Friday, December 21, 2012

DECK THE HALLS by Norman Rockwell

Rockwell, Norman. Deck the Halls. New York: Atheneum Books, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-4169-1771-7, $ 16.99. All ages.

I close Deck the Halls and smile. I smile because it brings back warm Christmas memories. I smile because I smiled so many times throughout this book. And I smile because I know I will smile again the next time I read it.

Deck the Halls is illustrated with 14 of Norman Rockwell's Christmas paintings. The title page opens with Rockwell's Golden Rule, Saturday Evening Post cover from April 1, 1961. The multi-cultural and multi-faith communities represented in it are a beautiful reminder of what is most important, even more than Christmas. Turn the page though, and you're off on a journey accompanied by the familiar lyrics of "Deck the Halls" and pictures celebrating the quintessential American Christmas.

You'll find yourself giving a wry smile when Mom and Dad are caught stitching Santa into his "gay apparel" and you just might find yourself chuckling (or trembling) at the exhilarating (or terrifying) memories elicited by Rockwell's Young Love Sledding. You might find yourself savoring the delightful curiosity of the young boy and pup studying the "...blazing Yule before us" in Is He Coming? (or Little Boy Looking Up Chimney). Then again, you might begin drifting into contemplative silence of how "fast away the old year passes..." as you observe and join the Little Girl Looking Downstairs at Christmas Party. Most of all though, I hope you find yourself feeling some of the joy and wonder that is—"heedless of the wind and weather"—displayed on the faces of Couple Ice Skating.

This is a book I plan to read multiple times. In fact, I just might hold my family hostage before we open presents on Christmas morning—or Christmas Eve (patient, we are not!).

Stephanie Ashley

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

THE GOLDEN CHRISTMAS TREE by Jan Wahl

 
Wahl, Jan. Illus. Leonard Weisgard. The Golden Christmas Tree. New York: Golden Book, 1988. ISBN: 978-0-375-82647-1, $ 8.99. Picture Book

This is a gentle book that quietly celebrates the possibility of peaceful collaboration and joyful celebration.

"All was hushed in the forest for the animals' Christmas. The elephant brought a great fir tree from far away"—and thus, Jan Wahl starts her story of belonging and community where each animal has a special role. Elephant brings the fir tree and cardinal announces its coming. Kindness and compassion appear as "wolf [helps] the red deer" and they are joined by "the badger and a family of foxes—guided by bats who whistle soft carols." In allusions to the Christian Bible, squirrels tell of the first Christmas and, once more, the lion lies down with the lamb.

Back to the forest, however. All the animals contribute to the making of a Christmas tree. Leonard Weisgard ably illustrates the light-hearted playfulness of baby foxes, the befuddled confusion of llamas, and the pride of a tiger as he strings purple bead after purple bead. Monkeys enthusiastically adorn branches with baubles and giraffe arrives to place a star atop the tree. Now it is time, and all the animals of the forest gather together, and it is "hushed in the forest, hushed, hushed, hushed, hushed."

It is that "hushed," golden moment that is far too often absent, and I find myself longing for the silence and peacefulness that ritual provides in the chaos of the holiday season.

Stephanie Ashley

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

POLAR SLUMBER by Denis Rockhill

 
Rockhill, Denis. Polar Slumber. Green Bay: Raven Tree Press, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-974199-28-3, $16.95. Ages: Picture Books (Pre-school to Grade One). Bilingual text also available.

Polar Slumber is the perfect bedtime story. A young child ventures out into freshly fallen snow. Warmly bundled in a knitted sweater, scarf, and mittens she forms a large snowball. Rather than make a snowman, though, she shapes a polar bear's snout.

That night, as she falls asleep, her playful, outdoor imaginations of the day seep into the warmth of slumber. She is invited by a mother and baby polar bear—her "gentle, furry friends"—to "explore the northern beauty on [a] moonlit arctic journey."

All along, she is watched over by the mama and baby polar bear as a snow owl swoops overhead and she pets an adorable, large-eyed seal and runs her hands over a wolf pup. They travel until their "eyelids grow heavy...[and they] snuggle together" as her soft covers morph into a polar bear or perhaps the polar bear morphs into her soft covers.

From what I can tell, Denis Rockhill is both author and illustrator of Polar Slumber and he competently fulfills both roles. The knitted texture of the young girl's clothes and blanket nicely offset the delicate, peaceful feel of the wintery blue and white of the arctic animals and surroundings. An additional curious feature worth mentioning is what appears to be an alternative story along the bottom of every other page. Done in graphite, it adds yet another dimension to a lovely book.

Stephanie Ashley

Monday, December 10, 2012

SANTA CLAUS IN BAGHDAD by Elsa Marston

Marston, Elsa. Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-253-22004-2: $15.95.

What do you know about Iraq, Libya, and Palestine? What do you know about the young teenagers who live in those countries or others like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Jordan? You've heard about the uprisings and for years you have seen footage and read headlines. Have you really thought about the teenagers there, however? I thought I had, but after I read Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World, I realized that, despite my attempts to be broadminded, I have pigeon-holed Arab teenagers into an existence defined by political upheaval. In her introduction, Elsa Marston states that what "[Arab] young people want is what people everywhere want: A secure home and loving family, good friends, teachers who care about their students, the chance to grow and express themselves, and hope for a better future." Read Santa Claus in Baghdad and you, like me, will be convinced Marston is right.

Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World consists of eight short stories about a teenager from his or her country. The first short story which is the source of the book's title is about an Iraqi teenager who learns the rewards of selflessness when she sells her dearest belongings to earn money to buy a gift. In "Faces" we meet Suhayl, a Syrian teenager, who is struggling to navigate the complexities of living with divorced parents—especially after his father decides to remarry. His efforts to help his overworked mother are heartwarming and a bit humorous as mishaps threaten to thwart his surprise for her. I was most touched by "Honor" and the lengths its Jordanian heroine, Yasmine, goes to protect the honor of a friend—even if she doesn't understand or agree with the importance of hijab. Similarly admirable is the Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, Rami, and his determination to once more inspire his older brother.

As heartwarming as many of the stories might be, Marston does not shy away from difficult issues such as honor killings, jihad, limited education for girls, cultural schisms, growing generational gaps, poverty, divorce, and refugee camps. What makes Santa Claus in Baghdad so powerful is the consistent attention to and a focus on the humanity that unites us. I highly recommend this book; in fact, a friend and I plan to use this in conjunction with selections from Arabian Nights as the basis for a high school reading group.

Stephanie Ashley

Friday, December 7, 2012

HEY CANADA! by Vivien Bowers

Bowers, Vivien. Hey Canada! Illus. Milan Paviovic. Toronto: Tundra, 2012. ISBN 1-77049-255-4. $19.95.

Nine-year-old Alice is blogging this book on her grandmother’s netbook as she, Gran, and her younger brother drive through all of Canada’s capital cities, camping as they go. Alice is an engaging guide, and the book’s lay-out on each page of blocks of text and dialog, lots of illustrations, cartoons, photographs, and maps, embedded games provide not only information but entertainment. To travel across Canada is ambitious; to travel across from Newfoundland to B.C. and then head north and cross back through the Yukon to Baffin Island is impressive. Alice tells her story of thousands of miles with humor and an eye for things of interest and import. Brother Cal also travels well (as does his hamster), and accolades to Gran. This is a book the whole family will enjoy, whether reading it in the car in Canada or anywhere else.

 Alida Allison

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A STONE IN MY HAND by Cathryn Clinton

Clinton, Cathryn. A Stone in My Hand. Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-7636-4772-8. $6.99. Age: 10 and up

Cathryn Clinton describes A Stone in My Hand as historical fiction. She says it is "the story of a single girl and single family"and that it is not meant to be a comment on present political situations. Nevertheless, the tale, that of an eleven-year-old Palestinian girl whose father has gone missing, is achingly current.

