Dreidels on the Brain by Joel ben Izzy for Readukkah

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DREIDELS ON THE BRAIN
By Joel ben Izzy
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

Dreidels on the Brain car

 

 

When I adore a book, and I did adore Joel ben Izzy’s Dreidels on The Brain, I tend to read every last word from the dedication to the acknowledgements. In doing so I happened to find this gem at the bottom of the copyright page:

“This is a work of fiction… and of friction–the kind that filled the author’s childhood. Although much is based upon actual people, places, and events from his life, he has taken great liberties in all these realms–as well as spelling–to recount a story set over the course of the eight days of Hanukkah, 1971.”
There’s more, but you’ll just have to get a copy to read on.

Ben Izzy is a renowned storyteller and Dreidels on The Brain is his first foray into fiction for kids, middle grade readers to be precise, and I hope he writes more. His ability to convincingly convey time, place, character, conflict and voice was not lost on this reader who grew up in that era. Dreidels on The Brain is so much more than a Hanukkah story. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age novel filled with memorable laugh out loud moments and it seems to have fun with itself and the reader who will quickly catch on to all the zany things Izzy’s included. He’s spelled Hanukkah a ton of different ways and, when he gets the opportunity, does the same with ketchup. On top of this there are lots of jokes, insight into magic tricks, great cultural references, and just the right amount of Yiddish words added to an already winning mix.

As mentioned above, Dreidels on The Brain is set in 1971, Temple City, California, just east of Los Angeles with no temple to be found. The main character’s Jewish family (whose last name shall not be revealed here) actually attends a temple or synagogue in nearby Rosemead. Joel, the self-proclaimed funny-looking main character, is short, has braces, wears glasses, and is the odd man out as the school’s only Jewish student.

Nine chapters take readers through Joel’s eight days and nights of Hanukkah. Ben Izzy has managed to seamlessly weave magic, miracles, matzoh balls, and music from Fiddler on The Roof into an unforgettable story of a boy, on the cusp of adulthood according to the Jewish religion, wanting to be anyone, but himself. This all plays out over the Hanukkah holiday while touching upon faith, family, friends, and one particular female named Amy O’Shea. Readers will find it easy to root for the lovable protagonist and, like him and the message of his dreidel game, wish that a great miracle could happen there.

Joel, a tween with soon-to-be teen angst, is questioning his belief in God as he navigates his role as school dork, token Jew, and the youngest son in his family of five including two older brothers. His parents are struggling financially, but his mom never gives up hope for better times ahead. His dad, unemployed, is always on the verge of creating the next must-have invention, all while coping with his debilitating arthritis. Although it’s clear there’s much love in Joel’s family, as seen through the eyes of this twelve-year-old boy, there’s not much to be desired about his life. For example, he never gets a Hanukkah present as it’s simply not affordable. Joel does manage to make some spending money by performing magic tricks at parties, but when classmate Amy suggests they team up because an assistant will add to a magic show’s appeal, Joel finds himself falling for this girl he considers to be way out of his league.

The plot lines center around Joel having to perform a magic show at his grandma’s nursing home, his dad needing surgery over Hanukkah, and an invitation from the principal to present the Hanukkah story to the entire school at a special assembly. Will everything go according to plan convincing Joel that miracles can happen? “All I can do is answer the way Jews always do–with another question. Why not?”

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel for #Readukkah

The Darkest Dark by Astronaut Chris Hadfield

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THE DARKEST DARK
Written by Col. Chris Hadfield
Illustrated by The Fan Brothers
(Little Brown BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

 

 

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The Darkest Dark takes place on July 19, 1969—the night before Apollo 11’s Moon landing. We meet Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield when he was a boy. Chris can’t sleep because “his room was dark. Very, very dark. The kind of dark that attracts the worst sort of aliens.” These creatures, a combination of shadow and imagination, appear on the book’s cover and throughout the story.

Young Chris believes he is an astronaut and, of course, “an astronaut’s work is never done, so astronauts do not like to sleep. But their parents do.” Chris’s parents kick him out of their bed and dutifully check his room for aliens. Finally, the possibility of missing tomorrow’s special event helps Chris fall into his favorite dream.

 

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Interior artwork from The Darkest Dark by Col. Chris Hadfield with illustrations by The Fan Brothers, Little Brown Books For Young Readers ©2016.

