Read On!

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

Beatrix Potter

September2

BeatrixOne of the world’s most beloved author/illustrators, Beatrix Potter, was born on July 28, 1866. There have been numerous events this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of her birth.

(Photo of Miss Potter taken from The National Trust & Frederick Warne Ltd.)
Beatrix and her brother, Bertram, were born to privilege, as their parents were quite wealthy. When they were growing up, they associated with few children of the same age as governesses educated them. However, they were encouraged to explore the natural world, especially during the summer on holidays, first in Scotland and then in the Lake District of England. It was here that Beatrix blossomed and recorded her observations of life.

One of Beatrix’s governesses was only three years older than her, and Annie Moore Carter acted as a lady’s companion to her. Annie and Beatrix became lifelong friends, and Miss Potter wrote entertaining letters illustrated with sketches to Annie’s children. In 1893, while she was on holiday, Potter composed a story to Annie’s son Noel, who was ill. She wrote about “four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.” This letter was the basis for Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

This talented artist, naturalist, and author went on to become a landowner, farmer, and conservationist in the Lake District. She purchased large plots of land to preserve the area. Her donation of her property to the National Trust is now included in the Lake District National Park.

One of her unpublished stories, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, which was written in 1941, is being published this month. The illustrations are by Quentin Blake, a contemporary British illustrator, who has written many children’s books.

As part of the celebration of her life, Penguin Random House commissioned street artist Marcus Crocker to give Potter’s characters a modern makeover. At first I was “put off” by this modernization, as I considered it a bit sacrilegious to mess around with Peter Rabbit, Mr. Jeremy Fisher, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and Mrs. Tittlemouse. However, in reading about the new Potter figures, I found it interesting.
“The reimagined small versions of the familiar characters reflect the diminutive dimensions of the original Peter Rabbit stories, whilst some also contain a nod to Beatrix Potter’s varied accomplishments as a Conservationist; Botanist; Businesswoman; Artist; Storyteller all of which made her a woman ahead of her time… The figures were carefully crafted to ensure continuity with not only the characters’ own personality traits, but in some cases those of their original creator, in contemporary and surprising ways.”
(https://vimeo.com/168933897)

Counting Lions

February26

One lion
    sits and watches his rough-and-tumble pride,
    He surveys the golden savanna, and a flicker catches his eye-
    something moving in the grass. A challenger to his throne?

lionsThus begins Katie Cotton’s free verse in Counting Lions, illustrated by Stephen Walton (Candlewick, 2015). This book certainly can’t be described simply as a counting book about endangered animals. That would limit its audience. Young, independent readers who are interested in animals, poetry, or art should also know Counting Lions. Cotton writes about the characteristics of each featured animal in her unrhymed poetry. Her words complement the stunning illustrations.

Virginia McKenna’s introduction discusses the plight of many threatened and endangered animals over the past one hundred years. She is an original founder of the wildlife protection organization Zoo Check that became the Born Free Foundation. While her narrative sends a strong environmental message, it explains important details to young science enthusiasts.

Counting Lions is all about the illustrations, which are charcoal portraits of endangered animals. It was astonishing to learn that Stephen Walton is a self-taught artist. He attributes his eye for detail to his photography, as each portrait is taken from one of his own photographs. Walton is the Supervisor at Bury Art Museum in Manchester, UK. On his website, he describes being surrounded by the landscapes of George Turner and John Constable, and the animal paintings by Edwin Henry Landseer. Do check out this time-lapse video of Walton drawing “King”, the cover image of the book.

Steve Jenkins

March6

jenkinsSteve Jenkins continues to inspire readers with his non-fiction books. As I share his work with students, I talk about him as both an author and illustrator. It’s tempting to say that his illustrations are the stars of all of the titles, but that would do an injustice to the informative and insightful text.  On his website, Jenkins describes his childhood and student years that explains why he is so talented in writing and illustrating.

My father, who would become a physics professor and astronomer (and recently my co-author on a book about the Solar System), was in the military and, later, working on science degrees at several different universities. We moved often. I lived in North Carolina, Panama, Virginia, Kansas, and Colorado. Wherever we lived, I kept a menagerie of lizards, turtles, spiders, and other animals, collected rocks and fossils, and blew things up in my small chemistry lab.
Because we moved often, I didn’t have a large group of friends, and I spent a lot of time with books. My parents read to me until I could read myself, and, up until the time I discovered girls in high school, I was an obsessive reader.
My interest in science led me to believe that I’d be a scientist myself. At the last minute, I chose instead to go to art school in North Carolina, where I studied graphic design.
eyecreatureIt’s difficult to choose a favorite title by this prolific author/illustrator. Two recent additions to our school collection are Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) and Creature Features (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

(Picture of Steve Jenkins from his website)

MACBA Nominees

October24

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.

Science Books

April3

There have been a plethora of new books published recently about animals and birds. While some of them target our youngest readers, others are wonderful to share with our intermediate and older readers.

animals upsideIt’s no surprise that I am excited about a new “Pull, Pop, Lift & Learn Book” for our young budding scientists. Animals Upside Down is the production of Robin Page and Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2013). I always recommend any book that has artwork by Steve Jenkins, and this is no exception. As is described on the back of the book, “Turn wheels, pull tabs, lift flaps, and open doors to reveal twenty-six different animals and discover the many remarkable ways that going bottoms-up helps them to survive!”

longThe Long, Long Journey by Sandra Markle, illustrated by Mia Posada (Millbrook Press, 2013) is subtitled The Godwit’s Amazing Migration. These long-billed and long-legged birds fly the longest nonstop bird migration that has ever been recorded. They are born in Alaska where they spend the summer learning to fly, finding food, and escaping predators. In October, the godwits fly over 7,000 miles to New Zealand.

dolphinsOur intermediate and middle school readers may want to check out The Dolphins of Shark Bay by Pamela S. Turner, with photographs by Scott Tuason (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2013). The Shark Bay Dolphin Project has been in existence for over twenty-five years; the scientists involved have recorded the habits of hundreds of wild dolphins. They want to know why dolphins can learn simple languages, recognize themselves in mirrors, understand gestures such as pointing, and mimic vocally.

Peter Rabbit

March1

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) privately published The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901. Frederick Warne & Company published her “bunny book”, as they called it, complete with her colored illustrations, a year later. Children and adults alike continue to be drawn to Miss Potter’s work because of their fascination with her illustrations and delight in the simple stories that she wrote. The author was also a savvy businesswoman, as she licensed many figurines and items that complimented her books.

With the publisher’s and family’s permission, Oscar-winning screenwriter and actress, Emma Thompson, has written The Further Adventures of Peter Rabbit (Warne, 2012). She treats Peter with the same familiarity and respect as did his creator over 100 years ago. Eleanor Taylor’s illustrations pay homage to the iconic art of Beatrix Potter.

Beatrix Potter fans might enjoy visiting

Beatrix Potter at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Beatrix Potter Society

Charlotte’s Web

January3

You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.
E.B. White (Charlotte to Wilbur)

 

One of the blogs about children’s literature that I check often is Educating Alice by Monica Edinger, a teacher at The Dalton School in New York City. Her post on January 3, 2013 features a video where she was part of a group discussing the merits of the book, Charlotte’s Web.

The book is still as interesting to readers as it was over 60 years ago, when it was first published. How lucky we are that E.B. White wrote this gem. Do yourself a favor and read it aloud with a child.

Charlotte’s Web

October15

As I was riding to work, I heard an interview on NPR with Michael Sims, the author of The Story of Charlotte’s Web. The subtitle of Sims book describes his research well: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic. Adults who enjoy reading literary criticism might want to check out this book.

…Or, go to NPR to listen to or read the interview.

http://www.npr.org/2012/10/15/162735079/some-book-charlottes-web-turns-60

Just be sure to share Charlotte’s Web with a child. Don’t assume that they have read it. There aren’t many opening lines that can compete with the one with which White started his story.

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Steve Jenkins’ Work

October27

Steve Jenkins writes cool books. There’s no better way to describe his creations that are so appealing to children. He presents information in a format that entertains his readers as he educates them. Growing up as the son of a science professor, Jenkins has been interested in the natural world since he was a young boy. His work is characterized by that childhood wonder.

Bones

Bones (Scholastic, 2010) is one of Steve Jenkins’ latest titles where he uses cut paper collage to illustrate the differences between human and animal bones. The author depicts many of the bones in their actual size.

Actual SizeWhile Jenkins has written and illustrated many previous titles, the book that our readers enjoy the most is Actual Size (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2004). The colorful artwork in Actual Size is torn and cut paper collage, and the illustrations depict all or a part of some animals and insects. The cover alone will intrigue readers.

Some of Steve Jenkins’ other cool books are What Do You Do With a Tail Like This (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2003), Prehistoric Actual Size (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2005) How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (2008), Brothers & Sisters: Sibling Relationships in the Animal World (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2008), Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2009). He has also written others. Check them out.

Prehistoric Actual Size Brothers & Sisters

Masterpiece Is Just That

April29

Elise Broach has written her own masterpiece and given it that title. Masterpiece is one of the best books for our middle elementary school children (students in grades three, four, and five) that I’ve read this year. I couldn’t put the book down, as I cheered on the main character, Marvin, a young beetle who lives with his family in a New York City apartment. His beetle family resides under the kitchen sink, and they keenly observe the daily events in the lives of the human family who live in the apartment. The beetles are especially sympathetic to James, whose feelings and interests his mother and stepfather often overlook. When James’s birthday is definitely not a happy event, Marvin decides that he must give James a special gift, and he sketches a drawing using an ink set that James’s artist father gave him as a gift. When his family members believe that James created the tiny detailed painting, he is overwhelmed by the attention and doesn’t deny it. James learns about Marvin’s skill, and although they can’t speak to each other, they learn to communicate in other ways. As I read this book, I became interested in learning more about the German artist, Albrecht Durer, since he is featured in an important exhibit that the characters visit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All of the details that I’ve described only set up the main plot line which involves a famous painting, an art heist, but most of all true friendship.

Some of our fourth and fifth graders have also enjoyed Elise Broach’s novel, Shakespeare’s Secret. While the plot of this book is current and realistic, the author interested a few of us enough to look up more information about William Shakespeare. Her writing tends to do that to you.

Masterpiece reminds me of George Selden’s beloved classic, The Cricket in Times Square. The books exhibit the same suspension of reality, as the reader believes in the fantasy worlds that bring insects to life. On the flap of The Cricket in Times Square, one reviewer describes Selden’s book in a way that is fitting to write of Broach’s Masterpiece. “Every once in a while a story is told, ostensibly for children, which captures so perfectly the imaginative realm in which even children are permitted to dwell only for a time, that the adult world must stop and listen too.” These words perfectly describe the experience that I enjoyed reading both of these books.


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