Friday, October 23, 2015

Spotlight on Nonfiction 2015

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown

Most teenagers won't remember ten years ago when Hurricane Katrina pounded New Orleans, after they read Don Brown's account in Drowned City, they won't likely forget it.  The account starts with an African breeze that grows to a category three storm over the Atlantic.  By the time Katrina hits just east of New Orleans, it has slipped to a category three storm, but still it breaks levees, floods the city with one million gallons of water per minutes, and leaves 80% of the city under water.

In this graphic novel readers see the dramatic story unfold across the pages.  Illustrations of people standing, slumping, leaning, and trying to escape the water are filled with desperation and humanity.  And it's the impact of the storm on those people that drives the story.  We see 20,000 people packed into the Superdome with no electricity, no sanitation, and insufficient food and water.  We see a man hold a baby above the floodwaters as he tries to escape.  We see a couple race up the stairs of their home just ahead of the water.  They use a knife to scrape a hole in the roof and get out just in time.  We see people stranded on rooftops surrounded by rising floodwaters.  And we see those that don't make it.

Brown brings readers right into the disaster, recounting the many failures: 360 city buses don't show up to evacuate residents; empty trains leave the city; police abandon their post; there is a lack of communication and coordination between government agencies; there is looting and shooting; more than 1400 people die.  He also describes the rescue efforts of individuals and agencies.  Despite stagnant water teeming with garbage, oil, poisonous snakes, and dead bodies, more than 40,000 people are rescued.

This accessible account leads readers into complex ideas and questions.  What could the government have done better?  Where does responsibility to protect people from natural disasters lie?  How far should society go to protect individuals who choose to stay in harm's way?  What role did race and poverty play in the government response to the disaster?

Brown incorporates quotations from survivors and includes meticulous annotations and bibliographic information.

This is a power book.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip Hoose

I've always admired the Danish Resistance during World War II, particularly the heroic transport of most of the Danish Jews to Sweden before they could be rounded up by the Nazis.  What I didn't realize until I read this book is that the Resistance had a slow start.  While fearful and overwhelmed adults in Denmark capitulated to German demands, a small group of young boys fought back.  14-year-old Knud Pedersen and his brother Jens, along with a few of their friends, were disgusted with Danish leaders, and admired the way Norway was fighting against the German.  In broad daylight, they fought by twisting traffic signs and spraying walls with blue paint.  Their activities escalated to sabotage, arson, and stealing weapons.  They called themselves the Churchill Club and their actions inspired others to resist and the Danish Resistance grew.

Engrossing from page one, Hoose's account is based on extensive interviews with Knud Pedersen.

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

When George Soper was hired to figure out the source of a typhoid outbreak that infected six members of the Warren household in 1906, his investigation led him to Mary Mallon, a cook who had infected at least 24 people.  Mary turned out to be the first documented healthy typhoid carrier in the United States.

In this highly readable biography, Susan Campbell Bartoletti looks at Mary's plight.  She was not just "a living culture tube" or "a chronic typhoid germ producer" as George Soper called her, but she was also an intelligent, fiery tempered, fiercely private, independent, Irish woman who didn't accept Soper's assertion that she was making people sick.

This book and Gail Jarrow's superb book, Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary, look at the same subject.  While Jarrow follows Soper's investigation of the medical mystery, Bartoletti's focus is on Mary.  Together these books make an excellent choice for student analysis of the different approaches authors take in texts with the same topic.

Spotlight on Fiction 2015

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

If the stories that Micah's grandfather told him are true . . . if there really is a place where an elephant named Big Jean can do long division, where a French vulture can tell the future, and where an illusionist can make you fell the frosty winds of Antarctica while you sitting in your chair . . . if Circus Mirandus is an actual circus . . . then "that [means] magic [is] real" . . .(17)  and maybe, just maybe, magic can save Micah's dying grandfather.  When Micah's grandfather, Ephraim Tuttle, visited Circus Mirandus as a boy, the Man Who Bends Light promised him a miracle.  He's been saving that miracle for a time when he really needs it, and that time is now.  Micah is certain that if he can get into the circus and talk to the Man Who Bends Light, the Lightbender will save his grandfather.

