The renowned author of African literature, Chinua Achebe, has died in Boston at the age of 82. He is best-known for his seminal 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, read by millions worldwide, and featured in the curriculum and reading lists of countless high schools and universities. This novel follows the life of Okonkwo, a proud Igbo man living in turn of the 19th century Nigeria, and the cultural changes that he must face and accept as British colonialism takes hold of the area and the only life he knows. Achebe also wrote a number of follow-up novels to this groundbreaking story. Confined to a wheelchair for the past twenty years following a car accident, he lived in the United States for the last two decades of his life, and was a professor of African Studies at Brown University in Providence.
Achebe also was a strong proponent of the rights of the people living in the once-breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra. His book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published last year. Explaining the Nigerian civil war that took place in the late 1960s, this mélange of memoir and history reminded the world of an oft-forgotten war. Achebe also wrote an allegorical folktale which was republished last year with Mary GrandPré's illustrations. How the Leopard Got His Claws tells the story of a short-lived coup and the resulting return of the original power players, in terms that are understandable for all ages.
Two new picture books celebrate our interaction with waterfowl. In the engaging, wordless Flora and the Flamingo, written and illustrated by Molly Idle, a young girl tries to emulate a balletic flamingo. Each beautifully illustrated spread shows the ease with which the bird poses, leaps, and dances. Meanwhile, Flora does her best to mimic the flamingo’s every move, some efforts more successful than others. The retro style of the illustration works well, and the generous use of white space on each page, some of which have extra flaps and fold-outs, make for an enjoyable read. A final splashdown between the two new friends embodies joy.
Lucky Ducklings, written by Eva Moore and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, is based on a true event that occurred on Long Island. A mother duck has inadvertently lost her ducklings down a storm drain, and townsfolk must come to their rescue. Thankfully, onlookers to the scene recognize the ducklings’ peril (and the mother duck’s panic), and take action. Notably similar in some ways to Robert McCloskey’s classic Make Way for Ducklings, this title even gives a knowing nod to the earlier title in a scene near the book’s close. Carpenter’s warm illustrations capture the pastoral nature of the setting against the fluster and alarm of the situation.
While most picture books tell a story, few cover the expanse of time of Building Our House, written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean. Based on Bean’s own childhood experiences, the book details, step-by-step, the process his family embarked upon to build their home in the countryside. There are no shortcuts here – this is not a book about moving where boxes are suddenly unpacked and the finished home unveiled in a final two-page spread. Instead, the toil and trouble of moving and living in a temporary shelter is detailed. Similarly, the arduous progression of leveling the earth, creating a foundation, constructing a framework, and finishing the outside of the structure are all included. It is all worth it, of course, and the helping hands described bring a smile to the reader.
This is a joyful, fast-paced book, celebrating immediate and external family and the community at large. The subtle passing and order of the seasons is an added learning benefit for readers. The excitement of the large machinery, warm feelings of being able to pitch in (even as a small boy) and the sense of accomplishment at the finished product, is all palpable. An author’s note at the end describes his memories of the eighteen-month process. It also outlines how he received recollection assistance from his family and their photos of the worksite as it went from empty site to the family’s new home. Construction-, tool-, and machinery-loving kids will enjoy Building Our House, and demand many rereads as they find additional objects and activities in each illustration.
The most prestigious awards for children's literature will be announced by the American Library Association at the Midwinter meeting in Seattle next Monday. A longstanding tradition of fans of literature for young people is guessing which titles will receive these prizes, which guarantee a sort of immortality for the books. "Honor" books, or runners-up, will also be announced for each category. The Randolph Caldecott Medal goes to the illustrator of the most distinguished American picture book for children. The previous year has seen a bevy of potential, worthy titles for the Caldecott Medal, among them three books by Philip and Erin Stead (who won a Caldecott Medal in 2011). Philip has two strong candidates in two sweet animal stories, A Home for Bird and Bear Has a Story to Tell, while Erin's homage to the end of winter And Then It's Spring could be named. More strong possibilities are Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, which covers the many shades of the verdant world; Paul Zelinsky's wacky alphabet book Z Is For Moose; and Step Gently Out, featuring close-up pictures of the insect world taken by Rick Lieber. It could receive the first Caldecott Medal given for photography. These, and many others, could win the big prize or be recognized as an honor book, in a wide open field.
The John Newbery Award goes to the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children". Last year also brought a number of worthy and likely candidates, including two recent medalists. Local author Laura Amy Schlitz is once again a front runner with Splendors and Glooms, a glimpse inside the world of puppetry, while Rebecca Stead could take a prize for the artful and concise Liar and Spy. Katherine Applegate's tale of a lonely, long-suffering gorilla, The One and Only Ivan, receives a lot of mentions, as does R.A. Palacio's popular (too popular?) Wonder, the story of a boy with a facial deformity. In a strong year for nonfiction, Philip Hoose's Moonbird: a Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95, Steve Sheinkin's Bomb: the Race to Build and Steal the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, Deborah Hopkinson's Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, and We've Got a Job: the 1963 Birmingham Children's March by Cynthia Levinson all have reasonable hopes to receive notice from the committee. Stay tuned until Monday at 11:00am ET, when you can watch all of the awards given live from Seattle.
The most prestigious awards for children's literature, and literature for teens, will be announced by the American Library Association at the Midwinter meeting in Seattle next Monday. A longstanding tradition of fans of literature for young people is guessing which titles will receive these prizes, which guarantee a sort of immortality for the books. "Honor" books, or runners-up, will also be announced for each category. One of these is the Michael L. Printz Award, given for literary excellence in the field of books published for teens aged 12-18. Some of the top contenders for the Printz Award include Elizabeth Wein's tour de force, Code Name Verity, a historical novel set in the World War II era; Ask the Passengers, by A.S. King, which infuses elements of magical realism into a story of a teen girl coming to terms with her sexuality; Steve Sheinkin's Bomb, an engrossing history of the development of the atomic bomb; and The Fault in Our Stars, John Green's popular novel about two teens with cancer forging a friendship and romance against difficult odds.
Another is the Coretta Scott King awards, given to African-American authors and illustrators for excellence in the field. Front runners for the author award include Newbery Award winner Christopher Paul Curtis' The Mighty Miss Malone, the Depression-era story of a 12-year-old girl's family facing tough times; Pinned, about the first girl on the school's wrestling team, by Sharon Flake; No Crystal Stair, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, an autobiographical novel about a famous Harlem bookseller, and Brian F. Walker's look into the pros and cons of scholarship and diversity in Black Boy White School. Kadir Nelson, a previous Coretta Scott King award winner, is again a leading contender in the illustrator category for I Have a Dream, a rendition of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech at the Lincoln Memorial; E.B. Lewis' haunting illustrations of passive bullying in Each Kindness; Shane W. Evans for We March, also about the March on Washington in 1963; and Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington, covering his journey to learn to read and eventually become a scientist, illustrated by Bryan Collier.
Singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant wanted to share child-friendly works of the oral tradition with her young daughter, delighting in the gift of words and speech that was featured in poems and stories. The result was a twenty-six song, two-CD set of poems that Merchant set to music. Released in 2010, it also included biographical sketches and a photograph of each poet. Now, paired with well-regarded illustrator Barbara McClintock, many of the poems from that endeavor come to life in the picture book Leave Your Sleep: A Collection of Classic Children’s Poetry.
Transforming a musical package to a picture book isn’t altogether unknown, but a book of poems is less common. Covering many famous poets, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, e.e. cummings, and Ogden Nash, the collection varies in tone and level. From Jack Prelutsky’s breezy and fun “Bleezer’s Ice Cream” to Laurence Alma-Tadema’s poignant “If No One Ever Marries Me”, the works focus on language and the way a few choice words coming together can create a memorable portrait. Take “Equestrienne”, by Rachel Field; McClintock’s exquisite illustrations of a rider and her milk-white horse perfectly capture the tone of the poem. Listen to Merchant’s interpretation on the accompanying CD, and the whole package comes together beautifully. The music styles range from Klezmer to jazz to string arrangements.
McClintock’s illustrations of “I Saw A Ship A-Sailing” epitomize her style, with a duck captain and mice sailors simultaneously working an old vessel but also juggling, playing with puppets, and riding a hobby horse. The whole package will bring a smile to both children and adults reading and listening along.
Blood is something we all know exists from infancy on, but few of us really examine that which carries oxygen to our various body parts and keeps us alive. Whether it is our inability to fully understand the intricacies of the substance flowing through our veins and arteries, or our collective squeamishness at the sight of it, blood remains largely a mystery to the masses. In The Book of Blood: from Legends to Leeches to Vampires and Veins, author HP Newquist examines this mystical fluid, our literal lifeblood.
Many hematological topics are covered and well-explained, such as the various blood cells, the makeup of plasma, and diseases involving blood, such as leukemia and hemophilia. Illustrated using digital imagery, photography and reproductions of blood-related ephemera, The Book of Blood could go for the jugular in terms of gore and unpleasantness, but instead uses appropriate restraint in portraying the substance. The various bloods of animals are discussed, too, whether it be the differences between warm- and cold-blooded beings, or those animals that have blood in colors other than red, such as blue blood of many mollusks.
Titles such as this, covering one commonly known subject, give readers the ability to focus on a topic and better understand the ways blood works and how it is an unspoken part of everyone’s life. The cultural meanings of blood are also touched upon, with references to mosquitoes, leeches, and bats, and of course, vampires. The book closes with a chapter that reminds us of the long way we still have to go in medicine. Blood donations remain critical because, despite so many other medical advances, we have not yet been able to create blood in a laboratory.