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!

Home Sweet Neighborhood: Transforming Cities One Block at a Time

Imagonna get a couple of minor criticisms outta the way first, and then we’ll get to the good stuff: Mulder oversimplifies here and there in some stage-setting passages, and young readers would have been well-served by a gentle warning that no matter how good one’s plans may be, bureaucracy can be an insurmountable hurdle. That said, this book is chockablock with really neat anecdotes about imaginative grassroots efforts to improve communities, and kiddos shouldn’t be deterred by those pesky grown-up ordinances from at least presenting a proposal (because some would definitely require city hall’s permission). That kind of civic experience is valuable in and of itself. There are (literally) small projects like “pothole parks,” the brainchild of Londoner Steve Wheen: he created a miniature scene in a gap in a neighborhood sidewalk, much to the delight of pedestrians. And there are huge undertakings, like the closing of nearly a mile of an expressway in Paris and covering it with sand to make a riverfront beach. Two million people used it for sunbathing and strolling throughout the summer of 2002! Mulder’s examples come from all over the world, illustrating the unifying desire for fellowship and fun. Sharp photos of completed projects and others in progress abound, along with factoids and first-person stories of how impactful creative kindness can be. One of my favorite transformations is the temporary “green space” some people make out of their downtown parking spots – they roll out a little artificial turf, place a bench on it, fill the meter, and leave the tiny oasis for passers-by to enjoy for a few hours. How awesome is that? This book shows kids that good can happen in the most surprising — and whimsical — ways.

The Crayon Man: the True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons

I don’t know about you, but I sure could use a dose of something bright at the end of this dark week, and the story of Edwin Binney fits the bill. Binney invented that beloved staple of childhood: the Crayola crayon. He’d had success in making dustless chalk and a slate pencil that wrote smoothly, and after some trial and error, he found a way to vastly improve the quality of crayons, as well. At the time, crayons were a crumbly mix of oil and charcoal, but Binney thought to add wax to make them stronger. He and his team then worked with rocks and minerals, crushing, sifting, and heating them to generate a multitude of colors. At last, in June of 1903, Binney and his crew figured out just the right combination of wax, clay, and pigment for a new and improved crayon. His wife is credited with the famous name: she suggested combining craie, the French word for stick of chalk, and “ola” from oleaginous. Biebow’s narrative is light and airy, a perfect read-aloud. Salerno’s full-bleed illustrations are similarly cheerful, rendered appropriately in a lovely rainbow of hues. Kids will be fascinated by the back matter, a series of captioned photos that show today’s process for manufacturing crayons. There is also a page-length profile of Binney, and small factoids are scattered throughout the main text. This picture book biography is a happy look at a man who left his mark on history by improving a product that has brought decades of smiles to children’s faces, something we need now more than ever.