Jan 21, 2016

More Compare and Contrast: Finding THE PERFECT TREE

Note: This title was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. 

Here's another 2016 release from Running Press Kids. It's a terrific choice on its own, and also offers opportunities to compare and contrast. (Check an earlier post with more COMPARE and CONTRAST suggestions HERE.)

THE PERFECT TREE, written and illustrated by Chloe Bonfield, is a luminous creation. Using a combination of two- and three-dimensional papercut images, collage, silhouettes, and drawn figures on layered, glowing backdrops, the double-page spreads  reveal themselves like scenes in a multi-act drama. Aptly named young lumberjack Jack launches the story with a search for the perfect tree, but not one to draw or climb or hug. 
The ironic use of paper cuts, newsprint collages, and other wood-by-products in the visual story opens a world of potential discussion to the question, "Why would he cut it down?" 
A progression of animals, including birds, squirrels, and a spider, combine with ethereal effects to generate a dream-like quality to the story. As if waking from a dream, Jack's encounters open his eyes to more nature-driven values and he does, in fact, begin to recognize the forest AND the trees for purposes other than his original plans.
Harcourt Brace, 1990

The publisher invites readers to compare this to THE GIVING TREE and THE LORAX, but other titles came to mind when I read this. I was instantly reminded of  the talented author/illustrator/environmentalist Lynne Cherry's THE GREAT KAPOK TREE: A TALE OF THE AMAZON RAIN FOREST, originally published in 1990. When a woodcutter is assigned to chop down the giant kapok tree tree he is visited during a siesta by the creatures who make the tree their home. Speaking persuasively and entertainingly in voices that echo their rainforest sounds, they, too, persuade the tree-harvester to see greater benefits in letting the tree live on. In both books the creatures "reveal" their connectedness to the trees rather than emphasizing debate or argument. Their simple truths, once exposed, are convincing enough on their merits. 
Tuttle Publishing, 2015
A more recent picture book that also came to mind is one narrated by the tree itself. Author Sandra Moore and illustrator Kazumi Wilds share the story of THE PEACE TREE from HIROSHIMA: The Little Bonsai with a BIG Story. Inspired by fifty bonsai trees that were presented to the United States by Japan in recognition of our bicentennial in 1976, the author imagined one tree sharing its life story. It's a story  stretching back to its earliest life in a Japanese mountain forest at the time when the Pilgrims were colonizing Plymouth. 
The life  of a bonsai begins with someone's search for a perfect little seedling, one that reveals the potential  strength, shape, and promise of centuries of survival in dwarf form.
In its miniaturized life each bonsai tree loses its function as a habitat but gains a family spanning generations, each in turn devoted to making the tree as perfect and healthy as possible.

In these three titles the art is produced through different media, in very different styles, and for intentionally different effects to suit  the stories being told. In all three books the voices are equally distinct but powerful, channeling the life-forces of nature and bridging the gap between modern demands and planet-old truths.

One thought that stayed with me through all three books relates less to searching for perfection and more to opening our minds  and hearts to HEAR other voices, to SEE other interests and needs. Tuttle Publishing has a stated mission to bridge gaps between Eastern and Western cultures, to change minds one page at a time. Our sharing of books like these is an essential step in that process.
Take part by adding other related title suggestions in the comments, or any other comments about these titles.

Jan 12, 2016

Folk Tales and Facts: Marvelous Cornelius (One that got away)

Updating this with a link to one of my earliest posts, explaining why Martin Luther King, Jr is a personal hero of mine. Hope you'll read it here.

Awards season for books for young readers increases in intensity at this time of year. I'm truly a fan of the NERDY BOOK CLUB blog and its decision to name all top contenders as "WINNERS" of their self-named "Nerdies" rather than finalists or honorees or also-rans. Anyone who reads and uses books with others, especially with young readers, knows that as soon as a single "winner" is named, there's a ripple effect of heartache among those whose favorite title just missed the cut. 

Participating as a first round panelist for the Cybils Awards this year in the fiction picture book category was an exciting, demanding, positive experience and one I'd love to repeat in some future year. Narrowing the worthy contenders to seven finalists was far from easy, but was actually less stressful than if I had to name that list myself. I know that the titles we ultimately agreed to send forward (here)  represent a wide range of experienced points of view, a much more fair approach than placing that burden on a single set of shoulders.

One interesting complication, though, had to do with categorizing and defining books. Thankfully, there's a separate set of administrators who determine if books are considered fiction or non-fiction, picture books or early readers or graphic novels, and so on. Once they were in our hands we judged them as fiction. A few raised my eyebrows, appearing to be hybrids of more than one category. Still, that's the way of publishing these days, and I believe we're better off for it when books can be "crossovers", as in music becoming hits in both pop and country genres. Perhaps that genre-bending factor explains why this title wasn't mentioned among the amazing ALA Youth Media Awards (view here).
Chronicle Books, 2015

I'm proud to raise my voice in praise of a book that didn't make the Cybils Fiction Picture Book finalists list, in part because it presented some of those confusions: MARVELOUS CORNELIUS: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans. Written by Phil Bildner and illustrated by John Parra, it's a fictionalized version of an actual resident of New Orleans, a man who spent his life elevating his job as a sanitation worker into a shining inspiration.My second read (because I was still wowed by the quality of the book after the first read) made me wonder if it was or wasn't fiction. I knew it was "based on" a real man. 

The third time through I finally read the back matter. I'm a huge fan of back matter, but tried not too read too early so that the "author's insight" wouldn't shape my reactions in judging the work on its own merits. Too many kids/teachers don't bother with the back content and it shouldn't be exclusively the reason for choosing a book kids will love. However, if it made it into the book it provides a rare opportunity to get a message from the author aimed directly at the reader, almost as a colleague or partner.

In this case, it confirmed what I was thinking, which is that this is NOT biographical, any more that John Henry (which is based on an actual character) is biographical/nonfiction. Cornelius worked in the French Quarter, a place steeped in legendary stories of its own. This book clearly incorporates things that are exaggerated, uses the language and patterns of tall tales, and absolutely captures the larger-than-life quality of a legendary hero in text and image. It represents that amazing ability to appeal to older readers and adults yet the youngest adore its rhythmic, lyrical text, enhanced with repetitions and refrains. It offers delights for the ears and eyes, expanding the action and language with its exaggerated, kid-friendly folk-art illustration style.

This book bounces and  sings, capturing a city and culture as if they are characters. Scenes shift throughout, from the earliest pages where the grittiness is transformed to sparkling and appealing by the spirit (and hard work) of Cornelius. While the pastel and filagreed structures fill the background, mid-ground citizens reflect the vibrant impact of Cornelius and his energetic joy.
Katrina not only flattens the city, it nearly destroys the spirit of those residents. Eventually, the overwhelming destruction of nature's force is countered by even stronger determination, binding and building a community, inspired by the spirit of Cornelius.
Beyond all that, it offers connections to curriculum- geography, careers, infrastructures, the role of government, weather, community action, goal-setting, character development, and more. Young writers can experiment with turning their own local or pop heroes into mythical status using the simple advice offered in Bildner's notes at the back. 
This book incorporates excellent design features, too, with iconography of New Orleans on the end papers, shifting perspectives and proportions throughout, and an introductory quotation by Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. Before the first word about Cornelius there is a full page spread sharing a quotation by MLK, Jr. about the dignity of work. It's as if he had lived to know Cornelius.  His quote comes from his dealings with the sanitation workers strike, an active stance that resulted in his assassination. 

"All the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 
Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well."

As did Cornelius.

Harcourt Brace & Co.
August, 2015
A graphic nonfiction portrayal of the actual events surrounding Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area was written and illustrated by DON BROWN: DROWNED CITY: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. It is undeniably non-fiction and is the well-deserved winner of the NCTE Orbis Pictus award in that category. 

Pair this with Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans to make history come alive, to bring that time and place "up close and personal" in a very real sense. 

Jan 9, 2016

A Trio of " Ones-That Got-Away" from our Cybils Finalists

When I began serving on the CYBILS Round One panel for fiction picture books I knew we'd read stacks and stacks of books. By the time the submission deadline arrived the list of eligible books topped out at 254! Long before we began the discussions that eventually narrowed our finalists list to seven, I was spotting remarkable books that were each, unquestionably, winners in their own right. 

With SO MANY amazingly impressive fiction picture books to consider, it was inevitable that not all would make it through to the finals. That in no way implies that non-finalists have "fallen by the wayside" or been "left in the dust". Quite the contrary. These and other titles not on our finals list are turning up in mock competitions in multiple categories. These decisions are difficult and undoubtedly subjective, regardless of best efforts to rely on objective critieria. 

The upcoming Winter Convention for ALA (American Library Association) will feature the official announcements of winners and honors titles in multiple categories. You can follow that news of the YOUTH MEDIA AWARDS on their press pages, here. I didn't bother buying a $2.00 Powerball ticket for a chance to win $800 million, but I'd put more than $2.00 down as a safe bet that more than one of these titles will be included among the honored and medaled titles in those announcements on Monday morning, January 11, 2016. Get a head start on reading them now, if you haven't yet, so you can feel smug and nod knowingly when the titles are officially listed.

Roaring Brook Press, 2015
Let's begin with a title from an author/illustration pair whose picture books have won a fair share of awards in the past, Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead. LENNY & LUCY  distinguishes itself for other stories about loneliness, fear, and change in ways tender and creative, 
shivering and reassuring.

I'd read so many glowing reviews about this before I got my hands on it that I half-expected to be disappointed. My reaction was quite the opposite. There are so many depths to plumb in this book, for readers, writers, illustrators and, above all, kids, that it is likely to remain a classic for generations. The background images (and color tones) are a story in themselves, but nothing outshines the subtle, gentle, powerful story of Peter and Harold, and Lenny & Lucy, and Millie, of course. 
Rather than rave (which is easy for me to do about this one) I urge you to get a copy for yourself ASAP. The library hold list on this one goes on forever. I try hard not to buy books if I can get them from the library, but even after reading and returning this one, I plan to own a copy.

Roaring Brook Press, 2015
Next up is a masterpiece written by Marsha Diane Arnold with pictures by Matthew Cordell, LOST. FOUND. This is a small miracle of a book in which two words lead readers on an epic, heroic journey from woodland walk to the establishment of a community of friends. The two title words form the total vocabulary for this story, so the reader must fully engage in each scenario as animal(s) depict a series of encounters with a colorful scarf. The illustrations romp, amuse, and propel page turns to reveal the unraveling of and eventual reconstruction of society itself. Creativity, cooperation, exuberance, and exasperation lead to confrontation then collaboration and eventual resolution. Humor and charm abound.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

Both of the titles above are proving to be favorites of kids and adults. The same is true for those lucky enough to have discovered DRUM DREAM GIRL, written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Rafael Lopez. This is destined to be a timeless classic and I hope everyone who reads it helps to make it so by recommending it far and wide.
It's a readable, very brief story in free-verse inspired by an actual multi-ethnic girl/young woman who overcame social taboos about girls drumming by force of her talent, determination, study and perseverance. Its category-bending nature mirrors the inspired and persistent girl's pursuit, couched in a book with rich visuals and language that can inspire readers, artists, and writers to follow their own dreams and talents. This story deserves more attention than it may garner in a crowded field of outstanding books, and should find a home with older readers as mentor writing text,  initiating discussions of social expectations and restrictions.

I'll feature even more titles in future days and weeks, celebrating announcements of winners like these and many others. Stay tuned to the ALA announcements and follow my blog for more amazing picture books, winners all: not because of medals awarded, wonderful as they are, but because these books are unforgettable and amazing. 

Jan 4, 2016

2016 Release from Running Press KIDS: Compare and Contrast

Note: This title was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. 

I'm taking a momentary break from writing about the amazing 2015 fiction picture book titles I read and carefully considered while serving as a round-one panelist for the Cybils Awards. If you missed that news, check out my last post, or link here.

The new year has barely begun and more engaging and appealing books are rolling hot off the presses. Publisher RUNNING PRESS has two titles that make great subjects to compare and contrast how different books can be while reflecting similar strengths and qualities. 
The first is BELLA'S BEST OF ALL, written and illustrated by  Jamie Harper. Bella mouse is an excellent character to begin the compare and contrast process, since she's prone to comparing and contrasting herself. She's a very selective fashionista. She consistently realizes that her things are good, but MOMMY'S are better when it comes to dress up and self-adornment.
Created with mixed media on open backgrounds in white and pastels, the intriguing patterned elements are often take center stage. Harper assures that Bella remains the focus of the spotlight by using heavy black outlines and expressive features for this undeniably central character. 
Mommy only reappears when Bella's panic over losing her omnipresent felt cat overwhelms her.  The images in which Bella fears her kitty-toy is lost in the guts of the vacuum reminded me of Melanie Watt's BUG IN A VACUUM, 2015, with a much speedier and simpler resolution. 
Young audiences will identify with her "looking for better" behaviors, will love searching for shifting details (Bella's switch from plastic earrings to crystal ones, as one example), and the page-by-page appearances of the felt cat and Mommy's real cat. 
Readers of every age will understand completely that sometimes it take a near-tragedy to appreciate what we have and realize some things mean more to us than the glitz and glamour of others.

