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Half a Man

Half a Man.jpgTitle: Half a Man
Author: Michael Morpurgo
Illustrator: Gemma O’Callaghan
ISBN: 9780763677473
Pages: 53 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, text copyright 2005, 2006. Illustrations copyright 2014.

I would wake up then, shaking in terror and knowing that my nightmare was not yet over. For my nightmare would always seem to happen just a day or two before Grandpa came to stay. It was a visit I always dreaded. (4)

Michael’s grandfather was in the navy in the war when his ship was torpedoed and sunk. His grandfather considers himself one of the lucky ones since he didn’t die, but the burns have permanently scarred and affected his body. Told not to stare at his grandfather, Michael has difficulty connecting with a grandfather who doesn’t smile, doesn’t laugh, and doesn’t look like anyone else he knows. Eventually, they find common ground over silently fishing and reading when Michael visits his grandfather at his Sicily island cottage, and Michael may be able to use that connection to reconnect the rest of his family.

This is a quiet book, and one that may be better suited for adults or as a graduation gift then for middle school students, in the same way that Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go” is often given as gifts to adults. The obvious message is that, regardless of how his grandfather describes himself, he is not a “monster man” or “half a man”. It could be used to encourage conversation about what makes a man, or exploring their own family history, especially with the recently passed Veteran’s Day so closely preceding Thanksgiving. Symbolically the illustrations by Gamma O’Callaghan never show the grandfather’s current face and we only see a glimpse of what was in an old photo towards the very end of the book. It’s left up to the imagination to see the grandfather. The pictures sparsely depict the settings and invoke a reflective and melancholy mood with the primarily blue and gray drawings, accented by a specific shade of brilliant yellow and orange. The variety, from small insets to full double-page spreads, force the reader to slow down and absorb the short story and aid tremendously with the pacing of the book.

Sunny Side Up

Sunny Side Up.jpgTitle: Sunny Side Up
Author/Illustrator: Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Colorist: Lark Pien
ISBN: 9780545741651
Pages: 217 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.

”Are we going shopping for new swimsuits for the beach today?”
“Sunny, I have some bad news. We won’t be going to the beach house after all. Your dad thinks it’s best that we cancel the trip.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie.”
“But what about Deb? What about all our BIG PLANS?”
“We thought of something even more fun for you to do instead! We’re going to have you visit Grampa in Florida. You’ll get to fly down all by yourself! A ‘big girl’ trip. Doesn’t that sound fun?” (191-192)

Ten-year-old Sunny Lewin will not be visiting the beach house with her family and best friend as planned, but instead has been sent to Florida by herself to spend the remaining weeks of her summer vacation with her grandfather in a 55+ community. The only other person even close to her age is a boy named Buzz, the son of the care-taker. He introduces Sunny to catching lost cats and fishing golf balls out of the ponds to earn spending money for comics. As Sunny learns about the secrets these superheroes keep, her thoughts keep returning to the secrets in her own family that have forced her into this position. Should she have said something sooner? Should she say something now?

I spoke with a colleague about the problem with problem novels recently. Problem novels need to have it as an aspect of the novel, and not have the problem monopolize the plot. An African American character does not always have to overcome racism, a transgender person does not always have to come out of the closet, and a disabled person does not have to always triumph over adversity. As I mentioned in my review of the Great Good Summer, it’s important to see kids dealing with all sorts of problems.

But there is very little action in the sleepy senior citizens community in Florida. The big mystery of the book is why Sunny was sent to Florida, and readers don’t even realize there was a specific reason for this until half way through the book. While revealing her concerns eases her internalized tensions, it doesn’t really solve the problems that caused them, and her struggles aren’t well represented in the visual format of a graphic novel. Multiple flashbacks allude to something sinister, but it is vague and takes too long to develop. The bright colors conflict with the subject matter, which I hesitate to call more mature but is definitely different than the lighter fare of Roller Girls or Smile, which I think is the audience that would be appealed by the cover. I wonder if Sunny’s talk with her grandfather could really make a lasting impact in her life. Even in the author’s note, Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm state that they wrote the book “so younger readers who are facing these same problems today don’t feel ashamed like we did” and encourage readers to “reach out to family members and teachers and school counselors,” but doing that will not solve the initial problems that caused these feelings. This is a very different book then Babymouse or Squish, and I think readers will be surprised.

Welcome to Gotham Academy

Welcome to Gotham AcademyTitle: Gotham Academy: Welcome to Gotham Academy (Vol. 1)
Series: Gotham Academy #1-6
Authors: Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher
Illustrator: Karl Kerschl
ISBN: 9781401254728
Pages: unpaged (approximately 150 pages)
Publisher/Date: DC Comics, compilation copyright c2015. (originally published in single magazine form as GOTHAM ACADEMY 1-6, c2014, 2015.)

This place has an impenetrable history.
These old walls are built with even older stones.
Every stone has a story…
…but not every story has a happy ending.

Olive Silverlock is beginning her second year at Gotham Academy after an unmemorable summer. That’s not because nothing happened, she is literally having trouble remembering what happened. Her mom was in the hospital, there was some sort of accident, she really doesn’t like bats… it’s all a little hazy. She’s taking a break from her boyfriend Kyle, although new student Maps Mizoguchi that Olive is supposed to show around just happens to be his little sister. There’s a ghost haunting campus that is terrifying her roommate and making some of her classmates act really strange, with Tristan following her, Pomeline and Heathcliff may be trying to speak to the spirits, and she’s spending detention shooting the breeze with class delinquent Colton. What happened to her last summer, and what’s going to happen to her now?

I feel like I should know who Olive Silverlock is connected to the Batman mythos, but I guess I’m just not up on my comic book characters enough to know if she is a new person or someone we’ve seen previously. The ghost plotline was tied up nicely by the end, but it still left enough dangling threads to want me to read on. We also know a little more about Olive and her mother, but still not enough to answer all the questions. There is more to her than meets the eye, and I think what little we see of Batman confirms that he might realize that as well, as he seems previously acquainted with her, both as Batman and Bruce Wayne. The flashbacks are tantalizingly vague about what happened last summer. I’m a huge fan of the artwork, which utilizes a diverse color palette and a variety of panel layouts and mood lighting. Readers get access to a script excerpt and cast designs with commentary, which I think of as a behind the scenes glimpse of the creation process that you rarely get with textual books. In a back cover blurb, Nerdist describes it as “a little bit CW television series and a little bit Harry Potter, with a  wee touch of manga-inspired storytelling” but I think I’d probably compare it more to early Buffy meets Harry Potter, although I guess maybe Buffy was a CW television series before it was the CW. I do see the manga influence, but I’m glad it’s not manga, and it maintains its DC Comics roots.

Rain Reign

Apparently September is National Preparedness Month. Go figure! I just recently read a book taking place during a hurricane, so I thought I’d share it (even though the week focusing on Hurricanes was last week… shh!).

Rain ReignTitle: Rain Reign
Author: Ann M. Martin
ISBN: 9780312643003
Pages: 226 pages
Publisher/Date: Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan, c2014.

”Now I will tell you something troubling about fifth grade. It isn’t as troubling as what happens later in the story when my father lets Rain outside during a hurricane, but it is still troubling. For the first time in my life I’m being sent home with weekly progress reports that I have to give to my father. The reports are written by Mrs. Leibler and read and signed by Mrs. Kushel, which is my teachers’ way of saying that they’re in agreement about my behavior. The reports list all of my notable behaviors for Monday through Friday. Some of the comments are nice, such as the ones about when I participate appropriately in a classroom discussion. But most of the comments make my father slam the reports onto the table and say, “Rose, for god’s sake, keep your mouth closed when you think of a homonym,” or, “Do you see any of the other kids clapping their hands over their ears and screaming when they hear the fire alarm?” (7-8)

Twelve-year-old Rose Howard has several conversation starters to help her communicate without mentioning her special fascination with homonyms, including “My official diagnosis is high-functioning autism, which some people call Asperger’s syndrome. Do you have a diagnosis?” With the assistance of a school aid she survives the school day, but she finds real joy when she is picked up from school by her Uncle Weldon and spends her afternoons with her dog Rain. Against all assurances from her frustrated father, Hurricane Susan hits with unexpected force. When her father lets Rain outside and she doesn’t come back, Rose is intent on finding her, leading a methodical but ultimately heartbreaking search.

Readers will have to get used to the presence of homonyms, as when a word is used in the narration Martin frequently provides the other one (won) or two (to, too) accompanying homonyms. It does accentuate this specific quirk, and allows for insight into how Rose’s mind works, but it also could prove frustratingly repetitive to some readers. Surprisingly, even though Rose makes an effort to distinguish between homonyms and homophones on the very first page, there’s no mention of homographs and she herself uses the word homonym throughout the book, which seems incongruous with her adherence to rules and accuracy regarding what more specifically are homophones. Possibly the first time I’ve seen a full-time classroom aid in a work of children’s fiction, this portrayal along with the insight in school policy and procedures cast a new light on individuals who may require an individualized learning plan. It also succinctly displays the days preceding, during and the aftermath of a large natural disaster, with displaced people and pets, flooding, power outages, supply shortages, and many more details that most people don’t consider.

It’s difficult not to admire and appreciate Rose’s earnestness. She knows what is right and wrong, and even when it has a negative impact on her, she uses those rules to understand the world. I am so happy that she had Uncle Weldon to turn to and who understood her. While the overall mood of the ending is questionable, I think it was the right ending for this sensitive story, and I think readers might walk away with a new point of few.

Squirrel Stories

After reading Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins, I found myself turning to picture books as well for some squirrel fun. Here’s some suggestions, both old favorites and some newer publications.
Nuts to You Ehlert

Nuts to You by Lois Ehlert

This story is the epitome of a squirrel behaving badly, digging up the flower bulbs, stealing the birdseed from the bird feeder, and ultimately getting in the house! What do you do to get him out!? Another favorite that I read regularly this time of year is The Busy Little Squirrel by Nancy Tafuri. The colorful, cheery illustrations show the industrious squirrel darting from here to there, focusing on the task at hand of getting ready for winter. This book explains the actions of Ehlert’s squirrel as just looking for more good food to stock away.




Those Darn Squirrels

Those Darn Squirrels by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri

A more recent story about squirrels and their love for food. An old man loves to paint the birds and hangs feeders to encourage the birds to stay. The squirrels see the feeders as a buffet of food, and the man makes several attempts to thwart their thievery. But the squirrels have a plan of their own to gain access to the food, especially after the birds leave. There are several ways of making your own bird feeder out of any recycled plastic container, whether it’s a milk jug, peanut butter jar, or water or pop bottle. Another easy way is coating a pinecone with peanut butter and rolling it in seeds. There are two sequels, including Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Door and Those Darn Squirrels Fly South.
Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next DoorThose Darn Squirrels Fly South











Leaf Trouble by Jonathan Emmett with pictures by Caroline Jayne Church

Instead of causing trouble, one squirrel has troubles of his own. The collages overlaid on ink drawings appear three dimensional, and you could almost reach out and touch the leaves as they cascade around Pip Squirrel. In a rendition of Chicken Little, Pip is distressed that the oak tree he lives in is losing his leaves and enlists another squirrel to help him put them back on the tree. Mama Squirrel comes along and explains what’s going on in simple language, making it clear that Pip has no need to fear. Bring some leaves in from outside and make your own leaf rubbings by placing a sheet of paper over a leaf and rubbing it with the side of a crayon.

Earl the Squirrel

Earl the Squirrel by Don Freeman

The author of Corduroy uses scratchboards to present black and white illustrations accented with a red scarf that Earl receives from a friend. Earl is tasked with finding his own nut, but will the scarf be a help or a hindrance with his search? Earl uses his scarf in several ways, and you can challenge your little one to find different ways to use a scarf.

Merle the High Flying Squirrel

Merle the High Flying Squirrel by William Peet,

For those children with longer attention spans, there’s Merle, a squirrel overwhelmed by the noise and afraid to leave his home. He heads out in search of tall trees and quiet forests instead of the bustling city he currently lives. After reading this story, either take the kids outside for a walk in the woods, make a kite of their own and see how high it can fly or talk about different things you can find in different parts of the world, like mountains, the ocean, deserts, and forests.

