Just Like Beverly

Beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary had an idyllic childhood. Farm animals were her earliest playmates. Her parents were loving and involved. And she had a gang of friends with whom she spent endless hours outside. But she would have to endure a bout with smallpox and a cruel teacher who shamed her for falling behind rather than help her catch up. She struggled to read and dreaded returning to school the following year, but oh, what a difference a kind and gifted educator can make in a child’s life. Her second grade teacher worked with her one-on-one, and little Beverly blossomed. Her appetite for books was insatiable, and her favorites were those with children just like her and her friends. Cleary’s love of reading led to a love of writing, and well, the rest is history. A delightful, inspiring history of channeling her passion to the benefit of kiddos who reminded her of herself at their age, wanting fun books filled with relatable young characters. The book includes detailed end material that fleshes out Conrad’s light narrative. Hohn’s sunny, 1950’s-style illustrations, paired with Conrad’s cheerful text, make this book a charming study of what it can mean – not just to ourselves but to others – to follow our dreams.

Little Libraries, Big Heroes

Whoooeee, people, I need to keep going with the heroes theme. Just when I think the jerks in this world can’t outdo themselves, they say, “Here, hold my beer.” So let’s duck our heads into another book about the good guys and ignore the yucky ones. This is the heartwarming story of the little free library, those delightful tiny boxes of literary goodness that have popped up all over the world. Todd Bol, the kind soul behind LFL, struggled with reading as a child but his mom was his constant cheerleader, telling him he could do anything. When she passed away, he found solace in honoring her by building the first little free library, a wee one-room schoolhouse put together from pieces of an old door, and installing it in his front yard. Once his teeny schoolhouse was noticed, it became a popular neighborhood gathering place. Bol and a friend decided to build more, but it took going out into different communities to really get folks’ attention. Within a year, 400 little free libraries appeared across the United States. You’ll need a Kleenex before we go any further. I’ll wait… Got one? Okay. Paul highlights three extraordinary examples of the good that little free libraries have done. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, a six-year-old girl collected 2,000 books and distributed a box of them to every little free library in the city. She then got one of her own, and it’s still active. Fifteen years later. A librarian established a little free library in El Paso, and with the help of her students, placed more than 50 additional ones around the city, giving families greater access to books in both English and Spanish. In western Uganda, a little free library in a refugee camp served as a resource for people who had fled violence with very little if anything in their possession. Many of them could not read but would learn how, using the books available to them in that little box. See? Told you. Paul’s book isn’t just about the start of the little free library program. The message that anyone can be a hero undergirds the details of Bol’s lovely idea and how it expanded worldwide. The book tells kids who are struggling – not just with reading, but with anything, really – that they, too, have something extraordinary to share with the world. There’s substantial end material, including – you may want to grab another Kleenex – the sad fact that Bol passed away from pancreatic cancer as the book was being finished. Little free library stewards (many of whom are children, by the way) placed white or gray ribbons on their tiny libraries in memory of him, and a gray ribbon has been included in one of the illustrations in the book. You’ll want to go back and look for it, of course. Give this book to a child who needs to know they, too, have something special to contribute. Share this book with a class and come up with a community-minded project, not necessarily a little free library, but something that serves others. Goodness knows we could use more of that.

The Brave Cyclist

With a whole lotta grown-ups doing a whole lotta sucky things lately, kids could use some good stories about heroes, true heroes – the “helpers” of Fred Rogers’s wonderful quote (on which I myself lean quite often nowadays). Gino Bartali was one such helper. The Italian Bartali, an avid cyclist since childhood, won the Tour de France in 1938, but that wouldn’t actually be his greatest achievement. In 1943, he was asked by Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa to help with an effort to spare persecuted Jews. False identification documents were being printed for them in Assisi so they could flee to safety, and Bartali agreed to store needed paperwork and photographs inside the frame of his bicycle and deliver them to the men making the papers. He would then return to Florence with completed documents. He was stopped once by soldiers but used his fame as a champion cyclist to escape discovery. Thinking quickly to keep them from examining his bike, he said the position of his seat, handlebars, and pedals had to be left exactly as they were to prevent possible injury. The soldiers believed him and let him go on. He experienced several close calls including brief imprisonment in 1944 after Mussolini’s thugs found letters from the church in Rome, thanking Bartali for his “good work.” He convinced them he had only helped feed the poor and was released. While his fellow citizens celebrated the eventual end of the war, they also had to endure its lingering ravages, and Bartali stepped up again, thinking he might bolster his countrymen’s spirits with another win of the Tour de France. At 34, he was considered “old” by athletic standards, but he rode to victory in 1948, giving Italians another reason to cheer. Hoffman’s narrative is clean and simple yet tinged with tension, making this a good candidate for a read-aloud. Fedele’s illustrations feature rich earth tones and bold black, underscoring the somber times and grave responsibility that Bartali bore. The end material includes a photograph of Bartali and a detailed afterword that mentions an annual bicycle ride over part of his route between Florence and Assisi to commemorate his all-important role in saving Jews. Merviglioso! Include this book in a unit on World War II, as September 2 will mark the 75th anniversary of its conclusion. Or use it to start a discussion on the importance of being a helper in ways both large and small.

Summer Green to Autumn Gold

Presumably fall will show up at some point. In January, perhaps. So there’s still time to incorporate this lovely book into your lesson plans. It introduces the youngest of leaf peepers to the process of senescence initiated by photoperiodism (oh, don’t be too impressed; I had to look up them fancypants words) with an uncomplicated and cheerful narrative that’s just right for reading aloud to students beneath a tree on a crisp autumn day… should we have one of those. The book begins in the summer and proceeds through the spring, and wow, is the journey a visual delight. Rich cut-paper collages and watercolors fill the pages with stunning shades of green, yellow, red, and orange. The book is a perfect start to a unit tying together science, art, and writing. The opening spread identifies commonly-found leaves, a boost for budding collectors, and the simpler main text is supported by satisfyingly in-depth end material for use in reports. Posada reminds her audience that trees are vital for the food and shelter their fallen leaves provide the tiniest critters scurrying around on the ground – one more argument students can make in a persuasive presentation for the planting of trees in their community. And ohhh, the potential for art projects! Have kiddos paint real leaves and press them on paper to make imprints, or have them mimic Posada’s cut-paper collage technique and create their own forest in fall. Or have them reproduce the same outdoor scene throughout the four seasons. Or… well, you get the idea. Posada’s celebration of this most glorious process is truly a must-have. It reminds us that Mother Nature had a good thing going waaaaay before pumpkin spice was a thing.

Small Spaces

If you’re like me and believe every single year that August will “go on and on and onnnnnnn,” to quote Paul Bunyan as played by Oliver Platt (LOVE him), then I’ve got a book for you. This spooky delight by Katherine Arden will bring the chill of autumn right to your door, where it’ll sneak in and tap you on the shoulder with ghostly fingers. It is a fun, fun read. In the wake of her mother’s death, Ollie frequently escapes into books. However, the one she snatches from the grasp of a distraught woman before she can toss it in a river (Ollie is horrified that anyone would treat a book that way – good girl!) will prove to be anything but a welcome distraction. The book is an accounting of a family’s losses, and a deal made with the Smiling Man that while intended to heal broken hearts, only makes a tragic circumstance even more so. The terrifying legacy of the Webster family will envelop Ollie, much like the thick fog that roils around and swallows her stalled school bus after a class field trip to the Webster farm. Arden’s settings are deliciously eerie and the bad guys VERY creepy. The book is more than an entertaining indulgence in scary fiction, however; appealing characters and thoughtful layers of plot add depth. Arden weaves grief and bullying, compassion and respect into her story, but they never overwhelm the primary purpose of it, which is to scare the pants off her readers. So run to Hobby Lobby, grab a spiced pumpkin candle and a few artificial autumn leaves to scatter around it, and settle in for a goose-bumpy, spine-tingling read that will help tide you over until Halloween.

The Spirit of Cattail County

My inaugural juvenile fiction review! I am really excited to take over this collection at FPL (I do still have my first baby, the j nonfic section). Imagonna put it out there that these posts will be skewed to favorites (books about spitfire heroines, a la Dicey Tillerman, and books about Americana – think Richard Peck’s Year Down Yonder) versus the more objectively selected books with wider-ranging topics over there in my nonfiction posts. But hopefully, since you’re here, you’ll find a recommendation for j fic that is useful to a kiddo you know. (Or yourself!) Alrighty then, away we go!

