Monday, August 31, 2009

Sweet Revenge! The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman

"Never" sneered Miss Breakbone, "have I been asked to teach such a scraped-together, fiddling, twiddling, time-squandering, mind-wandering, doodling, dozing, don't-know dunderheads!"

In a cast-iron military gray suit, with a blood-red mouth, Miss Breakbone is the scariest teacher character yet, one who delights in adding a gold star to her "Crybabies Chart" whenever she makes one of her charges cry. Her imagined means of torture include a knotted scourge, a nail-studded club, and an electric chair bought with the proceeds of goods confiscated from her students.

But she has a fatal flaw:

Mistake Number 2: She has no eye for talent, an easy mistake to make in our case.

Talent there is among those dunderheads in her much maligned class. And when she gleefully confiscates the green-eyed, one-eared cat figurine that little "Junkyard" gleaned from the trash for his mom's birthday gift, Miss Breakbone has gone too far. Student "Einstein" (a whiz at problem-solving) plots a plan to carry off a cat burglary of her grimly defended house using the special "talents" of his class of "differently abled" dunderheads.

"Pencil" draws the layout of the grounds and house from memory, "Spider" scales the walls, while with a well-placed missile "Spitball" disables the motion sensor alarm system. "Clips" utilizes his impressive paperclip grappling lines to hoist the kids inside, and "Google-Eye" hynotizes the staff while the rest of the class carries off the heist of the one-eared cat, whose green eyes turn out to be priceless emeralds, leaving behind only a note for Miss Breakbone:


Newbery Award-winning author Paul Fleischman's latest picture/beginning chapter book features lovable knuckleheads who prove their mettle and avenge a wronged comrad in his new The Dunderheads (Candlewick, 2009), all ably portrayed by comic artist David Roberts. Kids who earlier learned to love to hate Miss Viola Swamp will relish Miss Breakbone's well-deserved comeuppance with glee.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Nobody's Perfect: Perfectly Arugula by Sarah Dillard

Everything in Arugula's world was just so.

Her house was clean and bright.

There were no weeds in Arugula's garden.

Her quills had just the right shine and bounce.

Arugula was perfect.

Does Arugula yearn to share her wonderful world with her friends? W-e-e-l-l, not exactly. It's more like Arugula wants to show off her perfect house and garden, her lovely things, and her elegant cuisine.

She plans her menu--watercress sandwiches, cream puffs, strawberry cake--and invites everyone she knows--except for Fidget the Squirrel, whose energy and brashness Arugula finds quite annoying and no small danger to her fine china!

Finally the big day arrives. Arugula put the finishing touches on her showpiece--the strawberry cake--and just has time to freshen herself up before the guests begin to arrive. At first the invitees are impressed with Arugula's home and tea table. But the hostess seems more concerned about a chip in her fine teacups, or a nick in her antique teapot, or crumbs on her carpet, or an imperfectly sliced piece of cake to permit her guests to relax and have a good time.

Just as they are looking around for an excuse to take their leave of their obsessive hostess, however, Fidget arrives in a burst of energy.

"Hey, everybody! Let's get this party started!"

It's high anxiety time for Arugula as Fidget breaks out his favorite party tricks--juggling her precious teacups and balancing the elegant cake on his nose.

"Don't try this at home!!

"There's just one thing this party is missing! DANCING!"

Despite herself, Arugula suddenly realizes that her guests are really having a good time--and so is she! Her party is now really perfect.

Sarah Dillard's Perfectly Arugula (Sterling, 2009) is a great reminder that those who are obsessive about having the arrangements perfect sometimes overlook what makes a party itself perfect--fun for everyone, including the hostess. Dillard lays out many of her pages like a comic book, with thought balloons revealing what the guests are really thinking, a device which adds to the irony as Arugula mentally compliments herself on her faultless food and decor while her guests fidget nervously and try to come up with a polite reason to leave. Perfectly Arugula is a humorous book with a small but important message about hospitality.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hot Chicks! Chicken Dance by Tammi Sauer







Hot hens Marge and Lola are all a-flutter. Elvis Poultry is top bird and the chicken chicks are all shook up at the thought of seeing him perform. But how can they possibly beat out the top girl group, the Ducks, and win those tickets?

The girl-chicks bird-brainstorm ideas for their act. Flying chickens? They crash land in the hay up to their wattles. Swimming chickens? Even their polka dot bikinis can't keep them afloat. It's almost time for the show, and so far the act is a no go. "We'll just have wing it," they conclude.

The competition is stiff. The goats gobble a tractor; the cows jump over the moon; and the ducks grab their surfboards and catch a giant wave in the trough to wow the crowd. Then it's time for the hens to go onstage. "What's the matter? Are you chicken?" taunt the duck dames.

This put the chickens in a foul mood. They bawked. They flapped. They shook.

"More! More! MORE! the crowd chanted.

"Let's bawk and roll!" said Marge and Lola.

The chicken girls give it their all, but finish second in the pecking order to the surfin' sound of the the Ducks. "Ducks RULE!" the winners quack, as they grab the prized tickets. But suddenly a familiar voice croons out loudly...

"You chicks rocked!" A rooster swooped to the stage.

"You had me all shook up."


"I could use an act like yours," he crowed.

But suddenly the contest ends with a a bang (or a CLUNK!) when the cows come home from their sojourn over the moon, scoring a perfect 10 in their landing on the Ducks, whose beaks are bent and whose feathers are definitely ruffled.

And a new poster is soon seen on the barn wall.



In Chicken Dance, Tammi Sauer and Dan Santat combine their talents in a funny and punny story which spoofs rock star mania. Santat's mixed-media ink and acrylic illustrations give body to this tongue-in-chick bit of drollery. Bawk on! Barnyard Babes!

Tammi Sauer is the author of Cowboy Camp reviewed here, and Dan Santat is noted for his illustrations for Barbara Jean Hicks' The Secret Life of Walter Kitty, reviewed here.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Making It in Middle School: Caught in the Web (How I Survived Middle School) by Nancy Krulik

"I think every school has its own group of Pops.

Basically they're at the top of the middle school food chain."

The non-Pop girls--Jenny, Felicia, Rachel--are bored. Television stinks; the weather stinks; and as they rummage through Jenny's collection of old home movies for entertainment, they run across the video of her third grade sleepover and Easter Egg Hunt.

Laughing over the sight of themselves as eight-year-olds make them yearn to do something telegenic, and the girls suddenly come up with the idea of producing a webcast for the middle school audience. Titling it the Webcast Underground (for the basement from which it is to be broadcast), they soon recruit Marc, their movie fan friend, as director, Liza, their artsy pal, as set designer, and Chloe (who has a new laptop) as their tech person. Jenny prepares promotional flyers to blanket their middle school, and when their talent show takes to the webwaves, the non-Pops find themselves, well, instant celebs at Joyce Kilmer Middle.

But their moment as neo-POPs doesn't last. The Pops can't stand to give up center stage and waste no time in trotting out their competitive webcast School Style. But for their second show, the Pops get more notoriety than popularity. They select a bespectacled plain Jane non-Pop named Melissa for their glamor makeover special. The webcast goes great, but when they trot out their new beauty queen at lunch the next day, the nearsighted Melissa, not wearing her dorky glasses, of course, mistakes the false eyelash she drops in her soup for a spider, and there's a lot of flying food decorating the perfect outfits at the Pops table, to the amusement of the whole cafeteria.

As usual, the Pops get their comeuppance, in Nancy Krulik's Caught in the Web (How I Survived Middle School), the continuing middle school saga featuring Jenny and her non-Pop friends whose humor and resilience make sixth grade fun despite everything. Other books in the How I Survived Middle School series include Can You Get An F In Lunch? (How I Survived Middle School), Madame President (How I Survived Middle School), It's All Downhill From Here (How I Survived Middle School), I Heard A Rumor (How I Survived Middle School), Who's Got Spirit? (How I Survived Middle School) and Cheat Sheet (How I Survived Middle School).

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hands-On History: America: The Making of A Nation

With its handsome red, white, and blue embossed cover, Little Brown Publishing's AMERICA: The Making of a Nation is impossible to resist picking up and paging through.

A striking example of the "toy and movable book" genre, this book does not pretend to be a linear presentation of American history. Rather, it begins with a purported hand-written note to the reader signed by one "Charlie Samuels," a sort-of American Everyman who comes upon the artifacts of an earlier fellow countryman:

Dear Reader:

I found this tattered suitcase in the dusty corner of my attic. I don't know who left it there, but I when opened it and began to read the journal inside. I knew how very special it was. I spent hours sifting through all of the mementos and treasures collected. What I discovered was not only the story of one man's life and experiences, but also the events and pioneering spirit that led to the making of a great nation.

Enjoy this special glimpse back into history, past and present. Remember that it belongs to each one of us--it is the history of America.

Charlie Samuels

Inside the book opens into a double-page collage of Americana--the back of a two-dollar bill showing John Trumball's painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a Kennedy campaign logo, a ticket for the transcontinental railroad, an eagle feather, an Apollo 11 patch--and a fold-out copy of the personal journal which Charlie finds in that old valise.

The following page shows a collage of souvenirs which the journal's creator collected when invited with his World War II comrades to a White House dinner. Affixed flap books--a White House Souvenir Pocket Guide, a lift-the-flap facsimile postcard of the Washington Monument mailed from Washington--all on a pastiche of informational sources about the nation's capital, teach the reader about that historic place. Another double-page collage of historic American music features a lift-out facsimile of nineteenth-century sheet music for The Star Spangled Banner, which slips inside a collage of 78 rpm records of Old Man River (who knew Judy Garland recorded this one?) and This Land Is Your Land (ditto for Bruce Springsteen!), and a multi-fold pull-out with all the verses for the "patriotic songs" Stars and Stripes Forever, Oh, Shenandoah, and America The Beautiful.

Other pages offer flaps containing a half-page die-cut flap of the Mount Rushmore figures, backed by a list of the presidents and their terms, as well as symbols of the nation, a Union & Central Pacific Railroad ticket, postcards from Monument Valley and Niagara Falls, an "Inspection Card" for immigrants passing through Ellis Island, and a sealed envelope with an impressive replica of the Declaration of Independence. Each double-page spread provides a collage of information arranged by theme--"From Sea to Shining Sea" (maps and historic destinations), "Welcome to America," (the Statue of Liberty, a skyscraper-themed bar graph of the waves of immigration by country of origin), and "Words to Make a Nation," (noted quotations from all eras). One striking spread features a timeline of America laid out as tree rings on a cross-section of a "Liberty Tree."

Not at all a history textbook, AMERICA: The Making of a Nation is a browsing book in the best sense of the word, a book which inspires interest and reinforces classroom knowledge as the reader follows the fictional journal writer through his lifelong discovery of America's places, people, and spirit. Sturdy enough for libraries and striking enough for a coffee-table book, this one is a beauty at a bargain price.

Juxtaposed on the final spread are two intriguing quotations, separated by almost two centuries, which seems to sum up both America's hard-headed realism and boundless optimism:

"Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." --Benjamin Franklin

"There is nothing wrong with America that faith, love of freedom, and the energy of her citizens cannot cure." --Dwight Eisenhower

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fly Away Home: Time to Fly by Laurie Halse Anderson

Suddenly Sneakers runs to the edge of the deck and barks at the oak tree.

"Sneakers, what's gotten into you? Are you defending me against a tree?" I glance up--and catch a flash of blue between the green leaves.

Of course, everyone else is inside, so nobody sees the parrot but Sneakers and me. And Socrates the cat. He stares up at the tree, too, his tail twitching.

The parrot flutters to a higher branch, then perches and looks down at me. Suddenly he lets out a loud "Braaaak! Phone home! Time to fly!"

At first Zoe has a hard time convincing Dr. Mac and the other Vet Volunteers that there is a flock of wild parrots --and one blue-capped talking parrot as well--in the Pennsylvania backyard of her grandmother's veterinary clinic. But soon the whole group is busy googling feral parrots and trying to come up with a way to return the obviously lost talking bird to its owner.

