Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Winter Wonderland of Web Sites for Kids: ALSC Great Web Sites for Children

In the depths of winter, when holiday toys pale and sunny days that beckon kids outside are few and far between, American Library Association's ALSC Great Web Sites for Children's new adoptions for 2008 are out, to be found at These fifteen new sites for the master list offer plenty of variety--from Bob the Builder to the Harry Potter Lexicon, from Adolescent Literacy to Zoom by Kids, for Kids, there is something for everyone--games, activities, projects, videos, a safe seach engine (GoGooligans), finger-plays and read-aloud stories, and historic and nature sites for virtual visits.

The Association for Library Services for Children's complete list of recommended sites can be found at The sites are organized into eight major divisions: ANIMALS, THE ARTS, HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY, LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE, REFERENCE DESK, MATHEMATICS AND COMPUTERS, SCIENCES, AND SOCIAL SCIENCES.

Check it out and keep the URL handy for times of need!


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Friends Forever: Katie and Kimble: A Ghost Story by Linda Thieman

Kids love ghost tales, but for grownups who worry that ghost stories may be too scary for the beginning chapter book reader, Linda Thieman's Katie & Kimble: A Ghost Story is a spook story with not a single shiver.

Katie and her family are moving into their new home, an old farmhouse a couple of miles from the town where her mom is to start her new job. Katie has just unpacked her things in her new room when she finds a definitely old-fashioned hair bow in mint condition. Repeatedly she hears a girl's laughter and then finds a dreidel on her dresser, right beside her jar of long-saved pennies.

Katie is convinced that the house is haunted, and in short order her personal ghost, Kimble Lawrence, appears and introduces herself, dressed in the fashion of the turn of the last century. Kimble shares the entrance to her own secret room entered through Katie's closet, and soon Katie and the ghost girl become the best of friends. Katie agrees to put her best detective skills to work to answer Kimble's questions about her lost mother. Tracking down an older neighbor with back copies of the town newspaper in her attic, Katie locates the sad story of the deaths, first of Rachel Lawrence, and then Kimble Lawrence two days later in the influenza epidemic of 1918.

To help Kimble understand why her mother was lost to her long ago, Katie and Kimble set out to an abandoned cemetery deep in the woods outside town, and in an unexpected turn of events, Katie's life is suddenly in danger and it is Kimble's turn to find a way to find help for her.

The second book in this beginning chapter book series is Katie & Kimble: The Magic Wish.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Happy Horsekeeping: Seasons of the Horse by Jackie Budd

Anyone who has ever been responsible for the care of a horse throughout a whole year knows that few experiences will ever bring us closer to the natural world around us. Nature impinges upon us constantly.... Although we may not appreciate it while hauling hay on a freezing January morning, this contact with nature is one of the great privileges of being a horse owner.

For Jackie Budd, author of Seasons of the Horse: A Practical Guide to Year-Round Equine Care, taking on the major portion of your horse's care means that you cannot, as many in the twenty-first century may do, remain unaware of the way nature--the turning of the seasons, the requirements of physiology and psychology, and earth's cycle of growth and rest--controls our animals and therefore ourselves. In her view, horse care is for horses, and certainly not for sissies.

An advocate of putting the horse's nature first, Budd's unapologetic thesis is that "...'nature's horse' is the real horse and the best horse for us.... Despite centuries of domestication, our equine friend remains nature's horse, body and soul...." Budd states firmly that most of the problems with domesticated horses--laminitis, colic, and allergies, to name a few--are virtually unknown among feral horses to this day.

This point of view does not make horse keeping an easy task for the conscientious owner. Budd insists upon careful feeding which duplicates the timing and content of natural fodder and upon a high ratio of turn-out time for horses. Horses, she continually reminds us, need a near constant supply of high-fiber food, freedom of movement, and the opportunity to socialize with other horses daily. In our world, she warns, such a lifestyle is sometimes labor intensive for the owner and expensive, particularly for those who must depend upon others to stable and keep the horse daily.

Using a seasonal framework as the outline of her book, Budd offers four thorough introductory chapters covering "Lifestyle Options," "Principles of Feeding," "Routine Health Care," and "Year-Round Health Conditions," sections which deal with most of the knowledge needed by beginners and more experienced owners. The remainder of the text is divided into four sections devoted to solid discussions of care during the four seasons. The author covers feeding, pasture management, controlling the horse's weight through the year, grooming, shoeing (or not), riding and conditioning, health risks during the annual cycle, and providing for proper feeding, time outside, and socialization through the various challenges of each season.

In a lavishly illustrated 272 pages, Budd provides a plenitude of information written in a clear and lively style. In addition, ample checklists, text boxes filled with practical tips and warnings, diagrams, and detailed instructional inserts for everything from mane and tail-braiding to hoof-cleaning break up the text on each page, making for easy reading and location of information. An extensive index offers quick access to the wealth of advice contained in this useful book for the serious amateur horse keeper.

