Monday, March 31, 2008

The Magic of Words: A Child's Introduction to Poetry edited by Michael Driscoll

Poetry Month is almost here, and lovers of the language are looking for ways to turn children on to poetry without the turn off that so many remember from their school days.

Michael Driscoll's A Child's Introduction to Poetry: Listen While You Learn About the Magic Words That Have Moved Mountains, Won Battles, and Made Us Laugh and Cry takes the middle way. His introduction to poetry begins with the light stuff--nursery rhymes, nonsense verse, and limericks--with plenty of humor, easy on the technical talk. In fact, there's neither onomatopoeia nor anapest in his explanatory text, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't do justice to the genres of poetry as well as its joys.

In Part One, Driscoll moves through those basic genres--nursery rhymes, nonsense verse, limericks, haiku, narrative and lyric verse, ballads and pastoral verse, the sonnet and free verse, as well as what he terms "Poems Peculiar," a catchall group that includes epitaphs, alphabet rhymes, riddles, shaped poems and the like. Each type has its description, history, and samples from well-known poets, all with ample illustrations. Boxes titled "Words for the Wise" define words and devices, such as "wanton" and "symbol," used in the poems, and glosses explain the poets' meanings stanza by stanza. The pedagogy is accomplished with a light touch, backed up by plenty of humorous pictures. After all, who could resist the sheer pleasure of word play in this economical little epitaph?


Part Two takes on a historical structure, beginning with Homer's Iliad, and including major past poets--Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, with kid-friendly but solid selections from each. Later poets featured are W. H. Auden, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Seamus Heaney, Octavio Paz, and Maya Angelou. A compact disc of poems by these writers is included within the book's jacket to provide the sound of the spoken poem as an extension of the poem on the printed page.

Of course, no one volume can do justice to the universe of poetry available in English. Other favorably reviewed introductions include X. J. Kennedy's Knock at a Star: A Child's Introduction to Poetry and Elise Paschen's Poetry Speaks to Children (Book & CD) (Read & Hear).


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Do The Math! Each Orange Had 8 Slices by Paul Giganti

It's time for a fresh look at a great concept book, Paul Giganti's Each Orange Had 8 Slices (Counting Books (Greenwillow Books)) a book which works as an eye-popping picture book and a top-notch way to teach counting, patterning, multiplying, and general mathematical thinking.

The text begins with a simple numerical statement:

On my way to the playground
I saw three red flowers.
Each red flower had
Six pretty petals.
Each petal had two tiny
Black bugs.

How many red flowers were there?
How many pretty petals were there?
How many tiny black bugs where there in all?

The text continues with waddling ducks, fat cows, and--picture books, the last page of which presents that traditional mathematical riddle-rhyme on which this book is based.

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Each wife had seven sacks;
Each sack had seven cats;
Each cat had seven kittens.
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?
(Don't forget to count the man!)

Caldecott artist Donald Crews' bright abstract gouache illustrations work perfectly with Paul Giganti's text to provide a book with almost endless ways to have fun with number concepts, whether it is simple counting, an introduction to multiplication, or higher concepts. Each Orange Had 8 Slices (Counting Books (Greenwillow Books)) belongs on every kid's bookshelf, at home or school.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Extreme Machines: Wild Wheels Series

Motos, ape hangers, full dressers, raked forks, hogs, and lots more colorful lingo are defined and described in Enslow Publishing's 2008 title Hottest Motorcycles (Wild Wheels!), the latest in their Wild Wheels! series. Author Bob Woods includes ample motorcycle history and technical description in his short and snappy book on the coolest cycles out there.

Woods opens with a chapter on the background and highlights of motorcycle racing, including famous annual races such as the Isle of Man TT races, road races, motocross/dirt track races, and endurance (enduro) racing, and cites some record breaking riders and cycles. He then divides the body of the book into chapters on cycle types--cruisers (including the historic Harleys), choppers, motocross and dirt bikes, street rockets and sports bikes.

