Category Archives: History

Books with historical basis or with historical information

Day 161 – Manfish (a Story of Jacques Cousteau)

June is our month to read about the beach and the ocean, and it also happens to be National Scuba-diving Month. What better time, then, to read a picture book about Jacques Cousteau, the world’s most famous scuba diver, who also happens to have been born in June (June 10, 1910). “Manfish” by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Eric Puybaret is a lovely book, with poetic prose, attractive full-page illustrations, and an inspiring story about the explorer and inventor whose many films (over 115!) introduced the world to the wonders of the ocean.manfish

Ms. Berne introduces us to Jacques as a little boy in France – a little boy fascinated with the ocean who dreams that one day he will be able to “fly” and breathe under water. He is also fascinated with machines and with films – which he begins creating with a small home-movie camera he bought by saving his allowance “penny by penny.”  After finishing school, he travels the world as a member of the French Navy, filming everything he sees. Then, one day, wearing a pair of goggles given to him by a friend, he wades into the ocean and his eyes are opened to the wonders below the surface. Driven by a passion to explore the deep as a “manfish”, Jacques eventually invents the “aqualung” – and for the first time a person is able to swim for an extended time below the surface of the ocean. Success! With his cameras, his new invention, his best friends, and his ship (Calypso), he sets out to explore the oceans and to share the experience through his films. Along the way, he discovers amazing creatures the world has never seen and continues to innovate – improving his diving apparatus and even inventing cages for him and his crew to be able to film sharks without being eaten!

We really enjoyed learning more about Jacques Cousteau, including the extra details provided in the Author’s Note at the back and the surprise pull-out page. The story is informative without being dry – this is no “laundry list” of events in the life of a famous explorer. This story is about a little boy’s dream that grew into a man’s passion to become a manfish and fly beneath the waves – and how he worked to share that passion with the world. I think Ms. Berne does a wonderful job of conveying the feeling of wonder that the ocean inspired in Jacques, and which he hoped to inspire in everyone else.


Day 155 – Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea

I have always enjoyed looking at maps, committing historical charts to memory and covering my bedroom walls as a teenager with political maps swiped from my dad’s National Geographic magazines. I still have a world map covering a wall in my office; I think understanding political borders and geographic proximity helps immensely with understanding what is happening in the world around us. Of course, all of that fascination with maps is focused mostly on land masses, which only cover about 30% of the Earth. What about the over 70% of the world that is covered in water – mostly oceans? With beaches and oceans being our focus for June, what better time to “dive a little deeper” into the subject of mapping the oceans…so tonight we read a book called “Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea” by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Raúl Colón, a fascinating and beautifully decorated biography of Marie Tharp, who was the first person to map the ocean floor.puzzle

When Mary was young, her father was a cartographist, and her love of maps began while watching her father do his work. His job took him and his family all over the country, and by the time she graduated high school, Mary had attended 17(!) different schools. When she went to college, Mary realized that scientists really know very little about the seafloor. When Mary graduated, she was ready to research the ocean, and be a scientist, but science wasn’t ready for Mary (me: c’mon science!). One firm told her they did not need any more file clerks when she tried to apply for a scientific position, and scientists at the Oceans Studies lab at Columbia University in New York told her it was bad luck to have a woman on a ship (so she could not go out on the research ships). Fortunately, Mary was not easily discouraged. She “bit her tongue” and with the help of a friend at Columbia, she decided to try and map the ocean floor anyway. She began to collect data from soundings taken by the lab’s research ships. As she pieced the puzzle together, Mary realized that – yes – there were in fact mountains (and valleys) under the ocean. She also found a deep crack running down the middle of the Atlantic (the Mid-Atlantic Ridge), supporting the theory held by a minority of scientists that the Earth’s surface was covered by a series of interlocking plates (Plate Tectonics). Using different colors for different depths, and engaging the services of a landscape painter from Austria, Mary finally had her masterpiece – the first map of the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Mary had always tried to think big, and in the end it paid off: her maps changed the way people looked at the world.

