Hurricane Sandy wrought substantial damage to the building housing the offices of the National Book Foundation in New York City. Despite this disruption, the Foundation, which is the presenter of the prestigious National Book Award prizes, held its awards dinner on November 14 and announced the winners in four different categories.
Native American Louise Erdrich won the top honor for Fiction with her book, The Round House. Taking place on a North Dakota reservation, The Round House is a sensitive coming of age story and an unflinching look at contemporary tribal life as well as a tangled legalese whodunit. This beautifully written selection was discussed earlier in Between the Covers, as was the winner in the Nonfiction category, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Boo, a journalist, stayed in one of Mumbai’s poorest slum communities for several years and carefully chronicled the stories of the people and families living as the have-nots in a city acknowledged to be the wealthiest in India.
National Book awards are also presented for Young People’s Literature, won by William Alexander for his tale, Goblin Secrets, and its Poetry prize was bestowed upon David Ferry for his volume entitled Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations. As indicated by the eponymous title, eighty-eight year old Ferry includes both his original poems as well as his translations of other works which support the themes of his verses. Goblin Secrets is described by Kirkus Reviews as a mix of “steampunk and witchy magic” and features Rownie, a boy searching for his missing older brother in the city of Zombay. Opening with a witch who needs her clockwork chicken legs wound up with a crank so she can walk, Ferry has crafted a unique debut novel.
First time author Natasha Lowe delivers a heartwarming tale of magic, baking and the recipe for happiness in The Power of Poppy Pendle. Born amongst warm, spicy scents on the floor of a French bakery in Potts Bottom, Poppy Pendle came into the world destined for Great Things. From her parents’ point of view, the path to Great Things should spiral tightly around Poppy’s extraordinary magical gifts. From her earliest days it’s been obvious that Poppy has inherited the special talents of her Great Grandmother Mabel, a famous witch and the pride of the family.
From Poppy’s point of view, Great Things lie down another path entirely. For Poppy has another, altogether more precious gift – or at least, more precious to her – and that is her talent for baking. When she was seven, her parents enrolled her at Ruthersfield, Potts Bottom’s premier school for aspiring witches. Now, three years later, 10-year-old Poppy is at the top of her class, yet she could hardly be more bored. She dreams of having a normal life with non-magical friends and of someday opening her own bakery to share her gift with the world. When her parents place a moratorium on her baking, Poppy decides to take destiny into her own hands and runs away. Finding shelter at Patisserie Marie Claire, a local bakery that seems strangely familiar, Poppy finds friendship and purpose beyond the ideals her parents have constructed for her. But can this idyll last?
Lowe’s inviting narrative explores the nature of independence, friendship, child-parent conflicts and the importance of following one’s passion. At the close of the story, children and adults alike may enjoy creating such treats as coffee cupcakes or lemon bars from a collection of Poppy’s own favorite recipes.
The porcine heroes of The Three Ninja Pigs by Corey Rosen Schwartz have finally had enough of the wolf bully terrorizing their Japanese mountain village, so off to the dojo they go. Told in snappy limerick verse, this modern retelling follows the sibling pigs as each trains in a different martial art. But one brother is quickly bored with aikido, while the second defies his sensei by cockily refusing to study past his yellow belt in jujitsu. Their sister, however, is a testament to the power of dedication and determination. She studies karate for months (perfecting a perfect pork-chop!) in preparation for her showdown with the big bad wolf.
The Three Ninja Pigs is an action-packed story that begs to be read aloud, preferably not at bedtime. Half the fun of reading this thrilling picture book is taking in its cinematic illustrations, courtesy of the talented Dan Santat, a dad himself to two spirited boys. To add an authentic Japanese feel, he rendered the background art (plenty of cherry blossoms, bamboo and pagodas in the shadow of Mount Fuji) using traditional sumi ink brushwork on rice paper. The characters themselves show off their moves in Santat’s signature comically expressive Photoshop illustrations. Panels mimic the best action scenes from Bruce Lee martial arts movies; a Japanese glossary at the end rounds out the experience. Be prepared to watch your young readers reenact the pigs’ moves all around the living room.
Newbery Honor and National Book Award winning author Phillip Hoose offers another fascinating story in Moonbird: a Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95. The small shorebird’s name is B95, but scientists have nicknamed him Moonbird, because in his lifetime he has flown the distance to the moon and halfway back – a whopping 325,000 miles. B95 was tagged by researchers in 1995, and they have been chronicling his journeys since then. He is a red knot, a member of the subspecies rufa, and every February he joins a flock that leaves from Tierra del Fuego and heads to breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic. Late in the summer, the flock begins its return journey. During this round-trip, the birds are able to fly for days without stopping, but rest and food are critical elements to a successful migration. Unfortunately, the available food en route has shrunk due to human activity. The numbers sadly speak to the increased danger involved in this flight, as the worldwide rufa population has dropped drastically from almost 150,000 to less than 25,000 in seventeen years.
Hoose is able to personalize the story of B95 with beautiful prose that has the reader cheering on this pint-sized dynamo. He also accessibly interjects facts about the birds and their survival, and introduces some of the men and women who research and help preserve the species. Photographs, maps, and sidebars add to the content. Source notes and an extensive bibliography point to the meticulous research, and information about how readers, including children and teens, can get involved in preservation may spur some to action. Moonbird is not just the powerful portrait of one strong bird, but also an engaging examination of worldwide ecology. And in the amazingly good news front – B95 is still going strong and was spotted at the Jersey shore in May of this year.
Two new picture books use animals to teach the alphabet. In A is for Musk Ox by Erin Cabatingan, readers learn why every letter in the alphabet is for “musk ox.” This hysterical take on the classic ABC book begins with Joseph the Musk Ox ruining Zebra’s alphabet book by eating the apple. Claiming it would have been boring to start ANOTHER book with “A is for Apple”, Joseph takes this opportunity to describe the greatness of musk oxen. Not sure what musk oxen are? Read this book and you will discover numerous tidbits like “Eskimos call musk oxen Omingmak” and “the soft underwool of a musk ox is called Qiviut.” Hilarious illustrations by Matthew Myers will have readers giggling non-stop as they watch what happens to the original subject of each letter after Joseph is done.
All the Awake Animals Are Almost Asleep by Crescent Dragonwagon takes a more gentle approach to the topic. The mother in this book uses alliteration to describe sleeping animals while tucking her young child into bed. Inclusion of less common animals, such as an Ibex who “inches his way up the icy incline toward a good day’s nap” adds to the charm of the story. Starting and ending the story in a lyrical rhyme, the soothing text calms the restless child and lulls the animals into a peaceful sleep. The soft watercolor illustrations by David McPhail match the tone of the story perfectly. This is a wonderful bedtime story and will quickly become a favorite.
Who would have thought that Bigfoot would make such an engaging picture book protagonist? Two recent tales put this elusive hairy man-beast at the forefront of literature for young readers. In Ashley Spires’ charming Larf, the title character leads a solitary but fulfilling life in a cabin in the woods, save for his pet bunny Eric. He worries that if people found out he was real, he would attract the wrong kind of prying attention. But one morning’s newspaper article proves life changing when he finds out he may not be the only sasquatch in the world. Larf knows he must travel to town to find out. But what if the other sasquatch doesn’t like him? What if he eats meat instead of vegetables? And worst of all, what if he is a she? Spires’ watercolor and ink illustrations lend a gentle, quirky and humorous tone to a story that ultimately explores what it means to open yourself to the possibilities of friendship.
Kent Redeker’s Don’t Squish the Sasquatch! is a raucous ride on a city bus where the first passenger to be picked up is Señor Sasquatch. Boldly colored digital art with a retro feel by illustrator/graphic designer Bob Staake completes a picture book chock full of absurd creatures and sly humor. Each new rider to enter the bus (including Mr. Octo-Rhino) receives the same direction from the driver, Mr. Blobule. “Don’t Squish the Sasquatch!” Of course, the bow-tied bright green Sasquatch, all gangly spiky arms and long legs, can’t avoid being crowded out, which leads to a horrible crash and a surprise ending. Expect this winning read aloud to become a family and storytime favorite.
Did you know that the largest dog on record was Zorba the English Mastiff who weighed in at 343 pounds? There are more pet dogs in the world (about half a billion) than there are human babies. U.S. Presidents have owned a total of 118 dogs while in office. National Geographic Kids Everything Dogs: All the Canine Facts, Photos, and Fun That You Can Get Your Paws On! by Becky Baines with Dr. Gary Weitzman will charm any dog lover, young or old. This exciting new book for kids is full of colorful photos, attention-grabbing graphics, and astonishing dog facts.
For a charming story about a dog and her improbable best friend, try Kate & Pippin: An Unlikely Love Story by Martin Springett, with photography by Isobel Springett. When a fawn named Pippin was abandoned by her mother, no one could have guessed the bond that would develop between her and Kate, a Great Dane. Kate had never had puppies of her own, but she immediately began to cuddle little Pippin, who followed her protector around everywhere she went. Eventually, Pippin began to live on her own in the forest, but she still comes back to visit her good friend Kate and the other animals on the farm. The two still enjoy running and playing together. The Springetts, a brother and sister team, document Kate and Pippin’s friendship with photos and simple text, perfect for a young child.
