Thursday, April 30, 2009

Peanut Wizard: George Washington Carver and Science & Invention in America by Cheryl Harness

Noted biographer Cheryl Harness's The Groundbreaking, Chance-Taking Life of George Washington Carver and Science and Invention in America (Cheryl Harness Histories) (National Geographic, 2008) tells the incredible life story of a little black boy, born a slave, whose love for nature and thirst for education took him from his first school in Neosha, Missouri, to a professorship at the University of Iowa and on to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute.

George Carver was a baby when his mother Mary, slave to Moses and Susan Carver, was abducted to Arkansas during the Bushwhacker/Jayhawk Wars following the Civil War. Mr. Carver located baby George and his brother Jim after his mother died, and trading a good horse for their return, he became a foster father to the two orphan boys. Sickly after the whooping cough, at first George helped Susan at home with her washing, weaving, and gardening, eventually becoming the "plant doctor" for neighbors all around. When he was twelve, George was allowed to leave for a town eight miles away to go to the colored school there, and from that point he began his wandering in search of education. A stint on a sodbusting homestead in Kansas was followed at last by a chance to attend Simpson College in Iowa and then on to Iowa State University, where he drew attention for his mastery of botany and his paintings, which were exhibited in Chicago at the 1893 Colombian Exposition.

But it was his relocation to Tuskegee Institute where Carver found his lifelong vision.

Forty-five years later, old George would still remember his first impression of the sunny South. There was "not much evidence of scientific farming anywhere." As far as he could see, "everything looked hungry: the land, the cotton, the cattle and the people."

Professor Carver threw himself into his work in Alabama, devising and then teaching what is now called organic farming, rotating crops and nourishing the land by composting vegetation into the exhausted soil, planting legumes, including the peanut he made so famous, to enrich the land further. Always more of an idea man than meticulous scientist, Carver created hundreds of products from what he was able to coax out of the earth in Tuskegee's agricultural station's fields--dyes and oil from peanuts, plastic from soybeans, flour from sweet potatoes. Carver's agricultural bulletins helped replace the South's boll weevil-blasted cotton with other marketable crops, and his "power alcohol" became the first bio-fuel. But it was as a visionary advocate for scientific farming and biochemical development of products that Carver became most famous. A gifted speaker and salesman for his ideas. always attired in his shabby suit with his ever-present flower in lapel, he testified before Congress and was a friend of Franklin Roosevelt and his secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, whom he had known as boy in Ames, Iowa.

In a chatty, casual narrative style, Cheryl Harness weaves George Washington Carver's amazing life story in and out of the events and personages of his times--from that other idea man, Thomas Edison, to Adolf Hitler. A clever feature of this biography is a progressively scrolling timeline at the bottom of each page to let the reader know what was going on in Carver's world at each stage of his life--the capture of Geronimo, the sinking of the Lusitania, the writing of Winnie the Pooh, the landing of Lucky Lindy, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and the Fermi team's first nuclear chain reaction at the Manhattan Project--a device which provides a window for young readers into the history of Carver's time. Back matter includes a "G. W. Carver Chronology," a timeline, "Science and Invention March On," and a full index. Cheryl Harness' fine pencil and ink drawings illustrate the text prolifically. The author sums up Carver's lasting contributions to American life thus:

More than anything, George was a teacher. He taught by example how an individual could live with dignity in an unfair world and how all individuals could practice good Earth-keeping. He was "green" before today's eco-champions were born. He showed folks how to recycle and build up their land naturally instead of using it to death, then standing helpless when soil washed or blew away. He showed how nature and mankind could co-exist in harmony....

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Feathered Friends: Birds by Kevin Henkes

Sometimes in winter a bird in a tree looks like one red leaf left over.

If there were lots of birds in one tree and they all fly away at the same time, it looks like the tree yelled

S U R P R I S E!

Delicate, yet hardy. That what birds are, and in this child's-eye view of birds and their ways, award-winning author Kevin Henkes and inspired illustrator Laura Droncek have created a lovely picture book which makes the reader take a second look at these common backyard creatures.

Birds can be yellow or blue, and brown or red. Or even green, I think.

Sometimes they are so black that you can't see their eye or even feathers.

Just their shapes.

Although Henkes' text is simple and childlike, his observations summon up arresting mental images.

Once I saw seven birds on the telephone wires.

The didn't move, and they didn't move, and they didn't move.

I looked away for a second

And they were gone.

