Monthly Archives: September 2012

Are We There Yet?

I’ve been to Australia!  It was free!

Are We There Yet?Okay, it was actually via Are We There Yet?  A Journey Around Australia, a picture book written and illustrated by Alison Lester.  But her 32 page trip is so marvelous that I can only hope the actual Australia is as wonderful as her book.    The other three quarters of my family discovered this 2005 book without me.  But when I finished reading it to my then-toddler and kindergarten kids (taking 10-15 minutes- lots of detail!) they asked for me to read it again immediately.

Lester  has some kind of magic touch because turning your year-long family trip in the camper into a compelling picture book for all ages sounds like an unlikely feat.  She takes us to a coral reef, to the Outback including Uluru, the famous rock, and through the rainforest.  Her ink and water color pictures scattered over each page give you a sense of the varied landscapes of Australia.

But it’s the little details that make it magic to me.  For instance, she gives us a map and cross-section of the camper and even shows big brother Luke sleeping on the ground nearby in his sleeping bag.  We attach to the story as we see the family interact with each location, like when Luke is pretending to surf on the curves of Wave Rock or when Grace (the eight year old narrator) reaches her fingers in the air to imitate boab trees with huge trunks and little branches like claws starting way up high.  You’re there!

I enjoyed frequent little maps showing us our progress in a full trip around the continent.  What a superior way to start finding out about Australia compared to a thick, intimidating adult book.  Then Joe Curious has a little foundation for finding out more.

What family trip do you wish Alison Lester could have documented for you?



Filed under Age: All, Non-Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews

Who is Alvin Ho?

Alvin Ho, illustrated by LeUyen Pham Alvin Ho:  Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look is so much fun from the moment you see the front cover it almost doesn’t need a review.  Alvin, a second grade boy, proudly tells us “I come from a long line of farmer-warriors who haven’t had a scaredy bone in their bodies since 714 AD.  In China my ancient grandpas and grandmas fought off leopards and tigers in their gardens the way Calvin and Anibelly and I fight off mosquitoes at Walden Pond.”

Unfortunately, as you know from the title, Alvin is afraid of practically everything.  He lives in historic Concord, Massachusetts, where the American Revolution started.  Fortunately he is not afraid of anything that explodes.  “I was practically born with gunpowder in my blood!”  In the very first chapter he tells us all we need to know about him for starters including all his fears and the fact that he can’t speak a single word at school.  (He doesn’t use the term selective mutism, but we get the idea.)  Lucky for him, his seatmate is his good friend Flea.  As she says, “Alvin can talk with his eyes.”

He’s a narrator with so much zing and gusto that we’re captured from the start.  The ink drawings by LeUyen Pham are cartoon perfect.  They’re so frequent it almost feels like a graphic novel.  You feel like you’re right there in his family by page 3 when you see the picture of big brother Calvin, baby sister Anibelly and his big dog Lucy. employs great, laugh-aloud story-telling all the way through, and like I mentioned, the drawings are amazing.  It’s sheer, 21st century genius to have this Chinese American boy living in this  American cradle of liberty, filling us in on all we need to know.  His “woeful glossary” at the back gives his funny take on everything from Minutemen and Chinese radishes to Beethoven and his brother Calvin.

Alvin Ho is more than belly laughs.  It has great storytelling and lots of heart.  I read it to a 4th and 5th grade class at the start of a year and they loved it.  Fortunately, the first Alvin Ho from 2008 has been followed by Alvin Ho:  Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters and Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects and Other Man-Made Catastrophes.

Alvin’s life is woes and joys and dramas like the human experience.  If I were the Newbery committee, Alvin could proudly wear the Newbery Medal around his neck.  Keep working things out, Alvin.  We’re with you all the way.


Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Chapter Books, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Robert McCloskey’s Illustrating Masterpiece

Who’s the most wonderful illustrator in the glorious history of children’s books?  My all-time favorite might be Robert McCloskey.  Mom introduced me to him when I was still in nursery school with the Caldecott winner Make Way for Ducklings.  I’ve loved reading our kids One Morning in Maine (a slice of life story in rural Maine that includes a loose tooth) and the very famous Blueberries for Sal, both fabulous picture books.  McCloskey was most active from the ‘40s till the ‘60s although he lived to 2003.

When I was about nine I discovered his wacky, nostalgiac pair of books about a boy in small town Ohio:  Homer Price and Centerburg Tales.  Homer has crazy adventures including when the doughnut machine at his uncle’s diner goes haywire and makes thousands of doughnuts.  I couldn’t get enough of those, although when I look back and re-read I realize I labored through the text and was enchanted by the pictures.

My grandparents took me to their Irvington Branch library in Indianapolis and I asked a kind librarian for more Robert McCloskey chapter books (although I didn’t know that term “chapter book”).  She said there were no more written by him but showed me the Henry Reed books, that he illustrated for Keith Robertson.  Henry is a blogger of his day, keeping a very earnest journal about his life.  Of the four books, I enjoyed Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service the most.  He was pretty  unequipped temperamentally to be a babysitter and it was really funny stuff.

But it wasn’t till 2010 I found what I think may be McCloskey’s illustrating masterpiece: Trigger John’s Son .  (My heart is accelerating as I write this.  I might start a stampede for this obscure book.  In the past I’ve fantasized about buying half a dozen copies off Amazon for all my friends I think should read it. Then I reveal to the world its fabulosity after my raves have driven up the cost of the book dramatically.)

Since you ask (please ask!) here’s how I discovered it.  I have a copy of Homer Price decommissioned from the Prescott School library.  The back of its dust jacket heralds three well-known McCloskey books plus Trigger John’s Son by Tom Robinson.  What the heck was this?  Multnomah County Library didn’t have it.  I used their marvelous interlibrary loan service and got it in a few weeks.  Turns out Trigger John was a 1934 novel that McCloskey must have admired.  So in 1949 a new edition came out with McCloskey’s own illustrations.  The book is profusely illustrated with McCloskey’s incomparable pen and ink drawings.

Where Homer Price and Henry Reed are quirky and entertaining, making a great vehicle for McCloskey pictures, Trigger John’s Son is epic, with this orphan boy coming on the train all the way from Maine to Pennsylvania.  He hops off the train and sneaks into town so he can spy on the couple that wants to adopt him before he makes up his mind.  And he joins up with the Goosetown gang, which is rough and tumble but feels very innocent from a 2012 perspective.  In 1949 Horn Book called it “the best thing of its kind since Tom Sawyer”.

In a just world, it would have won the Newbery award and still be in print and in our consciousness.  In fall of 2010 I was overjoyed to find an old library copy for $10.95 at Powell’s City of Books.  Trigger John’s Son starts off good and only gets better.  Here are the opening lines:

“Trigger John’s son busied himself with searching in his duffel bag for a thing that wasn’t there.  He knew it wasn’t there and if it had been he didn’t want to find it.”

The page one picture is the boy digging in his duffel and secretly looking at the train conductor while the old lady behind him spies on him. Trigger John wants to be left alone.  He may be an orphan but he’s going to control his own destiny.

Find it, enjoy it, help resuscitate this forgotten book!

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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Chapter Books, Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews

Dying to Meet You

   I first met up with Kate Klise’s writing and her sister M. Sarah Klise’s illustrations in the ‘90s with the delightful novel Regarding the Fountain.  I guess you’d call it an epistolary novel.  It’s a wacky tale told in letters, memos, news clippings and other documents of a school that needs a new drinking fountain.  In Klise’s hands this simple quest becomes absurdly complicated and entertaining.

Now my daughter, who has blossomed as a recreational reader this summer, needs good books!  Series especially.  So I’ve turned her on to the 43 Cemetery Road series and she’s plowed through the first three.  (Mental note:  reserve the fourth one for her from the library.)

Dying to Meet You (2009) is the story of an old writer in a long slump renting an old, dilapidated  house in Ghastly, Illinois.  Ignatius B. Grumply is the author of the (fictional) Ghost Tamer series and he’s many years overdue for the next volume.  Sight unseen he has rented an enormous old Queen Anne that happens to be inhabited by long dead Olive Spence, a frustrated writer herself, and 11-year-old Seymour Hope, a living boy whose parents have ditched him to go do paranormal research in Europe.  The text is preceded by a portrait gallery of people like young Seymour, old and dead Olive, the author Ignatius B. Grumply and the real estate agent Anita Sale.  (Expect lots of clever joke names.)

This series, too,  is full of letters, notes, and news articles from The Ghastly Times.  It’s a great story.  Both my daughter and I have found it to be great story-telling and addictive reading.


Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Chapter Books, Fiction, Reviews

How Stories Shape Us

I recently read a terrific book for adults who love kids and kidlit.  The Girl with the Brown Crayon:  How Children Use Stories to Shape Their Lives by Vivian Gussin Paley.  If Paley’s not a national institution she deserves to be.  She was a teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School for many years and has several written wonderful, very short books for adults about her experiences.  Wally’s Stories, for example, gives amazing, magical insights into kids and how they perceive the world.

This book, Girl with the Brown Crayon, is about her last year of teaching, in which she delves way deep into the picture books of Leo Lionni.  (Lionni wrote scads of picture books before his death in 1999.  His simple-seeming, stylized artwork has always reminded me of Eric Carle.) Paley’s kindergarteners take to his stuff.  They read his books again and again, act them out, externalize them.  They analyze them and philosophize about the world in ways that even she didn’t know a kindergartener could do.  A remarkable little girl named Reeny becomes the defacto leader, caring intensely about the stories and helping them all find their path.  Little Reeny even helps the author understand and make peace with the one she has hated, Tico and the Golden Wings.

Naturally, my son and I have been reading several Lionni titles since then.  He has enjoyed them.  Swimmy about a left-out little fish is an old favorite.  A new one (to us) that we really enjoyed was Frederick (1967).  Frederick is a mouse in a family of five.  While the rest of the group works tirelessly to prepare for winter, Frederick sits.

“Frederick,” why don’t you work?” they asked.

“I do work,” said Frederick.   “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.”

His idea of work is much different than theirs.  Will they tolerate him?  Read how it all works out.  And if you go in for that kind of thing, check out the magical teacher and writer Vivian Gussin Paley.  If only we could all have a teacher as respectful and kid-driven as she was!


Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Preschool, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Millions of Cats?

Undoubtedly the best book ever written is Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag.  First published in 1928, it’s the oldest American picture book still in print.  You probably already know it.  But let’s review.

Why is it the best?  Here are a few reasons.

Great title.  Cats are cool, so let’s read about millions of them.

You meet the very old man and the very old woman on the very first page and you like them immediately.  But you see how their yard is sadly empty of a cat.  The wife asks for a sweet little fluffy cat.

The ink drawings create this unique, stylized world.  As you see the very old man walking over the sunny hills and through the cool valleys, you have the sense of a very long journey.  Flipping the page, you can’t wait to see where his path leads him.

It has my favorite text from a children’s book:

Cats here, cats there,

Cats and kittens everywhere,

Hundreds of cats,

Thousands of cats,

Millions and billions and trillions of cats.

It’s so fun to repeat that with your child or a whole rug full of school kids.  And it’s probably where our own kids heard the words millions, billions, and trillion first.

The old man is tender-hearted:

“So it happened that every time the very old man looked up, he saw another cat which was so pretty he could not bear to Leave it, and before he knew it, he had chosen them all.”  Yup, millions of cats.  Minimum.

…We’d want them all too, huh?  So now he’s got a BIG problem, like any good story needs.

He journeys home with them and they’re like a plague of locusts.  For instance when they’re thirsty, “Each cat took a sip of water, and the pond was gone!”

When he gets home it’s his wife who sees they have a problem.  (Imagine the cat food budget, etc!)  How this problem gets resolved so that they have just one perfect cat is pure genius.  I still remember the magic of it from when I was three or four years old.

The last picture of them in the parlor is so cozy.  They sit below framed portraits of a young bride and groom.  It’s their young selves, a magical and mysterious detail for a small boy like I was, and still resemble now and then.

Wanda Gag (rhymes with log) is such an interesting artist.  She had a tough childhood ably detailed in the recent picture book Wanda Gag:  The Girl Who Loved To Draw (Deborah Kogan Ray, 2008).She has many books available.  I recommend her version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for its wonderful illustrations.

There now, I could give you million and billions and trillions of reasons, but I think I’ll stop there.

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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Preschool, Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews

The Cat’s Turn

  For a few years now, my family has returned again and again to Old Tom, a wacky housecat from Australia.  It’s one of my many favorites discovered by my kids yanking random books off the shelf at Woodstock Library.  Forget the reviews!  Forget my blog!  This is how you find the best books!

Anyhow, I love the two books Old Tom, Man of Mystery (2003) and Old Tom’s Holiday.  Written and illustrated by Leigh Hobbs, he’s got these great bold ink lines colored in brightly.  Angela Throgmorton, Tom’s owner, has googly eyes and hair in a bun.  The center of her world is her cat, Old Tom, who carries around a fish carcass like a teddy bear and always has one eye closed.  When she decides it’s time for Tom to do his share of the chores, he takes a turn for the worse.  While she cleans the house furiously and Tom is supposedly resting in bed, a  masked “Man of Mystery” starts roaming town.  Angela tries to discover the identity of this mystery figure.

Still funny after all these years.


Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Preschool, Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews