Dec 31, 2011

My New Year's Resolutions

     Every year I make not one, two, but a bunch of New Year's Resolutions.  I know I should probably just make one and stick to it, but I like to make different resolutions for different facets of my life. So I make one as a teacher, one as a mom, one as a wife, a personal one, and one as a reader/writer.  I won't bore you with all of them, I'll just let you know of my New Year's Resolution as a reader.
     In 2012, I will read all the Caldecott Medal Winners and Honors Books from 1938-to the present. I'll track my progress on Goodreads and I'll blog about my favorites here. If you want to join the challenge go here: Caldecott Challenge.
     I'm also joining the Newbery Medal Reading Challenge, but I know I won't be able to read all of them in a year, so this is a long term resolution (I'm shooting for 2 years).
     I'm going to read the books from both challenges in chronological order, but to spice it up, I'm starting from oldest to most recent with the Caldecott, and from most recent to oldest with the Newbery.
     So there it goes. It's written out so you can hold me to it (good thing I'm not sharing the other resolutions).
     Have a wonderful new year full or love, laughter and good books!

-Natalia Ortega-Brown

ps: you can follow along on Twitter #nerdcott and #nerdbery

Dec 30, 2011

The Buffalo Are Back

The Buffalo Are Back by Jean Craighead George
Paintings by Wendell Minor
Published by Dutton Children's Books

     "In the mid-1800s seventy five million buffalo roamed in North America. In little more than fifty years, there would be almost none."  In The Buffalo Are Back, Jean Craighead George (Julie of the Wolves) explains in detail the historical events that lead these majestic animals to the edge of extinction.  In very clear terms, with very accessible narrative readers take a journey to the prairies during the 1800s, the westward expansion and the Indian Wars.  There is plenty to learn about the connections between the buffalo and the prairie and how the disappearance of the buffaloes eventually caused the prairie to become dust.
     The Buffalo Are Back is a beautiful non-fiction picture book to add to any home or classroom library. The paintings by Wendell Minor are gorgeous.  It connects to social studies and science curriculum but reads like a story. Wonderful find.

Dec 29, 2011

Swirl by Swirl

Swirl by Swirl by Joyce Sidman
Illustrated by Beth Krommes
Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

     What do you get when you combine the amazing talents of Joyce Sidman (Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night and Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors) and Beth Krommes (The House in the Night)? Well, you get a marvelous book written just for me. Yep, you heard that right.
     So here's something you might not know about me. I have been totally obsessed with spirals since I was a little kid. I buy everything a find that has a spiral on it. If I were brave enough to get a tattoo, it would definitely be a Fibonacci's spiral.  Now, I know you know I love picture books and poetry, but another of my passions is Mathematics (love, love, Math). So now we have an amazing poet, a great illustrator, spirals, picture books, and math, all in one...and yes! This book was made just for me.
     Swirl by Swirl is perfectly simple yet incredibly deep. It takes you on a journey observing nature and all the different ways spirals appear in it.  From snuggling animals, to the curls of a fern, to the arms of the octopus, the spiral in the spiderweb, the tails of spider monkeys, the crest of a wave, the petals of the calla lily (my favorite flower...see? book!). Spirals are everywhere. They are a "strong shape", "exploring the world," "clinging tight," "graceful and strong."
     And my favorite. "It is bold" as in the breaking ocean waves:

    Swirl by Swirl invites you (a lot like Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner) to observe nature closely, to see the world with a more careful eye and notice its wonders.  At the end of the book, the author has included detailed information about all the spirals in nature she made reference to in the poem. She concludes by saying "while we don't always understand the reasons behind this patterns [spirals], something in us responds to them. They are beautiful, satisfying, and endlessly fascinating." Just like this book. I'm almost mad I didn't read this book till now or I would have included it on my Top Books of 2011 list. So there it goes, it's officially part of my favorites. 


Dec 28, 2011

Squirrel's New Year's Resolution

Squirrel's New Year's Resolution by Pat Miller
Illustrated by Kathi Ember
Published by Albert Whitman & Company

     It's January 1st and Squirrel just put up the new calendar. On the radio they're talking about New Year's resolutions, but Squirrel has no idea how you make a resolution.  He heads out to see his friends and ask them about New Year's resolutions.  Bear already has one: to teach skunk to read. Skunk already has one: to learn how to read. Mole and Turtle have one: to start a garden. Porcupine has one: to be less grumpy.  Without thinking twice, Squirrel ends up helping all of his friends get started on their resolutions and along the way he finds a resolution of his own: to help someone every day.
     Squirrel's New Year's Resolution is a great read-aloud to share on the first day back to school after the holiday break. I love having my students write resolutions that last till the end of the school year and keep them on display around the classroom to hold them to it.  Have you made your resolution yet? 

