Thursday, May 31, 2012

Library Find - Bee-bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park

One of the best ways to experience a culture, I think, is through its food. Food tells you a lot about people, and it's a language everyone speaks. The base flavors, the types of elements that go into traditional dishes, and the way the meal is served - all of these elements give you a glimpse into how people from a particular ethnic background experience daily life.

And of course, for little ones, reading about food is the gateway to trying a new cuisine. It's worked for us with Indian food (cue Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji) and Japanese (see Dumpling Soup). Now, thanks to Sprout's recent library find, we even have an introduction to Korean food -- bee-bim bop!

The picture book Bee-bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park is just about the perfect way to get kids intrigued enough to try an unfamiliar dish. The story's pretty straightforward: a young girl helps her mother make bee-bim bop for family dinner, first shopping for ingredients together, then rushing home to assemble the various components just in time for everyone to arrive and pull up a chair.

Our heroine is more than a little excited about this delicious meal, urging her mother to "hurry, Mama, hurry" at nearly every juncture. But she's helping, too, by peeling onions, setting the table, and pouring the water for the veggies (and cleaning up when that last task goes a bit awry!). Each part of the process is narrated with a bouncy, rollicking rhyme that ends with the name of the dish. Sprout loves to shout this part out -- "BEE-BIM BOP!" -- and why wouldn't he, it's loads of fun to say!

Ho Baek Lee's illustrations match perfectly with Park's text. Here's an illustrator who knows how to capture the exuberance and vivacity of toddlerhood, and does so as adeptly as he depicts the simple pleasures of family life. Lee's pictures tell us that this meal is an event, but it is so precisely because of its familiarity and the rhythm that the family knows so well. Lee also adds some humor with the family dog, who's right along with the heroine sniffing at the rice pot and begging for just a bite.

Possibly the best part of the book for parents comes at the end, when Park shares her recipe for bee-bim bop. She also includes a description of how the dish is eaten ("mix everything together like crazy") as well as a picture of herself and her niece and nephew cooking together. Of course by the time you get to the author's notes, you're probably already salivating at the thought of this delicious dish. We haven't tried making bee-bim bop yet, but it's on our list of things to try this summer for sure. And when we do, I can almost guarantee that we'll be shouting out "BEE-BIM BOP!" all through the meal!

Bee-bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park, published by Clarion Books
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Sample: "Hurry, Mama, hurry / Gotta shop shop shop! / Hungry hungry hungry / for some BEE-BIM BOP!"

Bonus: watch this interview with Linda Sue Park from Reading Rockets

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Novel in Verse - The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

This is Ivan.

Ivan is a lowland gorilla from Zaire. For 27 years, Ivan lived in an exhibit at a circus-themed shopping center in Tacoma, Washington. He had no other gorillas for companionship, and his only exposure to the world was his view through the glass at shoppers who came to watch him. He lost his twin sister en route from Zaire, and when she died he was utterly alone. In this photo Ivan is relatively young, yet you can already see the loneliness burning behind his eyes.

Having seen Ivan in person as a kid, I always felt a connection to his story. I remember it vividly - the darkness of his enclosure, the lurid jungle-type painting on his wall, and the sad resignation in his body language. In 1994, animal advocates began campaigning for Ivan's release, and he was eventually transferred to Zoo Atlanta, where he lives today a very different life from that of his early years.

Ivan is the subject of the beautifully written new book by Katherine Applegate, The One and Only Ivan. In this novel, Applegate takes her inspiration from Ivan's story, and spins a world for Ivan that is compelling and heart-breaking, and entirely told from his point of view. Applegate populates Ivan's world with non-gorilla companions: Stella the elephant, Bob the stray dog, Julia, the daughter of the night janitor. Together this friends help Ivan survive his loneliness. Stella remembers a life before captivity, and her reminscences encourage Ivan to search the dim corners of his mind for his own memories. Bob keeps Ivan company, sneaking into Ivan's enclosure at night to sleep on Ivan's chest. Julia reaches out to Ivan, recognizing his need to create and providing him with art supplies that he uses to capture his world  -- and eventually negotiate for his own new future.

Applegate tells Ivan's story as a novel-in-verse. This is a technique that can work incredibly well in the right setting -- Inside Out and Back Again, for instance -- and as a means to relate Ivan's history, it's the perfect style. In short, vivid bursts, we learn about Ivan's daily life, his loves and his heartaches. There's humor here, and pathos too, and between it all some important questions are raised about humans and what we value most. Applegate does not vilify Ivan's owner Mack, who is entirely fictional. Rather, she presents Mack as sad and confused, someone who does love Ivan but really does not know how to display his love in a way that's good for the magnificent gorilla who is under his care.

Applegate never talks down to her readers, never sugar-coats the story or implies that Ivan's situation is going to be easily resolved. The narrative brings up some incredibly important discussion points, and kids and adults alike will find themselves moved and inspired by Ivan's story. Most importantly, we learn that it's never too late for life to change for the better -- and that sometimes, when it seems impossible to hope for yourself, the hope you have for another will carry you through. The One and Only Ivan is an amazing story and a powerful addition to the canon of children's literature about animals. Read this for yourself, share it with the kiddos in your life, buy it for your library. Just don't expect to ever forget the book - or Ivan himself.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, published by HarperCollins
Ages 9-13
Source: Library
Sample: "I know what most humans think. They think gorillas don't have imaginations. They think gorillas don't have imaginations. They think we don't remember our pasts or ponder our futures. / Come to think of it, I suppose they have a point. Mostly I think about what is, not what could be. / I've learned not to get my hopes up."
Highly recommended

Bonus: check out The One and Only Ivan website for more information about Ivan, the book and author Katherine Applegate

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Picture Book - Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School

Sprout's at that age where anything new is automatically suspect. I served him dinner the other night in a bowl he hadn't seen before - immediately he protested and didn't want to eat because "this not my bowl". I assured him it was just the same, and eventually hunger won out, but not before a healthy dose of "I don't like this bowl". And that's just one example: try out a new pair of shoes, an unfamiliar route to the grocery store or a movie he hasn't watched and you're guaranteed to hear, at least once, "I don't like this".

This is, of course, a common developmental feature. Kids love to order their world, putting like things with like things. All the cars go here, all the books go there, you get the idea. And they do the same with people, as studies have shown (one of the reasons that skin color is noted at a very early age by children). So anyone who doesn't fit into the categories they know already is bound to be viewed with a very critical eye, if not an "I don't like him" or two.

And that's what happens to our narrator in David Mackintosh's Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School. Marshall is, as you might expect, the new kid, and he's most definitely not like everyone else. For one thing, he's very pale, with lots of red bumps from mosquito bites. He wears a funny hat and glasses and ties his shoes in a different way. Marshall reads the paper instead of watching TV, and even his lunch is not the same as everyone else's ("space food", it seems like). In short, Marshall simply does not fit in.

So when our hero is invited to Marshall Armstrong's birthday, well, he just knows it's going to be awful. Probably it will be all sitting still and being quiet and no birthday cake. "And everyone will have a terrible time. Especially ME." But things don't turn out quite like he thinks - for one thing, Marshall Armstrong's house is amazing! Where else can you do an obstacle course, play with a jungle tent, and slide down a fire pole - all inside the house? And there's even real lemonade, with seeds. Maybe Marshall Armstrong is different, our narrator learns, but sometimes different can be just as fun - or maybe more so!

I love Marshall Armstrong for lots of reasons: the engineering-inspired details like Marshall's eyes behind his glasses, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways Marshall is truly unique, and the narrator's absolute reversal on his predetermined impression of Marshall himself. Here's an "issues" book that is fun to read, never heavy-handed but just presenting the real truth: that those who look and act different from us can still be some of our most wonderful friends.

While Sprout's a little young for Marshall Armstrong yet, I'm certain this is one that we'll be returning to, for those times when he himself is on the outside just as when he is the one excluding others. Marshall's completely unflappable confidence in being exactly who he is provides just the right message for kids - that there's honor in staying true to yourself, and that you can have even more fun doing so. Brilliant!

Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School by David Mackintosh, published by Abrams
Ages 4-7
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Marshall Armstrong doesn't have a TV at home. He prefers the paper. His dad says it gives him a good perspective."

Bonus: Daniel Handler's review of Marshall Armstrong from the NY Times

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Picture Book Review: Sing-Along Song by JoAnn Early Macken

For Sprout, one of the perks of having a mom who works for the library system is that I'm always bringing home new titles to read. Even though we go to the library together nearly every week, if I run across something I think Sprout will like, I can't resist checking it out for him. Sometimes it's a new release, other times a familiar favorite, and every once in a while it's a title that's just now popping up on my radar.

A few weeks ago I brought home one such bookSing-Along Song  by Joanne Early Macken. Somewhere in my travels this title jumped out at me, and just one glimpse at the cover told me it would be a hit with Sprout. And boy, was it ever -- the second I pulled it out of my bag, Sprout was all over it, telling me again and again, "This boy is me, Mama!". (He's pretty much right, by the way - the resemblance is sort of uncanny!) He could hardly wait for us to read it together.

And I'm thrilled to say that Macken does not disappoint with this exuberant celebration of a little boy's day. All along the way, our hero finds something to delight in, from the way the cat stretches to catch a mosquito to the delicious dinner Mama brings to the table. And for each discovery, there's a song that this cheerful tyke can't help singing along to. With the robin in the tree outside, it's a "cheery-up song". With the sleeping dog, it's a "whuffle-woof song". And at his baby sister's bedtime, it's a soft, sweet "gurgle-coo song".

Macken's use of language is pitch-perfect, and her rhymes are infectious. I love the way she uses imagery with each new scenario, for example, showing us how baby sister looks "like a flower bud / wrapped up warm and tight". Too often I think authors shy away from this kind of metaphor in books for the youngest children, which is really a shame. After all, children are the masters of metaphor, comparing the circle of the sun to the round pancake on their plate, or the fluff of popcorn to bubbles in their nighttime bath. Thankfully Macken gets that, and her prose is nothing less than engaging at every turn.

And then the illustrations - what more do I need to say than that they are done by the incomparable LeUyen Pham? I've raved about Pham's artwork before, as we've long been devotees of her sweetly inventive pictures in Whose Knees Are These? and Whose Toes Are Those? by Jabari Asim. And Pham delivers yet again, with warm, homey images of a loving family and a curious toddler encountering all the wonders of his everyday life. The simple joy of a small boy gazing out at a sky full of stars is one of my favorite spreads in this title, and there are many, many more.

Sing-Along Song is a fun choice for storytime, and a natural pick for winding down the day at bedtime. And one read-through will have you and your little ones listening closely as you go through your day, finding your own sing-along songs in the world around you. We do!

Sing-Along Song by JoAnn Early Macken, with illustrations by LeUyen Pham
Published by Viking
Source: Library
Ages 2-6
Sample: "Squirrel skips and scampers on the front porch rail, / Scoldin' all the neighborhood and flickin' his tail. / When I hear that squirrel sing his chitter-chat song, / I burst out singin'! I just gotta sing along."
Highly recommended.

NOTE: This is an older book, no longer easily available for purchase, sadly -- check your used bookstore or library!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Chapter Book Review - Ten Rules for Living with My Sister by Ann M. Martin

Many readers recognize the name Ann M. Martin from her prolific Babysitters' Club series of novels. Oh, the thousands upon thousands of middle school girls who have pored over these books! I never read them myself -- being more of a Nancy Drew girl -- but many of my friends did, and they continued to be popular long through my career as a bookseller.

Lest you think that's all Martin's got up her sleeve, though, please note that she's also written a number of critically acclaimed stand-alone novels, including A Corner of the Universe, which received a Newbery Honor. (And which, oh my word, is a flat-out incredible novel - one of the few I've seriously considered rereading of late.) Seems to me there's something to be said for all those Babysitters books -- through them Martin honed her craft, especially where starring roles for middle-grade girls are concerned.

That's where Pearl Littlefield comes in. The star of Martin's latest novel, Ten Rules for Living with My Sister, Pearl has a unique voice and perspective all her own. Fourth-grader Pearl's stuck between two worlds, idolizing (and terrorizing) her older sister Lexie and mentoring her best friend, first-grader Justine. Pearl can't help noticing all the ways that she and Lexie are different, and Lexie just has no tolerance for Pearl and her antics, no matter how good they are. And believe me, they're good -- Pearl's not one to let that "No Pearl" sign on Lexie's door stand without a fight.

Just when things between the sisters are reaching a fever pitch, though, the game changes. Suddenly Pearl and Lexie's grandfather, Daddy Bo, is moving in with the family, and the girls become unwilling roommates. By everyone's estimation, this is a recipe for disaster. And Pearl figures she'd better start making herself some rules, if she's going to live through this experience. But as she soon finds out, not even the most carefully constructed list of rules can cover every eventuality that life has to offer. Expecting the unexpected is only the beginning.

With Pearl, Martin's given us a snapshot of a girl smack dab in the middle -- of her family and of her maturity. This is something a lot of kids can relate to, I think, that feeling of not quite belonging but desperately wanting to. To call Pearl spirited is an understatement (annoying her sister is something Pearl's brought to an art form) but when things in the Littlefield family dynamic shift, Pearl steps up in ways no one thought possible. What's really great about Ten Rules is the glimpse it gives us into some important relationships: between sisters, between friends, and between a grandparent and grandchild. There are some honest and compelling scenes in this novel, ones that make you laugh even as they make you think about the relationships in your own life.

Ten Rules shows us that sometimes the defining moments in our lives are the ones no rules can cover. For Pearl, and for many of us, real life is all about the gaps in between.

Ten Rules for Living with My Sister by Ann M. Martin, published by Feiwel and Friends
Ages 9-13
Source: ARC provided by the publisher for review purposes
Sample: "I am no stranger to the silent treatment. When Lexie is mad at me she shouts, 'I'm not speaking to you!'. Sometimes after that she whips her head away from me, or turns her back, or stomps into her room and slams the door. / And then sometimes one of my parents will mutter 'Teenagers.' (They only mean Lexie, not me, since you don't qualify as a teenager until you are thirteen.)"

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Let Us Eat Cake!

May's a festive month around our household: two birthdays, Mother's Day, and the anniversary of the day we became a family. This year we're throwing a big shindig for Sprout's third birthday, and the excitement is really starting to build, with lots of talk about cake, presents, cake, decorations, cake and friends who are coming. Oh, and cake - did I say cake?

Sprout's kind of obsessed with the birthday cake this time around. I blame Betty Bunny. Just about every night the book of choice is Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake by Michael Kaplan. I can completely understand why: it's funny and clever, populated by some fantastic characters (our favorites: wiseacre brother Bill and Betty Bunny herself, a real "handful") and full of the kind of real dilemmas kids face. Like, for instance, how you handle it when you want to eat chocolate cake for dinner and Mommy insists on healthy dinner first. (I'm pretty sure Betty Bunny's solution, throwing veggies at her siblings, is probably not the best.) Preschoolers will gobble this one up as surely as Betty Bunny makes short work of her chocolate cake, and the ending is guaranteed to get a laugh every time. Luscious!

If Betty Bunny can't get enough cake, Sugar's on the other end of the spectrum. In Emily JenkinsSugar Would Not Eat It, Leo's newly adopted cat Sugar gets hungry, so Leo offers her a piece of his leftover birthday cake. But Sugar refuses, and the more Leo cajoles, the less interested Sugar becomes. In desperation, Leo solicits advice from everyone in his neighborhood. But nothing he tries seems to work: not getting mad, not punishment, not limiting her to only four bites. At last the hungry kitty makes her own preferences clear, and Leo finally realizes that for cats, maybe birthday cake isn't the meal of choice. The illustrations by Giselle Potter add just the right amount of whimsy - we especially love Sugar's vibrant blue fur. A great message here for picky eaters and their parents!

Who Made This Cake? by Chihiro Nakagawa was a hit for Sprout right from the cover - a huge crane and loads of little workmen getting ready for a big project. Turns out the tiny workmen are taking on a massive project: making a birthday cake for a full-size human boy. Think Gulliver and the Lilliputians. This is a resourceful bunch, and they've got plenty of heavy equipment to help with the job: diggers and backhoes, tractors and dump trucks, and an enormouse flatbed to transport the cake pan to the oven. Pumper trucks spread the icing, and a helicopter loads in the final touch, a giant sign reading "Happy Birthday". For little ones obsessed with trucks, trains and all things construction, here's an ingenious twist on the birthday theme. We love it!

Cake-themed reads are fun no matter what time of year your birthday falls. But be forewarned: these delicious titles might just drive you to crack out the baking pans!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Nonfiction Picture Book - All the Way to America by Dan Yaccarino

Books come into our lives in lots of ways. Some speak to us through their cover art or we notice them because we're familiar with their creators. Others are the result of personal recommendations or reviews we read. And some just keep pushing their way into our consciousness - an author interview here, a prepub notice there, a prominent placement at the library.

Dan Yaccarino's All the Way to America was one of those insistent titles that kept cropping up in my travels through the kidlitosphere. I read a couple of reviews about the book and saw a book trailer. Then I read an interview Yaccarino did with Publisher's Weekly. Some of my favorite book bloggers started buzzing about the book. And then it kind of dropped off my radar, until I started reading best of the year lists. Lo and behold, that little story of a family that I'd heard about was gently edging its way onto those lists.

And for good reason.

Yaccarino calls this "the story of a big Italian family and a little shovel", and promises that "some parts have been condensed a bit, but it's all true. And all Italian." The story opens with Dan's great-grandfather Michele Iaccarino, growing up in Sorrento, Italy. Michele has a little shovel that he uses to till the earth, and he brings the shovel with him when he travels to America. He uses it at his job as a baker, then as a pushcart peddler. The shovel passes through the generations of the Iaccarino (now Yaccarino) family - Dan's grandfather Aniello, who owns a market and then a restaurant; his father Mike, who opens a barbershop; and on to Dan, who uses it even now to garden with his own children.

The story may be a familiar one but that just means that it resonates all the more with readers. I appreciate the fact that Yaccarino ties the shovel in to the work that each member of the family does, emphasizing not only the diversity of opportunities that was available to each generation of the Yaccarinos, but also the thread of family that ties each member together. The illustrations are vivid and interesting, fleshing out the story of the family with small details like the ever-present bowl of spaghetti with Mama Iaccarino's tomato sauce. Each spread is inviting, with lots of action and depth to the backgrounds that tell a tale all their own.

This is the kind of tale that makes it easy for kids to draw parallels with their own family history and introduce curiosity about how their own families got to the United States. It will also make them think about their own lives, and what pieces of their heritage might have been passed on from previous generations. While not every family has a little shovel (too bad, I think - what a great detail!), there are other inheritances, like red hair and freckles, or an aptitude for music, or a long-held secret recipe.

All the Way to America  is one family's story, a variation on a theme that has occurred countless times in many places. And that, in a way, is its greatest strength - the quietly compelling thread of a narrative that makes one family unique. It's a journey you'll truly enjoy taking.

All the Way to America by Dan Yaccarino, published by Alfred A. Knopf
Ages 5-12
Source: Library
Sample; "Friends from home helped each other in this new country. Michael found work in a bakery owned by a man who had also come from Sorrento. Michael polished his little shovel till it shined and used it to measure out flour and sugar."

Bonus: Dan Yaccarino's post on why picture books are important

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Rest in Peace, Maurice Sendak

"And he sailed off through night and day
and in and out of weeks
and almost over a year

to where the wild things are"

Your words will live on forever.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Picture Book Review - Same, Same but Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw

One thing I love about picture books these days is that they are an absolute bounty of visual delights. Seriously, some of the artwork that illustrators and author/illustrators are turning out lately just causes me to go all goggle-eyed with admiration. I have zero artistic talent, or maybe less than zero -- an elementary school memory of gobs of clay plus the instruction "make whatever you feel like inside" still causes me to break out in a cold sweat -- but I loves me some gorgeous illustrations.

And wow oh wow, does this book have them! Filled with collage and outstanding mixed-media imagery, this is just a delight to behold. And best of all, it's a multicultural title about two boys. Win win, right?

According to the jacket copy, Same, Same but Different was inspired by author/illustrator Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw's travels in India and Nepal. While there she picked up the saying "same, same but different" -- a way of expressing that things in other cultures might be done differently, but are ultimately still the same. That simple phrase sparked the idea for her picture book, which is, I tell you truly, simply rich with culture and nuance.

In the book an American boy named Elliot participates in an art exchange at school, painting a picture of the world that his teacher mails to India. A boy named Kailash responds, mailing Elliot a picture of the world as he sees it. And so begins the correspondence, in which each boy talks about the things he enjoys, or what life is like where he's from. As the book continues, we begin to see that though some aspects of their activities are different, they are also much the same. For example, Elliot lives with his family (mom, dad and baby sister) and Kailash lives with his family (23 relatives in all). Elliot rides a bus to school and so does Kailash (though his is a large pedal-cab). Elliot and his friends do a complicated handshake to say hello, while Kailash bows and tells his friends "Namaste". All in all -- same, same but different!

I love the way that the book posits each culture opposite one another, so we get a sense of each in its uniqueness even as we see that people around the world live much the same. I would have liked it if the comparison was a little more equal -- because Kailash lives in a village, we're comparing rural life with Elliot's city life, and that feels a bit disjointed -- but Kostecki-Shaw is careful never to overtly place one culture as more important or better than the other. And indeed we can see that each boy enjoys the same pursuits, just in different ways. In one of the final spreads Elliot is drawing a bird from his perch in his treehouse, while Kailash draws a bird from the shade of a big tree. While Elliot's picture displays more material goods (books, a globe, even a telescope), each boy looks just as content, just as satisfied with his leisure time.

If you're looking for a good introduction to other cultures, a title that will open up lots of possibilities for discussion and further exploration, Same, Same But Different is an excellent choice. And if you're just looking for a book that's outright wonderful to look at and to read together -- this one fills the bill.

Same, Same But Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw, published by Henry Holt and Company
Ages 2-5
Source: Library
Sample: "A great river flows through my village. Peacocks dance under trees shaped like umbrellas. The sun is giant and especially hot here. / In my city, the sun hides behind buildings as tall as the sky. Taxis, buses, and cars fill the streets."