Monday, August 27, 2012

a few words of wisdom

(So, it's taken me nearly two years to realize the redundancy in my post titles...obviously the gift of observation is not one I possess!)

I spend a lot of time worrying. I worry about the fact that I may have made incorrect decisions in the past that have lead me to this place where my destiny won't be able to find me.  I worry about all the things in the present that I should be doing or that I'm not doing enough of or doing when I should be doing something else or not doing as well as someone else does it.  I worry that I won't recognize all the right choices that I need to take advantage of in the future. And I worry that I spend too much time worrying!

This weekend was one filled with worry.  Worry for the future, the unknown hows and the whens and what ifs. Worry that I've wasted time doing all the wrong things and not even doing them well and looking at all the people around me who seem to have it all together and seeing my lack and negligence and deficiency.

And after feeling emotionally and spiritually drained of all hope and confidence I read this passage:

Isn't it sometimes discouraging to see just how easily the adversary uses such earthly issues as vanity and worry, envy and pettiness to distract us from our divine mission and the unity we could enjoy in [life]?  We all get discouraged and distracted--caught up in the thick of thin things--no matter how good we are.  But do we have time, energy, or emotion to waste on what dress to wear or whose living room is the loveliest?  We have real things to think about...We need to drink more deeply and be filled more fully for the work that lies ahead of us...(T)he things that swirl around us are not us and...the demands on our lives are not life itself. **

It was a perfect, timely reminder to 'let Go and let god' as one of my friends likes to say. I'll always be a worrier, but some things merit the efforts of my worry more than others and most things that eat up my energy and peace of mind are not the things I need to be concerned about. Easier said than done of course but still something to shoot for and something to remember and just hearing the words in my head granted me a bit of serenity that I desperately needed.

I'm so grateful for others who go before us imparting their experiences and wisdom and making the way just that much smoother for the rest of us.

**This and much more comfort and great insights can be found in the book A Quiet Heart by Patricia T. Holland. It's one I re-read again every couple of years to remind myself of forgotten truths.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Happiness is...a song and a dance.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of Gene Kelly's birth.  One of my favorite people ever, he did everything from sing and dance to act, direct and choreograph, and he did it all with style and panache. I love the description from NPR's article, he's "athletic, acrobatic,...[and] astonishing.'  Sums it up nicely.  He has this effortless way of moving that makes you feel like you could jump up on tables and slide across counter tops, skip through the gutters and balance on rooftops and look amazing doing it.

Here are a few clips to make you happy (cuz how could they not?!)

I've never actually seen this movie, but wow.  Roller skates? I'm going to have to befriend someone with a Netflix account so I can watch the whole thing.

And from one of my favorite movies of all time...not his signature scene but an equally fabulous number all the same.

(And Donald O'Connor is always a fun addition.)

I can acknowledge the fact that the world is full of some incredibly talented entertainers today, but there are just some incomparable people who have come and gone that will never be equaled. And Gene Kelly tops that list.  The world is simply a poorer place without him.  Thank heavens for film and modern technology that lets us celebrate his legacy and his life long after the man himself is gone.

Happy birthday, Mr. Kelly!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Happiness is...a bookish quote.

In the few days I've had of recovery from my dirge of summer book reviews I've been able to slow down a bit and savor my reading more than I have the last few months. It's been glorious.  Our weather has cooled considerably and it's almost pleasant to be outside again and I crave a few stolen moments to just be...with a book, with nature, with nothing to do!
My friend has a lovely print in her living room which I covet every time I go there that sums up my feelings exactly.

Oh for a book and a shady nook,
Either indoors or out,
with the green leaves whispering overhead,
or the street cries all about.
Where I may read at all my ease
both of the new and old,
For a jolly good book whereon to look
is better to me than gold 
~John Wilson

How have you been spending your week?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #40)

The Martian Chronicles
Author: Ray Bradbury
Published: 1997 (my edition)
Pages: 268
Age Range: adult
Genre: science fiction
Cover Score: **
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG
First Sentence: One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.

This book began as a series of short stories, first published in sci-fi magazines during the 40s, before being pulled together as a complete work in 1950. Because of this, it sometimes feels episodic and disjointed but somehow the overarching story still flows.

