Not Your Ordinary Summer Vacation!

Sunrise SummerLynn: A bright cheerful cover of a new book on display at the public library recently caught my attention. Even with summer fading fast, the cover of Sunrise Summer (Imprint, 2021) by Matthew Swanson made me smile and I grabbed it thinking I was in for one last trip to the beach via picture book. Well, I was but this is not like any summer beach vacation picture book I have ever read! What surprise this book was to me and it is one I’m eager for kids and adults to be amazed by too.

The opening pages reinforced my first estimation of the content. A young girl tells us that summer, her favorite time of year, is here and her family is packing for their vacation. Here is where I began to wonder as this family was packing onions, potatoes, batteries, and spark plugs! This young family is headed to Alaska, specifically a place called Coffee Point in Egegik far far to the north. They own a property there where they go to commercially fish sockeye salmon each summer and this year our young narrator gets to join the fishing crew. She describes the process and that first summer of hard work and excitement, setting the nets and pulling in the salmon. Told with a joyful buoyancy, the story is immensely interesting and full of sensory descriptions that will fascinate kids. The sense of the hard work comes through clearly but so does the excitement, and sheer joy of this very unusual summer experience.

Cindy: I’m going to appreciate my salmon dinners much more after having read this story that clearly shows all the hard work that goes into catching those fish. The mixed media art is colorful and vibrant, but dark when the fishing happens in the wee hours of the morning or during storms. This is not a summer vacation for anyone but the hardy! The artist, Robbi Behr, has been summering in Alaska since she was 2 years old when her family decided to buy property at Coffee Point and have summer “adventures.” She now carries on the tradition with her husband, who wrote the text, and their four children. The final two spreads of the book include family photos, and illustrations, diagrams, and text to further explain the Alaskan salmon fishing industry and the indiginous history and current traditions. What a great catch, Lynn.

Once Upon a Camel – How Stories Still Save Lives

Once Upon a Camel by Kathi AppeltLynn: Once upon a time there was a camel named Scheherazade, who was called Zada. Kathi Appelt tells us Zada’s story, in her charming new book, Once Upon a Camel (S&S/Atheneum, 2021) Zada is a story teller just like her famous namesake and her story of family, love, courage, and holding on to memories is a story that saves the lives of her friends, the Kestrel family, and Zada herself.

It all started in a West Texas sandstorm in 1910. No, wait, it all started in Smyrna, Syria in 1850. Two tiny camels were born into the Pasha’s famous stables, destined to become best friends and prize racers. Zada and Asiye were fast friends and as fast of the winds of the desert. Zada and her Kestrel family’s story of danger and adventure comes later. So let us return to the Texas wilderness of 1910 and the towering haboob that blows Pard and Perlita into the choking sand and leaves Zada to care for their chicks, Wims and Beulah, and to somehow get them to safety at the Mission so many miles away.

It is a tale of dangers and fears, of bravery and love, and above all it is all about the power of story. And isn’t that something we all need to lighten our way through the darkness of whatever storm we walk through?

Kathi Appelt’s newest story is guaranteed to win the hearts of every reader. With richly developed and endearing characters, a spellbinding plot, and, of course, a happy ending. I love the historical facts that sparked this story. Yes, there really were camels brought to Texas just prior to the Civil War! This is the PERFECT book for reading aloud in a classroom. The chapters are short, packed with humor and perilous moments that will have listeners begging for just one more chapter!

Cindy: Put this book on display and Eric Rohmann’s gorgeous and slightly silly cover illustration will have it fly off the shelf as fast as an American Kestrel! Zada with her two nestling kestrel babies perched on her head will have kids giggling before they even start to read. His art sprinkled throughout the book is a treat as well.

Shadow Spinner by Susan FletcherI agree with Lynn about this being a great read-aloud, whether in a classroom or between parent and child. The time-shifting plot and stories within stories structure will require a strong reader or a little explanation from an adult, but the payoff is delightful. My middle schoolers were always fascinated by my booktalk for Susan Fletcher’s Shadow Spinner (Atheneum, 1999), because I started with an introduction to Scheherazade, a legendary character they did not know. Some had heard of the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, and of course, Aladdin, thanks to Disney, but they did not know of the storyteller or the way in which she saved her life, and that of the other women in ancient Persia. In fact, we stenciled a quote from that book on the library bulkhead to remind our students every visit of the power of story. “Stories can save your life.” Indeed.

A Saucy Read: Tomatoes for Neela

Tomatoes for Neela by Padma LakshmiCindy: My husband rarely gets credit for his support of Bookends Blog or his suggestions for my to-read list. He saw an interview with the host of Top Chef and Taste the Nation, Padma Lakshmi, on this Today Show segment about her new picture book, Tomatoes for Neela (Viking, 2021) and told me he wanted to read it and that I should consider it for the blog. Now, I’m not a fan of “celebrity author” childrens books, but this one, illustrated by Caldecott Honor Winner Juana Martinez-Neal is an exception. I am a fan of any food books that encourage healthy eating and that promote families spending time cooking together. Lynn found the book at the public library and read it and then handed it off to me the day I had spent the morning canning tomatoes and tomato sauce! Perfect timing.

IMG-2622Young Neela loves to cook with her amma (mother) and copies their recipes in her own notebook just like her amma and her paati (grandmother) have always done. To Neela, these books seem magical, like a wizard’s spell book. A trip to the green market that day is highlighted by a stunning display of tomatoes in all sizes, shapes, and colors. I could hang that spread on my tomato red  kitchen wall and never tire of looking at it. The acrylic and colored pencil illustrations beautifully showcase the the fruit and the love between Neela and her amma and their joy in purchasing such treasures in season.

In addition to the lessons on making the sauce and dishes using the sauce (recipes included), the story is infused with family tradition, Indian culture, and information about tomatoes and the farmworkers who bring those fruits to market. The backmatter includes more information including a list of books for children about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

I wish I’d read this gorgeous book before canning this year, as I didn’t fry my garlic before adding it to the sauce, nor did I know to cut x’s in the bottom of my tomatoes before boiling them to loosen the skins, but I will try both next year. I learned to can tomatoes from my mother but it became a tradition my father and I did together every August while my mother was selling antiques on the weekends. 

It is one I continue with my husband as I spend the day thinking of my father and enjoying the satisfaction of putting away a bit of summer to enjoy in the cold days of winter. 

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A Picture Book about Hineographs – Changing Child Labor

Traveling cameraLynn: My introduction to Lewis Hine came through Russell Freedman and his memorable book, Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor (Clarion, 1994). It was a book we used constantly in our middle school collection and the photographs in it have always stayed in my mind. I have seen very few if any books for students since Freedman’s book and the issue of child labor is still a problem in the world today. So I was truly excited to learn about a new book about Hine, this time a picture book, The Traveling Camera: Lewis Hine and the Fight to End Child Labor (Getty, 2021) by Alexandra S. D. Hinrichs.

Basing her text on Hine’s letters, reports, and photo captions, Hinrichs introduces young readers to Lewis Hine and his pivotal work, photographing child workers all across America in the early 1900’s. Hired by the National Child Labor Committee in 1908 to take pictures to bring awareness of the horrendous conditions children worked in. His jarring photographs helped to bring about legislation to protect children in this country. Having worked himself as a child, Hine became a teacher, then a photographer, eventually working for the Red Cross. His work was critically important in changing public opinion but sadly it was gradually forgotten until long after his death.

Hinrichs does an excellent job of bringing Hine and his work to life for kids today. As an amateur photographer myself, I especially appreciate the background she provides on the awkward and heavy equipment Hine had to use. For kids used to point and click cameras, the process will be eye-opening as is the information about Hine having to disguise himself in order to get into work places to get his pictures. Well written, and beautifully illustrated by Michel Garland, this is a terrific book to add to all collections.

Cindy: On the opening page of the book is a quote by Hine under his own portrait photograph defining his goals with photography. He met them both:

There are two things I wanted to do.
I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected;
I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.

Illustrator Michael Garland does a beautiful job with his combination of digital and traditional pastel and sepia-toned paintings, many of which are “snapshots” of the scenes behind Hine’s photographs. A sliver of each page spread holds the free verse poetry that tells “a big story/in a small space” as did the photographs of these children at work. The rest of the page is given to the visual story, in a design that is very appropriate for the subject.

For readers who haven’t seen Hine’s work, the story ends with a spread of some of his photographs. Others are sprinkled throughout the backmatter. There’s a Note to the Reader with information about child labor and other topics related to the book. A Time line of Hine’s life and child labor in the US is included as well as a good list of selected sources and quotation sources.

Older students interested in the subject should also get their hands on Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s child labor books, Growing Up in Coal Country (Houghton Mifflin, 1996) and Kids on Strike! (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). This is a world-wide problem that isn’t going away. I’m grateful for the photographs and the books that help “show the things that (have) to be corrected.”

Return to the Old Kingdom – Terciel & Elinor

Lynn: Terciel & ElinorNice things often land on my porch and recently something especially nice arrived. It was an unexpected surprise too—one I didn’t even know was coming. Inside the box was an advanced reader copy of Terciel & Elinor (Harper/Katherine Tegen, Nov. 2021) by Garth Nix, a prequel to one of my all time favorite series, The Old Kingdom series. I read it immediately, no putting it on my to-read stack nonsense! I am happy to report that this was an entirely absorbing and wonderful reading experience! From the very first sentence, I slid effortlessly back into the Old Kingdom. There are few authors who do world building as well as Garth NIx and the world he has been developing since Sabriel published in 1996 has been captivating readers ever since. Terciel & Elinor gives us the backstory of Sabriel’s parents and begins with their two separate story lines.

Terciel is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting to his Great Great Aunt, the Abhorsen Tizanael. The bells came to Terciel, a poor orphaned street child, when his sister, the previous Abhorsen-in-Waiting died. Now a young man, Terciel is learning the art of necromancy, preparing to take his place in time helping to the lay the dead to rest and to assure that the Dead do not arise and walk again.

On the other side of the Wall from the Old Kingdom, 19-year-old Elinore lives a sheltered life in a large estate slowly falling to ruin. Her mother, a cold and distant figure, lies dying. Elinor, who has been raised primarily by her governess and groom, a famous ex-circus performer, discovers that the her house and estate is about to be foreclosed by creditors. Elinor has no knowledge of the magic of the Old Kingdom or of her own deep connections to it. But the wind is blowing from the North and the Dead are stirring and gathering power. Terciel arrives to reveal that evil is present in the house and what has lain in her mother’s bed is not her mother. The plot that awaits them threatens all on both sides of the Wall and Elinor’s life will never be the same.

Richly developed characters, a breathless plot, and masterful setting are all trademarks of this series and Nix provides them once again in this immersive story. Readers new to the series can begin here and fans of the series will be enthralled by this addition. I admit to slowing my reading as I neared the end, I was so reluctant to leave the Old Kingdom behind. And, now, of course, I cannot resist re-reading the rest of this wonderful series once again. See you when I surface!

Cindy: I received this magical package as well and made the mistake of loaning it first to one of our teen book club alumni who had to fight her own mother for it! I got it back quickly, though, as neither of them could put it down, and I add my praise to that of Lynn and my fellow Nix fans. 

Sabriel opened with this line:

“The woman who had staggered into their forest camp was dead, only holding on to life long enough to pass it on to the baby at her side.”

Now we have some of Sabriel’s mother’s backstory, and her father’s, and what a story it is. The Old Kingdom series is for teen and adult readers who don’t care about the romantic triangles prompting readers to choose “teams.” Nix’s female characters are strong and capable and aren’t sitting around waiting for the male lead to save them. His stories demand focus and attention and provide a rich reading experience. The descriptions of the dead use all of your senses (!) but there are touches of humor and wit to lighten the darkness. I’m left wanting to reread the series, too, but I’ll probably opt for listening to them, if only to hear Tim Curry read them to me again! Antici………….pa-tion. 

Grief and Loss for the Youngest Readers

Lynn and Cindy: Grief and loss is a sad part of the natural cycle of life even for our youngest readers. This past year’s events have made that experience much more widespread. Difficult even for mature individuals, the struggle to understand loss can be particularly challenging for young children. We have reviewed other helpful books in the past and we have recently found more sensitively written picture books that are a wonderful addition to the list. Books cannot cure grief but they can help children understand that what they feel is normal and begin to heal.

My Nana’s Gardenmy nana's garden (Candlewick/Templar, 2020) by Dawn Casey.

This lovely gentle picture book shows the story of the changing seasons in a garden and the relationship that flourishes there between a grandmother and young granddaughter. The delicate illustrations show the passing years as the child grows taller and the grandmother frailer as they share their joy in the natural world. Then, with a page turn, readers find a stark and wintry scene and the grandmother’s empty chair. The young girl stares out of the house at the snow covered garden. But the renewing cycle of life returns and the reassuring story reveals the following seasons of the enduring beautiful garden and the new generations that come to share in Nana’s garden. Quietly encouraging, this beautiful told tale reaffirms the love of a shared experience and the healing cycle of life.

Tears (Owlkids, 2021)tears by Sibylle Delacroix.

“Everyone cries,” begins this wonderful picture book that addresses an experience that is universal. For a young child, tears and crying are a fundamental part of their lives. But they may not have really thought about the complexity of what lies behind the tears or the variety of ways in which we cry. Delacroix uses simple sentences in this story for the youngest readers, with examples that they will easily understand. She reinforces each example with adorable illustrations created in soft aqua and white tones, often using teardrop shapes in the sketches. While this is not specifically a book about grief, it is a book that young children will find both interesting and comforting.

The Boy and the Gorilla (Candlewick, 2020) by Jackie Azúa Kramer.

Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie KramerThis gentle, spare picture book story will help many young children who have lost a parent. In the story, a gorilla follows a young boy home from his mother’s funeral. The boy asks the gorilla questions like “How do you know when someone has died?” Or “Will we all die?” The gorilla answers in short, truthful sentences, “Yes. We all do. But you have many more kites to fly.” The gorilla stays with the boy through the dark days as he and his father struggle to rise from their own grief to connect fully with each other. Eventually, the boy and his father find their way back to each other and that connection is wrapped in a big hug surrounded by a gorilla hug before he wanders off, perhaps to help the next child who needs him. Cindy Derby’s expressive watercolors highlight the moods and emotions with a mostly somber palette that lightens on the brighter days. Even in the darkest times, though, there are tiny sparks of color…a red cardinal, red and blue kites, bright crayons, hinting that while the dark is overwhelming, there is still joy to be found. This is simply a  beautiful book to share in hard times.

Ten Beautiful Things – A Picture Book Journey to Home

Ten beautiful thingsLynn: Something has happened in young Lily’s life. Molly Beth Griffin’s Ten Beautiful Things (Charlesbridge, 2021) opens with a scene showing a young girl in a car seat. She has an Iowa map open on her lap and a backpack and stuffed animal ride beside her. The scene on the next page widens to show a small car rolling through the dark night, an older woman at the wheel. “Let’s try to find ten beautiful things along the way,” says Gram. Griffin never reveals what has happened but Lily’s chest is “hollow” and her eyes and posture are sad. “There’s nothing beautiful here,” she says. “Lily felt the complaints starting in her belly again, coming up her throat and nearly out her mouth.” But one by one, slowly the world provides a different answer for Lily.

A golden sunrise across the fields, a red-winged blackbird, a swan shaped cloud and even the earthy rich smell of mud at a rest stop, unfold before Lily’s eyes as they travel. And at journey’s end, there is number 10—Gram’s reassuring hug as they stand before Lily’s new home. “We’re ten,” Gram said.

I dare you to read THAT line and the rest of the final text without a tear in your eye and a crack in your voice! This reassuring and moving story is a gift for every child feeling uprooted, sad, and facing a new life. I especially value that Griffin leaves Lily’s particular issues unknown, allowing each child to put themselves and their own situation into the story. The book, while acknowledging the difficult and the sad things that kids experience, is sweetly reassuring. The simple suggestion of looking for those ten beautiful things is concrete and doable even for young children and something that can help with those “hollow spots” within us at least for a while.

Maribel Lechug’s digital illustrations are warm and expressive and she takes full advantage of the extra wide format. The two-page spread of the dark clouds of a thunderstorm sweeping over the Iowa farmland is particularly effective. While the small vignettes scattered across a white page, showing Lily in her car seat, sadly curled into herself, tell readers volumes without a word needed.

This journey with Gram and Lily is not to be missed.

Magicked Gingerbread & Sourdough Starter Save the Day!

Cindy: Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T KingfisherI’ve baked hundreds of gingerbread people in my day, but I’ve never been able to make them rise from the cookie sheet and dance or fight off invaders, like Mona does in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (Argyll, 2020) by T. Kingfisher. The tag line on the cover (Siege. Sorcery. Sourdough.) tells you most everything you need to know. If you aren’t intrigued by the title, the tag line, and the cover art, this book probably isn’t for you.  I’ll give you a few details, though, since I’m eager to promote this book to everyone who likes a good fluffy biscuit, whether it’s been magicked to be fluffy or got there on its own. Fourteen-year-old orphan Mona works in her aunt’s bakery and in a world where some people have magical talents, she has a way with dough. In the bakery basement lives Bob, a loyal sourdough starter that blurps and fights with the best of the kingdom’s defenders when some mages-turned-evil try a coup against the reigning out-of-touch duchess.

When Mona finds a dead body in the bakery very early one morning, her life becomes, shall we say, complicated. Initially she runs to save her own life after Bob saves her from an attack but eventually she finds herself in a fight to save the kingdom that involves twelve-foot-tall gingerbread golums under her control. As a loyal citizen, and someone who is fighting to be accepted for her differences, she takes on the battle, but Mona is rightfully resentful.  Why are a couple of kids having to get involved with something that adults in power should have paid attention to and handled? Many teens will relate to that sentiment with the non-magical issues facing us today.

This book flew under the radar for me until a friend read it and raved about it. When I read Kingfisher’s story about the long fight to bring this story to print, I wish I’d been able to send some gingerbread men of my own to help her. At any rate, I’m thrilled to have found it and read it, and dare I hope for a sequel??? Did I mention that I loved this absolutely charming book?

Lynn:  Cindy is absolutely right about this delightful book! I had it on a to-read list but it certainly wasn’t on my active radar. Thanks to an on-the-ball friend who insisted we read this!

If you are looking for something that is the perfect recipe for a summer escape, this book is the delicious answer. Having used a sourdough starter in my past and watching my daughter-in-law now giving it away to everyone, I laughed out loud at Bob—every sourdough baker’s nemesis. And who would imagine a gingerbread cookie army?

Great characters, a fairy-tale trope baked to perfection, and plenty of humor sprinkled on top—this is a satisfying treat that mustn’t be missed!

Cindy & Lynn: Readers, have YOU read anything else by T. Kingfisher? We are placing library holds as we post this; what should we read next?

Someone Builds the Dream: A Tribute to the Trades

Cindy: Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa WheelerHardworking people in the trades are center stage in Someone Builds the Dream (Dial, 2021) by Lisa Wheeler and Loren Long. Architects, engineers, artists, scientists, amusement park designers, and even authors use their imagination, knowledge, and skills to dream up important and sometimes fun places, structures, or books, but the work doesn’t end there. It takes many hands to build the dream. For instance, and engineer designs a bridge but:

Someone works to mine the ore,
smelt the iron, pour the beam.
Someone needs to weld the steel.
Someone has to build the dream.

Written in jaunty rhyme, this book celebrates the many skilled laborers who often aren’t included in the ribbon-cutting ceremonies and photo opportunities for new structures and places. I expecially appreciated the inclusion of book-making as children have no idea about how a book comes to be as it isn’t something that happens out in the open like the building of homes that they might see. I’ll leave the illustrations for Lynn to rave about, but Loren Long, ahem, nailed it with these paintings. 

Lynn: I’ve long been a fan of Loren Long’s work, especially his Otis the Tractor books, but for me, this is his best work yet. There is a wonderful feeling of homage to the WPA murals of the 1930s that also celebrated the workers across the country. But there is a lot more here than just a tip of the hard hat to WPA art. Long’s extensive craftsmanship is beautifully at work in the skillful design and pacing. Each series begins with a “dreamer” at work, often alone in a quiet space and the text shown against a white background. The next spreads in contrast are busy, muscular, vividly-hued and pulsing with activity as the workers use their skills to bring each dream to life. Each scene is packed with details and demands readers to pause and explore. There is so much to look at! I love that the workers are of a wide diversity of races, are both men and women, and depicted as skillfully engaged in the work.  This is a partnership of text and illustration at its best!

Shape Shifters and Dragons for Middle Grade Readers

Cindy and Lynn: Sometimes with science fiction or fantasy, you just have to accept the concept and go with the flow of a fun or intriguing story that may be more out-of-this-world than you might even expect from these genres. We each recently read one of these.

Lynn: Trouble in the Stars by Sarah PrineasSarah Prineas’ new book, Trouble in the Stars (Penguin/Philomel, 2021) avoids the pitfalls that often beset middle grade SF by not dwelling on the mechanics of the world building. Instead she simply establishes the setting as a multi-world universe with interstellar travel as a given. But a major premise of the book, that the young protagonist is a shape-shifter created in a laboratory, is something readers need to accept as possible. That isn’t hard to do since the fast-paced plot ramps up right from the start. Readers are introduced to Trouble, floating in space as a sort of amorphous cloud of goo, realizes something dangerous is searching for him. In short order he squeezes into a space station, transforms into the form of an adorable puppy, and stows away on a battered ship heading out into space. When the puppy is discovered and “spaced,” Trouble shape shifts into a 10-year old human boy, wins a 3-week reprieve till the next destination, and is set to work as a cabin boy. The Hindsight has a wonderfully engaging alien crew and it is clear that they are not being completely open about what their mission actually is. Just as Trouble starts to win over the crew, they spot the StarLeague ship that is tracking them!

 This terrific story is a character driven tale of family, identity, and finding a home. The characters are all well drawn, intriguing. and decidedly distinct individuals. Trouble himself is instantly appealing and relatable— quite a feat for a clump of goo 😉 There’s plenty of humor as Prineas manages a conventional trope of “alien-figuring-out-human-behavior” in a way that young readers will greatly enjoy. The plot has plenty of suspense and just enough danger to keep reader’s interest high. This would make an ideal read aloud for a classroom, Chapters end with just enough suspense to make listeners beg for more and the story is packed with themes that would make great discussion topics. I’m hoping there will be more adventures for Trouble and the Hindsight

Cindy: Despite the opening pitch, my offering is less fantasy, really, and more a blend of historical fiction, adventure, survival, and environmental tale with the threatened species being…dragons! A Discovery of Dragons (Scholastic, July, 1, 2021) is a debut novel by science teacher, Lindsay Galvin. Young Discovery of Dragons by Lindsay GalvinSimon Covington is an assistant to Charles Darwin on the USS Beagle, playing fiddle and labeling specimens on the scientist’s famous voyage to the Gallapagos Islands. When he is lost at sea after helping to rescue Darwin, he winds up on an unexplored island with an active volcano. He soon learns that the volcano is not the only thing breathing fire on the island. With the help of his fiddle (from which Simon hears advice and sarcasm) and a lizard he names Farthing, Simon manages rescue and returns to London. There he continues to help Darwin with his specimens but also to deal with his own—a set of eggs he rescued and that are now starting to hatch! Simon’s character is based on a real boy of the same name who aided Darwin on this voyage and details of Darwin’s life and work are woven into the story, but it remains an adventure focused on what may be the last dragon eggs in the world. Might Darwin have found dragons in addition to finches and tortoises if he’d looked in the right place? We may never know. I was willing to let the story unfold as a possibility. Young fans of dragon stories and young naturalists are going to enjoy this science-based adventure. Maybe it’s not fantasy at all….if the dragons are/were real? Hmmmmm….