Thursday, April 26, 2012

Chapter Book Review - The Book of Wonders by Jasmine Richards

Fantasy has, post-Harry Potter, become somewhat of the stock-in-trade of the middle grade section. Series reign supreme, and there are magical elements in even the most seemingly ordinary stories. In fact, it sometimes feels as though realistic contemporary fiction is in the minority. And sometimes it's hard for me to distinguish one fantasy series from another: orphans with special powers being pursued by ubiquitous baddies. If you've read one of those, well, you just might have read them all.

And here's where Jasmine Richards' novel The Book of Wonders breaks from the pack. Because from the very first sentences ("I heard the noise first. A howl, which sounded like all the djinnis in the world were crying out as one") you know you're in for something very different.

In Wonders, Richards takes the Sinbad legends and other elements of Middle Eastern tales and spins them around, adding in characters and sensibilities that harken to another world but still are very much relatable to modern readers. Our heroine Zardi is fascinated by lore of days gone by - days when magic existed in the kingdom of Arribitha, before Sultan Shahryar came to power and banned any mention of mystical occurrences. Zardi contents herself with peering through the window of fantasy here and there, until her sister Zubeyda is captured by the sultan and made to serve as his praisemaker, a position whose only end is death. Zardi must save her sister, and she and best friend Rhidan set off to do the impossible: bring magic back into Arribitha and with it defeat Shahryar once and for all.

Zardi and Rhidan's fates become inextricably intertwined with that of Captain Sinbad, a figure that will be familiar to many but whose role in this novel is unlike anything else I've ever read. Djinnis, medicine women, mysterious amulets and powers beyond compare -- Richards' originality comes through on every page, as she brings the legends of Sinbad to life in a whole new way. Sinbad isn't what he seems, as Zardi and Rhidan soon discover, a lesson that is to serve them in good stead as they journey toward magic and salvation for Zubeyda.

The plotting in Wonders is tight, the pace brisk and the characters as complex as they are believable. Richards makes us care about Zardi, Rhidan and the rest in a way that some fantasy writers, preoccupied perhaps with their magical realms, never quite do. But readers can identify with Rhidan's struggle for identity, with Zardi's drive to save her family, and that connection is what makes this novel truly shine.

And the setup for a sequel? You'd better believe I'll be back for more.

The Book of Wonders by Jasmine Richards, published by HarperCollins
Ages: 9-13
Source: Library
Sample quote: "She surveyed the columns ahead, each one sitting a bit higher than the last, huge rocky steps rising upward. All we need to do is reach the middle. She looked down at the river and the spiky clusters of rocks that stabbed out of the water within the shadow of the arch. And not fall off. . . "

Bonus: Interview with Jasmine Richards from Doret at The Happy Nappy Bookseller blog

Monday, April 23, 2012

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

Like most kiddos his age, Sprout loves animals, the more exotic the better. He likes to roar like a lion, growl like a bear, hoot like an owl - and sometimes all three together. Lately he's been in a big tiger phase, so we've incorporated some tiger-themed reading into our regular routine. And I've even found myself noticing tigers in a whole new way, thanks to my sweet boy.

One of my resolves this year has been to read more nonfiction for kids. In setting out to dip into the true stories pool, I've been keeping my eyes open for buzzed-about titles, and one that keeps coming up is Can We Save the Tiger? by Martin Jenkins, with pictures by Vicky White. There's a reason this title is getting so much attention: it's simply gorgeous, not only with its photorealistic illustrations, but also in the way Jenkins communicates his point. With subtle gracefulness, Jenkins introduces the concept of endangerment, and in particular the plight of the tiger, "big, beautiful and fierce" as it is. He parallels the fate of other animals with that of the tiger, asking the question of whether we can take steps to change the course of events for this amazing animal. This is a book that will take your breath away, not only for its message but also for its stunning design. Though it's way above his comprehension, Sprout too is captivated by the pictures in this beautiful title. Truly incredible!

