Books about shy children often fail to hit the mark. They treat shyness as something to be overcome, or as a reaction to stress. Eileen Spinelli’s When No One is Watching takes an opposite, celebratory position – a funky little girl tells us how she acts when she is alone “I sing like a bird and I swing to the sky,” and when she’s not: “I hide like the cat alongside the big chair” in rhyming text that swings along with her. Her family and friends don’t appear to be pressuring her to interact, and while she is subdued in the middle of a crowd, she is certainly a happy child. Her “best friend Loretta’s shy, too” and she describes the ways that they have fun together.
If this were merely an affirming, positive book about a shy child, it would be a nice find. However, illustrator David A. Johnson’s pen and ink and watercolor art makes each two-page spread a dance of mood and expressive gesture. His elegant lines describe movement with economy and grace, and show off every exuberant contortion of our shy little girl’s active inner life.
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.
Engaging nonfiction chapter books intended for middle grade children are few and far between. A new series from Grosset & Dunlap succeeds in making history interesting, with titles that read with the ease of a novel. What Was the Gold Rush? by Joan Holub, brings to life the excitement of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, and the migration of fortune seekers westward, beginning in 1849. She delves into the science of gold (How can you tell it’s the real thing?) as well as the reasons behind its worth. Readers learn about how the gold rush led to the buildup of major cities, and how Native Americans were affected by the influx of prospectors.
Kathleen Krull tackles such weighty topics as racism, slavery, and Jim Crow laws in What Was the March on Washington? This book explains civil rights in an easily accessible way, and introduces the concept of peaceful protests. Readers meet A. Philip Randolph, the civil rights activist who had the idea for a national march, and “organizing genius” Bayard Rustin, who brought the whole thing together in only two months. Jim O’Connor takes on the Civil War in What Was the Battle of Gettysburg?, a book that begins by explaining the unrest between the Northern and Southern states, details the strategies and battle maneuvers, and ends with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Readers will enjoy a plethora of interesting asides, including an explanation of why a Sharps carbine rifle is far superior to a musket, and the story of the Union general who donated the bones of his amputated leg to a museum following the war.
Each What Was? title is liberally illustrated with relevant drawings, diagrams, and even photos designed to complement the text. One timeline at the end of each book provides a snapshot of important events related to the topic, while a second shows what was happening in the world at large during the same time period. Parents and librarians have a reason to rejoice, as the books all weigh in at 105 pages each, satisfying those teachers who tell students that the nonfiction titles they choose for book reports must be at least one hundred pages long. Also available is What Was the Boston Tea Party?, with more titles to come.
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.
For over seven decades, generations of young readers have delighted in the stories of Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny, known collectively as The Boxcar Children. But before four orphans found their way from an abandoned boxcar to a new life with their loving grandfather, they had another life and adventures yet untold. In The Boxcar Children Beginning: The Aldens of Meadow Fair Farm, Newbery Medal-winning author Patricia MacLachlan offers a new beginning to a classic series.
The Alden family of Meadow Fair Farm is not wealthy, but they have always managed. What they lack in economy they balance with the support of strong family ties and good humor. Readers will be charmed by the gentle tone and tranquil setting of the farm life and the new friends encountered as the Alden children enjoy their last season at home before embarking on a more challenging journey. MacLachlan possesses an uncanny gift for mirroring the voice of Gertrude Chandler Warner. Her narration and characterizations strongly reflect the simple, straightforward and unassuming style of the original. Those who have read any of the nineteen volumes of The Boxcar Children will be struck by the similarity of style between the two authors.
Her ability to engage young readers without overwhelming them is particularly evident in this story. The Boxcar Children Beginning prequel serves as a wonderful introduction to the rich and bountiful series, while neatly avoiding the hazard of saddening young readers when it comes to the reason for their leaving the farm. The transition from life on the farm to life in the boxcar is made all the smoother by MacLachlan’s inclusion of a continuation teaser, borrowed from the original first volume. This prequel is recommended both for younger readers who have yet to enjoy the beloved series, and for current fans curious about the children’s life before the boxcar.
Newbery Medal winner Clare Vanderpool returns with a coming-of-age tale sprinkled with magic and adventure in Navigating Early, set at the end of World War II. Jack Baker’s mother has suddenly died, and his military dad uproots him from Kansas to an all-boys boarding school in Maine. While feeling like a fish out of the very water so prevalent on this campus, Jack does befriend Early Auden, an unusual boy who seems to have his run of the school. Early is an orphan whose brother was a superstar at the school but whom everyone (except Early) believes to have died in the war.
As the two get to know one another, it is clear that while Early may be quirky, even obsessive; he definitely has a gift for numbers. He sees colors in numbers and fashions a story about the number Pi. Early shares his story of Pi with Jack, and Jack agrees to accompany Early on his quest for his missing brother and a legendary great black bear along the Appalachian Trail. Early’s Pi story is filled with pirates, volcanoes, and extraordinary escapades. Oddly, the boys’ journey parallels Pi’s story, as they encounter similar characters and excitement along the Trail. The two travel by land and sea all while overcoming obstacles and learning more about other and themselves.
As they complete this mission together and navigate dangerous paths, each realizes the power of his personal connections and that sometimes what you are looking for isn’t always what you find. Vanderpool masterfully weaves the story of the boys’ quest with the tale of Pi into a quickly moving narrative with beautiful language and mystical overtones. This stunning novel is homage to the power of stories, the importance of personal journeys, and the power of our individual constellations.
Light a fire under your young mathematician! In The Golden Rectangle, author Gillian Neimark tells the tale of a 10-year-old girl from Puddleville, Georgia, who wants to grow up to be a horse rustler (although she’s not sure exactly what that is). Unfortunately, her destiny may lie elsewhere. After finding a mysterious key in her secret hayloft hideout, Lucy Moon is visited by Square Man, a 4-inch, square–shaped wizard intent on removing all curved lines from the world. Square Man tries to convince Lucy that an evil wizard named Dr. Pi is trying to make spirals out of all of the rectangles in the world. Lucy is skeptical and uses what turns out to be her magic key to land in the closet of Flor Bernoulli, herself a magical 10-year-old in New York. The girls embark on a whimsical adventure as they try to prevent Square Man from “squaring” the earth. The story is light and fun while introducing the reader to the concept of the Golden Rectangle (a mathematical term referring to a rectangle with a specific ratio of dimensions which is considered to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all rectangles. It has some other nifty properties as well). This is a sequel to The Secret Spiral, by the same author.
The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, takes a more direct approach in teaching mathematical concepts. Robert, the main character, hates math. The Number Devil takes over his dreams to teach him mathematical concepts in his sleep, one concept a night for twelve nights. Using everyday language and very few technical terms, The Number Devil brings clarity to topics such as infinite numbers, prime numbers, and Fibonacci numbers. Using pictures, diagrams and clear examples, the Number Devil helps Robert understand the topics and shows shortcuts to quickly showcase the principles. Even readers with a mild case of arithmophobia will learn to appreciate math after reading these titles.
Are they bad? Or just drawn that way? Those are the questions award-winning children’s author Jane Yolen and her daughter Heidi Stemple debate as they take an entertaining tour through the lives of some of history's most notorious women in Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, and Other Female Villains. Arranged chronologically from Old Testament barber Delilah to 20th century mob courier Virginia Hill, this deck of 26 dicey dames includes royalty (Bloody Mary, Catherine of Russia), wild women of the Wild West (Belle Starr, Calamity Jane) and out-and-out criminals (Moll Cutpurse, Bonnie Parker).
Each short (2- to 8-page) chapter opens with a lush, period-appropriate poster-style portrait by illustrator Rebecca Guay. The authors then outline each lady's dastardly deeds and point out the "aggravating or mitigating" circumstances that may influence the reader's opinion of their guilt. Yolen and Stemple speak directly to the reader, bickering delightfully about context and consequences as they model good discussion behavior (and shoes!), in a page of comics at the end of each chapter. The authors' enthusiasm for their subject is contagious, abetted by playful language that makes Bad Girls a rock ‘em sock ‘em read. Alliteration, rhyme, short sentences and a conversational tone combine with sometimes-challenging vocabulary to make this book readable but by no means dumbed-down. A hearty bibliography will give a girl a leg up on the further reading she is sure to want to do. Feminist, girl-powered, intelligent and open-ended - this book respects the reader as much as it does its subjects.
There are few things more pleasing to a librarian - or to a parent - than spotting a kid giggling over a book. Imagine how satisfying it would be to see a kid laughing and engrossed in a nonfiction book about the Revolutionary War. No exaggeration: children have walked into walls while reading Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, a series of historical graphic novels.
Nathan Hale (1755-1776) was this country's first spy, traveling behind enemy lines to find information about British troop strength prior to the invasion of Manhattan. He was not a very good spy, and so One Dead Spy: The Life, Times, and Last Words of Nathan Hale, America’s Most Famous Spy begins as he is about to be hanged. Like Scheherazade, he manages to delay his appointment with the noose by telling the story of the war to his executioners, a goofy hangman and a supercilious British officer.
Nathan Hale (1976- ) is best known as the acclaimed illustrator of the graphic novels Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack. Here he takes writing credit as well. His art is lively and meticulous, rigorously researched and clearly drawn. Sieges, daring raids, and night crossings may seem like perfect material for the graphic novel treatment, but Hale manages to make even panels describing troop movements exciting. One Dead Spy is the first book in the series, and Big Bad Ironclad!: A Civil War Steamship Showdown, chronicling history of the Monitor and Merrimac, is also available. Look for two new Hazardous Tales to be published this summer.