Malaak is so traumatized by her father's disappearance that she falls into near silence; in fact, rather than talk to her family and friends, she begins to confide in a bird named Abdo. Malaak talks to Abdo as she watches the world of 1988 and 1989 Gaza City: There are soldiers, guns, and bombs; curfews and school closures; hot city streets and cool nights on rooftop patios. She studies those around her: her sister, Hend, dreaming of one day having her own home and family, her mother growing ever paler and tired, and her brother, Hamid, whose eyes crackle with fire as he longs to join the Palestinian Liberation Organization. She observes her brother's friend, Tariq, who rarely speaks after witnessing the shooting of his father when Tariq was five years-old. Through all of this, Malaak imagines that she can see through Abdo's eyes and fly above the conflict surrounding her. Nonetheless, Malaak and her family cannot escape the violence and another tragedy threatens to once more render Malaak mute.

Clinton manages to provide a story of hope while staying within the confines of a reality that can have no happy ending. Death, violence, and the pain of a broken family are all present, but life, kindness, and resilience gained through friends and family are even more powerful. A Stone in My Hand is well suited for early adolescent readers. Yes, it is a far gentler rendering than it might be, but it is a good introduction and reminder of the complex and overwhelming dilemma that children and teenagers, not just adults, must face.

Stephanie Ashley

Monday, December 3, 2012

MODERN FAIRIES, DWARVES, GOBLINS, AND OTHER NASTIES by Lesley M.M. Blume

Blume, Lesley M. M. Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins & Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate.  Illus. David Foote. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-373-68203-8. $16.99. Ages: 10 and up

For a trailer of the book, check out Lesley Blume's website: http://www.lesleymmblume.com/new/modern_fairies_mov/movie/

I am eternally grateful to Miss Edythe McFate for sharing her extensive knowledge about the very modern and very real world of fairies and their fantastical counterparts. I am equally indebted to Lesley M.M. Blume who interviewed Miss McFate and made the stories available. Finally, I want to thank illustrator David Foote. It is because of his marvelous illustrations in concert with Edythe McFate's extensive knowledge of "the wayward natures, properties, and habits of fairies" that I am confident in my ability to identify fairies, both friend and foe, and take proper precautions. While I won't give all the secrets away (you truly need to read them yourself), I will share the most important trick of all: How to tell a good fairy from a bad one.

Fortunately there is no absurd combination of unattainable materials—all you need is a penny. Here's what you do: The moment you realize you are in the presence of a fairy, put your penny on the floor. "If the penny glows blue, you're probably safe. If the penny glows green—or worse black—run away immediately, and don't look back for a second." This is also the point in time that you need to take additional steps to protect yourself. Don't know how to do that? Well, that's exactly why Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins & Other Nasties exists.

In addition to identifying fairies and their like and how to interact with them, Miss Edythe McFate also provides until-now-unknown answers to some of life's most stubborn mysteries. What are they? Well, again, that's something you need to find out for yourself. I will tell you, though, that you will finally get the answers to why hair turns white, where those missing spoons go, and why swimming pool water sometimes becomes green. But there is so much more...

If you, like Miss Edythe McFate, are from New York City, you will be delighted to encounter many landmarks that you pass on a daily basis. Some of these landmarks are obvious: Central Park, the Lincoln Tunnel, and Carnegie Hall; but there are some you might have to look for more carefully. Don't live in New York City? That's okay— Modern Fairies will give you enough information to recognize fairies' presence anywhere.

In closing, I have a final note for parents: If you are unable to deal with your child's ability to see things that you do not or are unwilling to handle clothes and socks that may be worn inside out or are easily annoyed by creative thought, then this book might not be for your child. Then again, carefully consider those minor irritations in light of what might happen when your child encounters the unstable, but quite marvelous world of fairies. As Miss McFate always says, "forewarned is forearmed."

Though this is probably better suited to the young adult reader, Modern Fairies is so engaging that I think it will pull the advanced (or maybe not so advanced) younger reader through all 242 pages. The text is delightful and the illustrations are spellbinding; there is not a boring page in the book.

Read it.

Stephanie Ashley

Friday, November 30, 2012

ODE TO NEWFOUNDLAND by Geoff Butler

Butler, Geoff. Lyrics by Sir Cavendish Boyle. Ode to Newfoundland. Toronto: Tundra, 2003. ISBN 0=88776-631-5. $19.95.

Sir Cavendish Boyle was Newfoundland’s governor 1901-1904 and wrote the words for its anthem, which, as Geoff Butler writes in his eloquent introduction, focus on the beauty and overwhelming presence of nature in this easternmost place on the continent. I’m lucky to have been there and can attest that even a tourist feels the rugged grandeur of the rock and its solitary situation out there in the ocean.

Butler’s paintings are wonderful, full of color, action, information, and humor, worth many a second look. Page 9 is a favorite; it has an almost Van Gogh look—but happier.

Alida Allison

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

INFINITY AND ME by Kate Hosford

Hosford, Kate. Infinity and Me. Illus. Gabi Swiatkowska. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda, 2012. ISBN 0-7613-6726-0. $16.95.

I like books that show children as intelligent speculators about the nature of existence and our place in it. For children certainly think deep thoughts, especially when, like this narrator, they look up at the stars and feel very small. It’s a significant moment when our egos open to the fact that it’s not all about us after all, and the concept of infinity surely puts us all in our places.

From the moment one opens the first page, this book is special. The little girl telling her story begins with her new red shoes. Too excited about them to sleep, she goes outside to sit on the lawn and is confronted with the “huge and cold” night sky and its seeming ”infinity” of stars. She spends the next few days sounding out friends and family about their conception of infinity. The answers she receives give readers much to think about, and they also give illustrator Swiatkowska full range for her extraordinary artistic range. Her illustrations are a really brilliant variety of techniques and textures, juxtapositions, swirls, and frames. And there’s an affectionate substory about the narrator’s Grandmother complimenting her at the story’s end on her lovely red shoes.

Alida Allison

Monday, November 26, 2012

KALI'S SONG by Jeanette Winter

Winter, Jeanette. Kali's Song. New York: Schwartz & Wade, 2012.ISBN: 978-0-375-87022-4. $16.99. Ages 4-8

Whenever I finish a Jeanette Winter book, I find that I have just a bit more faith in the human being and society, so I was very excited to see Kali's Song. I am glad to say that I was not disappointed. In fact, I found myself smiling when I finished Kali's Song because of the warmth expressed in the central characters' relationships with each other and the community's respect for the importance of art and the artist. This book is a reminder of the power of art, in this case music, and how it can change people's actions and possibly even history.

Set thousands and thousands and thousands of years ago, this is a story about a little boy, Kali, who finds that he has a very special gift and doesn't have to be like everyone else. Like all the young boys that Kali knows, he is groomed to become a great hunter. His father gives him a bow and arrows, and his mother encourages him that it won't be that much longer before he can join the men to kill the animals—if he practices every day.

Kali finds that it's not practicing to hunt that brings him joy, but it's something else entirely. It's the sounds his bow makes when he plucks the strings and puts the bow to his mouth. Kali is not the only one mesmerized by the sounds he makes. Every day, animals "listen and are still" and "birds listen and are still" and "the stars come close to listen" as Kali plays. And every day when his father asks, Kali says that his practice went well.

The day of the big hunt arrives and Kali takes his bow and arrows and joins the other men and boys. When they reach the animals they are hunting, however, Kali sees the magnificent herd of mammoths below them and forgets all about the hunt. He is so filled by the music he hears within himself in response to their beauty that he puts down his arrows, lifts up his bow, closes his eyes, and begins to play. When he opens his eyes again, all the mammoths are surrounding him. The other hunters are so amazed at the sight of mammoths gathering around one little boy and moved by the beauty of Kali's music that they put down their bows and arrows. They declare Kali to be a shaman, because "only a shaman can do this." From then on, Kali plays a very important role in the community and they look to him for guidance. To the very end, "every evening, even when he was a very old man, Kali went to the hills with his bow, closed his eyes, and played his bow-harp until the stars came close to listen."

Like all of Jeanette Winter's books thus far (see Biblio-Burro and Wangari's Trees of Peace), I enjoyed Kali's Song. There is not an unnecessary word on each page, and yet it is full and lyrical. Similarly, there is not an unneeded line in any picture. Winter is a consummate artist—both author and illustrator. The colors used are predominantly browns, grays, greens, blacks, and deep reds—certainly appropriate choices for a community and culture closely associated to nature. Despite the careful thought that must have gone into her illustrations, I must admit I missed her bright, embroidery-like designs that were replaced with almost all textured paper and ink.