In a perfect pairing of text and art, Droncek's illustration shows the birds, silhouetted in black on the wire, like clothespins left behind on a line after the laundry is taken down. The following double-page spread shows only the empty telephone wire stretched across the two pages against a matte-white background. Other pages show the featured birds in illustrations evocative of a medieval tapestry, simple but iconic, species accurate but full of the essence of the bird itself.

Henkes' just-published Birds (Greewillow, 2009) is a beautifully-designed volume pretty enough for a coffee table book but inviting enough to be a toddler's favorite lap book.

Other notable books by this very versatile writer are his picture book classics starring Lilly of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, his starting-to-school standards Chrysanthemum and Owen (Caldecott Honor Book), the Caldecott Award-winning Kitten's First Full Moon, and his Newberry Honor novel Olive's Ocean.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Homing Penguin: Where Is Home, Little Pip? by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman

"Our home is where the land is free...
In our pebbly nest by the stormy sea
Where Mama and Papa and Pip--make three."

Little Pip's parents teach her the song of their family home, warm and loving, on the rocky shores of Antarctica. "Don't wander far, Little Pip,," they warn, and Pip doesn't--until one day a shiny black feather blows by and she just must follow and try to catch it. Soon Pip is far from the familiar pebbly beach and she knows she is lost.

"Where is home?" Pip asked. Nobody answered. So Pip set off to look.

Pip meets up with a breaching blue whale and repeats her question.

"Home is under the ocean deep...
Where fish are in schools and sea creatures creep.
Where my babies and I swim and leap." the whale sang.

"But that's not MY home," says Pip and continues her quest until she meets a kelp gull and asks again, "Where is home?"

"On the craggy cliffs in a humble nest
With sea to the east and land to the west.
Home is where my little chicks rest," the gull sang.

"But that's not my home," says Pip and waddles on until she meets a team of dogs pulling a sled, and puts her question once more to their leader.

"I can answer that question little bird.
Across the ocean, far away,
Home is where my puppies play."

"But that's not MY home," Pip says. "I want Mama and Papa. I want home." What to do? Sadly, she begins to sing her own family's song of home.

My home is where the land is free...
In a pebbly nest by the stormy sea
Where Mama and Papa and Pip make three.

And, of course, their baby's song is just what Mama and Papa need to find Little Pip, and following her faraway voice, the parents soon are by her side.

"Aren't we going home?" asks the tired little one as Mama and Papa snuggle her warm in their feathers. Mama and Papa kiss her and answer with their own question.

"Where is home? Is it near or far?
Is it a pebbly nest we all hold dear?
No, home is where there is nothing to fear.
Since we are together, home is right here."

The winning team of Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman (creators of the best-selling Bear Snores On series) tells a wonderfully warm tale of the meaning of home and family in their latest collaboration, Where Is Home, Little Pip? Wilson's soothing rhymes and Chapman's beautiful illustrations, done in wintry blues and whites with warm touches of pink and brown, combine in the reassuring evergreen message that home is indeed where the heart is.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Turn, Turn, Turn: Spinning the Bottle by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel

I walked to the center of the stage and raised the paper. The silence in the auditorium was deafening. My hands were shaking. My feet were sweating.

"Nathan, where ya been?" I began. Squeaky! Too squeaky!

. . .I felt the world began to tilt under my feet, and I turned and ran offstage, dropping the handout pages on the way. By some miracle there was a large garbage can just behind one of the flats. I sprinted to it and grabbed hold with both hands.

Then I threw up, loudly and burpingly, for all the Drama Club to hear.

It was to be the moment she had hoped for through years of playing singing vegetables and dancing days of the week in elementary school plays, attending every middle school performance religiously, and worshipping the actresses who starred on that stage from afar. Now Phoebe Hart, seventh grader, is an actual member of the Drama Club and is auditioning, alongside her idols, for the part of Adelaide in the fall production of Guys and Dolls. Her best friend and soulmate, Harper, has agreed to work backstage just to keep her company, and Tucker Wells, the OOMA (Object of My Affections), with whom she has just been smitten, has turned out to be an eighth grade member of the club as well. Phoebe knows she has real talent and that acting is her passion. Now it is her big moment.

And then, as the pragmatic Harper puts it, an unfortunate "digestive malfunction" occurs in front of the whole group and brings her first audition to an excruciatingly embarrassing, er, outcome.

