Friday, October 31, 2014

Return of the Swamp Zombie: Skink--No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen

No more than three inches of the straw was exposed from the sand, but that was enough to pinch between my fingers. When I pulled it out of the mound, the in-and-out noise stopped.

But then, as I was peering at the spot where the soda straw had been in the sand, the turtle nest basically exploded. A full-grown man shot upright in a spray of sand. Built like a grizzly, he was coughing and swearing and spitting through a long, caked beard. On his head he wore (I swear) a flowered plastic shower cap. Even weirder, his left eye and right eye were pointed in different directions.

I vaulted back over the ribbon. After catching my breath, I asked, "What are you doing here?"

"Gagging, thanks to you."

"Dude, you can't sleep in a turtle nest!" I shouted.

In Carl Hiaasen's latest young adult novel, Skink--No Surrender (Alfred A. Knopf Books, 2014), fourteen-year-old Richard is introduced to one of Carl Hiaasen's iconic characters, swamp hermit Skink, former Vietnam vet and Florida governor, whose mission has become, to put it politely, avenging ecological transgressions. Sleeping concealed in a fake turtle nest to catch illegal egg pillagers, Skink's repose is interrupted by Richard on a round of nest inspections near his home.

Richard has been walking the beach, worrying about his cousin and best friend Malley, who apparently has disappeared impulsively on the way to boarding school in New Hampshire ("I don't do cold!") and whom Richard suspects has run away with an unsavory Instagram stalker who calls himself Talbo Chock, a name which a bit of googling turns out to be the stolen identity of a Marine killed in Afghanistan.

When Malley finally calls him, she tells Richard she's with a "friend," T.C., waiting for a drawbridge to open. Richard hears a ship's horn in the background and infers that she is somewhere along the Florida panhandle coast, and, telling his mother he's gone camping with a friend, heads off toward the nearest place with a drawbridge on a broad bay, the estuary of the Chocktawhatchee River. Along the way he meets up again with Skink, on the same mission. Combining forces, they determine that T.C. is holding Malley prisoner somewhere up the alligator and wild boar-infested river on a dilapidated rented houseboat, and the unlikely pair of rescuers set out behind them in a "borrowed" canoe.

Then when their beached canoe is washed down river in a flash flood, Skink dives in to catch it and is presumably pulled under by an eight-foot alligator. Horrified, Richard nevertheless resolves to continue on foot up river to free his cousin, where he discovers the houseboat anchored up a tributary creek with his cousin handcuffed to the wheel. Richard realizes that Malley's salvation is up to him alone.

But he reckons without the legendary recuperative powers of Hiaasen's iconic Skink, who survives having his foot run over by a truck while rescuing a baby turtle, a mauling by a giant 'gator, and being shot by T.C. along the way to a timely conclusion for their quest, and in a page-turning and well-deserved denouement, Richard and Malley reunite with him ("It's the Youth of America!" quips Skink) in time to see T. C. meet justice in the jaws of that same grandaddy 'gator. Although set in the familiar format of his young adult and adult eco-thrillers, Hiaasen makes use the motif of the iconic shaman and his fatherless apprentice in a modern morality play, complete with the sage mentor's totem, in this case the believed-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker which appears to Richard and Malley as the symbol of Hiaasen's perpetual theme, the hoped-for survival of Florida's native creatures and environment.

Hiaasen, who won Newbery honors for his first eco-thriller for young readers, Hoot, followed by its noted companion books, Flush, Scat, and Chomp (see my reviews here), sets all of his books in the abused but resilient Florida landscape, with humor and strong male and female characters on a cockeyed but riveting moral quest to right a wrong, personal and ecological. For reluctant readers (which many teens are), Hiaasen's newest work, a 2014 National Book Award nominee,  has it all--recognizable kid characters and the usual Florida suspects (here played by the revoltingly dead-gar-smelling brothers, "Nickel" and "Dime"), sharp wit, and a fast pace through one of the sort of all-out missions of justice that hold young readers fast.

Classic Hiaasen in all its glory! "It's a quintessentially Hiaasen romp for a younger set, combining a message of taking care of the world with suspense, humor, a generous helping of Florida wildlife and much heart," writes the New York Times reviewer.

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Can't Scare Me! Not Very Scary by Carol Brendler

Dear Melly,

Please come tonight. I have a surprise for you!

