Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sick and Tired!

I am sorry the updates have not come in a timely manner this week. I have been knocked out of commission with strep. I'll get back to the updates tomorrow with a new "Drawn to Read." I also plan to institute a new weekly column that features older books we may have missed along the way. I welcome your suggestions for older books to review and illustrators to highlight.

Have a happy and safe Newy Year's Eve and as Bing says, "We'll start the New Year right."

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bedtime Stories: Gliori's New Tale is a Treat for All Ages

A few years ago my sister-in-law gave me a book titled, "No Matter What." My family and I have fallen in love with the tale of Small and his mother, a pair of foxes. Small is grumpy and tests his mother, Big, throughout the story by saying she doesn't love him. Every parent has heard this at least once. But Small's mother handles the situation perfectly and in so doing we end up with a wonderfully snuggly book for bedtime. Well, Big and small are back in another touching tale. 

"Stormy Weather" 
By Debi Gliori 
For ages 3 – 7
Big and Small return in another great story time picture book from Debi Gliori. Author of the "Pure Dead..." series for children 9 – 12 years old, and illustrator of numerous picture books, it is Gliori's tales of Big and Small that I never hesitate suggesting to other readers.

In this tale the weather has turned foul. Small is having a difficult time sleeping with a storm knocking around outside. Small needn’t worry, Big will watch over her child even while he sleeps. Big explains that even if he were a big polar bear, a bunny or a tiny snail, she would keep watch over him at night.

Gliori brings her characters to life in the adorable illustrations and creates a poignant message of love in her simple rhyming text. The warm, expressive nature of each character will have you and your children lingering on each page. Like "No Matter What," this inviting story will soothe your children during a wonderfully relaxing and peaceful story time before bed. It is a great addition to the Big and Small story and I can't wait for her to write and illustrate another.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Drawn to Read: Images of Christmas

It's time to highlight illustrators of picture books, that are creating exemplary work, adding style and life to current children's literature. That is why I will focus on one or two illustrators each Tuesday in a new column I am calling Drawn to Read. I welcome your suggestions for future illustrators and comments on the one's I post. Let's give the illustrator's their due and have a good conversation about their work.

Since Christmas Eve is a couple days away, this week's Drawn to Read features two illustrators who added a little cheer and wonder to my Christmas holidays: Elise Primavera and Jon J. Muth.

Elise Primavera is probably best known for her "Auntie Claus" series, the newest of which was published this year. She also authored "Louise The Big Cheese," was the author and illustrator of "The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls," and illustrated "Raising Dragons."

Primavera's Auntie Claus books have become holiday classics — must-reads. Although the stories are fun and touching, it is the expressive and festive illustrations that drive these wonderful tales. With gouache and pastels Primavera captures the bustle of the city, the silver bells and holly greens of the holidays, and the fun of Christmas in an approachable style that begs children to keep looking. She has a deft ability to add expression with a few well placed highlights and shadows, making it easy to connect to the characters and live the story along with them. 

So I say thank you Elise Primavera for your contribution to children's stories and for enlivening our story times with your illustrations.

Jon J. Muth is probably best know for his Zen books: "Zen Shorts" and "Zen Ties." Both received rave reviews from numerous critics, including Child Magazine,  and the New York Times . 

Muth's watercolor and pastel creations have a very calming and, appropriately enough, Zen-like quality to them. His style blends perfectly with Lauren Thompson's poetic and intimate approach to Santa Claus in "The Christmas Magic." Muth uses gentle muted tones that have a wonderful wintery feel and makes one just want to bundle up in front of a fire and roast marshmallows. The soft edges and touches of rich color added to the toys and sleigh offer a dreamlike vision that is sure to get those sugar plums dancing. 

"The Christmas Magic" is a perfect example of illustration and story working hand-in-hand to create a tale families will want to read each year as they prepare for the Christmas holidays.

Thank you Jon J. Muth for illustrating my favorite Christmas book of the year. I look forward to finding more of your work enhancing the pages of my children's books.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Secrets Revealed

I will finish my holiday book reviews with just one or two more picks. Then next week we are going to check out some talented children's book illustrators before heading into the realms of books with CDs and three-dimensional (pop-up) books. 

"Secrets of a Christmas Box" 
By Steven Hornby 
Illustrated by Justin Gerard 
For ages 8 – 12
Ever wonder why pine needles from your Christmas tree are found in rooms no one has been in? Or why no matter how well you pack your Christmas ornaments at least one is always found broken the next year? These are a couple questions posed on the liner notes for “Secrets of a Christmas Box.” The notes also suggest you read one chapter of “Secrets of a Christmas Box” each night during December. With 24 chapters you would conveniently finish the tale during bedtime stories on Christmas Eve. The notes piqued my interest so I began reading but, the pacing is weak and it takes several chapters to develop any interest in the characters or their situation. So one chapter a night may not work.

The magic and wonder "Christmas Box" are great. Larry the Snowman wakes up from his yearly sleep to find that his brother has not made it back to the tree. Unwilling to except that "some ornaments just don’t make it back," Larry, his girlfriend, Debbie, and a newcomer named Splint buck the rules and head into the house and beyond in search of Larry's lost brother.

The family cat, snow and other hidden dangers await the rescue party as they make their way to the box. Upon arrival they uncover a dastardly plan set in motion by the Tree-Lord, a pinecone shaped light that watches over the tree. The action really takes off as an army of tree lights then try to stop the crew from exposing the awful truth of broken ornaments.

Yes, "Secrets of a Christmas Box" could have been a truly wonderful Christmas tale. I so wanted it to be the next classic. Instead too many choppy paragraphs, poor pacing, and weak subplots, left me only willing to say that it's okay.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

One Magical Night!

While we are still in the eight days of Hanukkah I wanted to highlight another great tale of magic during the Festival of Lights. Whether you are Jewish or not you can appreciate this fun, imaginative tale and take its moral to heart.

“Zigazat: A Magical Hanukkah Night”
By Eric Kimmel
Illustrated by Jon Goodell
For Ages 4 – 9

Not every Hanukkah tale explains the origins of the holiday. For instance, “Zigazak” tells not of the lamp oil lasting for eight nights, but of a different sort of magic. This tale follows the misadventures of two devils as they descend upon the village of Brisk on the first night of Hanukkah. The devils play pranks — dreidels dance about on their own and latkes fly through the air. The scared villagers run to the wise rabbi in search of help and counsel. The rabbi shows no fear, but delights I the merriment of dancing dreidels and flying latkes. He offers to free the devils from evil and help them become servants of good, but when they refuse he outwits and defeats them.

Even it it’s fantasy, “Zigazak” does not shy away from a moral. The rabbi explains that there are sparks of goodness in all things —“even in devils’ tricks.” This knowledge helps the townspeople see the wonder around them and enjoy the most magical Hanukkah ever.

The dark illustrations portray the devils as grotesque beings and only bring a touch of humor to their eyes and expressions. The fear of the townspeople comes through in shadows and distortions. Even with the dark palette, though, the expressive illustrations keep the tale brisk and fun.

“Zigazak” is easily the most imaginative Hanukkah book I have ever read and it would make for great fun during bedtime stories throughout the holiday.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It's a Miracle!

Hanukkah is almost here! Oh, I know it's a minor holiday in Judaism, but the fact that the eight night Festival of Lights occurs between Thanksgiving and Christmas means it gets more secular attention than most Jewish holidays. Take a look at the bookstore — how many children's books do you see on the subject of Yom Kippur? There are plenty on Hanukkah though. Here is a review on a Hanukkah book my children enjoyed reading.

“It’s a Miracle! A Hanukkah Storybook”
By Stephanie Spinner
Illustrated by: Jill McElmurray
For Ages 4 – 8

This Hanukkah, young Owen Block is the OCL (official candle lighter) for his family’s Hanukkah celebrations. Each night as the grown-ups sing the blessings Owen lights a candle on his family’s menorah. Then at bedtime grandma kicks of her cowboy boots and tells Owen a story. She tells of a little girl who wants to become a rabbi, an alien who gets lost in a little girls backyard, a dentist with a performing parrot and much more. With each new story Owen discovers his family heritage and learns about the miracles of Hanukkah and his mother’s potato latkes.

The text is a little long, but Spinner does a nice job of keeping the story moving. She does a nice job balancing humor and sentimentality as each bedtime story illustrates the importance of family heritage for instilling pride and self-confidence in your heart.

McElmurray’s illustrations are bright and fun. A red headed girl on horseback flying through the sky, an alien spaceship hovering over the city, and a pickle juggler are just a few of the images that will keep you smiling as you read this heartwarming story about faith, family, and Hanukkah.

“It’s a Miracle” also contains the text of the Hanukkah story, three Hanukkah blessings (in English and Hebrew), and a Hebrew to English glossary.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanks for Everything!

Chapter One Reviews is very thankful this year. I am thankful to writers and illustrators for the many wonderful books I read. I am thankful for the ability to tell people about my favorites. I am thankful to you, my readers, for reading my opinions (I hope they help.) I am thankful for my family that indulges my addiction to books and encourages me to write this column. All of this Thanksgiving brings me to a new book about the famous Plimouth Pilgrims. Enjoy!

“Two Bad Pilgrims”
By Kathryn Lasky
Illustrated by John Manders
For 4 – 10

“Two Bad Pilgrims” is not your standard Thanksgiving fare. It is not a boring tale of pious, voyagers seeking religious freedom in the New World. It is the tale of America’s first troublemakers — Francis and Johnny Billington — real-life children who seemed to cause trouble wherever they went. Are you ready to hear their side of the story?

The Billington boys describe everything about the 66-day journey on the Mayflower — vomiting, boredom, playing with musket lighters and almost blowing up the ship. Following these rascals through the foundation of Plimouth Plantation, the “great sickness,” and eventual peaceful relations with the neighboring Nauset Indians we learn that the Pilgrims were a mixed bag of folks. Some were upright and pious as we have learned, but others were adventurers and ruffians who weren’t averse to digging up a few Native American graves.

The comic book-style art will capture the attention of young readers and the boys’ unruly adventures will keep them engaged to the very end of the book. “Two Bad Pilgrims” is laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly educational. It’s filled with Pilgrim facts young readers will actually retain, which is great, as long as they don’t retain the bad behavior as well.

Whether you think you know everything about the Pilgrims or you’re just learning the story, “Two Bad Pilgrims” should be on your reading list. It will be great for those long trips over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house this Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Holiday Magic!

Here comes Santa Claus! How many Santa Claus books will you read this year? I can't imagine, but I hope one of them will be "The Christmas Magic."

“The Christmas Magic”
By Lauren Thompson
Illustrated by Jon J. Muth
For Ages 3 – 10

Beautifully illustrated, this tale of Santa and his reindeer takes a far more solitary approach to Santa Claus than most. No elves. No glitz. Just a warm and thoughtful story about the magic of Christmas. The idyllic wintry setting has a strangely melancholy feel as blues and greys abound. But as Christmas grows near the elfin Santa gets a tingling in his whiskers and trades his bunny slippers and blue coat for a more traditional look. The magic grows stronger, the reindeer get excited, the sleigh is polished, and the illustrations take on a more lively tone with bold reds and touches of gold on the horizon. They never, however, reach the vibrant stage — a good move in this case. It would not have blended well with this philosophic Santa. This story uses hopeful prose and gentle illustrations of watercolor and pastel to create an endearing version of the Santa Claus legend. "The Christmas Magic" is a beautifully written and illustrated book that would make a great addition to any holiday collection. It also makes for a wonderful bedtime story.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Here Comes Auntie Claus

Over the next few weeks I will be reviewing several new holiday books — and maybe a few from years past. Its easy to get carried away with new books, so sometimes we need to remind ourselves of some good ones we may not have looked at in awhile.

"Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays"
By Elise Primavera
For ages 4 – 10

I am a big fan of Elise Primavera’s work. My family reads both “Auntie Claus” and “Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas” over and over during the Christmas holidays. Both books are a little long, but the stories move along pretty well and the illustrations are wonderfully detailed. So we never seem to mind the length. When we spotted “Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays” on our local bookstore’s shelf we sat right down and began reading.

