A NEST FOR CELESTE by Henry Cole
Back in 1939, Robert Lawson published Ben and Me, a historical fantasy about a mouse who supposedly gave Ben Franklin many of his bright ideas. It was good enough to still be in print all these years later (at a time when the average children's book stays in print just four years). It also contained enough solid historical fact to inspire a young Pennsylvania grade schooler named David McCullough to begin a lifetime love of history (resulting in two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom).
Lawson's shoes and work are a large order to fill but Henry Cole takes a bold step forward with yet another mouse in this novel subtitled: "A Story About Art, Imagination, and the Meaning of Home."
It is set in 1821 at the manor house of a Louisiana plantation that is the temporary resting/workplace of John James Audubon. The latter will become the most famous artist/naturalist in American history but at the time of the story he is still learning his craft and barely earning enough money to survive.
Apprenticed to Audubon is a 13-year-old boy named Joseph Mason who moves haltingly between the roles of "go'fer" and background artist (painting the plants and flowers that will be backdrops for Audubon's life-size birds.
All of that is historically true. Into this pageant comes a humble and naive mouse named Celeste who will take up residence in Joseph's pocket and heart, allowing the reader/listener to gain a mouse-eyed view of Audubon's work and times.
The book is not all history; indeed, it has a rich and dramatic plot involving Celeste's wildlife neighbors, including a pair of selfish, scheming rats who make five-star villains.
The reader-aloud should not be put off by the misleading size of the volume -- 342 pages. First, the text is set in large type and double-spaced. Second, more than a hundred pages are populated by large pencil illustrations around which the type is wrapped. And finally, the narrative is suspenseful and meaningful on a variety of levels.
One can easily see a future Audubon or David McCullough seated in a classroom today, scouring these pages and being inspired to take the road to art of history.
BELLA AND STELLA COME HOME
In the transitory/migratory world in which many of today's children are growing, few will escape the traumatic experience of "moving" from one home to another. Because of all the emotions involved — some good, some not so good, "moving" is one of life's most indelible moments.
Strangely, few children's picture books have captured or addressed that feeling. Indeed, few have even tried. And now we have a little gem — Bella and Stella Come Home — to answer the call.
Bella is a preschooler who looks like any one of thousands of preschoolers, which means illustrator Christopher Denise has done his job perfectly. Bella represents a huge congregation of little movers (and "shakers" if you take into account their emotions).
Stella is Bella's small stuffed elephant; she also is her only apparent friend in these hours of moving. In fact, as the story's uncertain moments unfold, Stella rises to the occasion and grows larger on the pages. Together these two pals wade through the heartache of saying goodbye to the old house and the nervousness of walking into a new one.
And then there is the disappointment of realizing the new house will not be a carbon copy of the old — who ever heard of a yellow kitchen? And a bathtub with feet? And then there's the new bedroom — not good! Empty, vacant, not even curtains.
Finally come the boxes of magic, those cardboard packages containing all the things that made up the old bedroom: piece by piece, tea set, rug, bed cover, night light.
And finally there is a new day with neighbors calling, including a little boy Bella's age who has a stuffed giraffe. New home, new friends, a new beginning —and that's what moving is "supposed" to be about. Is that the way it always is for all children? No, but they can dream and books like this hold out hope that dreams can possibly come true.
I Wanna New Room
Long before they are challenged by it in college or marriage, many children face the daily struggle with a "roommate." Simply put, cohabitating the same room with a sibling. Ugh! Grrrrr! H-E-L-P!
Author Karen Orloff combines with the irrepressible David Catrow (who brings the zaniness of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges to children's book illustration) to present us with the story of older brother Alex whose bedroom has just been invaded by little brother Ethan, thanks to the arrival of little sister Annie (who us occupying Ethan's old room). Alex (who fancies himself a 20-something bachelor) is not happy with the new arrangements and begins exchanging letters and notes with his parents, each one either pleading his case for change or proposing an outlandish solution. Each letter also details Ethan's none-too mature behavior ("When Ethan sleeps, he sounds like the cat coughing up a fur ball."
Catrow's illustrations of the extreme family situations are hilarious but they also pose a challenge for the reader aloud of this book: much of the success of the book is predicated upon the audience seeing the artwork. With that in mind, it's best to do this with a small audience as opposed to a room of 20 children, many of whom will not be able to see the illustrations from their back row seat.
The parents' solution to Alex's dilemma will please everyone and makes for an ingenious ending to a hilarious tale. Also by this author/illustrator team: I Wanna Iguana.
On a teeny little farm, in an itty-bitty coop, a very small hen laid a big, humongous egg. The egg began to shake. The eggs began to quake. Out popped a big, humongous chick. "What is it?" crowed the little rooster.
And thus begins the tale of Chicken Big, a very funny take-off/turn-around of Chicken Little, complete with some of the most dim-witted chicken coop residents the barnyard has ever seen. If Ol' McDonald had to deal with the likes of these folks, he'd have quit farming his first day on the job.
As Chicken Big grows larger and larger, the locals keep trying to guess what he is, estimates that run from elephant and hippopotamus to sweater and umbrella, depending on which rescue operation Chicken Big is running in the barnyard.
There's no great (or even small) moral to this tale; it's just a plain laugh-out-loud good story that will bring on the best of reading refrains: "Read it again!" Also by the author/illustrator: Frank Was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance.
In a tale as evocative as her Caldecott-winning Owl Moon, Jane Yolen gives us a story of things lost and things found, of the sounds we take for granted in our lives, and the difference between a house and a home. That's quite a lot for a picture book but Yolen and her illustrator David Small are more than up to the task.
Set in the mid-1800s, young Elsie is Boston born and bred, soaking up every sound and scent of the city. When her mother dies the city reminds Elsie's father too much of his loss and he moves himself and Elsie to a sod house on the Nebraska plains. This may be the right move for his aching heart, but it does nothing for Elsie except to drive her deeper into herself. Add to that the loneliness of the prairie and you have a very sad child.
"Only one Friday — when Papa had gone off again, buying seed corn for the coming spring —Elsie accidentally . . . " I can't spoil the tale's ending or ploting except to say it's a turning point for both the story and Elsie, leaving the reader aloud and audience with much to talk about, including how each of us handles the "moves" in our lives. Also by illustrator David Small: The Gardener.
POP! THE INVENTION OF BUBBLE GUM
Nonfiction is always a challenge for read-aloud, either because the material is too dry or interesting to only a selection of the audience — the one that already is interested in the subject. The rest of the audience is bored with the material. This is especially true of younger children with shallower backgrounds. So it is with a sigh of relief that we welcome Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum, written and illustrated by Meghan McCarthy.
First, the subject matter is near and dear to the heart of everyone who can chew — bubble gum. Secondly, and just as important, McCarthy offers a tasty tale that is little known and easily digestible.
Back in the 1920s, a young accountant, Walter Diemer, went to work in a Philadelphia gum and candy factory. Shortly thereafter he found an experimental laboratory set up in the adjoining office, a lab where they were trying to produce a new kind of gum. When Walter was asked to keep an eye on one of the lab kettles, he found the temptation to experiment on his own too much to resist. What follows is the evolution to bubble gum, complete with a history of gum that goes all the way back to the Greeks (take that, Kit Kat!). Also by Meghan McCarthy: Aliens Are Coming!: The True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast; City Hawk: The Story of the Pale Male; and Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse.
An excellent companion book is The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle: And Other Surprising Stories About Inventions by Don Wulfffson (Puffin paperback), a collection of one- and two-page narratives about the invention of common every-day items like animal crackers and the zipper.
With autism cases tripling in the last several decades,
this book on one of the spectrum’s disorders is long overdue. Ten-year-old
Caitlin has Asperger’s
syndrome and tells her own story in a most compelling voice throughout Kathryn
Erskine’s brilliant book.
Persons with autism often don’t handle either interpersonal communication
or social issues easily and Mockingbird offers its
readers (and listeners) a deeply personal insight into one child's mind
and heart, far closer than they might ever come with an actual classmate.
Not only does Caitlin have to cope with Asperger’s,
struggling to understand the tragedy that recently has struck her family when
her middle school brother was one of the victims in a fatal school shooting.
While Caitlin is loved by her widower-father, her brother had been the
pride of his life and she's trying to fill the family void left by his death — not
an easy task for anyone, especially someone for whom empathy is a
foreign emotion. As the book progresses, we see the efforts of her teachers,
counselor, father, and classmates in trying to bring closure to the struggling
child, giving us an opportunity to view all of them through the child’s
eyes and mind. And while there are many wrenching moments, the book is not
without its honestly humorous moments as she struggles with literal interpretations
of classmates’ and teachers’ words and actions.
For me, the only negative about the book is its dreadful
cover which couldn’t interest any living secondary studens
for even a tenth of a second. One can only pray the paperback folks will
change it immediately (which they usually do).
Because of the serious nature of the book and its subjects,
I would hesitate sharing it with children as young as the narrator (10) unless
he or she was very mature.
One cannot come away from this book without a
greater understanding of autism. This tale will grab you by the throat, give you a
good shake, and then set you cheering for the human spirit. If it doesn’t
become a classic, there’s
something wrong with all of us. For a Discussion Guide for this book, see:
Two years after J.K. Rowling unveiled the world of
Harry Potter (1997), Anthony Horowitz offered a marvelous send up
of the Rowling series in Groosham Grange. Monty
Python couldn’t have done it any better.
Now the author of a popular adventure series of his own (Alex
Rider, which is a parody of James Bond ), Horowitz
offers us here 13-year-old David Eliot, a typical adolescent goof-off who
is burdened with the most pretentious, self-serving parents perhaps in the
history of the world. All of this is handled with grand humor, as witnessed
by these opening two pages of the novel:
It was dinnertime at 3 Wiernotta Mews.
Mr. and Mrs. Eliot
were sitting at the dinner table with their only son, David. The meal that
night had begun with a large plate of raw cabbage with cheese sauce because
Mr. and Mrs. Eliot never ate meat. The atmosphere in the room was distinctly
chilly. That afternoon, the last day of the Christmas term, David had brought
home his report card. It had not made pleasant reading.
"Eliot has not made progress," the math teacher had written. "He
can't divide or multiply and will, I fear, add up to very little."
"Woodwork?" the carpentry teacher had written. "I
wish he would work!"
"If he stayed awake in class, it would be a miracle," the
religion teacher had complained.
"Very poor form," the form master had concluded.
"He'll never get ahead," the headmaster had
Mr. Eliot had read all these comments with growing anger. First his face had
gone red. Then his fingers had gone white. The veins in his neck had gone blue
and his tongue had gone black. Mrs. Eliot had been unsure whether to call a
doctor or take a color photograph, but in the end, and after several glasses
of whiskey, he had calmed down.
"When I was a boy," he moaned, "if my
report cards weren't first class, my father would lock me in a cupboard for
a week without food. Once he chained me behind the car and drove up the thruway
and that was only because I got an A-minus in Latin."
"Where did we go wrong?" Mrs. Eliot sobbed, pulling at her mauve-tinted
hair. "What will the neighbors say if they find out? They'll laugh at
me! I'm ruined!"
Excerpted from Groosham Grange by
Anthony Horowitz (Philomel/Penguin)
In the minds of David's parents, his underachievements
leave them little choice but to send him off to Groosham Grange (a
parody of Hogwarts School) set on an obscure island with 50-foot cliffs.
join other banished boarding students who must sign their names in blood, reside
in stone-cold rooms, and are taught by a faculty that
includes only one normal-looking member. Needless to say, they attend school
on Christmas day. All done with great tongue-in-cheek. Sequel: Return
to Groosham Grange: The Unholy Grail.
Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Cycle
Before there was an ipod or Google era — before Bill Gates or Steve Jobs,
there was another era of great change. At the turn of the 20th century the
Wright Brothers initiated the first Golden Age of Invention, and that, in turn,
ignited the imaginations of people like 14-year-old Cromwell Dixon who began
dismantling his bicycle to build an airship, powered by — what else — the
remains of his bike. Fiction? Wrong. With his mother’s help, Cromwell
built it, then rebuilt it when it accidentally burned, and finally propelled
it a mile high! Later, at age 19, he was the first airplane pilot to cross
the Rocky Mountains.
The Super Hungry Dinosaur
little boy and his dog are playing in the backyard when a super hungry giant
dinosaur arrives and announces he’s going to eat up the boy. The ensuing
simple tale details how the lad and his dog outwit and tame the dinosaur. Unlike Where
the Wild things Are by Maurice Sendak, in this tale you are never sure
how much is imagined and how much is real. After all, the boy’s mother
and father meet the dinosaur as well. And any damage done by the dinosaur’s
rampage is fixed by the exasperated creature before he can have lunch (cooked
by Mom). Martin Waddell uses the same simple storytelling here that made his
earlier book Owl Babies so successful and illustrator
Leonie Lord turns what could have been a threatening story into an exciting
but nonthreatening adventure. Together they have created the perfect toddler-preschool
In the powerful tradition of Pink
and Say and The Butterfly, Patricia Polacco
gives us here an even more powerful saga—the
Crosswhites of Marshall, Michigan, out of Hunter’s
Bottom, Kentucky. Set in 1847, more than a decade before
the Civil War, this over-size picture book’s central
character is young Sadie Crosswhite, the youngest of the
enslaved Crosswhites’ four children. Together they
live through the terrible degradations of slavery in its
fiercest hours, including the heartless near-fatal whippings
of Sadie’s dearest friend, January. That night they
begin their long and frightening journey into Indiana and
then Michigan via the Underground Railroad, all the while
pursued by slave hunters.
Settling in Marshall, regarded as a safe-haven
for runaway slaves in the free-state of Michigan, the
family begins a new life, including the pivotal friendship
between Sadie and Polly Hobart, the local judge’s
daughter. Even so, Mrs. Crosswhite continues to caution
her children they must never tell anyone they are runaway
slaves. Stolen property must be returned to its rightful
owner and, under the law, runaways were considered “stolen.” Nonetheless,
Sadie cannot help herself and one day shares her story
with Polly who promises to keep the secret.
Four years after their arrival
in Michigan, the Crosswhites’ former
owners arrive in town to recapture their former
slaves and a fierce confrontation ensues between the citizenry
of Marshall and the slavers. There are two grand surprises
packed into the night’s events, too good to spoil
by revealing them here. Suffice it to say, the Crosswhites
make one more escape, this time to Canada, where they reside
throughout the Civil War.
After the war, they return and
take up residence once more in Marshall, where more than
a century later their story is still told in reverent tones—though
never better than here in Polacco’s words and searing
images. Indeed, Polacco’s home today, 12 miles
from Marshall, is a former safe haven on the Underground
It's hard to imagine the Caldecott committee
ignoring Polacco after this volume. It's more than time
to honor this woman's magnificent work, in whole or part.
Taylor’s series on the
southern experiences before the Civil Rights movement: Roll
of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Let the Circle Be Unbroken; The
Road to Memphis; The Land; and four short novels, The
Friendship; Mississippi Bridge; Song of the Trees; and The
Well. Other related titles on slavery: Nightjohn by
Gary Paulsen. Related nonfiction picture books: Christmas
in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters by Patricia
and Fredrick McKissack; Mary Barney by Chris K.
Soentpiet and Alice McGill; More Than Anything
Else (Booker T. Washington
learns to read) by Marie Bradby.
The Secret of Santa’s Island
The trend in recent years — ever
Polar Express or, for that matter, the original
to have a message attached to the tale. Not that there’s
anything wrong with messages, but you wouldn’t want
every conversation with your mother to be a sermon, would
you? So it’s refreshing as a change of pace to pick
up this book and just find find a delightful new take on
Santa and his elves—with no messages.
We all thought they
went back to the North Pole when deliveries were done on
Christmas eve, right? Wrong.
Young Sam McGuffin stows away on
one night and discovers they all go to a resort island
for fun and games, including amusement park rides, beach
football, and rock music by “Bread-Zepplin” (composed
of gingerbread men). Sam also learns that Santa himself
has grown a bit weary of the traditional milk ands cookies
fare at every house after he confides to Sam, “I’d
much prefer pretzels and ginger ale.” This will be
a sure hit with young audiences.
