Monday, May 31, 2010



Written by: Deborah Wiles
Recommended Ages: 10 and up

Countdown is a middle grade book that, I predict, will be garnering a lot of attention in the coming year. In it, we are introduced to Franny Chapman, an eleven-year-old who is dealing with a lot of the typical ups and downs of fifth grade, while the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is brewing in the background.

The book begins in October, and Franny is in her class wondering if her teacher, Mrs. Rodriguez, is going to call on her to read aloud, or skip over her again. She's beginning to think that Mrs. Rodriguez doesn't like her. Sure enough, she's skipped. As she heads out to recess she's worried about that, as well as her friendship with her best friend Margie which seems to be on the fritz. Five minutes into recess the air raid siren goes off and chaos erupts, as the children scramble to get into position. For they've all been trained on what to do--DUCK AND COVER! As Franny squats against the fence we get a sense of what it must have been like in 1962:

"I shove my hair out of my face, lick my lips, and search the horizon for...something. Russian airplanes dropping bombs? My dad is a pilot and he would never drop bombs on a school. I hope the Russian pilots are like daddy."

They soon find out that it was just a drill, and some degree of normalcy resumes, although the residual effects are felt. The Cuban Missile Crisis and Cold War play a significant role in the story, and there are interesting archival photographs, quotes and music sprinkled throughout the book. It's a history lesson for a period that is not typically covered in children's literature, and Deborah Wiles has done her research. You really get a sense of what happened in October 1962, and what it did to kids' psyches with all the talk about nuclear bombs and shelters.

"No matter where we live,
in the city or the country,
we must be ready all the
time for the atomic bomb.
Duck and Cover!
That's the first thing to do.
Duck and Cover!
The next important thing
to do after that is to stay
covered until the danger
is over."

Lest you think that it's all heavy subject matter, never fear, for there are some wonderful kid moments going on which will keep the more reluctant readers engaged. There's a friendship going sour, a first boy-girl Halloween party, a first crush, an older sister with secrets, and an uncle who keeps doing rather embarrassing things. Franny handles all of this with a lot of angst, anxiety and spunk. She's a very likeable character precisely because she DOES doubt herself and wonders where she fits in, in the overall scheme of things. She fumbles along like most of us fumble along, and we love her for that. Plus, there's a rather dramatic ending and Franny more than rises to the occasion and proves herself a hero.

I think Countdown would be a terrific book for a fifth or sixth grade class to read aloud, or for parents to read with their kids. There are so many great topics for discussion. I personally loved the tidbits that were sprinkled throughout the book that reminded me of my own childhood. There is the family gathering every Sunday night to watch Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on their black and white TV. There are the kids eating Swanson's TV dinners when their parents go out on a Saturday night. There's the novelty of the new restaurant called McDonalds, where there are no waiters or waitresses. There are penny loafers and 45 records. I understand that Countdown is the first book of a trilogy, and I can't wait to see where Deborah Wiles goes with the next one.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Journey That Saved Curious George

The Journey That Saved Curious George : The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey

Written by: Louise Borden
Illustrated by: Allan Drummond
Recommended Ages: 9-12 (or anyone older who is a big fan of Curious George)

The Journey that Saved Curious George is a well-researched biography about the creators of Curious George--Margret and H.A. Rey. The book is divided into two distinct sections. The first part details their childhoods and early lives together, while the second part tells of their dramatic flight on bicycles from Paris, as the Nazis marched towards the city. It's a compelling story that is beautifully enhanced by H.A.'s drawings, photographs and other primary source documents, as well as Allan Drummond's original watercolors. All of this makes The Journey that Saved Curious George a must-have for fans of the little monkey.

The first part of the book tells about the childhoods of Hans Augosto Reyersbach and Margarete Waldstein in Germany (she changed the spelling of her first name later on). Both came from Jewish families, and both eventually ended up in Brazil. Here they were introduced to the jungle and the wildlife within, which obviously influenced their later stories. After they married, they decided to honeymoon in Paris, where they ended up staying for five years. It was during their time in Paris that they began writing and illustrating books for children. And it was here that they first created a little monkey named Fifi, who was very curious and had a penchant for getting into trouble.

While they were enjoying the artistic and literary life of Paris, the war in Germany began to pick up momentum. Refugees from the north poured into Paris, and the tempo of the city began to change. As German-born Jews, the Reys soon realized they were not safe and had to leave. It was the summer of 1940, and Paris was declared an open city, as the French government decided not to fight the invading army. Margret and H.A. made their preparations to leave:

"The Reys had to travel light:
only a few clothes and their winter coats,
some bread and cheese,
a little meat, water,
an umbrella
Han's pipe,
and the precious manuscripts,
including The Adventures of Fifi."

The account of the Rey's flight from the Nazis by bicycle and train through France, Spain and Portugal is quite thrilling. They eventually boarded a boat for the thirteen-day passage to South America, and ultimately ended up in New York City. One year later, Curious George was published.

Children with an interest in World War II will find the Rey's story fascinating. It personalizes a difficult piece of World War II history in a way that children will understand. They'll be rooting for the creators of Curious George, as they flee the Nazis and head towards their new life in America. The Journey That Saved Curious George would be a great gift for an older child (or adult) who loved the monkey as a child and is curious about how he came to be.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Written by: Katheryn Erskine
Recommended Ages: 9 and up

Mockingbird was published about a month ago and I think it may be a contender for some future awards. It's a poignant story with complex, well-developed characters whom you immediately want to get to know better. Although, you should be forewarned, the background story about a horrific school shooting may be difficult for some kids.

Caitlin is a fifth-grader who lives alone with her dad. Her beloved brother, Devon, was recently killed in a tragic middle-school shooting, and she and her dad are barely coping in the aftermath. Caitlin also has Asperger's syndrome. It is through this lens that we hear her story of how this small family deals with life after "The Day Our Life Fell Apart," and ultimately gets some closure.

When we first meet Caitlin, she has no friends, although she has a very good relationship with the school counselor, Mrs. Brooke. Mrs. Brooke is trying to help Caitlin learn to read other people's emotions, as well as make friends. Through her, she makes her first friend in Michael, a first-grader. Caitlin's voice is loud and clear throughout the book, and we watch as she struggles to try and understand what people really mean, as she often takes what they say at face value. When she hears someone talk about the need for closure on the shooting, she looks up closure in the dictionary ("the state of an emotional conclusion to a difficult life event such as the death of a loved one"), and is determined to find closure for her and her dad. The book follows Caitlin in this quest, which is a very literal one at first, but one that ultimately succeeds on different levels in the end.

I think that kids will relate to Caitlin. They'll want her to succeed, even though in the beginning they may not understand her. She is different, and they'll see that other kids perceive her as "weird," since she does things like suck her sleeve when she's nervous. But they'll also come to love her personality and understand that everyone has special talents, even if they are not always evident at first.

I'm not going to give away anything else about Mockingbird, although I realize I have left out so many wonderful things about the book. Caitlin, her dad, Mrs. Brooke, her first friend Michael and her brother Devon are memorable characters that you feel like you know well by the end of the book. Life, death and the long and painful road to healing are addressed in heartwarming, difficult and sometimes very funny ways. I highly recommend Mockingbird; it stays with you long after you read the last sentence.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

When Marian Sang

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson

Written by: Pam Munoz Ryan
Illustrated by: Brian Selznick
Recommended Ages: 7-12

This is a big, beautiful picture book biography about the legendary singer Marian Anderson. It tells the story of the little girl with the "strong and velvety" voice who rose to become one of the most decorated and honored singers in the world, while racism and segregation formed the backdrop to her life.

Marian Anderson was born in 1897 in South Philadelphia. Her musical talents were recognized early on and she performed in local churches, and then in Philadelphia's celebrated People's Chorus. Music meant everything to Marian, and she was determined to go to music school. At eighteen, she applied but was told, "We don't take colored" from the receptionist at the front desk. So she continued to work hard on her own, taking lessons where she could to improve her skills.

Finally in 1927, she decided to go to Europe where other African Americans had gone. Here she discovered success, as Europe was much more progressive than the United States. She was able to sing to mixed audiences and travel without all of the restrictions she had previously faced. She accomplished much overseas, and was beloved wherever she toured.

However, when she returned to the U.S. in 1939, she discovered that things hadn't really changed. The book then tells the remarkable story of how she came to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. After being denied access to Constitution Hall, people like Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes took a stand for Marian in a time of deep racial segregation. Permission was eventually given for her to perform at the Lincoln Memorial, and when she sang on that Easter Sunday, it was to 75,000 people of all races.

When Marian Sang is a powerful book to read to elementary school-aged kids. For although it paints a picture of an America tinged with racism and prejudice, it also shows how the arts can transcend and overcome these obstacles. Marian Anderson's story should be told over and over again.

BookNosher Activities: There are a lot of "teachable moments" in this book. First of all, you can link to see the letter of resignation that Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to the Daughter's of the American Revolution when they refused to allow Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall. To get a visual understanding of her life, here's a link to photos. Finally, here's a You Tube video showing Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial singing My Country Tis of Thee.

BookNosher Tidbit: When Marian Sang won the following awards:
Parents Choice Award Winner (Gold Award, picture book, ages 6-10)
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
ALA Sibert Honor Award, ALA Notable Book

2003 Orbis Pictus Winner for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children
Vermont Center for the Book's Best of Beyond Difference 2003
2003 NCTE Notable Children's Book in the Language Arts
2003 Jefferson Cup Honor, Virginia Library Association

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My Weird School Daze-A Series by Dan Gutman

My Weird School Daze #4: Coach Hyatt Is a Riot!

