Sunday, June 4, 2017

Alphabet Books, Collected (ABC)

In an earlier post, I claimed that Alison Murray's Apple Pie ABC was the only alphabet book that told a story through words in alphabetical order. In that book, a mischievous dog is tempted by the apple pie cooling on the table.

Well, I have been proven wrong by the relatively recent Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run! by Mike Twohy which also tells the story of a dog, this time one whose beloved ball rolls into a mousehole.

And then I stumbled upon Old Black Fly by Jim Aylesworth, which uses a simlar format.  He tells the story of a black fly alighting on different objects or irritating various people which start with each letter of the alphabet in order.  Those letters are in a different color, literally highlighted on the page.  With stunning, splattery, and very funny art by Stephen Gammell, as well as a gory, satisfying ending, this one's a winner. My kindergarteners sat open-mouthed (really!) while they listened to it.

I'm also looking forward to the publication of The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC's (the Hard Way) in September.  It looks like a nice addition to the genre.

Another serendipitous discovery, found among the animal books, is Jan Garten's The Alphabet Tale, this 1964 book is still fresh and appealing with delightful illustrations by Muriel Batherman. Each recto (right-hand page) shows an animal tail, with a clue in rhyming verse.  On the following page, the last word of the rhyme names the animal the tail belongs to and shows the animal in full.  Rhyming intelligent and elephant and bottomless and hippopotamus are, in my opinion, strokes of genius.

Tomorrow's Alphabet by George Shannon and illustrated by Donald Crews would be another perfect interactive guessing game if it weren't for the fact that the answer is given on the facing page, rather than after the page turn.  I resorted to covering that page with a piece of paper to remedy the problem.  Each page states that a letter is for something it is decidedly NOT, but something they can or will turn into in the future.  For example, B is for eggs, since they will hatch into birds.  My kindergarteners caught on quickly and were soon shouting out their guesses.

Normally I wouldn't pick up a book about feelings. Too gooey, too sappy, too obvious.  But I'm so glad I picked up Today I Feel... An Alphabet of Feelings.  The feelings go way beyond the usual sad, mad, glad, and the illustrations do too.

 What are your favorite alphabet books?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

And the 2018 Newbery Goes To...

You heard it here first.  The 2018 Newbery is going to go to Anne Fleming's The Goat. Set in New York City, mostly in a single apartment building, it is funny yet deep, smart yet wacky and whimsical (without being annoying), surreal yet realistic, and utterly, completely original.

It is not a typical coming-of-age story.  There is no divorce, no friendship triangles, no crushes, no school drama.  In fact, there's no school.  There is no sibling rivarly (there are no siblings).  There is no conflict between a tween and her parents, no embarrassment as they all skip to Follow the Yellow Brick Road in public.  This all makes for a nice change from the usual middle-grade chapter book fare.

There *is* an orphan and death and 9/11, but ten years on, in a totally matter-of-fact, non-tear-jerker-ish way.

There is a musical about soccer (Americanized from hockey) moms.

There is a man who's had a stroke, a blind science-fiction-writing skateboarder, and an immigrant grandmother from an unnamed country.

There is an 11-year-old girl named Kid and her parents, Lisa and Bobby, and a dog named Cat.

And yes, there is a goat.

Or is there?

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Funny Formula

As we stepped out of the subway station near Lincoln Center, as we do every Thursday, my daughter started to laugh delightedly.  It took me a minute and then I saw it: a new piece of public art, a sculpture of a hippo wearing a tutu.

When I posted the picture to Facebook and asked my friends what fictional character they thought it reminded me of, I was surprised by the number of answers.  While I had thought of Martha of George and Martha, dancing hippos are apparently everywhere - in Fantasia, in Sandra Boynton's work, and in Karma Wilson's Hilda Must Be Dancing.

Martha doing the Dance of the Happy Butterfly

George in the studio

George performing the Mexican Hat Dance
Hilda disco-ing
Hilda doing the flamenco
Sandra Boynton's Dancing Hippos
Dancing hippos are just funny.  It makes sense.  Large and unwieldy + graceful activity = funny.

And for good measure, one more hippo, not dancing this time, but still wreaking havoc and making readers laugh.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Caveat Lector

As regular readers (all 3 of you!) know, I'm a purist.  I don't like it when books are "updated" or abridged or adapted.  And so I went through the school library and got rid of all the "classic starts" books, and anything that was "based on" the books of another author and so on and so forth.  But those publishers can be tricky.  Sometimes it's hard to spot a modified book and I was recently horrified to discover one on... my own bookshelf.  (dum dum DUM.)

A kindergarten class was doing an author study on Dr. Seuss and asked me to read a Dr. Seuss book of my choosing during their library period.  I happily picked There's A Wocket in My Pocket, which I used to sing to my own children, and proceeded to happily embarass myself by singing the book to the kindergarteners.  Except I was tripping over my words because, while they were similar, they were not identical to the version I'd always sung to my own kids.

Which was the original and which was the impostor?  It took some close reading to find out.  I'd been reading the board book all these years, which I'm pretty sure we'd acquired as a gift or a hand-me-down, not as an original purchase.  Turns out, the board book had been "adapted" from the original.

Board book version
But here's the thing: I like the board book version better.  (Horrors!) The rhymes work better and the ending is sweeter and less wordy.  Is it just a matter of what we're used to?  (Or maybe just what I'm used to?)  Who knows? But I'm bringing in my own board book version the next time I plan to sing this book to a class.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Books For Our Times: Refugees

When kids hear the word "refugee" these days, they are probably most likely to think of Syria.  But unfortunately there have been refugees throughout history, from countries around the globe.  There are aspects of the refugee experience that are universal - feelings of dislocation, difficulty with a new language and culture, homesickness, fear, and, for child refugees (and immigrants), often taking on a parental role, both emotionally and logistically (often as translator).  Others are specific to refugees from a particular country, or to an individual.  Picture books tend to focus on the universal; chapter books on the specific.  One of the picture books listed here has more abstract art; the others are quite realistic.  One of the picture books is more metaphorical; the others, quite literal.  Most of the books also address the danger refugees face not just when they reach their destination or from political persecution or war back home, but along the way as well.

All of these books may be disturbing or upsetting, especially to a sensitive child.  We are lucky we have the luxury of deciding whether to expose our children to the harsher realities of our world.

This list is not comprehensive; these are just some of my favorites.

Picture Books

Azzi's family pushing their way on to a boat to escape
Navigating a new land

Azzi In Between by Sarah Garland.  Azzi and her family flee an unnamed Middle Eastern country, leaving her grandmother behind.  In graphic novel-style panels, the reader sees Azzi struggles with a new language, new friends, new food, a newly depressed, unemployed father - new everything!  But her family has been able to take a special little piece of home with them and Azzi uses it to cheer up her father and teach her classmates about where she is from.  The bleak cover and pictures give way to a realistically happy ending.

Fleeing through the forest

Another crowded, unsafe sea voyage
The Journey by Francesca Sanna.  This new book has gotten a lot of press lately.  Its abstract art may make it less scary but possibly less accessible, although the language makes clear that the narrator's family is in danger.

How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz. My favorite of the picture books on this list.  With simple, straightforward language and gorgeous art, Uri Shulevitz tells the story of his own family's escape from WWII Poland to Kazakstan and how he took solace in a map his father purchased instead of bread, much to his mother's chagrin.  An author's note explains that his journey did not stop there.  Mr. Shulevitz and his family then moved to Paris and then Israel.  In 1959, he came on his own to the United States.  Written in what is his second? third? fourth? fifth? sixth? (he must have spoken Polish, probably Yiddish, possibly Russian, French, Hebrew, and then English) language, this is a beautiful book.   A Caldecott Honor book.

Hiding from soldiers
How Many Days to America? by Eve Bunting.  A family flees an unnamed Carribbean country, arriving in America just in time for Thanksgiving.

Molly's Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen.  My favorite Thanksgiving book and perhaps my favorite holiday book and just plain one of my favorites ever.  For homework, Molly has to make a Pilgrim girl (big "P") out of a clothespin.  Her mother offers to help her and dresses her in the Russian clothes she herself wears.  When Molly brings the doll to school, her classmates ridicule her because the doll is not dressed as a Pilgrim.  But the understanding teacher points out that Molly and her family are pilgrims (small "p") too, refugees from religious persecution just as the first Pilgrims were.  Make sure you have tissues nearby.  Barbara Cohen also wrote another wonderful holiday book, this time about Passover, The Carp in the Bathtub.

Teacup by Rebecca Young. "Once there was a boy who had to leave his home... and find another.  In his bag he carried a book, a bottle, and a blanket.  In his teacup he held some earth from where he used to play."  The boy travels alone by boat, floating for days, until he finally finds land, and a kindred spirit.  Obviously less realistic than the other books listed here, it can be read on a metaphorical level with older children and a literal level with younger children.  The spare simple language is perfect.  The earth the boy carries with him is reminiscent of the seeds Azzi's family brings with them in Azzi In Between.

Chapter Books

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai.  This novel-in-verse tells the story of the author's escape from Vietnam with her family during the Vietnam War.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr and Journey to America by Sonia Levitin.  Both of these books recount how their authors and their families escaped Hitler's Germany, first fleeing to Switzerland and then the former to France and ultimately England and the latter to the United States. Both endure a sudden decline in their quality of lilfe and social status.  I loved both as a child. Both are also the first books of trilogies, a fact I learned only recently

It Ain't So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas.  Zomorod Yousefzadeh is in California with her Iranian family for just a year or two for her father's job in the oil industry.  But the year is 1978 and, unbeknownst to Zomorod (now known as Cindy), the deposition of the Shah, the Iranian hostage crisis, and another oil shortage are on the horizon.  When it turns out her family can't go home because of the political situation in Iran, Zomorod becomes an accidental refugee.  While her family is economically better off than many refugees, Zomorod still faces many of the difficulties common to them all.  As many refugee (and immigrant) children do, she becomes the translator for her parents - not just of language, but of culture, and a caretaker for her depressed mother.  While children may have some trouble understanding the complex politics involved, they will certainly relate to Zomorod/Cindy's desire to fit in.  This book is, like so many on this list, based on the author's actual experience.

What would you add to this list?

Monday, October 31, 2016

The First (Fictional) Female President

This election has brought back memories of a book I loved with uncommon devotion when I was about 10 or 11 years old: The President's Daughter by Ellen Emerson White.  As the title suggests, the focus was not on the first female president but on her daughter, the oldest of her three children.  You can see how well-loved this book was i nthe photo below.  The spine has disintegrated and although you cannot see it, the back cover has fallen off completely.

I'm not sure exactly why I loved it so much.  It was good, sure, but perhaps an odd choice for constant rereading.  In 2016, the one part that I remember clearly is Meg, the daughter, asking her mother if she can vote for someone other than her mom.  Her mom, amused, replies that of course she can.  It makes me wonder if someone's children are perhaps not voting for him (or her) this year. Thank goodness for the secret ballot!

The book was published in 1984 and I apparently purchased it for less than $3.00.  The author then "updated" it in 2008.  Those of you familiar with my purist sensibilities will know that I disapprove.

Did anyone else read the original version?

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Princess and the Shark

The Princess and the Shark.  If I ever write a children's book, that's what it will be titled.  If, that is, I don't care about quality but do care about selling a lot of books.  Based on the very small, unreliable sample size of 2 school libraries that I've worked in, both on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, girls in grades K-2 want books about princesses and their male peers want to read about sharks.

There are other scary, fierce, awesome-looking animals besides sharks.  Why the obsession?  I have no idea.

And the princesses.  When these girls ask for princess books they mean Disney.  I offer them Shirley Climo's The Egyptian Cinderella and they turn up their noses.

Of course there are other requested topics.  Ballet, gymnastics, soccer, and lately, cooking.  The boys also ask for books about the military - soldiers, military aircraft, the navy.  Crafts, especially origami, are big too.

The gender divide is (nearly?) absolute.  To date, I have never had a boy request a princess book or a girl request a book about the military.  I probably have had boys ask for cooking and have definitely had them ask for origami, and I've probably had girls ask for sharks.

So in order to capture the market and straddle that divide, The Princess and the Shark it is!