Your Ghouly Cousin,

It's an invitation from her favorite cousin, and on Halloween night. too. Malberta is the surprise queen! Melly Monster can't wait!

She sets out through the early twilight. The bats are already flitting, and it's gloomy and dark under low clouds. And what's following her through the gloom?

It's just one black cat.


But then as the black cat continues to shadow her, she sees two skittish skeletons who fall in line behind.


But then she feels her fur standing straight up, because the gang of strangers keeps growing behind her--three wheezy witches, four mournful ghosts, five grimy goblins, six sullen mummies, seven fierce fruit bats, eight spindly spiders, and as Melly begins to run toward Malberta's house, nine rambunctious rats scamper to fall in line.

There's a pattern in her retinue, and Melly has to admit that the scary factor is rising! As she unlatches Malberta's gate, the air behind her is filled with ten vexing vultures, and she has to admit that although it's not VERY SCARY, her fangs just might be chattering as she rings Malberta's spooky doorbell!

But in Carol Brendler's not-too-scary story, Not Very Scary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux,2014), there is, of course, a party waiting for Melly, as well as for all her seasonal followers, inside Malberta's dark house, with games like bobbing for crawdads and pinning the drool on the ghoul waiting for them to make merry. In this jolly little cumulative Halloween counting book, Theodor Seuss Geisel award-winning artist Gary Pizzoli provides the treats, dishing up just the sort of (not very) scary denizens for the evening in all the appropriate colors, and Melly's black-clad three-eyed cousin is the hostess with the mostess! "A terrific Halloween title to share with those readers who prefer giggles to shivers," croaks Kirkus Reviews.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wreckin' Reptile: Rex Wrecks It! by Ben Clanton

For adults in the room, who hasn't been frustrated with the toddler who takes more joy in knocking down the block structure than building it up? No matter how neat the ramp or how clever the bridge or how tall the tower, as soon as it's done....CRASH! Down it comes.

Rex is that guy.

The little T. Rex's friends Gizmo, a thoughtful little robot, Sprinkles, a sweet, unicorn-horned bunny, and Wild, a horned and fanged little monster, are past that stage.




Ditto for Sprinkle's magical floating heart and Wild's wooden wonder of the world. RAWR! and RAWR!


The three put their heads together. Gizmo's calculator grinds its gears as he blueprints his grand design on the chalkboard. The others get into the act. They pull together all the blocks they have, determined to build a design so strong that not even Rex can wreck it!


But not for long.

With his strongest RAWR, Rex roars and down it comes. Satisfied, Rex chomps a cracker, proud of his prowess. The three builders are aghast! How could he?

But Rex notices that his friends are not cheering his mighty deed. Suddenly he gets it. In a tiny voice, he says his own version of "sorry."


But Gizmo has a brainstorm and the three friends figure out a way to get Rex to let them actually finish building something. They let him help!

It's the biggest, tallest, fanciest block building ever. The four share a moment of happy pride! But then...


All four of the friends give in to the temptation in Ben Clanton's Rex Wrecks It! (Candlewick Press, 2014).  Who could resist? And, after all, now they get to build it AGAIN. Clanton's engaging and expressive pencil, ink, and watercolor illustrations fill the pages with energy, as Rex's more serious companions respond to his rambunctious but infectious exuberance which finally draws them into the fun. "All told, a fine little fable," says Kirkus Reviews, and one that pairs well with Bob Shea's plays-well-with-others story, Dinosaur vs. School (A Dinosaur vs. Book) (Hyperion Books, 2014). (See review here.)

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Moose Shapes Up! Circle, Square, Moose (Me Again!) by Kelly Bingham


What is supposed to be a simple concept book concentrating on teaching shapes begins innocently enough with a circle, represented by an innocuous round button, and then proceeds to the square, illustrated by a sandwich.

"If you look closely," coos the mild-mannered narrator, "you will see that it is made of four--

Suddenly the lesson is interrupted by a big-toothed moose who grabs the example in his jaws.

"Look," scolds the narrator, "this book is about SHAPES! Please put that sandwich back. It's our SQUARE!"

But it's no use. Once Moose gets the bit in his teeth, so to speak, there's no stopping him. He steps right onto the page, and as the narrator attempts to continue to elucidate the shape of the TRIANGLE with examples of a wedge of cheese on a wedge of apple pie, Moose interrupts to point out that his henchman, Cat, has triangular ears.

