Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Besame Mucho! The Biggest Kiss by Joanna Walsh




In her just-published The Biggest Kiss (Paula Wiseman Books) (Simon & Schuster, 2011) Joanna Walsh doesn't hesitate to go for sweet and cute in her new book celebrating the kiss.

"Everybody's doing it!" she seems to be saying, and her free-wheeling rhyming text playfully pulls out all the stops, varying meter and rhyme scheme, but sacrificing nothing in a headlong tour of the animal kingdom. Frog princes sell kisses to assorted fauna, and ants share a smooch perched on an azure elephant's trunk, while the elephant reaches off-page for a buddy to buss.



But after a romantic roam through the animal kingdom, Walsh brings it home, with a the mother penguin narrator cuddling her little one with a reassuring penguin kiss:



The fun of Walsh's joyful verse is extended by Judi Abbott's cuddly, rounded critters and bright palette, producing an altogether heart-y book for sharing between adults and little ones.

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Monday, January 30, 2012

That Mountain Music: Passing the Music Down by Sarah Sullivan

"Will you teach me all your tunes?.....I want to play like you."

It could be any time and any place. A child with his instrument and a passion for music stands before a master player and asks to be taught what he knows. Passing the Music Down (Candlewick Press, 2011) by Sarah Sullivan begins in a particularly American time and place.

They travel over twisty mountain roads to where banjo pickers make music under the stars... to the old, old mountains...slumbering east of Tennessee.

Come to hear a man lift his body and set their spirits free.

Sullivan's lyric free verse tells the true story of young Jake Krack, whose family drives him from his home in Indiana to meet Melvin Wine, the mountain fiddle player from whom he will learn everything the old man knows. Jake is taken in as a student and as an apprentice sits at the feet of the master until his skills mature and Melvin has passed all his music down, down for one more generation which will keep it alive and take it forward into the future.

Sullivan includes historical and biographical notes, a bibliography and discography, as well as a list of videos and web sites which provide the young student of American folk music sources for further study. But the real appeal of Passing the Music Down is the story of the long, long stream which is American music represented by, but not limited to, the real people she portrays. Veteran illustrator Barry Root's soft, stylized watercolor illustrations add to the gentle mountain mood of this book. Pair this one with Gary Golio's recent When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan (Little, Brown, 2011), (see my review here) for another accessible look into recent musical history for young readers.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

X-Dog Martha: Secret Agent Dog (Martha Speaks) by Susan Meddaugh and Jamie White

UH-OH! I'd been caught red-pawed.

I fled the scene. I didn't stop running until I'd reached the chief's office. (Do two-legged spies run this much? Where's my fancy car with the windows open and the top down?) I delivered K9-001's message.

"November 29-X?" the Chief repeated.

"That's right. He said it was a code."

"It certainly is, Martha! The case is cracked." The Chief shook my paw.

"Congratulations, Martha! You saved the soup!"

Martha loves a mystery, and when she is summoned by a mysterious pair in dark suits, dark glasses, and a dark limousine, she is delighted to be told that because of her special abilities, she has been chosen by spymaster The Chief to go undercover as a guard dog in the Granny's Soup headquarters. Rumors are circulating that a nefarious band of industrial spies are plotting to get their hands on Granny's secret alphabet soup formula. Martha is on board with the force right away: after all, she's always dreamed of the glamorous life of a secret agent, and besides, she needs that soup daily to keep on talking.

On the job as K9-002, Martha is disappointed that the role doesn't come with a tuxedo, dark glasses, and toilet water martinis, but she willingly agrees to work with the force's K9-001, guard dog Ruff, a rugged Rottweiler already in place at the factory. On her first night of surveillance, Martha, playing a friendly nighttime watchdog, observes the janitor picking the lock to Granny's office, where the secret formula is kept safe in the, um, safe, to which only Granny herself knows the combination. Certain that she has uncovered the undercover agent, Martha and Ruff take the news to Granny, and watch as she rushes to open the safe and make sure her formula is still there.

It is, and when Ruff tells Martha a secret code to capture the crook (the bilingual Martha speaks dog, remember?), she rushes to report it to The Chief. Mission accomplished. Case closed, thanks to souper-dog Martha, she thinks.

But no. Martha soon learns that The Chief was an impostor who played upon her desire to be a secret agent. Ruff, Agent K9-001, was actually part of the mastermind's plot. He observed the combination Granny's safe (which Martha's owner Helen quickly decodes as 11-29-10) and used Martha's ability to translate it into human talk to get it to The Chief, who then knew all he needed to rip off the recipe and end Granny's Soup's preeminence as Numero Uno in the soup biz.

Martha mopes for a minute or two, but then decides it's up to her to save Granny's Soup and keep herself in place as the world's only talking dog, even if it requires really going undercover, disguising herself as a pink poodle and infiltrating The Chief's operation. But this time, it's not Martha's linguistic skills or becoming a master of disguise that save the day--it's her good old doggy sense of smell that finally uncovers the master criminal and saves the soup.

In their forth-coming-in-February beginning chapter entry, Martha Speaks: Secret Agent Dog (Chapter Book) (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), Susan Meddaugh and collaborator Jamie White put their mystery-solving mutt through her paces in a comic little volume in which Martha again cur-tails the crooks and saves the world for talking dogs. Fans of the hit PBS show and Meddaugh's series of picture books and I-Can-Read Martha Speaks stories will love Martha as souper-spy, and the appended glossary and secret agent activities will undercover additional vocabulary enrichment opportunities as they create their own secret code messages and become "masters of disguise."

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Small Kindnesses: Squish Rabbit by Katherine Battersby



Squish is truly little, but as we know, good things come in small packages, and this maxim is also true for this little book and its even smaller protagonist.

Squish is a tiny white rabbit who feels unworthy and unnoticed. A tempting red balloon floats by, just out of reach and out to sea. The big white rabbits don't seem to listen to him, and he is lonely, seemingly stuck in his small world.

Drawing a friendly looking little rabbit with sidewalk chalk doesn't do it. An apple tree doesn't make a good playmate either, dropping too many apples at once. Squish gets angry and tries a tantrum, finally throwing a windfall apple as far as he can. It bounces toward the cliff overlooking the sea, and Squish watches in horror as an unseen little squirrel just appears and heedlessly bounds after it. Suddenly Squish finds his voice.


In a bit of book design drama, the two stare at each other from opposite pages, as they each recognize a kindred spirit, and a friendship begins that makes Squish feel bigger and bigger.

Katherine Battersby's sensitive little story, illustrated minimally with blackline drawings highlighted with a judicious use of red, Squish Rabbit (Viking, 2011), has a lot to say about friendship in just a few words. "A delightful and promising debut," says Publishers Weekly.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Vive La Difference: One of Us by Peggy Moss

Roberta James put her hair up. Straight up, and walked into Baker School.

She was late. Two weeks late.

"I just moved here," Roberta explained to the principal.

It's her first day as the new girl in school, and so far, so good.

Roberta likes the friendly principal, the well-equipped playground, the cheerful, bright hallways, and the library with tons of books. And when she gets to her assigned classroom, a girl named Carmen motions for her to sit with her and two friends.

"Sit here," said Carmen. "You are one of US."

Roberta joins three girls, all with top-knots of hair like hers. One even has braids bent into the shape of a heart on top of her head! All goes well with her new friends until it's time for morning recess. Roberta can't wait to hit those fabulous monkey bars outside.

"We don't play on the playground," said Carmen. "We sit here and talk."

But Roberta is a monkey-bars kind of kid and the other climbers welcome her gladly.

"You're one of US," says Jasmine, and Roberta plays with this active group for the whole recess.

But at lunch, she finds herself invited by another group, the lunch-in-a-flowery-lunchbox group who all sit together. All goes well until Roberta pulls out her pita-wrapped mayo, coconut, and raisin sandwich.

