Holiday Tales

December 12, 2014

There have been many memorable holiday books published in 2014. There are often new titles by celebrated authors like Eric Kimmel (Simon and the Bear: A Hanukkah Tale, Hyperion, 2014) and Jan Brett (The Animals’ Santa, Putnam, 2014). It’s always a pleasure to discover titles that are new gems and revisit some stories that are old favorites.

O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi”, was first published in The New York Sunday World on December 10, 1905. It has now become a classic tale of a young couple that secretly sell their most treasured possessions in order to purchase a holiday gift for each other. Jim sells his grandfather’s pocket watch to buy a set of jeweled combs for Della’s waist length hair. On the same day, Della cut and sold her hair to purchase a platinum fob chain for Jim’s prized watch.

borisDara Goldman brings this story to children with her picture book, Boris and Stella and the Perfect Gift (Sleeping Bears Press, 2013). Boris and Stella are bears who feel blessed to have found each other. The picture book depicts a year when the last night of Hanukkah happens to be on Christmas Eve. Boris sells his dreidel collection that he brought from his homeland, Russia, to buy a magnificent glass star for Stella’s potted tree. Stella sold the tree that had been started by her family in Italy to buy Boris a special dreidel. As in “The Gift of the Magi”, the characters understand that the most precious gift is their love for each other.

redThis year is the 50th anniversary of the television Christmas special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There is a “Deluxe Anniversary Edition” of Rudolph that is based on the show. Robert Lewis May wrote the original Rudolph story about growing up being different. He worked for Montgomery Ward as an advertising copywriter, and in 1939 the company asked him to write a “cheery” book for their stores. Rudolph was born. May wrote to sequels, that were published posthumously, Rudolph’s Second Christmas and Rudolph to the Rescue. Gene Autrey recorded the musical version of May’s work, and now Rudolph has “…gone down in history”.

Magic Tree House

November 21, 2014

dinWhen Mary Pope Osborne wrote the first book in the Magic Tree House Series, it’s a fair guess that even she couldn’t imagine the number of readers whom she would reach. Dinosaurs Before Dark introduced young readers to a brother and sister, Jack and Annie, “who discover a magical tree house filled with books”. This was the first of many adventures that our young heroes have. Fifty-two books later, children are as enamored with the formula as ever. The joy of these books is that our youngest non-readers enjoy having the books read to them, while our independent readers consume them on their own. Consume is an apt term to describe our young readers who are hooked on the series. The titles appeal to boys and girls alike. Some insist on reading them in the order that they were published., while others choose their next book randomly.  It isn’t uncommon for a child to race to the library to request a specific volume; they insist that is the only way to be sure to read them all.

ancientAnother bonus to the Magic Tree House phenomena is that the author has also produced twenty-eight books in the Fact Tracker Series. These nonfiction companions to specific titles explore more information about the subject of a title in the original series. For example, Ancient Greece and the Olympics is the companion to Magic Tree House #16: Hour of the Olympics.  In the novel, Jack and Annie witness the first Olympic Games. The Fact Tracker details everything from Greek architecture to specific athletic events.

Parents may also enjoy the website that goes with the series. They do not have to register for their children to play some of the book related games.

I Survived…

November 14, 2014

When Lauren Tarshis published her first I Survived book in 2010, reluctant readers and avid readers alike clamored for more. That title was I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic: 1912, and with that novel, Tarshis developed a writing model that appeals to many children. In her books, the main character lives during the time of a specific event in history, such as the 1863 battle of Gettysburg, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The young protagonist lives through the event, and readers learn about the historical facts through his or her story. Tarshis has also used more recent events as the focus of her work when she wrote I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001 and I Survived Hurricane Katrina 2004.

tlccontentOne of Tarshis’ books is a nominee for the latest Massachusetts Children’s Book Award, I Survived the Shark Attacks of 1916. Long before the movie, Jaws, captured the nation’s fascination, there was a different shark attack that made headlines. A great white shark was reported to be attacking swimmers along the Jersey shore. Our fourth, fifth, and sixth graders have been enjoying the fictional story of Chet Roscow and his encounter with this piece of history.

MACBA Nominees

November 7, 2014

MCBA_rdax_230x150Some of the more sophisticated titles that are nominees for this years’ Massachusetts Book Award introduce our readers to different cultures or time periods. These are usually books that are more challenging to read with advanced vocabulary and plots.

dumplingGrace Lin, a Newbery Honor author, writes about experiences from her own life. In Dumpling Days (Little Brown, 2012), Pacy Lin is excited when her parents announce that the family will be spending a month in Taiwan. She is excited about taking an art class about Chinese painting. Even though Pacy looks like everyone in Taiwan, she is an American who doesn’t understand the culture or the language. In her interview on Amazon, Lin explains that she can relate to struggling with bridging two cultures.

flyingNatalie Dias Lorenzi writes about families who struggle with maintaining their cultural traditions when they move to the United States. The author explores the idea by writing alternating chapters in two voices in Flying the Dragon (Charlesbridge, 2012). Skye would rather play soccer than learn about her Japanese culture, and her cousin, Hiroshi, who lives in Japan isn’t interested in moving to America. When Hiroshi’s family moves to the US to seek medical treatment for the children’s grandfather, one cousin feels too Japanese, and the other doesn’t feel Japanese enough.

lionsThe Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine (Puffin, 2012) examines a turbulent and troubling time in our nations’ history. In 1958, two best friends struggle to support each other while Arkansas struggles with school integration. Marlee is a shy middle schooler whose new friend, Liz, has helped her navigate adolescence. When Liz unexpectedly stops coming to school, the rumor grows that she had been “passing for white”. The two girls demonstrate what true friendship is as they face prejudice and the dangers that arise by them being together.

A Halloween Gift

October 31, 2014

harryJ.K. Rowling released a Halloween gift to her fans on her website, Pottermore. Fans of the Harry Potter series will enjoy reading about the background of one of the villains of the books, Dolores Umbridge. She was the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and during that time she terrorized many students. Umbridge also made small appearances in some of the other books as a dangerous member of the Ministry of Magic and the head of the “Muggle-born Registration Commission”.

doloresumbridgeThe entire background story is on the Today Show website. Rowling’s website, Pottermore requires registration, and parents should check it out with their children.

(Image used by Google search with Creative Commons)

MACBA Nominees

October 24, 2014

MCBAEvery year the administrators of the Massachusetts Children’s Book Award (MACBA) are faced with the challenge of not only choosing books for various reading levels, but also books for widely varied reading interests. There are always readers who are interested in stories that involve animals. This year, there are three books that address that reading interest.

furWhite Fur Flying (McElderry, 2013) is by Patricia MacLachlan, an author who is very familiar to our intermediate children. Most of them know the writer for her Newbery Medal winning book, Sarah, Plain and Tall. She was represented in the MACBA nominees previously with her touching title, Edward’s Eyes. In White Fur Flying, MacLachlan introduces a family who rescue dogs. Their daughter, Zoe, has learned a lot about the patience and care that rescued dogs need. Because of the rescue experience, her heart is opened to helping a new neighbor, Phillip, who doesn’t speak.

dogMarion Dane Bauer is another recognized author for On My Honor (Newbery Honor Book), and her nominated book for the MACBA is Little Dog, Lost (Atheneum, 2012). This novel is written in verse, and there are two main characters. Mark is a boy whose father left years before, and he lives with his mother. He needs someone special to love. Buddy is a “little, lost, brown dog”. Is he lost or does he sense that Mark needs him?

DeweyIn case a reader is a cat fan, another MACBA nominee is Dewey the Library Cat: A True Story by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter (Little Brown, 2010). Librarian Vicki Myron found a small kitten abandoned and left in a library book drop slot. It’s miraculous that the kitten survived the cold winter night there. She brought him inside to his first home, the library. He lives there still.

Massachusetts Children’s Book Award Nominees

October 17, 2014

MCBAThe nominees for this year’s Massachusetts Children’s Book Awards (MACBA) cover a range of topics and reading levels. It is always interesting to debate the appropriateness of a book for a specific child. Two of the books on this year’s list are perfect examples of the fact that basing a selection on an “anointed” reading level shouldn’t be the mitigating factor in choosing to read a book. One of the strengths of this voluntary reading incentive program (MACBA) is that the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders are exposed to books that they might not gravitate to on their own, perhaps because of the level. Yet, after reading some of the novels, they are eager to talk about them.

liarThe narrator in Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2012) is a seventh grade boy named Georges, with a silent “s”. He is a target for one of the school bullies who looks for other students’ weaknesses. It isn’t much easier for him at home. His mother is working extra hours as an intensive-care nurse because his father lost his job. Their new apartment is in Brooklyn, and he forms a friendship with Safer, who has a warm, eccentric family and proclaims that he is a spy. The author tackles the courage and fortitude that it sometimes takes to navigate childhood and adolescence with insightful compassion. Readers learn that what they may believe is truth could be based on a lie. In the MACBA program, Liar & Spy is listed at the fourth grade reading level, but it clearly also deals with themes for older students.