"This is a NOT an animal book.It's a SHAPE book!" insists the narrator.

But it's too late. Moose and Company have taken over, despite the entrance of Zebra, dressed in referee's stripes and blowing his whistle. Zebra chases Moose across the pages, with shapes flying in all directions, as Moose uses the ribbon waiting to illustrate a curved line to entangle Zebra. Finally the book invader makes his escape, metafictionally, through a manhole, conveniently placed in the page.

But Moose is not quite done with his mayhem. Still the center of attention, he reappears with a final shape--the STAR--and he knows just who deserves that award the most!

It's Moose on the loose again in Kelly Bingham's latest, Circle, Square, Moose (Greenwillow Books, 2014), illustrated admirably by the Caldecott-winning Paul O. Zelinsky, whose rascally lesson-wrecking moose was the star of their 2012 hit, Z Is for Moose (Booklist Editor's Choice. Books for Youth (Awards)) (see review here). To the tune of Bingham's wry dialogue, Zelinsky lets his art run wild across and in and out of the pages in a unforgettable and kid-pleasing takeover of a familiar primary school lesson. Bingham and Zelinsky's latest book shapes up to be a top-seller and an A+ hit with the critics, who add their own stars to their reviews. As Publishers Weekly drolly points out, "It’s wild fun, and adults could probably even use the book to explore shapes with children, if they can get them to stop laughing long enough."

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Monday, October 27, 2014

From Columbus, You Could Go Just About Anywhere: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Interstate 77 could take you south
but my father said
no colored Buckeye in
his right mind
would ever want to go
From Columbus,
my father said,
you could go just about

Her father had wanted to name her Jack, after himself, but her mother chooses Jacqueline to make sure she will never ever be called Jackie.

Her mother longs to return home, to Greenville, South Carolina, to the soft summers and and warm arms of her family, and when Jacqueline is two, they move there, right into her grandparents' hugs and comfortable house. Grandpa becomes "Daddy," to her, and she and her older brother and sister settle in to the Black community there, soon losing their Buckeye way of fast talking. But times are changing even there, and her grandfather had his own ways of changing, too.

"This is the way brown
people have to fight,

my grandfather says.
You can't just put your
fist up.
You have to insist on something
gently. Walk toward a thing
slowly. But be ready to die,

my grandfather says,
for what is right.

But in time Jaqueline's mother grows restless of walking slowly and, leaving her three children behind, she follows her brother to New York City to find opportunity and a better place for her family.

How can we have both places?
How can we leave all that we've
What about the
fireflies and ditches?

But their mother comes back for them and Jacqueline moves to her third place, expecting glorious things, even diamonds in the sidewalk. It's not like that in Brooklyn, but her brother learns that he can sing, her sister learns that she is brilliant, and Jacqueline has a teacher who tells her every morning

Now that Jacqueline is
here, the day can finally

And I believe her.

And it does begin. She learns to write her name, Jacqueline Amanda Woodson, on the first page of her composition book, and then she slowly fills it with stories that she imagines. Her mother worries that her made-up stories are just lies, but her uncle tells her to keep writing, and she does. She finds her first poetry, strange at first, some coded language only white people know, but as her teachers ask her to remember and recite it, it becomes her language, too.

How an award-winning author finds her own stories is the subject of Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014), a memoir of the people and the places she loved and where she was loved as she grew up. Written in blank verse that flows as easily as her storytelling, this book is filled with vivid, memorable people and a strong sense of place, of three geographical places, but also of finding a personal place in the world. It is one of many American stories--recollections of family love, hard work, and the willingness to move on--that run through all our own narratives.

A 2014 National Book Award finalist, Brown Girl Dreaming gives middle readers an understanding of life in the second half of the twentieth century and how it brought us to where we are now. Its lyrical flow takes readers deep into that time, not so long, ago, and makes it as real as yesterday, with the sights, sounds, and scents of three places in the heart of the writer. “A memoir-in-verse so immediate that readers will feel they are experiencing the author’s childhood right along with her. . . .The poetry here sings: specific, lyrical, and full of imagery. An extraordinary—indeed brilliant—portrait of a writer as a young girl.”
says Horn Book

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

It's Mine! The Tooth Fairy Wars by Kate Coombs





Nathan's mom is fine with that. After all, Nathan and his tooth go way back.

