Monday, April 29, 2013

Moody Blues: My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood by Tameka Fryer-Brown





And for Jamie, a purple mood is a good mood, an eating cold plums, drinking sweet grape juice kind of mood. A listening-to-my-music on the couch kind of mood that's hard to beat.

Until his big brothers order him out of their way so they can play video games in comfort!

Now his mood changes to a stormy, gloomy, gray mood. A don't-want-trouble mood.

But outside it's sunny and green all around, a fanciful green dragons and Jell-O mood.  Little Sis shares her new crayons, and it great until two big boys laugh at his drawings!



Now the mood is BLACK! A black hole of bad feelings!

And then a friend comes by, bouncing an orange basketball. And suddenly Jamie's mood is bright orange--a bip, bip, bop! SWISH! kind of mood.

It's that kind of day, bouncing from dark moods to bright moods, until it's time to run for home, a RED mood, a red-hot rush to beat the dark just before the streetlights come on with a warm yellow light. And it's a yellow mood inside--with his favorite chicken curry and warm laughter for dinner, a lemon pie kind of mood.

And even though it's his turn to do the dishes, Jamie's mood is finally a mellow, bluesy, sudsy, nice-to-be alone, it's-been-a-pretty-good-day kind of mood.


Tameka Fryer-Brown's My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood (Viking, 2013) moves along in broken-rhythm blank verse poem that mirrors the natural ebb and flow of the up-and-down emotions of a kid's day while Shane Evans' illustrations fill in the action to augment the sparse text well. A natural to pair with Theodor Seuss Geisel's wonderful  My Many Colored Days, two books which provide insight into the normal everyday emotions that all of us feel.

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Watch That Spider: The Hidden Gold--A Marie-Grace Mystery by Sarah Masters Buckey

My dearest Wilhelmina,

If I am gone before you arrive, Monsieur LaPlante will give you my trunks to take home with you.

Do not doubt that I have kept the promise I made to you and your brothers.

Do you remember the riddles I used to send you? I have prepared a riddle for you. I meant to surprise you when I arrived home, but now you must solve the riddle on your own.

With love,

Marie-Grace is off on an adventure, traveling from New Orleans with her father Dr. Gardner, up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers by steamboat to visit relatives in Pennsylvania. She has promised her best friend, Cecile Rey, to write lots of letters describing everything exciting she sees. "But what if nothing exciting happens?" Grace fretted. "Oh, something will!" Cecile insisted.  But Grace hardly has time to begin her first letter before she is invited on deck to watch the boat cast off. With her father she watches the hubbub below as the crew stows the final cargo on the lower deck and the last passengers come aboard.

Grace's eyes are drawn to the figure of a girl her age in worn, wrinkled clothing, arguing with the captain. It seems that Wilhelmina, only eleven years old, orphaned by her father's death from a fever, needs to return to New Madrid, Missouri, where her grandmother lives, but can only afford deck passage on the steamer. Wilhelmina is quietly but passionately protesting that her two trunks must not be stored with the other cargo. Grace's kindly father intercedes on her behalf, and Grace offers to share her tiny stateroom with Wilhelmina while she is on board.

At first Wilhelmina says almost nothing, and Grace, who has recently lost her own mother, feels sympathy for this girl, left poor and orphaned in a strange place. But eventually Wilhelmina  confides in her, telling her that she is sure her father had concealed a fortune in Gold Rush gold in his trunks before he died, leaving only a cryptic note with the innkeeper addressed to her. Wilhelmina is sure that one of the boarding passengers, Mr. Bolt, knows something about the gold, having heard her father's delirious ravings about gold and nursery rhymes at his hotel. Then, inside Wilhelmina's old copy of Mother Goose rhymes, Grace notices one corner turned down on the page with the rhyme about Little Miss Muffet. The two girls guess that some word in that rhyme is a clue to where the gold can be found.

And then the nursery rhyme book is stolen from their stateroom, and the two girls realize that someone else is looking for a clue to the gold in that old nursery rhyme book. Can they find her father's trunk and discover where the gold is hidden inside before the thief finds it first? If they can, Wilhelmina's family will have money to stay together, and Marie-Grace knows that she will have an exciting story to tell Cecile in her first letter back to New Orleans!

Sarah Masters Buckey's The Hidden Gold: A Marie-Grace Mystery (American Girl Mysteries) (American Girl, 2012) combines plenty of historical detail within a solid girl sleuth story with much at stake beyond a satisfying case closed at the conclusion. Marie-Grace, half of the friendship story between a white doctor's daughter and Cecile, the privileged young Creole (of the gens de colour libre of old New Orleans) figures in her first mystery on a steamboat journey up the Mississippi in 1854 that offers plenty of excitement--riverboat gamblers, traveling Vaudeville magicians, an intriguing young portrait painter, and collisions with flatboats along the way. As the American Girls series always does, an appended section ("Looking Back") of notes, photos, prints, and drawings and a glossary provide historical background for this American Girl beginning chapter mystery adventure.

