18 November 2009

Cybils Nominee: Pippo the Fool

Firenze, Italy is home to many cultural treasures, not least of which is the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, with its unmistakable dome. Pippo the Fool tells the story of Filippo Brunelleschi, the goldsmith who defied expectations and designed the dome for a competition, orchestrated to solve what was becoming an insurmountable architectural challenge. Whether ahead of his time, or simply eccentric, Brunelleschi was ridiculed by his fellow Florentines and earned the unflattering nickname of Pippo the Fool (although he did manage to befriend the artist Donatello, so his brilliance was not lost on all.) Rather than apply himself to his trade, he was known for his fanciful--some would say useless--machines and inventions, waiting for his opportunity to show his true talents. When the time came he proved his detractors wrong, won the contract, and put the finishing touch on a duomo which has since thrilled engineers and pilgrims, locals and tourists.

Author Tracey E. Fern and illustrator Pau Estrada have combined to recreate a Renaissance city which is colorful, rather clean, and impatient; the construction of the dome is a matter of great concern to everyone. The illustrations reveal plenty of period detail, from the clothing, to the busy market scenes, to the animals sharing the homes and streets of the locals. While the illustrations are sometimes humorous (an ironic beam of light from Heaven falling upon the head of Pippo's main rival and tormentor, Lorenzo Ghiberti springs to mind,) the humor never comes from the foreignness of this slice of the 15th century. In fact, the inclusion of an Illustrator's Note at the end of the book provides insight into how Estrada recreated 15th century Florence--and more specifically, the construction of the dome--without the aid of photographs. He also tips his hat to a some of the masters of the Italian Renaissance in his illustrations, although those homages might be missed by all except art students.

After taking over 120 years to build the basilica, the fact that the dome itself was finished in a mere 16 seems miraculously swift. Brunelleschi's ability to forsee every structural difficulty and devise his own efficient solutions was no doubt a factor in this. While young readers might not fully grasp the years involved, they will certainly get a sense of the scale of the project as the dome, brick by brick, comes to visually dominate the book. And should they ever manage to visit Firenze themselves, they just might recall the story of the dreamer who left such a remarkable legacy to his city.

11 November 2009

Dodsworth in London

Dodsworth in London by Tim Egan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I had high hopes for this book because (1) I love Dodsworth and (2) London is one of my favorite places in the world. I think Dodsworth needs to lose the duck and return to the ideals of the Pink Refrigerator--introspection, creative expression, and self-discovery.

View all my reviews >>

10 November 2009

Best Illustrated Books of the Year

Here we go--the award season is upon us now: the National Book Award finalists have been announced, the Cybil panelists are hard at work whittling down their lists of nominees, and the New York Times has announced it's Best Illustrated Children's Books for 2009. And there are some beuts among this year's list. Personal favorites: Only a Witch Can Fly, A Penguin Story, and the breathtaking The Lion and The Mouse. I'm also happy to see Shaun Tan get a nod for Tales from Suburbia, to highlight the fact that illustrated books are not just for kids, even if a non-adult audience is in mind.

06 November 2009

Cybils Nominee: In the Trees, Honey Bees

This informative picture book about honeybees manages to cover a lot of ground in an attractive, efficient manner (much like a bee!) The "story" is told in rhyming text perfect for reading aloud: Morning Light./ Warm and bright./ In the trees,/Honey bees! A block of text is at the bottom of most pages to supplement the rhymes and explain some of the action in the pictures. (This text is also concise enough and written at a level that most developing readers will be able to read it for themselves.) So, while "Lots of food./Nestling brood" might not include enough information for any inquisitive listeners, the explanation at the bottom of the page about how Nurse bees feed the larva more than 100,000 times will go a long way towards filling in the blanks.

The illustrations alternate between scenes of an idyllic countryside and the bustling, non-stop bee hive. For the squeamish (like me) who have a hard time with large amounts of insects concentrated in a small space, the illustrations are never overwhelming; there are just enough bees in the pictures to depict one of nature's most industrious and unflappable workers. There is a lot to admire about bees, and a thorough and well presented author's note at the end--"The Buzz About Honey Bees"--goes into further detail about beekeeping, which is not really covered in the body of the book. This supplemental information is not only interesting but helps to link honey bees and humans in a way that readers can appreciate. The book ends with a brief but current bibliography of text and electronic sources.

Because of the way information is presented for varying levels, In the Trees, Honey Bees will appeal to a broad range of readers. As a picture book, it combines bucolic visuals and a pleasant rhyme; as an informational book, it provides facts and details about a bee's life in the hive, as well as a brief study of beekeeping and sources for further reading. This is a fine example of how non-fiction can be presented to the PreS-Gr. 3 set so that it is fun and appealing.

05 November 2009

Rave Reviews: Lou Gehrig the Luckiest Man

I was once asked to consider which I would prefer: the candidate of my choice as President the United States, or the Red Sox to win the World Series. Without a moment's hesitancy I answered, "the Red Sox to win the World Series". I'm just putting that out there to let you know the mindset of the person writing this post.

Through the wonders of online social networking I have made friends with people who share my interests, as well as those that simply do not--but I like them anyway. And that includes Yankee fans. I avoid them in real life when I can, but through the relative anonymity of sites like Twitter, Facebook, and blip.fm, that piece of damaging information sort of snuck through after we had already become friendly.