But even though he providently tucks his first lost tooth away in a baggie among his socks, the next morning it's gone and an unwanted dollar is there in its place.

HEY! thinks Nathan. Who's in charge here?

It's a matter of principal to tooth-fairy contrarian Nathan. They are HIS baby teeth and he can keep them if he wants to.


But the Tooth Fairy proves to be no pantie-waist pixie! She's a professional, with a cast-iron hairdo and top-secret lost-tooth-locating technology--the Sensomatic Tooth Finder--on her side. Nathan hides his next lost tooth under military guard by a squadron of toy soldiers. But the Tooth Fairy's quick-response team extracts it easily, leaving her marker behind again. The Tooth Fairy War escalates as Nathan disguises his next tooth under a coat of gray paint and leaves it under guard in his pet tarantula's cagem, which hardly deters the Enchanted Commerce League from doing tooth retrieval duty. Nathan raises the ante, with a lost tooth coated in honey to lure the Fairy's minions and itching powder to deter their return.

This is serious! Who will be the first to throw in the tooth towel?

Kate Coombs' The Tooth Fairy Wars (Atheneum Press, 2014) fashions a spoof of a beating-the-bureaucracy fantasy around the what-if? premise of a strong-willed baby-tooth collector out to beat tradition. But die-hard Nathan has plans for those teeth, and readers will giggle at the details of his plan to defeat a different sort of super-hero tooth fairy. Jake Parker's comic illustrations pit two determined and worth opponents against each other in a battle of wit against magic that will conjure up quite a few snickers among the missing-tooth crowd.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

How Big? Gigantosaurus by Jonny Duddle



Listen to Mama, Cretaceous kiddies! Even a boneheaded ankylosaurus or triceratops is just a crunchy appetizer for this guy.

Four little dinosaurs hear their mamas' warnings, but being kids, it's just a stimulus for a game of bogeyman, big time. At least, it is for young Bonehead, a feisty little ankylosaurus. He offers to play lookout from the top of a giant termite mound while his buddies, Bill, Finn, and Tiny play.

That's prudent! But wee Bonehead is not above a prank or two, or few! Just as the guys get going with their game, Bonehead sounds a warning!



His three pals scatter and take cover, shivering with fear.

But there's no stomp and crunch to follow. It's only a harmless triceratops papa grazing nearby. Bonehead is convulsed with giggles at his gag.



Bill, Finn, and Tiny are not amused, but Bonehead claims it was just a practice drill and they passed the test, so they go back to their game.

But Bonehead gets bored with his watch. As soon as he sees a diplodocus dad approaching, he can't resist sounding the alarm again, and then again.

The little dinos are definitely steamed. After their third run-through of the drill, they are ready to demote Bonehead from deputy duty. They've had it with the faux frights!



Boney is left alone, and getting a little fearful. There's something big and noisy coming near and he hears a definite STOMP!

Will he wind up as the crunchy lunch?

As Publishers Weekly points out, it's "a witty cautionary tale that boils down to "The Ankylosaurus Who Cried Wolf." in Jonny Duddle's Gigantosaurus (Templar Books, 2014). Duddle arranges a cheerful near miss for his young prankster this time, in a lesson about lying well learned, all set in a rhyming version of the venerable Aesop's fable that gets the ancient truism across. Duddle's illustrations of a leafy and verdant Cretaceous jungle with lots of hiding places for his little herbivores make for some fun page turns, especially the concluding three-way gatefold which shows what almost happens to the little imposter when--not the dreaded gigantosaurus--but an unexpected airborne pteranodon stops by for a quick snack.

Duddle adds an appendix, "Meet the Dinosaurs in This Book," which includes the story characters and other dino denizons of the prehistoric landscape, including the parasaurolophus, and the real big guy of the swamps, the giganotosaurus. For fans of these creatures of the Cretaceous and Jurassic ages. with both exotic and old favorites, pair this one with Tim Myers' Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe. (Read review here).

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Bogeyman! Big Bad Bubble by Adam Rubin



You might expect that monsters living in a dank, dark world would be happy to see a cloud of pretty blue bubbles blowing their way! After all, every kid in our world gets a big bottle of bubble stuff as soon as the weather warms and starts happily trying to wand and blow bubbles up over over the treetops. But no.

It seems that La La Land has its own fear-monger, a big yellow guy named Mogo who once had a unfortunate encounter with bubble gum and who has convinced all the other little monsters that bubbles are the the ultimate horror.



Fed a daily indoctrination of bubblephobia, all the monsters cringe in fear and loathing when the bubbles appear.  Despite the indisputable fact that all the La La inhabitants have all the right stuff--horns, fangs, claws or all three--to take on the invasion, no one is willing to confront a bubble, mano a mano, to find out what it is made of. Yerburt, Froofle, and Wumpus flee, screeching monstrously.

It's time for a little phobia busting in Adam Rubin's latest, Big Bad Bubble (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), as the author's off-page narrator-slash--therapist talks Wumpus through a little cognitive counseling, and when Wumpus pokes a big bubble with his horn, he finds out it's just ...



Ever since Charlie Brown and Lucy cringed at the sight of sidewalk fuzz and Max confronted the Wild Things on their own turf, authors have helped kids confront imagined terrors. With a lot of artistic help from his friend and illustrator, Daniel Salmieri, author Rubin takes a poke at those innocuous and irrational fears by proposing the most innocuous threat yet, a soap bubble! Salmieri's bright orange, yellow, green and red characters are visual standouts set against his gloomy black backgrounds, giving this airborne bugaboo a decidedly light touch.

Other best-selling picture book hits by this dynamic duo are Those Darn Squirrels! (and sequels) and Dragons Love Tacos. (Check out my reviews here and here.)

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Buggy Boos! Halloween Bugs by David Carter



What do bugs and Halloween have in common?

They're both CREEPY!

And a lot of creepy-crawly critters can be found in bugmeister David Carter's redo of his Halloween Bugs (Bugs in a Box Books) (Little Simon).

There are scary hairy crawlers, Great Pumpkin bugs, and a one-horned, one-eyed, so-called people-eater bug, all concealed artfully behind sturdy flaps in this charming toy-and-movable book illustrated specially for the scary season. Kids will interact with each two-page spread to find one of Carter's creative creepy-crawlers, a spiffy bug in a top hat, or a touchy-feely orange-yarn many-legged critter, hidden behind each distinctive door.

But the artist-designer saves the best for last--an elaborate pop-up of a buggy graveyard, with ghostly Halloween bugs peering out from behind some cleverly inscribed tombstones:


Bless her soul.

She went to the outhouse

And fell down the hole
For preschoolers who go buggy over these critters, other famous flap and pop-up bug books by David Carter include Bedtime Bugs: A Pop-up Good Night Book by David A. Carter, Birthday Bugs: A Pop-up Party by David A. Carter, and The 12 Bugs of Christmas: A Pop-up Christmas Counting Book (Bugs in a Box Books).

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Back to the Future: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas: A Visit to St. Nicholas illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith


So begins America's favorite holiday story poem, composed for his own children by Clement C. Moore in 1822. First printed in the local newspaper and then picked up by other publications and reprinted in school readers, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" eventually found its way into picture book format. Now each fall publishing season features several special new editions of Moore's text, done up in many styles, cartoons, parodies, and gorgeous, full-color form in which famous illustrators compete to find new and creative ways to portray that famous midnight intruder who never fails to leave filled stockings "by the chimney with care."

Forthcoming early, with plenty of time to order for the holidays is Houghton Mifflin's revised and new edition. For this one the publisher echews the current crop of artists in a return to the past, back to the 1912 edition of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (Holiday Classics) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), featuring the vintage artwork of the illustrious turn of the nineteenth-century illustrator, Jessie Willcox Smith. Smith, known for her work on several classic children's books, was a student of Howard Pyle, noted for his heroic illustrations in The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (Sterling Unabridged Classics) and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (Sterling Unabridged Classics).

For Clement C. Moore's classic, however, artist Jessie Willcox Smith avoids the heroic, picturing her St. Nicholas faithfully as a "jolly old elf," half the height of the father who cautiously observes him, indeed plump and elfish, with stumpy legs and elfin brown fur garb without white trim, with pointed cap unadorned by the usual fur pom-pom atop it, more a rotund Brownie than super-sized benefactor. Artist Smith's scale is modest as well, with a plain brown fireplace from which hang ten, well-worn socks, in varying sizes, from a string across the fireplace front. The children nestle, several to a bed under flowered quilts, and Papa in his nightshirt and cap emerges, a little disgruntled, from his canopied, side-curtained bed to peer out the mullioned window-paned shutters at St. Nicholas landing noisily on his lawn.