At last a chance to capture the lost pet presents itself, and Zoe is distressed when her attempt to catch the parrot she names E.T. results in a broken wing. But her grandmother Dr. Mac treats the bird and assures Zoe that the little parrot will be mended with a few weeks of care in her clinic.

But then Zoe gets a surprising phone call from her mom--the actress who left her with Dr. Mac almost a year ago when she set off to Hollywood to try to find work in the movies. At first Zoe had grieved over the loss of her mother and her familiar home in New York City, but now--with the love of Dr. Mac, her cousin Maggie as her best friend, and the fun of being with the other vet volunteers at school--Zoe has to admit to herself that she resents her mom's sudden intrusion into her happy life in Ambler and her plans to take her to L.A. to start a new life together.

That night in bed I can't seem to fall asleep. Watching the curtains move in the warm spring breeze, I can smell spring. I smell the rich green smell of the earth coming back to life. New York never smelled like this at night. I wonder, what do L. A. nights smell like--car exhaust? How can people there enjoy spring when they never have winter?

A scene from one of my favorite movies pops into my head, The Wizard of Oz. Mom and I must have watched it a thousand times. It's that scene when Dorothy closes her eyes, clicks her ruby slippers together, and murmurs over and over, "There's no place like home," as she waits for the magic to take her home where she belongs.

But where do I belong? Where's my home? I don't even know anymore.

Zoe and her mom have some serious work to do to come up with a plan to ease Zoe's transition to life in L.A.--before, like little E.T., it's her time to fly, but then, making transitions is the over-arching theme of Laurie Halse Anderson's Vet Volunteers series. As in the other books in this series, animals in need figure strongly in the plot of this new edition of Time to Fly #10 (Vet Volunteers), but dealing with the changes that come with life and growing up is the real subject of the novel, handled realistically here by a skillful and sensitive author.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

School Days, School Days: First Food Fight This Fall and Other School Poems by Marilyn Singer

Cleaning Erasers
by Kwan

I love
to erase the
To make today's words
and numbers smear,
then disappear
from here.

I grab
the erasers
Out the open windows.
Watch out, below--
Lessons heading
your way!

In Marilyn Singer's forthcoming First Food Fight This Fall and Other School Poems (Abrams, 2009), we first meet a group of kids destined to become Ms. Mundy's class--each unique even in the way they mount the steps onto the bus and take their seats. Laksmi shyly hides behind her hair, while Dylan clicks a mental photograph of the noisy gang's first ride to school. As the year goes forward, Singer crafts 29 engaging and endearing poems by one or more of these students, chronicling not only the familiar milestones--squabbles and games, holidays and first snowfall, tests and triumphs--but each child's passage through the trivial and momentous days of their lives. And like Dylan's mental click, each child is caught in a verbal snapshot as each grows through the year.

The verses range from humorous to arresting. Here are two takes on the classroom reading of a well-known poem:

When Ms Mundy Read Us A Poem
by Laksmi and Kwan

I fell asleep as
Only this time
I dreamed of flowers.
On the grayest fall day,
all the maples outside
were bare.
But in our room cherry
trees bloomed.

The constant squeaking of swings, thump of basketballs and shrieking, all the running and shoving of hide-and-seek suddenly stop for a special event, through the photographic eyes of Dylan, who echoes Robert Frost:

Posing for the perfect photograph,
we looked up, still and silent,
heads tilted, mouths open wide,
to catch the first snowflakes of December
on the last outdoor recess of the year.

Constant rivals Amy and Malik keep their feud going in their joint poem "Valentine's Day" which concludes:

Tell me that you won't be mine!
Please don't be my Valentine!

The school year makes it way through science fair time, food fights and cleanups, bean-planting activities, field trips, and also significant individual triumphs. Laksmi stays awake and suddenly "sees" a poem in her wide-open mental eye, Jake finally volunteers to do math on the board, Ms. Mundy hands Dylan her real camera to snap a perfect class picture, and Fumi discovers that although she hates gym, she loves dancing there. And then, amazingly, it's the last day of school:

Last, First

Last bubblegum stash,
last lesson we're taught.
Last fountain to splash,
last chance to get caught.

