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Let Me Finish! by Minh Lê

LET ME FINISH!
Written by Minh Lê
Illustrated by Isabel Roxas
(Disney-Hyperion, $16.99, Ages 4-8)

is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.

 

let-me-finish book cover

 

 

With its colorfully eye-catching and engaging cover, exhuberant endpages, and enthusiastic speech bubbles, Let Me Finish!  by Minh Lê with art by Isabel Roxas, thrums with an energy that practically propels the book into young readers’ hands.

Our unnamed protagonist is a reader extraordinaire. Sure, his over-sized red eyeglasses are one clue, but so is his broad, contented smile as he settles under a tree to enjoy his new book in peace and quiet. Alas! Three jabbering birds swoop down to chatter enthusiastically about the book’s ending, thus spoiling the surprise for our hero. He politely asks them to hold their commentary next time until he’s done, and heads home to select a different title – one he’s “been meaning to read forever.”

This time it’s a bear who pops in, revealing the ending much to the reader’s consternation. And those pesky birds are back too, chirping in with even more spoilers. “Oh no!” moans our bespectacled main character, who returns home and joyfully discovers that a new book has just been delivered to his front door. Will he finally be able to read in peace, or does someone spill the beans once again?

Let Me Finish! is a real page turner, enticing us to keep flipping and uncover what will happen next. With increasing text size and ever-bolder page spreads, this tale cleverly depicts the mounting angst of the young reader who just wants to enjoy his books. The zany menagerie of talking birds and beasts is a color-filled fantasy, unbound by rules of geography, gravity or nature. It’s a wacky, delightful dilemma for the boy, who demonstrates superhero skills and determination to finish his story.

Roxas’ vivid, softly textured images are tightly woven with Lê’s text and packed with detail. Words written with a scribbly crayon effect add greatly to the kid-appeal, as does the variety of cartoony chase spreads that never become monotonous. There’s a meta-twist or two at the end to keep young ones musing about the story within a story and invites re-reading from multiple perspectives.

You might want to read Let Me Finish! on your own, but it would certainly be a good one to share with friends. Just don’t give away the ending!

Where Obtained: I reviewed a copy of Let Me Finish! which I won in a blog giveaway and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.

  • Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
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Wolf Camp by Andrea Zuill

WOLF CAMP
Written and illustrated by Andrea Zuill
(Schwartz & Wade Books, $16.99, Ages 4-8)

is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.

 

Wolf Camp by Andrea Zuill picture book cover

It’s not Labor Day yet!

The shelves at the library and bookstore may be spilling over with “back-to-school” titles, but let’s hold on to summer silliness and camp craziness for just a bit longer. Truly, there is no one season for learning about how to tackle new experiences, face your fears and make new friends. Wolf Camp by Andrea Zuill is a hilarious and heart-warming picture book that will encourage young listeners and little learners to be brave and have fun, and howl in harmony as one of the pack.

Our hero is Homer, a hound dog with scrawny neck and legs, big nose and a tail that wags frantically when he’s excited. Sometimes he acts “wolfish” pouncing playfully on his pink stuffed toy moose from behind the sofa. Homer believes all dogs have a bit of inner wolf, and fantasizes about living like one of the pack, racing through the wilderness with purpose. It seems like a dream come true when an invitation to Wolf Camp (“Where every dog can live as a wolf – for an entire week!”) falls into his kibble bowl.

Homer really wants to go to Wolf Camp. He pesters his human family, bringing the invitation to their attention over and over, until they relent and agree that he can go. “I’m going to be a wolf!” thinks Homer excitedly as he heads off on a big yellow bus. The camp counselors, Fang and Grrr, are actual wolves, sharp-nosed, pointy-eared, shaggy giants. Homer’s fellow campers are a bumbling, fuzzy golden retriever named Rex and Pixie, a teeny-tiny gray Chihuahua. Homer thinks the counselors seem nice, but the wolves appear slightly skeptical about the well-hidden potential in their new recruits. Nonetheless, after a detailed safety talk, the Wolf Camp lessons begin.

Zuill’s pen and ink drawings with watercolor wash are zany, charming and unbelievably expressive. She masterfully contrasts wolf and dog postures and body language, perfectly positioning their poised or clumsy bodies for stalking, howling, tracking and sleeping. The animals’ eye rolls, ear tilts, and tail movements convey oodles of meaning and emotion that enrich the wry, witty text and funny speech bubbles. It’s a guaranteed giggle when Homer pens a classic camp letter to his “people” at home, complaining about the food and bugs.

Wolf Camp is filled with loopy, lupine humor and heart. Readers will root for Homer, Rex and Pixie as they bond, persevere and slowly master the skills necessary for wolf-y, woodsy living. The new pack members succeed in earning Honorary Wolf certificates by the end of the week, but perhaps Homer has been changed forever by his wild experience. You’ll be howling with laughter throughout this silly, sweet and smart story for campers and canines alike.

 

Where Obtained:  I reviewed a copy of Wolf Camp from the library and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.

  • Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
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Splashdance written and illustrated by Liz Starin

SPLASHDANCE
Written and illustrated by Liz Starin
(Farrar Strauss Giroux $16.99, Ages 4-7)

 

Splashdance by Liz Starin book cover

 

Splashdance, a funny, wacky picture book by Liz Starin is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.

One MILLION dollars! That is the prize awarded to the winners of the water ballet competition at the community pool. So Ricardo, a mustachioed, knobby-kneed gentleman and his water ballet partner Ursula, a well-groomed but furry polar bear practice their routine diligently. All at once, a new rule bans bears from the pool, and Ricardo summarily ditches Ursula for a new partner, a giraffe named Hortense.

Ursula is devastated at the betrayal and heartbroken to lose her chance in the competition. After all, she really loves water ballet! Eventually Ursula dons a striped bikini and sneaks down to the community pond for a quick dip. Alone, she executes her best double back albatross and half twist chanterelle in the weedy green swimming hole.

 

Interior_artwork_from picture book Splashdance
Interior spread from Splashdance written and illustrated by Liz Starin, Farrar, Straus Giroux BYR ©2016.

 

Then one day Ursula arrives at the pond only to meet a large group of water ballet enthusiasts practicing their routine. They, too, were cast out of the pool due to their ursine members. This group – this TEAM – has stuck together and continued to practice. Ursula is inspired to join them, and she devises a plan to ensure that they can participate in the water ballet championship after all.

Starin’s text is smart, vibrant and playful. A balanced mixture of short and long sentences filled with cut-to-the-chase emotions keeps the storyline popping along. Young listeners will remain eager to turn the page and discover what happens next. Starin’s illustrations are spectacularly funny, inventive and ridiculous, adding implausible wacky details that appeal to the eye and the funnybone. Clever signs, wild bathing costumes, and a hilarious menagerie of swimming critters mix together to produce a divinely humorous tale.