Santa's reindeer and sled are miniature, as Clark describes them, dwarfed by his huge, cram-jammed toy bag, and this Santa has to look way up as he confronts Papa in the hallway. Smith's vignettes are set against bright white pages, centered like medallions, but not without jolly details of St. Nicolas's largess spilling from his pack. The Saint departs in an appropriately snow-decorated scene flanked by frozen evergreens, under a full yellow moon as expected, but eschewing the sight of saint and sled actually taking flight. Smith sets her text in centered paragraphs with large, red initial capitals, and adds decorations in the form of a red-beribboned girl saying her prayers on the first page and a tiny red-overalled bear adorning a small round box on the final page.

All in all, Jessie Willcox Smith's version of this classic holiday story is a lovely choice for holiday reading and gifting, child-sized and child-friendly, and a nice addition to the holiday book shelf.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Snow Magic: Outside by Deirdre Gill



His toy dragon mounts an attack on his brother, who sits immobile in front of a screen, oblivious to red plush fantasies.

So the boy suits up in coat, tall boots, and scarf and leaves him behind.

He steps outside... into a different world, and on the bottom step turns around and falls backward...



Looking up at the sky, with just a few wispy clouds, he sees in them the shape of an angel, and makes his own angel in the snow. He knocks on the window and writes on the frosty glass, "Come outside," but his brother is lost in a game on another screen.


And when the snowball is taller than he is, he sculpts a snow creature.

The snow creature and the boy regard each other seriously and then they begin to build...



A castle calls for a dragon, and waving goodbye to the snow creature on the ground, the boy mounts the dragon's back and soars, over the trees, over his house, and beyond the village, which grows tiny below him as the sun begins to set.

Then it is time to leave his snow dragon and head back inside, except... there is his brother, finally in his parka and boots and ready to go out, and together by starlight the boys


Not even the most jaded adult commuter can miss the magic of a new-snow morning, all angles softened and all the drab colors of winter vanquished beneath sparkling white. Deirdre Gill's debut book, Outside (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). forthcoming today, takes the reader outside, outside the house, yes, but also outside the usual world to a place where trees and snowmen become magical beings and even a sunset dragon offers a flight above the everyday world. Gill's narration is simple, set against her illustrations, done in retro style and soft pastels, the grays, blues, and whites of the snow, the soft green of the gingerbread-trimmed farmhouse, and the dragon's-breath red and orange glow of the dragon that evoke everychild's dream of a snowy day. Possibly the best snow book of the year, this one is perfect for reading alone or pairing with the classics, Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day or Raymond Briggs' The Snowman.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

There's A War On, You Know! Susan Marcus Bends the Rules by Jane Cutler

Dear Marv, I wrote,

You were right about baseball. I am the only Yankee fan in town. So I just do not bother with baseball. I have other stuff to worry about. One thing is trying to get rid of my New York accent before school starts. Another thing is Jim Crow. That is the name they give to laws they have to keep Negroes and white people separated from each other. Can you believe it? I would love to do something against old Jim Crow, but I don't know what. What could a kid do against laws like that, anyway?
And one more thing. I have an ugly haircut that I hope will grow out in time for school.

Please write back.

Still Your Best Friend, Susan

In 1942 there's a war on, and a lot of things have changed. There are air raid drills, and Joe DiMaggio has been drafted and won't be around if the Yankees play the Cardinals in the Worlds Series. And now Susan's dad has to take a job in St. Louis, where everyone is a Cards fan.

Susan knows that things will be different in Clayton, the small town just outside St. Louis where they move. But there are still young men away in the armed forces, still double-feature movies on Sunday night with her parents, and even a tiny "hole-in-the-wall" Chinese restaurant like they one they loved back in the Bronx. And there is a girl her age, Marlene with her bossy little sister Liz in her building who make friends with her right away and show her how to roller skate in the cool downstairs garage and introduce her to the town's swimming pool and its high dive.

But some things are very different. People talk differently and tell her they can't understand her New York accent. Marlene's grumpy grandmothers complain that she shouldn't play with Susan because she's a Jew, something she never heard back in the Bronx. And then she meets Loretta, a black girl who lives in the basement with her mother who is the building custodian, and when she wants to invite Loretta along to the pool, Susan's dad has to explain that Missouri has something called Jim Crow laws that mean that black and white people can't go to the same swimming pools, schools, movies, or even restaurants.

