Friday, July 25, 2014

A Comical Con

Varian Johnson
It's refreshing to see a diverse group of friends with a range of talents working together to "fix" any bully--but especially an entitled bully. That is the central plot of The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson.

It's Jackson Greene's first outing without his big brother, and he's doing a smashing job. The kids keep referring to a previous effort, one that got Jackson in trouble with his former crush, Gabi, even though he got back at wealthy, bullying Keith Sinclair. Now Keith is obsessed with winning the student council presidency against Gabi, even if it means stealing the election. Jackson plans to fix Keith's wagon once and for all.

This is the Hardy Boys ratcheted up a notch. Jackson and his pals are determined to intercede and take justice into their own hands. The adults are none too helpful. The principal's secretary is prejudiced, and the principal is on the take from the wealthy parents of the bully in question. What recourse do Jackson and his friends have, other than to mete out justice themselves?

One of the many fun features of this comical con game--in addition to the diverse cast--is Jackson's ability to judge characters. So when things seem to go haywire on his team, well, it was all part of the plan. Readers will hope for more from this resourceful group of friends.

Varian Johnson's book has become an independent bookseller favorite: two indies in Massachusetts--Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, and Eight Cousins in Falmouth--competed in a "Great Greene Challenge" to see which booksellers could hand-sell the most copies of the title. It became a national selloff, and readers had the most to gain.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Visual Grammar

Alison Jay has always created a visual story line in her books, and her beachside adventure Out of the Blue follows that established pattern. Her alphabet book (A B C) and counting book (1 2 3) teach youngest children these early concepts, and they also give them a plot line to follow that unfolds entirely through the illustrations. Out of the Blue, with no words, tells a complete story--two children make friends, take shelter from a storm, and rescue a giant octopus. It's liberating for children who are just learning to read because they can make up their own story.

Jay helps youngest children build confidence, as she reinforces all that they know: pages move from left to right, children can point out the heroes in the book who appear repeatedly (the boy and the girl) and they can follow the secondary characters down the beach. They do not need to decode words to "read" the story.

This spring at the Bank Street College of Education, Stephen Savage spoke about “visual grammar” using his book Where’s Walrus? to explain his idea. He spoke of the text and illustrations as “the harmony and melody of the song” and pointed to silent movies as “the original wordless books.” He explained the four components he believes are essential to books without words:

1)  The close-up
2)  Color/contrast
3)  Design/branding
4)  Pattern/repetition

You can see these elements most clearly in Where's Walrus?, but they also come into play in Alison Jay's work.

Children take in everything around them. They are sponges, absorbing how the world works long before they have words to explain what they're seeing. These elements, of which Savage spoke so eloquently, and which Jay also employs in her books, help children unlock the story within the book and also to use those strategies to make sense of the events in their own experiences.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cooking Up a Celebration

Jan Thomas

Jan Thomas takes true toddler scenarios and finds the humor and fun in them, as she does in A Birthday for Cow!

Pig and Mouse do a perfectly normal good deed: They make a cake for Cow--"the best birthday cake EVER," in fact. Duck keeps trying to tell them something in his gently (and later, not so gently) insistent way. As Pig and Mouse combine the flour, sugar and eggs, Duck says, "And a TURNIP?" They mix it all together with... "A TURNIP!" Duck repeats. It may seem as though Duck is just being silly, but what toddlers learn at the end is this: Cow loves turnips.

Jan Thomas hints at the outcome with Duck's close attention to the calendar as Cow's birthday draws near. The blue X's indicate Duck's count down to a special day--not Duck's birthday, but Cow's birthday. Duck keeps trying to tell his friends what the perfect present would be for Cow, but they are intent on making a cake -- perfectly reasonable (Pig and Mouse certainly enjoy it), but not what Cow would wish to eat.

It's a subtle lesson delivered with heaping helpings of humor, that sometimes what we would want for ourselves is not what someone else would want. Duck thought about what Cow really loves, and that was the gift Duck gave to Cow. Or, maybe it's because Duck loves turnips, too...

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Only Summer Slides Are at the Pool

With school dismissed, it's time for pure pleasure reading. Emily's Blue Period by Cathleen Day, illustrated by Lisa Brown, will send youngsters scurrying for scraps of wrapping paper, crayons and paintbrushes to make their creations. For additional inspiration, dip into Lois Ehlert's The Scraps Book.
Children will start toe-tapping and beat-bopping with I Got the Rhythm by husband-and-wife team Frank and Connie Schofield-Morrison. You can't dance without music, so pick up The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra by Chris Raschka. Haven't heard of Sun Ra? Many of his recordings are now available on YouTube, and Raschka's illustrations sway to Sun Ra's sounds.

Gather the family around The Pilot and the Little Prince by Peter Sís, the picture-book biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, then reread The Little Prince and note how many of the facts about the pilot's life made their way into the classic. If you have a child who loved to get lost in Harry Potter, give him or her The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove. The maps, time warps and parallel worlds will keep the pages of this thick book flying. Do you have a reader who's not so committed? The Cabinet of Curiosities by Stefan Bachmann lets readers dip in and out of 36 spine-tingling tales.

For kids on the cusp of adolescence, This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki speaks to precisely where they are. The smart, funny narrator of Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McMahon addresses love between sisters, friends and, yes, potential romance. Did you miss The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau? Summer is the time to start this dystopian trilogy. And finally, a book for you and your teen: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Three cousins, one best friend, a grandfather worthy of Lear with an island off Massachusetts as his kingdom. Let me know what you think.

This article first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.