Dec 27, 2011

Apples & Oranges

Apples & Oranges: going bananas with pairs by Sara Pinto
Illustrated by Sara Pinto
Published by Bloomsbury Children's Books

     What do apples and oranges have in common? If you said they are both fruits, guess again.  What about a cupcake and an ice-cream? They're both desserts? nope.  In Apples & Oranges, Sara Pinto surprises the reader at each page turn by coming up with unexpected and hilarious answers to the match ups.  My favorite is How are trousers and underpants alike? With illustrations that will cause as much joy as the text itself, the answer becomes They both don't make good hats. Of course!
     Apples & Oranges will keep the young ones coming up with their own answers and offers an open ended question to keep the conversation going. How are you and I alike? We both don't... 

Dec 26, 2011


Migrant by Maxine Trottier
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Published by Groundwood Books

     Anna is part of a migrant family that every springs leaves their home in Mexico and travels north harvesting fruits and vegetables.  She is a Mennonite, a group of Low German-speaking migrants who moved from Canada to Mexico in the 1920's.  She wonders what it would be like to be able to stay in one place, "to have your own bed, to ride your own bicycle [...] Now that would be something." "What would it be like to be a tree with roots sunk deeply into the earth"
      On her way north Anna feels like a bird, "her family is a flock of geese beating its way there and back again." She's like a jack rabbit, staying in houses that don't belong to her family, "abandoned burrows." Her family works the fields like bees, "dip and rise over the vegetables, that is when all of them are bees." She's a kitten at night curled up with her sisters, her brothers are puppies growling in their sleep. She knows they stare at her and her family as they walk through town, sticking out and not speaking the language. And when the seasons change again, and fall arrives Anna leaves again "like a monarch, like a robin, like a feather in the wind."
     Migrant is a beautifully written book that, through similes and metaphors, captures the feelings and apprehensions of a child in a migrant family.  The language is lyrical, gorgeous, and the illustrations are enchanting, dreamlike.   Wonderful book to use in the classroom for examples of figurative language and in social studies to discuss migrant groups.  Gorgeous!

Dec 25, 2011

Mrs. Claus Takes a Vacation

Mrs. Claus Takes a Vacation by Linas Alsenas
Illustrated by Linas Alsenas
Published by Scholastic Press

     Mrs. Claus is tired of staying behind year after year. She's never had a vacation in her life and she's tired of the snow. So she packs her bag, hitches a reindeer to the sleigh and says bye to Santa.  While Santa worries each day that she's gone and misses her terribly, Mrs.Claus travels all over the globe. She goes to beaches in Brazil, dances in Romania, visits the Taj Majal and eats sushi in Japan.  But after a while, everything starts reminding her of home and she knows is time to go back.
     Mrs. Claus Takes a Vacation is a tender holiday story.  Mrs. Claus' adventures around the globe are delightful with bright and large illustrations (and a reindeer hiding in each page). In contrast,  Santa's pages, where we see him sad and longing for his wife, have smaller illustrations and are framed with holiday borders. She, for once, seems larger than life. Once she's back home, Santa gives her the world by inviting her to join him on his sleigh Christmas Eve.  This surprisingly romantic holiday story is sure to delight young readers and adults alike.

Dec 24, 2011

The Night Before Christmas

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore
Illustrated by James Marshall
Published by Scholastic

     In case you didn't know it by now, I did not grow up in the United States.  I spent most of my childhood in Venezuela and a couple of years in Spain.  Christmas in Caracas, Venezuela was really different;  It has become a lot more Americanized now, but when I was a kid, we didn't really talk about Santa Claus...for us it was Baby Jesus who brought the presents (how did a new born child manage to deliver the presents? don't ask...we didn't question it at all).
     I'm now an American citizen, and Santa has become a big part of our Christmas, especially because I have a 4 and a 2 year old at home.  We've developed some traditions around this time and one of them is reading The Night Before Christmas. I know there are many editions out there, but I love this one because of Marshall's illustrations.  It brings a whole cast of droll characters into the story: cat, bulldogs, chickens...
     I'm off to enjoy my Christmas Eve, so I leave you with:

But I heard him exclaim,
ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all,
And to all a good night."

Dec 23, 2011

The Santa Clauses

The Santa Clauses retold by Achim Broger
Ilustrated by Ute Krause
Published by Dial Books

     The trouble started when newspapers published the story that there was no such thing as Santa Claus.  The story spread like wildfire and soon children were  distraught. Who were they going to sent their letters to? Who would bring them their presents? Charlie just didn't believe it. He knew Santa Clause had to be real. "Actually Charlie was right. But there wasn't just one Santa Clause, there were several -enough to go around at Christmas among all the children in the world."
     The Santa Clauses called for an International Convention. They decided that since people didn't want to believe in them anymore, they might as well take a break and go on vacation.  Meanwhile, Charlie was home, "moping around his room," thinking about Santa Claus. His father takes him to his work at the post office, and it is there that Charlie finds a postcard sent to one of the Santas from the others who were vacationing in Miami Beach.  Charlie knows he needs to head to Florida and convince the Santa Clauses to get back to work.
     The Santa Clauses is a quirky and entertaining story. It's lively illustrations and original tale make for a delightful read.  At the end of the day, it goes back to this, Santa will always be real to those who believe in him...or them.

Dec 22, 2011

The Borrowed Hanukkah Latkes

The Borrowed Hanukkah Latkes by Linda Glaser
Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Published by Albert Whitman & Company

     It was the last night of Hanukahh. Rachel couldn't contain her excitement, hopping from foot to foot while her mother flipped latkes in the kitchen.  The house would soon be packed with friends and relatives. Then the phone rang, and Rachel's mother found out that even more people than expected were coming and she needed to make more latkes.  She sent Rachel up to the cellar to get more potatoes but they didn't have enough. Rachel went to see if she could borrow some latkes from their neighbor Mrs.Greenberg. Every year Rachel's mom invites Mrs.Greenberg over for Hannukah but she never comes. Mrs.Greenberg has "a heart of gold, but she's as stubborn as an ox." So this time around they hope that borrowing some potatoes from her would convince her to come and join them.
     Rachel ran over to Mrs.Greenberg's house and inside her house she noticed how quiet everything just didn't seem like Hanukkah except for the menorah by the window. Rachel asked to borrow some potatoes and invited Mrs.Greenberg over, but she refused.  As the night progresses, Rachel needs to go back to Mrs.Greenberg's multiple times to borrow different items, and she ends up formulating a plan that will convince Mrs.Greenberg to be part of their Hannukah celebration. They are running out of room inside Rachel's house...and there's plenty of room in Mrs.Greenberg's...
     The Borrowed Hanukkah Latkes is a beautiful story with a lovely message.  Rachel understands that her neighbor is lonely and a bit stubborn, and she finds an creative way to bring the celebration to her.  The watercolor illustrations are lively and filled with joy. It's a great book to share during the Hanukkah. celebration.  

Dec 21, 2011

The Lump of Coal

The Lump of Coal by Lemony Snicket
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
Published by Harper Collins

     This is the story of a lump of coal with a dream. “Like many people who dress in black, the lump of coal was interested in becoming an artist.”  He dreamed of a miracle “that one day it would get to draw rough, black lines on canvas or, more likely, on a breast of chicken or salmon filet by participating in a barbeque.”  The first miracle? The lump of coal comes to life and rolls out of a bag of coals left out in a backyard.  Second miracle? He rolls all the way to an art gallery.  Unfortunately when he walks into the gallery, he's met by a very pretentious owner who tries to crush his dreams of being an artist. Third miracle? He finds a Korean barbeque restaurant but the owner -who's definitely not Korean and is using non-Korean spices (oregano)- kicks him out because she would only use one-hundred percent Korean coals.
     He then runs into Santa, well, not really. "I'm not really Santa Claus. I'm an employee of the drugstore, dressed up and giving out coupons."  The lump of coal asks Santa for help, "Do you have any use for me?" "I'm an artist at heart, but I'm very helpful when cooking meat." Santa has a different plan: his stepson has been disobedient this year, and he deserves to get a lump of coal instead or a gift for Christmas. Here's were the miracles start to work for the lump of coal. Jasper, the boy, is thrilled to find him in his stocking, "I've been wanting to create some abstract art featuring rough, black lines!" Jasper and the lump of coal become famous artists, travel to Korea, and end up buying the Korean barbeque restaurant.
     I loved The Lump of Coal. It's funny, it has great vocabulary, it's quirky, and it actually has a beautiful message at the end.  There are many miracles in life, says Snicket, like finding true friends and spending your time doing whatever you like to do. And the holiday, is the perfect time "to think about the miracles in your own life, and to be grateful for them."  The illustrations by Helquist are wonderful as well. It makes you wish the format of the book was larger to truly enjoy them.  Great find! 

Dec 20, 2011

My 2011 Favorites Part III

And to round up my favorites:

Blackout by John Rocco
Illustrated by John Rocco

You Will Be My Friend by Peter Brown
Illustrated by Peter Brown

Me . . . Jane by Patrick McDonnell
Illustrated by Patrick McDonell

Cloudette by Tom Lichtenheld
Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

And last but not least:

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
Illustrated by Jon Klassen

What a great year in picture books!

Dec 19, 2011

My 2011 Favorites Part II

Here are my next five favorites of 2011:

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner
Art by Christopher Silas Neal
Published by Chronicle Books

Ice by Arthur Geisert
Illustrated by Arthur Geisert

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade by Melissa Sweet

The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett
Illustrated by Poly Bernatene

All the Way to America by Dan Yaccarino

Dec 18, 2011

My 2011 Favorites Part l

     Since the end of the year is approaching, I'm starting my own list of my favorite books of 2011. I'm not going to write them out in any particular order (too hard), and I'll divide it into four blog posts. Today I give you Part l.
     So here it is! My favorite picture books of 2011:

I Had A Favorite Dress by Boni Ashburn
Illustrated by Julia Denos

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith
Illustrated by Lane Smith

Press Here by Hérve Tullet
Illustrated by Hérve Tullet

These Hands by Margaret H. Mason
Illustrated by Floyd Cooper

A Few Blocks by Cybele Young
Illustrated by Cybele Young

Dec 17, 2011

The Legend of the Poinsettia

The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola
Illustrated by Tomie dePaola
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons

     Lucida lived in a small village in the mountains of Mexico with her family.  She helped her mom cook and took care of her little siblings. "Each evening they went to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe near the front gate to see if fresh candles were needed."  The town was getting ready for Christmas and Father Alvarez asked Lucida's mom if she could weave a new blanket to cover Baby Jesus during the procession.   Lucida's mother was honored and started working on the new blanket right away.
     One day, while Lucida was at the church practicing the songs for the Christmas procession, a neighbor came running to let her know that her mother was sick and her father had taken her to the doctor.  Lucida's parents wouldn't be home till after Christmas.  Lucida tried to finish the blanket by herself but it was too difficult and the wool got all tangled.  She cried, feeling like it was all her fault, "in her heart she felt that she had ruined Christmas." On the night of the procession, Lucida hid in the darkness ashamed. An old woman approached her and told Lucida her mother will be fine and she should go inside the church to celebrate Christmas.  Lucida explained that she hadn't finished the blanket and she didn't have a gift for Baby Jesus, and the old woman told her "any gift is beautiful because it is given." Lucida looked around for something to give Baby Jesus and carried inside the church a bundle of green weeds in her arms. She looked back but the old lady had disappeared. As she lay the weeds down by the manger, she bowed down and prayed and then all the weeds changed color from green to red, like flaming stars.  Even the weeds outside changed. "Lucida's simple gift had indeed become beautiful."
     I love The Legend of the Poinsettia. It's such a beautiful story! It's message is worth spreading during the holidays when we might lose focus and spend too much in extravagant gifts. It is the gifts of love that really make a difference.

Dec 16, 2011

Too Many Tamales

Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto
Illustrated by Ed Martinez
Published by The Putnam Publish Group

     Maria is feeling grown-up. It's Christmas and she's in the kitchen wearing her mother's apron and helping her knead the masa to make tamales.  She was even allowed to wear her mother's lipstick and perfume. But the one thing she still wishes to wear is her mother's diamond ring.  Her mom had set it on the counter while she kneaded the dough and when she left the kitchen to answer the phone, "Maria couldn't help herself." She grabbed the ring and put it on her thumb.  She continued kneading the masa, seeing how the ring "disappeared, then reappeared in the sticky glob of dough."
    The tamales where done and Maria's extended family arrives to celebrate Christmas. While Maria is playing with her cousins, she realizes she no longer has the ring. It has to be inside one of the tamales! There is only one way to find it before Maria's mom notices the ring is missing: the kids will have to eat all the tamales or Maria will have to fess up.
     Too Many Tamales is a wonderful read aloud to share with the family.  The story is entertaining and the theme of honesty and coming clean, will resonate with a lot of young readers.  Aside from all that, Too Many Tamales is about family and traditions.  It's warm illustrations help create the feeling of a family sharing and the facial expressions of the children in the book will have some smiling all the way to the kitchen.    