A great book for the first-time horse owner or for the nonfiction section of libraries, Seasons of the Horse: A Practical Guide to Year-Round Equine Care, provides vital information in a highly-readable, easily usable format.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sass and Spice: The Gingerbread Girl by Lisa Ernst

A full year had passed since the lonely old woman and the lonely old man had lost the Gingerbread Boy.

"Let's bake again!" said the old man one morning.

Lisa Campbell Ernst can be counted upon to fill her fractured fairy tales with peppery heroines long on spice and short on sugar, and her picture book, The Gingerbread Girl is no exception.

True to family form, the Gingerbread Girl hops out of the oven and right through the door, just like her unfortunate dimwitted brother, but this girl is a smart cookie who is capable of learning from vicarious experience. Granted, her rhyme scheme is familiar, and her followers feature some of the usual hungry characters, all of whom want to be her "special" friend. In no time she has outrun the old couple, some farmers, a painter, a piggy, a cow, a dog, and some school kids with a serious case of the munchies, but this heroine is fast on her feet and faster with a rhyme:

I can outrun this artist
Like I outran the pig.
I am one smart cookie,
Despite this wild wig.

But there is only so much a girl can do to alter the plot of these tales. Soon she pulls up beside a river, and guess who is willing and eager to take her across. Yep, it's the same old fox, beguiled by her spicy smell and her curly red licorice-whip coiffure. "Hel-lo, my pretty! I was a friend of your brother's. It looks like trouble runs in your family!" he says.

Despite his promises to ferry her across the river safely, however, the old red fox is true to his nature. But in midstream when this cool cookie finds herself too near the business end of the wily fox, she puts her hairstyle to its best use yet--twisting the stretchy licorice whips around Fox's greedy snout and tying his jaws too tight to whimper. Then this practical girl leads her large following--including the still snack-driven kids--back to the bake shop where the happy little old woman and little old man have a very profitable bake sale, thanks to their prodigal daughter, who sings proudly for the crowd:

We'll run and we'll run
With a leap and a twirl.
I out-foxed the fox!
I'm the Gingerbread Girl!


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Eye of the Beholder: The Aliens Are Coming! by Colin McNaughton

In outer space
It's black as night,
And something's moving--
Speed of light--
Something looking for a fight!

Yikes! They are blobby, they are smug, and they're weirder than any bug, They are a warty, horned lot, with eyes on stalks, lots of spots. They make scary utterances, like "A WOP BOP A LOO LOP" and TUTTI FRUTTI, OH ROOTY!" Their admiral looks like a Viking's worst nightmare, and their rocket ships are pointed right at us!

Some are tall
And some are squat.
Some are nice
And some are NOT!

There is only one thing frightful enough to turn back the alien tide--the ugly faces of Earth's sentient beings gazing up at the invading hordes. And when the admiral's telescope gets an up-close-and-personal look at the human physiognomy, the space ships turn around and beat it back to a galaxy far, far away!

The Admiral jumped up and cried,
"Change of orders--
Run and hide."
The aliens are terrified!

Colin McNaughton's new American edition of The Aliens Are Coming! features a shiny, red foil cover which previews the comic invading monsters shown in the inside lineup. For a fun surprise on the last page, the aperture of the Admiral's long, curvy telescope features a shiny three-inch mirror in which we can see the same horrors the Admiral saw--our own faces!

McNaughton's colorful and altogether silly extraterrestrials, floating upon a shiny black sky filled with shiny stars and asteroids, are so much fun that even E.T. might be tempted to hitch a ride with them for a quick look at his old destination.


Friday, December 26, 2008

Timely Travel: Quimbaya by Dianne C. Stewart

Cal Bradley is a regular sixth-grader, a middle school student focused on being MVP on the basketball team despite the pommeling of overbearing self-styled superstar Quintin Thorngrove and finding a subject for a creditable local history project in Ms. Burstin's class.

When his best friends, twins Liv and Anthony Jacobs, invite him along to help unpack furnishings for the historic Delaney House in its conversion to a residence for families with hospitalized children, Cal goes along, hoping that something in the old house will spark his interest in his project.

Sent upstairs to unpack a box in a small bedroom, Cal quickly sets out lamps, books and magazines, and a clock radio on the two nightstands.

Cal pressed the radio's ON buttons. "Oldies Ninety-Five-O-Threeeee!" bleated a trio of voices.

He looked out the windows, where the miniblinds were drawn up and tightly bound. Cal lowered the blinds and adjusted them to let in the afternoon sun.

He returned to the cardboard box. Now for the last item--a small wooden box--probably for jewelry.

It had brass hinges and a little hook in front securing two small doors. The lacquer had worn dull over time, but the box still had character.