 

The next day, most everyone on Stag Island crowds into a neighbor’s living room to watch the Moon landing. When Chris discovers that “outer space was the darkest dark ever,” he views his house’s darkness differently. Chris now understands that “the darkness of the universe was so much bigger and deeper than the darkness in his room.”

The Fan Brothers’ lively and whimsical illustrations creatively blend reality and fantasy. Many pages feature Chris’s pet pug and the not-so-scary mysterious aliens.

The Darkest Dark concludes with biographical information about Chris Hadfield’s journey to becoming an accomplished Canadian astronaut. His personal message and photographs encourage young readers: “The dark is for dreams—and morning is for making them come true.”

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

Co-editor of and writer for SCBWI’s Kite Tales https://SCBWIKiteTales.wordpress.com/


Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad

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IRON RAILS, IRON MEN, AND THE RACE TO LINK THE NATION
The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad
Written by Martin W. Sandler
(Candlewick Press; $22.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

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Prepare to not want to put down this fascinating nonfiction book called Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation by Emmy Award and Pulitzer prize winning historian, Martin W. Sandler.

In the early nineteenth century it took six months to travel coast to coast by horse and wagon. Rugged terrain and violent weather made the journey difficult and dangerous. The alternative, sailing around Cape Horn, took at least six months and was equally dangerous.

Dreams of a transcontinental railroad had great promise: quicker travel time, new communities, and improved opportunities for trade and commerce. It took years to advocate and raise money for this massive project. When President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, two companies, the Central Pacific, laying tracks eastward, and the Union Pacific, laying tracks westwards, raced to complete the job.

The work required staggering feats of engineering, which award-winning historian MartinW. Sandler effectively demonstrates using period photos and weaving mind-blowing facts into the narrative. Workers had to blast through mountains to build tunnels and erected some of the highest bridges known. Supplies had to be hauled over mountains on horseback or cart to the workers. Conditions were grueling: prairie fires, cattle stampedes, severe weather, and Native American attacks. Each job had its physical challenges: imagine graders who hauled tons of dirt away or track layers who lifted and placed rails that weighed 500 to 700 pounds!

Sandler critically examines more controversial issues such as corruption, discrimination against the highly efficient Chinese workers, and the severe impact on the life and culture of the Plains Indians.

When the two rails finally met, tens of thousands of workers had laid over 18,000 miles of track and joined the two coasts of a rugged continent. Travel time, coast to coast, was reduced to one week.

The author has made dramatic use of archival photographs to enhance the engaging and informative text, all accompanied by easy to follow maps. A fascinating final chapter discusses what happened to the main personalities. Educators and parents should check out the publisher’s great teacher’s guide and audio excerpt. Highly recommended for teachers and librarians serving grades 5 and up and a great resource for 19th century United States history and train enthusiasts.

– Reviewed by Dornel Cerro


Also An Octopus by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

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ALSO AN OCTOPUS
Written by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Illustrated by Benji Davies
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 3-7)

  • is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.

also-an-octopus

 

Looking for a terrific tale about waffle spaceships and eight-legged ukulele players? Well Also An Octopus is definitely the book for you! Wondering how writers come up with ideas for books about waffle spaceships? Then this is STILL the book for you! Debut author Maggie Tokuda-Hall has crafted a funny, clever story about following the spark of an idea through wild gallops of imagination until it takes shape as a book. But this can happen if and only if one follows the basic rules of the road, which are explained with flair and humor.

The tale begins with a blank page. An unseen narrator gently reminds us that all stories do begin this way, on an empty page, screen or canvas, until a character appears. Perhaps it is a little girl, or an adorable bunny, or a ukulele-playing octopus. But that grinning octopus, surrounded by bloopie bubbles and wearing a pom-pom topped knit cap, has to want something. What the character wants, explains the narrator, will make the story become interesting. And if the octopus wants an awesome purple spaceship, it has to be difficult to get. If he can simply get one from the drugstore the story will be too silly, short and dull. So perhaps the octopus will have to make the spaceship himself, out of odds and ends like soda cans, glue, string, umbrellas, glitter and waffles.

Have you fastened your seatbelt yet? Because this story is just about to take off! Or is it? “I’m not really qualified to build a spaceship ….” remarks the octopus, a tentacle rubbing his puzzled head. Nope, that spaceship doesn’t fly, so now our hero has an even bigger problem to solve. He has to find a rocket scientist!

Tokuda-Hall subtly teaches the constructs of story-telling within the boundaries of this absurdly whimsical tale. Step-by-step, the hapless octopus is tossed and turned through the imaginary gyrations of the narrative, experiencing the emotional highs and lows of a plot-driven concept. As illustrated by Benji Davies, the engaging and expressive characters will appeal to readers young and old.  The seemingly retro color palette ranges from mustard yellow to blue, orange, and luscious deep eggplant, displayed in large, bright spreads nicely balanced and evenly spaced. Davies tucks amusing random details into the scenes, like a curly-tongue armadillo and motorboat-driving hamster. Those details, in turn, will inspire young listeners to create new stories of their own.

Create new stories? Yes, because everyone has a bit of nothing, a virtual “blank page” on which to begin. And thus Also An Octopus comes full circle after a rollicking adventure that is as awesome as a purple spaceship dotted with waffles. Remember those bloopie bubbles that swirl around our eight-limbed hero? They burst into sparkly stars once he reaches outer space, a twinkling celebration of this delightful adventure into the world of story-making.

  • Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey

Where Obtained:  I reviewed a copy of Also An Octopus from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.


New Thanksgiving Books for 2016

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THANKSGIVING 2016
– A Roundup of Holiday Books –

 

Thanksgiving Countingthanksgiving-counting-cvr
A First Celebrations Book
Written by Barbara Barbieri McGrath
Illustrated by Peggy Tagel
(Charlesbridge; $6.95, Ages 0-3)

Going to relatives or friends for Thanksgiving and don’t know what to bring along to keep your little ones occupied and entertained? Why not consider buying a copy of this counting themed board book, part of the Charlesbridge’s First Celebrations series for the youngest readers in your family?  With its vibrant colored turkey cover, this new book introduces the first Thanksgiving and one ear of corn going all the way up to six multi-hued leaves falling from a tree and lots of scrumptious food in between. Thanksgiving Counting is a great way to get your children to observe all the decorations and food around the dinner table while learning to count all the wonderful things that make this holiday so enjoyable.

Wonderfallwonderfall-cvr
Written and illustrated by Michael Hall
(Greenwillow Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

For Hall fans and those who also appreciate the art of Eric Carle and Lois Ehlert, Wonderfall is sure to delight. As the jacketflap says, “In this book you will discover 1 colorful tree, 2 scurrying squirrels, and 15 blended words created to celebrate the wonder of fall!” So much goes on around this one majestic oak tree. In 15 brief poems that tell the story of the people and animals that live and work near it, we see what an important role this tree plays as autumn turns into winter. Peacefall, Plentifall, Playfall,  Frightfall, Thankfall, and Watchfall, are just a few of Hall’s wordplay topics that culminate in Snowfall. The stories move from acorns dropping with a plink, plunk, plop to the magic of  fall’s magnificent colors. The tree is there to welcome trick-or-treaters, witness animals enjoying nature’s bounty and provide piles of leaves in which children frolick, and branches in which squirrels chase. A bonus for readers is the five pages of back matter containing great information about the tree, the animals that find shelter in it and get nourishment from its acorns. I’ll weigh in here with one more blended word that happens to be my reaction to reading this charming new picture book – Joyfall!

Thankfulness to Color:thankfulness-to-color-cvr
Gratitude to live and color by
Written and illustrated by Zoë Ingram
(Harper; $15.99, Ages 4 and up)

Coloring books are so popular right now and with the hectic holiday season upon us, there’s no better time to find a few quiet moments with your kids to decompress. Coloring helps foster creativity and mindfulness, and most of all, it’s calming. Adults and children alike will find the designs and quotes that Ingram has provided to be perfectly suited for  Thanksgiving. On the last page of Thankfulness to Color is a list of these quotes including Henry David Thoreau’s “I am grateful for what I am and have,” all of which have been woven into the plethora of beautiful patterns. Keep this book to enjoy with the family or give as a gift to your holiday hostess.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Here are links to our book reviews from previous Thanksgivings:

LITTLE CRITTER: JUST A SPECIAL THANKSGIVING
Written and illustrated by Mercer Mayer

BEST THANKSGIVING BOOKS – A ROUNDUP 2015

THE GREAT THANKSGIVING ESCAPE 
Written and illustrated by Mark Fearing

 

 


Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood

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MAYBE SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL:
HOW ART TRANSFORMED A NEIGHBORHOOD
by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell
Illustrated by Rafael Lopez
(HMH Young Readers; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

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My praise might be late in coming, but my love is not. Maybe Something Beautiful, a picture book from this past spring, simply stole my heart. I first saw it at the bookstore where I work and it was truly love at first sight. It happens with books, the great ones anyway and this is a great book.

