Monday, August 31, 2009

Peaceful Heroes

By Jonah Winter and illustrated by Sean Addy

Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2009

$17.99, ages 9-12

If you ever feel like G.I. Joe or Iron Man too narrowly define your child's ideas of what makes a hero, you'll be delighted to read Winter's compelling anthology of 14 of the greatest peacemakers to ever live.

In this counterbalance to modern day violence, Winter summarizes the lives of remarkable religious and political leaders and ordinary people who challenged injustice without ever raising a fist or weapon.

Author of the acclaimed Frida and Diego, Winter begins with three of the most revered heroes of all time, Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and summarizes the stands they took and the passive ways they resisted injustice. Winter never gets into the violence of their deaths, as if to say to readers: it is the life they led and the causes they fought that define their lives -- not the horrific actions of others.

Winter then explores the contributions of lesser known heroes. Among them, Holland's Corrie ten Boom, who hid Jewish people fleeing from the Nazis; Islam's Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who resisted British rule in India and became, in Winter's words, "the greatest proof in recent history that Islam can promote peace"; Paul Rusesabagina, who turned his hotel in Rwanda into a haven for the persecuted Tutsis; and William Feehan, a 71-year-old New York City firefighter who lost his life trying to rescue people trapped in the World Trade Center after it was bombed in 2001.

There is a gentle power to Winter's text and Sean Addy's portraits. Winter writes as if he's just a chair away, talking directly to your child, while Addy juxtaposes the humanity of the heroes with the tension of their circumstances in collages that evoke hope even as they suggest danger.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of the World's Best-Kept Secrets

By John Farndon

Dorling Kindersley, 2007

$29.99, ages 10 and up

Nothing attracts a child to reading like a book titled, "Do Not Open," or one that promises to share all the crazy, wonderful stuff adults don't want kids to know about.

That's a lot to live up to, but Farndon's compendium of the world's most peculiar and mysterious facts is every bit as fun as it sounds.

Over the course of 256 pages, the best-selling author delves into 96 mysterious topics, from the truth about hoaxes to the secrets of brainwashing and safe cracking. He also gives the lowdown on bizarre mathematical patterns in nature and loopy laws that could get you locked up and how to create your very own nation and travel through time.

Adding to aura of the information being hush-hush, the book comes in a paperboard book case that's made to look like a metal lock box with painted-on rivets and lock, a window with bars, and a magnetic door enclosure.

With so many facts to choose from, a book this big might look overwhelming, but once inside Farndon gives easy tips to navigate through. At the bottom of every feature are teasers leading to related topics and their page numbers, so there's no need to flip around looking for the next interesting thing or go back and forth to the table of contents, though readers can certainly do that if they prefer. By inviting readers to read in a circuitous fashion, reading becomes an adventure. Kids sleuth through the information, rather than conform to the usual way of looking things up.

On every page inventive graphics make the facts that much more juicy and exciting. In a spread about lost treasures, kids are told true-life stories about stolen gold and jewels then given cardinal directions to fold-out windows on the opposite page that explain (or speculate) what happened to those treasures. The windows are arranged around a map that is set up like a game board, with points of reference and a grid of spaces to move on.

In another feature about reading body language, readers browse through 32 line drawings of a boy's body signals and learn which gestures suggest he is confident, ill-at-ease or lying, while half-way into the book, they come to a section about stealth technology, where the transparent body of the Northrop B-2 Spirit aircraft is superimposed over a blue sky, with breakouts explaining its invisible coating, vapor reducers, gold cockpit and more. (It doesn't get much cooler than that.)

The diversity of graphics reminds me of walking through a modern art museum. No two spreads look alike and there's always an interactive element to peak readers' interest in the facts. This is one reference book that doesn't get lost on a shelf. In fact in our 10-year-old's bedroom, few books other than DK's Cool Stuff series have been opened as much.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Big Elephant in the Room

Written and illustrated by Lane Smith

Hyperion Books, 2009

$16.99, ages 4-8

When a donkey asks his friend if they can talk about the big elephant in the room, the friend assumes he's speaking metaphorically and confesses all of the things he did behind the donkey's back but suspects he already knew about. Like the time he ate all of the ice cream in the freezer. And the time the he ran away and left the donkey with a bully.

The friend gets so carried away trying to predict which of the blunders the donkey is referring to that he doesn't give him a chance to finish what he's saying. Finally, after nearly every awkward gaffe is purged, the donkey interrupts with an exasperated, "No! No! No! I don't care about any of those things..," and points around the corner to an elephant watching cartoons in another room, "I was just asking about the big elephant in the room."

Adults will laugh at the double entendre. Of all the animals Smith could have chosen, he opted to have two donkeys, the Democratic Party symbols, talking about an elephant, the Republican Party mascot, just out of earshot.

This is one of those hilarious books that's as fun for adults to read as children. When I began it, I imagined Lane Smith nudging me in the ribs and teasing, "Come on, you know you have." And then I blushed, knowing all too well that he was right. Yes, -- on occasion -- I have avoided a subject that nobody wants to talk about, only to fret that it would one day bubble up. And as I admitted this to myself, I realized, this man is brilliant. He got me to squirm, then laugh myself silly -- all in the span of 32 pages.

Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem

By Mac Barnett and illustrated by Adam Rex

Hyperion Books, 2009

$16.99, ages 4-8

The premise of this book is sure to have parents shaking their heads, laughing: a child doesn't do what he's supposed to do so his mom, thoroughly spent on getting after him to do it, threatens a punishment so absurd that even the child knows she can't follow through on it.

But what's different about this story -- and what makes it so delicious and fun -- is that this mom actually does follow through.

From Billy Twitter's perspective, Mom is always after him -- he hasn't fixed his bed and instead of finishing his peas he's balanced them with utensils like a circus act. Then one day she goes off the deep end and threatens to get him a blue whale if he doesn't do what she says. Billy, of course, doesn't believe she'll really do it. For one, whales are bigger than any animal on the planet. "It's not like you can have one delivered to your house overnight," as Billy says.

But like other kids who've underestimated their moms, Billy is in for a surprise on the next page: a delivery truck the length of a block pulls up outside his front door with a blue whale. And now it's Billy's responsibility to take the whale wherever he goes, including to school, which means lugging it up the street behind his skateboard and taking out electric lines along the way.

And that's only the beginning of Billy's troubles. Though his teacher Mr. Wembley is delighted to see such a fabulous creature (not at all shocked, which makes this story all the more fun to believe in), Billy's classmates aren't pleased when Mr. Wembley cancels the cowboy movie he scheduled for class to talk about the whale's baleen. Soon Billy is being uninvited to a party and passed over to play kickball at recess, and just when things might turn around, classmate Tilbie Peel falls into the whale's blowhole.

Once home, Dad tells him to wash and wax his whale, check it for barnacles, wrestle it and take it to the park before heading off to the sea to find krill and seawater. But as Billy tosses buckets full of food and water into the whale's stinky mouth, he discovers one way to escape his problem is to get inside of it.

Barnett playfully reminds kids to think twice before they ignore us, while Rex brings to life the enormity of the boy's troubles with smart, quirky humor. His portrayal of child's perspective on being scolded is so spot-on, it's hilarious. Billy's mom storms toward the title page with a rain cloud for a head and later, all you see of Billy's mom and dad's faces are talking balloons where their heads should be.

This is one collaboration you won't want to miss.