Saturday, December 31, 2011

Words Make Meaning: Man Gave Names to All the Animals by Bob Dyland and Jim Arnovsky

He saw an animal that liked to growl,
Big furry paws and he liked to howl,
Great big furry back and furry hair.
‘Ah, think I'll call it a bear.'

Noted nature artist Jim Arnovsky, known for his highly accurate, yet individualistic representations of animals and plants, has taken a somewhat surprising author, Bob Dylan, as partner for the text in his newest, Man Gave Names to All the Animals (Sterling, 2011). From a song in his 1979 album "Slow Train Coming," the artist takes Dylan's wry and witty text as his narrative, but does not settle for a predictable two-page spread for each animal named. Instead, Arnovsky's pages swarm with animals in a Garden of Eden world.

Arnovsky's beasta crawl, dash, climb, slither, leap, soar and swim across the pages in a profusion of grace and beauty which celebrates the diversity of life. He does not hesitate to let the lion lie down with the lamb, so to speak, as he juxtaposes whales and crocs, lambs and lemurs, wild pigs and cockatoos, over 170 in all, in a lush sub-tropical forest with both mountains and shores for their habitat, giving the reader the fun of spying out the animal featured amidst the throng in the rhyming text.

The illustrator also provides an appendix listing all the animals shown, so that readers are drawn to continue the task of "naming" the animals depicted. Dylan's playful, sly, and sweet song is also provided as a CD within the book which will allow children to follow along with the pages, act out the verses, or sing along as they go. A different turn on the bestiary picture book, one with one foot in poetry and one in nonfiction, this one gives the reader the chance to become the final master of nomenclature by naming the last animal

I saw an animal as smooth as glass,
Slithering his way through the grass.
I saw him disappear by a tree near a lake.
I think I'll call him a ....

School Library Journal gives this one an unqualified thumbs up: "With its broad appeal to spiritual, scientific, and just plain animal-loving audiences, this book is a winner."

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Friday, December 30, 2011

A Snowy Day: Snowflake Baby by Elise Broach



Snowy days are a miraculous transformation to the very young. Where did everything go? The world outside is hidden under a white blanket and nothing looks the same. What is going on?

Uncovering the mystery of a snowy world is the perfect subject for a sturdy board book with flaps to lift to discover what is just below the surface of things.

Baby is snowsuit clad and outside in a trice, and the revelations start right away. What's under that giant snowflake? Baby pulling his puppy on a sled and saying BRRRRR! What's under that snowbank? A cozy tunneled-out snow cave to play in! What's under that snow-covered evergreen? A little deer peering out at Baby and Puppy. And then we find a squirrel and a rabbit under another snowy tree.

But the next snow-covered branch has a different brand of excitement in store for Baby. Just as she reaches up for the branch, that snow goes PLOP! right in her eyes!


And, of course, after a snowy adventure, as every weary parent knows, the best thing is a warm bath for Baby and an early, cozy nighty-night. And what's behind the closed curtain in Baby's bedroom? Look and see? More snow falling just outside the window! Just wait until tomorrow!

Elise Broach, author of the award-winning When Dinosaurs Came With Everything, makes the most of her brief text with nifty rhyming couplets that will charm little lapsitters as they discover what's under all those flaps, opening in all directions, well designed by Cori Doerrfeld for little listeners to find a surprise on every page. Her latest, Snowflake Baby (Little, Brown, 2011) is a fine book for little ones not quite ready for Ezra Jack Keats' classic, The Snowy Day.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Both Going and Coming: Inside Out and Back Again by Tranhha Lai

No one would believe me
but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon
over peacetime in Alabama.

Tranhha Lai's National Book Award-winning novel, Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 2011), paints an unbelievably intimate portrait of an immigrant girl from a "boat people" family from Viet Nam fleeing the invasion of the victors from the north, but in many ways it is the story of every immigrant whose life is turned inside out as a stranger in a strange land.

Ten-year-old Ha is taken abruptly from her happy life into a dangerously crowded ship where her family huddles together on one straw mat for days until the refugees are picked up by the U.S. Navy and taken to Guam. From there to a transitional camp in Florida they go and at last a sponsor, "the Cowboy," takes them to a new home on the Alabama coast. Although each of the family has few material things with them, they all bring their own baggage. Her mother brings the photograph of her soldier father, taken prisoner, missing in the war; her little brother tries to bring a baby chick from their backyard flock which he clings to too long after its death in his pocket; her oldest brother brings his English book and frantically studies, knowing that he will have to be the go-between for his family in their new life. Ha brings the stubborn knowledge that she is smart and a deep longing for the tastes and sights of home, especially the taste of fresh papaya from her own backyard tree.

At first Ha's family finds no safe haven in backwater Alabama. Ha's oldest brother finds a job as a mechanic's assistant in a small garage and her mother also finds menial work. Ha finds herself put back in the grade she's just completed, a girl who can change fractions into percentages is humiliated by the round of applause her well-meaning teacher forces on her classmates for the pitiful accomplishment of counting to ten in English:

I wish I were still smart.

The food at school is tasteless; English seems a language with insane rules; and Ha hides the food from home from smirking eyes and eats her lunch in a bathroom stall. And then "Pink Boy," not the class's shining star, discovers that he can gain status by bullying Ha, chasing her shouting "Ha-Ha-Ha" and "Pancake Face" and tripping and hitting her when he can catch her. Ha hits the class door at the end of the school day and races to outrun Pink Boy until she can meet up with her older brother for protection. And there is no papaya to be found anywhere.

But "the Cowboy" is kind and takes the stories of bullying to the school, where her well-intentioned teacher does what she can to protect her from the overt unkindnesses of the class. The Cowboy takes them up and down their street to introduce the family to the neighbors, most of who slam their doors in their faces. But one neighbor, a retired teacher whose son was killed in Viet Nam, understands her pain, tutors her in English, and tries to make her special foods to ease her homesickness--even offering the only form of papaya to be had in South Alabama, sickly sweet and tough, dried papaya in a plastic bag. It's nothing like the juicy fruit Ha remembers and in despair she tosses the disappointing food into the trash. But her mother retrieves the fruit, soaks it until it is soft and moist, and Ha recognizes that taste, not quite the same, but sweet with the love of those who are trying to give her what she needs.

Ha's problem with "Pink Boy" is solved in the usual way with bullies. She makes two friends and allies at school and her class begins to accept her. And then, when Pink Boy catches her one day after school, her oldest brother appears astride his new motorcycle, intimidating the bully for good. Ha finds that she has, indeed, come "back again," as her family's loss begins to heal and she sees that life will again be good.

Inside Out and Back Again offers a powerful look at what it is like to be an immigrant child thrust into a radically different culture. Written in easy free verse, its spare but poignant language is moving and elegant, suited to both middle and young adult readers.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Finger Fun: Snow Baby (Finger Puppet Book)

Soft are baby's clothes.

Soft as falling snow.

Snow Baby Finger Puppet Book (Chronicle Books, 2011) is cleverly designed with a die cut circle in the back and a baby's face to fit on the snowsuit which can be moved by one finger inside. Baby goes out in the falling snow, gets showered by a lacy snowflakes and warms up snuggling in his mommy's arms.

This simple snow story is perfect for a snuggle itself or a bedtime story. Also good for the wintry season are the companion books, Little Polar Bear Finger Puppet Book (Finger Puppet Brd Bks) and Little Snowman: Finger Puppet Book (Finger Puppet Books), great for winter birthdays or stocking stuffers.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Surprise! Happy Birthday, Hamster! by Cynthia Lord



What's more fun than a birthday party? A surprise birthday party--especially when the guest of honor is totally clueless.

Hamster is sure that his friends, especially his best friend Bulldog, will remember his birthday, but as the day goes along without a mention of the big event, Hamster starts to fret.

Sure, Bulldog comes over and congenially invites Hamster to keep him company as he does his daily errands. First stop is the bakery, and Hamster looks hopefully at the birthday cakes in the case.




Hamster volunteers that he would picks the biggest, with the most frosting, but Bulldog just nods and orders a bag of dog biscuits. Hamster's heart sinks.

A trip to the toy store is even more disheartening. All those nifty toys, and despite yearning looks and hints by Hamster ("I LOVE toys!"), Bulldog selects a utilitarian ball for himself.


Bulldog agrees, and heads on to finish his rounds in the barber shop and party store, where he bypasses all of Hamster's hints and glancing at the festive balloons and pirate costumes, buys a greeting card "for a friend," and declares himself satisfied with his completed shopping expedition.

Hamster heads for his house, sadly contemplating a lonely birthday, and morosely and perfunctorily invites his friend in when they reach his door.

And of course by this time everyone but Hamster knows what is going to be behind that door! Newbery-winning author Cynthia Lord's and artist Derek Anderson's brand-new Happy Birthday Hamster (Scholastic, 2011) ends with a happy surprise--a happy birthday surprise in which Bulldog's assistant mice, only partially in view, stealthily taking notes all through the expedition, have picked up on all of Hamster's hints along the way, and he finds just the kind of birthday party he dreamed of. Lord's verse and Anderson's illustrations, first found together in their hit Hot Rod Hamster, are full of birthday cheer sure to please honorees and guests alike.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Not So Bare Bear: Bear in Long Underwear by Todd H. Doodler

Bear and his friends are inside drinking hot chocolate.

Bear is feeling cozy, but a little cooped up from being inside all day.

He looks out and says, "The snow has stopped falling. Who wants to go outside and play in the snow?"

In no time the whole gang, Bear, Skunk, Rabbit, Turtle, and Hedgie, are bundled up and romping in the snow. They decide to build a really great snowman, and soon they step back to evaluate their work.

"You call that a snowman?" says Bear. "He needs clothes."

Quickly Bear adds his own hat to the snowman's head. But something is still lacking, his friends suggest, and Bear proceeds to add his scarf to the snowman's neck. But he's still chilly-looking, and cool is apparently not cool for this snowman, so Bear then adds his snow pants and his warm jacket. But does that leave him standing in the snow in his trademark whitie tighties?

Well, no. Bear has obviously planned ahead, in the latest in Todd H. Doodler's popular Bear in Underwear series, titled Bear In Long Underwear (Blue Apple Books, 2011). With his characteristic deadpan wit and flat, bright acrylic illustrations that feature sly visual humor on each page, this bear in his natty red union suit is dressed just right for the occasion.

As Publishers Weekly says,"Toddlers should continue to find Doodler’s lovably dim cartoon animals and deadpan humor—and, of course, the underwear theme—irresistible."

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Keeping: Snow Friend by Alison McGhee

What if you made a friend, a perfect friend, with a great smile just for you?

And what if one day, he suddenly went away?

Alison McGhee's latest, Making a Friend (Atheneum, 2011) tells the story of a boy, all dressed for the snow in his blue coat and red hat, who goes out to find that snow has taken over his landscape, starry snow drifting down while he slept.

All ready to play but feeling a little alone, he builds a snowman, the perfect friend for a snowy day, just the way he wants him to be--a carrot nose, a big smile from lumps of coal, and a scarf and hat borrowed from the boy. Finally, with a last hug for his friend, the boy goes inside, and when he is at last in his pajamas, he tells his new friend goodnight from his window.

But snowmen don't stay forever, and soon the snow has melted, leaving only the boy's red cap behind.

"Snowman, you left your hat.

Where did you go?"

And slowly, as the seasons continue to turn, he knows.

Look! He's in the falling water.

And the frost on the window.

What you love will always be with you.

Marc Rosenthall's illustrations lift this simple philosophical story with its universal theme. His vintage row houses done in faint sepia outlines contrast beautifully with his detailed child and elements of nature in beautiful color, as the boy makes his way through the changing seasons of the year and of life. A sweet story for thoughtful moments.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Keeping Friends: The Hard Kind of Promise by Gina Willner-Pardo

Sarah Franklin had been best friends with Marjorie Fingerhut for eight years. She couldn't imagine life without Marjorie.

They had met in preschool, when Marjorie told everyone at show-and-tell that she was a leprechaun. But it was in kindergarten, when they were five, that Sarah had really come to understand how it really was with her and Marjorie. They were coloring at the Fingerhut's kitchen table.

"We should be best friends forever," Marjorie had said.

Now, remembering that afternoon filled Sarah with a longing that was both piercing and inexplicable, and a little bit like dread.

But seventh grade changes everything, everyone says. Marjorie was still her best friend, the friend who just knew how she felt about things without having to be told, the friend who always accepted everything about her, who never argued with her.

Marjorie hadn't changed. The thing was, everything else had. Suddenly there were rules that you had to follow, rules that suddenly Sarah just knew, like how to dress like the cool people, and which boys were cute, and which people to stay away from because their weirdness was, like, catching, somehow. But Marjorie didn't get the rules, or if she did, she didn't care. She still wore tee shirts with cartoon characters and ate embarrassingly smelly peanut butter and potato chip sandwiches out of embarrassing grocery sacks at lunch, and was increasingly absorbed with the embarrassingly geeky film production class kids. Then, at the ballroom dance class's Cotillion, she shows up in an elaborate Victorian outfit with a huge hat, and high-buttoned shoes. "I love to dress up," she says, unconcernedly, seemingly oblivious that everyone is whispering about her weird clothes, about how strange she is
Sarah wants to be a loyal friend, trying to include Marjorie in a lunch group with her new chorus class friends, Carly and Lizzy, and even agreeing to be a green alien in her film project for class. But when the shooting date for the film conflicts with Sarah's required Saturday rehearsals for the annual choral competition, Sarah has to choose between her promise to Marjorie and her membership in the choir, and she suddenly realizes that she really loves, not just being with her new friends there, but the actual making of music. Singing really matters to her.

Gina Willner-Pardo's The Hard Kind of Promise (Houghton Mifflin Clarion), deals honestly with the pain of separation, the inevitable growing apart of childhood friends that adolescence sometimes brings. As Sarah begins to find who she really is, forming new bonds with her choir buddies on their successful competition in San Francisco, she also begins to see that her choice of music is no different from Marjorie's love for film making: they just have different passions which will take them in different directions and which change their friendship in ways they cannot yet know.

Sarah knew it was a lie to try to pretend that nothing was different, nothing had changed. Sarah knew it, and she knew Marjorie knew it, too. Marjorie always knew.

"I don't get why this happened," Sarah whispered.

"Maybe it's just supposed to happen. Like getting taller," Marjorie said. "Only no one told us."

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Friday, December 23, 2011

There's An App For That: Toddler Apps for Travel Days

For families that will be in transit at some time during the holidays, it's always been a good idea to take along plenty of games and books. But with airlines limiting carryons and cars going for efficiency instead of roominess, it is hard to find a way to fit in that time-honored grabbag o' fun along.

Common Sense Media, a site devoted to helping parents choose media experiences--books, movies, games, et al--has some sound suggestions for taking all of the above along in your pocket or purse. And with children's books becoming widely available for iPad, smart phones, Nooks, and Kindles, there's a whole library of picture books at hand that won't crowd the trunk or tumble out of the overhead bin! Common Sense's recommendations include one of the books reviewed here some time ago, Sandra Boynton's blockbuster Moo Baa La La La, as an app, but if you are traveling with any one of the above devices, many of the books posted here are available on Amazon in Kindle format, and many are available in other ebook formats as well.

Here are some of the sanity savers suggested by Common Sense.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

In a Nutshell: Bill Bryson's A Really Short History of Nearly Everything

“There isn’t anything in existence—not a thing—that isn’t amazing and interesting when you look into it.”

For example...

Every atom in your body has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to being you.

If you are an average-sized kid, you have enough potential energy inside you to explode with the force of several hydrogen bombs.

Even the most jaded of science-resistant kids couldn't resist at least investigating how those amazing factoids can be true, and it's like eating peanuts: it's hard to stop with just one. From the beginning swirls of energy and matter in astrophysics to our own dear internal atoms and microbiology, Bryson makes the reader feel part of the whole amazing history of what we know and how we know it called science.

From the history of the Big Bang and everything that has come afterward, Bill Bryson's funny and engrossing A Really Short History of Nearly Everything (Delacorte Young Readers' Edition, 2011) is just the gift for middle and young adult readers. Those who are of the nerdlike persuasion will find it totally absorbing, and the avoiders of the physical sciences out there won't be able to resist Bryson's lively style and fantastic factoids. Everyone and anyone short of holders of doctorates in these fields can learn something from this book and come up with some deep thoughts as a result of their reading this one.

The New York Times said that this book "brims with strange and amazing facts . . . destined to become a modern classic of science writing.”


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Desperately Seeking Presents: Where Is Baby's Christmas Present? by Karen Katz

Every baby loves variations on the old game of Peek-A-Boo. Every parent has played a related language-learning game. Where are your ears? Where is your mouth?

Karen Katz has a whole series of lift-the-flap board books based on this theme, the best-known of which is probably Where Is Baby's Belly Button?

Luckily for parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, Katz also has a holiday book, Where Is Baby's Present? (Little Simon) which offers the thrill of the hunt for little ones.

Where can baby's present be? Is it in the closet? No, but there are some interesting Christmas decorations inside. Underneath that pile of wrapping paper? Inside the nifty gingerbread house on the table? Under Baby's own pillow. No?


As older kids know, half the fun of the holiday season is looking for their Christmas presents, evaluating the size and weight, shaking them and listening to what's inside, and trying to guess what is going to be found. Katz' little board book, with six sturdy liftable flaps, give the youngest ones a chance to get in on that act during those exciting days before the night before Christmas.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Buried Treasures: The Bippolo Seed: Lost Stories by Dr. Seuss

The not-exactly lost stories of Theodore Seuss Geisel, moldering away in various periodicals in which they appeared in the 1930s and early '40s, have been resurrected, their faded color illustrations enhanced, and published for the first time in picture-book form by Seussophile Charles D. Cohen.

Going through Geisel's earlier work is a bit like an archaeological dig. Cohen's theory is that Seuss, a former adman and illustrator, had been focused on the visual impact of his illustrations until World War II convinced him of the importance of the message of children's books. His postwar stories, published in household magazines like Redbook and Children's Activities offer a transition to emphasis on theme, vestigial versions of Seuss' later subjects, the value of free-range imagination, samples of what Cohen calls his "bizarre bestiary," and prototypes of the Cat in the Hat (as Big Cat), the "fish in the bowl," and the seemingly irremovable spot. along with his now instantly recognizable anapestic pentameter.

In seven stories, including "The Bippola Seed," "Gustav the Goldfish," "The Rabbit, The Bear, and the Zinniga Zanniga," and "The Great Henry McBride" Cohen brings us both a preview of the mature beloved author and delightful stories in process from the fertile mind of Geisel. The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories, (Random House, 2011) edited by Charles Cohen, are too good to miss, a blast from the past from Dr. Seuss.

Publishers Weekly piles on the praise as well: "The stories' rhymed couplets are pitch-perfect, the verse's rhythm as snappy as in any of Seuss's better-known works...[F]ans old and young will deem these 'lost' stories a tremendous find."

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Grinchtown: The Happy Elf by Harry Connick, Jr.

Eubie checked the lists...and checked them TWICE.

In the whole town of Bluesville there was not one child on the Nice List.

NOBODY would get presents.

If only Bluesville could get on the Nice List before Christmas!

Eubie the Elf longs to move up to Santa's A Team--the crack crew who are chosen to ride along with Santa on his once-a-year mission to deliver toys to the world's children.

Eubie does due diligence all year, but his holiday assignment this year is the bean-counting job of checking the Naughty and Nice Lists. A slow slog for an ambitious workshop elf, but somebody's got to do it. Eubie is giving it his best shot when he discovers a whole town of naughties. (Bluesville must be the place where the Beatles got the idea for the Blue Meanies.) Something must be done!

Desperate situations call for desperate means.

"I will use my magic hat to go to Bluesille and spread Christmas cheer.

"But Eugie," Elf Gilda worried, "you'll break Santa's most important rule, never to use the magic hat outside the North Pole!"

But with hat on head and with a wondrous WHOOOOSH, Eubie touches down in that terrible town and quickly assesses the situation.

"No wonder everyone is on the Naughty List!" Eubie thought. "This is the saddest place in the world."

Yep! Bluesville has got the blues! Nobody can be nice when their hearts are heavy. What can Eubie do to get Bluesville out of the dumps in time for a merry Christmas morn?

Grammy winner Harry Connick, Jr., knows a thing or two about playing the blues, and in his newest, The Happy Elf (Harper, 2011) he finds a way to bring the Christmas spirit to Bluesville. Dan Andreason aids and abets the uplifting activity with his jolly cartoon illustrations as a whole town full of Grinches learn to light the night and find a way to be "happy every day." No more Naughty Lists for Bluesville ever again!

Previously aired as a seasonal television special, the animated trailer is available here. and the book comes complete with a CD featuring Connick's jolly score that will brighten this season and many more.

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Toy Story, Too! Can You See What I See? Toyland Express by Walter Wick

Walter Wick is back, with toys sporting a fresh coat of paint and a jolly toy story to tell.

His just-published Can You See What I See?: Toyland Express: Picture Puzzles to Search and Solve (Scholastic, 2011), Wick provides much more than intriguing search-and-find puzzles to solve. The book is itself a toy story, recalling for young readers the premise of last year's movie, Toy Story III, as we see a wooden toy train, innocent of paint, a jumble of carefully crafted parts in the "Maker's Workshop," as readers are challenged to find "a pencil, a pail, a ball of string..." and other items. The next double-page spread offers a full-page picture of the train being painted, with more picture puzzles to spot, and, as in many of Wick's picture book creations, the "lens" zooms out to show the completed toy train the center of a "Toy Store" show window display, followed by "Happy Birthday Box," in which the boxed set of train, trees, and houses has just been unwrapped at a party.

In subsequent spreads we see the train set up ("All Aboard") and ready to go; traversing a carefully constructed tinker-toy trestle ("Mountain Pass"), and tootling past a fully-furnished doll house, just visible through the little dwelling's windows in "The Passing Train."

But the tale eventually turns wistfully tristful. The following spread shows the train and other toys "Forgotten" in the attic, some broken, all dusty and deserted as only cast-off toys can seem, lit only by a stray dust-mote-filled sunbeam streaming from the garret window. But this is not to be a sad, James Whitcomb Riley "Little Boy Blue" ballad, but a joyous story of toy resurrection, as the toys are sold at a "Yard Sale," and find their reincarnation in a happy "In For Repairs" workshop scene which recalls their beginnings, ending happily with the "Toyland Express," restored and repainted, back on track in a new and welcoming home.

Wick's books are a wonder, with educational activities and aesthetic mixed-media qualities that knock your socks off. Sly wit and humor permeate the work, textually and visually, especially in the partially concealed presence of Wick's iconic little wooden bead man, Seymour, (a bit of delicious wordplay in that name!) to be spotted on each picture page. Walter Wick & Co. is an industry all to itself. Wick, who seems to have found himself an enviable career in which he is allowed to create and to play with delightful toys, can be seen at work in his fabulous workshop here. Great for gifts, a must-have delight, a great entry in this genre.

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

You're On, Sugar Plum! Mary Engelbreit's Nutcracker by Mary Englebreit



Popular author/illustrator Mary Engelbreit takes a few liberties with her version of the classic Christmas ballet in her new MaryEngelbreit'sNutcracker (Harper, 2011). As always, the avuncular Drosselmeyer is there, giving Marie a large, droll nutcracker for her gift, and little brother Fritz, jealous in all versions, plays his part in breaking the poor fellow's lower jaw "accidentally on purpose." As ever, Marie mends her Nutcracker, giving him a sympathetic kiss, wakes to strange sounds, and finds her Nutcracker engaged in warfare with the scary MouseKing from the tree and Fritz's battalion of toy soldiers. When the Nutcracker is imperiled by the overwhelming forces, Marie rushes to his aid as ever. And, just as we expect, as soon as Marie throws that shoe, we're off to a never-never land, with dancing flutes and sugar plum fairies, fountains of goodies, exotic dances, and a twirl with the transformed Nutcracker, now the Prince of this magical land.

With all the traditional plot elements in place, Engelbreit takes a couple of liberties with the classic outline of the Tales of Hoffmann, which in its original iteration was far more an adolescent girl's surreal fantasy of romance with a handsome Prince who loves her for her steadfast and loyal heart. Engelbreit's Marie is much younger, a round-cheeked primary-schooler, and the setting is changed to a kitschy 1920s ambiance, one well suited to her intended audience of preschoolers and early elementary school readers. In this version, Marie doesn't awake to find the Nutcracker's broken jaw magically restored while he remains a nutcracker, with only dreamlike memories left of her romantic fugue: here Marie actually gets a royal promisory proposal right on the spot from the Nutcracker Prince:




And that Disney-style denouement is not likely to displease the designated audience in this rococo setting. Engelbreit's legions of fans will love this ending, non-traditional as it may be. with her easily recognizable illustrative style in ample evidence and her fulsome line and palette certainly given a tailor-made expression here.

But for my money, the best choice, especially for children who may be planning to see the actual ballet, is Susan Jeffers' lovely classic, The Nutcracker.

With simple but lyrical text and elegantly beautiful full-page illustrations based on the Ballanchine ballet's staging of the dance, this one has it all, doing justice to its classic source while inspiring the imagination of the reader in that way that a nearly perfect picture book has the power to do.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Santa Needs a Hitch! Oh, What a Christmas! by Michael Garland




It's Christmas Eve and Santa's sleigh is on its way, when a harness malfunction sends the reindeer flying over the horizon and Santa careening down into a darkened barnyard. Our saint is fortunately unscathed, but Santa is definitely in need of a stand-in team to hitch up if he's going to deliver all his toys around the world.

It's motley group which ambles sleepily out of the barn, blinking in disbelief at the sight of a red-clad portly gentleman surrounded by spilled packages scattered all around in the snow.


But Santa is nothing if not dedicated, and he quickly determines to improvise with what he's got in the way of draft animals before him--a couple of sheep, a pair of cows, a goat, a pig, a horse, and one very old dog. Lining them up in pairs, he re-fashions his torn-up traces and hitches his new helpers to the uprighted sleigh. A quick reloading and the unusual team is ready for the adventure of their lives. Santa issues the familiar call with just a slight change of nomenclature:




And when Santa completes his whirl around the world and brings his team back to their barn, he finds his reindeer waiting and the stand-ins find their barn lighted up by a candy-decorated tree with lots of presents, all ready for their Christmas morning.

Michael Garland's Oh, What a Christmas! (Scholastic, 2011) arrives just in time for the holiday season, and although the theme of Santa's impromptu helpers is a well-used one, his jolly illustrations make this new Santa story a welcome and timely new tale for 2011 storytimes. Publisher's Weekly agrees, saying, "Garland’s coyly expressive, digital cartoon animals pop off the page in this funny holiday adventure."

Pair this one with Rob Scotton's Russell's Christmas Magic, (see my earlier review here) for a duet of Christmas Eve delivery delights.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Calabrian Christmas: Strega Nona's Gift by Tomie DePaola



But no sooner are the crumbs from St. Nicholas's Day gone than the famous cooks of the town start preparing for Santa Lucia's Day. Strega Nona keeps Big Anthony busy, fetching and carrying, as she cooks up a storm in her house on the hill. Down in the village Papa Bambo and his daughter Bambolina are dusty with flour as they prepare the special goodies for the upcoming festivals in their bakery.

And then it is Christmas Eve, time for La Vigilia, where no one eats until after the midnight mass that welcomes Christmas. Big Anthony and Strega Nona prepare the codfish for the Feast of the Seven Fishes and the singing Zampognari, the shepherds from Abruzzi, climb the hill to Strega Nona's little house for her famous feast and to welcome the big day with heavenly music.

Big Anthony manages to stay out of trouble, even on St. Sylvestro's Night on December 31. He asks permission to go down to the bonfire in the village, but even then Strega Nona has to warn him about the customs of New Year's Eve:

"Watch out! People throw old stuff out windows. Senora Anita threw her old stove out last year!

Oh, and don't forget to wear your red underwear! It brings luck!"

This year Big Anthony makes it goof-free until the eve of the Feast of Ephiphia, the night that the animals can speak to each other. True to the custom, Strega Nona prepares a delicious-looking dish in her magic pasta pot for her favorite, Senora Goat, and asks Big Anthony to carry it carefully out to her just before midnight.

"I'll just take a tiny taste," Big Anthony tells himself.

Soon, Santo Cielo! It was all gone."

Senora Goat is not pleased with Anthony's substitution of ordinary hay and oats, and in revenge, she eats most of Big Anthony's warm blanket for dessert. Anthony spends a chilly and guilty night, shivering and having strange dreams filled with phantasmic foods. Will Big Anthony's crime go unrevealed? How will he make it up to Senora Goat and to Strega Nona on the final day of the holiday season?

A new Strega Nona book from the Caldecott and Newberry-winning author and artist Tomie de Paola is indeed a Christmas gift for us all. De Paola still has his artistic gifts, and his latest, Strega Nona's Gift (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2011) has been welcomed by reviewers and readers alike for the holiday season. De Paola adds an appendix with additional information about Italian holiday customs, and Publishers Weekly takes note, saying "DePaola delivers a hearty sampler of Italian holiday traditions and seasonal cuisine."

Pair this one with De Paola's wonderful Merry Christmas, Strega Nona for a magical storytime. As Strega Nona says in that one,


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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

St. Nick Rides Again: The Night Before Christmas illustrated by Charles Santore


Many, many editions of Clement Clark Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" have come and gone over the nearly two centuries since it was first published in 1823 as a newspaper article. Some editions have come to stay, and as the picture book has flourished as an artistic medium over the past 50 years, many significant artists of this genre have found its charming setting and verse irresistible.

Now comes Charles Santore, noted illustrator of children's classic stories, to take Santa for a splendid ride on yet another night before Christmas.

Santore keeps the classic old-fashioned setting, a fine, traditional house with beautiful furnishings and lovely traditional Yuletide decorations just begging for rich artistic detail. Santore makes full use of the picture-book possibilities inherent in Moore's beloved text, the necessary mouse watching and waiting for his chance for a holiday feast, chubby children in their snug beds, a waking father startled awake to throw open the window to a stunning winter landscape shown in a four-page gatefold, the snow-covered lawn, with prowling foxes, the bare trees and white-decked evergreens, Santa's sleigh just silhouetted against the requisite full moon, while his team of tiny reindeer appear large in the foreground.

Santore continues to make fine use of amplified perspective throughout, with long views and closeups of Santa, including that fetching wink that means all's well to the watching Papa as he prepares to ascend the chimney (presciently unlit in obvious expectation of its use as ingress to those waiting, hand-knit stockings.)

Santore's illustrations are perfectly matched to the beloved verse, right down to the nice use of the sleepy cat, not a new element in such illustrations, but done nicely here, making The Night Before Christmas (Cider Mill/Applesauce Press, 2011) a welcome entry into the field of famous illustrators who have made that midnight ride with St. Nick earlier. Publishers Weekly gives this edition a thumbs-up with its coveted starred review, saying, "It’s a gorgeous interpretation of a beloved holiday classic."

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Who Very Soon Will Come Our Way? Must Be Santa by Tim Moore and Pete Whitehead


You know and I know who owns that iconic beard, but for those tots just coming into one of their first holiday seasons, this sturdy little book based on the familiar popular song, a staple of the season right up there with "Jingle Bells," is just in time to introduce them to everyone's favorite saint.

Featuring the familiar folk call-and-response format, Must Be Santa (Big Little Golden Book) offers charming double-page spreads, complete with red-clad Santa and his precious pack, gambling green-clad little elf helpers, and the requisite pajama-ed tots spying as he makes his rounds at the fireplace and Christmas tree, as one by one the questions of the song are posed.

In most cases, the following page features the answer, telling the reader that You-Know-Who has a beard that's long, white and so on through the song. Each call and answer has its own recap, as we work through the entire description of Santa, giving kids time to learn the answer and chime in with the verse or sing along with the song. With more jolly verses describing the whole operation, Santa's reindeer and sleigh, Santa soon coming our way...., the conclusion sums up the whole description with Santa's complete M.O., working backwards to the beginning:


It must be Santa who's coming our way with lots of anticipation for his visit from holiday newbies, and here to put some HO-HO-HO in the holidays is Tim Moore's new Must Be Santa (Big Little Golden Book) (Random House, 2011). Pete Whitehead provides the perky comic characters and all the trimmings, and the book's simple but effective design catches the infectious rhythm of the song to a T for tots.

Jaded adults may have heard this tune a time or two, but for tiny tots it's a great NEW song--easy to sing and offering learning opportunities in its cumulative format, recurring rhyme scheme, as well as great opportunities for the narrator to ham it up and for group singalong opportunities which make it a staple for seasonal storytimes. If you're rusty on the music, watch Raffi's traditional run-through for kids here at or for a refresher with a more offbeat adult presentation, Bob Dylan, complete with mystery fugitive, polka-dancing revelers, and look-alike accordionist, does it all here:

School Library Journal says, "Charming, colorful cartoon illustrations accompany the classic song written by Hal Moore and Bill Fredricks in 1960."

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