah. What's important is that my grandson thought the movie was "awesome!"


Friday, June 22, 2007

"Me and That First Word:" Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen

100 lbs.

I wrote it down in the dirt with a stick and mammy gave me a smack on the back of the head that like to drove me into the ground.

"Don't you take to that, take to writing," she said.

"I wasn't doing it. I was just copying something I saw on a feed sack."

"Don't. They catch you doing that and they'll think you're learning to read. You learn to read and they'll whip you till your skin hangs like torn rags. Or cut your thumbs off. Stay away from writing and reading."

So I did.

Gary Paulsen's "historically accurate" account of 1850's slave America puts the reader back into a brutal, almost unrecognizable world. When Master Waller brings in a new field hand with a back ridged with healed lashes, twelve-year-old Sarny has no idea that this man, nicknamed Nightjohn, will change her life. John had been a successful runaway who returned to the South to teach slaves to read and write by night, only to be captured and sold again to Clel Waller. Sarny becomes his first student at the Waller plantation, but when she is caught excitedly practicing her first word, "bag," in the dirt, her mammy is savagely beaten until John stops the lashing by confessing his responsibility. Despite the revengeful amputation of his toes, John again escapes from Clel Waller, only to return and continue by night his impromptu "pit schools" for pupils from nearby plantations.

Late he come walking and nobody else knows, nobody from the big house or the other big houses know but we do.

We know.

Late he come walking, and it be Nightjohn, and he bringing us the way to know.

Sarny's story is continued in Paulsen's sequel Sarny, in which 94-year-old Sarny looks back over the years in which she marries, bears two children, and loses them to a slavetrader who, in the chaos of the last days of the Civil War, sells them to an owner in New Orleans. Sarny follows to claim her children and goes on to become a teacher in her own right in the days of Reconstruction and Jim Crow South.

Acclaimed, award-winning author Gary Paulsen has written soulfully about the power of the written word in his own life and in the lives of his millions of readers. Nightjohn, written in his typically spare but emotionally charged language, should be must reading for mature young readers who need to know where our nation has been and how far we have come since those days.


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bridging the Gap IX: Annabel the Actress by Ellen Conford

To carry the reader through a book limited to 6000 words and controlled vocabulary, beginning chapter books need a strong central character whose predilections carry him or her into quickly unfolding action. Veteran author Ellen Conford's Annabel the Actress series is no exception. Annabel wants to be an actress, a star of stage and screen (or at least soap opera), and she'll audition anywhere, costume herself wildly, and take any part toward that objective. "No Part Too Big or Too Small!" is her motto.

In the the series debut, Annabel the Actress Starring in Gorilla My Dreams, Annabel gets her first gig as a birthday party gorilla. Annabel's friend Maggie, designer wannabe, whips up a costume from the furry zip-out lining of an old coat, and Annabel borrows a Halloween gorilla mask. The costume isn't too convincing, and Annabel is way too short for a gorilla, but she diligently rehearses (even "grooming" her father while he tries to work at his computer) and vows to overcome her size challenge by "playing tall." After drawing on her acting skills to foil the seizure of her gorilla mask by her nemesis Lowell Boxer, Annabel manages to wow the five-year-olds and becomes the star of the birthday party.

Actress Annabel moves on to land a role in a community drama in which she shares the stage (successfully, after some tussles) with a large, drooling dog and suffers "costume malfunction," and heckling by her arch enemy Lowell Boxer, in Annabel the Actress Starring in Hound of the Barkervilles.

In the third book of the series, Annabel the Actress Starring in Just a Little Extra, Annabel ad libs a fainting scene to get herself an extra's role in a scary movie being filmed in her hometown. Annabel's film debut is not all she hoped for, but her terrified scream is a real hit with the filmmaker.

Conford's newest book, Annabel the Actress Starring in Camping It Up, finds Annabel at a summer drama camp, playing a bit part under the direction of a former horror movie star. Although she gets to use her trademark scream, Annabel's audition for the starring female role falls short, but when the camp mascot snake makes an impromptu appearance onstage during opening night, Annabel's quick improvisation saves the performance.

With Accelerated Reader grade levels between 2.9 and 3.4, the Annabel the Actress series is perfect for the grade 1-3 reader. With expressive drawings by Renee Andriani generously sprinkled throughout the text, this series, with its appealing, funny, and single-minded heroine, takes its place in the limelight, along with Conford's earlier beginning chapter books, the Jenny Archer series, at the top of the marquee for beginning chapter book readers.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Danger and Boys: Lord of the Deep by Graham Salisbury

"Mikey," Bill called without turning. Bill pointed into the water.

"The line's caught in the port prop. Get a knife. Go down and cut it loose."

Mikey's scalp crawled like eel skin before Bill had even gotten all the words out. Instantly he pictured the deep-water sharks, their bloody mouths gaping, jagged, triangular razor-sharp teeth mindlessly ripping away the dead whale's flesh.

And now his own flesh.

Mikey looked into the water off the back of the boat. Deeper than deep. Unimaginably deep. Fathoms of dark and infinite shark-infested ocean. Another world, a place of blood and guts and ripped flesh, a bad dream where you never knew when or where they'd get you.

Or how slow you'd have to die.

Mikey nodded, then went to get the knife.

Mikey idolizes his step-father Bill, secretly thinking of him as Lord of the Deep, the best deep-sea fishing captain in the Islands. At thirteen, as the youngest deckhand to work the Kona coast, Mikey fervently wants to earn Bill's respect and to learn his craft as he works with him on the Crystal-C. But when two trophy fishermen, Cal and Ernie, charter the boat with the sole urge to land a record marlin, Mikey finds it hard to please the surly and self-important sportsmen and harder to understand why Bill takes their abusive language and barbed insults when Mikey's inattention causes one of them to lose a world-class marlin. Wordlessly but filled with fear, Mikey goes under the boat to cut the line loose from the propeller, quailing as he cuts his thumb and watches the blood waft away on the current.

Grumbling, the two fisherman go back to their card game, too disgusted even to bother to strike the hook when a bull mahimahi takes the bait. When Mikey begins to wrestle with the huge fish, however, Ernie takes the reel and after a long struggle brings him to the boat. When it becomes obvious that this fish is going to be a record catch, Bill points out that Ernie can't claim the record because he didn't strike the fish himself. Unbelieving, Mikey watches as Ernie and Cal offer Bill a bribe to keep quiet and Bill grimly looks away without turning the deal down.

Awarded the Boston Globe Horn Book Award, Graham Salisbury's Lord of the Deep is a serious coming-of-age story with some great fishing scenes and enough thrills and danger to keep anyone turning the pages. Salisbury is a talented writer of adventure stories in which the sea itself is always a central character, including Blue Skin of the Sea, and Island Boyz, as well as the previously reviewed wartime novels Under the Blood-Red Sun and House of the Red Fish.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Thanks, FrogNet: Back on the Web

I'm back home after a week in an Ohio state Park cabin we named 1950's House, after the PBS specials. There was no phone, which meant no internet--not even dialup! There was no dependable cell phone service, either, so the laptop was destined to remain unconnected. When in the fifties, do the fifties thing, so we made S'mores and toasted marshmallows on a real fire made from windfall wood. It was great!

We did, however, make a couple of drives to a nearby college town, where we, er, piggybacked on somebody's WiFi (FrogNet), so email was answered, forums were moderated, and I put up the posts of two great books I'd read, Chris Van Allsburg's latest, Probuditi, and Jane Yolen's World War II novel, The Devil's Arithmetic. If you missed them, check them out.

Labels: ,