Written by: Dan Gutman
Illustrated by: Jim Paillot
Recommended Ages: 7-10

Over the years, parents have often asked me for good book recommendations for reluctant readers. Typically they are looking for books for kids (it's usually boys) in the second, third or fourth grades. When my kids were young it was the Magic Treehouse series that ultimately turned the reading light on for my two sons. I think if Dan Gutman's My Weird School Daze series had been around 15 years ago, we would have owned every copy.

There are a total of 32 books in the series. The first eleven books are when the kids are in second grade. Then they move up to third grade, and there are an additional 21 books (so far). Each book features AJ (a boy who's not wild about school) and Andrea, his nemesis, who loves school. They also introduce a new, fairly wacky adult into their lives.

Last night I read Coach Hyatt is a Riot, and actually found myself giggling in a few different places. It begins with AJ talking about how much he dislikes school and Andrea, an annoying girl with curly brown hair. He goes on to say how much he loves PeeWee football, even though his team never wins. We then meet his new football coach--Coach Hyatt, who also happens to be a woman (!). Coach Hyatt is hilarious. She calls them ragamuffins and teaches them important football skills such as learning to do an end zone dance. She builds teamwork by having them surround her mini-Cooper and pick it up. When they actually do it she says to them: "Look at that. You ragamuffins picked up a car. That's teamwork! My motto is if you can pick up a car, you'll go far."

Yes, it is silly. And yes there are places in the book that made me cringe as a mom. (In the beginning of the book, there are third grade girls coming out as cheerleaders to cheer the peewee football players on, which really pushed my buttons. But the good news is that Andrea ends up being recruited to play on the football team and is the star.) Gutman knows his audience, and his audience loves this kind of book.

So if you have a child who doesn't naturally gravitate towards books, try picking up one of Dan Gutman's Weird School Series books. The reading level is appropriate for emerging readers, the stories are funny and the characters are believable, in a quirky kind of way.

Here's a list of the books (taken straight from Dan Gutman's website):
  1. Miss Daisy is Crazy!
  2. Mr. Klutz is Nuts!
  3. Mrs. Roopy is Loopy!
  4. Ms. Hannah is Bananas!
  5. Miss Small is Off the Wall!
  6. Mr. Hynde is Out of His Mind!
  7. Mrs. Cooney is Loony!
  8. Ms. LaGrange is Strange!
  9. Miss Lazar is Bizarre!
  10. Mr. Docker is Off His Rocker!
  11. Mrs. Kormel is Not Normal!
  12. Ms. Todd is Odd!
  13. Mrs. Patty is Batty!
  14. Miss Holly is Too Jolly!
  15. Mr. Macky is Wacky!
  16. Ms. Coco is Loco!
  17. Miss Suki is Kooky!
  18. Mrs. Yonkers is Bonkers!
  19. Dr. Carbles is Losing His Marbles!
  20. Mr. Louie is Screwy!
  21. Ms. Krup Cracks Me Up!
  22. Mrs. Dole is Out of Control!
  23. Mr. Sunny is Funny!
  24. Mr. Granite is from Another Planet!
  25. Coach Hyatt is a Riot!
  26. Officer Spence Makes No Sense!
  27. Mrs. Jafee is Daffy!
  28. Dr. Brad Has Gone Mad!
  29. Miss Laney is Zany!
  30. Mrs. Lizzy is Dizzy!
  31. Miss Mary is Scary!
  32. Mr. Tony is Full of Baloney!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq

Written and Illustrated by: Jeanette Winter
Recommended Ages: 7-10

The Librarian of Basra was published in 2005, two years after the invasion of Iraq reached the port city of Basra. It tells the remarkable story of how Alia Muhammad Baker, chief librarian of Basra's library, managed to rescue 70% of the library's collection. Children will respond to her amazing story of courage in the face of adversity.

The book begins with the city of Basra poised with worry as they wait for war to come to their city. Alia, the librarian, is particularly concerned that the war will destroy the books in her library, which "are more precious to her than mountains of gold." When she is denied permission from the governor to move them to a safe place, she decides to take matters into her own hands. She starts filling her car up and bringing books home with her every night after work.

Soon war arrives in Basra, and all the library workers abandon the library, except Alia. She asks her friend next door who owns a restaurant if he will help her save the books. Together they, along with other neighbors, work through the night taking the books from the library and passing them over the wall and hiding them in his restaurant. Nine days later, a fire burns the library down. Eventually the "beast of war" moves on, and Alia hires a truck to transport all thirty thousand books to her house and to the houses of friends. The book ends with Alia dreaming of peace, but happy that the books are safe with her.

The Librarian of Basra introduces the concept of war and its aftermath to children in a way that is appropriate. It is also sure to generate discussion about war in general, and the Iraq war in particular. But it is Alia's courage in the face of war that is so inspirational, and her story deserves to be shared.

BookNosher Tidbit: Here's the link to the original New York Times article that was written in July 2003. There's also another graphic novel (aimed for slightly older kids) that is worth checking out called Alia's Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty.