Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin

Monday, December 05, 2016

The William Hoy Story, Kami and the Yaks

The William Hoy Story
How a Deaf baseball Player Challenged the Game
by Nancy Churnin
illustrated by Jez Tuya

publisher: Albert Whitman and Co., 2016

"They called him Dummy Hoy, but he was nobody's fool. He could steal his way around the bases and score! And while he couldn't hear the cheers, he could sure see them."

Even though by 1817 the first American School for the Deaf was up and active, and the American Sign language (ASL) was adopted from the French Sign Language (FSL), during late 1800s and early 1900s "Dummy" was a common name given to people who were unable to hear or speak.

After William graduated as valedictorian of the Ohio State School for the Deaf, he continued playing baseball while working as a cobbler in between season. He set and broke many baseball records and truly gave his all to the game. By working with the umpires, William helped them develop a number of hand signals that was later adopted as official in baseball.

William was not born deaf, he lost his hearing after a bout of meningitis at a young age. The picture book captures William's lifelong passion for baseball while showing us his upbeat attitude towards life.

Kami and the Yaks
by Andrea Stenn Stryer
illustrated by Bert Dodson

publisher: Bay Otter Press, 2007

While not a true life story, the author shares that this book was inspired by a boy she met while trekking in Mount Everest region of Nepal, who communicated quite well even if he could not speak.

His dad and older brother worked as guides and helpers for mountain climbers, often setting up camp and cooking for the climbers who aimed to summit the mighty Everest.

One fine morning, Kami notices that their beloved yaks have not returned home from their grazing. Kami takes out a whistle one of the climbers had given him, and blew it hard. Even though he could not hear the sound, being deaf, he knew the yaks would hear it and come home. But, when they didn't come home after repeated whistle-calls, he decided to go look for them as his dad and brother were guiding another group of climbers.

Amid rumbling thunder and threat of a blizzard in snow-capped slopes, Kami's resourceful attempt to save a young yak stuck in a crevice and to lead the small herd home safely is told in a strong and uplifting way.

The illustrations are gorgeous; the text projects the urgency and direness of the situation, and we read holding our breath, willing Kami to succeed in bringing some help to these stranded yaks. Which he does. And we heave a big sigh of relief when we see Kami proudly leading the yaks down the mountain, his father and brother assisting him after an arduous rescue.

[image source:]

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, December 02, 2016

Rain Reign

Rain Reign
by Ann M. Martin

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (October 7, 2014)

From the best-selling author of Baby-sitters Club series comes this brilliant story of Rose Howard, a story that will not be easy to forget.

Rose Howard is a fifth grader at Hartford Elementary, and likes these three things in this order:
1. Words (especially homonyms)
2. Rules
3. Numbers (especially prime numbers)

She reveres Rules. And doesn't like it when people don't follow the rules. It disturbs her immensely when people go against the rules.

"Stop!" I shouted. "Mrs. Ringwood, stop right now!"

Mrs. Ringwood slammed on the brakes. "What's the matter?" she cried. She stood up to look out her window. Behind me, all the kids crowded to the other windows to see what had happened. Traffic came to a halt.

"You didn't use your directional," I said. "That's against the rules."

Mrs. Ringwood sat down again. She leaned her forehead on the steerign wheel. Then she turned around and said to me, "Are you freaking kidding me?" After she parked Bus #7 she went into Hartford Elementary and spoke with the principal.

That's why I don't ride the bus anymore.

Rose's mom is no more (of course, her dad in misplaced concern, tells Rose that her mom left); Rose lives with her dad, Wesley Howard, who works in a nearby garage as a mechanic; her uncle Wheldon Howard drives her to school and back everyday despite his full day work schedule elsewhere in a slightly better white-collar job.

Rose is obsessed with homonyms (homophones, mainly). She makes a list of them in alphabetical order. It is a hand-written list as she has no computer. So, when she finds a new homonym pair (or trio, on rare occasions), she might have to start over and copy her earlier list and insert the new one at the right spot. She doesn't mind. In fact, she enjoys writing this list.

One fine rainy day, her dad brings home a beautiful and friendly dog. He means it as a gift for Rose, even though he just found it on the road and didn't try to track its owners or make any attempt to determine if it is abandoned for good. Rose names her dog Rain/Reign - homonym.

And then comes the hurricane, Hurricane Susan, a devastating downpour that destroys homes, downs power lines, floods the streams and rivers, and leaves people stranded. And, this is the time when Rain goes missing as well. Rose is heart-broken and angry at her father for letting Rain out without a collar in such a terrible weather.

All's well that ends well, but with a twist. When Rose finally takes charge and calls all the nearby animal shelters methodically and manages to find Rain, she also learns that Rain is actually Olivia and belongs to another family with two kids who miss their dog very much, but the family has not been easy to reach. So, Rose sets about finding a way to reach the family through newspaper articles and eventually unites Olivia/Rain/Reign with her original family, the Hendersons.

Rose's dad and uncle are products of foster care system themselves; Rose's dad has never accepted Rose's needs, and has always resented her obsession with homonyms and prime numbers and rules, symptomatic of high-functioning autism. "Don't start with me, Rose..." is all he has to say to shut Rose up. He doesn't seem to know what's best for Rose or how to help her special needs. Thankfully for Rose, Uncle Wheldon does.

And, when the story ends, instead of being abandoned to the foster care system as her dad had had enough with her, we leave Rose with her caring and warm Uncle Wheldon who is her only living relative, and only friend who understands her and supports her needs.

A powerful and unforgettable novel, told in Rose's matter-of-fact voice, laced with humor, that just barely manages to stop our heart from breaking.

[image source:]

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Welcome to CROCUS 2016: Exploring Inclusive Narratives in Children's Literature

CROCUS 2016 Saffron Tree Online Blog Festival Children's Books Disability

Starting in 2009, at my other home, Saffron Tree, we have been celebrating a short and exuberant annual blog event, a festival of books we call CROCUS: Celebrating Reading of Culturally Unique Stories.

Each year, we adopt a theme after much deliberation and peaceful voting -- a theme that speaks to us at that time, a theme that guides our book picks to share during the few days of the festival.

Our CROCUS 2016  theme is: Exploring Inclusive Narratives in Children's Literature.

We are focusing the spotlight on our fellow humans who are marginalized based on arbitrary criteria that usually defies logic. Folks who are practically cast aside because they do not fit the mould made for social acceptance. Folks whose physical or mental make-up is so different from the generally accepted idea of "normal" that they are pushed into social isolation.

What better way to break this cycle than by talking about it, through children's books that showcase kids of all sorts - kids with disabilities both physical and cognitive, kids who have suffered abuse, kids who have not had a stable home/family, kids whose gender identities are not binary, kids who simply want to be who they are and not be judged and categorized and limited in any way...

To seal the idea, our own talented Lavanya Karthik has created the gorgeous poster for our theme this year, reiterating that differences are good and that we are the same no matter how different we seem.

Starting today, Dec 1, through Dec 4, we hope to bring children's books with diverse characters who believe that their disability is not a limitation, who know that their differences do not define them, and who help us see that their abilities cannot be measured and quantized in conventional terms.