And while Marie-Grace is solving a mystery on the Mississippi, back in New Orleans Cecile Rey is also sleuthing out the mystery behind her aunt's missing heirloom cameo necklace in The Cameo Necklace: A Cecile Mystery (American Girl) (American Girl Mysteries). (See my 2012 review here.) Fans of this duet series will want to keep up with each of the girl's adventures until the two friends are reunited again at home, older and wiser in the ways of the world, and perhaps (we hope) joining forces to solve a new case back in old New Orleans.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

OOPS! Tumford's Rude Noises by Nancy Tillman



Tumford is the cutest little tuxedo kitty you'll ever see, but he's also full of himself. And when an accidental burp surprises him, he notices that his long-suffering parents are a bit appalled. What a great way to catch some attention and create an uproar!

Soon Tumford turns up with a uproarious repertoire, as he tries out his rude noises in all the wrong times and places.


Tumford's rude noises progress from loud drumming at dawn and party balloons popping to the perfectly improper and utterly unspeakable, particularly at a public meeting of the Sweet Apple Guild.



Something clearly must be done! Tumford suddenly finds himself out of the game, alone in time-out, and no longer the center of attention. In fact, being banished, considered a social outcast, is a rather lonely role for a born showoff.

It's time to repent in Nancy Tillman's latest Tumford tale, Tumford's Rude Noises (Feiwel & Friends, 2012). As in her Tumford the Terrible, youngsters will get a good giggle and perhaps a lesson or two in manners and consideration from Tumford's memorable unfortunate example.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun! Have Fun, Molly Lou Mellon by Patty Lovell and David Catrow

"When I was your age...."

Kids are sure to hear stories from their elders beginning with this predictable phrase. It usually goes on to some version of "we didn't have..." or "we had to...," and kids usually tune out at this point.

But this time Molly Lou Mellon actually listens to her Grandma's story:


Molly abandons the  plastic whoseywhatsits in her overstuffed toy chest and tries out the do-it-yourself mode for herself.

She loots the flower gardens for fancy outfits and mines the backyard lawn and garden gear for her own fanciful doll house in the treetops.  She follows Grandma's model and raids the garage for all kinds of boxes from which to build the coolest toy race car ever, and abandons those cliched cartoon networks to watch passing cloud shapes.

Then one day, Molly gets a new neighbor, Gertie, who is heard to complain:

Gertie's got gobs of store-bought stuff, but when Gertie comes over, Mollie shows her a whole new way to play.



What's better than a girl with a great imagination? Two girls who share their imaginations and create some amazing playtime experiences! Molly proves a great guru of Grandma's lessons, and Gertie is soon outdoing her new friend with her fanciful ideas in Patty Lovell's Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2012).   Lovell's narration sets the stage, but leans heavily on the kooky illustrative style of David Catrow, whose outrageous contraptions and stylish artistic invention keep this one well on the comic side of  didacticism. Kids will find plenty of inspiration in Catrow's unique and witty cartoons, and maybe, just maybe they'll take themselves outdoors to see what they can do with a little imagination, too.

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Lonely Guy: Peepsqueak Wants a Friend by Leslie Ann Clark



By the time Peepsqueak arrives on the scene, all the other chicks are paired off and oblivious that he is the "only one" all alone.

But the perky Peep figures out the social scene right away.

His friends only notice him as Peepsqueak skitters off into the woods, ignoring the suddenly solicitous warnings of the other chicks.

Peep soon finds some sizeable tracks which for some reason seem promising to follow. Along the way he encounters several naysayers--two hedgehogs and  a duo of birds who point out that it's raining. Peep picks a large leaf to hold over his head, recites his oft--repeated refrain, and keeps on skipping through the puddles as he presses on. A couple of raccoons munch on apples and point out that it is lunchtime, but Peep persists in his quest until the footprints end--as foreshadowed--in a dark cave.

Will Peepsqueak find a friend in that cold, dark cave. Does he dare enter?

Leslie Ann Clark's brand-new story of the persistent Peepsqueak, Peepsqueak Wants a Friend! (Harper, 2012) finds the persevering Peep on another mission impossible, looking for love in all the wrong places! Of course there's a happy ending beyond the entrance of that forbidding cave, a furry friend whose fuzzy lap (and shoulders and head) have room for all of Peepsqueak's friends back at the farm. And our loquacious little protagonist has a newly-minted personal proverb all apropos for the occasion:

As in her first book, Peepsqueak!, Clark's illustrations, done in black ink-and-pen, digitally colored in beguilingly bright hues, show off their so-cute chick  to best advantage. This story is good for reading aloud any time when kids need to be reminded that it's not all about themselves and their best buddy, that they need to stay inclusive as well.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Quiet! Dragon Dad Napping! One Drowsy Dragon by Ethan Long

THREE dancing dragons
learn to tap, tap, tap.


