Monday, November 16, 2015

Hope Springs by Eric Walters

Hope Springs by Eric Walters, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes

Rating: 4.5 stars

The Mbooni District in Kenya is a village far away from our Washington, D.C., suburbs. Hope Springs takes place in that distant, dusty village. It's a story about how people confront the reality of scarce resources, specifically, what does a community do when there is limited water during a drought?
In the story, three children trot off down the hill to a small spring which serves as the lone source of water in the village. Empty water containers bounce along with them. Boniface, Mueni and Charles place their water containers in a long line of containers and begin to play while they wait for their turn at the spring.
A group of angry women comes over to them and interrupts their play. The women shout at them, accusing them of stealing water that is not rightfully theirs. The children might live in the village now, because they reside at the orphanage, but because their families are not from this village, the women believe they should not get any water. They kick the kids’ containers out of line and tell them to leave. Frightened and intimidated, the children run off.
Back up the hill in the orphanage, Boniface, the oldest boy and main character, discusses the specific incident and circumstances of the drought with the houseparents. The houseparents explain that the women acted out of fear more than aggression. The women are afraid there will be no water—and therefore no life—for their own families, their own children. The orphanage is digging their own well, the houseparents explain to Boniface; soon, they will have enough water and no need to visit the overcrowded spring.
And, despite the uncertainty of what one finds under our feet, the orphanage soon has a well and does not need to go to the community water hole. Instead of celebrating, Boniface is bothered by the fact that the orphanage has more water than the rest of the community. Despite the fact that the women from the village were so mean to him, he believes the orphanage should help them and their families.
The houseparents, moved by Boniface’s generosity and kindness, agree—and they insist on letting Boniface himself lead the discussion with the villagers. Boniface gulps down his own fear and finds the right words. Soon, with hard work and teamwork, the villagers turn the little spring into a deep well. Because of the kindness of one boy named Boniface, there was water, and, therefore, life—for everyone. And there still is.
This is a story based on a real event. This fact floored my children, who have recently lived through water issues in our own home and, because of that, can appreciate the fear of living without water and the need for a new well. The characters are based on real children and photographs of them are in the afterward. My second grader was in awe, and I, a former Peace Corps Volunteer, wonder how this story might creep into her clever brain and big heart and inspire her.

If you want to shrink the world, open up a book. If you want your child to visit a world far away from his or her own, or begin to understand that some children’s days are very different, get a book like Hope Springs into your childrens’ hands. You never know what might happen.

This book was originally reviewed for Washington FAMILY Magazine. To see the original review, please click HERE.

Friday, November 13, 2015

When Otis Courted Mama by Kathi Appelt

When Otis Courted Mama by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
HMH Books for Young Readers

Rating: 5 stars

Cardell the coyote had "a mostly wonderful life. He had a perfectly good mama and a perfectly good daddy." They both adored him. The thing was, that they were no longer together. Cardell mostly lived with his mama, but sometimes he spent time with his daddy and step-mama and new stepbrother, Little Frankie. They all got along pretty well.

On the other side of the desert, Cardell lived with his mama. One day, their neighbor Otis came to pay a visit--with flowers in his paws--to his mama. "Cardell felt a grrr in his throat." But his mama was smiling.

There had been other suitors before Otis, but none lasted. Otis was different, though. In addition to paying attention to mama, he kinda courted Cardell, too. Otis made prickly pear pudding with Otis. He showed the little coyote how to pounce super high. The grrr didn't come as often.

Then one day, Otis told Cardell stories. The funniest stories! They "settled on Cardell's fur like a warm blanket." Soon, Cardell was as smitten with Otis as his mama was.

And Cardell's "mostly wonderful life" got a little bit more wonderful.


Kathy Appelt does a fantastic job of making a sweet story out of something quite sticky. If you're a child of divorce like me, you know that the the idea of stepparents is necessary and good on the one hand, but difficult and sad on the other.

A few weeks ago I attended a conference for the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators and had the chance to listen to Kathy Appelt speak. My daughter is a huge fan of her chapter books (The Underneath and True Blue Scouts of the Sugarman Swamp). One of the things Appelt talked about was the inspiration behind her stories--how she uses the people and pets she loved most in her life to write stories. Her stepfather inspired When Otis Courted Mama. Her stepdad courted her mother when Appelt and her two other sisters were teenagers--making him a fairly brave man, she now realizes. There were a few things going for him, but it was his funny and wild stories that won over the three girls--and their mama, too.

The world needs a few more books like this one. Their positive messages need to the sad, outdated stereotypes and misgivings found in books like Hansel and Gretel, which I blogged about last week.

As if this book--about an important topic that's done so very well--isn't great enough, it's illustrated by Jill McElmurry, of Little Blue Truck fame!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Hansel and Gretel by Holly Hobbie

Hansel and Gretel by Holly Hobbie
Little, Brown, and Company

Rating: 5 stars

Kiefer has been saying how much he likes scary stories. I told him I got a good one from the library--could I read it to him? After reading Holly Hobbie's indescribably gorgeous new version of the classic Hansel and Gretel, he said, "I never want to read that again!"

I'm not sure what it says about me that I'm chuckling at chilling my four year old to the bone...

But that's what this tale is: bone-chilling.

Do you remember all the details? Hansel and Gretel live on a farm with their father and their step-mother. (This is one of the many examples of a story where step-mothers don't look so great.) Times are hard and money is tight; the step-mother convinces the man to abandon his children. After a few tries, and when the birds eat the crumbs Hansel spread along the path, the children are successfully abandoned.

In a deep, dark creepy forest.
"The children waited...and no one came to take them home."
(this image is sure to give my son nightmares)

(Did I mention we live in the woods? Perhaps I should have thought of that before reading this to poor Kiefer.)

The two children walk along until they find a house made of candy, with a suspicious-looking lady welcoming them. They soon find out she's feeding them well to plump them up so she can eat them for dinner. Hansel is caged; Gretel is enlisted with chores.

They need a plan, and it's up to Gretel. When the witch asks her to lean into the fire to make sure it's hot enough, Gretel asks, "How?" in her most innocent voice. The witch leans into the large fire, and Gretel shoves her backside with all her little-girl might. When the "dreadful shrieks" end, she rescues Hansel and they run back home together.

When they get home, their father opens his arms to them. He's grateful for their return (there's no talk of forgiveness; no "Why'd you ditch us, Dad?"). The step-mother? She "had died after eating food that had gone bad." What??!!?!! I'm actually concerned that Kiefer will remember this and use it against me in the court of dinner sometime.

"Fetch wood while I sharpen my best knife."
Anyhow, I do think this story is important for children to know as part of their cultural literacy. And if you're going to chill your child to the bone on this day before Halloween, let it be with this version of the tale. Holly Hobbie's artwork is unbelievable. Are you familiar with it? If not, go check out all her recent stuff and prepare to sit down after the kids go to bed to just appreciate her talent. She's a fantastic storyteller (read her Toot and Puddle series) and her illustrations make classic books come to life (check, just buy... The Night Before Christmas).

And to the step-mothers out there...yikes! Sorry about the bad rap those Grimm brothers gave you.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Contract by Derek Jeter

The Contract by Derek Jeter and Paul Mantell
Simon and Schuster

Rating: Five stars

Most book bloggers might be focusing on Halloween this week...but the World Series is also happening! There are a whole lot of us who are more excited about the Royals vs. Mets than how many Tootsie Rolls we get to eat. Honestly, I like a good ball game, but it's watching my son Ben's excitement over a ball game that I like even more. 

Because of Ben's excitement and love for baseball, we read The Contract, by Derek Jeter. A little background: Jeter is the starting shortstop for the NY Yankees--and he's also written several books. In his rookie season, he founded the Turn 2 Foundation, an organization that helps promote healthy lifestyles in kids. He's a talented ball player and sure seems like a pretty good guy. (Paul Mantell helped write the book.) The Contract is a novel inspired by Jeter's childhood--how he had these big, lofty dreams from a very young age, and how he set about starting to achieve them.

In the book, the character Derek Jeter is a third grader who writes an essay about his dream of being the starting shortstop for the NY Yankees. He dares to say this dream out loud, and explain how he wants to achieve this dream. Some classmates believe his dream, others laugh. But his parents not only believe in him (and stick up for him when the teacher doesn't take him seriously)--they also help map out a path to achieve his dream. His dad writes up a contract that spells out the guidelines he must follow if he wants to continue playing. The contract includes broad but important rules: Respect others. Family first. Keep your grades up. Play hard. Etc.

