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Posts from August 2011

Children's Literacy and Reading News Roundup: End of August Edition

JkrROUNDUP The end of August Children’s Literacy and Reading News Roundup is brought to you by Jen Robinson’s Book Page, The Family Bookshelf, and Rasco from RIF, and is now available at Rasco from RIF. Over the month of July, Carol Rasco, Terry Doherty, and I have collected content for you about literacy & reading-related events; literacy and reading programs and research; and suggestions for growing bookworms. Carol has put everything together this week in a jam-packed roundup.

The-Dot1She starts, appropriately enough for an east coast resident, by discussing the recent earthquake and hurricane, with poetry as well as links for parents to help discuss quakes and major storms. Moving on, Carol has the scoop on a bevy of upcoming events, from International Dot Day (I should have saved my review of Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten) to the National Book Festival to Babar's 80th birthday.

Carol has a few interesting tidbits on the literacy and reading programs and research front, too. Like the article from Valerie Strauss at The Answer Sheet in The Washington Post: “Are 21st century 5-year-olds cognitively ready to read? and the FIVE CHANGES EVERY SCHOOL SHOULD MAKE, according to a Duke University professor. Carol closes with a video that reminds us all of the power of words. But do go and read the whole post.

I ran across a couple of other interesting articles yesterday in the NCTE Inbox newsletter:

  • Keith Oatley has an article in the Huffington Post Books section about studies that he's worked on that find that reading fiction is good for people. A recent study concludes: "It looked as if reading fiction increased empathy and social understanding, not that socially skilled people read more fiction. Raymond Mar and two other colleagues also did a study on preschool children, and found that the more stories the children had read to them, and the more movies they watched, the better was their understanding of others. Watching television had no such effect." Fascinating. And intuitive, I think. I'm pretty sure that reading fiction has affected my capability for empathy, dating all the way back to A Little Princess
  • Another study that I thought was interesting was outlined in a Fox News Children's Health article (original work published in the journal Cognitive Science) about how toddlers are able to understand more complex grammar than previously thought. Also "children can use grammar to help them work out the meaning of new words, particularly those that don't correspond to concrete objects such as 'know' and 'love'". Neat, I think!

In a related vein, Carol shared an article on Facebook that I (parent of a toddler) found interesting. Time Healthland published an article by Linda Park about what makes some preschools better than others. The gist, according to a recent Science article by Vanderbilt Professor David Dickinson, is that: "when preschool teachers engage children more in interactive conversations that require the youngsters to think and respond creatively, they go on to develop a more advanced vocabulary by kindergarten, which in turn translates to stronger reading and expressive skills by fourth grade." Presumably, one can also work to do this more at home, too.

And that's all for today. Terry will be back in a couple of weeks with the mid-September children's literacy and reading news roundup. Thanks for reading, and for caring about children's literacy. 

The Eleventh Plague: Jeff Hirsch

Book: The Eleventh Plague
Author: Jeff Hirsch
Pages: 304
Age Range: 12 and up

51yEnqP5rJL._SL500_AA300_ The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch is straight-up post-apocalyptic young adult fiction. There are no zombies, mind-readers, or situations that conveniently take all of the adults out the picture. Instead, The Eleventh Plague is the story of a teenage boy struggling to survive in a bleak United States landscape, roughly 20 years after the Collapse of civilization and the death of most of the population from war and a superflu. 

The Eleventh Plague begins as Stephen Quinn and his father are burying Steve's grandfather. Within a few short hours Steve's dad is gravely injured, and Steve finds himself having to take charge for the first time in his life. The Quinns have spent all of Steve's life as salvagers, traveling up and down the eastern half of the country looking for useful items that they can trade for necessities. It's a hard life, but the only one Steve knows. When a chance encounter leads to Steve and his dad being taken in by the residents of a small, carefully hidden town, Steve finds his life changed forever.