In alternating chapters, a family mystery slowly unfolds just as the tension in Micah's story builds, creating suspense that will keep readers turning pages right up to the end.  This story is just the right blend of the fantastic and the sometimes difficult realities of the real world.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen

The Nest came out just a couple of weeks ago, and it already has racked up five starred reviews.  It is deliciously creepy, not in a blood-and-gore kind of way, but in a get-inside-your-head kind of way.

Steven has been coping with anxiety and bad dreams for a while and now there is more tension at his house because his newborn brother has a rare congenital problem.  Even though his therapist assures him that "what happens in a dream stays inside the dream," Steven's latest dreams with creatures of light that promise to "make things better" seem all too real.  (110, 23)  And in some ways, he wants them to be real.

The first-person telling puts readers right into Steven's thoughts as he struggles to figure out what is a dream and what is reality.  That ambiguity makes this a psychological thriller that you'll read in one sitting.  (I did.)  Oh, and the villain is the most chilling I've met in a long time.  I bet it'll change the way you feel about wasps.

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Laura Amy Schlitz describes her new book as a "good old-fashioned story" and that is exactly what it is.

Since her mother's death, 14-year-old Joan does all the woman's work on Steeple Farm, and it's hard work: she takes care of the chickens, cleans out the privy, cooks meals for her father and four brothers, does laundry, and puts food by.  When her father decrees that she can no longer attend school and then burns the few books she owns, Joan decides there is nothing left on Steeple Hill for her, and she goes to Baltimore to become a hired girl.  She has little idea what she is getting into, but she is desperate enough to take a chance on a better life.

In Baltimore she  begins a very different life working for a Jewish family.  While she enjoys the conveniences of electricity, hot and cold running water, a dumbwaiter, and a carpet sweeper, Joan works to learn the Jewish rules of kashrut and appease cranky Malka.  But it is the more universal experiences that change her.  She learns to respect people's differences.  She learns about men who are, thankfully, not all like her father, and gets her first kiss.  She learns about meddling (not a good idea to pass on a love sonnet you found to help a relationship along), heartbreak (things don't go well after that first kiss), and forgiveness.

Written as a series of Joan's diary entries, the story is set in 1911 and the relevant social issues of the time--women's rights, class division, religious prejudice, and labor rights--are addressed.  Historical details and content infuse seamlessly into the story; readers will feel like they've been picked up and placed right in Joan's world.

Spotlight on Picture Books 2015

Float by Daniel Miyares

Miyares is fairly new to picture books (his first illustrated book came out 2010), but boy, does he know what he is doing!  Float is the wordless story of a boy who takes a boat folded from newspaper out to play.  When the rain starts, he floats it in puddles and in the gutter, but the boat gets away from him and ends up destroyed.  Dejected, he trudges home holding his water-soaked paper.  But, with a little comfort and help from home, he is soon off on a new adventure.

The gorgeous illustrations are filled with movement and the exuberance of childhood play.  Ink and watercolor backgrounds in shades of gray with a just a hint of color make the pages look as rain-soaked as the boy's adventure, and his rain jacket in brilliant yellow foreshadows the final scene while keeping readers' attention focused on the boy.

Varied perspective, perfect pacing, and impeccably-placed page turns make this one of my favorite picture books of the year.

Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zacharia O’Hora

If you are looking for a fabulous and funny new read aloud, Wolfie the Bunny is it.

The Bunny family finds a baby on their doorstep.  A wolf baby--an adorable wolf bunny.  Dot, the bunny daughter is understandably concerned.  "He's going to eat us all up!"  "But Mama and Papa [are] too smitten to listen."  Oblivious to any danger, her parents take pictures and dote on their new son, Wolfie, as Dot continues to warn them: "He's going to eat us all up!"

Dot's persistently annoyed expression makes her all the more delightful, and her feisty protestations make for some of the funniest moments in the book.  In a twist at the end of the story, it's spunky Dot who proves herself the hero of the family.

Adults will appreciate the tongue-in-cheek mocking of any parent who has even been "smitten" with a child, and kids will understand--and laugh at--Dot's frustration with her new brother.

