Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review - You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey

I love this time of year in the Pacific Northwest. The gloom of winter is starting to lift, the flowering cherry trees and rhododendrons are showing their colors, and the days are getting longer. This year we're hoping to get out and about more - since Sprout learned to ride his bike over spring break, he's itching to find new trails to ride on and new sights to see, which is just dandy with me and hubs. It's fun to see the interest he takes in nature and in exploring.



Tonight's pick fits in nicely with that interest, and Sprout's generally science-y inclination. Elin Kelsey's You Are Stardust came to my attention when I was perusing a list of new releases and one of them referred to this 2012 picture book as an essential part of library collections. My good-book-radar thus set on high alert, I checked it out and brought it home for Sprout, who was thoroughly engaged, as much by Kelsey's text as by the fanciful dioramas created by illustrator Soyeon Kim.

You Are Stardust aims to help kids understand the connections between themselves and the natural world - not a huge surprise as Kelsey is an environmental educator. The way she does this, though, is fantastic. This is far from your typical dry, dull science tome, but instead a rich book of possibility and thought-provoking scenarios, all accomplished with text that's spare but evocative. The imagery is stunning: "Be still. Listen. Like you, the Earth breathes." And it's fun: "You sneeze with the force of a tornado." (Sprout loved that one.)

Kim's dioramas are just as absorbing as the prose in You Are Stardust. I love the way she weaves a multiracial cast of kids into the scenes Kelsey describes, in such fantastic ways - riding on clouds, swinging from treetops. This would be a great title to use in a science-art crossover lesson plan, as it will appeal to both creatives and fact-obsessed students alike. Think how much students would enjoy reading this, then researching some more facts and creating a classroom diorama of one's own, filled with cut-paper crafts and small illustrations from all students. What fun!

Kelsey knows what facts intrigue kids, and uses them to prompt even greater curiosity about the natural world and our connection to it. We are all stardust, so Kelsey's thesis goes - and as such, we are all bound together in this life, and on this earth.

You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey, published by Owl Kids
Ages 4-6
Source: Library
Recommended

Monday, April 13, 2015

Review - The Case for Loving by Selina Alko

If it's been quiet on the blog the last month, that's because I've had a few other things occupying my mind -- namely prep work to teach a class on Language and Literacy for the Young Child at my local community college. I spoke at this class last year and it was a wonderful experience, so when the opportunity came up to serve as co-instructor this year, I couldn't pass it up. But it has put a bit of a crimp in my free time to blog, so don't be surprised if new reviews are somewhat sparse for a few months.



Still, there are plenty of great books out there that I want to share, and today's is no exception. The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko is a terrific addition to nonfiction shelves in classrooms and libraries. Alko and her husband Sean Qualls created this book as a labor of love; as an interracial couple themselves, the story of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter Loving is close to their hearts. As part of a transracial family, it's a story that hits close to home for me as well.

The case of the Lovings was ground-breaking in that it represented a landmark in the fight for marriage equality, which of course we see continuing today. Richard Loving was white and Mildred Jeter was black & Native American. Though they were deeply in love, in 1958 it was still illegal for them to marry in their home state of Virginia. The couple wed in Washington D.C. instead, where it was legal, but once they returned to Virginia they faced legal prosecution for "unlawful cohabitation". Though the Lovings chose to move to D.C., they longed to return home to Virginia, and their eventual legal battle finally allowed them the freedom to live, with their three children, in the place they called home.

Alko presents the story of the Lovings in straightforward fashion that makes it perfect for sharing with grade-school readers. (Though there are concerns that the story may not fully represent the racial dynamics - see an excellent critique of the book by Debbie Reese on her blog.) Young readers are likely to be as upset by the injustices visited upon the Lovings as adults are, and they'll celebrate the happy resolution to their case. I think the book provides a great opportunity to discuss the fight that many gay couples have today to gain the same marriage equality, and to discuss how we as a nation are continuing to change and progress in acceptance of one another.

I can't end the review of The Case for Loving without mentioning Sean Qualls' illustrations though, because for me the pictures are what makes this book sing. The small touches throughout each spread, coupled with the collage-style artwork, add a sense of whimsy to what otherwise could be a very heavy read. I think this is what makes the story work for the intended age - a great blend of powerful story plus art that keeps the tough parts for being overwhelming. It's very well-done.

Check out The Case for Loving and join us in hoping for everyone to realize their happy ever after.

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, published by Arthur A. Levine Books
Ages 6-9
Source: Library
Recommended

Monday, March 16, 2015

Picture Book of the Day - What a Wonderful World, illustrated by Tim Hopgood

If this feels a little like something you've seen before on Sprout's Bookshelf, you're right! I think this might be a first, that I am reviewing a book whose text I've already written, about but with a different version by a different illustrator. 

It's no surprise that there are a couple of picture book versions of Louis Armstrong's iconic song "What a Wonderful World". The text is just about perfect to share with young children - an homage to beauty and a testament to hope. Sprout and I have read the version illustrated by Ashley Bryan for a couple of years now, checking it out from the library whenever we stumble across it. He loves the Ashley Bryan version because one of his favorite preschool teachers used to share it with the kiddos, so I wasn't entirely sure how he'd take to this update, illustrated by Tim Hopgood. 



But you know what? As it turns out, Tim Hopgood's What a Wonderful World is a totally different experience for Sprout than the beloved Ashley Bryan version. I credit the illustration styles, which are much different. Hopgood's take follows a small boy and a bluebird, as they venture throughout different landscapes and scenes. In the forest, they're celebrating the trees; they sing about the sky as the boy flies in a balloon; they swim in the ocean (well, the boy does) and frolic with horses. And every page spread is alive with color and motion and vibrancy, a really exuberant love song to the wonderful world in which we all live. 

I've always enjoyed the message of this song, and this fresh new take by Tim Hopgood just deepens my affection. Whether you want to inspire a classroom of kiddos or spend some time creating one-on-one, What a Wonderful World is a perfect pick to launch art projects, nature walks or other creative endeavors. Just be prepared to harmonize as you read - this title is so absolutely joyful, you almost can't help but sing!

What a Wonderful World, illustrated by Tim Hopgood, published by Henry Holt
All ages
Source: Library
Recommended 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: Red: A Crayon's Story by Michael Hall

Let's say you want to write a children's book, and you are doing so because you have a point to make. If you're like many authors, you start out with that point in mind, then whip up a plot that more or less covers the ground you want, populate it with somewhat unique characters, and finish off with a great big ol' teachable moment at the end. Not unlike the ABC After School specials of my childhood, these types of books are somewhat less than subtle, if you get my drift.

And guess what? Kids tune out halfway through reading this type of thing. Oh yeah, you think you've been clever by making the character a monkey who doesn't know how to climb, or whatever, but trust me, kids see through it.



That's what makes Michael Hall's Red: A Crayon's Story such a winner. Hall definitely had a message in mind when he wrote this beguiling picture book, but the story is so well-executed, it totally sneaks up on young readers. It's filled with bold graphics that grab the eye and lots of sly humor. And, best of all, the theme -- that sometimes we're labeled one way, but we really are something else entirely -- is general enough to apply to lots of different scenarios, making this a great choice for school and classroom libraries, since educators can use it with all types of kids.

Our hero is Red, a crayon who doesn't fit in. He tries to do all the things he's supposed to -- draw a red berry, a red ant, even mix with yellow to draw an orange -- but he just can't. The other crayons have lots of opinions on where Red is going wrong. He should press harder, maybe, or not be so lazy. Even the other art supplies get in on the advice, offering to loosen his label or even sharpen him (ouch!). But try as he might, Red just can't do what is expected of him, and he completely blames himself.

In the end, it takes a sharp-eyed crayon called Berry to notice what's up -- Red isn't red at all, he's blue! And once Berry points this out, Red's whole outlook is changed. Suddenly he's drawing blue sky and ocean, and loving every minute of his crayon-y life.

Of course kids are going to see the problem right from the get-go, and they'll cheer like Sprout did when Red finally figures out his true colors. I read an interview with author/illustrator Hall in which he talked about his own childhood being diagnosed as dyslexic, and having written Red: A Crayon's Story in part as a response to that experience, I think Red absolutely works in that context, but in others as well. To be honest, my own first response and that of others I know who've read this book is to think of kids experiencing gender-identity issues. This would be an enormously comforting book to share with a child who didn't feel comfortable in his/her own skin, due to gender or any number of other experiences.

But most of all, Red is a great book to share with all kids, to teach them through a fun, lighthearted story that we are all more than the labels we give one another, and that we need to look beyond the surface to see someone's true colors - and to celebrate them!

Red: A Crayon's Story by Michael Hall, published by HarperCollins
Ages 4-6
Source: Library
Highly recommended

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review - The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Much as I hate the term "reluctant reader", there's no denying that it does refer to a certain category of kids, for whom books are generally more chore than charm. In some circles "reluctant reader" is automatically equated with boys, which I feel is a shame because there are lots of boys who devour books every bit as avidly as their female counterparts. But tonight's pick is one that will appeal to both boys who love to read and those who don't, and to pretty much anyone who enjoys a well-told, fast-paced story.



The book in question is the winner of the Newbery medal this year, Kwame Alexander's The Crossover. This book was kind of revolutionary as a win for lots of reasons - sports! boys! African Americans! novel in verse! Take any one of those items on its own, no biggie. But put all of that together in one book and you have a dark horse that still swept the big prize, and very deservedly so.

The Crossover tells the story of Josh Bell, who with his twin brother Jordan forms the heart and soul of their school's basketball team. The boys are tough and they've got basketball in their blood, as their dad is a former bball star. And at the start of the story, things are going pretty great for the pair. But then little things start to come between them, and aggressions flare up on the court and off. Pretty soon the two are adrift, apart, and not even Dad's famous basketball rules provide the guidance they need to keep on playing.

I won't say more because the impact of this story really needs to come firsthand. Suffice to say that the ending was a surprise, and yet totally authentic with the way Alexander set up the story. I struggled a bit at first with the sports terms but that's not something that's likely to bug the target audience (let's face it, I'm a middle-aged white librarian with nary a basketball reference to fall back on). And yet, even though this isn't the sort of thing I myself would be drawn to, I was absolutely bowled over by the voice here. It's incredible, as are the characters - realistic, conflicted, flawed and so human you can't believe it.

The Crossover is a quick read that will keep even those -- yes, I'll say it -- reluctant readers turning pages. But don't think that just because the book moves quickly that it's a throw-away. Far from it - in fact, Alexander's created a set of characters that will remain with the reader even once the last page has been turned.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Highly recommended