Unlatching the hook, he opened the doors to reveal a set of tiny drawers. A yellowed piece of string stuck with dried-out mucilage to the inside over carved numerals--1000. He held it there and pulled the second drawer. This one had no string--only notches, marked one through nine. Who would have done such a thing, and why? he wondered. He pulled the second drawer almost all the way out and left it. Returning to the front window, he pushed aside a lacy white curtain and peered outside.

The two large windows in the front of the room were designed to provide access to a narrow balcony overlooking the street. Cal barely glanced beyond the balcony's delicate iron railing to the street scene below him, but it registered in the back of his mind that the view was very different from up here--more like he would have imagined it in the days when the house was young. It seemed greener, quieter--peaceful.

When Cal turns back to the room behind him, he finds it suddenly changed. A dusty oil lamp sits beside the carved box on a small round table beside the bed. Without thinking Cal pushes the small drawer closed, and as he turns again to the window, he realizes that the view beyond the miniblinds is filled with the hospital's high-rise parking garage and physicians' building. "Okay, that's not possible," he whispers.

When Cal confesses this confusing experience to Liv and Anthony, they slip back into the bedroom and discover that positioning the tiny drawers in the box enable them to time-gravel back to the early years of the historic house. Liv especially is intrigued, and pretending to find a period dress for the presentation of her local history project, she costumes herself and makes a solo visit back to 1897, meeting a fifteen-year old girl named Emily with whom she shares her story. The boys follow her in trips back into the turn of the century world of their town, cobbling together costumes to help them fit in with Emily's help. In one visit the two interrupt a violent sidewalk struggle between two bank officers just as a raging fire begins in the livery stable nearby. Without thinking, Cal and Anthony drag one injured man to safety and run for help from the fire station blocks away. The firemen arrive in time to prevent the fire's spread to the entire town, an outcome which changes the whole history of the city.

Back in their own time, the three learn their action has also altered the written history and modern landscape of their town. More frighteningly, they also find out that the other banker who had fled into the stable died in the fire--and since this man was Quentin's ancestor, Quentin himself no longer exists in their own time.

In her research Liv also learn that Emily will soon die in the collapse of a wall at her school, and the three agree that they must return to her time to warn her to stay away on that day, but when they do so, history is again altered, and the kids are compelled again to return to the past to save Emily from a railroad accident on her honeymoon and somehow right the wrong which has wiped out Quentin's existence.

Dianne Stewart's Quimbaya creates adventurous but believable young people whose forays into the past uncover the time-traveler' conundrum--how to right the wrongs of the past without adversely affecting the future. Stewart skillfully weaves multiple time frames into a credible plot, with hints to the source of the power residing in the little wooden box. This fast-moving fantasy will engage readers quickly and keep those pages turning all the way to the thought-provoking ending.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Sheep That Saved Christmas: Russell's Christmas Magic by Rob Scotton

'Twas the night before Christmas in Frogbottom Field.

Not a creature was stirring except for... Russell.

As he was hanging the very last lantern on the old tree, a shooting star caught his eye.

Closer and closer it came, brighter and brighter, and then...WHOOOSH!

The shooting star snuffed out the lanterns and came down somewhere in Firefly Wood.

Russell the sheep is sure he's witnessed a celestial event, but upon investigation he finds that it's a stellar event that's even worse--it's Santa and he's been grounded! It seems that a mechanical failure has brought down his sleigh and with it the Christmas spell that makes him invisible to mortals. It looks like this Christmas is cancelled until further notice. What's a Santa to do?

But Russell is nothing if not resourceful. Digging a rusty old wreck of a convertible car out of the snowdrifts, he sets to work with his trusty tool chest, hammering and sawing away with a will. Before Santa knows it, he sees before him a refurbished sleigh, fashioned from the old car's body and Santa's old sleigh runners.

"It's a work of genius," Santa gushed.

Hitching up his coursers, Santa invites Russell to take a trial run with him, and Russell then finds himself riding along as they deliver presents to children everywhere in the blink of an eye. Back at Frogbottom Field, Russell is dropped off with a special tree ornament from Santa which begins to glow magically with the brilliance of the Northern Lights just as Santa whisks away with a "Merry Christmas to you!"

Russell's Christmas Magic, the latest in British author-illustrator Rob Scotton's Russell the Sheep series, gives the artist's highly stylized graphic mode a chance to shine in this version of the staple "stranded Santa" story line. Other picture books in this popular series are Russell the Sheep (Book and Audio CD) (Paperback) and Russell and the Lost Treasure.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

They Are the Wisest: The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

For a classy and classic American Christmas tale, there is none better than O. Henry's evergreen story of the two poor newlyweds who each sell his or her most prized possession to give the other the perfect gift on their first Christmas Eve together.