Visit Saffron Tree during this time, as well as any other time, to find the wonderful books on diversity and inclusiveness.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Journey from Children's Book Reader to Children's Book Author

For over a decade now, I've passionately written about children's books here in this blog, on and off.

What started as a place to record the books my kids and I enjoyed reading turned into a venue for me to champion for all the published gems that filled me with comfort and delight and gratification and pure exhilaration...

Among other things that I write about in this blog, of late I've focused on sharing the books that came my way, books that my kids enjoyed, books that I wish I had written!

And, finally, here is a book that I have written:

Co-authored with my dear friend Praba Ram from Saffron Tree, the book is illustrated by none other than our flyer-girl and artist-par-excellence, Lavanya Karthik, published by Mango, Children's Imprint of DC Books.

The wonderful D.C. Books, who are placed among the TOP 5 Literary Publishing Houses of India, have a rich collection of children's book through their Children's Imprint, Mango. I am happy that our book has joined their illustrious ranks now.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, November 05, 2016


by Edward Bloor

Tangerine is an uplifting multi-threaded story, featuring a young protagonist who has a strong sense of self-worth, that combines rite-of-passage with sibling rivalry, race issues, environmental concerns, football mania, minority communities and more, told brilliantly, without stodgy pontificating or sappy sentimentality.

Seventh grader Paul Fisher moves to Tangerine County, Florida, with his family to start a new school year at Lake Windsor Middle School (LWMS), leaving Houston and his friends behind without too much drama. Overshadowed by his older brother Erik, who is the center of the Erik Fisher Football Dream that his parents have intricately woven and diligently pursued thanks to Erik's phenomenal placekicking, Paul is left to his own devices most of the time, ignored, and underappreciated despite his superb goal-tending abilities for his school soccer team.

Paul wears thick glasses to help him see better. His brother originated this story of Paul staring at the solar eclipse for too long and thus losing his visual acuity. Paul is not sure that story is true, but, he dare not challenge his brother as Erik is quite the mean-spirited bully who hides it well around his parents. His parents don't seem too forthcoming to clarify this vision issue either.

Between the stench of the muck fires that would never go out, and the swarm of mosquitoes that thrive in the swamp created when misguided folks tried to douse the muck fire with gallons of water, life in Tangerine County is not all pleasant. Add to it the very real danger of being hit by lightning, as well as drowning in a sinkhole while sitting in the classroom, life can be positively dangerous.

Indeed, when during football practice, one of the kids of the high school football team is struck by lightning and dies, folks just take it in their stride and don't even suspend practice the next day, carrying on as if nothing can be more important than NFL dreams.

And yes, the sinkhole gobbles up quite a few of the portable classrooms of LWMS, with the kids just barely escaping death. If all this seems highly improbable, think again.

Paul Fisher is furious that his mom demanded a tour of his new school explicitly declaring that he is "legally blind", a tour that was not offered willingly by the Principal at the outset, but was reluctantly given owing to Paul's limitation. She goes so far as to sign him up for IEP as if to emphasize the "visually handicapped" idea, which as it turns out, disqualifies him to play in LWMS's soccer team, despite being the best goalie that a team can hope for.

"I followed slowly, angry at Mom for calling attention to my eyesight. She wanted a tour of the place because she's nosy and wants to see everything for herself. It wasn't because I can't see, because I can. I can see just fine."

Though Paul is visually impaired, he has never considered it a disability. He has sharp insight and perception when it comes to people around him, especially his parents who always seem focused on the wrong things while ignoring the important things staring at them. His thick glasses has never stopped him from being a first-rate goalie for his school team so far. Nor has it stopped him from being deeply observant and profoundly astute for a kid his age.

"But I can see. I can see everything. I can see things that Mom and Dad can't. Or won't."

Or won't. That is the key.

The plot thread of the Tangerine Middle School (TMS) kids and their community where, as Paul puts it, "the minorities are the majority," is superbly developed. As a result of the sinkhole incident, Paul gets an opportunity to change schools, and he voluntarily opts to go to TMS, known as the middle school for troubled youth, while LWMS is for the so-called elite.

Paul makes himself fit in at TMS and works hard to get on the soccer team, even if not as a starter. The citrus farming with its threat of freeze, the bare minimum subsistence, the hardworking Cruz family, the all-too-painful story of Antoine Thomas and his sister, Shandra... There is so much going on in this book that one cannot just put it down and walk away not knowing how it all works out...

Rather than reveal all the lovely details, I think I'll stop here, allowing myself a few more words to gush about this book. While some situations may seem a bit contrived for the dramatic effect, the book is very realistic in terms of relationships, rivalries, priorities, lifestyles -- conditions of life -- in what appears to be an idyllic place that was once the Tangerine capital of the world. Paul is memorable and I can't help but hope that kids in his situation have that level of understanding and maturity to handle what life throws at them. Paul reaches for the light when he could have abandoned levelheadedness and sought the dark. He looks for the positives, not faults, he never complains and he knows what's right even if his own family doesn't acknowledge it.

[image source:]

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Halloween

The younger child decided to be Ivan, from The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Not the scariest costume if one knows Ivan, the sweet and adorable gorilla. He had a mask in his Dress Up cubby and had black pants and black shirt, so, the costume was easy enough for him to put together.

The older child decided to trick or treat as a Voodoo Doll. Chopsticks and large pompoms became the pins for this costume which I did not help make at all.

Pumpkins got carved, Jack-O-Lanterns lit, pumpkin seeds roasted, trick-or-treating done in the neighborhood...

Your Skeleton is Showing: Rhymes of Blunder from Six Feet Under by Kurt Cyrus, illustrated by Crab Scrambly is a popular read around this time, as is the old favorite By the Light of the Halloween Moon by Caroline Stutson, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.

As always, this poem from Halloween Hoots and Howls by Joan Horton, illustrated by JoAnn Adinolfi is the reigning champion:

"Woe is me," the pumpkin said. 
"They plucked me from my garden bed, 
Hollowed all my innards out, 
And with a joyful whoop and shout, 
Carved two eyes, a nose, a grin, 
And stuck a lighted candle in. 
Next they set me on a post 
Where every goblin, ghoul, and ghost, 
Howling, prowling through the night, 
Filled my orange skull with fright." 
"As if that wasn't bad enough," 
The pumpkin grumbled in a huff, 
"They later baked me in a pie, 
And now they're eating me -- GOOD-BYE!"

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Finnigan the Circus Cat

Finnigan the Circus Cat
by Mary T. Wagner

Publisher: Waterhorse Press; First edition (May 27, 2016)
Publication Date: May 27, 2016

An warm tale about a simple life that can have its own adventures, this book can be fun for cat-loving kids.

Cousins Max and Leroy, two circus mice, live a well-settled life at the old Farnsworth Circus Museum. They have comfortable place to rest, enough food to eat, no bothersome dogs or cats. But when little Lucy Farnsworth and her family move in, along with their dog Boomer, things start to change a bit. To add to the annoyance, Lucy hides a rescue kitten in their barn, which totally aggravates the mice cousins, naturally.

