Thursday, December 31, 2009

Night Flight: While the World Is Sleeping by Pamela Duncan Edwards

Come, little sleepyhead, come with me.
I have left my hill, high in the tree.
Oh, what wondrous things we will see.
While the world is sleeping.

A giant white owl invites a sleepy child to fly along on a dreamlike journey among the creatures of the night. The bright pajama-clad tot gladly opens her bedroom window and climbs aboard the owl's ample back and immediately finds herself in a midnight world where not all are sleeping, the world of nocturnal woodland creatures.

Silver fish are swimming past,
In the river running fast.
Will they reach the sea at last?
While the world is sleeping.

A bright-eyed fox is on the prowl.
He hopes to take a juicy fowl,
Until he hears the guard dog howl.
While the world is sleeping.

The entranced child watches baby rabbits at play, beavers at work on their dam, and a wise mouse mother warning her babies of the dangers all around while she soars on the downy owl's back through the night, until at last it is time to return to the sleeping world at home.

And soon the rooster's song will warm.
Dark is going, it is almost dawn.
The day is waiting to be born.
The world has finished sleeping.

Best-selling author Pamela Duncan Edwards' anti-lullaby is both dreamlike reverie and thrilling night adventure in her brand-new While The World Is Sleeping (Orchard Books, 2010). Duncan's simple lyric verse is artfully set forth by Daniel Kirk, (author/illustrator of the best-selling Library Mouse, Abrams, 2007) in lively but fantasy-inspired illustrations of the separate lives of creatures who, like the young child, are lovers of the night, while in his final painting we see the golden sun rising behind the chicken coop, the owl, with a farewell look, briefly perched on top, while in the foreground, the sleepy child rubs her eyes and seems to wonder if she has dreamed this sleep-time adventure. Pair this one with Susan Swanson's 2009 Caldecott Award book, The House in the Night,--and sweet dreams to all!

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A New Beginning: The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

It was so hot that Meli found herself nodding as Mr. Uka droned on and on. To keep awake, she began to study the teacher's nose. It was so big. It occurred to her that Mr. Uka reminded her of a pelican. In her boredom, she drew a picture of a pelican that looked surprisingly like Mr. Uka. Zana, who shared her desk, began to giggle. It was contagious. Meli couldn't help herself.

"Zana, Meli, come to the front, "said Mr. Uka.

Don't let him see the resemblance, Meli thought.

"Very clever," he said. "But what do pelicans have to do with the history of Kosovo?
I would like the two of you to stay after school to catch up on history."

Meli soon has cause to regret this moment of misbehavior. When she and Zana are finally dismissed, her big brother, thirteen-year-old Mehmet, who is supposed to escort her home, has left, and when she reaches home, there is no sign of him.

Mehmet has disappeared, and the family finally learns that their fears are justified. Like many other Kosovar men and teenagers, Mehmet has been taken by the Serbian police. It is many months before he suddenly appears at their door one night, thin, worn, and very bitter against the Serbs who beat him and left him for dead in the mountains. Rescued by the guerrillas of the KLA, the Kosovar Liberation Army, Mehmet is filled with deadly resentment and makes no secret of his desire to join the KLA as soon as he is fifteen to take revenge on his captors.

It is 1990, and Milosevic's forces are beginning their program of ethnic cleansing in Armenian Kosovo, and Meli's non-practicing but nominally Muslim family--parents, Mehmet, younger brothers Adil and Isuf,little Vlora, and her uncle's family as well--are swept up in the turbulence. Fleeing their home and then their uncle's nearby farm, the family is stripped of all valuables, their cache of food, and even their extra clothing and blankets, and as the farm burns behind them, with the babies and elderly great-grandmother, they flee to the protection of the KLA in the mountains where they barely survive the winter. From there, as NATO intervenes to stop the slaughter, they move on to a refugee camp in Macedonia, where miraculously they qualify for immigration to the United States, sponsored by a Vermont church.

