Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Retired Kid

The Retired Kid

Written and Illustrated by: Jon Agee
Recommended Ages: 6-10

I love funny children's books. In fact, I like them so much I have a section on this blog just for humorous books. So when I happened upon this hilarious book by Jon Agee, (a new author to me), I immediately placed holds on as many of his books as possible. So while I wait for his other books to come in, I thought I'd share this gem of a story with you.

Brian is an 8-year-old kid who is beginning to think that being a kid is hard work. Between school, soccer practice, violin practice and all the other trappings that third grade brings, Brian decides he's had enough of being a kid and that it's time to retire. So off he goes to Happy Sunset Retirement Center in Florida. There he meets his new friends Ethel, Wally, Myrtle, Tex, Phyllis and Harvey, a retired plumber. At first, he has great time playing cards, golfing and lounging in the pool. But then reality sinks in, and he finds that listening to stories about hip replacements and watching long documentaries are not all they're cracked up to be. When Harvey tells him it helps to think about the good old days, Brian realizes that maybe being a kid is not so bad.

Agee has a great way of telling a story that is both straightforward and amusing. His pastel watercolor illustrations add a huge element of fun to each page. The scenes where he is participating in the retirement activities such as Friday-night swing dancing and knitting classes are priceless. While it would appear that this would be a book for the pre-school set, I think that it's elementary kids that will appreciate it more. They'll have a better understanding as to why Brian is feeling overloaded, and will find the folks at the retirement village hilarious. This would be a great book for a grandkid to share with a grandparent. The tongue-in-cheek humor and cartoon-like illustrations are sure to be a hit with young and old.

BookNosher Tidbit: Like many authors, Jon Agee has a website. On it, he has a section where he answers questions from kids (or at least they sound like kid questions). I think most kids would find this interesting.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hana's Suitcase: A True Story

Hana's Suitcase

Written by: Karen Levine
Recommended Ages: 9 and up

Hana's Suitcase is a moving account about one little girl killed during the Holocaust and the parallel tale of the journey of her suitcase to Japan some 50 years later. It's a touching story that introduces the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that school-age children (9 to 12 year olds) can handle.

The book's chapters alternate between the past and present. It begins with the story of Hana, and her early childhood in Czechoslovakia where she and her beloved brother George were the only Jewish children in their town. Their early childhood seemed fairly idyllic and carefree until 1939, when Nazism forced its way into their world.

The next chapter switches to Tokyo in 2000 where a suitcase has arrived at the Tokyo Holocaust Center. Painted on the outside of the suitcase are the words Hana Brady--May 16, 1931 and the word Waisenkind (which means orphan in German). The children at the Center are intrigued and want to know more, and the curator--Fumiko Ishioka--is determined to find out Hana's story.

From there the book details the awful circumstances that Hana went through, as her family is forced to wear the yellow Stars of David, then she and her brother are not allowed to go to school or to any public places, and finally the forced deportation of her mother, and then her father. She and her brother go to live with a non-Jewish uncle who, unfortunately, can't keep the children and they are sent to Theresienstadt, where Hana and George are separated.

Running alongside these chapters is the story of how Fumiko Ishioka was determined to find out more about the owner of the suitcase. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the story unfolds piece by piece, as she writes letters, searches archives and eventually travels to Terezin. There she discovers that Hana did not survive, but that her brother George did. The last few chapters are incredibly touching as we learn how Ishioka wrote George to tell him about the suitcase, and we discover more about George's life after the war. It's quite moving when George travels to Japan to meet Fumiko and the children at the Holocaust Center and see his sister's suitcase.

George realized that, in the end, one of Hana's wishes had come true. Hana had become a teacher: Because of her-her suitcase and her story-thousands of Japanese children were learning about what George believed to be the most important values in the world: tolerance, respect, and compassion. What a gift Fumiko and the children have given me, he thought. And what honor they have given Hana. (page 105)

There are some lovely photographs of Hana and her family in Czechoslovakia skiing, skating and doing all sorts of "normal" things before the war, as well as copies of actual documents such as the list showing Hana and George's names at Terazin. The photos and easy-to-read narrative will draw children in. Be prepared for lots of discussion. Hana's Suitcase is a moving account of one girl who unfortunately didn't survive the Holocaust, but her story lives on 65 years later.

BookNosher Tidbit: Winner of the 2002 Sydney Taylor Book Award for Older Readers.

BookNosher Activity: There is a website devoted to Hana's Suitcase. One of the more interesting sections is the FAQ, which features an audio Question and Answer session between schoolchildren and George. They ask him everything from How were you allowed to see your dog, Silva? to Do you hate the German people? I think kids will learn a lot from his compassionate and forgiving answers.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Love, Ruby Lavender: A Fabulous Middle Grade Read Aloud

Love, Ruby Lavender

Written By: Deborah Wiles
Recommended Ages: 8-12

I somehow missed Love, Ruby Lavender when it was first published in 2001, but I'm pleased to have discovered it nine years later. It's a delightful story that begs to be read aloud by a parent or a teacher, or heard on an audiotape. Its humorous, engaging style will appeal to boys and girls alike.

Ruby is a nine-year-old girl who lives with her mom and her grandmother-Miss Eula-in Halleluia, Mississippi ("Population: 400 good friendly folks and a few old soreheads"). Ruby and Miss Eula are very close to each other, especially since the accident that took her grandpa's life last summer. The book opens up with a hilarious rescue scene of three old hens from Peterson's Egg Ranch, concocted by Ruby and Miss Eula. These hens (Ivy, Bemmie and Bess) play a big part throughout the book, and Ruby's love for them is quite touching, as she watches over them fiercely and reads to them from the dictionary.

When Miss Eula announces that she is going to Hawaii to visit her son and daughter-in-law and new baby, Ruby is visibly distressed. The letters back and forth between Ruby and Miss Eula are priceless and do a fantastic job of showcasing their voices. Wiley has really nailed these two characters down, and it's a true pleasure to read their letters to each other.

Despite being stuck in boring Halleluia, Mississippi for the summer (without her grandmother), a lot seems to happen in Ruby's life. She meets the new teacher and his wife--Mr. Ishee and Tot, who move to Halleluia, and have their nine-year-old niece Dove visiting them for the summer. There's Ruby's nemesis, Melba Jane, who lost her dad in the same accident that took Ruby's grandpa's life. Their relationship with each other is not easy, and there's a mystery about the accident that casts a long shadow over both girls. Yet each of them experiences tremendous growth throughout the book, which is handled in an understated way. And finally, there are those chickens that pop up at different times throughout the story.

Love, Ruby Lavender is full of silly moments, quirky characters, and great depth, too. Kids will like Ruby's feistiness, independence and big heart as she learns how to navigate the summer without her beloved grandmother. Like Ruby, they will see that "life goes on." It's a quick read that manages to stay with you after you turn the last page.

BookNosher Tidbit: Love, Ruby Lavender has won the following awards (taken from Deborah Wiles's website):
  • An American Library Association Notable Book for Children
  • An NCTE Notable Book in the Language Arts
  • A Booksense '76 Pick
  • A Capitol Choices Noteworthy Book for Children
  • One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing, New York Public Library
  • Children's Literature Choice List
  • Parent's Guide Children's Media Award
    Nominated for SEBA's best children's book of the year
  • Nominated for a total of 26 state book awards including the Vermont Student book award, the Rhode Island Student book award, the North Carolina Children's Book Award, the Massachusetts Children's Book Award, the New Hampshire "Great Stoneface" Children's Book Award, the Utah Children's Book Award, the Kansas William Allen White Children's Book Award, the Oklahoma Sequoyah Children's Book Award, the Illinois Rebecca Caudill Young Readers' Book Award, the Indiana Young Hoosiers Book Award List, the Connecticut Nutmeg Children’s Book Award, the Virginia Young Readers Program, Minnesota Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award, the Tennessee Volunteer State reading list, and the California Young Reader Medal.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Art From Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter

Art From Her Heart

Written by: Kathy Whitehead
Illustrated by: Shane W. Evans
Recommended ages: 6-10

I seem to be on a biography kick lately. I keep migrating to that area in the children's section of the library and picking up books and discovering people I have never heard of. This was certainly the case when I picked up Art from Her Heart. I'm so grateful to have been introduced to Clementine Hunter and her amazing story, and I think you'll feel the same way too.

Clementine Hunter was born sometime in late 1886, early 1887 and was a descendant of slaves. She worked as a manual laborer on a plantation in Louisiana. At the age of 50 she decided she wanted to paint. So she used leftover paint that artists gave her and began to paint on any surfaces she could find--old boards, window shades and glass bottles. Her pictures were drawn from memory, and gave a snapshot of life on the plantation. She painted scenes of working life on the plantation, as well as happy celebrations. Soon she decided to charge admission so that people could see her work, and put a sign on her gate that read: "Art Exhibit. Admission 25 cents."

Years later, her art made it to a big museum in New Orleans. Although in those days she was not allowed in during working hours, but instead had to wait until after hours to see her own work on display.