Weaving anecdotes, safety information, and technical jargon into his narrative, Wood packs a lot of information into the photo-studded 48 pages of text, with yellow blocking to highlight terminology and special sections such as a page on the annual Sturgis, South Dakota, cycle convocation and on the Captain America chopper of Easy Rider fame. Wild Facts--standout black boxes with white type--dot the text with information of interest to enthusiasts. A two-page glossary is followed by a bibliography of books and Internet links for further information. A full index wraps up the solid coverage of this popular subject for middle readers.

The same accessible format is used in the other books in the Wild Wheels series-- Hottest Race Cars (Wild Wheels!), Hottest Nascar Machines (Wild Wheels!), Hottest Muscle Cars (Wild Wheels!), Hottest Race Cars (Wild Wheels!), and Hottest Dragsters and Funny Cars (Wild Wheels!). At Accelerated Reader quiz levels between 5.4 and 6.2, the accessible format and wide-ranging coverage make this series just right for young motorheads.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Verdi Wild Things Are: Knock, Knock! Jokes by 14 Wacky, Talented Artists

What happens when a publisher gets fourteen wild and crazy artists together to illustrate their favorite knock-knock jokes? In this case it's a very funny book that kids and parents can enjoy together.

Following up on their 2006 Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?, featuring a collection of accomplished illustrators illustrating original answers to that famous riddle, Dial Books has brought the same strategy to the design of this very individualized knock knock joke book, featuring famous and award-winning illustrators such as Tomie dePaola, Dan Yaccarino, Henry Cole, Chris Raschka, and ten more artists. Each presents his or her choice of joke on two pages, from the "Knock Knock" to "XXX Who?" lines on the right-hand page, to the punch line following the page turn on the left-hand page. The first joke, by Saxton Freeman, opens with two, VERY realistic heads of lettuce:




LETTUCE WHO? (Turn page.)


Henry Cole's Easter knock-knock is a one of those multiple knock jewels, featuring this sequence of answers: Esther/Esther Bunny; Anna/Anna 'nother Esther Bunny; Stella/ Stella 'nother Esther Bunny; Yetta/Yetta 'nother Esther Bunny; Esther /Esther Over. All bunnies gone! Boo/Don't cry! Esther Bunny Be Back Next Year!! (Find a partner and work this one out among yourselves!)

Or send off today your own bright and beautifully illustrated copy of Knock, Knock and maybe you'll enjoy what Tomie dePaola wants to find knocking at his door.

Knock, Knock!

Who's THERE?


Sam and Janet WHO?


*Think of the romantic song from South Pacific sung from across a crowded room!

If that musical allusion is too sophisticated, try Chris Raschka's dream knocker which every kid will get:

Knock, Knock!

Who's THERE?


Juan WHO?



Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hope Comes First: Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park

Many of Newbery author Linda Sue Park's novels have had a Korean connection. Her 2002 Newbery Award book A Single Shard is set in 12th century Korea; The Kite Fighters takes place in 15th century Korea, her time travel fantasy Archer's Quest involves a Korean warrior from 2000 years ago, and When My Name Was Keoko takes place in the Japanese-occupied Korea of World War II.

Her just published novel Keeping Score, however, begins in Brooklyn in 1950, with almost 10-year-old Maggie Fontini rooting for the Dodgers. Being a post-war child, Maggie is not allowed to play organized baseball, but being a girl doesn't stop her from being a statistics-quoting fan of "dem bums." When Jim Maine, a new guy in her father's old firehouse crew, introduces her to the craft of keeping a complete box score, Maggie takes to it instantly and is soon keeping a notebook of the 1950's season, with Dodgers such as Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, and Don Newcombe in their heyday. Since Jim is one of the few Giants' fans in her Brooklyn neighborhood, Maggie listens to his team's games as he teaches her the art of score keeping, and despite her loyalty to the Dodgers, she becomes a secret fan of Giant Willie Mays and soon is the equal of Jim in keeping game records.

Her skills are even more important when Jim is drafted into the Army and sent to fight in the Korean War. Maggie faithfully writes Jim often, with play-by-play descriptions of the Giants' best games, and at first Jim writes her back, even sending a picture of the young Korean tent boy that he's teaching about American baseball. Suddenly, though, Jim's letters stop, and although her dad reports that he's alive, Maggie cannot understand why he doesn't answer her letters. Eventually she learns that something he witnessed in Korea has sent Jim into a silent depression.