Gingerbread for Liberty: How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution by Mara Rockcliff, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch

We all know Revolutionary War heroes like George Washington, Nathanael Greene, Patrick Henry, and Ethan Allen, but in Gingerbread for Liberty, we meet an unlikely hero--a baker.  Christopher Ludwick was a German baker who owned a gingerbread bakeshop in Philadelphia.  He had a big booming laugh and a kind and generous disposition.  And he was a patriot.  When the Revolutionary War started, the baker (who was too old and fat to be a soldier), built ovens and made bread at his own expense for the soldiers.  Then, when England sent Hessian soldiers to fight the patriots, the baker volunteered to talk to them.  Under cover of night, he rowed out to the Hessian army and convinced many of the soldiers to switch sides.

Bits of humor in the text and art add a touch of lightness to this war story that will draw in young audiences.  Paper cut-out illustrations resemble gingerbread cookies, creating stylized scenes that allow the baker's personality to shine through.  An author's note at the end has additional information that you must read before sharing the book.

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

This true story of the original bear named Winnie was written by the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourn, the man who raised the bear, as a bedtime story for her son, Cole.  Harry was a veterinarian serving as a captain in the Canadian military during World War I when he saw a trapper with a bear cub at a train station.  He purchased the bear for $20 and named her Winnipeg (or Winnie for short) after his hometown.  After Harry convinced his Colonel to let him keep the cub, Winnie became a mascot of sorts for the brigade and traveled with them across the ocean to England.  But when the men had to join the fighting in France, Harry left her at the London Zoo.  It was there that she was visited by Christopher Robin (son of A. A. Milne) who was allowed to play in Winnie's enclosure.  Their friendship inspired  Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories.

Beautiful illustrations by Sophie Blackall include panels, spot art, double-page spreads, and details that encourage readers and listener to linger over every page.  Period photos decorate the final pages in scrapbook style.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Why Fall May Be my Favorite Season

Tomatoes are ripe, the weather has cooled down, pockets of red and orange are emerging on the mountain outside my window--it's almost time for pumpkin pie.  And just in case you need more reasons to celebrate fall, let me give you three:

First, two of the best children's literature blogs are back in session.  At Heavy Medal,  Jonathan Hunt and Nina Lindsay look closely at Newbery contenders with ooh-I-wish-I-would-have-written-that posts.  Their commentary is smart and thoughtful, and the comments provide a great forum to join the discussion.  Calling Caldecott considers possible Caldecott contenders.  Check it out to discover titles you may have missed, look at some the year's best books in a new way, and add your own two cents to the discussion.

Second, the National Book Awards announcement yesterday of their longlist for Young People's Literature started--albeit unofficially--the awards season.  Finalists will be announced October 14th and the winners will be announced on November 18th.  Mark your calendars.  Meanwhile, I am just waiting to get my hands on a copy of The Thing About Jellyfish.

Finally, the Cybils Awards will begin accepting nominations October 1st.  Put together a list of books you would like to see recognized and get ready to nominate.  (Rules are found here. Nominate here.)

Tomato sandwiches, open windows, good books . . . happy fall.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

tara recommends The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schiltz

Laura Amy Schlitz is a talented writer and I am always excited to read her new books because of the unusual stories and well-developed characters.  I was hooked when I finished The Night Fairy and I continued to be impressed by Splendors and Glooms, as they invited me into unique new worlds with details I hadn't experienced before.  Her newest story, The Hired Girl, takes a more traditional twist and is set in the 1900's.  While the setting is more familiar, this Americana romance explores some interesting issues of religious diversity, family ties and class distinction, all while embracing the foibles and resilience of human nature.

14-year-old Joan has not had an easy life, a life made even more difficult with the death of her doting mother and the cold resentment of her father.  As the only woman on her father's farm, she is forced to leave school and become solely responsible for the cleaning, cooking, washing, gardening, mending and chicken tending.  Her life is basically one of servitude and she longs to fulfill her mother's dream for her and become a schoolteacher, a wish not likely to come true under the hatred of her father and the heavy drudgery of farm work.  She takes courage, however, after her father burns her beloved books and reveals all the ugly things he feels about her, and she runs away to become a hired girl.

A kind stranger takes her off the street and, after changing her name and lying about her age, she is given a job in the Rosenbach's home.  In this new household, she must work hard to please Malka, the old family housekeeper, and to learn all the strange new rules of a Jewish family.  She also must navigate her emerging feelings toward Mrs. Rosenbach, kind but often disapproving, Mr. Rosenbach, who takes her under his wing, and their three children.  The developing story shows her mettle, while also highlighting her youth and lack of relationship experience.

Written entirely in Joan's journal entries, each passage is incredibly detailed, so much so that when dialogue is presented it feels more like a traditional first person narrative.  The combination of styles works, but the length of almost 400 pages and lack of white space skews to an older audience.  Fans of historical romance will appreciate Joan's girlish fantasies and the compelling characters and attention to detail is engaging.

The Hired Girl
by Laura Amy Schlitz
published by Candlewick Press
September 2015
recommended for ages 14 and up

Review copy received from publisher.

Friday, May 29, 2015

May Storytime Briefly 2015

I have conflicting feelings about the month of May.  First, I am counting down the days until school lets out.  I look forward to summer days with no homework, no school projects, and no bell schedule.  Summer is the time when I get to decide what to do with my children, and I love it.  On the other hand, it also the last month of storytime at school, and I know I will miss the students I have come to know this year.

I decided to wrap up the year with fables, folktales, and biographies.

Among all the biographical stories we read this year, there was not a single one about a woman, so we took a week to look at a couple of amazing women.  We read
  • Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and
  • The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry.

We talked about Aesop's Fables with the following stories:
  • "The Fox and the Crow" retold with puppets and
  • Mouse & Lion by Rand Burkert, illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert.
We talked about flattery and about morals.  The students did a great job of articulating the lessons that could be learned from Mouse & Lion.

We finished the year with these folktales from Africa:
  • Mrs. Chicken and the Hungry Crocodile by Won-Ldy Paye, illustrated by Margaret H. Lippert and
  • "The Girl who Loved Danger" told using Steve Light's story box.
I cannot recommend Steve Light's story boxes enough.  They making storytelling fun for kids and adults alike.  And I think it was the perfect way to end the year.

Monday, May 25, 2015

tara recommends Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes collected by Elizabeth Hammill

Nursery Rhyme books are scattered throughout my shelves.  I have several Mother Goose collections (including the essential Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose and Mother Goose's Storytime Nursery Rhymes by Axel Scheffler), Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes by Salley Mavor (one of my favorites), and several different versions of rhymes in the board book variety (including Tomie's Little Mother Goose).  I definitely did not think I needed any more collections to stock my personal library . . . but I was wrong.

Over the Hills and Far Away is a Treasury of Nursery Rhymes that breathes new diversity and life into the genre.  Collected by Elizabeth Hammill, it has the traditional rhymes that you would expect and look forward to, but as an added surprise, there is a healthy collection of lesser-known rhymes from all around the world.

One particularly enchanting page comes early in the book, and really showcases the genius of this creative collection.  I read it several times because I love how it compares, at a glance, the similarities and differences between cultures with one base rhyme.  Four different versions of "Little Miss Muffet" are set side-by-side on the page (English, Jamaican, American, Australian) and reading them together is just fun.

If you set the unique rhymes aside, this book is a must-have for the artwork alone.  With over 70 different artists contributing their talents, each page is a new style and a surprise, with artists including Mo Willems, Ashley Bryan, Jon Klassen, Jerry Pinkney, and many more.  There is certainly nothing boring or expected in these pages and the full color illustrations are simply beautiful.

This is a grown-up collection of nursery rhymes that will still entertain young readers with clapping rhymes, riddles, counting-out rhymes, traditional rhymes and distinct illustrations.  Even if you think you have seen it all, check this collection out and it is sure to find a space on your shelves.

Over the Hills and Far Away:  A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes
collected by Elizabeth Hammill
illustrated by more than 70 celebrated artists
published by Candlewick Press
March 2015