Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Dozen Series Fiction Chapter Books For Elementary Kids

While I support librarians and authors on saying No to the age-banding issue, just for sorting-and-searching purposes, I do add age range labels here. Kids read at their own comfortable levels-- some are reluctant readers, some are avid readers, so, the age labels here are not associated with reading proficiency but is there to help sift through the ton of books.

And, rather than "review" per se, my book posts here are more of a cheer-leading effort to champion some favorites, share some titles that made an impact, and to list any surprise finds.

Anyway, over the last few months, the eight year old has been open to a handful of series books for one reason or another that I'd rather not subject to my armchair analysis. Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are some interesting reads for kiddos with widely varying reading preferences.

Ranger in Time series
by Kate Messner
illustrated by Kelley McMorris

I loved Kate Messner's picture books Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt, as well as Over and Under the Snow. We tried Marty McGuire chapter book series but it didn't resonate with the then seven year old, but I was not ready to give up. So, we tried Ranger in Time series - the first book is about the Oregon Trail, which is always a fascinating topic at home.

We've read the first three books so far, each set around a different historical event. Ranger is a sweet dog who accidentally finds a teleporting time-traveling machine in the form of a First Aid Kit. When it hums and glows, Ranger nudges it onto his neck and as soon as he wears it, he is transported to a time a place other than his own where is services are much needed: He is a trained Search-and-Rescue dog!

The kid and I liked that Ranger is not anthropomorphic-- thankfully-- so he is not a talking dog. But we get to know him better as the story is told from his perspective. His thoughts and actions, while quite human, also stays true to his canine nature and instincts.

Geronimo Stilton series
by Geronimo Stilton

What's not to love about this series? Quick and easy read, with quite an interesting mix of mice characters and settings that promise a fantastic adventure.

It did irritate the kid that words like "fabumouse" (fabulous) and "famouse" (famous) is used to add to the theme of mice living in Mouse Island, and it did initially bother him that strange fonts in various colors caught the eye to distract rather than enhance the reading experience, but, the stories and the situations were well done that he quickly got over his nagging objections.

There's a ton of books in this series, with more coming out in a steady stream, I believe. Plus, there's spin-offs with Thea Stilton books and Space Mice and Cave Mice and such.

Magic Treehouse series
Authors: Mary Pope Osborne, Natalie Pope Boyce
Illustrators: Sal Murdocca, Luiz Vilela

A long-standing staple, the series takes the brother-and-sister duo on mini adventures to various times and places.

The older child went through most of these books around kindergarten and first grade.

As always, the young resident reader's main objection has been: How come their parents don't know about it? And why aren't they telling their parents all about it and asking for permission first? Of course, magic only works a certain way, so all such details can be explained away, am sure.

According to Humphrey series

Hamster Humphrey and the kids of Room 26 seem to have great dynamics. When Ms.Mac brings Humphrey home from Pet-O-Rama, he was all set to bond with her and spend the rest of his life with her, But, Ms.Mac was only substituting in Room 26. When Mrs. Brisbane comes back to teach Room 26, Humphrey is heartbroken to see Ms.Mac go, and be stuck with Mrs.Brisbane who calls him a rodent and doesn't care for him much.

As the first book progresses, we see that Humphrey is neither saccharine nor sassy. He makes his keen observations and shares his goodness without being too cloying.

There are quite a number of books in this series. which is wonderful if kids get hooked on it. Ms.Mac is back on and off as well, and the second book, Friendship According to Humphrey, introduces a new pet - Og, the frog.

I Survived series
Author: Lauren Tarshis
Illustrator: Scott Dawson

Set around traumatic events in history, the book is fast-paced with the story moving forward ever so rapidly to let the protagonist meet the conflict head-on and overcome it successfully. Each book has its own set of characters in the time period and place, but what they all have in common is a child protagonist with pluck and grit who manages to survive a true-life incident.

39 Clues series
 by Rick Riordan, Gordon Korman, Peter Lerangis, et al

Brother-and-sister Dan and Amy Cahill are orphaned but are entrusted with guarding the most powerful thing which cannot fall into the wrong hands. I could have lived with the commercial production with multiple revenue streams, but the stories and the characters are bland and stereotypical and one-dimensional. Moral ambiguity, conflicts, growth in the young characters as they pass through the story arc is what makes books like these more enjoyable as a series. The first couple in the series were all right but soon it got tiresome to read. So, we reserved these as audiobooks for long road trips.

Hank Zipzer series
by Henry Winkler, Lin Oliver

Hank, with two good friends, undergoes the usual struggles of an underachiever who has some challenges in learning and conforming.

However, Hank is kind and resourceful, not snarky and loud-mouthed. There are quite a few books in this series.

Life in school can be a struggle for kids like Hank, but with steadfast friends who don't make a big deal of his issues, school can be exciting as well.

I must admit, I only picked this up as I was curious about what The Fonz came up with. Yep, the creator/author is Henry Winkler, the Fonz of Happy Days.

Along with Lin Oliver, Winkler provides an insight into his younger days when learning disabilities were not recognized and kids were subject to learning methods which killed the joy of discovering the world around.

Plants vs. Zombies
Plant Your Path Junior Novel
by Tracey West

Choose-your-adventure type stories can be horribly appalling or pleasantly amusing. This book seems to fall under the latter category according to the kid. It even inspired him to write his own Choose-your-path novel (by hand in a spiral notebook) with Crazy Dave and plants and zombies, with the reader as the main character choosing what happens at each stage and finding out if in the end the zombies ate their brains.

Plants vs. Zombies graphic novels
Bully For You
Garden Warfare
by Paul Tobin, Jacob Chabot, Ron Chan et al.

Each book provides a different adventure and is primarily appealing to the PvZ fans. I'd rather not overanalyze this set of books, they seem to make the resident 8 year old quite happy and that's all there is to it.

Mr. Pants series
Illustrated by R. H. Lazzell

Mr. Pants and his two feline siblings, plus his human mom make up this quick-to-read set of books that end well even if there is chaos all along the way. The cartoon silliness and the bright colors is one main attraction.

 After a recent bout of going through my Calvin and Hobbes collection at the home library, the kid seems to lean towards cartoons and comic strips a lot more these days. Of course, only about 50% of Calvin and Hobbes makes perfect sense to him, understandably.

We didn't read it in order. Starting with Trick or Feet was helpful to get into the characters and find the silliness in their high jinks.

Stick Dog series (and Stick Cat)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid-like text and cartoon illustrations is one of the appeals of this series. There's a bit of inside humor and adventure and friendship that can be appealing as well, since the main hunt is for food -- the poor dog is always hungry!

As for me, I did not particularly like this series, but, the kids did.The characters are nice enough, the story is simple enough but nothing held my attention as an adult, and it doesn't have to - the books are aimed at kids.

Sample available for reading at Harper Collins

Amulet series (graphic novel)
by Kazu Kibuishi

The first book, The Stonekeeper, starts off with a bang and continues to roll fast-paced to a satisfying end, making us reach for the second installment almost involuntarily.

It did bother me that the dad dies in the very first scene and the mom gets abducted in the very first installment of the graphic novel series, but, kids didn't seem to mind at all. They just went with the flow and kept reading till all the seven books were done, wanting more.

Our contributor, Sathish, has written some wonderful posts about this book already, so am not adding much more here.

Ariol series (graphic novel)
by Emmanuel Guibert
illustrated by Marc Boutavant

Quite the menagerie of characters here: Ariol, our hero, is a tween donkey, with a best friend pig, and a dog teacher. Originally published in French, the misadventures of Ariol are a quick and fun read. Since the character is a tween, some of the feelings he has are not easily understood by the resident 8 year old but the book has plenty of silly to keep kids giggling.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid series
by Jeff Kinney

Though not necessarily for 3rd and 4th graders, the first book or even the second book might appeal to some 3rd and 4th graders as it has plenty of silliness.

The younger child got the first book (used copy) as a prize in school (I like  that their class teacher gives out used books as prizes sometimes, rather than pencils and erasers and plastic toys.) He has read the first two books and that's where I left it. He may not get a lot of the issues that middle-schooler Greg Heffley faces but quite a bit of the humor is universal enough to keep him giggling aloud and bring it to share with me.

[image source: author or publisher websites where available and google images]

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Chloe in India

Chloe in India
by Kate Darnton
published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers (January 12, 2016)

I was so busy I didn't hear Mom come up behind me. I heard her voice before I saw her, and this is what that voice said:
"Chloe, Chloe! Oh no, Chloe!"
I froze in front of the bathroom mirror. In my left hand, I was holding a clump of blond hair away from my head. Well, hair that used to be blond. Now it was After Midnight Black.
In my right hand, I was holding an After Midnight Black permanent marker.

With an opening like that, this book hooked me in right away, as it did the resident ten year old.

Eleven year old Chloe did not want to leave her cool, tree-lined Boston home behind and get dumped in horrendously hot Delhi, but she had to go where her parents decided to transplant the family because, as her journalist mom puts it, "that's where the stories are."

It is bad enough that she is unable to fit in and adapt to this new situation, but it doesn't help one bit that her older sister, Anna, seemed to hit the road running, rolling with aplomb at these huge changes. Her perfect older sister Anna who could do no wrong.

Chloe is enrolled in an Indian school, Premium Academy, where she is the only American (besides her sister, of course), and the only blond-haired girl (besides the German girl, but she doesn't count.)

Chloe tries to make the best of fifth grade by trying to befriend the prettiest and richest girl in class, Anvi Saxena, all the while having a nagging sense that something about Anvi's attitude is off and unacceptable to her own ethics. Meanwhile, quite unwittingly, Chloe befriends Laxmi in her dark black hair and ill-fitting hand-me-down uniform, an underdog, underprivileged girl, of EWS (Economically Weaker Section), who is there to fill a quota in admissions records.

The wholesome but strained friendship blossoming between Chloe and Lakshmi is developed almost poetically. The economic divide, the class-based society, the entitlement of the rich, the squalor of the poor (things that are present in many countries in the world), and the struggles of day-to-day existence are all laid out with honest candor that mitigates the stereotyping. It is what it is, and while we all can squirm and wiggle in discomfort at the inequality, the fact remains that there are social injustices we live with and feel powerless to do anything about.

The utter poverty of Lakshmi and the decadent wealth of Anvi are all-true realities in today's India, even more so due to outsourcing and globalization that has bred a flock of nouveau riche who are not sure what to do with all the new-found wealth.

Setting that aside, I want to talk about the positives of this book, which lies in the way Ms. Darnton provides a peek into the culture as seen from Chloe's perspective. The book is semi-autobiographical, in that, Ms. Darnton who hails from Boston actually lived with her family in New Delhi for five years.

Although the story and the settings are all fictional, the bona fide (fictional) characters in the book come alive in Ms. Darnton's narration, from the fussing and efficient Nepali cook/nanny Dechen, dedicated and trustworthy driver/chauffeur Vijay, to the inimitable and wise class teacher Ms.Puri and the quintessential dance instructor Mr.Bhatnagar, not to mention the kids Dhruv, Lakshmi, Meher, Anvi and Prisha, each with their own personality and baggage.

The conflict in the story for Chloe arises from the dance performance she has to participate in on school Annual Day celebrations. As a child growing up and living those very Annual Day celebrations, I loved how Ms. Darnton, via Chloe, explains the significance to non-Indian readers. It is a big deal to put on a dance and musical show to celebrate school's "birthday" so-to-speak, and it can be very stressful for someone like Chloe who does not like to dance or perform in public. There are invited guests of honor and keynote speaker who form a big part of such a celebration, which warrants a proper show with plenty of rehearsals and pitch-perfect performance.

The nuances and idiosyncrasies that are particular to India come across as genuine yet perplexing realities that Chloe faces as she tries to adapt to her new place and culture. While typecasting is unavoidable in such a story setting, the book compensates by revealing so much heart and warmth that is the essence of India, with not much heavy-handed moralizing from high ground.

Will this book encourage a tween reader to visit India and know more about it and possibly befriend an Indian? Perhaps not. There is too much "reality" and "truth" to it that borders on the negative side and too little magic and beauty that is India that is left out of the story.

The resident ten year old got every single emotion that Chloe felt through this story, she understood where Chloe is coming from, and loved the friendship between Chloe and Lakshmi. But, having visited India and having enjoyed parts of it (definitely not the heat, but most certainly the warmth and generosity of the people she encountered), it did come across as a bit one-sided to read the book as an Indian-American.

I did enjoy the vivid descriptions and exchanges that rang so true that it is easy to forget Ms. Darnton is not a native Indian.

An exchange in class between Dhruv, the typical trouble-making class clown, and Chloe:

"Ma'am!" Dhruv yelled. "Chhole is fidgeting!"
I gritted my teeth. "I am not a chickpea," I hissed. "My name's not Cho-lay. It's Chloe. Klo-ee."
"Now she is talking!" Dhruv yelled. "How can I draw her if she is always talking?"
Mrs. Singh glanced up from her desk at the other end of the room. She put one skinny finger to her thin lips. "Shhh!" she hissed.

Back of the book has a "Questions for Readers" section that talks about a few of the situations in the book that warrant discussion and can turn into useful teaching moments.

A couple of exchanges between Lakshmi and Chloe:

"You look fine," I said. I was trying to sound reassuring, but Lakshmi scowled.
"No fancy kurta," she said. "No dupatta." She shook her head and pointed up toward the apartment. "I can no go your house."
"Are you kidding?" I said. "Look at me!" I pointed at the soy sauce stain on my Red Sox T-shirt. "Seriously," I said. "My parents do not care. Like, not at all. Actually, I know for a fact that they'd love to meet you...
Lakshmi looked unconvinced, but before she could protest further, I grabbed hold of her hand and started pulling her up the stairs.


"Outside the hospital, one didi sits there. She is -- what you say?-- phool walla?"
"She's a fool?"
"No, no." Lakshmi let out a laugh. "She not fool. She phool wallah. She sell flower, jasmine flower."

I liked the fact that both Chloe and Lakshmi are new to fifth grade at Premium Academy, and both feel they are misfits (the title of the book as released by Young Zubaan), and they are both from opposite ends of the world culturally and economically. But, why should that stop them from getting to know each other and becoming friends?

Look Inside the Book

[image source:  Penguin Randomhouse]

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Megan's Brood, Book One

Megan's Brood, Book One
by Roy Burdine
illustrated by Shawn Mcmanus

One summer, spunky 6th grader Meg moves into a new place with her parents, leaving her friends and familiar environment behind. In the attic bedroom of the new house, she discovers something magical - a cocoon pulsing with light and tiny heartbeats of unknown creatures.

Over summer, the creatures hatch, ten in all, and seem attached to Meg. She enjoys caring for them while she tries to make new friends in the new place - a skateboarding, garage-band musician of a kid called Cutter, and a soft-spoken well-mannered bookworm like herself called Casper.

Being Book One of a proposed series, we get the background and the set up established over the first two-thirds of the book. Around the last chapter or so, things gather momentum when one of Meg's brood, named Thorn for his spiky scales, reveals his true predatory and controlling nature.

When Thorn binds her dad and friend at their camping night right before start of school term, so as to barter for his siblings, things get fiery hot, literally. But, Meg manages to kick Thorn into the flames, save her dad and friend and the rest of her brood. For now.

The handful of black and white illustrations by Shawn McManus ( sprinkled throughout the book are gorgeous and complement the text well.

Epilogue sets us up for more adventure when we learn that Thorn is not destroyed by the flames after all and inside him beats an angry heart.

It would be interesting to find out how Meg handles her brood as they grow and change and whether Thorn will act on getting his revenge.

Roy Burdine has worked as animation director (Dreamwork's Puss in Boots, Ultimate Spider-Man) and can be found at

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book but the opinions expressed here are entirely mine.]

[image source: photographed from review copy]

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Bartholomew Quill

Bartholomew Quill: A Crow's Quest to Know Who's Who
by Thor Hanson, illustrated by Dana Arnim
published by Sasquatch Books

Bartholomew Quill was a crow long ago,
when all of the world was new.
When he bears and the bees
and the hares and the trees
were all learning to tell which was who.

Thus starts this book by acclaimed biologist Thor Hanson,which takes us on a lyrical journey back in time when our dear protagonist, Bartholomew Quill, the crow, wants to know who he is.

He flies around encountering various animals and compares features to see if he is one of them. At the edge of the ocean, he sees black birds like himself and asks if he is one of them. The bird answers:

I dive and I float in a waterproof coat
My diet is fish and crustacean.
We are both black and sleek, but you lack a bright beak,
so you cannot be my close relation.

And from the lovely illustrations by Dana Arnim, we know this is a puffin, not a crow.

As our Bartholomew encounters other creatures, he quickly realizes he cannot be one of them, until he sees someone very much like himself, only much bigger - the Raven.

Finally, he looks in nature's mirror - the still lake - as he flies over it and realizes he is a crow.

The ability of many species to recognize their own must have evolved somehow, but this story is set when the world was new, so, possibly Bartholomew has not yet developed self-recognition/other-recognition.

One question that cropped up with the resident 7 year old is, at each stage, without introduction or explanation, how does Bartholomew know what that creature is that is different from himself. For example, after encountering the creature that soars and catches fish all day and has sharp eyes and pale head and tail feathers, we simply read that "Bartholomew thanked the bald eagle," which the young readers deduce from the illustrations but may be puzzled as to how Bartholomew arrived at that conclusion.

Back of the book has a "Get More Out of This Book" section that has some interesting suggestions.

Biologist Thor Hanson is renowned for his adult books about nature -- The Impenetrable Forest, The Triumph of Seeds, and Feathers. He won a PNBA Award and The John Burroughs Medal for Feathers, which was also a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Hanson is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Switzer Environmental Fellow, and sought-after public speaker.

Illustrator Dana Arnim has a Certificate in Art from the Children’s Market from UW Extension and serves as Co-regional Advisor for the Western Washington SCBWI.

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book. The opinions shared here are entirely mine.]

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sona and the Wedding Game

Sona and the Wedding Game,
My Dadima Wears a Sari,
Monsoon Afternoon
by Kashmira Sheth
illustrated by Yoshiko Jaeggi
Tiger in my Soup
by Kashmira Sheth
illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler

Being a big fan of stories with strong multicultural backdrop, when I came upon a handful of picture books by Kashmira Sheth, I ended up reading them back to back to my kids. Illustrations by Yoshiko Jaeggi effortlessly capture the magic of Indian culture.

Sona and the Wedding Game was a favorite as it gave a glimpse into an Indian wedding tradition practised in certain communities, (not all over India) -- the bride's sister must steal the groom's shoe at the wedding. There are several traditions, some more solemn, some more fun, practised by different communities across India, adapted to their own local customs. Sona is unfamiliar with this tradition and doesn't know how to go about it, but what are annoying cousins for, right?

Monsoon Afternoon captures the joys of monsoon season and the intergenerational bonding in a subdued way, while not being cliched.

My Dadima Wears a Sari is quintessentially Indian in that it talks about the beautiful attire that is just 6 yards of fabric, the sari. It can become an umbrella, it can become a pouch for collecting seashells, it can bandage up an injured knee... Having grown up with sari all around me, I have a deep love for the traditional sari, which I must admit, I don't wear often. Again, an intergenerational bond is established in the book via traditional clothing - viz., Dadima's wedding sari, the one she brought with her when she came to America, and she shows her granddaughters how to wear it.

Full of imagination and lovely illustrations, Tiger in my Soup is about a boy wanting his older sister to read to him. She refuses of course, busy with her own book and earphones. But when she serves him a can of soup for lunch, the steam rises as assumes the shape of... A Tiger. Jumping out of the soup, the tiger prowls about, wild and unpredictable, so naturally the boy defends himself with kitchen utensils, while the soup sits there getting cold. The sister finally caves in and warms up the soup in the microwave, and reads the book to him. Satisfied, the boy (and the tiger) settle down for imaginary wanderings.

[image source: Yoshiko JaeggiKashmira Sheth websites]

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Loos, Poos, and Number Twos

Loos, Poos, and Number Twos    
A Disgusting Journey Through the Bowels of History
by Peter Hepplewhite

"Awfully Ancient" books by Gareth Stevens Publishing can be quite a fun read for kids interested in fascinating events from history. Full of fun trivia, accompanied by cartoon illustrations, fact boxes, and sidebars, Loos, Poos, and Number Twos takes us on a Disgusting Journey Through the Bowels of History, as the subtitle claims.\

Starting with prehistoric times, we go through ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient China, Medieval times, Tudor times, down to the Victorian loos.

Did you know that ancient Greeks had public loos in bath houses and gymnasiums but no private stalls for doing the business? Did you know the ancient Chinese even had a toilet goddess? We all let out a collective sigh of relief when we read about John Harrington's invention of the washing closet - the flushing toilet - during the reign of Elizabeth I. But without the sewerage system, what good is flushing?

Of course, when kids read the fascinating fact that on the International Space Station, the pee is recycled to drinking water and the poo is packed into capsule and fired into Earth's atmosphere where it burns up, thankfully, the gross-factor and the cool-factor compete closely to achieve a fine balance.

Glossary and More Information at the back makes this a perfectly fun book for readers of all ages who enjoy such trivia.

[image source:]

Sunday, February 14, 2016

10 Picture Books for Black History Month

Freedom is something kids don't think about much usually. What does it mean? Why is it important? How can we ensure that everybody is "free"?  These are some big questions I discuss with kids often, not just during the month of February each year. Much like, What does Peace mean to you? How can you make sure there is peace in this world as you grow up? Why should we strive for peace? comes up in our dinner conversations sometimes and it is instructive (and eye-opening sometimes) to hear kids' simple and naive suggestions.

Anyway, to chart a better future for humanity, it is always good to learn from the past - if only to try not to repeat the same mistakes again. In that spirit, we picked a handful of picture books to peek into some true life incidents and some fictional stories based on true life incidents set in America.

As to chapter books, there are so many on the subject. This month, the ten year old is reading Ruby Lee & Me by Shannon Hitchcock. The seven year old is reading Ranger in Time series by Kate Messner, and this month he is reading Long Road to Freedom to stay on theme.

Freedom in Congo Square  
by Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

Lyrical and evocative, the books is a treasure. Slaves and free blacks count down to Sunday of each week when they can be "free" to gather in Congo Square in New Orleans to connect with their roots and culture and sing and dance and feel alive again in celebration of their African heritage.

The poetry is powerful and concise. The rhyming couplets don't soften the reality.
The dreaded lash, too much to bear
Four more days to Congo Square.
The double page spread with various African instruments has swirling text that proclaims,
Grouped by nation, language, tribe,
They drummed ancestral roots alive.
The illustrations are a fitting and brilliant accompaniment to the text.

Freedom on the Menu
The Greensboro Sit-ins    
by Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue Lagarrigue

Told from the perspective of a little girl, who sees other little girls like herself able to do things that she is not allowed to, the story speaks to the kids in a more intimate way than it might have from a third person narration.

She longs for a Banana Split at this ice cream store as she watches another girl just like herself, having a purse just like hers, enjoying her own sundae.
All over town signs told me and Mama where we could and couldn't go. Signs on water fountains, swimming pools, movie theater, even bathrooms.
Everybody in Greensboro followed the rules. But not Auntie Gertie who often visits from New York. She says, "I am too old for such silly rules," and drinks from the "White" fountain.

The book unfolds the story of four black kids who sat at the diner and ordered food just like others and waited to be served. Inspired by Dr. King's peaceful protests, all they hoped to do was to remove the segregation.

Ellen's Broom
by Kelly Starling Lyons    
illustrated by Daniel Minter

Little girl Ellen knows that the broom is special. It is what made them a family back when her mom and dad jumped the broom to signify their marriage and commitment to one another, back before it was legal for blacks to register their marriage and raise a family like everybody else.

So, when finally their mom and dad and others were cleared to go to the courthouse and register their marriage, Ellen brings along the broom decorated with flowers, and watches her parents jump the broom again just for sentiment.

A slice of history told through endearing and charming Ellen's actions.

The Escape of Oney Judge
Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom    
written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

Although quite a heavy subject matter, the book tries not to sugar-coat or sensationalize the event. Oney Judge's desperate longing for freedom is carried through the story, and how the norms of the time make it hard for Oney to truly be free. It is not that she was not well-treated, but, she was not entirely her own person.

While a bit long and wordy for a picture book, the fictional retelling of Oney's story is engaging and thought-provoking for kids.

Follow the Drinking Gourd
written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter

Sailor Peg Leg Joe helps slaves escape via the Underground Railroad, going from plantation to plantation in pre-Civil war south. He teaches them a song that he wrote which gives directions to safehouse and stops along the way that can lead them to freedom up north, by following the drinking gourd, which is the Big Dipper in the sky.

From Old Hattie to Little Isiah, a group of slaves, a family, escape one night, fearing for their lives, relying entirely on the elements and outside help to get themselves to safety. The story is gripping and the illustrations are bright and bold.

In the Garden With Doctor Carver
by Susan Grigsby
illustrated by Nicole Tadgell          

In this charming historical fiction, plant biologist Dr. George Washington Carver teaches how to replenish and restore soil that has been depleted by cotton plantations in rural Alabama.

The story, told through little girl Sally's voice, is engaging and uplifting. Dr. Carver even shows them a fun recipe or two about how to make wild weed salad, sweet-potato flour bread, and chicken from peanuts.

Sweet Music in Harlem
by Debbie A. Taylor    
illustrated by Frank Morrison

A famous photograph by Art Kane that captured all the musical greats of Harlem in 1958 was the inspiration for this story. That photograph where several jazz musicians posed on the steps of an old brownstone was in a t-shirt the author's husband was wearing.

Uncle Click, a skilled jazz trumpeter, is getting ready for being photographed but is missing his hat, his special hat that gives him his trademark look. So his nephew C.J. offers to find it for him before the photographer arrives so that his uncle can be his snazziest best for the picture.

Uncle says he went to the barbershop, the diner, and the music club previously so he must've left his hat in one of these places. C.J tries to track it down but fails. The photo gets taken anyway and it seems like the hat is all but forgotten when it turns up the next day nuzzled next to the brand new clarinet that his uncle gives as a present for his birthday. C.J. is thrilled when Uncle Click says, "You know, a jazzman like you is going to need a good hat. Besides, I am getting used to not wearing one."

These Hands
by Margaret H. Mason
illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Alluding to the old policy in 1940s and 1950s at the unionized factories in the north like Wonder Bread, Awree, and Tastee bakeries of not letting African Americans handle bread dough, claiming that white folks will not want to eat the bread touched by black hands, the fictional story talks about Joseph's grandpa whose hands could do almost anything so skillfully. Anything, except, bake the bread at the Wonder Bread factory.

Illustrations are gorgeous, and the ending is charming and uplifting.

White Water
Inspired by A True Story
by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein
illustrated by Shadra Stickland

A transformative look at the segregation in the south, the book follows little boy Michael who is determined to ask the kind of questions that need to be asked, and answered.

Based on author Bandy's childhood experience of being prohibited from drinking from a "Whites Only" fountain, the story explores Michael's obsession with finding out what the "White" water tastes like because the fountain that he is allowed to drink from has warm, dirty, rusty-tasting water, so surely, the "white" water must taste like sweet honey and hence it is forbidden for non-whites.

So, he gives in to curiosity and attempts to drink from the White fountain, but is startled by a vigilant white lady, and falls down. "Lying on the ground, all I could see was the pipe. I'd never seen it from that angle before. The same pipe fed both fountains! Two fountains. Two signs. But the same water in both!"

This startling discovery helps Michael reconsider how the rules are affecting his thinking. "The signs over the fountains had put a bad idea in my head. but they were a lie. If they weren't real, what else should I question?"

New Shoes  
by Susan Meyer
illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Ella Mae is excited to go to Mr.Johnson's shoe store with her Mama. Her brother's hand-me-down shoes don't fit and she needs a new pair. But, when they get to the store, Mr. Johnson wouldn't let her try on any as she is black, and proceeds to serve another white customer, a white girl who gets to try on pair after pair to pick out the one she wants.

Not to be dejected, Ella Mae teams up with her friend Charlotte and embarks on a frenzy of doing chores around her neighborhood to earn the odd nickel and "a pair of  outgrown shoes" - good and usable. When they have collected enough pairs of shoes through hard work, they set up a sale where all customers are free to try on shoes to their heart's content before picking the right one to take home.

The illustrations are gorgeous - the girls just pop out of the page - and the story unfolds with a lot of warmth amidst the heartwrenching reality.

What inspired the kids about this story is that while living through the reality of segregation and not being able to change it large-scale, the girls defy the subjugation and come up with their own small-scale plan of resistance through their entrepreneurship, winning a small triumph in their own way.

[image source: Multnomah County Library]

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sy Montgomery's Animal Non-fiction Books for Children

Sy Montgomery's Brilliant Animal Books for Children

Quite casually, a few months ago, the seven-year-old and I were researching flightless birds of the world, trying to get past the well-known large birds like ostrich and emu and penguin and cassowary and kiwi. That's when we came across Kakapo, a nocturnal ground-dwelling parrot endemic to New Zealand.

Naturally, we wanted to learn more. So when I came across Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot by Sy Montogomery and Nic Bishop at the library, I brought it home hoping to read it with the younger child in installments whenever he is ready.

I did not expect the wild enthusiasm he showed for this book! And for a very good reason. The book is by Sy Montgomery, whose brilliant books have the right balance of information, drama, storytelling, and intrinsic beauty.

Fewer than 90, yes nine-zero-ninety, of these gorgeous, friendly birds remain in the wild on the remote Codfish Island off New Zealand's south coast. Sy and Nic journeyed there to record the work done, mostly by volunteers, to prevent these sweet birds from going extinct.

The photographs by Nic Bishop, along with an easy-flowing, clear, heartwarming account of their journey of discovery makes this book a huge favorite with me.

The shared experience of reading this to the kiddo and learning about the plight of these birds that were indiscriminately killed when humans took over and settled in its habitat made us so aware of the large impact we have on our environment simply by going somewhere and being where we never were before.

We ended up reading this book every single night and finished it within a week, coming out of it as if we had traveled to the place ourselves and seen and interacted with the individual birds ourselves. We felt the pain when one of eggs was destroyed, or didn't get fertilized. We couldn't help rooting for these naive and cuddly birds.

[Read an excerpt here]

We were hooked! I borrowed every other book by Sy Montgomery that was available at our library.

In Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, we learnt about this odd-looking creature that looks like a stuffed toy that was determined to stand-out: "Impossibly soft, with a rounded face, button eyes, pink nose, upright ears and long, thick, furry tail, the 25-pound animal hops like a kangaroo, carries babies in a pouch like a koala, and climbs trees like a monkey."

In Saving the Ghost of the Mountain, Nic and Sy are on an expedition among Snow Leopards of Mongolia. "Prowling along ridges, slinking below skyline, the snow leopard is as invisible, yet as powerful, as the wind, and as elusive as a ghost." Collaborating with Snow Leopard Trust scientist Tom McCarthy and his team in the Altai Mountains of the Gobi Desert, Sy and Nic try to learn about and save an animal they can’t see—before it becomes a ghost for real.

Among the "Scientists" series of books, the kid loved Octopus Scientists -- no surprise there as Octopus is an all-time favorite for him. From its ability to totally camouflage and blend into its surroundings, its ink, its beak, to its tendency (mama octopus) to starve and die after its eggs hatch, everything about them is curious and intriguing. Sy and Keith Ellenbogan take us along for a underwater wild ride in this book.

One of my personal favorites is The Man-eating Tigers of the Sundarbans by Sy Montgomery. It is poetic and heart-wrenching and fearsome and hopeful all at the same time.

Currently, we are reading Encantado: The Pink Dolphins of the Amazon.

Next on our list: Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo. Our library does not have it, so, I'll be looking for a used copy to bring home sometime soon.

[image source: Sy Montgomery's website]

Sunday, January 03, 2016

3 Awesome Animal Picture Books

Egg: Nature's Perfect Package 
by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
published by HMH Books for Young Readers, March  2015

Trademark cut-paper collage on stark white background with crisp, precise nuggets of information make Jenkins's books perfect for animal-non-fiction-loving young readers.

The book is all about eggs as the title suggests: little eggs, big eggs,, where to lay eggs, how many to lay at a time, egg consumers, egg protection, egg packaging, egg carrying, incubation, and getting out of the egg... all are laid out with plenty of animals showcasing their techniques and ideology.

Everything needed to create a new living creature: The Egg.

[image source: HMH Catalog]

How to Swallow a Pig
Step by Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom
by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
published by  HMH Books for Young Readers, September 2015

A recent top favorite book for the seven year old, he rattles off fascinating facts about animals from this book that surely caught my interest and attention.

Like how a Capuchin monkey smears itself with millipede after rolling the said millipede in its mouth to get it to release its toxins. Why does it do that? Well, that's nature's own insect-repellent right there.

Or, like how smart a crow is that it chooses a stop light and plants its hard-to-crack nut on the road and waits for a car to go by and crush the nut open.

Or, as the title suggests, swallow a whole pig after squeezing it to death as a python does.

The tongue-in-cheek format of the book and the clever presentation is sure to fascinate the curious-minded child, and maybe incite them to imitate these creatures.

[image source: HMH Catalog]

Unusual Creatures
A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth's Strangest Animals
by Michael Hearst
Artwork, Diagrams, and Other Visuals by
Arjen Noordeman, Christie Wright, and Jelmer Noordeman

published by Chronicle Books,  July 2014

"Unusual Creatures is a rich and fantastic book of charming imaginary animals who... what? They're real? I'll be under the bed." -- Lemony Snicket.

That quote on the cover had me chuckling right away.

The book starts out by explaining the biological classification in a kid-friendly way, with the mnemonic:

Kids Place Candles OFoot Gravy Sausage

↠ Kingdom ➢ Phylum ➢ Class ➢ Order ➢ Family ➢ Genus ➢ Species.

I was hooked right on that page, and so was the kiddo.

The book is laid out alphabetically, starting with Axolotl. "Mama, did you know an axolotl can regenerate its body parts, even its heart? We had an axolotl in our classroom last year, remember? They are so cool!" And we learn that the name axolotl comes from the Aztec language, most common translation being "water dog".

Each double-page spread focuses on one animal. The informational text and related diagrams, with K-P-C-O-F-G-S laid out next to the animal's common and scientific name, plus a full page illustration of the animal with a scale to show its size makes it easy to digest the information in small chunks and marvel at nature's creativity.

Turn to any page at random, and you are sure to find a fascinating and rather unusual creature like Barking Spider, or Giraffe-necked Weevil, or Hammerhead Bat, or or Long-eared Jerboa, or Magnapinna Squid, or Sea Pig, along with some unique but slightly well-known creatures like Echidna, Honey Badger, Platypus, and Slow Loris.

A must-have for our bookshelf, along with every one of Steve Jenkins's books.

Watch video clippings of featured creatures at

[image source: Chronicle Books]

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Rules by Cynthia Lord

by Cynthia Lord

Left to herself, my ten year old voracious reader may not reach for this book, because, let's face it, "Rules" are not exciting.

However, having read it myself, I wanted her to read it as well. I wanted to know if the book resonated with her, if anything touched her, if anything seemed incongruous to her in any way.

So, rather than wait for her to pick it up, I decided to read it aloud to her, a few chapters at a time. I believe that reading aloud is wonderful for any age, even for adults. Anyway, thus began this interesting journey of discovery together.

Twelve-year-old Catherine is the main character. The story is all about Catherine and her growing pains, wanting to fit in and be accepted for who she is.

However, Catherine has an autistic brother and so naturally, her life is inseparably intertwined with his. Add in a pair of well-meaning, well-intentioned parents who are doing the best they can, plus a new neighbor and potential friend, and a non-verbal teen in a wheelchair, the story is bound to get interesting.

Summer vacation has just begun. Catherine goes with her mom for her eight-year-old brother David's weekly Occupational Therapy session. That's where she meets 14-year old Jason. Her growing friendship with Jason confuses and rattles her. Through it all, Jason comes out as independent and strong and in the end, Catherine does realize that she truly values his friendship even if she feels quite awkward around him. We follow Catherine through this summer vacation where she discovers a little about herself and learns to accept herself, flaws and all.

Catherine is fiercely protective of her brother; she defends him from insults and taunts by others. It grates her when people stare at David. Her love for her brother is never in question. But, being a "normal" child, Catherine also resents David's special needs. She desperately wants a "normal" brother, one who would know to keep his pants on in public, one who knows not to open cellar doors in other people's houses, one who wouldn't scream or throw a fit if dad is a little late to take him to the video store, in short, one who would not embarrass her so much.

Older sisters with a younger brother, with special needs or otherwise, can easily identify with Catherine being called to 'baby-sit' her brother often when she would much rather do her own thing. Catherine's annoyance leads to her making up a list of "Rules" that David can follow to ensure appropriate behavior. Little brothers can be quite challenging to sensitive older sisters and this is the part that resonated most with the resident ten year old.

As it is written from Catherine's point of view, her parents do come across as a bit one-dimensional, but it is obvious that they are average working parents trying to make the best of each day.

The author states that she has an autistic son, and that her daughter was the inspiration for Catherine. Which makes many of the details realistic, reasonable, and believable.

While the book has two major characters who are disabled, the book is not about disability or disabled persons. How Catherine navigates her world, a world that is complex enough to stress her out, is what the book unfolds.

One objection that usually comes up about this book is that Catherine wishes her brother would be "normal" somehow; whereas, clearly he is who he is and she must accept him as such. David is somehow not humanized as much as Jason is in the story. Catherine finds herself uncomfortable around both of them, but Jason stands out as a well-developed character, whereas all we know about David is what Catherine tells us through her interactions.

However, as my ten year old pointed out, there is nothing wrong with Catherine wishing for her brother to be like who she wants him to be, however she defines "normal"... She just wishes she can connect with him in a deeper way and share sibling love and the joys of growing up together. As it is, she just barely manages her own pre-teen angst and to have to constantly defend and protect David can be draining for her.

The book definitely affected the ten year old, possibly in ways she is not be able to articulate at this time. Lives of all the Davids and Jasons out there is sure to get her thinking deeply about how people learn to live with disabilities in our world, and how the people around them can learn to treat them with dignity and respect.

The author does a wonderful job of balancing Catherine's needs and her expectations. Catherine is just a young girl, not a saint; she just has too much to process around her, and that overwhelms her; she is basically a loving, kind, and down-to-earth kid.

[image source: Author Cynthia Lord website]
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