Oct 27, 2013

Finding "Just Right" Halloween Books

It's not hard to find picture books intended for use at Halloween. Period. Kids love them all year long, because kids love Halloween. Despite popularity, though, many are titles that strike a single note for the holiday; it's their only purpose. There's nothing wrong with that.
But I'm really a fan of books that can push our holiday buttons yet have more to offer all year round. The Mousekin books are excellent examples. Sadly, they are out of print and tricky to find. 
Simon & Schuster, 2012
I'm happy to share several recent releases that have this year-roubd quality, starting with CREEPY CARROTSwritten by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. I'm not alone in praising this 2013 Caldecott Honor Book. It's a New York Times Bestseller and a Notable Children’s Book. Some reviews:
“Serve this superbly designed title to all who relish slightly scary stories.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review. “A spot-on parody of a paranoid thriller …”—Publishers Weekly, starred review.The gray-scape spreads and brilliantly manic carrot-characters bring a Twilight Zone tone to this book that both entertains and presents an object lesson with humor and charm. 
Dial, 2013
CREEPY CARROTS is a winner with every age. On the other hand, TEN ORANGE PUMPKINS: A Counting Book, written and illustrated by Stephen Savage, works best with the youngest children. Comforting in spite of being loaded with iconic Halloween images, its year-round appeal offers repeated experiences with  counting, color, and rhymes. In fact, it's one of the few "countdown" texts that keeps kids coming back.
Henry Holt & Co. (BYR), 2013

Also a hit with the youngest, but nudging up in age with audiences, is SOME MONSTERS ARE DIFFERENT, written and illustrated by David Milgrim.  This approach to "it's okay to be different" is especially appealing for the creative visual images of monsters, and it's a message that never grows old. I can't help but picture some Halloween costume inspirations lurking within its pages.

Holiday House, 2013
And then along comes OL' CLIP-CLOP: A GHOST STORY, written by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Eric VelasquezBased on an old family story, this dark and intensely illustrated "scary" story is aimed at older readers. There is considerably more text than typical in younger books, images are seriously spooky, and the historic setting plays a significant role. Older readers are also likely to draw comparisons to the Headless Horseman. It will make a sensational read-aloud, especially if the tellers adopt McKissack's advice to accompany the clip-clops (and escalating clippety-cloppities) with slaps of their laps. This is a title treading a fine line between fun-scary and freaked-out-scary. The object lesson involved is clear, suggesting there are greater forces in the world that will extract justice in the end. 

Whoever the intended audience may be, consider keeping these out and accessible (on the shelves, in the storytime stack, or circulating among the group over time. Each offers rich illustrations that extend and intrigue, each benefits from repeated reading, including aloud, and each can serve as mentor text for story writing/telling.

Any favorites among your collections that are especially suited to Halloween?

Oct 17, 2013

Plenty of Bullies in the World, Plenty of Books to Help

Superheroes seem to be everywhere these days- except when they are needed most.
In a post earlier this month I offered the opinion (and who would want to ignore my opinion, I ask?), that National Bullying Prevention Month should instead be a lifelong focus. Furthermore, I urged that a pro-social approach year-round could accomplish as much or more than simply teaching defensive strategies.

I find it more tragic than ironic that during this month two young teen girls are now charged with contributing to the death of their (former) friend, Rebecca Sedwick. She committed suicide after relentless cyber-bullying, including direct messages from them that she'd be better off dead. This story shocks most in the fact that it is not the first time we've heard of similar situations. If I'm becoming even the slightest bit immune to a response of abject horror, how utterly must such reports inoculate young people. Can we allow a generation to grow up believing this to be "normal", inevitable, a rite of passage into adulthood? 

Building a sense of safety and acceptance within surrounding communities is more than an idealistic notion. In this case the bullies were allowed to persist with the full awareness of peers who remained silent for fear of becoming targets themselves. That means they already defined themselves as victims rather than leaders, or even as members of a safe community with responsibility for peers. 

