Flying Eagle

Sparse rhyming text and vivid illustrations make Flying Eagle a wonderful non-fiction option for young children. Author Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen uses rhyming couplets to tell of a father eagle hunting to bring food back to his family in the nest. As the eagle surveys the land, the reader is introduced to additional types of wildlife in the Serengeti Plain. Illustrator Deborah Kogan Ray utilizes a bold, warm color palette for the first two-thirds of the book, and then offers the contrast of deep dark blues and purples as evening sets. Animals pop from the pages against the colorful backdrops.

Flying Eagle is suitable for children ages 4-8. There are three pages of back matter that provide additional information about the tawny eagle and the Serengeti Plain in Africa. In addition, recommended resources are given for further reading and research.

 

Fenway and Hattie

If you are looking for a fun read aloud book for the whole family, try Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe. Winner of the 2017 Global Read Aloud award in the early reader category, this book will be a favorite for dog lovers as the story is told from the perspective of a dog!

Fenway is a feisty Jack Russell terrier who loves his owner, Hattie. When Fenway and Hattie (and big humans Food Lady and Fetch Man) leave their city apartment for a home in the suburbs, Fenway has a myriad of new challenges to overcome. Evil squirrels, a dog-less dog park, and the Wicked Floor. But none of these problems is as big as the possibility that Hattie may be drifting away. Fenway will have to think of a big plan to win back the affections of his favorite short human.

Fenway and Hattie can be read aloud to kids of all ages, but it will probably be most enjoyed by those ages 5-10. For independent reading, I recommend it for ages 7 (strong readers) to 10.

The Princess Diaries

On the hunt for a light-hearted young adult novel (I wondered… do they even exist???), I came across The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot. I enjoyed the movie starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews. I vaguely recalled that it had been based on a book, but I did not realize it was a YA book. On my next library trek, I picked up a copy, hoping for a breezy read. I wasn’t disappointed.

Main character Mia Thermopolis is an awkward high school freshman who learns that she is Princess of Genovia, a fictional European principality. She already has difficulty navigating school (algebra!), but now she has to take princess lessons from her grandmother, learn to live with the paparazzi, and deal with the fact that her mother is dating her algebra teacher. And that’s not to mention she is now trailed by a bodyguard all day long.

The Princess Diaries is the young adult counterpart to the adult Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Meg Cabot is delightfully funny. She mixes everyday occurrences with just enough of the ridiculous and over-the-top characters to create laugh-out-loud scenes. The diary format enables punchy one-liners and speeds the pacing. Cabot’s capture of a sarcastic but charming teenager is spot on.

A word of caution for those who are familiar with the movie: the book is SO very different. (Part of the entertainment for me was in identifying ways in which the movie deviated from the book.) The most glaring difference is in Mia’s grandmother Clarisse. The book character is completely opposite from Julie Andrews’s character in the movie. I suppose this may bother some, but to be honest, I often found book Clarisse’s blunt and rude comments hilarious.

I truly enjoyed both the movie and book, but I give the edge to the book. Even so, I do not believe the book is appropriate for young readers. The publishers suggest ages 12 and older but I would suggest 14 and older due to mature themes. The first book was innocent enough, but if a reader enjoyed the first book, then of course she would want to read the sequels. There are 10 young adult novels in the series, a handful of novellas covering short events that happen between some of the novels, and even a recently released adult book in which Mia gets married. There is more discussion of sex as the novels progress, because Mia is getting older. Nothing is overly explicit, but friends do talk about it. I find this to be true to the issues today’s teenager faces, so my personal stance is to not disregard it, but I would prefer my own daughter not read these books until she is in high school for this reason. Of course, each family will have to make its own decision regarding what is appropriate. Watch the movie with a younger audience if you would like, and then introduce the book to a high school girl looking for a quick and fun read.

The Sun is Also a Star

Natasha is a 17-year-old illegal immigrant from Jamaica who is going to be deported with the rest of her family at 10:00 p.m. Refusing to give up the hope of staying in America, Natasha spends her last day in New York City pursuing every last-ditch effort that will keep her family in the country.

Daniel is a Korean American high school senior who isn’t excited about the future his parents have planned for him. Instead of attending Yale and pursuing a career in medicine, Daniel would rather be a poet. After meeting Natasha, he falls head over heels in love with her, and his world is forever changed.

Exploring ideas of randomness, fate, and love, The Sun is Also a Star covers one intense day in the lives of practical, scientific Natasha and optimistic, passionate Daniel.  The story is written in alternating points of view (Natasha’s and Daniel’s), with occasional accounts from an omniscient narrator that provide backstory for minor characters. The result is effective and demonstrates how we are connected to one another.

