Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A family struggles to hold fast

Hold Fast

By Blue Balliett
288 pages, $17.99
ages 8 and up

With her newest novel, Blue Balliett warms the heart, even as she's breaking it.

Hold Fast is the story of a family striving for something better. Dashel Pearl works as a page in the Chicago Public Library. He and his family – wife Summer, daughter Early, young son Jubilation – live in the biggest apartment they can afford, one room in a former gang neighborhood. But they have their eye on a home like the pretty two-story house in their neighborhood. That's what Dash is working toward.

They hold fast to the dream, but their tiny apartment is warm and cheerful. And they all share a love for words and the rhythms of Langston Hughes ("Hold fast to dreams ...). 

It's a happy life and a happy family – until the day Dash disappears. He's not the type to run out on his family and we soon find out that there's mystery and criminal activity involved. A scary event takes place and the family is forced into the shelter system.

Summer becomes more wrecked as the weeks mount that Dash is missing. Jubie's only 5. So it falls to Early Pearl to use her brains, heart and resourcefulness to try and save her family – and maybe some other homeless kids in the process.

Balliett's writing is nearly poetic, but the pace of the story never lags either. There's enough mystery and excitement to keep kids reading. There's also enough reality to teach them a a bit about how some families struggle or to resonate with those in similar situations. A little education on words and Langston Hughes is an added bonus.

-Rebecca Young

Friday, April 6, 2012

A to Z hilarity

Ready for a riotous read-aloud? When they hear the title: "Z is for Moose," youngsters will indignantly declare "no it's not!" Soon, however, they'll be laughing at the antics of this alphabet interloper.

Zebra, wearing a black-and-white striped referee shirt, is the director of an alphabet show. It's clear Moose is a most eager player as early as the endpapers, where he's shown gleefully lifting up the purple curtain to peek at the reader/audience.

He restrains himself for a few pages. But then, Duck is shown nudged to the background and Moose happily stands beneath the banner: "D is for Moose."  

Zebra gets mad. Moose bumbles in and out of the next few pages asking: "Is it my turn yet?" 

The real trouble begins on the "M" page when Moose discovers that Zebra has used Mouse instead. 
He goes ballistic, smashing Pie, knocking over the Queen in her throne, scaring off Owl. He grabs a crayon and commits acts of grafitti, until Zebra puts his body in between Moose and the other actors.

Moose's rage turns to sobs. Zebra softens and there's a sweet surprise ending. We find out that Z really can be for Moose – "Zebra's friend, Moose."

Hilarity, a tender message about friendship, marvelous illustrations – this one's a winner.

Kelly Bingham wrote Shark Girl, which was named a Best Book for Young Adults. Paul O. Zelinsky has illustrated a long list of picture books, including Rapunzel (won the Caldecott Medal); Rumpelstiltskin and Hansel and Gretel (both Caldecott Honors); Swamp Angel, and the classic interactive book The Wheels on the Bus

– Rebecca Young

Monday, January 23, 2012

Gantos! Raschka! Whaley! More!

Here are a couple of good articles recapping the results of the children's book awards announcements this morning. I've been with 4-year-olds all day, but I look forward to sitting down a bit later and reading over all this more carefully.

From The New York Times:
January 23, 2012, 9:08 AM

Tale of Comic Adventures Wins Newbery Medal

A sly, gothic and quasi-autobiographical tale of a boy who is grounded by his parents and sent to type obituaries for a neighbor, leading to a string of comic adventures, won the John Newbery Medal on Monday for the year’s most outstanding contribution to children’s literature ...
From School Library Journal:

*UPDATED* Gantos, Raschka Awarded Newbery, Caldecott

By SLJ Staff 
January 23, 2012 
This story was updated at 2:45 PM.
The audience roared its approval this morning in Dallas after hearing that author Jack Gantos's Dead End in Norvelt (Farrar) won the Newbery Medal and Chris Raschka's A Ball for Daisy (Random/Schwartz & Wade Bks) nabbed the Caldecott Medal. Raschka's book was a favorite going into the American Library Association's (ALA) Youth Media Awards this morning...

-Rebecca Young

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Who will win?

Monday morning is a big one in the children's book world. It's when all the major U.S. awards for young people's literature – including the Newbery and the Caldecott – will be announced at the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting.

Tonight might be a restless one for authors and illustrators. A number of them will be receiving a pre-dawn phone call with the news that their book has won an award. Unlike other awards we're familiar with, there are no lists of nominees. The committees for each award consider every book in that category published in the past year.

The ALA meeting is in Dallas this year and the award announcements begin at 7:30 a.m. Central Time. That's 5:30 my time. The ALA website runs a live feed and normally I'd be at my computer watching it. Last year I posted pretty quick updates as awards were announced. But this year, believe it or not, I have something else I have to do at that time.  I'll try to get the word out as soon as I can, though. If you're crazy like me you can go here and watch it yourself. I'll warn you, though, the librarians won't be wearing couture.

Each year there's a great deal of speculation over who will win the Newbery Medal, for distinguished contribution to children's literature, and the Caldecott Medal, for the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. There are mock Newbery and Caldecott votes by adults and children and everyone has fun making predictions.

Then the committees make their decisions (already made by now) and often the winners are a  complete surprise.

Once in a while, not so much. Jerry Pinkney's Caldecott in 2010 for The Lion and the Mouse surprised no one. But last year when Clare Vanderpool won the Newbery Medal for Moon Over Manifest, it took weeks for libraries that didn't have the book to get it because her publisher was taken off guard and had to print more copies.

This year the book I've seen mentioned most often as likely for the Newbery Medal is Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt. I read it a couple of weeks ago and it is indeed a special book.

Life is tough for Doug Swieteck, a minor character in Schmidt's Newbery honor book The Wednesday Wars. It's the summer of 1968 and his family has moved to tiny Marysville, N.Y. Doug calls it "the dump" and makes up his mind to be miserable. We soon learn he might have good reason for the lousy attitude. One big brother is in Vietnam, the other bullies him and his dad's a drunk. But as Doug begins to grow on us, the town begins to grow on him. He discovers Audubon prints in the library and a librarian who helps copy the prints and realize a talent as an artist. He meets a cool girl whose dad gives him a Saturday job. And once school starts, he finds teachers who offer him some desperately needed academic help.

The plot is lively, featuring humor and heartbreak, baseball and the first moonwalk. The characters, both major and minor are terrific. Doug is a winning protagonist. But even the people you hate at first get under your skin by the end.

We'll know by tomorrow if Gary Schmidt has won a Newbery Medal or another Newbery Honor.

-Rebecca Young

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Beware those origami dragons

"The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter," a clip from Kirkus Reviews trumpets on the cover of  Lisa McMann's new book The Unwanteds. Those are a couple of mighty big book jackets to fill, but after reading this dystopian fantasy, I can see the reviewer's point. I didn't pick up the book based on that blurb, but on the rave review from a fifth grader at my school.
As the novel opens, a group of 13-year-olds are set to be "purged" from the land of Quill. This is an event that happens yearly. The young people are divided into three groups. The Wanteds, those deemed the strongest and most intelligent, will be sent to university. The Necessaries, judged to be average but harmless, are kept to perform menial labor. The Unwanteds, children who have been caught expressing hints of creativity, are sent to their deaths.
We discover by Page 20 (it's also on the book flap, so I'm not spoiling anything) that instead of being eliminated this year (and for many years) the Unwanteds have been saved by magician Marcus Today. He brings them to Artimé, his wondrous haven, where creativity is encouraged and nurtured.
The tale focuses on a pack of boys and girls. Alex, who's the Harry Potterest of the bunch, was purged because he drew in the mud. His artistic talent flourishes in Artimé. He's also a twin, but his brother is a Wanted. That provides Alex with intense heartache and sets up danger later on.
Sticking with the Harry Potter/Hunger Games theme, Lani is a bit of a cross between Hermoine and Katniss.
Quill is a gray, dreary protectionist state run by the evil High Priest Justine. Justine has cut Quill off from all contact or trade with any other people, so the infrastructure and machinery is decrepit.
But Mr. Today and the other leaders of Artimé (who include animals and magical creatures) are convinced that their community will be discovered one day and a battle is inevitable. The children receive magical trainingto prepare
The weapons are quite wonderful. They're based on the artistic talents of the children and teachers. Origami dragons burst into real flame when they hit their targets. Clay balls coat their victims rendering them unable to move. Actors can recite soliloquies that make their victims feel magical daggers plunge into their chests. Most of the weapons are meant to slow the enemy, not kill.
The Unwanteds, while not as complex as Harry Potter, is a good bet for 9- to 12-year-olds who are on their umpteenth reading of the Potter books and need something fun and fresh. It's also a good choice for those tweens who hear the Hunger Games hype and aren't ready for the stark violence of that series. This is a far gentler read.
The Unwanteds is the first in a series.

Here's a cute video of Author McMann talking to Max Burkholder – Max on Parenthood – about the book. He "really, really, really loved it."

-Rebecca Young

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Muppet master

In his rave review of The Muppets, Rolling Stone movie critic Peter Travers points out that Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the other Muppets haven't had a new screen presence in many years. "So the challenge Disney has with The Muppets is to show a new generation what the fuss was all about," he writes.
His verdict: "Slam-dunk."

No doubt many of you have taken the kids to The Muppets Movie, or plan to do so over winter break. I went on Saturday and I loved it enough that I might go again with my big kids when they get home for the holidays.

The kids who love the movie and through it are reintroduced to Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Animal happily have a canon of older Muppet films to discover now. They also surely grew up on Sesame Street and know the Muppets in that way.
In the midst of Muppet mania, youngsters should know about the creative genius behind the beloved characters.

So after you see the movie, track down a copy of Katherine Krull's Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played With Puppets – a terrific new picture book biography with expressive paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher.

Henson grew up in a big old farmhouse along the Mississippi River. He had a bucolic childhood with his brother Paul, Krull tells us. With no TV, entertainment was of the imagination-stretching variety. The boys fished, swam, watched fireflies, sang, told stories, watched wildlife and daydreamed. Jim filled notebooks with imagined creatures.

At age 13, Jim had his first cartoon published and at age 16, he had  job on a television puppet show. By college he had his own TV show starring a puppet named Sam. Krull recounts the creation of Kermit and other Henson and his future wife Jane Nebel began calling their puppet creations Muppets - a combination of puppet and marionette.

Krull also describes Henson's life changing moment - the day Joan Ganz Cooney brought him in on the ground floor of her new educational television show for preschoolers. That was Sesame Street, of course.

Not just a story for Muppet-lovers, it's also an inspirational tale for anyone who has a different vision that the typical.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Not too scary

Each year there are new Halloweenish books, but as a school librarian I find myself returning to a few favorites to read aloud to my primary-grade students. (I work at an independent school where we can still celebrate Halloween.) 