And then, just as the children begin to settle into school and learn English and their father Baba and mother find makeshift jobs to support them, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, occur, and Meli and Mehmet see the shocked and angry looks of their classmates turn into personal attacks. Meli is at first hurt by her friends' avoidance and finds her anger turning into hatred not unlike that in her brother's hardened heart. Meli and Mehmet quit their school soccer teams in protest, feeling that their teammates are no better than the Serbs they left behind. But then Meli sees where that kind of thinking can lead:

Did those bullies know the damage they had done to someone who was just beginning to heal? Did they care? It was bad enough to feel alone, as Meli did, deserted by the only person she had dared to think of as a friend, but to have such hatred? And yet, and yet, she herself had tasted that corrosive poison. That very afternoon, looking into Brittany's face, she had seen the hated Serbs. Baba was right. Hatred made no sense. They must not let it eat away their souls. They would become like the very ones they hated. She wanted to bang on Mehmet's door and scream at him. Don't let them do this to you!

In the latest from Katherine Paterson, this noted author, a National Book Award and two-time Newbery Award winner (for Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved,)has chosen to write a slim, fast-moving historical novel which sketches forth the story of one Albanian family's escape from persecution into a new beginning in an imperfect but hopeful new life together. Knowing Paterson's power to portray the internal as well as external life of her characters, one may regret that she chooses to tell this story in broad strokes. With time and her undoubted craft, it might have become a gripping duo or trilogy, dipping deeply into Meli's personal history and developing each stage of her pilgrimage. But surely Paterson is aware of her deliberate decision to put the bare bones of her story forth today in this form. Bridging differences is a prominent theme in Paterson's work, and in The Day of the Pelican (Clarion, 2009), her voice in this brief work is itself a timely plea for temperance, for unity of family and community, and for understanding, for tolerance between peoples who find themselves thrust into history together.

After their confrontation with angry teammates, Meli and Mehmet are visited by their coaches from school that night, apologizing for the attacks on them and promising to dismiss the attackers from their teams. Meli's father Baba listens to the translation of their words and responds.

"Tell the kind teachers that it would not be a good thing to remove those boys and girls from their teams. They will only become bitter and hate my children all the more. Tell them my children wish to be respected as fellow teammates and not despised for their heritage. That is the way of the old country. This is America, tell them. In America, everyone has a new beginning."

"Baba is right" Mehmet finally says. "One man does not make a team. We must play together, or there is no game."

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Giving the Chip the Slip: The Return of the Homework Machine by Dan Gutman


Is this thing workin'? Okay. Good. We're gonna need a lotta tape for this one.

Well, remember what happened the last time with those crazy kids. It was in all the papers.

Just to review, these four youngsters from the Grand Canyon School down the road built some machine that did their homework for 'em automatically. Smart kids. Good kids, down deep. And then, for some reason, they built themselves a catapult and chucked the whole darn contraption into the canyon. Strangest thing I ever seen.

Those kids from Dan Gutman's best-selling The Homework Machine are back. They're sixth graders now, made more savvy by their escapade with Brenton Damagatchi's amazing computer which spit out their homework, error-free, in warp time. And they will need all that sixth-grade savvy this time, because the homework machine, that is, its evil core, is back to haunt them.

When the kids--Sam, Judy, Kelsey, and Brenton--realized that having their work done for them was more trouble, ethically and otherwise, than it was worth, they came to the hard decision that the homework machine had to go. But being smart kids with a quirky sense of humor, they decided to get rid of it in a big way--building a medieval catapult and pitching into the Grand Canyon, conveniently nearby.

But now Brenton, the brains behind the caper, has a new worry. The seemingly indestructible main chip which powered the thing has been found still glowing on the canyon floor, and a menacing conman and a cadre of Asian gangsters are closing in on the valuable property with nefarious and threatening plans for its use. The group gets together again to try to retrieve the chip while keeping it out of the hands of evil forces, all without blowing their cover and without winding up on the canyon floor themselves.

And if the kids do get that chip back, how can they end its malevolent history for good? Well, suffice it to say that the guys' hobby of building more and more powerful model rockets comes in handy, and what's left of the homework machine gets a real out-of-this-world sendoff.


The Canyonistas were coming from all over, and another police car pulled up, and those gangsters were coming toward us, and everybody was yelling and shouting at each other. I just covered my ears.


And I pushed the button.

Dan Gutman's Return of the Homework Machine, (Simon & Schuster, 2009) again narrated cleverly through Police Chief Fish's case report testimony tapes by each of the kids, is a funny and fast-paced sequel which will please fans of the first book. As usual, Gutman's writing is appealing, with snappy dialog and sympathetic characters, told with wit and with heart. As School Library Journal said of the first book, it's "...a dramatic and thought-provoking story with a strong message about honesty and friendship."

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Monday, December 28, 2009

More Tales from The Rock: Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko


That's all the note in Moose's laundry had said. "Done." But when Al Capone does your laundry, a note in your pocket is a big deal. Big Al may be confined to a five by seven cell in Alcatraz, but his powers extend far and wide.

That's why twelve-year-old Moose has written Capone a letter, pleading for his help in getting his sister Natalie into a special school which can give her a chance at a more normal life. With that "Done," an acceptance letter soon follows and Natalie is on her way to the Esther P. Marinoff School in nearby San Francisco, and Moose's life with his prison guard father and his mother on Alcatraz Island, heretofore centered around his autistic sister's care, is about to change radically.

But now Annie, who is a crack baseball pitcher and nobody's fool, knows that something is up between Moose and The Rock's most famous prisoner. And then comes another note, one that makes Moose's heart almost stop:

Annie props open the screen door with her foot. "Moose." She gulps. "You won't believe what happened."

"What happened?" I asked.

"We got the wrong laundry. We got yours." she whispers.

"I didn't realize it was your laundry. I started putting it away and...Moose, there was a note in the pocket of your shirt."

"A-a note?" My voice breaks high, like a girl's.

The note is written on the same paper in the same handwriting as the other one.

YOUR TURN, it says.

When Scarface Capone does you a favor, he expects a payback, and when Moose gets that note, his life becomes a misery, waiting for the other shoe, perhaps shined by Al Capone, to drop. First, when Big Al's wife Mae visits him on The Rock and drops her hanky, it's no accident. Then when Natalie comes home for a holiday visit, there is a dread object found in her suitcase, a bar spreader obviously intended to be used in an upcoming escape attempt. "Bottom drawer," says Natalie. "He told me to put it in the bottom drawer. 105, 105, 105." Moose, Annie, and his friend Jimmy know that there's more to that story than they want to know.

The kids are terrified. There is obviously an escape attempt being planned, but if they tell what they know, they fear their fathers will lose their jobs, no minor matter in the Depression of 1935. Trustee inmates are in and out of their apartments often for repairs, and Moose's family's toilet seems always to need the services of Seven Fingers, ax murderer and master plumber, and when the escapee wannabees discover the tool not in Natalie's bottom drawer but part of the toy carousel of six-year-old Janet Trixle, the warden's youngest, the cons are sure to suspect that the kids know more than is good for them.

Secret hideouts, a touch of romance with the warden's pretty but manipulative older daughter, spying on the big reception for FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, and an exciting prison break scene are all part of Gennifer Choldenko's rousing sequel to her Newbery Honor Book, Al Capone Does My Shirts. Picking right up on the heels of the first book, this one has the same colorfully drawn characters and plenty of suspense as Moose gets his first kiss and Buddy Boy, One-Arm Willy, and Seven Fingers break loose from the cell house and take them all, including Natalie, hostages in their escape plan. But Natalie has powers of observation beyond those of the average kid, and it is she who makes the right connections when push comes to shove.

Choldenko's historical fiction chops are just right in her latest, Al Capone Shines My Shoes (Dial, 2009) one sure to please fans of her first book. Although this novel is plenty strong enough to be read on its own, it would be a shame to miss the fun of reading the two together. As the Kirkus reviewer puts it, "Choldenko hits a grand slam...Effortless period dialogue, fully developed secondary characters and a perfectly paced plot combine to create a solid-gold sequel that will not disappoint."

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Nailed It! Swish: The Quest for Basketball's Perfect Shot by Mark Stewart and Mike Kennedy

One of the sweetest sounds in the world is the SWISH a ball makes as it brushes against the thick cords of a basketball net.

And yet, as authors Stewart and Kennedy point out, except for a happenstance of history, that sound might have been a rattle or a thunk! When in 1891 YMCA instructor James Naismith was casting about for a vigorous indoor game to pass the long Massachusetts winter, he asked janitor Pop Stebbins for a crate or box to nail up on the goal post, but on short notice all Pop could come up with were two round wicker peach baskets, and, as we say, the rest is history.

Luckily, in a couple of years, the peach baskets were replaced with nets (how did the first players get their balls back from those baskets?) and since that day, the urge to hear that satisfying "swish" has kept young men and women busy all winter perfecting that perfect shot. The authors point out that the game was an almost instant hit, even picking up female players right away, and soon youngsters all over the country were trying to become shooters.

Not a book on how to shoot, but a history of the shot itself, Swish: The Quest for Basketball's Perfect Shot (Exceptional Sports Titles for Intermediate Grades) (Millbrook, 2009) is a lively and exciting account of basketball's long history, beginning with its first significant skill, the set shot. Long before defensive techniques developed, even before dribbling became the main means of moving the ball down court, the two-handed shooting stars like William "Pop" Gates of the Harlem Renaissance, the "Rens," were well-known "professional" players.

Chapter titles tell the story: Chapter II, "Buzzer Beaters" recounts those last ticks on the clock shots, from the Sheboygan Redskins-Fort Wayne Pistons final score in the old NBL wartime league in which Redskins center got off a last second hook shot which sank to win the game 29-27, to the Bulls' Michael Jordan's twenty-foot jump ball to win beat the Utah Jazz in 1998. The authors then go on to devote a chapter to the art of shooting--the set shot, one-hander, jump-shot (long, short, and mid-range), the driving shot, the (once-banned) slam dunk, bank shot, finger-roll, fadeaway, turnaround, and hook shot, not to mention the various styles of free-throw shots.

In Chapter IV the authors swing into the extreme--the "Longest, Shortest, Weirdest, Wildest" of basketball's remarkable history. Here's a sample from a game between the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania in 1908:

During a scramble for a loose ball, Pat Page for Chicago grasped it with two hands but could not straighten up because of the Pennsylvania players surrounding him. He looked between his legs and saw an open teammate. Page "hiked" the ball like a football player. His desperate pass sailed over his teammate...and went right into the basket. Chicago won the game 21-18.

There are plenty more "extreme" shots, from Baron Davis' 89-foot shot in the NBA to the unbelievably lucky shot by a Clippers' dance team member, who, during a game break, sank her impromptu shot from 45 feet with her back to the basket!

Chapter V details the high-scoring stars of basketball--center Big George Mikan of the 1950s, one of pro basketball's first "big man" shooters, through Bob Pettit's high scoring feats of the 1960s, Chamberlain, Johnson, Jordan, and even 100-point games by collegians, Bevo Francis and Drank Selvy, and high schoolers Lisa Leslie and Cheryl Miller. The final chapter, "For the Record," provides pro scoring records for most points in a quarter, in a half, in a game, a season, and a a career, shooting percentages, averages per season, free throws, and three pointers. Women's pro records are given almost equal space, considering the comparatively short history of pro basketball for women--with the amazing season free-throw average of 98.4% for Eva Nemcova--a standout stat! With a short "Crystal Ball" chapter on basketball's future, the authors sink their shot with a solid bibliography of books and web sites and index.

A lively and engaging read, Swish: The Quest for Basketball's Perfect Shot (Exceptional Sports Titles for Intermediate Grades) will appeal to a variety of sport enthusiasts, from the would-be hot shooter to the nascent sports writer or historian or just the student looking for an agreeable nonfiction book report read.

This title is joined by a similar look at baseball's big hitters in Long Ball: The Legend And Lore of the Home Run (Exceptional Social Studies Titles for Intermediate Grades) in this promising nonfiction series.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

"Such Things As Dreams:" William S. and the Great Escape by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

The weepy eyes were no surprise. But what he certainly hadn't foreseen was how the conversation began. The first words out of Jancy's mouth were, "Look here, William, I know you're getting ready to run away. You are, aren't you?"

Puzzled, William shrugged. "Well, yeah, I guess so. Sooner or later."

"I'm just plain finished with being a Baggett," she told William fiercely. "So I'm going to run away, too, as soon as ever I can."

With those brave words from Jancy, the great escape is set in motion.

