Friday, March 29, 2013

First Dog Fala

 First Dog Fala
 by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk; illus by Michael G. Montgomery
32 pages, ages 4-8
Peachtree 2008

Theme: Friendship

President Franklin D. Roosevelt lived and worked in the White House, writes Elizabeth Van Steenwyk. His days were long and filled with meetings and phone calls, and at night he was often alone. But that changed when, in 1940, a Scottish terrier came to live with Roosevelt in the White House. Fala attended important meetings, played on the lawn and, ate dinner with the president.

Fala was there when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He was there when Roosevelt sent American boys to war, and when the president announced the invasion at Normandy.

What I like: History told through a story of friendship. I also like imagining life as a White House Dog: hearing secrets, slipped treats from White House reporters, traveling with the First Family…..

Beyond the book: Fala isn’t the first White House dogs. Presidents from George Washington on have had pets – even the Obamas have a dog. You can learn more about presidential dogs (and other pets) here and here. Then, when you think you know who’s who in Presidential doggy history, challenge yourself to a game of “First Dogs” here.

 This review is part of PPBF (perfect picture book Friday), an event in which bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's site. She keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture Books. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Monday, March 25, 2013

War Dogs

War Dogs
Written and illustrated by Kathryn Selbert  
Ages: 7 - 10
Charlesbridge, 2013

Rufus’s best friend is a busy man, but Rufus still manages to get him out for daily walks. Most days – because his man, Winston Churchill, is the prime minister of England and there’s a war going on. When they’re not walking, Rufus sits under Churchill’s desk and listens to the prime minister’s pen scratch furiously. And sometimes, Winston tells him about the day’s events.

I love how Kathryn Selbert presents history: through the eyes of a VIP (very important pet). She has made Rufus our “guide dog” who gains us entry into Churchill’s bunker and leads us safely around the rubble of London after bombing raids.

I love the  notecards tacked along the way: bits of Churchill’s famous speeches. I love the map room and the tables covered with plans and crumpled papers and telephones and teacups.

And I love the surprise of finding that Churchill’s best friend was a poodle.

If that’s not enough, at the end of the book Selbert has resources galore for history buffs of all ages: a timeline of World War II; more biographical notes, books and websites, and a list of sources for all the quotes pinned to desk drawers and walls throughout the book.

Check out more nifty nonfiction at Booktalking.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Stripes of All Types ~ blog tour & more

Stripes of All Types
Written & illustrated by Susan Stockdale
32 pages, ages 2 – 6
Peachtree, 2013

How can you pass up a book with a cover this bold?  Or one that begins: “Stripes found in water/ sliding through weeds/ Drinking from rivers/ and darting through reeds”?

Like Susan Stockdale’s other books, Stripes of All Types has bouncy, alliterative rhyme that is great fun to read aloud. The illustrations are sharp, bright, and authentic. And, like her earlier books, this one embraces environmental themes – in particular: patterns in nature; animal diversity; beauty. It’s got to have beauty, she says.

Fortunately, I was able to talk to Susan a couple weeks ago and asked her three questions which she so graciously answered.

Sally’s Bookshelf: Talk about how you use art to encourage children’s connections to their environment.

Susan: I got inspired to write the book while visiting an exhibit of colorful frogs at the American Museum of Natural History. There were so many striped frogs that I thought it would be neat to do a whole book about stripes. Once I started looking at pictures of striped animals, I realized there are many that children might see in a park, zoo, or even their back yard.

Though my books are about animals, I intentionally include children interacting with them on the last page. For example, in Fabulous Fishes, I show a girl snorkeling among tropical fish. In Bring On the Birds, I feature a boy and girl gazing at a robin’s nest. And in Stripes of All Types, I end the book with children cuddling striped cats. This is one way I try to connect children to nature.

SB: Your text is so lively, with natural rhyme and flow. It’s clear you love to play with words. How do you know when you have an idea that will fly?

Susan: Usually a line or two will jump out, and I’ll play around with them. They may not end up in the book, but they help me get going. Then I start playing around with ideas. With Stripes I tried three approaches: looking at stripes as animal parts (like stripes on a tail); looking at stripes through how animals move (leaping stripes, creeping stripes); and looking at stripes on animals in different habitats. I settled on the habitats because it gave me a chance to highlight where animals live, plus a chance to use cool verbs. (Animals sprint and scale and drink and crawl….)

The text is spare- it takes kids on a word ride. At the back I include descriptions of the animals – that’s where I work with scientists to make sure that the information is accurate.

SB: Your illustrations add information to the story. I’m thinking of the ring-tailed lemur drinking from a river; you have a baby on her back. What sort of research do you do for illustrations?

Susan: Lots! (she laughs) I start by collecting images of as many striped animals as I can – from photos, books, magazines… A photo of a zebra swallowtail butterfly makes me wonder: what other striped insects (or spiders) could be on a leaf? I try to come up with many candidates for each habitat, and think about what I can say about them, and how I can show their beauty.

Then, as I work on the illustrations, I get feedback from scientists. My original jellyfish sketch had stripes too close together. I even ask botanists about the plant life in the animal’s habitat – for every picture I paint, I make sure it would occur in nature. I paint with acrylics because I love the sharp colors and lines I can get – and because I can paint over mistakes, which you can’t do with watercolors. And I make plenty of mistakes…

Beyond the Book: Susan mentioned that she focused on verbs in this book. If you’re looking for a way to explore language, act out the movements in the book.

Explore science by going on a “Stripe Hike”. You might find garter snakes, woodpeckers, turkeys or monarch caterpillars in your neighborhood. Or visit a zoo or aviary and look for stripes.

Explore art by painting pictures of animals with stripes, or taking photos of striped critters in your neighborhood.

Play a game: Susan pointed out that stripes can camouflage animals or make them easier to see. Look at the environment outside. Then paint some 4-inch paper plates with stripe patterns and colors that might camouflage them or advertise them in that “habitat”. Head outside and put the plates around the habitat and then challenge your friends to find them.

You can check in on the rest of the blog tour at the Peachtree blog. In addition to the blog tour, this post is part of STEM Friday round-up. It's also part of PPBF (perfect picture book Friday), an event in which bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's site. She keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture Books. Review copy provided by publisher.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Dogs of Winter

The Dogs of Winter
By Bobbie Pyron
312 pages, middle grade
Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic) 2012
When Ivan’s mother disappears, he ends up on the streets of Moscow. It’s winter – deep, dark, bitter cold – and all he’s got to keep him warm is his coat, a hat, his Famous Basketball Player shoes, and the memory of his mother.

Ivan falls in with a tribe of street children and is put to stealing and begging by the gang’s leader. It’s a harsh life, made worse by the cruelty humans inflict on each other. The dogs treat each other better, Ivan thinks. So when a twist of fate lands him in the middle of the dog pack, he becomes one of them. For two years he and his adopted canine family roam the landscape, using their wits to find food and shelter.

Ivan and his pack discover a greenhouse that makes a perfect winter home. In the summer they run through the forest, hunting or, when needed, collecting food from the dumpster behind an amusement park.

This is a story of survival. It’s a story that examines the things that make us human. It’s also based on a true story, and masterfully written by Bobbie Pyron who, it just happens, lives with her own pack of dogs. Bobbie was gracious enough to answer Three Questions:

Sally’s Bookshelf: So, Bobbie, how did you come to write this book?

 Bobbie: In 2005, I read an article in Best Friends magazine. (Best Friends is a huge, no-kill animal sanctuary in southern Utah). The article was about feral children – children who supposedly have been raised by animals. I’ve always been fascinated by this idea, possibly because I’ve always felt more canine than primate. That article, Bobbie explains, opened with the story of a four-year-old Russian boy, Ivan Mishukov…. The boy who becomes the main character in Dogs of Winter.

Bobbie:  I was absolutely riveted by his story and found myself wanting to know more. Why were there tens of thousands of children living homeless on the streets, particularly one as young as four? How did Ivan survive the cold and the lack of food? How did he and the dogs live day to day? And what happened to Ivan after he was taken from the dogs two years later? The more I thought about Ivan’s story with the dogs, the more I felt I had to write it, but as fiction.