Ursula finally gets to perform her impressive triple banana flip in the water ballet competition – but will it be enough to win the million dollars? Or is there an even bigger prize at stake? Splashdance is a lighthearted, inspiring winner from beginning to end.

  • Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey

 

Where Obtained:  I reviewed a copy of Splashdance from the library and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.

 

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Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

SWAN: THE LIFE AND DANCE OF ANNA PAVLOVA
Written by Laurel Snyder
Illustrated by Julie Morstad
(Chronicle Books; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

Swan The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova book cover

Starred review – School Library Journal

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova is a breathtakingly lovely book that combines a lyrical narrative and dramatic illustrations to give young children not only insight into the life of Russian ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), but the courage to fulfill one’s dreams despite the odds.

As a child, Anna and her mother struggled economically. In order to make ends meet they took in other people’s laundry. The book’s front end papers depict a forlorn Anna, staring out the window on a cold Russian city, her apartment practically barren but for the line of drying clothes.

One night, however, Anna’s mother takes her to the ballet which proved to be a transformative event for the young girl. Despite her social background and physical challenges, she was determined to enter the Imperial Ballet School, practicing at home while helping her mother with the laundry:

Now Anna cannot sleep …

She can only sway,

         dip, and spin ….

Two years later Anna was finally accepted. And, after years of hard work, she danced her first solo, the lead role of the Swan in Michael Fokine’s The Dying Swan. Snyder writes that Anna

                             “… sprouts white wings, a swan.

She weaves the notes, the very air

                                            into a story…

                   Anna is a bird in flight,

   A whim of wind and water.

Quiet feathers in a big loud world.

Anna is the swan.”

Morstad captures this defining moment in a graceful spread filled with movement: the swirling feathers of the swan emerging from Anna’s back while lovely flowers tumble about her.

Even though Anna achieved worldwide fame, she never forgot how ballet changed her life. She freely shared her dance with people who might never have had the opportunity to see a ballet.

One night, she caught a cold she could not shake and her condition grew increasingly worse. She never recovered. Against a darkened stage, Snyder writes

“Every bird must fold its wings.

Every feather falls at last, and settles.”

Morstad’s stylistic, mixed media (ink, gouache, graphite, pencil) illustrations perfectly capture Snyder’s dramatic and poetic narrative of one woman’s determination to fulfill her dream and capture her life and dance

End materials include a short biography and a bibliography.

I highly recommend Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova not just for children who love dance and theater, but for all children to see the inspirational life of someone who refused to give up her dream despite physical and economic and class challenges. And who when succeeded gave back. That this nonfiction picture book can be coupled with a variety of extension activities incorporating social justice, creative writing, biography, history of ballet, dance, movement and art goes without saying.

Visit Laurel Snyder to learn more about her award winning books and read her very cool Bewilder blog. Learn all about illustrator Julie Morstad and her art here.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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A Talk With The Tiara on the Terrace Author Kristen Kittscher

An Interview With Middle Grade Author Kristen Kittscher
&
A Special Mystery-Themed Giveaway

 

THE TIARA ON THE TERRACE
By Kristen Kittscher
(HarperColllins; $16.99, Ages 8-12) 

 

Tiara_on_the_Terrace

 

Fans of The Wig in the Window eagerly awaited the arrival of its companion book, The Tiara on the Terrace, and were rewarded this past January with its release. But even if you’ve never read Kittscher’s first book, her latest, The Tiara on the Terrace, can most certainly be read as a stand alone and is terrifically entertaining and awash in the adventures of Young and Yang.

Here’s a blurb from HarperCollins’ website:

In this funny, clever novel, perfect for fans of Pseudonymous Bosch and Gordon Korman and a companion to The Wig in the Window, tween sleuths Sophie Young and Grace Yang go undercover at Luna Vista’s Winter Sun Festival to catch a murderer before he—or she—strikes again.
Sophie Young and Grace Yang have been taking it easy ever since they solved the biggest crime Luna Vista had ever seen. But things might get interesting again now that everyone is gearing up for the 125th annual Winter Sun Festival—a town tradition that involves floats, a parade, and a Royal Court made up of local high school girls.
When Festival president Jim Steptoe turns up dead on the first day of parade preparations, the police blame a malfunctioning giant s’more feature on the campfire-themed float. But the two sleuths are convinced the mysterious death wasn’t an accident.
Young and Yang must trade their high tops for high heels and infiltrate the Royal Court to solve the case. But if they fail, they might just be the next victims.

INTERVIEW WITH THE TIARA ON THE TERRACE AUTHOR, KRISTEN KITTSCHER

Good Reads With Ronna: Are detective stories what you read growing up?

Kristen Kittscher:  I was a voracious reader. I read all kinds of things so detective stories weren’t the only things I read but they were some of my favorites. I was a big big Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys fan as I’m sure many people are. I love Encyclopedia Brown. I just loved solving the puzzles that were involved. One of my very favorite books as a kid was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and that kind of mystery [where] they’re locked in a museum. I always loved solving puzzles but really I read widely. Judy Blume was an absolute favorite of mine. I think Blubber was a one of my all-time favorite books growing up. And Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming was another book I loved.

GRWR: Empowerment is prevalent in both novels. Was this a goal of yours?

KK: It’s interesting. After the book was out in the world I’d hear that a lot and it wasn’t an actual focus of mine when I was writing … I think it’s because I taught at an all-girls school many years and I was swimming in girl power without realizing it. I was teaching 7th grade where girls are starting to become more self-conscious. But at that school they were very much themselves and not worried about how they were coming across. And I think I was definitely trying to write a story for them and was very influenced by their joie-de vivre and general sense of fun and curiosity and smarts as I was writing. I didn’t think about it. It just came out that way.

GRWR: What qualities do Sophie, Grace and their quirky pal, Trista have in common with you?

KK: Well maybe I’ve given them qualities I don’t have because that’s the fun of writing fiction, right? I’m definitely very curious myself and always loved a sense of intrigue. I’m pretty silly and they’re pretty silly. I think in a way they probably have more attributes of my students but Trista’s practicality and her kind of ability to just sort of, kind of plug on no matter what. I definitely have a bit of that as well. She’s a bit like my father was and I’m a bit like him so I always think I definitely have a little bit of Trista in me. The other quality definitely is the lack of confidence that Sophie has in coming into her own. I just started writing late in life – this is the first thing I ever wrote – or ever finished – and I really was focused on teaching and not writing. So, the thought of saying I want to be a writer is like saying I want to become a rock star or something like that. The story of The Wig in the Window is a mystery but it’s also kind of paralleling my journey in finding my voice as a writer.

GRWR: Getting into the heads of two twelve year olds isn’t easy. What helped you?

KK: Well, it helps to kind of be 12 in my head mostly! Well I think it goes back to my teaching middle school for a long time. I can’t remember what I was like before I was teaching 7th grade, whether I was also still 12 or if they helped me get back in touch with my youthful self. But definitely having that be my world day in and day out for a long time definitely rubbed off on me. As to Sophie and Grace, their perspective was relatively easy for me to access. The other part that makes it easy for me is having moved a lot as a kid. I moved almost every two years when I was growing up. So each place at each age I was, I remember it really vividly. I’s a very separate point in time and it’s relatively easy for me to go back to a certain place geographically in my mind and get back in touch with the feelings I had at that time. So it was a blessing in a way having moved so much because then I can remember each place individually.

GRWR: Where were you at age 12?

KK: At age 12, I was in the South Bay so basically Torrance, Palos Verdes area. For those people who don’t know, it’s this beautiful peninsula at the bottom of Los Angeles. It’s one of the most beautiful places I ever lived. You’re right by the beach. I think at the time as a kid you don’t realize how beautiful it is so when I set out to write something that came back to me very much and I knew it would be a fun setting for other people to read about too.

GRWR: Was there any pushback from the Tournament of Roses organization to change the similarities?

KK: No. But definitely the fictional town of Luna Vista is a combination between Pasadena and the place I just described, Palos Verdes and Torrance area. It’s my observing my students here in Pasadena and my own memories back when I was 12. And the town of Luna Vista has AmStar (which is very similar to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) so we have a great deal of scientists, actual rocket scientists as Pasadena does, and that makes it lots of fun to explore lots of technological things. That’s where the idea of Trista having such technological savvy comes from but as far as pushback from the tournament, no. One of my former students was on the royal court and she sat down with me and told me all about her experience as a princess so I actually had a lot of cooperation. Other former students told me about the audition process, other colleagues, longtime Pasadena volunteers and parade goers definitely helped me with all of their memories and observations. And then when the book was finished the Tournament House was considering even doing a launch there as well. Unfortunately the launch of the book came three days after the Rose Parade itself.  So I don’t know if their lack of cooperation after the fact had more to do with the fact that they were focusing on their event because, as you know, it’s a huge operation and requires thousands of volunteers and all kinds of things. I haven’t experienced any direct pushback, but there is of course some gentle fun that I’m poking at the parade so we’ll see.

GRWR: How did you know the Wrigley Mansion so well?

KK: Well, for those who don’t know there’s a mansion in Pasadena called the Wrigley Mansion, which is the tournament headquarters and it was donated by Mr. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate you all know so well. So I thought it would be fun to create this sort of parallel world where Mr. Ridley who is a root beer magnate has his whole thing because basically I wanted a literal root beer float in the parade. Right? That makes it much more fun. I definitely had that outside of the mansion in my head as I was writing. Also you can take tours of the mansion and while it’s been renovated into offices, some of the rooms I definitely had in mind as I was writing so maybe that helped add a little flair to the setting.

GRWR: What else did you do for research?

KK: I was also an embedded undercover agent in float decorating. Every year in Pasadena before the parade begins, students pour out to volunteer in what are called the Float Barns which are these huge warehouses where the floats are. Actually before ever writing the story the inspiration where it comes from is my volunteering as a float decorator on the Trader Joe’s float one year. I was there gluing on flowers and climbing around on scaffolding so in the opening of the novel, Sophie, the main character, nearly falls from the scaffolding. Well that’s directly related to my own fear of heights crawling around on the scaffolding which I thought was highly unsafe for a 12-year-old. I also would constantly be Googling and referring back to different news articles just to get more inspiration and details. I don’t know a lot about flowers and obviously flowers are a very important part of the float decorations.  So all the different kinds of things that are used to create different colors I would constantly be having to check back on, and say oh they used cinnamon for the brown part. I only knew what my tasks were as the decorator. I didn’t know what other flowers are used and I’m sure I messed it all up.

GRWR: Do they use a lot of different flowers?

KK: Oh, no they’re endless- I mean that’s part of their creativity – every single bit of surface area of a float needs to be decorated with some sort of living material. Even the tires of the float – they’re black, right? But we need to keep them black so they cover the tires with sheets of sea weed. Those little squares of seaweed that you got – that is really what they do. In order to win any of the prizes everything needs to be organic material of some kind.

GRWR: And there are people underneath the float?

KK: Yes, a major plot point of The Tiara in the Terrace is Trista working on a driver-less float because she finds that it would revolutionize the festival not to have people in these cramped compartments. One of the other things that is also very true about the parade is the need for what they call the pooper scooper brigade of kid volunteers who shovel up after the horses. The reason for that isn’t just to keep the parade route clear it’s because if they don’t clean up after the horses the wheels of the float kick up the remains of the horse poop into the eyes of the float drivers and gets in the ventilation system of their float. We’re getting right down to the nitty gritty.

GRWR: Because The Tiara on the Terrace is for middle grade students and includes murder, did you have to diffuse it with humor? How do you go about bringing that into a story?

KK: It’s true. It’s pretty hard to write a murder mystery for kids. You have to make it silly in some cases, but you know that kids also love the stakes being potentially high or real. In this case, you have what’s a potential murder. All the adults believe that the Winter Sun Festival president has been the victim of a tragic accident – a giant dancing animatronic S’more on a parade float has swung down and killed Mr. Steptoe. So you have this really really silly situation but also this tragic accident and that gives that distance and silliness that makes it kind of okay. And also it’s maybe a bit silly that the kids think that this could possibly be murder. Right? As the kids say, seriously? murder by marshmallow? … By giving that distance it helps explore a dark er side.

GRWR: How hard was it to put your red herrings into your story because there are a bunch of them?

KK:  Thank you for recognizing that! The Wig in the Window was not hard, because well, it was hard to write for other reasons, but there’s always something, right? But mystery-wise it’s much more of a thriller, like a psychological thriller for middle schoolers where [the questions are] is this person bad, or is my imagination running away with me or not? So that’s a very simple structure, really. The Tiara in the Terrace is much more like an Agatha Christie novel or a typical cozy mystery as they call it, where you have many suspects in a large cast. It was really hard to trickle in all the clues at the same time that we’re exploring all the social dynamics in friendships. I think as you’re reading you can think oh, gosh, here we have some sort of detour, some sort of social friend detour and you don’t realize oh, wow, all the clues are being laid out at the same time. And so it’s kind of hard pacing-wise to keep the tension going at the same time, your reader might not realize that all of those red herrings are being placed in that sense. It takes a lot of outlining and even reverse outlining. Really knowing the crime, if there is a crime.

GRWR: You totally got me … I love being tricked!

