Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Halloween Kid

     How about some retro brilliance for Halloween?  The Halloween Kid is a little 2010 miracle by Rhode Montijo.  The hero in the title is a small boy in a red-striped shirt and a big old cowboy hat who rides a little horse on a stick.  The story is told with cowboy slang.  “You see, the Halloween Kid loved him some Halloween and he would wrangle those who tried to ruin it.”  So watch out, toilet paper mummies or pumpkin-suckin’ vampires!

It’s a fun story, but the magic of the book is wonderful pictures that look like they’re from the back of a 1950s cereal box.  In fact, the pages even show signs of wear as if they’re old and worn.  Hard to describe, maybe you just have to see it.  I love the cartoon style, and there’s all these great silhouettes, like a house outline and the shadows of a mom and her boy and girl inside it.  I had fun trying to cut these silhouette shapes out of black paper, especially the long, skinny lady with her hair in a bun talking on an old telephone.

Check this one out and you’ll be yipping “Yee-Ha-lloween!” right out your front door.



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

Old School

I dusted off my all-time favorite school reader last week and read it straight through over a few days.  I was reading it in second grade in the fall of 1973.  I could never forget People Need People (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973).

It rocked my world then and it turns out I still love it now.  It had this cool brown cover featuring cutouts from the different stories within, including a rising witch, a dejected 2nd grader, and tiny Wet Albert holding a telescope.  Bright colors and all kinds of pictures.  Whoa!  It looked so different from my 1st grade books.  (I think one was called Worlds of Wonder, published by MacMillan.)  I had been used to Dick and Jane type stuff where all the pictures were the same.  The only question was what the next adventure would be for Mike, Jeff and their sister, whatever her name was.  I liked them at the time. Who could resist Bolo, their dog, and Velvet, their cat?

But now this was 2nd grade and it was a new world for me.  I was about cartoons and drawing—the variety in here was intoxicating.  Plus our books were new and shiny, which didn’t hurt.  I remember the magic of loving the stories and anticipating with the rest of the group what looked good coming up.  In September that year I knew I was good on reading a real basic picture book like Frog and Toad, but I had no idea that in a few months I would be reading stories with lots of text.  I thought books like that could be read by high schoolers at the youngest.

The first story was “Freddy Found a Frog” by Alice James Napthus.  Freddy was black, like several kids in our class.  The pictures by Blair Drawson were bright and ‘70s-style.  Freddy suddenly has a frog and tries to decide what to do with him.  The story still feels real and child-like.  The rest of the book also has people of varying shades, which I think was a big difference from our old readers.

My kindergartener in 2012 brings home the photocopied books from his reading program and they’re drab scaffolds of words with no real story to tell.  (A great spoof of lame readers is Three by the Sea by James and Edward Marshall.  Very funny.  A real crowd pleaser.) Thank God for real story-telling.  Bill Martin, Jr. (of Chicka, Chicka, Boom Boom and Brown Bear, Brown Bear fame) led a revolution in the late ‘60s of primers that were real anthologies that had good stories and not just a monotonous cast of Dicks and Janes.  (For instance Sounds of a Young Hunter, 1967.  Also Holt, Rinehart and Winston.  Maybe I’ll have to read it sometime for the first time and say what I think.)  By the time People Need People came out those textbook publishers were on fire!

My favorite story in the book was “Wet Albert” by Michael and Joanna Cole (later famous for the Magic School Bus series).  For some reason a rain cloud follows young Albert around everywhere he goes.  At first it’s a problem but then he is able to help people all over the world.  I learned the word “drought” from this story and found out the  g and h are silent.  Weird, huh?  The cartoonish pictures by Bernice Myers were irresistible to try drawing myself.  My modern 3rd grader and kindergartener love Wet Albert.

