Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Spooky Tire (Jon Scieszka's Trucktown)

It was dark.

It was stormy.

It was night.

Melvin had a flat tire.

Cement mixer Melvin is in a situation. With a deflated front tire, he hopefully rolls into a shadowy, spooky junkyard in hopes of snagging a spare. And there he sees one, a strangely orangish, strangely glowing tire. It's a weird one, all right, but if the tire fits, wear it, Melvin thinks.

But before Melvin can roll back the way he came, he is stopped right in his treads.

"WHO TOOK MY GOLDEN TIRE?" a spooky voice called.

Melvin was worried.

Melvin was scared.

The timorous cement mixer hurriedly makes for home and, still spooked, parks himself in what he hopes is an undisclosed location, in hopes of an incognito idle.


The spooky voice had found him!

Melvin pulls in his fenders and closes his eyes, but the spooky voice grows closer, until to his horror he sees a dark draped shape, with headlights glowing from behind its covering sheet.


Don't you want the OTHER one?"

For those youngsters who are both ready to read or, as the author puts it in his introduction, "ready to roll," Jon Scieszka and his trio of vehicular design artists have a brand-new offering for the season, The Spooky Tire (Ready-to-Read Level 1) (Aladdin, 2009.) Using the, er, bare bones of the familiar folktale "The Golden Arm" and its variants, this talented pit crew has fashioned some timely truck fun for their emergent reader fans. Other books in this easy-to-read series are Uh-Oh, Max (Ready-to-Read. Level 1) and Pete's Party (Ready-to-Read. Level 1).

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Friday, October 30, 2009

"A Cautionary Tale:" Once Upon a Twice by Denise Doyen

Once upon a twice,
In the middle of the nice,
The moon was on the rise,
and Mice were scoutaprowl.

They runtunnel through the riddle--
Secret ruts laid in betwiddle.
But one mousling jams the middle
Whilst he goofiddles, by the hole.

In the midst of a moonlit midnight, shepherded by eldermice, a troop sets forth to forage in the inky rice paddies of a southern night. Despite the greybeards' warnings not to loiter or linger outside their secret deep-worn pathways, one youngling, Jam Boy, stays and stops the line to smell the roses and sniff the scents about him.
"Do not disturb the bugs of June,"
The elder mouncelors whispercroon.

"Dangers lurk in the lettuce.
Twixt the celery, stalkers get us!
Open moonlight is a menace."

But despite warnings, this "riskrascal" falls behind and, once alone, yields to the lure of tempting tastes and adventures just ahead in the blue-purple dark. Beside a pond he stops, bedazzled by the jeweled beetles' wings and diamond dewdrops, as unseen "half-submerged, a slender queen/esses 'cross the pond unseen." The snake's attack comes swiftly and with a "squeak-eek! and a splash, Jam and the snake vanish below the water.
Alas! Silence descends like mud a-deep
On the creatures round the beach.

"Mouse years" pass, and then we see Jam, "wiser, whiskers now grown long" a fortunate survivor who now warns the young mouselings about him:
"When the moon is full awake,
she's the ally of the snake.
You wanderyonder by the lake?
Make no're in a jam!
The world afield is dangerouse,
Foraging is--for a mouse--
A nightly duel and joust.
The House of Mice has many mourned.
Be forewarned!"

Breathtakingly detailed illustrations, in Barry Moser's rich deep blue, black, and ochre palette, and poetic language, sparked with evocative, playful neologisms, from author Denise Doyen make their Once Upon a Twice (Picture Book) (Random House, 2009), a simple prodigal mouse tale, into an enthralling picture book experience. As Kirkus Review states, "This slight cautionary tale is undeniably arrayed in a gorgeous brocade, woven of fresh, inventive wordplay and masterful illustrations."

Watch for this one at winter award time.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Black Cats and Broomsticks: The ABCs of Halloween by Patricia Reeder Eubank

A is for attics, spooky, dusty and dark.

B is for black cats and broomsticks of hickory bark.

For the preschool set, what time is better than the spooky season, with its memorable symbols, for learning the alphabet? And with two lovely black kittens as frisky guides and bright carved pumpkins as the letter boards--not to mention all the awesome alliterations that Halloween brings forth--the nighttime is the right time for a Halloween alphabet adventure.

G is for glowing ghosts, glimmering ghouls,
giggling gargoyles, and grinning green goblins galore.

H is for hollow, haunted houses and crooked high hats that haggled-haired witches once wore.

Patricia Eubank's art, reminiscent of that of Jan Brett, is endearing without being cutesy, and her text does more than just rhyme, making poetic use of sibilant sounds and evocative images:

S is for spinning spiders and scary skeletons with secret spells unbound.

T is for tiny toad toes, tasty turnip tea, and twisted tombstones that topple over the ground.

A book that is great to read to one child or a group, Eubank's eye-catching The ABC's of Halloween should be around for Halloween as long as cats creep, crones cackle, and houses are haunted.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pumpkin Potpourri: Toy Books for the Halloween Season

It's Halloween and we're having a party!

Will you help us get ready?

We need to hang our lanterns and take out our costume masks and hats.

Which creature do you want to be?

Halloween time is a great time for the genre of children's fare known as "toy and movable books." Things that go bump in the night are naturals for pop-up books, flap books, shaped books, and other design factors that make them part story and part plaything, with a spooky surprise always just ahead. They can be as complex as Maurice Sendak's Mommy?, with its sophisticated but slapstick gags, or as simple as Dorling Kindersley's new Halloween (DK) (DK, 2009) In this bright, tactile board book, the cover itself is a pumpkin-shaped trick-or-treat bucket, with an assortment of enticing "treats" spilling over the top. Inside, each die-cut page has its own text and adds a layer to the pumpkin's treat trove as the pages are turned. And when the treats are all gathered ("cookies and candies everywhere!") and the book is closed, there is a visual reminder of the jolly goings-on on each overlying page, popping out of the jack-o'-lantern's top.

Instead of revealing its surprises from the beginning, David A. Carter's In a Dark, Dark Wood: An Old Tale with a New Twist (Simon & Schuster) keeps the best for last. Carter's evocative darkling woods, with their swirling orangish fog, give way to a spooky house which, of course, the reader must enter. Following the traditional style of the cumulative tale, Carter's sturdy version takes us into the dark, dark house and up those familiar dark, dark stairs and through a door into that waiting dark, dark room, where there stands an old fashioned closed cupboard with a shadowy dark hand reaching forward to throw it open:

And in that dark, dark cupboard,
There was a dark dark shelf.

And on that dark, dark shelf,
There was a dark, dark box.

And in that dark, dark box
There was...

Thus far, not so scary, huh? But the lifting the last page reveals a huge. intricately constructed green ghost, which rises slo-o-o-wly and spookily from that last turn of page, one who is everything a pop-up ghost should be!

For slightly older readers, who like their Halloween humor a bit on the spoofy side, Colin McNaughton's witty classic Dracula's Tomb has all the right stuff. The cover is shaped like an old-fashioned six-sided coffin, with a long-fingered greenish hand reaching out to form the Velcro clasp.

If the reader dares to open the "coffin" (KEEP OUT! OPEN IF YOU DARE!! JOURNALS OF COUNT DRACULA. PRIVATE!), McNaughton gives the history and characteristics of legendary vampires, Vlad Drakul and the rest, with puns a plenty and a few appropriately "batty" riddles (What goes PALF, PALF? A bat flying backwards.) In the funniest section, "My School Days," Drac relates the fun and games at Dr. Frankenstein's School for Little Monsters, remembered as "the best nights of my life." Drac's report card shows him "truly amazing" at playing dead, but points out that he still has a bit of trouble transforming himself into a bat. ("He looks more like a plastic trash can liner," his transformations master reports.)

But there are plenty of the fine arts to study during Drac's school days. He's a natural for the lead in their Shakespeare drama, "Tomb B or Not Tomb B," and the class is visited by a real LIVE author, one Bram Stoker, who remarks that "he's going to write a book about us" some day. And his subterranean dorm room is comfortably equipped with a comfy, velvet-lined coffin, hygienic items such as a toothbrush with a bite out of the bristles and a fang file, and a fridge stocked with such treats as "I Scream" and "fangfurters," supplemented by a big bottle of "Biteamines." Even pets are apparently allowed in this dorm, including Drac's favorites, ghoulfish, Vlad the impala and Frankenswine.

Inside his casket, of course, lies the piece de resistance. Appropriately warned not the disturb the "last remains of Dracula," the reader lifts that lid to reveal an full-size pop-up of the vampire himself, along with appropriately spooky bats and serpents rising from the coffin.

All three of these books meet the main criteria for their genre--sturdy enough for plenty of use and clever enough to engage the reader while providing plenty of fun.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Do Your Own Thing: Frankie Stein by Lola Schaefer

Frankie Stein came into the world on a bright, sunny day.

"Our son!" announced the proud parents and they rushed to his side.

"Oh, MY!" said his mother. "He's. . . . CUTE."

"Why doesn't he look like US?" asked his father.

What to do with a child who seems not to belong with his birth family? Like many parents faced with a seeming changeling dropped down into their midst, Frankie's parents, a Frankenstein monster and Bride-of-Frankenstein twosome, resolve to go for nurture over nature and do their best to make Frankie fit in. They color his sunny blond hair purple, cap his first bright little baby tooth green, apply stick-on warts, and put his pudgy baby feet into clunky black boots. They try to teach him to groan and lurch appropriately, and little Frankie attempts, sweetly, to emulate his monstrous mentors. But on him, all the appurtenances of monsterhood just look wrong, and even his best stagger comes off with a bounce.

Instead, Frankie decided on his own kind of scary.

Early one morning Frankie made a grand appearance.

"Well, what do you think?" he asked his parents.

"HORRIFYING!" yelled his mother and father.

Lucky for Frankie, when he re-asserts his sunny, blond self, dressed in store-bought suburbanwear, his parents are appropriately affrighted at his preppiness and declare him the scariest Stein yet. And so he remains--until the birth of his too-cute-for-words little sister, Francie Stein!

Author Lola Schaeffer uses the same plot line here that Michael Rex adopts in his new Runaway Mummy: A Petrifying Parody, reviewed here October 8, but no matter. It's a common thread in books, movies, and television sitcoms, but in Schaeffer's and Atteberry's hands, it's still fun to see the maverick monster kid find a way both to be himself and to meet his parent's expectations. Frankie Stein (Marshall Cavendish, 2009) in its bright new (and cheap) paperback edition is well worth a fun October reading.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Bringing up Baby Spooks: My First Halloween by Tomie de Paola

For some youngsters, their first Halloween is anything but fun! Scary masks where neighborhood kids' faces used to be, toothy jack-o'-lanterns bobbing through the darkness, and noisy vampires and werewolves showing up at the front door at bedtime--it's no wonder that some toddlers clearly wonder what's supposed to be fun about it all.

But it IS fun when you know what to expect, and that's where Tomie de Paola's little board book, My First Halloween (Grosset & Dunlap, 2008) comes in. De Paola takes a gentle, step-at-a-time approach to the holiday, beginning with an easy-going decorating of the house for a party. Dad places a just-carved, happy-faced jack-o'-lantern on the mantle, and homemade black cats, bats, and orange crepe paper are hung about the room, and with a little black cat to hug during the process, there's nothing to fear.

It's time to put on our costumes.

We all go trick-or-treating.

When we get home, everyone comes to our party.


With an appealing tactile pumpkin on the cover and cheery grandmoms handing out treats, kids costumed as clowns and chickens as well as ghosts and werewolves, and apples to bob for inside, My First Halloween is a soothing introduction to the fun and traditions of Halloween, good for reading to impressionable tots before that first doorbell sounds on October 31.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Texas Tale: Tex and Sugar: A Big City Kitty Ditty by Barbara Johansen Newman

In a swingin' Texas spoof of the old movie theme, two talented youngsters, Tex Mex Rex and Sugar Lee Snughead, leave the ranch behind to take on the trials of the big city:

"I've tuned my guitar. I know I'll be a big star," Tex tells his parents.

"Here I come, Broadway! Farewell, El Paso!" the sweet-singin' Sugar tells her momma.

But the big city has its trials for the the Texas twosome. Alone, they struggle to survive in the Big Apple.

Tex begged all the networks to give him a spot.
But a gig washin' dishes was all that he got.

She sang and danced and flashed her big smile.
But Sugar's big part in a show was the aisle.

After sloggin' through weeks of washin' dishes and usherin' patrons to their seats at the local movie house, Tex and Sugar are ready to pack up their guitar picks and head back to Texas--until one night after work they both do a bit of solo singin':

The warm summer breeze blew their songs throughout the sky.
Such sweet soulful longing caused neighbors to cry.

The tunes were forlorn and feelin's so true
That rats and roaches and pigeons cried, too.

"Dear Dogies!" purred Sugar. "I hear my soul mate."
"Hot Froggies!" yowled Tex, " This has to be fate."

The Texas tunesmiths finally meet and form a twosome, and it's a duet made in heaven. Tex and Sugar together take the town by storm, and it's no time before they make the marquees on old Broadway:

The music was magic for Sugar and Tex.
It's hard to figure out what happened next....
Each cat searched for stardom and found a best friend.
They're still making music and will to... THE END!

Carefully crafted illustrations with many Texas-style motifs add plenty of visual emphasis to Barbara Johansen Newman's Tex & Sugar: A Big City Kitty Ditty that will have the listeners singin' "Deep in the Heart of Texas."

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tit for Tat: No Hugs Till Saturday by Julie Downing

Little dragon Felix's mom loves his repertoire of hugs: there's his soft snuggle, and his super squeeze, and then there's his specialty, the monster mash.

But one Sunday morning, when Felix makes a super dragon throw with his favorite ball and brings down a vase, Mom is NOT in a snuggling mood!

"No more ball till TOMORROW!" she decrees.

Well! Two can play this game, Felix figures.

"No more hugs till SATURDAY!" he declares.

"Dragons don't give hugs. Dragons don't NEED hugs!"

But soon Felix finds out that Saturday is a long time coming. Mom shows him the days of the week on her calendar and Felix begins to mark off all the days between Sunday and Saturday.

"I meant Friday. I really meant no more hugs until Thursday!" he amends.

Then Mom turns to the baby for a few hugs and kisses, and Felix hurriedly adjusts his schedule again.

"Mom, there are no more hugs till Tuesday. No hugs at all."

"What happened to Wednesday?" asked Mom.

"I'm afraid you'll drown in all those slobbery baby hugs!"

Of course, a wise Mom can see where this one is going, and sure enough, by bedtime Felix is asking an important question:

"Is it TOMORROW yet?"

Julie Downing's soft, rounded watercolor characters make it through a shortened drought of dragon hugs as Mom collects a super-special, gigantic monster mash by bedtime. Reminiscent of Russell Hoban's evergreen Frances stories, No Hugs Till Saturday both reinforces the days of the week while also teaching a gentle lesson about forgiveness and family affection in the kind of insightful story which makes us hope to see more of this appealing preschooler's family.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

What the Nose Knows: Farley Follows His Nose by Lynn Johnston and Beth Cruikshank





and ... HOTDOGS!

Fresh and frisky after his hated early morning bath, Farley is ready for adventure, and for the shaggy canine hero of the popular cartoon strip For Better or For Worse, following the siren call of adventure means, of course, following his nose. Unlike superhuman heroes, dogs don't just smell one thing a time. Dogs inhale a savory stew of olfactory experiences, but Farley is able to parse his perceptions well enough to home in on the heavenly scent of roasting hot dogs, and he's off and running, to the consternation of Mom and the rest of his family, on the trail of the Holy Grail of dogdom--FOOD!

Sniff Snerf Snoof Snuffa Whuff!

Farley catches other odors--apple juice, popcorn, lemon cakes--but also his second-most favorite thing--CHILDREN.

It's a neighborhood cookout, and there's a nice boy there, one who gives him his own hot dog! But when Farley rewards the kid with licks and slurps, the kid's mom bears down on the two with a worried face, and Farley decides it's time to make himself scarce.

As the sun rises higher in the sky Farley follows his nose to the source of a series of delightful scents-- a ham sandwich shared with a cheerful construction worker, a wading pool filled with cool water to slurp and and little kids to splash, and toasted marshmallows, which a supercilious girl reminds him are not good for dogs!

A quick nap in the shade revives Farley, but after following his nose from place to place, he senses that he is far from home. UH OH! But then...

Snuffah Whuffah Snoof Sniff!

Farley's nose picks up a new combination--with just one familiar scent.







It's the little boy who fed him his hot dog, and he's crying. Farley doesn't know what the boy needs, but as he checks him out, scent-wise, he recognizes a familiar potpourri--popcornlemoncakeapplejuicehotdogs...and suddenly Farley's mouth waters with the memory of the place where he found those smells, and with the little boy in tow, Farley follows his nose back to the source of that wonderful hot dog. Backtracking along his scent trail, Farley arrives at the little boy's house, the scene of the block party, but to his surprise the people and their popcorn, cake, juice, and frankfurters have all gone away--except for the kid's parents, who come to the door and hug their long-lost boy. "I'm home! I love you, doggie," he says, and leaves Farley behind as his parents pull him happily inside.

But now it's growing cooler and darker, and Farley is still hungry and a lot lonely. Then, to his waiting nose comes another very familiar olfactory bundle:







It's Uncle Phil, on his way with his usual Saturday night pizzas to share with Farley's family.

"Farley, you big mutt! Where have you been? We've been looking all over town for you!"

Uncle Phil loads Farley up and whisks him home quickly. "Snifffff!" At last everything smells just right.

But humans have noses, too, not as powerful as Farley's, true, but still good enough to smell a stinky dog who's been on the road all day.

"Pee-YEWWWWW!" Elly said. "Farley, you need a BATH!"

Johnston and Cruikshank, creators of the popular strip, have a brand new lost dog tale, Farley Follows His Nose (HarperCollins, 2009) which lets Farley the sheepdog shine. Dog-loving kids will enjoy seeing the familiar Farley featured in his own story, and Johnston's comic illustrative style lets Farley's body language tell the tale in his own inimitable way.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Neewolah Redux: Tell Me Another Scary Story by Carl Reiner

Do you remember the scary story I told you about my neighbor, Mr. Neewollah and how when I was a little boy, he once scared me to death?

Well, here's another even scarier story about Mr. Neewollah that may give you nightmares.

If you think it might be too scary, don't turn the page--it's up to YOU!

Going over to Mr. Neewollah's house is a real trip! His day job is to construct masks and costumes for horror movies, and he LOVES his work! He loves scary things so much he even created his own name by spelling HALLOWEEN backwards, and he loves to share his work with anyone brave enough to venture into his spooky basement. Just before Halloween Mr. Neewollah calls with a special invitation to come over for a hamburger and a special viewing of his costume.

"I am working on something really really scary and when I finish it, I think it will be the scariest one I ever made in my whole life,' he chuckled. "I promise you that it will make your eyes pop and your hair stand straight up!"

But when the kid arrives at Neewollah's house, there's no answer at the door. A couple of hamburgers and a ketchup bottle sit on the kitchen table, but there's no one upstairs. Thinking about how Mr. Neewollah once taught him how to use ketchup as fake blood, the kid heads down to the basement workroom. There he comes upon a scene that almost does stand his hair straight up.

Neewollah lies motionless on the floor, a bloody puncture mark on his neck, beside the figure of a vampire with crimson fangs!! But then the kid remembers the fake blood trick and tastes the red substance on the vampire's fangs. Ketchup all right! HA!

"Okay, Mr. Neewollah. You sure scared me a whole lot. You can get up now."

But Mr. Neewollah did not get up.

When I got closer I saw that the ketchup on Mr. Neewollah's forehead that looked like real blood was not ketchup--IT was real blood!

Carl Reiner's latest scary story, Tell Me Another Scary Story...But Not Too Scary!: (HC with CD), (Dove, 2009) brings a new "not too scary" story to elementary readers. This time the kid gets to be the real hero of the tale with a happy--not scary--ending. Nicely illustrated by James Bennett, this story is just right for Halloween parties and sleepovers and comes with its own CD to enjoy by the light of flickering Jack o'-Lanterns.

Reiner's earlier Tell Me a Scary Story...But Not Too Scary! (Byron Preiss Books) is reviewed in my post of October 29, 2008.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Voices of History: Pearl Harbor: A Primary Sources History by Jaqueline Laks Gorman

"It is now two years since World War II began.... There has been an effort to force the United States into the conflict.... We are on the verge of a war for which we are still unprepared, a war which cannot be won...."
----Charles Lindbergh (first Atlantic solo flight) (September 11, 1941)

"By Imperial Order the Chief of the Naval General Staff orders Yamamoto Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleets as follows:

Expecting to go to war with the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands early in December for self-preservation..., the Japanese Empire has decided to complete war preparations."
----Japanese Imperial Naval Command (November 5, 1941)

"Although we hope to achieve surprise, everyone should be prepared for terrific American resistance.... You may have to fight your way to the target."
----Admiral Isoroka Yamamoto to pilots (November 17, 1941)

"This dispatch is a war warning. Negotiations with Japan looking toward stabilization of conditions in the Pacific have ceased and an aggressive
move by Japan is expected in the next few days."
----U. S. Naval dispatch to Admiral Husband E. Kimmel (November 27, 1941)

"It was like the sky was filled with fireflies. It was a beautiful scene--183 aircraft in the dark sky...the most beautiful thing I have ever seen."
----Abo Zanji, Japanese bomber pilot (December 7, 1941)

"I saw a torpedo drop and our guns were firing before they'd even sounded general orders.... At one point we were all just standing there with tears in our eyes, watching the devastation."
----Crewman Bill Spears, aboard the cruiser Honolulu (December 7, 1941)

"Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!"
----Words of Navy Chaplain Howell Forgy, used in hit song by Frank Loeser, 1941.

"There were more bloody wounds than I had ever seen in my life. We started operating. The air-raid sirens blew. We had nowhere to go. We had a patient in the middle of an operation. The big bombers, heading for Pearl Harbor, flew so low that the vibrations shook the instruments on the table....
----Second Lieutenant Madelyn Blonskey, Army Nurse Corps (December 7, 1941)

"Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a day that will live in infamy--the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."
----President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address to Congress (December 8, 1941)

With knowledge of what followed, it is chilling to read the very words which precipitated America's entrance into of World War II. In a time in which students may feel Google and Wikipedia are their primary sources of history, Jacqueline Laks Gorman's Pearl Harbor: A Primary Source History (In Their Own Words) (Gareth Stevens, 2009) lets the words of major players and eyewitnesses unfold to recount the story of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The purpose of this slim volume is to introduce students of World War II history to real primary sources, the written accounts of actual participants to the beginning of America's involvement in World War II. Gorman does offer a lucid and succinct narrative which ties together the events around the Japanese air attack on American soil, but her text boxes quoting actual participants great and small give immediacy to her look at this piece of world history.

Her narrative takes pains to put the Pearl Harbor attack in context, beginning with Admiral Perry's opening to relations with Japan in 1845 and Japan's invasions of Korea in 1910 and China in 1937 and Germany's takeover of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in 1938 and 1939. Despite America's initial attempt to remain neutral after Britain and France declared war on Germany, resistance to the war ended with the surprise assault on Pearl Harbor. This daring raid by the foreboding alliance of Japan and Germany--the Axis--instantly drew the United States into a war on two massive fronts.