"Kids who eat that kind of stuff sit over there," Emiko informs her.

It seems that in her new school, there's a special group for everything, and Roberta is confused. She retreats to eat by herself at the end of the table while she contemplates where she fits in this cliquish class.

"Who ARE you?" asks Anna, who approaches her curiously.

"I'm a straight-up hair girl who climbs on bars, has a flowered lunch box with a pita roll-up, and wears running shoes," Roberta says.

"So you're one of US."

"I doubt it," said Roberta.

"I'm a trumpet-playing girl who likes baseball and car racing and ballet." said Anna.

"I love building and spicy food and origami and bowling!" said Jason.

"I love spicy food," said Roberta, "and baseball, but I'm not crazy about ballet."

"Perfect!" said James.

And Roberta relaxes, feeling that she has found a eclectic group where she can be herself, whatever that may be.

Although Peggy Moss's One of Us (Tilbury House, 2011) pushes her message of the virtue of diversity a little hard here, she does hit all the right nails on the head in identifying the early stages of elementary cliqueish-ness, those subtleties of appearance or behaviors that make for social success or failure in the early and middle grades. Penny Weber's delightfully upbeat illustrations help make Moss's premise that there is a place for people with different interests and styles, even if it is in a group who value each other because of that variety of traits and talents. It's a point that needs to be made, and Moss's story of a girl with her running-shoe-clad feet firmly on the ground hits home, ending with a double-page spread of the whole class mixing it up on the playground.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Secret Admirer: A Giant Crush by Gennifer Choldenko

My best friend, Jackson, has been making Valentines all day long.

"Who's the special Valentine for, Jackson?"

"It's not special, Cooper, really," he says.

"How come is it so full of chocolate kisses that you can barely close it?"

Jackson is obviously smitten with the cute and charming Cami, although he is too shy to reveal his feelings to his best friend, much less to the object of his affections.

Cooper watches as his friend leaves a giant yellow flower, chocolate kisses, and a giant, handmade Valentine on Cami's desk anonymously. Cami doesn't seem to get the message, but class pest, Carter Corey, and Cami's girlfriends pick up on the vibes and what poor Jackson has feared comes to pass with predictable results:

"Cami and Jackson sitting in a tree,
K-I-S-S-I-N-G!" all the girls sing.

Carter Corey is all too quick to jump on the teasing train. The very tall and somewhat shy Jackson is mortified when the taunting comes down, especially after he chooses to pass the soccer ball right to Cami at recess.

Cooper gives good advice to his buddy, telling them that if he wants a girl to like him, he at least needs to let her know about it. But the extra-tall Jackson has a real fear: what if Cami thinks he's a giant!

But faint heart never won fair lady, and on Valentine's Day Cami turns out to have a heart as big as Jackson's Valentine and the feminine moxy to handle the whole situation with definite diplomacy:

"I don't have a boyfriend," Cami tells him.

"But if I did have a boyfriend, he'd be totally giant!"

In the early elementary years, the coming of Valentine's Day provides the opportunity for the ever-popular subject of LOVE to rear its head. Newbery Award-winning author Gennifer Chuldenko combines forces with the equally-award-winning illustrator Melissa Sweet in their latest, A Giant Crush, (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011) a Valentine's Day tale which is both empathetic and humorous.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

While Katrina Comes: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

I bend over and scrub my face dry with my shirt, but the tears still come.

"I can't," I sob.

"I need you," said Randall.

And then I get up because it is the only thing I can do. I step out of the ditch and brush the ants off because it's the only thing I can do; if this is strength, if this is weakness, this is what I do.

After Mama died, Daddy said, What are you crying for? Stop crying. Crying ain't going to change anything. We never stopped crying. We just did it quieter. We hid it.

This was the only thing we could do.