What is the color of a happy cat? In Red Cat, Blue Cat, written and illustrated by debut British artist Jenni Desmond, two jealous cats try to figure it out. Red Cat is nimble and lives downstairs; Blue Cat is clever and lives upstairs. Whenever the two meet, much caterwauling ensues. Little do they know that each secretly longs to be like the other. Whimsical and bright, the playful illustrations of colored pencil, collage, water color and ink spill over each page as the cats try wacky ideas to make themselves over. “If I turn myself red, I will become fast and bouncy!” thinks Blue Cat, as he eats an assortment of red things, like cherries, watermelon, even rose petals, to no avail. Red Cat, who really wants to be smart, then tries blueberries, bluebells, blue pudding and certain cupcakes, with no better luck. It’s not until the two work together that they understand that each has special qualities to appreciate and share. Until they spot a yellow cat - Meow!
Finders Keepers, written by William Lipkind and illustrated by Nicolas Mordvinoff, first delighted children and families in 1951 and won the Caldecott Medal for distinguished American picture book. This classic tale of two dogs and one bone, is charmingly illustrated with simple, vintage line drawings and a measured color palette. Reminiscent of Aesop’s or La Fontaine’s fables, the dogs, Winkle and Nap each lay claim to a bone in the barnyard. They then query the farmer, the goat, and others in the quest to determine rightful ownership. Fooled by greed and tricked into tasks along the way, they too work together in the end to reclaim and share their bone.
Jacqueline Woodson successfully teams up once again with illustrator E.B. Lewis in Each Kindness, a picture book that tells a difficult, haunting, but vital story about passive bullying, an all-too-common form of persecution among children. In the style of a person looking back on life, Woodson instantly grabs the reader’s attention: “That winter, snow fell on everything…” When Maya, a young girl, arrives at her new school in tattered clothes and damaged shoes, she shyly greets her new classmates. However, the narrator, one of Maya’s classmates, shuns the new student for her appearance. Despite Maya’s varied attempts to break down the walls put up by her fellow pupils, they refuse her each time. One day, when it is clear that the new student has left and is not coming back, the narrator realizes her mistake and laments her unkindness toward Maya.
Lewis’ slice-of-life pastel watercolors enhance the poignancy of the story. Expressions on the faces of the children are precisely defined, and the beautiful pastoral setting stands in counterpoint to the cruelty exhibited by Maya’s peers. One double-page spread showing Maya’s now-empty desk is gripping, as are Woodson’s word choices as the narrator contemplates her actions at the conclusion: “…the chance of a kindness with Maya / becoming more and more / forever gone.” Readers who savoured E.B. Lewis’ illustrations when he paired with Woodson on The Other Side will recognize his brilliance here as well. Each Kindness is a natural companion to Eleanor Estes’ classic The Hundred Dresses and, for slightly older readers, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, previously reviewed.
Presidential politics are in full swing as Election Day approaches and two new books for kids offer a lighter look at the men who have been elected to this highest office. Julia Moberg researched the non-human First Family members in Presidential Pets: The Weird, Wacky, Little, Big, Scary, Strange Animals That Have Lived in the White House. While many had the usual cats and dogs, the White House also became home to goats, mice, bears, zebras, hyenas, and many more. Calvin Coolidge owned a raccoon named Rebecca who dined on shrimp, while Andrew Jackson’s parrot was known to use less than savory language. Each entry opens with a humorous rhyming poem that describes an event with the pet. Sidebars, such as "Presidential Stats" and "Tell Me More", offer basic information and share trivia about the president and his animal. This unique blend of humor, trivia, vibrant graphics, and children’s love of animals brings to life the presidents and the history of each man’s time in office.
Susan Katz uses humor in The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub: Poems about the Presidents and focuses on some of the lesser known anecdotes about our presidents. The forty-three poems are diverse in format and include concrete, free verse, and rhyming. Each poem is accompanied by a footnote outlining more specifics, and Robert Neubecker’s digital caricature illustrations are full of interesting details which highlight the stories. While trivial in nature, these funny facts are just right to pique young readers' interests. Further information is provided in the appended list of presidents which includes nicknames, a major accomplishment, and a famous quote. From William Taft’s extrication from a bathtub to John Quincy Adams skinny dipping in the Potomac, all of these stories serve to highlight the human nature of each of our presidents, and makes them more relatable to readers of all ages.