Thursday, April 10, 2014

Journey

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm in the process of reviewing the books I acquired at the Medal Winners book signing in NYC. The second book in my stack is the 2014 Caldecott Honor book, Journey. This book never made it onto my radar prior to the Caldecott list being publish in late January. I'm thrilled that it did; I think it's the family favorite of all the books I bought at the book signing. Even my teens are hooked, and just the other day, my oldest (14) brought it along on a car ride with us. 


At first glance, Journey hearkens back to the timeless classic Harold and the Purple Crayon. Aside from a writing apparatus creating an object with which the main character interacts, the connection quickly withers. Where Harold draws one-dimensional objects which comprise the only illustration, Journey's red drawings open a door to an odyssey in entirely new realm.


Although Journey contains no words, none are particularly needed as the red draws your eyes and imagination through the muted tones of the cities and landscapes on the adventure of this imaginative little girl. The architecture is decidedly amazing. The villains are fearsome, but not exactly nightmare-worthy. The forests have an idyllic path with whimsical lanterns floating overhead. A visual treat, to say the least.


Were it just the lovely pictures and expansive imaginary world this book would be quite enjoyable, but the truly distinguishing feature is the ending. I don't want to spoil the ending for others, but when the purple bird leads the little girl to a purple door, the book finds an enchanting ending to this remarkable Journey.



Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Locomotive

Paul and I were fortunate enough to spend the last weekend in March visiting NYC...without children. Although we traveled without the kids, that didn't mean that children's literature was very far from my mind, and as I made plans to visit a few local bookstores I discovered that the renowned Books of Wonder had scheduled a Medal Winners book signing for the very weekend we were in town. That's right...Medal Winners. As in, Caldecott and Geisel Medal Winners. I think it was my very favorite part of the entire weekend! Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to review each of the books I bought and had signed, beginning today with Locomotive, the 2014 Caldecott winner.


Just inside the front and back covers of Locomotive you will find depictions of the train parts (back) and the travel line depicted in the book (front). The information here lends itself well to children who are interested in the details and will soak up the background, maps, and history that led to the formation of the Transcontinental Railroad. Although this is a lovely picture book, it could also be a useful research tool for many children.


It goes without saying that the illustrations of Locomotive are amazing. What I truly appreciated about the artistic style of the book is that while the rendering of the locomotive itself is extremely detailed and full of life, the landscape scenery is more dreamy and ethereal, and the text is typically placed among a minimalist background. This style allows the reader to truly focus on the locomotive and the action depicted without being distracted by peripheral busyness.


One of the most remarkable feats of this book is the use of vintage typefaces and sound effects to draw the reader into the adventure aboard the locomotive. The hiss of the steam, the clang of the bell, the breath of the engine nearly jump off of each page as you move through the varying landscapes, heaving up mountains, barreling across deserts toward the West Coast.


Locomotive is sure to delight those with a childhood train obsession and enthrall those who never knew a train story could be quite so captivating.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Twelve Kinds of Ice


I wish I could remember where I first saw a recommendation for Twelve Kinds of Ice. I vaguely recollect noticing the cover art back in the summer, then stumbling back upon it in early fall. By November, I had acquired a copy, largely based on the lovely illustrations, thinking that, at a mere 64 pages, this would make a wonderful snow day read. If you haven't been living under a rock, or a sunny beach on the southern hemisphere, you probably know that the entire east coast experienced a winter storm over the last few days. That flurry of snow out our windows was the setting by which we finally dove into Twelve Kinds of Ice.


I'm truly glad I saved this book for such a time. The black and white illustrations, the colorful prose, the sparkling descriptions of each kind of ice, and the adventures that await each new phase of winter read like a story my grandmother might tell, if I had a grandmother who lived anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line where the winter seems stuck on repeat between ice kinds 1, 2, and 3. Sure, there are some reinforced stereotypes of figure-skating girls battling for ice rink time from the hockey-playing boys, but beyond that you find humorous anecdotes of a father who performs comic routines while smoothing the ice each evening, an elaborate ice show with grandiose performances, and even the melancholic thaw when the rink might only have a few feet of ice left for the lengthening, warming spring days. I'm unsure how many more snow days this winter might hold, but this story will remain on hand just in case.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Homer Price

Although Robert McCloskey is probably better known for his picture books, Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings, and One Morning in Maine, he also wrote a little gem of a chapter book titled Homer Price. Perfect for the newer chapter book reader, 2nd-3rd grade, Homer Price delivers equal parts humor, nostalgia, and entertaining adventure with a heaping dose of early 40s Americana. Homer's life is full of freedom tempered with responsibility, creativity along with occasional peril, wrapped in an Andy-Griffith-esque package.


Because each of the short stories are stand alone, I let my older kids pick and choose the order in which we read them about 3 years ago when I first read this book aloud. They, of course, were most interested in hearing the story about the doughnuts. The doughnut machine will not cooperate, a diamond bracelet is lost, and the finest marketing scheme in town is developed. The kids giggled with each development and couldn't wait to start the next story as soon as this one was finished. I don't think Finn really even heard much of this story, and I plan to read it aloud to him soon. There aren't too many books that I read aloud for a second time, but this is definitely one of them.



Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Magic Faraway Tree series


This past weekend, I asked Paulie, my 14-year-old, what his favorite book that we've ever read aloud together was. He answered without hesitation, "the Magic Faraway Tree books". I was both surprised and not, as I knew the kids loved this series very much, never wanting me to put the books down in the evenings; yet I was a bit surprised that a 14-year-old would be attached to books about younger children with magic lands at the top of an enchanted tree and a character that run around with a saucepan on his head. Funny enough, when I first started reading this series to the kids, Paulie and Elizabeth were 12 and 11 respectively, and I remember thinking about 3 chapters into the first book that they would start protesting the silliness of these stories. I couldn't have been further from the truth. These books can and should clearly be enjoyed by children, and adults, of all ages; anyone with an imagination for the possibilities in life and an appetite for an enchanted mystery.


The series follows Jo, Bessie, and Fanny, and sometimes a cousin or friend, as they move into the country and discover an enchanted wood nearby. The enchanted wood is centered around the Magic Faraway Tree which has a rotating variety of "lands" which appear at the top of the tree. In the tree, the children make friends with a host of characters including Moon-Face, Silky, Saucepan, Angry Pixie, and Dame Wash-a-lot which make appearances in and around their adventures in the Magic Faraway Tree. Mishaps often occur, trouble often ensues, but every few chapters the dilemma is resolved, and the world is set to right again. Regularly a lesson is learned in the process, especially in the last book, The Folk of the Faraway Tree, when a spoiled friend learns to become less self-centered. Largely, however, this imaginative series simply provides a magical escape from reality for a brief period of time. 






Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Wonder


Wonder is counted among the best novels I've ever read, not just the best middle-grade novels. This story is original, relevant, and gracefully told in a way that it transcends genre. I would, of course, recommend it for middle-grade students. I especially recommend it for teenagers. But I also recommend it for adults even if you ordinarily hate middle-grade novels. Try this one. My own children were so engrossed that we read the entire book aloud over 5 days during the summer. They never wanted me to put it down!

"I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks." ~ Auggie Pullman

August (Auggie) Pullman is born with facial deformities, among other problems, requiring him to have multiple surgeries as a young child and resulting in his being homeschooled for many years because of the numerous medical procedures and others reactions to his looks. At the beginning of Wonder, he is encouraged by his parents to try a brick-and-mortar school. As he eventually decides to give school a chance, the predictable varied development of relationships with classmates ensues. Wonder is told from several different points-of view, and the struggles of each character are thoughtfully and carefully refined.

What I did not expect from this novel was the sense of empathy invoked. I'm not easily given to strong emotions, but I found myself nearly in tears many times. Not just because of how a 5th grader with facial deformities is treated, but because of how Auggie's interests, thoughts, feelings, desires, and ambitions are truly like my own children's. I could see them in his voice and could hardly bear the thought that some unkind soul could possibly treat them the way Auggie was often treated. With so much talk of bullying in schools today, this is an invaluable resource to teach kindness and compassion for everyone.

**An excellent interview with the author is available on NPR's website.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Betsy-Tacy

For more than a year now, Elizabeth and I have been slowly reading through the Betsy-Tacy series, whenever we have a few minutes to read together. The book begins in the early 1900s when Betsy and Tacy are 5 years old. Elizabeth was 11 when we began reading the first book, and I feared that she might think the book about 5 year old friends too juvenile for her advanced 11 years. I needn't have worried. She and I both were immediately caught up in the delight of Betsy's and Tacy's world.
Hill Street came to regard them almost as one person. Betsy’s brown braids went with Tacy’s curls, Betsy’s plump legs with Tacy’s spindly ones, to school and from school, up hill and down, on errands and in play. So that when Tacy had the mumps and Betsy was obliged to journey alone, saucy boys would tease her: Where’s the cheese, apple pie?” Where’s the mush, milk?” As though she didn’t feel lonesome already! ~ Betsy-Tacy


The language is beautiful, full of colorful early-1900s phrases and descriptions, and the illustrations by Lois Lenski fit the characters perfectly. The entire Betsy-Tacy series reminds me of what the Little House books might have been if the Ingalls family lived in a town instead of on the prairie.


Now that we are on the 5th book in the series, I can really appreciate how Maud Hart Lovelace expands their world over the years, from just their homes and street at ages 5-6 to the neighborhood beyond theirs at age 8 to the high school with its expansion of friends and activities. I also appreciate that it gives me a gentle book to introduce my own fledgling teenage girl to the world of boys and relationships with the innocence of that time. When we read the line, "she tried to conceal her gratification at having a masculine escort", Elizabeth and I laughed and laughed. Some of the language and even the perspective of that time just sounds so foreign and humorous to us now.


We didn't begin reading with a nice vintage set like some of the photos I've seen, but after an inexpensive Kindle purchase for the first book, we bought the Betsy-Tacy Treasury for the next few books. Since then we've stuck with that printing of the series, although you can get the first book, which I would highly recommend as a read aloud for any boy or girl between the ages of 5-10, for a bargain at Amazon right now.