Dec 15, 2011

The Christmas Boot

The Christmas Boot by Lisa Wheeler
Illustrated by Michael Glenn Monroe
Published by Mitten Press

     Miss Hannah Greyweather walked through the forest on Christmas morning gathering kindling wood. As usual, she was all by herself, "she chatted to the forest, she talked to the mountains, but mostly she spoke to herself." On her way back to her ramshackle cabin she found a black boot.  She had her hands full so she just "slipped her rag-wrapped right foot deep within it." The boot magically took the shape and size of her foot.  That night she went to sleep only wishing she had the other boot. When she woke up, the pair was complete.  As she wishes for different things that keep coming true, Hannah keeps wondering who the magical boot belongs to.  When a round man with a white beard shows up at her doorstep, she welcomes him in and realizes she has found the true owner.
     The Christmas Boot is a sweet, sentimental story.  I did find the ending a bit sad -getting a new puppy but still living alone in a run down home wasn't the kind of happy ending you expect after dinner with Santa.  Nice read aloud for the older elementary grades.

Dec 14, 2011

The Third Gift

The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Published by Clarion Books

My father collects tears. That is what they are called: the pearls of sap that seep out of a tree when the bark is cut. Maybe they are called tears because it seems as if the tree is crying.
     In a barren and harsh looking landscape, a young boy and his father walked together searching for the perfect trees. The father is working, collecting the sap and teaching his son how to do it.  Both of them walk side by side, diligently looking at each tree, touching them, finding the perfect spot on the bark to cut an "x" and wait for the sap, the tear, to seep out, and solidify just enough to be solid on the outside and tender in the middle.     
     They sell the tears to spice merchants at the marketplace. The tears are used as medicine, to flavor wine, and as embalming oils. "When you smell tears at a funeral, you know that someone truly beloved has died."
     They have collected the largest tear yet. Their faces filled with joy. As they approach the marketplace, the spice merchant awaits for them with a special group of clients. They speak a foreign language. They are shopping for a special gift. "We have a gift of gold, and a gift of frankincense." They have found the third gift.
     The Third Gift is a truly special book. The illustrations by Ibatoulline are breathtaking, each a work of art.  Sue Park has paced the story beautifully, its quite sensibility and reverence coming through.  It's a surprising development in a story we thought we knew.  Sue Park explains in her author's note the origin of the story and its historical context. Like her, I too wondered when I was younger what myrrh was, but felt uncomfortable asking. I just wished I had had the pleasure of reading this book then. Beautiful and quite read aloud.

Dec 13, 2011

Little Owl Lost

Little Owl Lost by Chris Haughton
Illustrated by Chris Haughton
Published by Candlewick Press

     Owls are trendy, or so I've heard. They're supposed to be the new chicken or something like that. So here I have my first owl book, Little Owl Lost.  And...yes, this little owl is very, very likable.
     Little owl and his mom are perched atop a tree, eyes closed, sleeping.  Little owl starts leaning over the edge and before he can react, he falls off.

As he bounces all the way down to the ground (in a scene that gave me some Angry Bird flashbacks), little owl realizes he doesn't know where his mother is and he's lost. A squirrel who saw him fall comes to his help, as a bear, a rabbit, and a frog, observe in the background.  "Don't worry, little friend. I'll find your mommy. What does she look like?" Little Owl describes his mom as big so the squirrel takes him to the bear. He then describes his mother's pointy ears, so squirrel takes him to the rabbit. He tells him about his mom's big eyes, so squirrel takes him to the frog. Thankfully frog knows where to find little owl's mommy.  Mother owl, squirrel, frog and little owl get together to celebrate atop the tree, and as little owl closes his eyes again, he starts to lean over the edge...
     Little Owl reminds you of the classic Are You My Mother? but with a more contemporary touch given by its digital media illustrations and it's short simple dialogue.  It's funny and young readers will connect to little owl and his search for mommy.  Sweet read aloud for the lower grades and to set up as a mini readers' theater.