But as the steamy summer goes on and the girls share monopoly games, Kool Aid, skating, and Loretta's mother's homegrown tomato sandwiches, their friendship grows. Then Susan discovers that there is an interesting loophole in Missouri's Jim Crow laws. Public transportation is not segregated, and Susan comes up with an idea for an August adventure they all can share.

"What in the world can you be thinking, Miss Susan New York Marcus?" asks Marlene.

Maybe she can't change Missouri's Jim Crow laws, but Susan believes the friends can bend them a little. Her plan is that she and Marlene get on the midday bus to St. Louis, and Loretta will get on two stops later. They will all move to the wide seats around the back of the bus and see all the downtown St. Louis sights together.

We all got dressed up that day.

Cranky Liz would not keep up. Nobody was waiting at the stop where we had planned to be, so the driver just kept on going. Now what?

The girls take the next bus, wondering if Loretta noticed that they weren't on the first bus, but when the bus came to the stop, Loretta is there waiting.

"She waited," Marlene whispered.

"She broke the rules," I grumbled, smiling. "Maybe that is what they mean when they say 'rules are made to be broken.'" Marlene said.

"Marlene, did you just make that up?" I demanded.

"No, honest, it's a saying. I think it means you sometimes have to think for yourself, like Loretta did."

And when Susan leads the girls off the bus near her parents' favorite movie house and takes them to their favorite little Chinese restaurant, the girls are ready to try to bend one Jim Crow rule. But when they get there, they find something scary:

Half the window was smashed, and on it, in thick black paint, someone had written JAPS GO HOME! JAP TRAITOR was written in black paint on the sidewalk.

"Let's get out of here," said Marlene.

Loretta and Liz did not budge. Liz moved closer to the window and peered through it.

And the Chinese chef and his wife recognize Susan and motion them inside. "Not Jap! Chinese," he says, seating them together at one small table. Susan's plan to integrate a restaurant is a success. Take that, Jim Crow! she thinks. She breaks open her fortune cookie and reads the fortune inside.

"The future sleeps in the present."

Jane Cutler's Susan Marcus Bends the Rules (Holiday House, 2014) portrays the world of 1942 vividly, with the sounds of radio baseball games through open windows, fans whirring in the summer heat, the smells of warm tomatoes on the vine and bus exhaust and Chinese food that remind Susan of home, all combined with the different views of race and laws in World War II America--a time when there were many changes and many more soon to come. Cutler writes comfortably for middle elementary readers, portraying a child's world that is different in some ways but the same as today's children share in the most important ways, the ways of friendship and family and fairness. "Rebelling against discrimination is only part of this appealing story, but it’s the most memorable part. An enjoyable chapter book with great potential for discussion," says Booklist.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Critter Quarters: Julia's House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke



It seems that Julia can settle down wherever she wills, being that her rambling but tumbledown old house sits upon the back of a giant tortoise.

Her cottage by the sea is picturesque, but soon it is too quiet for Julia's taste.

Up goes a sign, JULIA'S HOUSE FOR LOST CREATURES, and it doesn't take much time to attract tenants. But they are a fantastical lot--and a troublesome lot as well. It's not too hard to see why this bunch are homeless.

There's an annoying troll who constantly moans the lack of a bridge to lurk beneath. Patched-up Kitty walks up the walls. The mermaid monopolizes the bathtub, and everyone demands fresh towels. As more and more creatures come to stay, Julia is suddenly too busy, providing cozy fires and tea and toast at all hours. Quiet it's not.

And Julia's motley visitors are a sloppy lot as well. Washing up, sweeping up, and mopping up behind everything from yellow duckies to dragons has her run ragged. Julia's House for Lost Creatures requires a little rethinking.

And soon another sign goes up:


Ben Hatke's Julia's House for Lost Creatures (Roaring Brook Press, 2014) is a piquant little tale of the perils of innkeeping for fanciful beasties. Like the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Julia, in her tidy green kerchief and apron, and her prosaic housekeeping dilemmas, are all too ordinary, while her roomers are exceedingly extraordinary. All these tea-drinking ghosties and ghoulies make for some humorous illustrations, done delightfully in Ben Hatke's light black line and pleasant blue and green-hued palette.