Room on the Broom is such fun as a read-aloud that I can read it three times in a row, to my PreK class, my kindergartners and my first graders and not get weary of the bouncy rhyming text. I can read it three times the next week, too, and have just as much fun, oh, the kids do too. The writer of Room on the Broom ($6.99, Puffin) is Julia Donaldson and the illustrator is Axel Scheffler, a magical pairing that has graced a number of other picture books as well.
I always warn the littler ones that there's one part that's a little scary. And they usually tell me at the end: "That wasn't scary!"
The witch isn't a bit menacing. She has a cat and a black hat, but she also has "long ginger hair in a braid down her back." And when three helpful creatures ask in succession: "Is there room on the broom for a dog/bird/frog like me?"
The text is packed with delightful repetition. Three times, the witch loses something, hairbow, hat, wand. Three times, the broom lands for a search. Three times one of the aforementioned animals helps find the missing items.
Listeners will soon be delightedly repeating this refrain as the broom takes off with new passenger and recovered item: "...and whoosh! they were gone."
The broom breaks and a threatening red dragon enters the picture. No big spoilers here, but there are a couple more exciting and funny twists before everyone whooshes! off on a new broom.
Boo Bunny, by Kathryn O. Galbraith, ($6.99, Sandpiper) is perfect for preschoolers who might be approaching Halloween with a bit of trepidation.
The tale starts with one nervous little bunny out trick-or-treating for the first time.
Jeff Mack provides marvelous, vivid illustrations.
On the opening page, there's a small white rabbit on a mostly black background, just a bit of violet-blue sky peeking between the trees. The bunny's eyes are wide; he clutches a pumpkin-shaped treat holder.
The first words: "One shy bunny. One dark night."
The shadows are full of spooky sounds and movement. In a moment of panic, the white bunny crashes into an equally terrified scared brown bunny.
"One bunny quivers. One bunny shivers."
Tentatively, they join forces and together they are just brave enough to try trick-or-treating at one house.
That teamwork results in treats, a new friendship and huge leaps of confidence - literally.
The bunnies are shown bounding exuberantly over the last few pages.
"Two giant hops. One loud Whoooooo!
"Two bunnies giggle. 'Whooo-booo to you!'"
Mack's vivid blues, violets, pinks, greens and black are unexpected and effective.
It's a story that will hit home with many a toddler and preschooler. Halloween is often scary before it's fun
The costumes for the two bunny characters - green mask and cape and bumblebee - are adorable and preschool-appropriate. Their faces are equally adorable and expressive.
In The Witch's Children, by Ursula Jones, illustrated by Russell Ayto, (Orchard Books) humor and sweetness trump horror. 
"Look out," cry the pigeons, as they spy the witch's three cute kids entering the park on a windy day. Pigeons flutter into the trees; foxes run, squirrels scurry. They've had experience with these youngsters before. 
It's fine until a little redheaded nonwitch named Gemma needs help. Her sailboat has blown into the middle of the pond. The eldest child helps out by changing Gemma into a frog so she can swim out to her boat. Good solution until she wants to be Gemma again. He doesn't know that part of the spell.
Then the middle child tries to fix things by changing the ice cream lady into a princess who kisses the frog. Only now Gemma is a prince. Pretty soon pigeons are footmen and trees are a castle.
Chaos rules until the youngest witch child pulls out the only bit of magic she knows. 
"Mommy!" she bellows across a double-page spread.
The lovely witch mama swoops in on her broom, sets the park to rights, and mama and children fly off to eat cake on their roof.
This never fails to charm my 4- to 6-year-old audiences. The bad news - The Witch's Children appears to be out of print in the U.S. You can still get it in libraries, used - or as a paperback through AmazonUK, where it's not terribly pricey. 

The Witch's Walking Stick, written and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh ($16, Houghton Mifflin) is a sweet- natured, Cinderella-like story in which a good girl triumphs over her cruel elder siblings and a nasty, has-been witch.
On a walk through the woods, the elderly witch is left fuming when a playful dog grabs her magic walking stick and runs off. Over the years, the witch used the stick for thousands of evil wishes. Its magic is nearly gone, but she still enjoyed her nasty little tricks, such as turning squirrels into goldfish.
On the run from her miserable life, young Margaret meets the witch, who's concocted a ruse. She's just a wobbly old lady who needs her walking stick. She'll give Margaret a reward to bring it back.
Margaret is sweet, but smart, too. She figures out the secret of the stick and borrows it to make her life a little better.
By the time the witch gets her stick back, Margaret's siblings have learned a lesson, the little girl no longer sleeps on straw, the magic is used up and the dog has a home. The illustrations are simple and expressive.
The Perfect Pumpkin Pie, written and illustrated by Denys Cazet ($17, Atheneum) is a hilarious, slightly scary ghost tale about Mr. Wilkerson, a grumpy, impatient old man who drops dead on Halloween night as he's just about to bite into his wife's perfect pumpkin pie. I save this for at least second grade.
Mrs. Wilkerson buries him in the backyard and moves away. On another Halloween night, the new residents of the Wilkerson House, Jack and his grandmother, are baking a pumpkin pie when a ghostly white wisp rises in the yard.
"Pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkin pie! I must have one before I die!" the cranky ghost moans. "It must be perfect or a ghost I'll stay, and haunt this house and never, ever go awaaaaaaaay!"
Grandma invites him in, but he's a picky ghost and her first pie is far beneath his standards. He returns again and again, providing opportunities for funny repartee between ghost and grandma, who gives back just as good as she takes. It's a great read aloud with swirly, wild watercolor-and-pen illustrations. Children will enjoy joining the ghost's refrain. There's also a surprise ending.

Reviews of Boo Bunny, The Witch's Walking Stick and The Perfect Pumpkin Pie originally appeared in The News Tribune.

-Rebecca Young