Dec 12, 2011


Shhh! by Valeri Gorbachev
Illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev
Published by Philomel Books

     His baby brother is sleeping so he knows he needs to be really quiet.  He makes sure he doesn't jump around or sing. "I walk on my tippy-toes." He goes around telling everyone to shhh! He tells the clown to stop laughing, the knights to stop fighting, the tiger to quiet down his roars, the pilot to ground his buzzing plane, the train conductor to stop the train, and the pirates to stop firing their cannons. "When my baby brother sleeps, it is so quiet in my house. I can even hear a fly!" He makes sure nothing wakes him up, because "I love my baby brother so."
     Shhh! is a tender book about the love of a big brother for his baby brother.  I really like the way the story is set up. At first, when the boy is telling us all the things he makes sure are quiet so as not to wake his baby brother up, we see him -in Gorbachev's beautiful illustrations- facing the pirates, knights, if they were real.  And then we see him sitting on a loveseat and next to him there is a toy clown like the one he had just told to be quiet before.  As his baby brother wakes up, he see the boy interacting with all those characters who are now his toys, entertaining the baby.  Gorbachev complements his story with his illustrations.  It's a delightful book to share with all those big brothers out there. 

Dec 11, 2011


Mooseltoe by Margie Palatini
Illustrated by Henry Cole
Published by Scholastic

     Moose was ready for the season.  "He was so full of ho ho ho's, even his moosetache had the holiday spirit!"  He was incredibly busy taking care of all the things on his to-do list.  He wrote Christmas cards, "shopped till he dropped," wrapped gifts, cooked all sorts of deserts, decorated the house and hung the stockings. He went down the list: check, check, double check. He made sure everything was "perfectly perfect."  When Mother, little Sissy, Bucky and Junior looked through the house, they saw everything looked "quite fine indeed," except for one corner of the house where the tree should have been! Poor Moose had forgotten the tree!  He went out in the cold desperately trying to find one but it was too late, they were all out.  So he came up with a perfectly perfect solution, he and his moosetache became the tree.
     Mooseltoe is a tricky read aloud.  Sometimes it rhymes and sometimes it doesn't, so it takes at least a one-read-over to get the rhythm down pat.  The story is delightful and there is plenty of opportunities for little ones to join in shouting "Check!" and "Perfectly Perfect" (this last one became one of my sons favorite sayings which he's used for the past year!).  The illustrations by Henry Cole are quite appealing and the cover will attract readers from the start.

Dec 10, 2011

Stick Man

Stick Man by Julia Donaldson
Illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Published by Arthru A. Levine Books

Stick Man lives in the family tree
With his Stick Lady Love and their stick children three.

     One day, Stick Man decides to go for a jog and a dog catches him.  He carries Stick Man all the way back to his owner who uses him to play fetch over and over.

I'm no a stick! Why can't you see,
I'm Stick Man, I'm Stick Man,
I'm STICK MAN, that's me,
And I want to go home to the family tree!

     Unfortunately nobody seems to hear Stick Man's cries, and through a series of misfortunes he gets pass around. He's thrown into a river, becomes part of swan's nest, a flag pole of a sand castle, a sword for play fights, a hook for a bag, a pen, a bow, a bat, a boomerang, a snowman arm.

Stick Man is lonely, Stick Man is lost.
Stick Man is frozen and covered in frost.
Stick Man is weary. His eyes start to close.
He stretches and yawns and lies down for a doze.

     In his slumber, Stick Man doesn't realize he's been picked up as kindling. As he lays in the chimney he's awaken by Santa who's gotten stuck. Stick Man saves the day and joins Santa on his sleigh all the way back to his family tree.

     If you've followed this blog for a while, you'll know by now that we're big fans of Donaldson. I'm not easy to please when it comes to rhyming books, but Donaldson makes the rhymes flow with such ease, they just sound musical and never, ever, forced.  Scheffler's illustrations are always a treat. Stick Man is a fantastic read aloud, sure to please and entertain readers of all ages.  Great story, great pacing, smooth rhymes. What else can you want of a Holiday story?

Dec 9, 2011

Olivia Helps With Christmas

Olivia Helps With Christmas by Ian Falconer
Illustrated by Ian Falconer
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

     Olivia is one of our favorite characters in this house. We love her spunk, attitude and more than anything, we love her awesome creativity. 
     It's the night before Christmas and Olivia can't contain her excitement.  By four o'clock she's already impatiently looking up the chimney and checking outside the window for any sign of reindeer.  She helps her mom untangle the Christmas lights-actually, she gets all tangled up in the Christmas lights.  She helps her mom set the table, sings carols with the family, and puts the cookies out for Santa.  As it happens to every kid on Christmas Eve, Olivia lays in her bed and tries to stay awake long enough to hear sleigh bells ring on her roof.  Sleep wins.  Its now Christmas Day and Olivia and her brothers rush down the stairs to open all of their gifts.  They spend the day playing with their new toys (sled, skies and maracas).  Olivia, being Olivia, gives her parents a humongous self portrait.
     Falconer's illustrations are amazing, as usual.  His charcoals and goache mixed with photographs are delightful.  The couple of double page spread-outs offer surprises and laughs.  We never get tiered of reading this one during the holidays.

Dec 8, 2011

Santa Duck and His Merry Helpers

Santa Duck and His Merry Helpers by David Milgrin
Illustrated by David Milgrin
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile

     Santa Duck is back.  Nicholas has embraced his job as Santa's helper.  This time around he has to deal with his pesky three little siblings.  They want to help Nicholas but they keep driving him crazy.  They are promising outrageous gifts to all the animals, like the Hoover Dam to the beaver and 50 bottles of perfume to the skunk.  Nicholas tries to explain to his siblings the true meaning of Christmas and along the way they teach him a lesson too.
     Santa Duck and His Merry Helpers is an entertaining read aloud.  The cartoon like illustrations and dialogue bubbles will appeal to the youngest readers.  Don't be afraid to sing along with Nicholas and his siblings as you read it aloud.

Dec 7, 2011

Over and Under the Snow

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner
Art by Christopher Silas Neal
Published by Chronicle Books

     On a winter day, as you venture deep into the woods to go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, you can hear the crunch of the snow beneath your feet.  You might see a deer or a red squirrel and everything seems quiet and still. But "under the snow is a whole secret kingdom, where the smallest forest animals stay safe and warm."  There are little tunnels where tiny shrews hide from predators, where voles looks for food, and fat bullfrogs snooze. Under the snow a bear sleeps with its belly still full of berries and trouts from the fall, and a queen bee "drowses away December, all alone."
     It's hard to write about Over and Under the Snow without wanting to just quote the whole book. It's that good! Its beautiful language quietly flows from page to page, with a lyrical tone mirrored by the beautiful art created by Silas Neal. The images created by Messner's text place us inside the snowy forest, along for the ride with the father and daughter exploring the wonders of nature on a winter's day. And at the end, we can feel the slumber brought on by the trek, and "lean back with heavy eyes", enjoying a roasted marshmallow as the fire makes the "shadows dance in the flames."
     Over and Under the Snow will open readers' eyes to the world of wonders that nature offers every winter. I doubt I'll ever walk through the woods of the Hudson Valley and not think about all that's hidden under the snow.  At the end of the book, Messner has added a detailed explanation of the facts included in the book, with descriptions of each animal from the tale (as well as other resources to explore).
     What a quiet gem! Simply beautiful.

Dec 6, 2011

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel
Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
Publisher: Holiday House

     It was the first night of Hanukkah and Hershel of Ostropol was walking in the snow towards the nearest village. He was tired and hungry and looking forward to celebrating Hanukkah with lights, songs and plates of potato latkes.  But when he arrived to the town, he found not a single candle lit and learned that the villagers were not allowed to celebrate Hanukkah.  Goblins had harassed them for years.  They haunted the old synagogue, they would blow out the candles as soon as they were lit and throw out their potato latkes.  Hershel offered to get rid of the goblins.  The rabbi told him he had to stay at the old synagogue and light the menorah for eight consecutive nights, making sure that the last candle was lit by the king of the goblins.  Each night Hershel confronts a different goblin and rises to the challenge of outwitting each one of them.  He even tricks the king of the goblin to light the eighth candle, hence disarming him of all his powers.
     Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is a thrilling read aloud.  The illustrations by Hyman are wonderful and the text by Kimmel is completely enthralling.  There is an appendix at the end of the book here Kimmel explains the meaning and history of Hanukkah, the menorah, dreidel and latkes.  This is a great addition to the holiday libraries at home and at school.  

Dec 5, 2011

The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming

The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: a Christmas Story by Lemony Snicket
Illustrated by Lisa Brown 
Publisher: McSweeney's Books

     In a tiny village a terrible noise is heard coming from the one of the houses.  The house was "already regarded with some suspicion, as it was the only place not decorated with flashing colored lights at this time of the year."  The noise is a loud scream, and the one screaming is a latke -a potato pancake.  The latkes are a traditional part of the celebration of Hanukah.  This night, a latke was thrown into a pan full of hot olive oil, and as soon as it felt the heat, it jumped back out and ran away screaming.  On her way out of town, the latke runs past colored lights who are annoyed at her for making so much noise and stealing the spotlight from them. "We're the ones who are supposed to be dominating the neighborhood with our cheerful glow!"  As the latke explains to the lights the origins of Hanukah, they seem to completely miss the point: "so you're basically hash browns." The Christmas lights try to fit the latke into their holiday framework, while the potato pancake tries to explain that she's something completely different.  She has the same problem when she runs into a candy cane and a pine tree.  Thankfully, a family who celebrates Hanukah finds the latke in the forest and brings her back to their home. Where, unfortunately, she screams again as she's being eaten.
     The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming is one of the most original and thought provoking holiday books I've ever read.  It's quirky but full of message.  Snicket uses some advanced vocabulary, followed by their definitions (a reminder of his work in A Series of Unfortunate Events...which I guess it's exactly while this was for the poor latke....)  The story manages to entertain while teaching the story of Hanukah.  The book opens up a door to a discussion in the upper elementary classrooms about diversity and different religions; about respect, restraint and community.  There are a couple of nuances that only adults might catch.  Overall, a fantastic find to bring to my students and everybody else this time of year.  

Dec 4, 2011

Reindeer Christmas

Reindeer Christmas by Mark Kimball Moulton
Illustrated by Karen Hillard Good
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

     On a winter night, two children and their grandmother step out into the snowy field with baskets full of treats for the forest animals.  They noticed a deer laying in the snow, its eyes closed and a faint glow around him (in the illustrations we can also see a sleigh bell next to him).  They bring the deer inside and take care of him, making sure he's fed and warm.  Later that night, as the children are falling asleep in the room, one of them sees the deer flying across the sky.  When Christmas day arrives, the children find that aside from the presents by the tree, there is a letter from Santa Claus, thanking them for having taken care of Donner. There had been a bad storm and Donner had lost his way. As a special gift of thanks, Santa Claus gives the family a little box filled with magic reindeer glow.  "Hold this box and make a wish, then close your sleepy eyes, and you will see your wish come true before the next sunrise." What wish would you make?
     Reindeer Christmas is a tender and touching book to add to the holiday read aloud shelf.  It's written in rhyme.  The rhymes and the beautifully illustrations with a frosty sepia touch give the book a timeless feeling. Heartwarming and sweet.

Dec 3, 2011


Neville by Norton Juster
Illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade

     He has just moved into a new neighborhood.  He wasn't happy to be there. "Nobody had asked him about moving." And they told him he would love it. "That's what they always said when they knew he wouldn't love something."  So now he would have to face going to a new school and having no friends. And "that was the worst part, no friends." His mother told him to take a walk around the block. "Like you can make new friends just by walking down the block." But he did anyway. And the he stopped, took a deep breath, and shouted at the top of his lungs: NEVILLE.  Over and over. Until other children joined him and started calling out "Neville" along with him. Soon, they were all talking and wondering where this boy Neville might be, looking for him and imagining what he must be like.  Who's Neville?  As he walks back to his new home, the boy has to admit the day turned out to be a lot better than he had first thought...
     I love Neville.  I've been a lifelong fan of Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth is one of my all time favorites), and Neville did not disappoint me in the least.  He captures the feelings of a new kid on the block perfectly: the fears and the frustrations of not being totally in control of certain life changing decisions.  The ingenuity of Neville to find new friends will delight readers of all ages.  The illustrations by Karas are a perfect companion.  Great read aloud! One of my favorites this year (I could read the first two pages over and over again...wait, I did).

Dec 2, 2011

Tree of Cranes

Tree of Cranes by Allen Say
Illustrated by Allen Say
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

     A japanese boy narrates a story about the memory of his first Christmas.  He comes home wet and chill after playing in a forbidden pond.  He knows his mother will be upset with him and as he gingerly approaches her, he finds her folding origami paper into cranes.  "Why are you making cranes?" the boy asked his mother. She explains that she wants to make a big wish. Before she explains what her wish is, she notices the boy is wet from the pond and with a frown and a silent stare, she sends him to a hot bath and bed.  The boy wonders about his mother's silence and distance and his curiosity only grows when he sees her digging a whole by a tree in the garden.  As the mom comes into the house carrying a tree they had planted to celebrate the boys birth, she explains that back in her homeland, America, they were celebrating Christmas and she wanted him to have that experience as well.  They decorate the little tree with the paper cranes and candles as the boy learns about the Christmas tradition.  Next morning, the kite he wished for as a gift is sitting by the tree.
     Tree of Cranes is beautifully illustrated.  The images as well as the text have a serenity about them.   It's a good example of personal memoir to share in the classroom, and a nice addition to a multicultural holiday library.