Saturday, January 31, 2009

Goat in the White House: Lincoln And His Boys by Rosemary Wells

"Mama ordered a new black suit for Papa-day" says Taddie from his pillow. "She sent money in the letter. Two pairs of trousers."

With that whispered confidence between Tad and Willie Lincoln one night in 1859, the chain of events is set in motion which leads to their years in the White House, sadly for Willie and, as we know, for his father Abe, their last.

In her memoir of the White House days of Tad and Willie and their Pa, Lincoln and His Boys, Rosemary Wells gives us an intimate, first-person-voiced account of what it was like for a child living in The President's House, as it was known then, in the wartime capital of Washington, D.C.

In alternating chapters narrated by first Willie and then Tad Lincoln, we see their mother's recurring bouts of melancholy as a child would see them, their father's efforts to raise her spirits and keep her engaged in their lives despite her sadness over the earlier death of a son. The story begins as Willie goes along to Chicago on a big train to pick up the prophetic suit which his father will wear in the coming campaign, where talk of the coming conflict is open and a bit scary to the older brother.

Then in 1861 Tad and Willie take the twelve-day railroad trip to Washington, D.C., a big adventure for the boys, even though their father conceals his identity in what the brothers consider funny disguises because of death threats from the Copperheads.

In Washington Mary Todd Lincoln throws herself energetically into refurbishing the White House, grumbling about "bachelor presidents" who had let the place run down dreadfully. Meanwhile, Tad and Willie make friends with Holly and Bud Taft, with whom they explore secret attic rooms and dusty basement storerooms full of forgotten treasures--a Minuteman's uniform, a rusted sword and guns and trunks full of clothes and trinkets left by past presidents. On the roof they build a fort, with mock cannons assembled out of the largest logs the four boys can muster, to defend the President's House from the Rebels, and at last the boys finally persuade Pa to get them a pet goat.

Although, as we know, the ending of Tad Lincoln's life in the White House was not a happy one, Rosemary Wells manages to highlight the boyhood fun the two brothers shared in their White House years, while keeping the reader aware of the underlying seriousness of the time. P. J. Lynch's illustrations are striking and lovely and add much to the appeal of this beginning chapter book. With children about the ages of Tad and Willie Lincoln now living in that same historic President's House, Lincoln and His Boys (Candlewick Press, 2008) should be popular with today's young readers.

For a spirited account of Lincoln's own boyhood, see Judith St. George's Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln, reviewed here on February 12, 2008.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Fish Tale: Abe's Fish: A Boyhood Tale of Abraham Lincoln by Jen Bryant

Once, when asked what he remembered about the war with Great Britain, Lincoln replied:

"Nothing but this. I had been fishing one day and caught a little fish which I was taking home. I met a soldier on the road and, having been always told at home that we must be good to the soldiers, I gave it to him."

Abe was hungry. Turnip soup and the berries he and his sister Sarah picked daily never quite fill his family's bellies, but little Abe, no more than six years old, is too small to help his dad clear land for pay, and picking berries under his bossy big sister's direction is his daily lot. That is, until one day his father gives him a new job.

"Why don't you take your fishing pole over to Knob Creek--see if you can catch us a fish for dinner?"

As he happily sets out, little Abe repeats the word to himself--fish, fish, fish. It has a nice sound, and Abe loves words. He loves the sound of them on his tongue; he loves drawing them in the dirt; and he loves reading them on the days he gets to tag along with his sister to school. And Abe's empty stomach reminds him that he hadn't had a fish for dinner in way too long. At the creek he sets to work and finally lands a fine, fat perch. As the shadows grow long, he starts proudly back home with his catch.

The fat fish swinging at his side, already he could smell it cooking over the fire. He could see Ma's smile and feel Pa's pride. Even Sarah would have to admit Abe had done well!

But then Abe meets a soldier--tattered and thin, with worn-out boots--walking down the road. Abe remembers his mother's admonition, "Be good to the soldiers," and his teacher's words when he asked why the soldiers were heading north to fight the British. "For freedom," she had replied.

Abe remembers a cricket he caught and put in a homemade cage and how it quit moving and chirping until he gave it its freedom. But people didn't live in cages, did they? Why would they have to fight for freedom, he wonders.

But then Abe sees how hungrily the soldier looks at his fish, and with some reluctance he finally makes a decision.

"Here," said Abe at last. "I can catch another one, I reckon."

Then Abe has to ask the soldier his question.

"Did you see freedom?" he asked.

"I reckon I did see it sometimes," the soldier replied. "But other times it seemed a long way off."

Back home, Sarah is unhappy that Abe has given away their supper, but Ma and Pa seem to understand that Abe was only trying to be good to a soldier fighting for their freedom. Practicing spelling to himself that night, Abe repeats the words he knows:

"D-O-G, F-O-G, F-L-A-G." Pa had said the flag stood for freedom. He tried the word out in his mouth. It was a big word. Abe could tell the next time he went to school he would practice writing it.

"Someday" Abe thought, "it might be a good word to know."

On the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth, it is good to have a new story about Abraham Lincoln's childhood. Jen Bryant's Abe's Fish: A Boyhood Tale of Abraham Lincoln, is a good story, rooted in truth and well told for her intended audience. Her little Abe yearns to be strong enough to pick up his father's big axe and tall enough to reach a tempting apple hanging too high in the tree, but is proud to be able to do the grown-up work of bringing home food for supper, although he also mischievously saves his last worm to plant on his sister's pillow that night. Illustrations by Amy Bates are executed in pencil and watercolors in soft greens, browns, and russets, with each page of text cleverly enclosed in a frame of rustic twigs. As she describes the young Abe Lincoln resolving to remember the word freedom for the future, the artist's final page shows President Lincoln presumably writing his "Gettysburg Address," putting to good use that one big word he puzzled about so long ago:

"...this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

A worthy addition to the read-aloud repertoire about our sixteenth president.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

A New Birth of Freedom: Abe's Honest Words by Doreen Rappaport and Kadir Nelson

Abraham Lincoln is my name,
And with my pen I wrote the same.
I wrote in both haste and speed,
And left it here for fools to read.

The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll git me a book I ain't read

In both of these earliest writings of Abraham Lincoln, his love of reading and writing and his noted sense of humor shine forth. In her timely Abe's Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln Doreen Rappaport, award-winning author of Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has put together a compendium of his own words at pivotal moments in his lifetime in a moving tribute to Lincoln, whose two-hundredth birthday is honored this year. Here are Lincoln's own thoughts when, as a very young man, he traveled down the Mississippi to New Orleans and witnessed a slave auction in progress:

"Twelve Negroes, chained six and six, strung together like so many fish on a trotline, being separated forever from their childhood and friends, their fathers and mothers, their brothers and sisters, from their wives and children, into perpetual slavery."

We also hear the consummate drive that Lincoln brought to his own self-education:

"Upon the subject of education, I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in."

But Lincoln's time in the White House was mostly taken up with issues of war and the end of slavery. Although the decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, with all its implications for the war and peace to follow, came hard, Lincoln's mind was at last firmly fixed:

"I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper. My whole soul is in it.... In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free."

And in the second inaugural address came a message to the future nation which has haunted and inspired us to this day:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds."

Abe's Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln pairs Lincoln's well-known but still striking words with Kadir Nelson's strong and stunning illustrations which visually echo the President's thoughts perfectly. Of all the many good books for children on Honest Abe, this one stands out artistically and thematically as an extraordinary portrait of our most honored president through his own powerful words.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Celebrating Abe's Day: Our Abe Lincoln by Jim Aylesworth

Presenting a bit of history as complex as the life and accomplishments of President Abraham Lincoln to young children is actually a daunting task. Fortunately, as we celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth on February 9, 2009, we have a sparkling new picture book, just published, which has found a way to make young elementary kids a part of the story.

Jim Aylesworth's Our Abe Lincoln (Blue Sky Press, 2009) begins with the kids of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School preparing for a big performance. Signs on the gym wall proclaim "TONIGHT! OUR ABE LINCOLN", while backstage we see excited students getting into period dresses and suits, styling historical wigs, or pulling on skunk, bear, and raccoon costumes, while young stagehands put the final touches on a log cabin backdrop. Banjo and fiddle players consult with the pianist, while families and friends file into the bunting-draped room and take their seats expectantly.

As a tableau of Tom, Nancy, sister Sally, and baby Abraham take their place center stage, the curtain opens and the chorus begins:

"Babe Abe Lincoln was born in the wilderness,
Born in the wilderness,
Born in the wilderness,
Babe Abe Lincoln was born in the wilderness,
Many long years ago."

Scene after scene follow, documenting Abe's young life, all following the familiar verse form of "The Old Grey Mare.":

"Smart Abe Lincoln read by the firelight...."

True Abe Lincoln was praised for his honesty....

Tall Abe Lincoln made friends there in Illinois....
Many glad years ago."