One thing that was absent from Kali's Song was the brief background at the end of the text. Kali is certainly no actual individual; nonetheless, a few notes about the possible setting and other emerging forms of music would have been nice. That, though, is from an adult's perspective, and I don't think there's a four year-old or eight year-old out there who is going to throw a temper-tantrum at the lack of a lecture on pre-historic, ancient human history! This book is definitely staying in my library and I can't wait to continue adding to my Jeanette Winter collection.

Stephanie Ashley

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

EMILY AND CARLO by Marty Rhodes Figley

Figley, Marty Rhodes. Emily and CarloIllus. Catherine Stock. Watertown: Charlesbridge, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-58089-274-2. $15.95

Emily and Carlo is the story of a shy, smart young woman and her closest companion. It begins in 1849 in Amherst, Massachusetts, where sad Emily is given a large, black Newfoundland puppy. Emily names the dog Carlo, and with him "by her side, Emily [has] the confidence to explore the world around them." In fact, Emily takes Carlo everywhere and, during the sixteen years she is accompanied by her "shaggy ally," they are only apart for a few months when Emily has to go to the city for health reasons. The time does come, though, when Carlo can no longer be there. Following his death, Emily writes a heartbreakingly short letter:

Carlo died.
E. Dickinson
Would you instruct me now?

As a dog-lover and someone who has been closely accompanied by my own "shaggy ally" of nine years, Romeo, this story deeply resonated with me. The text itself is carefully thought out; Marty Figley has aptly integrated historical research, quotes from Emily Dickinson's own material (indicated by italics), and a bit of creative imagination to construct a memorable read. My enjoyment was only furthered by Catherine Stock's beautiful watercolor illustrations. There is a lovely combination and interplay of closely detailed work and broad, pastel, splashes of color. This book might seem light and whimsical, yet it adds substantive value to an aspect of Emily Dickinson that I was not aware of. This is an excellent early introduction that makes a complex and often mysterious author that much more identifiable for readers.

Stephanie Ashley

Monday, November 19, 2012

EDDIE: THE LOST YOUTH OF EDGAR ALLAN POE by Scott Gustafson

Gustafson, Scott. Eddie: the Lost Youth of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN: 978-1416997641.

Young Eddie wakes up one morning in the middle of his neighbor's yard, but the fact that he was sleepwalking is the least of his problems. He's been accused of playing a wild practical joke on his neighbor's prized rooster, who's been caught in a pillowcase with Eddie's cat and suspended up high from the barn! His foster parents don't believe in his innocence, but Eddie is granted a single day to solve this mystery and exonerate himself, or else suffer the consequences of punishment.

The first major appeal is the subject itself: Edgar Allan Poe, or specifically his youth and the mythical origins of his legendary status as the "Master of the Macabre." The basics of Poe's background are all introduced here. Gustafson manages to introduce the adult Poe as a haunted but sympathetic soul, animating the ghosts that swirl around his consciousness and give rise to his epic tales. He then moves into Poe's childhood, and in a stroke of superb creativity, tells us that the father who abandoned him and his siblings as children did leave his troubling legacy with Eddie, in the form of an mischievous imp aptly named "McCobber." McCobber and a friendly Raven become Eddie's two only friends in his youth, and help him solve the immediate puzzle that the book revolves around.

Gustafson's first book, Eddie is written with a distinct precision to highlight the time period these characters live in but remains accessible and enjoyable, with an overarching kind narrative voice that carries the story along. I think Gustafson uses enough historical fact woven with imaginative flair to create this charming mystery and possibly whet a child's appetite to know more about Poe. An observant reader will also pick up on the subtle portrayals of class difference, between wealth and race.

The story itself is enough to captivate a young reader (a true mystery of strange proportions) but the illustrations are what ensnared me. Gustafson's exquisite illustrations are imbued with detail and emotion, capturing the dark undertones of Edgar Allan Poe's life and paranormal proclivity. The use of pencil alone to create these striking black and white drawings allows the shadows to stand out and truly haunt the reader throughout the story. Yet Gustafson makes sure to portray kindness wherever it exists as well, so a young reader should never feel too anxious. Overall, it's a well crafted tale about a logical, mature, and sensitive young protagonist instilled with a generous dose of the mystical imagination.

Reviewed by Alya Hameed

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

THE GREAT SHEEP SHENANIGANS by Peter Bently


Bently, Peter. Illus. Mei Matsuoka. The Great Sheep Shenanigans. Minneapolis: Andersen Press USA, 2012.  ISBN: 978-0-7613-8990-3 Price: $16.95. Ages: 4-9 (Everyone)

You know that story you want to tell? When you just want to share something silly with someone else? Well, that's what I found myself wishing as I turned the pages of The Great Sheep Shenanigans. I had planned just a quick glance at the book before I rushed home, but after I met Lou Pine and Rambo the Ram there was no putting it down. In fact, I was so drawn in by the story that I kept reading it as I stumbled across campus. Whenever I passed someone along the way, I wanted to pull them aside and say, "Look, you've got to check this out!" When I got home I found that my roommate was having a tough time. What the heck? Why not?  "Here, read thisit'll make you feel better," I said and handed her The Great Sheep Shenanigans. Before she knew it, we were both laughing.

The story centers around a wolf, Lou Pine, who has decided he's going to do whatever it takes to eat some sheep. This mission, however, becomes far more difficultand dangerousthan Lou ever planned. After meeting Rambo the Ram, who tells him to scram, he's thwarted at every turn. While each fiasco Lou finds himself facing is funny, we probably laughed hardest at Lou Pine's unfortunate encounter with Ma Watson who is "the best shot in town."  Then again, there's also something to be said for a wolf clothed in pink cotton candy or the rest of the assorted disguises Lou Pine tries out. Does the story end the way it should? Well, that all depends on your perspective, and I'll let you decide that.

I cannot stress the superb collaboration between Peter Bently and Mei Matsuoka. Yes, the text and illustrations are solid on their own. In fact, my father enjoyed the cotton-candy scene I read to him over the phone (yes, as you can tell, I really like this book). At the same time, the frames documenting Lou Pine's cotton-candy catastrophe are quite entertainingeven if there was no text. Bring both together, though? Now that is a thing of beauty. As much as I describe this, or you try to imagine, there's nothing like almost singing along to the playful end-rhyme or looking at the actual page where Lou Pine crashes into Rambo the Ram. This is a book that you will enjoy reading to your child as well as a book that your child will enjoy reading to herself or himself.

Reviewed by Stephanie Ashley

Thursday, August 23, 2012

THE LIST by Siobhan Vivian

Vivian, Siobhan. The List. New York: Push, 2012. ISBN: 978-0545169172. 

On the last Monday in September, the students of Mount Washington High School will see copies of a certain list posted all over the school. It happens every year. It's unavoidable. It's a lottery of the ugliest and prettiest girls in the school, naming one of each category for each grade, 9th through 12th. The list is cruel but official, with a Mount Washington seal imprinted in the corner. Nobody knows who has the seal, or how it is passed down through the generations of list creators. But everybody knows that the notarized list will shape the school year for eight girls.

Siobhan Vivian's young adult novel takes on the volatile world of high school and shows how vicious it can be. The story follows the perspectives of the eight girls who were named on the most recent list, showing how each girl deals with what is either a great boost for popularity (for the prettiest) or a black mark of undesirability (for the ugliest).

Vivian explores the emotional complexities that accompany unrequested notoriety. The winners of Prettiest are flattered, but also cautious, and subconsciously aware that being pretty doesn't really matter all that much. Margot, the senior winner, is unnerved by the knowledge that her sister's "victory" the year before actually caused her to lose friends and retreat from the social strata, and she is also anxious about her unresolved history with her Ugly counterpart. Bridget, the junior prettiest girl, battles with an eating disorder -- one that caused the weight loss that got her recognized. Sophomore prettiest Lauren is new in town, still sheltered after being homeschooled, and she doesn't quite know how to handle the newfound attention she attracts. Finally, Abby, the prettiest freshman girl and a less-than-stellar student, struggles with conflicting feelings of insecurity and superiority, especially since her plain and academically brilliant older sister starts to give her the cold shoulder.