Jeff Hirsch has created a post-apocalyptic world that feels disturbingly possible. The drama of the plague and the Collapse itself are past - having taken place before Steve was even born. But the world that the adults in The Eleventh Plague remember from their youth is the world that we're living in today. There are crumbling McDonalds restaurants, carefully salvaged books, and hand-knit sweaters.

This is a book that made me appreciate little things, like my ceiling fan, and think twice before letting any food go to waste (a bit like Life As We Knew It, in that regard, though the environmental situation is much less dire in The Eleventh Plague). There's a reference to the town only having a few notebooks left that really gave me pause. Without being heavy-handed about it, Hirsch paints a clear picture of what could happen, should wars and bioweapons get out of hand. I found myself lying in bed before going to sleep, thinking about what one would want to take to stock a small town, if one knew that a total Collapse of civilization was coming.

Setting the story significantly after the Collapse lets Hirsch focus on the characters and their physical challenges and moral dilemmas. Steve is complex, and not always wholly likeable. He pushes away people who are trying to him, and has a hard time letting go of a lifetime of bitter advice from his grandfather. But he's bright and ultimately loyal. It's enjoyable watching him grow up over the course of a few difficult weeks.

The supporting characters are also believably flawed, both teens and adults. I especially enjoyed one boy who cheerfully admits that he would have been on Ritalin before the Collapse.

The Eleventh Plague is fast-paced and well-plotted. Although it's sprinkled with interesting insights, I found myself reading quickly, to find out what would happen next. Although things wrap up well, one can imagine a companion novel about a different character coming in the future. I would read it.

Here are a couple of examples of Hirsch's writing:

"The slaver laughed. It sounded like a landslide, boulders tumbling together. He slapped his partner in the chest and they got on their feet and came toward us." (Page 30, ARC)

"The three of them laughed, but I didn't get it. The way they talked, like they were tossing a ball around in a game of keep-away, was confusing." (Page 75, ARC)

"As I scrubbed, I thought how easy it must have been when she and my dad were my age, back before the Collapse. Turn a faucet and out came hot water. Flick a switch and there was light. I wondered if it ever seemed like magic. In a way Jenny and Jackson and I were lucky. We couldn't miss what we'd never had." (Page 135, ARC)

Fans of post-apocalyptic fiction, teens and adults, should give The Eleventh Plague a look. And really, anyone who enjoys coming of age novels or taut suspense should check this one out, too. Although it features survival in a post-apocalyptic setting, The Eleventh Plague is also about growing up, building relationships, and trying to do the right thing. Highly recommended.

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: September 1, 2011
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes should be checked against the final book.

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Wonderstruck: Brian Selznick

Book: Wonderstruck
Author: Brian Selznick
Pages: 608
Age Range: 9-12

51vXowQorEL._SL500_AA300_ Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick's new book, is "a novel in words and pictures", like Selznick's Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The text begins in Gunflint, Minnesota, in 1977, and tells the story of a 12-year-old boy named Ben whose mother has just died. Ben, who is already deaf in one ear, loses his hearing completely early in the book. Despite this setback, he sets out on a quest to New York to find his unknown father. Ben's story, told in words, is interspersed with the story, told in pictures, of Rose. Rose's story begins in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927. Selznick uses occasional sketches of notes and newspaper articles to add words to Rose's primarily visual story.

Despite their differences in geography and time, certain parallels between Rose and Ben's stories become apparent to the careful reader. Eventually, both Ben and Rose end up at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where they each encounter the Cabinet of Wonders.

Wonderstruck is the kind of book where you're never quite sure whether or not something fantastical is going to happen next. Selznick suggests otherworldly adventures even when depicting something as mundane as a bus trip or a cab ride. Ben's deafness alone lends an otherworldly quality to the book, as he (not having yet learned lip reading or sign language) is isolated from the people around him. Like this:

"Ben looked around in astonishment. Taking in all the colors and smells and movements, he felt like he'd fallen over the edge of a waterfall. He was sure he had never seen this many people in his entire life on Gunflint Lake. Everyone everywhere seemed to be a different color, as if the cover of his social studies textbook had come to life around him.... Ben tried to imagine the honking, screaming, screeching soundtrack, but to him it unfolded noiselessly, like a scary movie with the sound turned off. All he could hear in his mind was David Bowie singing about Major Tom." (Page 264-265, ARC)

The ways that Ben finds to communicate with people (a mix of notes and lip-reading and gestures) lend a mixed media element to Wonderstruck, additional to the story told in text and pictures. Wonderstruck is as much an investigation into how deaf people communicate as it is a story of a boy's quest to find his father.

Wonderstruck is also a celebration of museums and the people who love them. There are elements of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to Wonderstruck. And there is the coolest ever model of New York City (which I had to look up to make sure was a real thing, the Panorama), completely woven in as part of the story. Libraries are magical in Wonderstruck, too. Here's my favorite passage:

"He wished that he was with his mom in her library, where everything was safe and numbered and organized by the Dewey decimal system. Ben wished the world was organized by the Dewey decimal system. That way you'd be able to find whatever you were looking for, like the meaning of your dream, or your dad." (Page 440-441, ARC)

Don't you love this kid?

Despite being 600 pages long, the illustrated sections fly by and make Wonderstruck a quick read. Selznick repeatedly does this thing where on several pages in a room he gradually zooms in on part of a drawing, taking the reader, for example, straight into the glow at the heart of a wolf's eye, or showing, with increasing detail and foreboding, a mystery man's hand knocking on a door. His illustrations are detailed and excellent at conveying mood.

The pictorial part of Wonderstruck is a veritable treasure hunt for curious readers. Rose has postcards on her wall from Walter. Who is Walter? Will we see him crop up in the story? What does the partially glimpsed title of that book mean? Who just grabbed Rose by the shoulder? Rose's sadness and determination are conveyed visually, even as Ben's are conveyed with words.

Wonderstruck is a remarkable book by a multi-talented and hard-working author. Although everything comes together seamlessly in the story, a detailed notes section and bibliography at the end give a glimpse into the research that was required to pull off this book. Wonderstruck is a triumph for Brian Selznick (definitely no one-hit wonder as a novelist), and a gift to readers of all ages. Highly recommended, and certain to be a huge success.

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: September 13, 2011
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Growing Bookworms Newsletter: August 30

JRBPlogo-smallToday I will be sending out the new issue of the Growing Bookworms email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on children's and young adult books and raising readers. There are 1489 subscribers. Currently I am sending the newsletter out approximately once every two weeks.

Newsletter Update: In this issue I have seven book reviews (four picture books, two middle grade and one YA). I also have a post about the call for judges for the Cybils Awards (plus other Kidlitosphere news). I don't have a children's literacy roundup post this time around, but you can find one at Rasco from RIF. Not included in the newsletter, I also posted:

  • A status update about the KidLitCon fundraiser for RIF (which has reached $1000!); and
  • A trailer for the upcoming Hunger Games movie.

Reading Update: Since the last newsletter, I finished eight books, six middle grade and two young adult novels (as well as various picture books and board books, see those here, here, and here):

As kind of a neat personal milestone, I reached 1000 books read aloud to Baby Bookworm this year (including re-reads). I'm still listening to A Spark of Death, a historical mystery by Bernadette Pajer. I haven't decided what to read next (though the stack of potentials is quite high). How about you? What have you been reading and enjoying? Thanks for reading the newsletter, and for growing bookworms.

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Cybils, Kidlitcon, and Carnivals, Oh My!

Cybils2011 There's a lot going on out there in the Kidlitosphere right now. Today's big news is that the call for judges for the 2011 Cybils is up. Children's and young adult book bloggers are invited to apply as panelists for round 1 or round 2 of judging for the 2011 Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards (Cybils). You can find more details about being a panelist here. Or, if you're already familiar with the Cybils, you can click straight through to the Cybils judge application form here.

The deadline to apply as a panelist is Sept. 15th. However, Cybils founder Anne Levy urges you not to wait -- many organizers begin filling slots immediately. One important change this year: if you wish to judge in the new Book App category, you must have access to an iPad (more details about the new category here).

Speaking as the Literacy Evangelist for the Cybils (i.e., cheerleader and long-time organizer), I can tell you that being a panelist is a lot of fun, and is a chance to make a real contribution to the world of children's literature. It is a lot of work, especially for round 1 panelists, but well worth the time. Nominations open October 1st.

Kidlitcon_logo2 In other news, registrations for KidLitCon continue apace. The updated (though still tentative) schedule is here. The current list of registered attendees is here (with some time lag, since registration fees are sent by mail). And no, it's not too late to register. It's going to be a great time!

Also, the August Carnival of Children's Literature is now available at Great Kid Books. Host Mary Ann Scheuer (who is also the organizer for the new app category for the Cybils) has put together a fun and festive assortment of children's book-related posts. Or, as Mary Ann calls it, "a tasty schmorgesborg of delicious reading".

I-can-read-meme2 And, finally, the August I Can Read Carnival is now available at Jean Little Library. Host Jennifer has links to an assortment of posts about easy readers, beginning chapter books, and picture books aimed at new readers.

There are doubtless lots of other great things going on around the Kidlitosphere today. But there events should give you a great start. Happy reading!

The Jewel and the Key: Louise Spiegler

Book: The Jewel and the Key
Author:  Louise Spiegler
Pages: 464
Age Range: 12 and up

Jewel I'm a sucker for time travel stories. They always make me think. Louise Spiegler's The Jewel and the Key is a young adult novel that reads more as a hybrid historical/contemporary novel than as a fantasy, but does rely on time travel. And it definitely made me think. The Jewel and the Key is well-written and intriguing, a much faster read than its 464 pages would suggest.

The Jewel and the Key is about a theater-struck high school girl named Addie whose fortunes become entwined with those of a historic, crumbling Seattle theater called the Jewel. To say much more about the plot would, I think, risk spoiling the story. Suffice it to say that The Jewel and the Key explores people's reactions to modern-day war as well as to World War I. There are insider looks at high school drama departments as well as theaters of the early 1900s. There are first loves and brave actions. There is an earthquake. And at the center of it all are Addie and the Jewel, and the key that brings everything together.

Louise Spiegler does a nice job with characterization and relationships in The Jewel and the Key, no small task in that there are two distinct casts of characters. I especially liked Addie's relationship with her friend Whaley. They're like siblings, except not. They have each other's backs, but they also fight, and they have a core difference in viewpoint regarding the military. Addie is quick-witted and determined to help people, though not always displaying the best judgement. And I love that she and her family live above the bookstore that her dad owns.

But where Spiegler (a history teacher) really shines is in her ability to make historical scenes come alive. Her vision of 1917 Seattle feels authentic right down to the smells, sounds, and tastes. Like this:

The military band's music roared to a crescendo. Someone started signing "Over There," and other voices joined in. Close by, a bell tolled, and a man with a bullhorn came through the station, shouting, "Then-thirty to San Francisco, arriving track one... Ten-thirty, arriving track one!"

All around them, people began streaming onto the platform. Women threw their arms around men in uniform. Older men slapped their backs. Children tugged their leg.s" (Page 400)

The plotting in The Jewel and Key is also strong, with puzzles to work out, and a variety of tense and exciting events taking place. I did find a couple of plot points a bit convenient (like families owning the same homes for a hundred years, and Addie happening to be wearing old clothing when she inadvertently time travels), but I suppose that's what it takes to make a two-sided jigsaw puzzle of a novel like this work. I also found it implausible that it took Addie as long as it did to catch on to what was going on. But I suppose that a person experiencing time travel would expect it a lot less than a person knowingly reading a novel. So I'll cut her some slack.

Overall, I thought that The Jewel and the Key was well-done. I read it in a day, because I simply couldn't put it down. I learned a little bit about Seattle, and quite a lot about the US response to World War I. I also enjoyed the insider view of the theater. The Jewel and the Key should please theater buffs, anyone who enjoys historical novels, and those, like me, who find the idea of time travel intriguing.

Publisher: Clarion Books (@hmhbooks)
Publication Date: August 29, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

KidLitCon Fundraiser for RIF Reaches $1000

Kidlitcon_logo2 As I wrote last week, KidLitCon is partnering with Reading is Fundamental this year. The idea is for our community, full of people passionate about children's books and literacy, to help RIF raise funds to put books into children's hands.

Today I am thrilled to report that the KidLItCon fund at RIF stands at $1056. That number represents a host of bloggers, authors, teachers, librarians, and parents reaching into their pockets to help RIF help kids. What a beautiful thing!

Making the whole thing even nicer, RIF CEO Carol Rasco shared (in the second comment on this post at Kidlitosphere Central) that a number of people have made their donations in honor of others. Here's the list so far. All honor gifts but the first one have been given anonymously. The gifts are listed in order of receipt. 

IN HONOR OF Colleen Mondor and Jackie Parker for your generosity in putting this partnership in motion by the RIF National Staff.

IN HONOR OF the Kidlitosphere members who encourage us and help us move our books into the hands of readers and create stronger readers by Authors and Illustrators.

IN HONOR OF Jen Robinson who is the most dedicated person to Kid Lit I know who isn't in the field by training but by love of kid lit by an appreciative teacher.

IN HONOR OF Betsy Bird who starts my morning off better than anything ever has by an appreciative reader.

IN HONOR OF MotherReader for the fabulous 48 Hour Reading Challenge and serving as co-leader of The Comment Challenge.

IN HONOR OF Liz Burns who keeps us all honest!

IN HONOR OF Jen, Terry and Carol for those Reading Roundups by a harried blogger.

IN HONOR OF Greg Pincus who is always so welcoming to new bloggers like me who feel dumb by a new blogger!

How cool is that? I swear, even if I wasn't mentioned myself, I would just LOVE this list. Because it speaks so eloquently of the Kidlitosphere as a community. A true, connected community, in which people appreciate one another. Did you see that RIF staff members donated to the fund, too? There's a vote of confidence in us all, and especially in Colleen and Jackie.

I am humbled and honored by the words of both "an appreciative teacher" and "a harried blogger". People donated money to RIF, in honor of me. My childhood self is thrilled, and my adult self is touched and grateful. Something that I'm doing here at this blog is working.

But really, I love all of the dedications. I wish that I had thought to dedicate my donation. Is it too late to retroactively dedicate my RIF KidLitCon donation? I'd like my donation to be in honor of the people who took me from being an industrial engineer who liked to read children's books in her spare time and made me part of an amazing community. To the Kidlitosphere! And to Baby Bookworm, who shows me the joy of early literacy every day.

RIFF_logo RIF and KidLitCon. Two great things, even better together. Have you donated?

Mister Lemur's Train of Thought: Mister Lemur

Book: Mister Lemur's Train of Thought
Author: Mister Lemur (Hans and Jen Hartvickson)
Pages: 151
Age Range: 7-10

Train_of_thought Mister Lemur's Train of Thought is a bit hard to classify. It's a self-published book of poems for kids, one that sneaks in a fair bit of education (particularly vocabulary and science). It's not the sort of book that I generally review, but something about it (probably the authors' passion for engaging kids through literacy) caught my eye.

Mister Lemur creators Hans and Jen Hartvickson fell in love with playful, curious lemurs while on a trip to Madagascar, and decided to use lemurs (with poetry) as the basis for engaging kids in learning. They visit schools (classrooms and assemblies), doing presentations to "educates students about the process of creating a book, the importance of planning and goal setting, and the basics of rhyme, meter and poetry". More details can be found here. They also publish an enewsletter, and offer free coloring pages, audio downloads, puzzles, etc. on their website. The book is just one component in an enthusiastic, curiosity-promoting enterprise. (I'll bet that Hans and Jen would get along with Kim and Jason Kotecki from Escape Adulthood).