Schwartz and Wade, 2013
Whether or not you discuss news items like this depends on the age of the child or group. Bullying, on the other hand, even when its consequences are painful, is a topic for any and every age.
Here are just a few examples to start the conversation:
BLUEBIRD, by Bob Staake, uses a graphic art style and a graphic novel layout with panel sequences. Combine that with a limited palette and this wordless book is more challenging than most. The story has many subplots, the emotional arc is intense, and the conclusion is dramatic. This is a great example of a picture book that serves many purposes at many different ages.

Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013

Next up, it's OL' MAMA SQUIRREL, by David Ezra SteinWithin a page or two young listeners will be chiming in with Ol' Mama when she CHOOK, CHOOK, CHOOKs the intruders away from her babes. When the bear tests her limits she invokes the "strength in numbers" mantra to save the youngsters and the entire town. This is an outstanding model for strategies to combat bullying- speak up, solicit help from friends, stand your ground.

Roaring Book Press, 2013
BEN RIDES ON, by Matt Davies, confronts the discussion more directly. It's very satisfying to read a picture book starring third graders, since most recent releases are trending toward preschool characters and issues. This strikes a strong note about  the age- bike adventures, bullying, making decisions of conscience, and facing responsibility. That all sounds awfully heavy handed, but the text and images are energetic, humorous, and thoroughly appealing without the slightest bit of patronizing or preaching.

As much as I advocate for the power of picture books at any age, many middle grade and young adult novels provide scenarios in which readers can experience and discuss examples of a wide-range of bullying situations.  Booklist Editor Gillian Engberg's feature article offers up an extensive list of titles complete with suggested target ages (not limits, mind you!) and active links to full reviews with sales outlets.

This is a topic that demands the attention of anyone who ever interacts with a child. That means every one of us. Waiting around for a superhero to appear makes no sense when each of us can be one, just by speaking up. Don't make the mistake those silent peers made. Don't be afraid to speak up, to raise the issue and work to change it. Lives are at stake.

Oct 12, 2013

Facts Are Facts- Sorta!

I readily admit I am intrigued by unusual facts, but I rarely make an effort to recall them exactly. I tend to store the information in a "ballpark" sense. Sorta the way I balance my checking account. In other words, close enough.
Kids of all ages (which includes adults) find quirky facts fascinating. How else do you explain the popularity of trivia games, Guinness World Records, and sports statistics? Whether they retain the precise details (a la Rain Man) or just enjoy an unexpected discovery when it's encountered, readers have a treat waiting for them in the pages of picture books.

Templar Books (Candlewick), 2013
Paul Thurlby's art is always amazing, but especially so in his recent release, PAUL THURLBY'S WILDLIFE.  Even before reading the text I had fun comparing his approach to the styles of Peter Brown in MR.TIGER GOES WILD and Christopher Silas Neal in LIFETIME, featured in recent posts. 
Then his text won me over, too. He incorporated figurative phrases in the poster-like art that give literal clues to the animal facts.  A few of those facts were familiar to me, but most were surprising and even memorable. He takes something as common as "bears sleep through the winter for up to six months" and spices it up with the added detail: WITHOUT POOPING! So much for the toilet paper commercials starring bears.
More examples and a full analysis are included in this Kirkus starred review. I agree entirely with Booklist's assessment: "These zoology nuggets are unusual, specific, and accessible to young audiences, all while offering surprises to those reading aloud to them."

Viking, 1995

Enriched as they are by images, puns, and humor, Thurlby's facts are, actually, facts. On the other hand, real information and perspectives on people, places and things are presented in a book that is "sorta" factual. ZOOM is a wordless book created by Istvan Banyai. He fills the left page of each spread with black, almost as if the shutter of a camera is continually closing and reopening. The right pages display crisp images we think we recognize, only to turn the page for a "zoom out" to reframe the image with a wider perspective that reveals something more, or different, or both. The levels of understanding at each step back become more complex and generate more questions for the reader. And yes, despite being wordless, those who explore this book are "reading" it.
Banyai's subsequent books along this line include the equally engaging RE-ZOOM and THE OTHER SIDE and are well worth exploring, too.

W. W. Norton & Co. 2013
In the spirit of stepping back for a different perspective, I'll include a book here that is NOT a picture book, but raises a ton of mental images within its fact-filled pages. 1,227 QUITE INTERESTING FACTS TO BLOW YOUR SOCKS OFF was produced by John Lloyd, John MItchinson, and James Harkin, the creators of the earlier BOOK OF GENERAL IGNORANCE. Ranging from such nuggets as, "There are no moles in Ireland", (which begs the question, why not?) to "King George the Third's urine was blue", the contents of this book left me baffled, if not always sockless  To learn more about sources and the authenticity of their claims, they offer a website: 
www.qi.com/US1227. Of course, everything you find on the internet is true, right?

Among other outstanding non-fiction picture book titles are the ones featured here in a summer post by Mia Wenjen on her Pragmatic Mom blog. Whether your tastes run to precision and verification or exploration and investigation on your own, these books are good places to start. The power of some wacky facts or a wordless eye-opener to spark curiosity and generate further reading is not just "sorta" amazing. It's downright wonder-full.

Oct 5, 2013

Anti-Bullying or Pro-Community?

October is Anti-Bullying Month. If you're new to this blog, you may not be aware of my persistent irritation about monthly themes. As much as I value each theme (Anti-Bullying, Black History, Women's History, Hispanic Heritage, even Poetry Month), when I suggest outstanding titles I can't resist the caveat to P-L-E-A-S-E keep these books out and actively shared throughout the year. I cringe at the many times I've seen teachers, even families, "pull out" and "pack away" fantastic titles with intrinsic value as if they are Halloween or Valentine decorations.

Little Brown, Books for Young Readers, 2013

Kids (and plenty of adults, too) benefit from direct instruction in anti-bullying techniques and strategies. Many of the most effective approaches, though, rely on bystander reporting, strength-in-numbers approaches, and others that presume a strong sense of community exists in the setting in which the bullying occurs. That's why it is essential to build and support that sense of trust and safety all year long. What better way to do that than with picture books- compact, complete, compelling, and irresistible, too.

A very recent release is MR. TIGER GOES WILD, written and illustrated by Peter BrownSeemingly simple, this book opens the door for discussions of conformity, peer pressure, expectations, and self-expression. It's an outstanding choice for anti-bullying month/topics, even though Tiger is not directly bullied for his decisions. Tolerance within his peer group, despite their skepticism of his choices, opens options for others, and for ourselves, too.

Dawn Little added a picture-book post on the Nerdy Book Club blog recently, highlighting ten titles that build strong communities. I particularly agree with her approach to multiple and repeated uses throughout the year for different purposes.You'll likely recognize some of these books, but there are a few less-well-known titles among them. I hope you'll click and consider them as a starting point in a new/growing awareness of the multiple underlying themes in many stories. To only share them during a designated month, to pack them away or ignore potential discussions at other times of the year does the books, the readers, and your community a grave disservice. That applies to classrooms and families. 

This post is a bit on the brief side in part because Dawn's titles give you more than enough to consider for now, and I hope you will do so. Active links to some of my prior posts on the topic are also embedded throughout this post.

The other reason to wrap this up quickly came about due to some recent good news I can now share. My debut novel, a middle-grade historical fiction titled ODIN'S PROMISE, will be released early in 2014. That means I've been actively adding content to the new website, www.SandyBrehl.com, including a blog about my writing journey during this process. So, I'm calling on my community of followers, subscribers, and anyone else who stumbles across this blog with an open invitation to take a look at the site, consider following, chime in with comments and questions, and pass along the news to anyone you think might be interested in checking it out.

I plan to continue my posts on picture books here, at about the same weekly schedule, but this particular week zapped away some of the time I usually devote to preparing posts. I value this platform and the readers who join me here. If you know of titles that build community, foster kindness, and confront/overcome bullying, please share them in the comments.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.