Sunday, August 31, 2008

Twilight Intruder: Darkness Slipped In by Ella Burfoot

Fear of the dark is an almost universal anxiety for young children at one time or another. Probably a carry-over survival impulse from early human history, children often struggle to find a way to control the uneasy feeling that loss of light brings.

Ella Burfoot's appealing picture book Darkness Slipped In shows a spunky little girl who deftly puts herself in control of the quirky figure of Darkness which slips into her bedroom as the sun begins to set.

Daisy was thinking of a game to play
When Darkness slipped in at the end of the day.
He came in through the window
And spread out on the floor,
While Daisy danced and laughed and played,
Then danced and laughed some more.

Daisy pretends not to notice Darkness as he begins to fill the room, until suddenly she grabs his wrist and forces him to "dance a funky twist"--the beginning of a companionable evening in which they share cake and lemonade and seem ready to dance the night away. Always in control of the relationship, though, Daisy knows when it's time to bring the merriment to an end.

But when they're tired and sleepy,
Daisy switches off the light.
And Daisy knows that Darkness knows
It's time to say good night.

Burfoot's very creative use of color contrast--shiny black with round white eyes for Darkness, blond Daisy and her toy rabbit accented with bright splashes of hot pink and yellow--provide a comforting balance of power between the light and dark. With Daisy securely in control of the action AND the light switch, youngsters who at first may find Darkness a bit off putting will be reassured that fears of the dark are totally manageable. A eye-catching take on an old subject, Ellen Burfoot's book provides a new way to personify and demystify the nighttime.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

School Days: Slippers at School by Andrew Clements

Slippers wakes up to the feeling that something important is happening inside the big house. He wanders in, but Laura is in too big a hurry to slip him the usual tidbits from her breakfast. It is the morning of the first day of school, and she seems to have forgotten all about her puppy. What can Slippers do?

Grabbing her jacket and backpack, Laura looked around for her dog. "Here, Slippers! Come say goodbye"

Baby Edward called, too, but Slippers didn't come.

"The bus is coming!" Mom said. "We'll say goodbye to Slippers for you!"

At school Laura laughs with her classmates and stows her jacket and backpack in her new cubby. Sitting down, she can't resist the new box of markers on her desk and begins to draw a picture of her puppy.

But over in her cubby, her backpack begins to wiggle and a wet black nose and two brown ears poke out.

A boy sitting next to Laura saw Slippers. He said, "A dog!"

Laura smiled and held up her picture. "Yes! This is my dog Slippers," she said.

"NO!" Over there!" he insisted. But when Laura turned to look, there was nothing to see. Slippers was gone!

Following an enticing smell, Slippers' nose takes him to the cafeteria kitchen, where a cook soon spots him.

"A dog!"

Her helper picked up a hot dog. "You mean this one?"

"NO! Over there!"

But when the cook looked, there was nothing to see. Slippers was gone.

Slippers puts in a cameo appearance in the gym, where two boys are practicing their gymnastic moves. When the first one shouts, "Look, a dog!" the other corrects him with "The TEACHER calls this a horse."

But of course Slippers is gone again, this time to turn up in the office. where the Principal calls to her sweater-clad secretary, "It's a dog!!" Pointing to the appliqued animal on her front, the secretary shakes her head. "It's a CAT!" she says.

But Slippers follows his nose back to the Laura's cubby and the safety of her backpack, where he sleeps soundly all the way back home.

Laura's mom and Edward meet her bus, where they urge her to help them look for Slippers, who hasn't been seen all day. Dropping her backpack, Laura runs to help find her puppy. But when Laura calls, her puppy appears sleepily and gets a big hug from everyone.

"School was fun," said Laura. "Can't Slippers come to school someday?"

"It's a nice idea," said Mom, "but school is no place for a puppy."

Clifford's been there; Biscuit's been there; and even Ribsy has sneaked into school with Henry Huggins, but Slippers' secret is safe with us. In Andrew Clements' new Slippers at School, the author takes a now-you-see-him-now-you-don't turn on the old dog at school plotline. His carefully crafted text is just right for emergent readers or for first-day Kindergartners and first graders who wish their own pets could make that scary trip with them.

Other books in this series are Naptime For Slippers and Slippers at Home (Slippers).

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Super Reader: Born to Read by Judy Sierra

As a new baby in the town of Sunny Skies first begins to look around his room, his eyes fall on some letters at the head of his crib:

"That's ME!" he thought.

"My name is SAM!
I'm born to read. I know I am!"

Sam flashed his mom a hopeful look.
She opened up a picture book.
Then another. Then another. Then another!
Such a perfect patient mother.

Surrounded by preschool classics, such as The Cat in the Hat The Very Hungry Caterpillar board book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, and Pat the Bunny (Touch and Feel Book), Sam soon begins to cut his teeth on bigger and bigger books and becomes the Reading Star of Sunny Skies. When he decides to branch out to become a cycle racer, naturally he turns first to the library for advice:

Sam read books on motivation, concentration,
Muscle action, getting traction,
Good nutrition, grand ambition,
Playing fair and bike repair.

Sam cruises to an easy win, stopping to repair a sprocket problem along the way, to the amazement of the other riders and the crowd.

"Here's my secret," Sam decreed.
"Readers win and winners read."

Then the skies over Sunny Skies are dimmed by the approach of a baby giant, Grundaloon, who brings havoc on the town playground, ripping up teddy bears and dolls right and left. Grownups are too frightened to send this unhappy camper to time-out, but Sam knows just what to do. Loading his basket with snacks and books, he trudges along, following the giant's tracks in the snow until he finds him about to toss the town's toys off a cliff.

"Fee, fie, fo, fum," the giant said.
"I'll grind your bones to make my bread."

"No, No," said Sam. "Have cake instead.
Let's read about a silly cat,
A caterpillar getting fat,
An alphabet that climbs a tree,
A friendly aardvark from TV."

What baby giant can resist listening to an Arthur Adventure or two? Soon Sam has rescued the town's toys and handed off Grundaloon to his mother, who has been searching for her wayward son. Sam is the whole town's hero.

Everyone began to sing.

Following up on their award-winning Wild About Books (Irma S and James H Black Honor for Excellence in Children's Literature (Awards)) rhyme master Judy Sierra and Arthur's creator Marc Brown team up again to promote reading power in their brand-new Born to Read.

It's no accident that Marc Brown made Arthur's last name "Read" and his favorite librarian "Paige Turner." With all the distractions of modern life, reading needs its cheerleaders and cheers--cheers like, say, "Readers win and winners read!"


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Vet Cadet: Trickster by Laurie Halse Anderson

Children's librarians are of two minds about series fiction. Some regard most of them as ho-hum, pedestrian little novels which have the virtue of luring the lazy or timid reader with their familiar characters and plot lines. But then there are the BIG series, Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, even the Misty books by Marguerite Henry, which have sustained a fictional world over many well-written sequels.

So when a Newbery Honor author like Laurie Halse Anderson (for Fever 1793) turns up with fair-sized paperback line of pet-centered stories, the hope is that the books will be well-written, with believable plots and creditable characters. Her new Vet Volunteers series meets these expectations solidly.

For example, a recent entry in this set, Trickster #3 (Vet Volunteers) offers, for a refreshing change, a boy who loves horses and riding. Volunteering at a neighborhood veterinary clinic during the summer after a not-so-great fourth-grade year, David Hutchinson is an energetic, brash, and sometimes impulsive kid who is eager to find a way to return to horseback riding, in which he excelled before his parents divorced and his dad moved far away.

We're on cleaning duty today at Dr. Mac's Place, the veterinary clinic across the street from my house. I always knew I'd end up working here. I'm close by, I'm great with animals, and people love me. It took a few years of pestering Dr. Mac, the vet, but she finally caved in.

When a nearby stable owner offers riding lessons in return for barn work by Dr. Mac's vet volunteers, David falls in love with Mr. Quinn's newest horse, a flashy quarter horse named Trickster. Trickster has a minor leg wound from a transporting accident, and David, who has been out of favor with Quinn since he got himself and his mount lost on a trail ride the year before, offers to walk Trickster twice daily until his wound heals.

Quinn reluctantly agrees to give David another chance, but when David's habit of lazy shortcuts and thoughtless actions causes a horse to run away with a novice rider and results in a serious re-injury to Trickster's leg, Quinn has no choice but to bar him from further contact with the stable's horses, especially his favorite.

Typically, David can't manage to stay away from the stable, and when he sneaks out late at night to check on Trickster, he finds Dr. Mac, Quinn, and the other hands in the middle of a mystery epidemic threatening all the horses, and David realizes that he may have a vital clue to the nature of the illness.

With a just-right mix of adventure and personal insight for the main character, this set looks to have strong appeal to the animal-absorbed elementary readers who have made Ben Baglio's British series Animal Ark so very popular. Like Baglio's novels, each features a different animal, from endangered sea mammals in Manatee Blues #4 (Vet Volunteers) to lost kittens, Homeless #2 (Vet Volunteers) Each novel features a different member of Dr. Mac's Vet Volunteers, an intelligent and diverse group of five kids brought together by their love and desire to care for animals.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Could Be Worse!: Clarice Bean, Don't Look Now by Lauren Child

I am thinking about Betty Moody leaving and how I never would have thought it was possible and that this is truly the worst thing that has ever happened to me....

But as I am thinking about this, it dawns on me that there is always a worse thing that can happen. Because now that the worse thing has happened, it means the second-to-worse thing can happen and that will be the new worst thing, and there is always a worry you have never thought to worry about.

There is always something worse that your worst, worst worry.

Clarice Bean's utterly best friend Betty has moved, all the way to San Francisco, right at the beginning of a new school year, and Clarice is face to face with the facts of life--a fact of life, that is--that the worst thing she could have imagined--losing her UBF--has happened, and even worst things seem to be coming at her from all directions. Struggling with the concept of infinity is bad enough, but realizing that bad stuff can't be controlled is really getting Clarice down.

Then part of the bathroom floor winds up on the kitchen table, and it seems as if moving to another house is the worst thing that could happen--until her parents decide to renovate the house, which means months of eating "toast-based meals" while watching family members overhead through the hole in the bathroom floor. Just as Clarice is learning how to deal with living with spiders in her new attic "room" ("just a space, really"), Clem Hansson, a new girl, with an exotic Scandinavian wardrobe, arrives in her class and draws all the attention of Clarice's old friends, particularly Karl, who seems totally taken with the glamorous Swede.

Without Betty Moody, Clarice feels isolated in the suddenly altered social scene and begins to withdraw from her former favorite activities. Her only refuge is in her well-worn copies of The Ruby Redfort Survival Guide and The Ruby Redfort Spy Guide, which she turns to for solace and advice during school recess, lonely afternoons, and holidays. Still, Clarice can't help but notice that Clem Hansson's arrival has changed everything about her class. Even the class bully Justin Broach seems drawn in by Clem's novelty and friendliness, while Clarice's grades and social standing seem to be on parallel paths to the bottom of the heap.

As she lies awake for hours each night, Clarice finds plenty of other things to worry about. Betty Moody seems to have made a new best friend and is on her way to becoming a California girl. Karl's showing off for Clem seems to be on course to get him expelled from school, and the home improvement project has Clarice's parents so short tempered with each other that she is convinced that they are on their way to a divorce. The final unforeseen worst thing comes when partnerless Clarice draws the meanest old man in the retirement center--famous for demanding daily herring snacks and throwing puddings at the staff--for her school visitation project. All this would perhaps be bearable if only Betty Moody were available, but it seems Betty is off for a ski vacation with her new friend and can't even email.

How Clarice Bean pulls herself up by her untied bootlaces, with the timely help of the words and wisdom of Ruby Redfort, TV heroine, makes this the most memorable book yet in this memorable series. Clarice Bean, like her spiritual sister, Harriet M. Welsh, has a most unique voice--self-absorbed, yes, but also painfully self-aware and honest--and Child's portrayal of the pre-teen worried mind is spot on. Like all of us, child or grown up, fear of the worst thing that can happen is always looming before us or lurking just behind. Like infinity, it's a a long thought that surrounds and threatens to overwhelm us. But as the new-and-wiser Clarice concludes,

I realized that although the world can feel like a very big place and people can seem very far away, it is also true that the world is a very small place.

And maybe that is the point of infinity--that it is there to remind you that things on this world aren't as big as you think they are--not compared to infinity, anyway. Because, you see, Betty Moody compared to infinity is practically next door.

And I am beginning to think maybe infinity is not such a big worry after all.

Or as Ruby Redfort puts it,

The trick is--don't lose sleep over it, kid.

Lauren Child's newest Clarice novel, Clarice Bean, Don't Look Now (Clarice Bean) is both serious and funny at the same time, in that way that the best humor has of blending pain and laughter so that each draws strength from the other. Fans of Clarice Bean will find this one both familiar and a bit different, but eminently satisfying.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

School Days: Brand-New Pencils, Brand-New Books by Diane deGroat

It's the night before the first day of first grade, and conscientious Gilbert is anxiously checking his backpack to make sure he's ready, all the while reassuring little sister Lola that preschool with Mrs. Duck is going to be a lot of fun. But thinking about it on the way to school with his friend Patti, his first day begins to look pretty scary. What if their teacher Mrs. Byrd in not nice like Mrs. Duck? What if she sends them to the principal, who definitely looks mean? Patti doesn't share his worries. She's too busy chatting and laughing with a strange girl named Margaret.

In the morning circle, one student named Philip waves a big thick book and brags, "I know how to read!" Gilbert squirms as he realizes he can't read a big fat book like that. Gilbert's heart begins to sink as he notices that Patti is the only one in the class he knows. Figuring he'd better stick with her, he plops down in the desk beside her and Margaret, only to be accosted by a really big kid.

"Can't you read?" He pointed to the name taped to the front of the desk.

"It says L-E-W-I-S! That spells LEWIS!"

Nervously Gilbert looks around until he spots a desk with the sign G-I-L-B-E-R-T. Unfortunately, there's a kid already sitting there. Gilbert hesitantly points to the sign, and the kid hurriedly moves to the seat which says F-R-A-N-K, just in time for Mrs. Byrd to pass out thick reading and spelling books and write a lot of rules on the board. First grade looks likes it's going to be hard and lonely.

At lunch in the strange cafeteria, Gilbert sees that Patti is already paired with the ever-present Margaret again and sadly takes a seat all alone. Just as he's opening his lunchbox, Mrs. Byrd brings another nervous-looking student by.

"Oh, here's a seat," she said to the boy named Frank.

Frank sat down right next to Gilbert, and Gilbert saw that he had the exact same Martian Space Pilot lunchbox.

Things begin to look up from that point on, as Gilbert gets to know his fellow students and realizes that all of the new first graders have their strengths and weaknesses. Philip may be a great reader, but Gilbert realizes that he's a better climber. By the end of the day, Gilbert has gotten to know Lewis and Frank, and Philip has helped him read two new books in the library corner.

"I made a new friend," says Gilbert to Patti's mom, "and so did Patti."

"No, I didn't," said Patti. "Margaret is my friend from dance class. She's an old friend, just like you are, Gilbert." Gilbert breathes a sigh of relief. He has a new friend and an old friend. Maybe first grade is going to be all right.

Diane Degroat's Brand-new Pencils, Brand-new Books a prequel to the popular "Gilbert and Friends" series, provides a bit of the backstory of the familiar classmates who feature in such holiday staples as Happy Birthday to You, You Belong in a Zoo (Gilbert and Friends) and Roses Are Pink, Your Feet Really Stink.


Monday, August 25, 2008

In the Toilet: Out of Patience by Brian Meehl

At the beginning of the summer, on his twelfth birthday, Jake Waters had made a vow.

He was going to be the first J. Waters not to die in Patience, Kansas.

Patience, Kansas, is dying on its own--has been slowly expiring before the eyes of five generations of J. Waters men, Jeremiah, Jud, Jack, and Joseph, and now Jake's dad Jim, proprietor of Waters and Son Plumbing. Jake knows who the designated "son" in the company name is, but he has his own secret plan, nicknamed OOPS--Out of Patience Soon. Yessir, someday soon Jake knows he is going to ride out of Patience and avoid the fate which for a century has left his Waters forebears, um, mired in the muck, to put it politely.

His dad, Jim Waters, has a different dream. He spends most of what he earns on antique bathroom fixtures to furnish his dream--the American Toilet Museum, affectionately called The ATM. You see, toilets--specifically the Dolphin Deluge Washdown Water Closet--and toilet plungers--specifically the Plunger of Destiny (a.k.a. The Sceptre of Satan)--loom large in the Waters' family history.

Trouble is, the town of Patience, Kansas, once known as the Rose of the Prairie, is under a curse laid down because of said Waters family history, specifically because of the aforementioned toilet and the buffalo hide plunger old Jeremiah had invented. It seems Jeremiah was given custody of the townspeople's treasure when the banker got wind of a gang of bank robbers on the way to the prosperous metropolis of Patience. Jeremiah was to conceal the treasure somewhere near his ranch a few miles out of town, document the hiding place, and return the stash when the outlaws were long gone.

However, a self-proclaimed local religious prophet, Anders Cass, gave away the story when the gang shook down the town elders, and when the gang rides out to his ranch, Jeremiah, caught with his pants down, so to speak, on the elegant mahogany seat of the Dolphin Deluge, has to defend himself with the only weapon at hand, the Plunger of Destiny loaded with toilet-cleaning carbolic acid crystals. In the ensuing bathroom altercation, Jeremiah receives a blow to the head which renders him unable to remember the location of the Patience treasure map. The town elders turn on Cass, and in the manner of the time tar, feather, and escort him out of town on the customary rail, inspiring him to lay down the Curse:

And I say unto thee, where the soil of Satan rises, the wrath of God floods down! Jeremiah Waters, you and your unborn son, and the unborn sons of your unborn sons, will be a-punished for this! You will watch as Patience, your rose of the prairie, withers to a broken weed! And when all that remains is the burnt stalk of its former glory, there will be a final reckoning! Judgement Day will be a-comin' to this place! The final destruction will begin when the Sceptre of Satan returns to Patience.

As Anders Cass prophesied, Patience has slowly withered over the ensuing century, leaving empty, dilapidated houses and abandoned stores, a tiny post office barely clinging to its zip code, one surviving store, Gas & Goodies, and only eight kids old enough to make up a baseball "team," who, without available rivals, play in the "World's Series of Workup" annually for individual points. The team, like almost everything else in Patience, exists only through the beneficence of the town's only employer, Knight Soil and Fertilizer, affectionately known as the "stink farm" for its odoriferous processing of cow manure into the popular home garden product, Dung Shui.

Jake's only anchors in Patience are his baseball buddies, Howie "Kapowie" Knight, son and heir of the stink farm's owner, and Sira "Cricket" Rashid, a recent immigrant to Patience and daughter of the proprietor of the struggling Tumbleweed Motel. To add to Jake's worries, Cricket's immediate goal in life is to unseat Howie as top scorer in the Workup World's Series. But when Jake learns that his dad has actually tracked down and ordered from eBay the dreaded Plunger of Destiny, he's pretty sure that the final destruction foretold by the Curse is beginning.

With one eye out for signs of imminent destruction, Howie decides to delay his escape from the doomed town until after the Workup Series, but when news of the return of the Sceptre of Satan to its place of creation leaks out, things start to unravel fast in Patience. A hailstorm of epic proportions leaves the town a foot deep in "thunderstones," which the resilient townsfolk make into hand-churned thunderstone peach ice cream. But then Jim Waters discovers that local wells are being dangerously contaminated by nitrates seeping into the water supply from KSF's retention ponds, and despite Marvin Knight's efforts to bribe him with promises of support for the Antique Toilet Museum, Jim stands firm. With the EPA inspectors on the way, Marvin pumps a tank truck full of fresh water into a suspected well to dilute the evidence and has Jake and Jim thrown into the town's emergency jail to keep them quiet.

Jake, however, has just had an epiphany. He realizes that old Jeremiah's dying words,

I fall leaving unknowable secrets! Hark! Enter Death!

are not an admission of his failure to recall the location of the treasure map. Like all his descendants, old Jeremiah had a fascination with word puzzles. His dying words are an acrostic for--


With his dad's help, Jake escapes through a small window in their impromptu jail. As huge black thunderheads build ominously in the west, Jake and Sira bike furiously out to the abandoned Waters' ranch to search the bowels of the Dolphin Deluge for the flushed map. As they do, Patience is hit with double killer tornadoes, one of which sucks up KSF's manure ponds and deposits the entire production of the stink farm ankle deep all over Patience.

Is this the prophesied final reckoning for Patience? Will Jake and Sira and Howie find the long buried treasure of Patience? What will they reveal if they finally open that long-buried chest? Will Patience rise, like a be-pooped phoenix, from its municipal manure slick?

Brian Meehl's fine and funny first book Out of Patience takes its own sweet time in building to the suspenseful and unfailingly funny satisfaction of these and many other questions. Wonderful right-on characterizations carry what seems a preposterous premise to the only possible ending for this engaging and audacious novel. A real out-of-the-ballpark finish makes this one a world-class workup winner.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

School Days: Hooray for Reading Day by Margery Cuylar

Jessica was a worrier. She worried all the time.

But in first grade she had a big worry. Reading.

Jessica loves books, but when she tries to read aloud from the class reader Hot Pot, she stutters embarrassingly. At one point, she is so eager to get her part over with that she blurts out "The p-p-pot was snot," providing her class with a good giggle at her expense.

When her teacher Mr. Martin announces that the class will host a Reading Theatre Day for their parents to showcase their new skills, the day looms ahead of Jessica like the Day of Doom. To add to her worries, Mr. Martin says everyone must wear a costume. Jessica is paralyzed by her fear that she will embarrass herself and let her parents down on the big day.

"What's wrong," asked Mom when Jessica is too worried to eat her dinner.

"Everything!" said Jessica.

"Go on," said Dad. "Tell us."

And together they come up with a Plan. Jessica will practice reading out loud, not just to her parents, but to her dog Wiggles, who is always pleased with her efforts. Her sister and brother even come up with a costume of sorts which makes Jessica feel comforted and safe. Jessica feels better when her mother tells her that she had trouble at the beginning of first grade but eventually became the best reader in the class.

Reassured, Jessica reads her lines perfectly on the day of the Reading Theatre, costumed in her favorite blanket, along with Anita, dressed as the pot, and Leslie as the baker who heats the pot. The Reading Day is a roaring success with the audience of proud parents, and that night Jessica reads two bedtime stories out loud to her dog Wiggles.

As always, Cuyler's text for Hooray for Reading Day! (Jessica Worries) is simple but believable as she describes the thought processes of a born worrywart. Arthur Howard's nuanced illustrations are softer and lighter than his usual broad comic style, but he slips in a sly bit of illustrator's humor which even beginning readers will appreciate. The back cover of Hot Pot features this "publisher's blurb:"




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Saturday, August 23, 2008

School Days: Kindergarten Rocks! by Katie Davis

I am Dexter Dugan, and I know everything about kindergarten. This is because I am actually going to be a kindergartner very soon.

I am an expert because my big sister Jessie went there, too, one time.

My dog Rufus is an eensy teensy beensy bit scared about kindergarten.

Dexter uses his stuffed dog Rufus as his surrogate scaredy newbie, obsessing over all the usual issues of starting to school: "What if I get lost? What if my teacher is mean? What if I have to do #2 at school?"

Rising third grader Jessie is a tower of patience as she reassures her little brother. "You don't have to be scared, Dexter! You're going to love it!" she says.

Despite her thinning patience, however, Dexter continues to fret and pester Jessica on the bus ride to school:

"Rufus is scared I might get lost."

"You won't."

"But what if I do?"

"You won't."

"But what if I forget to make a map and I get lost then?"

"You won't."


"You WON'T!"

"But what if I DO?"

"I'm not THAT LUCKY!"

Big sister Jessica even puts a dot of blue marker on Dexter's right hand to guide him to the right turn to the kindergarten wing, and Dexter's spirits rise as he is greeted by his pretty young teacher, Mrs. Sugarman, and and a friend from his old preschool, Joey. Together the two do art, cook food, smush Play-Doh, and learn to write letters. At the Imagination Station, Dexter builds a gigantic tower and places Rufus right on top for a penthouse view. Then comes library time, where he learns he can borrow a book "practically forever," and lunch in a cafeteria which is "exactly almost like a restaurant," and recess outdoors where Joey points out that "you can't get lost if someone is always chasing you!"

