Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #27)

It’s the Bear!
Author and Illustrator: Jez Alborough
Published: 1994
Pages: 32
Age Range: 2+
Genre: Fiction/Picture Book
Cover Score: **** (the cover to the left is not the one I have, this one is a bit boring and would only merit a **)
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G (nothing offensive, though super sensitive or really young readers may find it a tad scary)
First Sentence: Eddie doesn’t want to come
And picnic in the woods with mom.

Eddie, his teddy and his mom are in the forest for an afternoon picnic. Eddie is nervous to venture into the woods, convinced a bear will come. Mom just scoffs at the idea; bears don’t live in their forest. But when mom realizes she’s forgotten to pack the pie she leaves Eddie to run home and get it. She’s soon a speck on the horizon and Eddie hears a great big bear coming his way! He scampers into the picnic basket. The bear with his giant teddy sit down and eat up all the food. When he reaches into the basket Eddie screams help, startling the bear that stands there in fright and watches mom walk up with the pie. Mom doesn’t see the bear behind her until he grabs the pie from her hands. She’s finally convinced Eddie knows of which he speaks and they all run away.

Eddie, his teddy, the bear and his giant teddy return in Where's My Teddy? Which is just as great.

Again, super brief rhyming text is perfect for tiny attention spans. Lots of action and flexibility for interpretations and voice changes (whispers, yells, gasps, screams) make it an easy one to liven up, act out and more. Suspenseful and scary on the most limited of levels, kids love it!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #26)

Most of the books that I read are those that come across my desk at work which means they’re usually new releases and current titles. Every once in a while we’ll get a re-release of something or a re-order that comes to my attention but those are few and far between. And because my TBR pile is more of a book itself these days (I think my Goodreads list is up to 700 books or so) I always feel mildly guilty re-reading anything. Luckily that guilt doesn’t transfer to picture books because they are so short. So, for the next couple of days I’ll be sharing with you some of my storytime standards. These often pack a more powerful punch than some of my own personal favorites; the colors tend to be a bit brighter, the storylines a bit simpler (my target group is 3-5 years old), the text brief yet carefully worded to get the most out of every syllable and often they are funny. That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy a quiet, lyric, wordy story with kids this age, you most definitely can and should! But when you’ve got a room of nearly 20 of them, often leaning towards the younger end of the spectrum, often the shorter the better (bonus if there are places for participation) wins out.

Edward the Emu
Author: Sheena Knowles
Illustrator: Rod Clement
Published: 1988
Pages: 32
Age Range: 2+
Genre: Fiction/Picture Book
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

First Sentence: Edward the emu was sick of the zoo, there was nowhere to go, there was nothing to do, and compared to the seals that lived right next door, well, being an emu was frankly a bore.

And there you have the premise. Poor Edward is tired of his life so each night while the zookeeper is sleeping he sneaks off to various cages trying out life as different animals; a seal, a lion, a snake. Overhearing the zoo’s visitors talk about their favorite animals gives Edward the inspiration for the next day’s adventures but one day someone brags that their favorite animal is the emu. Edward hurries back to his cage so as to not disappoint them but there’s someone else in his place!

The illustrations are done in colored pencil and are quite simple. The animals are realistic looking yet their facial expressions give them away (particularly Edward’s) as being anything but real. There’s a lot of white space, basically you’ve got just the animal with a simple prop (the seal’s ball, a tree for the lion to laze in, and the occasional fencing) but there is no horizon line, no sky, nothing else to detract from the animals themselves. And often they are shown close up, just heads, or in Edward’s case, just feet!

The text is well-paced rhyme and full of descriptors that beg to be acted out, various voices and Edward’s over-the-top reactions. The kids eat it up. Plus an emu’s not an overly popular animal so you get some great questions about what exactly Edward is. I’ve tied this in to zoo themes, Australian animals, animals in general, birds and self-esteem.

And if you like Edward you can re-visit him in the companion story...Edwina the Emu for more great fun!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Happiness is...the Olympics!

Or should that read 'are'? Or an added, 'watching'? (though that doesn't cover the whole experience...)

Either way, I heart them. A lot.

I love the spirit of camaraderie and unity and hope that brings so many nations together for one purpose. (Well, okay competition isn't exactly a unifying experience but the gathering is still incredible.) And I love that we as spectators can gather all around the world as well, watching and experiencing the same things at the same time, commiserating with each other over the losses and exulting together in the wins. There's just something powerful in having that much energy concentrated in one direction.

I'm a bigger fan of the sporting events of the winter games though I have been known to get a bit riled watching the swimming and gymnastics. But I think my favorite moments are the opening and closing ceremonies. They epitomize those unifying emotions when so much is focused on the gathering as a whole, the celebration and anticipation, the memories and the honors.

Ten years ago I was able to participate as a volunteer in the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and it was amazing. It was shortly after 9-11 and security was a huge issue as everyone was still a little unsure of how to deal with the masses of people in so many places and the general anxiety of the aftermath was still fresh in everyone's minds. There was an air of hesitancy and unease everywhere but as things got underway those pervading fears were replaced by hope, power, triumph and love.  The valley was awash in energy and goodwill and while there were the usual scandals and brouhahas the overall feeling was a positive one. And it was such an incredible experience to be in the middle of it all; memories to last a lifetime.

And get to I relive them just a little every two years when I hear the opening strains of the Olympic anthem, see the rings emblazoned everywhere, and get caught up in cheering for my favorite athletes.

And let's just throw out a love note to the host city while we're at it. How can you not love London? I think it's time to plan another trip to visit...

Big Ben
British Museum
Phone booth
St. Paul's Cathedral
Tower Bridge
Is it just me or are you all craving some fish n' chips? Mmm, or maybe some Yorkshire pudding or Cornish pasties? Or Cadbury chocolate and Digestive biscuits? Perhaps I just need a midnight snack...