James Dillingham Young is twenty-two, already Della's husband, struggling to support the two of them on twenty dollars a week, eight of which go for the rent on their shabby flat in New York City. Della is a frugal money manager, but she has only been able to eke out $1.87 in savings to buy Jim's gift, a paltry sum even in 1906.

As she dabs at her tear-stained face before the mirror, Della's eyes fall upon her hair, and as she lets it down and brushes it lovingly, an idea takes shape:

So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made almost a garment for her.

Before she can change her mind, Della dashes off to Mdme. Safronie's Hair Goods, where she sells her long hair for the bountiful sum of $20, just enough to buy a platinum watch fob for Jim's cherished gold watch, passed down from his father and his grandfather, his only possession of value.

Back home, a curling iron heated in the gas light transforms Della's bob into a headful of short curls looking "wonderfully like a truant schoolboy's," just in time for Jim's return home from work. Jim is speechless at the sight of her hair and gives her a look that frightens Della a bit.

"You cut your hair?" he stammers.

"It's Christmas eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you," Della tells him and gives him the platinum watch fob. "Isn't it a dandy, Jim" she beams proudly.

Jim falls onto the sofa and tosses a wrapped gift upon the table. "If you'll unwrap that package, you may see why you had me going for a while at first," he laughs.

Of course, the box contains a beautiful set of three tortoise-shell combs, those Della had longed for so long in a Broadway shop window, perfect for setting off her glorious long hair. Then Jim confesses that to buy the combs, he has sold his gold watch.

"Let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em awhile," Jim says hopefully, with a smile and an loving embrace for Della. For, as O. Henry says in his closing,

And here we have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise these days, let it be said that of all those who gave gifts, these two were the wisest.... They are the Magi.

Luckily, for us, over a hundred years later, this story is available in two stunning editions, each more beautiful than the other. In The Gift of the Magi by Simon & Schuster, Lisbeth Zwerger's delicate, flowing pastel-tinged illustrations, set off inside an old-fashioned oval within each double-page spread, swirl with energy and anticipation as the classic short story unfolds just as William Sidney Porter wrote it so long ago.

In Candlewick Press' 2008 edition of The Gift of the Magi notable Irish artist P. J. Lynch illustrates the original text with luminous paintings which glow like gaslit daguerreotypes from the period.

You can't go wrong with either of these oversized editions, both of which give their extraordinary illustrators a chance to illuminate anew for us this most famous of American short stories for the holiday season.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Gift: Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo and illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline delivered their tastfully wrapped Christmas gift with their publication of Great Joy. Although the story itself inside the box is unremarkably heartwarming Christmas fare, the illustrations are the giftwrap which makes it irresistible.

As her mother sews her Christmas pageant costume in a comfortable upstairs room, a photo of Frances' soldier father nearby, the little girl spies an organ grinder and his monkey in a green coat and red cap working the busy street below. That night little Frances can't sleep and finally tiptoes to the window with a flashlight, where she sadly spots the organ grinder, the monkey inside his coat, sleeping on the snowy street below.

Frances' concern for the organ grinder and monkey is met with vague explanations and a refusal to invite the two to dinner from her mother, but as the two, dressed in their best clothes and warm boots, walk toward the church for the Christmas Eve service, Frances drops her nickel in the monkey's cup and guilelessly invites the two to the service. "I'm going to be in the Christmas play tonight. I get to wear wings and I have one line to say.... You can both come."

Then as Frances, dressed as the Angel of the Lord, steps forward to say her line, she sees the sanctuary door open and the organ man and his monkey, silhouetted against the light from outside, and she announces clearly, "Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy. Great Joy!"

Ibouttine's soft, dark scenes and his characters' faces seem lit with a Rembrandt-like glow of their own in his lovely acrylic gouache illustrations. The story of a little girl's concern is slight but sweet, and the book itself is a joy.


Mouse in the Manger: Mortimer's Christmas Manger by Karma Wilson

In a big house lived a wee mouse named Mortimer. He dwelled in a dark hole under the stairs.

Nobody ever noticed little Mortimer, and Mortimer liked it that way. But he didn't like his hole.

"Too cold. Too cramped. Too creepy," squeaked Mortimer.

So Mort sets forth to find more suitable accommodations for himself. Dodging mom and two kids by house-hunting at night, the little mouse spies just what he's looking for--a little house just his size on a table in the living room.

Bouncing up the branches of a conveniently placed Christmas tree, Mortimer is delighted with his find.

"Perfect! Not cold. Not cramped. Not creepy. COZY!

But--who are you?" Mortimer had never seen people so small... or such strange animals, either!

Mortimer soon sees that the little people and animals in the creche are not real. Inside the little shelter he spots a tiny straw-filled manger just his size, "Out you go!" says the the little mouse as he sets about tugging and lugging and rolling the little statue of a sleeping baby and some grown-up figures out of the building. Soon Mortimer is curled up, sleeping warmly in his new bed.