Casting about for something that she can do to bring back the friend she knew, Maggie saves up her confirmation money and allowance to buy tickets for her family and Jim's family to see a Giants-Dodgers game at Ebbets' Field. Although he tries, Jim is unable to make himself come along. Maggie feels that all her efforts--keeping score for the Dodgers, praying for them to win the Series and for Jim to recover--have accomplished nothing, and she buries her scorebooks and letters from Jim in the back of her closet.

At last Maggie learns the full story of the traumatic event in which Jim witnessed the "friendly fire" by Americans upon Korean civilians in the No Gun Ri massacre in which his tent boy Jay was killed. Maggie is shaken, but gradually sees that there is always a place for hope:

Maggie sighed. "Hope doesn't do anything."

Another voice spoke up inside her head. "But hope is what gets everything started. When you make plans, it's because you hope something good is going to happen."

"Hope always comes first."

Maggie sees that it's the same as baseball. Every inning, every game, every season, it's hope that keeps the Dodgers and their fans going, and it's hope that will bring Jim back to his old life. Hopefully, she sends Jim a box score notebook for the coming 1955 season.

Park skillfully evokes the Brooklyn of the early fifties, where a young fan could walk to a candy store two blocks from home and listen to the Dodgers' game through open summer windows all the way, a time of closeknit Irish-Italian families, and best friends from babyhood. Although in some ways a time which seems warm and inviting, it was also a wartime world in which people's lives were sometimes destroyed by events beyond their control--a time in which hope was as necessary as it was fragile.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

EWE-nique Disguise: The Sheep in Wolf's Clothing by Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger

The comic team of Lester and Munsinger are back with a tale of the wild and the woolly, starring a ewe-nique ewe who seems to have been born to be an, um, clothes horse.

Ewetopia is a young ewe who just is not comfortable in her basic wool. But trying out one outrageous outfit after another gets her no notice from the flock. The rams--Rambunctious, Ramshackle, and Ramplestiltskin-- say bl-a-a-h, and the ewes--Ewecalyptus, Ewetensil, and Heyewe--just say b-a-a-a!

Finally, though, for the grand Woolyone's Costume Ball, Ewetopia hits upon the most ewe-nique costume of all--that of a wily wolf.

This was the one! Ewereka!

She loved the warmth of the fur. The shine of the fangs. And especially the way the long-clawed paws swung attractively when she walked. Everyone would notice her now!

Just as Ewetopia begins to wonder why the woolly dancers aren't thrilled with the sight of a sheep in wolf's clothing in the midst of their merrymaking, a handsome figure enters the ballroom:

A handsome stranger, a charming sheepish grin, and wool so lovely, it looked fake.

It looks fake because it is, for beneath the fulsome fleece, Ewetopia realizes, is concealed--a real wolf, a veritable wolf in sheep's clothing.

But at last, someone notices her costume. "Mother!" exclaims the wolf, mistaking Ewetopia for his mom. "I thought you were away on a lamb hunt!"

Soon the wolf rips off his disguise, ready to begin his own lamb hunt! Thinking fast, Ewetopia comes up with a couple of "motherly" requests guaranteed to get rid of any young wolf in a hurry!

"First, my son," she growls, "you must take a bath, clean your claws, and brush your fangs."

The wolf moaned, "Aw, Maaaaaaa!"

"After that you must do your homework, all of it," Ewetopia added gruffly.

"Then, sonny boy, you must pick up your room."

With that threat hanging over his head, the wolf is out of there in two shakes of a sheep's tail.

And Ewetopia is at last the bellwether of the ball!

In The Sheep in Wolf's Clothing Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger prove that they can still charm a chuckle out of the picture book set with this punny story of an un-ewesual ewe. Munsinger's costumed ballgoers, dressed as Elvis imitators, bikers, Easter Bunnies, caped crusaders, and Santas, are appropriately appreciative as Ewetopia ewe-tilizes her wit to free their fleeces. It's a good-time romp is the jolly spirit of this team's earlier hits, Hooway for Wodney Wat and Tacky the Penguin (Sandpiper Books).

