Review of Sandy’s Circus, by Tanya Lee Stone


Sandy’s Circus

A Story About Alexander Calder

by Tanya Lee Stone

illustrated by Boris Kulikov

Viking, 2008.  36 pages.

Here’s another delightful picture book biography.  It gives you a feel for what the artist has done and makes you want to know more.  The story is told on a level that will intrigue both children and adults.  I especially enjoy the playful illustrations.

“There once was an artist named Alexander Calder.  Only he didn’t call himself Alexander.  And he didn’t call the things he made art.”

Tanya Lee Stone and Boris Kulikov beautifully capture the inventive, experimental quality of Sandy Calder’s art.  They show how he playfully created a moving, working circus out of wire.  His art was more than a static display to look at.  It was a show where things happened.

The author tells us that “even the mobiles that hang over baby cribs would not exist without Calder.”  This is the story of a man who brought a sense of play into his life’s work.

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Review of Pale Male, by Janet Schulman


Pale Male

Citizen Hawk of New York City

by Janet Schulman

illustrated by Meilo So

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008.  36 pages.

Here’s a beautiful picture book true story of a red-tailed hawk that flew into New York City in 1991 and made his home on a building across from Central Park.

The building occupants weren’t too happy with a nest on their building, though the citizens of New York were thrilled.  The hawk’s pale coloring made him distinctive and easy to spot, so bird watchers avidly watched his efforts to settle in and start a family.

Lovely watercolors illustrate this gentle story of a wild creature learning to live alongside humans.  It also tells how important the efforts of humans were for him to be able to keep his home.

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Review of The Wall, by Peter Sis


The Wall

Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

by Peter Sis

Frances Foster Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), New York, 2007.

2008 Robert F. Sibert Medal winner.

2008 Caldecott Honor Book.

In a picture book for children, Peter Sis here creatively captures what it was like to be an artist growing up in Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain.

With his art, he expresses to the reader the feelings of the students who did not want to be repressed.

This book reminded me of Persepolis, another story of a student growing up under oppression, also told with art.  The Wall is simpler, and thus more suitable for children, intelligent children who will think about the images and read the fine print.

Hmm.  It’s also suitable for intelligent adults who will think about the images and read the fine print.

This book is a powerful testimonial against repression.

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Review of Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, by Deborah Hopkinson and John Hendrix


Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek

A Tall, Thin Tale

(Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend)

by Deborah Hopkinson & John Hendrix

Schwarz & Wade Books, New York, 2008.  36 pages.

In honor of Abe Lincoln’s 200th birthday, here’s a children’s picture book telling a story of how Abe Lincoln almost died when he was only seven years old.

Yes, Abe and his friend Austin were crossing a creek.  Abe fell in, and his friend fished him out, saving his life and thus making a difference in the world for generations to come.

Deborah Hopkinson has a delightful, folksy way of telling the story, talking about what we know and what we don’t know.  The pictures of the green Kentucky valley where Abe lived and the mischievous boys add to the fun.

Here’s an endearing tale of friendship, suitable for young readers or listeners who might be tired of more straitlaced and serious stories of Abraham Lincoln.  He did a foolish thing crossing that creek, but his friend saved him.  Even Abraham Lincoln needed a friend.

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Review of A River of Words, by Jen Bryant


A River of Words

The Story of William Carlos Williams

written by Jen Bryant

illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2008.  36 pages.

2009 Caldecott Honor Book.

Here’s a simple picture book biography of the poet William Carlos Williams, but it’s done with excellence.

The collage artwork in this book is noteworthy, recalling the modern art that influenced William Carlos Williams.  The artist used covers from old books, among other things, and created evocative and beautiful illustrations of the poems and of the poet’s life.

The story is told simply, with a taste of actual poems he wrote (and several are written on the endpapers).  The author tells about how the other activities and interests of his life influenced and shaped his poetry, but how poetry was a constant from childhood on.

An inviting and interesting picture book biography.  Isn’t that what a picture book biography should do?  Introduce an interesting person and provide a look into his life that entices you to want to know more.  (And there is a time line of his life and a list for further reading at the back.)

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Review of Artist to Artist


Artist to Artist

23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art

Philomel Books, New York, 2007.  105 pages.

Starred Review.

Review written January 30, 2008.

The title of this book explains the content, but doesn’t grasp the beauty.  In Artist to Artist, 23 geniuses of picture book illustration, such as Eric Carle, Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg, Steven Kellogg, Rosemary Wells, Jerry Pinkney, and so many more, speak to aspiring artists about how they became an artist and what inspires them.

Each artist includes a self-portrait, a picture of themselves as a child, examples of early art, published art, and a look at the process of creating art, as well as a picture of their studios.  (I love the mess in Eric Carle’s—If you think about it, you’d realize that someone who deals with cut paper illustrations would have a mess of scraps on the floor.)  My favorite self-portrait is the one created by pop-up artists Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart—an amazingly intricate robot reaches out to embrace the reader, with the two happy artists inside the robot at the controls.  I found myself popping it out again and again.

Beautiful and inspiring, this is wonderful reading for someone like me—an adult with no artistic aspirations.  I can only imagine how much it could be enjoyed by someone in its intended audience—a budding artist ready to strive for greatness.

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Review of Greater Estimations, by Bruce Goldstone


Greater Estimations

by Bruce Goldstone

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2008.  32 pages.

Starred review.

2009 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Children’s Nonfiction

This book is fascinating.  I brought it to a staff meeting, and my co-workers couldn’t resist looking through the pictures.  I’d enjoy doing a program around this book.

Greater Estimations presents photographs of large quantities of things — rubber duckies, popcorn, parachuters, honeybees, plastic animals, and many other things — and shows the reader strategies for estimating how many there are.  The author also talks about estimating length, height (of buildings), weight (of dogs), area, and volume.

This book can capture your attention for a long time, and if it gets you curious about quantity, the author will have achieved his goal.  He also teaches you ways to satisfy that curiosity on your own.

I find myself wishing that Bruce Goldstone had placed some answers in the back of the book.  I do appreciate his point that estimation is NOT about getting exact answers.  But I do wish he’d given feedback on a few more pages to have some idea if my ability to estimate was improving as a result of his hints.

Anyway, in life you don’t get answers given to you.  This book gives you tools to help you figure out an approximate answer to numerical questions all by yourself.

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Review of Knucklehead, by Jon Scieszka



Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka

by Jon Scieszka

Viking, 2008.  106 pages.

Starred Review

Now we know how Jon Scieszka got so funny!  He grew up with five brothers.

I got to hear the author read from this book at the National Book Festival in September, so I knew I simply had to read the book myself.  It turned out that the parts he read were by no means the only hilarious parts.

The cover is like a comic book.  The chapters are short.  And funny.  The whole thing is beautifully designed to draw kids in and not let them go.

Now, I have seven brothers myself (but six sisters — which makes a big difference!), so he couldn’t really surprise me with his stories.  His take on the mayhem and the bright ideas six boys can come up with are invariably hilarious.  Several chapters end with a “Knucklehead Warning:  Do not try this at home . . . or anywhere else.”  (But he makes them sound so much fun!)

I love the babysitting chapter.  Why didn’t we think of this?

“We didn’t get paid for babysitting.  Until one day Jim and I figured out a great way to make a little money on the job.

“We were watching Jeff.  He had rolled under a chair and got stuck.  We dragged him out and stood him up holding on to the coffee table.  And that’s when Jeff spotted the ashtray.

“We watched Jeff grab a cigarette butt.

“We watched Jeff put it in his mouth.

“We watched Jeff chew the butt, make a crazy face, then spit it out.

“Jim and I cracked up laughing.

“Then we gave Jeff another butt and watched him do it all over again.

“It was such a great trick that we charged all of our friends ten cents to watch.”

I also love his chapter about learning to read.  He talks about the very strange family he read about in school.

“The alien kids were named Dick and Jane.  Strangest kids I ever heard of. . . .

“When I read the Dick and Jane stories, I thought they were afraid they might forget each other’s names.  Because they always said each other’s names.  A lot.

“So if Jane didn’t see the dog, Dick would say, ‘Look Jane.  Look.  There is the dog next to Sally, Jane.  The dog is also next to Mother, Jane.  The dog is next to Father, Jane.  Ha, ha, ha.  That is funny, Jane.’

“Did I mention that Dick and Jane also had a terrible sense of humor?

“At home my mom read me real stories.  These were stories that sounded like my life.  These were stories that made sense.  She read me a story about a guy named Sam.  Sam-I-am.  He was a fan of green eggs and ham.

“And then there was the story about the dogs.  Blue dogs.  Yellow dogs.  Dogs that were up.  Dogs that were down.  Dogs that drove around in cars and met each other at the end of the book for a giant party in a tree.  I cheered them on.  Go, dogs.  Go!  I read about them all by myself because I wanted to.  Go, dogs.  Go!

“So I guess I didn’t really learn to read by reading about those weirdos Dick and Jane.  I learned to read because I wanted to find out more about real things like dogs in cars and cats in hats.”

This book is tremendous fun.  Jon Scieszka is the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, with a special mission to Reach the Reluctant Reader.  This book will do that beautifully.  What kid (or adult) could resist?

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Review of The Trouble Begins at 8, by Sid Fleischman


The Trouble Begins at 8

A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West

by Sid Fleischman

Greenwillow Books, 2008.  224 pages.

Sid Fleischman here pulls off an entertaining, interesting biography, in the spirit of Mark Twain himself.

He begins:

“Mark Twain was born fully grown, with a cheap cigar clamped between his teeth.

“The even took place, as far as is known, in a San Francisco hotel room sometime in the fall of 1865.  The only person attending was a young newspaperman and frontier jester named Samuel Langhorne Clemens.”

It turns out that Mark Twain told different versions of his life story at different times.  I like the way Sid Fleischman sorts through these to the likely truth, but makes it clear that this may be embellished.

The book is peppered with photographs and illustrations from the time period, making it even more interesting.  Mark Twain lived an exciting and colorful life, and this biography is anything but dull reading.

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Review of The Cat in Numberland, by Ivar Ekeland


The Cat in Numberland

by Ivar Ekeland

illustrated by John O’Brien

Cricket Books, Chicago, 2006.  60 pages.

I love this book!  It takes the concept of “countability” which I learned about in upper division math classes and graduate school, and makes those concepts accessible and understandable for elementary school children!

It starts with a hotel in Numberland, run by Mr. and Mrs. Hilbert.  The Numbers all live in this hotel, the Hotel Infinity.  Number One lives in Room 1.  Number Two lives in Room 2, and so on.  “For instance, Number One Million Two Hundred Thirty-Four Thousand Five Hundred Sixty-Six lives in Room 1,234,566.”

The numbers have certain games they like to play together, and there are certain quirks to the owners.

Some more fun begins when Zero comes to visit and wants to stay, but the hotel is full.  How could they possibly fit him in?

They come up with an ingenious solution:

“Everyone moves up one room:

Number One moves to Room 2,

Number Two moves to Room 3,

Number One Million Two Hundred Thirty-Four Thousand Five Hundred Sixty-Six moves to Room 1,234,567, where he finds a bigger bed and is more comfortable.

Room 1 is now empty, and Zero moves in and goes to sleep.

All the other Numbers go back to sleep in their new rooms, and Mr. and Mrs. Hilbert go back to sleep in their old room.

Only the cat by the fireplace does not go back to sleep, because she is trying to figure it out.

The hotel was full, she thinks.  There was one guest in each room.  Now it is full again, and there is still one guest in each room, but there is one more guest in the hotel!  Zero was outside.  Now he has moved in, and yet nothing has changed!  How is that possible?”

This is only the beginning of the perplexities facing the cat at this amazing hotel, based on the work of great mathematicians Georg Cantor and David Hilbert.

I find this book absolutely delightful!  I wish it had been around when I was taking Real Analysis.  Or, better yet, when my little boy was obsessed with infinity, and kept inventing “numbers” that were “bigger than infinity.”  I think he would have enjoyed this story.

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