Saturday, February 28, 2009

Marsupial Mom: A Wombat's World by Caroline Arnold

Animal study is a staple of elementary grade science, and dipping into introductory taxonomy usually includes a study of a fascinating subgroup of the home page of us all--mammalia--a sojourn into the world of that easily identified subclass marsupials, with their signature pouches.

Caroline Arnold's A Wombat's World (Caroline Arnold's Animals) (Picture Window Books, 2008), with the author's soft cut-paper collages and engaging story of a wombat mother's preparations for and care of her growing baby, is especially appealing and accessible to primary grade students.

Arnold, an author/illustrator well known for her nonfiction nature study books, leisurely tells the story of a mother wombat, beginning with the digging out of a new tunnel and chamber for herself and her expected baby. The reader sees the tiny bean-sized, hairless baby finding its way to her pouch for the first six months of its life. The author then deftly pictures the wombat's habits and behavior--its daytime sleep in the cool of the underground chamber, its nocturnal feeding habits, its predators, and the development of the single baby, which nurses and stays with its mother until it is ready for independence at about 15 months of age. Small colored text boxes set off significant facts related to each double-page spread (e.g., "Dangers to wombats include dingoes, foxes, and eagles.")

Included is a useful appendix which features a map of Australia, showing the range of the common wombat, featured here, and its relatives, the southern hairy-nosed wombat and its less numerous variant, the northern hairy-nosed wombat; "Wombat Fun Facts;" a glossary of terms; a short bibliography, "To Learn More" with books and a website (; and a brief but detailed index.

Books in the Caroline Arnold's Animals series feature other marsupials (kangaroos and koalas) as well as pandas, penguins, zebras, killer whales, and that mammal in a class almost by itself, the platypus.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Pookas a' Plenty: The King With Horse's Ears and Other Irish Folktales, retold by Batt Burns

Sure an' we're all a wee bit Irish, even Barack Obama (great-great-great grandson of one Falmouth Kearney of County Offaly), and with St. Paddy's Day just around the calendar's corner, there's a brand-new book of folk tales from the Emerald Isle just published. The King with Horse's Ears and Other Irish Folktales (Folktales of the World) (Sterling, 2009) offers a wide variety of tales, from the ancient Gaelic "Oisin in the Land of the Ever Young" (Tir in nOg) to "The Boy and the Pooka" (Glenaphooka), "The Clever Leprechaun," and "Paying the Rent," a story of the Irish diaspora.

Beautifully designed and printed, the volume is lavishly illustrated in full color by artist Igor Oleynikov--who doesn't much sound like a son of the Auld Sod either, but begorra, O'Leynikov and O'Bama might just be marchin' together in the parade come March 17!

Other titles which will get us wearin' the green include Kitty Nash's Irish Blessings: An Illustrated Edition, Carolyn White's A History of Irish Fairies, Jeremiah Curtin's Irish Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World. and Kathleen Krull's Pot o' Gold, A: A Treasury of Irish Stories, Poetry, Folklore, and (of Course) Blarney.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Delve Deep: Dark Whispers (Unicorn Chronicles III) by Bruce Coville

The Chiron gazed down at Cara. ... It's often the case that our most intimate enemies are rooted in our own darkness. The delvers are dwarfs bent and shaped by the Whisperer. And the Whisperer is a living thing, formed from the unicorns, pulled from their own hearts.... This is why delvers are drawn to unicorns at the same time that they despise them.

They burn with hatred yet also with a deep desire to connect.

Bruce Coville's long-awaited third book in the Unicorn Chronicles, Dark Whispers (Unicorn Chronicles) has both satisfied and teased his legions of fantasy fans.

In plot, characterization, and setting, this book exists in media res: As the murderous powers of Beloved plan their attack during the Blood Moon, young teen heroine Cara, granddaughter of the Unicorn queen and daughter of one of the vengeful Beloved's Hunters sworn to destroy the unicorns, is sent on a mission by her grandmother Amalia Flickerfoot to learn the secret of the enmity from the king of the Centaurs. With her go Lightfoot the unicorn prince, Grumwold the Dwarf, and Medafil the Griffon. Captured by the delvers and imprisoned in their underground kingdom, Cara befriends a rebel delver she calls Rocky, and together the two escape the subterranean maze of tunnels and complete her quest, only to find that they must rush to the unicorns' Autumnhaven to help fight the final battle.