The emotional repercussions for the "ugliest" girls are expectedly severe. The senior, Jennifer, has made the list as ugliest for the fourth year in a row, and she longs to buck expectations as she tries to embrace her "ugliest girl in school" status. Junior Sarah reacts by making herself as ugly as possible, not showering and not changing clothes, to the detriment of her relationship with someone who thinks she's beautiful. Sophomore Candace, pretty and popular on the surface, is alienated by her friends and must address the fact that no one actually likes her as a person. In the freshman class, athletic swimmer Danielle is nicknamed "Dan the Man" and is ostracized by her own boyfriend.

The List alternates between the girls' perspectives chapter-by-chapter, examining their interactions with each other, showing the unexpected alliances that form in the face of rejection, and teasing out the mystery of who writes the list each year.

The characters face their insecurities with varying degrees of success. The "ugly" girls come a longer way than the "pretty" girls in mature self-actualization, but some need more help than others. With its flawed characters, The List demonstrates that beauty isn't a free pass for an easy high school experience, and that what's going on beneath the surface is far more important than appearances.

With so many perspectives to toggle through, it's understandable that not every character's situation is fully explored. That said, I would like to have seen more intricacy in junior Bridget's storyline; her experience with an eating disorder was a little too simplistic. Such a complex, painful affliction is difficult to tackle in spurts like Vivian does throughout The List, and Bridget's internal monologue fell flat for me. Covering a character's internal battle with thoughts of "I'm healthy! Just eat! But I mustn't eat!" just doesn't illuminate the psychologically damaging aspects of that kind of struggle. I applaud Vivian for giving her characters genuine real-life issues and examining how those challenges are colored and complicated by high school peers, but I wanted a little more from this particular storyline.

Overall, The List does an excellent job of illustrating a high school battleground and the relationships therein. Not every character gets a happy ending or has an epiphany, but each girl's experience of growth and self-reflection is drawn in a realistic, thought-provoking way.

Reviewed by Jill Coste

Monday, August 13, 2012

THE GIRL WHO OWNED A CITY by O.T. Nelson

Nelson, O.T. The Girl Who Owned A City. Adapted by Dan Jolley, Illus. Joelle Jones & Jen Manley Lee. Minneapolis, MN: Graphic Universe, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-7613-5634-9. $9.95. Graphic Novel, Ages 11-15.

When a virus strikes and kills all the humans older than twelve, it’s the kids who survive. But without any grownups to tell them what to do, chaos ensues! This classic novel, adapted as a graphic novel, challenges its young characters to recreate an adult world without any guidance.

The novel raises some very interesting social, philosophical, and political issues. The kids make decisions in times of crisis, and the novel shows both the “good paths” and the “bad paths” that young adults choose. As society devolves, Lisa forms a co-op of neighborhood kids (“Glenbard”) who work together to keep one another fed, sheltered, and alive. Logan, on the other hand, forms a gang to bully others into giving them supplies and sustenance. Over time, as “her city” grows and evolves, Lisa feels the heavy burden of responsibility. She says to her younger brother, “Sometimes I feel like the whole place will fall down if I don’t keep track of everything”—a lesson many adults learn for the first time at work, but one that would be familiar to oldest siblings with absent parents, or other similar situations.

Lisa even goes so far as to question whether the struggle is worth it, or if they’d be better off as robots. Her brother says, “Y’know what? If we were robots, we wouldn’t need food…wish I were a robot.” Lisa considers his comment, and responds:
“What fun would it be if we were robots…if everything was automatic and we couldn’t change anything? Just think of a robot, Todd. It can’t feel or choose or gain or lose. It can’t think. It doesn’t even know it exists. Sure, we have a lot of problems right now, but problems are really challenges…and they can make life more exciting if you’re not afraid. I’m proud of how we’re surviving.”
That’s some pretty impressive thought put in the voice of an eleven-year-old character and her younger brother. Not only do characters like this give kids a lot of positive credit (they’re capable of more than we adults usually attribute), it exposes young readers to complex ideas: How do we know we exist? What does it mean to exist in a sensory world? Why do we exist? Does thinking make us exist? Does trial and struggle prove our existence?

The adaptation also has subtle political messages. Todd asks Lisa early in the story why they can’t simply share with their neighbors, and Lisa responds, “If we just gave away the good things we’d worked for…well, what good would it do?” In saying this, Lisa hints at capitalist ideas of working for a reward, for a wage. Later on, she says, “Our freedom is more important than sharing,” again espousing a capitalist model of leadership and governance. But in dealing with the idea of Glenbard being “her city,” Lisa turns slightly more leftist, pondering whether “maybe a city is owned by the people who live there.” Still wanting to hold on to the idea that the co-op she constructed and led belongs to her, however, she asks, “Will it be selfish for Craig to own his farm and his own crops? Why should this [her city] be any different?” Individual property ownership ultimately rules when the occupants of Glenbard cheer for her return and she acknowledges that the fortress is indeed hers: “It’s my city, after all.”

The story leaves readers with a lot to imagine and much to mull over. The graphic novel form revives an older story, making it relevant and accessible for a young audience.

Reviewed by Marisa Behan

Friday, August 3, 2012

I AM DIFFERENT! CAN YOU FIND ME? by Manjula Padmanabhan

Padmanabhan, Manjula. I Am Different! Can You Find Me? Watertown: Charlesbridge, 2011. ISBN: 9781570916403. $7.95

I Am Different! Can You Find Me? is a collaboration with numerous native speakers and language experts covering a breadth of languages from Arabic to Sign Language. Not only is "Can you find me?" written in each language, it is accompanied by a phonetic spelling of the phrase, short facts about the language, and an illustration that has one thing different from everything else. Manjula Padmanabhan has written a book that delights in differences and celebrates the sounds and flavors of different languages and voices.

There were several happy discoveries as I made my way through this book. For example, I was surprised to find out that the Hawaiian language has only twelve letters; at the same time, "'Hiki iā 'oe ke 'ike ia 'u?" was one of the more difficult translations. The musicality of Nhuatl's "Hueli tinechahci?" (Weh-lee tee-netch-ah-see) lingers in my mind. I'll be honest that it was a relief to come across Spanish's "¿Me puedes encontrar?" I'm also glad that there are "cheat sheets" at the end of the book identifying the item that's different in each picture. Overall I did pretty well, but I struggled with the Gullah illustration.

Take your own adventure through I Am Different! Can You Find Me? and find out what language "cheetah," "pajamas," and "shampoo" come from. And I think you'll be surprised to find out where "boondocks," "cooties," and "yo-yo" come from. Finally, give American Sign Language a go and see if you can find more words of your own to sign and say.

Stephanie Ashley

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A MILLION SHADES OF GRAY by Cynthia Kadohata

Kadohata, Cynthia. A Million Shades of Gray. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4424-2919-2. $6.99 US, $7.99 CAN.

To Y'Tin, elephant handling is more important than school. But his parents believe that he must attend, even though “as an elephant handler, he'd always have work.” His father always likes to consider what's “on the other hand.” At the beginning of the book, this is Y'Tin's most distressing problem; if only things had remained so!

Y'Tin's father runs jungle tracking missions for the American Special Forces stationed in Vietnam. To the Vietnamese in his village, the Americans were helpful, always keeping the North Vietnamese far enough away from the village for them to continue life with some semblance of normalcy. The author paints the Americans in a very positive light: they are polite about their cigarette butts, they treat the Dega people as equals, and they promise to come back if necessary. After a skirmish, an American soldier carries a dead villager on his own back all the way home through the jungle. But what unfolds after the Americans pull out is a different story. Y'Tin thinks to himself at one point, “Life had seemed safer when the Americans had been there.”

The story follows Y'Tin through the changes that occur in the village in the aftermath of what American history calls the Vietnam War (since in truth, the war began before we arrived and continued after we left). The readers get a glimpse into the changes in Vietnamese life, particularly for the Dega mountain people. Some changes are minor (like how the advent of a thermometer changes the villagers’ attitude towards weather), but other changes are tragic (such as the destruction and mass burial of nearly the entire village).

The book deals with mass death, guilt, friendship (and the effect of survival on friendship), and decision-making. None of the prose is graphic, and I doubt that the book would negatively scar anyone, but particularly sensitive 10-11 year old children might not be ready to understand these difficult issues. That being said, it's definitely well-positioned for school use. The end matter includes historical and cultural background information about the Dega people during and after the Vietnam War, a reading group guide, and discussion questions. The story is relevant in today's social studies classrooms, particularly if tied to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a teacher, I'm picturing interesting research projects regarding the question of what happens when an American military presence pulls out of a war-torn region. It would be too “easy” a read for my high schoolers, but I think they'd enjoy it, and with the right set up, I think it could make a great project or discussion starter even at the high school level, and most certainly at the middle school level.

Reviewed by Marisa Behan

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

SOPHIE'S LOVELY LOCKS by Erica Pelton Villnare

Villnare, Erica Pelton. Sophie’s Lovely Locks. New York: Marshall Cavendish. ISBN # 0761458204. Ages 5 -8.

Sophie is a very pretty little girl with long, flowing blonde hair, the kind of hair that other little girls might envy. (Full disclosure: as a redhead with frizzy-crazy curls, I desperately wanted long, sleek blonde hair as a kid, so I might be projecting a little on what other kids want.) Sophie prances around in sweet illustrations with her hair in different styles, telling us how much she loves her long hair. But pretty soon, Sophie’s hair is causing her trouble – it’s getting snarled and caught in her brush, and she struggles to keep it out of her face. Soon enough, she realizes the best option is to cut her hair.

At first I thought this was going to be a standard book with a simple lesson about not being vain, but it takes a more meaningful turn. After Sophie gets her hair cut, she decides to donate her hair to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for young cancer patients. Sophie muses that “two girls with short hair are better than one with none.” The last page of the book is a listing of resources for hair donations and an explanation of what the organizations do. What started as a book about a girl with pretty hair turned into a guide for giving to others.

I love that this book makes apparent that there is a wonderful thing girls (and women and men) can do with their hair when it’s cut. I didn’t know what Locks of Love was when I was child, and I’m glad a book like this exists to show kids that this option is available. It’s certainly not a deep look into the lives of children afflicted by cancer, but it’s a nice introduction for kids to see that the simple decisions they make – such as cutting their hair – can help others.

Jill Coste

Friday, July 27, 2012

THE NIGHTS OF THE WORLD by Corinne Albaut

Albaut, Corinne. The Nights of the World. Illus. Arno. La Jolla, CA: Kane/Miller, 2005. ISBN: 1-929132-79-4. Interactive Picturebook, Ages 2-5.

I picked this book off the shelves to review because I wanted to give it as a gift to a friend expecting her first child. The book, which takes its reader on a journey through five different regions of the world, is beautifully made, with a thick, sturdy cover, double-thick pages made of cardstock-weight paper, brightly colored art, sliding panels, and simple text that seemed perfect for bedtime read-alouds.

The story introduces the reader to five different children: Kendé, Kamanga, Melisse, Siiku, and Machiko. Each child is featured on a one page spread, with sliding panels on the right-side page that pull out to reveal a secondary picture and text. Each page follows the same pattern: “At night, Kendé falls asleep on a woolen carpet. By day...[pull out picture panels]...he marches through the desert, in step with the camels.” For each new region, the background and font changes to reflect traditional ethnic patterns.

I have two major concens with this book. First, the pages don't mention the actual location of that child. For example, Machiko sleeps on a futon, and by day, lets the wind steal her kite. As an adult, I know the author intended her to be from Japan. But some of the others are more ambiguous. Secondly, I would be concerned that, as young readers get older, this book might reinfornce traditional stereotypes about people in faraway cultures. The seemingly Inuit Siiku, for example, sleeps inside an igloo, hugged by a polar bear. While this makes for a pretty picture, it's not at all the lifestyle of modern Inuit people. In fact, I can't imagine they EVER slept with live polar bears!

That being said, I will still give the book as a baby gift. The pictures are pretty and the pull-out tabs are a great way for young children to interact with a text they can't yet read. It's sturdy enough to withstand the rough play of a baby or toddler. I can easily foresee this being a fun way to create a bedtime “community” of characters – all of whom bunker down at night without a fuss.

Marisa Behan

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

WHY DO I HAVE TO MAKE MY BED? by Wade Bradford

Bradford, Wade. Why do I Have to Make my Bed? Or, a History of Messy Rooms. Illus. Johanna van der Sterre. Berkeley: Tricycle Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-1582463278. 

“Why do I have to make my bed?” whines the modern little boy to his mother. After all, he already did the dishes and straightened up his video games. And besides, a bed is just going to get messed up again. “That reminds me of a story about your grandmother,” says the boy’s mom. The grandmother asked the same question and listed off the chores of her generation. And in answer to the grandmother as a child, HER mother says, “That reminds me of a story…” This conceit continues through the entire book, all the way back to prehistoric times.

Each generation is accompanied by illustrations of the historic chores being done – from dusting the loom to patching Father Viking’s war wounds – and the various beds being ignored – from quilts to caribou hide. The illustrations are colorful and cartoonish, with the same amusing “chores are boring” face on generations of children. The illustrations depict little details that color each era, like the metal spinning top and the old Victrola in 1911, or the patchwork quilt and ragdoll in the pioneer section.

It’s interesting to read about the chores throughout centuries – there’s even a list at the end of the book that goes into further description of ancient chores through present day. The book is overall a brief, fun, and colorful history lesson for young readers. It’s a charming concept, but the repetition of “that reminds me of a story” becomes a little tiresome, and the apparently timeless reason for making a bed (“because mom said so”) is not necessarily a convincing one.

Or maybe that just didn’t work on me. I still don’t make my bed. I mean, I’m just going to mess it up again anyway.

Jill Coste

Monday, July 23, 2012

EXCEPT IF by Jim Averbeck

Averbeck, Jim. Except If. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon and Schuster), 2011. ISBN: 9781416995449. $12.99 Ages: 2-6

It all begins with a pale blue egg just starting to crack open. Except If establishes that an egg is not a baby bird, but it will become one, except if it becomes something else. Perhaps the egg will hatch a snake, or perhaps a baby lizard, or maybe even a dinosaur. After this point, the story comes full circle as we imagine that not only might the egg turn into a dinosaur, it might turn into a fossilized dinosaur. This fossilized dinosaur’s jaws eventually form a craggy cliff, which might house a soft nest, which in spring just might hold a pale blue egg, “which will not necessarily become a baby bird—except if it does.”

Jim Averbeck’s book is a playful and colorful diversion into an “except if“ world of imagination. The words “except if” are written in bold letters and fill several alternating pages as the story moves into its next evolution. The illustrations are colorful but not garishly bright. One of my favorite illustrations was the baby lizard scurrying up a wall on sticky feet to eat flies. The most enjoyable illustration, however, is the red little bedraggled bird that shows that a pale blue egg will not necessarily become a baby bird except if it does.

Stephanie Ashley

Friday, July 20, 2012

MARY'S PENNY by Tanya Landman

Landman, Tanya. Mary’s Penny. Illus. by Richard Holland. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-7636-4768-1. $15.99 US

In a time long ago, an old farmer faces a dilemma: which of his two sons will inherit and run his farm? He proposes a challenge: the son who could, with one penny, buy something that will fill the whole house would inherit the farm. But the old farmer has forgotten something very important: his daughter Mary! When both sons, Franz and Hans, fail to complete the challenge, Mary asks for her penny, and she succeeds, filling the house with “light and knowledge and music and joy.”

Landman’s retelling of the feminist fable uses a beautifully traditional folk-style voice, perfect for reading aloud. Holland’s illustrations, made in mostly cut-paper mixed media, are whimsical and child-like. The two brothers, one beefy and one brawny, are portrayed almost as caricatures, and Holland’s manipulation of scale keeps the reader just enough off-balance so as to evoke whimsy, as if the characters are floating through their own landscape.

Mary’s Penny is a beautifully told text with a great message, perfect for school or family.

Marisa Behan

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I'M NOT by Pam Smallcomb

Smallcomb, Pam. I’m Not. Illus. Robert Weinstock. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-375-86115-4. $15.99 US/$17.99 CAN. Ages 4-8

This book is NOT: boring, dull, or confusing. It’s NOT lacking in color, in humor, or in story quality. It IS a captivating story of two friends who celebrate each other for all that they are, and all that they are not, as long as they remain good at being friends!

Evelyn is many things that the narrator is not: mysterious, enthusiastic, fashionable, excitable, and artistic. But the narrator is many things Evelyn is not: good at spelling, at karate, at sleeping in the dark, and at baking cookies. But both girls are good at being the other’s friend!

The illustrations are colorful and playful. Evelyn is a bright green dinosaur with ever-changing fashion accessories. The narrator is a brown dinosaur with a single pink bow. The two dinosaur friends bounce their way through a world of geese, snakes, octopi, walruses and other dinos. They put on funny costumes and fly through the air. Implausible perhaps, but fun and interesting to look at! With its positive message and fun illustrations, I’m Not is a wonderful book for classroom read-alouds or birthday gifts!

Marisa Behan

Monday, July 16, 2012

CLOUD TEA MONKEYS by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham

Peet, Mal and Elspeth Graham. Cloud Tea Monkeys. Illus. Juan Wijngaard. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2010. 978-0-7636-4453-6. $15.99 US/$20.00 CAN. Picturebooks, Ages 4-7

Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, in collaboration with Juan Wijngaard, have created a masterpiece of story and art. Tashi, a little girl in a tiny village, accompanies her ailing mother to work on the tea plantation each day, but while the women pick tea, Tashi plays with the monkeys. Finally her mother’s illness keeps her from work, so Tashi tries to pick in her place, but she can’t reach the top of tea bushes! When she shares her woes with her friends the monkeys, they steal the giant basket and disappear into the mountains, returning with a full basket of tea. And this tea isn’t just any old tea – it’s CLOUD TEA – out of reach of ordinary men. Tashi’s rare success is rewarded with enough gold from the Royal Tea Taster to pay her mother’s doctor, to keep her mother out of the fields, and to feed the monkeys!

The prose, particularly the descriptive language, evokes the rhythm and pattern of a traditional fairy tale, as does the ambiguous setting. The illustrations are lush, with vibrant green foliage, deep blue night skies, luminous shadows filtering through the forest, and glowing faces of the characters.

Cloud Tea Monkeys is a beautiful book, a bedtime bookshelf treasure.

Marisa Behan

Friday, July 13, 2012

AMAZING ANIMALS: THE REMARKABLE THINGS THAT CREATURES DO by Margriet Ruurs

Ruurs, Margriet. Illus. W. Allan Hancock. Amazing Animals: The Remarkable Things that Creatures Do. New York: Tundra Books, 2011. ISBN:9780887769733. $19.99 

Amazing Animals shares facts and information about members of the animal kingdom. The categories it addresses are Size and Strength, Reproduction, Communication, Homebuilding, Migration and Navigation, Diet, Hunting, and Defense. Margriet Ruurs selected a variety of insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals that, when combined with beautiful oil paintings by W. Allan Hancock, encourages readers to pay just a bit more attention to the world around them. Ruurs states that her hope in compiling the book was that “it will urge [readers] to research and explore the animal world for [themselves],” and her careful selection of beautifully illustrated creatures succeeded in piquing my interest.

Here are some of the things I didn’t know:

1. A black ant can carry ten to twenty times its own weight—this would be like a human carrying a horse. Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that if every insect in the world was weighed all at once on a scale, they would weigh more than all the other animals.

2. A sturgeon can grow over 16 feet long and live over a century.

3. A coconut crab is a land dweller, and it's gigantic—stretching 1½ feet. Not only that, it can open up coconuts with its pincers. Just hearing this made me squirm.

There were many more things I learned (such as that a slug has three noses) that you will enjoy finding out, too. Along the lines of learning, a reading of Amazing Animals provides a bit of a vocabulary review. Fortunately, there is a glossary at the end of the book that helped me remember that “spiracles” are small breathing holes.

Stephanie Ashley

Thursday, July 12, 2012

RAIN by Peter Spier

Spier, Peter. Rain. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1982. ISBN 0-385-24105-4.

What a gorgeous, sigh-inducing book! Peter Spier’s Rain follows two children on their adventures during a rainy day, starting with them rushing inside when the rain begins and illustrating their day all the way through to bedtime and the next morning.

The brother and sister don galoshes, raincoats, and a giant umbrella and trot off into their neighborhood for a day of exploration in the rain. They stand below overflowing gutters, put their hands under drain pipes, and squish their fingers through the mess in a wet sandbox. They splash through puddles, admire a glistening spider web, and dump a wheelbarrow full of water. During their exploits they encounter numerous animals, from squirrels to cardinals to mice to raccoons. They watch ducks swimming in a rain-drenched pond, they find a cat curled up under a parked truck for shelter from the wet, and they see a neighbor’s dog watching the rain from his doghouse.

Back at home, the siblings remove their wet clothes and pass them into their mother’s waiting hands. After a bath and dry clothes, they play with a block set in the living room while waiting for dinner with their parents. The family dog and cat are always nearby. Nighttime brings sleeping and a clearing sky. Brother and sister awaken to a sun-drenched morning and a backyard alight with water reflecting the sun.

For an adult, this book is a sumptuous trip down memory lane, bringing to mind the simpler days of the early 1980s, when children went outside in the rain and played with blocks instead of video games. For a child, the book is a awash with visual delight and the innocence of childhood. Spier’s illustrations are gorgeous and intricate, with numerous little touches that show dozens of aspects of a life. In the children’s backyard alone, the pages ramble with garden flowers and birds, a sandbox, an errant hose, a woodpile, a playful dog and cat, a full shed, and pet rabbits with their snack of lettuce and carrots. Almost every page is alight with detailed drawings, and in the more simple illustrations, Spier manages to evoke the precise way rain pools on the ground and the way the background of trees and homes turns gray in a deluge. The story is told entirely with pictures, and every detail makes each moment something worth poring over.

In addition to a childlike sense of wonder at a rain-soaked world, Spier’s work elicits moments of vivid childhood memory, like the feeling of standing in a rainy street as water surges past your feet to make its escape down the drain, With moments like that in this book, Spier creates more than a story about two kids playing in the rain; he creates an emotional response to a universal experience.

Jill Coste

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

TOSS OF A LEMON by Padma Viswanathan

Viswanathan, Padma. The Toss of a Lemon. Canada: Random House Canada, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-15-101533-7.

To begin, I would not necessarily consider The Toss of a Lemon a young adult novel. I don’t believe that was the author’s intention, nor would it be appropriate for most high school students. As a former teacher, I can think of a select few girls who would absolutely love it, and many more for whom it would be obtuse, irrelevant, and difficult to engage.

The third-person-omniscient narrative style initially seems detached, as if I, the reader, am too far away, too far removed, from the action. The book is 640 pages, so if the action is slow to start, I suppose I can forgive! By the end, I felt like the characters were part of my own family, and I certainly stopped feeling so far away from the action on the pages.

At heart, the story is a generational saga. Sivikami, a young Brahmin girl, is married at 10, widowed at 18, and spends the rest of her life as an orthodox Brahmin widow: wearing only two white saris, shaving her head, and not appearing in public from dawn to dusk. She raises her two children, then her daughter’s brood of six children, who bear their own children by the end of the novel. Born in 1896, Sivikami deals with the problem of changing times in India, particularly Indian independence and the end of Brahmin social prominence.

The Toss of a Lemon will disappoint those looking for fast-paced narration, a quick-moving story, or suspense. But for readers looking for an experience, a way to immerse themselves in a different culture, The Toss of a Lemon is an excellent read. The meandering narrative, rich in cultural information, characterization, and description, is easy to put down, but just as easy to pick up again. It’s an ideal bedtime read.

Reviewed by Marisa Behan

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A BOOK ABOUT DESIGN: COMPLICATED DOESN'T MAKE IT GOOD by Mark Gonyea

Gonyea, Mark. A Book About Design: Complicated Doesn’t Make It Good. New York: Henry Hold & Company, 2005. ISBN: 978-0-8050-7575-5. $21.95.