In the newest tale Auntie Claus decides to stay home for the holidays. She wants Christmas in New York — the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, the 57th Street Snowflake, and The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. “Red will be the new black,” is Auntie Claus’ battle cry for the season. The North Pole must be moved to New York City, because how would Santa function without his sister? Chris and Sophie Kringle, the young stars of the two previous Auntie Claus tales, find everything very exciting. Then things begin to get a little too wintry.

The Auntie Claus books always have a morality story built into the tale. This one is no different. Sophie struggles with doing the right thing when the Sugar Plum Fairy needs to borrow a tutu for her performance in The Nutcracker. If Sophie gives up her tutu how will she be able to perform like the Sugar Plum Fairy in her own performance? The struggle is okay, but not as compelling an adventure as we have come to expect from Primavera.

I hate to say this, but it all gets a little too long. The illustrations are wonderful, vibrant and very Christmasy, but at a very full 40 pages, “Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays” need s more than visual stimulation to keep readers’ interest. Case in point, although I still enjoyed the new adventure, after about 30 pages it was obvious my kids’ interests were waning. We made it though and they said they loved it, so we will still round out our collection. However, I don’t foresee us reading “Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays” nearly as often, this holiday season, as the first two Auntie Claus tales.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Winter Tales

Halloween is past and Winter is creeping in. New books feature winter in all it's glory. Of course Christmas is very present on the bookstore shelves. So in the coming weeks you will find several reviews of Christmas books. But for now we'll just stick with stories set in the cold.

"The Geezer in the Freezer"
By Randall Wright
Illustrted by Thor Wickstrom
For ages 3 – 8

Thanksgiving is upon us, so its time to stock up the refrigerator and freezer. While you're at it be sure there are no geezers resting on rump roasts in the sub-zero. Randall Wright takes children on a ridiculous adventure in Aunt May's basement. From a little fright to giddy laughter this not-so-tall tale finds a lost love frozen to holiday pies and ice cream stored in the freezer. Only a young boy knows the truth for even his Aunt May doesn't believe what he has seen.

"Geezer" begs to be read aloud and in character. Children will laugh out loud as you work your way through corned beef hash, snow crabs and chili beans on your way to defrosting the freezer and warming up the geezer.

"The Magician's Elephant"
By Kate DiCamillo
For ages 8 – 14

Kate DiCamillo has such a poetic touch with her storytelling. She reaches into her bag and pulls out another fairytale, of sorts. In this tale of magic, hope, loss, and home, a 10-year-old boy named Peter Augustus Duchene is in search of something to cling to — a little hope. When a fortuneteller imparts information that his sister is still alive, Peter knows he must find her. Unfortunately, the fortuneteller also told him to follow the elephant and there are no elephants anywhere near the town of Baltese. At least not until a mostly forgotten magician performs powerful magic and an elephant drops through the ceiling of the opera house.

This haunting tale winds the stories of a magician, an elephant, a police officer, a feverish soldier, an orphan boy and several others into a tapestry of fate that will cast a spell of wonder on you. Not as dark or heavy as "The Tale of Despereaux," young readers will still recognize DiCamillo's deft wordsmithing as they travel through the somber atmosphere in search of a little light. Although some young readers will struggle to maintain interest in the thoughtful story others will not want to put it down.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fright Night!

Holidays are a huge time for new books to hit the shelves. Each holiday has a built in audience already in the mood for stories pertaining to ghosts and ghouls, Santa, religious beliefs, love, leprechauns, turkeys, and so on. And just before Halloween straight through Valentine's Day the shelves are packed with new releases. So expect to see some reviews today and in the coming months that deal with holiday oriented books.

"Twelve Terrible Things"
By Marty Kelley
For ages 4 – 8

This picture book is light on words and heavy on visual storytelling. The images range from a trip to the dentist's office to peer pressure. The oft maligned monster under the bed makes and appearance as well. Unfortunately, as humorous as the illustrations are to adults it begs the question — do we really need to tell our children that a trip to the dentist is a terrible thing? Hasn't that cliché been hammered into the ground by now. Heck, most pediatric dentists have video games in the waiting room now and offer t-shirts to first time patients.

Clowns. Really? The comedians of the circus don't need any more bad press. Kelley's over-the-top birthday clown may actually cause children who are not afraid of clowns to develop the phobia. Enough already.

While the first person watercolor illustrations are enticing and the dark humor works for adults who can look back on their childhood fears and laugh, "Twelve Terrible Things" does little to help children overcome these fears. It may actually instill a few new ones.

"School of Fear"
By Gitty Daneshvari
For ages 8 – 12

When one's fears becoem a real hindrance and their parents have tried every alternative it is time to consider one last option — The School of Fear. The cover gives the impression that we are about to enter a dark and scary place. That, however, never actually happens. The story follows four teens with highly developed, over exaggerated phobias and one utterly insane school teacher. The story is really about friendship and relationships. The comic effect of the over exaggerated phobias combined with witty dialogue makes this a quick and entertaining read.

Unlike many books in the young adult genre with similar themes, this one contains no real violence or profanity. This fact compliments the light nature of the story. I especially enjoyed the phobias and their definitions that began each chapter.

"School of Fear" is by no means an award winning novel, but children who enjoy the "Heck" series may enjoy filling time between new releases with School of Fear.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fairytale Twists

Does Disney have a corner on the fairy market? No, I don't think so. I have recently found two books for children — one a picture book, the other a young adult book — about fairies. Both were enjoyable in their own right.

"What the Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy"
By Gregory Maguire

For ages 9 – 12
Known for his adult novels, such as "Wicked," Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister," and "Son of a Witch," it was a surprise to see that Maguire had also dabble in children's literature. While leading a middle school class through a writing assignment Maguire decided to try his own hand at the assignment, and what evolved became, "What the Dickens." It is the tale of a rogue tooth fairy on a dark and story night. Forget everything you ever thought you knew about tooth fairies and sink your teeth into Maguire's vision of warring fairy clans, mistaken identity and stormy nights.

Ten-year-old Dinah and her sibings are trapped by a storm and are separated from their parents. Their older cousin Gage attempts to keep their spirits up with a fairy tale about tooth fairies and wish harvesting. The dark and stormy night bit is turned on it's head and never quite explained, but the real story is that of the fairies. Maguire deftly weaves subtle lessons about liberty and the evils of facism and totalitarianism into the tale.