This is a wonderful little story on so many levels. It introduces children to a remarkable woman who at the ripe old age of 50 (!) decides to follow her dream. It also introduces them to that period in history where segregation was the norm. They will feel incensed when Clementine Hunter is not allowed into the museum that is displaying her work during working hours. It's a perfect segue into talking about that dark period of American history. The illustrations are colorful and bold, and the ideal backdrop to the story. There's an author's note at the end, which tells more about Ms. Hunter, and includes some snapshots of some of her folk art.

BookNosher Activities: I immediately wanted to see more of Ms. Hunter's art. So I googled her name and found images of her art. One piece was a decorated jar. It might be fun for kids to find non-traditional surfaces and use them as their canvas, much the way Ms. Hunter had to in the beginning of her career. I bet they are able to come up with some really interesting pieces of folk art themselves.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Top 100 Children's Novels

Back in January I posted an entry about a poll that Betsy Bird, from the School Library Journal, was running on the top 100 children's books. She asked people to submit their top ten choices for favorite children's novels. She compiled them and, since February 8th, she has been counting down from 100. On Monday she posted the number one book. Before I give you the link, stop and think. What would be your choice for the number one slot? What about your top ten?

Here are the ten I submitted to Betsy back in January:

#1 From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler
#2 Holes
#3 James and the Giant Peach
#4 Bud, not Buddy
#5 Harriett the Spy
#6 Charlotte's Web
#7 Tuck Everlasting
#8 Bridge to Terabithia
#9 Number the Stars
#10 When You Reach Me

As the results rolled in over the last eight weeks, I can't believe how many "how could I have forgotten ______moments" I had. I mean Little Women is just about my favorite book of all time, and I completely left it off of my list. I didn't include one Harry Potter. I completely forgot about one of my all-time favorites--Anne of Green Gables. I also forgot one of my new favorites--The Tale of Despereaux. Oy! More than anything it made me realize just how many great children's books are out there and how difficult it is to choose just ten.

Betsy went on to post about some of the books that surprisingly didn't make the list. Wonderful books like Stuart Little, A Cricket in Times Square, The Moffats, and Black Beauty. It just goes to show that it's impossible to narrow the list to a mere 100 books.

So without further ado, here's the link. If you have time, click on the books that interest you. Betsy has done a wonderful job providing lots of background info and old book covers. Happy Reading!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Marching for Freedom

Marching For Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don't You Grow Weary

Written by: Elizabeth Partridge
Recommended Ages: 10 and up

I picked up Marching for Freedom thinking I would just browse through the photos and read their attributions. But once I read the first paragraph, I was hooked. The story was so gripping, I could not put it down.

What makes Marching for Freedom different from many other Civil Rights books is that it shows the roles that children played in the Civil Rights Movement. It specifically focuses on Selma during the long months before the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. Partridge does a masterful job describing the horrific conditions and day-to-day indignities inflicted upon Blacks in the South in 1965. We soon learn the roles that children played in this struggle. The Freedom Fighters actively recruited teenagers (and children) to participate in the protest marches and challenge the unjust laws that were in place. For, unlike adults, who would lose wages (or their jobs) if they were thrown in jail, children would come out in groups and protest. As Martin Luther King said:

"A hundred times I have been asked why we have allowed children to march in demonstrations, to freeze and suffer in jails, to be exposed to bullets and dynamite. The answer is simple. Our children and our families are maimed a little every day of our lives. If we can end an incessant torture by a single climactic confrontation, the risks are acceptable." (p.19)

Marching for Freedom focuses on the three months leading up to the landmark march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. We are introduced to some of the children involved, and hear their stories. It was a brutal time, and Partridge uses archival photos to show us what happened. Alongside, King, John Lewis and Ralph Abernathy you see young children singing and marching and, yes, running away from tear gas. There are also many of the protest songs that were such an important part of the movement interspersed throughout the book.

It's hard to believe that all of this took place only 45 years ago. This is an important book for middle school readers to read. I think with its focus on children, other children will relate to it in a way that they may not with other books. In my opinion, fifth and sixth grade classrooms should make sure to have Marching for Freedom on their shelves.

BookNosher Activity: It would be interesting for a class to focus on the protest songs presented in the book. Some of them will be very familiar to kids, although they may not know how they came to be. There are a lot of websites devoted to Civil Rights songs. Here's one to start with.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Cricket in Times Square: A Classic

The Cricket in Times Square (Chester Cricket and His Friends)

Written by: George Selden
Illustrated by: Garth Williams
Recommended Ages: 6-11

The Cricket in Times Square is one of those books you want to make sure your children get the pleasure of reading. I remember loving it as a child, and rediscovering it when my oldest was about seven years old. I read it aloud to him and his five year old brother, and they asked for it eagerly each night. Originally published in 1960, it has held up well over the years.