This little kitten, which is not allowed in the house as Lucy's dad is allergic, seems oblivious to the disturbance he must have caused in the status quo at first. But, Max and Leroy take him under their wing and show him the best spots for hiding, the best hidden route to the stream on a hot day, all the nooks and crannies in the circus wagon...

Things can't be this idyllic for long, and sure enough Hector and Godfrey show up which is not a good sign for Leroy and Max. When Leroy almost falls into Godfrey's mouth, Finnigan, leaps to his rescue, hangs by his long fluffy tail, and saves him from certain death.

The pencil illustrations in the book were done by the author herself. The story flows smoothly and predictably with engaging dialog and not a lot of fast-paced adventure or rising action or conflict. This might be the first in a series where we follow Finnegan along with his new adventures.

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

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Summer Reading: A Baker's Dozen 3rd Grade Chapter Books

There is a reader for every book and a book for every reader. As long as they meet each other I have no complaints.

Now that Summer is over and school has begun in right earnest, I thought I should jot down the books that the then 3rd grader read over summer. Just random picks. I didn't have an agenda. Well, I sort of did, but did not enforce it.

Agreed, I'd rather have my kids read what I consider wonderful and worthy, or what the general writing community and librarians and teachers consider must-reads. But, each kid is different and what speaks to them and appeals to their sensibilities and interests varies widely. So, if they end up not loving a book that I rave about, it's okay.

So far, almost every book by Roald Dahl has been much enjoyed by both the kids. The BFG is a hit, of course, thanks to his whizpopping and his strange grammar. The Witches  made him wonder about the women he sees - seemingly ordinary people - whether they could be secret witches. The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me was nice too. Matilda was fantastic.

As a non-fiction fan, it is gratifying for me to see the younger one finish fiction chapter books voluntarily. Especially because non-fiction picture books have filled our lives with wonder, right from the kid's infancy.

Here are a few fiction chapter books that the 3rd grader has enjoyed this summer either listening to me read it out loud, or reading them by himself as he lost patience waiting for me.

Dave Pigeon
by Swapna Haddow
illustrations by Sheena Dempsey

A quick read pumped with the kind of silliness that appeals to kids, Dave Pigeon has its laugh-out-loud bits as well as some bits that the jaded adult in me knew was a drag but just put in there to get the kids to giggle.

Two pigeons are scrounging for scraps, and not doing so well, when a Human Lady (with a cat in her basket) comes along with a perfectly stale bread that is a heavenly treat for the said pigeons. Her cat, however, finds its own treat in tormenting the two pigeons, one of which gets its wing hurt. That's our "Dave", so named when the Human Lady takes him home to mend.

The friend pigeon, Skipper, follows along and finds that life can be good with the Human Lady if only the Mean Cat was out of  the way. They both embark on schemes to throw the cat out, but end up with a different problem when the book ends.

So, there is bound to be a part 2 that tells us more about how things progress.

[image source: Author website]

Oggie Cooder (2 book series)
Oggie Cooder, Party Animal

by Sarah Weeks

Veteran author Sarah Weeks manages to create a likable character whose life is realistic enough for kids to take notice and bizarre enough for kids to keep reading. Oggie Cooder is a naturally talented charver. What is charving? It is carving cheese with teeth.

There's the usual super-privileged girls, the boisterous jocks, the dorky smarties; and despite fame trying to change him, Oggie remains true to his sweet nature.

The second book, Party Animal, is all right. There is the requisite diva-ish girl who does not want Oggie to come to her party but invites him anyway, and then imposes these impossible rules for him to follow if he is to come to her party. Not my cup of tea, but all in all, Oggie comes out nice and likable again.

[image source: scholastic]

Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing
(Superfudge, Double Fudge)
Judy Blume

What's not to love about these soon-to-be classic books? Peter Hatcher, his little brother Fudge, and their lovely family are quite a bunch. Virtually every kid I know has read at least one "Fudge book".

Ms. Blume is a master at her craft, spinning seemingly mundane everyday events into wild adventures that turn out to be entertaining, and yet full of heart and tons of humor.

Although Peter is our protagonist, he mostly talks about his brother, Fudge, whose attention-getting antics might be all-too-familiar for parents with high-energy/highly-imaginative kids. Baby sister Tootsie brings new fodder for such antics and the anecdotes flow into a general story with not necessarily a huge conflict/resolution style arc but more of a things-happened-and now-it's-all-right kind of sequence.

Read an Excerpt

[image source: Puffin- Penguin/Randomhouse]

Heck (series)
(Rapacia, Blimpo, Fibble)
by Dale E. Basye
illustrated by Bob Dob

This is a book I did not scan ahead, or read to the child, so I kept getting updates from the reader in installments as and when he read it. It seemed so bizarre that I had to pick it up and do my usual rapid-reading to make sure.

Marlo and Milton get sent to Heck after they are killed. They meet Virgil there, in Heck, which is practically like Hell: there is school there! The threesome try to escape this freakish world.

There are a few more books in the series and the kid has been working his way through them. The rich wordplay and fantasy world building might just be offbeat enough to keep the kid engaged.

Read an Excerpt

[image source: Penguin Random House]

Ukulele Hayley
by Judy Cox

A heart-warming book where kids are not bystanders in their own art enrichment education. Hayley can play the ukulele, it must run in the family since her great-aunt Ruby was famous for it. But, when her school decides to cut funding for the music program, she gathers her fellow music enthusiasts and puts together a show, and in effect appeals to the board to change their mind.

Kids can identify with Hayley and her seeming lack of special talent: while others can sing, dance, juggle and what-not, she seems to be talentless. Until she discovers ukulele, and discovers that with just 3 chords she can learn to play many tunes.

[image source: Holiday House]

The Story of Diva and Flea
by Mo Willems
illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi

I must admit that the main reason the resident Elephant and Piggie fan picked up this book is the name-recognition factor: being familiar with the Mo Willems name.

It's a sweet story of friendship between an alley cat, Flea, surviving on pure wits and next-to-nothing-scraps and a pampered little 'fraidy-cat dog, Diva. Their friendship grows gradually, organically. They each help the other out of their comfort zone and find that life isn't so bad on the other side.

Diva shows the joys of regular, reliable, predictable Breck-fest and indoor life to Flea who is used to scavenging for fish bones and food remnants in the dumpsters.

Flea shows the joys of exploring, living free and flâneur-ing, while helping Diva overcome her fear of feet.

[image source: Disney Publishing]

Jelly Bean
Shelter Pet Squad  

by Cynthia Lord

After Rules by Cynthia Lord, I was looking for other books that the younger child might enjoy. Having lost our own pet guinea pig, it seemed like he was ready to read about another guinea pig looking for a home.

Second-grader Suzanna cannot have pets in her apartment, even though she would love to have one. Her parents thought it would be a good idea for her to volunteer at the nearby pet shelter. Suzanna is shy at first, but soon makes good friends at the shelter and takes it upon herself to find a good home for Jelly Bean, a guinea pig that another family dropped off at the shelter as they cannot care for it anymore.

[image source: Scholastic]

No Talking
by Andrew Clements
illustrated by Mark Elliott

It seems like just about every fourth-grader has encountered this book in school as teachers and librarians seem to put it on every reading list they send home. As they should, indeed!

The noisy fifth-graders, notorious for their rambunctious behavior, decide to stop talking in school suddenly, after being inspired by Mahatma Gandhi who had made it a habit to abstain from speech one day a week during his adult life.

It is a riotous read. The complicated rules for "allowed" talking is laid out organically - three-word sentences only at a time - as the teachers and principal try to deal with this civil disobedience. Of course, on the one hand, the teachers are happy with all the peace and quiet, but on the other, it clearly is not working out well overall.

All's well that ends well, of course, as the two camps (girls vs. boys) end up as allies rather than adversaries and learn a thing or two from each other.

[image source: Atheneum/ Simon & Schuster]

by R.J. Palacio

Ten year old Auggie starts mainstream school after spending his formative years hiding under a toy helmet. His face is quite deformed and that becomes the focus for anybody who meets him. They are unable to see the humanity in him and his struggles.

Told via eight different narrators with unique voices and perspectives, the book allows us to get to know Auggie for who he is, not what he looks like. And, it captures the circumstances and emotions that lead to misunderstandings, perhaps even to friendships. As Auggie navigates his middle-school life, he learns to be more comfortable with himself, and we learn to choose kindness.

As the Dalai Lama said, and as I quote him at home often when kids start fighting with each other:

"Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible."

Read an Excerpt

[image source: Penguin Random House]

Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything
by Lenore Look
illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf

Ruby Lu ends up being likable, even if not memorable. When her (deaf) cousin, Flying Duck, emigrates from China and starts living with them, things change for the worse at home. At least, that's what Ruby thinks.

At first, Ruby is quite excited about Flying Duck's arrival and takes it upon herself to be the best Smile Buddy. But slowly, things she took comfort in starts to change - more Chinese spoken at home, more Chinese foods at the table, and her best friend Emma doesn't seem like her best friend anymore.

The book easily addresses the challenges of summer school, swimming, emigration and transition to life in a new country as seen through an Asian-American kid whose hopes and fears are quite authentic, convincingly told from a second-grader's point of view.

Browse Inside 

[image source: Simon & Schuster]

Bud, Not Buddy
by Christopher Paul Curtis

Ten year old Bud Caldwell is probably known to most 4th and 5th graders in public schools. Orphaned, and abused in foster homes, he flees his quiet town in Depression-era Michigan, setting out on a journey to meet his father. Rather, the man he thinks is his father - bass player for the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, Herman E. Calloway.

Along the way, Bud-not-Buddy has a lot of weird experiences/adventures. Even the most heart-wrenching moments are infused with hope, and Bud's attitude is ever-hopeful and positive. Bud is extremely likable - polite and sensitive, brave and smart.

Read About the Book at Penguin Random House

[image source:]

The Seventh Wish
by Kate Messner

Although it seemed that this book might be a bit beyond his realm of experience, it worked out all right for our nightly read aloud sessions. Much like the fairy tale, "The Fisherman and His Wife", where the fish can grant a wish but the wish always backfires unless worded carefully, our protagonist, Charlie, catches one while ice-fishing.

Charlie's struggles and daily travails was appreciated more by the eleven year old than the eight year old, but still, he was somehow drawn to it and stuck with it till the end, having us read aloud till the book was done. The heroin-addiction for Charlie's sister was a bit much for him, as it bothered him that it can really happen, even if to a character he doesn't care about...

[image source: Author website]

The Hobbit, 
Or There and Back Again
by J.R.R. Tolkien

Since I love the book a lot, I took it upon myself to read it aloud to the kid. It was a blast as expected, reading a chapter at a time.

And, it was even more fun comparing it to the movie(s) to see what parts got dropped out of the movie and speculating why.

[image source:]

Flora & Ulysses
by Kate DiCamillo
illustrated by K.G. Campbell

While this was a fun summer read, I decided to dedicate a separate post to Flora & Ulysses.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Flora & Ulysses

Flora & Ulysses
by Kate DiCamillo
illustrations by Keith Gordon Campbell

Ten year old self-proclaimed natural-born cynic, Flora Belle Buckman, is lonely and in a rut with no relief, being quite fed up with the status quo. In the middle of accepting her parents' divorce, it is not at all surprising that precocious Flora lives by the mantra, "Do not hope; instead observe."

And, it is no wonder she turns to her trusted "Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!" and its companion "Terrible Things Can Happen To You!" for advice and lessons on life, even though her mother, Phyllis, categorically rejects these as "the idiotic high jinks of comics."

It all starts when Flora's neighbor Tootie Tickham gets a Ulys­ses Super-Suction Multi-Terrain 2000X vacuum cleaner for her birthday. The said vacuum cleaner on its maiden venture sucks up an unsuspecting squirrel and spits it out sans some fur, seemingly unharmed. However, Flora (and Tootie) know otherwise. As does the unsuspecting squirrel.

"Holy bagumba!" says Flora when the squirrel lifts up the vacuum cleaner effortlessly to get it out of the way. There is no doubt the squirrel has superpowers, he can even fly, even if he is a bit dazed from the experience. "His brain felt larger, roomier. It was as if several doors in the dark room of his self (doors he hadn’t even known existed) had suddenly been flung wide. Everything was shot through with meaning, purpose, light."

Flora names him Ulysses and takes him home for tending and nursing, and that's when yet another superpower is revealed: the power of words, as typed by the squirrel on her mother's typewriter. Yes, a flying squirrel who can think human thoughts and write human words and who has immense physical strength for a rodent of his stature. Is he a superhero or not?

Flora and Ulysses have quite a wild adventure together, not straying far from home, of course. Add to this mix the enigmatic and cerebral William Spiver, Tootie Tickham's nephew, who is temporarily blind and has been banished from his mother's home, we have a comical and entertaining story that unfolds in the most unpredictable manner.

The conflict occurs when Flora's mom decides to do away with Ulysses and squirrelnaps him in the middle of the night. Flora is no shrinking violet, and she decides to get Ulysses back even if she has to ransom her mom's favorite lamp. Yes, lamp. Which in itself is another superbly crafted character.

Books for kids that offer so much for adults as Kate DiCamillo's books do are hard to come by. While this book is not profound and heavy, it is packed with depth and meaning that kids can peel away depending on their level of maturity and experience in life. I went back and re-read many of the sentences admiring what a master Ms. DiCamillo is at her craft. The words are lyrical, magnificent, and perfect in many places, plus quite funny.

And the illustrations meld seamlessly with the text to enhance the storytelling. Very rarely do novels with illustrated panels in them manage to blend in unobtrusively and add to the reading experience; the most ridiculous moments that may not easily be captured in words get a free-pass, with pictures indeed being worth a thousand words.

Flora's dad is very much in the picture, of course, and Flora is very much attached to her dad. But, his weekend visits are just not enough. Flora is at odds with her mother throughout the book, going so far as to naming her mom as the arch-nemesis for her superhero Ulysses.

