Sunday, September 29, 2019

Fall Reading 2019 Born to Draw Comics: The Story of Charles Schulz and the Creation of Peanuts

Gr 1–3—Most children have heard of Snoopy or seen his picture, but this picture book biography tells the story of his creator. Presented in a comic book style reminiscent of its subject's drawings, the colorful panels follow Charles "Sparky" Schulz from his birth to the syndication of Peanuts. This is the story of a boy who enjoyed life's simple pleasures and who grew into a man who captured those joys in his comics for all to share. Readers will learn where the idea of a boy and his beloved—and smart—dog originated. Wadsworth and Orback describe Schulz's lifelong love of drawing and the encouragement he received from his teachers, parents, and friends. This biography stresses that perseverance and practice were the keys to his success, with multiple submissions to publishers before he was finally offered a contract. The back matter includes a photo of Schulz at his drawing board, an author's note, a brief list of the Peanuts characters, and other helpful details. VERDICT: A wonderful homage to Schulz and a perfect first biography for young readers.

(My review was originally published in School Library Journal, September 2019, pp.141-142.)

Fall Reading 2019 Monkey & Robot: Friends and Neighbors

Gr 1–3—Robot is responsible and helpful, while Monkey is energetic and spontaneous. The humor in this chapter book comes from the juxtaposition of the two friends and their approaches to life, as well as mix-ups about the meaning of words. Monkey thinks the pest control man will read to the mice because he has come to "take care of them." And when Robot says, "Not a word," Monkey winds up on the floor kicking his feet and holding his own mouth shut to keep from speaking. Young readers often are confused by phrases with multiple meanings and will sympathize, while also laughing at Monkey's mistakes. Along with the wordplay, the gray scale illustrations add depth and capture the expressive characters' actions. The limited number of panels per page and the scenes depicting familiar situations such as babysitting, caring for pets, or celebrating birthdays make this perfect for children learning to read or encountering graphic novels for the first time. The humor is gentle, and Monkey, along with readers, learns from every mistake. VERDICT: Highly recommended for primary grades and newly independent readers.

(My review was originally published in School Library Journal, September 2019, p.111)

Fall Reading 2019 Michael Collins: Forgotten Astronaut

Gr 3–5—Unless you are a serious NASA enthusiast, the name Michael Collins might be hard to place—and that is why his story fits so well in the "Discovering History's Heroes" series. The author deftly describes the path of Collins from growing up on army bases and building model planes to traveling to the moon as part of Apollo 11. Readers may be amazed to learn about all the preparation that NASA required of its astronauts, including jungle survival training in Panama. Along with a thorough look at the career of Collins, there are also background details such as how the names were chosen for the NASA programs or how the U.S. Navy helped to recover space capsules when they returned to Earth. Endnotes and a bibliography offer readers a place to start their own exploration into the life of Michael Collins. VERDICT: What truly brings this historical figure to life is the use of quotations from Collins's own writing. An excellent addition to biography collections, with ties to STEM, U.S. history, and character education.

(My review was originally published in School Library Journal, August 2019, p.84.)

Fall Reading 2019 Cassandra Steps Out: Book 1 (Cassandra: Animal Psychic)

Cassandra has some adjustments to make in her life. Her best friend has moved away and her mom is dating a man whose daughter dislikes Cassandra. She's also dealing with the decision to use a special ability to help others. This series starter establishes that Cassandra can communicate with animals and documents her first case as an 'animal psychic.' Apart from her powers, Cassandra is a typical teen. Insecure and quick tempered, she longs for acceptance. The graphic format depicts the story effectively, using thought bubbles to show Cassandra's communication with animals. Illustrations capture emotions and provide flashbacks as Cassandra reminisces about learning about her ability. Pages from Cassandra's 'Secret Notebook' offer more details about the case and about her dog, Miss Dolly. VERDICT A good match for readers who enjoy stories about animals or psychic powers.

(My review was originally published in School Library Journal.)

Fall Reading 2019 The Circus Comes to the Village

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Mention the word Afghanistan and people often think of images from the news, troops walking through streets, dusty roads with military convoys...rarely does something positive or colorful come to mind. This book offers another view, one that shows people going about their everyday lives. Children rush home from school with their book bags, women knead bread, men work in the fields, and the circus comes to town. Gathering the crops and thinking ahead to winter snow that will help water the next year's planting are all part of the rhythm of village life. But there is time for fun when the chores are finished; time to whirl on a spinning swing or ride to the top of a Ferris wheel.

Yamo and his friend Mirado check out all the circus has to offer - rides, snacks, souvenirs, and entertainment. When the circus leaves the next day, the village seems emptier. The villagers stay busy preparing for the winter and celebrating the snowfall that heralds good crops for next year. Then, the last page tells us that the village was destroyed in the war that winter. There is some hope, since the villagers escaped, even though they had to find other places to live. "However, as spring always follows a harsh winter, the village of Paghman waits quietly for everyone's return."