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Freedom Mail: Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson

Henry Brown wasn't sure how old he was.

Henry was a slave. And slaves weren't allowed to know their birthdays.

Henry's first master was kind, letting his family work in the big house with their mother while he grew up. But good masters are still masters, and when the master lay dying, he gave Henry to his son, who took the youngster away from his family to work in the son's tobacco business in Richmond.

Henry worked hard and became a skilled factory hand. Eventually he married a kitchen slave named Nancy and happily began to raise a new family of three children. But like his birthday, Henry had no rights to his family either. One morning, without warning, Henry learned that Nancy's master's finances had failed and that she and their children had been sold in the open slave market. Henry had to wait until his lunch hour to watch Nancy and the children taken away, never to be reunited. It seemed that Henry had nothing of his own but his grief.

Still, Henry had his quick wit and a friend in one Dr. Smith, a white abolitionist who agreed to help him with a daring plan. Unloading crates daily at work, Henry came up with a novel idea: perhaps he could mail himself to freedom.

Dr Smith carefully addressed the crate to a sympathetic friend in Philadelphia, and with Henry curled inside with only a little water and a few biscuits, saw the box off with orders to handle it with care. Traveling by railroad and by boat, Henry endured twenty-seven hours of painful travel, part of it upside down, before he was awakened to the sound of the box being pried open and a "Welcome to Philadelphia!"

Henry took that day, March 30, 1849, as his true birthdate, and an identity, Henry "Box" Brown, as his name.

Award-winning nonfiction author Ellen Levine tells this story simply and elegantly, and two-time Caldecott artist Kadir Nelson illustrates it beautifully in dark tones which brighten progressively as Henry moves toward the light at the end of his own bondage. Both drawing on historical sources, Levine from William Still's 1872 The Underground Railroad, and Nelson from period lithographs, Levine and Nelson create a perfect union of word and picture which tells well this true story of desperation and hope.

Henry's Freedom Box is a 2008 Caldecott Honor Book.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Tough Moves: I Smell Like Ham by Betty Hicks

Still grieving for his mother's death, middle-schooler Nick Kimble throws himself into trying out for the sixth-grade basketball team, a feat which is not made easy by his friend Carson, who always manages to steal the ball when he drives. Still, things are not so bad. Nick gets along with his dad just fine and manages to hold his own with his edgy friends, who are always willing to tease anyone who's vulnerable.

Then Nick's dad remarries and things get touchy at home, too. His new stepmother is all right, and she seems like a good cook until she veers into tofu and something that sounds like "porta-potty burgers." Then, to complicate his social life, she buys organic clove shampoo that makes Nick's hair smell like a glazed ham. But the biggest problem is her dorky, nerdy, wimpy eight-year-old son, Dwayne. It's embarrassing enough when Nick is forced to take Duh-wayne out on Halloween, but when Carson dares the group to smoke cigarettes in his tree house, poor Dwayne pukes all over Nick, and Nick has to suffer through the next day with jokes like "What's up, Chuck?"

But when Carson is grounded for his Halloween pranks, Nick gets the chance to start their team's next game in his place. With his usual bad timing, Dwayne picks that day to run away, and when he figures out where he must be hiding, Nick has to cut the big game to go out and find him. Nick learns that juggling family and team responsibilities is a new version of ball handling harder than he could have imagined.

Betty Hicks finds the right balance of Nick's inner life and his school persona in I Smell Like Ham. Despite its frequent laughs and easy-going guy banter, this is a serious book about learning how to live in a blended family and learning how to make it through the trials of early adolescence.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

No Hurry to Hatch: Shelly by Margie Palatini

"Shelly was not ready."

