Friday, December 13, 2013

Turn Left at the Cow

Here’s what I don’t understand. Why did it take so long for someone to write a really great mystery set in out-state Minnesota? And now that someone—Lisa Bullard—has written one, why aren’t there copies in every library and on all the bookstore shelves everywhere?


This is not the kind of middle-grade mystery that will appeal only to Minnesotans. It’s the kind of book that can serve as a passport for non-Minnesotans, furthering their understanding of the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Turn Left at the Cow (Houghton Mifflin, 2013) has got everything you’d want in a summertime, small-town Minnesota novel:

  • an inviting lake for the hero, Trav, to live by
  • a taciturn grandmother who routinely drives her pickup to the dump
  • a mystery for Trav and his neighbor, Iz, to solve
  • butter sculptures
  • hot dish (a one-dish mix of noodles and stuff)
  • chicken poop bingo (for real)
  • a Fourth of July parade
  • and a large fiberglass fish on the town’s main drag:

I looked over my shoulder. “That’s got to be the ugliest fish I’ve ever seen. What kind is it, anyway?”

“Bullhead,” said Iz. “Uncle Ken says there aren’t even that many of them in the lake. But I think all the other Minnesota fish had already been taken by other towns, so I guess we ended up with the ugly one.”

She said it like there was some law that you had to build a giant fish statue to qualify as a Minnesota town. Maybe there was one—who knows?

Basically, Turn Left at the Cow has everything in it but a meat raffle—and that’s understandable, since meat raffles are more of a winter happening.


It’s a satisfying mystery, a fun first romance, and hopefully the first of many novels  to come by Bullard.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Making History Accessible

It’s tough to get reluctant readers interested in history. Sometimes a particularly compelling work of historical fiction will do the trick.

Case in point: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief draws readers into the story of a young girl in Nazi Germany, even though it’s really big and thick and intimidating-looking. (It doesn’t hurt that the movie version of The Book Thief just opened in theaters, expanding that book’s audience even further.)

Two new books on the Holocaust take a different approach, giving images greater weight in the storytelling.

A Bag of Marbles (Graphic Universe/Lerner, 2013) is a graphic novel based on the best-selling (in France) memoir by Joseph Joffo of his remarkable odyssey through France during World War II. That memoir has been adapted and translated, but the story is really told through Edward Gauvin’s detailed illustrations. 


At the age of 10, Jo and his brother Maurice must set out from Paris, leaving their parents—and their childhoods—behind when word comes that the Nazis are rounding up Jews.

The story jumps from place to place as Jo and his brother move, always keeping one step ahead of the Nazis. Young readers may find the narrative disjointed and at times confusing but, in spite of raising and leaving a few unanswered questions, A Bag of Marbles brings history vividly to life. It’s a great read for visually oriented kids ages 12 and up.


Younger readers will find equally lush illustrations by Elizabeth Sayles in Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree (Random House, 2013), written by Jane Kohuth (author of Estie the Mensch and Duck Sock Hop). Although intended for newly independent readers in grades K-3, this easy-reader biography should appeal to older, struggling readers as well.


Kohuth provides the outlines of Anne Frank’s story in simple text. But she never shies away from or waters down that story’s darker aspects.

Sayles’s illustrations are sometimes dark too, but light always seems to fall on Anne, who comes across as an ordinary girl with extraordinary maturity.


These two views of the Holocaust are visually compelling, and not to be missed.






Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Boo! Halloween Picture Books

It’s that time again—time to pull out all the best recent and old favorites for Halloween at home, at school, or in the library.

Here’s a great group for story times with the very young and for older, more sophisticated trick-or-treaters.

For starters, Lauren Thompson brings us a reassuring tale about a very small soul  (Mouse) facing very big Halloween fears (rustling leaves and leering pumpkins). Mouse’s First Halloween (Simon & Schuster, 2000) has a recurring line “‘Eeek!’ Mouse squeaked” for all to join in on and lovely illustrations by Buket Erdogan.


A more recent title, Just Say BOO!, by Susan Hood (Harper, 2012) also features friendly art (by Jed Henry) and an even simpler refrain: “BOO!” Without being at all pedantic, it also teaches first-timers the two other essential Halloween phrases: “Trick-or-Treat!” and “Thank you!”