As the publisher's note explains, the author was a frequent visitor to Islamic countries in the 1970s and 1980s, and what he observed there is reflected in his work. A previous book in this series introduces Yamo and his village to readers, and lets them know that Yamo's brother and Mirado's father are away at war. A third book tells of Mirado's return to Paghman after touring with the circus. 

A good title for those looking to offer more cultural diversity in their collections, and to show what childhood is like in different areas of the world.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Fall Reading 2019 Snowmen Live Forever


Part Frosty and part Olaf, the Snowman keeps his woodland friends entertained. He was "better than anyone at organizing games, clowning around, thinking up riddles, and telling stories." Squirrel, Owl, Hedgehog, and Rabbit love to spend their days with him. But they begin to notice signs of spring and to worry about their snowy friend. He seems to be losing  his energy and he talks about wanting to learn to swim. (A bit like Olaf wanting to experience summer.) And then one day, he is gone. So they set off in search of him. Bear has taught them about how water "flows from the mountains to the sea," and they set sail to find Snowman. They do finally spot their friend in an unexpected place.

The illustrations show the animals sporting winter fashions such as hats and snowshoes while their friend wears the usual top hat and button eyes we expect of snowmen. When he finds Snowman's buttons and carrot lying in the melting snow, Squirrel respectfully removes his cap. Their wagon built from a wooden Pepsi Cola crate rockets downhill past startled cows as they set off for their adventure at sea; we can see Hedgehog curled into a protective ball as he bounces into the air from his seat in the back.

All the characters have personality that shows in their attire and their actions. Squirrel steers the careening cart. Owl perches on the mast of their raft and looks for clues. Rabbit's ears droop with dejection when they return to land empty-handed. Hedgehog perches on a rock and props his chin on his paw as he considers the approach of warm weather. Together, they remind me of Pooh and his friends as they explore the Hundred Acre Wood.

A fun story to share about friends who must leave, but will return.

Fall Reading 2019 You Are My Friend

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Although it is fiction, this book with its gentle pencil and watercolor illustrations captures the spirit of Fred Rogers and shares the author's admiration of him. It traces some of the influences on young Fred and how his talents with music and puppets were put to use through the medium of television. There are examples of some of the guests he had on his show, and it closes with his signature affirmation from each show, "I like you just the way you are." 

Back matter includes a short biography of Fred Rogers, notes from both the author and illustrator of their own experiences with "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," and a bibliography. While this is a work of fiction, it captures the feel of those shows and of the acceptance Fred Rogers offered youngsters. This is the perfect story to share with a child who is feeling a bit shy, awkward, or unnoticed.

For folks who have never watched an episode (the show ended in 2001 after 31 seasons), you can find videos online that show Rogers' gentle humor and warmth. 

Fall Reading 2019 Sea Bear: A Journey of Survival

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Told in the voice of the polar bear herself, this story traces a bear's journey out onto the sea ice to hunt seals, then the treacherous return to land as the ice breaks up when the summer warmth returns. Illustrations show the bear waiting at an air hole for a seal to surface, swimming in the channels between the ice floes, and cuddled in a snow den with her cubs. We also see ocean dwellers such as narwhals, walruses, and a whale as the bear swims past them and back to shore.

This could be used with a unit on polar bears, or arctic animals in general. Since it covers a year in the bear's life, it could also be part of a look at seasons and how they affect wildlife. But it could also introduce how polar bears' survival is impacted by the shrinking sea ice that they need to successfully hunt and build up their energy reserves for the warmer months when they are stuck on land. As the text says, "Polar bears are not land bears. We wait on land. We hope on land." 

Back matter includes an explanation of polar bears and their dependence on sea ice, as well as details about the other animals depicted in the book.

Fall Reading 2019 A Different Story

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It's all too easy to focus on differences, especially those that deal with outer appearances. Consider the rhinoceros and the rhinoceros beetle. Rhinos can grow to weigh 5,100 pounds. The rhinoceros beetle is one of the largest beetle species, but still only reaches a length of about 6 inches. The beetle is found on every continent but Antarctica, while the rhino only lives in Asia and Africa. 

But what if we look for similarities instead? They are both herbivorous. They both have that distinctive horn. They both use that horn for defense. They both live here on planet Earth, jut like the rest of us. Aren't the things they have in common just as important? Don't they tell a different story?

This deceptively simple book explores what it is like to sink or soar, to feel like the world is very small or incredibly large, calm or busy. The illustrations use a mix of collage and drawing to show both creatures as they go about their day and then encounter each other. An image of the beetle perched on the rhino's tail serves to emphasize the difference in their sizes, while another spread shows just their horns.

