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Marianne Dubuc: Animal Masquerade and In Front of My House June 29, 2012

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Small format books hold an endless fascination for me. I feel like they either need to be rich with complete landscapes and lush character detail (think Beatrix Potter or the Brambly Hedge books) or else have just one or two bold images on each page telling the story. Marianne Dubuc, a French-Canadian illustrator enjoying some excellent reviews lately, falls into the latter category.

Dubuc’s two books that have been translated into English both depend on creating anticipation for what will come next on the page. In Animal Masquerade, the question is ‘What will the animal disguise itself as?’ In In Front of my House, you wonder ‘What will be there?’ The brightly colored art, created with pencil crayon, has soft edges and just enough detail to make you smile. The images pop against the white (or occasionally black) backgrounds, so that when Dubuc throws in a spread with multiple images or a full setting, it comes as a fun surprise. She does the same thing with the patterns in her text. In Animal Masquerade, most animals dress as other animals, but you occasionally run into a fairy tale character or a cake. In In Front of my House, there is usually a single item ‘on the edge of the pond’ or ‘in the bush’ but sometimes the reader is presented with a list, such as the whale that swallows, among other items, a magician’s hat.

Children who can’t read yet will enjoy looking at the pictures in Dubuc’s books, but they also make great interactive read alouds. If you can get your audience guessing what the next animal will appear as, it’s a great chance for kids to be creative and try to think outside the box. These books could also make a great model for a writing exercise, as even kids who struggle with creative writing usually do well with pattern books. Maybe all the animals come dressed as objects, or movie characters. Maybe you start in front of your house and end up in New Zealand. Dubuc has created some marvelous, fantastical worlds in these two small books, where any reader should be happy to spend some time. Find them at your library or local bookstore now!

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Review: Wild Wings June 27, 2012

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As a general rule, it’s easier to sell paperback books, particularly for birthday presents, or family members buying for a child they don’t know very well. I was glad to see Wild Wings by Gill Lewis, out in paperback a few weeks ago, because I think it’s a strong book that lots of kids will enjoy.

I first picked up Wild Wings at the library, because I saw it was set in Scotland. Last year I made a concentrated effort to read newer books aloud to my class, rather than just the classics that I loved hearing as a kid. The natural details in this book, along with the relatively short chapters, made it a hit with my class.

Wild Wings is the story of Callum and Iona–two kids in the highlands of Scotland, who discover an osprey, an endangered wild species, living on Callum’s farm. Together they agree to keep the bird a secret for fear of poachers and they observe and help it thrive in the woods. With the help of a ranger, they are even able to tag the osprey so they can follow its migration pattern all the way to Africa. But there are unknown dangers for both birds and humans, and when unthinkable challenges come up, everyone must work together to save the osprey.

This book covers a lot of issues, particularly for a middle grade book. Endangered species, absent parents, illness and inadequate healthcare and poverty of far-away countries are all touched upon at some point. It’s a lot to stuff into one stand alone story, but Lewis makes it all work. The tragic events that happen mid-way through the book make the somewhat fairy tale ending work, because only a stickler for absolute realism would begrudge the characters the joy of watching the osprey’s flight. Lewis gives background information on ospreys in an authors note, and she also provides Internet resources where readers can see photos and footage of real ospreys and follow their migrations online.

Give this book to kids who love animals or are studying endangered species. Or read it yourself, if you need a reminder of the amazing things humans can accomplish, when we work together.

Review: A Home for Bird June 25, 2012

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Philip and Erin Stead are rapidly becoming the picture book equivalent of Laura Amy Schlitz for me: they just never write anything I don’t love. A Home for Bird, written and illustrated by Philip C. Stead is a beautiful story of friendship, persistence and kindness. The events are simple and straightforward: A toad named Vernon makes a new friend, Bird, and sets out to find him a home.

Vernon is one of my new favorite animal characters. He is a collector (the book starts when he is “out foraging for interesting things”) and he clearly collects friends as well as odd objects. Skunk and Porcupine are sympathetic to Vernon’s predicament when Bird won’t talk, and they suggest that maybe Bird needs a home. So the two friends set off, in a teacup boat (which recalls the kettle voyage that the Borrowers make), through junkyards and forests and finally (with the help of some telephone wire sitting birds) by balloon. Only then does Vernon start to rethink the journey, saying “I hope this was a good idea.” But all the traveling is worth it, because at the end of the road, Bird does find a home, one where he is clearly meant to be, and Vernon is happy.

