Sunday, February 21, 2010

Books about pets for early readers (ages 4 - 6)

Do you have an early reader in your family?  Children who are very early readers need books specially chosen for them. At the bottom of this post, I will go into more detail about what I look for in an early reader. But first, I'd like to share two books for very early readers about kids who love their dog. My Dog, Buddy and When Tiny Was Tiny are two fun books about little kids and their special friendship with their dog.
My Dog, Buddy
by David Milgrim
NY: Scholastic, 2008
Scholastic Beginning Reader - Level 1
ages 4 - 6
When you're the little kid in the family, it sometimes feels like no one listens to you.  But Buddy listens best when the young boy in this story talks to him.  When Dad tells Buddy to sit, Buddy stands up and barks. When Dad tells Buddy to stand up and bark, Buddy sits! But when the little boy tells Buddy to come, he does.  Of course, a friendly lick of an ice cream cone helps!  This is a fun, simple book that appeals to little kids.  I love the way the whole family looks to the little kid to help them find Buddy when he's lost.  As he says, "You have to know how to talk to a dog." It's a great choice for an early reader.

David Milgrim is the author of over a dozen books including a "Ready to Read" series for Atheneum featuring a robot named Otto.  We love this series, but unfortunately it's out of print.  Check for these books at your local library.

When Tiny Was Tiny
by Cari Meister
illustrated by Rich Davis
NY: Viking, 1999
Puffin Easy-to-read, level 1
ages 4 - 6
Tiny is a very big dog, but Tiny was not always big. When he was tiny, he fit in a shoe or pocket. Then Tiny grew and grew. "Now Tiny is very big!" This is a sweet story about the joy a little boy has playing with his giant dog.  It compares things they used to do when Tiny was a little dog, and things they still do now that Tiny is big.  The trouble that Tiny gets into will have your little reader laughing and giggling.  As you see Tiny tracking mud through the kitchen, you read "When Tiny was tiny, he had big feet."  On the next page, Tiny is standing on the little boy's foot.  "He still does. Ow! Get off my foot, Tiny."  Throughout, this book celebrates the friendship the little boy has with his dog, and how that friendship doesn't change even though Tiny has gotten bigger.  I'd love to ask the little kid reading if their friends have change as they've gotten bigger, or if they're still friend with the kids they played with in preschool.  If you like the Tiny stories, look for others in the series: Tiny the Snow Dog, Tiny Goes Camping, Tiny Goes to the Library, and Tiny's Bath.

When I am choosing a book for a early reader, I look at the story, the words and sentences, and the design or layout of the book. The story should be engaging so that it makes these children want to keep reading. Stories that are funny and where kids can see themselves in the story are best, in my view. Early readers need books with very simple, short sentences (about five words long). For very early readers, I look for words that are three to five letters long for the most part. Longer, harder words should be supported by pictures. The design of an early reader is also very important. The text needs to be large and clear, with only one sentence per page for very early readers.

You can find these books at your local library, local bookstores, or on Amazon.  If you make a purchase on Amazon using the links here, a small portion will go to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you).  This will be used to purchase more books to review. Thank you for your support!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bad to the Bone, by Lucy Nolan - winner of 2009 Cybils short chapter book

Do you have any animal loving new readers in your life? My children and their friends love their pets. I remember when I was young I used to tell all my secrets to my cat because he would never share them with anyone! The Down Girl and Sit series is a great choice for kids ready to read short chapter books. Best of all, this will make you laugh out loud.
Bad to the Bone
by Lucy Nolan
illustrated by Mike Reed
NY: Marshall Cavendish Children, 2008
ages 6 - 8
This is truly a story for the dogs, or should I say from the dogs? Down Girl explains about her days protecting her home from the evil cat next door, Here Kitty Kitty. She shares tales of training her master, along with the help of her neighbor Sit. You see, their masters are continually yelling, "Down Girl" or "Sit" to these two hopelessly clueless dogs.

I loved the humor in this short chapter book. It made me laugh out loud on several occasions. Nolan has created a distinctive humorous voice as you hear Down Girl telling her silly story. In one of my favorite chapters, Down Girl explains about her typical day when Rruff (her master, because she's always barking at him):
I don't know where Rruff goes every morning when he leaves the house. I just know that he is very lucky that I stay home. If I goofed off as much as he does, the squirrels would take over. Sit and I are not about to let that happen.

We want to make the neighborhood safe for everyone - even the man next door. He is not my favorite person. He grills hamburgers in his yard and never gives me any. But I don't hold that against him.
Well, not much.
You can just guess some of the escapades that Down Girl is going to get into with this hamburger-loving neighbor. Nolan also does a wonderful job of combining action, dialog and character development - all of which are important qualities for new readers to understand. The illustrations throughout help develop the humor and silly situations. I would love to ask a child what this story would sound like if the master told it. Or maybe Here Kitty Kitty.

Lucy Nolan shares on her website about her funny dogs Nutmeg and Becky. She writes,
Everybody always wants to know which of my two dogs inspired the character of Down Girl. The original answer was "Nutmeg" — the most rambunctious, and ridiculous, dog you could ever meet. Nutmeg was a red setter who spent a lot of time standing up on her hind legs or springing into the air for no apparent reason. I spent a lot of time yelling, "Down, girl!"

By the time I finished writing the first Down Girl and Sit book, Becky the English setter had come to live with us. Becky is the sweetest dog I've ever known, but she has the knack of getting into some very odd predicaments. Between the two of them, Down Girl's personality really started taking shape.

If you're interested, take a look at the Google preview of the book. See if the reading level and text matches your child's ability. Or if you're a dog-loving family, this would make a great read-aloud. The beginning of the first chapter starts off with Down Girl explaining about the everlasting feud between cats and dogs:

Bad to the Bone was chosen as the winner of the 2009 Cybils Award for Short Chapter Books. I served on the round 2 judging panel and found the discussions with other panel members fascinating. Cybils are awarded to books that have both the highest literary merit and excellent kid appeal. I am thrilled that Cybils is recognizing short chapter books - such an important step as children develop their confidence and fluency reading longer books.

If you like Bad to the Bone, definitely check out other books in the Down Girl and Sit series:
Smarter than Squirrels
On the Road
Home on the Range (coming in April 2010!)

The review copy was kindly provided by the publisher for the Cybils panel. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links, Great Kid Books will receive a small commission (at no cost to you!) which will be used to purchase more books for review. Thank you for your support.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The 2009 Cybils Winners - a great resource for parents

The Cybils Awards are a book award given by children’s and young adult book bloggers for books that have both excellent literary merit and great kid appeal. The winners of the 2009 Cybils Awards have just been announced, and it's well worth checking them out. They are a great resource for parents, a way to learn more about the best books published in 2009, and ones that will definitely appeal to kids! This year's winners are:

Cybils Awards for Children's and Middle Grade Books

Picture Book (Fiction)
All the World
by Liz Garton Scanlon; illustrated by Marla Frazee
Beach Lane Books
Nominated by: Cynthia Leitich Smith

Picture Book (Non-Fiction)
The Day-Glo Brothers
by Chris Barton; illustrated by Tony Persiani
Nominated by: Cynthia Leitich Smith

Easy Reader
Watch Me Throw the Ball! (An Elephant and Piggie Book)
by Mo Willems
Nominated by: Melissa

Early Chapter Book
Bad to the Bone (Down Girl and Sit)
by Lucy Nolan; illustrated by Mike Reed
Marshall Cavendish Childrens Books
Nominated by: Jennifer Wharton

Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors
by Joyce Sidman; illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Nominated by: Elizabeth Bird

Graphic Novel
The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook
by Eleanor Davis
Bloomsbury USA
Nominated by: Scope Notes

Middle Grade Fantasy and Science Fiction
Dreamdark: Silksinger (Faeries of Dreamdark)
by Laini Taylor
Putnam Juvenile
Nominated by: Melissa

Middle Grade Fiction
by Laurie Halse Anderson
Simon and Schuster
Nominated by: melissa

Cybils Awards For Young Adult Books

The Frog Scientist
Pamela S. Turner; illustrated by Andy CominsHoughton Mifflin Harcourt
Nominated by: Laurie Thompson

Graphic Novel
Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation
by Tom Siddell
Archaia Press
Nominated by: Paradox

Fantasy and Science Fiction
by Kristin Cashore
Nominated by: Jenny Moss

Young Adult Fiction
Cracked Up to Be
by Courtney Summers
Nominated by: Robin Prehn

The Cybils blog is a great resource for parents - you can find more information about each of these books, and follow links to other finalists in each category. On the top right hand corner of the Cybils blog, there is a link to a printer-friendly flyer of all the 2009 finalists.

I had the honor and pleasure of serving on the committee for Easy Readers and Short Chapter Books. It was a wonderful experience which deepened my understanding and appreciation of books that are suited for early readers. I'll be sharing more on each of these books in the coming weeks.

All of the links above lead to Amazon. If you purchase a book on Amazon following these links, Great Kid Books receives a small commission (at no cost to you). This will be used to purchase more books to review. Thank you for your support!

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Rock and the River, by Kekla Magoon

Last fall, I was checking in with 7th grade students about reading projects to see if they liked the books they had selected the week before.  Most had read a chapter or two.  One student sheepishly said, "Um, I finished it already," showing me The Rock and the River, by Kekla Magoon.  I asked him if this was usual for him - some students are fast readers.  He replied that he doesn't read much and finds it hard to find a book.  But this book completely grabbed him.