If your story time crowd is feeling a little squirrely at this point, then pull out another old favorite: Michael Rex’s Brooms Are for Flying! (Henry Holt, 2000). A young witch invites listeners to stomp their feet, rattle their bones, and flap their (bat) wings, getting everyone moving and in a Halloween mood.



Slightly older children will love the cartoony humor of Jan Thomas’s Pumpkin Trouble (Harper, 2011). A duck who’s not exactly the brightest candle in the jack-o’-lantern tries to carve one, with hilarious results.



Last but not least, school-aged kids will love this strange collection: The Haunted Hamburger and Other Ghostly Stories by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Paul Meisel (Dutton, 2011). 


Typically, when Dad tells stories to the kids at bedtime, he’s not trying to scare them silly. But Frannie and Frankie’s dad isn’t typical, and neither are they. 

They’re ghosts, and they’re about to have their socks scared off by these (not really so scary) tales of hamburgers, grannies, and a diaper. 

A word of warning: what's scary to a small ghost like Frannie or Frankie will have young human readers laughing their socks off. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Fall Harvest of Picture Books: Beans and Broccoli


Fresh veggies are still coming to farm stands in my area, but they won’t be for long. It’s time to harvest up the best of new and old books for young readers on beans and broccoli.

First up is the new picture book How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans (Dial, 2013) written by David LaRochelle and illustrated by Mark Fearing.

She knows green beans are bad. 

That’s why she refuses to eat them.

But Martha has no idea just how bad green beans can be until…a passel of gun-toting, mustache-wearing, grizzled green beans kidnap her parents.


That’s just the start of this romp—great for a fall story-time that goes beyond apples. 

You’ll find silly fun and themes a-plenty: vegetables we love to hate, the perils of having our wishes fulfilled, and the nastiness of facial hair when seen on green beans.

If Martha’s story doesn’t get young readers eating their veggies, then Josh Schneider’s Tales for Very Picky Eaters (Clarion, 2011) should do the trick.

Short, simple chapters in this beginning reader book cover a very serious topic: nasty, repulsive foods we’d rather not eat. The first is “The Tale of the Disgusting Broccoli.”

I won’t be a spoiler but will say that one of the silliest alternatives to broccoli proposed is “fine gum, carefully chewed one thousand times by special children with very clean teeth.” (You’ll have to check out the illustrations to see how and why this got me laughing.)

Tales for Very Picky Eaters has amusing art and slimy eggs. It’s also a 2012 Winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, so it should appeal to even the pickiest beginning readers.

Lastly, although it’s not recent, I have to mention a personal favorite: Green Beans by Elizabeth Thomas, illustrated by Vicki Jo Redenbaugh.

This was the first original picture book I edited when working at Carolrhoda Books, part of Lerner Publishing. 

Many years have passed since it first came out (all the way back in 1992?!!), but it’s still a great read about trust, love, patience…and vegetables.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fall Harvest of Picture Books: Sophie's Squash


What’s more perfect for a fall story-time than a squash-centric picture book with charming illustrations?

Sophie’s Squash, written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated in sweetly expressive watercolor by Anne Wilsdorf (Published by Schwartz & Wade in 2013), fits the bill.

Here’s the gist: Mom buys a pear-shaped squash at the farmer’s market, intending to cook it for dinner. Young Sophie takes a marker and draws on a face. After Sophie names the squash Bernice, mom says, “I’ll call for a pizza.”

There’s gentle humor and loads of warmth in first-time author Miller’s text. Themes range from unlikely friendships (girl meets squash), to the life cycle (Bernice doesn’t stay nice and firm forever), to harvest and planting times.

Don’t be surprised if the kids at your story-time want to immediately plant squash seeds—but tell them it’s better to wait until spring.

Coming Next Week: More Picture Books about Veggies!


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fall Harvest of Picture Books: Bugs in My Hair!


It’s fall. Leaves are turning. Farmers are gathering their last harvests. And kids are going back to school…

…which, of course, also means that the lice are back.


If you’ve ever struggled with a  lice outbreak, you’re going to love David Shannon’s new picture book Bugs in My Hair! 

The story is shorter (and thus more accessible) than his recent picture storybook Jangles: A BIG Fish Story. The artwork is less chaotic yet just as entertaining as that in Shannon’s classic No, David!

Shannon excels at portraying the lice in the young narrator’s hair. Their facial expressions are priceless.

What the lice are doing when they're not sucking your blood.
I almost felt some sympathy for the nasty little critters, until Mom pulled out her “battle-tested anti-lice weapons” and set to work.

If you go looking for Shannon’s book, be aware that Catherine Stier has written another book with nearly the same title. Her Bugs in My Hair?!, published by Albert Whitman and Company in 2008, is a very thorough and altogether more serious take on the topic. Illustrator Tammie Lyon has a few cute close-ups of lice, but they don’t quite possess the personality of a David Shannon louse.

Coming next week: A harvest of picture books about...veggies!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The March and Family


Last week, story-slinger showcased Civil Rights leader John Lewis and his new graphic novel March: Book One

This week, I’m shining the light on family history and my most recent picture book.

My father, Hank, with me on his shoulders, a year after the March on Washington

In Riding to Washington, I weave a small family story into the bigger tapestry of the historic March on Washington, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary today, August 28th, 2013.

Back in 1963, my father heard that there would be a large peaceful demonstration in the nation’s capital. He and my grandfather decided to go. Like many others who lived far from Washington, they boarded a chartered bus.

Between Indianapolis and D.C., everyone on the bus encountered racism: several restaurants refused to serve this mixed crowd. Just getting to the March proved to be an eye-opening experience for my father, as he remembered later.

In the picture book, I imagine what it might have been like to be a young girl going to the March with her dad. On the ride to Washington, she faces discrimination for the first time and must decide what to do.

Riding to Washington is now a beautiful picture book, edited by Aimee Jackson, illustrated by David Geister, and published by Sleeping Bear Press

Today, you can find it on many library and bookstore shelves. 

Forgive me for the plug, but Riding to Washington will soon be part of a paperback compendium for young readers called Voices for Freedom (Sleeping Bear Press, September 2013. ISBN: 978-1585368860). 

Monday, August 19, 2013

The March and John Lewis


The story-slinger has been on vacation for a few weeks, but the blog is back just in time to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, which took place on August 28, 1963. 


Today, story-slinger shares a link to a moving story of the March. Stephen Colbert recently interviewed U.S. Representative John Lewis (Georgia), former head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a longtime leader in the Civil Rights Movement.

Lewis was on the Colbert Report to promote his new graphic-novel-style autobiography March, Book One (co-created with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell and published by Top Shelf Productions, 2013). You won’t want to miss the stories he has to tell.

One quick story: As a young man, Lewis was inspired by a comic book story (below, left) of Dr. King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. His own book (below, right) is meant to inspire young people today.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Bookscope Scopes out HOPE AND TEARS


Great news.


What’s Bookscope?

It’s a regular feature--taking a close look at previously published books for young readers--on the Children’s Literature Network.


Well, if you haven’t visited this website yet, you’re missing out. CLN showcases all types of books for children and their creators, both the authors (like me) and the illustrators.

It’s a great place to see what’s new and feel a part of the larger community of people who love children’s books.

Oh, and if you check out Bookscope, just one feature in CLN’s magazine, you’ll get to know more about Hope and Tears, and how it came to be a book.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Get Unbored: Summer Reading, Part V


Every summer reading list needs some nonfiction. Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun (Bloomsbury, 2012) by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen fits the bill. I checked this book out thinking I might buy a copy for my kids. But after reading for awhile, I realized I wanted a copy…for me.

Unbored is a compendium of random information, how-tos, lists, and mini-reviews, illustrated with line drawings that show kids in a state of un-bored-ness. This is not a book to sit down and read, cover to cover. Instead, it’s a hefty encyclopedia to dip into when bored.

A sampler of what you’ll find inside:

·      Instructions on how to short-sheet a bed

·      Easy home-alone recipes to make for yourself

·      A short (gross) history of your bathroom

·      An annotated list of banned books you should read (including my favorite, the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey)

·      A primer on making stop-motion movies, followed by a listing of great stop-motion animation films

Short essays from guest writers young and old fill out the text, giving readers everything from a kid’s tips on taking a first solo mass-transit bus ride to an adult movie critic’s advice on “How to Criticize Everything.”

I read the latter, but, really, I’m still having a hard time criticizing Unbored.



Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Stitches: Summer Reading, Part 4


This week, as part of an on-going series covering not-your-average-summer-reads, I’m reviewing Stitches (2003) from Canadian author Glen Huser.

Travis is only gradually becoming aware of the many ways in which he’s a square peg in a round hole. He puts up with a daily barrage of anti-gay slurs and works hard to stay clear of class bully Shon in small-town Alberta, Canada.

What helps him survive the transition to middle school? He takes refuge in a puppet  theater adaptation of Midsummer Night’s Dream and grabs onto the notion of being a “changeling.”

His best friend, Chantelle, is the first to think of it. She’s disabled and has been disfigured by surgeries.

“I think sometimes I’m a changeling,” she said. “Left by accident, or by fairies doing mischief.”

At first, Travis isn’t so sure the same applies to him: “I didn’t know what to say. I wondered sometimes why…I was the way I was. Liking to play with puppets, liking to sew costumes for them and playing with them instead of playing hockey.”

It’s Travis’s first, tentative step on the way to embracing his differences and seeing how his life can be different. Author Glen Huser doesn’t make the journey easy. Violent scenes of abuse alternate with those of creating a beautiful puppet drama.

Stitches is an interesting and thought-provoking mix for young adults who aren’t afraid of branching out and taking on a challenging summertime read. More than a gay coming of age novel, it’s a story about not fitting in—and learning not to mind.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Being Henry David: Summer Reading, Part 3


I love it when a novel for young adults tackles something I remember feeling as a young adult. I can’t recall another novel that takes on the issues and concerns of “good kids” as well as Cal Armistead’s new Being Henry David (Albert Whitman, 2013).

The premise of the book is intriguing: a teenaged boy wakes up in New York’s Penn Station. He has no ID, no nothing, except for a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden, sitting at his feet.

When I say “no nothing,” I’m serious. He has no memory of who he is or how he got where he is. This becomes even more interesting when, after reading Walden once, he has a near photographic memory of the text.

Taking the name Henry from the book, he sets out on an odyssey of self-discovery leading to Walden Pond in Concord, MA, out here in my neck of the woods. Along the way, he meets runaways, a tattooed librarian and Henry David Thoreau historical interpreter, and a very talented young female singer.

I won’t tell you what crisis drove Hank’s memory away and set him on his quest. But I will give you a passage mid-book that illustrates how he copes with the gradual return of memory in his dreams:

The bad memory dreams are the ones where I see myself going through the motions of being a “good kid,” when in truth I’m holding so much inside that I want to break furniture and throw things at the wall and scream until I burst a few blood vessels in my head. I’m the phoniest person around, putting hundreds of miles on my running shoes to escape, playing guitar till my calluses bleed because that’s an escape too. On the outside, I’m the perfect kid—like a statue of perfect marble, serene and unreal. Inside, it’s all snakes and maggots and broken glass.

Throughout Being Henry David Armistead’s writing rings true. I hope this first novel gets all the recognition it deserves when award time comes around again. Check it out and try, along with both Henrys, to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

PS: Here I am at the reconstructed Thoreau Cabin in Concord, MA. If you have not visited, you really should. In the meantime, happy summer reading!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Running Dream: Summer Reading, Part 2


Last week, I started looking at summer reads with substance—books that challenge and entertain. This week’s review is of The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011):

Writers are sometimes surprised when their work strikes a particular chord with readers. A reader may see on the pages something that the author never realized was there, was only dimly aware of, or couldn’t anticipate.

For me, The Running Dream filled a need that author Wendelin Van Draanen likely never imagined. I decided to read this young adult novel after the Marathon Bombings.

This spring, my son and I went to see the start of theBoston Marathon. Later that day we learned of the bombings. Over the course of the next few weeks, we all heard about those who were injured—in particular those who lost limbs.

Van Draanen’s novel has nothing to do with terrorism, but it’s a great read for anyone coming to terms with the recent bombings.

Jessica, the novel’s main character, loses a leg below the knee in a bus-truck accident on the way to a track meet. She loves to run, and even sitting bereft in her hospital bed, her descriptions of what she was once able to do border on poetic:

Breathing the sweet smell of spring grass.
Sailing over dots of blooming clover.
Beating all the boys.

Van Draanen’s novel is a fine study in grit and determination, loss and recovery. For me, however, it was like a primer on what it is like to lose a limb and struggle up the slow road to mobility.

Jessica is a likeable narrator, so I was drawn into her story and followed each step along the way as she massages her stump, goes back to school, is fitted for a prosthetic, learns of her family’s struggles with insurance, and finally learns to run again.

The Running Dream is just as much or more about hope as it is about running. It makes me want to see the Boston Marathon again.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Homesick: Summer Reading, part I


Summer is just around the bend, so for the rest of June I'll be posting reviews of middle-grade and ya novels that make for thought-provoking beach reads. Starting things off: a review of Homesick by Kate Klise.

Benny Summer has a lot of things going for him. He’s got good friends in his hometown of Dennis Acres, Missouri, a possibly promising radio career, and even a hint of romance in fellow sixth-grader, Stormy Walker.

On the outside, Benny’s life seems to be going well. It’s at home that everything’s a wreck.

Benny’s mom has left, this time for good. Benny’s dad is still around, but he reacts to his crumbling marriage by intensifying his already extreme hoarding behavior.

Benny’s dad has never seen a piece of junk that wasn’t “redeemable.” And he’s stacked that junk in mile-high piles in the living room, kitchen, bathroom, and every other room of the house. And the yard.

All of this might seem like heavy going for middle-grade fiction, but Kate Klise (Regarding the Fountain) has a light touch. She fills the book with folksy charm, vivid characters, a quick-moving plot, and unexpected warmth and compassion.

When a destructive tornado comes screaming through town, Benny and everyone else in Dennis Acres is forced to decide what’s most important: the things we wish were redeemable or the people we love regardless.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Great-Grandmother—Grand-Daughter Book Club


You’ve heard of Mother-Daughter Book Clubs, right? Roddy Doyle’s A Greyhound of A Girl (Amulet Books, 2012) would be the perfect pick for a Great-grandmother-Grandmother-Mother-Daughter Book Club…

…if such a thing existed.

Four generations of Irish women—one dead, one very close to death, one a mom, and the last a teenager—form the cast of characters in this unusual novel. All have unique voices, given life through Doyle’s wonderful dialogue.

Since each character tells her own story, the novel is at once modern and old-fashioned. Come to think of it, that’s how Ireland itself struck me on my first visit a few years back.

Don’t let the illustrated cover (showing a girl running) or the lovely maps on the endpapers (hinting at a rollicking road trip) mislead you. Greyhound is what editors would deem a “quiet” novel.

“Quiet” in this instance is totally appropriate. The characters are each figuring out how to deal with death, and life. And, at least in Roddy Doyle’s beautifully imagined world, these women don’t need to shout to figure things out.

Friday, April 26, 2013

What's Coming in May


The other day I got a package in the mail—the upcoming May/June 2013 issue of COBBLESTONE magazine. It’s not on the newsstands yet, so I’ll give you a sneak preview.

Here’s the cover:

The topic is timely, given the recent debate over immigration reform and providing a path to citizenship to people already in this country.

I’m especially impressed by young immigrants. Gedion from Ethiopia, Myint from Burma, and Quynh Thi from Vietnam are three young adults I interviewed for this issue of COBBLESTONE. I met them in St. Paul, Minnesota, at LEAP High School, a school just for immigrants.

You’ll find my interview with Gedion, Myint, and Quynh Thi on pages 13 through 16 of the magazine. There’s also a quick sidebar on page 17 about schools like LEAP and the challenges their students face.

I found the stories of these young immigrants truly inspiring and I hope you will too.