The Sun is Also a Star is beautifully written and earned a National Book Award Honor for author Nicola Yoon. It would be a wonderful book to study in any contemporary literature or creative writing course. I recommend it for ages 14 and older, due to some mature themes and explicit language, though I believe it will especially resonate with young people ages 16 and older.

President Taft is Stuck in the Bath

If you are seeking a good laugh, then look no further. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen is a humorous interpretation of the speculative story that President Taft did indeed get stuck in his bath. Barnett’s prose is witty and comically irreverent. Van Dusen’s illustrations add another layer of hilarity to create picture book perfection.

Candlewick Press recommends this book for ages 4-8, but I believe all audiences will find great enjoyment in it. Young children will laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and the illustrations that play out Taft’s indelicate dilemma. Older children and adults will appreciate the incorporated wordplay as government officials are brought in to help Taft out of the bath.

There is some uncertainty as to whether Taft was ever stuck in his bath, but there are two pages in the back that recount some of the theories. In addition, there is a funny historical account of Taft’s factual interactions with bathtubs. As such, President Taft is Stuck in the Bath would be an entertaining supplement when studying this president in American history.

The Cat in the Hat – Elephant and Piggie

The Cat in the Hat forever changed the stigma of “early reader” in the best way. Challenged to write an engaging story that young readers could tackle themselves, Dr. Seuss created his masterpiece to promote literacy. The book has maintained “classic” status ever since it was published in 1957. Its popularity led to a sequel (The Cat in the Hat Comes Back) and spawned a whole series of easy reader books, some written by Seuss, some written by other authors. Many of these books are also classics in their own right (Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, Fox in Socks, Go, Dog. Go!), continuing to teach newer generations of children to read.

In 2007, fifty years after The Cat in the Hat debuted, popular author-illustrator Mo Willems introduced young readers to Elephant and Piggie. In under ten years, Willems created 25 books in his series, all done in comic-book style. Text is sparse and done in dialogue. The stories are engaging, full of heart, and always served with a heaping dose of humor. Adults and kids love Elephant and Piggie, and I know I am not alone in being seriously bummed that The Thank You Book, published last year, is the final book in the series.

Just like the Cat in the Hat, Elephant and Piggie have become iconic. Go out and find first and second graders and ask – they all know Elephant and Piggie! And just like the Cat in the Hat generated a new line of early readers, Elephant and Piggie now give their stamp of approval on early readers written by various authors.

The American Library Association (the same group awarding the Newbery and Caldecott Medals) created the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award in 2004 as a way of honoring Seuss’s contributions to children’s literature. The award is given annually to “the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished contribution to the body of American children’s literature known as beginning reader books published in the United States during the preceding year.” (For more information on the Geisel Award and to see past recipients, visit the ALA’s site here.) It’s fitting that several of the Elephant and Piggie books have either won or received honors.

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White

I’ve already mentioned several books illustrated by Caldecott Winner Melissa Sweet, but I didn’t want to leave this one out. In what was clearly a labor of love, Sweet wrote and illustrated Some Writer!, which is long enough to be a middle grade novel, but also has the feel of one of Sweet’s picture books.

Many will recognize E. B. White as the iconic writer of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan, but I doubt many know much about his life. Even though Charlotte’s Web is one of my favorite books, I admit I did not know what E. B. stood for. (Elwyn Brooks, for those interested.)

Sweet covers White’s life from beginning to end, enriching the narrative by incorporating writing from White’s letters, essays, and books. We read of White’s summers in Maine as a boy, and readers of Trumpet of the Swan will see how much nature inspired White, even at an early age. We learn about the connection to Professor William Strunk, Jr. that would later lead to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. We are introduced to White’s adventurous days in which he roamed from one end of the country, supporting himself by odd jobs and various writing gigs. We gain a deeper connection to White’s personal life in learning more about his wife, son, and stepchildren. White’s granddaughter, Martha, even provided an afterword and granted Sweet access to some of White’s personal items and letters.

There are chapters that discuss the background and making of each of White’s books. Young readers may be surprised to learn about White’s ongoing employment with the elite literary magazine, The New Yorker. Through captions and editorial comments, we witness White’s sense of humor and his love for playing with words.

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White is a great nonfiction read for those who love his work, and it is inspiring to future writers. The book is appropriate for ages eight and up, though I suspect older readers will catch more of the details that make the book so interesting.

The Canterbury Tales – The Inquisitor’s Tale

You’re probably scratching your head wondering why I’ve mentioned Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in a discussion of children’s literature. And if so, your confusion is well founded. No, I don’t believe The Canterbury Tales is a children’s book, but The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz is a beautiful middle grade novel that evokes the spirit of Canterbury.

In full disclosure, I must admit that I have not read The Canterbury Tales in completion, but I have read several of the tales. Here’s a quick background. The tales, many of which are written in verse, are a collection of stories that pilgrims share on their journey from London to Canterbury.

The Inquisitor’s Tale draws from this concept, but with a delightful twist. As in Canterbury, there are several storytellers, each with unique voices and points of view, but in this book they are providing pieces of the same tale. Set in thirteenth century France, the Inquisitor is assembling these stories to create a full narrative of three children, their holy dog, and their adventures.

Perhaps most remarkable, The Inquisitor’s Tale manages to feature Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and mysticism in a respectful way, without placing preference. Each of the children comes from diverse backgrounds. William’s parents are a crusading father and Muslim mother. He never knew his mother and has grown up in the care of a monastery, but his overall appearance is startling to the predominantly Caucasian medieval French population.  Jeanne (who the author named after Joan of Arc) is a peasant who has visions. Jacob is a Jewish boy who fled after a hate crime burned down his village and killed his parents. As to be expected, the children are first skeptical of one another, but they come to rely on each other, and eventually develop a deep friendship.

The Inquisitor’s Tale is a fresh story for kids, set in a time period and dealing with issues often overlooked in children’s literature. Gidwitz spent years researching, with help from his wife who happens to be  a professor of medieval history. Illuminations, drawn by Hatem Aly, enhance the story in the same way illuminations would have been added to medieval manuscripts.

The Inquisitor’s Tale would be a wonderful supplement to medieval studies, though the story is enjoyable on its own as well. Gidwitz provides several pages of his own historical commentary and a bibliography that includes sources appropriate for both kids and adults. The publisher recommends this book for ages 10 and up, which I agree with, but I do think it would be more appreciated by a reader at least 12 years old.

A Splash of Red

I had the pleasure of listening to Jen Bryant in a recent webinar. She has a passion for children’s nonfiction and finds interesting, but less known, subjects to feature in her narrative stories. After the webinar was over, I reserved all of the nonfiction picture books that my library had available.

The collaborations between Ms. Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet are especially wonderful. I will cover several of their books in future posts, but I thought I would first feature A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. I appreciate art, but I was unfamiliar with Horace Pippin before reading this book. I speculate that I am not alone in this.

Horace Pippin’s story is a wonderful example of perseverance. As a young boy, he loved to draw and paint, and showed promising artistic talent. After injuring his arm in World War I, however, Horace was no longer able to create the art he so loved. He eventually taught himself to use his left hand to support his injured right arm. As Bryant writes, “Pippin’s masterful use of color, form, and composition … is considered his greatest artistic strength.” His work was discovered by notable artists and critics during his lifetime, and today his paintings are displayed in museums across the country.

A Splash of Red would be a wonderful book to supplement studies in art, art history, and U.S. history. Although picture books are usually considered for younger children, older ones will enjoy this book as well, and it would serve as a fine starting point to introduce them to Horace Pippin.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie – When a Dragon Moves In

I’ve been highlighting a lot of books with heavy material, so I thought I’d lighten up the mood with a pair of fun books.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, written by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond, soon became a classic after it was published in 1985. It is commonly referenced as an example for not one, but two literary devices: the use of second person point of view and circular plot structure. The title phrase initiates the sequence of events that follows, and this simple action leads to comical situations as we read of a demanding mouse who continues to want more.

If you enjoy the “If you … , then …” cause-and-effect style of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, then you may like When a Dragon Moves In by Jodi Moore, illustrated by Howard McWilliam. This story starts , “If you build a perfect sandcastle, a dragon will move in.” We then follow a young boy’s day on the beach with his family and, of course, his dragon. The illustrations are cleverly done, and it’s left to interpretation as to whether the dragon is imaginary or real.

These are fun reads and there are others that follow. Numeroff and Bond collaborated on many more books, such as If You Give a Moose a Muffin and If You Give a Pig a Pancake, following their initial premise. Moore and McWilliam produced a sequel titled When A Dragon Moves In Again, in which our young boy copes with the arrival of a baby brother. All titles are appropriate for all ages, though the target audience is for kids 4-8 years old.