Dec 27, 2015

Award Season on the Horizon: Nerdy Book Club

Within a few days the Cybils Awards will be announcing the finalists in all categories, including FICTION PICTURE BOOKS. Participating as a first round panelist has been a privilege and honor, as well as a remarkable learning experience. 

The only negative aspect of serving as a judge was knowing that SO MANY books deserved recognition, but only a few could move ahead to the finals. After the announcement at the first of the year I'll resume posting my own notes about many of those outstanding titles that I read, enjoyed, and highly recommend. For now, though, I'm excited to see so many of my favorite titles making an appearance on other lists. 

I'm particularly excited to share award winning titles from a source I find easy to recommend, for two reasons. First, each category includes multiple titles, not a single winner and a narrow field of finalists. Second, the top titles represent the favorites of teachers, librarians, readers, parents, authors, and others involved in using books with young readers. It's a win-win list, since the selections are undisputed in terms of their value and appeal, so there are no losers among them. 

Here are links to the 2015 NERDY BOOK CLUB lists in two categories of picture books: fiction and nonfiction.  In each case the lists are long, but overflowing with excellence.
The first is fiction, and I'm thrilled to see that every title included was among those at the very top of my lengthy "best of" lists before narrowing to the final cut. Take time to click and explore these amazing and wonderful offerings, please.


Then move on to explore the remarkable titles recommended in the nonfiction category. Most of these I've also read, but I look forward to giving them closer scrutiny now that my responsibilities in round one of the CYBILS Awards are over. 

One reason I sometimes pass on review-requests for this blog is that not every book will appeal to me, and some may not rise to a level that, in my humble opinion, merits the strongest recommendations. And yet I firmly believe that ANY given book, even one that may never be considered for any awards, might turn out to be the exact right book for a particular child on a particular day. Not because of its literary merit, visual quality, design elements, or any other objective criteria. 
Perhaps the odd-looking pup featured has the very same name and color as the child's dog who was recently "put to sleep". Or the story involves a situation that somehow speaks to the young reader's own experiences. Maybe it is just the sparkle in the cover art, or a reference to bodily functions. If, for whatever reason, a book tugs at a reader's heartstrings I never want a post or review of mine to suggest it has no value.  

On the other hand, books found on these two award lists have made their way there for the very reason that readers have consistently found them to be "that book", have recognized in them something that speaks to their hearts and minds. I'm convinced they will do the same for you and the readers in your lives. 
Pass it on.

Dec 23, 2015

Hands-On Problem-Solvers: Libraries and Mice

When public budgets ratchet down support, the potholes that appear aren't just in our literal roadways. They also occur, and worsen, in the roadways to an educated, effective citizenry. That's the inevitable consequence of cutting budgets for schools and libraries, which has been happening for more than a decade.
Too many policy makers decided that education can be conducted online, eliminating the expertise and interaction with human educators. Some also foolishly decided that libraries are now obsolete because of search engines and wikipedia.

In addition to the details in this graphic, libraries are providing opportunities for the public to interact with the latest technology, including 3-D printers, which are well-beyond the financial reach of most individuals.

I've met (yes, in real life) and follow (digitally, not in real life) educational librarian Todd Burleson, who is helping to lead the field in converting segments of school and public libraries into "maker-spaces". He does a much better job of explaining what that means than I could in this article, complete with detailed photos and descriptions.

Frances Lincoln
Books for Children, 2015

Some mouse-y and other critter-y characters who would have a hey-day in Todd's maker-space can be found in two picture books. The first is a hard-to-categorize picture book, HOW TO BUILD A CAR: A High-Speed Adventure of Mechanics, Teamwork, and Friendship. Illustrator Martin Sodomka gets top billing, as seems fitting in this meticulously accurate "manual", showcasing his mastery of both mechanisms and mechanical drawing. The challenge in categorizing this as nonfiction is that a story, written by Saskia Lacey, surrounds the instructions for building a car. It's populated by charming and clever mice, deftly and expressively illustrated by Sodomka.  
Frances Lincoln
Books for Children, 2015

A picture book rife with rodent-y problem-solvers is THE WORLD-FAMOUS CHEESE SHOP BREAK-IN, written by Sean Taylor and illustrated by Hannah Shaw. In contrast to the sincerely earnest goal-setting of HOW TO BUILD A CAR, these rascals lead a riotous romp to relieve a cheeseshop of its nearly countless varieties of gourmet cheeses, (illustrated and accurately labeled on the endpapers). The story is rife with realistic physics and consequences of actions, presenting their mission in elaborate detail. This British author/illustrator pairing has earned a reputation for comic tales that are kid-favorites, and this one will do nothing to tarnish that standing.

My previous post described the fascination I (and many, of every age) have with field guides. They offer hands-on invitations to closely observe, analyze, and engage with the real world. Books such as the ones in this post, fiction, nonfiction, or a hybrid of the two inspire similar analysis, investigation, and hands-on pursuit of goals. 
That's what Todd Burleson did, providing an immeasurable benefit to the students and families in his school.
Here's hoping that more books like these find their way into the hands of young readers, and more maker-spaces emerge in libraries across the country.
Perhaps public-policy makers will visit those spaces and rethink the value of libraries and schools.

Dec 19, 2015

More Non-Fiction Fan Talk: About Hummingbirds

The upper midwest (along with much of the country) has experienced a record-breaking warm start to winter. Today, to protest winter's arrival (wind chills below zero, despite the glorious full day of sunshine) let's spend a little time looking into the amazing world of  HUMMINGBIRDS! 
Field guides have been a part of my life since elementary school, because they offer so many of the same benefits as picture books. Kids always love the guides because they are: 

Complete- Concise-Compelling.

Peachtree, 2011
A nonfiction picture book that's been around for several years recently caught my attention. It's a perfect blend of traditional field guides and classic picture books. ABOUT HUMMINGBIRDS: A GUIDE FOR CHILDREN was written and illustrated by the prolific and talented team,  Cathryn P. Sill and John Sill. 
Each spread offers a simple statement of fact on the left page, with small print labels of common names of the varieties of hummingbirds pictured on the right. 
Those illustrations combine the exquisite accuracy of an Audubon-quality field guide with the habitat backgrounds and dramatic actions these little dynamos deserve. 

The afterward reprints each numbered plate in reduced size with extended content on each aspect of hummingbird lives explored page by page. A glossary of the terminology used is readable and age-appropriate. Resources listed include books, websites, and the author's research bibliography.

Young readers will find the detailed but digestible facts intriguing, and the plates merit detailed examination. Both will inspire further readings and research, through the sources provided and, more importantly, through direct observation and field study. 

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 2015
I'll readily admit that I'm a wildlife advocate and that makes me an eager audience for this book and a more recent release. It's a book written for adults that reads like a heart-stopping cliff-hanger: FASTEST THINGS ON WINGS: RESCUING HUMMINGBIRDS IN HOLLYWOOD. 
Author Terry Masear has rescued, raised, and rehabilitated enough hummingbirds to be defined as an expert by any standard. The experiences she shares here are stunningly readable and remarkable. Here's what I had to say about the book when I read it immediately after its release:

This is an astonishingly page-turning read, even for those who are not nature fanatics. It's wonderfully written in language and style while embedding detailed information and technical expertise (as well as ethical standards) into a fluid and comprehensive story.

As someone who spent years doing licensed wildlife rehabilitation I was privileged to rescue and eventually release a single hummingbird, which was as memorable an exeperience as any I've ever had.
The intensity of any seasonal rehabilitation work is reflected in this story, magnified a thousand-plus-fold when the sole objects of that service happen to be hummingbirds. Masseur provides incredible stories, offering a superior example of how nonfiction can be every bit as dramatic and compelling as the best of fiction. 

When winter winds blow, encourage young readers to spend some time in libraries and book stores exploring the shelves of field guides, starting with other titles in the Sills' "About" series on topics such as raptors, arachnids, and rodents. Even the most reluctant readers will find them accessible and intriguing, opening minds to closer observation of the natural world.

Dec 16, 2015

Non-fiction Notes: KID ATHLETES and Other Biographies

We've reached the final stages in our CYBILS fiction picture book evaluations. From now until the first of the year, when finalists are announced, I'll limit posts to nonfiction and poetry. There are plenty of titles to praise and celebrate in those categories, but I'll start here:

Kids really have a hard time picturing adults as babies, or even as kids. How could a mom, dad, teacher, coach, or any adult driving a car, mowing the lawn, or cooking dinner, ever have been a kid? Could they have hated homework? Pouted, teased, been bullied, or caused trouble? It stretches the imagination, to say the least.

It’s even more difficult to picture famous adults as kids. Sports stars are perhaps the hardest of all. Weren’t they just born into the world talented, superior, poised, confident, popular? Rich?

Quirk Books, December, 2015

Just in time for holiday gifting, here's a book that will reveal some childhood truths and hook young readers in the process: Kid Athletes: TrueTales of Childhood from SPORTS LEGENDS. (Quirk Books, December, 2015)Kids will love discovering the details of REAL kids who grew up to become famous athletes in this thoroughly researched new book for middle grade readers.:

The stories are written by David Stabler,  with illustrations by Doogie Horner. This pair also created Kid Presidents: True Tales of Childhood from America’s Presidents.
At two hundred pages, KID ATHLETES is meaty but accessible for even reluctant readers: large font, wide line spaces, text packed with wry humor and action, and nearly every page featuring colorful, comic illustrations.

The athletes span two centuries, many sports, both genders, and the globe. Although primarily focused on American athletes, even those won't all be familiar to young readers. The childhood experiences and societies these athletes inhabited provide real exposure to historic periods and changes. For kids who can't imagine a world without portable screens, these biographies are valuable opportunities to take steps back through time.

The stories of athletes are grouped by themes: Not Easy Being a Kid, Family Matters, and Practice Makes Perfect. They offer examples of hardships overcome, but also depict troublemaking kids, bullying, pranksters, frustrations, and failures. Each takes only a short time to read, with additional resources and readings provided in back matter.
This blog focuses on picture books, but this two hundred page, non-fiction picture-ish book offers intriguing biographies that pair well with picture books.

My favorite picture book pairing is featured among the recommended titles. It's by award-winning biographer Kathleen Krull  Lives of the Athletes: Thrills,Spills (and What the Neighbors Thought)

Some of the same individuals are featured, offering a great opportunity to compare and enhance the details of their lives from the two sources. It offers additional names to learn and lives to explore. 
Krulls website includes an introduction here, and a page with links to further information here.

Kathleen Krull is the author of one of my all-time favorite picture books (review here), illustrated by none other than award-winning David Diaz. WILMA UNLIMITED: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman. 
I'll slide two steps back from my pledge to stay with nonfiction when I tell you about a book that will release in February, 2016. Wilma Rudolph is the legendary figure who inspired THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE, by Pat Zietlow Miller. Truth be told, I haven't read this one yet, but a story created by Miller and about the inspiration provided by Wilma Rudolph to a kid in Clarksville will be in my hands the minute it becomes available.

After all, every legend started off as a kid. And every kid can grow up to become a legend. Reading these books could be just the inspiration they need to make it happen.

Dec 2, 2015

Working Through Decisions: So Many Cybils Choices

I began November with a serious plan to post notes about some of the best-of-the-best of the fiction picture books I've been reading as a panelist for the Cybils awards EVERY DAY OF THE MONTH! 

You may have noticed... that didn't happen! I won't even try to make excuses. Sometimes good intentions fall by the wayside when higher priorities move in. In this case, READING!


 Followed by taking part in early-stage discussions about some of the best of the best of the HUGE numbers of books our panelists have been reading... and reading... and reading!

No regrets. This has been the perfect storm of pleasure, challenge, inspiration, and responsibility.    
As I said, no regrets!

I'm spending the time I might be writing those daily posts trying to make sure that my impressions, analysis, and emotional responses to these books represent my highest standards and values. I'll close quickly and head back to that process in a moment, but if you are feeling curious about those stacks and stacks of books, you may want to explore a bit about some of them on this remarkable NEW resource.

SCBWI- the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators- has created a new service to its members. Three times a year they will post a "BOOK LAUNCH PARTY" link on their website. There anyone can browse through some of the books released (or due to release) in the current season, or search for a title you've heard about or check a favorite author's name to see if s/he has a current release. Each "Launch Party" tab opens up multiple ways to interact with the new books.

If I've disappointed you by not posting more titles here this month, try to forgive me, please. Then spend a few minutes (or many minutes) by browsing the Winter Release announcements here. Meanwhile, I'll get back to reading, analyzing, and enjoying these stacks of fiction picture books. 

And stay tuned... I will be posting extensive notes about those books before long.
Really! Trust me, it will be worth the wait.

By the way, in spring of 2016 I'll have a link at the book launch party site myself for the second book of my middle grade historical novel  trilogy. 
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.