But alas! Each day as Mort scurries around to find crumbs of cookies and fruitcake, the children of the house set up the statues back in Mortimer's new house. Night after night he is forced to tug the little people outside to make his bed in the tiny manger. "And stay out!" he commands them sternly.

Then one day Mortimer overhears the family gathered around the tree and creche, reading from a story in a big book, and the story he hears is wondrous.

"And there was no room for them in the inn," the big man read.

Then Mortimer heard about a baby. A baby who was born in a stable and had no real bed but slept in a wooden manger. A baby born to save the world!

"There was no room for you in the inn, but I know where there is room," Mortimer said.

That night Mortimer lovingly replaces all the figures in the creche, especially the smiling baby in the manger, happy to see that he looks warm and cozy there. Then he scurries back to his old home in the cold, cramped, and creepy hole under the stairs. As he curls up, he whispers a wish. "Jesus... perhaps you could bring me a home."

And the next night there is a new and wonderful little house in a special place on the table near the tree--a house, built of delicious-smelling gingerbread and trimmed with candy canes and marshmallows--warm and cozy and tasty--and just his size!

Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman, who have given us the delightful picture books in the Bear Snores On series, have created a new character in their lovely Mortimer's Christmas Manger, a gentle story of the Christmas message seen from the viewpoint of the smallest creature in the house.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Le Bon Temps: The Twelve Days of Christmas in Louisiana by Jean Cassels

Part Christmas story, part Louisiana guidebook, New Orleans author Jean Cassels' The Twelve Days of Christmas in Louisiana (Twelve Days of Christmas, State By State) has hit upon a winning format for a love letter to her state which makes every one of us dream of hot beignets with honey.

The story begins with an invitation from Cousin Rosalie to Cousin Paul to spend the twelve days of the holiday in New Orleans with her family.

Dear Paul,

I'm sending you a ticket to come visit us for the twelve days of Christmas. This is a special time in Louisiana. Christmas doesn't really end until twelfth night (January 6 in New Orleans). That's when Dad and I always take down the tree and Twelfth Night is the start of Carnival, with really fun parades and costumes.

In the double-page spreads which follow for each day of the twelve, Paul writes home to describe the events and places he enjoys with Rosalie, all famous Louisiana experiences--the causeway across Lake Pontchartrain and one state bird, the brown pelican in a cypress tree, two blue-eyed white 'gators at the Audubon Zoo, three marsh ducks at the White Kitchen Eagle Preserve, four river boats on a excursion up the wide Mississippi, and five golden horns in a jazz band parading down Esplanade Avenue.

Paul also takes in the six ghosts at the haunted Myrtle Plantation, seven treasure maps at the museum of privateer Jean LaFitte, eight bottles of red sauce at the tobasco factory on Avery Island, nine crawfish in Cajun country, ten agile amphibians at the Rayne Frog Festival, eleven buzzing state insects making honey for the beignets, and twelve strands of sparkling beads thrown by the trolley-riding Phunny Phorty Phellows who officially begin Carnival.

Lynne Cravath's busy, humorous illustrations spread across the pages to provide plenty of local color, even spilling over onto the clever endpapers in which posters for Wynton Marsalis, Satchmo, Paul Prudhomme, Truman Capote, and other Louisiana luminaries are plastered on a busy corner building. The author thoughtfully includes an appendix with all the basic state facts (capital, state flower, state bird, etc.) and a list of Louisiana notables--from Dr. Michael DeBakey to Terry Bradshaw and Fats Domino--and their contribution to American life. This book is a trip--a visit to a fascinating chunk of America, fun to visit and fun to read about.

Laissez le bon temps roulez!

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sad Santa: When Santa Lost His Ho! Ho! Ho! by Laura Rader

Christmas was just a few days away. The North Pole was buzzing with activity. The reindeer were practicing their take offs, and the elves were putting the finishing touches on the toys--with lots of help from Mrs. Claus.

But something wasn't quite right. Something was missing.

Santa was quiet.

"Have you lost something, sir?" asked an elf.

"You could say that," said Santa. I think that I have lost my laugh."

This is serious! Christmas without its right jolly old elf just won't be the same! The doctor prescribes funny movies and lots of jokes, but they only produce a weak "Ha ha," instead of Santa's booming "Ho! Ho! Ho!"

The word spreads like wildfire around the world, and soon an avalanche of mail is pouring into the North Pole. Confronting all the condolence letters from the children of the earth just makes Santa more tired and more cranky, so Mrs. Claus sends him off for a nap while she and the elves wade into the daunting stack of mail.

Then Mrs. Claus opens a letter from a girl named Holly, and as she reads, she begins to chuckle and then to giggle, and then to roar with uncontrollable laughter. "I have an idea," she says, wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes.