In a parallel storyline, Cara's father Ian Hunter, who has broken with the evil Beloved, travels to the Himalayas with a special portkey jewel and the mission of releasing his wife, Cara's mother Martha, daughter of Queen Amalia, from the Rainbow Prison. Ian Hunter's hope is to free her and gain her powers in the ultimate confrontation between the forces of Beloved and the unicorns.

Alas for his readers, that final battle is reserved for what may be the final volume in the series. Coville carefully braids together the many story lines left mostly untold in the first two books into a leisurely exposition which gradually tightens into a page-turning adventure ending on the eve of the final confrontation. The sole unknown left for the last sequel is the nature of the dark entity known only as "the Whisperer," who is the prime mover of the apocalyptic battle to come. Echoes of J. R. R. Tolkien abound in this skillfully constructed "middle earth" universe in which Cara is at the very center of the web of complexity. A compelling character not unlike Harry Potter, she is the mystical hero-heir, the great unknown, and the nexus of the series.

Coville's faithful followers, many who began with Book I, Into The Land Of The Unicorns (Unicorn Chronicles) and Book 2, Song Of The Wanderer (Unicorn Chronicles), years ago will race through this one with the joy of unwinding a major part of the story mixed with the sadness of discovering they must wait for another volume to reach the story's core. Book IV, The Last Hunt, is promised for publication by Scholastic Press early in 2010.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Backstop Backstory: Safe at Home by Mike Lupica

Nick especially liked the mask. It wasn't just that it made him feel a little bit like a superhero from one of his comic books. The mask made him feel as if he could hide in plain sight.... After all the times when he'd worried about people looking at him, wondering if they were seeing the boy who didn't have real parents, wondering how many people really knew he was in foster care or adopted.

Yet even his trusty mask couldn't help him today.

It was as if he'd forgotten how to catch or throw.

Baseball is everything to Nick Crandall. A natural at the difficult position of catcher, he is gifted with a strong arm which can stop almost any steal at second or third. The seventh-grade junior varsity team at Hayworth Junior High feels like his real family, the one place where he really belongs.

Then an injury to the varsity's catcher means Nick is suddenly called up just as the season begins. Feeling small among his eighth and ninth graders varsity teammates, Nick finds himself frozen with self-doubt, unable to get the ball into the second baseman's glove, weak at bat, and even falling all over his own mask as he goes back for a pop-up. Nick feels he can't turn for help to his adoptive parents, intellectual professor-types, who despite their obvious love for him, have no real experience or interest in sports, and, as his grades, never great, suffer from his loss of confidence, the Crandalls threaten to ground him from summer ball unless he improves.

Nick does have two good friends, Gracie Wright and Jack Elmore. Jack defends him against the harsh comments of his varsity teammates, but it is finally Gracie who manages to speak the words which turn Nick's performance around.

Nick sat down first and said, "Okay, Miss Mysterious, what do you want to talk about?"

"About how you've turned into the biggest baby I know."

"I almost told you in the car, but I didn't want to say it in front of my mom," Gracie said. "But you've spent so much time in your life feeling sorry for yourself, you don't even know when it's time to stop."

As the spring season works itself toward the big game, Nick begins to see how he has been getting in his own way, letting his feelings block his abilities on the field and in class and keeping him at arms' length from his parents as well.

In Safe at Home: A Comeback Kids Novel, (Philomel, 2008) best-selling author Mike Lupica (for Heat and Travel Team) keeps the page-turning game-play details crisp and exciting as his young athlete learns to manage the "head game" on field and off. Lupica has a terrific knack for putting the reader into the immediate moment, inside the main character's head and world, while keeping the game foremost in the action. Insight into the sports and emotions of early adolescent boys is Lupica's main mojo, and he's got it working in the short and sweet Comeback Kids series.

Other books in this series for middle readers include Two-Minute Drill: Mike Lupica's Comeback Kids, Long Shot: A Comeback Kids Novel, and Hot Hand: Mike Lupica's Comeback Kids Those readers who grew up devouring the Matt Christopher sports stories will be glad to see the genre's torch passed to the sure hands of Mike Lupica.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Night of the Leprechaun: The Night Before St. Patrick's Day by Natasha Wing

'Twas the night before St. Patrick's Day,
The day to wear green.
Not a creature was stirring,
Except Tim and Maureen.

They carefully made traps
With gold charms and rings.
"I bet we catch a leprechaun.
They love shiny things!"

Maureen and Tim's clever homemade leprechaun traps are all set and the two go to bed with "visions of gold coins dancing in their heads." But when they wake to their dad's bagpipe tunes and their mom's green egg breakfast, they have another surprise waiting:

And what to their wondering eyes should appear--
A big mess! "A leprechaun was here!"

And then inside a trap,
They heard someone giggling.
A real-life leprechaun!
They both saw him wriggling.

The children approached him. They stared straight in his eyes.
"Tell us where the gold is.
Don't be tricky--no lies!"

But out-thinking a leprechaun isn't easy, and for all their preparation, the luck is, as always, on the side of the leprechaun in Natasha Wing's newest holiday spoof of the Clement Moore classic, The Night Before St. Patrick's Day (Reading Railroad) (Scholastic, 2009). Irish eyes will be smiling at this green and gold romp through the fun of St. Paddy's Day, filled with Wing's bouncy rhymes and Amy Wummer's cheery pastel illustrations of two kids who take on the challenge at the end of the rainbow.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

2009 Newbery Honor Award: After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

We loved D because she was our girl and because she'd been to places and seen things me and Neeka probably weren't ever gonna see. Even though Flo had her on lockdown at night, D also had all this freedom in the daytime. Mostly I was the quiet one in our group, the Brain. Mostly I watched and listened. But I could watch until I was ninety-nine and I'd never be able to see what D saw.

"The way I figure it," D said, "we all just out in the world trying to figure out our Big Purpose.

I know I got this Big Purpose. And when I know what it is exactly, I'm coming right to y'all with the news."

Eleven years old, the unnamed narrator and her best friend Neeka dress alike and spend all their time together on their close knit Queens block, where their watchful moms keep them firmly under their thumbs. Into this circumscribed world D Foster suddenly appears one day, a girl who lives with her foster mother Flo and is free to roam until her curfew at nine each night. The three become close, and the narrator and Neeka slowly learn bits of D's very different personal history--her mother who alternately abandoned her and reappeared, a long drab time in a crowded group home, and her terrifying experience with a foster mother who locked her in a closet and starved her for days at a time. The two sheltered girls envy D's freedom to visit any part of New York she chooses, but it is obvious that D longs to have her mother back and to be lovingly protected as her friends are. The music of Tupac Shakur forms the background of their growing friendship as the three become young teenagers, but D feels a special bond to his songs:

"It's like I look at him and I see myself. It's like I'm looking in a mirror.

It's like he sees stuff, you know? And he knows stuff. And he be thinking stuff that only somebody who knows that kinda living deep and true could know and think."

And then as the girls begin to look forward to high school and the rest of their lives, Tupac is shot and dies and D Foster's mom suddenly reappears and takes her upstate to live. The two old friends still have each other, but they are growing up, too, and no one now takes them for sisters even in their new matching outfits. Their Big Purpose, like D's, is still somewhere out there before them; but they see their own families differently now and somehow feel that the time of their friendship with D has changed them forever.

Jacqueline Woodson's 2009 Newbery Honor book, After Tupac and D Foster (Newbery Honor Book), (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2008) is a quiet, spare, but intimate account of three girls who, despite their differences, form a permanent bond with each other. Although the setting in a stable African American neighborhood in Queens forms the matrix of the characters' lives, the theme of a maturing friendship is universal.

Woodson is one of the most honored of current young adult writers, having won the Newbery Honor Award for Feathers (Newbery Honor Book) in 2008 and for Show Way (Newbery Honor Book) in 2006, a Caldecott Honor Award for Coming On Home Soon set during World War II, National Book Award nominations for Hush and Locomotion, and, among others, the Coretta Scott King Award for Miracle's Boys. For reviews of her work, see my several posts here.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Visible Wordplay: One Boy by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Caldecott Honor author/illustrator Laura Vaccaro Seeger's One Boy begins with


with a child's head and shoulders visible through a die-cut opening in the right-hand page. Turning the page, however, we see the ONE visible through the opening as part of a new caption,


But although we see the boy, with his backpack of art supplies, seated alone in the middle of three rows of chairs, this kid is definitely NOT alone. His mind is alive with images, which we see in the following pages which combine words, parts of those words, and parts of full-page images glimpsed through the die-cut openings.







And as we work our way through the counting order up ten, we see




And as the boy exits page right, we see behind him that he has indeed not been alone, but in the good company of his ten paintings--of seals, apes, monkeys, mice, cars, candles and a birthday cake, brooms, and seeds sprouting into flowers, all neatly taped to the wall behind him.

An amazing picture book which works on several levels--as a simple counting book, as a verbal puzzle (as we guess what small word will reappear in the next double-page spread), a beginning reader, and a picture puzzle--this one is a work of art, a delicious little visual and intellectual play on words, a concept book, and an easy reader all rolled into one. It's another tour de force for Seeger, whose First the Egg (Caldecott Honor Book and Theodore Seuss Geisel Honor Book (Awards)) took double honors at the 2008 ALA Awards ceremonies. Seeger's body of work, distinguished by such titles as Dog and Bear (Neal Porter Books) (Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Winner-Best Picture Book) (Awards)), Black? White! Day? Night! - A Book of Opposites (Ala Notable Children's Books (Awards)), (Neal Porter Books) and The Hidden Alphabet (Ala Notable Children's Books. Younger Readers (Awards)) already puts her at the forefront of modern picture book art.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Meet the Winner: Are You Ready to Play Outside? by Mo Willems

"Are you ready to play outside?" says Gerald.

"Yes, Yes, Yes!" says Piggie. "We are going to do everything today. We are going to run! We are going to skip! We are going to jump!

Nothing can stop us!"

That odd couple, Gerald the diffident elephant and Piggie, the irrepressible piglet, rush to meet each other one morning, planning all kinds of outdoor fun at last. But, of course, into each life some rain must fall, and just as they are ready to run and skip and jump in the sunshine, a rain shower begins to dampen their enthusiasm--at least, Piggie's.

"It's raining! It's pouring! It's REALLY pouring!! I don't LIKE rain!!

Piggie is irate at their bad luck, while his pragmatic friend Gerald offers him the shelter of one of his large ears. Suddenly, Piggie notices two very happy earthworms enjoying the rain, splish splashing in the showers. Hmmmm. Piggie is inspired.

"SPLASH! "This is GREAT! Let's PLAY!"

But just as the two buddies begin to splash in the puddles, it stops.


But with an optimist like Piggie and a make-do realist like Gerald, we know that even rain (or the lack of it) can't dampen the best friends' spirits for long.

Mo Willems' Are You Ready to Play Outside? (An Elephant and Piggie Book) (Hyperion, 2008), like his There Is a Bird On Your Head! (An Elephant and Piggie Book), has just taken the Theodore Seuss Geisel Award for beginning reader books. At levels below Grade 1, with easy vocabulary and wonderfully delineated characters, this series is a natural for emerging readers in Kindergarten or first grade.

Watch for Willems' latest in this series, Watch Me Throw the Ball! (An Elephant and Piggie Book), forthcoming in early March, 2009. Other titles in this series are I Will Surprise My Friend! (An Elephant and Piggie Book), Today I Will Fly! (An Elephant and Piggie Book), My Friend is Sad (An Elephant and Piggie Book), I Love My New Toy! (An Elephant and Piggie Book), and Elephants Cannot Dance! (An Elephant and Piggie Book).

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