In the midst of the chaos Dinah wants to believe in the twisted fairy tale her cousin Gage is telling and by the end so till you.

"Gone with the Wand"
By Margie Palatini

Illustrated by Brian Ajhar
For Ages 4 – 8
The world's top fairy godmother has a wand on the fritz and is at a loss as to what to do. She is in the dumps and cannot find the slightest bibbity for her boppity boo. Her best friend, who happens to be a tooth fairy, tries to help out. She suggest changing jobs and offers several positions a plump fairy might be able to fill — fairy duster, snow fairy, sugarplum fairy, and so on. As evidenced through the illustrations as much as the dialogue, nothing seems to fit. Palatini meanders a bit in her storytelling, but eventually brings both you and the fairies around to the right job for a fairy godmother.

"Gone with the Wand" offers no attempt at morals. It just offers a bit of fun. children will be enthralled by Ajhar's illustrations. He brings each character to life with pizzazz. Children will enjoy pointing out characters from other famous fairytales in the fairy godmothers photo collection. They'll find all the famous princesses, princes and even a dragon or two.

The tale is cute, but the illustrations are what will have my children requesting to read "Gone with the Wand" multiple times.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Midnight Double Feature

The days of the Midnight Double Feature are all but gone. It is a rare occurrence to see a double billing of monster flicks, sci-fi pics or B-movies. But a walk through your local bookstore will tell you a lot about how much impact movies have on books. Sure we know books become movies, but what happens when authors are inspired by the media around them?

"Killer Pizza"
By Greg Taylor
For ages 10 and up

What a tasty title. It was the only reason I picked up the book. It spoke to me from the bookshelf. "Killer Pizza" is a fast-paced romp with humor and excitement spiced with horror. The story follows Toby, a 14-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to be a celebrity pizza chef. He is beside himself when he lands a job at the new Killer Pizza franchise opening in town. Making pizzas is fun and tiring work, but Toby and the new employees soon find out there is more to Killer Pizza than meets the eye. The store is just a front for a monster hunting operation. Yes there are monsters — vampires, werewolves and many other frightening creatures. Currently there are monsters in Hidden Hills, OH and Toby and this new rag-tag "Scooby Gang" have the opportunity to become monster hunters.

"Killer Pizza" isn't high art. It won't go down in history as classic literature. It's B-movie, midnight double feature fun at its best. With a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" flair "Killer Pizza" delivers an enticing entrée of action, monsters, and humor that will have preteen and teen readers turning the pages looking for a sequel. There are perilous moments, grossmoments, and even frightening moments, so if your preteen or teen is prone to nightmares I'll suggest you be cautious with this hot delivery. Otherwise order your "Killer Pizza" and enjoy.

"Fade to Blue"
By Sean Beaudoin

For ages 14 and up

A mind trip involving bouts of sci-fi and horror. This dark teen dramedy hooks you in just a couple pages and never lets up. A couple days later you'll find yourself finished and seriously wondering what actually happened and if any of it actually made sense.

Sophie Blue turned ultra goth on her last birthday. It just happens that her father disappeared that day and a seriously demonic ice cream truck has been stalking her ever since. Kenny Fade is the school hero. Everything he does is golden. Guys want to be him and every girl wants to date him and their mothers give him their phone number. It's too bad he thinks he is losing his mind. How are they connected — it's twisted to say the least.

"Fade to Blue" is a "Matrix" style tale about reality only this one deals with teenagers. At it's heart it is an exploration of who we are — a character study. On the surface it is a darkly demented thrill ride that will keep you guessing even after the tale is finished. "Fade to Blue" is definitely a book for teens and it didn't make much sense to me. I guess I'll have a better understanding once I unplug.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Pardon the Interruption!

I must apologize for the long delay between posts. I have had a great deal keeping me busy the last two months. My family and I moved from Columbia, South Carolina to St. Louis, Missouri and have been in the process of rehabbing a house. I have been reading a ton of new books, but unable to spend much time on the computer. There is good news though. I will be sharing a new review this week with at least one update in each of the next two weeks.

Look for "Midnight Double Feature" in the next couple days.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Flu Pandemic

With the recent World Health Organization announcement the the N1H1 flu virus is now and epidemic it seems only appropriate for me to introduce you to "Winnie's War." Walker & Company sent me this unassuming book to review about a month before flu panic spread through our media. I decided to read it shortly after the first flu case was reported in the U.S. I didn't expect much, but I could have for it was an excellent read.

"Winnie's War"
By Jenny Moss
For ages 8 – 16
Winnie is a confident rambunctious 13-year-old girl in the small town of Coward Creek, Texas. The year is 1919, young Americans are going to Europe to fight in WWI, and the memory of a catastrophic hurricane that swept through Galveston in 1900 is still etched on everyone's minds. Then the flu begins to spread along with rumors of treatments and conspiracy theories as to it's cause. Tensions rise and so do the emotions. 

Winnie's father makes coffins so she is face to face with death and has to confront the flu epidemic every day. As the story progresses she has to face it head on. Although the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919 is the backdrop for this story, "Winnie's War" is really about relationships, strength and the acceptance of life and it's many facets. 

The turbulent relationship between mother daughter and grandmother is very interesting. As Winnie strives to uncover the reasons for her mother not being very "motherly' she finds a sad tortured soul that could never "let the good and the sad live side by side." Winnie struggles to accept everything around her, including a new love and marry it into a harmonious life. 

Jenny Moss does a fantastic job of handling this morose subject matter with a deftly romantic hand. The tragic losses and emotional scenes will bring tears to your eyes without being gratuitous or overly dramatic. Then, like a rain storm they pass and the sun comes out again. 

