Monday, October 29, 2012

Review: Buddy

by M. H. Herlong. Viking, 2012. (Library copy) I nominated this fabulous book for a Cybils in Middle Grade Fiction. Li'l T is a 12 year old boy living in New Orleans with his grandpa, mom, dad, little sister and baby brother. They don't have a lot but they are getting by. Li'l T wants more than anything to have a dog, but his parents say they can't afford it. When his dad accidentally hits a dog with his car on the way to church, the family gets help from their church community to pay for the vet bills and nurse the dog back to health. "Buddy", as Li'l T names him, turns out to be the most wonderful dog in the world. He has to lose one of his legs and learn to walk all over again on three, but he has a heart of gold. Kind, wise, gentle, affectionate and loving, he quickly becomes a member of the family. Li'l T starts working mowing lawns in order to pay for his food. When Katrina hits the family evacuates and has to leave Buddy behind, along with some of their neighbors, simple because they don't have room in their car for anyone else.

Besides the relationship that Li'l T has with Buddy, I really like how this book shows the strength of a father's love for a boy. Not only his father, but his grandfather, who lives with them for the first half of the book, has a major impact on Li'l T's ability to survive and thrive no matter how hard it gets. The discipline, wisdom, mentoring examples and loving humor of both of the elders are paramount in Li'l T's growth and development. Grandpa T is always watching out for Li'l T and knows just when to step in with the right thing to say. Junior T, his father, is there to support him, guide him, protect him, correct him when necessary, and inspire him to take up the hard work of making one's way in the world. I put this book on the very top of my growing list of Fabulous Fathers in New Middle Grade Fiction. (Take a look at that post for me, would you? And make some suggestions for other books to add if you can.)

The writer vividly presents the tragic and devastating aftermath of Katrina, bringing us to the shelter in Mississippi that Li'l T's family inhabits until they can get an apartment. Others in their community suffer more, by losing family members, sinking into despair and drugs, or dying in the floods. This could be an overwhelmingly grim story, but because of the strength of Li'l T's loving family and his intense connection with Buddy, we cheer them on as we are drawn into the force of their struggle and rejoice in their triumphs. This is one of those classic dog stories that you never forget. Li'l T never gives up on loving Buddy, and in the end we see him overcome every obstacle to living a life truly from the heart.

There are a few parts of the story that might be a bit much for the younger elementary audience. There is some drug activity described, the parents discipline style could be considered too physical, and by the end Li'l T is 14 with a street knowledge to match. But for kids living in urban environments or older tweens, I think the dose of reality balanced with vibrant examples of honor, love, faithfulness, the value of hard work and a good education is priceless. I love this book and highly recommend it!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Autumn Creek Walk

slow creek

autumn fires the trees
above a dim sluggish creek;
mud snake seeking sun

-Andromeda Jazmon

brown water snake

Last weekend we took a walk down the valley of a large city park. An ancient creek winds its way below the trees, completely hidden from the rest of urban life. We discovered salamanders under the leaves, spiders spinning across the trail, curious little bugs crawling on the rocks, and this brown water snake.  We wondered what type of water snake lives in this area - poisonous? A quick look up once we were home found this description of the Northern Water Snake:

Northern Water Snakes are not venomous, but have a tendency to defend themselves viciously when threatened. It has strong jaws and can inflict a severe bite. If unable to flee or if cornered it will strike repeatedly.
 Yikes! Glad we gave him plenty of room. Just after I snapped this photo he rose his head out of the water, saw us, and disappeared in a flash of mud.

The Friday Poetry Round up is hosted by Linda at TeacherDance. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fabulous Fathers in New Middle Grade Books

I'm starting a list of Fabulous Fathers in New Middle Grade Books.

I know Jen Robinson has some terrific lists, including 175 Cool Boys in Children's Literature, and 200 Cool Girls in Children's Literature. Memorable Mothers and Fathers is the name of Susan Taylor Brown's list. But those are mostly focused on classics and books that have been around for a long time. I am noticing this year, in reading for the Cybils Middle Grade panel, that there are a lot of really fabulous dads in this year's crop.