And when Santa awakes, she sends him off to his workshop to look at his mail, with Holly's note right on top of the stack. Mrs. Claus and the elves hold their breath while they wait. "I don't hear anything," Mrs. Claus tsks. "It's not working!" moans the postmaster elf.

And then came a distant chuckle...and finally...a mighty, booming, very familiar, and oh, so jolly...Ho! Ho! Ho! HO! HO! HO!"

Holly's bad-day self portrait has done the trick. It seems Christmas will be merry after all, as a huge headline and Holly's letter make the front page of The Daily News:


Dear Santa,

Sometimes I have a bad day. I'm crabby. I can't laugh then! I look very silly. Here's what I look like then. I drew it for you. I hope it make you laugh!

Merry Christmas,
Love, Holly

Laura Rader's new-for-the-season When Santa Lost His Ho! Ho! Ho! is a fresh and jolly reworking of the plot of Phyllis McGinley's classic rhyming tale of The Year Without a Santa Claus. Rader's last page features Holly's hilarious self-portrait, while her clever endpapers feature unopened letters to Santa in the front of the book and the same kids' letters opened at the back of the book. Charming illustrations and a nice message about bad moods and the power of shared laughter make this story a welcome holiday treat.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Holly and Ivy: 'Tis the Season by Ann M. Martin

Ann M. Martin is a pro! It's got to be hard to write a Christmas story for elementary/middle school readers that's original yet nostalgic, moving yet not syrupy, full of the stuff of real life and yet still touched with a bit of the Christmas magic.

'tis The Season (Main Street), third book in Martin's noted Main Street meets these criteria.

Flora and Ruby Northrup are facing their first Christmas in Camden Falls after the sudden death of their parents in January. Their maternal grandmother, Min, has taken in the orphans warmly, and despite their recurrent sadness at the change in their lives, they feel the first stirrings of Christmas as one by one shop windows begin to shine with charming and original decorations and Main Street is transformed into a living Christmas village.

In the eleven months since they arrived, ten-year-old Flora and eight-year-old Ruby have been drawn into the daily life of the town. As Christmas approaches, the girls experience both the sadness of memories of their last Christmas with their parents and the anticipation of the coming season. Flora is busy with her nature photography project for the upcoming Camden Falls birthday celebration, and gifted singer Ruby is rehearsing for the annual Children’s Chorus Christmas performance. As the days zoom by, Flora and Ruby see the stack of carefully wrapped presents grow in Min’s Christmas closet, watch the lighting of the town Christmas tree in the square with their best friends Olivia and Nikki, and shiver in the snowfall as they watch the annual Christmas parade and Santa’s arrival by hot air balloon. Even the surprising holiday visit by their prickly Aunt Allie, a successful, self-absorbed New York writer, doesn’t dim their pleasure as they decorate Min’s tree with her old family ornaments, each one with its own story. Finally it is Christmas.

Ruby made a dash for the stockings, but Flora stopped suddenly as she entered the living room. This moment, the perfect Christmas moment, happened only once each year. It was the few seconds in which she could glimpse the stuffed stockings hanging from the mantel, a fire in the hearth, the shining tree surrounded by wrapped gifts; the few seconds before the first bit of wrapping paper was removed and Christmas began to unravel. This wasn’t her old house, this wasn’t her old living room or fireplace, and these weren’t her familiar decorations. But Flora found the scene as heart-stopping as always, and she paused to look, just look.

Idyllic as it seems in this scene, Martin doesn’t candy-coat the season. The problems of real life are just below the surface of this magical moment. Friend Nikki’s alcoholic parents can’t provide a real Christmas for their family, especially for six-year-old Mae, whose Christmas wishes are filled because Flora and Ruby and their neighbors stage a visit from a faux Santa to deliver all the presents on her list. Olivia’s family plans a move far away after her father’s job loss, but she hides her feelings to avoid spoiling the Christmas mood for her friends. Their neighbor Mr. Wicket realizes that he must move his wife, declining quickly into late dementia, to a special care facility, and even cranky old Mrs. Grindle fears that advancing age will soon force her to sell her shop downtown. The problems of life don’t take a holiday in Martin’s realistic story, but the familiar season still has its own magic for Flora and Ruby as they get through the sorrowful anniversary of their parents’ deaths and move toward the unknowns of the new year.

'tis The Season (Main Street), one of Martin's noted Main Streetseries, along with the other books in this sequence, would make a great Christmas present for any middle readers on your list. Books 4-6 in the series include Secret Book Club (Main Street), Best Friends (Main Street), and September Surprises (Main Street).

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Canine Christmas: What Dogs Want for Christmas by Kandy Radzinski

For dog owners of any age on your Christmas list, Kandy Radzinski's newest, What Dogs Want for Christmas (Holiday Series) has a lot to offer.