SB: It looks like you did a tremendous amount of research – there’s a 3-page bibliography at the end of the book. And the details are so vivid. Did you travel to Russia to visit the places you wrote about?

Bobbie: I’m a librarian, so research is in my blood and bones. First, I started searching on line for anything I could find on Ivan Mishukov. I also realized I need to know more about the socio-economic conditions in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union – I needed to understand why there were, by some estimates, close to a million homeless children and teens living on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. And of course, there were the street dogs of Moscow. How did they live? Again, there was a surprising amount of information on that, even YouTube videos showing them using the subway system! But I never did visit Russia, and that made me very nervous because “place” is very important to me when I write. I was also very fortunate to come across an award-winning documentary, The Children of Leningratsky made around 2003, which followed a group of homeless children in Moscow over a year.

SB: You have a soft spot in your heart for dogs, and in your blog when you do author interviews, you focus on their relationship to their dogs. Tell me about this connection - how it connects with your life.

Bobbie: I was born and raised in the South, and we southerners have very strong connections to our dogs. Dogs were always a part of everything my family did, and as a shy child, my best friends were dogs. That is still true today. (Bobbie has three dogs: two rescued Shetland Sheepdogs and a rescued coyote mix) I love how “in the moment” they are; I love watching the dynamics between them.  I love just being in the company of dogs. They offer us trust, unconditional love, and a guilelessness that is in short supply these days. They have a way of bringing out the best in us, perhaps because we want to be the person they trust that we are. I think that’s why the authors I interview – many of whom don’t usually do interviews – love the chance to just talk about their dogs. 

This is part of the Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday round-up. Check out more great reading here. Review copy from publisher.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Passover Lamb

The Passover Lamb
By Linda Elovitz Marshall; illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss
32 pages, ages 6 - 9
Random House 2013
As Miriam scatters chicken feed and gathers eggs, she practices chanting the questions she’ll ask tonight at Grandma’s house. “Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh…? Why is this night different from all other nights?

Of course, this is the day Snowball has her lambs – triplets. She won’t nurse the smallest, so Miriam fills a bottle with special milk for newborns and feeds the hungry lamb. But newborns need to be fed every four hours - how can they go to seder?

Miriam wants to take part in the Passover meal where they retell the story of how the Jews were slaves in Egypt. And how one mother hid her baby, Moses, in a basket to….

“Hey!” she says, “I know what to do!”

Linda Marshall’s story is inspired by an actual event that happened on her farm – when her children took a newborn lamb along with them to seder. I was lucky enough to get Linda to answer Three Questions about her book.

Sally’s Bookshelf: Did you carry him in a basket?

Linda: It happened a long time ago, but as I recall, we didn’t use a basket. Instead, the lamb sat on my kids’ laps or under the table where he nibbled our toes as we told the stories. My kids named him “Moses” as a gentle joke. And lamb nibbles? They feel soft and furry...and tickley.

SB: Your books focus on Jewish themes. Why?

Linda: Not all of my books focus on Jewish themes. But it’s only recently that I began writing for children and, as it’s turned out, the books that have been published so far have Jewish themes. My stories, though,  are inspired by many things - from farm life to word-plays to everyday mysteries like vacuum cleaners.

SB: The inspiration for many of your stories comes from relatives or family stories. How do you craft universal stories from these - what sort of process do you go through?

Linda: This is a great question; thank you for asking. I think everyone has a different process for this, so I'll tell you what I try to do – even though it doesn’t always work. First, I think about what actually happened. Then, I ask myself what story do I want to tell? How can adapt (or invent) story elements to build tension? Then I start writing.  For me, the first draft is the hardest part because I'm literally making “something from nothing.” When the first draft is finally written, I let it “simmer” in my subconscious....That’s when I ponder what I call the “deep structure” of the story – the thing that makes it universal. How does this particular vignette speak to the human heart? The answers generally come while I'm driving or swimming or in the shower. They don't come while I’m consciously thinking about the story! When I finally understand my story’s deep structure, I try to put it in context with other literature with a similar deep structure so I can learn from what came before. And, if I can do that, I often have a much stronger story. It’s a complicated process for what seems simple: a picture book – and that’s only the beginning of the process.

Review copy from publisher.