As a librarian and teacher, that is a moment we live for, a moment that can sustain you over many longs days.  This student found a book that spoke to him and completely engaged him - and that experience can last a long time with a student.  This winter, I read The Rock and the River, and I wholeheartedly agree with this student - it's a gripping, thought-provoking book.

The Rock and the River
by Kekla Magoon
NY: Aladdin, 2009; 304 pages
ages 12 and up
Thirteen-year old Sam knows that he must do what his father expects, but that becomes hard when his older brother parts ways with his father’s teachings.  His father is a famous African-American civil rights lawyer who works closely with Martin Luther King, Jr.  When Sam finds literature about the Black Panthers under his brother’s bed, he starts to wonder whether there are other ways to bring about changes in society. Sam beings to explore the Panthers, but soon he's involved in something far more serious -- and more dangerous -- than he could have ever predicted. Set during the summer of 1968 in Chicago, this book is about a young African-American boy’s search for identity and brotherhood.  It is a riveting story about an important time in our history.

Kekla Magoon's writing is direct and powerful.  She was honored with the 2010 Coretta Scott King - John Steptoe Award for New Talent and is profiled in the Brown Bookshelf 28 Days Later feature. She brings you right into the scene, where you can imagine being in Sam's shoes.

She opens with a scene at a protest that Sam's father has organized.  Sam and his older brother Stick don't want to be there, and start to leave.  But they walk into a part of the crowd where "a group of white men armed with bats, bottles and sticks were beating on people at the edge of the crowd."  Stick can't just avoid this confrontation, but rushes in to protect an older black woman who is getting hurt.
"Stick! The cops!" I shouted.  His head snapped up. In that split second, the man fighting with him bent down and seized the neck of a broken bottle from the ground. "No!" I cried.  The man swung and the bottle connected with Stick's temple.  Stick fell to the ground, and the man stumbled away.  (p. 5)

If you're at all intrigued, read the first chapter on Google Books:

The Rock and the River will challenge kids to think about how they would react in difficult situations, the nature of revenge, how to make a decision for yourself instead of just basing it on other's opinions.  I would save this book for middle school students.  There are scenes of violence that might be upsetting to younger students.  But they are presented within context. I agree wholeheartedly with Richie Partington:
In her debut novel, Magoon, who studied history as an undergraduate, does an exceptional job of integrating many sides of very complex racial and political issues into this tense tale of an adolescent who has grown up in the Civil Rights Movement.

Find this book at your local public library using WorldCat, or at a local bookstore.  You can find it online at Amazon.  If you make a purchase on Amazon using the links here, a small percentage will go toward Great Kid Books.  These proceeds will enable me to review other gripping stories for our children.  Thank you for your support.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Welcome Nonfiction Monday! Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U. S. Marshal

Are you looking for a book that will grab readers, especially boys who love to read real life stories?  Bad News for Outlaws starts with a bang and carries readers right through to the end, exploring the life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U. S. Marshal.  I was drawn in by the striking illustrations, and fascinated by Reeves' life and courage.  This book is perfect for readers in 3rd through 5th grades, but would probably interest younger guys, too.
Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U. S. Marshal
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson,
illustrations by R. Gregory Christie
MN: Carolrhoda, 2009.
ages 8-12
Bass Reeve was a large man, a presence in the Wild West as he enforced justice across the land. This story starts with a bang - quite literally - as readers see outlaw Jim Webb bursting through a glass window.  Reeves prefers to take his prisoners alive, but when Webb starts shooting at him, the lawman handles the situation.  Reeves was born a slave, but escaped to Indian Territory (now known as Oklahoma) as a young man.  As a deputy U.S. marshal with a clear sense of purpose and justice, Reeves captured over three thousand men and women.  Christie’s strong, dramatic illustrations engage readers and convey Reeve’s strength and courage.

This is really a book worth taking a look at.  Here's a sample from Google Books (scrolll through the pages - the interior art is amazing and worth seeing!):

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is the winner of the 2010 Coretta Scott King Author Award. Find out more about her in an interview with The Brown Bookshelf in last year's 28 Days Later: A Black History Month Celebration of Children's Literature.  I'll finish with this quote from Ms. Nelson:
“I hope to give children some of what my parents gave me – the opportunity to grow, to be made stronger, through story.”  
You can find  Bad News for Outlaws at your local library using  It's also available at bookstores near you and online at Amazon.  If you make a purchase on Amazon through the links on this site, a small commission will go toward Great Kid Books (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support!

Fellow bloggers, I'd like to urge you to include links to WorldCat with your book reviews.  We all know that we can't buy every book we're interested in.  WorldCat allows readers to find books at a library near them.  Try it out - it's easy and useful!

Welcome to Nonfiction Monday.  I'm happy to host this weekly feature of the kidlitosphere.  Please leave a note in the comments and I'll share links throughout the day.  Please remember to leave the link to your specific post.

Great books to check out:

At Simply Science, Shirley has a thoughtful, timely review of Leveled by an Earthquake! by Adam Reingold. "Beichuan, China, was wiped off the landscape during the great Sichuan earthquake of 2008... Introduced from the point of view from a 16 year old girl who survived the collapsed school, the book explains earthquakes from a personal experience to the physical aspects of how a quake happens."

At In Need of  Chocolate, Sarah has a post about Dinosaurs Big and Small, part of the award-winning Let's Read and Find Out series.

Here's a great new book coming in March, Sarah Campbell's Growing Patterns.  Head over to Jennifer's blog at the Jean Little Library to find out more.

At A Patchwork of Books, Amanda reviews two books: D is for Drinking Gourd and Pappy's Handkerchief, both of which she is also giving away.  Pappy's Handkerchief looks like a great book to pair with Bad News for Outlaws, exploring the settlement of the West.

With the Olympic opening ceremony coming up this weekend, children will be interested in flags from other countries.  Check It Out recommends Flags of the World by Sylvie Bednar.

Great minds think alike!  Abby (the) Librarian also has a review of Bad News for Outlaws.  As she says, this book "combines kid appeal with literary merit".

Over at Mama Librarian, there's a look at cheese: Extra Cheese, Please!, an "excellent nonfiction book on how milk is made into mozzarella cheese."

At Bookish Blather, Angela reviews IraqiGirl, a compendium of the blog kept by a girl called Hadiya (a pseudonym) from mid-2004 through the end of 2007.

Lori Calabrase takes a look at Little Black Ant on Park Street, "a beautifully written story that weaves in plenty of facts about the little black ant."

Sally at Whispers of Dawn posted about an early reader, Alexander Graham Bell.

Jeannine Atkins posted about research, books, and the Web. It includes a preview of an interesting Frontline show about the Digital Nation.  I'm looking forward to checking it out.

Shelf-employed shares her post about a visit to her library by the illustrator of Bad News for Outlaws, R. Gregory Christie. "He spoke to a group of 5th grade students about art, history, technique, research, publishing, and inspiration." It sounds like a fantastic visit - I'm looking forward to checking out more of his artwork.

Paula at PinkMe! shares her thoughts about Lives of the Great Artists. I agree, Paula, that the title could have easily clarified the focus of the book, on European artists. It is certainly time to acknowledge a book's Euro-centric viewpoint. 

Becky has another great review about Bad News for Outlaws at Young Readers.  Hooray for the Coretta Scott King awards for shining the light on a great book! As Becky says, "Wow, wow, wow!"

Are you snowed in on the East Coast?  You'll be fascinated by Becky's review of Blizzard! The Storm That Changed America, by Jim Murphy.  Head over to Becky's Book Reviews to read all about it. 

At LibrariYan, Alicia reviews Pamela S. Turner's Prowling the Seas: Exploring the Hidden World of Ocean Predators.

The Wild About Writing trio has a review of the picture-book biography Darwin, by  Alice McGinty.  "Paired with notes from Darwin’s own journal, McGinty’s text takes readers into the heart and mind of Charles Darwin." Sound fascinating!

At Lost Between the Pages, Anna has posted about The Raucous Royals, by Carlyn Beccia. "It's hijinxs and shenanigans vivaciously illustrated using amazing colors and stylized so you need to keep turning the pages until you are done."

Camille has reviewed a nonfiction series book, Hairy Tarantulas by Kathryn Camisa, over at BookMoot. "The format of the book is very well designed and well laid out for young readers." Format seems especially important with nonfiction books - thanks for the great review!

Jennie at BiblioFile reviews two Cybils nominees: The Other Side: A Teen's Guide to Ghost Hunting and the Paranormal and Witches and Wizards. Both seem very creepy, but likely to capture a kid's attention.

Brenda at proseandkahn read Heroes of the Environment, and shares her thought on it. Brenda writes, "I cannot imagine anyone who would be able to read this collective biography and not be inspired to do more to live in an environmentally friendly way. Twelve short biographies highlight geographically and culturally diverse individuals who thought globally and acted locally."

If you're hankering for more snow, head over to Wendie's Wanderings. After taking two and a half days to shovel out to the street, you'll never guess what book Wendie is reviewing: The Coldest Places on Earth.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Poetry Friday is Here! The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes, illustrated by E. B. Lewis

Poetry Friday is here!  Great Kid Books is honored to host Poetry Friday, an ongoing feature of the Kidlitosphere.  If you have something to share, please leave a comment with a link to your post.  Today, I'd like to share an amazing book that was named a 2010 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book: The Negro Speaks of Rivers.

"Illustration is the visual interpretation of the written word," E.B. Lewis writes in his note to The Negro Speaks of Rivers, by Langston Hughes. Although this seems a simple statement on the face of it, Lewis' illustrations bring Langston Hughes' poem to life.  This beautiful book is well worth seeking out for children of all ages.  The illustrations and words will resonate with children and adults long past the first viewing.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes
illustrated by E.B. Lewis
NY: Jump at the Sun Books, 2009
2010 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book
ages 4 - 14
Langston Hughes wrote this poem in 1920 at the age of eighteen while he was traveling by train to see his father in Mexico.  As he crossed the Mississippi River, he thought about how the history of African-Americans is linked to this great river.  He remembered his grandmother talking about how being sold down the Mississippi during slavery times was one of the worst fates possible.  Hughes remembered reading about Abraham Lincoln traveling down the Mississippi as a young man, being horrified when he saw human beings sold at a slave market.  And so Hughes started writing this poem on the back of an envelope on the train.  It begins:
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world
and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

(see here for the full text and Langston Hughes reading aloud the entire poem)
E.B. Lewis' illustrations, luminescent watercolors that fill each page, truly bring the poem to life - breathing meaning, history and feelings into the words of the poem.  Lewis visually represents the important role that water has played throughout history in the lives of black people, and continues to play today. Lewis pairs each line of the poem with a large painting, some showing scenes from modern life, others showing scenes from history.  The poetry and artwork are deeply layered with emotions and a sense of history. Through these images, children both young and old will be able to connect personally to Hughes' masterful poem.

E.B. Lewis writes in the author's note, "I read the poem over and over, and as I visualized the meaning of the words, Hughes's work became as personal as a prayer.  More was revealed to me each time I read it, and I began to truly understand the poem's essence."  I feel the same could be said of Lewis' watercolors.  They are paintings I want to look at over and over again: seeing more, feeling more, understanding more each time. It is hard for me to find the words to describe them.  They take my breath away. My one hope is that Mr. Lewis can be persuaded to make a video combining his beautiful artwork with original audio of Langston Hughes reading aloud this poem.

You can find other paintings by the remarkable E.B. Lewis at the Michelson Galleries.
Black-Eyed Susan and Tasha at Kids Lit also have thoughtful, interesting reviews of The Negro Speaks of Rivers.

You can find The Negro Speaks of Rivers at your local public library using  It is also available at your local bookstore or online at Amazon.  If you make a purchase on Amazon by using a link on this blog, Great Kid Books will earn a small commission (at no cost to you).  This will be used to purchase more books to review.  Thank you for your support.

***One thing I'd like to encourage all bloggers: please include a link to, so viewers can easily see if local library systems near them carry the book you've talked about. ***

Some great blogs to explore:

Over at Fuse #8, Betsy has a great review of  Poetry Speaks Who I Am, a new anthology of poetry for tweens and young teens. I find that tweens sometimes find it hard to connect to poetry - they're beyond the visually stimulating, funny poems of their childhood, and yet they aren't quite ready for abstract poetry.  This seems like the perfect collection to speak to tweens and teens.  Can't wait to see it!

Jules at 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast shares a silly, fun poem: "A School Library Is..." by J. Patrick Lewis.  See if you can guess all the titles that the poem is twisting around!

John, at The Book Mine Set, shares a review of Beautiful Sadness by Lesley Choyce.

At GottaBook, Greg has a special guest - author/illustrator/singer/songwriter Barney Saltzberg sharing some poetry: Barney Saltzberg - Winter.

Charles at FATHER GOOSE blog shares "Let's Build a Poem".

It's almost Valentine's Day! Kelly Pollark shares an original Valentine's Day poem.  Oh, how sweet it is!

Madelyn Rosenberg is sharing a Mary Oliver poem about snow (well, about "Snow Geese") and encouraging everyone to write a poem about snow, too

With Blizzard #2 barreling down on her city, Sara Lewis Holmes thought a poem called "Relearning Winter" was appropriate. Even though she thinks she learned A LOT from the last blizzard. :) Come check out her blog: Read Write Believe.

Hoping to bring to mind some more carefree days than the ones she's having right now, at her blog Laura Salas is in with a poem by Tony Hoaglund called Summer in a Small Town.  It spoke to me about the sense of exhaustion I can feel at times, especially bringing back memories of caring for a newborn night and day.

Diane Mayr has three poems to share!  At Random Noodling she has an original haiga (an illustrated haiku) to bring some color to the winter. Kurious Kitty has a poem by Du Fu called "The Visitor."
The Write Sisters look at the book Mrs. Brown on Exhibit by Susan Katz, which will inspire a child or class to write poems to document their visit to a museum.

At Writing and Ruminating, Kelly Fineman shares an original poem entitled "Snow Moon", which certainly brought back memories of being in the snow on a wintery full moon night.

Jama Rattigan is celebrating Charles Dickens's birthday (which is on Feb. 7th), with his most well known lyric, "The Ivy Green."  Check out her blog Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup.

At Wild Rose Reader, Elaine has an original fairy tale poem written in the form of a Q&A about Red Riding Hood., inspired by her folklore unit and her students own fairy tale poems. At Blue Rose Girls Elaine has a poem by Trish Crapo titled "Back Then" about childhood and innocence.

Ms. Mac at Check It Out is in with wintery responses to poetry prompts at several blogs.

At My World/Mi Mundo Stella is reviewing a poetry book: Punctuation Celebration!. It looks like a great resource for Writing Workshop! Pure fun, if you ask me.

At his blog Haunts of a Children's Writer, Jim Danielson is checking in with an original Scrabble challange poem called Personal Heath Care Reform -- the Before and After.

Shari Doyle interview poet Alma Fullerton, about her verse novel, Libertad, which follows a young boy's journey from Guatemala City north to the United States.

Tanita Davis is in with Music, which is just an astoundingly gorgeous poem by Ann Porter about the emotional impact that music can have on us, especially when we are children.

At Poetry for Children, Sylvia Vardell has written about global poetry, including a review of Canadian poet JonArno Lawson's new book, Think Again.  Sylvia includes many suggestions of poetry collections published outside of the U.S., ranging from Canada to Europe to Japan.

Celebrating the snow that blanketed her area closing schools for most of the week, Tricia has a poem by Robert Haight called How Is It That The Snow.  Stop by The Miss Rumphius Effect to read this poem and check out the Poetry Stretch results, with many wonderful poems - also about snow!

MaryLee at A Year of Reading is sharing a poem called You  Begin by Margaret Atwood, and the answer to a really interesting question she was asked this week.  I love her answer - stop by to see her reflections on teaching and sharing a passion for reading.

Over at The Simple and the Ordinary Christine shares an original poem her 13 year old daughter wrote (when she was supposed to be studying).

Karen Edmisten contributes a poem by Pablo Neruda from the movie Truly, Madly, Deeply.  But I warn you, find some tissues nearby.  It's a very moving poem and scene.

Jenny Brown shares All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon. In this wonderful book, Caldecott Honor artist Marla Frazee makes connections between the poem's details (highlighted in Frazee's vignettes) and it's larger themes in full-bleed illustrations.  Stop by her site Twenty by Jenny to see the her review.

Miss Erin is contributing an original poem called "haunting". Take a look, it will seep under your skin.

Chicken Spaghetti is in with Black Nature, a new anthology of nature poems by African Americans. The poems "cover ground from beautiful to heartbreaking to political—and them some. You'll find Wright, Dove, Hughes, Trethewey, Giovanni, and less familiar names among the poets here."  Great find - thank you for sharing.

It's always great to hear from a namesake! Over on Reading, Writing, and Recipes, Mary Ann Dames posted a cinquain for my blog's Creative Friday.

Cazzy has posted about the use of Jabberwocky to explore poetry and art. Check out The Cazzy Files.

Julie Larios is sharing her snow poem "What Snow Knows" up at The Drift Record.

At her blog Semicolon, Sherry has two poems for us today: Marlowe's "Come live with me and be my love" and Raleigh's response "If all the world and love were young."

Jennie has a review of (and poems from) one of my favorite books: Love that Dog and its sequel Hate that Cat. Check out her blog BiblioFile.

Head on over to Becky's Book Reviews, to read a review of the fantastic, amazing, beautiful book: The Bill Martin Jr. Big Book of Poetry.

In honor of Valentine's Day coming up, Nicole Schreiber posted Christopher Marlowe's poem, "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love".

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Talking with Adam Gustavson, illustrator for The Yankee at the Seder - celebrating the Sydney Taylor Book Awards

It’s a pleasure to have a chance to talk with illustrator Adam Gustavson as part of the Sydney Taylor Award Blog Tour. Adam illustrated The Yankee at the Seder, which he infused with realism, historical details and great emotion.  The Yankee at the Seder was awarded as a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Younger Readers.

A Yankee at the Seder is set at the very end of the Civil War, in a Virginia town. Young Jacob wants more than anything to show that the South is not ready to concede defeat to the North.  But then Myer Levy, a Jewish Yankee soldier, joins Jacob's family Passover meal.  Gathered around the Seder table, the group discusses what it means to be free.  This touching, heart-felt story shows how cultural and religious connections can stretch across many boundaries. It is my pleasure to talk with the illustrator, Adam Gustavson, about his process illustrating historical picture books, and his thoughts on sharing stories with children.

Great Kid Books: Are you an illustrator or author and illustrator? Do you work primarily with children's books, or do you also work in other fields?

Adam G: I mainly illustrate children's books.  When I started off, I looked for work anywhere.  But I always knew that I wanted to illustrate children's books.  In the beginning, I tried to get work from magazines that gave work in series, because I tended to think in a series of illustrations.  That's much like a picture book, which ends up being a series of roughly 20 paintings.

Great Kid Books: If you have illustrated for various age ranges , can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Adam G: Most of the work I've done is for ages 4 - 9. I have done some illustrated novels and a fair amount of work for educational publishers.  I find it helpful to remember your own childhood: what things looked like, what drew your attention.  I also try to assume that the children looking at my books are the smartest people to walk the earth.  What they pay attention to, what will have a visceral effect may stay with them over many years, so  I want to be careful with editing imagery, not to take away too many things that I worry may be over children's heads. Illustrations can resonate with children over the years.  I find that the more honest you are and the more you put into it, the more likely you'll be to hit the nail on the head at some point.

Great Kid Books: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Adam G: My great loves are the old Mercer Mayer books from the 1960s and 1970s, like One Monster After Another and Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperump-a-Zoo.  I think a lot of my cultural awareness came from these books.  For example, I would see an old fashioned mailbox, and I could grasp what it was in the context of the picture.

Great Kid Books: What books do you enjoy reading with your children?

Adam G.:  My sons are now 8 and 5, and we love quirky, fun, weird books, partly for the way that images sneak up on you by surprise.  I love doing voices and making reading fun.

My youngest son's favorite book is Grumblebunny by Bob Hartman.  I like the rhythm of the text, and how it's hard to discern where the pictures end and the text begins to convey the information - they seamlessly work together to create a whole sense of the story.  We also love Dirty Cowboy, by Amy Timberlake and Adam Rex - the text and illustrations have a similar relationship.  The tone of the text and the tone of the illustrations go together so well.  The text uses alliteration and other rhythmic devices, and the pictures have many rhythmic features as well, a visual rhythm with things that reappear as you go through the story.  The text and illustration blend together without doing each other's work.

Reading for me when I was little was entertainment, but it also has something below the surface, a visceral reaction.  I think that ultimately, reading has to be fun for kids to want to do it, to want to come back to it again and again. Kid's real mission is to play, but they can't help learning along the way.  The key is to find books that are fun, that make them enjoy reading, and speak to them on a deeper level.

Great Kid Books: Can you briefly tell me about the road to illustrating and publishing The Yankee at the Seder?

Adam G: It started with developing a relationship with Tricycle Press.  I do oddball promotionals, where I develop cards for holidays that nobody celebrates and send them out to potential clients.  In 2005, I did a card for Cowboy Poetry Week (a week in April each year).  I was asked by Tricycle to do a development piece for a book about a stagecoach driver in the Old West, but I was vying with several other illustrators for the project.  I had loved cowboys as a kid, and this was like being back in 2nd grade again.  I really threw myself into the research for this project - investigating the colors for the clothes, the way a driver would hold the reins for a four horse coach.  I got the project, Rough Tough Charley by Verla Kay, and had a lot of fun with all of the research involved.

So when Tricycle had The Yankee at the Seder, they called me because of the combination of character work and historical research.  When I started my research, I had to think of every angle so I could think in 1860s visuals.  I drove to towns that had 200 year old houses so that I could visualize what the porches and window moldings might look like.  I studied the immigration trends of early 19th century America, so I could know where Jews came from in the early 1800s,and what their religious practices would have been.  I discovered that most Jews during this time came from the Rhine Valley in Germany, and most would have been practicing reformed Judaism.  This was important so I could start building a picture of my characters, what color their eyes and hair might have been, how tall they were.

At the same time, I was giving art lessons to a beautiful little boy who had about the same lineage as the character in The Yankee at the Seder.  So while researching clothing, architecture, uniforms and botanicals, I also took about a hundred pictures for a character study.  I would ask him to make different faces: "smile", "laugh", "look serious", and I would capture his different emotions from, say, six different angles.

Great Kid Books: What sources of information did you use for your research?

Adam G: I used a lot of Internet research for the small details, especially sites from people who had a particular expertise in a specialized field I was interested in.  I used online Jewish historical databases to investigate the history of the Ashkenazic Jews in Europe.  I looked at the history of the Reform Movement, and how that would have affected the decor, clothing and domestic customs at this time and place.  I also looked on eBay for period furniture, rugs, wallpaper and place settings.  I wanted to put a coffee table in one scene, as a piece of furniture that was coming in between the grandfather and Myer Levy - but it turns out coffee tables wouldn’t even exist for another three years.

Great Kid Books: How do you personally connect to The Yankee at the Seder? Do you bring a personal connection to the themes, characters or story?

Adam G: We've all been invited to family gatherings where we're politically alien to everyone else in the room.  I tried to remember the feeling of being polite, keeping a smile, while feeling very uncomfortable.  I remember trying desperately not to step on anyone's toes, but wanting to be engaged and still make the most of the situation.  I think those are some of the universal themes of this book.

Great Kid Books: What is your usual medium, or your preferred one?

Adam G: I mostly work in oils for my final illustrations, but I first sketch in pencil.  I take a sketchbook with me everywhere I go, and fill it backwards. I'm left-handed, so I draw on the left side of the page with the spirals on the right.

As I do my research, I develop many sketches. Then as I start to compose the scenes for the book, I sketch in pencil on toned paper with white gouache to introduce light source and atmosphere.  I find it helpful to try to get as much of the detailed work done at the early stages, before I start working in oil. Then when I break out the oils, I can just concentrate on the color and textures of the painting.

Great Kid Books: Can you list your books-to-date?
Picture Books illustrated by Adam Gustavson
Good Luck Mrs. K by Louise Borden, Simon and Schuster 1999
Where the Big Fish Are by Jonathan London, Candlewick 2001
Bad Dog Dodger! by Barbara Abercrombie, Simon and Schuster 2002
The A+ Custodian by Louise Borden, Simon and Schuster 2004
The Day Eddie Met the Author by Louise Borden, Simon and Schuster 2004
The Last Day of School by Louise Borden, Simon and Schuster 2006
The John Hancock Club by Louise Borden, Simon and Schuster 2007
Rough, Tough Charley by Verla Kay, Tricycle Press 2007
The Lost and Found Tooth by Louise Borden, Simon and Schuster 2008
Very Improbable Story by Edward Einhorn, Charlesbridge 2008
Snow Day! by Lester L. Laminack, Peachtree 2007
Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt! by Leslie Kimmelman, Peachtree Publishers 2009
The Yankee at the Seder by Elka Weber, Tricycle Press 2009
Calico Dorsey by Susan Lendroth, Tricycle Press 2010
Blue House Dog by Deborah Blumenthal, Peachtree Publishers, 2010

Illustrated Novels illustrated by Adam Gustavson
Magic by Heart by Amy Gordon, Holiday House 2007
The Mystery of the Jubilee Emerald, by Gary Alan Wassner, Mondo Publishing 2008

Great Kid Books: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?

Adam G: My blog has the most up-to-date information: The Rhinoceros Boy's Lament, (note: see many of Adam's witty cards, like National Tooth Fairy Day, or World Cow Chip Day on his blog - they'll make you laugh out loud)

My website has my portfolio, biography and client list, and is

Great Kid Books: Are there any new projects that you are working on that you can tell me about?

Adam G: I just finished Calico Dorsey by Susan Lendroth, for Tricycle Press, which will come out in September 2010. It's about a dog who carried the mail to silver mining camps in California in the 1880s. I had a lot of fun doing the historical research and capturing this dog. Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt came out last fall from Peachtree Press, and Blue House Dog, by Deborah Blumenthal, will be published by Peachtree Publishing later in 2010.

Great Kid Books: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was fascinating learning about all the research that goes into illustrating your books. Congratulations on your award and the recognition for The Yankee at the Seder.

Read more about The Yankee at the Seder with an interview with author Elka Weber by the wonderful Laurel Snyder at BewilderBlog,

Join us on the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour all this week as we celebrate books that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience.  Come visit these sites for more interesting interviews and insights.


April Halprin Wayland, author of New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at Practically Paradise

Stephane Jorisch, illustrator of New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at Frume Sarah's World

Margarita Engle, author of Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Teen Readers Category at bookstogether


Robin Friedman, author of The Importance of Wings
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Older Readers Category at Little Willow's Bildungsroman

Jacqueline Davies, author of Lost
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Teen Readers Category at Biblio File

Jonah Winter, author of You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at Get in the Game: Read! and cross-posted at


Elka Weber, author of The Yankee at the Seder
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at BewilderBlog

Adam Gustavson, illustrator of The Yankee at the Seder
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at Great Kids Books

Judy Vida, daughter of the late Selma Kritzer Silverberg, author of Naomi's Song
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Teen Readers Category at The Book Nosher


Jacqueline Jules, author of Benjamin and the Silver Goblet
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at ASHarmony

Natascia Ugliano, illustrator of Benjamin and the Silver Goblet
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at The Book of Life

Deborah Bodin Cohen, author of Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at Ima On and Off the Bima

Jago, illustrator of Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at Jewish Books for Children


Annika Thor, author of A Faraway Island
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category at Teen Reads

Ellen Frankel, author of The JPS Illustrated Bible for Children
Sydney Taylor Notable Book for All Ages at Deo Writer