orangeOne Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street by Joanne Rocklin (Abrams, 2011) doesn’t have just one protagonist. A different neighbor on Orange Street tells each chapter, and each character has a unique voice and perspective. The children on the street puzzle over a heart-shaped stone, a stranger with a sketchpad, and a bright orange traffic cone. They learn about each other, but more importantly, they gain insight about themselves. In the MACBA program, this book is listed at the advanced sixth grade level, yet the cover attracts younger readers. The two quotes on the very first page immediately appealed to me.
The street I lived on was like a book of stories, all different, but bound together.
-The Memoirs of Ethel Finneymaker

They all believed in magic, but everyone’s magic was different.
-Stories and Lists of Mormidable Words, by Ali Garcia

The author shares her ideas and the background of the book.

Words, words, words…

October 10, 2014

Picture book biographies for children have become works of art in recent years. It’s not just younger children who enjoy them. Because of their content, students in the middle school also find them entertaining and valuable for research. Talented authors and illustrators bring the stories of historical and contemporary people to life in engaging text and art.

Most adults and children give little thought to the origins of the dictionary and thesaurus.  After reading about Noah Webster and Peter Roget, we not only learn about their famous works, but we find that they were pretty interesting characters. These two contemporaries each had a passion for language and a dream.

NoahNoah Webster & His Words by Jeri Chase Ferris, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch (Houghton Mifflin, 2012) chronicles his life and cleverly includes the definition to words in the text.
Noah Webster always knew he was right, and he never got tired of saying so (even if, sometimes,  he  wasn’t). He was, he said, “full of CON-FI-DENCE; (Noun: belief that one is right) from the very beginning.

Readers learn that Noah Webster knew all of the American Revolutionary heroes, and he told them about his belief that the thirteen colonies must become a nation.

rogetThe Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014) is one of the coolest picture book biographies that I have seen recently. The collage illustrations imitate the journals and word lists that Roget kept all of his life. Roget originally categorized his synonyms by concepts and ideas. In modern versions the words are listed alphabetically. In Greek, Thesaurus is a word that means “treasure house”.

Virginia Lee Burton

October 3, 2014

MikeWhile today’s children may have never seen a steam shovel, or a tractor who pushes a plow, they still respond to the humanity and artwork in Virginia Lee Burton’s books. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and Katy and the Big Snow may be books who feature a technology from the past, but today’s children still identify with their engaging stories.

Much of the charm of Virginia Lee Burton’s stories is her artwork that she combines with them. Her use of watercolor, ink, and graphite in many of her books demonstrates her talent. Yet, her publisher also allowed her to design all of her book that not only included the illustrations, but also the choice of typeface and use of space.

Burton’s roots are local as she was born in Newton, MA, although she moved to California when she was 8 years old. When she was 21, she returned to Boston and met her future husband in a drawing class at the Boston Museum School at the Museum of Fine Arts. After raising two sons, Virginia founded a textile collective called the Folly Cove Designers on Cape Ann. The designers’ linoleum block print designs received national accolades. That legacy also still remains as a testimony to her talent.

We’ll continue to share Virginia Lee Burton’s talent and storytelling. Whether it’s the predicament in which a small cottage finds itself with The Little House or a train engine who takes off on its own in Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away, or people having their voices heard in our democracy in Maybelle the Cable Car, the tales and art still delight adults as much as children.

Ludwig Bemelmans and Madeline

September 26, 2014

MadelineThis year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of the popular picture book, Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans. The New York Historical Society is celebrating the occasion with an exhibit on the precocious character and her author.

Ludwig Bemelmans lived a full life, not only as an artist and author, but also as a novelist, essayist, and humorist. Born in Austria, he moved to the United States in 1914 where he worked in hotels. When the United States entered World War I, Ludwig enlisted in the Army and became a US citizen. When the war was over, Bemelmans returned to his work in hotels and restaurants.

This talented artist didn’t begin writing until he was 36 years old, when he wrote his first picture book. Readers of all ages are certainly thankful that he did. The character of Madeline is named after his wife and modeled after his daughter. Bemelmans created fifteen books for children, and this mischievous heroine is still the most popular.

Bemelmans contributed his writing and art to many periodicals, most notably, The New Yorker, where he drew many cover illustrations. While he designed Broadway and Hollywood sets, his existing public artwork are murals in the Carlyle Hotel in New York City. The bar has been named “Bemelmans” in his honor.

Readers young and old alike should visit or revisit Bemelmans books.

Madeline & Me








Madeline exhibit at the New York Historical Society.

*Author biographical information taken from the Madeline website.