What say we work together on a list of the books with really great dads in books for the middle grades (age 8 - 12), that have been published in the past five years or so? I think it's an exciting trend. A lot of books for kids this age have missing or distracted parents, leaving the children to be the heroes in solving their own problems and directing their own adventures. That's fine and good for kids to imagine. But we all know the power of a strong, wise, loving mentor. And we all know how really phenominal and positive an impact is has on a young life when Dad is present and wonderful. So let's celebrate seeing that in the spotlight for a bit, shall we?

Here's the start of my list:

By M.H. Herlong

By Christopher Paul Curtis
Wendy Lamb Books

By R. J. Palacio
Knopf Books for Young Readers

By Carl Hiaasen
Knopf Books for Young Readers

By Amber McRee Turner
suggested by Kelly D. G.

Clementine and the Family Meeting
by Sara Pennypacker
suggested by Jen Robinson

By Barbara Wright
Random House Books for Young Readers

By Kristin Levine
Putnam Juvenile

Who would you add? Leave a comment and I will keep expanding the list.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: Wonder

by R. J. Palacio. Knopf, 2012. (Library copy). This gem of a book is reviewed all over the place. It's a huge hit and everyone is talking about it. I read it for the Middle Grade Cybils panel, and I am so glad to have read it! It's a really wonderful book that stays with you. The more I think about it the more I get out of it. I can see this one being on everyone's list for a long time.

August Pullman is an ordinary fifth grader who feels the same as everyone else on the inside; he loves Star Wars, he argues with his sister, he loves his dog, he misses his best friend who moved away. The thing is, he was born with a facial deformity that has required over twenty surgeries. Unfortunately he still has the kind of face that startles and frightens people. He has been homeschooled up to now, but his parents have decided it is better for him to join the mainstream school and learn to make his way in the world. The rest of the story is how he struggles with friendships and the social hierarchy of middle school and how the other children react to him. What is really precious about this book is the courage, honesty and humor with which he faces all these challenges. I really love how much the value of kindness is emphasised. In the beginning only one girl befriends him by sitting at his lunch table. By the end of the book he has won over the entire school purely by the force of his personality.

August comes from a family with a Brazilian-American mom and a Jewish-Argentinian-American dad. His friend Summer is biracial.  There are some classmates with Chinese and Latina names, although most of the kids sound pretty white. With no spotlights shining on race we can still see a world that is a mix of cultures. Auggies' sister Via has very important memories of her Brazilian grandmother loving her and telling her how special she is in Portuguese. I am always happy to see this kind of natural diversity plopped right in the middle of a book that is a really good story.

The other thing I really love about this book is how wise and gentle and supportive his dad is. This is a loving family that pulls together to face an enormous challenge by sheer love and determination. Auggie's dad is the one pushing for him to go to public school in the beginning, while his mom is more overprotective. When August struggles with fear and anxiety, his dad is there to listen and support him. In a lot of middle grade novels the parents are out of the picture so the protagonist can face his/her challenges as the hero or heroine in the spotlight. This book does a good job of showing how important parents are and how they can stand back and be supportive without overshadowing the young person on center stage.

It's a real treat to see a great father figure portrayed as really important in his son's life. I am noticing several middle grade books this year with great father characters. I wonder if you've seen any as well? I am going to start a list of Fabulous Fathers of Middle Grade Books. Who would you suggest?

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is hosted  at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe.  Go take a look at some other Marvelous books!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Wistful Autumn Haiku

porch thru cherry

toys lined up by
his empty laundry basket -
a motionless swing

Andromeda Jazmon

Something about that empty swing frozen on the porch amid the leaves rustling and falling in an autumn breeze gives me a sad, wistful feeling. Like missing a loved child, who hasn't been home for such a long time. This kind of haiku touches on melancholia, homesickness, and loneliness. Issa, whose mother died when he was a child, and who lost his wife and all his children to early deaths, is the master Haiku poet I turn to in such a mood. Somehow it fits a rainy autumn day like today. Here's another good link for themes and moods in classical haiku.

Today's Friday Poetry roundup is hosted by Irene Latham at Live Your Poem. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Chocolate and Halloween

chocolate kiss

I'm taking a break from blogging about books today to talk about Chocolate. Mmmm chocolate. We love chocolate at our house! But I've just read the truth about chocolate production and child trafficking at Rage Against the Minivan. Kristen posted this BBC video that documents the horrendous process of using stolen children kept in dangerous conditions to grow, harvest and process the cocoa that turns into our favorite chocolate bars. She says,
"A report from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture about cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast estimated there were 284,000 children working on cocoa farms in hazardous conditions.  Some of them have been taken from their families, or sold as servants.  U.S. chocolate manufacturers have claimed they are not responsible for the conditions on cocoa plantations since they don't own them.  This includes Hershey, Mars, Nestle, and the US division of Cadbury . . . who collectively represent pretty much every snack-size candy bar that will be available in stores this Halloween."

Here's the video:

Game changer. Kristen talks more about it and her family's response in follow up blog posts. She suggests some baby steps her family has taken, including selecting organic, free trade chocolate products and other types of candy, often organic because that industry is more carefully regulated. I am going to takes some hints from Kristen's list of Ethical choices for Halloween candy. These options are a more expensive, but hey, I think we can afford to pay a little more to make the world a better place, and get better chocolate into the bargain, don't you?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Review: The Diary of B. B. Bright, Possible Princess

by Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams, illustrated by Shadra Strickland. Turner, 2012. (Advance Review Copy). This is a fun twist on the fairy princess story. B. B. Bright, Princess of Light, is living on Bee Isle, floating in "Bright World" between "Other World" and "Raven World", where her parents used to be King and Queen until they got killed in a war. B. B. is cared for by three Godmothers who were recruited from Other World by her mother the Queen. B. B. is being tutored so she can pass the Official Princess Test and become a true Royal. They keep bees on the island, and live a very pleasant, but slightly boring life. B. B. wants a boyfriend, a true best friend, and a little excitement.

The story heats up when she decides on her 13th birthday to take a secret trip across the desert in the middle of the island to explore the East side where there is rummored to be an angry bear and a tower where her mother used to live. What B. B. discovers on the other side of the island makes for an exciting, romantic, enchanting tale.

The story is written in letters to her diary, and charmingly illustrated by Strickland's line drawings. I especially like the map of the island, which really helped me orient myself in the story. I also love the drawing of the quilt made by the God-mommies for B. B.'s birthday. The squares are illustrated with appliques that are symbolic for the Princess and key to solving her mystery. There are little bees and story-related sketches or doodles throughout the book, giving an authentic presentation. I think this book is really going to appeal to tween girls who spend a lot of time dreaming and scheming and gazing out windows. Kind of like the girl I was...

The one thing I didn't really go for in this book is how unbelievably sophisticated B. B. is in developing her own candle making business, by which she immediately makes a fine profit shipping them to Other World. She does a tiny bit of research and decides to donate all the profits to humanitarian organizations. Perhaps a princess would naturally fall into this line of work but I don't see myself as a real girl believing it would work like that. I dunno, maybe as a dreamer I was like that... Come to think of it when I was 12 I did make candles and tried to sell them in my father's bookstore. I think I made about $1.25 total. Anyway, this is a fun book! Nominated for a Cybils award in MG Fantasy.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Missing Cat Trimeric

 april 9 013

Missing Cat

Where once he was, but is not now
he left the lingering lap of warmth.
Satin black fur and ice sharp claws
ferocious endless hunger feed.

He left the lingering lap of warmth
to prowl beyond the lamplit round
preferring chills that numb the heart.

Satin black fur and ice sharp claws
leave empty bowl and scratchless post;
a limp and dusty catnip mouse.

Ferocious endless hunger feeds
on nothing less than night’s dark sky
or mousie bones that snap and crunch!

-Andromeda Jazmon

Here's another trimeric poem, a form I learned from Trisha's Monday Poetry Stretch a couple weeks ago. It's a form developed by Dr. Charles Stone, explained here.

Friday Poetry is hosted by Betsy at Teaching Young Writers. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Review: The Mighty Miss Malone

by Christopher Paul Curtis. Wendy Lamb Books, 2012. (Library copy). If you are as much a fan of Christopher Paul Curtis as I am, you are going to enjoy this book. Deza, the main character in this book, is a 12 year old girl. She had a cameo appearance in Bud, Not Buddy, Curtis' 2000 award winner, when she met Bud in a hobo camp and struck up a brief friendship. In this volume she is the storyteller as her family goes through a roller coaster of changes in fortune and luck. One of the things I like about this book is the way readers follow her changes and maturity over the course of the tale. She starts out very naive, arrogant and over-confident in her intellect. Everyone tells her she is the smartest student in the school. All the adults tell her their hope is in her. Fortunately her teacher challenges her to reach higher and grow better. She is thunderstruck when she receives her first A minus on a school . She expects to always get the BEST grade in the class because she believes she is the best writer imaginable. She can't believe her friend got a higher grade that one time. I have to admit I didn't like her very much the first couple chapters.

After life gives her a few lessons in the school of hard knocks I started to like her better, because even when she and her family got knocked down a bunch of times she always rallied and found a way to look on the bright side and keep on going. It's the Depression and in Gary, IN her dad can't find a job. Her mom works as a maid in a rich white woman's house. Dad gets hurt in a boating accident that traumatizes him and he struggles to regain his spirit. He insists he must leave to find work elsewhere after admitting to his wife that he can't stand watching his children hungry and suffering for lack of his income. Deza's teeth are rotting in her mouth because they can't go to the dentist. Her brother Jimmy has stopped growing for an unknown reason. After dad disappears mom loses her job and the landlord kicks them out of the apartment for a higher paying tenant. Mom decided to take them to Flint MI where her mother-in-law lives. Living this life through the eyes of Deza, who can't bear the thought of eating oatmeal with bugs in it even when her father tries to joke about it, brings home the stark reality of what it was like in the Depression. Riding in boxcars with other families, finding a community made out of cardboard boxes and other folks' struggling to survive, and walking across country to find family members desperate to hang onto each other are all part of Deza's  heart-wrenching experiences. Along the way she finds teachers, librarians, and neighbors who cheer her on and offer aid in any little way they can.

Readers who enjoy historical fiction will find this a fascinating and illuminating. It really is amazing to put yourself in Deza and Jimmy's place and live through such a difficult time in our nation's history. This would be a great book for reading groups & clubs in fourth and fifth grades. It's nominated on the Cybils Middle Grade fiction list.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Cybils nominations are still open until Oct. 15

If you haven't made your choices yet, you only have a few more days to get busy. If you haven't heard before, "the Cybils awards are given each year by bloggers for the year's best children's and young adult titles. Nominations open to the public on October 1st" and close on Oct. 15. That's next Monday people!

I have been watching the nominations and putting in my favorite books. I am on the Middle Grade Fiction Round 1 Panel this year. We are going to chose the top five best books and then pass them on to the Round 2 Judges in December, who will select one winner to be announced in February 2013.  I am eagerly anticipating reading all these wonderful books for children ages 6 - 12. If your family's favorite isn't on the list go add it! Cause you know I want to read whatever your kids are loving.

Just remember it has to be a children's or young adult book published in the U.S. or Canada between Oct. 16, 2011 and Oct. 15, 2012. Basically it's the books released within the past year. They are very strict about that so check the release date on your book.

Here are a few books I wish I could add to the other lists: (everyone is only allowed to put in ONE title in each category)

Make sure you check the lists here to see if someone has already nominated it, because you can't double dip and you will get bounced if you try. Go nominate!

Friday, October 05, 2012

Review: Dreaming Up

by Christy Hale. Lee and Low, 2012. (netgalley review copy) Christy Hale has put together a collection of charming concrete poems celebrating children's favorite building toys and activities. Each full page spread shows children engaged in building projects paired with photos of actual buildings that mirror the profile of the children's buildings. Architects including Frank Lloyd Wright, Cesar Pelli, Hassan Fathy, Maya Lin, Kenzo Tange and Moshe Safadie are represented in gorgeous photographs of their buildings and featured with short biographies in the end notes. Each one tells a bit about how they grew interested in building while growing up.

The poems are short and playful. I love how they speak of children creating their own spaces and inhabiting the world built to their dreaming. It shouldn't be a surprise how completely the actual buildings match the play buildings; but it was often a delightful surprise. Take a look at a preview of the following two poems and their illustrations at the Lee and Low site.

Earth and water,
sun and air,
all around
Cold and wet,
hot and dry,
mixed together -
make mud pie.

This poem is written in the round, circling a child making mud pies. Paired with this is a photo of Hassan Fathy's New Gourna Village near Luxor, Egypt.

Here's another one I really like, with an illustration of a girl peeking out of a box she's made into a house. How many times have we done that in my house! Your house?

Open the top
and in I hop,
poke out a square to see who's there,
pull in the flap to hide from view -
Can you see me? I see you!

The facing page shows Maya Lin's Box House in Telluride, CO.

This book will be a big hit with young children who love to build forts, hideouts, or play with construction toys. If you like is as much as I did you might want to nominate it for a Cybils. (I've used my one shot for poetry.) The Cybils awards are given each year by bloggers for the year's best children's and young adult titles. Nominations open to the public on October 1st. Have you put in your favorite children's books from 2012? Go take a look at what's on the list so far!

Friday Poetry is hosted this week by Laura at Writing the World for Kids. Enjoy!

Monday, October 01, 2012

Review: Freedom Song

by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Sean Qualls. HarperCollins Children's, 2012. (review copy) In the author's note at the end of this lovely middle grade picture book Sally Walker tell of how she first learned the real life story of Henry "Box" Brown's 1849 escape from slavery. She was a choir member and music lover, and was fascinated to later learn that Henry was a member of his church choir. She decided to tell his story with an emphasis on the power of music. Walker begins her tale with the joy and delight of a family welcoming a new baby:
"When Henry Brown came into this world, his family sang. Mama blew kisses on his soft, brown belly. Papa named him Henry, held him high to the sky. Sisters and brothers tickled his toes."
The story builds as Henry grows tall on Mama's cooking and smart on Papa's stories. The emphasis on family love, community strength, and the power of song to endure the blistering work and cruelty of slavery is what makes this book unforgettable. Henry sings work songs and play songs, and at night he sings sleep songs. His life is held together by songs of hope.
"Henry knew children who'd been sold from their mamas. He'd heard them crying at night. Henry's freedom song promised a place where families stayed together. Sometimes, freedom-song words tried to sneak from his mouth. That was when Henry bit his lips together, held the words inside. His master whipped slaves who sang freedom songs. He even sold them far, far away."
This is a hard truth to read to young ones. But the fact that Henry survived and found a way to escape this grave injustice is a truth that children need to hear. This is more than a story of the horrors of slavery. A life that would make a man desperate enough to risk his life mailing himself in a box. It is also a story of the triumph of the human spirit expressed as music.

When Henry grows up he falls in love, marries and has children. His wife, Nancy, has a different master. He works in a tobacco factory. He is the kind of father that sings to his babies, rocks them and gives piggyback rides. Walker says, "Family songs hushed Henry's freedom song." But when her master sells his wife and children, Henry's song reverberates and forces a creative, desperate escape plan. The trip is perilous and difficult. But when the box makes it to Philadelphia and Henry is released, he bursts into song again, praising God for deliverance with a new song. This book doesn't shy away from the tragedy and suffering of our history of slavery. It frames it with the spirit of faithfulness, love, courage and creativity that allowed people to survive and find grace in its midst.

I nominated this book for a Cybils award in the Nonfiction Picture Book category. The Cybils are the Children's and Young Adult book bloggers awards, in it's seventh year of recognizing the most outstanding books of the year chosen by children's literature lovers. Anyone can nominate their favorite books in seven categories. Go check it out and make sure your favorite books of the year get mentioned!