Jesmyn Ward's 2011 National Book Award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones: A Novel (Bloomsbury, 2011), traces the cataclysmic approach of Hurricane Katrina made concrete in the story of the twelve days in one rural family's lives as the storm grows and strikes.

In the beginning only Daddy is prophetically manic with concern about the storm, raging when his children, all teenagers except seven-year-old Junior, belittle his orders to help prepare for the storm, as yet only a tropical depression in the Atlantic. Oldest son Randall is consumed with his desire to win a basketball scholarship and the upcoming playoff game is his only chance to star and initiate that dream. Skeetah is obsessed with his fighting pit-bull China, about to give birth to her first litter, promising part of his earnings from the sale of the pups to Randall for basketball camp. Main character and narrator, fourteen-year-old Esch is preoccupied with the realization that she is pregnant with a child by her brother's friend Manny, who is oblivious to her situation, oblivious in his interest in another girl.

As the hurricane develops, each of the family's personal storms grows and comes to a climax, until the final approach of Katrina focuses the attention of all upon the storm, breaking with a ferocity that destroys everything they own, stripping them all down to what they really are, a family that in the end helps each other survive and understand that their bonds and their hopes are what they really have to begin again.

Ward skillfully assigns epic, mythical proportions to her story by interweaving the classical Greek tale of Jason and Medea with the struggles of the Baptiste family. In fact, Medea is not the central symbol, but a sort of touchstone, destroyer and preserver, sometimes linked to the white dog China, the mother who gives life and sometimes takes it away, sometimes haunting Esch, who is fixated on the story of Medea as she, the memory of her mother's death still fresh, tries to conceive of herself as a mother, as one who therein holds life and death within her own will, and sometimes seen as the storm Katrina itself.

...Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember....

This is not a book for children, filled as it is with the blood, sweat, and tears of life, but mature young adult readers, high school juniors and seniors, those with a grasp of literary tradition and elements of the novel, will find this book absorbing and intensely insightful. The New York Times reviewer points up the dual nature of this novel, a contemporary story on its own, but also a story as primordial as mankind itself: ..."smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it's an ancient, archetypal tale." The Washington Post says "Masterful… Salvage the Bones has the aura of a classic about it." Indeed, Salvage the Bones: A Novel has the promise of joining iconic novels like Moby Dick and To Kill a Mockingbird among those great American novels, firmly rooted in a particular time and place and yet universal in their theme.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Property Rights: I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen



FOX: "NO."


A bare-headed bear asks one animal after another--Fox, Turtle, Snake, Armadillo--if he has seen the missing hat. Fox, a man of few words, is laconic; Turtle goes off-topic, remarking that he's been busy trying to climb a rock, and Bear helpfully gives him a boost to the top. Snake On A Limb gives irrelevant information, pointing out that he saw a hat once, a blue and round one.

Bear moves on to question Armadillo, who is no help either.


Reliable witnesses are in short supply, it seems. Only Rabbit, wearing a peaked red cap, has much to say, and his loquacious reply doth protest too much.


Deer, however, has the good sense to ask for a description of the missing chapeau, and as Bear is describing his hat, red and pointed, he suddenly remembers on whose head he has just seen that cap.

Jon Klassen gently draws the veil over the probable conclusion of this crime and punishment story, but young readers will chuckle at Bear's own quiet disclaimer ("I wouldn't eat a rabbit,"), assuming that justice--and nature--have taken their course, as Bear moves off the final page, his red hat restored to its rightful head.

Klassen's just published I Want My Hat Back (Candlewick, 2011) has wowed the reviewers and the public as well, judging by its best-selling status among new picture books. With its ironic understatement, expressive but minimalist drawings, and its wry humor, Klassen's work recalls classics by William Steig, Roald Dahl, and Mo Willems, and in his first outing as solo author-illustrator, Klassen has himself a hit.

Publishers Weekly says it succinctly: "A noteworthy debut," while the New York Times reviewer goes all out: "This is a charmingly wicked little book and the debut of a promising writer-illustrator talent."