One groggy dragon groans,
"I want to nap!"

Kids just want to have fun.

Dad just needs to catch up on his sleep.

In an inventive counting book that just won't quit, Ethan Long's One Drowsy Dragon  (Orchard Books) is a cacophonous celebration of onomatopoeia and rhyme, as first one little dragon taps out some percussion on his tin cup, a pair of  space-warring little alien wannabees shoot it out with their zap guns, and at last nine noise-making little dragonettes find yet another way to keep Dad awake.

Not since Dr. Seuss's little bears decided to hop on pop has there been a merrier group of kids keeping Dad from his nap. Dad Dragon, all set for sleep with his long nightcap and blankie, can't catch a single Z with these kids making a racket with scary videos, jamming with their garage band, and even playing a clackety croquet game.

But after a day of uproar, even little dragons get tired, and finally Daddy Dragon gets his due and the kids get a bit of payback!
One drowsy dragon finally snores deep.
              GRUNT! SLURP! SMACK! SNORE!
TEN drowsy dragons say..."TIME to sleep!"

Kids will love this story for its silly noises, and parents will appreciate the chance to teach some awesome adjectives and diverse verbs along the way. And, like all good bedtime stories, at the end the kids do settle down for sleep. "A solid storytime choice that covers several popular picture-book topics, including counting, colors, dragons, and bedtime," says School Library Journal.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Alexander the Arrogant? Stallion by Starlight (Magic Tree House #49) by Mary Pope Osborne

It's summertime in Frog Creek, and the last thing Annie and Jack expect to see in their front yard is a penguin.

And that penguin looks familiar. It is Penny, the beloved pet of none other than Merlin the Magician, and instantly Jack and Annie suspect that the Magic Tree House is waiting in the woods to take them time traveling once again--guided by the wisdom of the librarian Morgan Le Fay and the magic of the wizard, Merlin.

Hurrying into the trees before someone asks why Jack is carrying a little penguin, they climb the rope ladder to discover Merlin waiting inside.

"Is something wrong in Camelot?" asked Annie.

"Let me tell you what is on my mind," said Merlin. "I have been thinking deep thoughts, pondering questions that wise men and women have pondered through the ages.  I have been wondering about the idea of greatness. What makes a person truly great?"

"Good question," said Jack.

"I cannot answer it myself, as I do not live in your world--the world of time and mortals," said Merlin.

"So, on each of your first four missions, you will meet someone who will help you learn a true secret of greatness. To begin, how would you like to meet Alexander the Great?"

Merlin provide a special vial of magical morning mist from Avalon which confers a chosen talent for one hour and a golden Ring of Truth which glows in the presence of true greatness. And before they can ask another question, Jack and Annie find themselves spinning away and settling down into a olive tree in ancient Macedonia.

Following a dusty road, they soon find themselves in a busy marketplace.  Macedonians don't seem to be a mellow lot--a group of bullies object to being spoken to by  Annie, a mere girl, and some blacksmiths are suspicious of Jack's note taking. Trying to hide out among a group of students, Annie and Jack discover that their teacher is none other than the philosopher Aristotle, who is intrigued with Annie's theory of planetary motion. Aristotle invites them to walk and talk with him on the way to the palace of King Phillip, where the two finally encounter his twelve-year-old son Alexander.  Can this be The Alexander?  Alexander the Great?

Jack and Annie are underwhelmed with Alexander, who is definitely no Alex the Awesome.  He's more like Alex the Arrogant.

"You said Hercules is a favorite hero of yours," the prince said. "Did you know he is my great, great grandfather?"
"Hercules?" asked Annie.
"Yes. And since he is a son of Zeus, I am a living Greek god myself," said Alexander. "I am the greatest living athlete in the world."
Jack rolled his eyes.

But there is one thing that the self-proclaimed world-class athlete Alexander proves unable to do--mount and ride the magnificent stallion Bucephalus. The huge war horse intimidates even the self-assured Prince of Macedonia.

Jack and Annie decide that now is the time to make use of Merlin's magical mist and turn themselves into the world's first and finest horse whisperers, tame the magnificent Bucephalus, and perhaps teach Alexander a little lesson on humility, in Mary Pope Osborne's latest, Magic Tree House #49: Stallion by Starlight (A Stepping Stone Book(TM)) (Random House, 2013). After forty-nine books, all best-sellers, Osborne's brother-and sister act is still finding intriguing times to visit and new lessons to learn about history. Veteran artist Sal Murdocca provides the pencil and charcoal drawings which give these gentle stories a nostalgic feel of times present and times past as the Magic Tree House continues to be the top of the heap in beginning chapter books.

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Monday, April 22, 2013

Compelled to Tell: Bear Has a Story to Tell by Phillip C. Stead


Bear's fur is looking a bit frazzled and his eyelids are drooping, but still, he has a story he feels compelled to tell.

He slogs through the fallen leaves in search of a audience.


But Mouse's attention is consumed with laying in a serious supply of seeds for the winter. So Bear suspends his narrative and helps Mouse stock his larder, and Mouse pops into his burrow without a backward glance.

Bear continues crunching through the leaves, looking for a listener. Ah, there's Duck. He's not gathering seeds. Bear repeats his offer.

But Duck ducks Bear's offer.


Bear tries to help, raising one paw to check out the wind direction for Duck's liftoff, and waves a friendly bon voyage.

Bear finds Frog, who's wholly absorbed with his hunt for a snug mud hole to hibernate in for the winter. Although he's growing more and more sleepy, Bear thoughtfully digs a hole and tucks Frog in for the winter. But  Frog dozes right off before Bear can begin a bedtime story.

Maybe Mole? But Bear is disappointed to find him already at the bottom of his deep burrow, dutifully dozing.


Bear's eyes are simply too heavy to pursue storytelling further, and the next thing he knows, it's spring and he's waking up in his den. Still, he has the feeling that there is something he's got to do. And when his four friends finally find him, he remembers that he had a story to tell.  He takes his seat on a log and takes a deep breath.  Only...


Happily for Bear, in Philip and Erin Stead's delightful second book, Bear Has a Story to Tell (Roaring Brook, 2012), his  buddies are willing to come up with the necessary prompts. Philip Stead's understated narrative is appealingly illustrated by Erin Stead's softly engaging drawings, set modestly against a white background. Her woodland animals are no cutesy, cartoon critters, but are both realistic and emotionally evocative, with big Bear's helpfulness being returned eventually by his little friends who return his kindliness by helping him recall his story. There is gentle humor in Bear's persistence, especially in the vertical double-page spread where he is shown peering earnestly down Mole's long, winding tunnel to see if he is available for storytelling. Youngsters will find that they have the time to listen to Bear's tale when this one is ready for storytime.

Philip and Erin Stead first book together, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, received the 2011 Caldecott Medal, awarded by the American Library Association for the best-illustrated children's book of the year.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Picture Earth! Planet Earth by Jon Richards


As the tectonic plates move about
they carry pieces of land with them.
Over millions of years, this has
changed the shape of our land from
a single mass to the continents
we know today.

Earth (and we earthlings with it) is always on the move, with tectonic plates always shifting, imperceptibly but surely, as author Jon Richards makes sure we understand in the second book in the publisher's new series, Planet Earth (The World in Infographics) (Owlkids Books, 2013).

Making certain we get it that our seemingly stable and solid earth is a dynamic force, Richards begins his latest with Inside the Earth, with a cross section of the showing its molten, hot-as-the-sun core upon which the mantle and the crust (to which we cling hopefully) is free to float. Richards introduces the concept of the proto-continents coming apart--from Pangaea to Laurasia and Gondawanaland millions of years ago right down to our current (but temporary) arrangement of lands. following with two-page spreads covering Restless Earth (earthquakes), The Rock Cycle, and Violent Volcanoes.

Richards then moves on to earth's prominent landforms--Towering Peaks, Habitats, The Oceans, and Raging Rivers, as well as those welcome features that keep us alive--The Air We Breathe, The Water Cycle, and Water World, and concluding not far from where he started, with Changing Earth (climate).

This second book in the The World in Infographics series makes use of its unique icons, pictograms, and occasional fact boxes to convey information difficult to organize in a readable narrative: the world's highest mountains are shown scaled to size as peaks in one distant mountain range, from Everest (at 29,029 feet) down to the Vinson Massif (16,066 feet) and the under-ocean Carstensz Pyramid in the Pacific. Likewise, the double-page chapter on Habitats offers a pyramid which combines climate and the relative extent of habitats from polar to tropical regions, and the spread on Raging Rivers boasts a very clever pictogram which offers a listing of earth's major rivers, largest to smallest, their source, destination, countries crossed, and length in miles and kilometers, all in one easy-to-understand graphic image.

Great for inquisitive kids who like to browse through its eye-catching page design and clever graphics, courtesy of illustrator Ed Simkins, Planet Earth (The World in Infographics) offers both dedicated autodidacts and casual readers concepts and some memorable facts to take away with them.

An appended glossary does double duty, serving also as a review of science vocabulary introduced in the text.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Uplifting: House Held Up by Trees by Ted Kooser



Into the little white frame house comes a  family, a boy and girl and their father, who comes home every afternoon to care for his children and his lawn. In the warm months he mows his perfect grass weekly, and between mowings, relentlessly roots out any small seedlings from the surrounding woods crowded with maples and oaks and ash trees. The children prefer the woods for their play, seeking out the cool shade and making hideouts under the leafy undergrowth.

But time goes by. The trees continue their ancient cycle, blooming in the spring with a thousand tiny flowers, sending their winged seeds and acorns out on the winds of fall.  As children do, the boy and girl grow up and move away from the little house,  For years the father remains alone, keeping his perfect lawn clear of the relentless sprouts of young trees. And then as more time passes, he wearies of caring for the house and keeping the perfect yard and moves away to be near the children, leaving a For Sale sign and his two little lawn chairs behind on his lawn.


And as seasons go by, that perfect lawn becomes part of the woodland. The trees crowd closer and closer to the little house as it falls into disrepair, sending their roots into the foundation and their limbs through the broken windows until it becomes almost one with them.



The opening of Pulitzer-winning poet Ted Kooser's House Held Up by Trees (Candlewick, 2012) inevitably brings to mind the 1943 Caldecott Medal book by Virginia Lee Burton, The Little House, the story of a little white house in the country eventually surrounded by the city, but Kooser's story takes the opposite line, a little house that nature retakes for its own instead. An American Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser  has a different theme, that the things we build, even those that are once dear to us, are a small part of nature's view of time. It is in one way a sad theme, one that could have portrayed an unfeeling nature, victorious over everything in time,  but one that Kooser softens by making his trees in their own way ironically as care-taking as the house's one-time owner.

Kooser's benevolent point of view is supported, like the little house, by the understated but lovely illustrations of Jon Klassen, whose soft palette and gentle line here is a far cry from his own ironically witty, award-winning picture books, I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat.  Rather than picturing a blind nature, clawing back everything we create in the end, this tale pictures a more gentle version, a nature of "a thousand tiny flowers," which enfolds us all in its embrace, destroyer and preserver, as Shelley called it, always seeking to create and grow new life out of the old. Not a choice for a restless story circle, but for the right time with the right reader, one that makes youngsters think new thoughts.

House Held Up by Trees was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book for 2012.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

At the Foot of the Stairs: The Dark by Lemony Snicket

The Dark lived in the same house as Laszlo.

But mostly it spent its time in the basement. All day long the Dark would wait in a distant corner.

Laszlo's heart sinks with the sun.  That certain slant of light over the windowsill tells him the sun is going down.  He knows what comes next.  THE DARK.

He's met the dark in small doses, in the closet and behind the shower curtain. And Laszlo has his own resources, a big flashlight to sleep with and  a small nightlight near his bed which keeps the dark away.  He even visits from the safety of the top of the cellar stairs, softly saying, "Hi. Dark."

But then one night the slender lad in blue jammies wakes up to--nothing but dark.  Quickly he pulls out his flashlight and shines it at the door of his room.  It is dark beyond that opening and he seems to hear a  hoarse voice:

The voice was as creaky as the roof of the house, and as smooth and cold as the windows and sounded very far away.

"I want to show you something," said the Dark.


Calm but clutching his flashlight in front of him, Laszlo follows all the way down the long stairs to the basement, where the voice seems to be coming from a dusty chest in the corner. He realizes he's going to have to open that long-closed drawer.

But the Dark turns out to be a bit of a pedant as he holds forth on the need for creaky roofs  and shower curtains and dim closets, all the while spinning out the suspense until the contents of that drawer are revealed, in Lemony Snicket's and Jon Klaasen's new The Dark (Little, Brown, 2013). Two promising partners for the picture book set, Snicket does a fine job of building a sense of apprehension about the dark at the foot of the stairs, and Klaasen's  classic, cool, and controlled illustrations are a perfect foil for the author's wryly lyrical text.  Luckily, there's the light at the end of the tunnel for brave little Laszlo, as he finds a mysterious cache of lighted bulbs, one of which is just the right size to restore his bedroom night light, and Laszlo lies down with a new view of the Dark as he drops off to sleep.

Anyone who is, (or has ever been) afraid of the dark will find this fanciful confrontation of that old fear downright... enlightening.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

There Goes the Neighborhood! My Neighbor Is A Dog by Isabel Minhas Martius

The building I lived in was always very quiet.

Nothing ever happened there...

Until one day a huge moving truck pulled up right in front of our door...

As the boxes and furniture come out of the truck, all the building's residents, including one very excited girl, peer out of their windows, hoping for a glimpse of the new neighbor.

He was a dog!

All the tenants are agog, and the girl's parents are sure that the neighborhood is going to the dogs. Dogs shed and scratch and.... Well, her parents seem to suggest, they're just not our kind of people.

The new tenant turns out to be a good neighbor, polite and quiet, even when he plays his saxophone. He kindly fetches everyone's newspapers and delivers them to their doors. But the girl's mom and dad are not pleased.

And then another moving truck pulls up, and these new residents turn out to be a couple of elephants! The elephants are friendly, and one even helps all the tenants wash their cars in a jiffy. But still the girl's parents gripe that the elephants' sheets take up way too much space on the clothesline.

And then another new tenant shows up, one with a toothy smile. He's a crocodile, and even though he plays Santa and leaves presents outside everyone's door, the grownups think he's just too strange.

Soon the girl finds her parents packing up to move out. Away they go to a new place, and the girl is sad to leave her interesting neighbors behind.
I heard that there were now three bears living in our old apartment.
My old building was becoming more and more fun all the time.

One day when I grow up,
I will stop in front of our old door with a big moving truck... and I will move back in.

And I'm sure they won't find me strange!

Isabel Martius' just-published My Neighbor Is a Dog (Owlkids Books, 2013) will have young readers wishing that their neighbors were bears, elephants, and a sax-playing dog. But artist Madelena Matoso adds a comic visual twist to the story. Her page showing the girl and her parents--two giraffes--driving away with their mover explains why her parents have been looking down their noses at all the new tenants! Kirkus gives this offbeat story with quirky illustrations a thumbs up in its starred review: "Stylish and understated, this argument for tolerance is a welcome one."

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Georgia Rocks! Middle School: My Brother Is A Big Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademotriou


Rhonda was talking at an even higher volume than usual, and a few people stared as we made our way down the hall.< "I'm not trying to be different," I snapped.


"Rhonda! We're not alike, okay? So can you please just stop following me around?"

Rhonda froze up. Her eyes filled with tears

It's not like Georgia has great expectations for her first day at Hills Valley Middle School. After all, her brother Rafe had practically brought the school down in his year there, attempting to break every rule in the book. And then, there's no way she can slip in under the radar with a last name like Khatchadorian. And in a payback prank, Rafe slips some green dye into her shampoo and she has to face the first day of school with green hair.

Rafe may have gone off to Airbrook Arts School, but his name is still anathema at HVMS. Every table in the cafeteria seems to be a Khatchadorian-free zone, and Missy Trillin, pop princess queen-bee and her interchangeable followers Brittany and Bethany zero in on her as their chosen victim-of-the-month, ridiculing her clothes, her limp, and of course her hair. Teachers turn into trolls when they see her name on the roll, and the only friendly face she finds is Rhonda, a super-sized middle-school loser straight from central casting who latches onto her like a barnacle onto a barge.

At least Georgia has her friends from Airbrook, Nanci, Patti, and Mari, and their as-yet-unnamed rock band. Sure. she is just learning her first three chords, but Georgia has high hopes. That is, until she discovers that Rafe has malevolently signed them up for the upcoming Battle of the Bands at the HVMS dance, presided over by (who else?) Dance Committee Chairperson, Missy Trillin. "We STINK!" Georgia moans, but Rhonda, who has tagged along for rehearsal, thinks We Stink is a killer name for the group. She even offers her services as band singer. She won't need a microphone, Georgia admits, with dread.

James Patterson's latest in his best-selling Middle School series, Middle School: My Brother Is a Big, Fat Liar (Little, Brown, 2013), has all the elements in place for a middle-school serio-comic trauma tale.  Giving the distaff side a chance in her very own book, Georgia is an appealing narrator as she deals with the world's most annoying big brother and the travail of the school scene, struggling to keep her A+ super student status with all the cards stacked against her. Although most readers will suspect how this one will turn out, it's fun getting to that delicious denouement when Missy gets her just desserts (rice pudding and all) and a literal putdown as We Stink rocks and rolls right over her. Patterson throws the readers an interesting curve with his introduction of Georgia's sudden realization that she is adopted, and that Rafe is, after all, NOT her brother. Or IS he? Although this serious side note introduces a new element into this sibling story, it is well foreshadowed and adds a bit of depth to the warring sibling theme.

Patterson's earlier books in this series, all illustrated in pseudo-Rafe drawings by Neil Swaab, are Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life and Middle School: Get Me out of Here!

And wait! There's More! Summer vacation is coming and it seems those opposing siblings Rafe and Georgia are off to Camp Wannamorra, with remediation for Rafe and enrichment for Georgia and all the usual suspects of summer camp just waiting for them in the forthcoming-in-June Middle School: How I Survived Bullies, Broccoli, and Snake Hill.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"I Am Become Death:" Bomb:The Race to Build--and Steal--The World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin


And then, without a sound, the sun was shining. Or so it looked."

"I looked back up, and I see this white light changing into... a big ball of orange."

"It lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described."

The fireball continued rolling, twisting itself into an enormous mushroom shape, glowing dark purple.

"It worked," whispered Robert Oppenheimer to himself.

With the billowing of that first iconic mushroom cloud, the Trinity Project proved that indeed an incredibly destructive weapon was now possible. The news of the first experimental fission in a German scientist's lab in 1938 had spread quickly throughout the world of physics. This new science was quickly understood as a source of potentially destructive energy, and as World War II began, physicists in England, the United States, Russia, and Germany realized that nuclear fission held the possibility for a super weapon and that whichever nation could first produce a bomb utilizing this power would win the war and could conceivably rule the world.