In Sam and the Tigers, Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney take ownership of one of the most controversial stories in American history, that of Little Black Sambo. Recognizing that this was a story many people felt strongly about, Lester and Pinkney decided to tell the story in a way that would support the racial identity of African American children. And what they've produced is a story that speaks to the original without relying on stereotype or negative portrayals. Sam is still the ingenious boy in the fancy clothes, who finds a way to put one over on the powerful tigers. In typical Lester and Pinkney fashion, the story is packed with humor and a quality of myth that brings Sam and his world to vivid life. This is a rendition that stacks up neatly with other classics like John Henry - as fantastic as it is compelling. And these are absolutely majestic tigers, in every sense, so real you feel they might spring off the page.

For a very different take, try Tiny Little Fly by Michael Rosen. This is one that even the youngest kiddos will enjoy hearing read aloud, as its bouncy rhythm is perfect for sharing. A tiny little fly is pestering some pretty big animals: an elephant, a hippo, and (of course) a tiger. But try as they might, none of these huge creatures can best the miniscule fly, who flies away at the end with a wink and a promise. Sprout adores this one, not only for its clever rhyme but also for its eye-popping illustrations by Kevin Waldron. If the cover image of the great big tiger herself doesn't draw your kiddos in, then the gatefold inside, with all the animals struggling to get at that tiny little fly is sure to do it. It's pretty telling that we've renewed this one at least once, and I'm sure that Sprout will have a hard time letting go when it's time to finally take it back to the library!

Want to add some power to your storytime? Try tigers - fierce and fantastic!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Picture Book Review - Lola Reads to Leo by Anna McQuinn

I've blogged before about the powerful draw of series characters. Publishers certainly have tapped into this trend, as it's increasingly rare to see a chapter book that's a stand-alone and not part of a trilogy or longer series. Older kids, even those who aren't otherwise avid readers, often cannot wait for the next installment of their favorite series, whether that's Nancy Drew or Wimpy Kid. And of course graphic novels are all about the series conceit, which keeps readers coming back for more of the further adventures of their favorite superhero or kid next door.

But let's not overlook the impact of series for younger kiddos, because I think it can be just as significant. Sprout delights at pulling a book off the shelf and recognizing the characters populating it. It all began with Thomas for us, but he's really branched out, and now on our weekly library outing, we look for titles featuring Elephant and Piggie, Llama Llama, and even Dinosaur. He's really getting to know the personalities of the characters, and it thrills him to no end when certain elements carry over from one book to the next (and I love that he's making these connections!).

So a few weeks ago we were browsing the shelves at the library and stumbled across a new entry in a series Sprout just adores - the Lola books by Anna McQuinn. Our love affair with these books began with Lola at the Library, which I found even before Sprout joined our family. I eagerly awaited the day when we'd share Lola together, and we have many times since, in both Library and Lola Loves Stories. The simple plots revolve around activities that are very familiar to Sprout: trips to the library, bedtime reading, playing pretend with friends or on your own. We love Lola's energy and her abundant imagination.

And now the fun continues with Lola Reads to Leo, in which Lola gets a new little brother, and begins to share the joy of stories with him. Lola learns a lot about babies: they cry a lot, even in the bath, and they sleep just as much (Lola plays with her teddies while Leo is sleeping). But Lola finds that there's a book for just about any mood Leo is in, whether that's a potty book during diaper changes or a sleepy book when Leo needs a nap. Sprout was so overjoyed to see a new Lola adventure that we read it about three times in the library, and innumerable times since bringing it home (which reminds me - better go renew it!)

I love the warm family dynamic in these stories, the way that parents and children draw together to share books with one another. Since this goes deeply to the heart of our parenting philosophy with Sprout, the notion of presenting him with quality literature that reflects a vast spectrum of cultures and colors and experiences, the Lola stories embody a special meaning for us. And, they are gentle choices that are perfect for winding down at the end of the night or transitioning to a new activity. Rosalind Beardshaw's illustrations are absolutely pitch perfect with Anna McQuinn's text - really a marriage of two skilled artists that has produced the kind of books that will endure for a long time to come.

We can't wait to read more about Lola and Leo - would love to see spunky Lola pulling a wagon full of loads of books, and Leo, sometime very soon!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

YA Review - Ashes by Kathryn Lasky

Some time periods in history are so widely written about that it hardly seems as if we need more books about it. World War II is arguably one of these. It's not that it isn't worth reading titles set during this timeframe, it's just that with so many quality options already on the shelves, are there still other viewpoints we haven't examined?

In Ashes, Kathryn Lasky manages to give us a different perspective - that of Gaby Schramm, an upper class German girl who gets an inside look at the formation of Hitler's Third Reich. Gaby's parents are close enough to the social elite that they know many powerful people in Germany's upper echelon. Professor Schramm is a colleague of Albert Einstein, and the two families vacation together during summers in Caputh. The Schramms watch with growing horror as Einstein and other prominent scientists are singled out for their "Jewish physics", as friends are banned from social events due to their ethnicity, and as those who make the wrong comment in a public setting suddenly disappear.

Gaby herself despises Hitler and all his government stands for; and yet, she finds herself going along with the required "Heil Hitler" salute when it becomes part of her school day. Though she refuses to join the Hitler Youth, it is not until one of the Reich's new policies touches close to home that Gaby finds the courage to really define her opposition, and to turn with her parents toward another life.

I picked Ashes up looking for something like The Book Thief; while I found Zusak's book more compelling, Ashes is still a strongly written title with a unique take on the events of Nazi Germany. As the heat gradually turns up around the Schramm family, Lasky shows us how the political events combine with Gaby's own internal struggles to give her an increasing awareness of the world at large. Forced to confront the effect that politics has on her own household, Gaby grows up very quickly - maybe too quickly, as she often has insights that seem beyond her own years. And yet, in times such as these, doesn't maturity come all too suddenly?

Though some libraries shelve this in the children's section, there are themes here that seem more suited to teens, particularly a plotline revolving around Gaby's sister Ulla and her boyfriend Karl. The overall message, too, is one that will speak to young adults in a more immediate way -- that of reconciling the world you've grown up with alongside that you've come to know, which in Gaby's case is one that conflicts in nearly every aspect with her pampered childhood. Lasky ties in connections to actual historical figures, weaving them into her cast of characters so seamlessly that the events of Nazi Germany come alive as we read.

Ashes is, above all, a subtle and unforgettable piece of historical fiction, and a worthy contribution to the canon of World War II literature.

Ashes by Kathryn Lasky, published by Viking
Ages 12 up
Source: Library
Sample: "I thought of that swirl of sugar on the kitchen floor from years before. How could Hitler cause so many problems? I put down the binoculars. The scrap of moon had slipped away, making the dark even darker and the stars even brighter. They scorched the blackness with their fire. Ninety-two elements to bake a universe and one madman to blow it up?"

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

National Bookmobile Day

I fell in love with reading because of the bookmobile.

Let me explain.

As a kid, we lived in a rural area with few other kids in the neighborhood. When school let out for the summer there really wasn't a whole lot to do. Sometimes my mom and I would take the bus into town, or one of my older sisters would come for the day, but for the most part I was hanging around the house. Needless to say, the days could get really long.

Enter the bookmobile.

Every other week the bookmobile would come to a community center nearby and we'd walk down to meet it. The rule was that I was allowed to take out as many books as I wanted, but I had to carry them all myself. Oh my word, was it heaven! I'd always been a reader and a devoted user of the school library during the academic year, but the bookmobile represented an embarrassment of riches. Suddenly there was no cranky school librarian restricting what sections I could look in (though I was a good reader, she believed younger students should only have access to picture books. I chafed at the ridiculousness of that restriction). There were chapter books, series with recurring characters, books we'd read in the classroom that I wanted to re-read, and entirely new authors to explore. And all of it there for me to take home, as long as I could carry it!

So because of that I continue to have a soft spot for bookmobiles. The very mission of these programs appeals to me, to take the library to those who might otherwise not have access to it, to open up the wealth of resources the library contains and take it out on the road. Sprout and I go to the library every week, and that's a commitment I plan to keep up until he will no longer tolerate it (by then I'm hoping he's been bit by the reading bug). And maybe that means he won't know what a bookmobile is, or what it does, so I've dug up a couple of titles to try to explain the whole thing to him.

In Wild About Books by Judy Sierra, readers will tag along with librarian Molly who accidentally takes her bookmobile into the zoo. In typical this-could-only-happen-in-a-picture-book fashion, Molly decides to just set up shop there and see what happens. Pretty soon all the zoo animals fall under the spell of the bookmobile (I told you these things have magic powers!) and are clamoring for books. Naturally this leads to a skirmish or two -- evidence the bears who "licked all the pictures right off of the pages" -- but Molly handles it all in indomitable librarian fashion. I read this to Sprout the other night and he was really taken by Marc Brown's riotous illustrations, more so than the text I'm sorry to say. But this is one that an older child would dearly love I'm sure, particularly for all the small details hidden throughout (the bunnies reading Goodnight Moon, for instance, or the scorpion who is a literary critic). Fun!

Miss Dorothy and Her Bookmobile by Gloria Houston is another lovesong to librarians and mobile libraries. Dorothy's dream is to work in a "fine brick library" one day, so she completes her education. But when she and her husband move to a rural area, there is no library building. Gradually Dorothy realizes that she can still be a librarian, without a building, and the town bands together to finance a bookmobile. Susan Condie Lamb illustrated this one and I love the fact that her finely wrought pictures really bring out the details of Miss Dorothy's story, such as the winding country roads and the tractor pulling the bookmobile out of the mud. This is unquestionably a biography not only of Miss Dorothy but of the town that she supported through her bookmobile. A great pairing for this would be Sarah Stewart's The Library, about booklover Elizabeth Brown.

If you have a bookmobile in your area, take a moment to check out their services, or to show some appreciation for their hardworking staff. When you consider the influence books have on the course of even one child's future, it's pretty obvious that the bookmobile can be a vital part of any community, no matter how remote.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Easy Readers - The "Max" Series by Adria F. Klein

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: there is a huge need for early reader books featuring characters of color. Series titles in particular are thin on the ground. If you don't believe me, take a look at your local library or bookstore next time. Beyond Diego and Dora, and the occasional Little Bill title, it's pretty darn white over in the easy readers. And yes, I realize that there are excellent choices like "Frog and Toad" and "Little Bear" - but there's also a real lack of representation of diversity in this section of most collections.

Enter Adria F. Klein, a professor in the Education department at California State University and the author of the Max books, published by Picture Window Books. These are entries in the "Read-it! Readers" series, a set of leveled readers that is similar to "I Can Read" or "Step into Reading". The Max titles we've read are at the beginning end of the spectrum: purple and red, the first two steps in the "Read-it!" system.

There's a lot to love about Max. For starters, here's a character with some color! The Library of Congress info page lists Max as "Hispanic-American", which fits, but quite frankly Sprout thinks Max looks just like him, and we are good with that. In the titles we've read there aren't any cultural details clearly linking Max to a particular ethnicity, though if there were we'd welcome that too. What's important is that for once we have a series character of color who is book-based only. Love it! And bonus: many, if not all, of the Max titles are available in bilingual English/Spanish editions. Whether your focus is bilingual education or ESL, these books provide a high-quality option.

So far we've read three Max titles: Max Goes to School, Max Goes to the Barber and Max and the Adoption Day Party. Each one is charmingly simple, with vivid and bright illustrations that support the text in meaningful ways. These are great books not only for fostering reading readiness and supporting emerging readers, but also for introducing kids to new and different situations. Sprout's fascinated by the School title, as it walks kids through the essentials of Max's day: meeting his teacher, finding his desk, eating his lunch, playing at recess. Adoption Day Party provides a basic familiarity with adoption celebrations; while it focuses more on the party aspect rather than on the notion of what adoption means, the book's greatest strength comes from showing that being adopted doesn't mean you're different from everyone else.

A quick online search reveals lots more titles in the Max series. Name a situation, and Max probably has it covered, from staying overnight to going to the dentist to taking his dog to the vet. Fortunately our library carries several Max titles. If yours doesn't, I'd strongly recommend making a purchase suggestion, as these provide much-needed depth and diversity to the early reader section. We're looking forward to exploring more titles with Max -- can't wait until Sprout's reading these to me on his own!