In this recent offering by picture book humorist Margie Palatini, Shelly is a boy duckling who really is unwilling to come out of his shell. His three precocious sisters, Adelaide, Miranda, and Tallulah, have barely popped their shells when they become proficient at roller blading, portrait painting, and ballet. The big sisters are impatient with Shelly's progress, or lack thereof. Shelly's legs stick out of the bottom half of his shell, and he wears the top half of the shell like a helmet, peering through squarish eye holes like a Humpty Dumpty with webbed feet.

"He's fine," said Father. "Wait and see."

"He's taking his time," said Mother.

Although his accelerated sisters conscientiously provide plenty of learning experiences for the developmentally delayed duckling--playgrounds, picnics, paints, pirouette practice--Shelly stays resolutely stuck inside his shell. Finally the impatient sisters shove off to do their own thing outside, and then--"it's SHELLYTIME!"

With the playroom all to himself, Shelly doffs his eggshell helmet and proceeds to make a sofa cushion fort, play Go Fish with his bunny, put together puzzles, read books, and create an architectural masterpiece out of his blocks. Finally he paints a door sign--"NO SISTERS ALLOWED!"

When the go-go girls return, Shelly has just enough time to pop his shell back over his head and play dumb. "When will you be ready?" the sisters insist.
"Wednesday," says Shelly.

He just wasn't ready to say which Wednesday.

Palatini's Shelly should resonate with younger siblings who are perpetually outdone or dominated by older or more precocious sisters or brothers. The illustrations by Guy Francis are comic without making our reluctant duckling into a dunce, adding much to Palatini's always witty text. This book works well with Robert Kraus' evergreen tale of Leo the Late Bloomer, whose shy, introverted ways help him to bloom perfectly in his own good time.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Past Perfect: Archer's Quest by Linda Sue Park

Newbery Award winner (A Single Shard, 2002) Linda Sue Park turns from her metier, the historical novel, to kid-pleasing time travel fantasy with a pleasant touch of Korean history, in her recent Archer's Quest.

Sixth-grader Kevin is a bit bored. Home alone because of a half-holiday from school, he's bouncing a superball around his room half-heartedly when suddenly an arrow pins his baseball cap to the wall without harming a hair on his head.

"Show me your hands, Strange One," a grim voice says.

"My arrow would end your life before you took a single step," he said. "Do not even think of fleeing."

Kevin's strange visitor is Asian, twenty-something, long haired, dressed in a white outfit vaguely like a karate instructor, with a bow and a quiver full of mean-looking arrows. He demands that Kevin answer his questions but ask none of his own.

"Little frog," he instructs, "...Ask the questions in your head, and then listen. The answers and more will come to you."

For Kevin, a third generation Korean-American, history is a bunch of dull, meaningless names and dates. He's pretty good at math, when he tries, but his parents are always nagging him to focus on things, to pay attention and learn everything he can. Now, he suddenly finds himself responsible for returning a warrior king, Koh Chu-Mong, back to the first century B.C. in Korea. Obliquely, without asking questions, Kevin learns that some strange confluence of magic, the Chinese Zodiac, and the cycle of elements--fire, earth, metal, water, and wood--has trapped Chu-Mong in Kevin's hometown of Dorcester, New York. There's only one day left in the Year of the Tiger, and Kevin fears that it's up to him to return the strange interloper to his own time before midnight.

There is plenty of humor along the way as Chu-Mong comes up with his own interpretation of the technology of Kevin's time--computers that contact magic spirits, cars that move with tiny fire dragons inside, and Chinese restaurants with stick-like eating tools. Kevin sneaks his visitor into the local museum to consult an authority on Korean history, learning that Chu-Mong was indeed known as the Great Archer, famed for his skill, and that he did unite his people into a progressive kingdom, even introducing chopsticks to Korea. The final pieces of the puzzle do not fall into place until Kevin does the math, using the twelve-year Chinese Zodiac and five-year cycle of the elements to deduce that he must bring Chu-Mong together with metal, a tiger, and earth to send him back to his own time. There's a bit of suspense as Kevin frets about getting his strange-looking guest through the city streets and campus of his local university, but at last the Great Archer mounts the bronze statue of a tiger which is the college's mascot and, with one last calendar re-calculation by Kevin, disappears safely back to his own time.

