Saturday, December 19, 2009

Live, Laugh, Celebrate

National Geographic Live, Laugh, Celebrate

By: Ferdinand Protzman
Published by: National Geographic
Recommended Ages: 5 and up

I fully intended in the beginning of December to write about books that would make great gifts. And now here it is December 20, Hanukkah is over; Christmas is in five days, and not one post on "gift books." But all is not lost. For Hanukkah, I gave my 16-year-old daughter a new book from National Geographic, which she loves and which I think is worth writing about.

live, laugh, celebrate is a book about the many ways we celebrate life. It's mostly photographs, with small amounts of text explaining the ritual celebrations. There are shots from around the world, from the last fifty plus years.

The introduction begins: "At any given moment, like love, celebrations are an integral part of the human experience, practiced by every culture on the planet. Whether it is birth, birthday, graduation, victory in sport or battle, or a rite of passage, regardless of the country, the occasion, the place, the time, the number of participants, or the ceremony, human beings everywhere celebrate."

The book is divided into three chapters: Cycles of Life, Around the World and Life of the Party. Protzman writes an essay about each one of the chapters, which provides an interesting bit of background to what lies ahead. But, let's be honest, you buy a National Geographic book for the photos, and live, laugh, celebrate does not disappoint. There are 150 full-cover images from around the world.

For instance, in Cycles of Life, there are photographs of newborn babies from as far away as Eritrea, Senegal and Lithuania, swaddled with love as they are welcomed into the world. Childhood is celebrated across the globe with scenes ranging from boys in ceremonial skirts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo going off to a hunting camp to a Mexican-American girl celebrating her quinceanera in California. There are wedding celebrations from Kenya to India to Las Vegas (the cover photo of a bride in pink high-tops).

The pictures are lush and engrossing. You can't help but be drawn into their world, whether it is thousands of miles away, next door or fifty years ago.

If you have a child who yearns to see the world and how people live in other places, this would make a wonderful gift. Books like this and Material World, open up our eyes to the wonders that exist in and outside of our communities.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Finding Susie a book by Sandra Day O'Connor

Finding Susie

Written by: Sandra Day O'Connor
Illustrated by: Tom Pohrt
Recommended Ages: 4-8

Animal lovers and non-animal lovers alike will enjoy this tale of the quest for the perfect pet. Young Sandra (yes, this is written by Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female Supreme Court Justice) lives on a ranch with her mother and father. It can get fairly lonely on the ranch and she begs her parents for a pet. The book chronicles Sandra as she comes across animals in the desert that need her help, and asks the question if wild animals make good pets?

Her first encounter is with a desert tortoise she names Hercules. There are nice facts about the animals sprinkled throughout the story, which kids will appreciate. In the case of the desert tortoise, we learn that they can live to be one hundred years old and that they dig deep tunnels in the winter and hibernate. Sandra also learns that they are beginning to disappear and ultimately makes the decision to return him to the desert.

The story continues with Sandra befriending a cottontail rabbit (who always seems afraid and never comfortable as a pet), a young coyote caught in a trap (she nurses him back to health and sets him free) and a baby bobcat (who ends up scratching her over some raw meat). Each time Sandra is hopeful that she has found the perfect pet, and each time she realizes that the animal would be better off in the wild.

The story ends with a friend of the family's bringing over a stray dog named Susie. Of course, Susie proves to be the perfect pet and friend for Sandra. Susie likes to be with Sandra and follows her wherever she goes. It's a delightful ending to a story about the universal longing for a pet.

The watercolor pictures do an admirable job of creating the desert setting. I grew up in Arizona and they whisked me right back to my childhood where desert tortoises were spotted occasionally, jackrabbits all the time and coyote's howling lulled me to sleep. Another really interesting feature (probably more for adults than kids) are the endpapers of the book. Here you see real photographs from O'Connor's childhood on the ranch, including one with her pet javelina. Finding Susie is a nice snapshot into the early life of a fascinating American woman.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Lion & The Mouse: A Wordless Telling

The Lion & the Mouse

By: Jerry Pinkney
Recommended Ages: 1 and up

The Lion & The Mouse by Jerry Pinkney is a wordless picture book that retells the Aesop fable of the lion and the mouse. To say that it is gloriously depicted, would be an understatement. Each page is handcrafted in watercolors and pencils, in rich brown and golden hues. Your eyes are drawn in so that you, too, feel as if you are in the wide open spaces of the African Serengeti. It's a visual masterpiece that will enchant adults and children alike.