The pictures in this book, created with water-soluble crayon and gouache, are both loose (in the backgrounds and lines) and detailed (the truck bears the logo ‘Careful Moving Co.’ as objects fly off the back). Stead goes into detail on his blog http://philipstead.com/blog/ about the process he went through to create both the story and the pictures, and the background is well worth reading for anyone who is interested in picture books. The humor in the pictures comes from the reader being able to make distinctions that the animals don’t notice, such as the fact that bird is a wooden object, and not real. Vernon’s expressions are delightful, from sadness to optimism to worry to his victory gesture at the end.

This is a lovely story to read aloud to others or to read to yourself, as a reminder that the best friends are those who want you to be happy and go to great lengths to help you find your place in the world.

Imagining New Worlds June 22, 2012

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When I was a kid, I was in love with the past. Reading all the Little House books, to say nothing of Louisa May Alcott and All of a Kind Family, meant that I was much more interested in daily life a hundred years ago than in possible future worlds. Sewing clothes and traveling by wagon was far more romantic to me than spaceships and far-away planets. As you can imagine, I wasn’t reading very much science fiction. So I came a bit late to the master, Ray Bradbury.

My first memory of  a Bradbury story was ‘The Veldt,’ which I read as part of an English class in seventh grade. It was the first year that the Internet really started becoming something that kids in my class talked about, the beginnings of a barrier going up between those with access and interest in things like email, chat rooms and websites, and those who could care less. As you can probably guess, I was part of the latter group. But in ‘The Veldt,’ the central piece of technology–the fabulous house that does everything for you and creates simulated environments such as Africa–turns out to be quite sinister and dangerous in the end.  It felt incredibly validating–see, technology can have a downside! Maybe I’m not such a geek for preferring books over TV after all!

I sought out more Bradbury stories to read after that, and although I discovered that he wasn’t always against technology, he always made me think about the results and consequences of using it. What might actually happen if we could go back in time and shoot a T-Rex?  And it was heartening, as well as heartbreaking at times, to read about characters who were still incredibly human, although they lived in worlds that were very different. Children were still thoughtlessly cruel, teasing a girl who was different, although they lived far away on Venus and not on Earth. I think of that character Margo on sunny days.

I’ve never given up on my love of the past. But thanks to Ray Bradbury and the science fiction writers he led me to, I learned to look ahead with more excitement than anxiety. Thank you, Ray Bradbury, for showing me the value and rewards of imagining the new worlds of the future.

Coming Soon: Bully and Each Kindness June 20, 2012

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Educators often hold onto this hope that if we read stories to kids about behaviors like bullying or cheating, they’ll take the message more to heart. I don’t know if that’s really true, but coming this fall are two picture books, both from celebrated authors, that teachers may want to read and discuss with their students. Both address bullying, but in different forms and for slightly different ages.

Bully by Patricia Polacco, is narrated by Lyla, a sixth grader starting at a new school in San Francisco. Written in picture book form, it takes the reader through her school year.  The basic arc of the story is familiar: new girl makes a friend, then joins the popular crowd and dumps said friend,  then changes her mind and is punished for it by the popular kids. The popular girl trio could have come straight out of the movie Mean Girls. What sets this tale apart in some ways is the clearly contemporary setting: the high-stakes testing, Facebook and cell phones, and most importantly, the way that technology makes taunting and hurting others so easy. It’s a story with a very in-your-face message, but maybe that’s a good thing. The final sentence “What would you do?” is spoken directly to the reader and it resonates.

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E.B. Lewis, is also a thought-provoking tale written in a very different style.  I was actually introduced to this book by the author herself, who read excerpts from a draft at the Books for the Beast conference in 2009.  It stuck with me and occasionally I would look at shelves of picture books, thinking “Hmm…when is that book about the stone in the bowl of water going to be published?” So it was exciting to find this ARC and realize…NOW! Each Kindness is also a first person narration, by Chloe, who tells the story of a new girl in her class called Maya. Little differences–old clothes, different food and toys–lead to Maya being ostracized and it is only after a simple demonstration by the teacher showing the ripples that a stone makes in water that Chloe realizes her own lack of kindness. The characters in this story are younger than in Bully, but the whispers and excluding on the playground are no less  hurtful than nasty Facebook messages. The pictures are muted watercolors, heartbreakingly realistic as they show the children watching Maya or turning their backs on her.

Each Kindness, in particular, with its inspirational teacher, made me hope that I have been able to influence my students to make the right decision when they are faced with issues like bullying. Maybe these two books will help other teachers to do just that. Look for them coming out this fall.

Coming Soon: Too Tall Houses June 18, 2012

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Neighbors can be wonderful, but also aggravating beings. They can be helpful, but also nosy. And, as Gianna Marino suggests in her new book Too Tall Houses,  what if your neighbor’s garden suddenly starts blocking your view?

Owl and Rabbit begin Too Tall Houses  as neighbors and friends. But one small problem escalates and as each animal tries to fix it, things spin out of control. Kids who have playground conflicts will recognize the ‘Oh yeah? Well, FINE!’ attitude of the characters and parents will appreciate the compromise in the ending. The real joy, however is in the illustrations.

Rabbit and Owl live in a world of golden sunlight and grassy hills. They each have their preferred building materials: Owl brings long multi-colored grasses, while Rabbit digs up soil and twigs. The details are lovely, and readers will enjoy finding the vegetables, windows and objects in each picture as the animals build their houses up…and up…and up.

Look for this fun new friendship tale in September!

Coming Soon: The Amazing Hamweenie June 16, 2012

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One of the many perks of working at a bookstore is the access to new, unpublished books.  Advance copies of picture books may be on thin paper, with no binding and pages falling out, but strong images and characters nevertheless jump out of the often flimsy package. The next several posts will be about a few of these books, soon to hit the shelves at your library or bookstore. Because in some cases, the text and art may not be final, the reviews may be a bit shorter, without quotes, but hopefully you will get excited about these new stories coming soon.

I am currently in love with Hamweenie, the star of the debut book The Amazing Hamweenie, by Patty Bowman, which will be published in October by Penguin. The unnamed narrator is gloriously unreliable, in the same tradition as Lane Smith’s Wolf from The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. According to the narrator, Hamweenie has many complaints about his life. He knows (and the reader is forced to agree) that he is meant to be a star; a magician or a movie star, riding on floats and immortalized as a balloon. Instead, he is the pet of a little girl. The language is fantastic–Hamweenie is alternately abused, sabotaged, starved, tortured and imprisoned. However, the discerning reader (or listener) will notice that there is a large gap between Hamweenie’s claims of horrific treatment and what is actually going on in the illustrations. Bowman’s illustrations use ink and watercolors with a color palette similar to Sophie Blackall, but her lines also recall Rotten Ralph and (very slightly) the cartoons of Roz Chast. Hamweenie is a great addition to a long line of spoiled, ungrateful, diva cat characters.

Also check out Bowman’s blog at pattybowman.blogspot.com. If her other illustrations are any indication, she has other stories about eccentric, unusual characters to tell.

Review: Code Name Verity June 11, 2012

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I’ve decided that Elizabeth Wein must have some kind of vendetta against reviewers. Because really, has there ever been a book more impossible to review than Code Name Verity? I have read articles on this book in two different newspapers and half a dozen blogs. And at some point, everyone says “I don’t want to spoil it for you…” Because, as the character Verity repeats “Careless talk costs lives!” Or at least it costs the reader some enjoyment for this fascinating, thought-provoking, heart-wrenching tale of friendship and mistakes.

So although I am fortunately not facing torture and interrogation by the Gestapo, I will keep my mouth shut. As Verity sings the praises of her friend Maddie, I will merely point out the many wonders of this book. The historical setting, in 1940’s England, Scotland and France is precise and vivid, helping us understand the tensions and sacrifices of living in wartime. The story is an adventure, taking both main characters far outside their experience and comfort zones. It’s a mystery, because for most of the story, neither main character knows what has happened to the other. Wein is a master of foreshadowing and irony. Everyone I know who has read the book immediately went straight back to the beginning after they finished, to try and track down the clues hidden in the text. Finally, and most importantly, it is a story of friendship. Friendship of the best kind–two people who are different in background, interests, and personality but who just fit so perfectly that they will protect each other until they die. For anyone interested in the lost heroes of World War II, spies and pilots, or just tales of unlikely and lifelong friendships, this is the book to read.