Derek is a fine character, though he is a bit of a goody two-shoes, making his character a bit flawless and therefore, not the most authentic around. He only has one minor temper tantrum, despite the fact that his coach favors his own son in the batting lineup and when handing out awards. When life is unfair to character Derek, the third grader takes it all in stride. Although his maturity might be a smidge unrealistic, I like that my son sees this calm response to crises big and small.

I'm all about making good choices--and making them deliberately. I talk with my parent-friends and my kids about how their actions today affect what they can do later in life. This book feeds into that argument, in a great way. Jeter explains that his success in sports came early, when his parents made him buckle down and focus on all the right things--family, school, friendships, sports--and demanded excellence in all these categories. And then (get this!) there were consequences when the contract was broken. 

So, if I do all those things like Jeter's parents do, will my Ben play for the NY Yankees someday? Maybe. Maybe I'll cheering for him when he's in the World Series one day. But I hope he knows I'll be cheering for him no matter what he ends up doing.

P.S. The sequel to this book, Hit and Miss, is fine, too. Not as great as this one, but still a good read with fine lessons about sports and life.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner

Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra

Chronicle Books

Rating: 4 stars

Cornelius Washington is not a typical subject for nonfiction picture books. He was a garbage man in the French Quarter in New Orleans before and when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. He once was written about in the Times-Picayune and described as "a wizard of trash cans."

Cornelius did his job as a garbageman, usually thought of as nasty but necessary, with flair. He seemed to have fun with it, but also take it very seriously. The people in the Quarter knew him and waved as Cornelius danced with lids, threw trash bags into formation, and kept the streets "sparkling."

When Hurricane Katrina hit, Cornelius was devastated to see the city he loved so devastated. Water flooded the city; the city was "a gumbo of mush and mud." New Orleans was destroyed. Cornelius was overwhelmed with the amount of work to do--there was so much to clean up and rebuild. Cornelius, like many others, dried his eyes and got to work. The same people who waved to him weeks and months and years before pitched in to help--the people of New Orleans all helped. And others from far away came to help, too.

(He leaves out the looting and lawlessness--probably a good idea for this age group.)

The story ends the way all picture books do: happily. The city is rebuilt to its former glory in a couple dozen pages. Even though Cornelius Washington passed away soon after Katrina, Bildner writes that he symbolizes the spirit of New Orleans--the determination, flair, and friendliness that will always be a part of the city.

Without getting too stuck in the murkiness of history, I think Bildner does a great job of shining the spotlight on a person who doesn't normally show up in picture books. The quotation at the beginning of the book by Martin Luther King, Jr., sets the scene well:
Even if it's called your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to phase and say, "Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well."
Whatever you are, do it well. And Cornelius seems to have done this.

I think it's important to note that Phil Bildner admits to taking some liberty with the true story of Cornelius. He first becomes interested in Cornelius because he sounded like a legend, like a myth, like a story from the American folk tradition. He admits to exaggerating the facts he has about Cornelius in order to carry on the spirit of his story. I hope Cornelius' surviving family supports the book.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud by Tracey Fern

Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud by Tracey Fern, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

Farrar Straus Giroux

Rating: 5 stars

Ellen Prentiss wasn't like other girls. She fell in love with sea at an early age. Her father, loving and appreciating that she loved the water as much as he loved it, taught her all that he knew about hoisting sails, steering a schooner, and most important of all: navigating. Every chance she got, she was practicing one of these skills with her father's trading schooner.

She loved racing any and all ship around her. Her father's advice was always the same: "A true navigator must have the caution to read the sea, as well as the courage to dare the wind."

Decades later, when Ellen found a man who loved the sea as much as she did and who encouraged her sea skills as much as her father did, she married him. The two soon were charged with navigating the Flying Cloud on a fifteen-thousand-mile journey from New York City down to Cape Horn and up to San Francisco. The Gold Rush was on, and they were hurrying to get passengers and cargo to America's West Coast.

If they could make the trip faster than any other ship, they would receive a bonus and the world record. Ellen was excited--and determined.

Ellen pushed the Flying Cloud hard at the start of the ship, covering hundreds of miles each day. But she pushes it too hard and the mainmast rips. The damage humbles Ellen, and makes her reconsider how hard she pushed the ship. The next few weeks she sets a cautious course, catching only gentle breezes. Then she remembers her father's advice and thinks "There is no glory in second place. Now is the time for courage."

And so, Ellen dares the wind and leads the Flying Cloud through dangerous waters, a frightening storm, and around the cliffs of Cape Horn. They charged north again, once again covering hundreds of miles each day. After eighty-nine days at sea, they reached San Francisco in world-record time.

This is an exciting true story--an example of how history really does churn out the best stories around. (Congratulations to Tracey Fern who writes the story with such suspense.) I really want to imprint Ellen's father's words in all of my kids' brains. You must have caution and courage, I want them to see, and the wisdom to know when to use which. Caution and courage, caution and courage, caution and courage.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake
Rating: 5 stars


We've been all about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory lately. The kids watched the old version of the movie--the slightly creepy one with Gene Wilder--a few times at the beach in August. Then, we listened to the book on CD this month. And finally, a week or so ago, they watched the newer version of the movie, starring Johnny Depp. At breakfast the next morning we had a fun, slightly nerdy, conversation about the similarities and differences between the book and the two movies. 

The book itself is wonderful. Do you remember it?

Young, poor Charlie Bucket's wildest hopes are realized when he is the fifth and final child to find the prized golden ticket that will gain him entrance into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Kids don't go on the tour alone; each brings along a parent or grown-up as chaperone. The parents are one of my favorite parts of the book--the parents are rather hideous, backbone-less characters who've enabled their children to be the horrid, selfish creatures they've become. All but sweet Charlie, of course, who brings his Grandpa Joe.

Throughout the tour of the factory, all of the kids are treated to amazing sights and sounds and smells that are miles beyond their wildest imaginations. The other children are, one by one, ejected in fitting, surprising, mouth-dropping ways from the factory because of naughty, disobedient behavior. Finally, Charlie is the only one left. I forgot the end of the book, to be honest, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear Willy Wonka bequeath his entire factory to Charlie. When Wonka says to Charlie's protesting, "But Charlie! Nothing is impossible!" I felt my little-kid self swept up, wanting to believe him. I sure hope my kids do.

The book is inspired by Dahl's childhood (you can read about it as I did in Boy--Tales of Childhood), when Cadbury mailed test packages of chocolate to his boarding school in order to get the boys' opinions of their new products. And, back then, Cadbury and another company I've never heard of, Rowntree, would try to steal each other's chocolate recipes, just like people tried to steal Willy Wonka's recipes in the book.

We've listened to a few audiobooks this year, but this was the best. There were sound effects during the reading that made listening to it even more exciting...although Kiefer kept wondering when they were going to sing the Oompa Loompa song, which I'll now have in my head all day. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood

Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt

Rating: 5 stars

Chronicle Books

Earlier this year I forced (yes, forced!) my kids to watched the movie "Cinderella." We were heading to Disneyworld for the first time, and I felt they needed to know the story before arriving at the Magical Kingdom. I argued that it was a classic, and they'd have to know the story to appreciate some parts of Disneyworld and also dozens of books they'd read in their lives. When an author compared their character to Cinderella, I wanted them to know what s/he was writing about.

I was priming them for stories like the one Deborah Underwood has written.

Interstellar Cinderella turns the classic Cinderella tale on its head in some fantastic ways. Cinderella lives with her unkind stepsisters and nasty stepmother--on a different plant, and she's the family mechanic this time, not maid. When her stepsisters get invited to a royal space parade, Cinderella is told she can't attend. Her stepsisters grab her ever-handy toolbox to make sure she doesn't fix her way into going.

"But wait!" the price called after her
"Please tell me how to find--"
The girl was gone--but she had left
Her socket wrench behind.
But her stepsisters didn't count on Cinderella's godrobot, who hooked her up with a new space suit, complete with some handy tools. Cinderella zooms through the galaxy in time to see the parade. She's gets to see the ship of her dreams fly past...and watches it shoot up a cloud of grit and smoke!

The driver and owner of that ship, the prince, is helpless; his chief mechanic has just quit. Interstellar Cinderella comes to his rescue and fixes his ship in a jiffy. He's impressed and smitten! They "talk for hours of rocket ships," but suddenly it's midnight and she has to go home--as she flies away, her wrench falls out of her space suit. He grabs it. You see where this is going...

The next day he goes out looking for her. Girls from all over the galaxy try to fix the ship he's in with the wrench he's got, but they all fail...until Interstellar Cinderella gives it a try and makes it run smoothly.

Then he proposes marriage. Yikes!

(And this is the best part.)
She thought this over carefully.
Her family watched in panic.
"I'm far too young for marriage,
But I'll be your chief mechanic!"
Hip, hip hooray for Deborah Underwood's go-girl spin off of Cinderella! (And hooray for common sense prevailing for child brides!)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

First Grade Dropout by Audrey Vernick

First Grade Dropout by Audrey Vernick
Rating: 5 stars

Clarion Books

Oh dear ME this is such a funny book--and, better yet, wonderfully comforting for kids to read, especially at the beginning of the school year!

The narrator admits to being many things in his young life: hungry, four years old, crazy bored, soaking wet. But now he can add first grade dropout to his list. Because he did such an embarrassing thing that now he can never, ever, ever go back to Lakeview Elementary School tomorrow.

What did he do? He called his teacher, Ms. Morgan, "Mommy."

And everyone laughed. Including his best friend Tyler. "They laughed and slapped their desks and stomped their feet. And pointed. At me." Clever Audrey Vernick writes, "It was quiet. Then it started, all at once, like a big marching band of laughing people."

(Here's that big marching band of laughing people,
illustrated by clever Matthew Cordell.)
Our poor narrator can't imagine facing his class again, so he decides to drop out. He'll miss his friends and recess and a few other things, but he's got a plan to stay at home, work on his jump shot, get a job. You can tell this plan doesn't sit right with him, so he goes to soccer practice anyway. He sees his best friend Tyler, who acts like everything is normal.

Like the good best friend he is, Tyler listens to the plan and decides to drop out, too. "Awesome," Tyler says. "It'll be great! We can work on our junk shots."

Our narrator stifles a giggle. He tries not to laugh, but can't help it. Suddenly, he's smiling big and explaining to Tyler what is so funny--Tyler said junk shot, not jump shot. Tyler stands there for a second, but you know what he does next?

He laughs. At himself! Then they laugh together.

The boys decide to work on their junk shots tomorrow at recess, and show them to Ms., Mommy.

Great, great, great message: That we all make some silly, embarrassing mistakes from time to time. And while we want to shrivel up and disappear or pretend like it didn't happen or invent a time machine to go back and undo it, it's easier and best to not take ourselves too seriously and laugh a little with ourselves.

(We parents can lead by example here!)

Super quick story in my own life of saying "Mom" when I shouldn't have: On my very first night of college during a super cool, freshmen-only retreat, I was sleeping in a bunkhouse with about 20 other freshmen girls. In the middle of the night I had a dream and yelled, "MOM!" loudly. In a shocking moment of maturity, I admitted it was me when a couple girls asked about it the next morning, and I laughed along with them. I was known as the girl who yelled for her Mom for a few weeks, then everyone forgot about it. Like people always do (though, at the time, it doesn't seem like that'll ever happen).

Again, fantastic book--and so very pertinent! Let's bolster our kids with the confidence in knowing that they can get over embarrassing stuff now, when they're young, so they can handle embarrassing stuff on their own in the future. Because we all know that, like it or not, embarrassing stuff continues to happen!

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt

The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Rating: 5 stars

Philomel Books

Lorelei squealed when she saw the sequel to The Day The Crayons Quit in my library bag. She and Ben actually had an argument about who could read it first. The oldest won, and when she finished, she sighed and handed it to him, saying "It's sooooo good."

It IS "sooooo good!"

Most of Duncan's crayons are scattered around the house, some a little further from home. Maroon crayon (once used to color a scab) is marooned in the basement. Neon Red Crayon was left poolside on vacation and is doing her best to travel back. Yellow and orange melted together outside; their argument over who should be the color of the sun is now over because they recognize its true color: "HOT." Tan crayon has been eaten then thrown up by a dog and now has bits of carpet fuzz stuck to him.

Nobody likes "Pea Green." So he's changing his name
 to Esteban the Magnificent!
You get the picture...each crayon has its own funny story of why they're not within an arm's reach away from Duncan. And they all want to get back to him, get back to their normal life of being used to scribble and color and imagine.

After reading all the postcards from these now-damaged crayons, he runs around and picks them all up. But they can't fit into his crayon box anymore. Therefore, he builds a crayon house where they can all fit and feel at home.

This isn't the best read-aloud story in the world, but the creativity of the story and the illustrations is off-the-charts. How can my kids not look at the stuff lying around a little differently?! But now I'm worried they'll pick up even less, hoping to get a postcard or two from their toys!