Monday, June 30, 2008

Secret Seven: Making Amazing Art by Sandi Henry

Hot summer days are a great time for art projects, whether they are done in organized arts and crafts sessions or around the kitchen table on a steamy afternoon.

Sandi Henry's Making Amazing Art: 40 Activities Using the 7 Elements of Art Design (Williamson Kids Can! Series) starts with the seven elements of art design as used and taught by professional artists--line, shape, texture, color, value, form, and space.

Within a chapter devoted to each element, Henry provides an explanation of the term and its use in art, technical explanations (such as the definitions of tint and shades of color which are involved in value), examples of student art as well as examples of the use of the element by famous artists throughout history in sections titled Meet the Masters, and detailed descriptions of many do-able projects, (with materials and tips) which utilize the featured element.

For example, the chapter on shape first offers the technical definition (an area enclosed by a continuous line), and then shows simple and combined geometric shapes (square, circle, triangle, etc., and diamond, parallelogram, trapezoid, and so forth), as contrasted by free-form shapes made with irregular lines. Author Henry offers her own geometric repeat pattern quilt, a free-form work by a seven-year-old artist, and examples of the use of positive and negative shapes in foreground and background. Amidst examples and detailed instructions for creating collages, cutout shapes, stenciled shapes, and letter and number shape pieces, Henry also places an eye-catching shape collage by Henri Matisse. Likewise, the chapter on texture uses Albrecht Durer's The Young Hare to demonstrate and inspire pet portraits using techniques to create the texture of the animal's fur.

Making Amazing Art: 40 Activities Using the 7 Elements of Art Design (Williamson Kids Can! Series) features projects suitable for a wide range of skill and abilities, making this book a great source for school-aged children for fun solo projects or for adding design elements to school reports or scrapbooking. The index features entries by level of challenge as well as by type of art, and backmatter also includes museum web sites for viewing famous works of art and a list of art material suppliers. There are a lot of possibilities packed into this inviting and inexpensive little book.

Labels: ,

Sunday, June 29, 2008

"Give Peas a Chance?" Night of the Veggie Monster by George McClements

Something TERRIBLE happens every Tuesday night.

It's not the pork chop or the mashed potatoes.

It all starts when I'm forced to eat. . . PEAS!

My parents act as if I'm making it up, but I'm NOT! With just the slightest touch. . .IT begins!

While Mom and Dad watch with weary fascination, (Dad--"Time for another fun-filled hour." Mom--'And we're off!") PEAS-aphobia sets in. First the kid's hands begin to wiggle almost imperceptibly. Then his eyes begin to water and his toes twist and curl up inside his shoes. (Dad--"That's a new one."!)

"I try to keep control" the kid manages to say, "but the pea is too strong. I start to transform into


But just as a full-fledged food fit is about to take over, the kid accidentally swallows the pea. ("GULP! It tasted all right really," the kid observes with surprise.) (Dad--"Quite a performance tonight." Mom--I particularly enjoyed the toe-curling.")

With the kid's new taste for the spherical veggie, the pea performance seems to be passe. But tomorrow is Wednesday and Wednesday brings another dinner theatre of its own. Because Wednesday dinner means . . .


George McClements' Night of the Veggie Monster brings us another familiar episode in the famous family food fight drama. McClements' googly-eyed picky eater and his bemused and slightly sarcastic parents act out their well-worn roles in familiar but hilarious fashion as the much-maligned pea is finally consumed.

For an even more "peas-full pair," put this one with Rookie Reader classic Eat Your Peas Louise (Rookie Readers). Although they may not bring, um, peace to the table when peas are on the plate, they will definitely tantalize the funny bone and whet the appetite of early readers.

Labels: ,

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Eden Reborn: Wall-E - The Movie: A Review

Pixar's newest animated movie, WALL-E, opened today to nearly universally great reviews. "One for the ages," one reviewer exulted. "Charming, audacious, timely," raved another. "Grown ups will want to see it many times." "Ninety-three minutes of wonderful animation." "Puts the extra back into extraterrestrial" said one hard-working wordsmith.

Actually, it is very good. It's a post-apocalyptic tale of an Earth as wasteland, the scene of an ecological disaster from which humankind has fled, barren of all life forms save for a cockroach who shares the planet with one other semi-sentient creature, a battered robot named WALL-E (for Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth-Class). The little robot toodles around dutifully, humming a tune from "Hello, Dolly," compacting and stacking the waste products of the departed race who escaped 700 years earlier. WALL-E and his insect pet live in his lonely guy pad, a dumpster lighted by mismatched strings of Christmas lights, and cluttered with his collection of funky human artifacts--a rubric cube, Zippo lighters, and spare parts cannibalized from other broken-down WALL-E's with which he keeps himself running. Into this haven one day WALL-E brings a green seedling which he discovers on his rounds, amazingly growing in the desolate landscape.

At this point a mysterious space probe lands and disgorges a sleek, egg-shaped bot named EVE (for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) with which, after a quick robotic "cute meet," WALL-E becomes totally enamored. When he offers the new-found plant to EVE as a token of his devotion, her directive from her creators takes her immediately off into space to report this sign of life on Earth. The smitten WALL-E stows away and follows her to the giant space cruiser in which the expatriate humans have existed since Earth became uninhabitable.

EVE and WALL-E inspire a rogue robot revolution aboard ship, complete with humorous chase scenes, pursuit by an obsessive-compulsive cleaning robot, and the final triumph of the ship's captain over its evil autopilot. At last the hugely overfed and almost immobile humans realize that they can indeed return to their homeland, not just to "survive" but "to live." All's well as the reunited EVE and WALL-E and the revitalized remnant of humankind return to make the Earth bloom and to rebuild civilization on their home planet. Earth, it seems, is the right place for love.

Rated G, WALL-E does have something for everyone. WALL-E is an unlikely but undeniably appealing hero, and there is humor for all ages, from slapstick to irony to satire. Pixar has another winner which may be with us still, like WALL-E's beloved video cassette of "Hello, Dolly," for the next 700 years.

Labels: ,

Friday, June 27, 2008

Getting the Gorgs Out: The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

Adam Rex, the author-illustrator of the best-selling picture book Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, has recently given us a science fiction/social satire/road movie/buddy movie script of a novel which really is too funny for words.

The plot is set in 2013 and told retrospectively by eleven-year-old Gratuity (nicknamed Tip) Tucci in a prize-winning school essay on the meaning of Smekday (formerly known as Christmas). Invaded by eight-legged extraterrestrials called the Boov, who attack with antimatter cannons and mechanical bots nicknamed "Bees," (which fly up the noses of Earth's world leaders and explode where necessary) Earth capitulates. The Boov, ever magnanimous, opt to rocketpod all Americans to Florida (where, they argue, all Americans always want to go anyway.)

Gratuity's mother, Lucy Tucci, is abducted by the Boov as a language expert/translator, and spurning the rocketpod transport, Tip sets out in the family car, accompanied (serendipitously, as we learn later) by her cat Pig, to to look for her mom in Florida. Unfortunately for the driver, the interstate going south ends in a pile of rubble created by the Boov to discourage such improvisations, and Tip's car is crumpled in strategic places. Reconnoitering for foodstuffs inside a nearby MoPo convenience store, she happens upon a solitary specimen of the enemy, a fearful Boov mechanic who calls himself J.Lo.

The Boov warns that he will have to "‘shoot forth the lasers from my eyeballs!’

I fell into a row of shelves, Tip writes. That one was new to me. ... ‘You can do that?’

The Boov hesitated. His eyes quivered. After a few seconds he replied, ‘Yes.’

I squinted. ‘Well, if you shoot your eye lasers, then I’ll have no choice but to ... explode your head!’

‘You humans can not to ex —’

‘We can! We can too! We just don’t much. It’s considered rude.’

The Boov thought about this for a moment.

‘Then ... we are needing a ... truce. You are not to exploding heads, and I will to not do my devastating eye lasers.’”

It seems J.Lo is desperately in need of a truce and a vehicle in which to take it on the lam, having mistakenly re-programed a field of cell phone towers to broadcast the virtues of Earth as a conquest into space, bringing the planet to the unwanted attention of another race of really nasty extraterrestrials--the Gorg/Takers/Nimrogs. J.Lo quickly transforms the car into a hover craft, adding a stabilization fin jerry rigged from the market's Slushious (an icy fruit drink) sign, thereby giving the car its name. The story gets wilder as Tip and J.Lo arrive in Florida, aligning themselves with a group of renegade boys who call themselves the B.O.O.B (Brotherhood Organized against Oppressive Boov) at Happy Mouse Kingdom, only to learn that the Boov, who have become fond of oranges as footwear, have moved humankind to Arizona instead and are now under attack by a huge quivering spacecraft loaded with cloned Gorgs and their superior weapons.

Still looking for her mom, Tip disguises J.Lo in a hastily contrived ghost costume made from a sheet and passes him off as her weird little brother Jay Jay, and the odd couple make their perilous way to Arizona, where they find her mother allied with a sleazy power grabber named Dan who is brokering a truce with the Gorgs in his Phoenix Airport enclave. As the Gorgs threaten both the remaining Boov and the humans, Tip and J.Lo notice that the Gorg clones appear to have one weakness--they are hugely allergic to cats. With that strategic knowledge, all that is left for the dynamic duo is to capture the Gorg cloning/teleporting devices and use them to inundate the aliens with many thousands of clones of her cat Pig, and voila', Earth is restored to humankind.

How this is accomplished involves several hundred pages and approximately that many laughs in Rex's 2007 novel, The True Meaning of Smekday. Rex's comic genius is hard to describe, but his style works for anyone old enough to read it for himself. The comic dialogue between J.Lo and Tip makes this story a wonderful read aloud for all ages, and Rex also throws in touches of the graphic novel in J.Lo's manga-style narratives of Boov life and folkways interspersed through the text. Purportedly a book for children, this one has enough sly satire on twenty-first century life to keep adults chuckling along with the kids. Take it along on a vacation trip and do a round-robin read along, and the trip will be half the fun!

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Double Play! Out of the Ballpark by Alex Rodriguez and Play Ball! by Jorge Posada

With all the bad press major league baseball has had recently, it's good to see a couple of picture book biographies which feature superstar players who describe how their abilities were honed by old fashioned hard work and love of the game.

In Out of the Ballpark A-Rod describes a play-off series in which things didn't start off going his way.

Baseball! Alex lived for it.

And it didn't get much better than this. His mom, brother, and sister were together in the stands for the first time all season. Today was the playoff. Alex wanted to make them proud.

But it's not Alex's day. A grounder goes right between his legs into the outfield for a hit. And as the game goes on, strikeouts and more errors follow. It seems that the harder he tries, the worse he plays. The only consolation is that the rest of the team pulls through and Alex and the Caribes are on their way to the championship.

But when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and in the days before the big series, Alex gets up at 5:00 a.m. to practice fielding with his buddy J.D. before school. He gets his big brother Joe to pitch to him for batting practice in the evening, and constantly tries to imagine himself playing a perfect game in the big series. He even puts his drive for excellence to work on his schoolwork between practices.

And his dedication pays off. With the bases loaded at a crucial inning in the final game, Alex hits the ball out of the park and into the nearby swimming pool and the Caribes win the big game and the championship.

Rodriguez' note at the end of the story urges readers to stay away from drugs, show respect to everyone, and give the game their best effort. A photo gallery of a skinny younger Alex growing into his adult skills as he moved through Little League, middle school, and high school baseball and into the majors adds an appealing personal touch to his book.

Jorge Posada's story, Play Ball!, begins with his father carefully teaching him to be a switch hitter.

"But I'm good at hitting right-handed," he protests as he swings awkwardly.

"Good isn't BEST," his father says.

Jorge Posada tells how he persevered, practicing his left-hand swing even on the family's overgrown shrubs, until it begins to feel natural and he even gets an occasional hit. When he visits Yankee Stadium, where the great switch-hitter Mickie Mantle starred, Jorge's dream to play there someday is reinforced.

Finally, Jorge's team, Casa Cuba, is playing for the championship. Jorge is up at bat and he realizes that it's time to show what he can do as a switch hitter. He fouls off the first ball, but hangs tough until he gets a pitch he can nail for a stand-up double. The team wins the game and at the party afterward Jorge gets to order a switch-hitting, two-topping pizza.

These two picture book memoirs by genuine big-league stars are just the ticket for a great story time double header for the lazy days of summer.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

New Girl in Town: Piper Reed, Navy Brat by Kimberly Willis Holt

In Piper Reed: Navy Brat (Piper Reed) author Kimberly Willis Holt introduces us to a plucky new girl character. Holt, whose soulful novels for middle readers have included the noted My Louisiana Sky and the National Book Award winner When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, draws upon her own childhood as a "Navy brat" to create a memorable protagonist for beginning chapter readers.

The narrator, Piper Reed, is the middle daughter in a much-travelled military family. As the story begins, the Reed girls, fourth-grader Piper, early teen Tori, and super-bright Kindergartner Sam, are informed by their father that they are being relocated to, as Sam puts it, "Pepsi-Cola, Florida."

"I don't want to move," said Tori.

"Sorry," said Chief. "That's the Navy life."

Tori folded her arms across her chest. "Well, when I grow up, I'm not going to marry anyone in the Navy or Army or Air Force."

"How about the Marines," I reminded her.

"Or the Marines."

"Don't worry," I told her. "No one will probably want to marry you anyway."

Tori burst into tears and ran out of the kitchen. A second later her bedroom door slammed.

Mom shook her head. "Piper Reed."

"I didn't say she was fat!"

Leaving behind their big two-story house in San Diego with her own room, her big tree house, and her Gypsy Club friends (who share her favorite saying, "Get off the bus!") is hard for Piper, too. She worries about making friends at her new school in Pensacola, especially when the kids find out that she is dyslexic and goes to a "special" class. In their new cramped condo it's no better; Piper has to share a bedroom with her little sister, and since there's only one bathroom for all five of them, Chief has to make out a weekly bathroom rotation chart.

A short visit to her Louisiana relatives en route softens the transition, and when the family is settled, Mom and Chief allow the girls to get their first dog, whom Piper names Bruna when she learns that her first choice, Bruno, won't work for a girl puppy. Cheered up by their new pet and the discovery that she can eavesdrop on Tori through the air vent between their rooms, Piper starts out the first day at her new school passing out invitations to join her New Gypsy Club.

Without the appeal of a secret tree house meeting place, though, Piper has to come up with an alternative attraction--fortune-telling by a "real" gypsy. Unfortunately, the only member of her family she can get to play the gypsy is her five-year-old sister Sam, dressed in a mustard-colored scarf and doing her "readings" with the aid of her mom's pink bowling ball with the finger holes turned downward. Piper's three guests are not impressed by her crystal ball or Sam's performance and are about to leave when "sister magic" saves the day. Having overheard the fortune-telling fiasco through the vent, Tori enters, stylishly costumed as a tall and mysterious gypsy whose fortune-telling impresses the skeptical guests, and the New Gypsy Club is launched.

Things are looking up when Piper finds that her young and fun "special reading" teacher makes her the envy of her classmates. Then, when the group goes on a field trip to watch the Blue Angels rehearse their aerial acrobatics, Piper is amazed to learn that Lt. Captain Elizabeth Franklin is a member of the team and decides that she, Piper Reed, is going to become a Navy Blue Angel pilot herself. As her father leaves for his next six-month deployment, Piper is able to come up with a list of eight things she likes about living in "Pepsi-Cola," including

#8. I have now spread "Get off the bus" to another state. There are only 48 more to go!

And since more sequels are already in the works, it looks as if Piper Reed will be spreading "Get off the bus" to quite a few more states--and to quite a few beginning chapter readers as well.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Bird in the Hand: The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County by Janice N. Harrington

I love chasing chickens. I do! I do!

Big Mama says, "Baby, behave yourself. Leave those chickens alone!" But I can't help it. I try hard to be good--but I'm the Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County.

Our feisty girl has a thing for catching chickens--even when nobody wants them caught. Big Mama wants calm hens who lay lots of eggs, but her granddaughter's avocation is getting those hens in her hot little hands. But real success has eluded her--in the person of Miss Hen, who is both beautiful and brilliant.

"I don't want just any chicken. I want my favorite. Her feathers are shiny as a rained-on roof. She has high yellow stockings and long-feathered feet. . . . She's as plump as a Sunday purse--just waiting for me to pick her up.

I never do, though. I never get even close. Miss Hen is fast as a mosquito buzzing and quick as a fleabite."

She tries cornbread crumbs, corn, fine swishy-mishy, ickly-tickly worms, and stands still so long her shadow gets bored, but when she makes her move, Miss Hen always scoots away, out of sight, in a eye blink.

At last a stealthy search for Miss Hen's hiding place leads to a discovery. Miss Hen is hidden on her own secluded nest, sitting on her warm brown eggs, and our girl knows she could grab her this time for sure.

"Miss Hen looks at me steadily and hard, her eyes knife-bright, her beak raised like a sharp question. She hunkers down, but she doesn't move."

But then the girl sees the three new little chicks snuggling beneath the hen's protective wings, and the chicken-chasing queen of Lamar County has a change of heart.

"Don't you worry, Miss Hen," I say. "I know you're a mama now. You're doing what you need to do. I won't trouble your babies."

Janice Harrington's The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County is a jolly tale of a dedicated chicken stalker who becomes a dedicated chicken protector, catching grasshoppers and digging worms, watching out for "sneaking weasels and egg-sucking snakes," and looking forward to teaching Miss Hen's chicks to "run so fast that no one will ever catch them!" Wonderful language that fairly sings through this tale is backed up by Shelley Jackson's fabric and paper collages with touches of acrylic which portray our spirited girl and her equally frisky feathered foe to a T!

The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County is a 2009-2010 nominee for the Tennessee Volunteer State Children's Choice Book Award in the K-3 division.

Labels: ,

Monday, June 23, 2008

History Mystery: Shadows on Society Hill by Evelyn Coleman

It is 1866 and in Philadelphia, former slaves are coming out into the light of a new day. Freedmen's schools are opening, and African Americans are beginning to be accepted for their skills and intelligence in society. Reconstruction is in full swing in America, and its cruel racist conclusion is still in the unforeseen future.

For Addy Walker's family, their past as escaped slaves is not forgotten, but reunited at last, their hopes for the future are high. When Addy's quick action saves the wealthy Albert Radisson from a runaway horse, he hires her father to work as a master carpenter and offers them a comfortable home in a snug brick house on the grounds of the fine house on Society Hill inherited from his abolitionist uncle. Soon to be married, Radisson also gives Addy's seamstress mother work altering his fiance's wedding gown when she arrives from Connecticut. The Walker family is a bit dazed from their good fortune, but settle happily into their new life.

Then Addy sees a mysterious light moving on the porch of the Radisson house late at night, and soon Albert's Southern-sympathizing mother begins to accuse Addy of midnight thefts of food and small items from the big house. Seeking to clear her name and solve the mystery of the missing things, Addy discovers a note left for her which can only be read when warmed with the candle found with it. Following its cryptic instructions, she discovers a secret door under the porch which leads to hidden rooms beneath the house from the days of the Underground Railroad. More amazingly, she discovers a black woman hiding there who claims to have been an important Union spy,* still in hiding from Confederate sympathizers who have vowed to kill her on sight.

At first warmly befriended by Radisson's beautiful black-haired fiance', Elisabeth, Addy and her family are astounded and hurt when she accuses Addy of the theft of a valuable piece of jewelry. When her father is quickly fired and the family is given a week to find other lodgings, Addy knows that she has only a few days to solve the mystery and clear her own name. What she doesn't know is that she will have to uncover a secret about Elisabeth, a secret so threatening that the young woman is willing to falsely accuse Addy to protect it.

Evelyn Coleman's Shadows on Society Hill: An Addy Mystery (American Girl Mysteries) is a worthy successor to Connie Porter's Addy books in the original American Girl series. The setting includes many background details on the lives of free blacks in the early Reconstruction period, and the mystery itself is well plotted and suspenseful. Addy risks her family's well-being to unlock the truth behind the clues in this excellent historical mystery, and the solution itself uncovers unknown connections between the seemingly well-born Elisabeth and Addy's family in North Carolina. Without saying so explicitly, author Coleman hints at the many interrelated roots of American life which continue to be revealed in our own time.

*As always in the American Girls novels, the appendix gives a illustrated factual summary of the period, in this case of the life of African Americans during and immediately after Reconstruction. In this backmatter the author reveals that the character of the black Union spy hiding out in the Radisson house is based on Mary L. Bowser, a black Union spy with a photographic memory who pretended to be a uneducated slave in the Confederate White House of Jefferson Davis, listening in on conversations with his generals as she served them, reading his private correspondence, and reporting critical information to the Union forces. Our nation's history is full of amazing life stories. Let's hope that the authors and editors at American Girl keep on telling them for young readers.

Labels: ,

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Boston Tea Party: Judy Moody Declares Independence by Megan McDonald

Judy Moody is in an independent mood as she and her vacationing family step off the subway (the world's oldest, as Judy points out) at Boston Common and head for the Freedom Trail. Judy is much taken with the story of Paul Revere's ride, and she and her dad escape by land from her ever-pesky little brother Stink to tour Revere House together.

Reunited with her mom and Stink, the family goes by sea to Boston Harbor to tour the replica of the Beaver, the ship where the Boston Tea Party took place. Visiting the gift shop, Judy makes friends with an English tourist her age, Tori (nicknamed "Tori the Tory" by Stink). Sharing their stories, Judy is amazed to learn that Tori has her own phone and bathroom, drinks tea every day, gets "pounds of allowance," and all the Bonjour, Bunny (read Hello, Kitty) stuff she wants. Tori shares her sugar packet collection and several Britishisms which Judy Moody takes to with American enthusiasm, especially "being in a nark" for Judy's trademark "being in a mood."

Back in school, Judy makes up her missed book report with a biography of Sybil Ludington, Revere's female counterpart. Inspired by Sybil's courage and love of freedom, Judy Moody draws up her own Declaration of Independence from parental oppression, especially Article I: Freedom from hair brushing, and Article II: Freedom from little brothers (as in Stink). When her mom and dad point out that independence implies responsibilities as well as privileges, Judy decides that she will prove herself as strong and dependable as Sybil Ludington and sets about performing her duties without being prompted.

But, after all, Judy is still Judy, and to show off her new revolutionary zeal, she stages a bathtub Boston Tea Party with her buddies Rocky and Frank which involves tossing a super-sized box of teabags into a tub full of hot water. When Stink gets into the act, the spirit of rebellion turns into a steamy, brown mess all over the Moody's bathroom, and Judy's campaign for freedom turns into a Whig washout.

A younger Judy would have gotten into "a mood", but this time she responsibly resists getting "in a nark" over the failure of her revolutionary act. Then the next day, when Stink falls asleep and fails to get off the school bus with Judy at their stop, Judy bikes after the bus as bravely as Sybil Ludington, chasing the school bus all the way across town and rescuing Stink from his nap in the back of the bus. At first Judy's mom refuses to listen to her explanation for their late arrival back at home, but when Stink comes through with the truth, she is welcomed as the heroine of the midday ride of Judy Moody. Her parents recognize her maturity with a raise in allowance, and Judy is well on her way to life, liberty, and the "purse of happiness."

In Judy Moody Declares Independence (Judy Moody), Judy Moody's plea for more independence and responsibility is bound to strike a chord with beginning chapter readers, and its link to Boston's Freedom Trail and the Declaration of Independence makes it a perfect tie-in to the fabulous Fourth. As always, Peter Reynolds' jaunty illustrations, particularly his red, white, and blue cover set against a tea-colored background, capture Judy's energy and exuberant adventures perfectly.

Labels: ,

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sign Here! A Picture Book of John Hancock by David A. and Michael S. Adler

With Independence Day just ahead on July 4, this is a good time to remember those founders who dared to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor as they signed the Declaration of Independence.

John Hancock literally put his money where his mouth (and famous signature) was. Hancock drew deeply upon his personal fortune to fund the resistance to the Crown in Massachusetts. Indeed, Hancock, with his fellow revolutionary Sam Adams, was part of the reason for the dispatching of armed British troops to Lexington and Concord, where their arrest and the seizure of the patriots' weapons Hancock had helped purchase were the purpose of the mission.

Hancock escaped arrest as the Battles of Lexinton and Corcord began on April 19, 1775, and went on to become president of the Second Continental Congress and therefore the first to sign the Declaration of Independence, joking that he would make sure his signature would be large enough for King George III to read without his spectacles.

John Hancock remained a member of the Continental Congress for three years, leaving only to assume command of the Massachusetts militia, and later served as the first elected governor of the State of Massachusetts, where he vigorously supported the adoption of the U. S. Constitution.

The latest book in David Adler's Picture Book Biographies series, A Picture Book of John Hancock (Picture Book Biography) gives young readers reason to appreciate why Americans revere and respect that famous signature and the impressive life story behind it.

Other biographies of Revolutionary patriots in this series are A Picture Book Of Samuel Adams, (Picture Book Biography) A Picture Book of Patrick Henry (Picture Book Biography), A Picture Book of Paul Revere (Picture Book Biography), A Picture Book of Thomas Jefferson (Picture Book Biography), A Picture Book of Benjamin Franklin (Picture Book Biography), A PICTURE BOOK OF JOHN AND ABIGAIL ADAMS, and A Picture Book of George Washington (Picture Book Biography).

Labels: , ,

Friday, June 20, 2008

History Mystery: Midnight in Lonesome Hollow: A Kit Mystery by Kathleen Ernst

The hard times of the Great Depression have spread even to the ridges and hollows of the Kentucky mountains, and as Kit Kittredge travels south from Cincinnati with her schoolteacher Aunt Millie, she finds her aunt's old students struggling to make ends meet. The coal mines which once provided jobs to the mountain men are closing, and without them their schools and stores are standing empty.

Despite the closure of the Mountain Hollow school where she taught, Aunt Millie has recruited Kit to help her distribute used books to the families living up the branches and in the hollows of her district. Traveling on muleback up trails and creek beds, Millie and Kit find two families, headed by a grandmother and a widowed mother, struggling to get by on the produce of their hillside gardens. Kit's friend Fern Craig is too distracted by her family's hard times to enjoy a story, and even Millie has a hard time coaxing a song from the talented singer.

But when a social anthropologist from Chicago, Lucy Vanderpool, arrives in the area, Kit, who has been keeping her own notebook of local sayings and phrases, is intrigued by her mission to photograph and record the crafts and folkways of the region, and Dr. Vanderpool asks Kit to become her assistant as she hauls her old camera and recording devices around the hollows.

Both Dr. Vanderpool and Kit hope that their studies will open the way for families to market their crafts and music to add to their incomes. But while some people welcome her interest in their basketry and quilts, Kit is alarmed when someone breaks Lucy's photographic plates and destroys the notebooks in which she and Kit have carefully recorded their observations. Kit knows there are only a few people who could be guilty of the vandalism, and she particularly suspects Fern's secretive and hostile older brother. At last she confides her fears to Fern and the two decide to follow Harlan over the dark mountain to discover the secrets behind his midnight rambles.

In Kathleen Ernst's Midnight in Lonesome Hollow: A Kit Mystery (American Girl Mysteries), many details of rural life during the Depression are worked into the suspenseful story of Kit's summer in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Kentucky. Backmatter provides period photos and information on life in Appalachia during the 1930's and the work of folklorists who preserved knowledge of the handicrafts, music, and ways of these proud people.

Kit Kittredge's Depression-era story is also continued in Danger At The Zoo: A Kit Mystery (American Girl Mysteries).

The feature-length movie, Kitt Kittredge, An American Girl, based on American Girl's orginal Depression era series by Valerie Tripp, premiered to good reviews June 16. Newsweek's reviewer David Ansen gives the movie, especially the work of star Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine), thumbs up for general audiences. Ansen concludes, "As role models go, an aspiring girl journalist with a dawning social conscience beats Barbie any day."

Go here to see the complete review and view the movie's trailer. Kit Kittredge: An American Girl opens July 2.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Best Man for the Job: Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio

On Monday morning in September Mrs. Barrington rolled out a big poster with all the presidents' pictures on it.

Grace Campbell could not believe her eyes.


To Grace and the other astonished girls, whose living memories barely extend back to George W. Bush's first term, Mrs. Barrington's explanation that there has NEVER been a woman president hits like ice water in the face. Suddenly those girls, used to seeing female faces in positions of prominence, are perplexed.

Grace sat at her desk and stewed. No girls? Who'd ever thought of such a thing!

Finally she raised her hand.

"I've been thinking it over, and I'd like to be president."

Going for the teachable moment, Mrs. Barrington comes right back with a living lesson. Complementing Grace's "star-spangled idea," she announces that their class will hold an election for class president. When no other students announce their candidacy, Grace is elated. "Becoming president is going to be easy," she thinks.

But the campaign trail becomes a bit rockier the next morning when Mrs. Barrington announces that Mrs. Waller's class is going to be join the election and introduces their candidate, Thomas Cobb. Thomas is a formidable candidate with a lot of constituents: he's the spelling bee champ, science fair winner, and captain of the soccer team--and, he's a boy! When Grace's poster go up with the slogan "MAKE HISTORY--VOTE FOR GRACE!" Thomas plays the gender card with his slogan "ELECT THOMAS--THE BEST MAN FOR THE JOB!"

When Mrs. Barrington explains the electoral college and lets each student draw a state to represent, Thomas is gleeful. He quickly calculates that if all the "male" states deliver their electoral votes, he's going to win. Certain that he's secured his base already, Thomas studies spelling words at recess, plans his latest science experiment at lunch, and practices soccer after school.

