Saturday, November 22, 2014

One Terrific Thanksgiving Picture Book

Take it from Irving Morris Bear: Read One Terrific Thanksgiving!!

One great thing about libraries is the opportunity they present for chance encounters with great stories. Here’s a wonderful Thanksgiving Picture Book Treat from the way-way-backlist that I discovered at Sherborn Library:

One Terrific Thanksgiving, written by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat (of Nate the Great fame), charmingly illustrated by Lilian Obligado and published back in 1985 by Holiday House.

Irving Morris Bear lives in an apartment in the city. As illustrated by Obligado, the apartment isn’t a home decorator’s dream but it IS a food-lover’s paradise. Irving has seventeen cupboards and eight fridges crammed into his place—all to hold his most precious possessions.

Irving Morris Bear and a few of his fridges

“There might be somebody else who loves food as much as I do,” he thought, “but I don’t know who.”

Irving’s buddies Sabra, Thurp, and Renata Jean live in the same building. 

Ahh! City living...Renata Jean lives next door. Tharp is downstairs, and Sabra is up one flight, dangling an apple for Irving. It's sort of like that TV show Friends, but with bears.

All is well until Irving shops for Thanksgiving and must find a way to prevent himself from pre-eating the feast. His solution: asking his buddies to hide his favorite Thanksgiving foods in their apartments.

“Don’t tell me where they are. Even if I get down on my paws and knees and beg.”

“You can depend on us,” said Renata Jean. “You can beg until you’re blue in the face, but we won’t buckle under.”

Irving has some issues. He doesn’t just beg—he tears his friends’ apartments apart. Luckily, he has a strong support group. “Even when you have food on your brain, you have goodness in your heart,” says Renata Jean.

Irving’s neighbors perform an “intervention” to make sure he has his priorities straight. In the end, he’s forced to conclude that:

“I have many things to be thankful for, but marshmallows, honey cakes, and cranberry sauce are not at the top of my list.”

To find out what he IS thankful for, you’ll just have to search for and read the book, or look below:

 A great read-aloud for kindergarten through second grade--and possibly for all of us, if only to prevent us from obsessing about food...and forgetting that friendship comes first.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Absolutely Almost & Just Fine

Lisa Graff, author of A Tangle of Knots, is back with Absolutely Almost (Philomel, 2014), a story about not quite making the grade.

Albie is starting fifth grade in New York City. He’s at a new school where he knows no one. He’s got a new nanny. Even things that should stay the same, like his long friendship with his neighbor Erlan, start changing. 

The universal theme of change would be enough on its own to propel a middle-grade novel. But Graff layers on something more: Albie isn’t the gifted, mini-adult you’ll often find in middle-grade novels with NYC settings. 

(Think Claudia from The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Harriet from Harriet the Spy, or even Theo Tenpenny from this year’s Under the Egg.)

Instead, Albie is never quite good enough. His math skills, or lack thereof, land him in a special small group class. His spelling tests are always rock-bottom. His social prowess gains him one friend (a sweet girl who barely speaks and eats mainly gummy bears). At his new school, Albie is the object of jokes, pranks, and endless taunts.

Midway through Absolutely Almost, I worried that it was turning into a teaching book--teaching us about a learning disability (like Travis’s dyslexia in Bluefish) or a medical condition (like Auggie’s facial difference in Wonder).

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bluefish and Wonder and many other books that explore difference. They put a personal face on what would otherwise be an impersonal label.

I just wanted Albie to be a kid without a label. A kid who isn’t a superstar, who never earns a standing ovation, who just works hard. I wanted him to be what he is—a kid who starts slowly “putting it together,” whether “it” is the many pieces of an A-10 Thunderbolt airplane model or a way to remember spelling words and master math.

Graff doesn’t disappoint, crafting a fine novel that fits my Newbery-worthy Criteria.

Absolutely Almost

# 1 Kept me reading & wanting to turn pages.
# 2 Made me glad that the author was brave enough to show us a character who doesn’t wear labels.
# 3 Contains some moving passages and scenes—primarily with Mr. Clifton, the small-group math teacher, and Calista, the not-totally-trustworthy nanny.

 Absolutely Almost sticks with you, and I’m putting it on my absolutely possible Newbery-winning pile.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Night Gardener: A Mixed Bag

I haven’t read Jonathan Auxier’s Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, but I’ve heard good things about it. So I was eager to read The Night Gardener (Amulet Books, 2014).

Two children, Molly and Kip, find themselves alone and on the road, escaping famine and death in Ireland to work for the owners of an English manor in the woods. 

All of that sounds fairly realistic and plausible. But Auxier gradually and deftly introduces fantastic elements sure to entice young readers—including a mysterious tree growing next to, and even into the manor and a frightening and shadowy night-time visitor, a top-hat-wearing man who leaves behind chill air and clumps of mud.

Auxier fully meets the first of my criteria for a Newbery-level book

Here's a quick recap of the criteria. Just ask of the book:

1. Does it keep you turning the pages, wanting to read on?
2. Does the writing make you think or consider things anew?
3. What’s beautiful and moving about it? 
4. Are there characters you love?
5. Can you vividly remember it (the overall feeling of it) days, weeks, months, and years later?

Auxier definitely made me want to put aside other things and read to the end of Molly and Kip’s compelling story. The plot is well constructed and the magical elements are very effective.

I’m not putting this work into my Possible Newbery Pile mainly because I didn’t find it truly memorable and the characters didn’t have great depth. A short time after reading the book, I no longer felt any real concern for Molly and Kip. For a story to be truly memorable, those kinds of feelings should remain after the book is done.

One further quibble: Although Auxier very kindly lets readers know right off the bat that the story will be full of spine-tingling moments (the subtitle is “A Scary Story”), he might also have warned us that Night Gardener has more than its fair share of violence, some of which is unnecessarily overwrought and graphic.

Overall, Night Gardener is a mixed bag: a great read for fans of scary stories, but a less-than-truly-memorable tale.