Thursday, August 30, 2012

Series Spotlight - Ruby and the Booker Boys

This is the second in my series of posts focusing on series that feature people of color as main and supporting characters (check out the first post here). The purpose of these spotlights is to offer alternatives to other titles where diversity is lacking - not that I don't enjoy many of those popular series books, but in recognition of how important it is that all kids see themselves represented in the literature around them.

This time around, we're looking at Derrick Barnes's series Ruby and the Booker Boys. This is a fantastic early chapter book series for young readers, packed with humor, emotion, and lots and lots of fun. Fans of Clementine or Judy Moody will be equally smitten by the self-proclaimed ultra-fabulous Ruby Booker, a narrator who sparkles between every line. Ruby may have three awesome older brothers, but she refuses to stand in their shadows. No sir, Ruby Booker is a star, and she's not afraid to show it.

In the first book of the series, Brand-new School, Brave New Ruby, our heroine is starting third grade in a new school, Hope Road Academy. Now Ruby's not one to be intimidated by just anything, but the thing is that at Hope Road, her older brothers are already legendary. This could work to her advantage, if their star power shines bright enough. But it could also mean that their little sis is outshined, and Ruby cannot let that happen. Instead, she's determined to make her mark at Hope Road in her own unique way.

The second title sees Ruby having found her footing at Hope Road, but she's still got to establish herself as her very own Booker, not just the little sis. In Trivia Queen, 3rd Grade Supreme, the students have a chance to win a great prize in the school-wide trivia contest. And Ruby knows her stuff, because she's a trivia manaic. So what's the problem? Technically the contest is only open for the upper grades, which means that Ruby's brothers are eligible but she isn't. Can she convince the principal to allow her to compete? And if Ruby does get in, will she be able to beat the older contestants?

There's a lot to love about the Ruby Booker titles. Though Ruby competes with her older brothers, they all love each other very much, and that affection shows through in each story. Her parents are supportive and want the best for all their kids, though some good-natured teasing is definitely in order. But best of all is the character of Ruby herself. She's confident and self-assured, sassy and full of fun. She loves music, her pet iguana Lady Love and her orange-and-purple sneaker set. Ruby's the kind of kid boys and girls can relate to, and readers will want to hear more about this bouncy, vibrant kiddo and her fun-loving brothers. And those adorable illustrations by Vanessa Brantley Newton are the icing on the cake!

The Ruby and the Booker Boys Series:
Book 1: Brand-new School, Brave New Ruby
Book 2: Trivia Queen, 3rd Grade Supreme
Book 3: The Slumber Party Payback
Book 4: Ruby Flips for Attention
Book 5: Tad P. Loves Ruby B. (no release date set at this time)

Age range: Elementary/Middle grade

Bonus: interview with author Derrick Barnes from the blog Color Online

Monday, August 27, 2012

Picture Book Review - Sumi's First Day of School Ever by Soyung Pak

Fall is in the air! It's hard to believe, because our summer started so late, but pretty soon those big yellow buses will be rolling out and the kiddos will be on their way back into the classroom. And as with all transitions, the new school year can be a tough thing for many students, especially those who are learning new languages and new living situations as well. Whether the child is an adoptee or part of a family of immigrants, an unfamiliar place presents more than a few challenges and fears.

In Sumi's First Day of School Ever, Soyung Pak tells the story of a young girl just beginning her first day of classes. Sumi is Korean, and she speaks very little English, though her mother has taught her what to say if someone asks her name. She's never been to school before and she finds the whole experience frightening. From the forbidding fence around the schoolyard to the noisy, boisterous children who all seem to know just where they belong, Sumi is overwhelmed. School is a scary place, Sumi thinks, and she hangs back, watching others to know just what she should be doing. It's all pretty intense for this shy newcomer.

Fortunately Sumi's teacher is kind and gently encouraging to her new student. When she's allowed to draw a picture later in the morning, things begin to seem a little better. And then at recess, Sumi finds a stick and is drawing in the dirt when another student approaches. Mary quietly joins Sumi in drawing a scene, then introduces herself. And Sumi knows just what to say, thanks to her mother. Maybe, Sumi thinks, school is not-so-lonely after all.

Pak's sensitive portrayal of a young girl struggling to find her place in a new environment will hit home with many readers, particularly those who have felt the same way Sumi does, like she's in over her head. Joung Un Kim's soft color palette and warm backgrounds add depth to the story, and Sumi's emotions are evident in every scene. Kim keeps Sumi as the focal point of each spread, but provides appropriate context for what's happening, such as the scene where another boy makes fun of Sumi (he later apologizes after prompting from the teacher). Most importantly, the book doesn't make light of Sumi's feelings or her struggle to find her footing. Rather, it emphasizes that the most important key to fitting in might just lie in being yourself. When Sumi begins to draw, she finds common ground with another student, and in such a simple moment a friendship is born.

For those transitioning to a new environment, whether that means a new school or a new country, Sumi's First Day of School Ever can be a great tool to open discussion about how they are feeling. Equally important, this is a great way to talk with other kids about how to reach out to an unfamiliar face in their classroom, making a new friend and building a connection that benefits everyone.

NOTE: this is an older title and not readily available - check your library or a used bookstore, it's worth finding!

Sumi's First Day of School Ever by Soyung Pak, published by Viking
Ages 3-7
Source: Library
Sample: "A boy stuck out his tongue. He made a noise. He squished his eyes. / School is a mean place, Sumi thought."

Friday, August 24, 2012

Why Books Can Be Windows, Not Walls

Recently I stumbled across this article that spotlights the continued dearth of multicultural titles in the world of children's literature. As I said when I posted a link on Facebook, I wish this was a surprise to me, but it sadly is not. I'm sure that others who spend their time immersed in books for children probably aren't shocked either. Groups like the Cooperative Children's Book Center at UW-Madison, mentioned in the article, scour the record of titles published each year, tracking the number of books by and about people of color that are released. (If you want some fascinating reading, check out the CCBC's archives, where director KT Horning and her incredible staff post their yearly essays on the state of publishing.) What's really startling about the CCBC research is that the rate of kid's books by people of color published has never exceeded 5%.

Let that sink in a moment.

Of all the books published in any given year, 95% are by white authors.

True, there are books about multicultural characters being written by white authors - after all, I'm a white mama writing about race. But still, the rate of multicultural titles is very, very low. What's so sad about that is that it flies in the face of what's really happening in our country. Our society is becoming increasingly diverse; if you don't believe me on that fact, take a look at this detailed analysis of census data and the implications it carries for diversity in the population of US children. In researching a paper I wrote last fall on children's literature for multiracial families, I found multiple sources indicating that the lack of representation of their own reality can have a major impact on the identity formation of young children.

And really, is it any wonder? If you never saw yourself reflected in the world around you, wouldn't you grow to be a little self-doubting?

So if the world is becoming more diverse, then why aren't books reflecting that diversity? The short answer is white privilege; the long answer, as with so many things related to race, is more complicated. Publishers often argue that multicultural books don't sell. Booksellers and librarians may use the same argument. "We buy them and they don't circulate," as a school librarian in one of my classes put it. And in the days of ever-shrinking budgets, who can afford to buy what people don't want to read?

But if fewer titles are published, then fewer titles are reviewed by critics and even fewer are purchased by bookstores and libraries. The smaller the pool to draw from the more "other" these books seem. And in a world where everyone gravitates toward what they believe is HOT HOT HOT, quiet titles are going to be overlooked. I mean, I think The Hunger Games is just fantastically written, but is that really why everyone and their brother has read it? Or was it more about the drive to not be left out of the loop?

And then there's the fact that so many of the multicultural titles that make it into print are "issues" books. You know what I mean here, the ones that are about accepting others no matter how different, or are about standing up in the face of discrimination. Don't get me wrong, I think those titles are hugely important, and all our kids need to hear these messages, regardless of their skin tone. But honestly, kids get sick of being lectured to, and if they feel that a title is going to hit them over the head with a big ol' lesson, well, they're going to tune out. Trust me. What is immensely more effective are what I call "inclusion" titles, where the diversity of the characters is secondary to the plot or theme of the story. You know, the book that is such a great read that you're not constantly sidelined by the heavy-handed message the author is trying to get through.

So what's a parent or industry professional to do here? First off I think we all need to quit hiding behind excuses or being timid about this issue. Booksellers and librarians, take some time to examine your motives. I know we all think of ourselves as impartial, but the truth is we carry plenty of biases. Maybe you don't buy a certain author's new release because his/her older titles never circulated. Fair enough - but what's the buzz behind the new book? Check out the kidlitosphere, read some review journals, talk to other professionals. More importantly, read it yourself - and if you love it, sell the hell out of it. I'm just going to say it: multicultural books may require a bigger boost than other titles. I mean, you know the new Mo Willems is going to fly out the door, but something like Big Red Lollipop might require more of a boost from you. Integrate these titles into booktalks, feature them in displays, handsell them to customers or patrons, include them on booklists. The more you talk the more your message will get out there, and I promise you that the checkouts or purchases will follow. Make it your mission to get that title into the hands of a child who needs it, and don't give up!

Parents, if you feel as strongly as I do about having your kids represented in the literature they read, make your voice heard. You don't have to be obnoxious about it, but take some time to talk to your bookstore buyer or youth services librarian about what's on the shelves. Maybe they never realized that there are interested parties out there, and they'll make more of an effort to look for quality titles if they know you want them. If you are frequent library users like us, or are lucky enough to shop at an indie bookstore, I guarantee that your needs are hugely important to the powers that be. If you're buying at a chain, take some time to email their corporate office about your concerns. Above all, vote with your dollars and your checkouts. Libraries and bookstores are strapped for cash, and they can't stock books that don't show turnaround. It does very little good to entreat a store to stock more diverse selections if you're not going to follow through by buying them. So when you see more color popping up on the shelves, support the efforts of that store or library. Tell your friends, other parents, teachers or babysitters. And please try to track down the person who made that diversity possible, and thank them for their efforts. We all want to feel appreciated, and this will go a long, long way to continuing the process.

Look, this is something I'm passionate about because I feel we owe it to our children to give them books that are mirrors AND windows, that show them not only the reality they already know but one they may not otherwise see. In a world where image is everything, we really can make a difference in the lives of our young people. Start a movement that doesn't end until every child recognizes themselves in a book they read - can you imagine how different that might make our world??

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wayback Wednesday - Peter's Chair (1967)

Some authors become so identified with a particular work that it sometimes is difficult to remember that they've done other titles as well. Take Maurice Sendak for example - author of a slew of amazing books, illustrator of tons more, and yet to many people he's remembered for just one book. An incredible book, to be sure, but not the be-all end-all of his literary life, no way.

Ezra Jack Keats is another artist that seems to have a similar association. To most people he's probably best known as the author and illustrator of The Snowy Day. And don't get me wrong, it's gorgeous and absolutely belongs at the tippy-top of every single recommended books list. It's one of our all-time favorite reads, so much so that a good friend gave Sprout this little cutie for his third birthday. But it's by no means the outer limit of Keats's talents, and it isn't even the only adventure to feature Peter, Snowy Day's precocious wanderer.

This week's Wayback Wednesday pick is Peter's Chair, the third Peter title (after The Snowy Day and Whistle for Willie - which we also love). We first read Peter's Chair together about a year after Sprout joined our family, and for many months one or the other of these three Peter books was featured in just about every night's reading rotation. Not only are these books visually appealing - Keats did, after all, win a Caldecott for The Snowy Day - but they are full of the stuff children love: dragging sticks in the snow, building towers, exploring the neighborhood. Keats's kids are real children, not wooden creations, and you can feel their boundless energy sparking off every page.

In Peter's Chair, Keats gives our hero a dilemma to face that many kids will relate to: feeling displaced after the arrival of a younger sibling. Peter's more than a little put out to discover that all his old furniture is being painted pink for his baby sister. First the cradle, then the high chair and crib, and next up is Peter's chair. But Peter's not going to let the chair fall victim to this lunacy, so he decides to run away, taking only the important things (his dog, some cookies and his toy crocodile - and the chair, of course). Is that not just the epitome of childhood decision-making? I love Peter's prioritizing! And naturally the running-away lasts until just about lunchtime. . . .

The story of the artist behind the stories is every bit as interesting as his work. Keats grew up very poor, during the Great Depression. Though his family was proud of him, they also worried that he'd never make a living as an artist. Fortunately Keats was a beneficiary of Roosevelt's New Deal policies, working as an artist through the WPA. This gave him his start as a painter, and he turned to children's books later in his career - some of his early work was illustrating the Danny Dunn books. Keats was not himself African American (he was Jewish, and changed his name to escape anti-Semitism), and some were surprised at his choice to introduce Black characters at a time when people of color were mostly relegated to the backgrounds of children's books, if they were even present at all. He was inspired to create Peter by a series of photos he saw in a magazine; those photos, Keats has said, caused him to wonder why he had never seen a Black boy as the main character in a children's book.

Peter's Chair, like the other marvelous books by Ezra Jack Keats, epitomize multiculturalism for me in that they are thoughtful, engaging stories in which race is not a central (or even secondary) theme. Instead the focus is on the nitty-gritty of childhood life: learning to whistle, running away, finding out that a snowball won't stay forever in your jacket pocket. Sometimes these are hard lessons, but in Keats's hands the learning is joyful, not jarring.

Tonight my son fell asleep with Peter in his arms, after we yet again read Peter's Chair. That, my friends, is the mark of good literature.

Wayback Wednesday verdict? Belongs on every child's shelf

Peter's Chair by Ezra Jack Keats, published by Penguin
All ages
Source: personal collection
Sample: "He saw his crib and muttered, 'My crib. It's painted pink too.' Not far away stood his old chair. 'They didn't paint that yet!' Peter shouted. / He picked it up and ran to his room."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Puffling Patrol!

Quick, tell me everything you know about baby puffins.

Yeah, that's what I thought. Your knowledge is probably as thin on the ground as mine. To be honest I had never given puffins much thought, aside from the fact that they are darn cute and I've enjoyed seeing them at the zoo.

Then we were sent a review copy of the new book Puffling Patrol, out this month from authors Ted and Betsy Lewin. And suddenly I was learning a whole lot about these incredible birds, especially their youngsters, and the remote islands off the coast of Iceland where they make their homes.

Pufflings are baby puffins. They are cared for by their parents, and about this time every year they begin leaving their cliff-face homes to venture out into the sea. But a small percentage of pufflings raised on the island of Heimaey get disoriented and instead of heading for open water, end up landing on the streets of the villages nearby. Not yet strong enough to take off again, the birds might end up in serious trouble. But that's where the Puffling Patrol takes over, a group of children who are trained to seek out and rescue the fledgling birds, helping them make their way to the sea.

The Lewins are both Caldecott Honor winners, and at this point in their illustrious careers they could afford to phone it in a bit. Lucky for readers, they don't. The Lewins visited Heimaey in August of 2008, and the book shares their experiences learning about the pufflings and their habitat, and following two Puffling Patrol members. The result is a book as affecting as it is informative, one that brings readers up close and personal with the birds and with the children who rescue them. Ted's paintings and Betsy's field sketches bring the story to life, capturing the tension as the children search for any foundlings in the dark of night. Watching Erna and Dani release the pufflings they've found on the beach is an emotionally stirring moment in the narrative; children will be inspired to learn more about animal rescues, and perhaps to do what they can for the wildlife where they live.

The end of the book features fascinating facts about puffins, their homeland, and their current situation amid an ecosystem shift. Puffling Patrol is a natural choice for school and classroom libraries, but don't overlook titles like this for your home collection as well. Kids love learning about the world around them - Earth is a pretty amazing place, after all! - and titles that pair dramatic narratives with vivid paintings and sketches can satisfy their thirst for adventure every bit as well as a novel could.

Think you have what it takes to be part of the Puffling Patrol? Then you need to take part in a Puffling Hunt! This is a fun scavenger hunt sponsored by the publisher of Puffling Patrol, where you can visit kidlit blogs, including Sprout's Bookshelf, to locate pictures of pufflings they've posted during the month of August. Full details coming soon to the Lee & Low blog, so check there for the scoop!

Puffling Patrol by Ted and Betsy Lewin, published by Lee & Low
Ages 6-9
Source: review copy received from the publisher (this review represents my true and unbiased opinion of the book)
Sample: "The children gently hold their precious charges. It is time to release the pufflings and send them out to sea. / 'Good luck,' whispers Erna. 'Be careful, little one.'"

Friday, August 17, 2012

Chapter Book Review - Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker

The name Sara Pennypacker is probably most familiar for her early chapter book series Clementine. In these books, our high-spirited heroine seems always to land herself in the most outrageous kinds of trouble (cutting her best friend's hair off, for instance, and then coloring it back in with permanent marker). Clementine defines the word irrepressible, and it's all her poor parents can do to keep up with her. She's a lot of outrageous fun, a Ramona Quimby for the post-millenial set.

But if you're looking for a Clementine-esque character in Pennypacker's new novel, Summer of the Gypsy Moths, you may be a bit disappointed. While the author gives us two very strong girls in the form of Stella and Angel, and while there are some funny moments, Clementine these ladies definitely are not.

In fact Stella, the narrator, is really more like a little adult than she is a girl of twelve. Most of that is due to Stella's familiarity with loss. She's had more than her fair share of it already, from the father she never knew to the grandmother who's now passed on. And Stella's mother - let's just say she's flighty at best, but far closer to neglectful. In fact, that's how Stella came to be living with her Great-aunt Louise, at the Linger Longer Summer Cottages on Cape Cod. Louise is the caretaker of the cottages, and of Stella too, now that her mother's run off yet again. And Louise has taken in another child besides, the mysterious Angel, who wants Stella to keep her distance at all times. Angel seems always poised to run, which Stella can't quite understand, since she thinks living at the Cape is the closest thing to perfect she's ever known.

And then a giant rock crashes through the clear glass that surrounds Stella's fragile world, and suddenly everything is a huge mess. Stella's used to relying on herself - she does, after all, take care of everything possible since her mother is so "restless" - but this is all very different. She needs someone else, and surprisingly enough she finds that someone in Angel. Oh, Angel's resistent to the idea at first also, but the two girls are forced to pull together in order to survive, literally. And soon they are faced with the hard truth: like it or not, there's more that unites them than sharing a roof at Linger Longer.

I won't say more (though I'm itching to) because I don't want to give away everything. Suffice it to say that these two girls are some of the fiercest seen in kidlit since Gilly Hopkins. Just when you think that they're presented with truly insurmountable odds, they manage to pull through, by working together. And in that is the real lesson, that life is difficult and the deck is often stacked against us, so we need to find strength wherever we can. Even if that's in someone we always thought we couldn't stand. When Stella comes to realize that her mother isn't just scatter-brained, but really has some emotional issues, it's a hard moment for her and for us. And as we get to know Angel, find out more about her Portuguese heritage and see the pain that drives her deep inside her shell, we come to recognize her beauty also.

Stella and Angel are high-risk kids, no question. And Pennypacker doesn't shy away from revealing that to readers, letting us see the difficult bits a little at a time. Don't be fooled by the gauzy, wistful cover art - there are some really hard moments in this book, especially at the beginning. But that to me is the real test of great writing, that an author can blindside you with events you never anticipated and you still hang on for the whole wild ride. There are a ton of quietly moving scenes in this novel, scenes that make you think about the whole notion of family and trust, and ultimately to consider what bonds really hold us most deeply.

Pair this with books like Katherine Paterson's The Same Stuff as Stars or Patricia Reilly Giff's Pictures of Hollis Woods for more about foster kids in difficult situations. And I won't be at all surprised come Newbery time if this isn't at least on the short list - it's that fine of a novel.

Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker, published by Balzer + Bray
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Sample: "I looked over the cottages. Here were five homes to prove myself on. Below, in our backyard, were Louise's blueberry bushes. My mother's blueberry bushes. Mine, too, now. I felt a good iron-bone, lead-blood heaviness settle me into the floorboards. I couldn't tell Angel any of this, either. / I turned. 'Because, this place?' I said instead. 'I'm not leaving it.'"
Highly recommended

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Nonfiction Picture Book - Minette's Feast by Susanna Reich

So normally this would be Wayback Wednesday, but since today is Julia Child's 100th birthday, this seemed like a more appropriate post.

An especially fantastic trend in picture books of late are the fictionalized biographies of real-life individuals. Technically, since the stories are usually told from an alternate perspective and some details are invented, they aren't strictly nonfiction. And yet, because they have a basis in reality, these accounts can make an excellent bridge for young children from the fiction section to the nonfiction section, or vice versa. Kids who only want "true stories" could be induced by a whiff of whimsy to try something else, or those whose fare leans toward the imaginary might be convinced that real life can be just as engaging.

One of my favorite recent examples of this trend is Robbin Gourley's Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You A Pie. In a similar vein comes Susanna Reich's Minette's Feast, a peek into the life of Julia Child via her cat, Minette Mimosa McWilliams Child. Told through the perspective of this very blessed feline, Julia Child's early life in Paris and the beginnings of her culinary career are lovingly rendered and beautifully illustrated. Minette does in fact lead a charmed life, and she knows it - she came into the household thanks to Julia's belief that "(a) house without a cat is like life without sunshine!". Minette is famously finicky, and though she won't eat food out of a can, she's not entirely convinced by her mistress's delicious dishes either. Much better is a fresh bird, or maybe a mouse she's caught herself - now that's delightful. Still, Minette is Julia's constant companion as she undertakes the process of improving her cooking, first through self-study and then by enrolling at Le Cordon Bleu. (Minette polishes her own hunting skills in a similar fashion.)

This is a simply charming book, one that presents the story of Julia Child in a format that appeals to young chefs and cat lovers alike. The illustrations by Amy Bates are beyond fantastic, the kind of homey warmth you just want to linger over. For one thing, she captures the capriciousness of Minette perfectly - one minute resting quietly, then suddenly pounce! But Bates goes far beyond Minette's own actions to bring Julia's story to life as well. Her depictions of a younger Julia stirring, tasting, whisking, chopping fairly burst from the page, as the famous woman's boundless energy come through on every spread. A picture of a dinner party at the Child home is particularly spot-on: the all-but-salivating guests, including Child's husband Paul; the beaming Julia, bearing a fragrant turkey still steaming from the oven; and the ever-proud Minette, taking her place in the hostess's spot (it's only the way things should be, after all). Delectable!

Whether you're a fan of food or felines, Minette's Feast is a sure-fire hit. I'll be rooting for this one come award season - it's a gem that truly stands out on every bookshelf!

Minette's Feast by Susanna Reich, published by Abrams
Ages 7-12
Source: Library
Sample: "Sometimes the 'nice old fish lady' at the marketplace gave Julia luscious fish heads for Minette. Julia would cook them up in a pot. Perhaps she'd add a dollop of scrumptious 'chicken liver custard.' / Minette might even take a nibble. / But it seemed that mouse and bird were really much preferred."
Highly recommended

Bonus: an outstanding interview with illustrator Amy Bates from the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Friday, August 10, 2012

Picture Book Review - Rain School by James Rumford

One of the things you learn very quickly when you're in the process of an international adoption is that much we take for granted in the United States runs a bit differently in other countries. Electricity, for instance, isn't always a guarantee for many reasons, and so communication via email or even telephone can be quite difficult. That's especially true during certain periods of the year. In Ethiopia, during the height of the rainy season (roughly August through late September/early October), the courts actually close down. It's just too hard to do business, to get around to where people need to be and to be assured that the lights will be on when they do get to work. For Americans, this can be incredibly frustrating; for Ethiopians, it's an inconvenience that is just part of daily life. Not good, not bad, just a feature of what you have to do.

And that's pretty much the premise of Rain School by James Rumford, the notion of working around the seasons in order to get things done. The book takes place in Chad, where Rumford and his wife were stationed while in the Peace Corps. The storyline was inspired by Rumford's encounter of the ruins of a primary school in one village, a school made from mud that was destroyed during the rainy season. The experience fixed itself in Rumford's mind, and years later he used it as inspiration for a bold and evocative picture book.

So too goes the story of Rain School, where incoming students learn that the first lesson is one of construction, as they must assemble their own school building from the ground up. Working together, the younger students learn how to make mud bricks, drying them in the sun until they are ready to be used in the construction. Built around a simple wooden frame, the school also features mud desks, wood stools, and a simple thatched roof. Once the school is assembled, the students gather inside to begin. They find that the learning process is accomplished in much the same way, by first acquiring the building blocks to literacy (learning to recognize and write letters), and then gradually adding to that structure through the other lessons the teacher shares.

At the end "(t)he students' minds are fat with knowledge", and the teacher is bursting with pride. Not much longer, the rains come, and the school the students worked so hard on is reduced to nothing. But the school has served its purpose for that year, as the lessons are carried forward by the students into the next year of learning - and building - the Rain School.

This is a sensitive, deftly written title, one that celebrates the ingenuity of individuals to accomplish their goals. Rumford clearly has great admiration for the Chadian people, which comes through in this story of perserverance. Let's be honest, many of us would give up, wouldn't we? But the ability of the citizens to recognize the value of education is clear, and even the youngest student is willing to work hard to build the school because the payoff is great. I love the students' enthusiasm, particularly Thomas, a new student at the beginning of the book who by the end is a "big brother", anxious to teach others what he learned the year before. And I love that this is a story where no one swoops in to save the day, but where the residents of the village take on all the work themselves.

Rain School is an excellent look at what learning is like in other countries, but at its heart, it's about community and the strength of everyone pulling together as a group. Pair with books like The Weber Street Wonder Work Crew by Maxwell Newhouse or Rent Party Jazz by William Miller for other looks at community and the power of togetherness.

Rain School by James Rumford, published by Houghton Mifflin
Ages 3-8
Source: Library
Sample: "Thomas arrives at the schoolyard, but there are no classrooms. There are no desks / It doesn't matter. There is a teacher. 'We will build our school,' she says. 'This is the first lesson.'"

Bonus: fascinating interview with James Rumford from Paper Tigers

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Library Find - Angels Watching Over Me by Julia Durango

We're getting to that stage in Sprout's life where questions are starting to emerge. Questions about people in his friend's lives who aren't in his ("why don't I have a Papa?") or about significant relationships that he doesn't remember. There are people who were crucial in Sprout's life before us that are now gone, and some in our lives, like my own father, who passed on before Sprout was born. And as these questions arise so too do opportunities to discuss these important people, how much they meant to us and how we wish, deeply and dearly wish, that Sprout could have met them.

We believe that they are angels looking down on him, on all of us. And we tell him this, but that can raise even more questions in his mind.

And so to stumble on the book Angels Watching Over Me by Julia Durango felt especially providential. The narrative is an adaptation of the African American spiritual "All Night, All Day" (Durango gives lyrics for one of the more common versions of it in her author's note). She has expanded the verses, building imagery of a young African American boy who is first playing in the sunshine, then flying through the air as he chases his kite. Joining the boy are various creatures - gorgeous birds with multi-colored wings, squirrels and insects in the leaves of a tree, deer drinking from a stream below. It's a playful yet comforting experience, and most importantly what becomes clear is that the boy is never really alone. And as the chorus is repeated, a circle of multicultural angels surrounds him, singing the refrain "All night, all day, angels watching over me."

Elisa Kleven provides the illustrations for Durango's words. Kleven's art provides the ideal backdrop to this gently soothing story. The colors are rich and yet not overpowering, and she blends a collage of texture and pattern that adds subtle depths to each spread. Best of all we like the whimsical touches -- a flying elephant, a sleeping donkey and cat curled up together, an owl peeking out from a hole in a tree trunk. With each page you are pulled into the words and at the same time drawn further out into the heavens, until at last we see the globe with angels of all colors encircling it. Peaceful and comforting.

At some point all parents end up discussing loss with their children. For those of us parenting through adoption, the topic might come up sooner and might hit a little closer to home, but it's still the same process all children eventually go through. No matter how you decide to approach the subject, I believe that well-written books can be a tool to help children deal with their feelings. For us, we have given Sprout the image of his loved ones looking down on him from above, and Durago's book helped him understand how these individuals can always be with him even though he cannot see them. It's how I like to envision the special people that I've lost, and I hope this will be the comfort Sprout needs in this moment, as he begins to understand loss. In any case, it's been another way we can retell his story, experiencing it together and drawing us closer as a family.

Angels Watching Over Me, adapted by Julia Durango, published by Simon and Schuster
All ages
Source: Library
Sample: "Grass says rest, I curl up snug. Dusk surrounds me like a hug. / Dusk says sleep, I close my eyes. Moon is full and on the rise."

Monday, August 6, 2012

And We Have a Winner!

The winner of the free copy of Shopping with Dad by Matt Harvey is:

Mrs. Firstie's Classroom


To claim your prize, please email me with your mailing address and your book will soon be on its way. Congrats Mrs Firstie, and everyone else who entered.

And remember, if you didn't win but you still want a copy of Shopping with Dad or any other Barefoot Books title,  if you order using this link between now and the end of August, 20% of the proceeds of your purchase will be donated to the Tesfa Foundation, an amazing organization that is right now fundraising for their 5x3 Initiative, aiming to build 5 schools in Ethiopia in the next 3 years.

Thanks to Liz from Barefoot Books for sponsoring our giveaway. Keep reading for more fun activities and contests - you never know what we'll be up to!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Preschool Bound

Much as I hate to say it, my baby is growing up. Suddenly he's all kid and we've left the infant and even toddler years behind. Yep, folks, we've got us a little man in the house, God help us.

Part of this now-I'm-a-big-boy process has meant moving him from his beloved in-home daycare to a more formal preschool environment. This means bye-bye to his familiar, more laid-back routine and hello to a structured program. It's a blessing in a lot of ways (not least because we really needed five-day-per-week care) but like every other transition it requires a bit of advance preparation on our part.

Bibliotherapy, if you must know.

As with every other phase in our lives, when we found a preschool for Sprout I immediately zipped off to the library in search of books to help walk him through what this change was going to mean. And fortunately I found some great titles that were really helpful in beginning to think about how his day was going to be structured, what kinds of activities he'd likely be doing and just what being a "big boy preschooler" actually meant.

First up is My Preschool by Anne Rockwell. Rockwell is a legend in kidlit, with books on just about every topic and transition kids experience. In this entry, a preschooler explains his day, walking the reader through all the fun things he gets to do and how his school works. This was a great one to start out with for Sprout, as it introduced concepts like circle time and sharing, choice time and music. Sprout likes the part where the kids do yoga, especially the boy in tree pose ("That's silly, Mama! He's not a tree!"). Rockwell also touches on the conflicts that inevitably arise at school, when our hero's block tower gets knocked over by his friend Will. The incident is swiftly and satisfyingly resolved, and the kids head outside for playtime. Like all of Rockwell's work, My Preschool rings with clarity and simplicity, and its smudgy monoprint art strikes just the right note.

Little School by Beth Norling has a more diverse focus, following 20 little ones throughout their day at preschool. This one has a great representation of diversity, with children of multiple ethnicities depicted engaging in all the usual preschool activities. I love the fact that each child's experience is unique and yet they are all experiencing the same basic framework of art, play time, story time, etc. Norling presents every one of the kids as an individual and shows how the program they are in develops and builds their day. This one's practical, too - even bathroom time is included, in a tasteful way. Colorful and full of detail, we loved looking at this one together. (NOTE: this is an older title and not widely available for purchase; check your library or used bookstore!)

And though the notion of taking turns wasn't unfamiliar to Sprout, we felt he needed to understand that in preschool, no one gets their way all the time. For that we turned to Sometimes You Get What You Want by Meredith Gary, illustrated by Lisa Brown. In this simple yet effective title, a pair of siblings experiences school together. Each spread presents two scenarios: in one, the child gets what he or she wants, while in the other, he or she goes along with the group. For example, "Sometimes your friends want to do what you're doing. Sometimes they want to do something else." This quiet but affecting title really got Sprout to thinking, and we have revisited it a couple of times since preschool began. Slowly he's realizing that it's all right if things don't always go his way, that he'll get a turn, though it isn't always soon enough (it's a work in progress).

If you've got a little one starting a new school this fall, consider conducting a little bibliotherapy of your own. Books can present great opportunities to see behaviors being modeled, and to soothe apprehensions about what a typical day will be like. Best of all, they open up the chance to dialogue with your kiddo about what preschool means - and they might just make everyone feel a little more at ease with this whole growing-up scenario.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wayback Wednesday - From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967)

A bit of a departure for Wayback Wednesday this week, something I haven't yet read with Sprout but that I absolutely cannot wait to: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. When I think back on my childhood, this is one of those titles that stands well outside the pack, a shimmering bit of perfection that I think I realized, even then, was the kind of book that stood the test of time. It's most definitely the first book that I remember finishing, putting down, then picking back up almost right away to reread.

That scene is vividly imprinted on my memory - a dreary summer afternoon, a colander full of green grapes to snack on, sitting on my bedroom floor listening to the rain drum on the roof and reading about Claudia and Jamie. I had heard about the book from my older sister, who mentioned offhand once that she read it when she was about my age and really enjoyed it. That was all the convincing it took for me to seek it out during my regular visit to the bookmobile. Right from the beginning it was evident that Claudia was pretty much my literary soul mate. This sentence was all it took: "She was bored with simply being straight-A's Claudia Kincaid." I sat up straighter and began to concentrate on every word after that.

Claudia, you see, has decided that in order for her family to fully appreciate her, she must run away. But she does not want to just take off - no, Claudia is not nearly that impulsive. Instead she crafts a plan wherein she and her middle brother Jamie will run away to the most hospitable and inspiring place she can think of: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's a good plan, and one that Claudia and Jamie manage to carry out with a relatively small incidence of peril. But soon the siblings find that they have run right into a bit of a mystery, concerning a small statuette recently acquired from the enigmatic Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which may or may not be the work of Michelangelo. Claudia and Jamie begin to investigate, and their search for the truth leads them straight to the very last place two runaway children may have expected to find themselves.

Quite simply, From the Mixed-Up Files has it all: familiar but not derivative characters, a crisply believable plot, some mystery, some humor, and a wholly original setting. It is firmly set within a specific era and yet has the whiff of timelessness about it, the kind of book that though the details may change (train fare for $1.60? hot fudge sundaes for $.40?) will still be relatable for readers for decades to come. Even to a child like me, for whom New York City was about as far away as the moon in relation to my real life, the adventures of Claudia and Jamie felt immediate and tangible. I could see myself hiding in that bathroom stall waiting for the guard to pass, or hiding my violin case in a sarcophagus (never mind that I never played a musical instrument). And that, dear reader, is what makes something a classic - the fact that though the world in which it was set may seem lightyears away from our modern age, the story still feels fresh and current, like it really could happen to you or someone you know.

E.L. Konigsburg had her first two books published in 1967, this and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth. Both were nominated for the Newbery in 1968, and she took the award for From the Mixed-Up Files and the Honor for Jennifer (the only person to have won both the award and the honor in the same year). Starting a career out like that had to have been more than a little daunting -- how do you follow up such huge success -- but Konigsburg has maintained a long and distinguished track record of publishing amazing literature for children. What I think has made her so successful is the fact that she never writes "down to" her audience. Konigsburg's characters, Claudia and Jamie included, tackle some very real problems, experience deep emotions and grapple with the larger stuff of life. And yet there's always humor, always lightness to cut the gravity.

If you've never read a Konigsburg novel, From the Mixed-Up Files is a great place to start. It still rings as true for me as the day I first read it, so long ago, and I hope that one day Sprout feels the same.

Wayback Wednesday verdict? Quiet adventure that still resonates

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konisburg, published by Simon & Schuster
Ages 8-12
Source: personal collection
Sample: "What happened was: they became a team, a family of two. There had been times before they ran away when they had acted like a team, but those were very different from feeling like a team. Becoming a team didn't mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats."
Highly recommended