Sunday, February 27, 2011

An all time favorite childhood book: The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss

"Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches Had Bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars."

Many of us were blessed to grow up with Dr. Seuss books on our childhood bookshelves and in our grade school classrooms. By the same token, I think it's safe to say that we each have our own favorite. My favorite has always been The Sneetches and Other Stories, a compilation of four imaginative, witty, (and, of course, even silly) Seuss stories that I know by heart. 

Seuss knew how to make children love reading and have fun reading a story over and over, reciting the rhymes and marveling at the original characters that came from Seuss' mind. What's even more memorable are the timeless lessons Dr. Seuss teaches us about friendship, family, acceptance, and believing in oneself.  

The Star-Belly Sneetches and the Plain-Belly Sneetches had a lot to learn about accepting themselves and others for who they are, and I had a lot to learn about not changing myself just to be like everyone else. The stubborn North- and South-Going Zax taught me a valuable lesson about paving my own way without trampling in the way of others journeying around me; the world continues on and grows around them in their prideful impasse when all it takes is a single step to the side to mo ve on with their tracks. The "cautionary tale" of "Too Many Daves" is a fantastic example of the skill we all know Seuss for: rhyming with absurd, hilarious (often made-up) words:

"...And one of them Hoos-Foos. And one of the Snimm.
And one of them Hot-Shot. and one Sunny Jim.
And one of the Shadrock. And one of them Blinkey.
And one of the Stuffy. And one of them Stinkey."

And finally, in the story "What was I scared of?" the narrator finds that a spooky pair of pale green pants ("with nobody inside them!") is not following and haunting him, but crossing his path by accident, just as afraid of the narrator as the narrator is afraid of the pair of pants. In the end, the narrator overcomes his fear and he and the pale green pants become friends with one another. For a shy kid like myself, I gleaned from this story that I wasn't the only girl afraid to make friends with new people; all I needed to do was say "Hi" and smile to make a new friend.

If you have not read this set of stories for yourself or for your little ones, I suggest you add it to your to-read list and enjoy it on your next trip to the library or bookstore!

So what's your Seuss favorite?

5Q: You honestly cannot find a set of stories more original and well-written than those of Dr. Seuss. The stories are easy to read and they provide a lot of life lessons and teachable literary elements.
5P: What child (or adult, for that matter) doesn't love a Dr. Seuss book??? It's sure to be a hit :)

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

"And either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives..."

Well, folks, I did it! I finished the Order of the Phoenix and I am ready to move on to the next lovely read.

Getting through this book was quite the challenge for me and I nearly let it get the best of me. After  reading number four, The Goblet of Fire, I think I went into the fifth installment expecting a fair amount of suspense as the Dark Lord returns and the second war begins. The Goblet of Fire packed a pretty amazing punch--Voldemort has a body full enough to come back into power and he and Harry come face to face, full being to (almost-) full being for the first time! In The Order of the Phoenix, Rowling saves much of the action for Harry's haunted dreams, an unexpected Dementor attack, and a battle between Dumbledore's Army, the Order of the Phoenix, and Voldemort and his faithful Death Eaters (Disclaimer: the latter battle was brilliant, but I had to wait until the 34th Chapter to experience it!). The tension at Hogwarts as Cornelius Fudge and his minions, led by the sly, quietly-maniacal Delores Umbridge, is fairly predictable, but all in all it makes for a sufficient amount of conflict that keeps the reader interested.

What I admired about the first four books of the series were Rowling's unique and unexpected characters, and the Order of the Phoenix is no exception. Delores Umbridge is absolutely infuriating with her decrees and zero tolerance for students who think independently and desire to become skilled witches and wizards; Fudge runs a close second with his insistent denial of the Dark Lord's return and his strong beliefs that Dumbledore is plotting to take over the Ministry of Magic. I also enjoyed the back stories Rowling supplies for Sirius, James Potter, Snape, and Harry. She has a knack for bringing in small details of each character's personal story and weaving pieces of them together at just the right moments in the storyline.

I read of an interview that Rowling did where she admitted regretting the immensity of the fifth book and told the interviewer she wished she had spent more time editing the manuscript. There are many sub-plots being told throughout the story (which is not unusual for a novel in a series), but many of them add little to the main storyline (the storyline readers ultimately want to develop in front of their very eyes). Overall, I think the book was still enjoyable, and I think that kids might have a little more patience with the downtime in between battles and suspenseful chapters. It is undeniable that the thrill of magic, fantasy, mythical creatures and evil villains is enough to keep the reader enthusiastic to turn the page and see what sort of challenge Harry and his comrades face next.

On a side note, I will not be moving on to HP6 right away; I'm making a detour through some other YA fiction and some rockin' picture books first. Thanks for sticking around, and as always, thanks for reading :)

3Q: Original, fun storyline that stays true to the first 4 books in the series; interesting themes, plot, and characters that would be easy to teach from in a classroom setting; entire story could use some paring down to keep certain sub-plots from becoming too "played" or boring.
5P: We all know this book is still flying off the shelves. Children and Young Adults LOVE the magical Wizarding world of Hogwarts!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Blizzard! The Storm that Changed America by Jim Murphy

"A minister in a small New Jersey village looked up at the sky, then hurried indoors. 'I had the strangest of feelings,' he would tell his parishioners that day. 'It was as if the unholy one himself was riding in those clouds.'"

Blizzard! is a book that has been in my to-read queue since my Selection and Acquisitions course this past summer. I've always been attracted to non-fiction, especially when it comes to crazy-awesome forces of nature. When I was a little girl wandering around in my grade-school library, I usually ended up spending quite a bit of my time in the non-fiction section, leaving with books from the same series about nature and natural disasters. I would go so far as to assume I was the most well-informed 3rd grader on the subject of volcanoes, tornadoes, and earthquakes...

So how was it, I thought as we discussed selecting non-fiction in our school libraries and classrooms, that I had never heard (or read) about the Great Blizzard of 1888? I needed to read this book. I noted the title in the back of my mind and ordered it through MOBIUS as soon as my reading project list began to develop. How ironic that I would get to begin reading Murphy's masterpiece in the midsts of our very own "blizzard"!

Now, although many of us in the St. Charles area were utterly disappointed at Snowmageddon's less-than-epic-blizzardly powers, reading the true accounts of the Great Blizzard of 1888 made me feel safe and very blessed to be trapped and warm within my cozy little apartment. Murphy undoubtedly spent an impressive many hours researching and reading personal accounts of this powerful storm, following various threads of correspondence, news and weather reports, and unbelievable statistics in order to bring a "big-picture," historically-accurate retelling of the storm that nearly shut down the East Coast.

The way Murphy melds personal stories and historical and meteorological makes the book so interesting that I had difficulty putting it down. How is it that no one knew the storm was coming? Why did so many adults and children alike venture out into the blizzard (with winds over 75 mph and temperatures far below freezing point) alone and determined to go about their everyday tasks and jobs??? The facts about life in 1888 are enough to bring a little perspective to our own "blizzard" experience in the 21st century. I don't think we often realize how blessed we are to be able to comfortably endure a few inches of snow and ice in an age where we can use cell phones or the internet to check in with our loved ones and make sure they are safe. Needless to say, this book would generate a great discussion about history, the industrial progression of society, and the unstoppable forces of nature.

So, I'm going to stop rambling about the book and let you head to the library and pick it up!

5Q: Excellent story-telling and historical references; interesting, authentic pictures and newspaper clippings used throughout
5P: I think if you can get your kiddos into U.S. History, culture, and/or weather, you will have no problem getting them interested in this book--it would be great for a class read! keeping me waiting...

I've got some super duper titles coming up, people! Here's a sneak peek of the upcoming weeks' reads:

Zen Ties by Jon J Muth
Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth
Freckleface Strawberry by Julianne Moore
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
The Sea Serpent and Me by Dashka Slater
The Princess Gown by Linda Leopold Strauss
Room by Emma Donaghue (Alex Award winner)
Wake by Lisa McMann (YA)
Good Enough by Paula Yoo (YA)

Get ready for some awesome illustrations, quirky characters, and a few twisty-turny plots!

Oh, come on already!

So, a few frustrations that I am going to (politely) air on my blog. I've been reading through the fifth installation of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (The Order of the Phoenix), and it is like pulling hen's teeth. This is why I have not read anything new in about a week and why I have no new lovely reads to share at the moment. Also, I had to work a 4-midnight shift at the Library this past Sunday, keeping me from my weekly blog-fest. I need encouragement to keep up with my reading and to push through the last 150 pages of HP5. Regardless of my frustration, I am very VERY excited to share some fun children's books and a few Gateway Reader books in the next couple of weeks. HP6 is going to have to step aside for a bit.

More good things to come soon. Sorry this past week has been a bit of a bust!

And a special thanks to my friends (and sis, and hubbs) for words of wisdom and tips for keeping on track. I can do this! :)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Posy by Linda Newberry & Catherine Rayner

"Posy! She's a...leaf collector, sock inspector."

For those of you who know me, you're probably not surprised to find that Posy is a children's book about a spunky little kitten--and I loved reading every bit of it. Even if you and your kiddos aren't big fans of the feline family, you should give this book a try.

What I enjoyed most about this little gem is its amazing large-scale drawings; they are a brilliant cross between whimsical colored-pencil drawings, watercolor strokes, and charcoal sketches. The text is very simple: we follow Posy through her adventurous day as she tackles a ball of yarn, catches a spider, wrestles another kitten of her stature, and of course, unabashedly uses the couch as a scratching post. This is a great pick for beginner readers, with short, simple, rhyming lines and the unavoidable anticipation of what antics Posy will be getting into with the turn of each page. Who knows? Your little ones may be begging you for an adorable tiger kitten even before Posy curls up for a nap to end her long, busy day.

5Q: Great use of vocabulary and rhyme; great for reading aloud; beautiful illustrations
4P: Kids who don't really like cats may not be drawn to the book initially, but Posy's mischief and the pictures will keep them interested

Little Oink by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jen Corace

"Little Oink was a neat little pig. He liked a lot of things..."

"But there was one thing Little Oink didn't like: 
Mess up time"

Who ever heard of a little pig who wanted nothing but to be tidy and clean? Rosenthal's story of a little pig who loves to dig (with a spade and gloves) and eat Sloppy Joes and Gruel au Gratin (with utensils and a handkerchief around his neck) but hates to make messes is a creative, simply-told, fun read for parents/teachers to share with their kiddos. The illustrations were honestly what drew me in to begin with; Corace's use of bold colors and geometric shapes make the pictures alluring and bright. I think these drawings make the book very likely to be picked up by children and will keep them interested throughout the story. And, I think parents and teachers can use the book to teach children about being who they are and still "following" the rules :)

5Q: for great writing, original plot and unique, bright illustrations
5P: the colorful drawings and likable main character would make this popular with both kids and adults

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Caldecott #1: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

"...this is Hugo Cabret. His head is full of secrets, and he's waiting for his story to begin."

Wow. I hope that I can make this post as coherent and directive as possible, because I have so many wonderful things to say about this historical fiction novel!

Let's start with the plot: we meet Hugo Cabret at the onset of the story, set in Paris in 1931. Hugo's lot is curious; a boy of just 12 years old, Hugo is an orphan who spends his days winding the clocks of the train station and stealing tiny mechanical pieces from an elderly man's toy stand across the street. The reader is drawn in to Hugo's amazing story and the unlikely connections between his most prized invention and the magician who imagined its creation. I found the twists, turns, and unraveling mysteries of the story impressively creative and wonderfully moving.

Selznick reveals the mysteries of Hugo's story in equal parts of text and series of intricate, hand-drawn black and white sketches. As you begin the first chapter, you are led from a lunar scene, to a drawing of the moon over the city of Paris, all the way down to the small boy sneaking in between the walls of a Paris train station. I slowly flipped through the first series of sketches and I was instantly hooked on this novel. Selznick knows just the right moments to show the progression of action as opposed to describing everything in great detail; he wastes no print on scenes that are better revealed visually, and it creates a suspenseful, emotional connection between the reader and the story.

For fear of giving away too much and robbing you of experiencing this book with a fresh, unblemished perspective, I will not go into detail about the historical elements of Selznick's story. It kills me to leave it out (it is my favorite aspect of the story), but I will refrain from describing it. Just know that it will blow your mind. Read the book and let's talk about it :)

5Q Incredibly original and well-written prose; well deserving of the Caldecott Medal
4P I think the story will draw Middle School and YA readers in, but reluctant readers may need a little budge to pick it up at first

Newbery Pick #1: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

"That very night in Max's room a forest grew..."

I always find it interesting when one generation's love for a piece of culture--a cartoon series, a movie, a book, a toy--is renewed and the people of that generation bond over the memory of intensely loving that "thing." For many people in my generation and the generation before us, Where the Wild Things Are holds a special place in our hearts and childhood memories. When the film (based on an adaptation of Sendak's story) came out in 2009, I was one of many who dug up an old copy of the book and reacquainted myself with it. 

It certainly came to mind immediately when I was gathering Newbery Award winners for my reading project, and was nerdily excited to have a reason to pick it up once again. Sendak's subtle rhymes and concise dialogue set the tone for the bright illustrations to lead the reader through a simple story in a most imaginative way. We meet Max and we identify, as children and as adults, the mischievous boy in the wolf suit as a normal kid, looking for something to keep him busy and to satisfy his busy imagination. I recall feeling extra ornery as a little girl, causing bits of trouble with my siblings (or the family kitty cat) for no apparent reason and finding myself sent to my room without supper. Where I found solace in building forts and reading books to pass the lonely time, Max enters into a lush forest filled with fierce monsters. Sendak's monsters are a curious mix of scary and intriguing characters to me-- these giant, odd-looking stuffed animals that one can't help but feel pity for. The monsters' personalities and actions mirror the recklessness and loneliness that Max feels, and he easily falls into the role of ruling "the place where the wild things are" as its King. Soon the fear of the monsters doesn't satisfy Max any longer and he yearns to be back "where someone love[s] him most of all." As he sails on home to find a hot meal waiting for him, I can't help but be reminded of that feeling as a child of being well-loved and taken care of even when I didn't deserve it. It's a feeling that still warms my heart as I bid farewell to Max and close the last page of the book.

5Q for being a completely original story that has stood the test of time
5P for being a well-loved children's book for children and adults alike, in part for beautiful, interesting drawings that kids love and in part for characters that are both believable and imaginative