Monday, October 20, 2014

Shh! We Have a Plan! by Chris Haughton

Shh! We Have a Plan! by Chris Naughton

Rating: 5 stars

Shh! We Have a Plan! is sitting on Kiefer's bed right now, and it hasn't moved very far all week. He is just crazy about it. Almost as crazy as I am about the book, which is oddly dark for a picture book.

But the hues match the setting and story perfectly: Four wrapped-up guys go out hunting for a bird in the dark. Three are serious about catching one; one is along for the ride, seemingly too young to have been left at home.

"Hello, birdie!" this little one calls out.

"Shh..." says the first guy.

"SHHH!!" reinforces the second guy.

"We have a plan!" says the last guy, who is holding something (a cage, a ladder, a big log).

Kiefer likes to then tell me what their plan is: "They're going to CATCH the birdie and put him in the cage." Or "They're going to climb up the ladder to get the birdie in the tree!"

Ready one, ready two, ready th...!
The three guys try to get that birdie but never succeed.  Finally the littlest guy pulls out some bread and attracts not just the one bird but a whole flock, including a big, mean one that does NOT want to be caught. They run for their lives!

And they decide maybe they'll catch a squirrel instead.

This is a wonderful book with which your child or student can practice making predictions, and to talk generally of having a "plan." Maybe it's just plan-happy me that appreciates that...?!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sally Goes to Heaven by Stephen Huneck

Sally Goes to Heaven by Stephen Huneck

Rating: 5 stars

Our own black dog--her name is Lulu, not Sally--is luckily not going to Heaven this week.  But when she does, I'm glad to have another book to read to my kids to make that lesson a little less painful.

I've reviewed three other Sally books (there are more)--Sally Gets a Job, Sally's Great Balloon Adventure, and Sally Goes to the Vet--and explained how much I like the very simple, very straightforward yet still very unique woodcut illustrations in the books. And I like Sally a whole lot!  How sad but appropriate that after these adventures and life experiences, she dies.  And goes to Heaven.

The first few pages of the book are about how difficult it is for Sally to eat and move. And then, the next morning, "Sally wakes up in heaven." And the joy begins!  She runs in circles really fast, without any sort of pain. There's a gigantic mound of smelly socks for her to sniff like crazy--hurray! All the animals play together; no one is afraid of anyone else. Meatballs grow on bushes and there are ice cream stands--for dogs!--on every block. Frisbees fill the sky!

Sally just wishes she could comfort her family and friends and let them know that all is good, her pain is gone, and that she is happy.

This is a very sweet book about a very sad time in the life of a family, but Huneck focuses the pet death experience about the dog and the wonderful things she's doing in Heaven. It's a "good to know about" book for when you need it.

(Another book very similar to this book you might also want to know about: Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant...)

The Tarantula in My Purse: and 172 Other Wild Pets by Jean Craighead George

The Tarantula in My Purse: and 172 Other Wild Pets by Jean Craighead George

Rating: 5 stars

I went on a trip last week, and left this book for Lorelei with a Post-It stuck onto it: "DO NOT read this book! Mrs. George is MUCH nicer than your mom! She lets her kids bring any and every animal they want into their home as a pet!  Your mom is not that nice.  Do NOT read this--you'll get too many great ideas!"

She read the book (of course). And loved it.

That's right: Jean Craighead George was a much more tolerant, patient, encouraging mother than I am. She tolerated--no, encouraged!--her three children to bring home and keep home anything and everything they found in the wild. Crows. Skunks. Frogs. Fish. Ducks. Geese. Lots of birds. And yes, even a tarantula.

Because George herself had this sort of upbringing, it was second-nature to her.  So I guess I could blame my dear mom and dad, but...I try not to throw them under the bus unless it's absolutely necessary.

Each short little chapter is about a different pet the George family had, and little quirks and idiosyncrasies about that particular animal and/or that particular pet. It is not overly scientific, and I think that's a really great thing. Instead, there are heaps of small bits of information about the behavior of wildlife that the family learned first-hand simply by observing the animal over an extended period of time. They just wrote down what they observed, and oftentimes George would also provided background about the animal's behavior that she had learned through research while writing one of her many nature books.  (She is the author of more than 100 books, including Julie of the Wolves and, my childhood favorite, My Side of the Mountain.)

This was a great, fun read for me, but also very appropriate for any animal-loving kid. It would be a great read-aloud book as kids wonder "What if we had a ___ for a pet?!" Appropriate for any age at all--just be ready for some wild pet suggestions!


P.S. I heard about this book through the for-adults book The Book Whisperer, which is full of ideas on how to get kids to read more and also has a ton of middle-grade great book suggestions in it.

P.P.S. One fun exercise to do with this book is to read this book together (or, like Lorelei and I did, separate) and then read the I Can Read It book Goose and Duck, which is a cute little fictional story that you quickly find out in the book is based on a totally true story. What a need example of how to come up with a fiction story with a true story, and how you write what you know!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fox's Garden by Princesse CamCam

Fox's Garden by Princesse Camcam

Rating: 5 stars

One cold and snowy night, a fox gets lost among endless woods and drifts of snow. She runs past one house, but gets scared off by the look of fright in the woman's eyes.  She runs up to another home, but gets kicked off by an angry old man. Not knowing where else to go, the fox finds a greenhouse open and available, so she goes in to get out of the cold.

She doesn't realize a small boy watches her from his window.  He gathers some food and follows her inside, and realizes that the fox is not alone.  She now has a small gathering of kits around her, nursing quietly among the flowers in the greenhouse.

The boy offers what he can: a basket of gifts. Then he slowly returns to his room; he doesn't further interrupt the fox or wait for her to pay him any attention.

While the boy sleeps, the fox and her kits carry large plumes of flowers from the greenhouse to the boy's house.  They all jump quietly through the window, and plant them in his room. Then, the fox family is off through the night.

The boy wakes to their grateful abundance of flowers in his own room.


There is something extremely special about this wordless picture book.  I'm not entirely sure what it is--I just can't put my finger on what makes this book so magical. Princesse Camcam (I'm sure you're not shocked to hear it's not her real name, but it is a pen name you're not likely to forget--she was born Camille Garoche in southwest France) creates her own paper-cut dioramas that she then lights up and photographs. This gives the illustrations a unique sense of depth as you turn the pages of her book.

The story, so elegantly and gently placed before the reader, is simple and straightforward. The adults in this book are not open to helping the fox, yet the small boy opens his heart and gives what he can to the fox. His thoughtfulness does not go unnoticed; the fox thanks him simply with a magical bouquet. The big lesson: kindness begets kindness.

The world needs more of this lesson.  The world needs more of books like these. This is truly one of the most beautiful books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance by Birgitta Sif

Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance by Birgitta Sif

Rating: 5 stars

Frances Dean was a little girl who loved to dance. "When no one was around, she would feel the wind and dance..." With the woods as her backdrop, the birds as her backup, and the geese and duck as her audience, she danced and danced and danced.

But when people were around, she stopped.  She felt their eyes on her, so she just stood still, waiting for them to pass. There were too many people and she stood for too long, so she forgot how to dance, and she forgot the joy she felt when dancing.

As she walked home, trying to figure out how to get her joyous dancing back, she stumbled across a little girl, much younger than she, singing a happy tune.  The girl saw Frances Dean, but had the courage to keep on singing, no matter whose eyes were on her. That night, Frances Dean thought of the little girl and how she kept singing, regardless of who or what was around her.

In the morning, Frances Dean woke up and, with a little help, remembered how much she loved to dance and dance. She practiced dancing in front of and with others.  She started small--with birds--then graduated--to a cat and dog--then, finally, with an old lady in the square. The little girl with the happy tune dance and sing together, being true to their own voice while also sharing their love with their world.