Just a few other highlights:  “Maxie” by Mildred Kantrowitz is a lovely story about a single, retired lady in an apartment building who starts thinking no one needs her.  Of course the neighbors rally ‘round.  It reminds me of the powerful picture book Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli.  “Lucy and Her Cousin” by Elizabeth Levy is about how Lucy has to put up with her younger cousin who is nothing but a pain, and how they learn to understand each other.  Terrific fiction, a bit like an adult short story.  (Levy also has a compelling story of young Mozart later in the volume.)  I still love “Tammy Camps in the Rocky Mountains”.  She and her dad and brother are climbing Long’s Peak and she’s always taking pictures and lagging.  I love the realistic watercolors by Tim and Greg Hildebrandt, so much that I should track down more by them.  Last but not least is the story “Boy, Was I Mad!” by Kathryn Hitte.  This blond boy tells the story of being mad and going out of his house and he gets a little less mad on each page.  Each gray-black drawing by Diane de Groat is on a different colored spread-pink, purple, blue, etc.The bottom right corner is like a flip book—on each successive page the boy looks a bit happier in spite of himself.

I was surprised what a pleasure it was to reread People Need People.  I subsequently pulled out The Way of the World, the other reader from my second grade.  But the art and subjects paled in comparison.  One good thing was that there were some favorite illustrators’ styles that I recognized from the previous book like Myers and the Hildebrandts.  It was a lucky stroke that the school district I used to teach for discarded great old textbooks like that one.  You CAN go home again.

I prize my collection of old readers and what they say about us and the era they’re from.  Anyone else out there have favorite reader memories?


Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Fiction, Reviews

Heart of a Shepherd

            Twenty years ago this fall I moved to the Pacific Northwest from way back east.  I drove through the impossibly green and beautiful Columbia River Gorge to arrive in Portland.  Folks not from Oregon seem to think the whole state’s all green and rain-soaked.  But behind the Cascade Mountains, two-thirds of the state is arid.  My first dozen drives east from Portland were astonishing each time as I re-encountered the dry, stark beauty behind the rain shadow.

Down in the Southeast corner of the state, human settlement is so sparse that there’s only a couple humans per square mile.  This is the setting of Rosanne Parry’s 2009 novel The Heart of a Shepherd which centers on Brother, a roughly 12- year-old boy accustomed to living with two grandparents, his dad, and four older brothers.  (No mom in the picture.)  Ranching life is demanding, but it’s what they do.  Then the dad’s reserve unit is called off to Iraq in the early days of the second Iraq war. The older brothers are away in the service, in college in Boise, and at the public boarding school for high schoolers in this remote area.  So now this enormous ranch is the responsibility of Brother, his aging grandparents, and one hired hand.

This is an amazingly accomplished first novel.  Short-161 pages- but meaty.  (Her second, Second Fiddle, came out in 2011.)  It’s always dazzling when a writer can get in the skin of other folks like Parry gets into the hearts of this almost completely male cast.   It’s a great, palpable trip to a very unfamiliar world to me, even if it is Oregon.  We’re with Brother as he learns how to calve in harsh conditions and as he helps deal with an enormous wildfire.  Parry is a master of the dynamics of family life including pecking order and how brothers relate to each other.

The characters are beautifully drawn, including Grandpa, a Quaker pacifist from way back, whom Brother takes on in epic chess matches.  And Grandma, a faithful Catholic, who’s as strong as this remote country demands.  Brother himself is an altar boy at the nearest (but not-so-near) church.  The depiction of faith in the family is rich and compelling.

This strikes me as being a young adult book considering its themes of loss, coming into adulthood, and finding one’s place.  I listened to it on CD.  It was a terrific reading by Kirby Heyborne that lasted three or four hours.

One quibble:  the cover has a great Eastern Oregon background, but the hero is standing still and pensive on the cover.  It seems to say, “Hey boys, this is boring.  Don’t read me.”  But that’s not the case.  Males read on.  Action and suspense lie within.  Girls are multi-faceted.  They’ll like it too.


Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Fiction, Reviews

Hattie the Bad

Hattie The Bad   Hattie the Bad by Jane Devlin is a breezy bit of picture book magic that I’ve read many times over with my son.  Grinning Hattie with short pigtails and dancing eyes starts off very bad, committing naughty acts depicted by Joe Berger in a simple, bright palette.  She puts frogs in the fridge that startle her mom, and tries to sell her baby brother for 20 cents in a curb sale.  Other kids love Hattie and her hijinks, but other parents don’t want their children anywhere close to her.

            Hattie reforms so completely that she is invited to The Best-Behaved Child Ever pageant.  From a whole auditorium of well-scrubbed, impeccably-behaved children she is selected.  And as she climbs the long stairs to the stage she gets a funny feeling inside.  She is asked, “Is there anything you’d like to say?”

I can’t tell you what she says, but every child in the country watching the TV is overjoyed and every adult is horrified.  Hattie the Bad is terrific fun.  Don’t miss this recent gem!  It would be hard to find a better way to spend four minutes.


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

Inspire young writers

Cliffhanger Writing Prompts: 30 One-Page Story Starters That Fire Up Kids' Imaginations and Help Them Develop Strong Narrative Writing Skills Recently I had fun using Cliffhanger Writing Prompts with a class of 5th graders I got to sub.  We had a lot of fun.  Teresa Klepinger’s book is subtitled 30 One-Page Story Starters That Fire Up Kids’ Imaginations and Help Them Develop Strong Narrative Writing Skills and is geared for grades 3-6.  The heart of the book is these great story scenarios that give kids a great jumping-off point to continue their own story.  It’s similar to The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg but this one is perfect for classroom writing.  Klepinger’s book has a playful picture for each story that shows you just enough, but leaves things open-ended for all kinds of ingenious endings. You can’t wait to see where the story goes.

I could hardly wait to grab a story and listen to the musical sounds of students’ pencils scratching the pages.  But since this was their first try with this format, I followed the suggestions in the first section of the book to get us ready. We did two rounds of oral storytelling and got our creative engines revving.  By the time I handed out “Free!  Inside!” students were ready to work on their own, and they worked in silence:  no talking so everyone could chase their own ideas.

Writing can be so laborious.  This is great fun, writing up a storm for the pure joy and excitement of seeing where a story goes.  Still, the standards are always bearing down on us.  So Klepinger gives some good tools to use including an editing and revision checklist, peer review sheet, and a list of transition words and phrases.  (The Graders are so into these, and these cliffhangers are ideal for practicing them.)  Watch those skills rise.

After some quiet writing time,  kids couldn’t wait to hear each others’ stories.  Great timing for a reading of what we had so far.  When I left that day, kids were excited about their stories in progress and the regular teacher was excited to use more prompts.

Cliffhanger Writing Prompts is a winner.  Teachers, once you start using it, students will make sure you continue.  It’s geared for grades 3-6.


Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Reviews

Pandemonium caused by my Trigger John’s Son post!

Patterson Picks readers, you have spoken.  After my post extolling the 1934 book Trigger John’s Son with the stunning 1949 illustrations by Robert McCloskey, you overwhelmed the poor, unprepared infrastructure of  Who wouldn’t want this great tale of youth abundantly illustrated by McCloskey in what has been called (by Patterson Picks) his most brilliant outing?

They didn’t know what hit’em.  Suddenly the world was demanding a copy of long out-of-print TJS.  We never intended to bring Jeff Bezos and the Amazon organization to its knees.  My apologies to the Amazon minions, who were just expecting a routine day of shipping 50 Shades of Grey and 50 Shades Darker.  While Trigger John’s Son is so good that this event seems almost inevitable in retrospect, Patterson Picks would like to apologize to Amazon.  It’s fun to think of the exhilaration Robert McCloskey must have had in discovering the text of TJS and imagining how he’d illustrate it.

If you’re copy hasn’t arrived yet, here are a few great illustrations you will be enjoying…

Okay, so maybe Amazon didn’t almost come tumbling down in the overwhelming demand for this classic, but it’s fun to imagine.

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Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult