V O L U M E I , N U M B E R 6 • A U G U S T 2 0 0 8
In this issue
For a list of books mentioned in this issue, see link below.
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.
August is the ideal month to make the most of the outdoors, and here are some books to guide your family on its way.
If a walk in the woods is in your plans, author-illustrator and nature enthusiast Jim Arnosky’s Wild Tracks!: A Guide to Nature’s Footprints (this veteran’s 100th book) turns a walk into an expedition. Detailed full-page paintings and delicate pencil sketches of tracks accompany a few paragraphs about common animals’ behaviors. Complete with four foldouts of additional life-sized animal prints, this book is a great natural history resource. (9–12 years)
Should your trail lead toward the water instead of the woods, Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre is a simple but elegant introduction to nature’s food chain. Kate Endle’s mixed-media collages show the process, from the dead leaves that feed bacteria to the trout that feed people and bears. This environmentally minded book ends with suggestions about what readers can do to protect trout and streams. (4–8 years)
According to Sarah C. Campbell, the author of Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator, kids don’t have to leave their yards to observe wildlife in action. With a close-up photograph on each page, the minimal text begins with the carnivorous wolfsnail waking up hungry, then goes on to document the predator’s attack on and meal of a smaller snail, ending with the satisfied wolfsnail ready to go to sleep again. (4–8 years)
For older readers there’s John Porcellino’s Thoreau at Walden. This sophisticated graphic novel–format interpretation of Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden is full of the nineteenth-century naturalist’s introspective wisdom and natural-world insights. Porcellino’s uncluttered tan-and-white drawings outlined in black are surprisingly effective at illustrating Thoreau’s “experiment in living.” “You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you.” (10–14 years)
In Dan McCann and Nathan Hale’s Balloon on the Moon (5–8 years), Jake just does what any good big brother would do when toddler Will lets go of his balloon: he goes to the moon to retrieve it. Tethered by a degree of astronautical realism, this space adventure has something for big and little brothers alike. In Space Boy (3–6 years), author-illustrator Leo Landry gives us a boy who only wants to escape his baby sister — and it turns out the moon is good for that, too. Where Nathan Hale’s pictures for Balloon on the Moon are all bouncy excitement, Landry uses a gentler line and palette to make his book a good choice for bedtime.
Middle-grade readers will enjoy P. B. Kerr’s One Small Step, a propulsive tale of a thirteen-year-old boy who gets to fly to the moon — with a pair of chimps who know more than they’re saying. Fans of such boy-book writers as Ben Mikaelsen and Will Hobbs will appreciate the suspense and realism of the adventure: Kerr makes it all seem possible. (9–12 years)
For some kids, only the facts will do. Meghan McCarthy excels at picture book nonfiction, and her Astronaut Handbook explains clearly and invitingly just how astronauts get trained, what they do, and what they wear. She’s even clear on the drawbacks: “It’s best to like small spaces.” Warm and well-detailed pictures demonstrate that the career is open to all regardless of gender or race. (5–8 years)
Older space fans will appreciate Life on Earth — and Beyond: An Astrobiologist’s Quest by Pamela S. Turner (10–14 years). This nonfiction account with plenty of photographs features scientist Chris McKay, who looks for extraterrestrial life right here on earth. Since places such as Antarctica and Chile’s Atacama Desert have climatic and geological resemblance to conditions on such planets as Mars, McKay and other scientists have a closer-to-home laboratory for examining what conditions are required for life. Ellen Jackson and Nic Bishop’s Looking for Life in the Universe: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (9–12 years), is a photo-essay about scientist Jill Tarter, whose work inspired Carl Sagan’s (and Jodie Foster’s) Contact.
Research tells us that children whose parents are readers are more likely to be readers themselves. The Freakonomics guys will tell you the reason for this is genetic; others will tell you that the presence of books in the home, and the example of adults finding pleasure in print, is what does it. Nature? Nurture? Who cares? The point is that any directive to “go read!” is more likely to be met with success if kids can see that you — grownups — do it, too.
With that in mind, I asked some of my writer friends what books they’re currently into for their off-the-clock summer reading. Jon Scieszka, our National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, is reading lots of guy books, including the adult title Rant by Chuck Palahniuk, Cory Doctorow’s YA novel Little Brother (a recommendation I enthusiastically second), and books in the Sterling Point series, a collection of boy-friendly biographies and historical accounts, many reissued from the 1950s and 1960s Random House Landmark imprint fondly remembered by baby-boomers.
Susan Cooper, author of the Dark Is Rising fantasy sequence, complains that her life is “a continuous unsuccessful attempt to Catch Up.” She just finished Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy (“which cast me down rather”) and is reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. And do try Cooper’s own King of Shadows, a mysterious time-slip story in which a contemporary boy finds himself in the company of the Bard.
E-mailing from Switzerland (the lucky duck), young adult novelist Coe Booth, author of Tyrell and this fall’s Kendra, writes that she just finished reading Alive and Well in Prague, New York by Daphne Grab. “The story is honest and emotional, and the main character Matisse is funny and snarky. It's a great book.” And now, in preparation for writing a sequel to Tyrell she’s been reading a clutch of other what-happened-next YA novels, starting with Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s The Off Season, sequel to Dairy Queen, both of which put together two things rarely combined in contemporary teen literature: girls and sports.
Both Kevin Henkes, author most recently of the middle-grade novel Bird Lake Moon, and his editor at Greenwillow Books, Virginia Duncan, are enjoying Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. Kevin's also reading Forster’s Howard’s End and two novels by John Williams, Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing. Virginia is into Leonard Marcus's history of children's book publishing, Minders of Make-Believe, David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. (What’s the game about one-of-these-is-not-like-the-other?)
Walter Dean Myers is down among the Romans (Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations) and Spaniards (Federico García Lorca and Juan Ramón Jiménez, in a translation of their poetry by Robert Bly). Walter writes, “Juan Ramón Jiménez’s book, Platero and I, is my favorite book of all time. When I grow up I want to be Jiménez.”
And I continue, slowly and deliberately, through the audio edition of Middlemarch (read brilliantly by Kate Reading), a couple of Guido Brunetti mysteries by Donna Leon, who makes me want to go to Venice and EAT, and to counteract the heat, Colin Thubron’s In Siberia. And now I see I have a whole new raft of recommendations — here’s hoping you’ve found something you like, too.
When we talk about chapter books, what we really mean are first chapter books, a step up in difficulty from easy readers. It’s not as if a child’s reading progresses in an unbroken upward line from picture books to young adult novels — there are some days when you want to keep things simple and others when you feel like a challenge, and even within the chapter book genre there are plenty of both.
Betty Hicks’s new Gym Shorts series keeps it simple. Each book runs sixty-four pages and is generously illustrated with sophisticated but funny line-and-wash drawings by Adam McCauley. The series is about a group of sports-minded friends; each entry focuses on one kid and his or her particular athletic challenge. Basketball nut Henry, in Basketball Bats, has to lead his friends to victory in a game against some bigger, tougher kids; Goose, in Goof-Off Goalie, learns that being a soccer goalie involves far more than waiting for the ball. The books feature lots of game-play and easy banter among the friends, and each has a satisfying story to tell. (6–9 years)
Alvin Ho is Lenore Look’s newest chapter book hero, following her success in the genre with Ruby Lu, Brave and True and Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything. All three books are at the upper end of chapter books, direct descendants of Beverly Cleary’s school-and-family comedies about Beezus, Ramona, and Henry. Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things is 172 pages about a boy who thinks he’s afraid of everything. He’s especially apprehensive about school, where he’s now starting second grade after uttering Not One Word in kindergarten and first grade. It is also a comedy, with Alvin’s attempts to negotiate the world despite his fears, making him sound like a short David Sedaris. Let’s hope Lenore Look has plans for a sequel. (8–10 years)
One popular Navy brat got herself a sequel. Kimberly Willis Holt’s Piper Reed: The Great Gypsy follows Piper Reed, Navy Brat, continuing the small-scale adventures of Piper, a fourth grader whose family keeps moving in service to her father’s military career. They are now in Pensacola, but Chief (Piper and her sisters’ name for their father) is away at sea. There’s plenty to keep Piper and readers occupied, though: Christmas, plans for a pet show, a visit to New Orleans. Mom breaks her leg, so Chief gets to come home early — there’s never a dull moment. (8–10 years)
Not just parents but grandparents might remember their first childhood encounter with Michael Bond’s Paddington — the first book about the bear from Darkest Peru, A Bear Called Paddington, was published in 1958, and his last adventure was in 1979. He’s back again, in Paddington Here and Now. As the title indicates, Paddington’s London is up-to-date, with computers and the London Eye, but Paddington remains his sturdy self — gracious, deeply engaged with life, and nobody’s teddy bear. The book is good for readers in second grade and up, but it’s also a great read-aloud for younger kids. (7 years and up)
For new preschoolers and kindergartners, the first day of school is an exciting and often nerve-wracking occasion. Here are a few books to help prepare for the event.
To ease separation anxieties, In My Heart by Molly Bang telegraphs reassurance and love. A working mother and her preschooler may not be together during the day, but no matter what Mom is doing (“. . . waiting for the bus . . . reading the paper . . .”), she tells her child: “You’re in my heart.” The authentic, informal tone and warmly colored illustrations emphasize the richness of the parent’s and child’s separate lives rather than the difficulties of being apart. (2–4 years)
In Robert Neubecker’s Wow! School!, a very brief text (“Wow! Classroom!” “Wow! Teacher!”) and colorful, full-to-bursting illustrations introduce youngsters to various aspects of a typical school day. Neubecker’s enthusiastic approach allows readers to take charge of a potentially overwhelming experience, making what’s new seem familiar. (3–5 years)
Three books specifically address what pre-kindergartners can expect on the first day. In Kindergarten Rocks! by Katie Davis, Dexter isn’t scared about starting kindergarten — his stuffed dog Rufus is the nervous one. Older sister Jessie understands and reassures Dexter that he’s going to have a great time. The humorous art resembling kids’ crayon drawings is just right for this comforting story. Anne Rockwell treads similar ground in Welcome to Kindergarten, when a young boy and his mother tour his new classroom and find it’s not so big and scary after all. Rosemary Wells’s collection of forty-five vignettes follows Emily, a little rabbit-child, through a whole year in My Kindergarten. Wells draws on many iconic images of kindergarten — first-day jitters, library visits — as well as traditional subjects such as numbers, letters, and patterns. (all 3–5 years)
And don’t miss these classic first-day stories: Annabelle Swift, Kindergartner! by Amy Schwartz, Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes, and Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate and Ashley Wolff.
For more back-to-school books, as well as inspirational stories about using books in the classroom, a homeschooler’s thoughts on kids and reading, and anecdotes from writers about their own school days, don’t miss the September/October issue of The Horn Book Magazine. It’s our annual special issue, and this year the topic is School. We offer practical advice about how to choose a book for first-day fears and a quiz to test your skills in bringing children and books together, and we reveal why Diana Wynne Jones has sworn off school-visiting. Check with your local library next month, or write to us for information about purchasing a copy for yourself.
And speaking of schools, we're happy to be adding a curricular component to this newsletter with material from TeachingBooks.net, an online multimedia collection of resources for teachers. For each issue of Notes from the Horn Book, TeachingBooks.net is providing our subscribers with free access to specially selected content from their site. Just click on their logo below to find out more.
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