Monday, August 30, 2010

Elsie's Bird

By Jane Yolen
Illustrated by David Small
$17.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

Worried she'll lose herself in the silence of the prairie, Elsie hides away in her Nebraska house until a pet canary gives her the courage to reach out to the wild world around her.

In this stellar collaboration by Caldecott winners Yolen and Small, a motherless girl is uprooted from the only home she knows and learns to connect to a new way of life by opening her senses to the subtle sounds of the grasslands.

Elsie never wanted to leave her home in Boston. She loved the raucous sound of gulls, the clop of horse hooves and the trill of city song birds. With pigtails flying, she would jump rope and sing the birds' songs back to them.

But after Elsie's mama died, Papa couldn't shake his sadness. He longed to get away from Boston and any reminders of what used to be, so he tells Elsie, his only child, that they will head west to find happiness again.

Elsie, however, isn't anxious to leave and she's surprised by how far they have to travel by train. As one day of travel slips into another, Elsie worries about what awaits her and wonders if she should have stayed behind with her grandparents.

But having lost her mother, Elsie couldn't have parted from Papa. So she tries to focus on her canary, Timmy Tune, who sings to her from his birdcage, though even he can't distract her from the clack of train wheels, which seems to go on and on.

When they finally arrive in Nebraska, their sod home is 10 miles from any town and looks as lonely as Elsie feels. "Here there is only grass and sky and silence," she writes to Nana and Nonny. At night the only thing Elsie hears is her own crying.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Off to a Flying Start! Back-to-School 2010

(from "Swarm" in Laura Purdie Salas's Stampede!)
If your kids are like ours, they're giddy to be back at school, but jittery about what to expect. There's so much for them to take in and as parents, we want to jump in and make everything go perfectly.

Of course, we have to let our kids feel out a lot of things for themselves. But a little nudge from us -- subtly done -- can go a long way to fuel their confidence and excitement for school.

One of my favorite things is to slip my kids books to ease them into new social situations and make a subject fun. So this fall I've selected 11 books below to help you help your kids feel bright-eyed and happy to learn.

Alphabeasties and other Amazing Types

by Sharon Werner and Sarah Foss
$19.99, ages 4-8, 56 pages

Gulp. Don't look now. There's an alligator made up of hundreds of letter "A's" swimming across the page.

And isn't that a giraffe shaped by elongated "g's" folding out from the top and bottom of another?

In this clever book, readers visit a zoo of animals made entirely of the first letter of the animal's name and learn to recognize every letter of the alphabet in a variety of typefaces -- from "K's" that look as puffy as clouds to "L's" that twirl like lassos.

Along the way they discover how to turn letters into doodles and practice sounding out the first letters of the names of each drawing.

My favorite alphabet doodles: Using "mm" to make a "moustache" below a balding fellow's nose and "T's" to fill in a boy's mouth with "teeth" (with a few missing in between).

The book ends with an encouraging note to readers to come up with their own typeface and letter animal for the alphabeastie zoo.

Alphabeasties Amazing Activities

By Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss
$12.99, ages 6 and up, 64 pages
Our buddy the alligator is eating some odd things that start with the letter "A" and it's up to you to write them down before he gobbles them up.

In this delightful hands-on companion to the Alphabeasties picture book, readers practice their letters and numbers, and even count change, without ever realizing they're working out their brain.

On one page, children are asked to write capital "H's" to fill in a man's hair. On another, they search for "J's" in pictures, include one pair masked as a girl's legs as she jumps for joy.

There are also letter mazes, words to unscramble, tic-tac toes, animals to fill in with the first letter of their name and more than 300 letter stickers to design characters, including an S-shaped snowman.

My favorite worksheets: a page of letters in different typefaces for kids to color in with faces and a page to make thumbprint pictures that start with the letter "T."

Ants in Your Pants: Color + Draw + Read + Write Activity Book

by Yukiko Kido
$12.99, ages 4-8, 80 pages

Smiling faces leap off the page of this charming learn-to-spell workbook.

Ants in Your Pants is a great tie-in to Kido's clever word books, which show by a flip of the page how changing one letter in a word can change what the word means.

Bold, sweet graphics of children and animals, combined with simple word-forming exercises, help kids build their vocabulary using 11 spelling patterns.

Children fill in missing letters in words ending with ig, ug, at, ake, ate, et, oat, ant, op, ow and am, then complete pictures about the words with their own drawings.

Kido's other learn-to-read books include Flip-a-Word Snake Cake and Flip-a-Word: Snow Bow.

How Rocket Learned to Read

Written and illustrated by Tad Hills
$17.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages.

One look at the fluffy puppy holding this book on the title page and you'll be headed to the checkout line.

Hills, author of the beloved Duck & Goose books, returns with a sweet, gentle story about a sheepdog named Rocket who discovers that learning to read can be as fun as chasing sticks.

One day while napping under a tree posted with a sign he can't read, Rocket is startled by an enthusiastic yellow bird who wants to teach him to read.

At first Rocket is reluctant to be in her class and even a little annoyed when the bird sings a story aloud while he's trying to rest. But soon he's following her every word.

The story is "as delicious as the earthy smells of fall," and soon the bird is teaching him the alphabet and the sounds each letter makes. Together they spell the sound they hear, his growl, the whoosh of the wind.

But not long after Rocket learns to spell F-A-L-L, the bird announces it's time for her to fly south, then cheerfully reminds him to continue to spell until she returns in the spring.

But how will he practice his letters now? And will his tail ever be as waggy again?

This lovely book shows the power of gentle encouragement and captures the wondrous feeling of seeing letters transformed into words.

Balloon Toons: Adopt a Glurb

Written and illustrated by Elise Gravel
$10.99, age 4-8, 40 pages

If your child goes gaga over Gogos Crazy Bones or thinks Uglydolls are awesome, here's a graphic book he won't want to put down.

The star of this early reader is a self-assured little monster who wants to be the reader's pet and insists he's as easy to care for as a dog or cat.

But there's a catch. If you don't take good care of the "glurb," he turns into a little rascal.

The glurb has been known to stretch his mouth with his toes and waggle his tongue when he's not getting enough attention, and bite your fingernail when he's scared.

He'll also hide when he's naughty, whine when he doesn't get enough cuddles, pluck your eyebrows when you're asleep and unroll the toilet paper just for fun.

Still there's a lot to be said for getting a glurb. He loves to be tickled on the belly, ride on the tops of your shoes -- and having one is hardly enough.

Or is it?

Silly and fun, this fast-paced guide to raising a pet monster will have readers wishing for a persnickety glurb of his own.

Other great books in the Balloon Toons series include Rick & Rack and The Great Outdoors by Ethan Long, and The Super Crazy Cat Dance by Aron Nels Steinke.

Dick and Jane and Vampires

By Laura Marchesani
Illustrated by Tommy  Hunt
$9.99, ages 4-8, 144 pages

Dick, Jane and…a guy with fangs?

You're probably doing a double take and wondering, is this for real?

So did I until I read it with my 6-year-old son and realized how absurdly well this shadowy fellow fits in.

In this off-beat redo, a "Twilight" twist on the early reader, Dick, Jane and little sister Sally keep seeing signs of something mysterious around their house and yard.

First they see a bat flutter over the fence, then Jane's shadow becomes a stiff, caped silhouette of a man, and soon they're seeing glimpses of a white face with red eyelids under the bed.

As readers progress through the familiar word building sentences of "Look, Jane. Look, Dick," the three perfectly behaved children discover that a lonely vampire wants to join them in their play.

Soon Mom and Dad can see the dapper vampire too and are happily having him over for play dates. But wouldn't a vampire be happier playing with someone closer to his own tooth size?

Hilariously subtle, this newest addition to the classic reader charms you as it seamlessly merges the most unlikely mix of characters.

Kindergarten Cat

By J. Patrick Lewis
Illustrated by Ailie Busby
$16.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

When Kindergarteners find a tabby in their classroom, they think she's as cute as a raggedy doll but assume she could never be as smart as them until the cat shows everyone how clever she is.

The teacher is the first to spot the cat curled up by a broom, and right away the children want to name her, "Tinker Toy," and call out to her all at once to sit by them during reading circle.

As Tinker Toy snuggles in with Mikaela on her carpet square, the kids point out all the things they think the cat can't do -- including read and add two plus two. Then one boy suggests cats are better at sleeping or chasing their tails.

But their teacher, a smiley woman with bouncy blonde hair, tells them that anyone can learn if they're just given a chance, and begins to draw a picture on the dry erase board, then asks if they knows what animal it is.

Before any of the children can answer, Tinker purrs out a rhyme that has everyone staring at her in surprise.

"Why, little Tinker Toy," / Teacher said, "she's a whiz! / She's a Thinker Tinker Toy / Kind of cat, she is."

Lewis's rhyming read-aloud will having little readers wishing with all their might for a stray to slip into class overnight.

Stampede! Poems to Celebrate the Wild Side of School

By Laura Purdie Salas
illustrated by Steven Salerno
$16, ages 4-8, 32 pages

Does your child ever feel like a mouse in a maze trying to find class? Or does he go whole hog stomping through puddles on the way to school?

In this rollicking collection of rhymes, Salas relates a child's experiences at school to characteristics of animals and along the way captures how a child feels deep inside.

"Playground Sparrows" evokes the exhilaration of letting loose on recess and how abruptly free time can come to an end.

"In one wave, we fly the coop. / We flood the field, we slide the loop. / We flock together, shout and whoop. / Then the school bell rings, and -- / no / more / group!"

Salas is also good at describing embarrassing moments that sneak up from behind.

In "Blush," a girl hears a whisper spreading through school that someone has a crush on her and suddenly she can feel her cheeks burn and the urge to run, as she blazes away like a cardinal.

Other poems compare a child's hunger at lunchtime to a dog pouncing on food and echo a boy's frustration with his penmanship, as he looks down and sees chicken scratch where letters should be.

In school, there are so many things to think about, from rules for walking down the hall to what your classmates think of you, and Salas seems to know each one.

This is a great book for deflating children's worries about school and showing them that everyone feels like they do at one time.

Princess Posey and the First Grade Parade

By Stephanie Greene
Illustrated by Stephanie Roth Sisson
$12.99, ages 5-8, 96 pages.

Posey is so jittery about First Grade at Middle Pond School she wants to curl up into a ball and be a baby again.

She doesn't like the idea of being dropped off at the Kiss-and-Go-Lane, and now Nick and Tyler are trying to convince her that a monster lurks in the blue hall at school.

Posey knows they're teasing, but she can't shake the image of a monster sucking her blood.

Making things worse, Posey is not allowed to wear to school the one thing that makes her feel brave, her princess tutu.

But why not?

In this charming new series for newly independent readers, Posey inspires her teacher to bend the rules just once and help everyone in class feel more courageous.

The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School

By Candace Fleming
$15.99, ages 7-11, 176 pages

Only one adult is willing to take on the crazy fifth-grade kids at Aesop Elementary: their teacher from last year, Mr. Jupiter, a wry fellow who appreciates what it means to be different.

But how will Mr. Jupiter get through to kids who've driven every other teacher at Aesop up the wall? Will one man's pain truly be another man's pleasure, as the moral goes?

In this hilarious followup to the 2007 hit The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, Mr. Jupiter's class returns a year later, but with as many quirks as ever.

Through 12 laugh-out-loud fables, Fleming follows the crazy adventures of these unique yet relatable 10-year-olds as they learn to do weird body tricks, conjure up a rain storm and care for a pet Burmese guinea pig with a melodious "eek."

Fleming's fast-paced sequel celebrates the adventure of learning, or as Mr. Jupiter would say, "doing boldly what you do at all."

Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf

By Jennifer L. Holm
Pictures by Elicia Castaldi
$12.99, ages 8-12, 128 pages
Imagine a book told exclusively through a 12-year-old girl's stuff, everything from refrigerator notes to the back of her homework assignment.

In this brilliantly conceived book by Newbery Honor-winning Holm, readers sift through the life of seventh grader Ginny, reading all of the scraps of notes she's written while at home and at school.

Each note feels very personal and touches upon things that linger in her thoughts: things she wishes she could do, others she has to do, and all of the things she worries and wonders about. 

As seventh grade begins, Ginny's got a big to-do list. For one, she wants her mom to remarry. For another, she has to get the role of Sugarplum Fairy in the Nutcracker.

And then, wouldn't it be great, if just this once, she looked good in her school photo?

Ahh, the first day of school -- a fresh slate, a chance to be the kid everyone thinks is cool. But then Brian Bukvic shouts out to Ginny across the newly polished school floors, "Hey, Banana Nose!" and, well, it looks like things are the same as ever.

Or maybe, worse than she imagined. Worse than even the "gray and gristly" meatloaf in the cafeteria?

Suddenly one thing after another goes wrong. Ginny accidentally colors her hair pink, is sent to detention for throwing frogs in class and is edged out in the lead role of the recital by her ex-best friend.

It might just take a glob of dough she's molded for the science fair to turn things around. But you'll have to read the notes tacked on her bulletin board and fridge to find out...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


By Ingrid Law
$16.99, ages 8-12, 416 pages

Ledger Kale never imagined he'd turn into a human sledgehammer on his thirteenth birthday and now, unless he learns to control his power to break stuff, he could lose everything his uncle has fought so hard to save.

In this dazzling companion to the Newbery Honor-winning Savvy, Law weaves a magical tale of a boy who is "dangerously different," but learns to put aside his fears and make the most of the talent he has.

Like his cousin Mibs in Savvy, Ledge is struck by a mysterious "savvy" when he turns 13, an ability to do things no other human can --  in his case, pull things apart in bits and pieces -- for starters Dad's stop watch and nose-hair trimmer.

His dad, a gifted runner with no savvy of his own, always hoped Ledge would become supersonic fast. But when it turns out Ledge's talent is busting things up, no one is prepared for how to deal with it.

Ledge is told to keep his savvy a secret so bad folks can't use it to their advantage. But destroying stuff isn't an easy savvy to hide and with a wedding to go to at Uncle Autry's ranch, Ledge had better learn fast how to keep his cool and his savvy from getting the better of him.

Monday, August 16, 2010

David Ezra Stein Blog Tour: Day 8

Knock. knock. Who's there? Interrupting chicken. Interrup bok! bok! Interrupting Chicken, the picture book!

Welcome "bok!" to this fun 9-day tour to promote Stein's comical new book, inspired by the classic interrupting animal joke.

Some of you know this joke as the interrupting cow joke, but alas, cows don't have poofed-up combs or fuss about going to bed  -- all qualities that make the chicken in this book so charming.

Stein, who won the 2008 Ezra Jack Keats New Author Award for his picture book Leaves about a little bear who tries to reattach fallen leaves to a tree, is also the author-illustrator of Pouch!The Nice Book and Cowboy Ned & Andy.

I hope you enjoy my review, then check out my chat with Stein and click links to other great blogs on the tour.

Interrupting Chicken
Written & illustrated by David Ezra Stein
$16.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

A pert little chicken cuts into her papa's bedtime stories, then gets a taste for how it feels to be interrupted while reading aloud in this adorable picture book.

The little red chicken doesn't mean to be a bother, but whenever Papa gets to a part where something really bad is about to happen, the little red chicken can't help herself and clucks out warnings to characters.

Jumping onto the pages of Papa's fairy tale book, she first warns Hansel and Gretel not to go into the witch's candy house and later yells in Little Red Riding's face, "Don't talk to strangers!" just as the big bad wolf is about to lure her off the path.

Each time she interrupts, the story screeches to a halt and the little red chicken flashes Papa a big, sweet smile and promises if he'd just read one more little story, she'd definitely be good.

My Chat with David Ezra Stein

Jenny. Many of us at one time or another blurt things out while someone else is speaking, which can be annoying but also the source of a lot of humor -- the Interrupting Cow knock knock joke, for example, never seems to get old. What drew you to this subject and why did you know it would be funny not only to children but adults?

David. I come from a family where folks get really excited about ideas and sometimes all want to express themselves at once. So that experience is definitely in the book. :)

The real seed of this book was, I'd heard the interrupting chicken joke and thought it was funny, and I wondered, "Who is this chicken anyway? Why does it interrupt?" There was a character there waiting to be discovered.

I'm glad I heard it with a chicken first, not a cow, because chickens are funnier than cows. Moos are funny sounding, but the word cow is not that funny. The word chicken is instant comedy in and of itself!

I knew the book would be funny to a wide audience because parents can relate to the dad's growing frustration with Chicken's interruptions, and kids can relate to the exuberance of the chicken, who knows how she should be acting, but can't help herself. She loves stories too much! And she can't stand idly by while the characters in the bedtime stories get into a jam.

Jenny. I love the way the combs on the little red chicken and her papa look like bouffant hair-dos and the waffles resemble handlebar moustaches. What is it about poultry that cracks you up and is any animal as funny as a chicken? If so, which one and why does it make you laugh?

David. The chicken is the king (or queen) of comedy. (See #1 above.) The clucking, the feathers, the way they cock their heads… I would be ruining it by delving too deeply into the "why". They just are!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Patricia Reilly Giff Blog Tour - Day 3!

Zigzag Kids: Number One Kid and Big Whopper
By Patricia Reilly Giff
Illustrated by Alasdair Bright
$15.99 (per hb.) and $4.99 (pb.)
Ages 6-9, 80 pages.

As you open the first books of Giff's new series, you almost expect to see kids bound off the pages and hear the long ring of a school bell.

There's such exuberance to Giff's early readers and Zigzag Kids is no exception.

In Zigzag Kids, Giff writes about after-school care at Zelda A. Zigzag elementary -- and in such a fun and lively way, it's as if Giff became a youngster herself when she wrote it (or got inside kids' heads for a look around).

The two-time Newbery Honor-winner understands how children feel -- even their silent worries -- and is keenly aware of how they interact with each other, with plenty of "humpfs" when they're frustrated and "eee-yaaahs" when they succeed.

Like her popular Polk Street Kids books, the new series, set in the basement of the school and at times at the YMCA, appeals, in a large part, because it shows children reacting to their world just as you'd expect them to.

Giff, who taught in public schools for 20 years, captures the sincerity of children's perceptions, and in doing so, makes her characters real to the kids who are reading about them:

My Chat with Patricia Reilly Giff

Q. The "Polk Street" stories involve typical classroom situations, but "Zigzag Kids" takes place in an after-school center. Why this setting? 

A. Writing the "Polk Street" series was the happiest of times. I've always wanted to return to that world, and it was handed to me by my daughter, Laura, who with my grandson, taught in an afternoon center. What fun to explore the problems and triumphs of the young in a setting that might be less structured, more chaotic than a classroom.

Q. After-school care is in high demand now and there are a lot of interesting discussions about its impact on kids. Some say after-school programs offer kids who feel disenfranchised at school a way to blossom; others say after-school programs "overschedule" kids. Will some of these ideas be woven into your stories?

A. I do hope they'll blossom… but the path zigzags: Destiny Washington tells her arch-enemy Gina that her greatest-great grandfather was Abraham Washington … Charlie invents flying feet that just don't seem to fly. And what are those specks in the pool? Lizard eggs?

Q. Is it harder or easier to write for developing readers versus middle-grade readers?

A. I'm truly blessed because I love writing, any writing, even store lists have some interest. But as a reading teacher, I fall into writing for the Zigzag age group easily, using short sentences, frequent paragraphs, and early vocabulary.

Q. You've won the Newbery Honor for "Lily's Crossing" and "Pictures of Hollis Woods," but I'm curious, which book (or books) are you proudest of and why?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood

By Rosemary Wells
With Secundino Fernandez
Illustrated by Peter Ferguson
$17.99, ages 9-12, 72 pages

A Cuban boy aches to return to the Havana he once knew, but comes to realize that even though he can't go back, he can still keep his beloved city with him by sculpting his memories of it out of cardboard.

In this captivating true story by award-winning Wells, 10-year-old Secundino "Dino" Fernandez creates a miniature version of Havana on the floor of his New York City bedroom to ease his sadness at having to flee Cuba after dictator Fidel Castro comes to power.

Wells (Max and Ruby) was inspired to tell Dino's story after hearing him recount in a 2001 radio interview the intense homesickness he suffered 50 years ago when he emigrated to the United States with his parents, and the grit he showed by taking control of his situation.

Born with a passion for sketching buildings, "Dino" was so mesmerized as a young boy by the architectural splendor of Havana that he sketched every facade he passed, and with the help of his cousin, cut out the sketches and strung them with tape into a circle on the floor.

Together they'd sit inside the paper city and marvel at the beauty of the stone archways and the entrance to El Palace, the president's house, with its marble column.

"Until I am six years old, in 1954, my world is sweet," Wells writes on behalf of Fernandez, now an architect in New York City. "'We live in a city built by angels,' Papa says."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Owl Clock Giveaway Starts Today!

In celebration of that dear, old, gullible owl from Arnold Lobel's 1975 classic Owl at is giving away this delightful German wooden clock at Where the Best Books Are! The clock can be viewed by clicking lights then going to CSN's online clock store.

Enter now through Aug. 18, by becoming a follower of my blog (if you're already a follower, just let me know) or by sending me a comment. Share memories of Owl at Home, a storybook character you love or a fun product you spotted at (Sorry, only U.S. and Canadian residents are eligible to win.)

The Alexander Taron weight-bearing wall clock, which measures 8 inches tall by 6.75 inch wide, comes from the legendary Black Forest region, known for its hand-crafted mechanical clocks since 1640.

Resembling a Great Horned owl with tufts of feathers by its ears, the clock moves its eyes side-to-side every time a pendulum sways below its perch -- an ability that's sure to be the envy of real owls, who can't move their eyes within their sockets and instead must swivel their necks.

What drew me to this whimsical clock were its big observant eyes, set within finely painted circles of feathers. They reminded me of all the things that endear me to Owl from the early reader -- his wondrous, silly outlook, his openness to the world around him and his uncanny ability to make life more challenging for himself.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Word After Word After Word

By Patricia MacLachlan
$14.99, ages 9-12, 128 pages

When an author in feather earrings and wild hair comes to talk to a fourth-grade class about writing, the students half expect her to fly around the room, depositing words on them like bird droppings.

Ms. Mirabel isn't like any teacher they've known.  She tells them in a soft, hushed voice that words are magical things. They come to you when the time is right, whispering "word after word after word."

In this lovely little book, Newbery Award-winning MacLachlan (Sarah, Plain & Tall) goes to the heart of what she feels about writing -- that words are amazing things that can help you discover how you feel and what you need.

As the class's regular teacher sits quietly in the back of the room, Ms. Mirabel tells the students that everyone has powerful words to write and that words can change their lives.

Over the course of six weeks, five friends in the class learn to express what they couldn't before -- feelings welling up inside of them or moments that are meaningful to them but they've never shared.

Lucy, Evie, Henry, May and Russell meet everyday after class under a lilac bush in Henry's yard, as the sweet smell of pie drifts from the kitchen where his mother Junie is cooking. There they can lower their guard, lean on each other and think back on the strange and wonderful things Ms. Mirabel's has said.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Animal House

By Candace Ryan
Illustrated by Nathan Hale
$16.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

In this loopy, fun debut, a boy tries to convince his gray-haired teacher that an armchair with a powerful beak ate his homework, but fails to mention that his so-called "vulchair" also loves to munch on old ladies.

Even though Jeremy's gorilla-faced house looms large in the neighborhood, no one seems to believe that his house is any different than anyone else's, let alone that it's genetically spliced with zoo animals.

It wouldn't be a big deal, except that his animal house, with its giraffe roof and monkey chimney, is always getting Jeremy into trouble in class.

While other kids only worry about dogs eating their homework, Jeremy has an entire house that gets into mischief -- every inanimate feature, from the roof to the bed, has eyes, a mouth and appendages, not to mention natural curiosity.

As a result, Jeremy is always coming to class with his homework half-gone or missing things entirely. Take the day his "snailbox," a mailbox with a snail head jutting out the front, devoured the class plant, or the day his "shrewler," a shrew with a ruler running down its tummy, gnawed his Statue of Liberty project.

Until now, Mrs. Nuddles shrugged off Jeremy's wild excuses, saying he had an overactive imagination, but this time Jeremy's gone too far and unless Jeremy can prove to Mrs. Nuddles during a home visit that a "vulchair" really does exist, he won't be going on the class field trip.