If you are looking for stories to introduce the concept of similarities and differences, this would be a good starting point. Perhaps young readers could think of other unlikely pairs and do their own comparisons.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Fall Reading 2019 Driftwood Days

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This circular story follows a branch as it drifts from the mountains downstream to the sea, then back again as a souvenir piece of driftwood. Along the way that same branch encounters the changing seasons: autumn leaves, a frozen boulder in a wintry river, green reeds in springtime, and then the summer warmth of the beach. Warm colored pencil and ink illustrations capture the trip through the year and the countryside. Readers will see wildlife such as chipmunks, turtles, and seagulls when the branch passes through each of their habitats.

While the outdoor scenes are inviting and full of pleasing details, it is the young boy who really captured my attention. At the start of the book he is busy watching a beaver build its lodge and enjoying nature. But when he finds the driftwood on the beach, his actions are reminiscent of Peter dragging a branch through the snow in the city. Perhaps this story will become another childhood favorite, just like The Snowy Day.

Perfect for a quiet read before bedtime, but also would fit well into a unit about rivers and waterways.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Fall Reading 2019 Enemy Child

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Looking for something new to add to units on World War II? Busy trying to find ways to relate historical happenings to current events? Andrea Warren's new book, Enemy Child, follows Norman Mineta from his early childhood in San Jose to his time in the Heart Mountain internment camp and the years afterward. Photos show the cramped quarters at processing centers like the Santa Anita Racetrack, as well as the ramshackle buildings at the permanent camp. Quotes from Mineta and other internees bring the story to life rather than letting it read like a textbook or dry recitation of facts.

The final chapters cover Mineta's later education, as well his time as a U.S. Congressman, Senator, and then the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Parallels are drawn between the hysteria and racism that led to the Japanese internment camps, and the antagonism from some quarters toward Muslim groups after the 9/11 attacks.

Back matter includes additional information, multimedia recommendations, an author's note about researching the book, a bibliography, notes, photo credits, and an index. 

Highly recommended for those teaching 5th grade and up who want to put a human face onto history.

I have an advance copy to give away. Enter below. Good luck!

Summer Reading 2019 Eclipse: How the 1919 Solar Eclipse Proved Einstein's Theory of Relativity

The Moments in Science series continues to highlight important events of scientific discovery. This time it is the expedition organized by British astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington to view the solar eclipse from Principe Island. The collage illustrations show Eddington and his colleagues, the steam ship that took them to the island, and even Greenwich Observatory.

Young readers will learn why the astronomers focused on that eclipse and that particular location to gather proof that Einstein's general theory of relativity was correct. The main text carries the action while sidebars offer more detailed explanations of the concepts.

A photo of the 1919 eclipse taken by the expedition is included at the end of the book. Readers will also enjoy the flip animation in the upper right corner. As the pages are flipped, an eclipse happens the sun disappears behind the moon and then returns to view.

Recommended for grades 2-6. Especially good for units on astronomy.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Summer Reading 2019 The Unwritten Library


Claire is the Head Librarian in charge of the Unwritten Wing. In Hell. Yes, all stories not finished by their authors are shelved in a neutral space in Hell, off-limits to the various factions always striving for dominance under "His Crankiness," as Claire calls Lucifer. The main job of the librarian is to keep the characters from manifesting as a physical presence and tracking down their authors, demanding to be completed. "There's nothing stronger than an unwritten book's fascination with its author." But Claire's latest retrieval job goes pear-shaped when a fallen angel decides that she and her companions have the Devil's Bible. Can they all survive long enough to retrieve the missing Hero, solve the mystery of this ancient volume all the demons and angels are after, and make it back to the library?

The story is intriguing and the setting puts a unique spin on what the afterlife might be like. In this world, "We all get the afterlife our soul requires." Various realms of the afterlife like Valhalla or ancient Egyptian planes all exist, along with a Heaven managed by Uriel in the Creator's name, and the darker realm of "His Grouchiness."  Claire wound up in Hell, although we aren't told the reasons behind that determination. Her assistant is a former muse named Brevity, and details on her backstory are even sketchier than Claire's - which gives readers good reasons to check out the next book in the series. Other companions include the demon courier Leto, the escapee from the unwritten book, and Andras the Curator of the Arcane Wing of the Library.

Bits and pieces of each character's past are woven into their interactions with each other, building the tension as readers begin to see connections between what is happening and previous choices and actions. Scenes such as a duel between bards in Valhalla are captivating, and there are lots of juicy quotable bits such as "Only books died in Hell. Everyone else had to live with their choices." (Doesn't that need to be on a t-shirt or coffee mug?) By the end of this adventure there are alliances, betrayals (what else can you expect in Hell), and some changes within the power structure of the afterlife. And the characters are poised to begin the next book - as long as it doesn't wind up on the shelves in the Unwritten Wing.

Highly recommended for YA and adult readers who enjoy stories that deal with the power of books and words, adventures through various realms, and tough librarians. I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley. All quotes are from that ARC and may be subject to change before final publication.