Stories like this--especially with whimsical, magical illustrations like those Sif produces --touch a special place in my heart right now, as Lorelei begins to navigate some of the "un-fun" aspects of girlhood in elementary school. The teasing isn't so bad right now, but it is teasing to keep her from being best friends with a boy (a gem of a child, I have to add), going to the barn she rides at now (the other girls go to a "better" barn), and stuff like that. We use the words, "What's the truth in your heart? Do you know what you really want to do?" She knows: be best friends with Garrett and ride that pony Mo. But...courage to Lorelei for keeping on being Lorelei.  (Who's a gem of a child, too, I think.)

Check out Birgitta Sif's first picture book Oliver and these other dancing books if you like this one:

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy Dempsey
Rupert Can Dance by Jules Feiffer

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look, illustrated by Meilo So

Rating: 5 stars

Ben chose this book as his bedtime book a few nights ago, when we were on a quick weekend trip to the beach. He and Kiefer were sharing a room in our rental place. On twin beds, lying side by side, my boys lay side by side, listening to Lenore Look's absorbing story and looking at Meilo So's amazing artwork. Kiefer was asleep by the end of it, but Ben was spellbound throughout and even let out a quiet "woah" at the ending.

The book tells the legend of Wu Daozi, an Chinese artist that lived in the eighth century. The story begins in his calligraphy class when he was a young boy.  He tries to get the strokes right, but his brush seems to have a mind of its own.  The monk-teacher chides him for not paying attention, not trying hard enough, not making his brush do his brain's bidding. Yet Wu Daozi learned in that classroom that he possessed a gift: the gift of art.

Leaving calligraphy behind, he painted on walls everywhere--at temples, teahouses, and the silk bazaar.  (I guess graffiti laws were different back then?) The scenes were extraordinary, and people stopped to appreciate his artwork and skill. One day, he paints a butterfly that is so life-like that it flutters off the wall, into the air. Daozi is shocked, and is certain that he imagined what just happened.  He paints another butterfly, and it, too, flies away.  Suddenly, all around the city, his incredibly realistic paintings start to disappear.  The horses gallop off, the birds fly away, the men march down the road...

Yet the Emperor commissions Daozi to do the biggest mural of his career (hoping that it won't fly away).  Daozi toils on it for years and years, growing older and older as he paints and paints.  At the unveiling, the painting doesn't disappear.  It remains.  But Daozi...old Daozi walks right into the painting and is never seen again!

Magical for sure.  In just the right way.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller

Rating: 5 sister

My big sister once suggested to me that I read parenting books and summarize them, so to save parents the time of reading the whole book but give them the invaluable stuff of what's between the covers.  This is my first attempt at doing that...

Donalyn Miller is "the book whisperer."  She's not an expert according to degrees on her walls; she is an expert according to the students she's taught, encouraged, and inspired. And although I'm not a reading or Language Arts teacher for middle school students like most of the readers of The Book Whisperer, I am a reading mom--a reading mom with a children's book blog. So, I thought I might have something to learn. I thought right!

I kept a running list of things that we parents can do to get our younger children off to the right start at home before school even starts and also augment the "reading is great!" message that is (hopefully) being preached at school.

Here are lessons from her book for us parents of younger children:

1. Independent reading time is crucial! Give them time to read. 

Make time for reading, when most other things aren't available to your young child. At our house we have Quiet Time, just 30 minutes in the afternoon when we all take a break from each other and read in our rooms. Of course the kids often do things other than read--Ben likes to look at and reorganize his baseball card collection, and Lorelei will often engage in some artsy thing--but mostly I suggest they take up a pile of books and read them. And, mostly, that's what they do.

2. Let kids choose their own books. 

From time to time in the library I hear moms say "Let me choose the books. You know I choose good ones for you!" That makes me sad if the kids are told to sit on the sofa and not touch anything. But I believe in doing a mix of both--your library bag should be a combination of what you think they want or need and what they want. Go to the library and enjoy saying "YES!" for a whole hour (or seven minutes if you've got any kid under two years old)--because books are free and 50 is the limit (at least here in Fairfax County). Have them ask the librarians for help!

3. Validate their choices. 

This is an extension of #3, but very important to remember and DO. Read the books that they chose, even if it's the 300th time you've read it. Ask them why they like a book. Pick up a book that they chose from their school's library and express interest. Stop what you're doing to sit and read it. If you have a grade school child, ask them what their favorite book has been and then read that book. Like, right now. Validating their choices make them more confident in their choices--both as readers and as humans.

4. Read yourself! Be a reading role model. 

Parents can definitely do this, too!
Be excited about books! Enthusiasm is contagious. Tell them what you're reading, and read aloud interesting bits. Ask them what they're reading, and invite them to read funny or interesting or heart-pulling segments to you. Share with them your favorite books from childhood, and ask their aunts and uncles and grandparents and sitters to become part of this reading community if they are not already.

5. Read with them. 

Of course, the readers of the world go to college more often than not and get higher grades and score higher on all the tests out there. Well, that's great and all, but I love that reading has given me a great way to communicate with my children today. We have jokes from board books that we've read again and again, ways we remember things and reference points for life. Our relationship is deeper because of it, and I really do think books will help me through some of the angst-filled years that are ahead of us because we'll have something to talk about besides ourselves. (Or, we'll have a way of talking about ourselves in code.)

Other than these great take-aways and lots of insightful anecdotes, she points to five useful books and websites to encourage reading.  I'll share them with you (they're on page 116 of her book). Click on them for a link:

With the exception of Jen Robinson's Book Page, most of these websites and books are for older readers, but they are good to know about.

There you go!  No need to read the book...unless you're like me, and you just kinda sorta want to...!

Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas by Natasha Yim

Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas by Natasha Yim, illustrated by Grace Zong

Rating: 4 stars

At the rate we're going, we're going to have to keep renewing this book until the Chinese New Year! (It is late September as I type this...)  Kiefer will not let me return it--he's pulled it out of the library bag twice already.

It's definitely worth telling you about, and since it's been sitting around our house, I've been reading it almost once a day for the past few weeks.

Natasha Yim wrote a great Chinese twist of Goldylocks and the Three Bears. On Chinese New Year, Goldy Luck's mom asks her to bring a plate of turnip cakes to her next door neighbors. Once there, she tastes the family's congee rice porridge, determines the one in the plastic bowl is just right and gobbles it all up. She feels sleepy so tests the three chairs available, favoring the fun rocking chair--she ends up rocking it to pieces. Oops! She still feels sleepy and wanders to the bedrooms, selecting the third bed, a little futon, and falling fast asleep.

The (panda) bear family come home to this mess and finds the messy intruder fast asleep...until she is startled awake by their presence and runs back home immediately, embarrassed by her behavior. She thinks of her neighbors all day, and returns--with a fresh bowl of congee--to help clean up and celebrate the new year together.

There are lots of lessons to draw from this book, or you can simply enjoy the nice version of a classic story with wonderful illustrations by Grace Zong. Better yet, make the turnip cakes from the recipe in the back of the book and bring one by my house, please!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Big Little Mother by Kevin Kling

Big Little Mother by Kevin Kling, illustrated by Chris Monroe

Rating: 4 stars

I was prepared not to like this book, based on the title and cover. Then I reminded myself that that whole "don't judge a book by its cover" thing exists for a reason, so I did my best to suspend my disbelief and read the book. Glad I did! It's a a cute story.

The little brother in this story will always have a) a big sister and b) a cat, Kittywumpus, that is also older than him. Kittywumpus is that big sister's chosen playmate nine times out of ten; sometimes, if she's in just the right mood, that little brother gets to play along a little, too.

