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Posts from October 2006

8th Carnival of Children's Literature: Halloween Edition

Happy Halloween! If you're interested in spooky books and other Halloween treats, head on over to the 8th Carnival of Children's Literature: Halloween Edition, at Scholar's Blog. Michele has compiled a smorgasbord of links about Halloween, witches, bad guys and other frightening topics. There are tons of interesting articles to read through. Michele has done the hard work of categorizing and making them all accessible. So waste no more time here. Go visit the Halloween Carnival!

New and Improved Lemonade Stand

I wanted to bring to your attention the new and improved K&J Lemonade Stand: Cool stuff for the young at heart! Jason Kotecki is a cartoonist. He's also the author of the book Escape Adulthood, which I have recommended  previously for you adult readers of children's books. Kim and Jason have an entire company that's focused around staying young at heart, finding the fun in things (even when one is technically an adult), and generally experiencing joy. If these things sound good to you, I recommend that you visit their website. The new and improved Lemonade Stand features:

Their customer service is excellent. I promise you that if you order something from them, you'll be pleased with the product, and the company's service, when you receive it. I do get a small commission if you click through from this site and order something, but I would recommend The Lemonade Stand to you in any case. Kim and Jason offer fun stuff and a joyful philosophy, and they take customer service to a tremendous level.

Children's Literacy Round-Up: October 31

Happy Halloween to all! I don't have any candy for you (unless you happen to live in my neighborhood in San Jose, which seems unlikely). But I do have some tidbits in the way of children's literacy-related stories.

  • From a recent press release: "City National Bank is now accepting applications from educators for grants to support literacy-based projects at elementary, middle and high schools throughout California. The online application can be accessed by visiting Any full-time teacher, librarian, administrator or school media specialist at a school in one of the 11 California counties in which City National has offices is eligible to apply. About 100 grants totaling up to $50,000 will be awarded... Awards can be used for books, videos, CDs, DVDs or computer software or hardware any project as long as the recipient can show that the funds will support literacy."
  • According to the Ashtabula, Ohio Star-Beacon, "The Ashtabula County Literacy Coalition is sponsoring another event to celebrate literacy and promote reading. The idea behind National Family Literacy Day is to make Ashtabula County residents a community of readers, said Suzanne Bernardini, event chairwoman." The day will feature a surprise guest who is a character from a popular children's book.
  • In sad news, Afghan women have been denied a literacy program for fear of Taliban retribution. You can read more here.
  • There's a nice article at (Massachusetts) about two Rochester sisters (ages 8 and 10) who recently received commendations from President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush, in honor of their humanitarian efforts. "Arissa and Deianeira have been actively involved in fundraising for Reach Out and Read, a national nonprofit organization that promotes early literacy. Their efforts recently resulted in 400 new books being donated to the program."

Happy reading to all!

Seedfolks: Paul Fleischman

On a recent trip to Sedona, my friends Ken and Heather loaned me a slim volume called Seedfolks, written by Paul Fleischman (ill. Judy Pedersen). They said that it was a collection of stories, around a central theme of gardening. Not being much of a short story reader, or much of a gardener, I have to admit that I set it aside. But I'm going to see Heather and Ken again soon, and I would like to be able to return the book to them. So I picked it somewhat desultorily last night, to give it a look. I didn't set it down again until I had finished. OK, this is not earth-shattering, because the actual time elapsed was only an hour (it's a short book). But still ... Seedfolks captured my interest.

Seedfolks consists of thirteen chapters, each told by a different person, each describing the impact of a small community garden on his or her life. The first chapter introduces Kim, a young Vietnamese immigrant whose farmer father died before she was born. Kim decides to plant some lima beans in a vacant lot outside of her home, in honor of her father, in the hope that he will look down and see them, and see her. She thinks: "I would show him that I was his daughter."

Seeing Kim's actions out of her window, an elderly woman named Ana, a Romanian immigrant, is initially suspicious. However, once she realizes what Kim has done, understands that the girl is planting a garden in the trash-strewn lot, Ana takes an interest. When Kim doesn't appear for a few days, Ana taxes her friend Wendell (the only other white person in the building) to water the beans. Wendell, lonely and grouchy, is inspired to start his own garden.