So where am I going here? A few months back I wrote about Tintin in the Congo and censorship. As a librarian I have the power to put whichever books I deem fit on the shelves. And while some might self-censor books dealing with hot-button issues like race, same-sex marriage, or religion, the one area in which I am always the most tempted to judge a book as "not worthy" is on the topic of baseball. The little librarian devil that sits on my shoulder can point out a million reasons why I shouldn't put a Yankee book on the shelf, which then makes the little librarian angel on the other shoulder have to work extra hard to ensure that my professional duties are maintained and carried through. So, because I have stumbled into some Yankee friendships, and because I am simply not magnanimous enough to say "Congratulations," this is the best that I can offer them:
If I am ever in the challenging position of having to recommend a book to a Yankee fan, I always hand them David Adler's picture book biography, Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man. Some kids might know that he has a disease named after him (Lou Gehrig's Disease, officially known as amytrophic lateral sclerosis.) Most baseball fans are familiar with his record of playing in 2130 consecutive games--a record which spanned fourteen years and stood unchallenged until Cal Ripken, jr broke it in 1995. Some might have even heard soundbites of the speech he delivered at Yankee Stadium in 1939, in which he uttered the now iconic phrase "today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." But what this book does so well is show young readers how Gehrig's tenacity, consistency, and positive attitude came from a lifetime of trying to be the best human being he could. He never missed a day of grade school. He worked hard because he had watched his parents, poor immigrants to the United States, work hard themselves. When he could no longer play effectively, he benched himself and was happy enough simply to put on his ball uniform and bring the lineup cards to the umpires. When he left baseball he took on a job working with former prisoners with the New York City Parole Commission, in the hopes of inspiring and reforming troubled youth. Gehrig's No. 4 was the first uniform ever retired by a team.
Terry Widener's illustrations are warm and old-fashioned, representing a now distant past with a certain amount of nostalgic glow. It is a fitting style for a man who, in truth, seems like a saint, even without holding him up to the likes of many modern professional athletes who often come across as barely contained hooligans making as much money as they can. Adler's text is easy to read and keeps the story focused on Gehrig's modesty and character, his love of the game and his love of life. This is a book which not only serves as a fine introduction to one of the great figures of the game, but it is also a book which shows young readers how to be a hero through honesty, hard work, and gratitude. It is a book which should be read by Red Sox and Yankee fans alike.

03 November 2009

Cybils Nominee: My Japan

If young readers today know anything about Japan, I would speculate that their knowledge base consists of Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and Naruto. Possibly, if they are manga readers, they know that the Japanese read from right to left. And they might have heard of ninjas. But do they really have any idea just how different every-day life in Japan is from every-day life in the West? That even though children in Japan go to school, and like to shop, and go on vacations and play sports, that the details are simply different?

My Japan introduces readers to Yumi, a 7 year old girl living with her parents and younger brother in a Tokyo suburb. This is a bone-fide "informational" book. There is no narrative. The reader is given a look at the day to day activities and notable celebrations of a typical Japanese family. The first thing readers will learn is how compartmentalized everything is in Japan. Sometimes this compartmentalization is practical (separate rooms for men and women in the public baths,) sometimes it's functional (the picture of Yumi's mom getting dinner ready in the kitchen shows how every space is efficiently utilized for storage,) sometimes it's for uniformity (girls have red school bags, boys have black,) and sometimes it's just....here's that word again......different (there are no street names in Tokyo--only district names.) Readers will also learn that Japanese students clean--and by "clean" I mean scrub--their school every day. They will learn that Japanese bathrooms have two types of toilets: a Japanese and a Western variety, and neither one really works like the ones in America. They will learn that 3 and 7 year old children have their own holiday (Shichi-Go-San,) that every public bath (which is not for cleaning yourself, by the way) seems to have a painting of Mount Fuji in it, and that there are three different types of writing in Japan--two of which are presented at the back for ambitious readers to try and replicate.

Cultures are, of course, different from one another, which is what makes learning about them so much fun. But there is something unexpectedly unusual about My Japan, because on the surface, it doesn't look different at all. The cover of the book shows Yumi and her brother standing under a tree--just a couple of kids, like the audience at which the book is aimed. It's not until you start to read that you get the impression that the differences between Yumi's world and a Western child's world involve not just types of food or sleeping on a futon as opposed to a bed. They involve holidays evolved out of a feudal system of which we have nothing to compare. They involve knowing when and where to wear a kimono. They involve buying pet stag beetles at department stores (I somehow cannot imagine Macy's hopping on that bandwagon!) When you read this book you really get the impression of looking through the window at a foreign culture. If such an impression was made on an adult reader like myself, imagine the impact on the mind of child, curious and open to a different way of learning and living.

Yumi's seven year old life is rich with details to share and discover. And My Japan is nothing if not child-centric. The illustrations are full of smiling faces, toys and games, and easy to follow instructions for making paper chains and origami. While some pages are illustrated catalogs (thing's in the kitchen, things in the bathroom, necessities for school, to name a few,) others, like the the two page spread of an underground subway stop, are ripe with i-spy opportunities. And, just like the kitchen, every inch of the book is used efficiently: even the back cover provides a learning opportunity, with a map of Japan showing the five (of over 3000) largest islands which make up the country, as well as the 47 prefectures. This is a book to be revisited, because there is an amazing amount of information in here. It is compactly organized, cheerfully presented, and intriguingly different.

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