Bella is a delight, and this book will entrance many little girls. But it also called to my mind, at least a few young boys I've known who would also adore this book. This is a charming addition to the many "gender-typical" books (a la FANCY NANCY), developing a strong individual character despite some familiar behaviors. On the other hand I could see an equally appealing Bella being intrigued with tools or techy or creative objects and still finding her way back to her true self. Perhaps this is only the first of many Bella stories and we'll learn more about her wide-ranging interests in the future. 
Albert Whitman and Company, 2014

If you, too, happen to know a young someone who would love a book with a wider view of gender-based tastes, consider sharing JACOB'S NEW DRESS by Sarah Hoffman and Chris Chase. On Goodreads, I said this:
This is a very user-friendly book dealing with what could be an awkward "hard-to-breathe" subject. Instead the accessible illustrations, the realistic family and school interactions, the matter-of-fact approach to a child's non-threatening play and dress choices all allow for open and comfortable discussions among children and adults. The book doesn't advocate for anything more than tolerance, and it does that quite well. No magic answers, even when Jacob feels the "magic" of his dress to stand up to a bully, he is actually just channeling the strength of the adult acceptance he's experienced.
The way in which the emotions of Jacob and his parents is described and visualized are equally appropriate. The back matter clarifies the "gender non-conforming" category, especially for young children. I particularly enjoyed the "pink boy" descriptor as a parallel to the "Tom boy" label used for boy-choice-preferring girls.
There is much to celebrate in Jacob's personality, including his eventual self-advocacy, his imagination and creativity, and his actual skills- from language, to sewing, to design.

I offer this comparison not to criticize Harper's latest release but to encourage some valuable new year goals in reading...

  • let's actively notice the aspects of books we share that could entrench or reinforce culturally imposed norms, 
  • let's use each book to "remind" ourselves of other related titles, especially titles that expand and explore variations on those patterns,
  • then let's model comparing and contrasting elements of books, from art media and style to characters to themes.
What a great way to maximize the POWER OF PICTURE BOOKS!
Add your own suggestions for titles to compare or any other comment to be entered in a giveaway for Bella's best of ALL! 

GIVEAWAY:  Everyone who comments, with suggested titles, opinions, or other related contributions will be entered in a giveaway for a copy of BELLA'S BEST OF ALL, offered by the publisher. Deadline: midnight CT, Saturday, January 9.

Update: No comments were added by the giveaway deadline, so this book will be donated to a local library.

Jan 1, 2016

Congratulations: 2016 Cybils Award Finalists


In my opinion there is no better way to celebrate the arrival of 2016 than to check out the lists of amazing finalists in every category of the CYBILS AWARDS. 

Let's start with the penultimate seven titles in the picture book category. I've had to keep my lip zipped about these titles for almost two weeks, and anyone who knows me personally will realize that meant pain and suffering on my part!

Now, officially, I can celebrate the titles our panel  selected: (listed alp[habetically by title)

by John Rocco
Nominated by: Adrienne
When the relentless snow brings a boy’s world to a halt, he discovers a way to both enjoy it and provide relief to his family and neighbors. John Rocco’s Blizzard produces four feet of snow and is still warm on the inside as it unites family. Proving how fast a blizzard shuts things down and also how long the recovery process takes, our young main character’s first person voice relays the varied emotions that accompany the flurry, engaging readers personally. With a lovely balance between dialogue and storyline, interaction from family and neighbors, and wonder-filled thoughts of a boy on a mission, Blizzard creates a relatable experience — even for those who never see snow! Featuring an incredible use of white space in the overwhelming amounts of snow and delightful details such as a snow-infused timeline and a snow-tracked map of the rescue, Rocco has created a complete work of art.
Blurb by Carrie Charley Brown, ReFoReMo- Reading for Research
by Melanie Watt
Publisher/ Author Submission
Bug in a Vacuum is a rare and valuable picture book. On one level, it is the humorous story of a bug who is sucked into a vacuum and struggles to come to terms with its situation. Watt overlays this narrative with a presentation of the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief, as well as a secondary story mirroring the household dog’s own loss of his beloved toy. The muted, mixed media illustrations merge the complex narratives seamlessly to tell a rich, multilayered story. It has much to offer children of all ages — and I do mean all. The witty commentary and illustrations of the bug, rife with wordplay and humorous visual metaphors, propel the story above and beyond the grief and loss references, creating a bibliotherapy text that succeeds on its own literary and artistic merits. Readers will engage with the bug’s dilemma, the dog’s subtext, and breathe sighs of relief at their satisfying conclusions. This quirky offering by the author of Scaredy Squirrel possesses a darker vibe and fills 96 pages, but will absolutely inspire laughter, thoughtful discussion and meaningful questions, and draw children in for multiple readings.
Maggi Rohde, Mama Librarian
by Sean Taylor
Candlewick Press
Nominated by: Anamaria (bookstogether)
Beware, inhabitants of the night! Hoot Owl is flying in search of a meal! Everyone knows owls are wise. But as well as being wise, Hoot Owl is a Master of Disguise. One after another, Hoot Owl devises disguises designed to fool his prey. Sean Taylor’s intentionally purple prose begs to be read aloud. Jean Jullien’s bold, expressive illustrations provide the perfect accompaniment to Hoot Owl’s dramatic plans. Kids from preschool to elementary age will enjoy seeing through Hoot Owl’s self-proclaimed cleverness, staying engaged (and giggling) throughout.
Sondra Eklund, Sonderbooks
by Muon Van
Creston Books
Nominated by: Katy Manck
The combination of lyrical verse, gorgeous illustration and timeless themes pulls readers deeply into the hearts, lives, and loves of a particular family in a mountainside fishing village half a world away. Comfort shifts to concern as a sea storm rises, revealed in the artwork of a fantastically talented pet cricket. Shifting perspectives and warm, earthy scenes make the story safely familiar though the art is rendered with Asian style and detail. In a Village by the Sea uses a cumulative and nesting text to create musical verse and repetitive themes that touch something in readers of any age. It’s a story that is both richly specific and lovingly universal, with enough visual detail and depth of character to invite countless satisfying rereads.
by Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Anne Marie Pace
Matt de la Peña delivers a great cross-generational experience on an ordinary bus ride. CJ doesn’t want to wait in the rain, doesn’t want to ride the bus, and does not want to venture across town like he does every Sunday after church. He longs for what others have until Nana opens her gentle, very unique worldview that includes trees that drink from straws, a blind man that sees with his ears (and nose) and CJ, himself, who embraces the discovery that the true smell of “freedom,” is one that simply finds magic, beauty, and fun in the diverse spectrum of people he meets everywhere. The energy of the words marry the vibrancy and color of Christian Robinson’s illustrations. This book is one that will leave all readers embracing the delicious moments in life.
by Meg Medina
Candlewick Press
Nominated by: CindyRodriguez
When Mia’s “faraway” grandmother comes to live with her familia in the United States, what should be a happy arrangement presents struggles for both Mia and her Abuela. Mia can’t speak Spanish and her grandmother no habla ingles. How can Abuela tell Mia about her home where wild parrots roost in mango trees and how can Mia tell Abuela about her accomplishments in running and art? Mia is inspired by a red feather tucked in her grandmother’s suitcase to buy a parrot, and suddenly both Mia and Abuela find their “mouths are full of things to say.” With vivid writing and expressive illustrations, this is a story that will “toca su corazon,” touch your heart.
Debbie Nance, Readerbuzz
by JonArno Lawson
Groundwood Books
Nominated by: Hannah DeCamp
On a wonder-inspiring walk around the city with her father, a young girl gathers wildflowers that tenaciously grow in the cracks of the sidewalk. She uses them to lovingly bedeck the people and animals she passes, unlocking a colorful world from the drab urban grey. JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith have created a gorgeous wordless journey that uses perspective and pacing brilliantly to give readers a kid’s-eye view of the world–a world where poetry is found in the tiniest, most ordinary details. This one is perfect for quiet contemplative reading and provoking visual storytelling.
Hannah DeCamp, Hannah DeCamp
Congratulations to each and every finalist. Know that we all admired your work deeply and are proud to see it celebrated in this way.
This narrowing/selection process was both delightful and painful, since the current and upcoming flood of award nominees, honorees, and winners will make it clear that this year's bumper crop of outstanding kid lit offered a long list of worthy titles to consider.  All seven of us on the panel agreed on these as our finalists, and yet we each had other titles that were personal favorites, too. 
Please note that each blurb-writer-panelist above includes an active link to her blog site and I encourage you to check out each and every one. If you follow my blog it means you appreciate learning about amazing books for young readers, so I urge you to subscribe to their posts, too. In the weeks and months ahead we'll all be posting further reviews and notes about fiction picture books-- and more.
Now I'll get busy reading and writing about 2015 AND 2016 picture books, waiting anxiously  to see which of these remarkable finalists will be named by the finalists panel as the WINNER of the category. 
Whew, that is one tough decision.
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.