Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet: April 2015

New Book Behavior

  • Distractions. One of the things librarians know best about toddlers is that their attention spans are very, very short. Up until now, Little Miss Muffet has been fairly content to sit for a whole book almost any time, but as she becomes more interested in exploring the rest of the world, her patience for books is beginning to dwindle. I have been prepared for this, having done so many toddler story times, so I'm being careful not to let it discourage me from continuing to read with her. Sometimes I find myself finishing a book while she runs a lap around the living room or wanders off to check on a stuffed animal. Other times, we abandon a book mid-story because Miss Muffet decides she would rather climb the stairs or dig through the kitchen garbage, or do dangerous somersaults, than sit and listen. It's definitely easier to read to a child who will sit in one place and listen, but it's also fun to see her developing other skills, and I know it won't be long before she comes back around to being able to sit still again. 

Current Favorites

  • Things That Are Small
    I received a batch of review copies (all board books) from Little Bee Books recently, and I will be doing a review of them in a few weeks, but until then, I just want to mention this tiny little book that came as part of this set. Miss Muffet absolutely loves that the book fits so perfectly into her little hands, and she has been carrying it all around the house with her - sometimes even to bed! It is a very simple board book, with just one word and one image on each page, but she asks to have it read over and over again, and she especially loves trying to say the word "fish" and identifying the ball and bug. 
  • Stanley the Builder, Stanley's Garage, and Stanley the Farmer by William Bee
    I originally learned about these books from Jennifer's reviews at Jean Little Library, and they have turned out to be some of Miss Muffet's favorites. We own a copy of Stanley the Farmer (which was sent to me by the publisher - review coming soon!) and have had both Stanley's Garage and Stanley the Builder out of the library. Miss Muffet loves to wave to Stanley at the beginning and end of each story, and she is just fascinated by the names of the different machines and tools he uses. We have already asked Grandma for a copy of Stanley's Diner (due out in September) for Miss Muffet's birthday this Fall. 
  • From Head to Toe by Eric Carle
    This is one of my favorite books to perform, and Miss Muffet is happy to let me make a fool of myself acting out all the animals' movements. Her favorites - and the ones she will actually imitate herself - are the buffalo, who raises his shoulders, and the gorilla who thumps his chest. I especially like this book as an alternative to the many, many toddler books out there about making animal sounds. And it helps a lot that Miss Muffet thinks it is funny - few things are cuter than a toddler belly laugh. 

One Tip from Mom 

  • Read poetry! I have had poetry on the brain this month, because it was National Poetry Month and I have been sharing poems on my Facebook page. But even when it's not April, poetry is a great way to share language with kids who have very short attention spans. Generally, poems are pretty short, so your toddler only has to listen for a brief moment, and they often use rhymes, vocabulary, and interesting sentence structures that kids don't usually hear in everyday conversation or regular prose. My go-to poetry books for the one-year-old crowd are Here's a Little Poem, Read-Aloud Rhymes for the  Very Young, and Good For You: Toddler Rhymes for Toddler Times. I also make it a point to recite nursery rhymes throughout the day and to memorize a few poems to break out whenever there is a free, quiet moment. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: My Life in Dioramas by Tara Altebrando (2015)

In her second middle grade novel, Tara Altebrando introduces Kate Marino, a middle schooler who loves living in her family home, known as Big Red. When she learns that her parents' financial situation is going to require them to sell the house, and that they don't even know where they will be moving, she is devastated. Her sadness deepens when she learns that her dance class will be participating in a competition in June, and she may not be able to participate. Determined to prolong the sale of the house until the competition is over, Kate (with help from her good friend Naveen) attempts to sabotage the real estate agent's hard work by planting disgusting smells and annoying sounds all around the house to scare off potential buyers.

Much like Altebrando's middle grade debut, The Battle of Darcy Lane, this is a gentle read for middle school girls who enjoy themes of friendship and family, and who are most concerned with the emotional ups and downs of everyday life. Readers can easily sympathize with Kate's desire to remain in the home she has always known, and even if they would not go to Kate's lengths to be allowed to do so, they will certainly understand her motivations, and maybe even wish they had Kate's guts. Unlike other middle grade novels of sabotage (e.g. Revenge of the Flower Girls, The Great Greene Heist), this one keeps the pranks on a small scale and therefore seems fairly believable. The fact that Kate eventually gets caught also keeps this story from becoming too far-fetched.

Another strong element of this book is the subtlety of the growing tension between Kate and her best friend, Stella. As she demonstrated in The Battle of Darcy Lane, Altebrando has a great grasp on the politics of middle school friendship, and she works that into this plot in a way that is very true to life. Kate and Stella never have a real out-and-out fight with drama and tears and hurt feelings. Rather, the conflicts between them are woven into the fabric of their interactions with one another, resulting in a mix of moments where they get along fine and moments where they are on totally different wavelengths. This is a much more authentic representation of female friendship than some of the cattier books for this reading level might suggest.

Also wonderful is the way Kate channels her emotions into making dioramas of the rooms in her house. This is a great way to highlight Kate's love for her house in a concrete way and also to help the reader fall in love with the house so that its loss weighs as heavily on the reader as it does on the protagonist. The fact that Kate is able to preserve her memories in the form of dioramas also contributes to the story's overall hopeful outlook on a difficult situation, which is sure to resonate strongly with girls ages 9-13.

Two final notes. I was thrilled, just on a personal level, to learn that this book is set in the Hudson Valley region of New York State. Reading about places like Highland, Poughkeepsie, Rosendale, and New Paltz took me right back to my own childhood growing up in the same area. (I have compiled other middle grade novels set in upstate New York here.)  I was disappointed, though, by the cover, which is very dark and difficult to appreciate at a glance. The lettering of the title and the little greenish lights floating in the air also suggest that the story might be science fiction, rather than contemporary realism, which might draw in an audience that is not ultimately interested in reading the book. I just hope librarians who buy this book will be prepared to give it a great booktalk, as I am sure there are plenty of readers just waiting for a book just like this to come along. (If I were eleven years old, I'd be one of them!)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Reading Through History: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly (1928)

In 1241, a young trumpeter of Krakow, Poland perished as he upheld his vow to sound the trumpet every hour and succumbed to a Tartar's arrow.  220 years later, in 1461, the trumpet still sounds the Heynal day and night, but with a broken note that imitates how the young trumpeter sounded when the arrow pierced him all those years ago. The new trumpeter, Pan Andrew Charnetski, has come to Krakow to stay with relatives while he waits to deliver a valuable object to the king. When he learns that his relatives have been killed, Pan Andrew and his wife and son, Joseph must conceal their identities. Pan Andrew's role as the night trumpeter is meant to keep him out of harm's way but it is only a matter of time before his enemies catch up to him. Then it is 15-year-old Joseph who must come up with a plan to save his family and the new friends they have made.

This is the first novel I have read set during the Middle Ages, that actually features a functional, traditional nuclear family. Family loyalty and honor is in fact one of the main themes of the book and one of the motivations behind Joseph's actions. The story as a whole is a struggle between good and evil, which favors humility, hard work, and honesty over pride, instant gratification, and deceit. It is also an exciting and dangerous adventure which is nearly impossible to put down once begun. Despite its age (87 years!) this book remains relevant because its themes are timeless and its story line is so compelling.

As an educational tool, this book is also top notch. Because it is written in the third person, the narrator can take time now and then to provide historical context or to explain important political implications and religious beliefs. The story itself provides all the historical information needed to appreciate it, which is hugely helpful and appealing to middle grade readers. This book focuses on a very specific city in a very specific time, which could be a strike against its appeal to the masses, but the exhilarating high-stakes plot makes the history interesting in a way that so few children's books ever manage to accomplish.

The Trumpeter of Krakow provides another perspective on the Middle Ages which balances out all the other England-centric titles available. It touches on topics such as alchemy that others do not discuss, and it gives readers a deeper appreciation for Polish culture. It could not be further from the type of book I typically gravitate toward, but I could not have enjoyed it more. It might be my favorite of the historical fiction books I've read so far this year, and it is definitely among my favorite Newbery books.

The edition I read featured a series of intricate line drawings by Janina Domanska. These are certainly excellent in their own right, but they do fall a bit flat when compared with the original illustrations by Angela Pruszynska, which I was able to see thanks to inter-library loan. The original pictures include three full-color pages, one of which actually includes the music for the Heynal, and many other line drawings which depict the locations mentioned in the story. Certainly, it helps that the illustrator was from Krakow because she could easily draw from real life inspiration. Unfortunately, she tragically disappeared during the Nazi invasion of Poland, and she only illustrated this and two other children's books, both stories of Polish history by Eric P. Kelly:  The Blacksmith of Vilno and The Golden Star of Halich. Knowing this makes me want to especially encourage readers to seek out the original illustrations.