And then the children turn to the hard years of Lincoln's public service.

"Wise Abe Lincoln said 'No more to slavery...,'
Many brave days ago.

Sad Abe Lincoln spoke grand words at Gettysburg...,
Many lost souls ago.

Great Abe Lincoln died hard for his noble deeds...,
Many sad tears ago."

At last the full cast assembles onstage for the grand finale as, joined by the audience, all sing

"Our Abe Lincoln came out of the wilderness...,
Many proud days ago!"

Using the frame story of an elementary school play will surely engage children who have performed or watched such performances on their own stage, and the easy-to-learn song hits the main points of Lincoln's life upon which teachers and parents can build for a fuller picture of his importance in our history. Barbara McClintock's lively and appealing illustrations are central to the success of this essential picture book which should find its place in the annual Presidents' Day story time rotation and in every school and public library.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

2009 Caldecott Award: The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson and Beth Krommes

Here is the key to the house.

In the house burns a light.

In that light rests a bed.

On that bed waits a book.

In an absolutely perfect melding of text and illustration, Susan Swanson's The House in the Night perfectly sets the scene for sleep. Beth Krommes' striking yet calming black scratchboard illustrations are lit with both a dark twilight glow and the brilliance of the golden moon, whose color seems to flow into objects inside the house. As the perspective focuses down from a bird's-eye view of the timeless cottage to a bed, then a book, and then a bird in the book, the golden color comes to rest on each page, tying the whole work together seamlessly.

Familiar objects fill the homey scene--a shaggy dog, his leash coiled carefully on a hall tree, a mother cat and two kittens, peeping from under the bed or chasing through the rooms, a violin and music stand--evoking the same cozy magic felt in that bedtime classic, Goodnight Moon. But these everyday things contrast with a fantasy flight which the little girl, whose bedroom we enter, takes on the back of the bird pictured in her open book. The artist's lens zooms out as girl and bird soar toward the moon and then the face of the sun, only to zoom in, back into the closeup of the book on the bed, where the dog and cats lie curled up, ready for the girl and her teddy bear to join them for the night.

On the moon's face shines the sun.

Sun in the moon, moon in the dark,

Dark in the song, song in the bird,

Bird in the book, book on the bed.

As the child sleeps in the moonlit room, her mother comes in to pick up her dropped clothing, close the book, and kiss the dreaming child, sleeping in the care of the moon's light:

Here is the key to the house,

The house in the night,

A home full of light.

All is well as the dark and light seem balanced together, leaving a feeling that all's right with the world as the child slips into sleep. This is one of those picture books which have receive universal praise: "spectacular," "lyrical," "artful simplicity," "a standout performance," and "homely simplicity," to mention a few reviewers' comments. Apparently, the Caldecott Award committee concurred.


Monday, January 26, 2009

And The Winners Are... 2009 Newbery, Caldecott Awards Are Announced

As is usually true, the American Library Association's Youth Media Awards committees had more than a few surprises for readers eagerly awaiting the winners of the 2009 awards.

Receiving the 2009 Newberry Award is Neal Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, a dark story of a boy named Nobody, or Bod, for short, who is safe from a mysterious assassin only within the confines of a a graveyard, where he grows up under the tutelage of many mentors, some of whom are ghosts.

A trailer for this book may be viewed here.

Newbery Honor Awards go to Kathi Appelt for The Underneath, Ingrid Law for Savvy, Jacqueline Woodson's After Tupac and D Foster, and Margarita Engle's The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom.

Taking top honors for illustration is the 2009 Caldecott Award winner, Susan Marie Swanson's gorgeously and serenely illustrated The House in the Night.

Receiving Caldecott Honor Awards were Marla Frazee for A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, Uri Shulevitz for How I Learned Geography, and illustrator Melissa Sweet for A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams.

The Carnegie Award has been presented to Weston Woods' film based on Christine King Farris' book March On!: The Day My Brother Martin Changed The World, reviewed here on January 10.

Mo Willems has again walked away with the Theodore Seuss Geisel Award for easy reader books with his latest installment in his popular series, Are You Ready to Play Outside? (An Elephant and Piggie Book).

For my review of Kathi Appelt's The Underneath , see my post of August 14 here. Ingrid Law's Savvy, was also reviewed here in my post of June 2.

Kadir Nelson has won the Coretta Scott King Author Award for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, reviewed here on February 7, 2008. The King Illustrator Award goes to Floyd Cooper for his work in The Blacker the Berry.

The Printz Award for Young Adult Literature has been given to Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road.

The Pura Belpre Award for Hispanic literature goes to author Margarita Engle for The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom and illustrator Yuyi Morales for Just In Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for lifetime achievement went to Ashley Bryan, illustrator, known for many award-winning books, including Beautiful Blackbird (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Winner).

The Odyssey Award goes to the audiobook of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, written and read by Sherman Alexie.

Alex Awards for adult books suitable for young adult readers go to the following:

City of Thieves, by David Benioff, published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group.

The Dragons of Babel, by Michael Swanwick, a Tor Book published by Tom Doherty Associates.

Finding Nouf, by Zoë Ferraris published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti, published by Dial Press, a division of Random House.

Just After Sunset: Stories, by Stephen King, published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Over and Under, by Todd Tucker, published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.

The Oxford Project, by Stephen G. Bloom, photographed by Peter Feldstein, published by Welcome Books.

Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow, published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Three Girls and Their Brother, by Theresa Rebeck, published by Shaye Areheart Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House.

The William Morris Award, given for first-time authors, went to Elizabeth C. Bunce for A Curse Dark as Gold.

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Woodchuck Chuckles: The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks by Dan Elish

Some children are asked to take out the trash. Others are asked to make their beds. Janice, Jimmy, and William had been called upon to do something noble, something important: to make the world safe from woodchucks.

And not just any woodchucks, either. When two-year-old Imogene and Jimmy Weathers' dad, a lawyer who moonlights as a wannabe children's fantasy writer, return from a walk in Central Park, they are almost speechless with a tale of giant woodchucks hatching from frozen pods and chowing down on the trees there. Jimmy and his Mom consider the whole story a product of Dad's fevered writer's creativity on hyperdrive, but when his dad is snatched by a nighttime dad-napper who leaves behind a giant whisker, Jimmy and Imogene set out to chase down the woodchucks and rescue their dad.

The NYC Police are no help, of course, but Jimmy's best friend William Howard Taft V (chubby great-great-great-great-nephew of William Howard Taft, America's fattest prez) is up for the investigation and even offers his not-quite-ready-for-prime-time golf-cart-cum-spaceship to track down the alien abductors. When William's cart fails to make orbit, however, the two are forced to turn to their freak-o-geek classmate Janice Claypoole, who has always claimed to have her own means of space travel. And indeed, the youthful author of the galaxy best-seller Light Speed and You, does--a warp-speed ship of her own construction, named The Fifth Floor, concealed, naturally, on the fifth floor of her apartment building. Jimmy is dubious, but what the hey, no one else cares about finding his father, so the three are soon exiting earth's atmosphere and on their way to Planet Grindlepick, where the cotton candy crop for the universe grows and which seems to be having its own problem with woodchucks.

The ship seemed to freeze in space.... Then the screen went completely white, and with a giant whoosh the ship thundered even faster than before.

"What happened?" William asked.

Janice smiled. "This baby does light speed."

William's eyes went wide. "Light speed? How did you pull that off?"

Janice shrugged. "I was always good at math."

A chick who can do light speed has no trouble with the minor mystery of giant woodchucks from the galaxy, and soon the space sleuths have the woodchuck caper figured out. It seems that Janice's father, quirky inventor of the mute button back on Earth, has a new discovery, Plastawood, the source material for faux trees and all wood products therefrom. But in order to makes gazillions off his new invention, he has first to get rid of all the real trees in the universe--which means (what else?) that he must create voracious woodchucks hatched from frozen pods and distribute them around the timber-producing planets in space. At least, that's his apparent business plan.

Can a trio of intrepid kids, augmented by Imogene (a.k.a. Genie), the brilliant toddler gadgeteer, overcome the evil Claypoole Empire and rescue Mr. Weathers from captivity in outer space? Well, sure. Armed with their natural resourcefulness and a dirty sweat sock to track down Jimmy's dad's DNA, the kids are on the galactic case.

Nonstop, catch-as-catch-can adventures ensue, but in the end the evil empire is brought down, not by Janice's innate grasp of astrophysics, but by little Genie's rejiggering of Jimmy's Game Boy into a remote control device which turns the evil Mr. Claypoole's woodchuck pod attack back on himself. The world is again safe for wood products, and in a clever twist, author Dan Elish has Jimmy's dad, inspired by their arcane adventures, begin a new children's adventure novel with the first line of The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks:

As Jimmy Weathers helped his mother set the table that Saturday evening in early April, he had no idea that the fate of mankind was about to come crashing down on his shoulders.

A riotously crazy, pell-mell adventure tale with memorable characters and a no-holds-barred plot, Dan Elish's novel will appeal to middle readers who like their fantasy on the gloriously wacky side. Fans of Christopher Paul Curtis' Mr. Chickee's Funny Money and Mr. Chickee's Messy Mission in the Flint Future Detectives series will find The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks quite to their taste.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bunny Fun II: Snow Bunny Tales by Rosemary Wells

More than familiar with the chunky bunny stars of the Nick Jr. daily lineup, some parents aren't even aware that these popular characters had their beginning decades ago in a series of picture books created by Rosemary Wells.

I found this out last year in a comment about my review of a new Max and Ruby title in which the writer complained that the books were not as good as the television show because the characters didn't look right! I had to point out that Wells' drawings are the way Max and Ruby are supposed to look; the TV characters are copies by hired hands! Still, even if Rosemary Wells gets dissed a bit for not drawing her original creations right, the publication of a new story is a welcome event for her fans.

In Snow Bunny Tales (Max and Ruby), Wells gives us three stories starring the bunny brother and sister pair. In the first snow story, "Snowplow," bossy big sister Ruby insists that she and Max must surprise Grandma with a good deed:

"Let's shovel a path so Grandma can visit" said Ruby.

"Snowplow!" said Max.

"We don't have a snowplow, Max!" insisted Ruby.

Inside the shed Max hopped into his toy car. He tooted the horn.

"No, Max!" said Ruby. "We have to shovel the pathway for Grandma!"

Sensible Ruby insists on work before play, but of course Max continues to tool around in his car until Ruby suddenly gets his "drift," so to speak.

"Max," said Ruby, "we can make a snowplow.!"

Always thinking, Ruby seats herself comfortably on the hood of Max's car with her snow shovel extended in front of them, and with the ebullient Max providing the motive power, the two clear the way to Grandma's front door--to her surprise and delight.

"Look!" said Grandma. "It's a snowplow!"

In the second story, "Snow Day," Max yearns to play outside in the blowing snow, but Ruby insists that it's too cold and windy. "Today we'll play inside. It's called a Snow Day!" Ruby said. "OUTSIDE!" insisted Max.

The resourceful Ruby comes up with plenty of crafts and games to keep him busy, but Max makes a mess of them all, constantly pleading to go "outside." At last, the snow stops blowing and it's finally safe to venture forth. Then, of course, Max decides that he'd rather play "INSIDE!"

In the last tale, "Rocket Run," Max and Ruby head out with their sleds for the famous neighborhood downhill slide. Max can't wait.

"Faster!" said Max.

"No, Max. Only big bunnies go down Rocket Run. You can go down Bunny Hill. It's for little bunnies like you, Max."

If you're a fan of these two, you probably can guess where this one is going. Ruby and friend Louise are a bit intimidated by Rocket Run, but Max, operating on his own, is soon zipping down Rabbit Run with glee.

"Faster!" said Max.

Wells' insightful portrayal of the interplay between the bunny siblings is a big part of the fun as we watch the wintertime show. Her latest, Snow Bunny Tales (Max and Ruby), is a welcome addition to the extensive Max and Ruby library.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bunny Fun I: Let's Play in the Snow by Sam McBratney

Just in time for the snow season, that lovable father-son hare pair are back in their latest in the Guess How Much I Love You series.

The new-fallen snow has made everything look new and different. Big Nutbrown Hare has just the right game--I Spy--to play with Little Nutbrown Hare outside, and the youngster quickly spots and names everything his papa spies--a leaf, a spider web, a bird's feather, and a river.

But then Little Nutbrown Hare slyly comes up with a tricky one.

"I spy something that belongs to me."

Papa Hare is puzzled and has to ask for a clue to come up with this one.

"It's only out when the sun comes out!" the little one says.

Happy to have almost stumped his papa, it's Little Nutbrown Hare's turn to answer his father's question.

"I spy something that belongs to me, and it's not my shadow."

"Can I have a clue?" the little hare asks.

"It's little..., it's nutbrown..., it's my most favorite thing... , and it can hop!"

"It's ME!" guesses Little Nutbrown Hare with a hug for his dad.

Sam McBratney's and Anita Jeram's brand-new Let's Play in the Snow: A Guess How Much I Love You Storybookis as a snow story as warming as a cup of hot cocoa after a snowball fight, a worthy addition to this cozy series of stories of father and son.

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