An adult aside on this: I couldn’t help but think
there’s a slight allusion here to the high-flying
CEO’s who, until the recent recession, annually took
their staffs to resorts for R&R. Hopefully, the current
financial collapse will not affect Santa’s sojourn.
Literally and figuratively, Otis is
A small but diligent, spirited farm tractor,
Otis is the life of the barnyard and the best friend of a lonely calf
residing in the barn's adjoining stall. When his day’s labors
are done, he and she sat in the shade of the apple tree to contemplate
their happy lives. But their happiness is suddenly interrupted when
the farmer purchases a brand-new yellow tractor that quickly relegates
Otis to the scrap heap-weed patch outside the barn. He is now outdated,
unemployed, and too sad to play with his friend. The calf, in turn,
wanders down to the pond for a good soak, only to get stuck in the
mud. Either unable or unwilling to work herself out of the mire, she
soon becomes the focus of a community-wide rescue effort. But neither
the farmhands, the new tractor, nor the fire department can extricate
her from the mud. Suddenly Otis is seen making his way down the hillside
and soon a “happy ending” is in sight.
This anthropomorphic creation falls in the grand
tradition of children’s literature, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice
in Wonderland to Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit.
If you add modernization and technology to the mix of ingredients,
you’re sure to end up including picture books like Virginia
Lee Burton’s The Little House and Mike Mulligan
and His Steam Shovel, and Bill Peet’s Smokey,
all of which featured objects or machines that happily escaped obsolescence
by way of diligence or patience. The lasting success of such books
perhaps is due to humans’ basic need to hold on to their past,
to never completely escape the innocent joy of childhood. And those
who do lose that innocence completely are doomed to a joyless adulthood.
At least that’s my theory.
following this long tradition, author-illustrator Loren Long remains
entirely original and never imitative with this book, although there
appears to be a subtle tribute to Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand on
one page (insert right). Long’s earlier books include Drummer
Boy (one of my favorite Christmas books) and Toy Boat (written
by Randall de Sèv). If there is true justice in children's
publishing, Otis and his friend the calf deserve a long life
in children's lives. They speak volumes about lasting friendships
and the outcasts around us.
Lousy Rotten Stinkin' Grapes
of all, the title here will grab any child’s attention. When
was the last time you saw the words “Rotten” and “Stinkin’” in
a children’s book title? So immediately I was prepared for an
original play on the old Aesop’s fable and I wasn’t disappointed.
The original tale featured only a single character—the fox—but
Palatini has added six forest neighbors to the cast (bear, badger,
porcupine, etc.), each enlisted by the sly fox to aid in his gaining
the just-out-of-reach grapes. Each tries to explain to him that there’s
an easier way to reach his goal but he’ll brook no advice. It’s
his way or no way. In the original tale, he concedes defeat by grousing
that the grapes probably were “sour” anyway and thus the
origin of the term “sour grapes.” The ending here is the
same but the moral of the story is entirely different: Don’t
be a no-it-all. Moser’s double-page illustrations perfectly
fit the mood and tale.
When the Whistle Blows
first novel traces one family's life in a small
West Virginia town that is so dependent upon
its trains and steam engines that it literally
lives and dies by them. And there is some of
both in this volume. Each of the book's chapters
is set on Halloween night for seven successive
years, 1943-1949. Each episode finds the book's
protagonist, Jimmy Cannon, a little older
and a little wiser but still yearning to work
the rails—much to his rail machinist father's
dismay. The railroad's days are coming to an
end, declares the father, but Jimmy turns a deaf
ear. By novel's end, however, the father's prescience
is clearly evident. In this respect, the changing
times of the 1940s are reflected in the employment
ruptures today in the automobile industry.
As the book spans the years. Jimmy's Halloween
adventures move from giggly preteen stuff to
sobering adult, from a cemetery prank to a gut-wrenching
high school football contest, and, finally, to
Jimmy's father's death. This is a pulsating slice
of small town America as it used to be (and still
is in parts of rural America). As with any slice
of life, there are a few whiskey bottles among
the grown-ups and an equal amount of religious
righteousness—for those concerned about such
subject matter in the classroom.
It was a joy to read.