The year is 2030 (an interesting note, the tales were originally chronicled from 1999 to 2026 but as those actual years approached the dates were pushed back to 2030 and 2057) and man has arrived on Mars with dreams of a new utopian society. But soon enough the commercialism, elitism and other -isms take over. The Martians are mostly killed, subdivisions and cities are built and life proceeds much as it has on earth. Earth, meanwhile, has problems of its own. Those on Mars hear all about the wars and destruction on the radio and worry about the people they've left behind. Soon there is a mass exodus and Mars is left abandoned and destroyed in its own way. But the end hasn’t come just yet.

Mirroring the tragedies of the British Empire, the colonization of North America and the crimes perpetrated against the Native American Indians, various wars and the current threat of nuclear annihilation, the stories give an interesting view of the evolution of humanity. On the surface it seems as if the message we take is that man is inherently evil and will ruin anything they touch despite their best intentions. But it is those same intentions that make us human and have led to inventions, progress, the arts and other positive things just as much as they’ve given us war and corrupt governments and religions. We have a long way to go but all is not lost.

I love this discussion between two priests who have gone to help ‘convert’ and ‘save’ the Martians. Earlier in the exchange they discuss the nature of sin and the idea that since these Martians are more advanced in some ways (and obviously not so much in other ways) and have physical bodies very different from humans there will most likely be a host of new ways to commit sin that the priests won’t have encountered before and they must be on guard. This eventually leads to the following discussion on the nature of God:

At nightfall Father Peregrine and Father Stone were high in the hills. They stopped and sat upon a rock to enjoy a moment of relaxation and waiting. The Martians had not as yet appeared, and they both felt vaguely disappointed.
“I wonder—“Father Peregrine mopped his face. “Do you think if we called ‘Hello!’ they might answer?”
“Father Peregrine, won’t you ever be serious?”
“Not until the good Lord is. Oh, don’t look so terribly shocked, please. The Lord is not serious. In fact, it is a little hard to know just what else He is except loving. And love has to do with humor, doesn’t it? For you cannot put up with someone constantly unless you can laugh at him. Isn’t that true? And certainly we are ridiculous little animals wallowing in the fudge bowl, and God must love us all the more because we appeal to his humor.”
“I never thought of God as humorous,” said Father Stone.
“The Creator of the platypus, the camel, the ostrich, and man? Oh, come now!” Father Peregrine laughed.
But at this instant, from among the twilight hills, like a series of blue lamps lit to guide their way, came the Martians.


I love imagining God as someone with a (pardon me) wicked sense of humor. And I love that Bradbury mixes religious musings into an alien story.

Bradbury passed away not too long ago and I failed to make note of his passing here earlier so let me do so now. He was one of those people with a gift, but one that wasn’t always appreciated by the masses. Our book club just finished reading Something Wicked This Way Comes and everyone described how they had a really hard time getting into it yet those same people had fallen completely under the spell of Dandelion Wine when we read it last year. His writing style is unique and takes some getting used to.

He has a bit of the Stephen King twistedness about him, dark and sometimes disturbing, but it’s infused with poetry and imagery and truth. I like to think of him as sort of a literary Picasso. He uses words (or in Picasso’s case, colors, shapes and subjects) that we all know but combines them in ways that are unfamiliar and jarring and make us just a little uncomfortable. But after we’ve sat with them for a while, made them a part of our lives, lived with them we begin to see the genius and the beauty behind them for they portrays things that are recognizable in a way that betrays their perfection, flaws, current reality and future potential all at the same time. And sometimes that’s hard to accept.

If you haven’t read any of his works I implore you to do so now. If you want something a bit more ‘normal’, go for Dandelion Wine, a highly fictionalized account of Bradbury's own Midwestern childhood. But if you want a taste of his dark genius, start with The Illustrated Man (short stories, easy to digest one small piece at a time) or Fahrenheit 451. All brilliant.


It's hard to believe this is the last post! It's been a long and busy summer at the library and elsewhere (and I still have a few things to squeeze in before Labor Day when summer is 'officially' over.) I decided not to tally up the pages read and how many of which author and genre and whatnot like I did last year.  But I did make a few discoveries and decisions along the way. 

One-Next year will be declared the year of the re-read. I've got so many favorites I haven't had a chance to revisit in awhile and I'm going to make sure I give myself permission to return and savor them. They may become the focus of the summer reading extravaganza (if i do it again!) as well.  Second-I've already mentioned the lack of photos I've taken the past few months, so in September I'm going find me one of those photo-a-day challenges that float around every now and then and see what I can do with it. We'll see what happens!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #39)

How to Save a Life
Author: Sara Zarr
Published: 2011
Pages: 341
Age Range: 12+
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG-13

First Sentence:I am writing in response to your Love Grows post from Christmas Day.