Others from the neighborhood follow, each making an individual decision to start his or her own garden, or to contribute in some way to what the others are doing. One woman takes on City Hall, and gets the trash cleaned out of the lot. One man starts a contest. A man in a wheelchair makes a garden in a barrel, so that he can reach it. And elderly Mexican immigrant who speaks no English strives to help others learn more about gardening. Some people plant flowers, other vegetables. Some build walkways, others gates. And gradually, as the garden evolves, the people find themselves growing into a community. They learn about each other, help one another, and in many cases open up as individuals. There's quite a bit of racial and cultural bridge-building. For example:

"He was young and black. He looked rather dangerous. People watched him and seemed to be relieved when he left the garden. Then he began spending more time there. We found out that he had a stutter. Then that he had two sisters, that he liked the cats that roamed through the garden, and that he worked very well with his hands. Soon all the mothers were trying to feed him. How very strange it was to watch people who would have crossed the street if they'd seen him coming a few weeks before, now giving him vegetables, more than he could eat. In return, he watered for people who were sick and fixed fences and made other repairs... He was not a black teenage boy. He was Royce." (Amir's chapter)

Yes, some of it is hokey. But there's enough of an edge to some of the portrayals to keep it realistic (an unwed teen, another teen who wants to grow marijuana, etc.). As a bit of a cynic, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop - for the gangs to destroy the garden, or the city to decide to level it, or something like that. But while there are setbacks, the garden remains strong.

It seems a bit of stretch to me that a common garden could really cause people of various different backgrounds, many with decades of pent-up resentment and fear, to bond with one another. However, I would like to believe that it's possible, and this book does renew my hope. Seedfolks is an uplifting portrait of how community-building might work, over a shared purpose. I do believe that they key to wiping out prejudices is for people to get to know individuals from the demographic groups that they fear. Because it's much harder to be biased against a particular, known, individual than it is to fear some amorphous, unknown group of people.

Many communities have chosen Seedfolks as their one-city-one-book selection. You can see a list on Paul Fleischman's website (scroll down). I can see why. It's a quick read, but one that has profound implications, and raises various cross-cultural issues. This is nominally a children's book, but really, it's suited to anyone over the age of 10 or so. I feel that this book offers a high return on the hour of time that I invested in reading it, and I recommend that you pick it up if you run across it. Thanks, Ken and Heather!

Book: Seedfolks
Author: Paul Fleischman
Publisher: HarperTrophy
Original Publication Date: 1997
Pages: 102
Age Range: 10 and up
Source of Book: A loan from my friends Ken and Heather

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Sunday Afternoon Visits: October 29

Still having a fair bit of my time taken up by the Cybils. However, here are a few other things from around the kidlitosphere that caught my attention:

  • Liz B. has a detailed, three-part report of the recent conference The Power of Children's Books and the Inner Life of The Child over at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy. She refers to Mo Willems as "the children's book writer most likely to get his own talk show" (which seems accurate to me, given the number of serious fans the man has). You can also find reports at Chicken Spaghetti and Educating Alice. It seems like a very cool conference. I wish that I had been able to attend. Sometimes I think I'd be more in the thick of things if I still lived on the East Coast...
  • My friend Sara tipped me off to this post, by Lynne Griffin (Pro Mom). Inspired by reading The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them by Roxanne Coady and Joy Johannessen, Lynne muses on the book that changed her life, Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca.
  • My friend from Austin wrote to tell me that she attended the Hot Books for Cool Girls panel at the Texas Book Festival this weekend. This session featured: Deborah Blumenthal (Fat Camp), Stephenie Meyer (New Moon), Kirsten Miller (Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City), Lauren Myracle (TTFN/TTYL), Tanya Lee Stone (A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl), and Mary Casanova (Jess). My friend was especially impressed by the huge following evident for Stephenie Meyer, noting: "I spoke to someone who said at the book signing the night before, she was also mobbed. There were girls with vampire teeth, and some with T shirts saying they were members of the Edward Cullen fan club. She was also saying how she doesn’t like horror books, and doesn’t consider hers horror." Boy, I wish I could have attended that session! Maybe next year...  My friend also said that Rick Riordan's session was packed. No surprise there.
  • I have been hopelessly remiss in my lack of participation in recent Poetry Fridays. However, I recommend you to Liz's round-up at A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy. Maybe I'll make it back to participate next week.
  • Franki over at A Year of Reading has a nice post about book collections and habits. She says: "As part of helping my students think about their own reading identities, I always invite adult readers (parents, grandparents, staff members, etc.) to come to the classroom and talk about themselves as readers", and then describes several rituals that people have adopted. She asks people to comment if they have any great ideas to share. 
  • Via Finding Wonderland, Wired Magazine has asked a bunch of famous authors to write six word stories. They are pretty funny. For example: "The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
    - Orson Scott Card." Also "TIME MACHINE REACHES FUTURE!!! … nobody there …
    - Harry Harrison."
  • Gregory K. asks Why Write for Kids over at GottaBook.
  • Nancy has a new contest over at Journey Woman. She asks contestants to submit their choices for the best passages in children's or young adult books published in English. You can submit in three categories: funniest passage, passage with most poetic use of language, and most memorable passage. You can enter as often as you like, but you must enter by November 5th. There are prizes!

Oh, there is plenty more. I again have more than 100 unread posts in Google Reader. But this should be enough food for thought for now. I'm going to go watch the Charlie Brown Halloween special (which we Tivo'd) with Mheir. Happy fall, and happy daylight savings, to all!

The Nearest Book

This meme seems to have reached the Kidlitosphere via Chicken Spaghetti, and I decided to join in. Here are the instructions:

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the next four sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
5. Don't you dare dig around for that "cool" or "intellectual" book on your shelves. (I know you were thinking about it.) Just pick up whatever is closest.

I had a little trouble because I happen to be sitting near a bunch of picture books, and two relatively brief chapter books. None stretches to 123 pages. But I went and got the top book from my nightstand, and here is what I found:

I sighed.

"Is there anything you don't think you know?"

"Yeah, I don't think I know what a magic trigger is. Not yet anyway."

The woman in the curlers finally finished her folding and emerged with a basket piled high with clean laundry.

OK, this doesn't seem to stand out that well on it's own. But it's from Jumping the Scratch, by Sarah Weeks.

Flight of the Fire Thief: Terry Deary

I immediately followed up on reading Terry Deary's The Fire Thief by picking up the second book in the series: Flight of the Fire Thief. In this installment, Prometheus is still searching through time and space for a hero (if he finds a human hero, Zeus will free him from being killed by the Avenger). Because of his discoveries in the previous book, he makes his way back to Eden City, arriving 60 years or so ahead of the earlier book (1795).

Our narrator this time is young Helen, child of a con artist, the illustrious Dr. Dee and his amazing Carnival of Danger. Dr. Dee flies a balloon (a daring act at the time), and is ringmaster for various acts undertaken by Helen (also called Nell), such as tightrope walking and being fired out of a cannon. Helen tells her story, while in parallel relating the tribulations of Prometheus, and the story of Zeus's intervention in the 4000-year-old Battle of Troy. The modern-day story also includes a kidnapped princess, a daring rescue, a giant Greek monster with 50 heads, and cameos by Achilles and Paris, visiting from the underworld.

Like its predecessor, Flight of the Fire Thief features a snarky narrator, and a variety of asides to the reader delivered as footnotes. Helen is a bit more self-confident than Jim, and her comments often point to her own beauty (get it, her name is Helen, and she frequently points out her own beauty...). She frequently challenges the reader to figure out what's happening. For example:

"Remember where you left me? Fired from a cannon up into the air. Shooting towards the waiting arms of my father. But did he catch me? "He must have," you say. "Otherwise you wouldn't be here telling us this story now," you say. If you say that, then you are not quite as witless as you look. But you have to remember that I wasn't safe yet—I did tell you that there were TWO things that Pa forgot to do. Maybe you haven't figured out what the two things were? I suppose you want me to tell you? Oh, all right..." (Chapter 12)

There's a funny ongoing bit in the mythological part of the narrative, by which Helen's beauty ebbs as the siege of Troy is prolonged, until by the end of the book she has a face that could launch 100 ships. The marital bickering of Zeus and Hera also continues, as does their decidedly high-handed behavior regarding humans.

I thought that this story was wrapped together more tightly than the first book (with several parallels between the siege of Troy and the situation in Eden City), though I also found it a bit less amusing. I think that Helen and Dr. Dee simply aren't as funny as Jim and Uncle Edward. Perhaps I read the book too soon after finishing the first one. But I still found the story engaging, with a nice mix of humor, darkness (baby farms, deaths in the battle of Troy, a visit to the Underworld), and mythological education.

The ending (no I'm not going to give it away) leaves the reader puzzling over a mystery, and Prometheus once again fleeing from the Avenger. I'm curious to read Book 3 in the trilogy, to find out how it all turns out. I think that this book will appeal to young aficionados of Greek mythology, and that the tone and writing style will also lure in both reluctant readers and Lemony Snicket fans.

Book: Flight of the Fire Thief
Author: Terry Deary
Publisher: Kingfisher (Houghton Mifflin)
Original Publication Date: October 2006
Pages: 240
Age Range: 9-12
Source of Book: Review copy from Kingfisher

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

The Fire Thief: Terry Deary

Kingfisher sent me a copy of the second book in Terry Deary's Fire Thief series. Because I'm a bit compulsive about series, before I could read it I had to go back and read the first book: The Fire Thief. The Fire Thief is a small format hardcover book with rough-edged pages, and should be a relatively quick and easy read for the middle grade set. The story alternates between two settings: Ancient Greece, during the time that Prometheus is being punished by Zeus for giving the gift of fire to the fledgling human race, and 1858 Eden City, when the city was teeming with criminals, smog, and hopelessness.

