Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Art of Miss Chew

In The Art of Miss Chew, Patricia Polacco again tells a portion of her own history, but in such a way that it reads like fiction, almost as enchanting as a fairy tale. Patricia has finally overcome her difficulty in learning to read. (To enjoy that story, look for Thank You, Mr. Falker.) Now, she is older, and though she still reads slowly, her new teacher, Mr. Donovan, gives her the time she needs to finish her tests. But what Patricia really longs for is an art class. Mr. Donovan signs Patricia up for a special art class at the high school with Miss Chew. But when Mr. Donovan must make an unexpected trip back to Ireland, Patricia's substitute teacher, Mrs. Spaulding, isn't willing to give Patricia the extra time she needs to finish her tests. Mrs. Spaulding threatens to pull her out of the art classes. Miss Chew comes to Patricia's rescue, showing her how much she believes in and cares for her.

Patricia Polacco's books have delighted me since childhood. The stories she tells are rich in homey details that make it seem as though the story could have taken place in your own back yard. The Art of Miss Chew is no different. Patricia's artwork is unique and beautiful. Her stories teach valuable lessons. Patricia conveys her deep respect for teachers who are willing to look a little closer at their students and love them for who they are. The Art of Miss Chew is a challenge for and celebration of teachers everywhere.

I would highly recommend this book (and all of Patricia Polacco's work). Though Patricia Polacco's books are wonderful, they are also very wordy. These would not make good read-aloud books to younger groups, but would make excellent read-aloud books for older groups.

G. P. Putnam's Sons | Patricia Polacco

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Pout-Pout Fish

The Pout-Pout Fish
By Deborah Diesen

The pout-pout fish swims through the ocean spreading ‘dreary-wearies’ all around. Other ocean-dwellers—a clam, a jellyfish, a squid, and an octopus—try to convince him to cheer up, but the pout-pout fish will have none of it. Mr. Fish is sure that he has no choice but to be pouty until along comes a shimmery fish, who is about to turn Mr. Fish’s world upside down.

I interrupted my husband from his musical composing to show him this book. I was already smiling when I started to read it to him, and by the end we were both laughing so hard we could hardly read the words on the pages. There are good reasons that this book is a New York Times bestseller. Diesen weaves together words skillfully, and the rhyming verses flow from the page effortlessly. The pictures, as well as the words, are hilarious. Adults will enjoy this book, but children will also be introduced to the valuable insight that people who insist on being pouty are no fun to be around.

The Pout-Pout Fish will be a great read-aloud for a group or for one child. This is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it!

Visit Deborah Diesen | Visit Farrar Straus Giroux

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Cereal Murders

Diane Mott Davidson’s third mystery about Goldy Bear the caterer again centers on the themes of murder and cooking. Keith Andrews, the valedictorian of the exclusive Elk Park Preparatory School, is brutally murdered after giving a speech at the College Advisory Dinner for Seniors and Parents. Because this was an event Goldy is catering, she is on the scene and immediately pulled into the mystery. Goldy’s live-in helper Julian is a prime suspect in the case, and soon Goldy’s son Arch, who also attends Elk Park Prep, becomes a target for some chilling pranks. With the help of detective and good friend Tom Shulz, Goldy searches for answers.

Culinary mysteries are, in my opinion, an excellent addition to the mystery genre. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to mysteries. Anything too chilling or gory does its work too effectively by completely scaring me off. Goldy Bear’s optimism and quirky sense of humor keep these mysteries light, and death is tastefully handled in this book. Plus, as a caterer, Goldy makes delicious food that leaves my mouth watering even while I’m balled up on the couch in suspense. Davidson includes a variety of recipes in each of her books, and every one of them that I have tried has turned out delicious.

Davidson does, however, fall into the rut that many prolific authors who write in the same genre fall into. Despite the detail variation and side-plot variation in her stories, The Cereal Murders falls into the same predictable pattern as her first two books. In addition, Davidson’s writing does not always flow smoothly. My final criticism is that characters are sometimes exaggerated to the point of being unbelievable in this book. On the one hand, this could be frustrating for the reader, as it makes the story as a whole unbelievable, but on the other hand, this makes murder mysteries a little more palatable for those of us who are skittish when it comes to suspenseful stories.

Overall, though I was not absolutely impressed by Davidson’s writing style, the story is gripping, the characters entertaining, and the recipes delicious. I will most likely continue to pick up Davidson’s books when I’m in need of a little suspense or a delicious treat.

Visit Diane Mott Davidson at HarperCollins

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Killed at the Whim of a Hat

Killed at the Whim of a Hat
By Colin Cotterill

Jimm is a crime reporter for a newspaper in Chiang Mai, Thailand, when her mother suddenly sells the store she owns and buys a failing resort in southern Thailand. Jimm and her brother Arny give up their work and move with their mother, Mair, to southern Thailand. Because she had to give up her promising career, Jimm is elated when a two skeletons sitting in a van are found buried in a palm tree field. Southern Thailand gets even more exciting when a Buddhist abbot is murdered brutally at the nearby Feuang Fa Temple. Not only is this the first hint of excitement she’s seen in southern Thailand, but this is a chance for Jimm to reestablish her journalist career. With the help of her grouchy grandfather and a police named Chompu, Jimm tries to uncover the mysteries.

A few things made this book a unique and interesting read. I appreciated being able to read about Thailand; I enjoy reading non-fiction books, but I much prefer to learn facts in a story setting. This book gave me a great taste of Thai society, especially the unique dynamic that is created when pop culture from across the globe intersects with traditional Thai culture. The author has an entertaining sense of humor, and that comes out often in his writing.

Overall, I was not terribly impressed with Killed at the Whim of a Hat, however. Jimm’s sarcasm and cynicism became wearisome to me by the end of the book. Maybe that’s just personal preference. Jimm also uses a variety of illegal means by which to solve her mysteries. I wasn’t terribly impressed. The author also chose to include a number of characters who were either gay or had had a sex-change operation done. What made this particularly uncomfortable for me was that the characters offered a lot of off-hand (and off-color, in my opinion) comments about sex-related topics which were not necessary to the story.

In addition, I felt that only one of the murder cases was handled well by the author, the murder of the abbot. The case of the two skeletons found buried in a van seemed to be slapped together quickly and not very convincingly at the end.

I think that as literature goes, this is a very well-done book. If that is all a reader is looking for, then I would highly recommend this book. I would also recommend this book for its unique perspective and for the chance to learn a little about Thailand. However, for someone who is going to be bothered by loose morals and crude jokes, I would not recommend this book quickly.

Find it at Macmillan | Visit Colin Cotterill

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church

The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church
By Gregory A. Boyd

Just the title of this book sparks controversy. And the contents of the book are no different. Those who believe that the United States is a Christian nation or that our activities overseas are the will of God will find in this book someone who disagrees with them. Strongly.

Boyd compares the ‘Power Over’ kingdom of the world to the ‘Power Under’ kingdom of God throughout the book. In a ‘Power Over’ kingdom, one group exerts force over another group to have its own way. It uses violence, if necessary. He says, “Fallen humans tend to identify their own group as righteous and any group that opposes them as evil. If they were not evil, we tend to believe, no conflict would exist.”

A ‘Power Under’ kingdom, in contrast, is a kingdom like Jesus, where people who aspire to be like Jesus wash the feet of others and turn the other cheek. A ‘Power Under’ kingdom rules with love; Jesus loved others at any cost—therefore, that is how Christians should be.

Boyd compares the ‘Power Over’ and ‘Power Under’ kingdoms this way: “Not everything about the kingdom of the world is bad. Insofar as versions of the kingdom of the world use their power of the sword to preserve ad promote law, order, and justice, they are good. But the kingdom of the world, by definition, can never be the kingdom of God. It doesn’t matter that we judge it good because it stands for the principles we deem important—‘liberty, and justice for all,’ for example. No version of the kingdom of the world, however comparatively good it may be, can protect its self-interest while loving its enemies, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, or blessing those who persecute it. Yet loving our enemies and blessing those who persecute us is precisely what kingdom-of-God citizens are called to do.”

There’s more, lots more, in this little book. Though I don’t agree with everything Boyd writes, a good portion of what he says resonates as true, in my mind. (Dare I share exactly what I agree with?)

Aside from content, however, Boyd’s writing style and the set-up of the book were not perfect. I appreciated that Boyd wrote in layman terms; I didn’t feel bogged down with mystifying theological statements. However, Boyd references a lot of Bible verses to back up his opinions. I would have preferred him to put those into footnotes, but instead each reference is located behind the sentence it supports. Where there are multiple references per sentence, the flow of the narration was interrupted for me, as I scanned along a list of references to find the next sentence.

In addition, Boyd uses a lot of rhetorical questions to make his point. Though many of the questions are good and ones Christians should be asking themselves, whole paragraphs filled with nothing but rhetorical questions was overkill, in my opinion.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. Boyd is not afraid of taking this touchy subject and going over it with a fine-toothed comb. When you read this book, expect to feel uncomfortable. Expect to disagree with Boyd in places. Maybe even expect to yell at Boyd while sitting on your couch at home. But also expect to reassess the values you hold dear.

Visit Greg Boyd

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?

The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?
By Mo Willems

In the newest of the Pigeon books by Mo Willems, the duckling asks the reader, very sweetly, for a cookie. He is given a cookie (coming down through the top of the next page), and he notices the cookie has nuts. The pigeon comes along and finds out that the duckling got the cookie just by asking. A big fit ensues, in which the pigeon lists all of the many things he's asked for and never received. Finally at the end of the book, the duckling gives the pigeon the cookie, which completely floors and delights the pigeon. After the pigeon leaves, the duckling asks for a new cookie-- but this time with no nuts!

Though this book was cute, it was, in my opinion, not Mo Willems at his best. I expected to laugh out loud at this story, like I do for most of Mo Willems' books, but I really didn't laugh until the last page. The pigeon's raging over not getting things he asks for is not nearly as cute as some of his other tantrums, and it doesn't mirror a toddler as well either. However, the illustrations are still endearing and manage to convey a lot of emotion with very little detail.

I will also mention that, at least for parents, this book will be more entertaining if you've read the other books in which the pigeon and the duckling interact. A good portion of the pigeon's frustration in this book comes from the history of his relationship with the duckling. Just not as funny if you aren't familiar with that history!

I do recommend this book, but not as highly as most of Mo Willems' others. If you're a die-hard pigeon fan, you'll probably still want to read this book, but if you're picking up Mo Willems for the first time and seeking to be convinced of his genius, this is not the book to start with.

Visit Mo Willems

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
By Mo Willems

The pigeon wants to drive the bus. Plain and simple. In this story the pigeon engages with the reader, trying to convince the reader that he should have a chance to drive the bus. He plays it cool. He tries to sweet talk. He throws a tantrum. Finally the bus driver comes back and asks the reader, "You didn't let the pigeon drive the bus, did you?"

This 2003 Caldecott Honor book looks deceptively simple at first glance. The pigeon is drawn with thick black lines, and there is very little in the way of background scenery. However, what appears to be almost too simple quickly becomes genius if the reader looks a little closer. The pigeon's bug-eyes and postures convey a wide range of emotion effectively. (The one critique I could make of the illustrations is that, for children at least, a little more detail to catch their eyes would be nice.) Parents will find much in this book to make them laugh out loud, and children will enjoy it too. Parents can allow their children to answer every wheedling request of the pigeon with a loud, "No!" Children will enjoy finally getting to be in the position of their parents, saying no to someone else!

Mo Willems has quickly become one of my favorite picture book authors, and I look forward to sharing his books with the young children in my life!

Visit Mo Willems

Friday, April 6, 2012

My Adopted Child, There's No One Like You

My Adopted Child, There’s No One Like You
By Dr. Kevin Leman & Kevin Leman II
Illustrated by Kevin Leman II

Panda has an assignment from school: he needs to draw his family tree and bring it to show the class. Panda’s afraid, though. His family isn’t like other families because he’s a panda and his mom and dad are brown bears. Panda goes home from school feeling sad. His Mama Bear explains to him again, while munching on his mom’s eucalyptus and honey cookies, about how he came into their family. Panda comes to realize that different is okay. His family is different, interesting, exciting, and special.

For a small book, there’s really a lot to unpack here. When purchasing the book, you may want to know ahead of time that this story is about a child who looks obviously different from his adoptive parents. Not good or bad—just something to be aware of before you purchase, depending on your situation. The illustrations in this book are simple but a lot of fun and still manage to convey a lot of emotion. I really appreciated that when Mama Bear is telling Panda about why she and Papa Bear wanted to adopt a cub her reasoning behind adoption is vague. This allows the book to appeal to a wider audience. I also enjoyed the symbolism behind the eucalyptus honey cookies to demonstrate how two things that appear dissimilar can end up being wonderful together. There is also a place for the child to interact with the book in the back by creating his or her own family tree.

That leads me to a few things I did not appreciate about the book. The book did not address where the birth mother should go on a family tree. Maybe it depends on the child, but I imagine that most children would want their birth parents to show up on a family tree somewhere, even if they never knew their birth parents. I also wished that Papa Bear could have been involved in the discussion. So many adoption books for kids show the mom talking with her child. Where’s dad? And my last critique is a nit-picky wording issue: When Mama bear is talking about Panda’s birth mother choosing to give Panda up, Mama Bear describes it as “the most loving thing she could do.” In such multi-faceted issues as adoption, I’m a little uncomfortable with such an absolute statement.

This is a lot of review for a little book. Overall, its a treasure for talking about adoption with a child. Check it out! And if you enjoy My Adopted Child, There's No One Like You, Dr. Kevin Leman has a whole series of birth order books for children. 

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors
By Hena Khan
Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

This simply written, rhyming book shows the life of a little Muslim girl through colors. Each color to her represents a different part of her faith, from the red prayer rug her father kneels on five times a day, to the green Quran her grandmother reads with her. I was impressed that the author was able to include a variety of Arabic words in her rhyming verses! However, some of the verses did sound a little bit forced to my ear. Children will be drawn to the rich colors and intricate designs spilling from the pages of this book. I had to read it an extra time, just to enjoy the beautiful pictures!

Though this book does not reflect the Christian beliefs that I hold dear, I think this is an excellent book for young children to read. So many of us have not learned from an early age to love and appreciate others who are different from us. I love that this book can show children in a non-confrontational way that ‘different’ does not always mean ‘scary’!

Hena Khan has displayed the same talent in this work that she first demonstrated in Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story (one of Booklist’s 2009 Top 10 Religion Books for Youth). I highly recommend it!

*This was sent as a review copy.*

Find at Chronicle Books


By Emma Donoghue

I started Room purely because I will be taking an online class for the month of April on leading adult book discussions. I didn’t know much of anything about it before I started it. The cover, even, is less than descriptive.

Room is told from the point of view of a five-year-old boy named Jack. It starts with, “Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.” He has lived his entire life in Room with his Ma, completely and utterly secure and content. Ma is Jack’s best and only companion, with the exception of ‘Old Nick,’ who only comes late at night, after Jack is nestled into Wardrobe. Early on in the novel, through details Jack picks up but may not understand, the reader comes to realize that, though Jack is perfectly content, all is not right.

When Jack turns five, Ma begins to tell him about life outside of Room. Formerly, Jack had believed that everything outside of Room was Outer Space, and everything in TV was not real. Ma conjures an escape plan for the two of them, in which Jack must pretend to be dead. Their harrowing escape attempt is successful, but when they arrive in Outside, Jack must learn to adapt to the wide variety of things he had never experienced before, like other rooms with objects in different locations, wind on his face, and even having other people look at him.