Author-illustrator Radzinski offers gift suggestions for fourteen popular breeds, from Sam the Chihuahua to Harley the (German) Shepherd. Some of these dogs want Santa to augment their own endowments: Sam the Chihuahua's south-of-the-border coat, for example, needs a bit of supplementation:

Dear Santa,

I know you really, really care.
Please leave me something warm to wear.
Love, Sam.

Ruby the Dachshund's wish is for a snazzy retro convertible toy car, for, as she admits

Dear Santa,

I need something to help me get around,
"Cause my belly's too close to the ground.
Love, Ruby

Daisy the Basset has a some signature physiology that begs for some cosmetic reconstruction as well:

Dear Santa,

My ears hang down to my feet.
Can you fix them so they're short and neat?
Love, Daisy

One dog, however, seem to have settling some old scores on his mind:

Dear Santa,

I'd love some mittens
Made from Persian kittens.
Love, Watson

Watson may wake to find some lumps of coal in his stocking, but grumpy Scotties aside, the rest of the canine plaintiffs have jolly holiday wishes to be fulfilled. Radzinski's realistic but endearing closeups of these doggy faces are totally charming, shown on each page within a frame made up of seasonal objects--fir branches, Christmas candy, gummy bones, and snowballs, for example. This sweet little book closes with an adorable black Lab puppy's wish:

Dear Santa,

What I want most is a loving home
With someone to hold me and call me their own.
Love, Scout

A closer look reveals that Scout is being gently cuddled on the lap of Santa himself. Merry Christmas, Scout!

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Tradition Rendition: The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming by Lemony Snicket

This story ends in someone's mouth, but it begins in a tiny village more or less covered in snow.

In a satiric send-up of The Gingerbread Boy motif, Lemony Snicket, of A Series of Unfortunate Events fame, gives us a latke who takes it on the lam, literally jumping out of the frying pan, through an open window, and into the snow-covered landscape outside.

Out there it's a winter wonderland, all right, with all but one of the rustic cottages decorated with flashing colored lights and other appurtenances of the Santa season, and our little latke, translated for the unknowing reader as "a word which here means "potato pancake," greets the scene with a loud, long (two-page) scream: "AAAHHHHHHH!"

"What's all the ruckus?" inquires one of the ubiquitous flashing colored lights. "We're the ones who are supposed to be dominating the neighborhood with our cheerful glow." The latke tries to explain that he's reacting to the pan full of hot oil which symbolizes the miracle of the temple's oil lamps after the Maccabees defeated Antiochus IV. "Plus, frying makes my skin crispy and brown," explains the latke.

"So you're basically hash browns," said the flashing colored lights. "Maybe you can be served alongside a Christmas ham."

"I'm NOT hash browns." the latke protests. "I'm something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!"


Protesting being tossed into the secular Christmas stew as hash browns, the little latke escapes his flashy fellow symbol only to find himself face to face with a peppy candy cane. "I'm trying to sprinkle the night air with my peppermint scent," said the candy cane. "All that yelping is spoiling the effect!" Patiently the latke explains that the mouth-watering smell of hot latkes reminds the people that they no longer have to study the Torah in secret caves, pretending to be gambling over a hot game of dreidel whenever soldiers approach.

"Sort of like Mary and Joseph hiding out in the manger," remarks the candy cane helpfully. "Someone should write Christmas carols about that!"

"I'm NOT part of Christmas," the latke objects. "It's a TOTALLY DIFFERENT thing!"


Still steaming over becoming the subject of a Christmas carol, the latke plops down under a snowy pine tree in the forest. "Are you a present?" the pine tree asked. "Presents are pretty much the only things allowed to sit beneath me during this time of year."

"Presents aren't really a big part of Hanukkah," the latke points out determinedly. "It's more important to light the candles eight consecutive nights to commemorate the miracle in the temple..., so you shouldn't give up hope."

"Plus, Santa Claus," said the pine tree.

"Santa Claus has nothing to do with it! Christmas and Hanukkah are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT things!"

"But different things can often blend together," said the pine tree. "Let me tell you a funny story about pagan rituals."

Just as the folklore-loving conifer launches into his literary lecture, a family comes cheerily trooping through the forest, the father armed with a well-sharpened axe. "We'll never find a good one," grumps the father. "You shouldn't give up hope," said the mother. "Look! It's perfect!" said the daughter. "It's beautiful," said the son. "Such a marvelous shape!" said the mother. "And its skin looks so crispy," said the father.

It seems that this family knows all about latkes, their symbolism and their succulent crispy skins as well. "I'll refry it in oil to remind us of the rededication of the temple," said the practical mother. "What was I thinking, bringing this axe?" said the father.

In his ironic spoof of the St. Nick-centric view of the holiday season, Lemony Snicket sets us all straight about the silliness of seeing Hanukkah as a hash-browned version of Christmas. The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story has a bit of his droll tongue-in-cheek fun at the expense of the non-serious symbols of the season.

But somewhere in the world there is a place for all of us. Whether you are an electric form of decoration, a peppermint-scented sweet, a source of timber, or a potato pancake, on a cold, snowy night, everyone and everything should be welcomed somewhere, and the latke was welcomed into a home filled with people who understood what a latke is and how it fits into its particular holiday.

And then they ate it.


For another of Snicket's stories of the wintry season, see also his satiric stocking-stuffer, The Lump of Coal.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Last Minute Gifts: Build Your Own Boxed Sets--World War II , The Home Front

World War II was fought on more than one front around the world--on the field of battle and on the home front. Across occupied Europe and Asia the battle was often fought underground, by organized Resistance and by secret sympathizers who sought to rid themselves of their temporary masters. In the United States, civilians united to support the war effort however they could, even the children. Here are some fiction books which tell the story of the war on the home front.

Davy Bowman idolizes his older brother, a bombardier on a B-17 crew, but as the war drags on and his brother's letters stop coming, Davy throws himself into the war effort at home--collecting metal, string, tinfoil, and even milkweed down for life jackets--as his parents and grandparents work long hours to support the war effort. In Richard Peck's On The Wings of Heroes Davy comes to see that there are many heroes in wartime, most of whom have never fire a shot.

In Mary Downing Hahn's Stepping on the Cracks eleven-year-old Margaret and Elizabeth worry about their older brothers at war in the European theatre, but their immediate concern is dodging class bully Gordy Smith, a big, rough kid from the wrong side of the tracks. But then they discover that Gordy is hiding his older brother Stuart who has gone AWOL from the army and are drawn to help the desperately ill deserter. As they hear Stuart's story, they come to understand why he is a conscientious objector but still face to dilemma of whether to turn Stuart in to the authorities.

Robert Westall's The Machine-Gunners has been called the best children's novel about World War II. Awarded England's Carnegie Medal for the best children's book in 1976 and made into a BBC television series in 1983, this grim and gripping depiction of young adolescents in the first year of World War II deals with both the horrors of German bombing raids which nightly and systematically destroy the coastal town of Garmouth and the intense struggle of fourteen-year-old students to control their fear by trying to become, not victims, but defenders of their nation. The two boys wrest a machine gun from a downed German fighter plane and mount it in their secret bunker, but when they discover an injured German pilot hiding in their potting shed, they surprisingly find themselves becoming friends with their former enemy.

Transplanted from his Ohio farm to Rhode Island when his pilot father is recalled to go to war, Robert throws himself into coast-watching for German submarines. But when Robert and his cousin befriend a foreign-sounding artist they often meet walking the beaches, they learn that he is a Jewish refugee from the Nazis. Then, when the townspeople turn on the man, beat him, and eventually set fire to his studio and cause his death, the two boys realize that irrational hatred of the outsider is not limited to Hitler's Germany. Janet Taylor Lisle's The Art of Keeping Cool shows the dichotomy of the home front--great personal sacrifice and yet sometimes painful xenophobia with which even children had to deal.

The Light in the Cellar: A Molly Mystery (American Girl Mysteries) is filled with historical details of life on the World War II homefront. Molly's mom saves up ration tickets to buy sugar, eggs, meat, and gasoline, while Molly slogs her way through soybean casseroles and other "meatless meals," and ruefully contemplates sugarless cereal when her mother gives up her family's sugar ration to make cookies for soldiers bound for the front. Still, she pitches in as a volunteer, recycling magazines for the local convalescent hospital, all the while longing for a more heroic role. Then she and her friend discover that someone is stealing sugar from the hospital and trace the black market operation to a vacant mansion on the edge of town, where Molly bravely mounts a stakeout to catch the traitors in action. Sarah Buckey's historical mystery provides a realistic look at the heartland home front in 1942.

Billy and Tomi are baseball buddies, teammates whose early morning practice is rent by the sights and sounds of the attack upon Pearl Harbor. The Scott O'Dell Award-winning Under the Blood-Red Sun deals with the violent disruption of life in the tiny fishing community in Oahu where Tomi's foreign-born father and grandfather proudly cherish their Japanese heritage and where the white haoles suddenly regard them as the enemy. As nisei Tomi is torn between his love for American and his love for his isei family, so Billy, a haole and Tomi's best friend, is torn between their friendship and the hostility of his white community toward the Japanese among them. Salisbury's novel explores the deeper meanings of friendship and loyalty in a time of war.

Loyalty to friends and to the ideal of human decency are also the themes of Lois Lowry's Newbery Award novel of the Danish Resistance, Number the Stars. Annemarie Johansen and her family risk their lives as they smuggle the Rosen family to the Danish coast, where a fishing boat ferries them to sanctuary in Sweden--not only because of their friendship with their neighbors, but because it is the right thing to do.