Off for a Bit

Spending the waning days of summer vacation with my boys.  We will make a trek to Chicago to visit some of our favorite museums and have some lazy days too. 

Posting will be sporadic at best.  See you in September!

Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree

From Treehugger comes the news that the chestnut tree that was outside Anne Frank’s attic window has fallen. It is the tree that she mentioned often in her diary.  The tree was 152 years old and has been dying for some time.  There was a support structure holding it up.

It says so much about the power of books and the connections they build that I have tears standing in my eyes.  I haven’t read this book for years and years, but I remember it deep inside. 

Others obviously do too, since there are six genetically identical species being nurtured which are already 7 feet tall.  One will be planted to replace the mother tree.  Others are headed to Holocaust museums around the world.

The power and connection of literature continues just as this tree will.


Cupcake by Charise Mericle Harper

Vanilla Cupcake is born after ingredients are mixed together and he is baked in a toasty warm oven.  He is decorated with plain vanilla frosting and then meets all of the other cupcakes that have been decorated in a much more fancy way.  By the end of the day, he is the only cupcake that remains and hasn’t sold.  He bursts into tears and a candle nearby hears him crying.  Cupcake explains what has happened and the plain green candle understands because he has very fancy siblings of his own.  Then Candle has a great idea and hops off to find exactly the right thing to decorate Cupcake.  They try all sorts of things from pickles to pancakes and even a squirrel!  But nothing is quite right.  Just when readers think that Candle and Cupcake will finally figure it all out, there is a delicious twist that will have everyone laughing out loud.

This book is a hoot!  I had worried with its sparkly cover and sweet subject that it might get a bit too syrupy, but just when you think that might happen the humor kicks in and takes the book in a different direction.  Harper’s writing is simple, adding to the humor by its straight-forward tone.  Her art is also simple and graphically strong with its black outlines and pastel colors. 

A book that captures the cupcake craze with a sweet tone and plenty of giggles, share this one at any sweet storytime you may be planning.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

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Bones by Steve Jenkins

Really all any book needs is Steve Jenkins’ name on the front and his great illustrations inside.  Just those two things and you know it’s going to be great.  In this book, Jenkins turns his attention to bones and skeletons.  The size and shape of bones are explored as are skeletons of the human body and of various animals.  Information is given about bones and the illustrations of the bones are laid out on very colorful pages that highlight the bones but offer some vibrancy as well.  This book of bones should be in every school and public library.

Jenkin’s text here offers just enough detail to be informative but also never too much too be weighty.  It offers the same bright, freshness as the illustrations themselves.  His illustrations are studies in restraint as he works his paper magic using a very limited boney palette of colors.  The design of the book makes it rather like an archeological discovery, since you never know what bones you will find when you turn the page.  Several of the pages fold out to offer large scale illustrations, including a full human skeleton.  Along the way, readers are asked questions and get to think about the body, the bones and how they function.

A virtuoso book, pull this one out for Halloween and get some sweet science mixed in with the candy.  It is appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from library copy.


Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke

This graphic novel tells the true story of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer.  In 1994, Yummy, called that because of his sweet tooth, fired a gun into a crowd of rival gang members.  He ended up killing a bystander, a teen girl.  Yummy was just 11 years old when this happened.   The story is told from the point of view of Roger, another boy who knew Yummy from school and the neighborhood.  Roger tries to make sense of Yummy and how he became a gang member and killer.  This is made even more tangible to Roger because his own brother is in the same gang as Yummy.  Throughout this book, deep questions are asked and explored.

Neri’s text creates a great platform to understand the gang wars of the 1990s and the dynamic of southside Chicago.  Though the bulk of the book is from Roger’s point of view, the reader also gets to see what Yummy is going through as he hides from police and is eventually killed by his own gang.  There is a real restraint in the writing that allows the drama of the tale itself to take center stage. 

DuBurke’s illustrations done in black and white are a study in light and dark.  Faces change as the light changes on them, becoming sinister and strange.  The images are dynamic and underline the youth of Yummy and the transition from bully to killer. 

A beautifully crafted graphic novel dealing in brutal subjects, this book is an important exploration of gang warfare.  It is also an even more important look at childhood.  Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from copy received from Lee & Low Books.

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Yucky Worms

Yucky Worms by Vivian French, illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg

A young boy was in his grandmother’s garden when she found a worm.  He is disgusted by it, but his grandmother insists that he should be friends with worms.  She then returned the worm to the ground to demonstrate which end of the worm was which.  The book goes on to discuss in the grandmother’s voice different aspects of worms, what they eat, how they survive the winter, what worm castings are, and how they help the plants in the garden.  The illustrations are light-hearted but can quickly become scientific when called for.  This is a great blend of picture book and nonfiction facts presented in a winning way.

French’s use of a grandmother narrator works well here, framing the nonfiction in a story that makes it very approachable.  It also allows the narrator to explain misconceptions that the young boy has about worms, like the widely held belief that worms can be cut in two and still survive.  Not true!  Ahlberg’s illustrations offer asides by the worms themselves, a mole carrying a grocery list, and wonderful views of below the ground. 

A great book to share with children who want to know more about these wiggly creatures in the garden, this book reads like a picture book and offers facts for children who are looking for them.  Readers of the book will quickly learn that worms are far from yucky.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Wicked Girls

Wicked Girls: a Novel of the Salem Witch Trials by Stephanie Hemphill

Through gripping verse, the story of the Salem Witch Trials is told from the point of view of several of the accusers themselves.  A fictionalized account, the book captures the lies and hysteria of Salem in 1692, embracing the theory that the girls were deliberately telling lies.  There is Ann Putnam, Jr. who leads the group of girls despite the fact she is 12 and others in the group are 17.  She is the daughter of a prominent man in Salem.  Her servant, Mercy Lewis, is also an accuser.  Beautiful and tempting to many, she finds a haven in accusing others of witchcraft.  Ann’s cousin, Margaret Walcott, is a girl in love and struggling to hold onto the boy.  Her beloved will not stand for the accusations, so she is torn between her friends and her heart.  These three girls form the center of the novel, each making accusations for different reasons, each lie leading to another, until nineteen people are killed in the name of piety.

Hemphill’s poems are beautifully constructed, they lend depth to the book at the same time they manage to move the story forward.  Each girl has a distinct personality and perspective that comes through in the poems.  The author weaves symbolism of the time into the poems, always making sure that these are girls of that period who have the concerns and sensibilities of that time.  Yet at the same time, modern girls will understand the aches of love, the power of lies, and the group dynamics that are inherent here. 

Hemphill tells the story from the girls’ points of view, allowing readers to see into their thought patterns and what drove them to do it.  This perspective makes the book particularly gripping and powerful.  She also frames the poems with the seasons, capturing each turn of the season in a poem.  Each of these separate poems that is not one from a girl’s view has a decorative corner on the page, marking them as separate.  It is a subtle and important touch.

This is a powerful book that speaks to a horrific time in Salem and is told in verse that illuminates all.  Appropriate for ages 13-15.

Reviewed from library copy.

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Interrupting Chicken – Blog Tour!

I’m very happy to be the concluding blog on the Interrupting Chicken blog tour!


Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

Stein’s new picture book will earn him even more fans in the picture book world.  It is time for little red chicken to go to bed.  Her father agrees to read her a story, but tells her not to interrupt.  She promises not to.  So he begins Hansel and Gretel but just as they are about to enter the witch’s house, little red chicken interrupts and changes the story.  Her father tries again with Little Red Riding Hood with exactly the same result.  Finally, after little red chicken pleads for another chance, he tries Chicken Little.  She interrupts again and is still wide awake.  So her sleepy father climbs into bed himself and has her read him a story.  I wonder if interrupting runs in the family?

This book is a charmer and will have children laughing gleefully along as little red chicken continues to interrupt at just the right (or wrong) time.  Stein’s short introductions to the familiar fairy tales nicely set up each story and lead to a climactic point.  Then little red chicken’s interruptions add a great tone and speed to the text, filled with enthusiasm about the stories themselves.  My favorite part is that she is so drawn into the stories that she feels she must help the characters.  This book really is about the power of reading with a child. 

Stein’s illustrations are done in a great palette of colors with reds, teals, blues and greens that are vibrant and exciting.  The depth of color on the page is fantastic with few of the pages offering white space at all.  This gives it a very warm, cozy feel. 

A perfect read aloud, this book will be loved by anyone who hears it.  The comedic timing is built into the story and it is a pleasure to share it aloud.  Add this one to your pile of funny chicken books and your bedtime stories.  Appropriate for ages 3-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Candlewick.


Visit the other blogs that are part of the tour:

Aug. 9 – Picture Book Review,

Aug. 10 – Katie’s Literature Lounge,

Aug. 11 – Readaholic,

Aug. 12 – Two Writing Teachers,

Aug. 13 – Not Just for Kids,

Aug. 14 – Milk and Cookies, Comfort Reading . . .,

Aug. 15 – Bookworm’s Dinner,

Aug. 16 – Where the Best Books Are,

The Kneebone Boy

The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter

Released September 14th, 2010.

I’m afraid I don’t know how to review this book without gushing, but I will do my best.  I’m hoping to see some recognition of it in this year’s awards.

The Hardscrabble family is shunned in their small town for several reasons.  Partly it’s because their mother disappeared suddenly and suspiciously.  Her body was never found.  Partly, it’s because all three of the children are a little odd and unusual.  Their father creates portraits of royals who have lost their throne, traveling around the world.  When he is gone, he leaves them with Mrs. Carnival, but then he makes a mistake and the three children are sent to stay with their aunt in London, who happens to be out of town herself.  So the three children are alone in London with nowhere to stay.  Luckily, they saw a letter from their great-aunt to their father giving vague hints about the truth about their mother.  So off they head to her home, which happens to be a miniature castle next to a very large castle with plenty of mystery and atmosphere.  Before they know it, they are off on an adventure that will change their lives.

Potter, author of Slob and the Olivia Kidney series, has outdone herself with this novel.  I tend to dislike books with a narrator voice that interjects, but here it is a perfect fit, since the text is written as if one of the characters is writing it.  It is less a narrator voice and more of one of the characters telling their story complete with asides.  It works beautifully here, adding to the wryness and intelligence of the book.

When the story reaches the castle folly, the setting really comes to life.  From the escapades on the beach and in the woods to the folly itself, details are shared and the entire world is suddenly bright with interest.  Potter writes these details into the story, weaving them together to create a world that is fascinating, childlike and still sinister.

The three children act like real brothers and sisters, which in a fantasy novel is a pleasure to see.  They are neither enemies or like friends, they are siblings through and through.  Their dynamic is ever-changing and very honestly written.  Potter also writes each of them with a distinct voice and perspective.  This strengthens the novel even more.  The children are delightfully but not distractingly odd.  They are the types of children we all wanted to be friends with when we were little, because we were just as strange too.

I have saved the best for last.  This is a book that reads like a fantasy but is realistic in the end and throughout.  Yes, there are adventures, there are skills, there are castles and there is a secret to be unraveled.  But in the end, it is real, sometimes achingly so.  It is also an ideal book to read aloud to a class, because the adventures will keep them mesmerized and there is plenty to discuss.

A must-buy for all libraries, this book is a winning read.  Fans of The Graveyard Book will enjoy it but so will children who look for adventure and reality.  It is a cross-genre book that fans of both will enjoy despite the fact it is definitely not really a fantasy.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel and Friends.

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