The adventure culminates in a satisfactory ending, where Ulysses is unharmed and is actually cherished for his heroism.

Read an excerpt here

[image source:]

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Worst ... Ever... MG Books by Dave Barry

The Worst Class Trip Ever (#1)
The Worst Night Ever (#2)
by Dave Barry
illustrated by Jon Cannell
published by Disney-Hyperion

On and off, famous authors of adult fiction have written children's books. Crows of Pear Blossom  by Aldous Huxley is a short sweet story made into a lovely picture book illustrated by Sophie Blackall. There's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming, Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie, Up in the Tree by Margaret Atwood, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot...

Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series is brilliant: no patronizing, no condescension, no preaching, no lecture, and no softened 2D flat characters either. But then again, just because the protagonist is a 9 year old when the series starts out, doesn't mean it is necessarily for nine year old readers.

However, of late, there seems to be an explosion of middle grade fiction by best-selling authors of the adult crime/mystery genre - like, the I Funny Series by James Patterson  and Theodore Boone series by John Grisham -- and they seem to receive mixed reviews overall.

Dave Barry's columns were quite an inspiration in my younger days -- besides being side-splittingly funny at times, they brought a unique perspective to everyday things. So, when I stumbled upon Barry's middle grade fiction, I had to bring them home and see if they still held the same magic.

Wyatt Palmer, an eighth grader at Culver Middle School in Miami, is a likable protagonist. His heart is in the right place and he strives to steer clear of trouble. But, as is the case with such heroes, trouble finds them, spurring them into action, leading to a series of (un)fortunate events that end amicably enough but leave a wreck in their wake.

The Worst Class Trip Ever has this ridiculously exaggerated plot where Wyatt's best friend Matt Diaz is kidnapped, possibly by terrorists, while on their class trip to Washington D.C. Wyatt and Suzana, the girl he is crazy about, have to rescue Matt by handing over a deadly device to the terrorists. As over-the-top as it sounds, it is not meant to be taken seriously thanks to the easy-going comic tone and insane fast-paced happenings that lead to Wyatt breaking the collar bone of the President of the United States, and yet managing to come out smelling of roses in the end.

The Worst Night Ever happens a short while after the ill-fated class trip that inadvertently made Wyatt a hero. He is now  a freshman at Coral Cove High School, with a despotic principal and a pair of over-sized bullies by the name of Bevin Brothers. The trouble again starts with Matt who brings his ferret to school even though it is strictly against the rules. Of course, without rule-breakers and bumbling incompetents, there wouldn't be much of a story to tell. Anyway, Bevin brothers appropriate Matt's ferret and take it to their home. Wyatt hatches a plan to steal it back from them and incidentally uncovers a secret  involving the Bevin family in illegal exotic-pet trade.

Written in Wyatt's voice, readers get to see his point of view and get to know his friends as he sees them; and at times, Wyatt speaks directly to the reader which takes us readers inside the story as we commiserate with his predicament.

The 11 year old seemed to enjoy the book, especially because it was rather over the top and, at the same time, quite entertaining and funny.

[image source:]

Labels: , , ,

Friday, July 15, 2016

Save Me A Seat

Save Me A Seat 

by Sarah Weeks & Gita Varadarajan

Joe Sylvester and Ravi Suryanarayanan. Two kids starting fifth grade at Albert Einstein Elementary. Two kids from completely different backgrounds, cultures, corners of the world. Two kids who just want to fit in. Two kids who are unlikely to become friends.

Written alternately from Joe's and Ravi's perspectives, by two authors, the book unfolds the first week of school where Ravi is a brand new kid, not just to this school, but to America. His family has just moved to New Jersey from Bangalore, India. His paternal grandparents came along as well. His mom is a homemaker while Ravi's dad works full time.

While Joe has been in this school since KG, he has always felt an outsider thanks to his APD (Auditory Processing Disorder) which makes every single noise in his environment equally stimulating and distracting and so is unable to focus as needed while tuning out the unwanted sounds. His mom takes any work she can to supplement the family's income, while his dad is on the road a lot with his trucking job.

Dillon Samreen is a typical spoilt, rich ABCD - American-Born Confused Desi* - another name for U.S.-born kids of Indian immigrants, who craves attention and seems quite popular, thanks to his clothing and antics. [*Desi = Indian]

It's a regular school story, centered around the lunch time in cafeteria. Each section of the book is named the day of the week staring from Monday and ending in Friday. And that's not all, each day of the week is further qualified by the cafeteria lunch served in Albert Einstein Elementary. "Monday: Chicken Fingers." "Tuesday: Hamburgers." and so on. And, sure enough, Dillon is the villain-of-sorts with his bullying and insensitivity and selfishness.

Rather than elaborating on every moment of each day of school life through the week, the book focuses on hand-picked incidents that strike an emotional cord, tailored specifically to elicit poignant responses in readers, both young and older. The clever device of picking up the same incident from Joe's perspective where Ravi left off the narration previously (and vice versa) is done seamlessly and brilliantly. So that, without exchanging much dialog with each other, somehow Ravi and Joe are easily connected, destined to end up together as friends.

Bridging the cultural diversity, the book offers fairly authentic perspectives into Ravi's and Joe's lives without espousing a favored position. Touching upon subtle disability (ADP), we see a bright kid, Joe, from a working-class family, struggling to make friends and share what he can offer. Being from a very different culture, we see Ravi's food and demeanor as authentic to his upbringing so far, with a sense of eagerness to please and to excel even while limited by a hard-to-follow accent.

With two authors bringing their own unique perspectives to the characters, the book is innovative and brilliant. Veteran Sarah Weeks tugs at our heartstrings with effortless ease, while Gita Varadarajan brings rich sensory information about Indian culture through credible characterization of Ravi's family and their interactions.

Being an American of south Indian origin, there were quite a few aspects that resonated with me and, of course, quite a few that grated my nerves. Which is not a bad thing for a book like this, for an adult reader like myself.

One thing that irked me was that Ravi's grandmother says, "Be proud of who you are and remember where you come from. If you are not careful, you'll turn into one of them. Your grandfather didn't slave in the tea plantations so that his only grandson would become some rude, overweight, beef-eating cowboy."

While I do not advocate ever forgetting one's roots wherever that may be, the words, "don't turn into one of them" rather rubbed me the wrong way. As if Americans are all uncouth and unworthy somehow, at least according to grandma, by being overweight cowboys. I perfectly understand the spirit in which it is written, but, even the resident eleven year old was irked by it, being an American with south Indian heritage.

On the other hand, Joe's dad says, "Immigrants. They're visitors in this country; who do they think they are, pushing us around?" when referring to Dillon, an American kid of Indian origin. But, Joe points out that Dillon was born in America and that Dillon's dad is a reputable doctor.