Phoebe is sure her life is ruined, but with Harper's "no drama" good sense, she manages to make it through the next day of school. Disappointed, but glad to have been given any part at all, she makes up her mind to give her total attention to her role as member of the Mission Choir, backing up the striking Mia Kezdekian starring as the Salvation Army's Sergeant Sarah.

But navigating the shoals of middle school social strata turns out to be treacherous. The older girls seem so gorgeous and sure of themselves, and the boys--well, they are just weird. Every look, comment, and smile has to be weighed. Should she be friendly to seventh-grader Savannah, whom she nicknames the Blond Cherubic Newbie, and risk being grouped with the younger students in the minds of the ruling divas, Mia and Delilah? And what's going on with those two, both of whom seem to be taking an unexpected interest in her? Delilah visits her at home after her awful audition to encourage her to continue, and Mia secretly advises Phoebe that she should learn the Mission Choir leader's lines and blocking in case Phoebe gets a chance to take over the part from the glam Mia. Tucker turns out to be a disorganized but genuinely nice guy who seems to be paying special attention to her, and Phoebe is stricken nearly mute every time he tries to talk with her. And then there's the scary but intriguing Drama Club opening night ritual--an all-cast game of Spin the Bottle required even of newbies. Phoebe is horrified at the thoughts of kissing the guys in the cast--except, of course, Tucker, the OOMA!

The pressure seems to be too much for Phoebe. Harper, her steadfast safety valve, seems curiously uninterested in Phoebe's anxiety over cast politics and the trauma of kissing games, patronizingly calling them the concerns of "Tiny Minds," and Phoebe surprises even herself by angrily breaking off her friendship with Harper. And to make things even worse, Phoebe's psychologist mom hears rumors of the Spin the Bottle tradition and, sure that it's the source of what she diagnoses as her naive little girl's anxieties, threatens to intervene embarrassingly with the Drama Club's aristocratic director, Mr. Romeo.

When the actress playing the Mission Choir's leader actually develops serious vocal problems in the last days of rehearsal, Phoebe realizes that she is indeed in a position to take over the substantial part. But she also sees that if she does, she will become a pawn in the power struggle between Mia and Delilah, a rivalry between the two divas which may indeed sink the whole cast's performance. It's a decision which Phoebe has to make in an instant, but one she suddenly realizes that she is ready to make.

Spin The Bottle is a very funny but equally intelligent new novel by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, who in her earlier novels, Lily B. on the Brink of Cool (Lily B.) and Lily B. on the Brink of Love (Lily B.) has shown herself able to walk the walk and talk the talk of the middle school experience. Here Kimmel has crafted a humorous but honest look at a girl who finds her own way to make it in middle school while remaining remarkably true to what Phoebe calls "her inner self."

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Shhhhh!: Goodnight, Me by Andrew Daddo

Goodnight, feet. Thank you for running me around today.

Thank you for holding my legs together, knees.

Legs, get some rest. We've got a lot of jumping to do tomorrow.

Andrew Daddo's sweet and soothing nighttime book, Goodnight, Me is a unique twist on the toddler bedtime story. In this one, instead of the parent soothing the wiggly child to sleep, the little one is the one who quiets his restless spirt, step by step, until his eyes are ready to close and he's ready for his mom's last kiss of the day.

In Emma Quay's absolutely adorable illustrations, we see a young orangutan studying his feet held in front of his nose, pulling up his shirt to tell his tummy, "I don't want to hear a rumble out of you!" and peering over his shoulder and admonishing his backside, "That's enough wriggling, bottom. It's time to be still!"

Finally the quieting process works its way up above his neck. "It's your turn, head! Close those ears! Bless you, nose. Can you smell the sleep?"

Eyes close and breathing slows, but the little sleeper is still aware that his mother is near, bending over for a final kiss for the night.

Goodnight, you. I know you're still there. I can feel you even though most of me is asleep.

This is a super sleepytime book for youngsters, with a quiet salute to moms (and dads) whose loving presence makes bedtime safe.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

Time Out: It's Only Temporary by Sally Warner

"Until you go back to Albuquerque?" Ms. O'Hare asked, instantly focusing on the wrong thing, in Skye's opinion. "But you're living here now, aren't you?"

"Not really," Skye said. "I mean, I'm here," she tried to explain, her eyes on the floor, "but I'm not really here, if you know what I mean. It's only temporary. Just until my big brother gets better."

