When the Whistle Blows

When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton

Every once in awhile a debut novel takes your breath away.  This is one of those novels.

Jimmy Cannon’s life is surrounded by trains.  His bedroom is right by the tracks, his father works for the railroad, and Jimmy plans to work the railroad himself as soon as he possibly can.  But Jimmy does not want to be like his father who focuses on rules.  Set in a West Virginia town during the era of steam trains in the 1940s, readers will happily follow Jimmy as he merrily breaks many of the rules.  From Halloween night to boyhood scrapes, this book has a timeless feel.

Slayton writes with a spirit and style that reads like a classic novel.  Offering a complex relationship of a boy and his father, she lightens the novel through the scenes that define Jimmy’s boyhood.  Every reader, boy or girl, will be able to relate to the escapades, enjoy laughing out loud about the close calls, and bite their nails when the tension gets thick.  This is a many layered book that teachers will look forward to reading in their classrooms.  There is so much here to discuss and yet it is so easy to read, understand and relate to.  It is frankly a masterpiece of ease and complexity not often seen in children’s books.

If there is one book you are going to read aloud to 4th and 5th graders this year, it should be this one.  Highly recommended, this should be a Newbery contender this year.  Appropriate for ages 10-14.

Reviewed from copy provided by publisher.

Check out Fran Cannon Slayton’s own blog.

Also reviewed by BookDads, Reviewed Here First, Reading, Writing, Ruminating, Susan VanHecke, WriterJenn, Charlotte’s Library, Confessions of a Bibliovore, Becky’s Book Reviews, Through the Wardrobe, The Reading Zone, Underage Reading, Sarah Miller, 100 Scope Notes, and Into the Wardrobe.

Museum of Mary Child

The Museum of Mary Child by Cassandra Golds

Heloise lives a lonely, subdued and severe life with her godmother.  She is not allowed to have toys, not allowed to play, and must spend her time being constructive.  Heloise yearns most of all for a doll and then she discovers a secret niche under a floorboard where a doll is hidden.  She succeeds for some time in hiding the doll from her godmother, but when her godmother discovers the doll, she flies into a rage.  Next door to their house is the Museum of Mary Child, a place where visitors come but Heloise has never been allowed to enter.  Her grandmother drags her there.  Stunned by the revelations of the museum, Heloise flees her godmother’s home with her doll in tow.  Ending up in the city, Heloise is taken in by a choir of orphans, where she begins to learn about what life is about and to feel like a real little girl.  But she cannot escape the mystery of her own upbringing for long.

This gothic tale owes a lot to folk tales with birds who guide humans, and a prince in prison.  These elements weave themselves into Heloise’s tale, offering glimpses of magic and wonder  against the darkness of madness and solitude.  Just as Heloise is a unique child, so this book is unique and fascinating.  It doesn’t fit into a genre niche neatly, offering so many different but well-worked elements.  Because of this, it is a very fun read.  Readers will be unable to figure out how the novel will end because they won’t be sure if they are reading fantasy, gothic, horror or fairy tale – perhaps it is all of them at once.

Heloise is a great character with her fierceness and inquisitiveness.  She carries this book forward, gradually learning along with the reader what her story is.  It is a delicately balanced story, never moving too far into horror, never too far from its fairy tale elements.  The setting is such a large part of the tale from the museum to the city itself and its madhouse and prison.  Golds does a great job creating and sustaining a mood though the entire book along with a tension that makes it difficult to put down and impossible not to puzzle about even when not reading.

Recommended for tweens who are a little too young for Twilight, this book has quality writing and an intriguing premise.  Children as young as ten who are looking for a little horror and creepiness will find a great read here.  Appropriate for ages 10-14.

Reviewed from copy provided by publisher.

ScrollMotion Gets Juvenile

ScrollMotion will be launching an e-book reader for the iPhone that is specifically targeted to children and teens.  The company has already been successful in the adult market.  Readers can look forward to Beverly Cleary, Stephanie Meyer, Christopher Paolini and Neil Gaiman among others.

I’ve been watching for an app like this, since the Kindle does not do colored pictures and often fails at providing images and words in the right combinations on a page.  We will see what happens.  Reading to children will continue to be done with books for a good long time. 

Of course, I am completely biased towards the physical book.  I do wonder how it can possibly be good for children’s reading to force individuals to purchase all the books their children read.  I know families who literally read hundreds of picture books a month.  How can those super-reading families ever afford to support that reading habit? 

I also worry about families who do not have iPhones or other advanced phones or even computers in their homes.  Where does our swiftly moving to Kindles and e-books leave them?  Don’t we as parents and librarians need to make sure that everyone is reading?  I refuse to give up on that part of my passion for books, that they are an equalizer, a force for community, and a pleasurable way to learn.

Via PW

Karla Kuskin Dies

I am sorry to tell of the sad news of Karla Kuskin’s death at age 77.  She was the author of fifty books for children and winner of many honors. 

My favorite of her books is The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, illustrated by Marc Simont.  It’s from 1982 and I knew many teachers who used it in their classrooms annually.  Lovely musical stuff.

I also really enjoyed Traces her recent book with Paula Fox which looks at the traces left behind by animals and objects.  Again, just lovely.

The Doll Shop Downstairs

The Doll Shop Downstairs by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illustrated by Heather Majone.

Nine-year-old Anna is lucky enough to grow up living above her parent’s doll shop where they repair broken china and bisque dolls.  She is a middle child, feeling ordinary next to her smart older sister and her cute little sister.  Though the family doesn’t have enough money for dolls for the three girls, they are allowed to play with the dolls that have been in the shop for some time.  Each girl has a special doll that is “theirs.”  However, changes are coming with the beginning of World War I.  Doll parts become impossible to import from Germany because of the War.  So the family must become creative about how they will earn a living. 