The violence of the prologue scene where the trumpeter dies and the suspense of later scenes where the Charnetskis are in danger of losing their lives make this book most appropriate for middle school or even high school students. Polish history is not frequently high on the list of priority subjects to be taught, but for the chance to use this book alone I would highly recommend finding a way to work it into every curriculum.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Reading Through History: Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi (2002)

Known to most only as "Asta's son," Crispin lives with his mother in a peasant village in 1377 England. When his mother dies, the village steward suddenly turns on Crispin, accusing him of stealing and naming him a "wolf's head" who can be killed by anyone on sight. When the priest who tries to help him escape is murdered, Crispin is alone in the world until he meets Bear, the last man standing in a village wiped out by the plague. Crispin pledges his loyalty to Bear, who teaches him to play music and ultimately helps Crispin uncover the true reason he is so despised.

In this story, Avi narrows his focus to just one main relationship - the growing friendship between Crispin and Bear - and uses it as a vehicle to introduce the reader to details about the time period. Whereas the other medieval characters I have read about so far have been fairly well-off financially, Crispin is a peasant in the feudal system, and because of his poverty, this story is darker than any of the others. The story opens with his mother's burial in a pauper's grave, and things only get worse from there. This is not necessarily a problem, as the violent scenes in the story are never sensationalized, but it does strike me as odd that the author expects the same audience who is supposed to be too naive to figure out that Crispins's parents weren't married to also cope with murder and corpses.

Part of my motivation for reading children's historical fiction novels is that I hope to homeschool my kids when they are of school age, and I need to become more familiar with history and historical fiction to feel like I have a strong head start. If I look at this book from a future Catholic homeschooler's point of view, I do have some problems with it. Bear and John Ball (the only real historical figure to appear in the book) have very relaxed attitudes toward religious faith, especially when compared with Crispin's own devotion to the saints and his disciplined prayer life. While I think it makes sense for characters like Bear to reject the tyranny inflicted upon them by feudal lords in the name of God, it bothers me that no differentiation is made between what Catholicism actually teaches, and the way Catholicism was twisted to suit the desires of greedy men. If I were to use this book in a homeschooling unit about medieval England, I'd want to make sure I shared the appropriate context with my kids first, and that their reading of the book did not create confusion for them about their own Catholic faith.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead is an exciting story, and it is likely to appeal to kids who want to read about adventure and danger, but it's not my favorite. There is not much character development, and often Crispin's behavior seems to change suddenly in service of the plot. While it is easier to read and written in a more contemporary style than Adam of the Road or The Door in the Wall, it lacks the emotional depth and detailed descriptions that bring the time period to life so well in those older titles. Had I read it on its own with nothing to compare it to, I'd probably have liked it more, but knowing what else is available, it would not be my first choice for introducing kids to the Middle Ages.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Book Review: Jazz Country by Nat Hentoff (1965)

Sixteen-year-old Tom Curtis loves jazz, and he is desperate to find a way to get "inside" the primarily black community surrounding his beloved music. When he meets Moses Godfrey, one of the performers whom he admires, Tom  realizes that he has yet to experience enough of life to really express complex emotions in his music. Still, he spends time with Godfrey and his band, soaking up what they have to offer him while deciding whether to attend college or pursue music as a full-time career.

Published in 1965, this book is very much a reflection of the times. Civil rights issues are as important to the story as jazz music itself, and there is lots of commentary on the different attitudes different groups took toward being black in America and fighting for the rights of African-Americans. For example, Godfrey and his own son have a conflict between them because Godfrey believes his son would prefer to be white. There is an incident (which today would be called a hate crime) in which Godfrey is attacked by a group of white kids in a park, who leave him alone only when they realize he is famous. Tom, too, faces the difficulty of understanding why the people he admires are so ostracized even within their own city, and he comments more than once on how unfairly black people are treated in situations where no police officer would think twice about his actions. Certainly, these issues are still relevant today, but the way they are presented here - and Hentoff's use of the then-preferred term Negro -  leaves no doubt that the setting is the sixties.

From a musical standpoint, this book is a great crash course in jazz appreciation. Though Moses Godfrey is fictitious, many of the other musicians mentioned throughout the text are real. There are also a lot of details about the poor conditions many jazz musicians lived in, which sheds some light on the reality of "making it" in the music business during this time period. For teenagers like Tom, who might have unrealistic expectations of fame and fortune, this information is certainly eye-opening and it grounds dreams of becoming a jazz musician in the harsh realities faced by many people who sacrifice everything for their love of music.

Though Jazz Country is still likely to appeal to even contemporary fans of jazz, it is not surprising to me that not many libraries have it in their children's or teen collections anymore. Without an appreciation for its historical relevance, readers could easily dismiss the book as dated, and choose something with a more interesting cover to read instead. Interestingly, though, many of the questions the book explores - whether to follow a dream, how to decide what to do after high school, and how to look past differences in order to find commonalities - are timeless, and if they looked past the cover and the sixties references, today's teens might find more in common with Tom than they imagined.

I enjoyed this book and will be on the lookout for Nat Hentoff's other YA novels, which include Does This School Have Capital Punishment? (1982) and The Day They Came To Arrest The Book (1983).

Friday, April 17, 2015

Book Review: Izzy Barr, Running Star by Claudia Mills (2015)

The third book in the Franklin School Friends series focuses on Izzy Barr. While her friends Kelsey Green and Annika Riz love reading and math, respectively, Izzy lives for sports - mostly baseball and track. Though she is the only athlete in her circle of friends, she is not the only one at home. She and her half-brother, Dustin, frequently compete for their dad's attention, and to Izzy, it always seems like Dustin's games take precedence over hers. Rather than expressing her feelings, however, Izzy tells her dad that his presence makes her nervous, discouraging him from even attempting to attend her games. It is not until she faces the possibility of running an important race without her dad there to see her that she realizes it might be best to speak the truth.

When it comes to school stories for younger kids, there is no better author than Claudia Mills. As Andrew Clements does for the upper elementary audience, Mills demonstrates a true understanding of the concerns of her readers, and of the seemingly mundane things that matter deeply to third graders. The characters in this series are wonderfully normal kids who have their flaws and make their mistakes, but at their hearts, they are good friends who strive to do the right thing. Izzy's struggle to communicate with her dad, and her rocky relationship with Dustin are problems that any child her age could have, and the missteps she makes on the way to improving the situation are very true to life as well.

There is only one thread of the story that doesn't really work. Izzy begs for new sneakers, then discards them, only to want them back again later. It seems like this is being  set up as a lesson on materialism or selfishness, but instead the sneakers almost become a symbol of Izzy's relationship with her dad in a way that doesn't quite match the message of the rest of the book. This is probably  a blip on the radar for most readers, but it was distracting from the central themes of the story.

Izzy Barr, Running Star is a great read-alike for the new Sylvie Scruggs series, which also focuses on family and friendship from the point of view of a sporty girl. While it initially seemed that this third book was the conclusion of a trilogy, it turns out that a fourth Franklin School Friends book will be published this Fall: Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Reading Through History: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli (1949)

When Robin's parents leave home to help the king and queen during the war, they plan for him to stay with Sir Peter de Lindsay, who will employ him as a page and prepare him for knighthood. When the plague strikes, however, the servants abandon the family home, and though Robin does not catch the plague, he finds himself stricken with a mysterious paralysis in both his legs and with no doctor to care for him. Though he is rescued by a friar named Brother Luke and taken to safety at a nearby monastery, Robin is convinced he will shame his parents now that he cannot properly fulfill the role of page. It is up to Brother Luke and a minstrel named John Go-in-the-Wynd to teach Robin useful skills such as swimming and wood carving, and to help him see the door in the metaphorical wall that is his newfound disability.

In some ways, my experience reading this book was influenced by the fact that I had just read Adam of the Road. At first glance, both books are very similar. Each involves a young boy's coming of age as he is separated from his parents and goes on a long journey to find them again. Reading the two stories back to back made The Door in the Wall feel a little bit more tedious than it otherwise would have. That said, the two books are different in a variety of ways. For one thing, The Door in the Wall focuses on a darker side of the Middle Ages. In Adam of the Road, the main character is a minstrel and there is a sense of fun and adventure in everything that happens. The Door in the Wall deals with plague, disability, hardship, and battle, and there are several situations that are truly a matter of life-and-death. The Door in the Wall also conveys a very specific message about making the best of one's situation and looking for opportunities to overcome difficulties. While it is not necessarily a preachy book, it has a much clearer moral than Adam of the Road.

Though this book is short, I would not say that it is an easy read. Upper elementary students are probably the best audience, though it might work as a read-aloud with second or third graders interested in the time period. From an educational standpoint, the story teaches a lot about the role of religion during the Middle Ages, and it gives kids an opportunity to witness day-to-day living in a monastery, on the road, and in a castle. For a short book, it does manage to pack in a lot of great details which will help contextualize lessons on this time period. Robin is also a likable and humble hero, which makes him easy to relate to even when he is accomplishing feats most able-bodied contemporary children would never imagine themselves attempting.

I am thankful, that I didn't have to live in medieval Europe as I don't think I would have lasted very long! The Door in the Wall is an excellent book, but I recommend reading it in isolation rather than in combination with a lot of other medieval stories as I have just done.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Book Review: Blue on Blue by Dianne White and Beth Krommes (2014)

On a farm, a little girl, her family, and their livestock weather a sudden rainstorm, then enjoy the ensuing mud and sunshine.

The illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Beth Krommes are the main draw of this book. The text is a fairly simple poem, but the pictures tell a full story, portraying the little girl's fear as the thunder begins, and her joy at being able to play in the mud, as well as the reactions of the baby, dogs, cat, and other animals to the abrupt changes in weather conditions. There are many details that can only be appreciated through careful observation - the farmer's hat blowing off as the wind comes up, turtles and fish lurking beneath the surface of a pond, and the cat begging to be let out, then joining the horses in the barn. The animals also make great faces. I especially love the look on one of the dogs when he discovers a frog and the contrast between the pigs' wide eyes when it's raining and their contented smiles when they can lie down in fresh mud. Only one thing bothers me - a boat with a person in it appears early in the story, and we see the boat tossed in the waves as the storm strengthens, but at the end of the story, only the boat is accounted for (safely moored outside the bathroom window), not the person. Where did he or she go? I'm tempted to email the illustrator to ask.

Blue on Blue is a wonderful lap book. My toddler spends a lot of time just poring over the pictures, pointing at everything and asking for me to label it. The animals make it especially appealing to her, as most of the words she knows right now are animal names and sounds. The book is very similar in style to Krommes's Caldecott Medal winning book, The House in the Night. In fact, her portrayal of a night sky in this book is identical to how she portrays it in The House in the Night. Textually, and thematically, it's a nice read-alike for All the World (though not quite as well-written) and it would also be interesting to pair with Tap Tap Boom Boom to explore how rain affects life differently in a city and on a farm.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Book Review: Cody and the Fountain of Happiness by Tricia Springstubb (2015)

It is summer vacation, and Cody has been left in the care of her teenage brother, Wyatt, while their mother begins a new job and her father works as a long-distance truck driver. While Wyatt studies anatomy to prepare for "doctor camp," Cody meets Spencer, a boy staying with his grandmother, GG, down the street. Cody and Spencer become fast friends, as they work together to hypnotize first GG's cat Mew Mew, and then Wyatt's long-time crush, Payton Underwood.

Though there are elements of Cody's character that call to mind beloved kidlit personalities like Clementine and Ivy and Bean, she is very much Tricia Springstubb's own fresh addition to the canon of literature for middle elementary readers. Cody is smart, sweet, and self-sufficient, but with a strong imagination that can lead her into mischief. She loves her mom and her brother, even if she can't help but tease him, and she is also kind toward Spencer, who is dealing with his parents' absence and impending divorce.

Though the world of the story is small (Cody's neighborhood), and the events of the story mundane at first glance, there is never a dull moment in this book. Springstubb knows how to bring truth to the surface no matter her characters' surroundings and the result is a chapter book which is both fun to read and of highest literary quality. 2015 is really Tricia Springstubb's year! Don't miss Moonpenny Island, her other fabulous recent middle grade novel, which came out in February. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Reading Through History: Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray (1942)

In 1294, Adam is the son of a traveling minstrel. He is thrilled when he is able to leave school and begin traveling the road with his father, Roger, and dog, Nick. He loves watching Roger entertain the family for whom he works, and Adam enjoys sharpening his own minstrelsy skills along the way. When an opportunistic rival minstrel steals his dog, though, Adam becomes upset, and in the process of looking for the dog, he loses track of his father. Left completely on his own for the first time in his life, Adam must use his talents as a minstrel as well as his wits to survive and figure out how to find Roger once more. 

Despite its age, this book is extremely readable and relatable. Adam and Roger are both instantly lovable characters with memorable personalities. It is easy to empathize with Adam's frustrations at losing his father and it is fascinating to see how he gets by on his own.  Adam's travels on the road show the reader many informative glimpses into how different types of people lived during this time - a ferryman, a priest, thieves, etc. - and the story becomes much more than just a boy's search for his lost pet. The ending is also very well done, and things wrap up nicely, but believably. 

Compared with Catherine, Called Birdy, Adam of the Road is a much more true-to-life example of medieval historical fiction. The author doesn't try to impose any particular agenda onto the story in order to engage or pander to contemporary readers. Rather, she just tells a compelling story and allows historical truths to speak for themselves. This book is also notable among many of the others historical fiction novels I have read because the subject matter is so mundane. Adam is not escaping an unwanted marriage, saving a potter's career, rescuing a man about to be maimed by a tiger, running from Pompeii as it collapses around him, or saving his mother from poverty. He's just looking for his dog, and his dad. And because the author is such a great storyteller, that is enough.