Based on a true story, this picture book chronicles the transformation of East Village near downtown San Diego. Rafael and Candice Lopez helped  turn their neighborhood from a drab, gray place into one full of vibrant color. That’s exactly what you see in this book. The vibrancy of color washes over the dull world of one little girl named Mira. Her own room is full of light and color, even if her neighborhood is not.

As Mira begins giving pieces of her art away to people, the world becomes a little less gray. Mira herself is a child that seems to have come straight from a gorgeous box of paints. Her joy and life are seen visually in the brilliant colors with which she is depicted. Joyous paint splotches leave a trail behind her like pixie dust as she gives her art to more monotone community members. Still, how much gray can one person transform on her own? Enter one magical artist with a plan. A pocket-full-of-paintbrushes man, an artist, asks Mira what can she imagine being on a gray wall?

“Then, just like that, he dipped a brush into the paint. BAM! POW!
The shadows scurried away.
Sky blue cut through the gloom.
The man’s laughter was like a rainbow spreading across the sky.”

The Muralist and Mira happily go on painting the city’s walls, attracting a growing crowd of neighbors who all join them in painting just about everything. Soon that gray has no place to go! It was all something beautiful until a policeman arrives, looking quite stern. Not to fear, all is well as the policeman just wants to join in all the painting fun! The book ends with the whole city born again in colors and light. Mira wonders if just one more miracle is possible as she tries to paint a bird, a real bird, thinking maybe, just maybe that could happen too.

When you’re done reading the enchanting Maybe Something Beautiful  the colors stay with you, and so does Mira’s story. I find myself thinking, “Maybe something beautiful can come out of any gray day. Maybe today will be a full color day.” After all art, the great liberator, comes to visit any day I want. I just need the courage to practice it. So today was my full color day because I got to practice my art of writing. This makes me think that I need to splash a little color on those who made this book that I enjoy so much.

Campoy and Howell’s text makes the story burst into life! The short scene with the police officer added just enough shadow to make the story interesting, but not enough to ruin the fun. Lopez’s illustrations are amazing as always, his use of color replenishes my heart. The way his artwork shows the neighborhood and the people in it all absorbing the color around them is captivating. It makes me want to get a brush and join them. This is a wonderful book for anyone. What it taught me is that beauty is everywhere, but if you don’t see it then you need to be the one who makes it apparent. See some gray? Don’t look for a problem, but rather, see a canvas of possibility. Maybe something beautiful will come of it.

  • Reviewed by Hilary Taber

Visit the website for Maybe Something Beautiful  here.
Visit F. Isabel Campoy’s website here.
Visit Theresa Howell’s website here.
Visit Rafael Lopez’s website here.


Best Election Day Books for Children

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A Roundup of Election Voting-Themed Books for Kids

 

presidential-pets-cvrPresidential Pets: The Weird, Wacky, Little, Big, Scary,
Strange Animals That Have Lived in the White House 
Written by Julia Moberg

Illustrated by Jeff Albrecht Studios
(Charlesbridge Publishing; $14.95, Ages 3-7)

A not-to-be-missed book for Election Day 2016 and beyond, Presidential Pets is ideal for schools and homes alike. From Abraham Lincoln to Zachary Taylor, these American presidents all have one thing in common, a plethora of noteworthy pets. With intros in rhyme, this 95-page non-fiction picture book is filled with funny facts about presidents, their families, their pets as well as their career accomplishments. Did you know that Andrew Jackson had a cussing pet parrot who had to be removed from his funeral for her foul language? Or that Herbert Hoover’s son Allan Henry had alligators “that roamed through the grounds” of the White House? Or lastly, that Grover Cleveland, the “only president to serve two terms that weren’t back-to-back,” had a virtual menagerie of animals during his presidency including Foxhounds, Dachshunds and chickens?
Moberg has done her homework brilliantly choosing an engaging and entertaining subject that brings to light all the humorous details kids and parents will love about the variety of animals and owners who once called the White House home. The cartoon-style artwork from Jeff Albrecht Studios is a whimsical addition to each presidential pet profile and is sure to bring a smile to many faces this election season.