Donoghue did an excellent job of adopting the voice of Jack throughout the book. I felt like I could almost hear him audibly prattling away to me! I was able to understand how confusing the world is for Jack—imagine believing that the only thing real was your eleven-foot room and then finding out that there was much, much more to the world! Donoghue skillfully made known to the reader how many sacrifices Ma makes for Jack in Room in order to keep him safe and happy.

The closeness of Jack’s and Ma’s relationship is beautiful, but it almost bordered on uncomfortable for me. First is the disconcerting realization that Jack is still nursing at five. Then, I realized that baths and going to the bathroom are not private affairs in Room. (Really, how could they be?) When they escape from Room, Jack must gradually learn that he can be away from his Ma.

Room is an excellent read. I highly recommend it, and I would love to know what you think of it!

Find Room at Hachette Book Group | Emma Donoghue

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sylvan Dell Publishing-- five new books

I fell in love with Sylvan Dell Publishing a few months ago, and the books described here are no exception! As you read about the five books below, keep in mind that besides great stories, each of these books from Sylvan Dell Publishing has a rich wealth of resources in the back of the book with a variety of activities relating to the topics mentioned in the story. I love these, both for using in a school setting and at home! As if the resources in the books weren’t enough, readers can also go online to the Sylvan Dell Publishing website to find additional resources for teachers and parents.  

Home in the Cave
By Janet Halfmann
Illustrated by Shennen Bersani

In Home in the Cave Baby Bat lives with his mother on a ceiling deep within a cave. While other baby bats are excited about stretching their wings to get ready for the day when they can go hunting outside of the cave with their moms, Baby Bat is afraid. He wants to stay in the cave forever. One night he decides to try to fly, just once. When he does, he falls onto the floor of the cave and meets a packrat named Pluribus. Pluribus takes Baby Bat around the floor of the cave to see all of the animals that never leave the cave and live on the bat guano. When Baby Bat realizes that so many other animals depend on him and the other bats, he decides he might be ready to leave the cave after all.

I wish I had had books like these when I was younger. The way the author weaves scientific facts into a fun story about a baby bat show clearly that she did her research before writing. The dialogue between Baby Bat and Pluribus does at times feel a little stilted, jam-packed as it is with facts, but overall the facts compliment the story, rather than hindering it. The illustrations are soft, yet accurate, educational as well as entertaining! All of Bersani’s traveling to different caves around the U.S. paid off, as is evident in these illustrations! I can imagine any child wanting to read and re-read the story of Baby Bat.

The Penguin Lady
By Carol A. Cole
Illustrated by Sherry Rogers

Penelope loves to wear black and white. Soon, friends and family start to send her penguins. First, her brother sends her one penguin from the Galapagos Islands, then her sister gives her two Rockhopper penguins from Argentina, then she receives three Chinstrap penguins from Antarctica. And her penguin family continues to grow! Children will learn on multiple levels while reading this book. Simple counting is reinforced, and children will learn the names and origins of a number of penguin species. Children will also be reminded that there can be too much of a good thing! I appreciated how fun and yet simple this story is. I hope that we have a chance to use it in our library programs in the future. This book would also be great for reading one-on-one with a child!

Gopher to the Rescue! A Volcano Recovery Story
By Terry Catasús Jennings
Illustrated by Laurie O’Keefe

Gopher lives on a mountain with other animals. One day they begin to feel rumblings deep in the earth. A volcano explodes! When it does, many animals are killed, but not Gopher. Gopher is safe and comfortable in his burrow. When gopher emerges from his burrow, he sees a land hot and dry, covered in ash. Very few other animals have survived the blast. Bit by bit, by digging, gopher helps the soil recover. Plants slowly begin to grow. Animals return: first insects, then birds, and then larger animals like elk. Months, years, and then decades pass, and the mountain becomes a lush place for animals to live again.

The slow recovery of a habitat after a volcanic eruption is a difficult subject for young children to grasp and one not often attempted in picture books. However, this author/illustrator team does an excellent job of bringing the topic down to where a child will be interested and able to understand. I appreciate the unique way in which this book shows the recovery of the mountain literally from the ground up. Children will be riveted by these beautifully crafted illustrations, and they will begin to grasp the order in which life returns to an area following a volcanic blast.

Three Little Beavers
By Jean Heilprin Diehl
Illustrated by Cathy Morrison

Bevan, Beverly, and Beatrix are beavers who live in a creek. When Beatrix swims up the creek by herself, she finds a meadow outside of Beaver Inn. Suddenly, a trap shuts around her! Thankfully, this trap is one that doesn’t hurt animals. When her siblings come to find her, they are trapped in box traps as well. People find the three beavers the next day and decide they need to move the beavers far away where they won’t hurt the plants by the Inn. A little girl comes up with an idea that allows the Inn to keep its plants safe but also allows the beavers to stay in their home.

This is a lovely little story. The pictures are bright and beautiful, and little tidbits of beaver facts are sprinkled throughout. Children will enjoy this simple story but learn some important truths as well. I especially appreciated how the story reminds readers that removing animals is not the only option when animals are perceived as pesky. Sometimes a little creativity is all it takes to allow animals and people to live together successfully.

The Great Divide
By Suzanne Slade
Illustrated by Erin E. Hunter

Did you know that a group of foxes is called a skulk? Or that a group of squirrels is called a dray? Readers will learn the unexpected names for groups of all kinds of animals in this book, as well as get a chance to practice simple division. Because readers need to be able to count the animals on the page (unless they already know simple division problems by memory), this book will not work well to read to large groups, but it is an excellent choice for one-on-one reading. I enjoyed the beautiful illustrations on each page and the rhyming verses that shared the math challenge and the name for the group of animals pictured. Overall, this book will make math fun for reluctant young mathematicians and reinforce the value in children who already enjoy math. Definitely a treasure!

If you enjoy these books, check them out at Sylvan Dell Publishing. Keep in mind that you have options for purchasing these delightful books. You can purchase the books in hardcover, paperback, or as eBook downloads. You can also purchase an eBook subscription, which will include Auto-Read and Selectable English and Spanish text and audio.

*These were sent as review copies.*

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


By Lucy Christopher

Gemma is a British teenager, growing up in London. In the Bangkok airport, on her way to Vietnam, she is drugged and stolen by a young man named Ty. Taken to the Australian outback, away from everything she holds dear, Gemma is desperate to escape. But over the weeks that she is stuck in the middle of nowhere with Ty, Gemma begins to understand that her kidnapper has a painful past and a sensitive, loving side.

Stolen, a Michael L. Printz honor book, is written from Gemma’s point of view, as a letter to her kidnapper. Gemma shares with her kidnapper everything she felt for him during their time in the Australian outback, from fear to rage to… compassion. I got a strong sense for the emotional turmoil Gemma experiences throughout her time with Ty. In fact, my emotions as a reader were confused about Ty! I detested him for kidnapping her. I liked him for not hurting Gemma in any way physically. I disliked his mood swings. I felt compassion for him because of his past. In summary, Lucy Christopher did an excellent job in conveying Gemma’s confusion. The emotional confusion comes to a climax at the end of the book, and readers are left to ponder, with Gemma, whether her feelings for Ty are grounded or are a display of Stockholm syndrome.

This is a fast but fascinating read. At times the pace of the story seems slow-- a lot of time is spent on Gemma's ideas and plans for escape. However, readers will enjoy experiencing the rugged beauty of the Australian outback and will be riveted by Gemma’s predicament. I would not, however, recommend reading Stolen right before bed (unless you don’t mind spending hours musing over characters in a book instead of sleeping).

Check it out!