William has taken the middle initial S from his idol, William Shakespeare, hoping that the placement of the Bard's last name will separate him from his last name, from his coarse and cruel father and half-siblings who make his life miserable. But when the older Baggett boys drown little sister Trixie's guinea pig in the toilet as a prank, Jancy insists that it's time for her and William and their little siblings Buddy and Trixie to try to escape to the refuge of their mother's sister, Aunt Fiona, on the California coast. Big Ed Baggett has no love or concern for his four youngest, but keeps them around for the "Depression dollars" their presence earns to support his slothful lifestyle.

Twelve-year-old William has been saving his earnings for years, planning to run away when he's old enough to blend into the general population, but the addition of ten-year-old Jancy, six-year-old Trixie, and four-year-old Buddy makes it almost impossible to make an inconspicuous escape. But at Jancy's prodding, the four kids steal away in the dark hours before dawn, hiding in ditches from the occasional passing car, with a wagon loaded with their belongings. Seeking concealment during the day by means of an open cellar door, the runaways are discovered by the teenaged Clarice, a well-to-do but emotionally needy daughter of work-absorbed lawyer parents, who secretly takes the family in to satisfy her own loneliness and her love for the drama of the venture, feeding and hiding them well, all the while trying to keep them with her for daytime company.

But William knows that their presence will be discovered by her parents soon, and the kids make another pre-dawn flight, this time from Clarice's cellar, and manage to take a bus which will drop them only a few miles from their aunt's house. But William is sure that they have been spotted by a roughneck friend of the Baggett boys, and even Aunt Fiona's fond welcome doesn't allay his fears that the Baggetts will soon be hard on their trail. Hopefully, they set up an emergency hideaway under the eaves, entered through a tiny door in their aunt's closet, but when the Baggetts do track them down, they are dragged out, beaten, and returned to their old lives with their worthless family.

All seems lost but for Clarice, who resolutely puts together left-behind clues as to Aunt Fiona's address and eventually pulls her high-powered parents into her mission to restore the four children to a real home with their aunt and a chance for a decent life. "All's well that ends well," and three-time Newbery winner Zilpha Keatley Snyder's William S. and the Great Escape (Atheneum, 2009) blends quirky but appealing characters and an exciting "road story" into a fast-moving and poignant novel for middle readers who like their adventures on the historical side.

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Winter Woods: When Snowflakes Fell by Carl R. Sams and Jean Stoick




Some flee to warmer climes, some burrow deep in their snugly lined nests, and some can even afford to scorn the snow:


Monarch butterflies and hummingbirds migrate far, far to the south, but the hardy and resourceful woodpecker just keeps hammering away for the insects wintering beneath the trees' bark. And baby bear cubs need not worry about the snow; their mothers are right there to cuddle them warmly.

How the animals of summer adapt to winter's advance is the subject of Carl R. Sams' and Jean Stoick's charming photographic essay on the ways of wintering over in the wild. When Snowflakes Fall, available in hardback and now in a shaped board book, is the perfect way to teach preschoolers about adaptation to the seasons, with appealing and striking photographs of the various creatures in winter.

A companion book, likewise based on their earlier photo essay Stranger in the Woods: A Photographic Fantasy (Nature), also aimed at the preschool set, is the equally irresistible Winter Friends,, also available in sturdy board book format, which shows deer, birds, and squirrels discovering a snowman left by concerned children. A young deer nibbles the end of the snowman's carrot nose, while the squirrel takes advantage of the nuts which form his friendly grin, and the feathered friends enjoy the birdseed in his button front and scattered around his feet. With a gentle theme of sharing our human bounty with the wild creatures around us and engaging photos of the animals visiting the red-capped snowman, this little book will inspire the very young to build their own edible snowmen when winter comes.




Friday, December 25, 2009

It's the Thought! The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell




What to give a dog who has it all? Mooch the cat is stumped. His friend deserves something special. But what something?

Wait! Everyone gives everybody something. Maybe the best thing he can give him is--NOTHING! But where can you go for nothing?

Then Millie comes home from a shopping expedition tired and dispirited. "There's nothing to buy! she complains loudly.

