Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy) by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple (Dutton Juvenile, 2013)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

There doesn't seem to be a genre of children's literature that Jane Yolen is not a master of. She has published over 300 books, from endearing picture books such as the best-selling dinosaur series with illustrator Mark Teague (including How do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon and many others) to serious historical fiction about the Holocaust such as The Devil's Arithmetic.  She has won countless awards, and is beloved by parents, children, librarians, and teachers alike.  

In this new book for a middle-grade audience, Yolen and co-author Adam Stemple (also Yolen's son) address the theme of bullying in a unique way. Our hero, Sammy Greenburg, is a nerd with no friends--at least until he meets a new student known as Skink. While trying to outsmart the local bullies, the two form a unique band that plays klezmer/jazz/pop/rock fusion, and who should join them but the cutest girl in their class, Julia (and Sammy's secret crush). But when the school bullies beat up Skink for humiliating them in the cafeteria, Sammy decides he needs more help to defend himself and his friend.  Coincidentally, Sammy is studying for his bar mitzvah, and in the rabbi's study sees a book on golems, a mythical Jewish Frankenstein-type monster. Sammy can't resist "borrowing" the book, without the rabbi's permission. 

Fortunately for Sammy, his dad is a sculptor, so Sammy has access to great quantitites of clay from which to sculpt the golem.  But can he bring him to life?  As you might have guessed, the answer is YES, and Sammy is thrilled when the golem goes to school with him and even becomes the drummer in their band. But too much power can be as much of a problem as being powerless--can the Golem be controlled or will he have to be destroyed? An original take on bullying, this is a terrific novel that could be enjoyed by boys or girls.  And who can resist a klezmer/drum-playing golem???

And for more on golems, don't forget the stunning 1997 Caldecott winning picture book, Golem, by the late David Wisniewski, which retells the traditional legend about the golem created by the Rabbi of Prague in the 16th century to protect the Jews of the city.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Review: Dear America: Down the Rabbit Hole, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Scholastic, 2013)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

The heroines in Scholastic's Dear America series seem to have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In this new release, our heroine, Pringle Rose, moves from Scranton, Pennsylvania to Chicago right before the great Chicago fire of 1871.  Pringle and her younger brother, who is disabled, are orphaned when their parents are killed in a mysterious carriage accident.  Her father is a rich industrialist who has left her a fortune, but when Pringle overhears that her relatives are planning to institutionalize her brother, the two of them flee by train to a family friend in Chicago.  Not only does the author weave a suspenseful story about the fire and its aftermath, she weaves in a number of other social history themes:  the rise of the labor unions and labor unrest; women's rights; the treatment of disabled children at that period; and even the beginning of the animal rights movement.  As usual with this series, there is extensive back matter with more historical background, historical illustrations, photographs, maps, and in this instance, even recipes.

In this newest round of Dear America releases, Scholastic has contracted with some of our best writers for young people, and this particular volume is written by Newbery honor-winning author Susan Campbell Bartoletti.  Bartoletti is best known for her many nonfiction works on American and European history, including her most recently published historical work, They Called Themselves the KKK:  The Birth of an American Terrorist Group (2010).  She has also written a number of historical novels for young people as well as some picture books.

While critics often give short shrift to series books, the Dear America series is an example of one series in which the quality continues to be very high and the educational content well integrated into the narrative.  I hope Scholastic will continue to offer new entries in this series in the coming years.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Book Review: One Gorilla: A Counting Book, by Anthony Browne (Candlewick, 2013)

Recommended for all ages.

In my new job as a children's librarian I am fortunate to have many new picture books cross my desk each week.  While there are many that I like, there are few that I fall head over heels in love with.  One of the few that has captured my heart recently is One Gorilla: a Counting Book, a new release by Anthony Browne for Candlewick Press.

Anthony Browne has long been a favorite of mine; the internationally renowned author and illustrator is a former British Children's Laureate and is especially known for books about monkeys and primates, among my favorite animals.  But I don't hesitate to say that this new release is his most striking book ever.  Indeed, this is one of the most stunning picture books I've seen this year. It's an oversized picture book, with brightly colored paintings of our primate cousins, including the well-known (gorillas, chimps, orangutans) and the lesser known (macaques, colobus monkeys). Browne's artwork is at once highly realistic and almost photographic and also fanciful, with a palette that exaggerates nature's colors.  All of the primates are looking directly at the viewer or reader, connecting with us in an extraordinary way. The book ends by explaining that all these animals are primates..."all one family. All my family....and yours!" The book ends with a double page spread of humans from all different cultures, all colors and nationalities, stressing our commonality with our primate cousins.  Below is an example of the gorgeous two-page spreads from this book.  Don't miss it!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Nonfiction Monday Book Review Children of the Tipi: Life in the Buffalo Days, edited by Michael Oren Fitzgerald (Wisdom Tales, 2013)

Recommended for ages 5-12.  

What was life like for ordinary American Indian children growing up on the American plains?  In this handsome new volume from independent publisher Wisdom Tales, editor Michael Oren Fitzgerald pairs quotations from Indian chiefs and elders who lived in the days before native people were forced onto reservations with rare sepia-toned photographs to conjure up a nomadic way of life that vanished long ago.

The book does not unfold in traditional narrative non-fiction style; instead the editor has compiled two page spreads complete with quotations, antique photos as well as modern photos of artifacts of Indian life.  He covers a wide array of different topics relevant to children's lives.  These include:  mothers, play, story-telling, daily camp life, horses, great chiefs, and more.

Because there is no narrative from the editor as part of the text, the quotations and photographs together evoke a nostalgic view of the American Indian experience on the Plains.  The editor emphasizes the native people's spiritual connections to the land as well as lighter topics.  The book ends with beautiful color photographs of modern American Indian children at festivals, dressed in traditional garb, with the headline "But many traditions live on..."

An endnote provides more information about editor Michael Oren Fitzgerald, and a bibliography of his books for children and young adults.  I would have liked to see appropriate websites and books by other authors offered as resources as well.

With the implementation of the Common Core, there is an increased need for excellent nonfiction books for young people.  Children of the Tipi would certainly make a strong addition to classroom and library collections about American Indian culture, but it's also a volume that parents would enjoy sharing with their children at home.

Note:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book Review: Auntie Yang's Great Soybean Picnic, by Ginnie Lo (Lee & Low Books, 2012)

For ages 6-12.  

In this picture book for older readers, the author remembers growing up in the American midwest, in rural Indiana, at a time when there were few other Chinese families around. When she sees her Chinese cousins in Chicago, they have Chinese lessons, time to play, and lots of dumplings. While driving from Indiana to Chicago, they discover a farmer growing soybeans, a food they dearly missed from China. They are thrilled and a tradition is born. They pick soybeans from the befuddled farmer (at the time soybeans were grown only for pig feed) and take them home for their family's first soybean picnic. Over the years, the soybean picnic becomes an annual affair, with more and more Chinese families invited to share the treat. Soon the event grew so big it had to be held at a city park. An author and illustrator's note tells more about the author's family, and the tradition of the soybean picnic. The narrative is illustrated with charming paintings done on handmade porcelain plates, which were then fired. A heartwarming story about immigrant families adapting their culture in a new country.
One of the ceramic plate illustrations

Monday, July 1, 2013

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Nelson Mandela, by Kadir Nelson (Katherine Tegen Books, 2013)

Recommended for all ages

With Mandela apparently on his deathbed, it's an appropriate time to take a look at this moving new picture book biography of the iconic South African figure by celebrated African-American author/illustrator Kadir Nelson. Nelson's magnificent paintings complement the poetic text, which begins by evoking Mandela's bucolic boyhood in the South African bush. At the tender age of 9, he was sent away to continue his schooling, the only one in his family to be chosen for Western formal schooling. His intellect was apparent even at an early age, and we see Nelson (a name given to him by British teachers) growing into a fine young man, a lawyer for those who couldn't defend themselves. Kadir Nelson describes the cruel policies of apartheid in simple terms suitable to a young audience, in a lyrical text that resembles free verse. The outlines of Mandela's life are all here--Mandela protesting with his fist raised in the air, Mandela tried and imprisoned, his people fighting for his release over the long years of jail, his triumphant return and election to president. But as usual with Kadir Nelson's work, it is the illustrations which overwhelm us with their quiet power. Highly recommended for adults as well as children.

For more on Mandela for young people, check out his own picture book autobiography, Nelson Mandela:  Long Walk to Freedom (Flash Point, 2009).  For older children and adults, I would also recommend the abridged version of Mandela's own autobiography, Mandela:  An Illustrated Autobiography (Little Brown, 1996), a fascinating and accessible version of his much longer autobiography published in 1994.