Welcome, fellow members of the VFD and other esteemed colleagues of Lemony Snicket. You are apologetically invited to endure the somber account of a celebrated member’s decidedly inauspicious apprenticeship: Who Could That Be at This Hour? All other readers are invited to stop reading right now.
Oh, all right, tag along if you absolutely must.
By his own account, Lemony Snicket’s education was an unusual one. Just how unusual? Well, that would certainly be the wrong question, but since you’re new at this, we’ll indulge your overdeveloped sense of curiosity – a phrase which here is the polite substitution for "nosiness". Suffice to say that Snicket’s education supplied him with the skills necessary to escape drugging by tea; send secret messages through library loans; free-fall, and other similarly uncomfortable exploits encountered in this book.
What strange sort of book is this? Call it a prequel to unfortunate events, call it a nod to the noir; whatever the classification, Snicket’s latest is most certainly a restorative. Who Could That Be at This Hour? is the first in the intended four-volume series, All the Wrong Questions. Chronicling the latter days of his uncommonly strange childhood and early career, the authorized autobiography of the dear and drear Snicket is at turns gloomy and startling, but always entertaining. Readers who have enjoyed A Series of Unfortunate Events will not be disappointed. Staples of Snicket’s style – clever wordplay and melancholic narration – are abundant in this new venture, accompanied by superb woodcut illustrations.
Singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant wanted to share child-friendly works of the oral tradition with her young daughter, delighting in the gift of words and speech that was featured in poems and stories. The result was a twenty-six song, two-CD set of poems that Merchant set to music. Released in 2010, it also included biographical sketches and a photograph of each poet. Now, paired with well-regarded illustrator Barbara McClintock, many of the poems from that endeavor come to life in the picture book Leave Your Sleep: A Collection of Classic Children’s Poetry.
Transforming a musical package to a picture book isn’t altogether unknown, but a book of poems is less common. Covering many famous poets, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, e.e. cummings, and Ogden Nash, the collection varies in tone and level. From Jack Prelutsky’s breezy and fun “Bleezer’s Ice Cream” to Laurence Alma-Tadema’s poignant “If No One Ever Marries Me”, the works focus on language and the way a few choice words coming together can create a memorable portrait. Take “Equestrienne”, by Rachel Field; McClintock’s exquisite illustrations of a rider and her milk-white horse perfectly capture the tone of the poem. Listen to Merchant’s interpretation on the accompanying CD, and the whole package comes together beautifully. The music styles range from Klezmer to jazz to string arrangements.
McClintock’s illustrations of “I Saw A Ship A-Sailing” epitomize her style, with a duck captain and mice sailors simultaneously working an old vessel but also juggling, playing with puppets, and riding a hobby horse. The whole package will bring a smile to both children and adults reading and listening along.
Real life doesn’t always have a happily ever after. Kids may want to try these two well–written books for stories of real life with real endings. After a violent episode of abuse by her mother and stepfather, twelve-year-old Carley Connors is sent to her first foster home where she is welcomed by Mrs. Murphy, herself a first-timer. In One for the Murphys, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Carley tries to survive in a strange new environment while being haunted by broken pieces of memory from that horrible night. New clothes, home-cooked meals and a return to school is a lot of adjustment for this tough, neglected girl from Las Vegas. A less-than-warm welcome from her foster brother and foster father adds to her anxiety. Hunt displays a deft touch with serious issues, showing Carley’s discomfort and distrust of the kindness shown to her without hitting the reader over the head with her angst. Her characters feel genuine with real emotions and concerns. Carley learns a lot about herself and about love while staying with the Murphys.
First published in 1978, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson is another foster child story with similar themes of finding family and finding yourself. Gilly Hopkins is an eleven year old girl bouncing from foster home to foster home until her beautiful mother, Courtney, can come claim her. The book tells the tale of her stay with Maime Trotter, her foster son William Ernest and family friend, blind Mr. Randolph. Gilly is independent, strong-willed and blunt with her opinions, particularly about the “freaks” she has been stuck with. Gilly’s crude language and bad behavior makes her particularly unlikable at first. The reader begins to cheer for this unhappy creature as the details of her life emerge and as she grows to care for her foster family. The winner of numerous awards, including the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor, The Great Gilly Hopkins still resonates with children today.
Two of last year’s most critically acclaimed picture books happen to be titles featuring headwear. Naoko Stoop’s Red Knit Cap Girl is a gentle, imaginative tale of a young girl who wants to get close enough to the moon to have a conversation. Following the sage advice of Mr. Owl, she enlists the help of her woodland animal friends to send a signal. Bunny, bear, squirrel and hedgehog assist in the hanging of Red Knit Cap Girl’s paper lanterns, made for a special full moon celebration. They sing together, but Moon is absent from the party. Then Red Knit Cap Girl has an epiphany—a quiet, dark forest is most inviting. Stoop’s charmingly old-fashioned illustrations are rendered in pencil, ink and acrylic on plywood. The wood grain adds an appropriately naturalistic element, each page’s background carefully selected to enhance the overall effect. Stoop is also a master at conveying darkness and light, and the subtle shades between.
The minnow protagonist of Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat introduces himself to the reader by boldly announcing that his newly acquired chapeau is stolen property. In fact, he himself is the one who snatched it. Rich digital illustrations enhanced by Chinese ink portray a deep black ocean, rife with various hues of brown sea plants. The pictures here tell a story that contradicts the text, leaving observant readers to delight in the thought of what might come next when the hat’s owner, an enormous, no-nonsense fish, discovers it missing. Much like Klassen’s enormously popular I Want my Hat Back, this picture book is driven by wry humor and the power of inference.
Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead is back with another gem for the middle grade crowd in Liar & Spy. Georges has a lot going on, not the least of which is his name. Yes, his parents named him Georges (silent s) after their favorite painter, pointillist Georges Seurat. Needless to say, this only gives the bullies at school more ammunition in their relentless torment. His former best friend is now ensconced in the cool crowd. Georges has had to move from the only home he knew following his father’s job loss. And his mother is working double shifts as a nurse at the hospital to get some much needed extra cash.
The only bright light is the Spy Club at his new apartment building led by the homeschooled Safer. He is convinced another tenant, the mysterious Mr. X, is up to nefarious dealings. Safer and Georges begin an intensive spying campaign, and Georges grows closer with Safer’s quirky family, including his appropriately named younger sister, Candy, whose appetite for sweets is insatiable. As the spy game becomes more extreme and Safer becomes more demanding, Georges is forced to question Safer’s honesty and motives all while dealing with a missing mother, who only communicates with Georges via messages on a Scrabble board. Georges avoids visiting his mother at work, and readers soon learn there is more to that situation than meets the eye.
As with Seurat’s paintings, Georges learns to look at the big picture, rather than focus on the small stuff. This is a fascinating coming of age story filled with twists and an appealing and relatable young man. Long after readers finish this book, they will be thinking about the questions posed regarding family, friendship, loyalty, perception, reality and truth.
Blood is something we all know exists from infancy on, but few of us really examine that which carries oxygen to our various body parts and keeps us alive. Whether it is our inability to fully understand the intricacies of the substance flowing through our veins and arteries, or our collective squeamishness at the sight of it, blood remains largely a mystery to the masses. In The Book of Blood: from Legends to Leeches to Vampires and Veins, author HP Newquist examines this mystical fluid, our literal lifeblood.
Many hematological topics are covered and well-explained, such as the various blood cells, the makeup of plasma, and diseases involving blood, such as leukemia and hemophilia. Illustrated using digital imagery, photography and reproductions of blood-related ephemera, The Book of Blood could go for the jugular in terms of gore and unpleasantness, but instead uses appropriate restraint in portraying the substance. The various bloods of animals are discussed, too, whether it be the differences between warm- and cold-blooded beings, or those animals that have blood in colors other than red, such as blue blood of many mollusks.
Titles such as this, covering one commonly known subject, give readers the ability to focus on a topic and better understand the ways blood works and how it is an unspoken part of everyone’s life. The cultural meanings of blood are also touched upon, with references to mosquitoes, leeches, and bats, and of course, vampires. The book closes with a chapter that reminds us of the long way we still have to go in medicine. Blood donations remain critical because, despite so many other medical advances, we have not yet been able to create blood in a laboratory.
One Times Square: A Century of Change at the Crossroads of the World, written and impressively illustrated by Joe McKendry, is the history of one building and the surrounding neighborhood situated at one of the planet’s most well-known intersections. The “bow tie” confluence of Broadway and Seventh Avenue in New York City has attracted millions to gaze at its lights, and one night a year, the dropping of an illuminated ball that marks the end of one year and the beginning of another.
Given the varied phases that Times Square has gone through in just the past fifty or so years, it can be hard to imagine that in the 19th century the area was a rural pasture. Later in the 1800s it became a manufacturing center, particularly for carriage builders. Only in the end of that century did the first theatres move into the area. The name “Times Square” first came into being in 1904 when the New York Times constructed the building whose address would become One Times Square. Although the newspaper quickly outgrew the tall, thin, ornate structure, and moved to a nearby street off the square, the name for the area stuck.