Kirkus Reviews observes, "Hatke steps from graphic novels (Zita the Spacegirl) to the picture-book format with aplomb, blending tropes from both worlds for a sweetly weird domestic adventure. Readers will want to move right in."

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

What's Behind That Door? Haunted House (Funny Faces) by Roger Priddy



What is behind that orange door guarded by the black cat?

Little fingers will do the walking as very young trick-or-treaters opt to go inside and see for themselves! And there are plenty of jolly Halloween treats inside.

Gwen the spider is spinning a web to fill her rumbly tummbly. D. J. Bones is looking funky, and Headless Harry the Knight seems to have found his helmeted head! Wendy Witch flies through as a Ghost says Booooo!

Roger Priddy's Funny Faces Haunted House (Priddy Books, 2012) has all the usual suspects inside his little shaped board book. Hanging out with the Halloween gang gives little fingers lots to explore--googly eyes persist on every sturdy page along with cut-out shapes and fuzzy creatures to feel. A first book about Halloween from Roger Priddy's Funny Faces series that is a treat for little eyes.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

What to Wear II: Llama, Llama, Trick or Treat!


Llama Llama is shopping with Mama for his Halloween costume. He peers through the show window at the choices. Green ghouls? Little monsters? Inside, he goes through the costumes hanging on the rack. An astronaut? A bumblebee? It's so hard to choose!

Back home, Llama Llama and his best friend Nellie Gnu have fun decorating the house for the big night. They scoop out the pumpkin's insides to get it ready to be a Jack-o'-Lantern. They fill the big and little candy bowls for doorbell ringers and guests.

But what will Llama Llama be when it is time to go out trick-or-treating?

Anna Dewdney's admittedly adorable little llama is back with a must-have Halloween board book, Llama Llama Trick or Treat (Viking Press, 2014). Dewdney cleverly keeps the suspense going until the final last-page reveal in which Llama Llama greets the princessy Nellie wearing a very spooky disguise. Dewdney's candy-corn decorated holiday offering features her trademark short and punchy rhymes and her inimitably appealing little cast of characters for a Halloween book that toddlers and preschoolers will love to have for their first Halloween treat.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

National Book Award Finalists Announced

The finalists for the National Book Award for the best book in young people's literature have been announced. The five finalists include three novels, a memoir, and one historical nonfiction book.

Eliot Schrefer's Threatened (Scholastic Press, 2014) is an eco-thriller that takes young Luc and mysterious "Prof" into the forests of Gabon, to investigate the dangers to the survival of the endangered bonobo chimpanzees, where they find the chimps are not the only only endangered.

Deborah Wiley's second book in her historical fiction trilogy,Revolution (The Sixties Trilogy) (Scholastic Press, 2014) follows two characters, a white girl in sleepy Greenwood, Mississippi and a young African American boy, who meet and live through their life-changing Freedom Summer of 1964. (See my July, 2014, review here.) The first book in Wiles series is Countdown (Sixties Trilogy).

In John Corey Wiley's science fiction coming-of-age novel Noggin (Atheneum Press, 2014) finds that even a second chance to live has its problems. Travis dies of leukemia at the age of sixteen, but five years later his medically preserved head is transplanted to a donor body. But even though he's still a sophomore in his head and at school, everyone else, his friends, his first girlfriend, and his parents, are five years older and have moved on. Learning to be himself in a different body in a much changed world teaches Travis a lot about what it means to be and to live.

In her Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014), award-winning novelist and poet Jacqueline Woodson tells her own story of growing up in the 1970s as an African American girl in Columbus, Ohio, Greenville, South Carolina, and Brooklyn, New York, in a free-verse memoir that documents the family life and teachers who helped her realize her talent as a writer. "I know" she says, "that I was lucky enough to be born during a time when the world was changing like crazy--and that I was part of that change."

Multiple-award winning author Steve Sheinkin's The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights (Roaring Brook, 2014) looks at a little-known civil rights event in the midst of World War II. An explosion in the armaments-shipping facility at Port Chicago, in which over 300 African American sailor were killed. Sheinkin documents how the survivors refused to return to work until dangerous practices were changed and how fifty of them were court martialed as deserters in one of the first cases in the civil rights movement.

The winners of all the National Book Awards, including the prizes for adult fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, will be announced on November 19, 2014. See the complete shortlist of finalists here.

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