Steve Sheinkin's Newbery-winning Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon (Newbery Honor Book) (Roaring Brook, 2012) skillfully weaves three suspenseful strands together into one powerful story--the story of the band of scientists led by Robert Oppenheimer that raced to win the race to create the bomb, the story of the band of Soviet spies who infiltrated Oppenheimer's team  to steal America's  plans for Stalin's bomb, and the band of Norwegian resistance fighters who wiped out Germany's heavy water plant and prevented Germany from completing their bomb before their defeat.

Sheinkin's narration fully portrays the stranger-than-fiction suspense of all three of these stories, beginning with the frantic efforts of American Soviet spy Harry Gold's to destroy the evidence of his years of espionage as FBI agents approach his door. Sheinkin switches seamlessly to the search for Albert Einstein, vacationing incognito somewhere on the Atlantic coast, by two scientists determined to recruit him to petition President Roosevelt to set up the American bomb-building effort, and then moves to the mountains of Norway where resistance fighters cripple the Nazi plant to produce heavy water and then slip aboard a  nondescript barge ferrying the rest of the product, planting explosives and effectively scuttling Germany's atomic bomb project.  Juggling a cast of characters beyond a Hollywood script writer's wildest imagination, Sheinkin breathes life into these historic figures, showing them in all of their conflicted humanity, as revealed in the words of the principle actors themselves.

Oppenheimer's relief that his project had not failed faded immediately.
"It was solemn." Oppenheimer recalled. "We knew the world would not be the same."

He thought of a line from the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita: "Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds."

The flight crew of the Enola Gay returning from the bombing run on Hiroshima had similar thoughts.  Navigator Rob Lewis immediately scribbled in his logbook, "My God, what have we done?"  Pilot Paul Tibbetts echoed Oppenheimer. "...the world would never be the same. War, the scourge of the human race since time began, now held terrors beyond belief."

To shape all of these small and world-shaking events into a meaningful whole, gripping for fifth-graders or adults, was a monumental effort for author Sheinkin.  His book reads like a "who-done-it"--and even though we may know how the story ends, the how and why of these three cataclysmic conspiracies make for totally absorbing and thought-provoking reading in which even the purported villains have their own understandable motivations, ultimately leaving the reader satisfied, but sadder and wiser.  The fact that Sheinkin's book was a National Book Award finalist and received three awards from the American Library Association--a Newbery Honor Award, the Siebert Award for informational books, and the Young Adult Library Services Award for nonfiction--shows his success as a storyteller and historian.

Even his grainy period photos and his khaki-drab cover convey a sense of the times, a time at once receding rapidly into the history-book past and yet still with us in the daily news of Iran's uranium enrichment scheme.   In his concluding chapter, the author reminds the reader that what he modestly calls "a big story," did not end at Nagasaki, as in a mind-blowing two sentences he traces the threat of the nuclear race to the present day.

"It's a story with no end in sight. And like it or not, you're in it," says Sheinkin.

For students, Steve Sheinkin adds a extensive appendix of source notes, quotation notes,  and a detailed index.

The Washington Post  calls this book "a fast-paced thriller that happens to be fascinatingly true…."

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Busted Blockbuster: Hollywood, Dead Ahead by Kate Klise

Dear Iggy and Olive,

I couldn't resist opening the letter from California. We HAVE to do this! Please????

Can you imagine the biggest producer in Hollywood making a movie about us? It would be the coolest thing ever.   Olive, I know you probably don't like movies. I bet they didn't even exist when you were alive. But trust me, they're GREAT! I made a ballot for this business decision. Please cast your vote!

Love, Seymour

P.S.: What's a femme fatale?

The household at 43 Cemetery Drive is in a media frenzy. With their next mystery going into publication, Iggy and his genuine ghost writer Olive C. Spence (deceased since 1911) and their adopted son and illustrator Seymour Hope suddenly receive a surprising epistle from movie maker Mo Block Busters, offering to turn their latest into a script for his next movie. Iggy (Ignatius B. Grumply) is dead set against putting their novel on celluloid, Olive, invisible but opinionated, longs to play the femme fatale lead, pointing out the obvious: who is more of a femme fatale than a woman who's been dead for over 100 years? Besides, she's got a trunk full of elegant vintage velvet gowns just right for the part, and they're not invisible!

Before the reluctant Grumply knows it, their sudden fame is front-page fare in The Ghastly Times, with a write-up by the editor himself, Cliff Hanger. Local librarian, M. Balm, is dubious about the conclusion of this book-to-movie deal, but self-confident handyman Hugh Briss is proud to be named caretaker of Spence Mansion while the family are in Tinseltown. Before they know it, Iggy and Seymour are winging their way to Hollywood to sign the contract. Olive has a little trouble booking a ticket for a ghost and follows, unwillingly forced to haunt the aisles of her red-eye flight.

