Read On!

Mrs. Farquharson’s musings about books for children and young adults

Seasons Readings

December7

Author and illustrator Matt Tavares has produced one of the best picture books that celebrate Christmas in 2017. Red & Lulu (Candlewick) is based around an annual Christmas tradition, the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

Red and Lulu are a pair of cardinals who nest in a majestic tree in a yard. They enjoy all of the seasons, but especially the Christmas season when the family always trimmed their tree with lights. One morning, Red was returning from finding food when their tree was cut down and hoisted onto a truck. Lulu was nesting in the tree which was being driven away. Red chirped to Lulu to stay in the tree, and he would find her. Unable to keep up with the truck, Red arrived in New York City and searched everywhere. His heart ached for Lulu until days later, he was attracted to Rockefeller Center. There stood the tree, glittering with lights. There was Lulu on their favorite branch. At the end of the holiday season, Red and Lulu found a new home in Central Park.

This touching tale not only celebrates the season, but also, the bond that the two cardinals share.

The head gardener at Rockefeller Center is responsible for choosing the perfect tree. Almost every year, the variety chosen is a Norway spruce. This tree is not native to the United States, so it isn’t often found in a forest. Instead, the gardener chooses one that had been planted in a private yard years ago.The Rockefeller Center tree is the height of an eight-story building. Over 45,000 multicolored lights are strung on it, and the star on the top weighs 550 pounds. When taken down, the tree is donated to Habitat for Humanity, so that the lumber from the tree will be used to build a home.

This video shows the 2017 tree being hoisted onto the truck.

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Seasons Readings

November29

The Nutcracker ballet is performed in hundred of venues throughout the United States during the holiday season. Yet, few fans of this beautiful ballet know the story of the three brothers who first brought this 19th Century Russian ballet to American audiences. Author Chris Barton and illustrator Cathy Gendron share the story in The Nutcracker Comes to America (Millbrook Press).

The Nutcracker did not start out as the complex ballet and orchestral piece that it is today. In 1816, German author, E. T. A. Hoffman wrote a short story called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. It wasn’t until 1892 that Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed the music and Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov choreographed the ballet. It was first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, but it didn’t catch on. In 1919, the Moscow Bolshoi Ballet performed The Nutcracker, and the audiences were enthusiastic about it.

William, Harold, and Lew Christensen had grown up at their family’s dancing school, and the young men became enamored with ballet. They put together a vaudeville act and traveled the country in the late 1920s. William moved to Portland, Oregon and opened a ballet school. In 1934, he teamed up with a conductor, who was a Russian immigrant, and William choreographed a few dances to go with Tchaikovsky’s score. During this time, Harold and Lew were dancing and choreographing their own work in New York City.

By 1938, William (now calling himself Willam, without the “I” in his name), was the head of the ballet company in San Francisco. Willam convinced his brothers to join him there. (Lew served in the army from 1942-46.) In 1944, Willam and Harold learned more about The Nutcracker, from two friends from Russia who had performed in it there. The two brothers created the ballet which was presented only once at that time.

After WWII, the three brothers were reunited, and they presented The Nutcracker again, this time during the holiday season. Thus began the cherished tradition. Various choreographers have adapted the ballet, yet the roots of every performance still harken back to the Christensens.

In his author’s note, Chris Barton states that he first heard about the Christensen brothers when Willam died in 2001. He became intrigued by this story.

Cathy Gendron describes her illustrations in the illustrator’s note. “My paintings begin with pencil on gesso, a white base layer. Then thin oil glazes are applied, one over another f0r as many as ten to fifteen glazes per painting. The process is slow and meticulous, but the resulting rich color intensity is worth the time and effort.”

The Boston Ballet performs it every year.

The Atomic Bomb

November16

There are some books that are beautiful and important, but it’s difficult to get them to the correct readers. The Secret Project (Beach Lane) falls into that category because it appears to be a picture book, yet it is about the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. The mother and son team of Jeanette and Jonah Winter collaborated on this powerful book. Because it is non-fiction in a picture book format, older students who study the topic might not check it out. The challenge is for adults to share The Secret Project with the appropriate audience.

During WWII, when the Head of the Los Alamos Ranch School received a letter from the United States government, he was told to close the school because the land was being taken. The school was in an ideal location for the government to locate scientists who were working on a top-secret project. The area surrounding the elite boys’ school was chosen because of the desert location. The school’s buildings were used to house the scientists who came from all over the world. Workers who were brought in to cook, or clean, or guard had no idea what the nature of the work at “Site Y” involved.

When the first atomic bomb was tested in another desert area of southern New Mexico at the White Sands Missile Range, windows broke 120 miles away. The mushroom cloud was close to 7 miles high, and the world would never be the same.

The Winters handle this topic in sparse text and simple illustrations in The Secret Project. The Author’s Note in the back of the book gives many details about the project and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

MACBA Nominees

November7

If the name Ken Jennings sounds familiar to you, then you might be a fan of the television show, Jeopardy. Jennings holds the record for the longest winning streak on Jeopardy with 74 straight wins. Today’s intermediate readers know him for one of this year’s Massachusetts Children’s Book Award nominated books, Ken Jennings’ Junior Genius Guides: Maps and Geography, illustrated by Mike Lowery (Little Simon). It’s interesting to ask the students if they like this book because it’s difficult for some to read non-fiction, especially non-fiction that appears to be about disparate topics. Others enjoy the randomness of the facts that they learn from Jennings. Lowery’s illustrations that accompany the topics are similar to those of Jeff Kinney’s in his “Wimpy Kid” books.

Another non-fiction nominee this year is Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean (First Second) by Maris Wicks. The author/illustrator uses a graphic format to describe many of the fish and creatures that can be found in a coral reef.

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne

November1

You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way.
Lena Horne

Lena Horne (1917-2010) is widely known for her sultry voice and her singing career. Author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Elizabeth Zunon have collaborated on The Legendary Miss Lena Horne which chronicles Lena’s role as a civil rights activist.

Lena’s parents didn’t follow the paths of previous family members who had been teachers, activists, a Harlem Renaissance poet, and the dean of a black college. Her father was a gambler, and her mother traveled the country playing in vaudeville. Fortunately for Lena, she was often left with her grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, herself a college graduate.

Cora had high standards and drilled into Lena good manners, black pride, and the value of a well-rounded education. (Weatherford)

Lena eventually went on to become a performer, and she sang with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. That’s when she began to confront racism as an adult. The black bands entered through the back doors, and they often couldn’t find a place to sleep after their performance. When Lena was one of the first black singers to perform with an all-white band, she had to sleep on the bus.

Her activism truly began when Lena landed a studio contract with MGM. The NAACP counseled her on how to stick up for herself and become a model for other black performers. She refused to be cast as a mammy or maid. When Lena sang in films, her song would be cut from the film when it was shown in southern theaters. During WWII, Lena was outraged by the rampant racism that was perpetuated on black soldiers, and she paid her own way to perform for black units. After the war, because of her associations with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, she was blacklisted and not allowed to work in Hollywood. However, Lena continued to sing in nightclubs, and when her name was removed from the blacklist, her career once again soared.

During the following years, Lena Horne became committed to working in the civil rights movement. While she earned Grammy and Tony Awards and a Kennedy Center Honor, she was most proud of her devotion to break racial barriers.

When Lena Horne appeared with Kermit the frog on Sesame Street, perhaps she was thinking of her own life when she sang “It’s not easy being green”.

 

 

Jean-Henri Fabre

October26

We have all of us, men and animals, some special gift. One child takes to music…another is quick with figures. It is the same way with insects. One kind of bee can cut leaves, another build clay houses…In human beings, we call the special gift genius. In an insect, we call it instinct. Instinct is the animal’s genius.                                                –Jean-Henri Fabre

Matthew Clark Smith introduces us to Jean-Henri Fabri (1823-1915), in Small Wonders: Jean-Henri Fabre & His World of Insects (Two Lions), illustrated by Giuliano Ferri. When he was growing up in the 1800s, Henri, lived in the country surrounded by nature, and he roamed the countryside around his home and observed his natural world. As he grew older, Henri always exclaimed over the small wonders around him, especially the marvels of insects.

Fabri studied insects differently from the scientists of his time. Instead of examining dead, preserved insects, he observed them alive in their natural habitats. One of his first significant discoveries was about a wasp called Cereris. He read that a mother wasp laid her eggs and left a large dead beetle for her children to eat when they hatched. It made no sense to him that the beetle stayed fresh in the burrow during the gestation period for the eggs to hatch. By digging up wasps’ burrows, gathering beetles, and observing the wasps in the field, he discovered that the wasps did not kill the beetles. Instead, the venomous sting permanently paralyzed the beetle so that the meat would be fresh for their newly hatched babies. Fabri began publishing his findings, and he continued to study other species. Because of his body of work, Henri was widely acclaimed in France. He not only published scientific articles and books, but he also wrote collections of poetry. He was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1912.

Charles Darwin called Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre “that inimitable observer.” While Darwin was aware of Fabre’s work and scientific contributions, he is little known in the United States. Fabre’s childhood home in France is a museum that is joined by an education center and an insect-themed park. Small Wonders will introduce children to this extraordinary man.

That’s All Right

October18

Elvis Presley’s style of singing and performing is now legendary, but early in his life, few people understood him. Music floated all around East Tupelo, Mississippi, where he was born in 1935. As Elvis attended First Assembly of God Church with his mother, he joined in singing the hymns. Life was hard for his mother, especially when Elvis’s father went to jail. The family moved around to try to make a better life. The constants in the boy’s life were his mother and music. When they moved to Memphis in 1948, Elvis found some friends who enjoyed music almost as much as he did. In high school, other students made fun of him until he entered their talent show and shared his music.

Success didn’t come overnight for Elvis. Rejections didn’t deter him, and he saved to cut a record. He sang “That’s All Right”, a Delta blues song, in his own twangy style. When he began performing in public, Elvis moved to the music, and the rest is history and legend.

Bonnie Christensen’s lyric prose evokes the poetry of Elvis’s music in Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King (Henry Holt).

 

Roosevelt and Muir

October13

It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods – God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches…but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that!  John Muir, 1901

Years ago, I took my children to Muir Woods to see the colossal redwoods. I was reminded of that visit when I read The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Our National Parks by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein (Dial).

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to John Muir, a world-renown naturalist. He wanted Muir to take him on a camping trip. Roosevelt wrote “I do not want anyone with me but you, and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.” Muir later wrote that he wanted to refuse Roosevelt because he was weary of giving tours to people who didn’t understand the need to protect the wild lands. Thank goodness, John Muir changed his mind, or there might not have been the Muir Woods that I enjoyed with my boys.

In the middle of May, Roosevelt and Muir traveled high into the woods and then high into the mountains to Glacier Point. While three men accompanied them as packers and cooks, Roosevelt and Muir rode and hiked alone. They slept under the trees, and one evening, they encountered a spring snowstorm.

When Roosevelt returned to Washington, D.C., he was profoundly moved by his experiences with Muir. The President designated 18 areas of land as National Monuments, that put them under federal protection. During his presidency, 55 bird sanctuaries and game preserves were also founded.

(Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

A Passion for Elephants

October5

Cynthia Moss has spent almost her entire life studying elephants in Africa. Growing up in Ossining, New York, she became passionate about horseback riding. She even spent part of her high school years at a Virginia boarding school where she could ride every day. After graduating from Smith College, Cynthia worked at Newsweek magazine as a researcher and reporter. When she read descriptive letters that a friend sent her from Africa, Cynthia decided that she needed to see the continent for herself.

Once she was in Africa, Cynthia knew that she needed to stay, and she was hired by Scottish zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton. He needed a photographer to help him with his study of elephants in northern Tanzania. Cynthia then went on to start her own research project with Harvey Croze. The Amboseli Elephant Research Project is in southern Kenya in 150 square miles of protected land. The focus of the project is to learn about family relationships among elephants.

Throughout the years, Cynthia has fought to save elephants from being killed for their ivory. Her life in chronicled in the picture book biography, A Passion for Elephants: The Real Life Adventure of Field Scientist Cynthia Moss by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Holly Berry (Dial Books for Young Readers).

In this short video, Cynthia talks about elephant mothers.

More MCBA Nominees

September28

There are two graphic novels that are nominated for this year’s Massachusetts Children’s Book Awards: Lowriders in Space by Cathy Camper, illustrated by Raúl the Third (Chronicle) and Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (Dial).

When I was a child, I never paid attention to author’s notes in books. Now, I try to impress on young readers that there is often a treasury of background information that will often add to their enjoyment. There is “A Note About Lowriders” in the back of Camper’s graphic novel that should really be at the beginning of Lowriders in Space. A lowrider is a customized car with hydraulic jacks that allow the chassis to be lowered nearly to the road. This custom was created by Mexican-Americans in Southern California after WWII. The author took this idea and created a fantasy about a car that travels out of this world.

Roller Girl is entertaining with a message about growing up. Astrid is a twelve-year-old girl with a best friend, Nicole. The summer before middle school, Astrid signs up for roller derby camp while Nicole goes to ballet camp. It’s a difficult time for Astrid as she struggles to learn to skate, and she watches her friend slip away from her. Even so, she grows and learns about herself as she becomes a secret pen pal with the adult roller derby star. The author, Victoria Jamieson, was a professional roller derby skater herself.

 

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