Thursday, August 14, 2014

Picture Book Review - The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara

One thing that I think is often overlooked in the discussion about diverse books for kids is that we need to be reading books by diverse authors. Of course kids need to see a wide representation of individuals as characters in books, but they also need to know that children's book creators themselves come in a wide variety of shades, genders, abilities and so forth.

It's especially great when you can flip to an author photo and show your child someone who looks like them, or read about someone who was born in another country like they were. This might require us as parents and educators to look beyond our familiar stable of authors and illustrators, but I promise you, the results are worth it.

Get a load of that cover! Tonight's pick, The Midnight Library, is written and illustrated by Kazuno Kohara, a very talented author/illustrator who just happens to be from Japan. Sprout has a soft spot for the country since one of his favorite adults, Miss Yuki, is also from Japan -- in fact, for a while he was telling us he wanted to be an astronaut and live in Japan when he's a grown-up. (Not sure how active the Japanese space program is, but he likes sushi so I think he'd be happy there!).

Sprout loved the other Kohara book we read (Ghosts in the House!), and naturally I wanted to read The Midnight Library because, hello, library. I'm pleased to report that our expectations for this one were met and even exceeded. Kohara's managed to create a book with a very classic feel but that's also got modern sensibilities. The story centers around a little girl who runs, with the help of three owl assistants, a library that opens at midnight. Why midnight? Who knows, who cares - it's charming enough of an idea that it doesn't need explaining.

The patrons in The Midnight Library  have various issues, all of which the little librarian and her assistants handle ably and efficiently. Book too sad? They all read the book together to get past the sad part. Can't leave the book behind when it's time to go? Sign up for a library card. No matter the problem, the librarian has an answer -- reinforcing all the myriad ways that libraries can meet people's needs. That's a message I never get tired of hearing, and I love that Kohara has reinforced it in such a sweet title. And those illustrations. . . the woodblock technique coupled with the retro color palette makes for a real winner in our book.

Check out The Midnight Library for a title bursting with whimsy and sly bookishness - it's a great way to end any evening storytime!

The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara, published by Roaring Brook Press
Ages 3-5
Source: Library
First lines: "Once there was a library that opened only at night. / A little librarian worked there with her three assistant owls."

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Picture Book Review - The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall

Quick: name for me one book about where babies come from that is equal parts informative and funny. Can't do it, can you? That's because most of those books fall into one category or another: seriously dry yet factual, or silly and completely untrue. And no matter which camp they fall into, none of these books are the kind you really want to put on the regular bedtime reading rotation.

So let me first say that Sprout has not yet asked us THE question, but I know it's just a matter of time. And once he does, I finally, finally know how we're going to respond -- by reaching over to the bookshelf and grabbing Sophie Blackall's excellent picture book The Baby Tree, which is top of my list for books on the subject of babies and all that jazz. It's not just helpful, it's also a fun one to read (whew!).

With Blackall's trademark whimsical illustrations, The Baby Tree starts out to be a crowdpleaser right from the first page. Our hero gets up one morning and discovers that his parents have some news for him. You can guess what it is, of course, but our guy's more interested at first in having more cocopops. Soon, though, he gets to thinking about this baby's arrival and just where the kid is coming from. And he begins asking all the significant grownups, each of whom have an answer that ends up to be part of the truth (except Grandpa). The boy puts it all together at the end, when his parents finally tell him the whole story. Now all our boy needs to do is straighten out Grandpa. . . .

Let me reassure you here that Blackall handles this all in a sensitive, age-appropriate fashion. In fact, it's so tactful that your little one might have any followup questions the first time you read it -- but just in case they do, Blackall has a nice Q&A at the end of the book. (It even addresses topics like same-sex parents and adoption.) So when reading this with the littlest ones, the text may be enough, while for older kiddos you may decide to consult the talking points - you know, if you're not sure just what to say.

That said, I also appreciate that The Baby Tree not only deals honestly with a sensitive topic, but does it by incorporating some diversity into the mix. Sure, the main character and his family are white, but there's plenty of other hues in the babies and in our little boy's classmates. Score one for Blackall for recognizing that even topics like this need to be inclusive -- it's definitely a step in the right direction, in my view. Now, if we could just get diverse books about toothbrushing or potty training. . .

UPDATE: I'd written this post but not published it when Sprout came home from preschool and announced that one of the teachers has a baby in her tummy. Woot woot! I was ready! We read The Baby Tree last night and I'm pleased to say that Sprout thought the narrative answered his questions. So at least for now, we're out of the woods on that topic. Ms. Blackall, you have our many thanks. :)

The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall, published by Nancy Paulsen Books
Ages 5-8
Source: Library

Monday, August 4, 2014

Chapter Book Review - The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern

How do you find out about great books? That's a question people often ask me, and it's kind of weird for me to answer, really, because so much of my life is steeped in bookish-ness. I keep close tabs on the publishing industry for work, but also because I'm just plain nerdy, and I can't help myself. Along the way I've picked up a number of fantastic blogs and websites that I follow (someday I will write a detailed post of all of them, honest), as well as trade publications. And when I start to see the same title cropping up in all my usual haunts, well then, I feel sure it's a sign from above pointing me toward that particular book.

'Cause that's how fate works, right?

Today's title is one that I first heard about through the goddess of all kidlit bloggers, Betsy Bird, when her blog Fuse #8 premiered the trailer for The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern. I mean, that book trailer -- I defy anyone to watch that sucker and *not* want to start reading the book immediately. So I waited somewhat impatiently for the book to arrive at my library and then downed it in one sitting. And subsequently could not stop thinking about the book, it's that good. Definitely a sleeper hit of the year for me.

It's the voice of Maggie, the main character, that really stuck with me. Maggie's entirely original, unlike anyone else you're liable to run across in chapter books. She's self-assured and knows what she wants -- to be the president of the US, a Wall Street tycoon (starting with her first share of Coca-Cola stock) and also to fix her dad. Because the thing is, Maggie's dad's legs started to fall asleep a while back, and now they're all the way asleep. And some other stuff is happening too, like Maggie's mom getting a job at a hotel, Maggie's sort-of long-lost grandmother coming to visit, and Maggie's sister kissing a boy on the couch. Oh, and that guy Clyde who Maggie can't get out of her head. Wow, is middle school a crazy time -- you can understand why a girl gets upset when her Halloween candy stash runs low.

The Meaning of Maggie is Sovern's debut, but you can tell by the end of the first chapter that this author has some serious chops as far as novel-writing goes. She keeps the pace moving along, and strikes a nice balance between emotion and hilarity. Maggie's family is dealing with some tough stuff -- we find out about halfway through that her dad has MS, and it's getting progressively worse -- and kids who have been in a similar situation will find much to relate to here. But this is a great title for all kids, all people really, to read, in order to build empathy and help people understand what it's like to love someone with a disability. Maggie plainly adores her dad, and the toll his disease takes on her whole family is tough. But through it all, the family sticks together, and their bond just continues to grow.

Like Wonder and Mockingbird, The Meaning of Maggie is a novel that can start conversations: about ability, difference, emotions and the meaning of "normal". Read this smart, sassy, very real novel now, then share it with every kid you know -- Maggie's the kind of girl who needs all the readers she can get.

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern, published by Chronicle Books
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Sample: "I'm feeling about a million things at this moment. And I guess the only thing I'm not feeling now is hungry because I just ate that entire Little Debbie even though I double swore to myself that I'd wait until Dad woke up to share it. But I couldn't help it. I'm tired. I slept on a floor last night. In a hospital waiting room. Next to my sister who kicked the dickens out of me with her perfect legs all night long."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chapter Book Review - The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Confession: I do not long for the bygone days of my youth. For the most part, they weren't all that great, and I've no secret longing to relive them in any way, shape, or form. But I do sometimes find myself hankering to have one childhood experience once again: that of picking up a book you've never read and cracking the spine to find yourself peeking back at you.

Ever had that happen? If you ever were a misfit somewhat-on-the-fringe bookworm like I was, it might just have been your biggest relief. Seriously, there was little I found more comforting than knowing that I surely couldn't be the only one for whom middle school was pretty much torture, and then reading a book that showed me someone out there felt the same (and wrote the book about it).

Even today I love finding books like that, because they can be a lifeline for kids who are having the same experience right now. I think that's especially true for kids who stand out in some way, and often that's due to cultural differences in their family life. That's certainly the case for the title character in Wendy Wan-Long Shang's The Great Wall of Lucy Wu. Lucy is relatable, accessible and someone that middle-grade readers will recognize in the mirror, even if they don't share her Chinese-American heritage.

When we meet Lucy, she's primed for a great year in sixth grade. This is going to be her moment to shine, and nothing symbolizes that more than the fact that she'll no longer be sharing a room with her older sister Regina, who's off to college soon. But everything crashes down on Lucy when she finds out that her family will be hosting a visit from Auntie Yi Po, a relative Lucy's never even heard of, much less met. And just guess where Yi Po will be staying, when she's with the family for several months. If you picked Lucy's almost-all-hers bedroom, you win (but in Lucy's view, she loses).

Shang absolutely nails Lucy's experience of feeling like an outsider even in her own family. While her sister Regina "majored in Being Chinese", Lucy can't speak much of the language and finds pretty much all the food more than she can handle. Now with Yi Po in the house, Lucy's off to Chinese school on the weekends and missing out on basketball - and she's not shy about voicing her opinion, just as her parents aren't shy about expressing theirs. Lucy feels the friction of her two worlds, and struggles to find a balancing point between them. It's a realistic struggle, and the dynamics between the family members are always believable. 

I love the resolution that comes about, mostly because it rings absolutely right and true. You can feel Wendy Wan-Long Shang's passion for her subject and her devotion to making sure that young readers have a denouement that is both positive and plausible. Lucy Wu is a character kids will root for and relate to; though Shang is a debut author, her skills speak for themselves. Hand this to kids who love Judy Blume, Grace Lin or Beverly Cleary - and then we'll all be waiting on pins and needles to read more from this talented author!

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang, published by Scholastic
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Sample: "Now the desk and bookcase formed a wall between the two beds. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu. When I lay down on my bed, all I could see was my side of the desk and the front of the bookcase. And I hid my favorite picture of my grandmother, the last one we took before she got sick, in my bookcase."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Picture Book Review - Tap Tap Boom Boom by Elizabeth Bluemle

It's a rainy rainy day here in Northwest Washington, which is actually pretty unusual for us in July. Contrary to what the rest of the world thinks, it doesn't rain every single day here, and the summers can be quite lovely. But a little mid-summer rainstorm is pretty common, and is kind of nice to clear the air and freshen the vegetation. Plus, Sprout thrills at the sights and sounds of a good ol' summer thunderstorm (so does Mom!).

That's the spirit behind Elizabeth Bluemle's whimsical new picture book Tap Tap Boom Boom. I was so excited to read this one because we've loved Bluemle's other books, especially the delightfully be-bopping How Do You Wokka-Wokka?. And with this outing, Bluemle's paired with one of our favorite illustrators, G. Brian Karas, whose The Village Garage is a staple of our fall reading list. So we went into this one with pretty high expectations.

As you might imagine, in a work from two artists who are as dedicated to diversity as they are to their craft, Tap Tap Boom Boom hits all the right notes. Bluemle's all about the wordplay, making her books terrific (if tricky) to read aloud. In this outing, two young boys are playing in their urban neighborhood when it starts to rain. Everybody notices, because this rain starts out small but brings dark clouds and the threat of a big storm. And the promise comes true, because the tempo of the storm picks up quick, with rain, lightning and thunder! Our boys better get undercover pronto, which in the city means running down to the subway, where everyone gathers to ride out the storm. It pretty quick turns into a party, complete with music, pizza, and lots of friendly chatter. And after the rain? Why, a rainbow, of course, plus plenty of new friendships formed through circumstance.

Tap Tap Boom Boom is a great book to share when talking about community and friendship. We love the message that people of all stripes can be friends, regardless of their background or circumstance. There's nothing like the occasion of shared experience to bring people together, and Bluemle absolutely nails the spirit of sheltering out a storm. And the illustrations by Karas, featuring a nicely diverse cast, are the perfect match for the rhythmic text, a blend of collage and sketch that suits the situation to a T.

Young readers will feel like they're right in the center of a sudden storm, in the heart of the city. Next time the rain threatens, don't be surprised if your kiddo wants to go out and about -- Tap Tap Boom Boom makes a rainstorm cause for celebration!

Tap Tap Boom Boom by Elizabeth Bluemle, published by Candlewick Press
Ages 3-5
Source: Library
First line: "Tap tap, dark clouds. Tap tap, damp air. Tap tap, cold drops of rain dot hair."