Aha! Now Mooch knows where to look for this illusive nothing! It's off to the stores, where he sees many, many, many, somethings, some already wrapped in bright red bows for gift giving--but no nothings to buy. Finally, Mooch has to give up and repair to his favorite pillow for a refreshing nap.

And suddenly the answer come to him. Mooch finds a small box for Earl's gift, but is a bit underwhelmed with its presentation. "Hmmm... Maybe Earl deserves more than this," he muses, fetching a bigger box. "Now, that's plenty of nothing!"

Earl is impressed with the brightly beribboned box, but he is understandably perplexed when he opens Mooch's gift--and find NOTHING inside.

"Nothing but you and me!" says Mooch with a hug.

Patrick McDonnell sets his popular cartoon characters in a minimalist setting, black line drawings touched with small accents in red to work out his theme that it's the thought behind a friend's gift that means so much. It's a good theme for the holiday season, birthdays, and any time, and McDonnell's perennially popular The Gift of Nothing makes the point with a spare minimum of fuss!

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Reworking the Classics: The Night Before Christmas by Tom Browning

Taking on a tradition like St. Nick, a classic like Clement C. Moore's A Visit from St. Nicholas, requires combination of chutzpah and humility. Santa's annual visit has been portrayed in so many ways, from Tim Burton to Tomie dePaola, from Mary Engelbreit to Jim Rice, that it is hard to imagine a version that is able to shake off the stereotypes and show us something new. Tom Browning's new The Night Before Christmas (Sterling, 2009) doesn't even try.

Instead Browning goes for full-fledged nostalgia, saturating his palette in deep reds, golds, and midnight blues, and picturing his Santa as almost Rockwellesque--a handsome, masculine, and full-dress St. Nick, turned out in a gorgeous fur-trimmed red suit, big black boots, and wide buckled belt straight out of those Coca-Cola Santas who used to grace the back cover of National Geographic. His sleigh is a glorious enamel green with rococo scroll work, his reindeer so muscular and realistic that you can almost hear them chuff and shake their harness. The house we see from above is a generous white craftsman cottage with a long front porch and squared columns, and the family inside are pert and perky, Mamma and Pappa kissing chastely as they turn in wearing kerchief and cap, three children sleeping contentedly together in one bed, smiling with the sweetness of their sugarplum dreams.

The traditional text is attractively set off in scrolled inset boxes on each right-hand page, each inlaid with a miniature painting taken from the full-page paintings which adorn each verso. These illustrations are lit with the golden glow of fancy and nostalgia, working in bits of homey humor such as Santa setting his sleigh down to give his reindeer a snack before he soars to the rooftop for his grand entrance, or Santa sharing his obligatory glass of milk with the family cat beside the Christmas tree. This Santa seems to enjoy his magical powers, creating tree ornaments from soap bubbles, scattering moonshine flying dust on the toy airplane he gently places by the tree, and glorying in the stardust which enables him to rise effortlessly up from the chimney.

No new ground is broken here, although Browning does work in some creative perspective, both in some of the Santa's-eye views in his large illustrations, and in the small details he sets forth, jewel-like, as ornaments for his text. All in all, Tom Browning's The Night Before Christmas is a strikingly beautiful book which tells the satisfyingly familiar story well, one that just may be the best one for your family at Chrismastide.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Kitties: Twelve Cats for Christmas by Roger Priddy



There's nothing cuter than a kitten, unless it's a kitten in a bright red St. Nick cap.

Never mind that cats HATE to have anything on their heads and that Christmas, with its noisy toys and hordes of guests, is not REALLY any cat's idea of a great day.

After all, who could resist the twelve beautiful young cats who decorate Roger Priddy's Twelve Cats for Christmas (Touch and Feel)? Smokey, Tiger, twins Tinkerbell and Tinsel, Misty, Snowy and the rest pose charmingly in cozy Christmas vignettes. Only Oliver, a sour puss obviously raised by Ebeneezer Scrooge, hides from the festivities, eyes and ears only visible, until the pull tab reveals his frowning, haughty face, peering over a package. Meanwhile Poppy, curled up on her Christmas blanket, finds the whole thing a snooze, a point she makes with a pageful of large flocked Zs as she naps through the holiday.

In this large format board book, each page has a touch and feel feature--sparkly, fuzzy, fluffy, flocked, shiny smooth and textured, to please the tactile toddler. The cats are cute and their coy text is simple, and the whole book is sure to please the very young cat fancier.

And then, for those who prefer not a feline but a canine Christmas, there's Candy Radzinski's delightfully doggy What Dogs Want for Christmas (Holiday Series), with young pooches of various breeds in sincerely silly but unquestionably captivating Christmas costume.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Gift: The Christmas Baby by Marion Dane Bauer




Joseph goes from inn to inn, but one after another, doors are shut to the pleas of the anxious father and mother-to-be.

But the donkey carrying the expectant mother understands their need:
The donkey twisted her ears, nodded her head, and led her master to a stable filled with beasts and fragrant hay.

"Have you heard?" the man asks the beasts.

"We have heard," they answered. "We have been waiting. Come in!"

And the birth of the baby is met with loud brays and bleats and barks. Their "Have you heard" rebounds to the heavens, and the shepherds, the wise men, and the angels soon hear and join the rejoicing in the stable.

Mary and Joseph received them all.

"Give thanks with us," they said to each one.

"God has given us a baby."

And the baby lay in his bed of fragrant hay and smiled at the world, with God's own smile.

Newbery author Marion Dane Bauer clearly aims her narrative of the nativity, The Christmas Baby, Simon and Schuster, 2009) at the youngest listener, relating in spare but elegant language the simplest version of the Christmas story. Indeed, Bauer then generalizes the joy of that birth to include the birth of the listeners as well.

Now, every time a baby is born, stars and angels sing... "Have you heard? Have you heard?"

Mamas and daddies, grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles and cousins, and friends travel and bring gifts. "Have you heard?" they say. "Our baby is here."

And when that dear baby was you--do you know what you did?

Yes... of course.

You smiled back at us all...

With God's own smile!

Bauer's text simply connects the miracle of life and love in a way that small children will understand. What works less well here are the less than elegant illustrations of artist Richard Crowley, whose humorous style worked so well in A Very Marley Christmas, but seems, perhaps only to adults, a bit out of place in this otherwise reverent book. Still, this title reads well, a very good choice for the young child who may be hearing the nativity story for the first time.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Sam's Sleigh Ride: Santa's Stowaway by Brandon Dorman

It was Christmas in Santa's workshop.

"HO, HO, HO!" said Santa to the elves. "It's time for the final inspection."

Sam was excited. It was his first year working in the toy shop...., but as Santa turned to leave, Sam asked, "Santa, why do we work so hard making all these toys? Why does Christmas matter?"

A light began to sparkle in Santa's eyes. "You'll have find that out for yourself."

It's easy to see where this one is going. Sam stows away on Santa's sleigh and is off for the midnight ride, soaring through the blue-black, star-studded night sky, landing on snowy roofs and stealing down chimneys behind Santa as he makes his stops. But it is only when Santa is caught in the act by a shy and wakeful small girl and Sam sees the look in the child's eyes when St. Nick puts the doll Sam made into her arms that Sam finally feels what makes Christmas matter. Santa smiles wisely, having sensed Sam's presence all along:

"You're very clever, my little friend." he said.

"You see, Sam, each year one curious elf stows away on my sleigh to discover what makes Christmas special. And did you find your answer?"

It's not an original plot line: Jan Brett also uses mischievous elves to add an engaging subplot to her lovely, rococo version of The Night Before Christmas (Tenth Anniversary Edition), but her stowaways are merely pranksters. In Brandon Dorman's newest, Santa's Stowaway(Greenwillow, 2009), Sam is on a mission to find out the reason behind all this gift giving, a question that occurs to all of us at some time during the Christmas craziness. Dorman's saftig computer-assisted art, evocative of 1950s illustrative work, glows with color, comfort, and good cheer to reassure the young reader that Santa really means it when he makes that long wintry trek.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mining the Classics: A Traditional Tale, Re-Worked

Charles Tazewell's venerable story of a homesick and at-loose-ends little angel began almost accidentally in 1939 as an emergency script commissioned hurriedly to fill in a gap in movie production, and of course has gone on to become a standard Christmas tale.

Paul Micich's gorgeously illustrated The Littlest Angel perfectly satisfies the emotional nature of this old-fashioned tale without ever lapsing into the maudlin execution of some earlier editions. His little angel is boyish without being too cute, and his heaven is lovely without lapsing into hackneyed portrayals. Those final words, as the young angel's rough box holding the beloved treasures of his earthly life, are presented to welcome the Christ Child, still stir the soul:

Of all the gifts of all the angels, I find that this small box pleases me more. Its contents are of the earth and of man, and my son is born to be king of both. They are the things my Son, too, will know and love and cherish and then, reluctantly, will leave behind him when his task is done.

I loved this story as a third grader, so much that I practically memorized it word for word. When my teacher, a former librarian, discovered that I could recite the story from memory, she quickly volunteered me as a storyteller to the other classes on my grade. I was a hit, probably because my classmates were only too happy to put aside their busy-work Christmas crossword puzzles and their teachers were glad to give their voices a rest for a few minutes while we all waited for the final bell. Since then I've always had a soft spot for The Littlest Angel, and Paul Micich's sweetly lovely but unsentimental illustrations breathe new life into this old midcentury staple.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Oh, What Fun It Is! Jingle-Jingle by Nicola Smee





The familiar farm favorites from Nicola Smee's Clip-Clop are back, this time all decked out in Santa caps and sleigh bells, reading to go dashing through the snow, courtesy of the munificent Mr. Horse, who loads Cat, Dog, Pig, and Duck into his open sleigh for a glide through the snow-covered fields.

But when they've jingle-crunched over the fields and come to a long hill, there's a change from the usual routine.



For the first time in sleigh-time history, the horse climbs into the sleigh with the other passengers and off they go on a jingle-swoosh ride--right into a snowman upon whom a rabbit has just put the finishing touches.



And in traditional fashion, this sleigh is definitely "upsot" as Cat, Dog, Pig, Duck, AND Mr. Horse find themselves flying through the air and into their own "drifted bank."




Nicola Smee's Jingle-Jingle (Boxer Books, 2008) takes the five friends for a holiday ride which will involve listening little ones with every step along the way. Smee's strong black line drawings touched with vibrant watercolors make this a jolly journey for the picture book set.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Mission Accomplished: The Soldiers' Night Before Christmas by Trish Holland and Christina Ford

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the base,
Only sentries were stirring. They guard the place.

At the foot of each bunk sat a helmet and boot,
For the Santa of soldiers to fill up with loot.

The soldiers were sleeping and snoring away,
As they dreamed of back home on good Christmas Day.

Joining the plethora of takeoffs (see some notable ones here) on Clement Moore's classic poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," The Soldiers' Night Before Christmas (Big Little Golden Book) strikes a remarkably inventive and poignant note. Holland's and Ford's spoof has its humorous moments as the authors lay down a military scenario that never strains for a rhyme or a parallel nor mars the familiar meter and rhyme scheme. Amusing, yes, but for military families, this strangely touching version is more than a merry parody.

John Manders' cartoon-style illustrations show a midnight barracks' scene, one vaguely Beetle Bailey-type soldier fallen asleep with his laptop on his chest, another with letters from his family scattered across his bunk, while a third cradles his rifle close, just as an alarming crash wakens one of the grunts and sends him to unzip the tent window in a hurry.

When what to my thrill and relief should appear,
But one of our Blackhawks to give the all clear.

More rattle and rumble! I heard a deep whine!
Then up drove eight Humvees--a Jeep close behind.

In charge of this midnight mission is a burly, camo-clad and laser-eyed Sgt. McClaus, who urges his drivers to download gifts from the trucks to his seabags double-time:

"Now, Cohen! Mendoza! Woslowski! McCord! Now, Li! Watts! Donetti! And Specialist Ford!"

And the waiting helmets and boots are soon filled with "candies, cookies, and cakes, all homemade" phone cards to call home, and crayoned Christmas drawings from kids all bulging from the combat boots left in a row by the hopeful troopers.

Mission accomplished, Sgt. McClaus acknowledges the wide-awake and goggle-eyed grunt with a snappy salute, a ghost of a smile on his craggy face. As quickly as they came, McClaus' convoy is away, but not without a wish that all can share:

As the camp radar lost him, I heard this saint call,

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