The narrator of The Fire Thief is young Jim, an orphan adopted by a con man who he calls Uncle Edward. Jim and Uncle Edward tour the country, offering dramatic entertainment for wealthy households. The fact that they also steal from said wealthy households in no way detracts from their skill in performing. Jim has been selected from the orphanage because of his gift for memorization. Edward displays a remarkable facility for bamboozling people through his quick tongue. As the story begins, the two performers arrive in the bleak misery that is Eden City, and set about to perform for (i.e. rob) Mucklethrift Manor. In alternating chapters, Jim tells his own story and Prometheus's story (complete with irritable spats between Hera and Zeus, and a whiny messenger Hermes). As to where and how the two stories will intersect, well, you'll have to wait and see. Side characters include a plucky young girl who works at the local inn, and an educated, unnamed writer who plays a part in the proceedings.

What makes this book a fun read is primarily Jim's smart-aleck tone, often conveyed in footnotes. For example:

"Look, please don't cry or sigh for this monstrous bird. And do not write letters complaining about cruelty to animals. First of all, this was an avenging devil—you wouldn't want to meet one of those in the bathroom, believe me. It was only taking the shape of a bird. And, anyway, you don't know what happened next—just wait and see." (Chapter 1)

Uncle Edward's manipulative charm is also quite entertaining. He repeatedly tricks people into believing what he wants them to believe, rather than what their own common sense has already told them. The bit part of the writer is also fun, but I won't spoil it for you by saying more.

The Fire Thief manages, while maintaining a sly sense of humor, to convey a bit of information about the Greek gods: the story of Prometheus's punishment and escape, the tale of Pandora's Box, and miscellaneous background information about Zeus, Hera and their various relatives. I think that this would make a nice companion read to go along with Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief (though The Fire Thief is a much easier read, with less complex characterization). There is a nice glossary at the end of the book that gives a bit more detail about the mythological background. All in all, I quite enjoyed this book, and read it very quickly.

Book: The Fire Thief
Author: Terry Deary
Publisher: Kingfisher (Houghton Mifflin)
Original Publication Date: October 2005
Pages: 256
Age Range: 9-12
Source of Book: Bought with my Amazon points

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

I Can Do Anything: The Luster Family

I Can Do Anything! is a self-published picture book produced by the Luster family. As you might imagine by the title, the idea behind the book is to encourage kids to think positively, and to believe that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to. The book is part of a larger CAN DO KID campaign originated by the Lusters, who also sell t-shirts, bumper stickers and kid-friendly nutrition bars (now available in retail stores such as Whole Food Markets around the US).

The book is a colorful, easily accessible production, with bright, busy pictures, and only a few phrases on each page. All of the phrases start with "I can." ("I can pretend", "I can be a good friend", "I can clap and sing", etc.) The forward suggests as a reading idea that parents let their child say the words "I can" aloud each time they arise. There are also various dogs, bunnies, and bugs hidden throughout the pictures, so that kids can make a game of finding them.

The book is about nine children, ages four to eight, including the three Luster children and an array of other culturally diverse kids (Japanese American, Mexican American, African American, and mixed race kids are all represented, as is some diversity of family composition). There is no actual plot to the story, but rather a series of pictures showing kids having fun, and doing positive things like learning, performing, playing at the beach, and so on.

As is apparent from yesterday's review, when I read books, whether they are for adults or kids, I tend to be fairly plot-driven. Believable characterization, excellent writing, gripping illustrations (where applicable), sure. Those are all important, too, and together render a book special. But the child in me still craves story above all else. A book that's primarily about conveying some particular message, however valuable the message might be, tends not to grab me. However, in spite of myself, I did like the lively pictures in I Can Do Anything!, with their diverse, cartoon-like portrayals of the nine kids. And if it works — if by reading this book together, parents can improve their kids' self-esteem — than it's a worthwhile thing.

I think that the Lusters are putting themselves out there to to help people to raise happier kids, and I applaud them for it. They donate part of their proceeds from the book to organizations benefiting women, children, and education. They participate in community events. And they include kid-friendly bios of each of the nine kids at the end of the book, bios which I found appealing. But if what I want is a story, then I'm going to have to keep looking...

Book: I Can Do Anything!
Author: The Luster Family, illustrated by Tina Sedonne
Publisher: Sealed with a Kiss Publishing
Original Publication Date: 2004
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-8
Source of Book: A review copy from a Luster family relative

I Can't See, But... I Can Imagine: Patricia Bennett Wilson

I'm going to be reviewing several picture books over the next few days. A few months back, Patricia Wilson sent me a copy of her book I Can't See, But...I Can Imagine (illustrated by Sharon Bean). It took me a while to get to it, in large part because the book comes accompanied by a CD, and I would always think to read it at a time when my computer was turned off. I finally sat down with book and CD today.

I Can't See, But...I Can Imagine is a picture book aimed at children age five and up. The story is written around five songs for children that the author's grandmother wrote and recorded, one for each of her grandchildren, back in the 1940s. The audio text of the full book, including the songs, is captured on the accompanying CD. This self-published production is a labor of love, reflecting Pat Wilson's efforts to resurrect the songs that her grandmother had recorded and use them them to spread positive messages to kids today. The unifying theme of the book is the way that Pat's grandmother, who was completely blind, used her imagination to turn real-life incidents into stories and songs for the children.

The most catchy tune is the first one, called "The Frog Song", a tale of a big frog with a deep voice arguing with a much smaller frog with a high-pitched voice. You only get the full effect when listening to the song (as opposed to reading it on the page), because the alternating voices of the two add contrast. It reminded me of something that one might hear on a Disney ride (and from me, that's a compliment, because I love Disney rides). The other songs are a bit slower paced, including two that are more like lullabies.

Overall, the book has a very old-fashioned, nostalgic feel. The water-color illustrations, by Sharon Bean, contribute to this effect. I can see grandparents listening to this book with their young grandchildren. The author says that she has used the book to give classes for kids, using her time to "'back up' for the teachers with encouragement to write, illustrate and enjoy music." The CD also includes the five soundtracks without vocals. The author notes that "(c)hildren love Karaoke, and they can add their own voices to the soundtracks for talent shows, etc." Not having children to listen to this with, I can't vouch that, but I know that children's music production is a big industry.

There is a strong positive message in the book about using one's imagination and overcoming disabilities. The grandmother's lack of bitterness over losing her eyesight is notable. I can imagine kids, particularly those who like music, enjoying I Can't See, But...I Can Imagine. As a reader, I personally prefer books with stronger plots, and don't tend to get much out of vignettes. But I respect what Pat Wilson is trying to do with this book, and if the book / song CD format appeals to your kids, you should definitely check it out. You can order an autographed copy from the author's website, or order from Amazon. You can also listen to samples of the songs, and view the illustrations, at the I Can't See, But...I Can Imagine website.

Book: I Can't See, But...I Can Imagine
Author: Patricia Bennett Wilson, illustrated by Sharon Bean
Publisher: Global Publishing Services
Original Publication Date: 2003
Pages: 61, plus enclosed audio CD
Age Range: 4-8
Source of Book: Review copy from the author

Books for Halloween

I was intrigued by Mike Cassidy's column in yesterday's San Jose Mercury News. Mike discussed the rare but growing phenomenon of people who give out books, instead of candy, to trick-or-treaters on Halloween. The idea is that, in light of growing concerns about childhood obesity, giving out large quantities of candy doesn't send the right message. Also, of course, the goal is to put books into kids' hands, and hopefully encourage them to become readers. Or, as Mike puts it:

"We're bombarded by studies that say too many kids are obese or that not enough kids love reading. Here's a way to tackle both trends.

So, why not put your candy budget toward picking up like-new books at garage sales and library fundraisers, where Morgan (Rebecca Morgan, who launched the idea) says she can buy trick-or-treaters a book for 20 cents?"

Mike started out skeptical about the idea, but he became convinced upon interviewing several people involved in this movement, and upon talking with some kids. He also asked local first grade teacher Audra Schallberger to poll her class on whether they would prefer to receive a book or candy. The results are available on Mike's blog, and are quite encouraging.

If you are interested in this idea, check out the website for the Willow Glen Business and Professionals Association's annual "Books for Treats" giveaway. Or, try it yourself, and see what happens.

The 8th Edge of the Forest

The October edition of The Edge of the Forest is up!

We have many exciting features for you, as well as interviews, reviews, and much, much more. In short, here's what's in store this month:

The Edge of the Forest will return November 22. If you're interested in submitting an article or review, please check out the About Us page for details.

And, although she was too modest to say so in the announcement above, The Edge of the Forest is the brainchild of (and assembled and edited by) Kelly Herold of Big A little a. Head on over to check out another excellent issue.