"There's no such thing as 'only temporary,' Skye," Ms. O'Hare said quietly. "Unless you consider everything to be temporary, I suppose. Each moment in life is important, you know."

Oh, great, Skye thought. Just what she needed, a philosopher.

Two days after he gets his driver's license, Skye's brother Scott wrecks the car and is diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. While their parents are absorbed in his therapy, Skye gets shipped off to stay with her grandmother in California, leaving behind everything she loves--her school, her close friend Hana, her home. Angry, but feeling guilty for her resentment of her reckless brother and distracted parents, Skye determines that the only way to survive this new life and a strange new school is to make herself invisible--unremarkable, unnoticed, almost a non-person. "It's only temporary," she reminds herself, just for a semester, and then she will go back to her real life.

But her art teacher Ms. O'Hare turns out to be right: despite Skye's attempts to keep aloof, the people and events at Sierra Madre Middle School begin to draw her into life there. Her neighbor, Maddy seems to have a mild case of Asperger's, but although Skye finds her strange, she appreciates her unquestioning loyalty, especially when eighth-grade football bullies zero in on Skye's new friends from art class, whom they call "the art jerks." Ms. O'Hare's after-school art activities group becomes more and more important to Skye. Reluctant to reveal her feelings with the grandmother she barely knows or her overburdened mom, Skye turns more and more to her new friends and to her secret mainstay, an art notebook crammed with humorous drawings and observations about her life and the people in it.

Just as Skye is forming close friendships with the art jerks, as they jokingly begin to call themselves, the football bullies, abetted by the snooty "Bad Ballerina," girls, zero in on one art classmate, whom they jeeringly call "Pip the Pansy." Name-calling, tripping, and shoving escalate until on Halloween the boys attempt to beat him up. Soon an irresistible opportunity for revenge against the bullies opens up: the art group is given the job of designing a photographic brochure to be distributed at the big pre-Thanksgiving homecoming football game. Skye sketches unflattering in-drag cartoon portraits of the four ringleaders to be substituted for their macho football portraits in the center insert of the school newspaper. The plan works perfectly, but when the angry boys corner the art jerks beyond the view of the school staff, the encounter turns physical before it is discovered. Skye now finds herself far from invisible--right at the center of a school-wide brouhaha and facing possible big-time disciplinary action for herself and her friends.

Sally Warner's It's Only Temporary offers a believable main character who finds herself thrust into a situation she never expected. Skye makes both good and bad choices as she deals with her "temporary" life and finally learns that perhaps Ms. O'Hare's philosophical advice was right on target. A gentle look at the "making it in middle school" motif, Warner's empathetic story and comic illustrations offer a taste of wisdom and a taste of humor from a girl who unwillingly finds herself with a lot on her plate.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Tennessee Kids Volunteer Their Choices: A Dog's Life and The Lightning Thief Earn Top Spot

Upper-grade kids know what they like, and Tennessee's middle readers and teens have voted their choices for the 2009 Tennessee Volunteer State Book Awards in the Grade 4-6 and 7-12 divisions.

Best-selling Newbery Honor author Ann M. Martin, writing in the first-person voice of a stray dog improbably named Squirrel, has won the top spot for Grades 4-6 with her A Dog's Life: Autobiography of a Stray, beating out such strong competitors as Mike Lupica's baseball saga Heat, Cynthia Lord's Newbery Award-winning Rules, and Margaret Peterson Haddix's sci fi thriller Double Identity.

For a review of this book, see my earlier post here.

Taking top honors with teen readers is the first book in Rick Riordan's wildly popular series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, titled The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1)./

Riordan, who now has Book 5, The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book 5), forthcoming on May 5, apparently has the touch for writing best sellers for male readers in the page-turning fantasy adventuress of a troubled dyslexic boy who learns that he is the demigod son of Poseidon in this series of modernistic updates of the Greek pantheon which has pleased critics and young adult readers alike.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Anger Management: Mouse Was Mad by Linda Urban

Mouse was mad. Hopping mad.

"You look ridiculous," said Hare. "Let me show you how to hop properly."

Everybody is an expert when mouse gets mad. Hare is the hopping expert, granted, but when Mouse tries anger management Hare-style, he manages only to hop, hop, hop, right into a mucky mud puddle, SPLISH! muddying his orange-striped overalls.

Now Mouse is really mad, stomping mad. But Bear is unimpressed with his petite foot stomping. "You call that stomping," he says, overbearingly, and demonstrates the way bears do it when they get angry. Sure, the trees shake and the earth rumbles when he stomps his foot, but Mouse's stomps are too puny to stir an ant hill. SPLUSH! Mouse flomps into another puddle. Now Mouse is really steaming and comes up screaming!

"That's hardly a scream at all," observes Bobcat. "When I scream, you can hear the echo through the woods." But Mouse's best scream echoes not at all, but he does manage a fall--you guessed it--into another puddle.

Now Mouse was really, really, really mad--rolling-around-on-the-ground mad. "Pull your feet in." said Hedgehog. "The best roll is achieved when the body is a perfect sphere."

But Mouse's best tuck just lands him in the muck--Sploosh!--again.

Now Mouse is really, really, really, really MAD, so mad that he stands there motionless and silently. "Impressive," says Hare. "Inspiring," says Bear. "Let me try that," says Hare. But no one can match Mouse's awesome immobility.

"I feel better now," said Mouse.

"You look better," said Bear.

"But you need a bath," said Hedgehog.

Linda Urban's newest, Mouse Was Mad, is a slight but funny fable dealing with the fine points of safely venting anger. Wry and engaging, the text is set off beautifully by Henry Cole's illustrations, which catch the individual personalities of the would-be behavior management technique specialists Hare, Bear, Bobcat, and Hedgehog. For another solid example of Cole's illustrative skills, see Shiver Me Letters: A Pirate ABC.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tennessee K-3 Children's Choice Award Announced: I Ain't Gonna Paint No More by Karen Beaumont

Karen Beaumont's and David Catrow's exuberant story in rhyme of a kid who finds body art irresistible, I Ain't Gonna Paint No More! (ALA Notable Children's Books. Younger Readers (Awards)) has just won the 2009 Tennessee Children's Choice Book Award by the votes of children statewide in grades K-3.

Illustrated in David Catrow's full-blown humorous style, the fun begins when, to the tune of "It Ain't Gonna Rain No More," the kid finds his mom's hidden painting supplies and starts at the top:

So I take some red
And I paint my head...

and just doesn't know where to stop!

For the full review of this guaranteed kid pleaser, see my post of April 12, 2007, here.

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Turning Tides: My One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath

This week our preacher, a fat old lady named Nellie Phipps, says from her pulpit that you ought to pray all the time, just about anything at all. It doesn't have to be sacred. And your prayers will be answered, she declares, your prayers will always be answered.

I pray for a hundred adventures.... And so I do and maybe it is because of this that it all happens.

Jane's life is as plain as her name--plain but perfect to her mind. She lives with her mother and brother and sister in a simple but comfortable house by the sea. A prize-winning poet, her mother feeds her family frugally on the fruits of the shore and woods--shellfish, berries, field greens--and although her material life is modest, Jane is mostly content.

But Jane is turning twelve years old, and her spirit is beginning to grow restless with her idyllic beach life. She realizes that she needs new experiences--adventures, as she calls them--and as high summer begins, so do her adventures.

First, the Reverend Nellie sucks her into Sunday afternoon Bible distribution in the countryside. Looking for a way to move her overstocked supply fast, Nellie cons Jane into climbing aboard a hot air balloon for a demonstration at a nearby festival and "accidentally" sets the craft free, calling out her instructions to Jane as the balloon begins to rise:

"Now you just let those Bibles out over the houses as you go by."

"Me?" I squawk.

"Don't you get it? The universe has led us here," says Nellie.

And that begins Jane's adventures, which multiply upon one another like incoming waves on the shore. Back on the ground, no thanks to Nellie, Jane is accosted by the angry Mrs. Gourd, who claims that one of the dropped Bibles has damaged her baby's brain and blackmails her and her friend Ginny into babysitting the entire Gourd litter so that their mama can take a waitressing job at the Bluebird Cafe. The Gourd children, faces constantly smeared with the mainstay of their diet, peanut butter and jelly ("their fruit," as Mrs. Gourd puts it), lead Jane into several other escapades, but her weekday job fails to free her from her Sunday adventures with Nelly Phipps. Nelly practices her "laying on of hands" talent on two ailing church ladies, and when a visit to a fortune teller forecasts great fame for Nellie's "gift," she leads poor Jane on a circumnavigation of the local lake seeking the "transparent poodle" (transporting portal) which she promises will take her powers to a higher level.

Meanwhile, three old boyfriends show up to visit her mother, and a brief remark to Jane tells her that one or more of these men may be her and her siblings' father. As the summer grows close to its end, Jane's misadventures cascade toward a climax as well: her brothers and sister drift out to sea on a raft Jane and friend Ginny have made for them to play in on the beach, and one of the possible fathers dies in an attempt to save them. Another potential "father," working on a local interest piece for a magazine, "seeds" the story with a gift of old-fashioned horehound candy which leads to the accidental death of one of the church ladies, and Ginny runs away to New York City. Finally the town doctor tells Jane that the Gourd baby got his inconsequential bruise from his mother's clumsiness, and Jane confronts Mrs. Gourd and resigns from her job as babysitter. Then Mr. Gourd tries unsuccessfully to abduct her and force her to take care of the kids, and Jane begins to wonder if her prayers for adventure have brought about this whole series of calamities. Finally she tells her mom the story of her summer, and Mom, totally in character as the poet mother, brings it all down to earth:

We all belong here equally, Jane," she says. "Just by being born onto the earth we are accepted and the earth supports us. We don't have to be especially good. We don't have to accomplish anything. We don't even have to be healthy."

I put my hands over my eyes and press the flesh back in hard. In relief it is melting off my bones. We sit there all through the twilight. I lean into my mother's side and cry.

Like Kevin Henkes Newbery Award-winning Olive's" Ocean , multiple award-winner Polly Horvath's My One Hundred Adventures (Schwarz & Wade, 2008) uses the constant changing of the ocean itself as a metaphor for a girl on the shore's edge of a turning tide in her life. Jane begins the telling her summertime story as a child, but by season's end she finds herself standing in a different sea. Horvath, Newbery Honor recipient for Everything on a Waffle, knows how to use a strong sense of place, eccentric characters, and beautiful lyrical prose to tell a memorable story of a girl on the edge of the adventure of life.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mom's Day: My Mom Is Trying to RUIN MY LIFE by Kate Feiffer

This is my mom. Sure, she looks like a nice mom.

Here are five ways that my mom is trying to ruin my life:

Way #1: She kisses me in front of my friends. She doesn't just kiss the top of my head. That would be bad, but not as bad. My mom gives me kisses all over my face.

Way #2: She stops by my school in the middle of the day, barges into my classroom, and says, "I thought Emmy might be hot and would like to change into these shorts." Like I would ever change my clothes at school! I don't think so.

Way #3: She talks too loudly.

Way #4: She never lets me eat any food that I think would be good for me.

Way #5: She worries about everything and never lets me do anything fun because I might get hurt, which I won't.

I have decided it's time to stop my mother before she ruins the rest of my life!

Emmy fantasizes about how she will escape from her mom and dad (who is also trying to ruin her life, but in different ways), imagining speeding away on her bike, chased by her concerned mom in the car until her mom is put in jail, followed by her dad when he comes to bail out his wife.

For a moment Emmy basks in the thought of being in total control. But then she starts thinking about the consequences--parents in jail, a dark house with no dinner for hungry daughters, no bedtime stories, and no one to come to her rescue if she has a bad dream because she went to bed hungry. Hmmph!

"My parents are both in jail. My life will be ruined!"

Kate Feiffer's My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My Life (Simon & Schuster, 2009) is a funny take on the first skirmishes in the mother-daughter wars, with a main character with a strong voice and a far-fetched imagination about her own emancipation. Caldecott-winning artist Diane Goode's appealing illustrations extend the story perfectly, especially in picturing Emmy's fantasy flight from her doting parents' control. A very nice story about a "nice" mother for the upcoming Mother's Day season.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Listen to Mama: Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and Sons by Rob D. Walker

The simple wisdom of mothers shared with their children is the premise of Ron Walker's just published Book Of Love For Mothers And Sons (Mama Says), breathtakingly illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.

This generously-sized book offers double-page spreads of mothers and young sons from many cultures--Cherokee, Quechua, Hindi, Inuktitut, Korean, Arabic and Hebrew, to name a few. The colors are soft, yet strong, costumes and settings are delicately conceived and executed with exquisite detail, and the faces of the women and children are beautifully illuminated with a light of their own.

The text for each illustration is brief, almost terse, but rhythmical. In the page depicting the cover illustration, a Cherokee mother and small son celebrate the sun's return after a storm:

Mama says
be good.
Mama says
be kind.
Mama says
the rain will come,
but still the sun will shine.

An Ethiopian mother speaks her version of "Do your homework!" as her small son studies with her by lamplight:

Mama says
be strong.
Mama says
be bright.
Mama says
sometimes hard work
may keep you up at night.

In the only American portrayal, an African-American mother's advice seems a bit hackneyed:

Mama says
be on time.
Mama says
be neat.
Mama says
walk with pride,
and never drag your feet.

But in the Dillons' illustration, however, we see the child, neatly dressed in his little white shirt and tie, being escorted through a jeering crowd into a newly integrated school.

Simple words all of these are, but illuminated by the masterful art of Leo and Diane Dillon, they take on a certain depth that makes this book a stunning work, a natural for Mothers' Day, a good gift for mothers and for sons, too.

Mama says
help others,
and be the best
you can.
I listened to
what Mama said,
and now I am a man.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Little Gander Wanders: Little Goose by David Mraz and Margot Apple

What is the essence of a mother? Authors and poets and artists have pondered the subject, but few have approached it from the viewpoint of a gosling.

Little Goose liked pebbles and puddles, marbles and bubbles.

Baskets and buckets, and balls that roll.

He liked the number 8 and the letter O, and how things made his eyes go 'round and 'round without ever stopping.

"What is it about those things?" he wondered.

Little Goose runs off to tell his mother that he is going on a quest of find out why he likes round things so much. "The world is a big place," she advises, "But if you keep one wing over water, your wing and the water will bring you home to me."

Little Goose finds things that go 'round and 'round as he circumnavigates the pond. Turtle has a nice round rock on which to sun himself. Frog has flies which circle his head, and Mouse has his little round burrow beneath a round mousehole entryway. But Little Goose finds the round rock too slippery. The flies' buzzing around his head just make him dizzy, and Mouse's small house is too tight even for a tiny gosling.

It is only when he makes his way around the whole pond that he finds himself back where his mother is nibbling in the sedge along the edge, and when she greets him with a big hug, wrapping her feathered wings 'round and 'round him, Little Goose suddenly realizes why round things appeal to him so much.

It was his mama's wings, soft as ever, that made him cozy and comfy and happy all over, from side to side and bottom to top, that went around and around him, and that never stopped.

Margot Apple's soft, textured pencil drawings and David Mraz' gentle story make Little Goose, with its theme of the essence of motherhood, a good choice for Mother's Day story times.

Margot Apple is also the noted illustrator of those rhyming toddler favorites, the Sheep in a Jeep series.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bugging the Bears: Horrible Harry Bugs the Three Bears by Suzy Kline

Horrible Harry Spooger, a kid who knows no minor passions, is on an entomology kick, and among his classmates, only his friend and lady love Song Lee shares his inexplicable enthusiasm for an embalmed earwig named Edward.

With his characteristic energy, Harry figures out a way to combine his entomological fervor with his group's project to create a skit based on a famous fairy tale. Harry offers to script a version of The Three Bears which he calls "Goldilocks and the Three Bugs." Plying his teammates with his grandma's famous dirt puddings (complete with gummy worms), Harry reassures the anxious Sid that earwigs will not crawl into his ears and raise their young in his brain and persuades the whole group to stage a full funeral for Edward the Earwig.

The performance of Harry's fractured fairy tale goes off famously, with the heroic earwig frightening the home-invading Goldilocks away while the three bears--and the rest of Miss Mackle's class--enjoy the show.

After everyone clapped again, Miss Mackle stood up. "Your fractured fairy tale was so much fun! What a surprise ending! Do you think your play had a lesson to be learned?"

"It sure did," Harry answered. "If you break into someone's house, beware! You could be bugged!"

"Bravo!" Miss Mackle said.

Suzy Kline's latest in this venerable series, Horrible Harry Bugs the Three Bears (Horrible Harry), is the twenty-sixth of these evergreen little novels, comically illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz, starring Horrible Harry, not including the four books featuring Harry's (girl) friend, Song Lee. With Accelerated Reader grade levels between 2.8 through 3.5 and featuring kids in second and third grade, these books are perfect for beginning chapter readers.

For readers who enjoy the school-based adventures of Horrible Harry, see also noted author Jamie Gilson's new Table Two series. For kids who love chess, her latest sequel, Chess! I Love It! I Love It! I Love It! even features an elementary school chess club as they enter their first city-wide tourney.

And don't overlook Andrew Clements' very funny early chapter books about Jake Drake, which chronicle Jake's living and learning his way through third grade.

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