But back to the book. Mister Lemur's Train of Thought is a 150 page book consisting of 66 lightly illustrated poems/stories. The poems range in length from just a few lines to several pages each. A little sketch of a caboose indicates the end of each story. The authors were clearly inspired by the work of Shel Silverstein - Mister Lemur's Train of Thought bears a visual similarity to Silverstein's books. The writing is not at Silverstein's level, of course, but I think that kids will enjoy it. The rhythm and rhymes are consistent, and there are flashes of wit sprinkled throughout.

Mister Lemur's Train of Thought probably isn't a book that you'll want to sit down and read straight through. There's not enough variation in the meter or creativity in the rhyme selections for that. Some of the lines didn't quite scan for me. But it's nice for dipping into, and reading a poem or three at a time. I think that kids who like poetry will enjoy it, and that it may inspire them to write some poems of their own.

The Hartvicksons do a nice job of integrating educational elements into the poems without being heavy-handed. They use advanced vocabulary words ("asylum"), or scientific or historical terms ("phylum"), and then define them in a small footnote. Parents reading aloud to kids can ask the kids to guess at the definition, based on the context of the poem, before reading the official definition. Some of the poems are clearly written to illustrate a particular concept (e.g., symbiosis), while others are just there for fun. Overall, I would say that the fun wins out over the education (necessary if kids are to accept the book). Here are a few examples of the concepts behind the poems:

  • A petting zoo in which the animals come to pet the kids.
  • A ghoul's school in which the game involves grabbing people's eyes.
  • A kangaroo with a damaged knee that can't hop (until he gets a pogo stick crutch).
  • Use of the continental plates as huge dinner plates (and the resulting earthquakes).
  • The difference between crocodiles and gators.

And here are a couple of samples (each the first part of a longer entry):

"Bounding through the vast outback
a kangaroo felt his knee crack.
He landed funny on a hop,
his twisted knee went "crackle-pop."

A joey with an injured knee
does not have much mobility.
They put a brace on nice and tight
and gave him heaps of Vegemite."


"Young Judy hated clean up duty.
The playroom was a mess.
So nicks and nacks and jacks and tacks
would always coalesce

around the places people walk
and General Jack, her dad,
preferred that things be neat and tight.
Her messes made him mad."

While Mister Lemur himself has an engaging grin, the black and white sketched illustrations are not of professional illustrator quality. This is probably the biggest shortcoming of the book, and may turn off some readers, though they do add visual interest to the poems. (Hard to read about the benefits of duck dentistry without seeing a sketch of a duck with a big toothy smile.) The book itself is well-constructed, with a sturdy binding and thick, bright-white paper. A table of contents at the front will help families refer back to favorites later, and launches the train motif by being called "Daily Departures".

All in all, I enjoyed Mister Lemur's Train of Thought. I'll keep it around to try out on Baby Bookworm in five years or so. And in the meantime, I'll look forward to hearing (via Team Lemur) more about Hans and Jen Hartvickson's adventures in using poetry and lemurs to get kids excited about learning.

Publisher: Ringtail Learning
Publication Date: 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the authors

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten: Catherine Urdahl

Book: Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten
Author: Catherine Urdahl
Illustrator: Mai S. Kemble
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4 to 8

Bk_polka-dot_new Just in time for the start of the new school year, I bring you Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten by Catherine Urdahl. Polka-dot (apparently) lives with her Grandpa, who always fixes everything for her. Today, however, Polka-dot is starting kindergarten. Grandpa won't be there to fix things for her. But she does have her polka-dotted dress and her fix-it kit, containing duct tape, runny soap, and dotted bandages.

In kindergarten, Polka-dot discovers a teacher with way too many rules about things, and a mean girl named Liz who makes fun of Polka-dot. After several setbacks, however, Polka-dot discovers that understanding, and a bit of duct tape, can go a long way towards fixing things.

It's clear to the reader that both Polka-dot and Liz are struggling with not being the center of the universe in kindergarten, the way they are at home. They're adjusting to different rules, and being around new people. I think that Urdahl's depiction of this is clear without being heavy-handed. Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten is probably best suited to kids who didn't attend preschool, and are encountering a classroom for the first time. Though really, any young reader can probably appreciate the horror of a ripped dress, the embarrassment of spilling paint on the floor, or the frustration of dealing with someone who is mean for no reason.

I love Mai Kemble's watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite illustrations. Polka-dot is pink-cheeked and stylish in her dotted dress. The students represent a range of colors of clothing, hair, and skin. The page in which all of the kids are sitting around in a circle, learning about the rules of kindergarten, most looking shy or apprehensive, is a perfect picture of five-year-olds in a new place. Teacher Mrs. Jackson is firm about the rules, the pictures show her to be kind, and to have a nurturing classroom. And the watercolor illustrations are the perfect medium for showing Polka-dot's spilled paint.

I like that Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten shows, without comment, a grandfather in the role of primary caregiver. I like that Polka-dot and Liz work out their issues on their own, without direct interference from any adults. And I love that the solution to their problems involves the use of duct tape.

Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten is a welcome addition to the canon of first day of kindergarten books. Polka-dot is a strong, relatable character, Urdahl's illustrations are warm and friendly, and the book's messages (about adjusting to new environments and making friends) are conveyed with a light touch. Recommended for girls and boys about to start kindergarten or preschool.

Publisher: Charlesbridge (@Charlesbridge)
Publication Date: July 1, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale: Karen Henry Clark

Book: Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale
Author: Karen Henry Clark
Illustrator: Patrice Barton
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4 to 8

SweetMoon Sweet Moon Baby is a fanciful, fairytale-like story of adoption. One night, in China, a perfect baby girl is born. Her loving parents don't have enough food for her, and want more for her than they can give her. So they put her in a basket, and she floats away in a river, under the watchful eye of the moon. Various animals help her along her way, as she sleeps, safe.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a husband and wife hope for a daughter. While they wait for their daughter, they make a garden for her, and plant fruit trees for her to climb, and buy her books. And eventually, they follow the path of the moon, and find the little moon baby in her basket, and take her home.

I can't even read this book, can't even describe it here, without tearing up a little bit. A happy kind of crying, of course. For me, the emotional connection lies in the details. The parents in China say: "She should have pretty things" and "She should learn to read." Much later in the book, the parents in the US say: "Perhaps she will like pretty things" and "Perhaps she will like books". Both sets of parents are "happy and sad at the same time." The girl does grow up with a love of books and pretty things, but she still dreams of China. It's beautiful. I know it's an incredibly idealized view of adoption, but what a nice view to share with a child who has been adopted.

Karen Henry Clark's text is quiet and dream-like. Sweet Moon Baby reads like lullaby. Like this:

"The river grew shallow. She was caught in the mud. A turtle saw her in the moonlight and carried her to deeper water."

Still, she slept."


"They chased a shooting star across the midnight sky. She was not there. They followed the next one as it flashed beside the moon.

She was not there either.

They searched the moonlit flower beds. She was not with the ferns or roses. She was not in the daisies."

Really, the only complaint I have about the text is that it's hard to read Sweet Moon Baby aloud, because of the whole teary-eyed thing. But that's a good problem to have!

Patrice Barton's illustrations mesh perfectly with the story. They consist of pencil sketches, scanned in and edited digitally with Corel Painter software. The smiling, pink-cheeked baby in her basket, wrapped in a red blanket, is lovely. You can't look at her without wanting to pick her up. The animals that help the baby are friendly, as is the face in the moon. All of the pictures have a soft focus to them, adding to the dream-like quality of the book. The color tones throughout convey moonlight.