On one hand, this is a children’s nonfiction book. Gonyea takes complicated ideas of design and uses simple shapes, bold colors, and humorous layouts to explain graphic design to children. He addresses the relationship between objects, diagonal versus straight lines, contrast, usage of letters, color, and balance.

On the other hand, this book makes a fabulous joke gift for adult designers, who would more acutely appreciate the humor Gonyea weaves into his deceptively simple narration. An (adult) freelance web designer friend to whom I read this book remarked, “That would make a great Christmas gift” for our mutual friend, another web designer who majored in graphic design.

While still remaining entirely appropriate for children, Gonyea subtly pokes fun at every poorly-designed poster that filled its free space with complicated funky fonts, WordArt and clip art pictures.

Reviewed by Marisa Behan

Friday, July 6, 2012

ADIVINANZAS INDIGENAS, Compiled by Elisa Ramirez

Ramirez, Elisa. Adivinanzas Indígenas. Illustrado por Maximino Javier. Mexico, D.F: Editorial Patria, 1999. ISBN# 968-29-0260-X

Como el tema del libro lo menciona, este es un libro de una compilación de adivinanzas indígenas para ninos de los primeros grados de primaria. El lenguaje usado en el libro contiene muchas palabras indígenas. En estas adivinanzas no solamente se utilizan palabras de origen indígena si no que las respuestas de dichas adivinanzas están relacionadas con criaturas míticas y estilos de vida de diferentes grupos indígenas. Estas adivinanzas fueron originalmente escritas o dichas en el dialecto indígena que indica cada pagina. La traducción de estas adivinanzas al español hace el texto accesible a las personas de habla hispana. Sin embargo, la fluidez y la rima por la que se caracterizan las rimas, no se hace presente en la traducción. Las ilustraciones de este libro ayudan al lector a descifrar la adivinanza mientras que el uso de color y lineas simples mantiene la autenticidad cultural del libro. Las respuestas a las adivinanzas se pueden encontrar al final del libro al igual que un glosario con explicación detallada de algunos términos desconocidos para ciertos lectores. Este libro seria mejor utilizado en los niveles de preescolar a tercer grado. El lenguaje usado en este libro podría ayudar a crear una conexión literaria con alumnos de diferentes culturas.

Adriana Jaime


This review is part of the Special Section: Books in Spanish, featuring a collaboration with Policy and Language Studies students at San Diego State University. Read more about it here.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

THE WOMAN WHO OUTSHONE THE SUN by Rosalma Zubizarreta

Zubizarreta, Rosalma. The Woman Who Outshone The Sun. Illustrated by Fernando Oliveria. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press, 1991. ISBN# 0-89239-101-4. $13.95.

See another review of The Woman Who Outshone the Sun on this site here.


Summary:
This book is about a beautiful young woman named Lucia Zenteno who appears at a village and the villagers are amazed at her. Her long hair outshines the sun, and she is mysterious to the villagers. Every time Lucia goes to the river to bathe, the water and the fishes in it begin to flow through her hair. When she finishes bathing, she combs her hair and the water and the fishes in it return to the river.

Some of the villagers are afraid of Lucia's powers, and they begin to mistreat her, ultimately driving her from the village. Lucia goes to say goodbye to the river before leaving. The water and the fishes flow into her hair again, but this time they won’t return to the river. When Lucia leaves the village, a dry riverbed is left behind. The villagers no longer receive the beauty of nature and they experience a drought. They realize that the river had loved Lucia and the only way to get it back is to search for Lucia and ask for her forgiveness. The villagers find Lucia and seek her mercy. She tells the villagers that just like the river gives water to everyone, they must learn to treat everyone with kindness, even those who are different. Lucia returns to the village, the water and animals return to the river, and the villagers are happy again. Lucia disappears but is not gone; the elders explain that although Lucia can’t be seen, she guides and protects them. She helps them to live with love and understanding in their hearts.

Other information:
This book is a fiction children’s picture book, retold from a Mexican folktale. This book would be ideal for students learning about folktales from other cultures. The book is also written in both Spanish and English, perfect to use in bilingual classrooms and even in bilingual instruction.

For language learners, this book could be used to introduce vocabulary. The translation is accurate; both languages portray the same tone and story. The colorful illustrations go along very well with the story. The font size and format is clear. One of the morals children can take from this tale is to treat everyone, even those who are different from themselves, with kindness. A second moral is that people should live with love and understanding in their hearts. A third moral is that one shouldn’t take for granted the nature that surrounds them. I highly recommend this book; it is enjoyable to read and the morals that it portrays are valuable.

Reviewed by Diana Derner


This review is part of the Special Section: Books in Spanish, featuring a collaboration with Policy and Language Studies students at San Diego State University. Read more about it here.

MY VERY OWN ROOM by Amanda Irma Perez

Perez, Amanda I. My Very Own Room / Mi Propio Cuartito. Maya Christina Gonzalez. San Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press, 2000. ISBN # 0-89239-164-2

My Very Own Room / Mi Propio Cuartito is a bilingual picture book. It was originally written in English and translated into Spanish. The story is based on the author’s own experience of growing up in a family of eight. Amanda lives with her parents and her five younger brothers in a small two-bedroom house. She has to share a bedroom with her five brothers, and she really desires a little space of her own. She goes around the house to look for her so-desired space, and when she finally finds a potential place, she asks her mother for her approval. This small space is full of furniture, old clothes, and other family belongings, so a lot of work has to be done in order to turn it into a small bedroom for Amanda. The closeness of the family is evident when everyone gets together to help Amanda accomplish her dream.

The translation of the book is accurate. It is evident that the translator is familiar with Mexican culture, since the words are carefully chosen to represent the same meaning that they have in the original language of the story. Thus, the tone of the story is preserved in the translation. Additionally, there is a balance of languages in the book. Both languages are used equally throughout the story; however, some Spanish words are used in the English version of the story because the author probably couldn’t find words in English that had the same emotional meaning as they do in Spanish. Therefore, a glossary of Spanish terms would be useful for Spanish language learners. In terms of English language learners, the translation of the story can help them keep developing their English language by looking at the Spanish translation of the book whenever they don’t understand words or ideas in the English version of the story. The Spanish embedded words in the English version of the story can also make this book more comprehensible to English language learners.

The content of the story is great; however, it lacks metaphors, similes, rhythm, and alliteration, which would make it a richer piece of writing. Additionally, the names of some of the characters are not mentioned in the story, which can be confusing for language learners. The illustrations are well done; they are very vivid, and they match the text of the story.

This book is appropriate for elementary school students, second and third grade in particular, since the vocabulary used is simple. Furthermore, this book can be used to teach a variety of topics such as differences in culture and immigration. I recommend using this book in the classroom because many students will be able to identify themselves with the main character’s situation, and this will engage students in the lessons.

Reviewed by Yvonne Garcia

This review is part of the Special Section: Books in Spanish, featuring a collaboration with Policy and Language Studies students at San Diego State University. Read more about it here.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

FAMILY, FAMILIA by Diane Gonzales Bertrand

Bertrand, Diane Gonzales. Family, Familia. Illustrated by Pauline Rodriguez Howard. Translated by Julia Mercedes Castilla. Houston: Piñata Books, 1999. ISBN #1-55885-269-7. $14.95. Ages 6 and up.

Family, Familia is a bilingual picture book. Daniel Gonzales, the main character in the story, goes to a family reunion in San Antonio, Texas. He expects the reunion to be boring and is not excited to attend. However, he begins to enjoy the reunion and has fun when he starts to make connections between his family and the stories his dad has told him. Daniel finds a boy who is his age and they become friends and find out they are cousins. Daniel goes back home happily, knowing where the Gonzales name comes from.

This story has a very strong message about family unity that children will really love. It promotes multiculturalism in a positive way. Children of Mexican-American backgrounds will be able to easily relate to this story, while children of different backgrounds will get a look into a new culture. The use of descriptive language gives the story a very vivid feel. The illustrations are also very bright and detailed. They support the story’s meaning fully and tell a story even on their own. The use of Spanish that is sprinkled on every page gives the story a more authentic touch. There is no translation for these words, however, which may make it difficult for a non-Spanish speaker to decode. Nevertheless, the book is translated completely from English to Spanish. The translation conveys the story’s meaning perfectly. As Daniel discovers the meaning of family, children will also be compelled to think about where they came from and their own family’s history regardless of their cultural background.

Reviewed by Vicky Zamarripa


This review is part of the Special Section: Books in Spanish, featuring a collaboration with Policy and Language Studies students at San Diego State University. Read more about it here.

THE TREASURE ON GOLD STREET by Lee Merrill Byrd

Byrd, Lee Merrill. The Treasure on Gold Street. Illustrated by Antonio Castro. Translated by Sharon Franco. El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 2003. ISBN 0-938317-75-X. $16.95. Bilingual Early Reader.

The Treasure on Gold Street is a realistic fiction bilingual children’s book. In the book, we meet a little girl named Hannah who tells us about her life growing up on Gold Street and a valuable life-lesson she learns from her mother and father. In this story, Hannah introduces us to her family, her neighbors, and her friend Isabel. Isabel is an adult with mental retardation who lives with her mom, Bennie. Isabel and Hannah love to do a lot of the same things like walking down the street, playing, and reading. Isabel is definitely a special person in Hannah’s life. On Isabel’s birthday, Hannah finds out that Isabel is also a special person in her mother’s life and comes to understand why her parents always say, “Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold.”

This bilingual children’s book was originally written in English and translated into Spanish. Each page is filled with very colorful and detailed illustrations that depict the narrative text of the story to support the reader’s predictions, questions, clarification, and summarization. This book is easy and clear to read thanks to its legible font size and simple word choice. The Treasure on Gold Street is rich in conversational dialogue between the characters and first-person narration by the main character. Within the dialogue found in the English text, the author uses a few Spanish words without providing specific or immediate translation for those words; however one can deduce the meaning of those Spanish words using the context clues from of the surrounding sentences.

This is a great read aloud book for children in grades K-4th. With this book, children are exposed in a sensitive way to the fact that people are different and that some people have special needs such as mental retardation. This book lends itself beautifully to teaching young children many valuable life-lessons about kindness, friendship, and appreciation. I would recommend The Treasure on Gold Street to both adults and children alike.

Reviewed by Vanessa Polanco


This review is part of the Special Section: Books in Spanish, featuring a collaboration with Policy and Language Studies students at San Diego State University. Read more about it here.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

LA MARIPOSA by Francisco Jimenez

Jimenez, Francisco. La Mariposa. Illustrated by Simon Silva. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. ISBN 0-395-81663-7. $16.00. Ages 6-10.

Useful website:
http://modernlanguages/facultystaff/jimenezhomepage.cfm.

Awards:
Parent’s Choice Recommended Award
America's Commended List
Smithsonian’s Notable Book for Children

This is a contemporary realistic fiction picture book. Although it is listed as fictional, the book is autobiographical because it is based on the author’s life experiences. The purpose of the book is to address the topic of social acceptance as well as the acceptance of changes and adaptation in the midst of challenges.

The story is about a boy, Francisco, entering first grade in a sink-or-swim all-English classroom where he can’t understand anything. From the very beginning, Francisco fixes his attention to a butterfly in a jar. The butterfly’s metamorphosis takes place alongside the changes Francisco experiences. The message is a positive and inspiring one: that one can flourish by embracing change. The main character’s nuclear family is presented as an important factor in his metamorphosis into a bilingual and bicultural human being. The teacher, principal, and classmates are presented in a positive light because in the end, his teacher, Miss Scalapino, helps establish Francisco as an artist by awarding him a first-place ribbon for his drawing of the butterfly. Through the supportive modeling of his parents and brother, Francisco both finds his place and learns to be tolerant and forgiving of a boy who bullies him. The book ends on the positive notes of acceptance and tolerance.

This book is written in English and Spanish; it falls under the category of Literary Bilingualism, as it includes Spanish words which are italicized and a glossary at the end. Although there are only a total of 16 spanish words, they are very impacting because they are used within a sentence, as a bilingual child would do when code switching. Code switching may have been added to make a connection with the reader on a more personal level. It also implies that English language learners assimilate by adapting what they are acquiring to their own background knowledge. This book also supports linguistic transfer skills because it illustrates the idea that Spanish shares some syntax with English.

The target audience of this book is ages 6-10. Teaching examples might include when and what syntactic features transfer and which do not. Reading comprehension skills can be developed by focusing on text features such as italics. The book also uses the butterfly as a metaphor for the changes a young boy experiences through the acquisition of a second language and culture.

This book can also be used in an integrated lesson between Language Arts and Social Science, and Science. It is a perfect read aloud to introduce the life cycle of a butterfly, a lesson on social justice, contributions of different people in the United States, labor laws, and historical Chicano heroes such as Cesar Chavez. I would use this book to make connections for meaningful learning. I would highly recommend this book as it is a powerful resource that can serve many purposes.

Francisco Jimenez is also the author of The Circuit, Breaking Through, and Reaching Out. These books follow the author from grade school to college. Jimenez is also the author of other bilingual books for children, including The Christmas Gift/El Regalo de Navidad.

Reviewed by Silvia Andrado

A MOVIE IN MY PILLOW by Jorge Argueta

Argueta, Jorge. A Movie in My Pillow. Illustrations by Elizabeth Gomez. San Franciso: Children’s Book Press, 2001. ISBN 0-89239-165-0. $16.95. 

More info:
www.elizabethgomezart.com

Awards:
2001 Americas Award for Latin American Literature
Skipping Stones Honor Award for Multicultural Literature
IPPY Award for Multicultural Fiction for Juveniles

A Movie in My Pillow is a picture book of children’s bilingual poetry. It describes the author’s memories of when he left El Salvador as a young boy with his father during its civil war and moved to San Francisco’s Mission District. Jorgito’s movie, or collection of dreams, is recalled in emotional poems about the people and places he left behind, as well the adventures he has discovered in his new city.

The languages included in this book are Spanish and English. It is a translation from Spanish into English. All of the poems are in both English and Spanish and are displayed either side by side or above and below each other on each page. English/Spanish biliterate readers will be able to tell that the book is very well translated and has accurate usage of words. It was translated by the author himself, which means he has the language, regional, and cultural background from his native El Salvador.

The text of each language seems to be equally present on every page and of equal importance in the telling of the story. The font style seems almost childlike and friendly as well as clear. Every word, line, and paragraph is visible among the various illustrations, and they are easy to read on the pages because they are spaced apart and positioned well.

While there is no slang or jargon in this book, but there is some non-standard vocabulary that language learners might not know or recognize. There is no formal glossary within the book, but there are small notes next to and beneath the poems to explain potentially unfamiliar words to readers.

The vibrant paintings on every page really help bring the author’s story to life with bold bright colors covering every inch of the book. Because the drawings are so detailed, they may help readers boost their comprehension of abstract concepts and better explain what it is like to live in two different countries. I did not find any obvious elements of rhyme or rhythm used in the poems, but the author does use repetition, which supports language acquisition.

The writing style of the author is very imaginative and full of emotion. His heartfelt confessions about the things he misses from El Salvador and the joyful confusion he feels in San Francisco will make any reader empathize with being homesick.

The artwork is vivid and makes you feel as though you’re watching Jorgito’s movie with him. Geography, world cuisines, and indigenous languages are just a few of the social studies themes that are present in this wonderful children’s book.

I would use this bilingual book to support language acquisition by reading it first in one language (the child’s primary language), and then in the second language. This gives the student the opportunity to hear both versions and transfer their skills in the second language. Having the dual language text side by side also helps them access the translations more easily.

Some other books by Jorge Argueta include Sopa de Frijoles, Alfredito Flies Home, Moony Luna, La Gallinita En La Cuidad, The Fiesta of the Tortillas, Talking with Mother Earth, Trees Are Hanging from the Sky, Zipitio, and Xochitl and the Flowers. I would without a doubt recommend this book. It would be a great resource to include in a bilingual library collection or for dual language learners. It would especially be of interest to immigrant students or young readers from El Salvador.

Reviewed by Caroline Rubio Jacobs


This review is part of the Special Section: Books in Spanish, featuring a collaboration with Policy and Language Studies students at San Diego State University. Read more about it here.