Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Night Fairy

Written by Laura Amy Schlitz,

illustrated by Angela Barrett

Candlewick Press, 2010

$16.99, ages 9-12, 128 pages.

After a feisty young fairy loses her wings, she tries to coax other creatures into carrying her on their backs until a hummingbird teaches her that not everyone has to do what she wants.

In this delightful tale by Newbery Medal winner Schlitz, a bat pup on the hunt for food mistakes a night fairy named Flory for a moth and bites her wings, sending her falling from the sky onto a cherry tree.

Crushed and aching, Flory's wings are beyond repair, but Flory is a nimble little thing and manages to crawl up into an abandoned nesting box higher in the tree and hole up inside until she can figure out what do.

Though just shy of three months old, Flory is headstrong and doesn't take long to decide what to do, and since she now thinks bats are horrid creatures, she wants to get as far away from them as she can.

Too young to cast a spell to grow new wings, Flory must find a way to live in the woods so that she won't be preyed upon by bats and decides to switch her waking hours from night to day.

But being a day fairy isn't easy when you're born for nighttime -- the sunshine makes Flory's eyes water and dries her skin -- yet Flory is used to making do and with the exception of bats, isn't afraid of much.

Like all night fairies, Flory was fledged just seven days after she was born and never had anyone to guide her -- mother fairies don't look after their young, so it's up to fairy babes to make their way in the world, which forces them to be intrepid.

Now that she can see what daytime looks like, Flory is taken in by the blue of the sky, and the colors and energy of a garden below. The garden belongs to a giant, and though day fairies fear giants, she doesn't feel a bit intimidated by her, and the giant, who seems small for a giant, seems oblivious to Flory.

But Flory still has a big problem. Given that she's only as tall as an acorn, gathering food by foot would be slow and arduous, so Flory decides she must get another creature to take her where she needs to go and in no time at all, Flory finds a squirrel do just that.

At first the squirrel startles her, sniffing around the nesting box, but Flory discovers she can tame him with a stinging spell and cajoles him into carrying her on his head to a feeder that he can't get into. In exchange, Flory shares the seeds she frees from the tube.

Soon, Flory thinks of all kinds of deals she can make with the squirrel, whom she names Skuggle, such as getting him to gnaw off a thorn in exchange for her spearing suet for him to eat -- though she isn't terribly kind to him.

The squirrel is also very single-minded and would have eaten Flory had she not provided him with food.

Still, the two are growing accustomed to each other. Since Flory doesn't have other night fairies to teach her manners and since Skuggle doesn't have manners to teach Flory, the two don't seem to mind the other being rude.

In fact, they've grown quite accustomed to each other, perhaps even friendly, though neither knows what that means.

But Flory isn't satisfied riding a big lumbering squirrel. She wants to ride on the back of a hummingbird -- a graceful ride with wings that quiver in the air -- though she knows that hummingbirds are known to be aloof, even nasty.

Flory decides to hang out at a hummingbird feeder to get their attention, but is ignored by one bird after the next until one day something horrible happens and she gets her chance to force one of them to shuttle her around.

To her surprise, the hummingbird refuses to make a deal with Flory and challenges the fairy to do what's right.

Any child who's ever wished she was small enough to scamper among the branches of a tree will adore this story, and be warmed by the lessons Flory learns: to act with kindness and be willing to forgive, even if you're afraid to at first.

Schlitz, a librarian most of her life, won the 2008 Newbery for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, while Angela Barrett illustrated the breathtaking 2007 remake of Paul Gallico's classic tale The Snow Goose and Max Eilenberg's 2006 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Taking a Break from Technology: How-Tos For Making Your Own Fun

Do you ever feel like your computer has a magnetic pull on your kids? Or that if you looked closely enough while they played Xbox, you might see their eyes spiral?

Don't get me wrong, technology is wonderful and the better our kids get at using it, the more prepared they'll be when it's time to send them out into the world.

But wouldn't it be nice if they weren't quite so smitten with all these gadgets? If the simple stuff we did as kids -- carving soap bars, building Popsicle stick houses and pushing trucks over dirt piles all afternoon -- made our kids as satisfied?

While many of us limit how long our kids stay on gaming systems, cutting them off can be brutal. The hold these things have on them -- the adrenaline they fuel -- can leave them overstimulated when their allotted time is up.

To help ease them back into doing things that require more initiative, I've spotlighted two great guides that are filled with crafts and games that many of us did as kids, but that our kids may not have had a chance to get to.

How to Do Nothing With Nobody All Alone By Yourself

by Robert Paul Smith, illustrated by Elinor Goulding Smith

Tin House Books, reissued 2010

Ages 9-12, $14.95, 132 pages

This classic 1958 guide reintroduces kids to those natural urges they have to turn random objects into crazy great stuff, like thread spools into army tanks and peach pits into turtles.

Readers will love that everything in this book was invented by kids and passed along by kids, that nothing costs money to make and that each of the projects is a seat-of-the-pants creation.

At one time or another, every idea in this book came from a kid who decided to make something for no real reason other than he had a whim and he went with it.

"There are no classes to learn these things, no teachers to teach them, you don't need any help from your mother or your father or anybody," Smith writes. "The rule about this book is there's no hollering for help."

But just some caution. This isn't a book for the younger ones. A chapter's worth is dedicated to a pocket knife lesson in mumbly-peg, a game of skill in which you flip a Boy Scout knife off and over your hands, and later Smith shows how to turn a forked branch into a slingshot and fashion a rubber-band gun.

Don't worry, though, this isn't a reckless how-to; it's just very 1950s. From the get-go, Smith talks straight to the reader: "Once you have built them my way, you may find a better way to build them, but first time, do them the way it says."

Parents may want to review safety rules, however, and if they're feeling nostalgic for their childhood days of whittling away at this or that, don't miss the introduction by the NPR Weekend Edition's literary detective Paul Collins.

Best Parts: Having plucked many pussy willow buds on my way to elementary school and imagined them to be little furry creatures, I was particularly drawn to Smith's lesson on how to turn them into fluffy bees with paper, a pen and a dab of glue.

The Girl Mechanic: Classic Crafts, Games & Toys to Build

The Editors of Popular Mechanics

Hearst Books, 2009

Ages 9-12, $9.95, 240 pages.

This clever how-to, compiled from early editions of Popular Mechanics magazine, is packed with so many fantastical projects your girls won't know where to begin.

With more than 100 time-tested project to choose from, they'll be flipping with glee from one page to the next, then rummaging through recycling boxes and closets for parts to get started.

Though some crafts, like a pixie bank made from a mailing tube can be done on their own, many of the crafts like a tea party serving cart are elaborate and will require adult skills and ingenuity.

Frequently, the directions are limited to a diagram with measurements and a short write-up, and seem meant more as a starting point then a detailed how-to.

But that's part of what makes this book so charming. It inspires girls to put their own spin on projects, and encourages parents and girls to figure out things together and try something new.

While a few of the projects are familiar, like cutting a five-pointed star from paper or making favors out of paper tubes, most you won't find in a typical kid's craft book.

For example, there are directions to turn a wooden frame into a loom for weaving rags into rugs, convert a cardboard box into a geometric drawing machine with gears similar to a Spirograph, cast bookends from their hands with plaster and even build a bamboo cage for a wooden bird.

The grandest projects (and perhaps the most alluring) are a dollhouse mansion with working elevator (and tiny fine furnishings), miniature golf course, jointed wooden pony, wooden merry-go-round and Venetian swing.

If your child happens to be a boy, check out these other great books in the series, The Boy Mechanic: 200 Classic Things to Build and The Boy Mechanic Makes Toys: 159 Games, Toys, Tricks and Other Amusements.

Best Parts: I particularly loved the section "Entertaining Toy Time," which shows how to transform a broomstick into a wooden man on a string and build a scooter from blocks of wood, old roller skate wheels and a door hinge.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Heart and the Bottle

Written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

Philomel Books, 2010

$17.99, ages 4 and up, 32 pages

When the one person who understands her most passes away, a girl closes her heart up in a bottle so it can't be hurt anymore, only to realize years later that life is too empty without it.

As you read Jeffers's amazing story, you feel the girl's heart filling with joy, then draining with sadness and finally finding solace as she navigates through the pain of loss to find a way to start over.

Achingly beautiful and a must for any child or adult confronting grief, the story opens with the girl at the happiest she can be, devouring every magical thing about life, and sharing her excitement with an aging man who we assume is her grandpa.

The man with the cane is always available to her, watching patiently as she marvels at a flower in the woods and listening as she explodes with thoughts of swimming with a whale or wonders aloud whether a boat could slide off the earth into the universe.

On one page, the man sits in his big armchair, fielding the questions that seem to burst out of her, and on another, he lays beside her under a canopy of stars, pointing to the big dipper as the girl imagines a shooting star is a flaming bee streaking across the sky.

At times, no words pass between them. They just are -- the man in a row boat and the girl floating nearby on her back in the water, taking in the wonders around them.

Then one day, the girl draws a picture of the whale she longs to swim with and races over to the big chair to share it with the man, but the chair is empty.

There is a permanence to the emptiness and she knows the man has passed away.

The girl sits motionless, staring at the chair as the sky outside fades to night and only a stream of moonlight fills the room. The picture lays forgotten on the floor behind her.

Unsure of how to go on, the girl withdraws within herself, closing her heart up in a bottle to keep it safe.

Though her heart is never far from her (the bottle hangs around her neck), it is far enough that she doesn't have to feel anything and for awhile this seems to work for her.

But in truth the girl has lost more than she realizes.

Now grown, she no longer notices the stars or the sea, or much of anything except the bottle, which has grown heavy and awkward around her neck. Yet she accepts the burden because she thinks her heart is safe.

Then one day the woman happens along a little girl on the beach building a castle out of sand. The little girl wonders aloud if an elephant could swim in the sea and suddenly it occurs to the woman what she must do.

Jeffers's book pulls you in, but never overwhelms you with sadness; it leaves you feeling that you too can get through the worst and continue on.

His art style, so spare and gentle, tempers the sorrow that unfolds, while the symbolism in the book resonates -- the empty chair in a darkening room, the bottle that protects the girl's heart from being hurt anymore.

Jeffers seems to want us to know from the very start that this is a book for everyone, describing the girl as being "much like any other" on the first page.

A good companion to Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake's Sad Book, The Heart and the Bottle is for anyone who has felt the loss of someone dear and anyone who has yet to feel grief but may need help one day finding her way back.

Don't miss the book trailer below of Jeffers talking about his artwork, previous books and the origins of The Heart and the Bottle, which will be featured in the independent film This Beautiful Fantastic, scheduled to begin filming this year.

Other wonderful books by Jeffers include The Way Back Home, The Incredible Book Eating Boy and Lost and Found.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wendel's Workshop

Written and illustrated by Chris Riddell

Katherine Tegen Books, 2010

$16.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages

Wendel the inventor gets so distracted making devices that he doesn't think about all of the stuff he throws away in this clever book about reusing what you have even if it's less than perfect.

When one of Wendel's inventions has a glitch, the eccentric mouse scoots it to the back of his workshop or dumps it through a chute, jettisoning it to the scrap yard outside. And for a time, the rubbish is easy to ignore.

But one day, the mountains of scrap metal begin to close in on Wendel and he can no longer avoid all of the springs, levers and bolts piling up in his workshop. So Wendell sets to work building a robot to deal with the mess for him.

As with many first tries, his robot, Clunk, isn't quite right. The thing is, he's a goof. Instead of folding clothes, he knots them. Rather than stacking teacups in the cupboard, he tosses them in a sock drawer. And when he washes floors he scrubs with the wrong end of the mop.

So, of course, Wendel reverts to what he's always done. He gets rid of his failed invention, tossing the ungainly Clunk through the rubbish chute. Poor Clunk. He is after all a well-meaning galoot.

Being an inventor, the wheels in Wendel's head continue to spin and right away he sets off to contrive a bigger, better robot. This one doesn't have Clunk's goofy grin and looks like an imperial metal mouse. His ears are made of satellite dishes, his eyes glow red and Wendell names him "Wendelbot."

But Wendelbot works a little too perfectly. He crushes Wendel's dirty teacups into a neat pile of powder, flattens the laundry basket and suddenly he's chasing down Wendel and dropping him from his tail into the chute. (To be fair, Wendel is looking a little disheveled -- his hair is tousled and his overalls droop.)

Wendel lands at the tip-top of the scrap heap outside, dazed by his predicament, but soon he's roused by the sound of Clunk climbing around in the junk pile. Grabbing Clunk's skinny metal leg, Wendel hugs him will all of his might.

As the sounds of Wendelbot bashing about grow louder, Wendel turns to Clunk to help him stop the giant robo mouse. But what use could all of this rubble in the yard be to Wendel?

Riddell's illustrations are always so energetic and imaginative that even before you open his books, you know you're in for a treat. And this one is no exception. It's quirky, lively and fun, and on top of that it teaches two great lessons:

Whenever possible, find new uses for things you ordinarily throw away, and keep plugging away at whatever you like to do, even if it doesn't quite work at first and needs adjustments along the way.

I loved that Riddell chose a mouse for the part of Wendel, given that mice are such inquisitive busy-bodies and that he poked fun at the stereotype of inventors as dogged recluses that insist their contraptions will make life easier.

And as always, I was taken in by Riddell's whimsical illustrations -- I can't think of a better artist to contrive robots. I loved that my 6-year-old son carried this book around with him all day, drawing his own version of mechanical guys with plunger legs and articulated steel fingers.

As a side note, if you ever have a chance to go to a Riddell book signing, bring your kids. He's a generous illustrator and will often draw quick pen sketches of his characters for kids to take home. All three of our boys have framed their's and are bursting to draw like their buddy Chris.