Sweet Moon Baby is a keeper. Lovingly written by the mother of an adopted daughter from China, I think that this story will be appreciated by parents everywhere (whether of adopted children or not). Because what Sweet Moon Baby celebrates is not so much adoption, but the depth of love that parents have for their children. I think that children will find that message reassuring, too. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Knopf (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: November 2010
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

The Boy at the End of the World: Greg van Eekhout

Book: The Boy at the End of the World
Author: Greg van Eekhout
Pages: 224
Age Range: 9-12

Boy-at-the-end-of-the-world-FINAL1-677x1024 The Boy at the End of the World is middle grade science fiction with a compelling premise. Fisher is born in a pod filled with bubbling gel, a plastic umbilical cord attached to his belly, and an array of knowledge pre-implanted in his brain. All of the pods around him, a high-tech Ark left by a crumbling society, have been destroyed. A mildly damaged robot named Click informs Fisher that he is the only human being left on earth. Click's job is to help Fisher (and thus humanity) survive. This is no small task in a world in which predators, animal and machine, have had thousands of years to evolve without human interference. Nevertheless, Fisher, with Click beside him, sets off on a dangerous journey to try to find other humans.

Greg van Eekhout's world-building is excellent. The America that Fisher inhabits is  littered with the detritus of the lost human society, but time has wrought so much change that only a few recognizable artifacts and locations remain. The flora and fauna are dramatically changed, with oversized parrots swooping down to attack, and whales and piranha/crocodile hybrids trolling the Mississippi River. A young mammoth, genetically engineered prior to the collapse of civilization, joins Fisher and Click's odd family. And mutated weapons, which Fisher and Click call "gadgets", scour the skies.

Fisher is a strong character, chafing at his limitations, but instinctively loyal to his friends, determined to survive. Click is a mix of pre-programmed, canned knowledge and directives, but he lends occasional dry humor. Like this:

"Our purpose is uncertain. As I said, I am a custodial unit. I was not designed for the tasks I must perform now to maintain your survival. Also, a rock fell on my head and a rat tried to eat my face, so it is possible that I am not seeing all the available options." (Page 22)

The author's message of environmentalism is a tiny bit heavy-handed at times, with Click dropping tidbits like:

"Animals evolve over time, and land changes over time. But do not underestimate the impact of human activity. Sea levels must have risen due to the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps. Destructive farming practices may have eroded the soil away." (Page 104)

But The Boy at the End of the World has enough action, and Fisher has enough heart, that the message does not overwhelm the story. The Boy at the End of the World reminded me a bit of John Christopher's books, with an old school, science fiction feel, though there are also modern touches, like nanobots.

One minor point that I liked is that Click tells Fisher: "Your skin is darkly pigmented to give you some protection from sun exposure." I like the notion that the last vestiges of humanity would want to give their human ark inhabitants the advantage of dark skin. It also cracked me up that Fisher's first words, as he races from his collapsing place of birth, are profanities. I like the irreverence of it.

There is also, alas, the obligatory discovery by Fisher of the vestiges of a McDonalds sign. These seem to make their way into many post-apocalypse tales - some sort of standard symbol of our collapsed society.

Here are two final quotes, to give you a feel for van Eekhout's writing:

"Soon, he was eating cooked crayfish. It was just a small nugget of meat, but it was rich and fatty and sweet and full of protein, and it tasted like success." (Page 30)

"They started out when the sun broke and the wet earth breathed steam, and they kept walking, for hours, and days, and weeks." (Page 60)

The Boy at the End of the World is a quick, appealing read. It has an irresistible premise, a fully featured setting, a handful of strong characters, and an action-packed plot. I recommended it for middle grade and middle school readers, boys and girls. It's a book that I would have read and re-read as a 10-year-old, and that I enjoyed today. It would make a great movie, too. The Boy at the End of the World is a keeper.

Publisher: Bloomsbury (@BWKids)
Publication Date: June 21, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.