Last hugs all around,
last read-aloud poem.
Last wish we could stay,
last loud bus ride home,

First chance to sleep late,
first day it's too warm.
First do-nothing date,
first great thunderstorm.

First race to the beach,
First green beans to pick.
First sweet-tasting peach,
First jellyfish--ICK!

First star in the sky,
first "Look, it's still light!"
First bright fireflies,
first long summer night.

Singer's simple poems are surprisingly moving, written in various styles--quatrains, blank verse, haiku--capturing the individual voices of the kids of the class. Great for occasional poetry breaks, for the beginning and end of the year, or as a jumping-off point for classroom poetry study and writing, this slender book deserves a place close at hand on teachers' desks year-round. Sachiko Yashikawa's ebullient illustrations catch the humor and pathos, the ups and downs, of the school year just right, and every child can find himself in these short poems that capture the elementary school experience like a treasured photo album.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Saving Grace: The Sweet In-Between by Sheri Reynolds

Aunt Glo can't tell which slide she's choosing. She just feels for them in their blue plastic box, and it's like a surprise. When she puts the slide beneath the stage clips, then we can see what she's picked.

A plant leaf looks like a stone wall along the edges. "Ain't that something," she says. "You'd never know from just looking at it."

But everything's transparent if you slice it thin enough.

You'd never know from just looking that there's anything good about Kendra (Kenny) Lugo's life. Her mom has died young of breast cancer; her dad is in prison, and she lives with his girlfriend, "Aunt Glo," her sons, Quinton, twelve, and Tim-Tim, nineteen, and granddaughter, Daphne, whose addicted HIV-positive mother shows up unwelcome and infrequently. Kenny has earlier been sexually abused by Tim, and this trauma, compounded by her mother's cancer, has compelled her to chop off her hair in a boyish cut, bind up her breasts, and dress in baggy unisex clothing as if denying her her gender will protect her from further pain.

Although life with the painkiller-addicted Aunt Glo is far from perfect, Kenny cares deeply for her and the seven-year-old Daphne, and fears that she will lose even this imperfect family when she turns eighteen and is ineligible for state child support. And to top off her miseries, a young college student, mistakenly thinking she is entering a vacation rental cottage, is accidentally shot by their alcoholic neighbor Jarvis, a bumbling but threatening old codger who sometimes tries to lure Kenny and Daphne inside his disordered house. Kenny becomes constantly obsessed by thoughts of the murdered girl, who becomes a metaphor for her own chaotic misfortunes.

But despite her conflicted self-image, Kenny has strengths which eventually promise hope for her future. Avoiding the high school cafeteria scene, she spends her lunch period hanging around the yearbook office, where a perceptive teacher finds small jobs to provide cover for Kenny and eventually allows her to use the staff camera to make photographs for the annual. In learning to compose her shots, Kenny somehow finds a measure of control which seems lacking in her real life. Behind the camera, Kenny finds a place for herself, and as she does, her future opens up to her.

Hopefully Kenny begins to renovate a junk-filled storage room in Aunt Glo's house for herself, finds work with the help of an old classmate as a handyman and landscaper, and finally gains the courage to visit her father in prison. And at last she has the strength to speak her fears to Aunt Glo:

"What's going to happen when I turn eighteen?" I blurt out too loud, and then I'm wailing. It's embarrassing how loud I am. I hear it but I can't shut up.

"Nothing special, I don't reckon," Aunt Glo says.

I stammer, "But where will I go?" Still too loud. I can't look at her.

Aunt Glo says, "Nowhere, baby, unless you want to.... You're my girl."

"No," I say. "Daphne's your girl."

"Oh, quit feeling sorry for yourself," Aunt Glo says. "It ain't your place to put limits on my love. I've had you near as long as I've had Daphne."

Grace seems an unlikely quality in Kenny's life, but grace is what she finds as the people around her turn out to have more to give than she expects and her own resilience proves equal to her needs. Sheri Reynolds' latest, The Sweet In-Between: A Novel is not an easy book to read at first, but despite the ugliness of her situation, Kenny finds that saving grace within herself and close to home. This is not a novel for everyone, but for the mature young adult The Sweet In-Between: A Novel, does not deny the redemptive power within the human heart.

Sheri Reynolds is also the author of best-sellers The Rapture of Canaan and A Gracious Plenty: A Novel.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back to School: Dinosaur Starts School by Pamela Duncan Edwards

"What would you do if on the very first day of school Dinosaur wasn't smiling his big, toothy dinosaur smile?"

"You'd say, 'Don't worry, Dinosaur. School will be fun.'"

Yeah, right. School-shy kids don't believe that line of persuasion for a minute, because they have a honest litany of "what if" fears about the whole experience. In Pamela Duncan Edwards' latest, Dinosaur Starts School, this big orange dino has his own catalog of complaints.

What if he stamps his feet, And roared in his loudest dinosaur voice--ROOOOAARR!
"Shy dinosaurs don't have to go to school!"

You'd say, "Of course you do, Dinosaur. Otherwise, how would dinosaurs grow up to be so smart?"

But this little boy's dinosaur is not persuaded. What if he gets lost? What if the noisy classroom gives him a headache? What if he CRIES in front of the whole class? What if the food in the lunchroom is YUCKY? And what if he feels all alone with all those strange kids? And to all those worries, the boy has some simple advice for his shy friend.

"What if everyone ran outside to play but Dinosaur stayed behind and looked shy?"

"What if Dinosaur notices someone else looking shy, too? I bet Dinosaur would whisper in his gentlest dinosaur voice, 'Want to play on the swings together?'

Then you and Dinosaur and your new friend would have a great time pushing each other on the swings.

What if, at the end of the day, you said, 'I told you school was fun, Dinosaur. Shall we come back tomorrow?'"

Notable author Edwards has shown in her earlier The Worrywarts that she knows how to banish fears with alliteration and rhyme and a touch of common sense, and her latest collaboration with artist Deborah Allwright provides some solace to soothe those first-day of school fears.

And for a delightful play on the alphabet book genre, see also Pamela Duncan Edwards' Some Smug Slug, cleverly illustrated by Henry Cole, who here does some of his best work.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Back to School: I'm Your Bus by Marilyn Singer

Howdy! You can count on us.
Morning, evening, I'm your bus!

The genre of "first day of school" books deals with all those nagging fears that schoolkids have--mean teachers, class bullies, no friends at lunch and recess, hard tests, and, yes, even those iconic yellow school buses that growl and groan through the dawn's early light with hissing doors and an intimidating mob of noisy kids inside. As charming as those bright yellow buses look to grown-ups (who don't have to ride them anymore and are glad of it, thank you!), for some kids they can be the most fearful thing about starting to school. (See Barbara Park's classic Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus (Junie B. Jones, No. 1).)

Marilyn Singer's brand-new I'm Your Bus (Scholastic, 2009) does a great job of making those big behemoths seem friendly and even inviting.

Hurry, hurry! Now it's eight.
Busy buses, can't be late!
Get on, Jamie, Carlos, Gus.
Casey, Lacey, I'm your bus.

Past the waving traffic cops.
Past the friendly tire shop.
There's the school zone.
Buses, stop!

Watch those backpacks! Coming through!
Have fun today. Learn something new!

Anthropomorphic buses, with kindly windshield wiper eyes and big smiles, wake up early to ferry the children through cheery morning streets, cheered on by their fellow taxis and trucks. They even watch over those items kids always manage to leave behind.

On the seats we buses find
Lots of school books, every kind--
Pencils, glasses left behind.
Bats and caps--how fabulous!
I'll keep 'em safe
"Cause I'm your bus.

The bus also reminds the kids that he's the one who'll drive them to special fun events--field trips to the zoo, the airport, the farm. And when the day is done, all gassed up and spiffily washed, the buses will roll up again to take the tired but happy kids home.

The buses line up in a row.
Lisa, Devin, Chloe, Moe,
Find your seats and off you'll go.

How'd you grade ME? Wow! A+!
I'm so proud to be your bus!

Cheery and rhythmic text and jolly illustrations by Evan Polenghi make I'm Your Bus a must-read for those first days of school.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Back to School: It's Your First Day of School, Annie Claire by Nancy White Carlstrom

Little Annie Claire is suffering first-day jitters on the night before her debut at preschool, and her anxiety manifests itself in a series of questions directed at her ever-patient mother. Her worries range from the trivial...

"What if at story time
I sleep and I snore,
And everyone laughs,
And I just snore some more?" the deepest fears of the very young:

"What if no one will play
Or be friends with me,
And I'm all alone
Sitting up in that tree?"

But Mama warmly but firmly counters all Annie Claire's anxieties with words of reassurance. To the snoring worry she calmly predicts the teacher's reaction:

"Teacher will say
'Annie Claire, sleepyhead!
Remember tonight
It's early to bed!'"

And to the fear of friendlessness she reminds Annie Claire that her friends will be there for her:

"Some of your old friends
Already wait
There in the classroom.
Let's not be late!"

But the empathetic Annie is also worrying about Mama, left alone at home.

"Mama, what if you're sad
And can't eat your lunch,
'Cause you're home all alone,
And miss me a bunch?"

"We will get used to this.
We both have to try.
It will be okay."

"But why, Mama, why?"

"Because, Annie Claire,
I'll always love you.
No matter what happens
Or what you might do."

Despite the promise of new experiences, the first "first day" of school also has a bit of sadness for both parent and child, and Nancy White Carlstrom doesn't gloss over the very real emotions of that momentous day in her latest, It's Your First Day of School, Annie Claire. Carlstrom, the author of the best-selling Jesse Bear books, again brings that parent-child empathy to this new picture book, ably illustrated by Margie Moore, to help ease the transition to those first days out in the wide, wide world.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Magic Trumpet: A Good Night for Ghosts (Magic Tree House #42) by Mary Pope Osborne

"You are trapped here now. Trapped forever!" said the ghost of Jean LaFitte.

"Play, Annie, play!" said Jack.

"I can't!" said Annie. "We used up all the magic! It's just an ordinary trumpet now!"

"Here, give it to me," said Dipper.

Dipper put the trumpet to his lips. He drew a deep breath and then he blew.

And the rest is history. Or in the hands of Mary Pope Osborne, historical fantasy. In this second Merlin Mission adventure, Magic Tree House #42: A Good Night for Ghosts (A Stepping Stone Book(TM)) (Random House, 2009) Jack and Annie travel to the New Orleans of 1915 with the urgent mission of persuading the young Louis Armstrong to return to his first love, New Orleans jazz. Louie, then nicknamed "Dipper" for his favorite tune, "Dippermouth Blues," has just returned from two years at the Waifs' Home, where he was sent for a youthful misadventure. Now fourteen, Louie has "The Money Blues" and is determined to stay out of trouble with the local street musicians, work hard at his three jobs, and help support his family. Although Jack and Annie spend a day following him around and urging him to play his horn with his old street band, Louie is adamant that he has put all that behind him.

As in their previous book, Magic Tree House #41: Moonlight on the Magic Flute (A Stepping Stone Book(TM)), in which their magic flute restores the love of music to the young Mozart, Jack and Annie's mission is to help Louis Armstrong also turn his genius to providing happiness to the world. Equipped with Merlin's magic flute, now transformed into a magic trumpet, and a research guide, A History of New Orleans Music, the two shadow Louis, helping him deliver coal, wash dishes at The Greasy Spoon, and unload bananas down at the docks, as they try to persuade him to pick up his cornet and make some music. Dipper calls them a couple of "potato heads" for working for nothing, but as they drive the coal wagon through the French Quarter, he treats them to a bit of scat singing ("Skid dat de dat") as he points out that there's music in everything he hears.

But Jack and Annie stick to their mission, and when all else fails, they pull out their History of New Orleans Music and show Louie his future biography. And when he proves that his trumpet can make even Jean LaFitte's ghost dance on All Saints' Eve, he resolutely sets off to fetch his cornet and heads for a riverboat gig with his old band that night, and as Jack and Annie's tree house rises over the city, the sound of that unforgettable cornet is heard from the river--and American music is changed forever.

In her prologue to this book, Mary Pope Osborne recalls a seminal few weeks in New Orleans:

I always knew it was only a matter of time before Jack and Annie and I would have an adventure in New Orleans with Louis Armstrong, and now I can say it was one of the best adventures I ever had.

Osborne evokes the sights, smells, and social scene, good and bad, of early twentieth century New Orleans, titling each of her chapters after an Armstrong recording--"Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," "Potato Head Blues," "Heebie Jeebies"--and sets the climax of the story in the old blacksmith shop said to be haunted by pirate LaFitte and his crew where the three youngsters take shelter from a twilight storm. There is plenty of atmosphere and historic detail folded skillfully into the latest in the series, and, as always, Sal Murdocca's black and white pencil illustrations give form to the text perfectly. A companion book, Magic Tree House Research Guide #20: Ghosts: A Nonfiction Companion to A Good Night for Ghosts (A Stepping Stone Book(TM)), provides classroom resources just right for the upcoming spooky season. Together with its predecessor, Magic Tree House #41: Moonlight on the Magic Flute (A Stepping Stone Book(TM)), these two books also provide great tie-ins for an across-the-curriculum music study. Somehow I think that Mozart and Armstrong have a lot in common. Just imagine what their ghosts might have to say to each other about the joys of making music! (How about October biography book reports with readers dressing as the ghosts of their subjects, sharing their life experiences with each other?)

Fans can take a look at a intriguing trailer which provides a visit with Mary Pope Osborne as she talks about research, writing (and re-writing) here.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Back to School: Mrs. Watson Wants Your Teeth by Alison McGhee

I have a secret....

First grade begins today and I'm in big trouble.

It's a known fact that Mrs. Watson, the first-grade teacher, is a 300-year-old alien who steals baby teeth from her students.

How do I know? A second-grader told me.

Upper graders are all queens and kings of hyperbole when it comes to warnings for younger kids about school. And the worrywart heroine from Countdown to Kindergarten now has first grade to fret over, especially her teacher, said to be a purple-tongued, baby-tooth grabbing alien. And to make things worse, she HERSELF has just discovered her first LOOSE TOOTH!

Our girl decides that her only defense against the innocuous-looking Mrs. Watson is to keep her mouth firmly closed all the way through first grade.

This proves to be hard duty.

She can't open wide to sing, and she loves to sing.

She can't take part in Show and Share Time.

She can't volunteer to count backwards from ten to one, and that's her specialty.

She can't even have a snack at snack time.

But when Mrs. Watson asks the dreaded question, "Does anyone have a loose tooth?" our girl watches with horror as the boy in front of her opens wide to show off his wiggly incisor.

"MMMMMMMM!" she vocalizes, trying to warn him of the approaching danger. And then as Mrs. Watson draws closer, holding out her reputedly deadly TREAT BOX, our altruistic heroine just has to save him from his fate!


And the power of her warning forces her own loose tooth right out of her mouth and into Mrs. Watson's hand.

"Oh, my! I wasn't expecting THAT!" says Mrs. Watson.

("Neither was I," thinks our girl!)

"Class, we have a WINNER!" says Mrs. Watson.

And from inside that mysterious treat box Mrs. Watson extracts a giant "Twenty-Year" lollipop as the prize for the first lost tooth of the school year, a treat which our heroine proudly shows off to that inventive second grader as she takes the bus home after her first day in first grade.

Alison McGhee's Mrs. Watson Wants Your Teeth is a great cautionary tale for taking those word-of-mouth warnings from older kids with a bit of healty skepticism. As in their earlier collaboration, Harry Bliss' humorous illustrations provide quite a few chuckles as the story progresses. For example, book posters on the wall in the first grade hall include HARRY PLOTTER AND THE HUGE CAVITY, LIFE ON THE ROAD by The Tooth Fairy, FLOSS THROUGHOUT THE AGES by D. Cay, and, ominously posted beside her door, MRS. WATSON'S LOST TOOTH GALLERY, with photos of anxious gap-toothed kids.

It's a reassuring read for that worrisome countdown to the first day of school, with illustrator Harry Bliss expertly adding to the fun.

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