McKendry does an amazing job with vivid watercolors that match the hustle and bustle of Times Square. Pages are filled with signs, lights, and advertisements that place the reader into the pages’ chronology. Line drawings and illustrations in sepia hues mark earlier eras. Even the cover imagery is chosen smartly, with a depiction of the intersection closely resembling the stage lights of Broadway theatres. Fascinating details about the history and engineering of the lights, marquées, and the “zipper” news bulletin that wraps around buildings is included. For those who are preparing for their first visit to the heart of Manhattan, or for those who have walked through the area on countless occasions, One Times Square is a visual and historical treat.
Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis honors seventeen civil rights heroes in the beautifully illustrated collection, When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders. While Lewis’ poems celebrate well-known leaders such as Coretta Scott King and Mohandas Gandhi, he also uses this as an opportunity to present lesser known heroes to today’s children. These include Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy activist. and Dennis James Banks, Co-founder of the American Indian Movement and Anishinabe political activist. The verses bring to life the spirit of these men and women who impacted the world at large and each is accompanied by a beautiful artwork from four of today’s most celebrated illustrators.
Activism is at the heart of Crow, by adult author Barbara Wright, her first novel for children. It’s the summer of 1898, and Moses Thomas of Wilmington, North Carolina is looking forward to a fabulous summer vacation. But things don’t go as planned when his best friend finds a new pal, his father and grandmother intensify their squabbling, and his mother works long days as a maid for a rich white family. He also grows increasingly aware of the escalating tension between the African American and white communities. Moses’ dad is an alderman in town and works for the African American newspaper. The African American middle class in Wilmington is growing, but not everyone is pleased with the power wielded by this population, and a White Declaration of Independence is issued. Leading African American figures, including Moses’ father, are told to leave town. The resulting riots bring devastation to the community and directly impact Moses’ family and future. Told from the realistic point of view of a courageous young boy, this story combines historic details of the disenfranchisement of the African American community in one town with a moving coming of age story.
Bird & Squirrel on the Run! is the funny new graphic novel from James Burks. Squirrel accidentally loses his winter supply of nuts while trying to rescue Bird from the Cat. Limited by an injured wing, Bird talks Squirrel into walking south with him to survive the winter. Thus begins a wonderful buddy adventure for the younger reader. While Bird is fun-loving and adventurous, Squirrel is very cautious and nervous. As Bird learns a little bit about responsibility and Squirrel learns a little bit about fun, the two new friends contend with angry bees, scary snakes, waterfalls, dire predictions (from a fortune-telling mole!) and one determined cat on their way to warmer lands. Displaying loyalty and fortitude, the pair faces down one last fearsome, flying foe. Will the friends survive their journey?
Burks’ bright colorful illustrations are easy to follow. Using such details as an acorn helmet for the cautious Squirrel and aviator goggles for the adventurous Bird, Burks’ artwork complements the story well. His lesson of a happy medium between being overly-cautious and carelessly adventurous is subtly conveyed. While the text is simple and very manageable, the story is delightfully detailed. This book could serve as a wonderful transition to chapter books for the newly independent reader… and it’s a fun read!
Prolific children’s author Bruce Coville is back with a fresh serving of the deliciously weird. Welcome to Always October, where the weather is always autumnal and monsters abound. It is a world separate from our own, yet woven into the essential fabric of human dreams and fears. Now the links between these worlds are in danger of unraveling, and the fate of each hangs by a thread.
Sixth grader Jake Doolittle isn’t fond of surprises. In the second grade, his best friend Lily nearly mucked up their friendship by proposing to him in front of the entire class (True story!) In the fourth grade, his adored dad disappeared under mysterious circumstances. So when Jake opens the door one stormy night to find a baby swaddled in black on the front porch, he’s more than a little uneasy. A note left with the baby urges the family to protect Little Dumpling until his guardian can return. Jake’s mother falls in love with the baby immediately, and it isn’t long before Jake himself falls for the smiles and gurgles of his new little brother. But when the light of a full moon hits Little Dumpling, it reveals a bright green furry little monster!
Little Dumpling may be a little monster at times, but he’s still Jake’s brother now and he’s determined to protect LD and get to the bottom of the baby’s transformation. Jake turns to Lily and together the two seek to solve the puzzle of Little Dumpling’s transformation, his unusual ancestry, and the curious link between the baby monster and Jake’s father. Alternating point-of-view narration, snappy dialogue, and quirky characters keep readers on their toes as they follow Jake, Lily and Little Dumpling on their adventure.