Meanwhile, Grace campaigns hard, making speeches at recess, handed out cupcakes at lunch, and holding rallies after school. She also gets to work on fulfilling her promises, volunteering in the cafeteria to improve the food, organizing a safety squad to foil bullying, and leading an active school beautification program from the business end of a paintbrush.

When the "electoral college" meets, the voting breaks sharply along gender lines. Finally, the tally stands at 268 for Thomas Cobb and 267 for Grace, with only Wyoming, represented by elector Sam, left to cast his votes. Thomas can't help grinning, and Grace feels sick.

Sam cleared his throat. "The Equality State of Wyoming casts its three electoral votes for...Grace Campbell!"

"I thought you were the best person for the job," Sam admits.

My name is Grace Campbell, and when I grow up, I'm going to be President of the United States," the successful candidate announces.

Kelly DiPucchio's Grace for President is a timely classroom story which will be a useful jumping-off place for social studies units on the presidential election, covering thoroughly as it does both the history and mystery of the electoral college and the social issues involved with candidates and their constituencies. An appended Author's Note provides additional historical information about the electoral college and how it relates to the popular vote.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Summertime Tales: Cowboy Camp and How I Spent My Summer Vacation

It's June and those lazy days of summer vacation are spreading across the land. Here are a couple of picture books which celebrate the splendid days of summer.

In Tammi Sauer's Cowboy Camp, her hero Avery knows he's in big trouble as soon as he reports for camp.

"He looked at everyone else at Cowboy Camp and knew he was all wrong. His belt buckle was too big. His hat was too small. His boots were too red. Even his name was wrong. The other boys had tough names like Hank or Jimmy Jean. Who ever heard of a cowboy named Avery?"

Things only get worse as the day progresses. Cowpoke chow makes Avery sick, and he has to give up grits and beans for crackers and cheese. When the tenderfeet tack up in the stables, Avery turns out to be allergic to his horse, and their leader Cowboy Dan, has a saddle up a steer for him to ride. At lasso lessons Avery can't make a loop to save his lariat and winds up with a case of rope burn, reducing his roping options to a wimpy length of yarn.

Around the campfire that night Avery broods over his misfit status. Suddenly a huge, scary figure appears out of the black night. "I'm Black Bart and I'm here to put an end to this 'Cowboy Camp.'" Thinking fast, Avery protests. "Pardon me, sir. This isn't Cowboy Camp. It's, er, ...Space Camp."

Black Bart is dubious, and puts Avery through all of the cowboy tests--beans, riding, roping--all of which Avery flunks, even spitting out the beans all over Bart. "Rustlin' rattlesnakes," snaps Bart, "I must've made a wrong turn somewhere. I gotta go."

Cowboy Dan claps Avery on the back. "Avery, you are about the bravest cowboy I ever laid eyes on. No one but a real cowboy could outsmart Black Bart the way you just did." The unconventional cowpoke has finally earned his spurs, and Avery is at last a happy camper.

In author-illustrator Mark Teague's skillful hands, his How I Spent My Summer Vacation (Dragonfly Books) tells another tall tale of summer fun out West.

Walter Bleff's teacher, seated properly at her desk, wearing her prim updo and spectacles, dutifully listens to his report on what he did on his summer vacation. Walter, however, is not one of your pedestrian essayists. He begins by reciting how his parents shipped him off to his Aunt Fern's ranch to bring him down to earth a bit.

"Your imagination is getting too wild.
It will do you some good to relax for a while."

Walter gets no chance to relax. As soon as he puts boots on the ground, he's kidnapped by a rowdy bunch of rough riders, who put the tenderfoot to work as apprentice cowhand. "Kid Bleff," unlike Avery, shows a real talent for punchin' cows, learning to rope, ride, and eat beans with the best of them.

But when Aunt Fern invites the whole band back to her spread for a real cowboy barbecue, the herd begins to stampede, heading right for the party. Quick-witted Kid Bleff snatches up a red tablecloth and making like a matador, turning the terrifying herd away to save the day. As the somewhat taken-aback teacher listens to the thrilling conclusion of his essay, we see Walter, still holding a longhorn by his nose ring, wistfully thinking, "I can't wait for show-and-tell!"

Teague's characteristic rounded comic characters are as full of personality as ever, and his bouncy rhyming text carries this summertime story along to a rip-snortin' conclusion.

Labels: ,