Alphabet Books Never Cease to Amaze Us

Lynn:  If you thought there could be nothing really new in alphabet books, think again! Alphabet books have been some of the very earliest in the history of picture books but authors and illustrators continue to bring their boundless imaginations to this topic. We have two of special note to review today and I’m leading off with an exceptionally original book, The Invisible Alphabet (Penguin/Rise, 2020) by Joshua David Stein.

Here Stein and illustrator Ron Barrett present their fascinating take on an alphabet representing things not seen. A is for Air, C is for Clear, E is for Erased and J is for Just Missed It. This is a conceptual breath of fresh air (B is for Brilliant), a nudge to children’s imaginations, and a unique approach to thinking about the alphabet for kids who have the knowledge solidly acquired.

On solid white backgrounds, Barrett used pen and ink and added bright orange in Photoshop to create fascinating scenes depicting something unseen or actions happening off the page. A drawing of an empty birdcage with an open door and a small orange feather is captioned F is for Freed. An exploding orange balloon illustrates P is for Popped and 2 blank pages represent N is for Nothing.

Each page turn is fascinating, challenging kids to think about this familiar concept in a totally new way. Every scene asks readers to imagine what has already happened. This is absolutely ideal for use as writing prompts or story starters in classrooms of all ages of students.

W is for WOW!

Cindy: ABC Animals (Peter Pauper, Oct. 15, 2020) by Christopher Evans is stunning. Each spread of the books features a letter of the alphabet and an animal whose name starts with that letter. On the left are the large capital letter, the name of the animal, and a silhouette of the animal in what appears to be scaled to size in comparison with each animal in the book. At the top of that page are two sets of upper and lower case letters, one in a serif font and the other in a more modern style. Both sets are positioned on a lined and dashed line space resembling those in a writing practice book. I could see young readers practicing their own letters on the space between the two sets! The Robin and the Quetzel are perched on those lines like wires while the Orangutan swings from them. On the facing page is a digital woodcut of the animal representing the letter. A for Alpaca, B for Badger…H for Hedgehog, etc. until Z for Zebra. What is a digital woodcut, you ask? Good question. Lynn and I aren’t sure we completely understand, but Evans says it is the “modern-day equivalent of wood engravings…images drawn by hand in an illustration software, point by point, and shape by shape.” Whatever they are, we are agreed that they are gorgeous. Each one is presented on a contrasting color background. If I were an early elementary teacher I would buy three copies of this book. One for students to read, and the other two to cut up and post around the perimeter of the classroom or on a bulletin board. Aspiring graphic artists will want a copy of this book as well. Brilliant.

 

FRIDAY! Online & Free: KPL Youth Literature Seminar

Cindy & Lynn: What are you doing Friday, November 13th? We’ll be presenting our Best Books session at the 2020 Youth Literature Seminar for Kalamazoo Public Library. Headling the day will be authors Candace Fleming, Varian Johnson, and Paula Yoo.

Here is the description from the seminar’s website:

The Time is Now

The traumatic events that have occurred during most of 2020 have drawn many comparisons to similar events in U.S. history. A pandemic, racism, political and civil unrest, and a floundering economy have not only caused many people to experience severe emotional and mental distress but have also torn open old scars for those who have survived similar events.

This year’s Youth Literature Seminar will focus not only on how our present echoes our past, but also how historical trauma affects how we respond to current tragedies. Join us as we examine our past, its impact on our present and our future, and how books can help guide us through a process of healing, growth, and unity.

We’re delighted to be a part of this fabulous seminar again and hope you will consider tuning in for all or part of the day. We’ll be presenting books for middle and high school while Ed Spicer presents for the preschool and elementary grades. In addition to the featured speaker authors and our book talks there are other breakout sessions to examine the theme more deeply. When should you register? The Time is NOW! A full schedule and the link to online registration is available at the 2020 Youth Literature Seminar website. See you there!

 

Scary Stories for Middle Grade

Cindy: I just retired from almost four decades as a middle school librarian and I’ve been reading Mary Downing Hahn books for almost as long—her first book was published in 1979, the year I graduated from high school—and now that I’ve made us both feel old, let’s move on. My students have remained big fans throughout my career. Wait Till Helen Comes has always been a favorite booktalk of mine, and even before the fabulous new cover art it’s gotten in recent years, the book had brisk circulation. Hahn’s new book, The Puppet’s Payback and Other Chilling Tales (Clarion, 2020) is her first collection of short stories and with its arrival, I realized that we’d never blogged one of her books. I was equally surprised to read in her afterword that she was afraid of everything as a child never read scary stories and wouldn’t have gone near WTHC if she’d seen it as a ten-year-old. Certainly, she’s channeled that fear into an ability to bring just-right frights to her young readers. The title story in this collection is a “Monkey’s Paw” tale of a sort for a younger audience. Be careful what you ask for…you may not be able to get rid of it. In this case, though, a toxic teacher eventually gets her due. In some of the ten stories, it is our young protagonists, instead, that are forever cursed by their interactions with the supernatural in these tales. For young writers, in the Afterward, Hahn includes a story she originally wrote in high school. The story eventually was reworked into “Trouble Afoot” for Bruce Coville’s Book of Monsters, and it is reprinted in this book. Her comments about her teacher’s B- grade and then her own later assessment that it should have gotten a C+ made me laugh. “Were adjectives on sale cheap that year?” It will be fun for readers to compare the two stories and maybe they will be inspired to work on their own B- story. Thank you, Mary Downing Hahn, for decades of scary stories; I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to say so. My students and I are grateful.

Lynn: As Cindy says, our middle school students seemed to have an unquenchable thirst for scary (but not too scary) books and Mary Downing Hahn was always our go-to author. But did I mention our readers were always wanting MORE books. So I am happy to say that we have some new offerings to help fill the scary book demand. Thirteens (Penguin/Viking, 2020) by Kate Alice Marshall is a great choice for the kids looking for a shivery read.

Eleanor has just moved to Eden Eld to live with her Aunt Jenny and Uncle Ben. Just about to turn 13, Eleanor has just survived a house fire that seems to have been set by her own mother who then disappeared. Eleanor wants desperately to be normal, to settle in here, and try to forget her past, which includes sightings of strange monsters. Lovely Eden Eld seems like a picture postcard town but Eleanor’s mother had warned her to NEVER go there and right from the start Eleanor senses that something is very wrong.

Eleanor is immediately befriended by two schoolmates, Pip, daughter of her new school’s headmistress, and Otto, who has a love of research, marshaling facts, and logical analysis. But it quickly becomes clear that Eleanor’s new friends can also see the monsters and that something is deeply wrong in Eden Eld.

This is a deliciously scary start to a series. It is packed with all the elements readers will love: Odd sightings, a huge mansion bulging with cleverly planted clues, a menacing stranger, palindromes, and a crisis coming to a head just at Halloween! Be prepared for a gigantic cliff-hanger which will have readers begging for the next installment.

The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love & Truth

Cindy: Can we talk? A few years ago when one of my white 8th-grade students read The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas, she talked with me about it afterward. She expressed her shock at learning about “The Talk,” the one that black parents need to have with their children as they become drivers to help keep them safe during traffic stops. She said to me, “My parents never had that talk with me.” It was an important awakening for her. The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love & Truth (Crown, 2020) edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson will cause similar awakenings for some children and teens, and for others, the experiences and stories related here will be all too familiar. This illustrated collection of stories, poems, and essays illuminates the need for many different “talks” as parents help their children navigate prejudice due to race, religion, gender, sexuality, and other ways that people find to categorize people as “other,” “less than,” and “dangerous.”

Renee Watson launches the collection with a powerful talk for black girls in “Remember This,” as she reminds them of the many black heroines who led the way, of the power of your voice, and the encouragement to be your best self even when others around you cannot be theirs. Grace Lin takes on Asian stereotyping and female diminishment in “Not a China Doll, an illustrated letter to her daughter at ten (five years in the future). “Why Are There Racist People,” was generated by a school visit question asked of Mexican author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh, one that he struggled to answer. This talk is the result of his research, reading, and thought. Tonatiuh illustrates his own entry, others are done by other talented artists. I read this in an advanced reader copy and I’m eager to see the finished copy including the unavailable backmatter. Talking to our children and to each other is a powerful way to build relationships. Let’s talk.

Lynn: This year especially has seen the publication of several outstanding books for teens on the subject of racism and authored by the voices of writers who have first- hand experience. All of them have informed and challenged me. Perhaps it is the teacher in me but this slim book tops the list for me. Its format of short contributions is perfect for reading aloud in a classroom where instructional time is often highly regimented. Each piece is powerful, moving, and absolutely ideal for use as discussion starters or writing prompts. The wonderful variety means that there is something here for every reader and every reader will find a favorite.

My own favorites start with Derrick Barnes’ story about a kitchen-table conversation with his young son while helping him with math homework. It is an experience most of us, young and old, have had and the commonality of it contrasts starkly with the racism the little boy has just experienced. For young readers of color it will be instantly recognizable and for white readers it will be, as it was for me, jarring. For all readers it will be incredibly moving and deeply memorable.

There are so many powerful pieces here and I also especially appreciated Tracy Baptiste’s driving lesson advice to her son, Nikki Grimes’ poem about choosing “not to pick up the hurtful words thrown like stones,” and Adam Gidwitz’s essay that brought a wholly different look at racism. The black and white illustrations are as varied and as effective as the text contributions and add greatly to the overall impact of the book.

This slim but important book should be in every classroom and library collection in the country. It is truly a gem and opens the door to conversations among all of us about racism, discrimination and the social condition of our country.

Once Upon a Now: The Longest Night of Charlie Noon

Cindy: I’ll say right off the top that I’m not convinced this book is entirely successful but I admire Christopher Edge for creating a story that is unique and thought-provoking. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon (Delacorte, 2020) starts with an intriguing opening:

Once upon a time doesn’t exist.
This story starts once upon a now.

Friends Charlie and Dizzy and bully Johnny become lost in the woods while trying to decode messages left there, perhaps by a child-eating monster. More dangerous, perhaps, is the woods itself and the night that falls more quickly than usual, the storms that threaten, and the stars that are not in their familiar constellations. As the night wears on and the weather changes impossibly, the children are not only lost in the woods but maybe, lost in time. Forget the monster, it may be the woods that gets them.

Edge plays with Einstein’s special theory of relativity and presents a story that is at once a page-turner creepy adventure and a thoughtful look at friendship, the fluidity of time, and who we choose to be. The book has two starred reviews already, so perhaps it is entirely successful; regardless, it’s a book for those kids who need challenging books without mature content. There’s plenty to think about here.

Lynn: Christopher Edge is doing a lot of things in this slim book. He’s got mystery, suspense and a bit of horror, a story of friendship and bullying, and kids finding their strengths. And he also has time travel. As a lifelong reader of science fiction, I am accustomed to being confused when I tackle time travel. I expect to be confused! Young readers have differing reactions to feeling off-footed by a plot. Some dislike it and others embrace it. Here, Edge helps readers to keep going when time travel adds its slippery effect by giving kids a lot of incentive to keep going. Charlie is in a dire situation and wondering what will happen next is a terrific impetus to keep turning the pages. And then there are the puzzling codes and, oh yes, the possibility of a kid-eating monster! It is cleverly designed to propel kids through what may be for some an off-putting sense of not really knowing what is going on. When they come out of the woods in the morning with the three protagonists, readers will find a lot of rewards. They’ll get a satisfying conclusion to the story, a summary of what happens to the characters when they grow up, and answers to at least some of their questions. Kids are going to want to immediately share and discuss the story, another great feature. Edge provides extensive and interesting back matter in “The Science in the Longest Night of Charlie Noon.” Here he explains the codes, code-breaking, and complicated concepts such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the speed of light.

Perhaps the biggest reward of all here for young readers is in understanding that being confused for a while in a book can be a really great thing!

 

Birding Adventures for Kids: Bird Identification & Activities

Cindy: At the public library, Lynn found this great new birding guide for children getting started in this rewarding hobby that gets them outside and active. Audubon Birding Adventures for Kids (Quarto, 2020) by Elissa Wolfson and Margaret A. Barker is more than just an identification guide. It’s divided into three sections: Meet the Birds, Outside with Birds, and Inside with Birds, the last two provide ideas and directions for games, activities, and adventures to have in order to learn more about the birds.

Most of the 25 birds selected for the Meet the Birds section are ones that are found throughout the United States at one season or another. A range map is provided for each species, just as is provided in identification books published for adults. A color photo of a single or pair of the species is included along with a “fun fact.” Did you know that Hummingbird eggs are the size of peas? Each species is identified by common name, scientific name, field marks, length (in inches and centimeters), and voice descriptions for songs and calls. There’s also information on feeding (what they eat and how they consume it), conservation issues, tips for helping the species (food or plants to provide), and similar species. There are also a few groan-worthy bird jokes thrown in for fun. “What kind of crows always stick together?….Vel-crows!” HAHAHAHA.

Lynn: Following the section Cindy describes are two more sections that the parent/grandparent in me loved. These are the sections that get kids moving, learning, and entertained. These two chapters provide well-designed activities, one set for outside and one for inside. Each activity clearly lists materials needed, directions, follow up, and discoveries. Some are more involved than others but most require just simple materials. One does require binoculars but I liked this one too as a good basic lesson on how to use binoculars. Glossary and an appendix have related bird information.

I learned a lot myself from the information on common birds despite being a life-long birder. Did you know only the female duck “quacks”? Or that Chickadees hide seeds and go back to them months later? This appealing book will help create more birders and will keep kids nicely occupied with science and bird-related activities. This is an ideal book for kids and caregivers both and may be of special interest to everyone with children doing virtual school in this time of Covid-19.

The Rebels and Revolutionaries: James Rhodes Introduces Classical Music to Teens

Cindy: What I learned about classical music was mostly learned during my high school days playing flute in our small school’s band and later watching the movie Amadeus. I’m not quite serious, but almost. My middle school orchestra students are probably way ahead of me today. It’s not for lack of wanting to know more, it’s for the lack of knowing where to begin or how to approach such a large body of music of which I know so little. If it’s intimidating to me, it surely must be for a teen who may have even less interest in pursuing that interest without some inspiration. And thus, concert pianist James Rhodes to the rescue for many of us. Playlist: The Rebels and Revolutionaries of Sound (Candlewick, 2019) is just the ticket. Packaged in the trim size to match an LP cover and stunningly illustrated by Martin O’Neill, this book will attract and convert new classical music fans.

In his introduction, Rhodes admits that classical music has a reputation of belonging to old people and about as interesting to read about as algebra. He makes a good case for why that just isn’t so. And, he also explains why this book focuses on the dead white males and makes some suggestions for composers to explore outside the “established ‘classics.'”

The book then opens with a Spotify playlist Rhodes created asking the reader to access it and listen along throughout the book. This is genius! From there we start in with each composer. When you see the double-page spread of “Bach: The Godfather,” him in short sleeves with double sleeve tattoos sporting the quote, “If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it,” you know this isn’t your grandfather’s classical music book! O’Neill’s collage work (with a zine-like feel) is stunning throughout, and will attract young artists in addition to musicians!

For instance, Rhodes answers the question, “Where to even begin with Mozart…”

You can buy the complete compositions of
Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart on CD.
Or, to be precise, on 180 CDs.
ONE. HUNDRED. AND EIGHTY.

He says, “Imagine Rihanna or Coldplay releasing SIX albums a year. Every year. For thirty years. It’s ridiculous.”

Each composer gets a double-page spread called “The Facts of Life” that includes basic bio, quotes about or by the artist, musical output, tracks of contemporary artists including rock and rap that have referenced or sampled the composer’s music, and soundtracks of movies, tv, and streaming series that have used that composer’s music. The facing page is a short essay that uses humor and adoration to convey the highlights of his life and career. The following two double-page spreads each explores a composition as an introduction to a piece of music (so, two per artist) with a reminder to listen to those tracks in the playlist. Listening to the track before, during, and after reading those essays was very helpful to not only understanding the particular piece and its composer better, but it gives the non-music student some help in how to listen to all music, classical or not. I recommend this for all secondary school libraries (and music classrooms), public library collections (adult departments, too), and as a gift book for that young person beginning their own musical instrument.