There's nothing wrong with blending in and absorbing the host culture without losing one's own beliefs and identity, picking the best of both worlds. At the same time, are guests wrong to expect the host culture to be open-minded in welcoming them? And then again, is it truly a host-guest situation or a host-parasite relationship that creates this fear and mistrust? Rather than always trying to find fault and be derisive about cultural practices and affiliations different from one's own, is it possible for us to accept and appreciate aspects of various cultures without trying to prove why one is somehow inherently better than the other?

Also, towards the end when grandpa helps Ravi gather a few leeches for his Personal Reflection project, I cringed initially thinking why would grandpa equate Indians to leeches - blood-sucking parasites that drain the hosts and move on?  But then, grandpa states, "These leeches are a reminder of who we are, and where we've come from, Ravi, and of all the hardships we've endured to get here."

Rising from a humble tea plantation guard who protected the workers from these nasty leeches, grandpa is proud that his son worked hard to gain recognition for his intellectual abilities and was sent to U.S to contribute his knowledge and expertise for the better world, so that his grandson can live the American Dream, such as it may be. But, their fairly upper middle-class background was not convincing enough to justify this speech about leeches. However, when I realized that it is drawn from author's own personal experience, it came together quite all right.

Ravi's family moved from Bangalore in South India, and Ravi calls his parents 'Amma' and 'Appa' which are south Indian (particularly, Tamil) terms for 'mom' and 'dad'; however, he also calls his grand-parents 'Perimma' and 'Perippa' which is rather unconventional as those terms also refer to Aunt and Uncle - either mom's older sister and her husband, or dad's older brother and his wife. Not that it affects the story, as families can choose to call grandparents in whatever traditional fashion they adopt, but as a Tamil-speaking reader, it was rather an interesting point for me.

I hope this book is chosen as a must-read for fifth graders in school. It is a fairly quick read. Plenty to discuss. The resident 11 year old, who is exposed to south Indian culture, found it an entertaining read. Even if it was written with Ronaldo from Brasil or Ridwaan from Somalia, instead of Ravi from India, the story would have rung true, and that's the diversity in books that children need to be exposed to. Back of the book has Joe's glossary and Ravi's glossary, plus recipes of Joe's and Ravi's favorite foods.

Having finished this book one weekend evening, after tucking kids in bed, I knew I wanted both the kids to read it. So, I took charge and read this book out loud to them. Slowly, in installments, till my throat went hoarse, I read it aloud to the captive duo every chance I got.

Both kids immediately took to Joe, wondering why Joe does not seek an adult intervention when Dillon screams in Joe's ear on purpose. That is cruel and unacceptable. Their argument: If Joe is not confrontational, it is fine, but, he should not condone that behavior by keeping quiet about it and trying to find a subtler way to get back. How will Dillon learn that what he does will not be tolerated if he does not get any consequence for such an unacceptable act of torment? How can it be tattling when asking an adult for help after being unable to deal with such behavior? Joe tried the appropriate method of using his words and making it clear he doesn't like it, but if Dillon still continues his bad behavior, then why can't Joe seek help from adults? Surely that's not tattling, is it? Why keep it from your parents and teachers and thereby protect Dillon?

And both kids found Ravi to be quite sweet and easy to befriend if he was in their classroom. Being familiar with some of the foods Ravi brings to school, the kids were furious when Dillon called Ravi  "Curryhead" and told him that his food stank and that he stank. The 8 year old was horrified that Dillon would get away with such an insensitive and inappropriate comment. Or that Dillon's cronies would laugh when hearing such hurtful words.

Clearly, the authors knew what they were doing! I wish I could gather all the neighborhood kids and read this book out loud to them. Between Chloe in India, It Ain't So Awful Falafel, and Save Me a Seat, I think there's plenty for kids to think about beyond their own small world.... along with books like Percy Jackson and Divergent and Books of Ember, of course.

[image source: Scholastic]

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
by Kelly Jones
Illustrated by Katie Kath

Seattle-based author Kelly Jones' debut book is a riot!

Sophie Brown's dad has inherited great-uncle Jim's farm, out in Gravenstein, CA. Twelve year old Sophie, a city girl from L.A., is not thrilled about moving to the farm lock, stock, and barrel. However, being well-mannered and well-adjusted, she is co-operative and understanding of the situation and makes her best effort to adapt to her new life.

Her dad is currently unemployed, while her mom juggles her writing commitments to earn enough to make both ends meet. Meanwhile, Sophie is left to her devices to figure out life in the farm.

Quite by accident, Sophie comes across a flyer from Redwood Farm Supply Company catalog listing unusual chickens. Sophie takes an interest and starts corresponding.

Meanwhile, quite naturally, Sophie stumbles upon Henrietta, a chicken of exceptional abilities. From then on, the story moves forward quite intriguingly, in installments, which the readers glean from the letters Sophie writes to her abuelita, great-uncle Jim, and Agnes of the Redwood Farm Supply Company.

Yes, indeed, the story is told in the form of letters!

Not all books can carry off such a specialized form of storytelling. Not all stories lend themselves well to this format either. After reading it twice in full - once on my own, and once aloud to the younger child, and a few more times in parts to share with the older child, it is clear that the book is a fantastic work that appeals to me as much, if not more than the kids, even if it is middle grade fiction.

Among the many things that appealed to me, one is the subtle but clever reference to how brown-skinned Sophie and her Latina mom are automatically assumed to be migrant farm workers, legal or otherwise, and how they both take it in their stride even though both are US-born citizens, very much American. Her dad being white makes no difference to some people's prejudices.

Another aspect I found quite clever is that only so much can be revealed through the letters, which are mostly one-sided because Sophie's beloved abuelita and great-uncle Jim are dead and have no way of writing back. Plus, Agnes, who initially writes back, sends a bizarre note with lots of xs and extra characters clearly pointing to a faulty typewriter, or an inept typist.

Of course, others include the brief but encyclopedic informational pages about the different types of chickens, the To-do Lists, and the adorable illustrations that make the book a fine read.

Slowly, but, surely, Sophie discovers over half a dozen of these unusual chickens that had belonged to great-uncle Jim, each with their own superpowers, for want of a better word.  And now they belong to her family. But, her parents don't have time for this, so it's up to Sophie to learn to take care of them, and possibly find a way to feed them without adding to the family's strained finances.

Henrietta, a Bantam White,  can move objects - telekinesis style. Chameleon can turn invisible, and Roadrunner/Black Streak can go super fast. Another one, a Buff Orpington, can produce chicks who can turn living things to stone with a blunt look. Plus three Speckled Sussex chickens who can see ghosts.

Their powers are not a secret, and all the folks in the area seem to be fine with it. Well, not all. There is one chicken thief who wants these unusual chickens all to herself, even if they are not hers. Right there is the conflict and rising action. Sophie must protect her chickens and expose the poultry thief. How she does it is quite heart-warming and believable. Along the way, Sophie finds unexpected friendship and inner strength that helps her overcome the problem.

Sophie says: "One thing my parents agree on is this: if people are doing something unfair, it’s part of our job to remind them what’s fair, even if sometimes it still doesn’t turn out the way we want it to." And that's a fair lesson every kid must learn sooner or later.

Katie Kath's pen and ink drawings are a treat, bringing to mind Quentin Blake's masterful art for Roald Dahl's books. The pictures complement the story well and capture the goofiness of the chickens, unusual or otherwise.

Fantasy stories can invest in elaborate world-building to explain every little detail so it's all completely tied in a bow and satisfactory; or, they can leave some things open, bordering on reality, not indulging in world-building but using the realistic experiences to stretch the fantasy a little further than what kids are used to. The latter applies to this book, which makes no attempt to explain how or why there are these unusual chickens and what was a Farm Supply Company doing selling these to anybody willy-nilly.

At the end of the story, both the kids wanted to have chickens at home, even if they are all not like Henrietta.

All in all, a superbly satisfying read. And, I liked the part where Sophie tries to make migas for her parents. Sweet. I haven't had authentic migas but I looked up the recipe ideas for it and tried it in my own way.

Look Inside the book at Random House

[image source: Penguin Random House]

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, June 26, 2016

It Ain't So Awful, Falafel

It Ain't So Awful, Falafel

by Firoozeh Dumas

Publisher: Clarion Books (May 3, 2016)

I have been trying to stick this book under the noses of whoever will tolerate such liberties, urging them to read it, just so they can derive the immense satisfaction that I did from a book so superbly written that it makes me hope that world peace is easily achievable if only all books were like this.

Of course, I do that a lot with every well-written book, be it Middle Grade, YA, or Adult, fiction or non-fiction, that has come my way.

Yes, this is a Middle Grade fiction, not a heavy literary tome by a Pulitzer winner.

I first got introduced to Firoozeh Dumas's writing through her memoir-of-sorts, Funny in Farsi. Being an Iranian American who lived through the Iran Hostage Crisis as a youngster, Firoozeh is both wise and pragmatic, always ready to state what she feels is right with just the right touch of humor that takes away the edge and makes you ponder on the realities of the situation. Her writing is honest and brilliant -- she spins poignant moments into funny yarns that are moving, heart-warming, vivid, and masterly, all at the same time.

Zomorod Yousoufzadeh is looking forward to starting middle school right after this summer break. Although born in Iran, she has been in the US for a few years now because her father's job brought them to America and has kept them here. The story starts with her family moving from Compton, CA to Newport Beach, CA.

As we enter the story, Zomorod starts calling herself Cindy, after the littlest Brady Bunch kid that everyone loves. Why?

“It’s not like I’m trying to pretend that I’m not Iranian. I just want people to ask questions about me when we meet, not about where I’m from.”

Obviously, "Zomorod" is not an easy name to pronounce, and is way too weird-sounding, plus she simply wants to fit in and belong here. "Hi, I'm Cindy" shifts the focus from her nationality to herself as an individual, compared to "Hi, I'm Zomorod."

Cindy's dad, an engineer, was sent to the US to collaborate on building oil refineries. He has studied in the US before and speaks English just fine (but for the accent) and is looking forward to doing the best he can in both his professional and personal life, and loves to speak eloquently about Iran and oil refineries with whoever is (un)lucky enough to start a conversation with him. 

Her mother on the other hand speaks barely any English (except hello and thank you) and feels isolated as a result, but still refuses to learn English and prefers having Zomorod as her translator. What's Cindy to do? Except to tell us readers that she loves her parents very much but that she'd rather keep them hidden till she feels that they are no longer embarrassing to her. Typical tween!

The book hinges on Cindy/Zomorod. She  carries the book on her young shoulders with panache. She relies on her inherent sense of humor to tackle life's weird encounters when nothing else would work. With a steadfast fellow bookworm, Carolyn, for a friend, Cindy manages to balance her parents' expectations with her own need to belong, while navigating the student life at Lincoln Junior High, and discovering Girl Scouts, Halloween, and Taco Nights at Carolyn's.

Pivoting around the Iran Hostage Crisis, Firoozeh shows us the dark side of our own weaknesses and fears that prevents us from standing up for what we know is right -- how our perception gets easily clouded by collective hysteria. With her sharp insight into human nature and her firm belief that people around the world are not that much different from each other, Firoozeh, through Zomorod's dad, assures us that, "...people like that are not truly horrible; they just need a geography class, a passport, and a few foreign friends."

The little nuggets about hospitality culture and the universal language of food can easily be applied to Indians just as well as it applies to the Iranians in this story. In fact, some of the characters in the book could just as well be from India, they'd slide right into their roles just as easily. Which attests to the fact that human beings everywhere are not all that different from each other once we take away the language and the food and the geographical borders -- humans seek the same thing: a sense of community, safety, security, and to live their lives as best as they can.

This splendid story mingles family, politics, and immigrant experience, with friendship, self-identity, and coming-of-age angst while addressing paranoia, xenophobia, and intolerance with wry wit and gentle humor.

I can easily see this book becoming required reading for all fifth graders so they can peek into the cultural nuances from an immigrant child's perspective, even if the story is set in the 1970s and 80s. When the resident 11 year old avid reader started chortling at every other page, saying, "Mama, listen to this:..." and proceeded to read passages from the book back to me, I knew I could ask for nothing more from a book.

Speaking from personal experience, I see Zomorod's self-identity as dual, such is the nature of immigrant children -- they manage to extract the best of both worlds and come out a better version of themselves in the end, holding on to what centers them from their own heritage while being open to new experiences and putting out new roots that will anchor them in their current domicile.

[image source: HMH Books]

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, June 19, 2016

6 Picture Book Biographies of Extraordinary Women

The Daring Life of Betty Skelton
by Megan McCarthy

Beautifully rendered story of Betty Skelton's life, this picture book captures her spirit and her personality with humor and authenticity.

Betty was a daredevil all right. The part that affected the kids most was when she was invited to train with the male astronauts for Mercury 7, went through the training with flying colors, only to be rejected at the crucial time simply because she was a woman and NASA wasn't ready to send a woman into space at that time.

Illustrations are slightly on the funny side and yet very adorable and relevant.

Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea
by Robert Burleigh
illustrated by Raúl Colón

One of 20th century's most important scientists, Marie Tharp was the key person involved in mapping the seafloors around the world. Her hard work validated the theory of Continental Drift which was a tenuous proposition at that time, but the only reasonable explanation for the observations.

Being the daughter of a mapmaker, it was no surprise that Marie knew what to do from her younger days. Even though she initially faced many obstacles as she was just a woman and women couldn't possibly be smart scientists in those days, her perseverance and confidence gained her respect among her peers at Lamont Geological Labs where she started her project of mapping the sea floor.

Illustrations by Raul Colon (of DRAW) complement the text well.

Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman
Olympic High-Jump Champion
by heather Lang
illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Alice Coachman was born to run and jump. Thus begins this story of a remarkable athlete who took her talents to new heights via sheer hard work and determination. Talent like hers cannot be suppressed, it is bound to be discovered sooner or later. But being black in those testing times was not helping her at all.

Going to London from her segregated Southern state, for the Olympic Games, Alice was awed that she could sit anywhere on the bus despite being black. That little nugget in the book influenced both the kids at home deeply. That, and the fact that the King George VI shook her hands when awarding her gold medal at the Olympics was something huge for Alice, something she could not expect the white people in her own community to do willingly.

Dorothea's Eyes
by Barb Rosenstock
illustrated by Gérard DuBois

Afflicted with polio at age six, Dorothea Lange never recovered from the limp; she felt different and lonely. But, she saw things like no one else did - with her eyes and her heart.

Being enterprising and tenacious, she asks to work with any photographer who would taken her on as apprentice. She learns all that she can pick up. Eventually, recognizing her talent, one photographer gives her an old camera.

In an age when photography was not taken very seriously, and women were not taken seriously, Dorothea was a natural at both, very seriously. Many of Dorothea's photographs are held in National Archives and can be accessed at

Stone Girl Bone Girl
A Story of Mary Anning of Lyme Regis
by Laurence Anholt
illustrated by Sheila Moxley

By now, most budding paleontologists have heard about Mary Anning, the girl who couldn't help finding fossils everywhere she looked, the girl who found the first Ichthyosaurus fossil that reconciled a huge gap that scientists had in understanding prehistoric creatures until then.

Being poor, and not knowing the value of her finds, Mary probably gave away most of her valuable treasures just to put food on the table. The book talks about the little speckled dog that showed up at Mary's one day and stayed with her for all her discovereis up until Ichthyosaur, and then magically disappeared. She later found Plesiosaurs and Pterosaurs in her small, unassuming town of Lyme Regis in Dorset.

The illustrations are bright, colorful, and gorgeous!

Bon Appétit!
The Delicious Life of Julia Child
by Jessie Hartland

A children's picture book about Julia Child? This I must read, I told myself when I saw it in our library.

All about Julia's life and her life's work -- Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book shows Julia's indomitable spirit and her methodical approach to perfecting each recipe so others can follow it blindly and end up with something out of this world.

Never one to sit idly, Julia was always passionate about cooking, and even got her own TV Show with live demonstrations in a day and age when such things were not easily open to women hosts.

My only nagging issue with the book is its layout and font - it is cluttered and crowded and hard to read in proper sequence. Plus the fonts are cursive which the younger child is not adept at reading - yet.


When I was Eight,
Not My Girl
by Christy Jordan-Fenton & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
art by Gabrielle Grimard

While not a biography but more a memoir of sorts, these two books gave a peek into a life of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, that is very different from anything the kids had expected to read in a picture book.

Olemaun, an Inuit girl, knows a lot of things including how to keep the sled dogs quiet when hunting for caribou; how to bring get her team of dogs to obey; how to relish muktuk (whale blubber) and pipsi (dried fish).

But, she did not know how to read English, like the outsiders. And wanted to learn. So, she was sent to study with the nuns at the outsiders school.

The school changes her in ways she never imagined. She has forgotten her own language, lost the taste for her own native foods, and can't seem to know all the things that are important for her survival in the harsh lands.

When I was Eight is about Margaret going away to the outsider school; Not My Girl talks about her return from school and trying to get rehabilitated and learn the ways of her people so she can continue the traditional way of life and preserve her cultural heritage.

The illustrations are brilliant!

[image source:]

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Truffles & Teas: Another school year just flew by

mason jar teacher gifts

Sometimes I wish I was back in grade school. The years from 8th grade through 12th were absolutely lovely for me - grueling, stimulating, joyful, stressful, promising, and frustrating all at the same time. However, I have no intention of going through puberty again, worrying over what to do with my life when I 'grow up.'

Not until high school did I get quite taken up with learning for the sheer gratification of it, lingering in academia much longer than average, assuming, possibly falsely, that the depth of my knowledge somehow is tied to the strength of my identity. Which, at last stock-taking wasn't that deep or that strong respectively.

The one thing I would staunchly proclaim is that my teachers most definitely influenced me in ways even they don't know, and still influence me today, as I raise my kids. What power and bliss it is to be a teacher - to mold the next generation.

Now that another school year is coming to a close for my kids, I try not to live through them but let them have this experience to cherish what they hold dear. Part of me is terribly impatient, wanting them to grow up fast so I can see what sort of individuals they become as adults; but, part of me wants to preserve this carefree period in their lives which nostalgia claims as the halcyon days.

I chastise myself sometimes for not being the sort of mom who takes pictures of her kids on their first day of school each year, and possibly last day of school, and making cute scrapbook pages recording their growth and accomplishments each year as they develop by leaps and bounds. I think measurable achievements and accomplishments are secondary to who they become and how they see themselves as they grow -- always ready to set goals for themselves and working hard to get there, but, never straying far from the big picture of what it all means to lead a good life.

Anyway, I am rambling. This year, the older child decided to put together cute Mason Jar gifts for all the teachers in school who touched her in one way or another: The Truffles & Teas Mason Jar!

mason jar teacher gifts

Keeping in mind that teachers have enough well-meaning gifts that students give them each year, and that they only have limited space in their lives to keep all the hand-made things their students give them, the older child decided to give a small handmade item that is utilitarian: a colorful loom loop coaster. Plus, who doesn't like tea? So, some tea bags. And, being a huge fan of dark chocolate, she decided to stash some bite-size chocolate treats for her teachers. A handmade card filled with heartfelt words about how each person influenced her rounded out the package.

No plans for summer camps for the older child - although she might enjoy a few select ones if only I can afford to enroll her. She might get lonesome but not really bored, I tell myself...  Downtime is essential for creativity to take root. She might set herself a goal or two and try to reach them by the end of summer. Or not. Who knows?

flip book for mason jar teacher gift

p.s: The younger child decided to make a Flip Book for his teacher - something that doubles as a notepad, which a teacher can not have enough of. Plus a handwritten note and card and some tea+chocolate. The flip book just has this little seahorse (stamped) that floats about and tumbles and such, along with a bird that flies off its branch and dives in the water and floats to the top.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Dozen Series Fiction Chapter Books/Graphic Novels for 3rd/4th graders

While I support librarians and authors on saying No to the age-banding issue,  I do add age range labels in my posts just for sorting-and-searching purposes. Kids read at their own comfortable levels-- some are reluctant readers, some are avid readers, so, I hesitate to use an age label in my posts for reading proficiency purposes.

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

It takes quite a bit of effort to get the non-fiction-loving eight year old child to give fiction chapter book series a chance. If the first book is not impressive and if none of the characters appeal to him at any level, it makes no sense to plod on with the series hoping one of the books down the road would eventually speak to him.

Since I believe in reading aloud to readers of any age, I still read the fiction chapter books aloud to both the children on and off. If the book grabs their attention, they'll read the rest of the book on their own.

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. Some are graphic novels series as we were exploring them over last summer/autumn, and some are novels in cartoons and text like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid, while others are generic chapter books. If the subject matter seems a bit mature for him, I screen the topic but let him to decide to finish it or not. Knowing his sensitivities, I avoid books that are themed around topics that I know would disturb him at this time.

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 -- especially since he couldn't figure out a pattern or any rhyme or reason for those words to b highlighted as such. However, 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
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 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.

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 older child went through this series three years ago, and there's new installments coming out steadily.

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]

Labels: , , , , ,