Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Word After Word After Word, by Patricia MacLachlan (ages 7 - 10)

Have you ever read a book that you didn't want to finish? Do you zoom through it and start again? Recently I read a book that I just wanted to savor - I found myself just reading a little bit each night, so that I wouldn't finish it. Word After Word After Word, by Newbery winner Patricia MacLachlan (Sarah, Plain and Tall), is a beautiful, heartfelt, authentic book that has been my absolute favorite read of the summer. It would make a perfect read-aloud as a family or in a classroom, or an inspiring read for a 3rd or 4th grader.
Word After Word After Word
by Patricia MacLachlan
NY: Katherine Tegen Books / HarperCollins
ages 7 – 10
available on Amazon and at your local library
Fourth graders Lucy and Henry and Evie and Russell and May meet every day under Henry’s huge lilac bush to talk about things. School’s boring, until Ms. Mirabel, a visiting poet, starts coming to their class to talk with them about writing. The children are curious about why she writes and how she goes about writing, whether what she writes is real, and how much she gets paid.

"I, myself, write to change my life, to make it come out the way I want it to," Ms. Mirabel tells them, and through her visits she helps them become more aware of their writing and emotions. Lucy’s mom has cancer, and Lucy feels that all her stories are consumed with sadness. Evie’s parents are separated and she’s struggling with how to cope. Each of the friends has their own problems, and yet they share these feelings under the lilac bush and explore how to write about them.

Here is one of Lucy's first poems - it took my breath away:
Sadness is
Steam rising,
Tears falling.
A breath you take in
But can't let out
As hard as you try. (27)

(c) Patricia MacLachlan, 2010
At its heart, this book is about the ways that writing and friendships can connect us to our own stories—word after word after word. It is a beautiful, authentic, grounded novel that you won’t want to put down, much less your children.

Read the first part of it on the HarperCollins website to get a feel of the natural, thoughtful language. See The Book Aunt, for a lovely extended review of this and other books to inspire children as they explore writing their own stories.

This book reminded me in many ways of Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech, another book about a child coming to understand the strength of poetry in helping you get to know your emotions. It's a book that kids love, and often they're surprised how much they like it. Another book that families will like is The Dreamer, by Pam Munoz Ryan - it's about the childhood of Pablo Neruda and is all about the power of words and imagination.

The review copy was kindly sent by HarperCollins, the publisher. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion will go to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pierre the Penguin, by Jean Marzollo and Laura Regan (ages 4 - 7)

We love visiting aquariums and zoos, especially seeing zookeepers taking care of the animals and learning about ways we can help animals in their natural environments. We've always been fascinated with penguins, and there's a new story that will warm your heart: Pierre the Penguin. It's a true story, about a zookeeper's determined care and persistence in providing the best support and attention for the animals under her watchful eye. I also love sharing this story with children, and talking about how we can overcome problems by thinking outside of the box and being creative.
Pierre the Penguin: A True Story
by Jean Marzolloillustrated by Laura Regan
MI: Sleeping Bear Press, 2010
ages 4 - 7
available on Amazon and at your local library
Pierre is the oldest African penguin living at the California Academy of Sciences, a wonderful aquarium and museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. When Pierre began to lose his feathers, but the zoo staff didn't know how to help him. Pam Schaller, a senior aquatic biologist at the California Academy of Sciences, said that Pierre's bald spots were actually dangerous. Not only did Pierre get cold and afraid to swim, the other penguins started to ignore Pierre and refused to play with him. They even harassed him by braying, as artist Laura Regan shows below.

So Pam and the other biologists tried everything they could think of to help Pierre. But heaters didn't help him feel more comfortable, and medication didn't help the feathers grow back. Pierre's plight bothered Pam - she cared deeply about him.

It took thinking outside of the box to come up with a solution. One one rainy day, Pam was walking her dog. Now, her dog was used to warm Hawaii climate, and so Pam always has her dog wear a rain coat if he needs to keep warm. Inspiration struck - why couldn't Pierre wear a wetsuit to keep warm? Pam created a specially fitted wetsuit, and it worked like a charm. Now, Pierre was able to swim, take his role as senior penguin, and be comfortable once again.

The artwork in this picture book will draw children into this heartfelt story. Laura Regan is a wonderful wildlife artist. She emphasizes Pam's concern for the penguins, and she brings children into seeing the penguins up close. The warm colors of the background set a calm tone, and let children focus on how the penguins move and interact. The story is told in rhyming text, which will make it a great read-aloud for home or the classroom.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, come meet artist Laura Regan at Mrs. Dalloway's Books in Berkeley. There will be arts projects, and fun stories about how she was able to get to know Pierre and learn about penguins. Here are the details:
Laura Regan
illustrator of Pierre the Penguin
at Mrs. Dalloway's Books
Saturday, July 31st at 10:30 am
2904 College Ave.
Berkeley, CA
(510) 704-8222
The review copy came from Mrs. Dalloway's Books. This is a wonderful independent bookstore, with knowledgeable staff who always point us toward great children's books. Stop by for what will be sure to be a fun event.

Amazon Affiliate: if you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this page, a small portion will go to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you). This enables me to purchase new books to review, and helps me keep up with great books to share with you and your children. Thank you for your support.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

One Boy, by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (ages 4 - 6)

One thing that fascinates me about children's books is how important it is to find the right reader before you judge a book. One of my mentors, Diane Frankenstein, always talked about how a book is half created by an author, and half created in the mind of a child. It is only through reading that a book fully takes life in the mind of the reader. One Boy, by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, is a book that is brilliant in the hands of an emergent reader. But it's a book that needs a specific audience, one that works wonderfully with new readers but only adequately as a picture book for preschoolers. Let me share a bit about this fantastic book.
One Boy
by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
NY: Roaring Book Press, 2008
ages 4 - 6
Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Award (2009)
available on Amazon and at your local library
At first look, One Boy is a counting book with each page illustrating bright, simple pictures to count items. But Laura Vaccaro Seeger is an author and illustrator who takes simple concepts into a more intricate level. In One Boy, each page has precise die cuts which show part of the image from the next page. When you turn the page, these die cuts highlight part of the word from the previous page and incorporate the letters into new words. In the first pair, "one boy" (turn the page) is "all alone" and in the next pair, "two seals" (turn the page) are "at the sea".

My six year old was fascinated by the idea of words within words. She sat fingering the die cuts, talking to herself about the words. It's a powerful concepts for new readers to wrestle with, and Seeger has created a simple, uncluttered but fascinating book for new readers to experience.

But when I read One Boy with this same child two years ago, when she loved counting books, she wasn't fascinated by this book. To me, it shows how important it is to think of the right audience when suggesting a book. A book that might fascinate one child might leave another lukewarm. It's also an important thing to talk about with kids - it's important to be persistent trying to find a "just right" book that is interesting to them and meets them where they are on an emotional level and in terms of their reading level.

Back to One Boy, our favorite pair? "Three apes" are shown through the bars of a cage, and then (turn the page) they make a "big escape" and the cage doors are open. It's funny and illustrates such an important concept for new readers, the effect of the silent "e" and multi-syllabic words.

Do you have a new reader at home? Take a look at Laura Vaccaro Seeger's website and click "look inside" to see One Boy in action. It's a real treat.

Seeger received a Caldecott Honor Award in 2008 for First the Egg. She has a new book out, What If? that looks like a fantastic book for preschoolers, kindergartners and first graders all about friendship - but I haven't had a chance to see it yet.

The review copy came from our home library. If you make a purchase using any of these links, a small portion will go to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Summer days

Summer is in full swing. The days are full of activities, some kids are finding lots and lots of time to read, and others have days so full that they just fall into bed hours past their regular bedtime. I try to encourage my kids to read during the summer, but I also try not to stress about it.

The summer my middle daughter finished kindergarten, she was determined to read by herself. She spent hours looking at books, and basically taught herself how to read. She went from reading books with a few lines on each page to reading short chapter books - all within the space of a few months. Was it because I told her to? Not at all. It was something within her. She was driven by her own motivation. That was a huge factor, but it was also the time during the summer when she wasn't dealing with school or other types of learning. She had the mental space to focus on learning to read.

This same daughter is now almost 9, and she has only read one full chapter book this summer. She's listened to a favorite audiobook about three times over, and she's started about five books, but she just isn't reading as much this summer. She's busier with summer activities, as a family we've been busier, and she just isn't driven the same way she was when she was younger. I am convinced that kids learn in leaps and then plateau or stay at the same level at other times. Part of me is frustrated, but I keep telling myself to be patient. She still loves reading, it just isn't the summer for her to spend lots of time reading.

I see my role as a parent:
* create opportunities for my children to choose their own books to read by making time for trips to the library or bookstore, and
* create opportunities where kids will choose to read by having downtime during the summer.

I do also try to keep to our regular routine of having time to read before going to sleep as a time to wind down. But studies show that having books in the home, especially books that children have chosen themselves, is a very important factor in creating readers.

On a blogging note, I'm sure you've noticed that my reviews have been a bit more sporadic lately. I've been reading lots, but have been writing much less. I'm not gone, just enjoying the summer.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Scaredy Squirrel - leaping into the unknown (ages 4 - 9)

Great humor often touches something that makes us uncomfortable, or something that we fear. By laughing at another character's fear, we can become a little more comfortable with our own fears. Scaredy Squirrel, by Mélanie Watt, is a hilarious picture book that you'll love reading with your kids. It's all about leaping into the unknown, having the courage to try something different or to explore something new. But most of all, it's a book your kids will ask for again and again because it makes them laugh at a very silly squirrel.
Scaredy Squirrel
by Mélanie Watt
NY: Kids Can Press, 2006
ages 4 - 9
available on Amazon and your local library
Before we begin, a note to all readers from Scaredy Squirrel: you MUST wash your hands with antibacterial soap before opening this book! OK, are you ready?

Scaredy Squirrel is very happy with his life. He lives in a comfortable tree, he has all the nuts he wants, and every day is predictable and safe. Scaredy Squirrel never leaves his tree because "the unknown can be a scary place for a squirrel." Turn the page, and you'll see all the things that Scaredy Squirrel might find in the unknown: green Martians, killer bees, tarantulas, poison ivy, germs and sharks. At this point, kids will start to giggle. I mean, we're all afraid of the unknown, but we know right away that this squirrel is a little crazy!

Mélanie Watt builds the story with perfect pacing, repetition and sight gags. Kids love reading about the emergency kit Scaredy Squirrel has put together, and Scaredy's Squirrel's instructions for what to do in case an emergency (number one: PANIC!). By creating this exaggerated character, and the repetition, Watt uses humor to help kids see that venturing into the unknown can be OK.

When Scaredy Squirrel's emergency kit falls from the tree and he leaps after it, he discovers that he can glide. He's actually a flying squirrel!! He loves the feeling of flying, then lands in a bush and pretends to be dead for two hours (you can never be too safe, in this little guy's opinion). I just love the way that Scaredy Squirrel discovers his own talents by accident, by falling out of his tree - but then he decides he just has to do this every day!

Scaredy Squirrel was the winner of the first Cybils Award for picture books in February 2007. The wonderful MotherReader interviewed author Mélanie Watt for the Cybils Blog. I found this excerpt particularly interesting:
MotherReader: Why did you need to write this book?

Mélanie Watt: I knew for a long time that I wanted to write a book about fearing the unknown. I grew up in a family that was sometimes a little too overly cautious. I had my mind set on exploring this subject and expressing how fear stops us from discovering our talents and capabilities. So a squirrel seemed to be the perfect vehicle for this and the nut tree was a good metaphor to start with. What really brought the story together were the humoristic approach and the exaggeration. Being a graphic designer allowed me to build the story visually with charts, lists and graphics before writing the actual text.
There are now three sequels to the original Scaredy Squirrel, all sure to bring on laughs. But the original is still my favorite. But if you have a little one giving you a hard time at night, be sure to check out Scaredy Squirrel at Night.

Have fun reading this with your children, laughing at this funny little guy, and seeing if they can relate at all to feeling too nervous to jump out of their safe spot.

The review copy came from our home collection (it's been read over and over again). If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this page, a small portion will go to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Wave, by Suzy Lee - summer fun and memories of the beach (ages 3 - 6)

We've just spent a week at the beach in England, and our youngest has discovered the utter joy in chasing the waves. The first day, she was excited but terrified to touch the water. She would run to it, and then run away. By the end of our stay, she was thrilled, jumping up and down when the wave came up to her. I don't have pictures of her (too busy holding her hand!), but here's our middle daughter leaping with delight at the waves.

Do you remember your child’s first time seeing the ocean’s waves? Their fascination? The rhythm and magic of the ocean? Suzy Lee's wordless picture book is perfect for capturing those memories.

by Suzy Lee
SF: Chronicle Books, 2008
ages 3–6
available on Amazon and at your local library
A girl sees the wide beach before her, stretching across the horizon. She leaves her mother’s side to taunt and tease the wave. In the meantime, the wave approaches her little by little. Both the girl and the wave grow more courageous, until the girl goes too far into the wave’s territory. Suddenly, the wave roars up to become a great blue frothing wall of water, drenching the little girl. Startled, she looks around to discover shells and treasures that the wave has washed ashore. As the girl waves goodbye, readers can tell that she loved the game and will be back another day. This is a lovely, evocative story that is bound to bring back memories and start conversations.

You can have a taste of the book with the images from the book trailer, but the book itself reads even more beautifully. It is opens to quite wide double-page spreads, giving the reader a sense of the expanse of the beach and ocean. The colors are clear and beautiful.

I'm very excited about Suzy Lee's newest book, Shadow, coming out next month.

Here's the publisher's description from Chronicle Books:
A dark attic. A light bulb. An imaginative little girl.

Internationally acclaimed artist Suzy Lee uses these simple elements to create a visual tour de force that perfectly captures the joy of creative play and celebrates the power of imagination. Stunning in their simplicity, Lee's illustrations, in just two shades of color, present an adventure that begins and ends with the click of a light bulb.
Head over to the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast to see more of Suzy Lee's artwork, and read a very interesting interview with Suzy.

The review copy came from our school library. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this page, a small portion will go toward Great Kid Books (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What we're reading on vacation

We have been having a great family vacation, visiting family and friends in England and sight-seeing in Paris. I keep thinking of different posts, but have found little time to write. I thought, instead, I'd try to do a quick wrap-up of different things we've all been reading.

Audiobooks: I love having the kids listen to audiobooks while we're on vacation. They each have a different audiobook loaded onto an MP3 player (like an iPod), and listen to them at night (great help with jetlag in the middle of the night!) or just when they need some down time. I get our audiobooks through or through the local library.

Ramona and Her Father, by Beverly Cleary: We have loved listening to several other Ramona books all together. So now, my 6 year old is listening to Ramona and Her Father, the 4th book in this series and a Newbery honor book. The Ramona books make wonderful family listening - we all laugh at Ramona, seeing her stubbornness, but we find ourselves relating to her predicaments and rooting for her. Available from or your local library.

Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire, by Derek Landy: I loved, loved the first Skulduggery Pleasant book as an audiobook (see my full review here), as did my 8 year old. She loves the blend of fantasy, action and humor. The protagonists are fantastic: a 12 year old girl full of courage and curiosity, and a 100 year old skeleton detective who's witty, sarcastic and, well, long-lasting. I recommend it to kids who've loved The Lightning Thief and want that blend of action, adventure and fantasy. This is the second in the series. I have not listened to this book, but she's now listening to it for the second time and begging for the third in the series. Rupert Degas is a deliciously wonderful narrator. Available from or your local library.

Bloody Jack #4: In the Belly of the Bloodhound, by L.A. Meyer: The Bloody Jack series is a ripping yarn full of adventure for Mary "Jacky" Faber, a young British girl who escapes poverty and convention in her 18th century life to live on the high seas. In this installment, Jacky and her classmates at the Lawson Peabody School for Young Girls are kidnapped and forced onto a slaver ship. My 11 year old loves the combination of historical fiction, action, adventure and breaking stereotypes. Winner of the 2010 Odyssey honor award from the ALA for outstanding audiobook. Click here to listen to a clip from the publisher, Listen and Live. Available from Amazon, and your local library.

Novels and chapter books: We've also brought along several books to read on vacation. Here are the ones that stand out.

House of Dolls, by Francesca Lia Block: My kindergartner was fascinated by the world of the dolls in this book. Wildflower, who once belonged to the little girl's grandmother; plain and meek Rockstar, so named because the little girl had wanted a more glamorous doll; and Miss Selene, a greenish-skinned fairy. The little girl, Madison Blackberry, is a lonely child with little contact with her parents or friends. This book was a bit of a stretch for my 6 year old, and yet it touched both of us in a heart-felt, deep way. As Madison starts mistreating her dolls, Madison's grandmother realizes that no one has given Madison real attention. Her grandmother makes Madison a dress, just the way she used to make the dolls dresses. My 6 year old could really connect to that, as we talked about a blanket I made just for her. It was a very touching moment, one that will stay with both of us. This is a book to read aloud with your child, perhaps 2nd and 3rd graders, and talk about. Review copy was sent by the publisher, HarperCollins. Available on Amazon or at your local library.

The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan: My husband is reading this aloud to my 8 year old, and I've been listening to the audiobook. It was really exciting to visit the British Museum and the Louvre and watch my daughter get so excited about the Egyptian sections. Right away, she recognized Horus, Isis, Thoth, and Baset. Riordan has an amazing ability to bring mythology alive. I must say that I've found the audiobook a bit hard going. There are so many different characters, and the narrators play up the different accents with almost too much gusto for my taste. But the story is full of action and suspense. Available on Amazon, at or at your local library.

Word After Word After Word, by Patricia MacLachlan: I've just started this book, on the recommendation of a fellow librarian at ACL, and it's is truly wonderful. On one hand, it's the story of an author coming to visit a 4th grade class to teach the children about writing, but on the other hand it's a story about friendship and surviving and growing up. It's full of beautiful writing, touching moments and words that whisper in your ear. None of it feels forced. I can't wait to read more. It reminds me of Love That Dog, one of my students' all-time favorite books. Review copy sent by the publisher, HarperCollins. Available on Amazon, at or at your local library.

I hope your summer is going well. Have you read any good books with your family lately?

Please know that any purchases you make on Amazon using the links on this page, a small portion will go to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support.