Jill's father was killed in a car accident and part of her died with him. Unable to truly move on her relationship with her mother is fractured, she's pushed her friends away, she's on the outs with her boyfriend and to top it all off her mother has decided to adopt a stranger’s baby. Jill thinks this is the most ridiculous idea she's ever heard and is even more convinced when Mandy, the teenaged mother, arrives. She's spacey and strange and doesn't seem to be telling the truth about much and Jill is sure her mother is going to get hurt again. But Mandy has a few reservations of her own and while the two don't get along they end up helping each other to figure out life.

The two girls are vastly different, each dealing with their own set of world-shaking experiences and coming to them with their individual sets of wisdom and understanding (as well as wonderings, questions and confusions.) Mandy has spent her life basically unloved in a broken household, surviving on the skewed advice from her often-missing mother. She has some street smarts but very twisted ways of coping. While Jill’s life has been filled with love and support in many ways she’s been very sheltered and only recently has been forced to face some of the hardships of life. Told through their alternating perspectives, I loved watching each of them grow and come into their own both on their own and together. Here’s a sample:

Jill’s voice-
Despite all the love lectures and even though I just said it to Dylan, sometimes I’m not sure I know what it really means to say “I love you.” These days with Dylan—when we’re together—it’s more friendly and cozy than romantic and exciting, but it still soothes me. Isn’t that more caring about myself, though, than loving him? Shouldn’t love have at least a little to do with the other person, separate from yourself? But how can you see anything or anyone in the world apart from yourself? I mean, everything we experience is subjective, since we have no way of experiencing It other than through our eyes. And I get to thinking that love is just a word we use to describe what boils down to a selfish and temporary state of happiness. (91)

Mandy’s voice-
I didn’t yell back at my mother. When I’m angry or scared or upset, I don’t yell. I stay quiet. I’ve seen how she is, how she would get with Kent and with me and with other people, like if someone at the pharmacy got in the wrong line or asked too long a question, or if someone on the bus accidentally bumped her. I’ve watched her my whole life, the way people react to her. It doesn’t actually help you get what you want, yelling and being like that. It only makes people think bad of you.
Sometimes it’s more powerful to say nothing and keep still.

Zarr is one of those authors who has developed a sort of cult following and has been the darling of many awards and ‘favorite’ lists. I’ve read one of her other books and it just failed to impress me. It wasn’t anything I was sorry I read, but it didn’t reach out and amaze me like it did so many others. I don’t know that this one would make it onto any of my top reads but I found myself relating to both of the characters in various ways and getting equally caught up in their sagas. There are some hard concepts—rape, abuse, death, teen pregnancy, family dynamics, relationships and love—discussed, but done without feeling overly heavy or preachy which is often difficult to do. I could definitely understand Zarr’s appeal after reading this story.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Happiness is...a few of my favorite things recently.

*naps on the beach
*Rita's frozen custard creations
*grilled corn on the cob with rosemary lime butter
*blowing bubbles
*a fabulous sunset (photo stored on my phone of average intelligence, meanwhile this person with equally average intelligence has no idea how to get it off...but just close your eyes and imagine it, it was spectacular!)
*a concert under the stars
*fresh blackberries with mint
*Olympic fever!
*midnight breakfast at the Waffle House
*booking hotels for an upcoming trip
*homemade basil lemonade
*dinners and celebrations with friends

I'm such a slacker on the photo front lately! I'm not sure why but I just haven't been on the ball with all of this so I apologize for the lack of images and documentation. My summer has consisted of more than just food I swear!  I promise to do better from here on out :)

As the end of summer draws near I always feel this rush to squish in just one more quintessential summer memory. I still have a few things to work on from my summer to-do list and a few things that I've added along the way but so far there are no complaints. How has yours been?

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #38)

13 Treasures
Author: Michelle Harrison
Published: 2010
Pages: 355
Age Range: 9-12
Genre: Fantasy
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG
First Sentence: She was aware of their presence in the room before she even awoke.

Tanya has always been able to see fairies. She’s tried to deal with them but every time she mentions them to anyone (or even simply writes about them in her journal) they torment her and make her life miserable. When her mother finds her in strange predicaments and Tanya offers no real explanations her mother makes her life miserable. When her mother can’t take it anymore she ships Tanya off to her grandmother’s house so they can all recoup.

Tanya and her grandmother have never really gotten along. Tanya always feels as if she’s a burden to be borne and as if she can’t do anything right. The house, a secluded and rundown countryside manor, is full of locked doors and surrounded by dark woods. Fabian, the groundskeeper’s son, is the same age and while a nuisance is her only friend. Together they get tangled in the mystery of Fabian’s grandfather, old Amos who lives upstairs, and a girl gone missing from the village many, many years ago. And then there are the babies and children that have disappeared in the last few months including one newborn from a hospital just a few days earlier. How do they all tie together and what do they have to do with Tanya?

This is a dark fantasy. Fairies and goblins aren’t Disneyfied and cute but amoral and often vindictive. There is extensive background on original fairy lore and their interactions with humans. It shouldn’t be too dark for most kids, but it definitely has a bit of a gothic chill about it. It’s well written with an old-fashioned feel to it, (think The Secret Garden but with menacing fairies) giving it a timeless quality though it is set in modern day England. Fans of The Spiderwick Chronicles will appreciate it as will those who enjoyed Fablehaven but want a bit more of the lore and like mystery rather than an adventure.

Apparently it's also the first in a trilogy.  Look for the sequels, 13 Curses and 13 Secrets as well.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #37)

Under the Never Sky
Author: Veronica Rossi
Published: 2012
Pages: 376
Age Range: 13 up
Genre: Sci-fi/Dystopia
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG-13
First Sentence: They called the world beyond the walls of the Pod “the Death Shop.”

Aria lives in the enclosed city of Reverie. When her mother, a scientist, disappears, Aria does everything in her power to find out what has happened to her and in return she is thrown out of the city into the wasteland. Surprisingly she doesn’t die but is picked up by an Outsider, Perry, who is searching for his nephew taken by the Dwellers (those who live inside.) Reluctantly they form an uneasy alliance to search for the answers they both need.

After severe electrical storms and droughts, society moved in doors for protection. To keep them all from going stir crazy Realms or alternate virtual realities were created where people could experience anything and everything they could imagine.

There is some appeal to the Dwellers way of life. Always wanted to fly? Wish granted. Time travel and a million other things are basically possible by visiting the various Realms and experiencing things few have ever had the chance to before. Also medical advances are such that people no longer feel pain or age (unless you choose to experience some semblance of it in a Realm). Most don’t realize the danger but Aria has picked up on some of the flatness of the beauty. The rocks for example are computer generated through an algorithm creating subtle variances to a master design. If you look too closely you’ll see the sameness of them and the Realm loses a bit of its magic.

The Outsiders have adapted for survivals sake, many evolving and developing super heightened senses. These individuals are Marked (literally and figuratively) and are prized by the tribes they live in often being bargained for and married off for alliances like royalty of old. Perry is one of these, a Scire, one whose sense of smell is so keen he can even sense emotions. Roar, another friend, is an Aud who can hear whispers from miles away. These attributes come in handy when the group finds themselves being tracked by Croven, cannibals.

You've probably noticed by now that I enjoy a good apocalyptic story and this was one I was quickly sucked into. Rossi’s world was an interesting one, illustrating some of the actual dangers society faces when we become too attached to our technologies and lose contact with our natural abilities and realities. It had sort of a Truman Show quality to it, the world being created to suit some choreographed purpose, only some of the truths being known by the general population. There were a host of unanswered questions and places where you had to simply suspend belief, several times I had to remind myself that it wasn’t reality, there were no answers to how something could have happened the way it did in the story (it couldn’t have!)

There is plenty of danger and adventure and of course, a touch of romance. Aria is a basically strong character but has realistic moments of helplessness and frustration. The supporting characters are developed enough to support the story without overtaking it.

Nothing against the writing or this book in particular but I am growing a bit tired of series. Whatever happened to books having a beginning, middle and end? I feel as if I never get conclusions anymore but am constantly hung up in this realm of middleness and cliff hangers and anticipation.  What has been your favorite stand-alone novel of late? I think I'm due to read a few and would love your suggestions!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #36)

Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always
Author and Illustrator: Tao Nyeu
Published: 2012
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-8
Genre: fiction
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ***
Rating: G
First Sentence:One chilly day, Squid knit eight beautiful socks.

In the vein of Frog and Toad, Henry and Mudge and a million other buddy books, comes a new duo to delight and entertain. These two sea creatures are introduced in a picture book with 4 short and silly stories involving socks and mittens, tea parties, super powers, fortune cookies and more.

In my favorite of the four Octopus finds a cowboy boot which he mistakes for a hat. As he travels throughout the ocean each animal he meets marvels that he is using the item for something it wasn’t intended. Someone tells him it’s a doorstop, a soup bowl, a flower pot and so on and he readjusts how he’s using it with each encounter. In the end Squid shows up at his door wearing the mate as a hat and we are reminded why the two are such good friends!

I love the supporting cast of characters who show up occassionally in the storyline but most often just add their comments and asides as speech bubbles in the illustrations. The stories themselves are decent, kids will enjoy them but not really anything super memorable. However the illustrations are superb. They are silk screened using ink and colored pencil (no idea how that process works but it has a lovely result) and the soft blue/orange/green color pallette adds to the dreamy underwater atmosphere. Nyeu's style is instantly recognizable and is carried out to the endp pages which are light blue with white wave and sea creature designs swirled across them. Her debut book focused on a magical bear who makes a return appearance in many of the illustrations.

Very highly recommended if you are at all interested in the art of the picture book. And still recommended if you are in the market for a new set of friends to read about. Kids will enjoy the silliness and will love poring over all the humorous details throughout the pictures.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #35)

Minette’s Feast
Author: Susanna Reich
Illustrator: Amy Bates
Published: 2012
Pages: 32
Age Range: 6-12
Genre: Biography
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G
First Sentence:Minette Mimosa McWilliams Child was a very lucky cat, perhaps the luckiest cat in all of Paris.

In the opening pages we are introduced to Minette and her life before meeting Paul and Julia Child. She watched them wander the streets of Paris together arm in arm stopping to enjoy fine meals in cafes and restaurants. Their apartment was not perfect; it was dark and cold and populated with mice but they filled it with family and friends. Yet still it was missing something. Thus Minette was adopted and grew to enjoy leisurely naps and welcoming laps interspersed with delicious meals. While Julia spent days at the various markets and in cooking class improving her skills and exploring her passion Minette basked in the tastes of the leftovers though she always (as any cat would) preferred mice!

The text is rich with French phrases, actual quotes from Paul and Julia and lovely touches of alliteration and poetic phrases. For example; Julia and Paul spent much of their time nibbling ‘croissants in cafes where cats curled on chairs’, and munching on ‘baguettes in bistros where birds warbled in cages’ and so on. It gives the simple story an added bit of depth and texture.

The illustrations are sketched in pencil and tinted with watercolors in muted tones and have a decidedly French flare, my favorite being the tribute to the Chat Noir on the title page. (And I loved the red and white checked picnic blanket end pages...end pages, people, pay attention!!) :)

There’s an afterword with additional information on Child’s life including dates, mentions of her spy activities, her cookbook publication and television appearances and her death. A French pronunciation guide and glossary helps out with the phrases found throughout the story. There’s also an author’s note describing her interest in Julia’s life and her inspiration in using a cat to make the story accessible to children as well as a notes section detailing the references for all of the quotes used.

This is another fine example of a picture book biography containing enough of a story or focus to keep the interest of young readers while still providing factual information (and the plethora of resources in the back make me even happier; the more back matter the better!)  Kids probably won't care much about Julia Child but Minette's story will keep them entertained while moms indulge their own fan fantasies.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #34)

Three Times Lucky
Author: Sheila Turnage
Published: 2012
Pages: 312
Age Range: 8-12
Genre: Fiction/Mystery
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: *****
Rating: PG
First Sentence: Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt.

Moses LoBeau, rising sixth-grader, was abandoned as a baby. She washed up on the shores of Tupelo Landing, North Carolina after a hurricane. Picked up by the Colonel, who also mysteriously washed into town that night with no memories of his past, they’ve been family ever since. He and Miss Lana, a stranger herself, built a café in town and have raised Mo as their own. Mo loves them dearly but she’s never given up her search for her Upstream Mother, even starting a detective agency with her best friend Dale to get the job done. But when Joe Starr, a lawman from Winston-Salem arrives in town and Mr. Jesse their neighbor ends up dead, Mo and Dale find themselves wrapped up in a real live mystery, one that will threaten their very lives.

I loved this book. Mo is spunky and endearing. I might be partial to southern characters but there’s just something about the way they can throw around quirky phrases and time worn adages that grabs me from the get go. And part of me has always wanted to live in a small town. Tupelo Landing is one of those everyone-is-always-annoyingly-in-your-business-but-will-stand-by-you-‘til-the-death kind, full of eccentric characters that add color, drama, and humor to the story. They’re all fleshed out enough to make you feel as if you know them without detracting anything from Mo’s place as the star.

The mystery is believable with just the right amount of suspense. There are a few twists and turns that kids won’t see coming and a few scenes that will have you wondering if everything will actually end up okay. A terrific story combined with fabulous characters? You’ve got yourself one great read.

And Mo has one of the best voices I’ve read in a while. Here’s a sampling:

In return, Mr. Li gives Dale and me free [karate] lessons for life. Dale hates it. I enjoy kicking others, but would do better in an art that allows spitting. (72)

I hesitated. The Colonel always says not to lie, but sometimes the truth doesn’t feel like a good fit. (19)

Sal, the smallest kid in our class, is shaped like a tube of lipstick. She wears Strategic Ruffles and curls her short brown hair to create the illusion of shape. She also possesses a calculator brain and a love for Dale that will go epic, if he ever notices. (107)

It’s too soon to really conjecture but I’d love to see this one make it all the way to the top. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #33)

Where’s Walrus?
Author and Illustrator: Stephen Savage
Published: 2011
Pages: 32
Age Range: 2+
Genre: Fiction/Picture Book
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G
First Sentence: wordless!

A sneaky walrus takes advantage of naptime at the zoo to escape his small pool and venture out into the city. Using a variety of hats, the walrus is able to evade the zookeeper by blending into his surroundings. He starts out in a fountain, joins a line of businessmen eating at a lunch counter, shows off his curves in a department store window, helps build a wall and put out a fire and even tries his hand –er flippers—at can-can dancing and painting. When he does a marvelous dive at a swimming competition his swim cap slips off and his cover is blown. But the zookeeper knows just what to do to entice him back to the zoo.

This book is completely wordless with simple graphic illustrations in muted colors with very little detail. (For example, a crowd of people all wearing gray merge into a sea of floating heads, the skyline shows just the silhouettes of the buildings with no other delineation for depth, no windows, etc.)

Love it! It’s best with a small group since everyone has to see the pictures to tell themselves the story but I even used it in a recent school visit and panned the book across an audience of 100+ kids up to 5th grade and they all loved it. They cheered for every escape and laughed at the hapless zookeeper’s inability to identify something so out of place as a walrus (sort of the Superman/Clark Kent effect—really? How does no one else recognize him?)

The end-pages are teal with a patchwork of white line drawings of some of the locations around town the walrus visited, adding to the charm. (Why is it that publishers so often ignore the end pages? Have I convinced you to start noticing them yet? Did I tell you I’ve been known to buy books based solely on the decoration I’ve found on them? True story.)  Highly recommended!!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #32)

Author: Katherine Longshore
Published: 2012
Pages: 404
Age Range: 14+
Genre: Historical Fiction
Cover Score: * (it’s pretty but rather generic and has no direct connection to what goes on in the story)
Overall Score: ***
Rating: PG-13
First Sentence: You’re not going to steal anything.

This it the fictionalized story of Catherine Howard’s rise and fall from Henry VIII’s graces and the throne as told through the eyes of her best friend Katherine Tylney.

Abandoned by her family when she is 8 and given to the household of the Duchess of Norfolk (Catherine’s step-grandmother) she is pitied by Cat and taken under her wing. And she’s never given a chance to look back. Knowing that she is nothing and has nothing she bows to Cat’s whims, lies for her, covers for her, does anything that is asked of her in order to keep her favor. Together they fantasize about one day living at court, wearing fine clothes and having any man they desire. Cat is serious while Kitty is just along for the ride, aware that she is too tall, too plain to ever have those kinds of chances. But when Cat catches the eye of Henry’s entourage and is taken to court she promises she’ll bring Kitty with her.

She eventually makes good on her promise and Kitty finds herself ensconced in lies and secrets, keeping Cat’s romantic dalliances and exploits from the king and falling into her old patterns of doing anything Cat wishes in order to keep her favor. But Cat doesn’t return the favor and when things don’t suit her needs she finds someone else to do her bidding and knows just how to hurt Kitty for spite.
Struck by the attention of two very different men Kitty finally begins to see the truth behind Cat’s actions and realizes she never makes her own decisions or thinks for herself but by now it’s too late. Or is it?

While Kitty is the main character the story is most often dominated by Cat. Kitty is a very weak character constantly overpowered by a much stronger one. We see Kitty’s turmoil emotionally but not until the end do we get to see her take a stand and make some choices on her own, though even then they are governed by her guilt and her conscience. Cat is calculating and manipulative to the very end. She’s petulant and childish, selfish and self-absorbed. Her lies and intrigues brought ruin to herself and those around her. The following dialogue gives you a perfect picture of her personality:

“Well, any gentleman you encounter will be. Impressed, that is.”
“But will the king?” she cried, exasperated. “I want him to look at me and to see that I’m different! That I’m not just another maid-in-waiting.”
“What do you want from him, Cat?” I asked. “He’s already getting married.”
“Whoever said I needed marriage?”
“Wait a minute. Are you trying to tell me that this whole act is so that you can be a mistress to the king? A fat, aging man with an ego the size of France and a temper the size of the Roman Empire?”
“I don’t know!” she huffed. “Maybe I just want someone to notice me!”

Some of the dialogue felt too modern but it was consistent throughout and will most likely not be something noticed by its teen audience and it does flow a bit better when you remember that they were only teenagers at the time (early 20s at most, history disputes Catherine Howard’s birth date.) There is an author’s note with some of the facts and fictions distinguished where possible but it could use a bit more; a timeline or cast of characters perhaps?

There is a lot of discussion of sex, a rape scene and other violence against women but it is not graphic. Just know your audience before you hand it out! It’s a rather engrossing characterization of one of Henry’s ill-fated wives that helps bring history to life. Hand it to teens who want some drama but are through with the paranormal fantasies or want a change from modern-day realistic fiction.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #31)

Frog and Fly: Six Slurpy Stories
Author and Illustrator: Jeff Mack
Published: 2012
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3-6
Genre: Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ***
Rating: PG

First Sentence: Hi!

*Warning* Those who are truly tender hearted may not appreciate it!

Hi. Hi. I am Fly. I am Frog. Nice to meet you. Nice to eet you? No. Nice to meet you? *slurp* No. Nice to eat you! This is the entire first story and they continue on in this vein, the unsuspecting fly meeting his demise at the end of each story but the last where there is a great little twist. Obviously it’s got a bit darker humor but as a fly reappears at the beginning of each (older readers will likely realize that it’s not actually the same fly) the gravity of the situation for that poor character isn’t as chilling as it could be.

It’s a larger-sized picture book format yet done in panels and with super simple text that’s easily adaptable for a read-aloud or a beginning reader. Each of the short stories is five pages long with about 25 or so words of dialogue. The panels teach top to bottom story progression, the speech bubbles highlight dialogue, and the short rhyming text is decipherable and predictable (though still clever and surprising.) The pen and ink illustrations employ bold outlines and bright colors and the large font is easy to read.

This is another of those books that crosses over between beginning readers/graphic novels/picture books, making it great, silly fun for a range of readers.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #30)

Bear Snores On
Author: Karma Wilson
Illustrator: Jane Chapman
Published: 2002
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3+
Genre: Fiction/Picture Book
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: *****
Rating: G
First Sentence: In a cave in the woods,
in his deep, dark lair,
through the long, cold winter
sleeps a great brown bear.

Said bear sleeps (and snores) through the day and night, through storm and a host of uninvited guests. A tiny mouse stumbles in and builds a fire and is quickly joined by a hare, a badger, a gopher, a mole, a raven and a wren. They share food with each other, pop popcorn, laugh and visit while bear snores on unaware until a rogue pepper flake makes its way to his nose and he sneezes himself awake. I’ll let you read this yourself to find the ending but it’s got a fun little twist, just perfect for preschoolers.

There are a lot of rhyming picture books out there and a lot of them are just mediocre. They look great on the page and even sound good in your head, but when you try to read them aloud the words and rhythms just fail to flow smoothly. Not so with our Ms. Wilson. She has a veritable gift for verse. And she uses some lovely words to do it. Nothing about her vocabulary is trite or tired, another reason why I love her so much. At an age when children are gaining words in their own vocabulary at the rate of +/- 5 or so words a day,  the more rich language they are exposed to the better. So the bear’s cave is also referred to as a lair and a den. The animals ‘pitter-pat,’ ‘creep-crawl,’ ‘sneak-peek,’ and ‘scuttle;’ and they ‘divvy’ up their snacks, in the ‘damp’ ‘dank’ cave. There are also lots of fun action sequences for varying voice volume and pitch. And a host of sequels!

Wilson has a bunch of other titles that are all quite good as well but the bear books are my favorites. There are currently 8 (if I counted right!) with a new one to be released later this year.

Chapman’s illustrations are friendly, the animals at once recognizable for what they are but with a definite cartoonish quality in their faces and posturing—I think little mole is my favorite--(and ability to be friends without eating each other!) Highly, highly recommended!!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #29)

The Napping House
Author: Audrey Wood
Illustrator: Don Wood
Published: 1984
Pages: 32
Age Range: 2+
Genre: Fiction/Picture book
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

First Sentence: There is a house, a napping house, where everyone is sleeping.

In ‘This is the house that Jack built’ style, the prose builds and builds on itself as each of the inhabitants of the house (a snoring granny, a dreaming child, a dozing dog, a snoozing cat, and a slumbering mouse) all pile onto the cozy bed for a perfect nap while the rain outside beats against their window. And then a wakeful flea bites the mouse setting off a chain of events that leads to nobody sleeping, a broken bed and the dispersed rain storm.

I love the progression of the storm visible through the window and the perpetually smiling faces, even while asleep. The text is rhythmic and good listeners will be able to repeat the phrases with you as they build.

A successful husband and wife team, all of the Woods’s books are great for reading aloud; King Bidgood, Silly Sally and yesterday's aforementioned Mouse and the Big Hungry Bear being my top picks. The text is concise but playful; the illustrations are lush and full of humor and lovely little details.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Happiness is...a culinary adventure.

I love browsing through farmer's markets and the 'exotic' section of the grocery store.  You find so many beautiful and strange looking things.

This week's spontaneous purchase was this crazy little melon.

A pepino. I'd never seen/heard of one before and I was intrigued so I brought it home with me. And then had absolutely no idea what to do with it.

The skin was smooth like a tomato and I expected the flesh to be similar as well, but it was surprisingly  melon looking when I cut into it; the seeds concentrated in the center like a miniature cantaloupe. But it was basically tasteless, a tiny hint of sweetness with an undertone of bitterness...but only if you tried really hard to find them.

Never having had one before I don't know if that's typical or not but I was determined not to waste it!  So, treating it like a green tomato (which it also sort of resembled) I grabbed some bread crumbs, seasoned them a bit, dipped the slices in an egg wash followed by the bread mix and fried them up in a pan.

The results were actually pretty tasty.  I was only missing a ranch sauce to dip them in!

Have you had any food adventures lately? Tasted something new or created something surprisingly tasty? Eaten one of these peculiar pepinos?  (should I give them another shot or prepare them differently?)  I'd love to hear about it!

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #28)

Mouse Paint
Author and Illustrator: Ellen Stoll Walsh
Published: 1989
Pages: 32
Age Range: 2+
Genre: Fiction/Picture Book
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

First sentence: Once there were three white mice on a white piece of paper.

The clever mice are able to blend into their surroundings and are safe from the cat that lurks nearby. One day they find 3 jars of paint-red, yellow, and blue and you can imagine what happens next. They climb right in and no longer are white mice. Then they spill paint out onto their paper creating puddles that they jump into and stir around with their feet discovering the secondary colors made by mixing. As the paint dries their fur gets sticky and stiff so they wash themselves off in the cat dish until they are white again and resort to painting the paper. But they leave a corner of it white “because of the cat.”

Simple text, but the kids love trying to guess what the colors are going to be. Even better if you have your own paints or jars of colored water or something that you can mix together so they can see it happen for themselves.

Walsh’s illustrations are done in torn paper collage giving it depth and texture, the illustrations are small, set off by a thick black outline around the top ½ of the page, the text below it. The mice are more realistic than most illustrations, with their white fur, pink feet, tails and ears and red eyes. This pairs nicely with any of the multitude of picture books featuring mice characters such as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry...., and Mouse Mess.