On a fun level, Piontek’s first novel would make a great read for those chilly autumn nights leading up to Halloween as it’s populated with one mischievous ghost boy and other, less-formed spirits who swarm around kind folks on this side of the veil (depending on how you feel about it, this could be a good reason to be nice or a good reason not to, gulp). On a deeper level, it’s a story about finding one’s place – in this world and in the next. Sparrow is already kept at arm’s length by the community of Beulah, and when her mom dies, she feels even more isolated. She’s at the mercy of her awful Auntie Geraldine, who has decided to sell Sparrow’s beloved family home on the edge of the swamp and take Sparrow away to live with her. Sparrow does, though, find her first real friends in siblings Maeve and Johnny Casto, who help her seek the answer to a question that may turn things around for her. Intertwined with her search is that of the ghost boy, who has been Sparrow’s constant companion and must find something very important of his own. Piontek’s development of her characters is terrific. The reader roots and aches for lonely Sparrow and for her ghost boy. Sundry lesser members of the cast – Elena and her Uncle Eli; Maeve, Johnny, and Mason Casto, etc. – are just as endearing. On the other hand, Auntie Geraldine and Ansley and Andrew Monroe, a pair of relentless bullies, are spiteful and easy to despise. And her rich description of the teeming swamp makes it as much of a compelling player in the story as the people. This is a truly satisfying first effort by Piontek. She adeptly weaves the goose-pimply supernatural aspect of her story with the sometimes painfully realistic experiences and interactions of her living characters, and the plot has twists and turns that will keep the reader guessing (I said, “Oh, no!” out loud several times) as to what lies at the end of Sparrow’s quest.

When Sue Found Sue

Buzzeo takes her audience along on the thrilling morning Sue Hendrickson spots a tantalizing bit of what turns out to be the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton found to date, and her description of the quiet scene is wonderfully suspenseful, even for readers who already know the outcome. Sue, accompanied only by her dog, hikes in thick fog toward a cliff face to which she has been inexplicably pulled, and spots three huge backbones sticking out of the mountainside. But this is not even the best thing about the book! As the narrative builds toward the finding of Sue the T. rex, Buzzeo is already celebrating shy, studious Hendrickson, who “wasn’t like other kids,” and how her insatiable thirst for knowledge and intense curiosity would lead her on an incredible journey from hunting random trinkets as a child to looking for tropical fish, lost boats and planes, and fossils as a specialist in paleontology and marine archaeology. She concludes by pointing out again that Hendrickson as a child was “so different from the others” but her “curiosity has lead her to find things – and always will.” What a wonderful message for kiddos, introverted or just otherwise unsure of themselves: who you are is amazing! Sudyka’s artwork, beautifully rendered in muted earthtones, is warm and happy. Use this book to kick off a unit on paleontological digs and/or prehistoric beasts (solemnly swear to make a dig for kids by hiding treasures in a sand pile), but it really is about so much more than the perennially favorite topic of dinosaurs. Keep it in mind for that kiddo in the back row who quietly sparkles.

Girls with Guts!

With cheerful illustrations and accessible text, this look back at the evolution of equality in sports is for the younger set – which is not to say the book is insubstantial. Gonzales relates the experiences of several notables in the history of female sports pioneers, going back to Melpomene, an athlete who thumbed her nose at the forbidding of women to participate in the first modern Olympics in 1896 by running the marathon anyway. When she wasn’t allowed to finish on the field with the men, she ran the final lap AROUND THE OUTSIDE OF THE STADIUM. Gonzales ends with Little League pitcher Maria Pepe, an eleven-year-old girl who had the support of the New York Yankees in 1972 when New Jersey Little League officials said she could no longer play with boys. A female judge intervened, and New Jersey became the first state to prohibit sex discrimination in Little League – one of several legal advances Gonzales interweaves with the profiles of Melpomene, Pepe, Althea Gibson, Gertrude Ederle, and others. Gonzales effectively peppers her text with motivating language, like a coach giving a pep talk to her players – “valiant warriors,” “a barrier ripe and ready to be broken,” “toe-to-toe,” “stomp, jab, tackle, grind, and SWEAT.” The book concludes with a detailed timeline of milestones for women in sports and an author’s note that puts a truly awesome spin on the phrase “play like a girl.” Gibbon’s artwork is bright and upbeat, showing women and girls competing in sports and marching for equal rights. This is a really great primer on the efforts of women to achieve parity on the court, the field, the track, and in the water, so share it with a group of young athletes and inspire them to yes, play like a girl!

Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me

I always heard that magpies are attracted to bright and shiny things, so I likened myself to them because I have always picked up baubles myself. I still recall one day on my way to elementary school, filling my pocket with tiny cubes of windshield glass that looked for all the world to me like diamonds. Even now, I collect knickknacks kids leave in the library – marbles, dress-up rings, etc. But apparently it’s the bowerbird who likes eye-catching bits and pieces. I’m glad to stand corrected. Roth is a children’s book illustrator whose preferred medium is collages, and this comparison of her art with that of the bowerbird is one fun feast for the eyes. Male bowerbirds create elaborate grottoes to attract mates. These beautiful structures are not intended to serve as nests; they are simply built to catch a girl’s eye. The bowerbirds are selective with materials and the design, sometimes only picking objects of a particular color and rearranging the items – some natural, some manmade – to their satisfaction. Roth describes her artistic process similarly: selecting items that appeal to her, culling others, and moving the keepers around until she is pleased with the composition. The text is spare, letting the rich patterns and colors and textures of Roth’s collages do the talking – well, joyful shouting, really. The pages are very much like an I Spy book in that kids will enjoy poring over them to see all that Roth has utilized. Roth’s message of parallels between animals and us is lovely and so important. She shows herself rendered in collage form working on one page while a collage bowerbird works on the other. The back matter delves more deeply into the connection Roth shares with bowerbirds, with two substantial lists of facts about bowerbirds and how they work, followed by a list of the steps Roth takes in her work, and a final list showing how Roth and bowerbirds are the same. Possible activities include students writing a comparison piece about their resemblance to a particular animal, citing facts they have researched. And an art project is a no-brainer. Encourage students to hunt for a hodge podge of everyday materials to turn into a collage. Make it a shared effort by dumping the materials onto one table and having the students choose from the things each other has brought. They’re likely to be delighted by an object they wouldn’t have thought to use. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pilfer our lost and found drawer…

Rescuing Rialto: A Baby Sea Otter’s Story

I don’t watch nature shows, no matter how cute the animals are advertised to be, because without fail one will meet its demise on camera, and donotevenbothertellingmeitisthecircleoflifebecauseIdonotcare. I will be a blubbering mess. Even with nature books, I proceed with trepidation, hesitantly turning the pages and sometimes peeking through my fingers. Rescuing Rialto, however, is officially deemed safe by this sappy sucker for cute critters. The darling star of this book was found alone on a beach at Olympic National Park, and while there are a couple of heart-tugging photos of him looking very bedraggled and forlorn, that’s the worst of it, and we are off to the races with stinkin’ adorable pics of him taking a bottle, chewing ice cubes, learning to float on his back, being hand-fed clam strips, and great googly moogly, patting his primary caregiver on her face with his fuzzy paw. Mapes’s narrative, which follows Rialto from his rescue to his life at his permanent home at the Vancouver Aquarium, is enjoyably readable yet packed with information, and she thankfully avoids ham-handed anthropomorphism. Unnecessary, people! Berner’s photos are crisp and dynamic, accompanied by useful captions. Rialto’s story makes even us humans – well, a handful anyway – look good. The people who care for the little one around the clock, feeding and towel-drying him after he swims; those who transport him comfortably and safely from Seattle to Vancouver; and the caregivers who greet him at the aquarium are the very best our species has to offer. I mean, really, he travels with his favorite foods and his bottle, and he is welcomed with new ice toys, a crib, and fresh white towels for drying off. (It’s a good thing this is not a video blog because I’m starting to sniffle. But at least it’s not because anybody has become a Happy Meal for a predator.) In addition to the engaging details of Rialto’s journey, Mapes provides solid information about otters in general – habitats, behavior, etc., making this a great choice for kids simply interested in adorable fuzzballs or for aspiring zoologists. Go, Rialto, go!