We really enjoyed this book – beautiful artwork, maps, an inspirational life story, maps, and an amazing woman who bucked the status quo to forever change the world for the better. With two girls, that last item is particularly important to us. Our oldest was especially inspired – her soul fired by anger at the closed-mindedness of the scientific establishment when Mary began her quest, and filled with intense admiration at Mary’s perseverance. It really is a wonderful book (whether you have daughters or not). Also – don’t forget to read the passage in the back of the book, which shines more light on Mary’s life.


Day 151 – The Wall

In honor of Memorial Day, we read a poignant story told from the point of view of a little boy visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC with his father. “The Wall” by Eve Bunting is touching and thought-provoking, covering a complex subject without being maudlin or judgmental, and the straightforward prose is nicely accessible to younger listeners.The Wall

The somber water-color illustrations show the pair walking in their winter coats, looking for the name of the little boy’s grandfather along a wall that stretches out far into the distance. Along the way, they encounter a man with no legs sitting in a wheelchair dressed in camouflage and pass by an older couple holding each other and crying. Eventually they find grandpa’s name – George Munoz – and the little boy’s father holds a piece of paper over the name and rubs it with a pencil so that the letter show up white. As his father bows his head quietly, the little boy sees an old man pass by holding his grandson’s hand. “Can we go to the river now?” asks the passing boy. “Yes,” says his grandfather, “but button your jacket. It’s cold.”

As narrator and his father prepare to leave, his father says to him “…(this) is a place of honor. I’m proud that your grandfather’s name is on this wall”. “I am, too” says the narrator, but he thinks to himself “…I’d rather have my grandpa here, taking me to the river, telling me to button my jacket because it’s cold. I’d rather have him here.” It still chokes me up to read that line over again.

There are plenty of opportunities here for discussion – if you are so inclined (how did that man lose his legs? why is the older couple crying? why does that wall seem so long?). But even if you aren’t, “The Wall” is still a quietly powerful book and a great choice for Memorial Day – or any day.

Day 123 – Miss Ladybird’s Wildflowers

May 2nd marked the beginning of National Wildflower Week. What better time to read about Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady who brought us the Highway Beautification Act and the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas. “Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers” by Kathi Appelt and illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein is a vibrant and inspiring introduction to this remarkable woman who is still revered in her home state of Texas for the work she did to raise the profile of wildflowers and to help spread their natural beauty along the sides of highways across the country.

Having lived in Texas for over thirty years, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t previously know much about Lady Bird Johnson. I had been told at some point that she was responsible for the bluebonnet patches that blanket the highway medians around the state, and I had the sense that she had somehow achieved saint-like stature…but I really didn’t know any details. So, today’s book was particularly valuable for me if for no other reason than to fill in a woefully lacking gap in my (Texas) cultural literacy!lady bird

Ms. Appelt began by telling us about Lady Bird’s lonely childhood in East Texas, and how she found solace after the death of her mother in the wildflower meadows, piney woods, and dark bayous around her home. As a congressman’s wife in Washington DC many years later, Lady Bird was troubled by the lack of natural beauty she saw around the city, and the idea of children growing up surrounded only by concrete and asphalt. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, in her new role as First Lady she sought to the help the country heal by working to promote the planting of flowers and trees around Washington DC, and by pushing for the passage of the Highway Beautification Act – which cleaned up the sides of highways around the country, replacing billboards and rusted cars with wildflowers. When she turned 70, she helped to establish the National Wildflower Research Center south of Austin, Texas to study uses for wildflowers and to preserve seeds of endangered varieties.

The book fills in a number of other details of Lady Bird’s life, including her storybook romance with Lyndon Johnson, with accessible language that avoids becoming a “laundry list” of events and accomplishments. Ms. Appelt also sprinkles the story with well-placed quotations from Lady Bird herself – giving some insight into the soul of this champion of wildflowers. Meanwhile, Ms. Hein’s illustrations help the reader to appreciate the beauty that Lady Bird saw in the wildflowers, woods, bayous, and hills of her home state.

“Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers” is a beautiful book and an apt tribute to our 38th First Lady. Next time I pull around a bend in the road and my breath is taken away by a field full of bluebonnets, I’ll remember to thank her.


Day 115 – Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

For April 24, the beginning of National Dance Week, we read a beautiful book about one of the most famous prima ballerinas of all time: “Swan – The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova” by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad. With poetic prose and graceful illustrations, “Swan” is less a traditional biography and more of an enchanting ode to Ms. Pavlova’s love of ballet, and to her burning desire to share that love with the world. Ms. Snyder and Ms. Morstad combine words and pictures to create a true work of art befitting of the book’s subject matter.swan

We are first introduced to Anna as her mother is whisking her off on a snow-covered evening to see the ballet, and that is where we see Anna fall in love. As the dancers perform, Anna’s feet “wake up” and “there is a song, suddenly, inside her.” From that point forward, Anna can not stop dancing. Eventually she begins formal training, and when she finally sets foot on a stage “Anna becomes a glimmer, a grace. Everyone feels it…the room holds its breath.” We are told that Anna shouldn’t be this good, her legs are too long and her feet are all wrong, but “Anna was born for this.”

Anna’s career takes off, she performs for years to adoring crowds, and she is wined and dined by royalty, but there is still something missing. Anna knows that “somewhere, there are people who haven’t heard the music,” so she sets out to “feed (the world) beauty.” She travels the globe performing in venues from bull rings to rickety old dance halls…and “when people throw flowers, Anna tosses them back. It’s enough just to dance.” Sadly, on one of her many trips she is caught out in the snow and catches a chill…”a rattle she can’t shake,”…and try as she might, she can not spin away.
swan2
The poetry of Ms. Snyder’s writing paints a beautiful impressionistic picture that hints at specifics of Anna’s life but focuses more on providing a window to her soul. That felt right to us. There is a very helpful Author’s Note at the end that does fill in some of the details, and I highly recommend it. For a Philistine like myself – previously unfamiliar with Ms. Pavlova – it was fascinating to read about how her oddly-shaped feet inspired her to invent her own ballet shoes (shoes which provided the template for the shoes that ballet dancers use today) and how she took what had been an art form strictly to be performed for the wealthy and shared it with everyone, even dancing on the backs of elephants. I also read elsewhere that the title refers to the dance for which she was most known, “The Dying Swan”, which was choreographed just for her in 1905…and then performed by her all around the world.
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I would be remiss if I did not talk about Ms. Morstad’s artwork, which is just as important a piece of the puzzle in “Swan” as the writing. We are big fans of Ms. Morstad’s work (see “This is Sadie” and “When Green Becomes Tomatoes”), and her elegant style is tailor-made for Ms. Pavlova’s story. I particularly enjoy how she subtly captures Anna’s awe upon seeing her first ballet, and the graceful, flowing way that she shows Anna moving through every page thereafter.


Day 114 – William Shakespeare and the Globe

On April 23, 1616 William Shakespeare died at the ripe old age of 52, after establishing himself as perhaps the greatest writer in the English language. We celebrated his life on the 23rd – since no one is quite sure of his birthday – by reading “William Shakespeare and the Globe” by Aliki. The book provides an entertaining high-level look at Shakespeare’s life, and the efforts long after his death to restore his famous theater to its former glory. With colorful illustrations and informative insets that fill the margins of every page, Aliki’s book is an engaging and accessible introduction to the “Bard of Avon” for younger listeners.
Bill Shakespeare
Although the pages of the book are sprinkled with quotations from Shakespeare’s works, Aliki does not go into great detail regarding the content of Shakespeare’s writing. She focuses instead on the timeline of Shakespeare’s life and the historical context within which he penned and staged his many plays. Readers are introduced to important historical figures from Shakespeare’s England, and to key rivals like Christopher Marlowe and his acting troupe – the Admiral’s Men. For younger listeners I think this approach is appropriate, providing just enough information to pique curiosity without confusing things by trying to delve into the intricacies of Shakespearean prose.

The book is not just about old Bill Shakespeare, though. Roughly a third of the story is about American stage actor Sam Wanamaker and his tireless work (and infectious dream) to see The Globe Theater reborn so that Shakespeare’s plays could be “performed as they once were”. Aliki succeeds at conveying just how involved and difficult a task Mr. Wanamaker took on – and just how much help and luck he needed to make his dream come true. The only disappointing thing about what is otherwise an inspiring tale is that Mr. Wanamaker didn’t live to see his work completed. Ahh, well… I guess all’s well that ends well (sorry, I had to). As Aliki reminds us at the end of her book, just like Mr. Shakespeare lives on through his plays, Mr. Wanamaker lives on through the reconstructed and active Globe Theater.

We really enjoyed this book, and it certainly whet our appetites to read some Shakespeare together as a family. I think we may still be a year or two away from being able to do so, but this book almost had me thinking we could give it a try tomorrow.


Day 77 – St. Patrick’s Day (a foine bundle o’ books to be sure!)

I may have forgotten to put on any green this morning, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t prepared to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a bundle of carefully selected, holiday-themed story books. We had five books this evening, and I felt four were truly worthy of mention here.

St. Patrick’s Day by Gail Gibbons

If you have a holiday coming up, it’s always a good idea to make sure you have a Gail Gibbons book queued up for the reading list. Her picture books are a great way to introduce the history and traditions of a holiday in a form that is accessible to younger listeners, while almost always sharing some information that is new to the adults in the room as well.patrick

“St. Patrick’s Day” is a relatively quick read but still manages to provide a brief biography of St. Patrick and explain his significance to the Irish people while also introducing all the major symbols people associate with the holiday (except for green beer). New knowledge I acquired from Ms. Gibbons this evening included the fact that St. Patrick was not originally Irish (he was English?!?), that the holiday was first celebrated in (what would become) the United States in 1737 in Boston, and that St. Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity.

Overall, it was a great introduction to a fun and festive holiday, and an entertaining start to our St. Patrick’s day book bundle.

Fiona’s Lace by Patricia Polacco

“Fiona’s Lace” by Patricia Polacco isn’t a St. Patrick’s Day book per se. It is a story about a family – the family of Ms. Polacco’s great-great-grandmother Fiona – who emigrated to the United States from Ireland. Like one of our favorite Christmas books “An Orange for Frankie” (another Polacco creation), “Fiona’s Lace” takes a chapter from Ms. Polacco’s family history and turns it into a delightfully moving storybook that the entire family can enjoy together.

FionaFiona lives in the little village of Glen Kerry, Ireland – not far from Limerick – with her mother, Annie, her father, Mick, and her sister, Ailish. Ailish never tires of hearing their father tell the story of how he and Annie met, and how he was led straight to her door by the pieces of homemade lace she had tied to lamp posts and bushes all along the way. Annie is no longer able to make lace due to the arthritis afflicting her hands, but she is confident that her oldest daughter Fiona’s lacework is destined to be the pride of Limerick.

Unfortunately for Fiona’s family, the textile mill on which the town of Glen Kerry depends for its livelihood is shutting down. Where can the family go to find work? The O’Flarity’s next door have a possible solution: sign a contract to be in domestic service for a rich family in return for passage to America – a country where, Ailish assures Fiona, “…servants have servants of their own.” With tearful farewells, Mick and the girls pack up their belongings and head for Chicago.

After a long and challenging ocean voyage from Ireland to New York, followed by a similarly draining train ride from New York to Chicago,  Fiona’s family arrives at their new home. However, what they find is not the land of bounty that Ailish anticipated – it’s a two room apartment in a rundown area of town that they must share with another family – the O’Flaritys from Glen Kerry! Mrs. O’Flarity educates Fiona’s family on the reality of their new situation: with all of their wages from domestic work going to pay off the cost of their tickets to America, the only way to survive is to find a second job – which they do (Annie scrubbing linens in a local hotel, and Mick at the slaughterhouse).

But there is hope! Mrs. O’Flarity mentions a dressmaker who is looking for fine Irish lace like that which Fiona makes. When presented with Fiona’s samples, the dressmaker tells Annie: “We’ll buy as much as the girl can make!”. Celebrations ensue back at the apartment – Mick talks of using the earnings from selling Fiona’s lace to move the family to their own farm, across the lake in Michigan. That evening, however, while Mick and Annie are working their second jobs, a fire – presumably the Chicago fire – comes tearing through the neighborhood and Fiona and Ailish must flee. They make it to safety, but how will their mother and father find them?

Inspired by Ailish’s favorite story about their parents, Fiona cuts up her beautiful – and now extremely valuable – lace and uses it to mark a path to a basement where the girls eventually lie down to sleep. The next morning, shortly after they awake, they hear a familiar voice cry out “My lambs…my meek little lambs!” It is their father and mother at last – overjoyed at having found their girls amid the devastation of the fire. Ailish is heartbroken over the destruction of Fiona’s lace, but Mick assures them both that their family “…and generations after…will cherish this lace…always!” And they do; according to Ms. Polacco’s end note, those pieces of lace continue to be family heirlooms to this day.

“Fiona’s Lace” is a moving story about the importance of family, of relying on each other and persevering. It is also set against a fascinating backdrop of Irish and American history, and Ms. Polacco’s epilogue adds to the impact of the story by letting the reader know that the tale has tentacles into her life today – that it is part of her family’s lore.

A Fine St. Patrick’s Day by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by Tim Curry

The towns of Tralee and Tralah have been rivals “for as far back as anyone can remember.” The two burgs compete with each other annually for the prize of best St. Patrick’s Day decorations – a prize awarded by the official county judge in the form of a golden shamrock. It is a prize that Tralee has never won, but with each defeat they remain confident of next year’s triumph, despite their track record and the taunts from the people of Tralah.fine

This year, little Fiona Riley has a foolproof plan – the people of Tralee must paint the town green…entirely green (except, of course, for the mailboxes which are government property, and the fire hydrants which must remain yellow in order to be seen). Everyone agrees this is an excellent plan, and they all set to work on this arduous task – while their counterparts in Tralah work assiduously to decorate their own town with glittery cardboard shamrocks.

One day before St. Patrick’s day, a stranger (who looks suspiciously like a leprechaun) rides into Tralah seeking aid. His cows have become stuck in a nearby river and he must free them quickly. Unfortunately, the haughty people of Tralah are too busy to spare any time for the stranger, who is forced to seek assistance in Tralee. Led by the example of little Fiona, the people of Tralee are persuaded to abandon their brushes (and their best chance yet to defeat Tralah) so that they may help the stranger wrest his herd from the mud at the bottom of the river. Upon completing the task, they arrive home too exhausted to finish decorating – and they all fall asleep with the town only partially painted.

When they awake, they find that every inch of Tralee has indeed been painted green (except of course for the mailboxes and fire hydrants – as previously explained). There is cheering, whooping, and hollering – and the people of Tralee are finally awarded the golden shamrock; their trophy case is empty no more. When they rush to tell the stranger of their good fortune, however, the only trace of him is a single golden cow bell left in a field. The grateful people of Tralee place the cow bell next to their trophy – on which little Fiona’s name has been inscribed – and decide that they will no longer compete with Tralah. From this day forward they will celebrate and decorate as they will with no regard for judges or prizes, but simply for the sheer joy of it.

I loved reading this book. The oil paint illustrations fill every page with deep and vibrant color, and the text is almost like a song with all the Irish names and expressions: O’Learys and McLeans, Reverend Flaherty, Brogan O’Neill, Fiona Riley, and a little man who keeps exclaiming “sure and begorra” when explaining how his cows are stuck in the mud. It’s a thoroughly satisfying conclusion, as well, with the kind-hearted people of Tralee richly rewarded and finally able to (figuratively) take their ball and go home so they can play their own game according to their own rules.

Oh – and more cowbell! Sorry, had to.

There Once Was a Man Named Michael Finnegan adapted by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott

This book was very silly and fun. It’s based on the children’s song “Michael Finnegan” and is meant to be sung. Unfortunately for our family, I did not know the tune of the song until I looked it up online later in the evening – but I think everyone enjoyed it…I sure did. It’s repetitive, but the repetition is entertaining, and there’s something about saying the name Michael Finnegan – especially with an Irish accent – that makes me smile. The book also wins extra points because when we first bought it, our youngest wanted to hear it read again and again.

finneganIn this extended version of the song, Michael plays the violin frequently but never very well. He becomes rich being paid not to play, is laughed at by his family for never actually getting any better, and eventually finds a soul mate in a little dog, Quinn, who loves his music. The book ends with the exuberant lines:

Michael takes his violin-igan,
Quinn sits up and starts to grin-igan,
Kisses Michael on his chin-igan,
Happy Michael Finnegan, begin-igan!

And in closing…

May your glass be ever full.
May the roof over your head be always strong.
And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

There are many great Irish toasts that could be mentioned here, but I have always especially appreciated this one. Sláinte!


Day 74 – Pi Day and Einstein’s Birthday

In honor of Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday today we had another “holiday bundle”. (A brief aside: one of my favorite things about A Storybook Year is how many new holidays we have to celebrate. I think I’ve mentioned this fact before, and I apologize ahead of time for the fact that I will doubtless say it again). Our bundle included several entertaining books, and I will attempt to give each its due here.

Pi Day

The Blueberry Pie Elf

elfOur feature selection today was “The Blueberry Pie Elf” by Jane Thayer and illustrated by Seymour Fleishman. It is a darling little book about an elf named Elmer who loves blueberry pie and whose taste for this delicious confection causes him to go to great lengths to make his love known.

Elmer lives in a house with “some people” who don’t know he’s there because, as Ms. Thayer informs us, “no one can see an elf, no one can hear an elf, and no one can feel an elf.” One day, Elmer helps the people pick blueberries and roll dough for a blueberry pie. After the people go to bed that evening, Elmer jumps into the pie dish and eats “till his elfin stomach bulged.” He then cleans his feet out of courtesy to the people, and curls up in a tea cup to sleep. When he wakes, however, he finds to his dismay that the rest of the pie is gone; consumed by the people for breakfast(?!?). Elmer has a new purpose in life: to find more blueberry pie. Since Elmer can’t be seen, heard, or felt, he begins to take care of chores around the house (sweeping, cleaning dishes, making the bed), hoping that his kind deeds for the people will cause them to make another blueberry pie. However, while they appreciate the efforts of this unseen individual, the people have no way of knowing what it is that Elmer wishes them to do in return. Elmer is distraught; he paces, closes his eyes tight, even hides his head under a pillow trying to block out visions of blueberry pie…to no avail. Meanwhile, the people do bake pies – but not the right ones: apple (yuck), pumpkin (he turns up his nose), and cherry (too sour). However, after sampling the cherry pie, he forgets to clean his feet and leaves tiny footprints on the table. Aha! When the people find the footprints later, they realize at last that they have an elf in the house – that is who has been so helpful lately! If only they knew what to do to thank him…suddenly, while admiring his cherry footprints, Elmer has an epiphany! He jumps into the pie dish and uses his cherry-covered feet to write “Blueberry Pie Please”.  At long last, Elmer’s wish is answered – the people make him a blueberry pie, and the book ends with a heart-felt “Thank You” spelled out on the table with blueberry pie filling.

We found a lot to appreciate about this book. Mr. Fleishman’s vintage illustrations add a significant amount of charm to this quaint parable, and what parent wouldn’t appreciate Elmer’s attempt to “earn” more blueberry pie by working hard and being helpful. Elmer is not only hard working, but considerate: until his happy mistake with the cherry pie, he is has the good manners to wipe his feet whenever he helps himself to some dessert, and he remembers to use his polite words (“please” and “thank you”). He is the quintessential model of good behavior! I fear this message was lost on our oldest, unfortunately; when we later discovered that some of her oatmeal from breakfast had dribbled down the cabinet drawers onto the kitchen floor, she seemed unperturbed and simply suggested that perhaps Elmer had been enjoying the oatmeal. Oh well, we shall take our own lesson from this book: don’t give up. Elmer wouldn’t.

How to Make An Apple Pie and See the World”

apple pie“How to Make an Apple Pie And See the World” by Marjorie Priceman is an exuberant and silly tale about the great lengths one COULD go to in order to make an apple pie. You see, the recipe is rather simple: “get all the ingredients at the market…mix them well, bake, and serve…unless, of course, the market is closed.” When one door closes, another opens, however – and Ms. Priceman takes us on a humorously extreme alternate route to gathering the necessary ingredients which involves a trip around the world in planes, trains, and automobiles, stowed in a banana boat, plopped unceremoniously in a bicycle basket, carried on the end of an elephant trunk, and dropped from a plane into a Vermot apple orchard before heading back home.

Ms. Priceman’s tale is funny and entertaining, and her trip around the world is also informative. The book actually provides a little geography lesson, not only in terms of where certain countries are around the world, but in terms of the kinds of food you would want to gather there (e.g., semolina wheat from Italy, cinnamon from Sri Lanka, and sugar cane from Jamaica).

Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi

sir cumference“Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pie” by Cindy Newuschwander and illustrated by Wayne Geehan is a mathematical fairy tale decorated with rich pastel drawings and full of all sorts of Pi-related puns. The story centers on Radius, the son of Sir Cumference, who inadvertently turns his father into a dragon when he brings him the wrong remedy for his heartburn. Alerted to the presence of a dragon in the kingdom, knights begin gathering from all across the countryside and Radius is in a race against time to turn his father back to human form before he is slain. There is a remedy, but Radius must be careful to give just the right dose, a dose which is the same as the ratio between the circumference of a circle and the diameter. With some help from his mother (Lady Di of Ameter) and the Metry brothers (Geo and Sym), Radius eventually determines that all circles have the same ratio – and he administers a dose of 3 1/7 spoonfuls to his grateful father who parades his son back into a town for a celebratory helping of pie.

We love math (see our dorky reason for picking “Waiting” by Kevin Henkes) and I am particularly fond of bad puns – so this book was perfect for us. It’s not just silliness, however. The expression on the face of the dragon that dominates the cover of the book is the only hint that the characters are in on the joke. There is some real math education here in the context of an engaging story; I actually became pretty invested in Radius and was really pulling for him to figure things out.

Albert Einstein’s Birthday

I Am Albert Einstein

albert“I am Albert Einstein” by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos was a lot of fun to read. Mr. Meltzer’s books are sized just right to be attractive to little hands, and he presents his subjects in a very accessible way – with a combination of simple text and amusing comic strip vignettes (aided significantly by Mr. Eliopoulos’ expressive and playful style of illustration). We read one of Mr. Meltzer’s other kid-centric biographies for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, but I did not read the little comics out loud at that point – which appears to have been a mistake. I did fortunately read the comics out loud in this evening’s Meltzer selection, and the exchanges therein between Albert and other characters from his life were consistently the funniest parts of the book; did you know that Albert Einstein had awesome hair?

The idea that you could be so misunderstood by everyone around you as a child, or even as a young adult, and yet go on to become widely acknowledged as one of the smartest men ever to have lived, is tremendously appealing. Yes, Albert Einstein’s life story is an inspiring one, and Mr. Meltzer’s book is a great introduction to that story for younger kids.

 


Day 63 – Finding Winnie

“Finding Winnie – The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear” by Lindsay Mattick tells the story of the orphaned Canadian black bear cub that eventually became the inspiration for A.A. Milne’s beloved Winnie the Pooh. It is a wonderful story and a beautiful book which was awarded the Caldecott Medal for 2016.Winnie

The book is set up as a bedtime story from a mother to her son, Cole. She tells him about Harry, a veterinarian from Winnipeg who was called away to serve in the Canadian army during World War I. On a train station platform in a place called White River, Harry sees what he assumes to be an orphaned black bear cub held on a leash by a trapper. Harry paces and frets over what he ought to do, but in the end his “…heart (makes) up his mind.” Harry pays the trapper $20 for the cub, whom he dubs “Winnie” for his hometown of Winnipeg.

Winnie soon proves himself to be a “remarkable” bear. He becomes a well-loved member of Harry’s regiment, and Harry even brings Winnie across the Atlantic to England. When the order finally comes for Harry’s regiment to ship out to the Continent, he decides he must finally leave Winnie behind. Harry drives Winnie to London and places him in the care of the London Zoo, telling Winnie: “There is something you must always remember…It’s the most important thing really. Even if we’re apart, I’ll always love you. You’ll always be my bear.”