Did you watch the opening ceremonies? Anything that can bring together James Bond, the Queen, Mr. Bean, Voldemort, Kenneth Branagh and Paul McCartney is brilliant in my book. Go to NBC's all Olympic page to see clips and catch up on all your favorite sports. You can also see further Olympic festiveness here. Now I must off, there's some drooling over Ryan Lochte to do!


Friday, July 27, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #25)

Stealing Freedom
Author: Elisa Carbone
Narrator: Robin Miles
Published: 1998
Age Range: 9-12
Genre: Historical Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ***
Rating: PG

First Sentence: (I don't remember!)

Thirteen-year-old Anne-Marie Weems is living a rather decent life for a southern slave in 1854. Her family resides in a home together in Maryland. Her father is free while the rest of them work for the Prices, an Irish family who mostly treat them well until drought hits, the master's crops fail and his gambling debts mount. Soon her older brothers are sold to slave holders in Alabama and the family fears they will never be together again.  Before the rest of the family can be separated the Underground Railroad and the Vigilance Committee step in. Her mother and sister's freedoms are purchased but the Prices refuse to let Anne go. She reluctantly moves with them to Rockville where she takes charge of their young niece who inadvertently teaches Anne to read and meets Alfred, a handsome slave who lives in town. But a plan is in the works to steal her to freedom and one night she is taken from her bed to begin a long and arduous journey north. Strangers risk everything to help her along the way.  First she spends months in hiding in Washington, DC in the home of a priest.  Her mother, father and sister are living just down the street yet no one knows she is there until just before it is time for her to leave again. Next she is disguised as a boy to make the journey to Canada where she is reconnected with an aunt and uncle and begins a new life as a free person.

I loved that you got to see more into the inner workings of the Underground Railroad, aside from just running and brief shelters in the dead of night. The author introduces you to black, white, slave and free characters who all take part in the journey (some aren't much more than mercenaries while others are involved for the obvious moral reasons) including people in other countries who donated funds to purchase freedoms when possible or to assist the cause by purchasing food, clothing and such.

Anne is young enough to have questions and not always understand what is going on but makes a lot of growth throughout the story.  She faces very adult situations and circumstances with just the right combination of naivete and street smarts to be believable and sympathetic.

I actually listened to this one as an audio book (hence the lack of first sentence above) and was pleased with the narrator. She spoke clearly and conversationally (sometimes they are so slow and precise it drives me bonkers to try and listen!)  She was no Jim Dale but she adopted voice changes to distinguish between characters and convincing accents (Irish, southern) when applicable. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #24)

Cat Girl’s Day Off
Author: Kimberly Pauley
Published: 2012
Pages: 334
Age Range: 10+ (technically it’s a YA but it could easily be handed to a younger reader)
Genre: sci-fi/fiction
Cover Score: * (After reading the book I could tell what they were trying to convey but I would have ignored it based on the cover had I just seen it on a shelf)
Overall Score: ***
Rating: PG

First Sentence: I opened the front door to my house and gagged.

Natalie can talk to cats.  She has a Talent for it. But no one knows that except her family and her two best friends and she’d like to keep it that way. Oscar and Melly are caught up in the celeb craziness that is sweeping their school. They live just outside of Chicago and go to the school used for filming Ferris Bueller's Day Off. A film crew is on location to shoot a takeoff, hitting all the famous spots and the two friends have signed on to be extras, convincing a very reluctant Natalie to join them.

When they watch a news clip of Easton West, a famous celebrity blogger and her 2 pets arriving in town to cover the filming Natalie notices that her cat (died pink to match West’s entire wardrobe) is yowling, saying that she’s been kidnapped and the Easton they all see is a fake. Since no one will believe a bunch of kids they take it upon themselves to solve the mystery and end up risking their lives and becoming heroes.

Mistaken identities, more kidnappings, gun play, hidden Talents, secret government agencies, a herd of cats, young love.  As they battle all of these and more Natalie comes to understand how special she is and how important her Talent can be in her family and to the world.

I wouldn’t pick this up based by on the cover though I can see why they picked all the elements they did, it’s just sort of blah (in spite of the bright colors.)  And I wouldn’t have picked it up based on the premise.  But it was a fun and silly romp through a fabulous city. The kids had fun and believable personalities. Natalie’s voice had just the right amount of sarcasm and self-loathing to keep it teen without becoming overly angsty. The celeb element (her friends over the top fan mania and the actors themselves) balanced nicely with Natalie’s more down to earth/who cares way of looking at things. She only got caught up in it all when she had to; her sense of decency and goodwill winning out over her need to lay low.  It’s not going to be a huge hit but it was a lot more fun than I was anticipating.

Here’s a taste:
“I’m going to swaddle you like a human baby,” I said.  Just hold still. You’ll be able to breathe, okay?”
He humphed, but lay there and let me swaddle him.  When I was done, he looked like one seriously ugly, furry baby, with only the front of his face sticking out.  I hoped that as long as I held him close to my chest, no one would notice.  Or maybe they’d just think I was babysitting a really ugly kid.  With a lot of pink facial hair.  And a lazy eye. (162)

And yes, of course I knew all of this sounded crazy.  There was no part of any of it that sounded remotely like normal life.  Like a normal person’s life.  But that wasn’t my life. It never had been. I mean, my little sister was doing calculus when she was three. My first good friend was a cat. My older sister was a human lie detector, and my mom had more patents than most people had cookbooks.  My dad could smell what you had for dinner two days ago if you didn’t brush your teeth well enough.  I was a freak from a family of freaks. (217)

It's sort of a soft, girly version of X-men that will find a fanbase within a certain niche of readers. As a plus for John Hughes fans, there was an author’s note giving some additional background on the movie and some of the locations mentioned in the book.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #23)

Fugitives (Escape From Furnace series #4)
Author: Alexander Gordon Smith
Published: 2012
Pages: 270
Age Range: 13-18
Genre: Sci-fi (dystopia)
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: **
Rating: R (violence and mayhem)

First Sentence: I wish I could tell you that my story ended here.

Incarcerated in Furnace Penitentiary for a crime he didn't commit Alex has spent his time fighting the system and looking for a way to escape. But now he's becoming one of the monsters who have held him prisoner and although he and his friends have escaped it's only a matter of time before he loses himself to a place he'll never be able to return from.

Perhaps it’s because this was the first of the series I’d read, or because I’d read so many rave reviews of the other 3 so I would know what was going on in this one, but I just didn’t love it.  It was okay and it was filled with action but I found the writing to be tedious in places (though how many ways can you describe bulging muscles, towering infernos or the end of the world?) and inconsistent.

And there's very little hope.  I like a dystopia/apocalyptic story probably more than the next guy but there’s got to be some hope somewhere, and something more than just revenge steering the action. Again, maybe there is an overarching theme to the series that just fell out of this installment  but it was far too bleak for me.

On the plus side, there's a super high body count and non-stop destruction that boys will appreciate!

Don't discount it just based on my opinion, and at least start with the first in the series but be forewarned it's super bleak and bloody.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #21)

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes
Author: Eric Litwin
Illustrator: James Dean
Published: 2008
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3-7
Genre: Picture Book/Fiction
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

First Sentence: Pete the Cat was walking down the street in his brand-new white shoes.

Pete’s groovin’ down the street in his great big white shoes. He loves his shoes so much he walks down the street singing this little song "I love my white shoes, I love my white shoes…" until he steps in a big pile of strawberries that turn his shoes red. But he doesn't get down, it's all good. Instead of throwing a fit or getting upset he adjusts his song. "I love my red shoes, I love my red shoes..." Until he steps in a pile of blueberries. Now his song sings the merits of his blue shoes. And so on. With a great little moral at the end. Keep walking along and singing your song cuz it's all good!

The large painterly illustrations in bright primary colors reach out and grab you while Pete’s chill attitude with his coffee and his banjo, his guitars and statements of ‘groovy’ will have you mellowly grooving right along with him.

Check out the video of the author reading it—guaranteed you’ll get it stuck in your head!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #20)

Author: Caragh M. O’Brien
Published: 2010
Pages: 361
Age Range: 13-17
Genre: sci-fi/dystopia
Cover Score: **** (note below)
Overall Score: ***
Rating: PG-13

First Sentence: In the dim hovel, the mother clenched her body into one final, straining push, and the baby slithered out into Gaia’s ready hands.

*The image here is not the same as the cover of the book I read. I couldn't find one that matched!  This cover would only rate a 2 or so in my opinion.  It's far less eye-catching.

In a not-so-distant future society is slowly rebuilding after a catastrophic climate change. On the banks of the Unlake (a dried remnant of Lake Superior) inhabitants live in two separate factions; those inside the walled city or Enclave and those outside. Inside are the privileged few, the wealthy who have regained some technology and have leisure time for education and recreation, while those outside are peasant-ish, fighting for bare necessities and paying tribute of their goods and lives to those inside.

Sixteen year old Gaia is a midwife, her mothers' apprentice. She has just delivered her first successful solo birth when she learns her mother and father have been taken by city soldiers. When she sneaks inside to help them escape Gaia is forced to question everything she has ever known or believed about her life. Things are not as rosy in the Enclave as Gaia has always imagined, there are cruelties and harsh government rulings and hereditary disorders that threaten their very lives.

Each month the town is required to pay tribute of their first 3 births, sending the newborns to live in the Enclave where they are promised a life of ease and opportunity. But inbreeding and lack of knowledge have led to many problems. The Enclave is sure that Gaia’s mother holds the clues to the bloodlines that will help strengthen the genetic pool and rebuild the population. But she is in prison and refuses to reveal what she knows and now Gaia must trust her despite not knowing the truth.

This was a fairly interesting premise but I just could never get myself into it. The writing was fine but nothing jumped out at me as exceptional. Gaia was a relatively strong female character (which is always good) but I never found myself feeling overwhelmingly drawn to her and her plight. It wasn’t a miserable read by any stretch but I probably wouldn't have pushed through it if it weren't for the fact that I have to read the sequel for a work review. (You might also chalk it up to my summer reading overload and having a desire to read a bit more in the fluff department.)

Did the sequel grab me? Did it build or fizzle? You’ll have to wait until next week when I tell you all about Prized to find out.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #19)

Author and Illustrator: Elisha Cooper
Published: 2012
Pages: 32
Age Range: 2-6
Genre: Picture Book/Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

First Sentence: Homer sits on the porch.

Homer is a loyal dog, the canine patriarch who sits patiently on the porch all day while his owners and various other characters come and go off to the beach, the field, the market, and the water. And he's there to welcome them all when they return home again. As night falls he moves indoors and gets cozy in a big blue chair to keep watch again as everyone sleeps.

There’s not much more to the story than that. It's serene and simple and shows the love and loyalty of many of our animal friends.

Cooper has a way of successfully capturing the grand scope and importance of the usually mundane. His other books include quiet accolades to farm life, the beach, county fairs, and even construction sites. His soft watercolor and pencil illustrations rendered in pastel hues lend a peaceful air to the scenes and breathe comfort and familiarity from the pages. These are books that will invite solemn rereads and contemplative poring over each and every spread. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #18)

Princess Academy
Author: Shannon Hale
Published: 2005
Pages: 314
Age Range: 10-14
Genre: Fantasy
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****1/2
Rating: PG

First Sentence: Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat.

I’d decided to re-read this one in anticipation of the release of the sequel later this summer and then found that Ms. Hale was going to do a read-along on her blog this month.  I’d intended to follow along but once I got into the story again I couldn’t read just a chapter a day, I’m too impatient.

Miri is a young girl living in a mountain village with her father and sister.  Her mother died just after giving birth to Miri and because she is so small she’s always been kept out of the quarry where everyone else works, young and old.  She feels unimportant and unvalued in many ways because of this and has struggled to find a place among the other girls her age who share the gossip, stories and experience of the quarry that Miri has missed.

But her sister is good to her and she has her best friend Peder.  Though lately their relationship has become a bit strained and awkward thanks to Miri’s evolving feelings for him.

One day troops from the ruling city come to tell them that the next princess has been prophesied to come from their village.  All girls of a certain age must leave their homes to attend a school to train them in preparation for a ball where the prince will choose his wife.  Many of the girls are ecstatic for a chance to leave the sleepy town and experience the world outside and daydream of their fairy tale lives with the prince.  But most of them are anxious about leaving their homes for the first time and that anxiety increases when they meet their tutor who is harsh and exacts unfair punishments on them for so many things.

Over the course of many months Miri stands out as an exemplary student and finds herself in competition with Katar, an older girl determined to win the prince’s affections. Miri spends part of the time in isolation from the other girls who believe her to be a stuck-up trouble maker though eventually she finds friendship with Britta, another outsider. Several experiences prove to the other girls that Miri is a born leader and her quick and far thinking allow them to earn extra privileges, make life a bit more fair under Tutor Olana’s rule and eventually ends up saving their lives.

This would be a fairly straight-forward story except for the aspect of quarry speech which gives it a bit of a fantastical bend.  The linder stone the villagers quarry seems to have nearly mystical properties.  Through it the villagers can communicate in a telepathic sort of way.  This figures prominently in the story on multiple occasions and is a key in helping Miri to find her path and personal strength.

I love Hale’s writing style and attention to detail. Her descriptions stay true to the voice of her narrator as if it were someone from the mountain village telling the story of someone they knew.  All of the images are based in things familiar to the people she is talking about.  For example:

One more snowfall, then the clouds retreated higher than any mountain.  Winter’s grip eased, and the sun seemed to lean closer to Mount Eskel.  It was painfully bright, the sky a hot blue.  The hard crust of snow softened and patches of earth emerged, showing green things rising out of the mud and pushing up onto the hills.  The smell of the wind changed—it felt thicker, richer, like the air around a cook pot.  Spring was stretching on the mountain.  (pg 113)

If you want to follow along with the rest of the read-along it’s not too late to start.  And be sure to look for the sequel, Palace of Stone, coming out in August.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #17)

Bink and Gollie: Two For One
Author: Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee
Illustrator: Tony Fucile
Published: 2012
Pages: 79
Age Range: 6-10
Genre: Fiction
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

First Sentence: “Gollie, do you think we should go to the state fair?”

What a silly question. Of course they should and they do. And they get into a bit of trouble along the way. The girls are back and still just as mismatched but loyal as ever.

First up is a stop at the Whack-a-Duck booth where the man in charge uses all his charms to persuade Bink to try for the prize. Bink has a strong arm but unfortunately she also has horrible aim and the man comes to regret his efforts (or at least he will once he regains his senses!)

In the subsequent stories the girls find various ways to support each other and make the best out of some interesting situations. Gollie’s polished romanticism and Bink’s grit and determination balance against each other nicely proving that opposites can and do attract, often with very happy results.

The text is sparse but doesn’t keep to a limited vocabulary as a beginning reader typically does, making this a better choice for an early reader. It reminds me of a slightly more grown up (and humanized) version of Elephant and Piggie. It has the same charms; the deceptive simplicity in both word and picture, the honesty of the ups and downs of life and friendship captured in a net of good humor, spot-on pacing and drama with the ‘all is right in the world’ ending. They are so realistically portrayed that you see yourself or people you know in their characteristics, actions and responses.

The illustrations are primarily black and white, color being used sparingly to highlight the direct action. As the girls walk up to the Whack-a-Duck booth, the only other color besides them is the booth manager and the giant donut prize. The rest of the fair grounds is there in detail (on most pages) but fades into the black and white background drawing your eye to the girls and their immediate circle of influence.

Conclusion: Love them! I hope we’ll continue to see more of them in the future. Don’t forget to check out their first adventures in this book if you haven't already.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #16)

A Home for Bird
Author and Illustrator: Philip C. Stead
Published: 2012
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3+
Genre: Picture book/fiction
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: *****
Rating: G

First Sentence: Vernon was out foraging for interesting things when he found Bird.

The story begins on the publication page with an illustration showing a small wooden bird being bounced from his cuckoo clock and off the back of a moving truck.  The text introduces us to Vernon, a toad who finds Bird. While Bird is unresponsive to all of Vernon's questions Vernon is patient and a good friend, introducing him to porcupine and skunk, taking him with on his adventures but finally deciding that perhaps he's sad because he misses his home. So, they ready a boat and leave home and Vernon's old friends trying many new places to live but none seem quite right. Bird still says nothing and Vernon is sad. Eventually with the help of a rooster (weather vane) they find a small house with a truck outside and a battered cuckoo clock inside.  Vernon fixes up the door and settles in amongst the ticking innards and in the morning all is well!  It’s a lovely little tale of friendship.

I love Stead’s illustrations.  They are sketchy and imperfect (which makes them perfect!)  Vernon is reminiscent of Frog and Toad and he is just so genuine and sincere.  One could only hope to have a friend as loyal and willing to turn each of our quirks and flaws into a positive trait; when Bird fails to answer Vernon declares him ‘shy’ and ‘brave’ and he readily sacrifices and sets off into the unknown for someone who has given him next to nothing in return.

Vernon does get discouraged but he’s also very determined and this loyalty and determination pay off in the end with an exuberant image of triumph on the closing page. It’s simply told with no wasted words or actions and each illustration carefully adding charm to the already charming story.  Highly recommended!

Happiness is...a busy weekend.

This weekend was one of those non-stop, go go go, type.  I wasn't home for longer than about 20 minutes at a time other than to sleep. I got nothing done (in the way of laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning or other 'responsible adult' type activities.) But it was a pretty great one anyway.

Friday night I headed into town to visit the Jazz Church with a group of friends.  The Westminster Presbyterian church hosts live performances every Friday (and Blues on Monday) and serves up soul food in the basement. There were plenty of 'amens' and a bit of preaching about how God loves jazz (I'll add my own 'amen' to that!), along with the fantastic music. It was a great way to start the weekend.

Saturday began with a delicious brunch (cinnamon bananas over German pancakes topped with buttermilk syrup, red potatoes and leeks, bacon, orange juice...are you drooling yet?) and then a drive to Annapolis for an Irish Festival.

My great friend K is my musical guru and the one I follow blindly to concerts and bands I've never heard of before.  She has yet to lead me astray and Saturday was no exception.  The goal for the day was to listen to Scythian, a local band that is influenced by everything from bluegrass to klezmer and puts on a rousing show.  It was super hot but they were hotter! We were up and clapping and stomping our feet and Miss M even had a run-in with some wandering belly dancers.

We were also treated to plenty of kilts (though I'm not sure why, only in the US would that fly, everywhere else people would realize that the Irish and the Scots are NOT the same!) and plaid in various forms (check out the pants below!) as well as some bagpipes and LOTS of beer and drunkenness. Good times!

We followed it all up with a stop at  The Queen Vic, a British pub in DC where I had a tasty chicken and mushroom pie, fantastic chips (fries) and the crowning dish, sticky toffee pudding.  I'd never had it before but I became an instant fan! The cake is moist and drenched in a caramel-y toffee sauce and served with a side of heavy whipped cream. I guess it's usually sweetened but ours was salted giving it an interesting salted caramel taste. And it was delicious!

But wait, we're not done! Then it was time to switch friends and drive an hour or so down to Stafford for dinner and a movie night (Five Guys and Goonies!) followed by some homemade ice cream. Does it get any better?  I don't think so either.  And yes, I think I gained at least 5 pounds in the 2 days, but it was totally worth it!
How was your weekend?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #15)

Grave Mercy
Author: Robin LaFevers
Published: 2012
Pages: 549
Age Range: 13-17
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: *****
Rating: PG-13

First Sentence: I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch’s poison that my mother used to try to expel me from her womb.

Seventeen-year-old Ismae’s life has been one of extreme hardship. Mistreated by her father since she was tiny she has just escaped an arranged marriage to an equally cruel man and finds sanctuary at the convent of St Mortain. Here everyone serves the god of Death and they're trained as assassins to kill those who bear his marque. Eager to please and have a purpose in life she looks forward to exacting some justice on men in general, a group she assumes to be as cold and heartless as her husband and father had been.

Her first real assignment leads her to the high courts of Brittany where she poses as mistress to Gavriel Duval, step-brother to the duchess whose life and rule is in danger. She uses her feminine wiles to spy and gain information about the plots to assassinate the duchess and take over the duchy, while watching for evidence of the marque on those she comes in contact with.

She receives guidance from her convent but as she comes to know the people she is working with she realizes that some of the orders and decisions don’t make sense. She doubts their accuracy and worries that there is an ulterior motive or spy in their own midst. And then she has a visit from Death himself. Can she serve him the way she feels or is she losing her nerve and her heart?

Set against the reign of Anne, Duchess of Brittany in 1485 there is much history at work here but it is solely as a backdrop for Ismae’s story. There are stark differences between Ismae’s upbringing with its deep cruelties and her extreme wants and the lushness of the life she finds at court. The descriptions gently lull you into the time and setting, while you are being swallowed up in the intrigue of the plot.

There is a hint of magic surrounding the old gods and Ismae has some superhuman abilities including being immune to poison, otherwise it’s quite realistic.

This is a beautifully written book, the dialogue feeling authentic but not overly flowery or formal. Ismae’s progression throughout the story is believable and natural. I love that she was able to move beyond her past and refused to let others dictate who or what she should be. She took guidance and help when needed but learned to take charge of her own fate and decisions. And I appreciated the aspect of forgiveness and growth; too often the emphasis is on judgement and revenge, forgiveness being seen as a weakness. This passage shows some of her conflicting thoughts and what she must overcome:

“How did you sleep?” he asks politely.
I risk glancing at him, expecting to see a glint of amusement or a smirk. Instead, there is a hint of concern. It is this kindness of his that unsettles me most. I can dodge a blow or block a knife. I am impervious to poison and know a dozen ways to escape a chokehold or garrote wire. But kindness? I do not know how to defend against that.

This is a great historical fiction for those who don’t like historical fiction. The touch of fantasy makes you forget that the bulk of the premise is based on true events. It’s a fun escape and the first of a trilogy so watch for more to come!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #14)

Author and Illustrator: Ed Vere
Published: 2007
Pages: 24
Age Range: 2+
Genre: Picture Book
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

First sentence: Banana!

Using just the two words 'banana' and 'please' Vere tells the tale of two monkeys; one with a banana and one without.

The monkey sans banana (wearing a red shirt) sees the other monkey (wearing a blue shirt) holding a banana and exclaims 'banana!'  While blue monkey looks a little panicked and clutches the banana protectively against his chest red monkey's shoulders droop in disappointment. 'Banana?' He queries. A temper tantrum ensues while blue monkey looks on eventually encouraging red monkey to eek out the word 'please'. He hands it over only to have his own feeling of disappointment as red monkey runs off in triumph and begins to eat it. Blue monkey also utters a desperate 'please' and the two monkeys split their prize, both happy with their piece of the 'banana!'

This is one of those books that makes me think 'hey I could do this!' It's so simple. But it's so effectively done. A great read-aloud option with a variety of voice options and inflections, short enough that even the tiniest of listeners will be engaged. There is no distracting background scenery, just the two monkeys and the banana, the background color echoing the emotion being portrayed. A large 12x12 format makes it ideal for a large group.

The endpapers are bright colored graphic blocks with an image of a banana in the front cover and a banana peel in the back.

Why is it that 'banana' is such a funny word? I have to admit that while reading it to myself I read the word 'banana' in the voice of a Minion. Have you seen the trailer for the second movie yet? Here, let me oblige you...

And if you can't get enough of bananas, try this book. I promise you will giggle along with Elephant and Piggie.  Or there's this wordless option that's also pretty great.

I think I see a 'banana' themed story time in my future!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Happiness is...a free Slurpee!

Do I really need to add anything else?  What a great way to celebrate Summer and cope with the crazy heat!  Happy 7-11 Day!

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #13)

I, Galileo
Author and Illustrator: Bonnie Christensen
Published: 2012
Pages: 32
Age Range: 8-12
Genre: Biography/Picture Book
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

First sentence: I, Galileo Galilei, am old and can no longer see, but there was a time when I saw all the way tot the stars--the moon, the planets, the sun.

Told as if in Galileo's own words this starts with a simple biography of his childhood in Pisa. Taught by his father and encouraged to think and experiment he was an ever-curious boy. He loved the life of a scholar he was introduced to when he was 11 but his father wanted him to become a doctor. After some disagreements the two found a middle ground.His curious nature caused him to be unpopular and eventually he left for Padua and Venice where he made his greatest discoveries and devised the first telescope.

Galileo spent time studying the surface of the moon, sun and the phases of the planets and while in the Medici's court in Florence discovered the sun to be the center of the universe. Remembering Copernicus' issues with the church after his declarations along the same lines, Galileo chose to keep his findings to himself for many years. Finally, when a friend became pope Galileo thought he would have the freedom and protection to declare his findings but he was summoned to an Inquisition and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The last page shows Galileo as an old man (as he was when he began telling his story) and although imprisoned he has the faith and hope that the truth will eventually shine forth.

This was a great introduction to Galileo’s life. It gave you just enough to understand why he’s someone you need to be reading about and will encourage many to want to know more. Personally I'd love to read more about him, especially his last days and time of imprisonment to know if that attitude was factual. I'm always impressed with stories of people who do hard things because they know to their core that it's the right thing to do. I'm not sure I could be so strong.

It was also fun to read about places I've seen in real life. I was able to visit Italy several years ago and saw many of the locations noted, including the church where Galileo’s lantern still hangs. He’d observed it swinging back and forth like a pendulum and legend has it this is what started him thinking about the rotation of the planets.

A note on the publication page tells us that the illustrations are gouache resist with oil paints and they are lovely. They have a rich Renaissance sort of feel to them--deep blues, reds and golds mimicking the illuminated texts of the day. Small panels of additional illustrations show the various versions of the universe (as it was previously understood and the Copernican system) as well as samples of his scientific notes and insets of his instruments.

A few extra touches: the endpapers (!) include a richly illustrated map of Italy and the stars on the cover are raised and glittery.

There is also some great back matter: a preface that sets the stage for the time and culture surrounding Galileo's birth in 1564, an afterword explaining his effects on the world we now live in,
a chronology, a list and simple explanation of Galileo's experiments, inventions and improvements and his astronomic discoveries as well as a bibliography, additional websites and small glossary.

This is a great introductory resource and would be a valuable addition to any library!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #12)

So You Want To Be a Writer?
Author: Vicki Hambleton and Cathleen Greenwood
Published: 2012
Pages: 186
Age Range: 10-14
Genre: Non-Fiction
Cover Score: **
Overall Score: ***
Rating: G

First Sentence: You pull into the parking lot of your favorite bookstore, knowing that this time it’s not going to be jut to meet your buddies. Someone else is expecting you—YOUR FANS!

This is a starter how-to guide full of encouragement for young aspiring writers. It’s chock full of information to get you started including:
  • short bios and sketches of famous/established authors telling how they got started and sharing their writing habits
  • q&as with young authors
  • tips on finding the time and space to dedicate to your writing
  • establishing your style and voice
  • a collection of resources for writers
  • how to work with a writing group
  • basic story archetypes and genres
  • quizzes and exercises
  • journaling and prompt ideas
  • the publishing process (proposals, contracts, agents, publicity)
There’s not really anything new here but it is very accessible and user-friendly, and the tone is encouraging and empowering. It’s a great start-up for the target audience, full of tips and advice.

I even found a few great reminders for myself:
  • You can’t be a writer if you’re not writing!
  • Learn to trust your gut.
  • Focus on the writing and expressing what you feel inside and don’t worry about the rest. (For now!)
Fiction and non-fiction, poetry, journalism, screenplays, and lyrics are all touched on so anyone who is interested in writing of any kind should find something to get them going!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #11)

The Duckling Gets a Cookie
Author and Illustrator: Mo Willems
Published: 2012
Pages: 32
Age Range: 2+
Genre: Picture Book
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

First sentence: (From the title page.) I do not like the look of that title.

After pigeon's initial declaration of foreboding we see duckling 'scooty scoot, scoot' onto the page and politely ask for a cookie. One miraculously falls from the sky (it even has nuts!) and he's most grateful. Pigeon comes along and throws a pigeon-like fit listing all the things he asks for (all the time) and fails to get, sort of like a 'best of Pigeon books' moment. It all ends with a pigeon-sized pout. Duckling takes it all in stride and when he's yelled at one more time he confesses he got the cookie so he could give it to pigeon. Pigeon is knocked momentarily speechless. He thanks Duckling and walks away munching on the cookie and singing Ducklings praises. When he's gone Duckling looks out at the audience and politely asks for another cookie. This time with no nuts!

Willems' comic timing is golden, his deceptively simple sketches convey more emotion and meaning than most of today's working actors, his story lines cut right tot he heart of the drama and angst of being a child, he can pretty much do no wrong! If for some reason you've been living under a rock for the last 10 years and haven't seen or heard of these books (or Knuffle Bunny or my personal faves Elephant and Piggie) get thee to a bookstore or your local library stat!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #10)

Miss Annie: Rooftop Cat
Author: Frank LeGall
Illustrator: Flore Balthazar (Coloring by Robin Doo)
Published: 2012
Pages: 40
Age Range: 6-9
Genre: Graphic Novel/Fiction
Cover Score: **
Overall Score: *
Rating: PG
First Sentence: At night, all cats are gray.

I’m pretty easy to please. I’m not generally a harsh critic. If a book has one redeeming quality that wins me over I’ll often overlook or even forget about the otherwise glaring flaws. Wish I could say that about this book.

Originally published in France this is the story of Miss Annie, a cat who finds new freedom when her owners install a kitty door. She’s anxious to venture outside but her friend Keisha the mouse is worried Annie will find mice outside and eat them. (And Miss Annie confesses she might not be able to help herself.)

In three short chapters we follow her on her nightly adventures where she meets up with two older cats, gets into fights with some mean alley cats (where one of her friends dies), and she ends up saving the life of a little mouse who wanders into the middle of the scuffle.

Back at home she overhears her owners talking about the operation that will keep her from getting into trouble when they put her out at night and she must fend off the attention of various cats who yowl at her as she walks the streets at night. She brings home the rescued mouse and he and her friend Keisha get married and proceed to have a little of babies. The older girl in the family talks to boys, the human mom is knitting tiny socks, and Annie starts going out at night to meet another cat, Alexander.

That’s it. And it’s not told in much more detail than that. Even though it’s a short graphic novel and took me all of about 10 minutes to read I was completely bored! Add to it that the underlying theme of the story seems to be sex and babies and it all feels a bit heavy-handed when the target audience is only about 6. (Maybe it’s a French thing?)

The dialogue is stilted and awkward that can possibly be blamed on poor translation and there is a lot of mean name calling and degrading comments from both the animals and the humans. Even the artwork was just sort of blah. Overall? Boring!! Not recommended.  (Though you don't have to take my word as law.  The customer reviews on Amazon both gave it 5 stars!)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #8 & #9)

My Snake Blake
Author: Randy Siegel
Illustrator: Serge Bloch
Published: 2012
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3+
Genre: Fantasy/Picture Book
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
 Rating: G

First sentence: I was in my room, hiding from my homework, when my dad knocked on the door, handed me a big box with a red ribbon on top, and shouted: "Happy Early Birthday!"

A young boy is surprised one day with a package from his eager father (mother, not so pleased). Dad quotes the Declaration of Independence in defense of letting the snake (for that's what lay hidden under the wrapping paper) out of his cage. Mother is aghast until the snake twists and curls its body into a cursive 'hello' greeting followed by his name, Blake. Blake is very polite (he never bites anyone or does anything bad) and helpful (he does the dishes and helps the boy with his homework.) He even eats unwanted Brussels sprouts and guards against bullies. Blake is a very handy pet to have around.

The premise, the illustrative style, even the muted red/green color palette is generously borrowed from the pages of an old favorite, Crictor by Tomi Ungerer. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact, fans of one will most undoubtedly love the other. And those who are not necessarily fans of snakes (such as Mother and this reader) will find themselves charmed and wishing they knew one just like Blake.

It's simple, it's silly, it's just the perfect touch of fantasy to take the edge off a dully realistic world. Perfect for inspiring daydreams as to what other secrets animals may be hiding from us and what we might do if we knew.

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One for the Murphys
Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Published: 2012
Pages: 224
Age Range: 9-12
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: *****
Rating: PG

First Sentence: Sitting in the back of the social worker’s car, I try to remember how my mother has always said to never show your fear.

12 year old Carley Connors has ended up in foster care. Growing up with her mom in Vegas wasn't so bad. Sure they shopped at the Goodwill dumpster under cover of darkness and sure mom was rarely there when Carley came home from school but there were the surprise birthday celebrations and Little Mermaid song fests. They were surviving fine on their own until mom decided to marry Dennis and Dennis decided to beat them both. When Carley leaves the hospital mom is still unconscious and Carley's carted off to live with the Murphys.

Now she’s got to deal with little boys who can’t seem to get enough of her (even the one who resents the attention his mom gives to Carley), and a ‘mom’ who can somehow see into Carley’s soul. She’s not sure what she’s feeling or how she should treat these people who are strangers yet far more accepting than any blood relative Carley’s ever known. As she opens her heart to this new family she learns how to love and forgive and trust and begins to heal the family she was born with.

Mrs Murphy is too perky, their family too happy and perfect. It scares Carley and she doesn’t know how to handle it. She had no idea life could be like it was sometimes portrayed in the movies. Sure the boys fight sometimes and Mr. Murphy doesn’t seem to like her much but all in all its worlds above the life she came from.
Carley is a fantastic character.  She has some OCD-like tendencies she uses to help her cope like looking for patterns in words and numbers she finds (believe=lie (right in the center!), silent=listen, friend=end) that give us a little insight into the way she thinks and processes.  She's angry, hurt and bitter with some snarky and rebellious proclivities but rather than letting that dictate who she becomes she finds ways (with help from those around her) to deal with the emotions and grow from her experiences. She does this most effectively when she begins to realize that she's not the only one with problems.  Stepping outside of herself and helping the people around her transforms both herself and the person she is helping.

Carley's forced to make some tough decisions and despite the practically perfect world the Murphys seem to live in things are not all sunshine and unicorns and the ending, while satisfying and right, is not a neat and tidy typical 'happy ending'. I appreciated the author keeping it realistic and hard and not failing us all with something trite and shallow.

Here's a sample of Carley's voice throughout the book:

 She picks up the backpack that Family Services gave me, which has a stuffed giraffe, a toothbrush, and a pair of bright yellow fairy pajamas that remind me that there are worse things than death. The stuffed giraffe is good, though. Anyone who has had her whole life shredded in one night should have a stuffed giraffe. (6)

It’s like when Mrs. Murphy kept trying to get me to try Hawaiian pizza. I thought it sounded gross. But I finally tried it, and I love it. I guess sometimes you don’t know what you want because you don’t know it exists. (154)

“So what are you doing?”

“Do you mind if I ask about what?”
“My new book. It’s called Giving Tree Meets Chainsaw and Becomes Coffee Table.”
“Oh boy.” She takes a deep breath. “So we’re in that kind of mood, huh?”

There’s a great section on The Giving Tree (see above) which I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with and many a shout out to Stephen Sondheim’s Wicked which I love, love, love. There are countless mini-lessons on unconditional love and learning not to judge on appearances that she learns from the people she interacts with but they blend seamlessly into the story and don't feel preachy.

I loved getting into Carley's head.  Her story made me ache for her and so many who are real pieces in 'the system' of foster care and family services.  I found myself praying that there would be enough Murphys out there to find them all. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happiness is...independence.

I finally have electricity again and despite the heat and humidity and craziness of the past week or so I am so grateful to live in a land where we are cared for and have the blessings that we do.  Yes, we have our flaws (many of them, I'm afraid) but for the most part we are good people trying to live good lives and I'm "proud to be an American."

Now, go watch some fireworks and eat some watermelon and have a happy 4th everyone!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #7)

The One and Only Ivan
Author: Katherine Applegate
Illustrator: Patricia Castelao
Published: 2012
Pages: 305
Age Range: 8-12
Genre: Fiction
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: *****
Rating: PG

First Sentence: I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Ivan lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Living with Mack, the owner, for most of his life, Ivan has come to accept his circumstances and make the most of them by forgetting what little he remembers of his family and life in the jungle. His friends (Stella the elephant, Bob ‘a dog of uncertain heritage’, Julia the custodian’s daughter) are a comfort to him and all is well until a baby elephant arrives to help boost the failing circus’ revenue. Ruby is inquisitive, constantly pestering Ivan and the others for stories and answers to all of her questions. She inadvertently helps Ivan remember what his life was like before and the animals decide they must do what they can to make sure that Ruby has a better life than the one she’ll get in her small cage at the mall. Ivan has always been an artist, creating images out of mud when he was tiny and crayons and paint once Mack discovered that people would pay for a gorilla original. Ivan uses his talent (with a little help from Julia’s interpretations and understanding) to start a campaign to get them homes in zoos where they will have room to roam and grow.

Told in first person verse-like narrative, we see life through Ivan’s eyes and thoughts. We feel his pain as he is taken from his family and his longing for gorilla companionship and the taste of the wild again.

"Some animals live privately, unwatched, but that is not my life.
My life is flashing lights and pointing fingers and uninvited visitors. Inches away, humans flatten their little hands against the wall of glass that separates us.
The glass says you are this and we are that and that is how it will always be."**

“You could try remembering a good day, “ Stella suggest. ‘“That’s what I do when I can’t sleep.”
Stella remembers every moment since she was born: every scent, every sunset, every slight, every victory.
“You know I can’t remember much,” I say.
“There’s a difference,” Stella says gently, “between ’can’t remember’ and ‘won’t remember.’”
“That’s true,” I admit. Not remembering can be difficult, but I’ve had a lot of time to work on it.

The harsh realities of life are not glossed over. Humans are shown in light of their cruelty to animals. Death, neglect, ignorance; all are touched upon and a young sensitive reader might find it a bit too much. But it’s not graphic and opens the doors for great discussion and most will have their eyes opened to a reality they may not have otherwise imagined. And all is not dismal. There is much hope in the friendships and outlooks of the animals and many humans who seek to do right by them. The wise Stella even states:

“A good zoo is how humans make amends.”

Applegate uses Ivan’s memories to shed light on some of the gorilla’s habits and natural tendencies, particularly in family groupings, food, nurturing, displays of emotion, habitats etc. These are balanced nicely in the narrative giving readers some facts about the animals she’s humanized.

I loved Ivan’s story. While animals are definitely wild and not to be treated as anything but, that doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings and even personalities (anyone with a pet can attest to that fact.) By remembering they aren’t that different from us we might seek to treat them better than we do…there’s a fine line between giving them the respect they deserve and seeking to make them human. This is a simple yet powerful story of the rights of all creatures.

And I loved this quote by George Eliot found in the front:
                                  ~It's never too late to be what you might have been. 

I think that might have to be my new mantra!

I hope everyone has a wonderful 4th of July tomorrow.  For those of us here in the States it means a day off in the middle of the week full of cookouts and fireworks and basking in the sun (and by that I mean trying not to die of heat exhaustion!)  But I will be enjoying it all from the comfort of my now air-conditioned house! That's right, the power is finally back on. Hooray for little miracles!!

I'll just warn you right now that there may be no book post tomorrow, but I'll give you two on Thursday to make up for it!

**apologies for the lack of page numbers here...I will remedy that as soon as have a copy in my hands again but I am way down at the bottom of a long hold list!