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Little Penguins by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Christian Robinson

Another gem! Put together two artists with a Newbery and a Caldecott between them and this is what you get…perfection! Five little51udZlcf2VL._SY388_BO1,204,203,200_ penguins look out the window of the igloo and see the first snowflakes starting to fall. Every child knows the thrill that the promise of a real snowstorm brings. The penguins get their boots, their mittens, and matching scarves and off they go to explore. Then it’s back to the house with Mama followed by jammies, cookies, and a sippy – off to bed. Winter has arrived! Rylant’s prose is lovely and evocative and Robinson’s art is splendid in cut paper collage and acrylics. I love the three penguins on the cover forming a perfect triangle – a stable image that readies the reader for the journey ahead. It’s gorgeous! Christian Robinson isn’t yet thirty and he won both Coretta Scott King and Caldecott awards. Watch out for him.

Think about pairing Little Penguins with Pak’s Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn when talking about seasons. They are perfect together.


Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle

We have all heard of the Panama Canal and how it made trade from East to West so much easier. It truly opened up the world. What I have never really thought about is how it was created. The canal was finished in August 1914 so think about how it must have been dug. Yep, by hand. And who did the digging? If you guessed people of color you’d be dead right. This marvelous novel in verse is done beautifully by Margarita Engle whose work is always outstanding. She follows Mateo, a Cuban boy barely into his teens, who left Cuba to escape his abusive father. Working on a canal and getting paid for it seemed a great idea. Mateo soon realizes that he signed on for much more than he originally thought. Mountains had to be moved, literally, and men from all over the Caribbean were the ones whose backbreaking work made the dream come alive. It was dangerous, the living conditions abominable, the pay was horrible, and the men were subject to yellow fever and malaria. The amount of men who died over the course of its construction was astounding. Mateo meets a young girl named Anita who knows how to use the herbs in the jungle to help those who are sick. Henry is another man of color who works side by side with Mateo who eventually runs off into the jungle to escape the contract everyone had to sign when they started work. The poems are well-crafted and the language beautiful. This is a story of the divide between dark and light people and the brutality and misery that went into the building of the Panama Canal. It was fascinating reading and a joy the whole way through. It’s perfect for middle school and up.


Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, ills. by Gilbert Ford


I love picture books! Did you know it is Picture Book Month for all of November? It’s true and more info about that can be found at In the meantime, let’s celebrate all things picture book! Hooray!

Mr. Ferris and His Wheel will interest all children who have ever ridden, or even seen, a ferris wheel. Why is it called a “ferris” wheel? Ah, because the mechanical engineer who designed it was named George Ferris. He created this unusual attraction for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and it was the hit of the show. It was different in some ways and is more like a cross of what we know as a ferris wheel now and the London Eye. There were glassed-in compartments that held seats which is more like the London Eye that what we’re used to. No one thought Ferris could pull off this enormous feat of engineering. He showed them, didn’t he?

On the downside (and I still love the book) the wonderful illustrations would look so much better if the pages were a bit more substantial and a little glossy. They look kind of dull as it is now. As a reader, I also would have liked to know what happened to the ferris wheel when the World’s Fair closed. Did it remain or was it demolished? Did people continue to ride it?

Despite the limitations noted, it is definitely worth getting. Kids will be so intrigued by it and who knows, they might build one out of Legos. 🙂

Waiting Is Not Easy! by Mo Willems


Waiting is not easy for any of us but especially for young children. Mo has hit the nail on the head again by capturing a real “problem” little ones have. Elephant & Piggie are hilarious as usual in this outing. Piggie has a surprise for Elephant but can’t give it to him quite yet. True to form, Gerald tries and tries to wait patiently but patient he is not. His frustration buds and ends up emitting some enormous GROANS. When he’s about to explode with anticipation and frustration, Piggie reveals her surprise. All I can say is it is was worth waiting for. Willems is going to end the E&P series before too long and that will be a sad day, indeed.

Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail

I am always drawn to stories from the Holocaust and try to read everything that comes out. It’s odd, I think, to want to read about something so unthinkable but I do. For me it is akin to staring down the devil. While teaching in London back in 2011 I made a pilgrimage to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. It was a difficult trip but I felt that I wanted to witness what happened to all of the people who died so horribly in those camps. I am glad that I did.

9780763664039_p0_v3_s260x420In Playing for the Commandant, Zail takes a new look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a young girl, just 16, who was an accomplished pianist in Budapest, Hungary when her family was arrested and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the camp she and her mother and sister are spared the gas chamber and sent to a barracks where their daily torture of starvation and back-breaking work begins. Soon her mother begins to lose her faculties and Hannah and her sister try desperately to protect her from the daily “selections.” Hannah is chosen to be the Commandant’s personal pianist and with very mixed feelings she accepts the position. She knows she will be given more food and better clothing that she plans to pass along to her mother and sister. At the commandant’s house Hannah gets to witness close up the abject cruelty in the heart of her captor but she is surprised by his artistic son who despises what is going on in the camps his father oversees. The conflict between playing beautiful music and “selling out” is a wonderful dynamic in this story. I think this book will find a place in the corpus of Holocaust literature for young adults. This book is meant for readers age 12 and up.


This book brought a documentary film to mind as I read it. Called The Lady in Room 6 it tells the story of Alice Herz Sommer, a 109 year-old survivor of Terezin. Ms. Sommer was an extraordinary pianist who secured a place in the Terezin orchestra and, through the music, was able to survive the Holocaust. This documentary is absolutely fantastic. Ms. Sommer had a joie de vivre that was unbelievable given what she had been through. The documentary won the Oscar for best documentary in 2014. Sadly, Ms. Sommer died just before the Oscar was awarded. She died at 110. Treat yourself to this documentary which is available in numerous places online. It was the most uplifting true story I have ever seen. Her story had a lasting effect on my life.

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

One of my favorite books last year was Katherine Rundell’s novel, Rooftoppers. I have book talked it all over the place and when I do I have come to describe it as a cross between Mary Poppins and Roald Dahl. Roald Dahl because of the quirkiness of his characters and their eccentric lives in England. In Rooftoppers we find baby Sophie in the English Channel sailing in a cello case following the sinking of a ship. She is found by an eccentric professor, Charles, and he decides to raise Sophie himself since she is clearly an orphan. And their life together is wonderful to them – but to, say, a child welfare clerk, maybe not so much. It is just different but we all know what different can lead to! The welfare agency threatens to take her away from Charles and the two of them head for Paris. Sophie has always felt that her mother is still alive and is convinced she is living in Paris. Charles and Sophie make it their mission to find out. It is there in Paris that Sophie meets Matteo and joins him on the rooftops of Paris looking down at the city. It is this foray onto the rooftops that helps the three of them figure out what happened to Sophie’s mom. It is an adventure, it is a little wacky, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful read. I haven’t had anyone say they weren’t crazy about it – quite the contrary – it’s a huge hit. It would make a great classroom read aloud for kids ages 8 and up.


I couldn’t figure out how Rundell could pull off such a distinctive book again but she did it in Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms which came out in August. Twelve year-old Will (short for Wilhelmina) is in heaven on her family’s farm in Zimbabwe. she loves the wide open spaces, all of the different animals, and the new adventures that pop up every day. Her dad loves her to pieces and leaves this idyllic farm to a friend of theirs to keep for Will until she is grown. Enter the wily woman who tricks him into marrying her and the farm is gone in no time. The wicked stepmother packs Will up and sends her off to an English boarding school where she will be out of her hair. Will hasn’t a clue how to act with all these girls wearing the same outfit and mocking her every chance they get. When she can take it no more, this n]brave and gutsy girl decides to strike off on her own and takes off into London. She has survived the wilds of Zimbabwe – can she survive London? This is such a great read and, like her first book, wonderfully imaginative and fun.


You’ll enjoy every minute of this story!

National Book Awards for YA Literature Announced

As promised, NPR announced the five finalists for the National Book Award which is scheduled to be announced on November 19th. They are (in no particular order):

Threatened by Eliot Schrefer


Revolution by Deborah Wiles


Brown Girl Dreaming

Noggin by Corey Whaley


Port Chicago 50


I have yet to read Threatened and Noggin – wouldn’t you know they were the only two on the long list I hadn’t gotten to! I know what the next two books I’ll be reading are! The other three are stellar examples of what the world of young adult literature offers. I can’t possibly say which I like best because they are all outstanding. We’ll leave the announcement to the judges. I think they have a very tough job ahead of them!

The Joy of Children’s Literature Conference at The College of William and Mary

On Friday, October 10th, William & Mary is hosting their JCL Conference. It’s a one-day event and it is terrific. I am particularly excited this year because the two featured authors are ones I think highly of.

Barbara O’Connor is a wonderful author who has given children a number of good reads over the years. I just checked online to refresh my memory on her titles and was amazed at how many I read and enjoyed. Here are just a few of them.

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Check them out online. They are really perfect middle grade novels. My two favorites are How to Steal a Dog and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester.  I really can’t wait to hear Ms. O’Connor talk about how these ideas came to her and how they came to fruition. It should be great. Here’s a link to her website:

Also on the bill is Candace Fleming. I adore her work. The amazing thing about Candy is her versatility. She does fiction, non-fiction, and even picture books. I have mentioned her newest book, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia, and raved about it. It was one of the two best works of non-fiction this year for YA audiences. The second is Susan Goldman Rubin’s Freedom Summer: The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (also mentioned here in the blog). In addition to her incredible non-fiction, Candy has done some remarkable picture books. Boxes for Katje tells the story of a small town in Holland that was suffering terribly after the end of World War II. It was a harsh winter and warm clothes and food supplies were frighteningly low. A small town in America adopted this town and helped them recover in small but important ways. Love it!


I love her Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! books. Rabbit will get to the garden no matter what the gardener does. The text is so lyrical (a great read aloud) and the art by G. Brian Karas is wonderful.


Another one I have to mention is Oh, No! With one false step, animal after animal fall into the deep pit. How on earth will they get out? The art is by Caldecott winner, Eric Rohmann, whose work is just fantastic.

9780375842719_p0_v1_s260x420Try to make it to the conference. It should be wonderful. I’ll be there doing a couple of talks and I would love to meet you there! Here’s the link: 

Kate DiCamillo at the Virginia Festival of the Book!!!!

I love Kate DiCamillo. I love her stories, her writing, and she cracks me up as a person. But what I like most of all is that she’s going to come to the Festival of the Book on March 19th. She will talk at the Culbreth Theater at 7:00pm and I can tell you that she does wonderful presentations. I just caught her at the National Book Festival and loved every minute of it. Go to the Virginia Festival of the Book website and buy tickets. They are charging a nominal fee to help support getting fee books into the hands of third and fourth graders in the community. Well worth every cent I say!


Let’s get out and support the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature!

National Book Award Young Adult Long List

Earlier this week the NBA announced their long list of YA titles under consideration for the National Book Award. Not many awards announce the books they are considering beforehand and I think it’s great fun to read along with the committee as they decide. I liken it to the Oscars. You can check out the films and root for your favorite when the awards are announced.

The books are judged by a jury predominantly made up YA writers so the perspective is very different from other awards. Another difference is that a short list will be announced; in this case on October 15th. The field gets whittled down from10 books to five. How exciting is that?!

The books under consideration are:

Laurie Halse Anderson, “The Impossible Knife of Memory” [A terrific and prolific writer whose work includes the amazing  Speak. I have just started the book and, so far, it’s awfully good]


Gail Giles, “Girls Like Us” (Candlewick Press) [I have loved Gail Giles’ work and this seems to be a bit different from her earlier books. That makes me want to read it all the more!]

Carl Hiaasen, “Skink — No Surrender” (Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers/Random House)  [I just finished this one and I have to say that I don’t think it’s NBA worthy. Sorry Mr. Hiaasen. It’s a good mystery but I don’t think it transcends the genre in any way]

Kate Milford, “Greenglass House” (Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) [I don’t know a thing about this one, I’m sorry to say. I have to get on that]

Eliot Schrefer, “Threatened” (Scholastic Press/Scholastic) [Schrefer’s first book with Scholastic was Endangered which was a great story of saving the bonobo apes in the Congo. It was a NBA finalist. Imagine that!]

Steve Sheinkin, “The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights” (Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Publishers) [This is an EXTRAORDINARY book. Sheinkin is such an incredible story tell and he writes non-fiction. Amazing! This civil rights story is one I was entirely unaware of and am so glad to know about. He was previously an NBA finalist for his superlative book, Bomb: The Race to Build – And Steal -The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon].


Andrew Smith, “100 Sideways Miles” (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster) [Andrew Smith got all kinds of great attention with his novel called Winger. I have not tackled this one yet but I have high hopes]

Deborah Wiles, “Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two” (Scholastic Press/Scholastic) [This is an AMAZING book! Book Two in her Sixties trilogy, this one deals with the Freedom Summer in 1964 in Mississippi. Beautifully written and the characterization is wonderful. This one is a treasure!]


Jacqueline Woodson, “Brown Girl Dreaming” (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Group) [I can’t think of a memoir I admire more. Jacqueline Woodson tells of her life growing up Black in the South but it is not a polemic. I loved the insights she provided and I found that her Mom and my Mom had some of the same “sayings” we both heard again and again. Prejudice definitely impacted her life but what I loved most was the warmth and caring of her grandparents and parents. It was spectacular. Did I mention it is written in poetry? I found myself reading and rereading poems and loving them]



I have not read all of them yet, obviously, but so far my top three are (in no particular order): Brown Girl Dreaming, Revolution, and The Port Chicago 50. I’ll keep reading and report back.

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