Moe Block Busters rushes them through the contract signing before Olive arrives to scrutinize the details, and Iggy and Seymour are hurried off by Moe's administrative assistant Myra Manes for makeovers by personal stylist Luke Ahtmee and cosmetic dentist Miles Smyle. To Seymour's dismay, he discovers that director Phillip D. Rubbish has decided he's not right for the part of himself. Undeterred, however, Seymour disguises himself as a boy actor named Willie Shadow and shows up for the casting call, and winning the audition, finds himself in two roles, as Seymour playing Willie and Willie playing Seymour.

Meanwhile, Rubbish is not done with the casting changes. Olive C. Spence finds herself replaced as the femme star by 92-year-old actress, Ivana Oscar, who is thrilled to get the part until she discovers that her contract has a heart-stopping clause:

The undersigned hereby agrees to die of natural causes or otherwise while making the film to guarantee box-office success and cult status for the movie.

At first filled with a deadly envy of Ivana's role as herself, Olive changes her mind when she discovers a clause buried in their contract which signs over all the rights and royalties to their books to Moe Block Busters. Suddenly, Ivana and Olive find themselves dead serious, acting as one to bring the deadly plans of Moe Block Busters and Myra Manes to their final end.

If long-running classic television sitcoms can send their characters to Hollywood for a change of script, why not the comic residents of the happily haunted mansion at 43 Old Cemetery Road? The forthcoming fifth book in Kate and M. Sarah Klise's lively series, Hollywood, Dead Ahead (43 Old Cemetery Road) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) is another spoofy whistle-in-the-graveyard walk down Old Cemetary Road. As always, Klise christens her characters with drop-dead funny pun-filled names that suit their personas to a T, and Sarah Klise's drawings add to the giggle-evoking gallows humor. Told epistolary style (although she has a lot to say, the voiceless Olive has to communicate only in writing), Klise manages this unusual narrative style with deadpan elan. As Kirkus Reviews concludes, "Another winner for this inventive series."

Fortunately, this novel is no dead end, with book six, Greetings from the Graveyard, in which Olive C. Spence, mystery writer extraordinaire, sends for her own Watson, former butler, T. Leaves, to help her sleuth out the cause of the sudden crime wave in the town of Ghastly, Illinois, forthcoming soon. Earlier books in the series are Till Death Do Us Bark (43 Old Cemetery Road), The Phantom of the Post Office (43 Old Cemetery Road), Over My Dead Body (43 Old Cemetery Road), and Dying to Meet You (43 Old Cemetery Road).

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

An Alphabet of Cows: It's Milking Time by Phyllis Alsdurf

I slip under barbed wire and race down the lane.
I'm late.
Dad's waiting on me to start milking.
"Come, boss," I holler.

Single file they come,
on the same worn path.
"Come, boss, come, boss.
It's milking time."

Down that well worn path that cows and their keepers have trodden for  millennia, a girl, her father, and their small herd make their way to the barn where the cows will be milked one at a time.

There's a ritual to follow, a routine that reaches far back into history, spreading down the straw in each stall, filling the buckets with their ration of grain that will keep the cows busy munching happily during the milking process. Child and man work together efficiently with few words, moving the cows into their milking stations.  The girl locks the stanchions that keep the cows still while Dad methodically washes their teats and udders to make sure the milk stays clean and hooks up their milking machine, beginning with the first cow, appropriately enough named Alpha.

Father and child wait patiently as tails swish and grain is crunched, talking about rain, tuning the barn radio to the weather report, until it's time to move the milker on to Bertha, and then to Cassie.

An alphabet of cows.

One by one as the cows are milked, Dad and girl carry each full milk bucket to the milk house to be strained into the big milk cans and deposited in the cooler.  One bucket is used to pour some milk into a pitcher to go to the house for milk for dinner and breakfast and the rest is taken to the little weaned calves to share.
"What are you going to name the little guy?" Dad laughs.
The little calf looks up at me with liquid brown eyes."Buddy," I say.

Soon the cows have all been milked, and it's time to unhook their stanchions and coax them out to the night pasture. Dad mucks out the stalls, while his daughter scrubs the milking machine parts in a tub of suds.

And finally it's time to spread new straw into each stall, ready for the morning milking that will come all too soon.

For one more night milking time is done. Every morning, every night, it's milking time.
Every day of the week, every week of the month, every month of the year, it's milking time.

It's satisfying to get to lead the cows in and proudly carry a full pitcher of fresh milk inside, to the kitchen where Mom strains out some of the top milk for morning coffee and lets her daughter fill the glasses beside their plates with the product of her work.  In her It's Milking Time (Random House, 2012), Phyllis Alsdurf's lyrical prose captures the hard but rewarding tasks of dairying for modern children who may never give a barn cat a splash of milk or drink milk for dinner that her own cows gave.  Her story, this gentle narrative softly and beautifully illustrated by artists Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, feels like the next best thing to being there.

Kirkus puts it succinctly: "a lovely, poetic picture"