I highly recommend this novel. The meaningful relationships, beautiful moments, and emotional losses really bring home how the flu epidemic shaped the landscape in the U.S. A few author's notes in the end papers gives more factual information about the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919 and how it affected major cities as well as small towns.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Love that Poem

Most books of poetry for young readers are collections of silly poems. Sometimes they relate to a specific topic, other times the poems have a similar feel. "The Swamps of Sleethe," "Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks," and "Where the Sidewalk Ends" come to mind. Granted, Shel Silverstein was a genius with words, rhythm and creativity so his works stand above most. But even with fun rhymes in hand the process of introducing poetry to young readers can be very difficult. Many young readers think of boring, mushy stuff, or limericks they won't be aloud to recite when it comes to poetry. So what is the trick? Are there any books of poetry that young readers will actually enjoy? Absolutely.

Aside from the late Shel Silverstein and and Calef Brown there are a few other writers creating superior works of poetic literature for young readers. Two of my favorite books are "Love that Dog" and "Hate that Cat." And they are both excellent introductions to poetry that young readers won't want to put down. I can't recommend them highly enough.

"Love that Dog"
By Sharon Creech
For ages 9 – 12
Jack doesn't like poetry. As far as he is concerned he doesn't understand it, it's too mushy and only girls write it. For some reason though his teacher, Miss Stretchberry keeps giving her class poetry assignments. 

Creech uses free verse disguised as a poetry journal to tell Jack's story. And in a particularly believable stretch of poems Jack finds an appreciation for certain poets, including William Carlos Williams. Jack tries his hand at his own interpretation of their work. The more he writes the more Jack discovers he has something to say. Miss Stretchberry encourages Jack by posting his work on the bulletin board and offering advice. Jack is especially taken by the poetry of Walter Dean Myers, which leads him to write about the issues in his life. One particular poem is about Jack's beloved dog. 

Creech uses less than 100 pages  of short free verse to convey a story of a young boy with a big heart trying to find his voice and his way in the world. Jack learns to use his poetry journal as a therapist and Creech manages to make it all very believable. It is risky to use a " gimmick," as a vehicle. Sometimes they can bog the story down or distract a reader. This is not one of those unfortunate cases. The free verse works seamlessly with the story and exposes young readers to forms of poetry in an wonderful story of hope and love.

"Hate that Cat"
By Sharon Creech
for ages 9 – 12
At the end of Creech's "Love that Dog," Jack had learned to accept the passing of his beloved pet dog. This was a long process involving a poetic journal and a very understanding teacher. "Hate that Cat" catches up to Jack during his next school year and Miss Stretchberry is, once again, his teacher. Jack has kept up with his poetry journal and Miss Stretchberry is very worried about a series of anti-cat poems he has been writing lately. She helps Jack and encourages him to continue working through his "problems." Pretty soon Jack's uncle begins to give advice as well and his view of poetry is quite different from Miss Stretchberry's. He insist that good poetry consist of long lines, symbolism, and rhyme, alliteration, consonance and more. It's enough to make Jack hate poetry almost as much as he hates cats.

However, Jack is able to use his poetry in a away that most adults would envy. He can discuss everything in his life, from his mother's deafness to his uncle's ideas of poetry, to pets. Jack soon learns to love poetry again and his relationship with cats changes one Christmas morning as well.

Creech does an amazing job of having a purpose for her poetry within the realm of this fiction story. There is never a point at which you wonder why Creech decided to write this tale in poetic entries. Her use of language to create visual images with words and creative expression set Creech apart in the literary world. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Hardest Part

McGeath Freeman Rants About Writing.

As a writer I have always believed the most difficult part of writing a story, or writing anything for that matter, is getting started. Staring at a blank page or computer screen can be overwhelming for the most seasoned writers. That is why I took to just jotting down notes and thoughts on stories. I may write notes and thoughts on one story or 15. Whatever happens to be flowing that day is what I write. Then I go back and fit those notes into rough outlines for my stories. Now when I sit down to write a specific story I already have something on the page. It may still be difficult to write a good story, but getting started doesn't seem so daunting.

These days getting started doesn't seem to be the most difficult part. Finishing however... that may be. I have more unfinished stories in folders than anyone should. My story file looks like a closet full of dress shirts that haven't been worn in 10 years, only most of the stories are not out of style, yet. Why can't I finish them? I keep telling myself, "Just sit down and finish them." But I always seem to find something shiny to distract me.

Assuning I actually do finish a story the next step is sellin it. This feat takes time too. Do your research on publishers, send out letters and manuscripts and wait... and wait... and wait. Responses can take up to six months and most of the time it is a rejection. Sometimes the rejection is a simple it's not you, it's us scenario where they say your story "doesn't fit their catalog at this time." Sometimes the rejection letter is biting and says they had high hopes but "were sadly let down by the story." Other times the letter is just flat and doesn't really say anything, "Thank you for your submission." What does that mean? Do they like it or not? Can you imagine breaking up with someone like that. You say, "Thanks for going on a date with me." Then turn around and leave. That would leave anyone with questions. And just imagine, you may have to go through this 100 times or more before getting something published. Thank God dating is not that hard - usually.

Ah, writing. It's difficult getting started, finishing and making any money at it. On top of that you have to get rejected over and over. What's not to love?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tons of Tails

New Animal tales offer fun lessons for story time and beyond.

"The Pout-Pout Fish"
By Deborah Diesen
Illustrated by Dan Hanna
For ages 4 – 8
Ever meet a pouty, grumpy person who just spreads gloom in their wake? The pout-pout fish is the undersea equivalent of that guy. The pout-pout fish swims along with a frown on his face and an attitude that is definitely a downer. Although his friends and acquaintances try to cheer him up, he just says I'm a pout-pout fish and continues to spread the "dreary-weariers all over the place."

Then a lovely young girl fish comes swimming along and plants a kiss right on his pout. He has a revelation, which leads to a transformation. Our hero the pout-pout fish puts his old ways aside and becomes a kiss-kiss fish, "spreading cheery-cheeries all over the place." So what is the message for your kids? The next time you see that grumpy person hanging around bringing everyone down, plant a kiss on his pout and see it turn upside down. Not really, but it is a funny thought.

The clever rhythm and rhymes make "The Pout-Pout Fish" a fun read-aloud story. They are light and breezy, like the humorous illustrations. Hanna offers bright clean undersea life with exaggerated expressions that will have children enthralled throughout story time.

"Are You a Horse?"
By Andy Rash
For ages 4 – 8
This delightfully silly tale follows a cowboy named Roy, who has a slight problem. He has no idea what a horse is. So when his friends give him a saddle and explicit directions to  "find a horse," Roy sets off on a very funny journey.

he asks a wagon, a cactus, and a snake if they are a horse. All to no avail. Roy not only has no idea what a horse is, he obviously doesn't have a clue about much of anything else either. This adds to the ridiculous situational humor. Roy proceeds to ask a variety of other animals including crabs, lions and zebras. When Roy finally discovers a horse he puts the saddle to good use — in a humorous fashion, of course.

The gouache and ink illustrations are appropriately funny and clever. The pleasing images will distract children from the ridiculousness of the story and fuel giggles as they read aloud.

"Library Mouse: A Friend's Tale"
By Daniel Kirk
For ages 4 – 8
This follow up to "Library Mouse" covers sharing, secrets, reading, writing and book making in a heartwarming tale that will inspire young writers and offer teachers possibilities for classroom activities.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Getting Trendy

To what trends are publishers turning in hopes of gathering a few new readers?

I often reference trends in children's publishing when writing reviews for books. Although most publishers will tell you they sty away from trends all you have to do is peruse the local bookstore to see that every publishing house tries to take advantage of the latest trend to some degree. Barbara Fisch is the founder of Blue Slip Media, a company devoted to publicity and marketing for children's books. After spending the last 15 years providing publicity for Harcourt children's books she found it difficult to put her finger on a current trend. "Children's hardcover publishing tends to shy away from following trends, though certain trends do take hold (e.g., vampire books)," she offered.

After Harry Potter there was a glut of books about children with magical powers, wizards, witches, dragons and more. Pirates tried to take hold but then things shifted to vampires and werewolves with the publishing of, The Vampire Diaries, Twilight, and Vampirates. Fantasy still seems to be going strong with series like Fablehaven, The Sisters Grimm, and 100 Cupboards. But there are other trends too.

Phyllis Tildes is an award winning author and illustrator with several books published by Charlesbridge. Her latest, for which she was the illustrator only, is Plant Secrets, by Emily
Goodman. When asked about trends she first pointed out the slew of celebrity children's books, which we both agree include some good ones and some awful ones. Tildes also pointed out the trend towards graphic novels and mentioned that fantasy and darker subjects like family dysfunction are still pretty current. 

Tildes hopes to see a trend toward quieter books. "Picture books for the young child need to provide a safe haven," she said. "Quieter books are also needed as so much in the media world is frenetic, loud, fast paced, and feeds a short attention span." She'd like to see editors take the power to choose the best written and artistic creations for children, rather than "what appears to be mass market-driven drivel."

Of course, as artist and author Nicole Seitz pointed out, there are always the classics. With her newest book published by Tommy Nelson, A Hundred Years of Happiness, now in stores Seitz is making the rounds to publicize it. While in the bookstores she keeps her eyes open. "As a parent of two children under six, I love reading the classics that are repackaged with new illustrations," she said. They recently read the original text of The Wizard of Oz with "new, unusual illustrations." 

As far as trends go Seitz said middle grade fiction series are still big and she believed there were more attempts to package non-fiction to children as well. But her favorite recent discovery has nothing to do with the trends. "As a fiction writer myself, I just love a good
story," she said. "There's no substitute for that." during one of her searches she found Inside the Slidy Diner, by Laurel Snyder. With gorgeous illustrations, and dark, quirky text, Seitz said her children were as enamored with the book as she was.

I guess I know what I'll be reading next. After all, none of us really care about trends — we just want to read a great story.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Before the Opera

Graphic novel electrifies a classic tale and introduces a new generation to an unforgettable character.

I don't usually focus my reviews on one book, however when "The Trap-Door Maker," by Pete Bregman, was recently brought to my attention I changed my mind. Having been in advertising school with the author/illustrator and having worked on a couple projects together while we were there, I thought it would be fun to write about his book. Then I became a little worried about how I would handle the situation
 if I hated it. I had no doubts that Bregman could artfully illustrate a graphic novel, but I wondered how well he could write a story. I decided I would just have to be honest.

"The Trap-Door Maker" (A Prequel to the Phantom of the Opera)
By Pete Bregman
For ages 12 and older
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, long before Andrew Lloyd Weber adapted The Phantom of the Opera into a Broadway musical, Gaston Leroux explored the intricacies of fear and horror, love and hate, cruelty, and beauty in the tale of a disfigured composer that roamed the catacombs below the Paris Opera House. Since that time, readers from preteens to adults have been enthralled with the classic tale — its mystery, romance and terror. 

Leroux introduced us to several characters in his original novel — Erik, the manic and obsessive composer, and The Persian, who helped rescue the object of Erik's obsession. Leroux buries hints and information pertaining to Erik's previous life and relationships throughout the novel, but he never fully explores the past. Several authors have expanded upon the Phantom's story, but none have captured its essence quite like Pete Bregman. In part, this is due to the graphic nature of Bregman's novel. Mostly though it is his skill as a storyteller that sets this story apart.

"The Trap-Door Maker" is a graphic novel that explores Erik's life in Persia before his days as the Phantom. Bregman deftly breathes new life into a character most younger readers only
associate with Broadway. He creatively wraps the details we know from Leroux's novel into a seamless new tale of Erik's life. As a humble street magician Erik made a name for himself with his ingenuity and inventive illusions. When in the right place at the right time Erik is able to gain the trust of both the Shah and his daughter the Sultana. Erik is then taken into the palace as a performer, a mentor, an assassin and a palace architect. In the latter position Erik uses his ingenuity and inventiveness to create trap doors, tunnels, escape routes, traps and torture chambers. Erik enjoys a life of luxury and respect for the first time in his life. It isn't until construction is completed and the Shah believes Erik knows too many secrets that things take a turn for the worse. The order is given for Erik's head, but The Daroga (a.k.a. chief of police, a.k.a. The Persian) knows a thing or two as well and lets Erik escape. You'll just have to read the tale for yourself to get the details.

Although there are some brutal fights and killings it seems quite tame compared to most graphic novels today. This may be attributed to the completely black and white illustrations. No blood and guts, just artistry. Bregman wields black and white like most artist handle an entire palette of color. The effect is simple and artfully guides you into the details of each illustration. The black and white palette also emphasizes the quality of the story without creating distractions. 

"The Trap-Door Maker" is a great piece of work that I was very glad to read. I only wish it had been a little longer. I guess I'll have to go get Bregman's adaptation of "The Phantom of the Opera" next.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Another World

Escapism in children's literature
Trends seem to occur in every media including children's books. Sometimes they are a natural occurrence and sometimes they are manufactured. Either way they happen. For instance,  if there is one book that seeks to transport you to another world there are 20. So in this column I've highlighted three books that use different techniques to help children escape into an adventure. 

"The Seven Keys of Balabad"
By Paul Haven
Illustrated by Mark Zug
For ages 8 – 13
Adventure, exotic locales, mystery and treasure — all just part of what makes "The Seven Keys of Balabad" a fun read. No witches, wizards, vampires, fantasy fairies or alternate universes. With the exception of a few flashbacks this story takes place today, in our world. this story doesn't depend upon trends to thrive. It all comes down to an intriguing story.

This story follows Oliver, a young, American teen living with his family in Balabad, a worn-torn Middle Eastern country. When a 500-year-old sacred carpet is stolen, Oliver finds himself embroiled in a mystery with his best friend Zee, a one-eye warrior and his daughter, and seven unique keys.

Steady action and intrigue keep the story exciting without becoming frenetic. The characters are believable and the dialogue is realistic. Boys and girls alike will enjoy this tale adventure as Oliver and his friends piece together the mystery of the Brotherhood of Arachosia and search for a hidden treasure.

"Ignatius MacFarland: Frequenaut"
By Paul Feig
For ages 8 – 12
Full of adventure and humor this tale begins with an explosion. A misguided attempt to build a spaceship and launch it into space explodes in our title character's face — literally. It doesn't kill him or injure him, but it does send him into another frequency. An interesting take on the whole alternate universe concept, MacFarland ends up in a world that looks very similar to his own. That is until he looks a little closer and discovers nothing is the same.

After making friends with a cat that acts like a dog MacFarland stumbles across the leader of the world, who turns out to be a former teacher of his. This teacher also happened to disappear in an explosion. Pretty soon MacFarland is trying to free the world and its inhabitants from the evil teacher's clutches while simultaneously finding a way home.

"Igantius MacFarland" is fun and funny escape with an interesting look at culture, civilization and dictatorships. 

"What a Trip"
By Arthur Yorinks
Illustrated by Richard Egielski
For ages 4 – 9
When Mel trips on his way home he falls right into another dimension. It is full of sharp points and angles. No smooth curves anywhere. When he falls back home nobody believes Mel's tale of an alternate universe. Mel tries so hard to trip into the angle universe again people, including his parents, begin to wonder if he is stable. It isn't until he finally trips into the other world again that his parents get to see the truth.

Although the language is nice most of the humor in this tale is in Egielski's slapstick illustrations. The Mad Magazine style folded illustrations that reveal a hidden surprise are also quite nifty for kids. It is a wonder more illustrators haven't tried this gimmick over the years. Kids will enjoy it once in awhile, but this story probably won't be picked for nightly story time.

For information regarding reprints and pricing contact

Friday, March 13, 2009

Stuck in the Middle

There is definitely an art to crafting a successful middle reader or early teen novel. Beyond juvenile humor this type of book has to resonate with its reader. That means capturing the voice and nuances of a preteen or early teen. They are tough judges but a few book have managed to pass their tests.

Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf: A Year Told Through Stuff"
By Jennifer L. Holm
For ages 10 – 13
I love books that take a chance. This creative story of a girl in seventh grade does just that with a non-traditional narrative that works. The "Regarding the..." series by Kate and Sarah Klise have successfully adapted a non-traditional narrative format with middle readers. But "Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf" takes it a step further. Reading this story is like looking through a scrapbook or journal and it all starts with a list.

Ginny Davis begins her seventh grade year with a list of things to accomplish. However, things don't always go as planned. Some might even say they don't usually go as planned. Her list, notes, IM messages, and much more "stuff" tells of the ups and downs of the school year. The "stuff" even delves into a few of Ginny's deeper issues. She gains a new stepfather, her brother has problems with alcohol and bad behavior, and her grades take a plunge. Don't worry, this tale isn't a deep introspective drama on the trials and tribulations of being a young teen. Ginny's year ends on a high note.

This book offers a glimpse of hope and resilience. The scrapbook style involves readers without seeming like a gimmick. But honesty and humor are what make this book work. It creates a believable and appealing voice that engages readers, especially young girls.

"Teddy Roosevelt and the Treasure of Ursa Major"By Ronald Kidd
Illustrated by Ard Hoyt
For ages 6 – 10
Adapted from a Kennedy Center stage production "Teddy Roosevelt and the Treasure of Ursa Major" is the first in a series of "Capital Kids" stories that follow the children of the White House on fun-filled adventures. Liberally sprinkled with historical facts and interesting White House folklore, children will be thrust into an educational story without even knowing it.

Told from 11-year-old Archie Roosevelt's perspective, "Teddy Roosevelt and the Treasure of Ursa Major" follows three of the younger Roosevelt children as they find a mysterious slip of paper pressed between the pages of "Treasure Island." Pretty soon the Roosevelt children are scampering from room to room in the White House following clues to a hidden treasure. Add a boisterous President, a bumbling Russian ambassador, and a mysterious new nanny and you have an entertaining mystery children won't want to put down.

"Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls" (series)
By Meg Cabot
For ages 8 – 11
Best known for "The Princess Diaries," Cabot brings her trademark, frank comedy to the world of a good-hearted, impulsive, and generally nice girl. The series begins with Moving Day. Allie feels her world is on the verge of collapsing because her family is moving across town. While all this happens she loses her best friends and becomes the dreaded "new kid in school." So Allie creates rules to help herself live in an increasingly complex world. With a new installment expected on shelves this September you may want to start reading the first three books now. Look for Moving Day, The New Girl, and Best Friends and Drama Queens at your local bookstore.

Each of the "Rules for Girls" books is a compulsive read that deftly captures the conflicted feelings of a nine-year-old girl as the politics of friendship begin to complicate the rules of life. Cabot handles this struggle with fun and humor, which allows children to connect with the characters and enjoy the stories.

For information regarding reprints and pricing contact

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Is Anything Off limits?

Is anything off limits in today's children's literature? I guess that depends on your perspective. As far as I can see, as a reviewer, picture books and early readers still tend to shy away from certain topics — sexuality, violence and drugs top the list. Sure lighter forms of these topics are discussed. you can find books with a kiss or bullying. But very few deal with homosexuality, child abuse, or suicide. And maybe they shouldn't. I'm not saying children aren't exposed to these topics in there everyday life. Heck, most kids have can find it all wrapped into one exciting package if they have a Playstation or Xbox. So where does that put children's literature? How does the industry handle these topics?

The teen, or young adult, market seems to have no problem tackling even the toughest topic. just scan the shelves in the young adult section of your local book store and you'll find books that cover everything — suicide, rape, homosexuality, hard drugs, prostitution, gang violence, murder, abortion, and much more. Some of the stories have solid messages, but some are just considered "entertaining." Maybe. After all adults get a kick out of their own pulp fiction.

So again I ask... Is anything off limits? If you were a children's and young adult book editor what would you say? Maybe you are an editor or maybe you are a parent. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Wild on Books

Animal characters make a real impact in newly published children's books.

"First Dog Fala"
By Elizabeth Van Steenwyk
Illustrated by Michael G. Montgomery
For ages 4 – 8
After President Barack Obama took the oath of office americans turned their attention to one question — What kind of dog will his family bring to the White house? Van Steenwyk brings us a tale of another President's dog in "First Dog Fala." it is the story of Franklin D. roosevelt and his beloved dog. during the darkest days of World War II 
FDR had a loyal friend in his Scottish terrier. Steenwyk relates true anecdotes of their relationship including when Fala was left behind on a Pacific island and a destroyer was sent to retrieve him. It cost American taxpayers millions of dollars and kicked off a public outcry. 
Montgomery brings the story to life with rich oil paintings in a retro 1930s style. The color palette is subdued but textural and helps create a visual backdrop to this wonderful story of friendship and history.

"Critter Sitter"
By Chuck Richards
For ages 4 – 8
Henry is an industrious young boy who started his own critter sitting business. his neighbors are his first customers. With a house full of unruly animals including a cat, dog, bird, fish snake, and a frog it is really no job for a beginner. But Henry never loses his cool.
This book takes readers on a first rate thrill ride as the bird flies the coop, the snake makes a dash for the drain and the cat tries to free a jar full of crickets. Chuck Richards further draws us into the mayhem with his colorful and expressive action illustrations of Henry hard at work.
"Critter Sitter" is a fun-filled story tat may just inspire budding entrepreneurs — or maybe just scare them away.

"Madame Pamplemousse and Her Incredible Edibles"
By Rupert Kingfisher
Illustrated by Sue Hellard
For ages 8 – 12
Each and every summer Madeline is sent to work in her uncle's restaurant in Paris. he is a horrible bully of a man named Lard and his restaurant, the Squealing Pig, isn't any better. madeline loves food and cooking. One day on an errand to the market she discovers a tiny shop with wondrous and amazing delicacies — Sea Serpent Pate, Minotaur Salami, Pterodactyl Bacon, and Roast Piranha. Madeline even discovers the most incredible ever on the shelves.
Before long Lard is trying to steal the recipe for the most incredible edible ever tasted and Madeline is stuck in the middle, between the mysterious Madame Pamplemousse and her horrid uncle. She must learn to stand up and believe in herself and her talents before this modern fairytale can end happily ever after.
Children who enjoyed Disney-Pixar's Ratatouille will also enjoy this jaunt through the Paris food scene. Although the lead character is a girl this is not a princess-style book. Boys, girls and grown-ups alike will enjoy this tale.

You may also enjoy...
"The fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau"
By Dan Yaccarino
For ages 6 – 12
Yaccarino uses his bright and inviting illustration style to present a wonderful doorway into the life of Jacques Cousteau. Children and their parents will eagerly read and learn about the man who brought everything under the sea to the rest of the world. You will be amazed by his inventions and awed by how one man changed the way we explore and understand the sea.  

Thank you Dan Yaccarino for shedding color on Cousteau's life and making it accessible to a new generation.

For a copy of these reviews, reprint permission, or pricing guides contact McGeath at

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

3 Deadly Mistakes for Self-Publishing Picture Books

There are three basic mistakes writers who self-publish picture books make more often than not. These three mistakes can kill a good idea and lead a writer to publish something that should never have been allowed in print. What amazes me though, is the author never sees the atrocity they have committed. Like a new parent, their child is the most beautiful baby in the world. 

Maybe writers who want to self-publish can avoid the mistakes by knowing the problems.
1. Illustrations — The quality of illustrations in self-published books are generally weak and sloppy. They often present visuals that are nothing more that what is in the written word. This "See & Say" approach slows the pacing of the story and bores the reader. It doesn't matter how good your story is if your illustrations are mediocre or worse. They will effectively kill your story. On the other hand, great illustrations will encourage children to keep reading and identify with the characters.

2. Design and Layout — Font selection and art direction make a big difference in how readable a book is. The flow of a story through its pages is important to keep children engaged. Does the layout encourage a natural page turn? Does a reader know where the next line is? Illustrations and type should work together not compete. This causes confusion in the readers head and interrupts the flow of the story. It is kind of like going to a movie and having the person next to you continually asking you questions about the technical aspects of what you see on screen. I see this problem all the time — in all levels of publishing. 

3. Overindulgence — We could call this "verbal gluttony" because writers say too much. Since most self-published authors don't have an editor everything ends up on paper. The writer is king in the self-publishing arena and they are often too close to their work to see the flaws. Overindulgence often leads to a "See & Say" book that never involves the reader or asks the reader to think. These books tend to preach their story. The great picture books tend to include the reader almost as if they were having a conversation. The words offer just enough information, the illustrator is allowed to bring new information to the story, and the reader completes the conversation with their own thoughts. Overindulgence just leads to a bloatedand boring story.