For those who don't remember the fable, it is the story of a little mouse who escapes from the clutches of a hawk, only to find herself on the back of a large lion. The lion, in turn, grabs the mouse with his enormous paws, toys with her a bit and then lets her go. A few pages later, he finds himself ensnared in an enormous net set by poachers. The mouse sees what has happened and gnaws through the rope, enabling the lion to escape. If my memory serves me correctly, the morals of the story are that even the smallest of friends can prove to be good friends and that no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.

Jerry Pinkney has done a masterful job recreating Aesop's fable without words. It's a beautiful retelling of the story, with many intricate details on each page. Both the lion and the mouse are depicted realistically from the lion's amber eyes to the itty bitty pink mouse feet. Both animals also have expressions on their faces which allow the reader to see their underlying emotions, without seeming cartoon-like.

A quick word about wordless picture books. When I taught family literacy classes, wordless picture books were one of my favorite books to work with. For parents for whom English wasn't their first language, it was a wonderful way for them to tell a story in their own words to their children. For parents with low literacy skills, they too could tell the story in their own words, with a fluidity that wasn't always possible with regular picture books. And finally (and perhaps most importantly) wordless picture books allow kids to tell YOU the story in their own words. Each time you revisit a book, the story gets more and more elaborate as they allow their imaginations to run loose. A story like The Lion & The Mouse, with its gorgeous pictures, invites you and your child to tell it like you see it. I don't think either of you will be disappointed.

If you are searching for a gift for a young child this holiday season, consider picking up Jerry Pinkney's The Lion & The Mouse. It's exactly the kind of book that you want a child to have in their book collection for years and years.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jenny and the Cat Club (a classic worth checking out)

Jenny and the Cat Club: A Collection of Favorite Stories about Jenny Linsky (New York Review Children's Collection)

Written and Illustrated by: Esther Averill
Recommended Ages: 4-8

A friend of mine recently told me about a series of books that she and her second grade daughter were reading (and thoroughly enjoying). She explained that they were originally published in the 1940's, ran for many years, went out of print and were re-released a few years ago. I was intrigued. She brought over a copy of Jenny and the Cat Club, and I was totally smitten.

Jenny Linsky is a shy, little black cat that lives with Captain Tinker, an old sailor. Jenny and the Cat Club is the earliest collection of cat stories in which we are introduced to Jenny, the only cat in the neighborhood that does not belong to the cat club. The club is made up of cats named Mr. President, Butterfly, Romulus and Remus, Macaroni, Sinbad and The Duke. Jenny hears them outside at night and wishes she could join them. But she is too shy to approach them, and for the longest time just observes from a distance. In the first story, we watch Jenny as she gains confidence and comes into her own as a skater. Soon after that, she is made a member of the cat club.

There are a total of five chapters in the book, and each one can stand alone by itself. These are perfect bed-time stories in an old-fashioned, but still very relevant way. Issues like friendship, loyalty and even jealousy are addressed in a quiet, but deft manner. By the end of chapter one, you find that you really care for Jenny and the gentle way she faces the challenges that arise.

I have to say something about the illustrations, which I found quite charming. They are simple, yet beautiful, mostly black and white, with just a dash of color thrown in. Jenny, in particular, is quite a sight with her red scarf (knit by the old sailor) draped around her neck. Kids will be drawn into the marvelous world of these cats, which has a very familiar home-like quality to it.

After reading Jenny and the Cat Club, I found that I was captivated by Esther Averill and had to find out what other books she had written. On my search I came across The Fire Cat and it took my breath away. I remembered that The Fire Cat was one of the first books I checked out from the library and read on my own. I was swept back in time to the thrill of that very major accomplishment many years ago. It gave me goosebumps to see it again. It's still in print, so if you have an emerging reader you might want to check it out. Or perhaps, like me, you remember picking up and reading it, or another of Esther Averill's books, a long time ago.

The Fire Cat (I Can Read Book 1)

Written by: Esther Averill
Recommended Ages: 5-7 year olds (early reader)