around-america-to-win-the-voteAround America to Win The Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles
Written by Mara Rockliff
Illustrated by Hadley Hooper
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 5-8)

One hundred years ago, “On April 6, 1916, a little yellow car set out from New York City.” The car’s occupants were Nell Richardson, Alice Burke, and a little black kitten. These courageous ladies were on a mission. Together they would drive around the USA to campaign for women’s right to vote. Throughout their journey, they encountered people from all walks of life, and situations that might have derailed other less dedicated individuals. Whether facing blizzards or getting stuck in the mud held them up, these were just temporary setbacks. Nothing would curtail Richardson and Burke from cruising across the country for this important cause. Nope. Not blocked roads or getting lost for days. Onwards they drove, getting invited to fancy dinners and local schools. They joined a circus parade and attended a tea party, all the while spreading their message, “Votes for Women.” Finally, after ten thousand miles, Richardson needed a rest, but Alice felt motivated to cover more ground. This time, however, she chose to travel by train!

In the interesting back matter, Mara Rockliff shares four pages of useful information that even parents will find enlightening. She explains about the car Richardson and Burke used for their Votes for Women adventure, and how uncommon it was to travel by auto in 1916. Readers learn how, as far back as 1776, First Lady Abigail Adams urged her husband John “to remember the ladies.” We know what came of that request. Also included  are sources and recommended reading on this timely topic. Rockliff has done a fabulous job of making the suffrage movement accessible to hong readers with her upbeat approach and language. The story of Richardson and Burke was one I’d never heard about so I’m glad I had a chance to step back in time with these two inspirational women. Hooper’s illustrations complemented the text and theme, allowing us to feel the exuberance of the journey along with the book’s history-making heroines.

Isabella: Girl in Chargeisabella-girl-in-charge
Written by Jennifer Fosberry
Illustrated by Mike Litwin
(Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky; $16.99, Ages 4 and up)

Isabella’s back, this time visiting Washington, D.C. with her parents. But why, you may ask? She’s channeling and celebrating five trailblazing women in the U.S. government culminating with her attending the first female president’s inauguration, and she simply cannot wait. Fosberry builds up to this momentous event by highlighting women throughout our political history who were firsts in their field and who opened doors for themselves and future generations that, up until that time, had been closed to them.

You’ll meet Susanna Madora Salter, the first female mayor, in Argonia, Kansas. Incidentally, I had no idea that Kansas had given women the right to vote back in 1887, although Wyoming allowed women to vote as early as 1869. Isabella also introduces readers to Jeannette Rankin, a truly independent and colorful character who, in 1916, beat seven men to get elected as the first woman in Congress. In 1925, Nellie Tayloe Ross broke the glass ceiling by being elected the first female governor of Wyoming following the death of her governor husband, William, while still in office. She also was named first female Director of the Federal Mint by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Another woman to whom we owe a great debt is Frances Perkins. She, too, served under FDR, and had numerous appointments, in her lifetime, the most famous being “the first woman to serve on the Cabinet and be in line of succession to the presidency! Last, but not least is Sandra Day O’Connor who in 1981 was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court only after another first as the State Majority Leader in the Arizona State Senate. How’s that for accomplished women? Fosberry’s chosen to highlight these women with their varied backgrounds and experience to serve as role models for young girls everywhere who aspire to reach their true potential.

There’s lots of fun wordplay (“Let’s vote on breakfast.” “Capital idea!”) and cheerful artwork throughout this delightful, empowering picture book, ending with a time line and bios for each of these amazing women. Isabella: Girl in Charge will also be available on Put Me in The Story, the #1 personalized book platform in America.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Additional Highly Recommended Reads:

Buddy For President
Written and illustrated by Hans Wilhelm
(HarperCollins; $17.99, Ages 4-8)


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Pedro For President

Written by Fran Manushkin
Illustrated by Tammie Lyon
(Picture Window Books; $5.95, Ages 5-8)

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