Suddenly, Dexter realizes that Rufus is missing! Mrs. Sugarman even sends for Jessica to come help Dexter backtrack through his day in the search for the lost toy dog, but even Jess can't spot him anywhere. But then, Dexter remembers Rufus in his tower penthouse, and the first day of kindergarten is saved from disaster.

But once a worrywart, always a worrywart. Back in the bus to go home, Dexter still has a few issues with this kindergarten thing.

"Rufus is scared I won't get to go to kindergarten tomorrow."

"You will."

"But what if I don't?"

"You will."

"But what if I don't remember to wake up early and get ready and get to the bus stop in time?"

"You will."

"I MIGHT not."

"You WILL."

"But what if I DON"T?"

"I'm not THAT lucky."


"I told you SO."

Katie Davis' kid-friendly crayon illustrations for Kindergarten Rocks! create a mood of easy-going, good-natured fun as Dexter works his way through the worries that nag kids on the first day of school, reassuring them that even if the worst happens, everyone at his school will pitch in to help out.

For those worriers who need a detailed overview of the whole kindergarten year, award-winning author-illustrator Rosemary Wells' My Kindergarten is a charmingly authentic story of one kindergarten class' passage from September to May which will entertain as it tells children what to expect as they go through their first term.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

School Days: Countdown to Kindergarten by Alison McGhee

I'm in big trouble. I'm going to kindergarten in ten days.

I've heard from a first grader that they have a lot of rules there. . . .

Rule #1: You have to know how to to tie your shoes. By yourself. You're not allowed to ask for help. EVER!

The heroine of this story can count backwards from ten to zero, but she CAN'T tie her shoes! As she counts down the days until the fearful first day of kindergarten, she really tries to learn how to tie a bow. Her dad is sympathetic and helpful and reassures her that lots of kids can't tie their shoes, but her attempt to learn ends in despair, tangling up the cat, who tries to help in the way cats always handle shoestrings. Next she tries to get rid of the shoes themselves, hiding them in a haystack, where Mom finds them with a cheery "Looky here! Here's the missing shoe AND that needle I've been searching for!"

All of her amusing ploys to lose her shoes or laces are foiled by her ever-optimistic parents, whose reassurances that she won't be the only non-shoe-tier in her class fall on deaf ears. The girl visualizes herself as a kindergarten flunkee with a sign labelled VELCRO GIRL around her neck.

The days dwindle down until two days before K-Day, and the whole family is so absorbed in the shoestring crisis that even Dad, taking her out for her favorite dinner to keep her spirits up, asks, "How's your bowl of shoestrings--er, I mean spaghetti??" I"M DOOMED! she concludes.

But when the dreaded day comes, our heroine discovers that Rule #1 doesn't actually exist: there are lots of kids who can't tie shoes in her class, and her teacher promises that the first order of the day on Monday will be a lesson in shoe tying for everyone!

I guess I'm not in such big trouble after all!

Alison McGhee's Countdown to Kindergarten, with her young drama-queen's conjured-up fears shown effectively in Harry Bliss's humorous illustrations, helps to put first-day anxieties into context for kids whose imaginings are worse than the reality. For stories of other kids with start-of-school hangups, combine this one with Kevin Henkes' wonderful Wemberly Worried, Chrysanthemum, (rpkg) and award-winning Owen. (Caldecott Honor Book)


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Girls and Math: Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss by Danica McKellar

Last summer Danica McKellar's runaway best-seller Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail, for girls aged 10-12, hit bookstore shelves with a stereotype-shattering theme: females can shine at math and still sparkle in the girly girl department. Author McKellar, who played Winnie Cooper on the long-running television series The Wonder Years, is living proof of her own point: a successful working actress (The West Wing, How I Met Your Mother) is also a published mathematician whose personal crusade is to convince girls that math mastery should be part of their "wonder years." Forget beautiful but dumb, she insists; cute and smart is the way to go for girls.

Now McKellar has a follow-up guide for girls 12-14, titled Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss, which promises to show girls how to be successful in pre-algebra, digging in to tough topics like integers, variables, absolute values, and exponents. Keeping to her lively, informal teen magazine format, McKellar mixes personal anecdotes from her own school days, reader polls, personality quizzes, and testimonials from readers of her first book with expert help in slaying the math dragon: step-by-step instructions, sample problems with detailed explanations, tips and tricks for saving time on homework, copious examples of the use of these math principles in daily life, and her crucial "Math Test Survival Guide."

Danica McKellar holds to the guiding principles of her first book: 1) girls can compete in mathematics on any level and 2) proficiency in math is necessary to give girls the opportunity for successful and glamorous careers. Coming hard behind the recently published study in Science showing that American girls' scores are now commensurate with those of boys, McKellar's just published book should be on every middle-school girl's school supplies list.

To meet the needs of this century, America needs more home-grown scientists and mathematicians. Half of them can be women.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

School Days: First Day Jitters by Julie Danneborg

"Sarah, dear, it's time to get up for school," Mr. Hartwell said, poking his head through the bedroom doorway. "You don't want to miss the first day at your new school, do you?"

"I'm not going," said Sarah. "I don't want to start over again. I hate my new school!"

It's a seasonal rerun of the first day of school. Sarah burrows back under the covers and pulls the pillow over her face. Entreaties about all the wonderful new friends waiting to be made cut no ice with her.

"That's just it. I don't know anybody and it will be hard and . . . .I just hate it, that's all."

Mr. Hartwell reminds Sarah that the school is expecting her, and amid visions of police cruisers unloading search parties, and schoolkids peering under desks and into lockers, she grumpily begins to yank her shirt over her head. Mr. Hartwell hands over some toast and a full lunchbox and, still watched by their bemused cat and dog, stuffs her quickly into the car. Sarah ducks low in her seat, and barely able to breathe, suffers first day jitters all the way to the door of the school.

There's no escape when Sarah arrives, though, as Principal Burton spots the car and bustles over, surrounded by a hoard of excited kids, to propel Sarah down the busy hall and into her new classroom, where a room full of curious kids swivel around to stare at her arrival. Mrs. Burton leads Sarah to the front of the room and clears her throat.

Class, attention, please!" she intones.

"Class, I'd would like you to meet...your new teacher, Mrs. Sarah Jane Hartwell!"

Illustrator Judy Love does a great job of cleverly keeping most of Sarah Jane under wraps and out of sight as she is hustled along all the way to her place at the head of her class. Although there are perhaps a few hints that Sarah Hartwell is more than a kid, we see mostly her bare feet sticking out of the covers, and the top of her head as she is bustled into the car and into the school. Julie Danneborg's First Day Jitters has a hilarious surprise ending as the reader realizes that it's a new teacher who is in the throes of those familiar first-day fears, suffering along with her students as they worry about starting all over again with a new class. A great read aloud for the night before the first day or for a new teacher's break-the-ice read-along for the beginning of a new school year.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

In the Zone: Construction Zone by Cheryl Willis Hudson

Who can resist the drama of the rising man-made mountain--a huge, towering, complex structure alive with human activity and imagination?

Cheryl Hudson's Construction Zone is a three-year celebration of this modern wonder, the account of the construction--from architect's idea to the bustling, humming human workplace that is Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Stata Center in Cambridge. Richard Sobol's photos, from closeups of architect Frank O. Gehry's documents and drawings to sweeping wide shots of huge yellow power shovels and soaring cranes, dutifully detail the progress of this one-of-a-kind skyscraper as it rises beside the Charles River.

Hudson's text carefully tells the story, stopping frequently to explain and define terms, set off in bright yellow construction-tape boxes at page bottom, and occasionally rising to soaring prose as the building begins it own life.

Nighttime falls at the construction zone.

It is quiet and still.

Inside the building lights are shining. Outside trees have been planted on a rooftop.

The pieces of the puzzle have finally fit into place.

Pair this one with Deborah Hopkinson's Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building which tells the unforgettable story of the building of an earlier iconic skyscraper, the Empire State Building, reviewed here in my post of November 23, 2007.

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