The Wall

One of the most delectable, memorable pictures books I’ve ever seen is The Wall:  Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis.  This 2007 picture book/ memoir/ history lesson joins a remarkable set of childhood memoirs by some of our most distinguished picture book illustrators, all of them American immigrants. (See also my reviews of Ed Young’s The House Baba Built describing a wartime childhood in China, Allen Say’s Drawing From Memory set in Japan,  and Yuri Shulevitz’s How I Learned Geography giving a snapshot of his time as a Holocaust era refugee in what is now Kazakhstan.)

          Sis’s cover is a small boy banging a drum enclosed by a wall on all sides. Inside the book’s text is as simple or detailed as you want it to be.  For the basic story of a boy who loved to draw, Sis ingeniously has a simple one line narrative going at the bottom of most pages.  For the complex world of Communism in Czechoslovakia little captions on the margins describe events.

His wonderful black ink drawings feature color very sparingly, notably red, emphasizing the hold of repression in Czech life.  His babyhood coincided with the Soviets taking control of the country and closing the borders in 1948.  Even as he scrawls a zigzag on his paper in a crib, a red flag hangs in the background.

I doubt this book would much interest elementary students, but what a concise and compelling trip for middle schoolers all the way to adults!  Margin notes define Cold War, Iron Curtain, and Communism.  In one tiny frame happy little Peter brings his parents a red flier and they quietly recoil, afraid to criticize the propaganda.

Like the other amazing memoirs I’ve been pushing, this one is multimedia too.  One spread has notes from childhood journals with a background of his drawings,  childhood photos, and Soviet era propaganda signs and posters.  As a teenager, he begins to question things.  The Beatles, Elvis and the Rolling Stones sounds slip into his world.  He joins a rock band.  The Prague Spring in 1968 brings incredible hope and a taste of freedom.  The center spread is a crazy full-color painting.  He’s banging his guitar in a landscape of wonder, with a yellow submarine flying by.  In two more pages Soviet tanks crush it all.  Back to black and white with red flags on the pages.

And yet there are tiny glimmers of hope.  One page says “The Beach Boys arrived.  America to the rescue!”  The end notes describe him being a disc jockey, interviewing the Beatles and others, and traveling to Czechoslovakia with the Beach Boys. (This reminds me of  the late Czech playwright, dissident, and eventual president Vaclav Havel being inspired in the ‘60s by rock culture like Frank Zappa and Velvet Underground.)

His last spread is the enormous wall falling in 1989 with tiny people chopping it up or standing atop in triumph.  “Sometimes dreams come true.”  Way up in the blue sky is a map of Europe with the political boundaries and all the countries that gained freedom 1989-1991.

So read The Wall, a book for anyone who cares for dreams, art or freedom.  The graphic design is pretty incredible too.


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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Return of the Library Dragon

                The Return of the Library Dragon is just what book lovers need in this weird era when we’re being told the traditional format book is going to disappear any minute now.  Eighteen years after their fantastic collaboration, The Library Dragon, the crack team of author Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrator Michael P. White have returned with a very timely book.

The text of the story is preceded by a news article.  “LIBRARIAN RETIRES: Time Has Come to Turn Page Says Miss Lotty.”  Miss Lotta Scales is the lady who twenty years before was an actual dragon keeping kids from touching the books until she found how wrong she was and became a beloved school librarian and human.

          But as Miss Scales heads off to retirement, she is oblivious to a delivery truck heading toward the library.  A boy named Milo tells Miss Scales the awful thing that has happened.

“They’re all g-g-gone!”  he says.

That’s right, every book is gone, taken by Central Office.  They’ve sent a guy who says he’s IT, by the name of Mike Krochip.

Mike is going to make us feel better.  “’It’s better than a library,’ chirps Mike Krochip.  ‘It’s Media World!  The new Sunrise Cybrary!’”

You can imagine that Lotty Scales is feeling warm, even if she is still looking human.

        The author gives us lots of great groaners.  Krochip with a huge grin explains that “Books stain and tear and take up room.  Check out the Book-Be-Gone 5000.  It’ll kindle your fire!”

Young Milo tries to set him straight.  “Pardon me, mister.  We’d like our books back, um, please.”  The rest of the kids are standing behind him, backing him up.

Mike Krochip’s brain is short-circuiting.  “You want them back?  But why, when you could have 10,000 books in one handy little-“

Milo interrupts him.  “Ten thousand books on a screen all look the same.”

Then seven kids each embracing a real, actual book give their pithy arguments, including:

-Ten thousand books in a library all look and feel different.

-All I need to upload a book is my brain.

-The only way my book can get a virus is if I sneeze on it.

-And books smell!  My favorite book smells like spaghetti.

But Krochip tells them, “Give me a month.  These kids won’t remember what a book looks like!”

Now the library dragon comes out of retirement.  She roars, “You bring back every last library book or I’ll melt your motherboard!”

Just as all the dragon fire sends people stampeding out of the library, the new young librarian appears.  And it’s Molly Brickmeyer.  The little hero from the first book is now an adult ready to lead the Sunrise Elementary Library.

            Molly is there to clean up this mess.  “I love technology too,” she says, “But our kids need a library where they can UNPLUG, for the love of books.”  In fact at the thought of a children’s “cybrary”, Molly’s ears begin to smoke and you can see one finger turning into a sharp green claw.

Long live books!  I hope people will read and love Return of the Library Dragon.  Back at School 80 in 1977, our school librarian called herself the media specialist and wanted us to call the library the “media center”.  As much as technology has changed, I hope our children’s children will still read book books.


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The Library Dragon

“Sunrise Elementary School had a BIG problem.  The new librarian, Miss Lotta Scales, was a real dragon.”

So begins Carmen Agra Deedy’s phenomenal 1994 picture book The Library Dragon.

The opening page of the book has a circled want ad for a children’s librarian, and you can see how they inadvertently hired a dragon.  “Our new librarian must be on fire with enthusiasm; no half-baked applicants need apply.”

Miss Lotta Scales is very imposing as drawn by Michael P. White.  Her bright green scaly skin and blood red eyes are complemented by her blue horn-rimmed glasses with the little chains on the sides, and by her lovely yellow dress with a dragonfly pattern on it.

She’s been hired to guard the library and she takes her job seriously.  In fact, the thought of kids “touching her precious books just makes her hot under the collar.”

So unfortunately kids are dreading going to library time and coming back singed.  The author has lots of good groaners for adults reading the book aloud:  The staff gets all worked up about the dysfunctional library and so “the principal fumed,” and the  “teachers were incensed”.

It takes little Molly Brickmeyer wandering in to help Lotta Scales see how a library works.  While the dragon is napping Molly starts reading a book to the other kids.  Miss Scales wakes up and is amazed.  “She’d never seen anything like it:  the children looked like they belonged here.”

Of course Lotta learns how to run a library the right way.  Her scales drop off and little Molly sits in her lap.  She turns nice but still has a list of five rules to help the  books stay  nice including “Treat a book like you treat a friend- you don’t wipe your nose on your friend.”

I still love this book 15 years since first look.  Back at Prescott Elementary School, Patty the Librarian used to use this book at class groups first visit to the library in September.  That got kids fired up about books for the whole year!


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

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

Olivia, the complex young pig we’ve loved since her debut in 2000, is out with her seventh full-fledged book, Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, by Ian Falconer.  Princesses might sound like a girly theme, but not in the hands of her creator, Ian Falconer.  In fact, my almost-seven-year-old boy loves this one

        Flat on her back on the first page, Olivia is depressed.  Even her dog and cat look concerned.  She’s thinking long and hard about fairy princesses.  Later her mother lathers her hair as she takes a bath and Olivia pronounces, “If everyone’s a princess, then princesses aren’t special anymore!”  She also notices they tend to be generic Disney princesses.  “Why is it always a pink princess?  Why not an Indian princess or a princess from Thailand or an African princess or a princess from China.  There are alternatives.”  (And we see Olivia dressed up as each kind of princess.)

She toys with what she can be when she grows up, considering nursing the sick and elderly or being a reporter and exposing corporate malfeasance.  Finally she decides just the thing for her on the very last page.  (Can’t tell!)

           Olivia books hold up well to many readings.  The humor has a dry side for adults and a wacky side for kids.  Falconer usually has fun super-imposing the characters on a black and white photo or two.  His style is familiar as well from his New Yorker covers.

Lately, we’ve also been enjoying Olivia Goes to Venice.  My daughter says her favorite is still Olivia…and the Missing Toy.  Me too!  But Fairy Princesses is right up there.


Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Preschool

Andrew Henry’s Meadow

            OK, we’re traveling back in time one more time.  First we went back to 2002 for Penny Lee and Her TV to please my wife.  Then we hit 1996 for Jip set in about 1855 to please my daughter.  And now let’s go back to that great year of 1965 to please my son.

As far as I can tell Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn is an obscure Northwest picture book.  Nevertheless, 48 years later it’s still in print and the Pattersons love it.  I first ran into it at Powell’s just a few years ago.