KK: And I love tricking people. I think in this one you might know who it is but you might not know why. And then all the why is very, I think, very satisfying and very fun. (Ronna talking). One thing I know about kids is they often don’t just read a book once unlike adults and so it’s very important to me to make sure that everything matches up. That if you’re going to read this again, you’re going to see everything a second time and have just as much fun figuring out how it’s constructed as the reading itself. Also, my favorite scene is the parade scene at the end which of course has to be bombastic and spectacular and I really had the most fun writing that.

GRWR: Do you ever find, when you hear from young readers, that they’re inspired to write their own mysteries after reading yours? Afterall it is inspiring to see these three young girls go about solving mysteries in their own communities.

KK: Oh definitely … I also run some workshops in writing mysteries so I get kids going that way as well. Last summer I was at The James Thurber House in Ohio and they have a summer writing camp and they also go out in the community. All the kids would love trying to create their own mysteries after reading so I had a great time teaching those workshops. I think kids love the idea of uncovering secrets, I mean we all do, but particularly adult secrets because they don’t have full access to that world. It’s fun to imagine what could be happening in worlds they don’t know about.

GRWR: Will the girls be back for another adventure?

KK:  Each book was separate. I like that a lot because they stand alone. If you read carefully there might be mild spoilers that you probably wouldn’t remember but each of those books can stand by itself so I didn’t sell The Wig in the Window as a series.

GRWR: So your publisher came back to you after book #1?

KK: Right. So that’s a good transition to say, ” Buy The Tiara on the Terrace, everybody, so there can be a third Young and Yang adventure.

GRWR: Can you speak briefly about the TV show that’s been optioned?

KK: Yeah, I’m really excited that both books have been optioned by a producer and I’m co-writing the first season – the pilot right now. It’s really exciting to be able to imagine giving Young and Yang new life in this form because they can be much more equally represented. You know, both The Wig in the Window and The Tiara in the Terrace are from Sophie Young’s point of view. Now we can step back and look at these families from the outside a little bit and also get much more access to Grace Yang’s point of view and possibly the worlds of the villains. So I’m having a really good time figuring out how to adapt the story and getting a lot of help with it as well. The first season is The Wig and the Window stretched out over 12 episodes so you almost have strangely more opportunity to see more elements of their school life and family life within that kind of episodic structure as opposed to the three act structure of a book. So The Wig in the Window the ongoing mystery travels over the course of the season, but each episode has its own exploration of things that are going on between Young and Yang and their families and school and love interests.

GRWR: Did I leave anything out that you would like to add?

KK: I don’t know if I can think of a direct question but something I really like to get across about why I write in general and especially The Wig in the Window and The Tiara on the Terrace is that I love giving kids a sense of adventure and wonder. In my observations as a teacher, kids can be like little business people these days. They have their rolling back packs and their schedules they have their playdates, they have their extra-curriculars. And their world is very constricted much more so then mine was growing up, and I feel that through books or through these adventures you can kind of restore that sense of wonder but also the feeling that kids can have real power and trust themselves to go on all kinds of fun adventures so I like opening that up to them through books and that’s something that I don’t get asked about much but I love to get across. That books have this power to open up some avenues of freedom for kids in their otherwise sometimes overly scheduled world.

  • Interview by Ronna Mandel (with special thanks to Armineh Manookian for all her help!)

 

Kristen_KittscherThe_Tiara_PrizeKRISTEN KITTSCHER is the author of bestselling tween mystery The Wig in the Window (Harper Children’s, 2013) which garnered a starred review from School Library Journal and was on ten Best of the Year lists. A graduate of Brown University and a former middle school English teacher, Kristen was named the James Thurber House Children’s Writer-in-Residence in 2014. She lives with her husband in Pasadena, home of the Rose Parade—the inspiration for her latest novel, The Tiara on the Terrace. Visit kristenkittscher.com or follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@kkittscher).

Enter below to win a copy of The Tiara on the Terrace by Kristen Kittscher plus an exclusive spy kit with Moleskine notebook. spy pen, magnets and book marks. Receive an extra entry for following Good Reads With Ronna on Facebook.

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Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass

 

TWO FRIENDS:
SUSAN B. ANTHONY AND FREDERICK DOUGLASS
Written by Dean Robbins,
Illustrated by Sean Qualls & Selina Alko
(Orchard Books/Scholastic; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

TwoFriendscvr

 

Two Friends is an excellent and inspiring new picture book about the friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. It’s told in such an immediate way that the reader is drawn right into the lives of these two legendary figures as they have tea together. Susan’s life is summed up best by the sentence, “And Susan had many things to do.” She really did. Author Dean Robbins looks back on Susan’s childhood noting that she did not get the education she wanted or deserved. This enables illustrators Qualls and Alko to portray Susan B. Anthony’s life in gorgeous and yet deceptively simple illustrations that show childhood pictures of Susan’s life at home that they’ve imagined her drawing. Susan’s journey to get the vote and to fight for equality got some mixed reactions by her peers, but it never stopped her.

 

Two Friends Interior Spread 1
Two Friends by Dean Robbins, Illustrations © 2016 by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, used with permission from Orchard Books/Scholastic.

Having taken us into Susan’s life, the illustrations return the reader back to these two friends talking over tea. Frederick Douglass tells Susan B. Anthony his exciting news about his newspaper. These magical words float across the page, “We are all brethren. Right is of no gender… of no color… Truth is of no color…” Frederick’s life is told as simply and as truthfully as Susan’s. Born a slave, he dreamed of learning to read and write. Qualls and Alko portray Frederick Douglass with a look of determination on his face as he reads a book. Like Susan, he wonders why some people have rights and others don’t. The illustrations clearly tell us that he has beautiful dreams of having something more. “The right to live free. The right to vote,” is what he is aiming for, something both Douglass and Anthony have in common. He was met with the same fate as Susan. Some of his peers liked what he had to say, but others didn’t. Frederick is shown standing proud while delivering a speech.

 

Two Friends Interior Spread 4
Two Friends by Dean Robbins, Illustrations © 2016 by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, used with permission from Orchard Books/Scholastic.

 

The two friends have promised to assist each other in gaining the rights they deserve. One illustration that just may be my favorite depicts Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony in a circle of support, surrounded by so many loving friends of all colors. In another, as seen above, a charming blue and white tea set remains visible on the table between them as they discuss their plans. Two candles on the table glow, symbolizing each of their luminary presences to readers. So many things they both have to do, but friendship and tea comes first! My mother loves children’s books and as I showed her this one she said, “That’s the most beautiful children’s book I have ever seen. It’s my favorite one now.” High praise from someone who is a writer herself, and has very high standards! It is stunningly perfect in text and illustrations. I love the bit of peach that shines though Frederick’s hair and suit. Equally pleasing is the same peach in Susan’s cheeks and dress. Even both their skin tones have a bit of that lovely color that seems to join them together visually as united in their causes. Two Friends is simple enough for a small child to understand, and a wonderful conversation prompter about the important contributions of both these great people. I can think of no better picture book published recently that would be more important to add to your child’s library. Highly recommended!

  • Reviewed by Hilary Taber
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Nice Work, Franklin! by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain

 

In this lead up to Presidents’ Day, and with the presidential primaries in full swing, it’s the perfect time to share Nice Work, Franklin!, a dee-lightful and uplifting picture book.

NICE WORK, FRANKLIN!
Written by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain
Illustrated by Larry Day
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 5 and up)

 

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This historical fiction book asks the question, “Do Presidents Have Challenges?” and answers with “You’d better believe it.” Jurmain goes on to explain that those challenges can be personal or national or sometimes both. For Franklin Delano Roosevelt or FDR as he was known, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it would not seem that life would present him with many challenges notes Jurmain.  “He was rich. He was smart. He was popular.” He also happened to be the cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, who served as an important role model for the career-driven FDR. Destined to do “big stuff,” the younger Roosevelt got into politics first in New York then moved on to running the Navy. It was even looking like he might make a run for governor.

Then, in 1921, at age 39, FDR’s legs were paralyzed by Polio, an illness that at the time had no cure. Rather than wallow in self-pity, the solution-oriented Roosevelt was determined not to give in to the disease. He used leg braces and crutches and exercised to strengthen his leg muscles as best he could. And when he wasn’t up to task, Franklin’s popular wife, Eleanor, got involved making speeches on his behalf. As his health improved, Franklin decided to run for governor of New York, making him the first disabled person to seek office. Franklin, when hearing people’s objections, responded with his typical can do attitude. “The governor of New York State does not have to be an acrobat.”

The start of the Great Depression immediately following the NYC Stock Market crash of 1929 or Black Friday as it was known, meant millions of people lost their jobs. Not one to be easily discouraged, Franklin felt he could do something to lift America out of its troubles. In 1932 he became the 32nd President of the United States. At his inaugural speech, FDR gave hope to Americans with his famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Then he got about the business of putting Americans back to work by creating a government jobs program, giving seniors Social Security benefits and creating funding for the unemployed. He even took to the radio with his “Fireside Chats” to speak directly to the American public. He went on to be elected (a total of four times) and watched the nation rise from the depths of despair. And though he still could not walk, he was responsible for putting the country back on its feet again.

Nice Work, Franklin! reminds readers of the power of positive thinking. Thanks to his can do approach and record of success, FDR will always be a role model for students. Jurmain aptly chose to highlight some of Roosevelt’s most important contributions to American society in a straight forward manner that is both informative and encouraging. Rather than attempt to cover his entire presidency, the author has concentrated on his first term in office, a pivotal time in U.S. history. Day, who has twice teamed up with Jurmain on some other presidential themed picture books, captures not only Franklin’s appearance, but his personality as well. The scenes he illustrated depict a nation desperate to recover and on the verge of great change. Two outstanding spreads for me were the one showing the endless lines of jobless men waiting for soup, and the inspiring image of Roosevelt standing up at his swearing-in ceremony ready to give his inaugural address. Between Jurmain’s anecdotes that demonstrate Franklin’s determination to overcome his challenges, and Day’s artwork resulting from “weeks sketching at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park,” Nice Work, Franklin! will make a welcome addition to any classroom.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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The Year of the Monkey: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac by Oliver Chin

THE YEAR OF THE MONKEY:
TALES FROM THE CHINESE ZODIAC

Written by Oliver Chin
Illustrated by Kenji Ono
(Immedium; $15.95, Ages 4-8)

新年好 / 新年好 (Xīnnián hǎo)
‘New Year goodness!’

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We love getting the word out about Oliver Chin’s Tales from the Chinese Zodiac and this year we’re delighted to share his latest, The Year of the Monkey. If you know someone born in 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, and of course, 2016, they were born in the Year of the Monkey. I’m proud to have been born in The Year of the Dog, but I think many readers will enjoy figuring out which family members’ birthdays fall in the Year of the Monkey.

In just 36 pages, you’ll get to learn about the Chinese culture, its New Year, and its organization of time “in cycles of twelve years,” and symbolized by the zodiac circle. This circle consists of animals whose unique personality traits are supposed to be representative of those found in individuals born under that symbol.

 

The Year of the Monkey_spread1
Interior artwork from The Year of the Monkey: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac by Oliver Chin with illustrations by Kenji Ono, Immedium ©2016.

 

The little monkey Max was born to the Queen and her prankster husband, the Monkey King. “A chimp off the old block,” Max was eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, so much so that when he began school, he found it difficult to sit still and follow the teacher’s instructions. Maybe you know a child like this, or were just like Max when you were a child. Playing a sport is often a great way to channel all this pent up energy and that’s exactly what Max did. His friend Kai introduced him to jianzi, or shuttlecock, and was soon noticed by the coach. “Practice your technique and not your talking and you’ll go far.”

 

The Year of the Monkey_spread2
Interior artwork from The Year of the Monkey: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac by Oliver Chin with illustrations by Kenji Ono, Immedium ©2016.

 

Encouraged by his father, Max was eager to register for the annual shuttlecock tournament to try to beat the reigning champions. First though, Max, along with his pal, Kai, had to practice, practice, practice to earn a place in the big match. The boys’ commitment to honing their jianzi skills proved successful. While not initially keen on Max pursuing the sport, Max’s mother was impressed with his devotion. She even advised him to find a “special move,” something the Monkey King was thrilled to provide. After making it past the semi-finals and into the finals, the boys were now poised to face off with their formidable opponents, Tiger and Dragon, depicted as three times their size and certain of winning. Though the boys battled valiantly, it looked like they couldn’t defeat the champs. That is, until Max unleashed his powerful “Monkey Spike,” in an upset that allowed the boys to beat the best! Keeping this happy ending in mind, it’s no surprise that, in the book’s back matter, we learn from Chin that “People born in the Year of the Monkey are carefree, curious, and crafty. They are playful, nimble, and persistent. But they can be impetuous and naughty, and sometimes show off. Though they are fond of mischief, monkeys keep their eyes on the prize and are indispensable allies.”

 

The Year of the Monkey_spread4
Interior artwork from The Year of the Monkey: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac by Oliver Chin with illustrations by Kenji Ono, Immedium ©2016.

 

Children will quickly find themselves rooting for Max and Kai to defeat the Tiger and the Dragon and achieve what seemed like the unattainable. This story of perseverance and triumph is fast-paced and easy to follow. Plus for the first time, there’s text written in simplified Chinese characters making this bilingual book a great introduction for non-Chinese speakers and those already fluent who prefer a translation.The rainbow colored artwork, rendered by Dreamworks Feature Animation storyboard artist, Kenji Ono, brings the story to life as we watch Max and Kai prepare for the big contest.

I can easily see this book on school library bookshelves as its subject matter is really quite universal. The book is filled with strong action verbs, some which may be new to youngsters. These wonderful examples convey how words, complemented by fun illustrations, can add to the overall reading experience even make reading aloud for parents enjoyable and entertaining.

 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Get downloadable coloring pages here.
Download the app on your iPad, too!

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Winter Themed Picture Books Roundup

 

WINTER THEMED PICTURE BOOKS ROUNDUP

Winter is definitely here! With parts of the country still under a blanket of snow, it’s a good time to share some cold-weather stories. So find a comfy chair, gather up your books, blanket, and a mug full of hot cocoa and read on.

Curious About Snow Winter-Books-Curious-About-Snow-book-cvr.jpg
by Gina Shaw
A Smithsonian Book
(Grosset & Dunlap; $3.99, Ages 6-8)
Winter time = snow in many parts of the world. Curious About Snow is a great book for curious minds! It helps little children to understand the basic structure of ice crystal, shows many photographs of snowflakes, and will probably make you want to go play in the snow! The book introduces the reader to Wilson Bentley, a man born in 1865, who dedicated his life to studying and photographing snow. You’ll be sure to learn a lot of facts while reading this book! While this Smithsonian book can certainly be loved by all ages, its target audience is elementary school children.

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The Little Snowplow
Written by Lora Koehler
Illustrator by Jake Parker
(Candlewick; $15.99, Ages 3-7)
The Little Snowplow reminds me of The Little Engine That Could for all the right reasons. You’re sure to love this book if you’re craving a story to encourage your little one about perseverance and practice. The little snowplow practices everyday just in case he’ll be needed for a big job. He continues to try hard even though the bigger snow equipment don’t think he’s useful. Then comes the day where his size and his capabilities save the day! Click here for an activity.

The Bear ReportWinter-Books-The-Bear-Report-cvr.jpg
Written and illustrated by Thyra Heder
(Abrams; $17.95, Ages 4-8)
Great storytelling happens within the beautiful artwork of Thyra Heder in The Bear Report. A young girl named Sophie is reluctant to do her homework about polar bears. After doing a minimalist job, a kind real-life polar bear shows up in her house to show her there are more interesting things where he lives. They go exploring the arctic while the polar bear shows her his favorite things – eating, sleeping, sliding. Sophie and the bear thoroughly enjoy the day together. When she returns home, Sophie is excited to share information about her new friend. This book received a star from Kirkus Reviews.

Winter_Books-Toys_Meet_Snow_Cvr.jpgToys Meet Snow: Being the Wintertime Adventures of a Curious Stuffed Buffalo, a Sensitive Plush Stingray, and a Book-loving Rubber Ball
Written by Emily Jenkins
Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
(Schwartz & Wade; $17.99, Ages 3-7)
This trio is loveable! Who knew a stuffed buffalo toy, a plush stingray, and a rubber ball could be so entertaining? Even though I had not read the previous trilogy of Toys Go Out, Toy Dance Party, and Toys Come Home I was easily able to fall in love with these characters as I got to know them. While their ‘Little Girl’ owner is away, the toys see the first snowfall of the season. The inquisitive buffalo gets replies from the poetic stingray and bookwormish ball. They proceed to make their way  to the wintery outside world and return after a full day of outdoor play. A great book for a winter’s day!

Winter’s Child Winter_Books_Winters_Child_cvr.jpg
Written by Angela McAllister
Illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith
(Templar Books/Candlewick $16.99, Ages 3-7))
The fresh illustration style and heartwarming story in Winter’s Child are sure to make this book a classic! This is a storybook, which has much more text than the trending picture books, but it is well worth the read. A young boy, Tom, lives with his mother and Nana. It has been the longest winter they have ever seen and they begin to run out of needed food and supplies. Young Tom goes out to play each day as young children do and he meets a friend. They explore and have fun together for several days, but as time goes on the little family is getting worried that they won’t be able to eat or stay warm much longer. Eventually we find out Tom’s friend is Winter’s child and he didn’t want to sleep. Winter’s child, upon seeing that Tom’s family is being negatively affected, calls for his father. Winter takes his child and the following day signs of spring appear. This beautiful story almost made me cry as I read it to my kids. I was moved by its many great messages of friendship, family bonds, and sacrifice. I highly recommend it!

  • Reviewed by Lucy Ravitch
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Peg + Cat: The Race Car Problem

PEG + CAT: THE RACE CAR PROBLEM
by Jennifer Oxley + Billy Aronson
(Candlewick Entertainment; $12.99, Ages 3-7)

PegandCatRaceCarProblem

My kids have only seen one or two episodes of the PBS show, Peg + Cat, but you don’t need to have seen episodes to like the picture book, Peg + Cat: The Race Car Problem! It’s a fun, creative story of Peg and Cat as they build a race car for a twenty lap race to compete with three other groups for the golden cup. There are several math related situations, such as which shape will roll the best, or what number lap they are on and is that less than the competition.

At the beginning of the story Peg and Cat are at a junk yard to make their race car for the big race. They put it together with a metal cylinder and some boxes and circle items for wheels (although when one wheel falls off they quickly realize that a square replacement wouldn’t roll).

This story reminds me of how fun it is to create objects and items from “junk.” This past June my family attended the local high school’s “Day of Making” which supported STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) education and there was a non-profit called Trash 4 Teaching which had a creation station. My kids spent almost an hour or more making various creations with hot glue and all these cool industrial product left-overs. I wish I had a picture!

Photoofpage number PegandCat
Photo of page numbers from Peg + Cat: The Race Car Problem written and illustrated by Jennifer Oxley; Billy Aronson courtesy of Lucy Ravitch. Interior art work Copyright © 2015 by Feline Features, LLC, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

I loved the fun illustrations with the graph paper background. Even the way they numbered the pages was fun (see photo – right)! The message that you should never give up was a good one in addition to all the numbers and problem solving. It’s also sure to bring a laugh to adults as they read the book aloud to their young kids (especially the part about the teens’ car and how they handle the race).

 

Overall, in Peg + Cat: The Race Car Problem, Peg and Cat have great personalities that shine through and help them persevere and win the race (even when car trouble crept up). This book will be a great addition to kids’ libraries for many years!

Click here to download an activity kit.

  • Reviewed by Lucy Ravitch

 

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Elwood Bigfoot: Wanted Birdie Friends! by Jill Esbaum

ELWOOD BIGFOOT: WANTED BIRDIE FRIENDS!
Written by Jill Esbaum 
Illustrated by Nate Wragg
(Sterling Children’s Books; $14.95, Ages 4-7)

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In Elwood Bigfoot: Wanted Birdie Friends! all Elwood Bigfoot wants is a friend – preferably a feathered, flittery bird friend! But his earnestly clumsy bigfoot-y manner gets in his way time after time. How can a lonely, large, LOUD Bigfoot get close to his avian amigos-to-be?

Elwood tries the direct approach first, chasing after swooping birds and hollering for the birdies to come back. Alas, they only fly away. His next idea is to live in a tree, where he can be closer to the birds. His dedicated handiwork produces a lovely, log cabin style tree house perched against the mountainside. Surely his new neighbors, the birds, will welcome him.

elwood---sample-spread1
Reprinted with permission from Elwood Bigfoot © 2015 by Jill Esbaum, Sterling Children’s Books, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. Illustrations by Nate Wragg.

Alas, the birds seem shy. So Elwood tries to disguise himself, dressing like a bird from head to toe with feathers, beak and feet. Experiencing a modicum of success, Elwood thinks he’s finally about to break the barriers to feathered friendship. He shouts for joy! Alas (once again!) the birdies fly away.

Esbaum’s charming, lyrical text is delightful to read aloud and incorporates intriguing, playful vocabulary. She perfectly captures Elwood’s sense of loneliness in ways that a child can easily connect to, and she conveys his upbeat, hopeful and innovative spirit in appealing ways. While readers see that making friends is not always easy, learning to take the perspective of others is an essential part of the process.

Wragg’s illustrations turn Elwood into a marvelous, huggable furball. With a jaunty fedora and sarfari-style binoculars, Elwood is well-equipped for his bird-watching exploits. A single triangular fang and four-fingered, three toed shagginess add to Elwood’s monstrous appeal. Wragg also turns out an impressive flock of feathered friends throughout the pages, and displays them prominently on the book’s endpages. Whimsical and colorful, the birds’ tiny round eyes and pointy beaks reveal an impressive range of tender and comical emotions.

Elwood Bigfoot : Wanted Birdie Friends! is a sweet tale of patience, persistence and friendship. Young readers may look hard at the birds in the yards and trees around them, wondering if they are among Elwood’s best buddies. Don’t miss this encouraging story about dreams that do come true.

A downloadable activity kit is available here.

  • Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey

 

Where Obtained:  I reviewed a copy of Elwood Bigfoot: Wanted Birdie Friends! from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.

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The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

 

THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND
Written by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Illustrated by Anna Hymas
Young Readers Edition of the New York Times Bestseller
(Dial Books for Young Readers; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

the boy who harnessed the wind, YR edition

This book was first released as adult fiction in 2009, then as a children’s picture book in 2012. For this review, I refer to the Young Readers Edition, published earlier this year.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is an inspirational underdog story about an African boy who changes his world through ingenuity, willpower, and imagination.

Consider that, at the outset of the book—from the very title itself—the reader realizes William Kamkwamba will build a windmill. We know victory is on the horizon, yet we still fall into the book’s pages to walk at his side on this amazing path.

This book’s prologue begins in the middle of the action, when the windmill is first built. Teen-aged William climbs to the top to try it out. The writing clearly evokes images relevant in William’s world: “The muscles in my back and arms had grown hard as green fruit from all the pulling and lifting.” His family, and the unbelievers, watch expectantly from below. Together with them, we celebrate William’s first success.

The story then falls back to 1997 (William is nine years old) and unfolds chronologically past the scene in the prologue. William tells us where Wimbe, Malawi, is located and what the African village is like. He includes a sampling of his language and introduces his family, describing their lives as maize (white corn) farmers. Their daily porridge of maize flour and hot water called nsima is so essential to their diet that even if they were to eat a steak dinner they would say, “There was no food there.” We are immersed in the Malawi world. However, when William realizes his area’s beliefs in magic and wizardry do not work, he looks for answers elsewhere but his resources seem limited.

A famine and cholera sweep the land (2001-02). William must drop out of secondary school because his family cannot pay the tuition. He recalls a recently-opened three-shelf library in a primary school; the books donated by the American government. In these science books he finds the explanations he seeks for his various tinker projects. When William sees his first photo of a windmill, his path is forever changed. William teaches himself to read the textbooks in English then he gathers discarded items with the dream to build his own windmill, improving his family’s and his village’s quality of living. One piece at a time—with many setbacks—the windmill takes shape.

In November 2006, the world discovers this incredible teen and his life moves in a new direction. We realize with hopeful anticipation that William’s accomplishments thus far are merely the beginning.

– Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Today we welcome guest reviewer, Christine Van Zandt.
She’s a writer, editor, and owner of www.write-for-success.com.
Find her on Twitter @WFSediting, and contact her at christine@write-for-success.com.
WriteForSuccess-MD-HiRes

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Finding Forever by Ken Baker, A Blog Tour

FINDING FOREVER: A Deadline Diaries Exclusive
Written by Ken Baker
(Running Press Teens; Trade paperback, $9.95, Ages 13 and up)

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In Finding Forever, E! News Correspondent and SoCal resident, Ken Baker, has used his entertainment news background to enthrall readers with a riveting fictional tale of life inside the celebrity scene and its fascination with Hollywood’s Holy Grail, the elusive fountain of youth. His main character, a teen blogger named Brooklyn Brant, covers celebrity news in her blog Deadline Diaries, but in her latest quest she uncovers more than she bargained for.

When sixteen-year-old celebrity sweetheart Taylor Prince goes missing from her birthday party in L.A., tabloid blog STARSTALK splashes headlines that Taylor is in rehab for drug addiction. Taylor’s assistant, Simone, enlists the help of Brooklyn Brant to help find the missing starlet, as she insists Taylor is not on drugs and this is more of a conspiracy. However, with Simone’s shady past, it’s hard to know whom to trust. Brooklyn must use her sleuthing skills to uncover the truth before time runs out on Taylor.

While the mystery behind Taylor’s disappearance had my attention, what really drew me in was Brooklyn’s backstory, including her late father’s mysterious death and his legacy she is trying to uphold. As a police officer, Brooklyn’s father believed in getting at the truth. Ever since his death, Brooklyn has tried to follow in her father’s footsteps, finding the truth and revealing it with integrity, but as a journalist not a cop, trading the gun for a pen. Her blog Deadline Diaries began as an outlet for her to cope with his passing, but it grew into a passion and potential future. And the story of Taylor Prince’s disappearance, in all its web of secrets and lies, is perhaps the big break in her budding career that she’s been looking for.

Using a dual narrative, bouncing back and forth between Taylor’s and Brooklyn’s points of view, Baker kept me wondering what was going on and what would be revealed next. The more I read, the more I began to see that the rehab place was suspect and almost cult-like, and its head, Dr. Kensington, creepily Peter Pan obsessed. I found myself rooting simultaneously for Taylor to escape and for Brooklyn to save her. While the ending seemed a little rushed, it still provided the satisfying closure I would expect as a reader, and reinforced the fact that eternal youth is as much a façade as a Hollywood set.

Read more about Ken Baker here.

  • Reviewed by Krista Jefferies

 

 

 

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Firebird by Misty Copeland

FIREBIRD
Written by Misty Copeland
Illustrated by Christopher Myers
(G. P. Putnam’s Sons; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

Firebird won the 2015 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, received the 2015 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award New Writer Honor, and was an NPR Best Book of 2014.

 

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In Firebird; American Ballet Theater ballerina, Misty Copeland, shows a young girl how to dance like the firebird. Copeland, author of Life in Motion, has written a spare but powerful picture book about a young African American girl who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. Daunted by the process, the young girl compares her ” gray as rain” self to the “swift as sunlight” Copeland, believing that she could never be as good as her idol. Realizing that the girl lacks confidence and is overwhelmed by what lays ahead, Copeland offers encouragement and support in a lyrical conversation between mentor and protégé:

“darling child, don’t you know

you’re just where I started …

your beginning’s just begun …”

Copeland assures the young girl that, despite the challenges and hard work (“…I  had a thousand leaps and falls …”), her ability will grow. One day someone will need her support:

“then they will look to you in wonder

and say …

the space between you and me is longer than forever

and I will show them that forever is not so far away”

Lovely ballet similes and metaphors are woven into a narrative as powerful, yet as graceful as the dancer’s art:

“ …Like me you’ll grow steady in grace

spread an arabesque of wings

and climb …”

And while the narrative is a conversation is between a beginning dancer and an experienced ballerina, Copeland’s message of determination and realizing your dream is an important and inspiring message for all of us.

Using bold and striking mixed media illustrations, award-winning illustrator Christopher Myers enhances the soaring and inspirational text by dramatically capturing the movement of the dance and Copeland’s amazing ability to stretch her body in extraordinary positions. Likewise, his illustrations also depict the tender and affirming relationship between Copeland and her protégé. Myers, the son of the late children’s author Walter Dean Myers, has received multiple awards for his illustrations. Visit Reading Rockets for a selected list of his books and a video interview.

The Afterword contains a poignant message from Copeland about her childhood struggles and how ballet “saved” her. Nevertheless, as an African American, she did not see herself in this almost exclusively white world. With hope, hard work, and support she made it and has turned to supporting other young dreamers like herself to enter the world of Classical ballet.

Copeland has just been appointed the first African American principal ballerina of American Ballet Theater. Visit Misty at her website and see her reading Firebird at the April 6, 2015 White House Easter Egg Roll. A search on YouTube will display many videos featuring interviews and performances. Click on the link to read an excerpt of Life in Motion and see a short video of Copeland discussing her determination to succeed. Earlier this week it was also announced that for two weeks this August, Copeland will star on Broadway in the musical “On the Town.”

– Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

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Garden-Themed Books for Spring: Lola Plants a Garden & In Mary’s Garden

Lola Plants a Garden
Written by Anna McQuinn and illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw
(Charlesbridge; $15.95, Ages 2-5)

In Mary’s Garden
By Tina and Carson Kugler
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $16.99, Ages 5-9)

Spring is only a few short weeks away, and most of the country can’t wait to thaw out. In anticipation of sunshine and warmer temperatures, here are two picture books about different types of gardens.

Lola-Plants-Garden-cvr.jpgIn Lola Plants a Garden, young Lola is inspired to plant a garden after reading the “Mary, Mary, quite contrary” poem. First, she conducts her research with books from the library. Next, she and Mommy make a list of Lola’s favorite flowers. Then they’re off to buy seeds and carefully follow the instructions on the seed packets. But growing a garden doesn’t happen quickly, and Lola has to wait. Not to worry, as Lola and her parents have plenty of ways to keep busy.

Lola makes her own flower book…She finds shells and some old beads. She even makes a little Mary Mary. Daddy helps Lola hang her shiny bells. Lola finds Mary Mary a special spot. It’s just perfect. And, before Lola knows it, her flowers grow and her friends visit. They share the crunchy peas and sweet strawberries…What kind of garden will Lola plant next?

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Interior artwork from Lola Plants a Garden by Anna McQuinn with illustrations by Rosalind Beardshaw, Charlesbridge Publishing ©2014

This sweet book highlights the fun of getting back to nature and teaches the virtues of hard work and patience. Good things come to those who wait, and Lola must wait for her flowers to sprout and grow. With the help of her parents, Lola doesn’t dwell on the waiting and enjoys her time with related activities. I just adore the illustrations. They are bright with the little details that convey so much meaning. We know Lola is working hard on her flower book when we see her tongue stick out from the corner of her mouth. And pulling weeds isn’t easy as we can tell from Lola wiping her brow. I especially liked seeing how Mommy and Lola lean into each other as they make cupcakes. These touches are the illustrator’s mastery. The font is also spot on with just the right size and style (modern with clean lines) to help emerging readers identify letters and words.

 

InMarysGarden-cvr.jpgIn Marys’ Garden brings to life a true story of art and inspiration. Mary Nohl was a little girl in Wisconsin who loved to create, invent, and build things. Mary tried woodworking. She helped her father build a house on the shore of Lake Michigan. She won the first place prize in her industrial arts class for building a model airplane. This was unusual for the time, as girls were supposed to follow traditional paths. In fact, Mary was one of only two girls in the class. But Mary had an intrepid spirit and a keen eye for art. As she grew older, she traveled the world and drew inspiration from everywhere. One summer, her dogs, Sassafras and Basil, found driftwood on the lakeshore. Mary then began to hunt for more items—old keys, shiny rocks, feathers, cogs, combs, and on. She began to create. It took a long time to put together all the odds and ends and bits and bobs, but finally Mary was done. The creature was magnificent. She continued to create art piece after art piece in her garden and then in her home. After her death, Mary’s art is being preserved.

My daughters and I greatly enjoy this story. It shows a woman who follows her own path and mind. Despite society’s conventions, Mary Nohl kept true to herself and her muse. These are lofty concepts, but even young children can understand the idea that a person can do what she loves. Older children will hopefully take away the lesson that gender shouldn’t stop someone from achieving milestones and following a dream. The book ends with factual information and photographs of Mary and her garden.

The book’s art is traditional watercolor with digital painting, collage and vintage papers. Postcards, patterns, and writing are used as backgrounds for the main illustrations and offer a look at Mary’s creativity. The “creatures” (statues and creations) are unconventional but fun to study. They demonstrate Mary’s incredible imagination. There’s a lot to take away from In Mary’s Garden—creativity, inspiration, challenging society’s norms, being true to yourself—and it’s well worth the read.

NOTE: If you live in L.A., you can see Tina and Carson Kugler at Once Upon a Time Bookstore at 11a.m. on March 28th.

Here’s a book trailer to enjoy, too.

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