Ed. Note: I wrote this review on November 5 and apparently forgot to publish it. Since this book was named a Caldecott Honor book yesterday, it seems that the reviewers called this one about right.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

This Just In! American Library Association Youth Media Awards Just Announced

ALA has just completed their annual awards program announcing the prestigious 2012 Newbery and Caldecott Awards

I am especially pleased with the Newbery Medal winner, Jack Gantos, for his wonderful serio-comic/mystery/coming of age novel, Dead End in Norvelt (Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 2011), reviewed here only last week. Gantos is no stranger to the Newbery Awards lineup, but this top award is indeed well deserved, both for this excellent book and for his entire body of work.

Newbery Honor Books include Thanha Lai's National Book Award winner, Inside Out and Back Again (see my recent review here,) and Eugene Yelchin's Breaking Stalin's Nose.

The 75th annual Caldecott Medal, given to illustrator Chris Raschka, is A Ball for Daisy. Raschka is also a repeat winner for this award. Caldecott Honor Books are Patrick McDonnell's Me . . . Jane, (reviewed here April 14, 2011), Lane Smith's Grandpa Green (see my November 11 review) and John Rocco's Blackout.

Taking both the author and illustrator Coretta Scott King Awards is the peerless Kadir Nelson for his historical and personal narrative, Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, with my recent review here.

Taking the Theodore Seuss Geisel Medal for excellence in books for beginning readers is Tales for Very Picky Eaters by Josh Schneider. Taking second honors for this award are former Geisel winner Mo Willems for his I Broke My Trunk! (An Elephant and Piggie Book), (see review here) and John Clausen's best-selling I Want My Hat Back.

The Sibert Award for children's informational books goes to author-illustrator Melissa Sweet for her delightful Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade. My review of November 7 is posted here.

The Andrew Carnegie Award for Excellence in children's videos goes to Weston Woods' production of Peter Brown's book Children Make Terrible Pets, review posted here.

A complete listing of all of the American Library Association's Youth Media Awards has just been posted here. If you, like me, missed a few of these winning titles, we've got something to look forward to!

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Whistle Pig School: Groundhog Weather School by JoanHolub



Rabbit takes the word of his friendly neighborhood groundhog seriously. "YAHOO!" he rejoices, as he joyously dons his tropical shirt and shades and clambers up out of his burrow to greet the spring.


Rabbit is greeted by a snowy scene and freezing weather. "I guess it's really hard to predict the weather," he grumbles sadly, and dashes off a letter to Weather Groundhog, suggesting he train some apprentices to help him gather more data for next year. "Hmmmm," says Professor Groundhog, who sees an opportunity to advance his profession here. Soon he's fashioned a catchy ad to attract students for his new venture:



Requirements are stringent. Applicants must be mammals, rodents, furry, burrow-dwelling, and hibernation prone. More than a few good woodchucks make the cut, including one interloper, Skunk, who meets all the conditions except the last one. He tries bedding down by December, but January finds him wide-awake and hungry. Still, he sneaks into the matriculating class ("I'm an exchange student," he explains.)

With fresh shiny faces in line, Professor Groundhog's Weather School welcomes its freshman class for introductory lectures in GeHOGraphy, and the Prof takes them through the history of Groundhog's Day, the various names for their species (woodchuck, whistle pig) their habitat (Northeastern and central North America) and some famous icons of Hognostication--Punxatawney Phil of Pennsylvania, Pierre C. Shadeaux of Louisiana (actually a nutria, but hey, he's a Cajun sensation!) Buckeye Chuck of Ohio, Sir Walter Wally of Raleigh, North Carolina, General Beauregard Lee Lilburn of Georgia, and Staten Island Chuck of, of course, New York. "Is this going to be on the test?" whines one typical student.

But when the day for the Big Test rolls around, Professor Groundhog's class proves themselves, er, well-grounded in groundhog lore, and he's all ready to roll out his group prediction by the upcoming February 2 deadline. Will groupthink trump the Professor's call this year, or will Rabbit be disappointed yet again when he peeps out of his hole?

Joan Holub's brand-new Groundhog Weather School (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011) provides a nifty way to take youngsters through a good deal of weather lore and information, all within the boundaries of a tongue-in-cheek tale that can brighten this year's Groundhog Day whether it's sunny or not. Prolific children's author Holub (The 100th Day of School (Hello Reader!, Level 2) combines her narrative skills with Kristin Sorra's arresting mixed-media art to make a book that kids will want to pour over for all the delicious tidbits of groundhog humor in both text and illustrations, joining Gail Gibbons' standard, Groundhog Day! and recent "hognosticators" such as Ten Grouchy Groundhogs, Go To Sleep, Groundhog! Gretchen Groundhog, It's Your Day! Punxsutawney Phyllis and Substitute Groundhog in the lineup of storytime tales for this just-for-fun holiday.

Oh, and Rabbit, just in case, pack earmuffs AND your sunglasses for that overnight on February 1. It IS hard to predict the weather!

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mysteries of Egypt: The Jewel Fish of Karnak by Graeme Base

Long ago, in ancient Egypt, two scruffy thieve called Jackal and Ibis were caught stealing a golden trinket in the marketplace of Asyut.

They were brought before the Cat Pharaoh.

"Forgive us, O Pharaoh," they begged. "We are but poor and stupid thieves."

The kindly Cat Pharaoh is somehow moved by their manipulative pleas, but the penance she gives certainly fits the crime. The two are ordered to travel up the Nile to Karnak and steal back from the Crocodile King the Jewel Fish belonging to the Pharaoh. But knowing her larcenous minions, she has another command for them:

"Be warned," the Cat Pharaoh told the two as they departed.

"Do not take anything else while you are in Karnak, and know that the Jewel Fish is magical. Be sure it does not get wet."

Taking the Pharaoh's little felucca, the two make their way up the river and hiding the boat in the reeds along the bank, manage to steal into the inner sanctum of the Crocodile King and filch the Jewel Fish right under his nose. Stealing away, however, they cannot resist rewarding themselves with a trio of golden goodies on the way out, figuring that a trio of small trinkets too minor to matter.

But the Crocodile King suddenly discovers the interlopers and his guards give chase. Just ahead of their swords, Jackal and Ibis leap into the first boat they see on the riverbank, a tiny coracle just large enough for themselves and their booty.

"We did it!" they laughed. "We shall win the Cat Pharaoh's pardon and with our three treasures, we will live happily ever after."

But if their consciences are light as a feather, their cargo is not, and the two con men soon find that their little boat is taking on water. Alas, the precious Jewel Fish that is to buy their pardon gets wet, and as the Pharaoh warned, it magically comes alive and leaps into the Nile. The two bumbling bad guys jump in and give chase underwater, where they are confounded by the sight of many almost identical fish. The Jewel Fish, camouflaged among so many look-alikes, escapes them. The two foolish felons return and confess their failure to return the Jewel Fish to the Pharaoh.

"Then you will have to find it," she told them.

The two sat down and began fishing.

And they will probably be fishing there forever.

Unless, of course, you can help them.

Graeme Base is the master of intricate illustrations, perplexing puzzles, and marvelous mysteries. Using the over sized picture book format, he here gives readers a piquant piece of Egyptian mythology, a puzzle which requires decoding hieroglyphs which form the frame for each page, a link to a website which offers clues, and a rotating device in the built-into-the-inside back cover which enables the curious sleuths to recapture the image of the true Jewel Fish of Karnak. All this in one lovely and humorous book, Base's just published, The Jewel Fish of Karnak (Abrams, 2011). Publishers Weekly says it succinctly: "This tale packs in plenty of puzzle solving and Egyptology amid the boldly animated scenes; the illustrations' exquisite details—right down to the comical facial expressions of the bumbling thieves—tell much of the story."

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Literary License: Once Upon A Baby Brother by Sara Sullivan

Lizzie loved to tell stories.

Tall ones. True ones.

Funny ones. Sad ones.

Lizzie loved them all.

Only child Lizzie is a born storyteller and the apple of her parents' eye--until she turns seven and Marvin comes along. Suddenly Mom and Dad are absorbed in their new little baby boy and there's not much time to listen to Lizzie's newest literary work. And as Marvin gets old enough to get into Lizzie's stuff, he's just a pest. Who needs a toy bear decorated with glitter glue? Who needs Marvin?

The one bright spot for our frustrated young author is Ms. Pennyroyal, her second-grade teacher, who just adores Lizzie's tales of daring heroines. Suddenly, Lizzie scores a twofer--she gets even with messy Marvin, making him the villain of her classroom writings--Marvinosaurus, Marvin the Ugly Prince, Marvin the Pesky Pirate--while she wins the praise of her pretty teacher and the giggles of her classmates.

And then Mom takes Marvin to visit Grandma. At first Lizzie enjoys having Dad as her full-time audience again. But then Ms. P. gives her class a novel writing assignment--a graphic comic novel--and suddenly Lizzie realizes that she's got an unfamiliar case of writer's block. She's fresh out of material and inspiration. Yikes!

But it's messy Marvin to the rescue. Mom returns with Lizzie's pesky protagonist who brings a fresh repertoire of annoying activities polished at Grandma's. Amazing Marvin and His Wonderdog George rides again, and Lizzie's back in the literature business!

Sara Sullivan and the award-winning artist Tricia Tusa team up in Once Upon a Baby Brother (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) in this story of siblingitis with its due of happy endings. Tusa's comic watercolor sketches add a lot to this story, and The Amazing Marvin has lots of literary promise for future sequels.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Fences: The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

That summer the fence that stretched through our town seemed bigger.

We lived on one side of it.

White people lived on the other.

And Mama said, "Don't climb over that fence when you play." She said it wasn't safe.

"Good fences make good neighbors," said Robert Frost, but he was a crusty New England farmer worried about footloose cows, and even that solitary poet found that good neighbors can come together in their shared humanity.

And as all kids know, fences are made for climbing.

That summer, trying to be a good girl for her mama, Clover keeps to her side, sometimes a bit lonely for a playmate and always curious about the white family just moved into the white house on the other side of that fence.

But Annie is more daring than Clover, and she dares to climb and sit on the top rail, looking curiously as Clover plays in the yard of her yellow house. Early summer brings a string of rainy days, and Clover watches longingly as that girl plays outside in the rain and even splashes in the forbidden puddles.

When at last the sun returns, Clover feels brave enough to approach the fence where that girl is sitting.

I got close to the fence and that girl asked me my name.

We stood there smiling.

"It's nice up on this fence," said Annie. "A fence like this was made for climbing."

"My mama said I shouldn't go on the other side," I said.

"My mama says the same thing. But she never said anything about sitting on it."

Fence-sitting slowly turns into a tentative friendship as the summer warms up, and one fine day, when Clover's friends come over for a game of jump-rope, Annie feels brave enough to slip down on the other side and join the game, and after some fun together, all the girls take a rest on the top rail of that fence, and for the moment, that fence is just a fence made for climbing and sitting.

"Someday sombody's going to come along an knock this old fence down," Annie said.

"Yeah," I said. "Someday."

The multi-award winning Jacqueline Woodson's The Other Side (G.P. Putnam's Sons) returns in its tenth anniversary (2011) edition, as moving and meaningful as ever. Woodson's text is perfect, telling this iconic story so simply and well that it avoids didacticism, and E. B. White's watercolor paintings are so stunning that they practically tell the story without the need for words. Humans have long felt a fear and yet an attraction for the "other," and the combination of text and art reveal this truth of trans-fence-friendship found as well as it can be told.

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