   Poor Andrew Henry is a middle child who isn’t left alone to make his ingenious inventions around the house like a huge, elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like watering device for one flower or an eagle’s cage in the living room.  Someone in his family is always demanding he stop.  They don’t understand.

One day he gathers his tools and sets off over the hill, through the swamp and the deep woods.  When at last he arrives in a meadow he builds himself a cabin with a roof made of turf.  One by one his friends escape to the meadow too.  First he builds Alice a tree house.  Soon he builds a fishing hut, a castle, a dugout and other structures to suit his friends.  They live in this meadow paradise for a few days until all the parents track them down.  The parents are overjoyed to have their children back.  The reader knows the families will finally give these kids more leeway in building their dreams.DSCF6254

For my son, who is always building forts in the living room with his buddy Jack, this is truly a glorious world Andrew Henry goes and creates.

Hey readers, do you know this book?  It has gotten a special place on our shelf!


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


     I said this blog post would take us back to 1996, but actually it’s a 1996 book that takes us back to 1855.  Jip is a novel by two-time Newbery winner Katherine Paterson set on a poor farm in small town Vermont.  It was a great read-aloud for my daughter and I, and she insists I review for all you good folk.  In the past we read Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, an amazing short novel that can make a tough hombre like me cry.

The story is about a boy who’s come to be known as Jip who fell out of a speeding wagon when he was a little tyke and has lived on the poor farm for the eight years since.  He wonders how his family could not have noticed that they had a boy they lost.  In the meantime Jip has become the most valuable worker on the farm.  He has a way with animals that calms and comforts them.  In fact he even milks the cow because the cow likes him so much more than the mistress.

           Paterson is a marvel.  She has the knack to take us right there to the muddy roads and bland gruel of the poor farm.  Jip is unassuming but amazing, helping Sheldon, who’s simple, be happy and do his work.  And when the lunatic is brought to them, tied up, screaming and filthy,  it is Jip who calms him.  Jip discovers old Put is a great person who, except for his spells, is very sane.

But  a man Jip instinctively dislikes comes to visit and  tells Jip he may know where he came from.  The mystery of Jip’s past haunts us all along.  When the story is still leisurely, we see Jip fall in love with school and his first shot at book learning.

But soon enough we get to the climax of a breathless, life and death adventure.  I won’t say too much and spoil it.  It’s fantastic.


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

Penny Lee and Her TV

I try not to live in the past, even though it had some really good parts.  But recently the three members of my nuclear family each commanded me to review a book on this blog.  Each one an old book, as it happens.  So here we go, to 2002, then to 1996 and 1965.

Since my wife is the technical brains behind Patterson Picks, I think she deserves for me to do her book first.  It’s a 2002 book I found subbing at Ventura Park Elementary a few weeks ago.  And it got big laughs from the almost-seven-year-old, the almost-ten-year-old and both of the adults in this house.

Penny Lee and Her TV , written and illustrated by Glenn McCoy, introduces us to only two living characters:  Penny Lee and her dog, Mr. Barkley.  And it is pretttty boring to be Mr. Barkley.  Here’s why:  “Penny Lee didn’t have any friends.  She didn’t need any.  The TV was her best friend.”  She even sleeps on top of it and dreams commercials.

Poor Mr. Barkley tries everything his dog brain can think of to get a little attention.  Even when he puts ramps on both sides of the TV and rides his motorcycle through a flaming hoop mounted on the TV, Penny doesn’t even notice.  (But the readers do.  We all cracked up at the dog with his giant nose and American flag motorcycle helmet.)

Then one morning Penny wakes to a cold, dark TV screen.  She’s hysterical ‘til Mr. Barkley shows her a TV repair ad in the newspaper.  They set off rolling their TV down the sidewalk, and Penny can’t get over how bright and colorful the real world is.  And she’s flummoxed by how she can’t use her remote control to switch the “channel” she is walking through.  Would you believe they have fun on the way to the shop?  They go for rides on the TV down steep hills, use the cord for a jump rope, and play hide and seek at the park.  (Penny is easy to find because she has to hide by the big TV.)

It’s a quick, satisfying story replete with sight gags like when Penny and Mr. Barkley do chalk drawing on the sidewalk.  Penny draws her favorite TV superhero and her TV; Mr. Barkley draws a bone, a tree and a fire hydrant.  They have so much fun on the way to the shop that it’s closed by the time they get there.  And Penny isn’t even mad!

After Penny goes to sleep in her own bed for a change, we find that Mr. Barkley has a little secret that ends the story perfectly.

Next time, a trip to 1996.  Don’t change that blog channel…


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