Lynn: I grew up with music as part of my family life. My father loved music, especially classical and jazz and he played music every evening. Being a college professor, he was always ready to teach on any subject that interested him and my sister and I absorbed a lot of music history over the years – sometimes more than we wanted at the time! I came to this book, interested but not expecting to get much more than a refresher look at some of the important composers. Boy was I wrong! Oh the facts are there, wonderfully chosen to appeal to teens and humanize the historical figures—and yes, show them as revolutionaries of music. The introduction to famous pieces is there and information about why each composer stands out. But what completely captivated me was Rhodes’ intensely infectious love for classical music, his spellbinding passion to share that, and his ability to convey that passion to a skeptical teen. It is clear in every syllable that James Rhodes champions classical music and the shining highlight of this impressive book is his ability to make current teens give it a chance. I already love the music and I found his words so compelling that I listened to every note of the playlist with a new sense of wonder. I am so hooked and I think teens will be too.

I admire so much about the writing here but one of my absolute favorite of the repeating sections is where Rhodes describes the musical selections on the playlist. Sometimes he tells about what was happening at the time or he imagines what the composer might have been feeling. Often he describes the way the music makes him feel. Here is his quote about Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. It will give you a good feel for the wonderful tone of this book:

“…as the piano begins, I can see a beautiful bird floating miles above the earth, then soaring down toward the ground and landing on my shoulder. It picks me up and flies me away from all the madness and confusion of the world, up to a place where nothing seems to matter. At least this is what I imagine. I’m sure you will have your own story–it is such a moving piece of music.”

I dare you to read that and resist the urge to immediately listen to the music!

Rhodes also includes a short informational page on a symphony orchestra and a really helpful Timeline of Western Classical Music and the back matter includes a glossary of musical terms.

 

 

The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh: A Controversial Life

Cindy: From the back cover of The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh (Random/Schwartz & Wade, 2020) by Candace Fleming:

First person to successfully
fly across the Atlantic.

Media Sensation.

Nazi Sympathizer,
Anti-Semite.

Environmentalist.

White Nationalist.

Charles Lindbergh
was all this and more.

Fleming delivers a stunning teen biography of a complex man, structuring it in two sections: his historic rise to world fame, and his fall from hero-worship by many and his disenchantment with technology that had been his life’s passion. Most students will have heard of his achievement of completing the first solo trip across the Atlantic in an airplane, a feat that brought him discomfort with the celebrity. Some will have heard about the kidnapping of his firstborn son, but Fleming’s storytelling, using much dialogue right from Charles’ and wife Anne’s diaries and other writings will keep them turning the pages as the tragedy and the investigation unfolds. Fewer will know the details of his fascination with Hitler and Nazi “orderliness,” his serious work with a doctor in inventing a pump that kept organs alive outside the body in order to prolong life, perhaps indefinitely, and his rise as a White Nationalist leading rallies that sound oh-so-familiar today.

Just as Fleming did with The Family Romanov and another aviator in Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, Charles comes to life with all of his human frailties, incongruities, and troubling behaviors. Just as clear is his drive and demand for precision. I realize it was a different time, but Anne was a saint to put up with him…as were his other two families in Europe that she didn’t know about. In fact, Anne is as fascinating to read about in many ways as is Charles. In this wonderful Publisher’s Weekly Q&A with Candace Fleming, she admits she came to like Anne quite a bit. Celebrities and heroes. There’s a lot to ponder here. Strap on your reading goggles and prepare yourself for quite a ride when you read this one!

Lynn: I am such a fan of Fleming’s biographies and this one not only captured my complete attention, it stayed in my mind for days after I finished it. Absorbing and wonderfully written, Fleming’s masterful biography incorporates the diaries and writings, as Cindy says, of both Charles and Anne, allowing these complicated individuals to tell much of their own stories. Charles especially reveals himself as incredibly complicated and flawed, socially stunted, and seemingly unable to connect emotionally with others. I was fascinated by his decades-long search for a way to end death, something that guided his thinking in multiple ways.

Lindbergh’s early years and the story of the tragic kidnapping of their first child was familiar to me from other books but I still appreciate Fleming’s presentations of this period of his life for young people. She did an excellent job of providing the necessary historical and cultural background necessary for understanding. I found the last third of the book, beginning with the family moving to England, the lead up to the war, the isolationist political efforts, and Lindbergh’s older years to be deeply interesting and packed with information that was new or provided expanded details.

The book includes outstanding back matter with an extensive bibliography and source notes and well-chosen photographs that tie directly to the text. I read this in galley and I am eager to see the finished copy. 6 starred reviews and every one deserved! This will be a great crossover book for adult readers.

Heroes We Need: Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker

Cindy: Children who embrace time alone, time to think, and time for their own pursuits are going to quietly embrace Sara Pennypacker’s new middle-grade novel, Here in the Real World (Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2020). Ware’s summer plans with his grandmother get sidetracked when she falls and breaks a hip landing her in rehab. His parents immediately sign him up for another summer of “Meaningful Social Interaction” with a side of humiliation that is the local Rec camp. He offers to pay them twice as much as the camp fees to let him stay home alone, he’s eleven, after all. They refuse. He skips out of Rec on the first day during a morning run and takes refuge at a crumbling church nearby. There he meets Jolene, who is using the church’s lot to grow a garden in coffee cans. Battle lines are initially drawn as the two stake their claims and go about their projects. Ware, fascinated by the Middle Ages, is turning the church into a medieval castle. Soon their refuge is threatened by a bird welfare organization and the potential sale of the church. Jolene and Ware must join forces and fight for the land that is so important to them.

Both kids have personal issues. Ware is different and he has overheard his mother wish that they just had a normal kid. Jolene’s situation slowly comes to light, although experienced readers will understand her issues of abandonment and abuse sooner rather than later. Both kids inspire the reader to champion their cause and to enjoy watching the transformations that ensue. Being quiet and being different is okay.

Lynn: One of the things I admire most about Sara Pennypacker’s writing is the way she gets how kids think and then puts readers right there in that experience too. That aspect is a highlight of Here in the Real World. Introverted Ware with his rich inner life, is vividly and authentically portrayed here. We feel Ware’s acute anxiety over the prospect of daily immersion in the summer rec program and we also feel his misery at how he thinks he disappoints his mother by being who he is. Watching Ware grow throughout the story and become confident in himself is the real joy of the book. I was a kid like Ware. I remember still my deep unhappiness at the prospect of the noisy horror of things like birthday parties and I still shudder at the thought of games like Musical Chairs!

One of the great gifts of reading is the ability to see through someone else’s eyes and this thoughtful book provides children unlike Ware to experience his feelings and those like him to be reassured. And seriously – what kid could resist the idea of that medieval castle complete with moat? Don’t miss this quiet and wonderfully crafted book.

Mama Needs a Minute: A Board Book for Overwhelmed Moms

Cindy: My daughter-from-another-mother, a young mother named Alicia, is doing a beautiful job parenting two infant twins and a 2-year-old. Three busy little girls who keep her going night and day. Following her schedule online and in-person is exhausting just to observe! Did I mention she also works part-time outside the home, too, in adult probation and parole? When Nicole Sloan’s new board book, Mama Needs a Minute (Andrews McMeel, 2020), arrived in my review books, I knew who my test reader needed to be. I gifted the book to Alicia with some pampering lotions and waited to hear. She loved this story so much she ordered a copy immediately for her friend, Laura, another mom of twins and two other children. They are both reading it daily to remind themselves that it’s okay to take a minute for themselves.

The mamas in this book might have purple hair or green skin, but they all have one thing in common: they are there to help their child learn, eat, play, etc. but sometimes “Mama needs a minute” to shower, dress, have coffee, or rest. After multiple page turns of mama’s declaration that she needs a minute, the book comfortingly closes with a twist. With the baby quietly nestled in her arms, she proclaims, “This mama just needs a minute…with you.”

Here’s to Alicia and Laura and all mamas who need a minute!

Alicia and her girls.

Laura and her children.