Review: Born and Bred in the Great Depression by Jonah Winter

born bred great depression

Born and Bred in the Great Depression by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root

Winter tells the story of his father’s childhood during the Great Depression in this historical picture book.  Through the life of his father, he shows the poverty of the time.  Grandpa Winter searched for work in the area, often unable to find any, which meant that there was no money to help support the family of 8 children.  When he did find work, it was dirty and back-breaking labor.  This is contrasted with the simple joys of childhood as Winter’s father spent time outside exploring the woods and walking the railroad tracks.  The family grew most of their own food, eating lots of produce from the garden and canning excess to eat during leaner times.  There was little ease in their lives, but what they could find they used.  There was time as a family for music, chess and reading books.  There was time to explore the natural world.  This glimpse of history opens our eyes to the way we live today as well.

Winter’s words are compelling, inviting readers into the world of the Great Depression.  He manages to tell the story of the poverty through a lens that children will be able to relate to.  Focusing on the family life, including many people in each bed, there are definite contrasts with today’s economic problems.  Winter does not romanticize the Great Depression, instead he brings it to life through the history of his own family.  There is a lovely simplicity to the story that makes it all the more readable.

Root’s illustrations are done in pencil, ink and watercolor.  They have a softness to them that evokes the past.  The colors are subdued with the focus on telling the story through the images as well as the words.  Root manages to show the Great Depression through images that are beautiful, quiet and rich.

This historical picture book celebrates strength of family and overcoming hardship.  Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade Books.

Better Parents? Or More Books? Or Are They One and the Same?

This Sunday, Thomas Friedman posted an opinion column in The New York Times.  His premise, and one that I wholeheartedly agree with, is that we blame teachers for our children’s lack of success when it is parents who can make all of the difference.

I thought the article was going to be about the way that modern American parents are not as involved as they could be.  But instead it went in a direction that I had not anticipated.  Friedman spoke about the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and how American 15-year-olds are not excelling compared to peers in other nations.

The PISA team started to look beyond the exam itself and interviewed 5000 families, comparing their responses with the children’s results on the PISA.  And here, my friends, is what they discovered:

“Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all. The performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socioeconomic background. Parents’ engagement with their 15-year-olds is strongly associated with better performance in PISA.”

Additionally, it was found that being engaged with your child: monitoring homework, ensuring your child gets to school, rewarding their efforts, and talking about the importance of college are all linked to better attendance, grades, and test scores.

But for me, it’s that reading piece that really shines.  Beautiful really.

Review: Eddie Gets Ready for School by David Milgrim

eddie gets ready

Eddie Gets Ready for School by David Milgrim

Eddie can get ready for school all on his own, but his routine is not what his mother would have done!  That’s for sure!  His healthy breakfast is spilled around so much that it becomes a way to take care of feeding the dog too.  He washes up with a diving mask on.  When he’s gotten dressed he has on a cape, no shirt, and his underwear is on his head.  Then comes watching cartoons and drinking root beer.  That is until his mother shows up!  His routine continues to be uproarious fun and he does make it onto the bus on time, even if he is carrying his clean underwear in his hand!

Milgrim taps into exactly what small children will find funny.  The underwear jokes are bound to get big laughs, but so is the idea that a school snack includes a whole watermelon.  Each page contains something that children would have loved to do themselves, therefore they will love to see what happens when Eddie tries it.  It is a very satisfying premise for a book.

Much of the humor is visual and told in Milgrim’s bright colored illustrations.  The white background on many of the pages make the colors really pop.  There is a feeling of enthusiasm within the illustrations and the story itself. 

Perfect for fans of the No, David! series, this book has the same zany humor and energy.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic.

Review: Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver

liesl and po

Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver

Three nights after her father’s death, Liesl first meets Po.  Po just appears in her room, a piece of darkness that comes to life along with his pet, both of them are ghosts.  Po has come from the Other Side and the two slowly become close friends.  Meanwhile, another story is unfolding, one where a young apprentice to an alchemist makes a mistake and loses the biggest magic in the world because he accidentally picks up the wrong box.  This is not a small mistake, but a large one.  In this world devoid of color and sunshine, only potatoes grow.  The large magic is one that can change the course of the world or make someone the most powerful person in the world.  It all depends on whose hands it falls into.

This is an old-fashioned children’s book written by an author who usually writes edgy teen novels.  From the cadence of the story to the characters themselves, it could have been a story that was stereotypical.  But it is not.  Oliver has created a story built on a familiar structure that turns out to be a rousing adventure that speaks to grief, loss and recovery.  The themes are large, they are well drawn, and if young children do not see the themes they are still in for a good story.

While the action is great fun and the characters well drawn, I do wish they would have broken further from the stereotypes in the end.  The culmination of the story is very satisfying and the writing is a pleasure to read.  Much of the story, one is not sure what is going to happen because of the all of the twists and turns the book takes.

Magic and the Other Side are mixed together seamlessly.  The dark themes used in a children’s book carries this book into the realm of Dahl.  The black and white illustrations make it very friendly to young readers who will enjoy the fantasy and adventure blend.

A familiar but refreshing story, this book nicely combines tradition and larger themes into a magical read.  Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Also reviewed by:

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Review: What Animals Really Like by Fiona Robinson

what animals really like

What Animals Really Like by Fiona Robinson

Mr. Herbert Timberteeth is happy to present his new song that he composed, “What Animals Like Most.”  He will also be conducting it, just open the red curtains and… There are groups of animals on stage who flatly deliver, “We are lions, and we like to prowl.  We are wolves, and we like to howl.  We are pigeons, and we like to coo.  We are cows and we like to…”  Turn the page to have the chaos begin as the cows change the obvious rhyme into something else entirely.  Best of all, you can tell from the animals’ faces that they are up to something.  They are the only ones on stage grinning.  The same is true of the next grouping.  Children will get the joke immediately when the first rhyme is missed. Finally, Herbert, now bedraggled, allows them to sing the new and non-rhyming version of the song.  He hates it, but the audience has a very different reaction.

Robinson has tapped into a kind of humor that children enjoy.  The unexpected happening when you think you have the structure pegged.  Children will be relaxed and ready for the rhyme to come next.  In fact, they will probably announce that first rhyme before you get the page turned.  Their reaction will be that much better if they do!  The unexpectedness of this entire book is a great treat.

The illustrations are also fun.  Keep an eye out for all of the small touches.  My favorite is where the show is lit by glowworms, and if you look closely one of them has fallen asleep and is no longer lit.  But there are many to enjoy, making this a book that can be read again and again.

This is a definite read-aloud pick for any preschool story time.  It would make a great final book that is sure to keep wiggly children interested and listening.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Mouse & Lion by Rand Burkert

mouse and lion

Mouse & Lion by Rand Burkert, illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert

This classic Aesop fable is told with exceptional ease.  The story focuses more on Mouse than other versions, even giving him top billing in the title.  Mouse scampers right over Lion before he even realizes he is not a mountain.  And as the tale goes, Lion grants Mouse a reprieve from being eaten and sends him on his way.  In this story, Lion is captured in a hunter’s net and Mouse gnaws him free.  Set in Africa, this story features a four-striped African grass mouse rather than the expected little brown mouse.  Combined with the baobab trees, it all works to evoke Africa completely. 

Burkert’s text is beautifully done.  At first blush, his writing reads aloud so well that it seems simple.  But instead it is just written by a storyteller, who realizes exactly how words play and how to create a mood.  When Lion has captured Mouse, there is a gorgeous moment when Burkert leaves Mouse literally dangling:

Mouse spun slowly as he dangled.  He dangled as he spun.  He squinted into Lion’s mouth, feeling his warm breath, noting his yellowed teeth.

This is just one of many such times when the writing sings, the moment stretches, and the story is illuminated. 

Add to this skilled writing, the illustrations and you have quite the book.  The illustrations are strong at the same time they are delicate.  Done with fine lines, each hair on the animals is individual.  Mouse’s nose and whiskers seem to twitch.  Lion seems to snore.  There is life here in these illustrations, life that moves and breathes.  The illustrations are captivating.

Who would think that after last year’s Caldecott Award winner, libraries would want another version of Aesop’s fable.  They definitely should get this one with its beautiful combination of writing and illustration.  It too is a winner.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic.

Also reviewed by Cracking the Cover.

Review: One Love by Cedella Marley

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One Love by Cedella Marley, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Marley has adapted her father Bob Marley’s famous song into this picture book.  The book follows the same arc as the song, but is simplified considerably.  Fans of the song will definitely try to sing along with the words since they are so iconic.  Children who don’t know the song will discover a vibrant picture book where the words give the emotion, but the pictures tell the story.  It’s the story of a community coming together to turn a vacant lot into a park, One Love Park.

This simple picture book owes much to the original song.  It’s where the book gets its heart.  The words are pulled directly from the song and in picture book form read aloud well.  Just like the song, the emphasis is on community, love, and creating a new world together.

Brantley-Newton’s illustrations add so much joy to this book.  They are full of color and movement, the multicultural cast of characters are vibrant and glowing.  Readers can also keep an eye out for visual references to Bob Marley.

Simple, lovely and powerful, this book is definitely worth celebrating.  Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.

Here’s the book trailer:

Review: What’s New at the Zoo? by Betty Comden

whats new at the zoo

What’s New at the Zoo? by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, illustrated by Travis Foster

This funny book about an overcrowded zoo contains words that are lyrics from the Broadway Show, Do Re Mi.  The zoo is so crowded that the animals are stepping on one another.  The kangaroo’s pouch is stepped on by a bear.  The moose’s snout is stepped on by a goose.  All of the animals demand to be let out of the zoo.  So when the zookeeper arrives at the door, he is stampeded by all of the animals in their rush to escape.  The book combines humor and rhythm into one very appealing read.

Comden and Green had a way with words and rhythm.  I only wish I could have heard the music for the book and kept checking to see if there was a CD that I had missed.  The writing is humorous, offering plenty of laughs for young readers.

Much of the humor is also visual in the illustrations by Foster.  His art adds an appealing cartoonish, slapstick humor to the read.  Children will love the expressions on the faces of the animals as they are trod upon.  There are also several large flaps to lift that add even more fun.

This one is a treat to read aloud, the rhymes and rhythms flow beautifully.  Children will love the animals, the jokes and all of the zany fun.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

National Book Award Winner!


After a controversial short list process, the National Book Awards were awarded last night.  My favorite article on the awards is from SF Gate where they note that the awards all focused on “stories of resilience in the face of poverty, displacement and disappearance.”

The winner for the Young People’s Literature was Thanhha Lai for Inside Out and Back Again.  And here is my enthusiastic review.