The actual course of the war which followed is only given brief exposition, culminating with the defeat of the Nazis and the dropping of the first atomic bomb and call for surrender which followed:

"We are in possession of the most destructive explosive ever devised by man. We have just begun to use this weapon against your homeland. If you still have any doubt, make inquiry as to what happened to Hiroshima."
----U.S. Air Force leaflet dropped on Japanese cities after August 6, 1945.

In addition to quotes drawn from government documents, newspapers, personal letters, and extracts from songs, poems, film, and interviews, author Gorman augments her text with period photos and a sidebar timeline on each double-page spread to keep the reader grounded. She also includes a "popular culture" segment which highlights films and books about the Pearl Harbor raid, and a "looking back" section which puts the experience in its present day context. Appended are brief biographies of "major figures," a glossary, and index.

Other books in this In Their Own Words series include September 11: A Primary Source History (In Their Own Words), The Holocaust: A Primary Source History (In Their Own Words), and Titanic: A Primary Source History (In Their Own Words).


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

There Goes the Neighborhood! Dear Vampa by Ross Collins

To: Vampa
The Ruined Abbey
Lugosi Lane

From: Bram Pire
66 Nostfer Avenue



The new neighbors, the Wolfsons, do have some odd habits, Bram writes. They stay up ALL DAY, lock themselves in at night, and they actually take SUN BATHS! Then, when the Pires politely attend their housewarming party, the appealing blood-red beverages turn out only to be tomato juice. Bram and his sister try to blend in with the Wolfson's guests at their Halloween party, but when they arrive, dressed as a Yankee slugger and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, they find all the others costumed as ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. Not to mention, the Wolfson's pet barks at them constantly.

The final confrontation comes when the Pires transform themselves into bats and slip out of their tower for their evening flutter and the Wolfson kids shoot them down with slingshots.

Little Bram ends his letter sadly:

Mom doesn't think she'll ever be able to risk flying again. Dad says he has had enough. He used some very bad words.

As I write we are moving out. We're coming back to Transylvania to stay with you for a while. Mom asks if you can get the guest crypt ready for us.

Hope this finds you unwell. All my love to you and Vampma.

Bram XXX

In Russ Collins' Dear Vampa (Katherine Tegen Books, 2009), the tale of these mismatched neighbors is told mostly through the clever illustrations which accompany the wry text. The vampire family is shown only in black and white, with small accents of red: little Bram writes by the light of fat red candles, guttering in pools of crimson all over his dimly lit desk; Bram's sister, costumed as Dorothy, wears ruby red slippers; and their pet monster looks like a bright red octopus gone terribly wrong. In contrast, the typically suburban Wolfsons, are shown in sunny pastels. The Pires, peeking from their black-curtained window, recoil in horror as the swim-suited Wolfsons blithely soak up some rays and cover their ears with bright red earmuffs as they try to sleep in their coffins while the Wolfsons frolic noisily in their sunny backyard.

But nothing is quite as it seems, for, as the Pires load their coffins into their moving van to head back to Transylvania by the light of a full moon, we see the Wolfsons, now transformed into a family of hairy werewolves, watching from their window and saying mournfully,

"It's so hard to find good neighbors!"

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Where's That Monster Under My Bed? I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll

Tonight, when I looked under the bed for my monster, I found this note instead:


What was I going to do? I NEEDED a monster under my bed.

How was I supposed to get to sleep if my monster was gone?

How would I ever get to sleep without Gabe's familiar scary noises and his spooky, green ooze?

A creature of habit, Ethan can't doze off without those familiar noises--whistling, claw-scrabbling sounds from under the bed. Reluctantly he realizes that he has to call up a substitute sleepytime monstrosity. Two raps on the floor boards summon up a series of subs, all willing to try out their talents.

"Good evening," said a low, breathy voice.

"My name is Herbert, and I will be your monster for the evening."

The kid is not impressed.

"Do you have long teeth and scratchy claws?"

"No, but I have an OVERBITE. And I'm a mouth breather."

"Next!" thinks Ethan, and in succession other monsters appear for an audition. The effete Ralph is rejected because his long nails bear obvious evidence of a professional manicure and nail polish. The next monster has impressive claws, but the bow on her tail gives Cynthia away. Ick! Even monsters have girl cooties, and the kid sends her packing. Then when Mack appears to show off his ticklishly long tongue, the kid collapses in giggles at the thought. Don't call me, I'll call you, thinks the kid.

But when Gabe suddenly shows back up, bored with easily frightened fish, Ethan is relieved.

"I'd like to start out this evening with an ominous puddle of drool," Gabe announces.

"So you had some substitute monsters tonight. Were you scared?"

"No other monster can scare me like you do."

"We're made for each other," Gabe growled. "Now if you would just stick out your foot.... I'd like to nibble your pinkie..."

"No toes tonight, but you can have this," I offered. I pushed a pillow off the bed.

I didn't even hear it hit the floor.

A better monster-under-the-bed story won't be had this spooky season--or any time soon. In their I Need My Monster, (Flashlight, 2009) Amanda Noll's tongue-in-cheek text and Howard McWilliam's atmospheric illustrations take Mercer Mayer's monsters into the digital dimension with a dash of Shrek and Monsters, Inc., supersized and deliciously funny-scary styled, to delight young monster fanciers everywhere. There's droll and sly humor for everyone here--from tots to adults--a perfect pairing, just like Ethan and Gabe.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Catmares: Cat Dreams by Ursula Le Guin

It's fun to run.
I love to leap.

But now I think
I'll go to sleep.

Oh, how nice!
It's raining mice!

Cat owners have always wondered what those furry catnappers are dreaming of as they snooze. Sure, mice to chase are going to be high on the list, and in Ursula Le Guin's Cat Dreams (Orchard Books, 2009), her clever little calico catches more than mice in her ZZZ-time adventures.

The calico and her black cat friend dream of a giant Trojan cat which frightens the dogs away as two pop out, leaving them free to feast on kibble and cream to celebrate the victory. Things are looking up in cat-ville! Perhaps too far UP!

Now I'm climbing a catnip tree clear to the top.
I'm going to stop
And take a rest in a bluejay's nest.
And all the birdies will sing to me.

Oh, my, oh, me!
I'm falling out of the catnip tree.
This isn't the place I want to be.

I need a lap.

And it doesn't take long for the calico to find her mistress' lap, curl up, and purr herself back to dreamland, where, we hope, it's still precipitating mice, but not raining cats.

The soft gouache and watercolor illustrations of S. D. Schindler really get this attractive little rhyming story off the ground with a calico cat who is as softly realistic and as lovely as a furry feline can be. Cat Dreams reunites the author-illustrator team of the popular Catwings series in another arboreal feline fantasy.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Treat in Hand: The Haunted House by Peter Lippman

A black gate swings open,
A sign says "BEWARE!"
But I enter the house
That no others will dare

Of course, you do. With Peter Lippman's irresistible little movable book, The Haunted House (Mini House Book), nobody with an ounce of curiosity, child or adult, could help unfolding this small creepy mansion to see what adventures lie therein.

On the roof hungry bats
Catch their dinner in midair.
In the attic I dodge
A huge spider's wispy snare.
As the cleverly constructed little minibook is unpacked, more creepy characters are revealed--"creepy arms everywhere," a Frankenstein monster's scare.

Then, at last, the scene opens to the bedroom, where the reader discovers where it all arises:

I flee to the bedroom.
There's something worse there!
And then I wake up
From a silly nightmare!

The story literally "unfolds" in the ingenious diecut design, in which each section is "unnotched" and spread apart to reveal the next scene in the action. Lippman's creative construction, illustrative skill, and rhyming text make The Haunted House (Mini House Book), the perfect tricky treat (that's not a sweet) for a special someone's Halloween bag.

Other intriguing books in this series by Lippman include Mother Goose's House (Mini House Book), The Enchanted Castle (Mini House Book), Mini Wheel Books: School Bus, and that perfect stocking stuffer, Santa's Workshop (Mini House Book).

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