Park slips her bits of Korean history, folklore, and Asian self-discipline into the story skillfully, and there's enough suspense in Kevin's race against the Chinese calendar to keep readers turning the pages to the end of this well written fantasy. Kids who are familiar with the beginning chapters of the Time Warp Trio books by John Scieszka will feel right at home as they move up to this middle grader time travel tale by Linda Sue Park.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Superhero of the Stacks: The Librarian of Basra: A True Story of Iraq by Jeanette Winters

"In the Koran, the first thing God said to Muhammed was 'READ.'"

As the threat of war drew near in the early spring of 2003, Alia Muhammed Baker, chief librarian of the Central Library of Basra, knew that her library, which held modern books and ancient manuscripts, including a 700-year old biography of Muhammed, was under a grave threat of destruction by the bombing and the fires sure to follow. Permission to move the books to a safe place was denied by Iraqi officials, and Alia knew that she was on her own in protecting her precious store of knowledge.

As the destruction of the initial "shock and awe" attacks began, her staff fled the city. Alia turned to her library's neighbor, Anis, whose restaurant was just on the other side of the wall surrounding the library. With his help over 30,000 books were passed over the wall and hidden inside the well-known restaurant, safe from the soldiers and from the looters who followed. Much of the library was moved before the building was completely destroyed nine days later.

Fearing that Anis' restaurant would meet the same fate, Alia hired a truck to move the books, bit by bit, to her own and others' houses in the suburbs.

In Alia's house books are everywhere, filling floors and cupboards and windowsills. Alia waits. She waits for war to end. She waits and dreams of peace. She waits ...and dreams of a new library, but until then, the books are safe, safe with the librarian of Basra.

While Winters' folkloric acrylic illustrations and soothing deep blue borders soften this account of war for younger readers, the terror of the attack, with warplanes in the sky and tanks in the street, is symbolically evoked by the orange and red hues of the sky over Alia's library as the invasion advances. Still the war is background to the central story of this brave woman, for whom books are "more precious than mountains of gold." Alia's courage and resourcefulness in spiriting her collection into safe haven in her home and those of her friends is the real matter of this story. Leaders, good and bad, and wars, just and unjust, come and go in human history, but Alia's belief is that libraries are the custodians of civilization and must be preserved for the future at all cost.

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq is aimed at school-aged readers. For older readers, Mark Allen Stamaty's graphic novel, Alia's Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq, tells the same story in greater detail with a bit more realistic impact.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Food Fight! How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague

How does a dinosaur
eat his food?
Does he spit out his broccoli
partially chewed?

Does he pick at his cereal,
Throw down his cup,
hoping to make someone else pick it up?

With the possible exception of bedtime bedlam, nothing gets to parents more than the daily food fight with small children. Even if (and this is a big IF--viz my recent post on sneaking nutrients into chicken nuggets, et al, in Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food),)--your child is an omnivorous and enthusiastic eater, there are still plenty of dinner table behaviors that need to be, um, reshaped in early childhood. Luckily, the team of Yolen and Teague have turned their considerable talents to this particular problem, harnessing the dynamics of deviate dinosaurs to lead kids in the way they should go.

In How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? Mark Teague's illustrations of rarely seen dinosaurs such as the quetzalcoatlus, spinosaurus, and gorgosaurus show dinosaurs engaging in all those unwanted behaviors:

Does he fuss,
does he fidget?
Does he squirm in his chair?

Does he flip his spaghetti,
high in the air?

Well, of course not. After we've had our fun watching appalled waitresses and abashed dogs and cats reacting to such abominations, Teague's dinosaurs model the best of behavior.

No.... He says, "Please"
and "Thank you.
He sits very still.

He eats all before him
with smiles
and good will.

If only! Still, Yolen's arresting rhymes and Teague's colorful, overacting dinos get kids' attention while they slip in some suggestions on how to be delightful dinosaurs at the family table. Most of the dinosaurs are identified by lettering to be searched out in each illustration, and all are shown and identified in the clever endpapers of this title in this popular series of wise and witty ways to encourage good behavior.

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