In Memoriam: Leo Dillon June 9, 2012

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Maurice Sendak now has company in the corner of the Elysian Fields reserved for Caldecott artists. Leo Dillon, part of famed illustration team the Dillons, passed away early last week.

Leo and his wife Diane met while they were students at the Parsons School of Design in 1953. From 1957 on they worked together on book jackets, record covers and eventually children’s illustrations. They are probably best known for their Caldecott Medal winning Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears and Ashanti to Zulu from the 1970’s, as well as the iconic covers of many books, including A Wrinkle in Time and collections by Virginia Hamilton. I was lucky
enough to find a secondhand copy of a book devoted to their early work, The Art of Leo and Diane Dillon, edited by Byron Preiss. While it doesn’t include their later work, it does have some great commentary, from such luminaries as Harlan Ellison (who writes “The Dillons and their work personify perfection.”) and the artists themselves, who go into detail about their inspiration and technique for different pieces.

The Dillons are probably best known for their use of luminous color and the sheer variety of techniques they have used over the long course of their career. They began using a woodcut style for album covers and eventually turned to various methods to make the work go faster, including simulating the style with pen and ink or scraping a coating off a sheet of acetate. The Dillons experimented with crewel work, painting on plastic and marbleized paper to find the desired look for each piece. Their method has always been to find the style which suits the subject, or in the case of some books like To Everything Thing is a Season, the several styles. In that one book alone, the Dillons cover ink, watercolor, acrylic, gouache and pastels on various backgrounds such as bark paper, bristol board and scratchboard to simulate art techniques from sixteen different cultures and time periods. Each style complements the line of text with which it is paired. As Ellison said back in 1981, perfection. 

Allen Say: Drawing from Memory and The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice June 7, 2012

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One of the most talked about non-fiction books this year was Drawing from Memory, in which author/illustrator Allen Say recalls his years as a young adult in Tokyo, living on his own from age 12 and apprenticing with one of the most famous cartoonists in the country. When I first read about the book, I thought “That sounds familiar…..” and sure enough, I remembered that I had read Say’s earlier chapter-book fiction tale about this same time period in his life, The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice. I went back to re-read and compare the chapter and picture book versions of this amazing artist’s life.

The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice reads like a memoir. It’s written in first person and filled with the kind of details that ring completely true in your head: descriptions of objects, specific, tiny actions. Each chapter covers a specific experience or incident, sometimes with several months going by between them. The enjoyment is in watching the narrator grow in skill as an artist and in appreciation for the people around him; the only real suspense comes from a subplot about whether his friend Tokida will get into trouble for joining anti-government demonstrations.

Drawing from Memory follows approximately the same timeline as The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice. Say gives a little more background about his childhood, explaining that he was born in Yokohama by the sea, moved away when the war began, and after his parents divorced, lived first with his father on another island and then with his grandmother in Tokyo. My favorite sequence is when he is allowed to move into his own apartment at age 12 (after he first gets into a prestigious middle school) and the excitement of ordering his own food in restaurants and arranging his one room to be an art studio. I had to wait til I was 24 or so for the same experience, but I remember the floating feeling that Say draws so well.

It was interesting to find the small differences between the two books. Say’s art teacher introduced him to an advanced student who taught him karate; in his fictional version it is a neighbor who teaches him the martial art. Tokida is tougher in the fictional version; in Drawing from Memory there are no consequences for his demonstrating beyond a ripped shirt. An additional character who isn’t found in Drawing from Memory is Michiko, a school friend who takes Sei to see her family, still grieving for a brother killed after the war. But many passages in Drawing from Memory echo wisdom spoken by Sensei and insights discovered by Sei in The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice. Sensei comments that “…memory is the most important asset of an artist. What we call imagination is  rearrangement of memory”  Earlier in the story, Sei wonders if he can ever draw anything from memory. Allen Say has answered his fictional younger self with this beautiful memoir and we are so lucky he did.