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Monthly Archives: April 2016
In honor of National Library Week, this evening we read a book that made us all want to ROAR: The Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes. It is an uplifting and charming story about an unlikely friendship and the importance of playing by the rules, which reminds us that sometimes there may still be a very good reason for breaking them.
Rules are important to Ms. Merriwether, the librarian. She has some simple but important rules for anyone wishing to enjoy the library – be quiet and don’t run. There are no rules barring lions, however, and that is why Ms. Merriweather is unperturbed when a lion wanders into the library one day, despite the protestations of a vexed Mr. McBee. The lion nearly loses his library privileges when he ROARs in protest at the end of storytime, but Ms. Merriweather gives him a second chance, and she is not disappointed. Once he has learned to control his temper, the lion – who originally seemed so out of place – is strangely at home quietly strolling the aisles on his padded paws and serving as a comfy backrest at storytime. He is also a tremendous help to Ms. Merriweather.
Then one afternoon Ms. Merriweather falls from a stool while reaching for a high shelf and breaks her arm. She asks the lion to fetch Mr. McBee, but the assistant librarian, who never wanted the friendly feline in the library in the first place, chooses to ignore the lion’s silent entreaties. Desperate to get help for his fallen friend, the lion uses the only other tactic he can think of – he ROARS! right in Mr. McBee’s face. The ploy works to perfection – Mr. McBee races down the hall to Ms. Merriweather’s office to report on this blatant disregard for rules and finds her lying on the floor waiting for help. Meanwhile, the lion trudges slowly out the door of the building. He has broken the rules, and he knows what that means.
For days and days thereafter, library visitors look up from their books expecting to see the lion arrive at any moment, but he is nowhere to be found. Ms. Merriweather in particular is saddened by the lion’s absence, speaking to Mr. McBee in a voice that is quiet “even for the library.” Seeking to cheer up his friend, and perhaps a bit regretful himself, Mr. McBee ventures out alone on a rainy evening and finds the lion, soaking wet, staring in the glass doors of the library. “There’s a new rule in the library,” Mr. McBee tells the lion, “No roaring allowed, unless you have a very good reason – say, if you’re trying to help a friend who’s been hurt, for example.” The next day, the lion returns to a joyful welcome. “No running!” calls Mr. McBee as Ms. Merriweather rushes down the hall to greet her long-lost friend – but she doesn’t listen, because “sometimes there (is) a good reason to break the rules, even in the library.”
“Library Lion” is a heartwarming and engaging book, and it has been a favorite of our youngest ever since we checked it out. It made us literally ROAR out loud when reading the text – and then made our hearts ROAR to see the picture of Ms. Merriweather and the lion embracing on the final page.It is also beautifully and playfully illustrated. I particularly enjoyed the variety of expressions so well captured on the faces of the people (and the lion!) in Mr. Hawkes’ drawings – expressions of curiosity, contrition, concern, melancholy and joy which added valuable color to the story. I appreciated the way in which “Library Lion” so effectively conveys the allure of the library – we don’t know where the lion came from, but why wouldn’t he walk into a place as great as the library? We certainly love to spend time there!
Sunday April 10 was National Sibling Day in the U.S., and we marked the occasion with a touching story about family ties and the abiding connection between sisters. “A Book for Black-Eyed Susan” by Judy Young and Doris Ettlinger is a poignant work of historical fiction that manages at once to be heartbreaking and inspirational. The pages are filled with gorgeous watercolor illustrations that capture candid snapshots of pioneer life and panoramic views of the Great Plains.
As Ms. Young tells us in her Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, traveling on the Oregon Trail was not easy for the pioneers. Many families faced separation and one in every seventeen people died at some point along the journey west. Ten-year-old Cora must cope with tragedy on the very first page of the story when her mother dies giving birth to her little sister. Cora and her Pa rely on assistance from Cora’s Aunt Alma to care for the little baby, for whom Cora suggests the name Susan – inspired by her little sister’s black eyes and the Black-Eyed Susans which were her mother’s favorite flowers. One stormy day while Cora is inside the wagon taking cover from the rain, she pulls out her mother’s sewing box. Looking through the collection of scraps, Cora is reminded of experiences from her life in Missouri, of her extended family whom they had to leave behind, and of her mom. Realizing Susan will never know these precious memories, Cora decides that she will sew the scraps into a cloth book – a tangible bridge to the past for her little sister to better understand where she came from. When Cora’s Pa explains to her one day that he has asked Aunt Alma and Uncle Lee to raise Susan, Cora is heartbroken; Susan will be heading off to California, while Cora and her father will continue on to Oregon. Suddenly, Cora’s project takes on a new urgency, as she frantically works to complete her book before they reach the fork in the trail that she believes will separate them forever.
We really enjoyed this book. It is a definite favorite for our oldest who has checked it out from the library multiple times. The beautiful story manages to provide a little history lesson (something I particularly appreciate), and it is especially moving for us as parents of two girls. I can’t imagine being faced with the kind of decision that Cora’s father must make, believing that it is in his youngest daughter’s best interest for him to give her up, and separating his girls with no expectation that either will ever see the other again. We appreciated reading about how education was a priority for the pioneers upon reaching Oregon – it certainly was so for Cora. We also noticed an observation in Ms. Ettlinger’s bio on the back flap that really resonated with us, about the importance that people attach to home-made and well-used items and how they help us to stay connected to our history and our family. Most of all, however, I loved the way that all of Cora’s hard work on both her education and on creating Susan’s book pays off in the inspirational ending to the story.
If you have you been looking for some fact-based picture books that help to explain the world around you to your children, while also providing enough entertainment to keep their attention from beginning to end, you’ve come to the right place! We are thrilled whenever we can find books that fill this need, and we like to fit as many into our reading list as possible. For the month of April one of our “real world” themes is the water cycle – in honor of the April showers for which this month is known (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least). Saturday’s selection, “Water is Water” by Miranda Paul and Jason Chin, is a lovely introduction to the water cycle, with lush, playful illustrations and poetic prose that makes for an entertaining read-aloud experience.
The book follows a brother and sister as they and their friends experience the various forms that water can take throughout the year…steam, clouds, rain, ice, snow, etc. The changing seasons are beautifully illustrated with a backdrop that made me wish for a country house for our girls; nearly every two page spread presents a joyful scene of children playing outdoors and enjoying nature’s beauty to the fullest. The illustrations alone make me thankful to have this book in our library. The words are spare but they have a lyrical cadence with just the right amount of repetition to keep reader and listener alike engaged from beginning to end. I particularly liked the repeated use of the word “unless” to lead from one page to the next: “water is water, unless…it heats up…” in which case it is steam, or “fog is fog, unless…it falls down…” in which case it is rain, etc.
The last few pages provide additional detail to explain the various stages of the water cycle, along with some interesting numbers about water, like the fact that oceans hold 96.5% of all the water in the world, while 99% of the fresh water in the world is trapped as ice or snow or is hidden in underwater reservoirs. If I understood them correctly, that means that if you combine all the fresh-water lakes in the world, you would have collected no more than 0.04% of all the water on the Earth. I don’t know if that impresses anyone else, but it seems pretty amazing to me. If you are standing on the shore of one of the Great Lakes (for example) and all you can see is water, it must be mind-boggling to imagine that all that water is still only a tiny, tiny fraction of the world’s fresh water.
But I digress. “Water is Water” is another delightful picture book that happens to also be full of great information about how the real world works – and it conveys and captures a true sense of joy about being out in nature. It may also be of note for some parents that the brother and sister are biracial – I didn’t notice it until I read another review of the book, but for some readers that could add valuable color to an already charming book.
Did you know that April 8th was “Draw a Bird Day”? Neither did we until just recently – but it sounded like a neat unofficial holiday with a sweet story behind it, and we always enjoy fitting another special day into our Storybook Year reading list. So, in honor of DaB Day 2016 and in further celebration of National Poetry Month, we read “How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird” by Caldecott Medal winner Mordecai Gerstein. Full of playful and colorful illustrations, the book is a humorous and joyful interpretation of a poem by French surrealist Jacques Prévert.
How do you paint the portrait of a bird? Well, apparently it’s not so much about painting the bird itself. A truly great painting of a bird requires you to first draw a cage on your canvas that is attractive enough to entice a bird to land. Then you must erase the cage and replace it with a scene that is beautiful enough to inspire the bird to sing. Sometimes you must wait a very long time for the bird to arrive – perhaps years – and even if you eventually attract a bird, it may not ever sing. If it doesn’t sing, no worries – you will still know that you did your best. HOWEVER, if it does sing, it is a sign that you have a painting which is worthy of your signature. Either way, tomorrow you can always paint another one.
The poem itself, which is apparently very well known in French-speaking parts of the world, is wonderfully inventive and entertaining and there were several things about it that we enjoyed. We appreciated the instruction that you must immediately erase the cage once you have “captured” your bird. It is perhaps a metaphor for opening your mind, but on a more literal level, we loved the idea that the bird must be free; once you have his attention, it is up to the artist to create a scene beautiful enough to inspire the bird to stay and sing. I liked the reminder in the poem that sometimes it takes a very long time, a lot of patience, and perseverance to create a great work of art – it’s a universal lesson that is applicable not only to painting but to other artistic pursuits, like writing. The comment at the end – that tomorrow you can paint another one – is a charmingly optimistic post-script, reminding us that a new day brings another chance to make the bird sing (if you didn’t succeed today) or to create a picture with a completely different song (if you did succeed)…the possibilities are endless.
Mr. Gerstein’s artwork adds further humor and life to Mr. Prévert’s composition – particularly in the expressions and body language of the young artist in the poem. His looks of concentration or anticipation are amusing, but my favorite picture by far was the unbridled explosion of joy when the bird does sing. Overall, this is a beautiful production, small enough to be attractive for little hands with a bold picture of a bluebird on the cover that immediately caught my attention. This book will leave you with a big smile on your face; it’s a great choice for National Poetry Month, Draw a Bird Day, or any day, really.
Looking back over the first several months of our Storybook Year, one of the things that has impressed me the most is just how many really great new picture books we have found since we began. Honestly, when we started the year, we thought we were going to be struggling a bit to fill every day once we exhausted our existing collection. Now our house is practically drowning in library books, fantastic new books arrive every day in the mail, and I have a feeling that we are going to need to overhaul our favorites list soon.
I said all that so I could tell you this story about today’s book: “The Night Gardener” by Eric and Terry Fan. This is another brand new picture book, just released in February this year. Intrigued by the cover illustration, we checked the book out from the library and our youngest wanted to read it over and over again. When it was finally time to return the book, our youngest sobbed and sobbed in the middle of the library lobby and continued carrying on all the way out to the car: “You left my owl book in there!” As you might imagine, we now have our own copy purchased from the bookstore that same afternoon.
“The Night Gardener” is an auspicious debut for the Fan Brothers. It is a book full of stunning and intricate illustrations, and it tells a sweet story about an orphan named William and the people of a dreary little town whose lives are about to be forever changed by an old man with a ladder, some gardening sheers, and a knack for turning trees into works of art.
William is sitting on a log absent-mindedly doodling an owl in the dirt when the old man arrives on a drab and quiet Grimloch Lane. Things are hardly quiet the next morning, however, when William is awoken by a commotion below the window of his room at the orphanage; the tree in the yard outside has been transformed into a wise owl. Suddenly, spectacular topiaries begin appearing all around the neighborhood – a brand new one each morning. At first, people mostly point and gawk at the Night Gardener’s creations, but with each new topiary, you can see that the neighborhood is steadily becoming more colorful and more full of life. When a magnificent fire-breathing dragon appears one morning, it sparks an explosion of activity – children climbing, swinging, running, and flying kites, surrounded by a crowd of young and old alike enjoying the festivities well past sunset.
That same evening, William spies an old man with a ladder wandering down the street. Could this be the Night Gardener? William follows him to the gates of Grimloch Park, where the old man turns to William and says, “There are so many trees in this park, I could use your help.” The Night Gardener and his “apprentice” work deep into the night, and when they are finished the old man lays a sleeping William at the base of their final tree. William opens his eyes in the morning to a vibrant and bustling park filled with people…there to admire the most amazing collection of topiares yet! And at William’s feet there is a pair of hedge trimmers – a gift from the Night Gardener.
Over time, the leaves change and fall off the amazing arboreal artwork until there is no longer any sign of the Night Gardener’s handiwork, but the impact of his visit endures. The experience has changed the lives of everyone on Grimloch Lane forever – including William, who has clearly started honing his own night gardening skills.
“The Night Gardener” is a charming and inspiring story. The text is simple but effective, and the illustrations are exquisite. The large format of the hardcover edition makes for some impressive two-page spreads, and it facilitates exploration of the many details you might miss on the first pass – like the little white rabbit which we were so excited to find sitting quietly under the friendly bunny topiary, or the fact that the old man spots William doodling an owl as he walks by…potentially the inspiration for the wise owl topiary which adorns the cover? This is exactly the kind of book that children – and adults – will pick up to peruse time and time again.
I also suggest taking a glance at the comments and the draft illustrations from the authors themselves on the Amazon.com page. I thought it was interesting to read that the brothers Fan originally imagined Grimloch Lane’s architecture as Victorian but eventually opted for something less period-specific. Apparently, they also had initially prepared an illustration for the cover which showed the night gardener at work. However, they switched that picture out for one of William admiring the wise owl after being persuaded that the story was really about William. These insights provide another reminder of how much thought and hard work goes into the creation of an individual picture book – especially a really great one.
“Yucky Worms” by Vivian French and Jessica Ahlberg introduces children to the wonderful world of worms, and the important role they play in loosening and fertilizing the soil so that plants can grow. The book is a great example of mixing storybook and science in a way that is compelling for little listeners. I love a fun picture book that teaches children about the real world around them, and this one fits that bill quite well.
“Yucky Worms” is narrated by a little boy who is visiting his grandmother; he is playing outside while she is working in her garden. When grandma holds up some worms for our narrator to see, he is initially disgusted, but Grandma assures him that she considers worms to be her friends. After she explains why she feels that way, and describes the details of their everyday lives, her grandson finally comes around to her way of thinking – although he tells grandma that he might not let anyone know that his “new friends” are worms.
Ms. French and Ms. Ahlberg manage to disclose a lot of interesting information about their subject through the narrative as well as through the detail in the playful illustrations and in the numerous insets and call-outs. I expect that the word “Yucky” in the title and the subject matter – worms! – should grab children’s attention…even those who are disgusted by the idea of worms may not be able to look away. Our youngest was certainly engaged – she was literally (and I do mean literally) leaning off the edge of her seat to get a closer look. There is also a gross-out factor that our audience (and this reader) found particularly amusing, but we might recommend against reading this book at the dinner table. Suffice to say, the word “poop” appears several times in the text…and besides, it’s worms, YUCKY!
Keeping with our spring theme this April, we read a book on Tuesday called “The Gardener” by Sarah Stewart and David Small, and it is an absolute gem. It is an inspiring story about a remarkable little girl, Lydia Grace Finch, who brings her cheerful optimism and perseverance to the depression-era big city. Mr. Small’s Caldecott Honor illustrations beautifully capture the look and feel of the period, and his little details add an endearing warmth and a charm that really touched us.
Lydia Grace is a spunky little country girl who is sent to the big city during the Great Depression to live with her Uncle Jim and work in his bakery. Her father is out of work and must find a new job. Lydia Grace is sad that she must leave, but she is ready to work hard, and to learn. She sets off on the train, determined to make the most of her experience, and to find a place to plant the seed packets with which she has stuffed her suitcase. In between fulfilling her duties in the bakery, Lydia Grace manages to fill every spare window box, chipped teacup, bucket and basket with flowers and vegetables, and in the process she brightens and charms the entire neighborhood – earning herself the nickname “The Gardener.” Her greatest masterpiece, however, is the magnificent garden she creates in her “secret place” – the rooftop of the building that houses her uncle’s bakery. By the time she receives word that her father has found work and she is to head home, her secret place is a riot of color, and while she never manages to put a smile on the face of her hard-working uncle, she clearly plants a smile in his heart.
This endearing story is told through letters written by Lydia Grace, which are inset in the upper corner of most of the book’s two-page spreads. It is a clever device that allows Ms. Stewart to narrate through Lydia Grace’s guileless and cheerful eyes – while Mr. Small’s illustrations finish painting the rest of the story. I love Mr. Small’s style of illustration, which is a little bit messy but at the same time precise. His drawings almost look like a series of unfinished sketches that have been colored in with watercolors, but an extra line here or there on the expressions of the people (for example) conveys a connection between the characters that is palpable.
There is so much to like about this book, and there are so many little moments that got to me, that I won’t try to list them all here. Instead, I will close with my favorite – which was actually on a page with no text at all. Although throughout the book Lydia Grace is convinced that she is ever closer to eliciting a smile from her Uncle Jim, Mr. Small never draws a smile on Jim’s dour face. However, when you turn the final page, Uncle Jim is on his knees hugging little Lydia Grace on the train platform as she is leaving to return home. When you see the picture you know Lydia has succeeded. It caught me off guard and made me tear up when I read it the first time, and it just happened again. This is a wonderful book.
Just released in February of this year, “When Spring Comes” is a delightful collaboration between author Kevin Henkes and his wife, illustrator Laura Dronzek. With vibrant illustrations and playfully repetitive text, the book reminds us of the old adage that good things come to those who wait: there may only be bare trees, brown grass, and snow as winter winds down…but if you wait, eventually you will see all manner of fascinating and beautiful signs of spring!
The pages of the book are illustrated in a simple but compelling style reminiscent of Mr. Henkes’ own work, although Ms. Dronzek makes more liberal use of vibrant colors to fill out her drawings. Rich hues of deep blue, earthy brown, and emerald green dominate, and the pictures should easily grab the attention of young listeners. The text has repetition and alliteration that is fun to read aloud and is great for beginning readers: “Before spring comes…the trees look like black sticks against the sky, but if you wait…the grass is brown, but if you wait…the garden is just dirt and empty, but if you wait…” (emphasis mine). And, when spring is fully here, you will know it because there will be “buds, bees, boots, and bubbles…worms, wings, wind, and wheels.” Mr. Henkes also makes reference to how you will feel it, smell it, and hear it when Spring comes, which makes for a fun discussion of the senses and how they can perceive the changing seasons.
The text of the book is a fairly accurate representation of how I think a child might look at the changing seasons – waiting to be able to splash in the mud, waiting to play with kittens, waiting to romp in the flowers, waiting to blow bubbles, waiting to do all the things you are ready to do once you have grown tired of winter. I think waiting is a continual, and often frustrating, state of being for a child…which reminds me of a story (bear with me, it fits): when our oldest was maybe five or six, we took her to see a Tom Petty show. When Tom got to the refrain of his song “The Waiting” (“…the waiting is the hardest part…“), our daughter yelled out “I HATE WAITING, TOO!”. See what I mean?
Where was I? Oh, yes – that concept of continually (impatiently?) waiting for the next thing to happen is captured here in an entertaining and humorous way – much like it is in two other wonderful books we have read recently: “and then it’s spring” by Julie Fogliano and “Waiting” by Mr. Henkes himself. My favorite part of this book was actually right at the end where we are reminded that after spring has finally arrived, we aren’t finished waiting…for summer!
Inspired by April showers, one of the themes we are exploring in our reading list this month is the water cycle. We’ve gathered several books that touch on this theme, including our Sunday evening read aloud picture book “Where Do They Go When It Rains?” by Gerda Muller. It is a lovely story about children exploring outside and reveling in the beauty and wonder of nature, complete with Ms. Muller’s characteristically delightful illustrations.
Marion and Luke are twins who live in an apartment building in the big city. On this warm, sunny morning they head out to visit their cousin Stef at the country house where he lives with their grandmother. The twins spend their day with Stef, wandering the countryside: chasing grasshoppers, laughing at sparrows taking dust baths, visiting with the animals on a nearby farm, and wading in a shallow pond to find a snail for Stef’s fish tank. Before making it back to the house they are caught in what I assume is a spring shower, which leads Marion to ask the question in the book’s title: “Where do (the animals) go when it rains?”
As they walk back to the house Stef and the twins find the answer to their question by observing how each animal they pass reacts to the rain. Some hide under leaves, some huddle against a fence as a shield from the wind, and some seem not only unperturbed but rather invigorated by the wet weather. Perhaps inspired by the ducks playing in the pond, and already too wet to care about staying dry anyway, the three explorers begin an impromptu dance in the rain, splashing and playing in a big puddle…and that is where grandma finds them. After donning some dry clothes, and downing some hot chocolate, the twins see a beautiful rainbow from Grandma’s porch, complete with a little science lesson from Stef; he tells them how rainbows are formed, and how they can find one in the sky.
“Where Do They Go When It Rains” is vintage Gerda Muller: the illustrations are detailed, colorful, and charming and they convey a childlike wonder that I can imagine the twins must feel as they marvel at the natural beauty that surrounds grandma’s country house. I particularly enjoyed the comforting idea of just enjoying a carefree day in the country, and the joyful abandon on display as the twins and Stef splash around in the rain. We also appreciated the lesson on rainbows toward the end of the book – right on time for “National Find a Rainbow Day!” It’s always gratifying to find a book that combines a great story with attractive illustrations and bit of information about how the world works. Gerda Muller books are wonderful for that, and it’s one of the reasons why we have so many.
The Real Boy by Anne Ursu is definitely one of my favorite books. In this novel for middle grade readers, Ms. Ursu has spun an enchanting fantasy tale, which emphasizes the importance of friendship and of believing in yourself. I was hooked from the first paragraph, completely engrossed in the magical world she created.
The Real Boy of the title is Oscar, a ten-year old orphan who lives in the village of Barrow on the island of Aletheia. Aletheia is a magical island with two major cities, Barrow and the Shining City. Barrow is a working class town with working class residents, while the residents of the Shining City appear to be perfect in every way. At an early age, Oscar was taken in by the Barrows magician, Master Caleb, to be a shop hand. Oscar feels a strong connection to plants and to magic, and he enjoys his day job of grinding herbs and making tinctures for Master Caleb. But Oscar has a secret: late at night when he is, according to Master Caleb’s one very strict rule, supposed to be in bed, he stays up reading in the library. Over time he has gathered much information about herbs and magic – enough to manage the shop himself – although it is the magician’s apprentice Wolf who is in charge in Master Caleb’s absence. When Master Caleb has to leave to visit the continent, Oscar is left under the supervision of Wolf, who constantly mistreats Oscar. Then one day after a trip into the woods, Wolf returns dead and his companion, the village guardian’s apprentice, is never found.
Left on his own to run the shop, Oscar eventually begins to rely on the help of a new acquaintance, Callie, the healer’s apprentice, who helps him talk to the shop’s customers. While Oscar and Callie are becoming friends, Aletheia begins to fall apart in several ways. The seemingly flawless children from the nearby Shining City begin to show troubling flaws: one can’t speak, another can’t eat, and still another can’t remember anything. Meanwhile, the shops in the Barrow village are being ravaged by a monster with an insatiable hunger to consume anything to do with magic. It is up to Oscar and Callie to determine the cause of these catastrophes and to put a stop to them. Through the course of the novel, Oscar realizes that the City people are not what they seem, and that it is the “real boy”, the working class orphan from the blue collar town of Barrow, who is needed to save the day.
I first heard about Ms. Ursu and her books on the Read Aloud Revival website through their Live Author Event for one of her other novels, Breadcrumbs (a spectacular book, itself). I loved how open she was about her experiences, her creative process, and the amount of time and effort that goes into writing a book. I am really looking forward to my next Anne Ursu story!