At this point the narrator pauses. “Is that the end?” asks Cole. His mother reassures him that while this is the end of Harry and Winnie’s story, “Sometimes…you have to let one story end so the next can begin”. She then launches into the story of a little boy who meets Winnie at the London Zoo and immediately thinks “there is something special about this bear.” This boy becomes close friends with Winnie, visiting him at the zoo and playing with him. He names his own stuffed bear after Winnie, and takes his bear out into the woods behind his house to have adventures. That boy is Christopher Robin Milne, and his father – A.A. Milne – eventually wrote books all about Christopher Robin and his bear, who became Winnie-the-Pooh.

The final twist of this delightful story is the revelation that Cole’s mother is the author herself (Lindsay Mattick), and that Harry is her great-grandfather and her son’s namesake: “Cole” for Captain Harry Colebourn.

There are so many things to appreciate about this book. Ms. Mattick’s story sends the message to follow your heart, and it is full of love and kindness for animals. Every time Harry lets his heart decide, he makes the decision that is the best for Winnie, and Cole’s mother describes “raising” a bear as being the same as “loving” a bear. I thought it was cute how Cole reminds his mother that bears eat vegetables and was struck by how a chance encounter and an impulsive act of kindness eventually led to the creation of one of the most loved characters in children’s literature – a character who has brought happiness to countless children (and adults) around the world. Most of all, I loved the passage in the book where Cole’s mother explains to Cole that “sometimes … you have to let one story end so the next one can begin,” and furthermore that you don’t know when that next story will happen, “which is why you should always carry on.”

Then, of course, there is the captivating artwork. Ms. Blackall’s ink and watercolor illustrations are rich with detail. The subdued, earthy color scheme and Ms. Blackall’s vintage style add a feeling of warmth and charm. The illustrations also serve as a second narrator – not just illustrating what the author is saying on the page, but filling in pieces of the story that can’t be found in the text. We actually found a wonderful interview with Ms. Blackall about the book in the “Shelf Awareness” blog at Blue Willow Book Store. In the interview, Ms. Blackall provides further background regarding her work in general and on “Winnie” in particular – including the amount of research she conducted in order to get the look and feel of the book just right. She also mentions the fact that there are lots of extra details that she snuck into her illustrations. We were able to translate the message she put in the nautical flags on the ships crossing the Atlantic. However, we are still scanning the overhead picture of the zoo to see what might be hidden there.

After this lengthy review, it may be redundant to say so, but we strongly recommend this book. We liked it enough after checking it out of the library that we had to hit the bookstore last night to purchase our own permanent copy. To use words Pooh himself might choose, “Finding Winnie” is “that kind of book”- the kind you will want to have for yourself.


Day 61 – Yipee-Yay!

Today we begin a brand new month in our Storybook Year. March promises to be an eventful 31 days including St. Patrick’s Day (3/17), the first day of Spring (3/20), and Easter (3/31). In our neck of the woods March also means rodeo season – three weeks of riding, roping, music, carnival, and livestock shows officially beginning today! What better time, then, to read Gail Gibbons’ “Yippee-Yay! – A Book about Cowboys and Cowgirls”.Yipee

Borrowing a few words from the author’s bio inside the book’s jacket, Ms. Gibbons excels at turning “fact into entertainment.”  True to form, in “Yippee-Yay!” Ms. Gibbons manages to pack a passel of knowledge about her subject matter into a colorful and captivating package. She takes the reader on a virtual cattle drive, introducing different aspects of cowboy life on the path from ranch to railhead. Along the way she manages to sprinkle in some history about the glory days of the Old West. We read about broncobusters and branding, lariats and longhorns, ranches and rodeos, chuck wagons and the Chisolm Trail. The book also introduces several influential characters from the Old West including Wild Bill Hickok and Annie Oakley. The pages of “Yipee-Yay!” are filled with call-outs, diagrams, and maps that provide additional color to the story – making this a great book to have in your library, lying around for little hands to pick up and peruse on their own in order to get “the rest of the story.”

Some of the information in “Yippiee-Yay!” was familiar, some of it was brand new, and all of it was fun to read aloud. Personally, I imagined a cowboy sitting around a campfire spinning a yarn, and used that accent. Like many, I am fascinated by the myth of the Old West. After reading this picture book, I was overcome by an urge to pick up a copy of Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove”, watch “Silverado” or “Tombstone” (or any number of other great Westerns), and head out to the rodeo…all at the same time.