Until the day that Kittywumpus bolts out the door, and that big sister is forced to turn to her little brother and play with him. Things go well and things go smoothly as they play Adventures in Cardboard, Couch Cushion Treasure Hunt, and Sweet Moves in Groovy Threads. They pause between games to look for Kittywumpus, but then go back to each other and their creative play.

There's a sprinkling of mean-big-sister stuff in here, and I really dislike how she's mean--and how the little brother goes along with it as if he has to, as if his assertiveness needs not apply when dealing with his older sister.  I don't love this part of their relationship, though no sibling relationship is certainly perfect.

The end is fairly predictable, but not in a bad way. Kittywumpus does return, but the little brother remains in the big sister's circle of chosen playmates. The little brother is ecstatic to be accepted by her, even with the sprinkling of cool unkindness.

(My problem with the title/cover: I don't like the idea of oldest girls being "little mothers." Because I have an oldest girl and two younger boys, I hear "Oh! Is she like a little mother to them?" way too frequently. That's my own pet peeve I didn't mean to throw onto an innocent picture book...but did anyway...)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rupert Can Dance by Jules Feiffer

Rupert Can Dance by Jules Feiffer

Rating: 5 stars

I have a magnet on my refrigerator with the suggestion "Dance like nobody's watching!" I think Rupert would appreciate that. But check out the picture on my blogger profile--clearly I don't care if anyone is watching, I'll still bust a move how I please...

Rupert is a cat belonging to Mandy. Mandy is a dancer extraordinaire--there's nothing Rupert likes more than to watch Mandy dance. Well, there might be one thing he likes more, and that happens the moment Mandy falls asleep each evening.  Rupert grabs her dancing shoes and dances the night away!

Dancing is his secret. It is the last thing he wanted Mandy to find out.

But one night, she does. She wakes up unexpectedly and saw him.  She is overjoyed; he is horrified. She wants to teach him how to dance, whereas he loves the freedom of doing his moves however he wants. So he stops dancing (much to both of their disappointment). For him, the joy was taken out of it once he was discovered. For her, she could not share the thing she loved the best with the cat she loved the most.
They could have gone on this way for years.
And in fact, they did.

Sad times indeed.

Then one day not too far after, Mandy acts dumb, and asks for his help in some dance steps. Rupert falls for this old trick and, happy to be needed as an expert, teaches her what she wants. She gets him dancing again, and they happily dance together ever after--taking turns leading.

The messy sketches of Jules Feiffer might not be my first choice of illustrations, but they capture the movement--and the joy in the movement--of these two characters really well. As for the moral of the story, all kids sure do need it. Dance like nobody's watching should be tattooed (hmm...children tattooed? some of you might object to that) on the inside of their foreheads before they start wilting from self-consciousness in middle school. Here's to hoping that yours and mine will remember their dance moves despite their peers' gaze.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Shackleton's Journey by William Grill

Shackleton's Journey by William Grill

Rating: 5 stars

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Ernest Shackleton. 1914. The Endurance. The greatest survival story ever. Reading more about it is on my to-do list; I'm aiming to get to that when the kids are in late middle school, so that I can teach them lessons about this extraordinary man while also drawing on his courage and perseverance as I face my kids' teenage years.

In all seriousness, I'm just not sure I can do this book justice.  I found it on a list of Caldecott hopefuls, and I've been blown away ever since.

Funding and recruitment
William Grill has created a masterpiece here. In thirty-two short chapters--most just a double spread long--he shows rather than tells of the expedition that made Shackleton one of the best explorers ever. He begins by telling us a little about Shackleton and his background, then discusses the funding and recruitment for such a voyage.  By highlighting fascinating tidbits ("Shackleton quizzed candidates on their practical skills, but also about more unusual things, like if they could sing well.") and providing detailed drawings--such as the line of people who stood to apply to go with Shackleton--Grill hooks kids in to his unusual style.

Grill goes on, page after huge page, to illustrate the adventure.  He illustrates the equipment and supplies. He captures the excitement in the moment of "bon voyage." The expedition map shows Shackleton's route and the ice he's up against. I'm as impressed as the kids with the pack ice they ram through, complete with videographer hanging from the stern to film it. And then they're stuck! The entire crew stays where they are for years, eating and living and entertaining themselves.
Meanwhile on Elephant Island

"Extraordinary detail" doesn't begin to describe how great Grill's drawings are. Each little sketch is a story of itself, worthy of many minutes' study. And Grill uses colored pencils as his medium--just colored pencils. The book makes me think of those huge DK books that show the inside of a castle. But it is also a story, with one of the biggest, most unbelievable, completely TRUE plots ever!

I am confident this book will capture the imagination of at least one person in your house. The recommended age for this book is 7 to 11, and I agree with that, although having a picture book in your hand in these later years is definitely odd for some kids.

Then again, at 38, I have no problem having a picture book in my lap...especially one as extraordinary as Shackleton's Journey.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus

Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus

Rating: 5 stars

Arun and his family arrive at Sevagram, his grandfather Gandhi's service village, and go straight to Gandhi's hut. They touch his feet to show respect; he hugs them tightly in return. Gandhi is impressed that the boy had walked the entire way from the train station. "That walk is a test of character. I am impressed." The boy's heart swells.

And so begins Arun's time at Sevagram, a time of simple beds and early mornings, guided meditations and chores, and of wondering if he could live up to the Gandhi name. Wherever the boy came from, it was quite different from where he is now, and the new places frustrates him to no end.  Here, in this place where he is supposed to be still and peaceful, Arun feels fidgety and annoyed all day long. Finally, he gets into a shouting match during a soccer game, and feels singled out for his quickness to anger.

He goes to seek counsel from his grandfather.  Gandhi is busy doing more important things, but he wonderfully shoos away his colleagues and puts away his papers in order to make time and space for his grandson.

"We all feel anger."
"Even you?" I asked.
"Even me," said Grandfather.
"Tell me what has you so upset," he says.  The boy's story spills out, and the fear of never being at peace or living up to the great Gandhi name hangs in the air. Gandhi assures the child that everyone feels anger--even the great Gandhi himself.

Anger is like electricity, Gandhi explains. It can strike like lightening and split a living tree in two. Or it can be channeled and transformative, and it can shed light like a lamp. In this way, anger can illuminate. It can turn darkness into light. We can work to use our anger, instead of letting it use us. The choice lies in each of us: lightning or lamp.


There is so much goodness in this book.  The ability to talk about anger, and how it is a natural feeling, present in all of us, is the best part of the book, but there are others. Namely, how he wonders if he'll ever live up to his family's name, how Gandhi makes time for him, and the introduction of a great man like Gandhi.

I did my best to live my life as light.
But the anger part is so important.  Back when I was obsessed with Gandhi in college, I was attracted to his stoicism.  I wished I had what I thought to be his ability to push down all his feelings and feel at peace.  I think because I was young and still very naive and hadn't yet felt a full range of emotions that I thought this was possible. Now, at an older and, yes, wiser period of my life, I realize that pushing emotions down deep and putting on a certain, expected face is a skill to be cast away, not idolized.  Transforming those very human and very deep emotions is trickier and healthier and what I now aim to do. Living with feelings and using my emotions are things I'm actively figuring out how to do, and how to teach my kids.

I could go on and on. But I won't. The book is wonderful, a great read though not an incredibly fun one. How great to read this with your child (or class), then be able to remind yourself (and for your child to remind you) of the choice we all have when we feel anger: lightening or lamp. The book's simple message has the potential to live in my children and your children for decades. And that is a hallmark of a truly wonderful book. A small critique: I wish it were slightly more accessible for kids.  The illustrations, while beautiful and artsy and Caldecott-worthy, are like poetry--gorgeous but difficult to understand, and they could be a turn off for some kids.

Do read the book for yourself--this might be a picture book your child never reads, or doesn't love.  But you should read it. So check it out for you this time around.