The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara

Although not primarily about squirrels, they are featured in a unique setting that’s perfect for rounding out a story time in this book that has received a fair amount of buzz.

Since once I started looking I seemed to find a fair number of squirrel book, I’ll end this post with a brief round-up of some other titles I found. Aw, Nuts! by Rob McClurkan is another brand new book that reminds me of the animation of Fairly Odd Parents portraying the misadventures of Scrat, the saber-tooth squirrel from the Ice Age movies. Just like Scrat, this squirrel is chasing the perfect nut, and nothing will prevent him from reaching his goal. Beatrix Potter didn’t just write about Peter Rabbit, but also Squirrel Nutkin in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Melanie Watts has created a whole series around Scaredy Squirrel who is too afraid to leave his tree. Two more recommendations include Delicious by Helen Cooper, showing that even picky eaters can be convinced to try something new, and Never Trust a Squirrel written Patrick Cooper and illustrated by Catherine Walters, with a guinea pig learning from a squirrel that you should probably know how to climb before entering fox territory.
Aw Nuts! Tale of Squirrel Nutkin Scaredy Squirrel

Never Trust a Squirrel












What am I missing? Leave your squirrely selections in the comments below.

Nuts to You

Nuts to YouTitle: Nuts to You
Author/Illustrator: Lynne Rae Perkins
ISBN: 9780060092757
Pages: 259 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2014.

I was watching the carefree squirrels when, all at once, one of them jumped onto the end of the bench where I was sitting and looked with interest at me, and then, meaningfully, at my sandwich. Quite calmly, he stepped closer. That’s bold, I thought. A little too bold. I tore off a bit of my sandwich and was about to chuck it as far as I could, figuring he would take off after it, when he spoke.
“Please, don’t throw it,” he said. “would you mind just setting it on the bench? I’m not as spry as I once was.” (2-3)

Age isn’t the only thing that has changed the squirrel, as the human is about to find out. The squirrel’s story starts with Jed being picked up by a hawk and escaping it’s clutches. His whole family assumes his untimely end except TsTs, who sees him fall and is adamant that he is alive and needs her help to get home. With Chai following her across the buzzpaths, from huge frozen spiderweb to frozen spiderweb, they quickly realize they aren’t the only ones interested in the buzzpaths and spiderwebs. Humans are cutting trees down, and they are heading towards their home! Now it’s a race against time as Chai and TsTs not only fear for Jed’s survival but also the well-being of the families they left behind. Will they be able to alert them in time, and will they even listen to the unbelievable warnings?

The first thing I noticed about the narration is that Lynne Rae Perkins presents the squirrel’s world in squirrel language, and allows the pictures and contextual clues to let the reader know what is being described. For instance, the buzzpaths and frozen spiderwebs are utility lines and towers. The “great beak that sometimes sings but never opens” is a sailboat, and cars are really big beetles that humans crawl inside and come out of undigested but that move like boulders. She also recognizes regional and species differences, with some of the squirrels not recognizing pine cones and describing the trees as having different shaped leaves and smells. I admired her skill at doing all these things realistically, although she does implant a little magical realism since she’s having a squirrel share this story with a human. Her illustrations also aid in imagining the world from a squirrel’s perspective.

Jed, TsTs, and Chai seem to be more adventurous and smarter than the average squirrel in their group. They can figure things out and are willing to change their beliefs based on current events. Although their characters and personalities are almost indistinguishable from one another, their interactions move the story along at a steady pace. Quick comebacks, author asides, and silly puns leave readers smiling. A fun read overall, possibly a read-alike for Flora and Ulysses fans who are squirrely for more.

Caldecott Honorees and Winner 2014

The American Library Association Youth Media Awards were announced in January, and I’m slowly working my way through the winners and honorable mentions. The Randolph Caldecott Medal is awarded for the most distinguished American picture book for children. There was one winner and three honor books named this year.

LocomotiveTitle: Locomotive
Author/Illustrator: Brian Floca
ISBN: 9781416994152
Pages: 64 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, c2013.

I had actually included this title in a local newsletter article about train books, so I will let my earlier comments about the book stand on its own. For older readers, there is the incredibly detailed Locomotive by Brian Floca. Starting with the cover and continuing inside on more than one occasion the watercolor illustrations appear to burst from the page. The book follows the story of a family traveling by rail across the country from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California in 1869. You’ll find this title not with the picture books, but with nonfiction due to the detailed narration. Packed with information, Floca uses short sentences that mimic the steam engine, and his generous use of onomatopoeia means the pages are filled with banging, clanging, huffing, puffing, and chugging. The various jobs on board are distinguished from one another, and the mechanics of the train are outlined not only in the text but also in the back jacket where steam power is explained with words and pictures. Pay careful attention to the little details too, as each station and location are identified by name and small details such as the cowboy’s horse running away at the sound of the train might be missed on first glance.

Three Caldecott Honor Books also were named, with two out of the three Caldecott honorees this year being wordless and the third one is nearly wordless. Has it ever happened where all the honorees are wordless?
JourneyTitle: Journey
Author/Illustrator: Aaron Becker
ISBN: 9780763660536
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press,c2013.

Bored children have been escaping into other worlds for years, including Max in Where the Wild Things Are, Harold with his purple crayon, Alice and her looking-glass, and the siblings who visit Narnia through the wardrobe. The same applies to this unnamed young lady in Aaron Becker’s wordless picture book. With her dad on the computer, her mom on the phone, and her big sister on a handheld device, the girl draws a door on her bedroom wall with a red crayon and escapes into another world. The red crayon creations, including a boat, a hot air balloon, and a flying carpet, pop against the primarily blue, green, gray and yellow landscapes. The other part of the pictures that is unique is the purple bird that requires the girl’s help to escape its own cage. It is a story of imagination brought to life, and two kindred spirits finding each other at the end.

Flora and FlamingoTitle: Flora and the Flamingo
Author/Illustrator: Molly Idle
ISBN: 9781452110066
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Chronicle Books LLC, c2013.

Personally, this is not my favorite honoree. On minimalistic white backgrounds bordered by pink flowers, a girl in a yellow bathing cap, pink swimsuit, and dark flippers tries to imitate the actions of a flamingo. Initially perturbed by the unwanted admiring copycat, the flamingo eventually extends a wing and they engage in a ballet that ends in a cannonball and a bow. While the fold out spread works for the double page cannonball spread, there are other pages with lifting flaps that I think instead would have worked better as a page turn. But you can definitely see the author’s background with Dreamworks, which is mentioned in the back jacket biography. The emotions are beautifully portrayed through the body language and slight changes in facial features for both the girl and the flamingo.

Mr. Wuffles!Title: Mr. Wuffles!
Author/Illustrator: David Wiesner
ISBN: 9780618756612
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2013.

I talked in my Coretta Scott King post about authors and illustrators whose names have come up for awards again and again and again. David Wiesner is one of those people for the Caldecott. He has won the award three times (Tuesday, The Three Pigs and Flotsam) and this honor now makes three honors (Free Fall and Sector 7). Give someone else a turn already! But I do see the appeal and the reason for the ongoing admiration. This latest title appears to be partially influenced by Wiesner’s own cat, and the observations of the cat’s attitudes and movement show. There is disdain towards a handful of toys until Mr. Wuffles the cat stumbles across a tiny silver spaceship occupied by even smaller green spacemen. We can’t say the work is completely wordless, as the cat’s owner courts the cat with new toys at the beginning and end of the story, spacemen talk in geometric symbols and the ants they encounter communicate with tiny dots. But the thing that really caught my attention was how Weisner conveyed the sense of motion with the cat, especially on the penultimate page where we see multiple tails as it flicks back and forth in anticipation. It’s a technique that is repeated several times in the book, designating motion with the cat’s paws and head. The pictures are vibrant, colorful, oversized, and action packed as the aliens try to repair their broken ship and escape the cat with the help of their new ant friends. And those claws on the cat… Watch out! Give this to any cat owner, as they will be able to relate.


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