The story begins when Chester, a country cricket, ends up stranded in New York City after falling asleep in a picnic basket in Connecticut. He is befriended by Mario, a young boy who helps his parents run a newsstand, and Tucker the quintessential city mouse. Together, with Harry Cat, they teach Chester the ins and outs of city life.

Soon Chester's talents as a musician are discovered. He is able to recreate any music he hears, and people from all across the city come to hear him. But performing takes its toll and he eventually becomes homesick for the country. Tucker and Harry Cat help him find his way home.

The strength in this story lies in the unlikely, but tender friendships between a cricket, a mouse, a boy and a cat. Each of these characters are drawn in ways that kids appreciate. The backdrop of New York City is a perfect setting for this "country mouse/city mouse" story. Whether you read this to your kids, or they read it themselves The Cricket in Times Square is sure to please another generation of readers.

A heads-up: Keeping in mind that The Cricket in Times Square was written in 1960, there is a scene that takes place in Chinatown where Mario goes to buy a cricket cage for Chester. When Mr. Fong speaks it is in a Chinese dialect that substitutes l's for r's, ie. "velly good." Definitely not "P.C." for 2010, but you can choose to have a discussion about this with your kids, if you want.

BookNosher Tidbit: The Cricket in Times Square won a Newbery Honor medal in 1961.

BookNosher Activity: There are lots of classroom activities for The Cricket in Times Square on the internet. Since the setting plays such an important part in this book, I think it would be fun to learn more about the city of New York. Look at maps of the city and point out Times Square and China Town. Check out books about subways and New York. Here are a few noteworthy kid's books about New York: A Walk in New York by Salvatore Rubbino; My New York: New Anniversary Edition by Kathy Jakobsen and Up & Down New York (New York Bound Books) by Tony Sarg (originally published in 1926!). Any of these would enrich your child's reading experience of The Cricket in Times Square.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Some Baseball Books for Young Readers

In honor of Opening Day, I decided to peruse my sons' old bookshelves in search of baseball books. My boys are 18 and 21 now, but there was a period when they were around 8 or 9, that these books were their books of choice. I've already written about Dan Gutman's wonderful series about Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson etc. If you haven't checked that out, here's the link. Here are a few more suggestions for the 7 to 12 year old sports lover.

Thank You, Jackie Robinson
Written By: Barbara Cohen
Recommended Ages: 9-12

Thank You, Jackie Robinson
was first published in 1974, and in many ways it's much more than just a "sports book." It takes place in the 1950's and is the story of a young Jewish boy and an older African-American man who share a bond through their love of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson. There are lots of references to the Dodgers of the era, Branch Rickey and Ebbets Field. It's an easy read, which kids will enjoy on their own, or as a read-aloud. It's a touching story, which very well may bring tears to your eyes. I highly recommend it.

The Kid Who Only Hit Homers (Matt Christopher Sports Classics)
Stealing Home (Matt Christopher Sports Fiction)
Baseball Pals (Matt Christopher Sports Classics)

Written by: Matt Christopher
Recommended Ages: 7-12

Matt Christopher wrote sports books for the emerging reader. The ones listed above are only some of his baseball books; he also wrote about football, skate boarding, and basketball. Some of the books may seem a bit dated, as if they came from another era (many were written in the 50's). And yet, that's part of their appeal. They are simple sports stories that will draw the reluctant reader in. If you have a child who loves sports, check out some of his books. You won't be disappointed.

T.J.'s Secret Pitch (AllStar SportStory Series)

Written by: Fred Bowen
Illustrated by: Jim Thorpe
Recommended Ages: 8-12

T.J. wants to pitch, but everyone tells him he's too small. He practices and practices, but due to his size, he can't get quite enough oomph behind his pitches. Then his Grandfather tells him about a famous pitcher-Pittsburgh Pirate Rip Sewell-who perfected a slow pitch called the "eephus pitch." T.J. learns that it's not all about brawn, and that brains play a big part in baseball. There are some nice historical references throughout the book, and a mini biography about Rip Sewell at the end. It's a sweet story with a nice message.

These books are good choices for the young, emerging (somewhat reluctant) reader. I also came across some other baseball books for slightly older readers which I'll save for another post. In the meantime, here's to a great 2010 season. Go Mariners!