I was a girl who played with dolls.  My favorite and one I still treasure is the rag doll my mother made for me.  She has yellow yarn hair, blue eyes, and a collection of clothes which include a velvet dress with a bustle!  It was a treat to read a book about little girls who love dolls, especially dolls which are not perfect. 

Anna is a great character.  Her perspective on her own ordinariness is shown to be incorrect by all of the clever and important things she invents and does.  I think there are many children who don’t see that they are special and its nice to have a book that explores that for younger children.

The world of pre-War New York City is vividly depicted and is as much a character as any of the human ones.  McDonough does a great job of showing glimpses of the city but not inundating young readers with facts.  I also appreciate the fact that the family is Jewish and that it is handled so matter-of-factly. 

Recommended for doll lovers and as a great example of historical fiction for young readers who are looking for something light but historical.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from copy received from publisher.

Mr. Putter & Tabby Spill the Beans

Mr. Putter and Tabby Spill the Beans by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Arthur Howard

As a huge fan of the Mr. Putter and Tabby series with their gentle and very funny humor, I was delighted to see that there was a new entry in the series!  In this latest book, Mr. Putter and Tabby (his cat) join their friends Mrs. Teaberry and Zeke (her dog) on a new adventure, a cooking class.  To be specific, a cooking class that offers one hundred ways to cook beans.  At first the worry is that Tabby and Zeke won’t stay below the table, but the two animals are capable of causing plenty of trouble from right under there.

Rylant has a special gift for writing text at a beginning reader level that is not only accessible for new readers but also great fun to read aloud.  She writes in a way that belies the difficulty of a smaller vocabulary.  Howard’s art offers additional humor and great facial expressions from Tabby.  Both author and illustrator delight in naughtiness, making this ever so much more approachable for children because of it!

This entire series is highly recommended.  Fans of the series can rejoice in yet another book that meets the high standard of the series.  Appropriate for ages 3-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

When Stella Was Very, Very Small

When Stella Was Very, Very Small by Marie-Louise Gay.

After several Stella books and some Sam books too, readers will get the treat of seeing a much younger Stella in this new picture book.  A tiny version of the imaginative Stella moves quickly from one imaginative idea to the next.  Stella races her rubber ducks in the bathtub, listens to the stories the trees tell in the wind, and explores the jungle of tall grass in her backyard.  By the end of the book, Stella is bigger and Sam has appeared so she has someone to share her stories and imagination with.

Gay portrays an imaginative child who happily plays in her own creative world alone but just as merrily includes a younger sibling.  Gay uses poetic words to describe Stella and her surroundings.  One of my favorites has the trees outside Stella’s windows talking in the evening.  It gives readers an even clearer sense of Stella’s internal world.  Beautifully and tangibly written and captured.  Gay’s illustrations are just as successful.  Her watercolors offer a vivid glimpse into Stella’s imagination.  Yet the illustrations are more about her reality than her imagination.  Done with just the right touch and tone, this book is a pleasure.

Readers who already love Stella and Sam will be the first in line for this book, but those who are just discovering them will find themselves welcomed into a wondrous new world.  Appropriate for ages 3-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

All the Broken Pieces

All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg

Matt Pin was airlifted from war torn Vietnam to the United States and has been adopted into a loving family.  Now at age 12, Matt is struggling with the internal scars of war, combined with his questions of identity.  He has haunting memories of his mother and brother whom he left behind in Vietnam.  Matt has trouble giving a voice to his internal struggles, while externally he is having difficulties at school and is being bullied by boys on his baseball team.  Can Matt manage to make peace with his past so he can embrace his future?  Or are the two so intertwined that they are one and the same?

A searing verse novel, this book offers powerful poetry that clearly conveys the emotional scars of Matt and of the community around him.  Vietnam is a multi-faceted subject and Burg does an admirable job in paying tribute to its many aspects.  Poetry is a wonderful medium for this sort of exploration, allowing things to be said clearly that would have to be danced around in prose.  Burg’s poems create a cohesive novel yet offer verses that will linger in the memory and mind, that speak to our humanity and our past.

Here is one verse from the early part of the novel that captures the power and talent of the writing:

He never saw my face.

But she was already swelled

with love for him when he left,

taking with him

his blue-eyed promise

that it would not end there,

with the smell of burnt flesh

and the sound of crying children.

Highly recommended for tween and teen readers, this book covers powerful subjects without turning away or flinching.  Readers who are not poetry readers and those who claim not to like verse novels should be encouraged to try this one.  Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from library copy.

Also reviewed by A Year of Reading.

Nonfiction Monday – Life in the Boreal Forest

Life in the Boreal Forest by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrations by Gennady Spirin.

Released on September 29, 2009.

This book so clearly captures the beauty and life in the boreal forest that one can almost hear the birds and smell the freshness of the air.  The great northern forest stretches from Alaska and Canada to Scandinavia and Russia Showing the brevity of the northern summer, the activity of the stark winter months, and the glory of the spring and the return of warmth will bring readers face-to-face with nature and its drama.  Spirin’s illustrations show delicate detail, dazzling vistas, and many many animals.  This is a book to sink into, explore and learn.

Guiberson’s text is filled with sounds, from bird calls to wolves howling to smaller noises like hares hopping on snow.  Each sound and its explanation brings this unique ecosystem to life.  Her words create an understanding through the small details of the importance of this forest for all of us.  Spirin excels as capturing animals with their small details and yet showing the forest itself as more than a background, as a living thing.  Her art is large and breathtaking even while the details are shown.

Highly recommended, this book is a great nature book for children.  For children in the north, this book is like coming home.  For everyone it is important to see forests celebrated in this way.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt.