Monday, February 28, 2011

Mole Music and Family Tunes and Tales

Mole Music
Written and illustrated by David McPhail
Ages 4 and up

Mole spends his life digging tunnels and feels something is missing from his life. One night after hearing a beautiful violin performance on TV, Mole sends for a violin. When it arrives, he is discouraged at first by how badly he plays. But with persistence he builds his skill, and his playing becomes a solace in his lonely life.

Our library does a program called Family Tunes & Tales that we LOVE, where 3 to 5 members of the Memphis Symphony come and play music that corresponds to a book read out loud by the children's librarian. They do it on a Saturday morning so the whole family can come and listen, and afterwards, the Junior League of Memphis has a tie-in craft that kids ages 3 to third grade can do.
  I don't know if this is a long-standing program or if it just started, but we only just discovered it. It works like this: the children's librarian sends  the book she plans to read aloud to the Symphony members in charge of that particular session, and they come up with music that goes along with the story. Before the story starts, the musicians introduce themselves and their instruments, and demonstrate what they (the instruments) do. There to accompany this month's story was a quartet consisting of two violins, a cello, and a viola. Mole Music was this month's selection. The lead violinist explained to us that they used the notes embedded in David McPhail's illustrations for their musical accompaniment of this very moving story about the power of music. One violinist played Mole, musically. It was a wonderful story and performance. I wish everyone could hear it told to the music.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Book Review: A Tree For Peter by Kate Seredy

A Tree for Peter
Written and illustrated by Kate Seredy
Original Copyright 1941
Published in 2004 by Purple House Press

Peter is little, lame, fatherless, poor and "afraid of many things." His mother has to work every day in the city and he spends his week alone and frightened, living for Sunday, her day off. They live in Shantytown, an area of old abandoned houses that the poorest of the poor are squatting in as they try to eke out a meager living: it is a people and a place without hope. Until one day, small Peter meets Peter King, an old tramp who befriends him and teaches him to stop being fearful of life. As his outlook changes, he starts making friends, first with a mangy dog, and then with the Irish cop whose beat includes Shantytown. As he changes, he starts changing the world around him, little by little. From Peter King's kindness, a chain of events builds and transforms Small Peter and all the people of Shantytown.
  I loved this story. Loved it. I felt so helpless and depressed as I read about Peter being left alone day after day in those squalid conditions by a mother who clearly hated it as much as he did, but didn't have any other option. And I rejoiced when he found a kind heart to teach him to live beyond those fears.
  People of today might read the story and see only the unrealistic aspects compared to our own day: children left alone day after day without state interference; a friendship with a vagrant who turns out to be kind rather than deranged. But for me as a modern reader, I think this story still has bearing, and I appreciate the hope that drives the story, the inherent innocence of it, and the author's assumption that people are basically good and -more importantly- that one person can make a difference in the lives of others.
  Kate Seredy's beautiful, detailed, sepia illustrations accompany her amazing story, and set the tone.
  One of our family's very favorite stories, this makes a great read-aloud anytime, but especially at Christmas. (If you can get through it without weeping.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Review: Kaline Klattermaster's Tree House by Haven Kimmel

Kaline Klattermaster's Tree House
By Haven Kimmel
Illustrated by Peter Brown
Ages 7 and up
Published by Atheneum

  The synopsis on the book cover is very misleading, so here is my own:
"Barely" seven-year-old Kaline's life has been turned upside down. His father abruptly leaves home, completely upending Kaline's routine -but imaginative- life, his mother is seriously distracted, and he's being bullied by three classmates. He seeks solace in his next-door-neighbor and in imagining an enormous tree house, where his imaginary two older brothers live with their race car, motorcycle and one hundred puppies.

  The story is written from Kaline's perspective, complete with seven-year-old language, chaotic thoughts, and DRAMA -which is reflected in the use of capitalized words. Though hard to read sometimes, the writing style really reflects Kaline's "voice" and thoughts and understanding.

  There are some tough issues that Kaline grapples with in this relatively short story: bullies, an OCD father, a different kind of life without his father, and divorce. And while it took me a little to get into Kaline's "voice", in the end I enjoyed the book and have been thinking about it all day.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bird Love - Four Picture Book Mini Reviews

   My girls are obsessed with birds at the moment. All the books that Susanna loves the most are about birds: Owl Babies, The Best Nest, and the Gossie books.
  My older girls have been fascinated by the huge flocks of small birds that stay here in the south during the winter. One day as we were going to town (which takes us about twenty minutes) we all watched in wonder as this HUGE flock of birds burst off the ground and flew for miles along with us. There must have been many thousands of birds, because the flock stretched thickly for literally miles, and we couldn't see the end of it. My girls watched them in silent awe the whole trip until we saw them turn and head in another direction. And of course they were full of questions. What made them gather together in such huge numbers? How did they decide where they were going? How could so many birds all in one place find enough to eat in winter? On and on the questions went. So we started looking into the answers. Along the way, of course, bird picture books caught their eye at the library. So here is our recent "bird" line-up of library books:

Written by Kevin Henkes
Illustrated by Laura Dronzek
Ages: 2 and up
Publisher: Harper Collins

A simple, appealing book about birds from an artistic, imaginative standpoint. The first part of the book talks about their physical characteristics in simple terms. The last half talks about them from a "what if.." point of view. For example:
"If birds made marks with their tail feathers when they flew,
think what the sky would look like."
  (The illustrations show bird "contrails" on that page.)
  The illustrations are perfect for the text. They are bright, bold paintings that are almost child-like in their simplicity. My girls loved the book.

 The Language of Doves
Written by Rosemary Wells
Illustrated by Greg Shed
Ages: 4 and up
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers

  On Julietta's sixth birthday, her grandfather gives her an Isabella dove, and tells her the story of his Isabella dove he was given as a boy and what became of her.
  This was a good story. Very interesting, historically speaking, as well. (Don't forget to read the author's note at the front.) I love stories of children interacting with their grandparents. And I love the idea of passing on family stories. The illustrations are marvelous. Every picture glows with light, and feels like a snapshot of a memory.

Crow Call
Written by Lois Lowry
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Ages: 4 and up
Publisher: Scholastic Press

  Liz is going hunting for crows with her stranger father who just returned from the war. It is the story of a little girl and her father connecting in a real way, which resonates with all children (and their parents). It is based on the true experiences of the author. My girls loved this story. They could relate because their daddy takes them on daddy-daughter dates all the time, and they love that connection time with him.
  Again, a beautiful pairing of art to story. The colors work so well for the hesitancy and awkwardness that both of the characters may be feeling, as well as the time period in which the story is set. And the facial expressions are wonderful. The illustrations feel so hopeful, which captures the essence of the story perfectly.

Written by Donna Jo Napoli
Illustrated by Jim LaMarche
Ages: 4 and up
Publisher: Harcourt Trade Publishers

  Fearful Albert can always find a reason not to go outside. Then one day when he sticks his hand out the window to check the weather, a twig falls in his hand. In shock and surprise he watches as two cardinals build their nest in his hand. And the experience will change his life forever.
  My girls, while recognizing how absurd Albert's situation was, were thoroughly delighted by this book. They both laughed at and empathized with some of Albert's fears, and they rejoiced when he was finally set free.
The illustrations are so wonderful. I think Jim LaMarche captured Albert perfectly. We oohed and aahed over the pictures. And the girls were fascinated by the fact that they were rendered in colored pencil. Oh, to have talent like that!

Can you think of other picture books featuring birds that will aid our "obsession"?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mini Reviews of Some of My Girls' Favorite Picture Books

Owl Babies
Written by Martin Waddell; Illustrated by Patrick Benson

Three little baby owls are left home alone while their mother goes to hunt for food. When she is gone longer than they expect, they worry about whether she will come home. It is a warm, sweet story, beautifully illustrated, that addresses the fear every child has about whether Mama is coming back. Our family adores this book. Even my husband, crusty curmudgeon that he is, loves this book, and gets a little weepy at its powerfully simple text. The illustrations are perfect for the story. They set the tone of the book, and create an anxious feel while at the same time making you want to scoop the owls up and cuddle them.

The Best Nest
Author/Illustrator: P.D. Eastman

This beloved story chronicles the mis-adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Bird in their search for the"perfect" house. I remember loving this book when I was little. My mom gave us a copy of the book when my oldest was 6 months old, and it has been a favorite in our household ever since. In fact, it is so well loved that we are on our second copy. As the mama reader, I'm sick to death of it, but only because I've read it umpteen million times. It never gets old for my kids though.

Author/Illustrator: Barbara McClintock

The illustrations for this version are so much fun to look at, very detailed. Karina pours over these pictures frequently, looking for all the detail. Last night she said in delight, "Look, there's the fairy godmother!" pointing to her almost hidden self in the last page of the book. All of Barbara McClintock books are a treat; check them out if you haven't already. (Another of hers frequently checked out of the library by my girls is Dahlia.) 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Reading Aloud - The "Secret" to Reading Success

  I am a passionate believer in the necessity and power of reading aloud to children. One of my earliest memories of my mother is of sitting snuggled into her arm as she read aloud to me before bed. I was three years old. My mother read aloud to me until I was 14 years old. Too old, you say? NEVER, I say.

  Reading aloud is, in my experience, the most important way to ensure a child's reading success. 

Reading stories aloud from an early age exposes children to the rhythm and cadence of purposeful, deliberate, spoken language - to the magical flow of language. It exposes them to a vocabulary and way of using words that they might not hear in their everyday verbal interactions. 
  Reading aloud makes them excited about books and stories. For this reason, reading aloud is one of -if not the best way to help a struggling reader.
  You can always spot a child who has not been read to. They read with no expression, in a choppy manner, showing no understanding of how the sentences they are reading should sound. They have no comprehension of the flow of language. To children who have never been read to, the words on the page are just that: words, to be struggled through. And I'm not talking here of just-beginning-to-read children. Children who are just beginning to read on their own will sound wooden until they get to be more proficient, then the exposure to the flow of the words will kick in - if they've had that exposure in the form of being read aloud to.

  Generally, as our children age and life gets busier, reading aloud stops. For some families it stops as soon as the child learns to read aloud themselves. What a tragedy! There are wonderful benefits from reading aloud into the teen years.

  Reading aloud can expose children to stories that are too advanced for their reading level, stories that would be too discouraging to try on their own. 

My mother started reading The Lord of the Rings series to me when I was nine. And I loved it. It led me to turn right around and read it for myself once we were done. Before that, the size of the books and the complexity of language seemed too beyond me. But reading them aloud changed my perception of "too difficult".

  Reading stories out loud that have tougher emotional issues lets you control their exposure to those issues in a safe environment. 

It gives them the "experience" without the negative consequences, and can serve as a memory when faced with real-life situations. The story can prompt some great discussions that would be too awkward to bring up under normal circumstances.

  Reading aloud can expose your kids to book options that they would normally never consider. 

I'm thinking here of my own experience with not wanting to read "boy" books, until I was read some great stories aloud. Likewise, boys exposed to "girl" stories from a young age might not turn their noses up later in life at books with girl protagonists. (No guarantees!)
  In our case, I feel it's important to read books with male protagonists because my girls don't have brothers. So it helps give them the experience of the young male perspective that they're not getting in real life.
  This also helps with subject matter that you know they wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole on their own (e.g. historical fiction), but they'll accept it readily if it's read aloud, and probably end up seeking out other books on the subject. Or not. But at least you know they've been exposed to it.

  Reading aloud creates warm and wonderful memories, and can increase the power of corresponding experiences. 

Those of you who have been read aloud to can utter a hearty amen to this.  

  Reading aloud to your pre-teen and teen can help you all slow down and connect again, even for a brief time, over a shared experience. 

And what parent can't use more bonding time with their teen? If you haven't been doing it, it may feel odd at first, but trust me, despite any awkwardness or indifference they may display, secretly they will like it.

  And last but not least - 

Reading aloud lets you share your love of books with your children.

  Can you think of other benefits of reading aloud that I haven't mentioned? I'd love to hear your experiences with reading aloud.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Book Review: The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

 The Willoughbys
Written by Lois Lowry

 I had no idea what I was getting into when I borrowed this book from the library. I have been trying to read as many Lois Lowry books as I can get my hands on. So to that end, I ordered this sight unseen from the website, and picked it up when they called me. (LOVE that service!)
 On the cover, at the bottom I read, "A NOVEL Nefariously Written & Ignominiously Illustrated by the Author." That should give you a clue as to the tone of this book. The summery of the inside jacket flap reads:
"Shouldn't we be orphans?" one of the Willoughby children suggests one day. The four are, after all, part of an old-fashioned kind of family, and their parents - well, their parents are not all one would hope for.
Recalling literary heroes and heroines such as Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna, and James and the Giant Peach, the Willoughbys concoct a diabolical plot to turn themselves into worthy and winsome orphans. Little do they know that Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby have already begun to formulate their own thoroughly despicable plan inspired by another favorite bedtime story: the tale of Hansel and Gretel...
From cover to cover this book was a delight for me to read. It is a satire of an "old-fashioned story", full of dastardly plots and nefarious characters, with many surprising twists and turns that touch on common themes in classic children's stories. It is the many references to these classic stories that make the inside joke of this book that much funnier.
  It's not a book that everyone will enjoy. The characters in this book are not very lovable (with the exception of baby Ruth), but you're not meant to love them. It would make a fun read-aloud book (just read it first and know your children.)
  I have to point out some funnier parts of the book that might be overlooked: the Glossary and Bibliography at the end. Please, PLEASE read them. They are hilarious! Ms. Lowry's definitions are a riot, for example:
IGNOMINIOUS means shamefully weak and ineffective. Oliver Twist saying "Please sir, might I have some more?" would be ignominious, except that he isn't shameful, just sort of pathetic. This book has ignominious illustrations. They are shamefully weak because the person who drew them is not an artist.
Her summaries of the books she makes reference to in her story are also funny.

And then go to the back flap and read the about-the-author blurb. Okay, never mind, I'll quote it here because I love it.
Influenced in her childhood by a mother who insisted on surrounding her with books instead of roller skates and jump ropes, Lois Lowry grew up lacking fresh air and exercise but with a keen understanding of plot, character, and setting. Every morning she opened the front door hoping to find an orphaned infant in a wicker basket. Alas, her hopes were always dashed and her dreams thwarted. She compensates by writing books. Today she is a wizened, reclusive old woman who sits hunched over her desk thinking obsessively about the placement of commas.
Ms. Lowry, thank you for the laughs.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Book Review: The Flag Maker by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; illustrated by Claire A. Nivola

The story of the flag that came to be known as The Star-Spangled banner, told from the perspective of the flag maker's daughter.

The prose is poetic. Ms. Bartoletti inserts snippets of phrases from Francis Scott Key's poem into the text, and it was fun to watch my girls make that connection as we read. Here is an example from the book:
Evening came.
The sky darkened with storm.
Rain fell.
Soon thunder and lightening joined the cannon and rockets.
Ships and fort and sky boomed and flashed together.
Each time the sky lit up, Caroline saw that her flag was still there.
At midnight, the bombing stopped.
One minute.
Ten minutes.
An hour, and all was still.
Included at the end is an author's note, which my children insisted on reading. (I've trained them well.) She lists some excellent sources that we will be taking advatage of to learn more about the subject. The author tells at the back of her book that her inspiration for this story came from seeing the flag displayed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. She says, "Awestruck, I wondered whose hands had sewn such an enormous flag. When I learned that a thirteen-year-old girl named Caroline Pickersgill had helped her mother, Mary, sew the flag, I wanted to tell their story." And she has, beautifully.

I love the illustrations by Claire A. Nivola. I think they fit the story perfectly. They remind me of early American sewing samplers.

This book was a definite hit with my three girls and it was a treat to read aloud. Even my three-year old listened intently to the story, and pointed out various things in the illustrations. We liked it so much we purchased it for our own library.

Educational Themes: War of 1812, Battle of Baltimore (1814), Star-Spangled Banner, America's History, Stories about real people

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Book Review: Thornspell by Helen Lowe

From the back cover of my Yearling paperback edition:
"Prince Sigismund has grown up hearing fantastical stories about enchantments and faie spells, basilisks and dragons, knights-errant and heroic quests. He'd love for them to be true - he's been sheltered in a country castle for most of his life and longs for adventure - but they're just stories. Or are they?
  From the day that a mysterious lady in a fine carriage speaks to him through the castle gates, Sigismund's world starts to shift. He begins to dream of a girl wrapped, trapped, in thorns. He dreams of a palace, utterly still, waiting. He dreams of a man in red armor, riding a red horse - and then suddenly that man arrives at the castle!
  Sigismund is about to learn that sometimes dreams are true. That the world is both more magical and more dangerous than he imagined. And that the heroic quest he imagined for himself as a boy...begins now." 

  First of all, what a great cover! The artist is Antonio Javier Caparo. I love good cover art.
  This debut novel by Helen Lowe is a clever re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty: it's the prince's story. I love this about the book. In the traditional stories, the prince, while playing a major role, gets very little page time, so his part seems almost incidental. I loved that that this story was all about the prince, and his training to fulfill his role.  I love the role the princess played in here as well, even though she wasn't in it a lot. (I can't say too much without spoiling it for you.) The premise of the story is very creative, and the story has depth and complexity; I love the plot. Her characters are well done, and in the end I was sorry to say goodbye to them.
  Having said that, it was sometimes hard for me to stay focused on the story. It took a long time to get it finished because I kept putting it down. It dragged in quite a few places with too much wordiness; weighed down by too much description. Despite this, I was definitely interested enough in the story that I didn't want to give up on it, and I'm glad I didn't. I will be reading her next book with enthusiasm.