BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson: A Recommendation

May 30, 2015

Brwon-GirlBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Newbery Honor Book 2015)

What was it like for writer Jacqueline Woodson to grow up in the 1960’s and 1970’s as an African-American with the remnants of the Jim Crow laws and the growing Civil Rights movement?  Her touching and eloquent poems tell the reader what she experienced in South Carolina and New York City as she came of age.  Her early literacy struggles are a revelation, yet it is no surprise she always loved words and story, spinning tales for her family and friends, and publishing her own little books of poems and stories.  As different as her experiences were, her memories spark connections for me and bring me back to my own youth during that time.  It’s truly a beautifully crafted work, a joy for families to share together.


May 23, 2015

Snow-WhiteReading Fairest this spring started us on the lookout for other retellings of Snow White, and this flight was born.  Snow White is one of the most famous of the Brothers Grimm tales.  And of course, made even more famous by the Walt Disney version which dominates images of this heroine worldwide.  For a fascinating look at the history behind the story, you’ll want to read The Twisted History of Snow White .  In Adam Gidwitz’s piece, you’ll learn the rather bloody, and well, “grim” original tales.  Yes, they penned more than one version.  You’ll also learn that the original dwarves had no names, and the 1812 version had no step-mother!  That’s right, the wicked queen was Snow White’s own Mom!  It’s the 1857 version by the Grimms that revises the tale so that it is the wicked Step-mother who is so cruel and vain, not the real Mom. Honestly, you have got to read this blog!

To start your journey on the versions of Snow White, you might want to read  an early translation (1884):

Little Snow White, 1884 translation by Margaret Taylor

Then, turn to some adaptions by fine picture book writers and illustrators:

JarrellSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs:  A Tale from the Brothers Grimm Translated by Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert

This important fairy tale deserves the best writer possible.  Randall Jarrell is a favorite poet and fine writer of classic children’s literature.  (The Bat Poet and The Animal Family sit on my ideal bookshelf.) I appreciate that he keeps the original ending, where the wicked Queen must dance to her death.  And Burkert’s illustrations are simply magical.  Rich with detail, and double-paged, it’s easy to see why this book was named an Caldecott Honor Book.  It’s far from the Disney version–and that’s a good thing!


HymenSnow White by the Brothers Grimm Retold by Paul Heins, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

This retelling has its dark moments, but they occur more in the lush illustrations rather than the poetic lines.  I appreciate the dwarves (again, not the happy little gnomes of  the Disney version, but rather small kindly men). The tale follows most of the same major points as the Jarrell version, but is probably appropriate for a younger audience.  ( I would say as young as 4 would be fine with it.)


BarrettSnow White by Josephine Poole, illustrated by Angela Barrett

The illustrations and retelling make this book a wonderful companion to the other Snow White picture books.  The narrative itself is along the classic lines of the original.  Most versions of the story omit the fact that the Evil Queen made two attempts on Snow White’s life before the apple: first by suffocating her with corset strings, then by placing a poisoned comb in her hair.  The illustrations also hark back to the Germanic roots of the fairy tale:  dark, moody, reminiscent of German Romanticism.


It’s hard to narrow down to just a few retellings and world-wide versions, but you might begin with these favorites:

Snow-whiteSnow White Stories Around the World by Jessica Gunderson

Gunderson has collected and retold Snow White stories from 4 different cultures:  Albania, Germany, Mozambique, and Turkey. How about “slight” variations like 40 dragons instead of 7 dwarves or a shining bright star in the middle of Snow White’s forehead?  Check it out!


SSW-in-NYnow White in New York by Fiona French

Not just a different setting, but a different time period:  1920’s New York City!  Snow White in the Jazz Age?  You bet!  Instead of an evil Step-Mother, Snow White’s enemy is The Queen of the Underworld.  And for a unique Prince Charming, how about an ace reporter (for the New York Mirror, no less) ?  Snow White herself, of course a beautiful Jazz baby, is protected by none other than seven hot jazzmen. Still not sure if it’s for you?  Well, the words and images are so compelling and beautiful, it is the winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal.


Snow-White-GarciaSnow White by the Brothers Grimm, Illustrated by Camille Rose Garcia

This re-interpretation is all in the illustrations.  The text is an unabridged translation of the Brothers Grimm (the step-mother version).  But the images are dark and wild.  Snow White is beautiful, but also has a punk-goth spin to her.  “Vibrant” and “whimsical” are the two most-often used words to describe Garcia’s art. If you like the paintings here, be sure to take a look at her illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.


ForgetfulSeriously, Snow White was SO Forgetful:  The Story of Snow White as Told by the Dwarves by Nancy Loewen, illustrated by Gerald Guerlais

Nancy Loewen has a whole series of “the other side of. . .” fairy tale versions.  This one is a fun spin with the poor dwarves having to put up with a somewhat ditzy Snow White who stumbles into their woodland cabin.  Children love the “what-ifs” of this story, and are drawn to the sweet, but quite forgetful heroine.  It’s a fun and funny version, just right for younger readers.  A great readaloud as an introduction to parody, too.


AlaskaAlaska’s Snow White and Her Seven Sled Dogs by Mindy Dwyer

A very different take on our Snow White, who in Alaska, has “lips redder than a salmonberry.”  In a variation of the earlier Grimm tale, the evil Ice Queen disguises herself as a trapper to deliver a constricting fur coat. Finally, she gets to Snow White as a friendly homesteader offering a peppermint drink that freezes the Alaskan beauty.   I like the idea of seven sled dogs to care for Snow White, and of course a handsome Musher (Jacob) to rescue her. Bright, enticing illustrations by award-winner Mindy Dwyer.


RedhandedSnow White Red-Handed by Maia Chance

I loved this first in a new series ( “A Fairy Tale Fatal Mystery”).  A Gothic romantic tale for adult readers, this retelling takes place about the time of the Brothers Grimm’s original tale (the mid-1800’s).  Actors Ophelia  Flax and Pru Bright find themselves in a castle in Germany’s Black Forest.  And, as you might guess, they discover they are in a fairy tale world–one where Snow White’s original cottage may have been discovered.  Is it a hoax?  A set-up for the murders that follow (death by poisoned apple, for example)?  Or are fairy tales more history than fantasy? Original and clever!


May 18th: Remembering Mt. St. Helens Eruption

May 16, 2015

Mt-St-Helens- Mt. St. Helens erupted 35 years ago, on May 18, 1980. (Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest called the mountain “Louwala-Clough” or “Smoking Mountain.”) The explosion changed the landscape of the Northwest permanently, as the majestic peak lost 1,300 feet from its summit, leaving a huge crater, and a great deal of devastation.  Before  the eruption, the 20th century saw no activity from this “dormant” volcano.  It was taken for granted as a beautiful mountain and recreational destination.  For detailed history and science on Mt. St. Helens, not to mention a mind-blowing gallery of photos, you’ll want to check out  Mt. St. Helens  Eruption:  Facts and Information.

And if you are looking for a good non-fiction read for young readers, look no further than:

VolcanoVolcano:  The Eruption and Healing of Mt. St. Helens by Patricia Lauber

Not just for the early reader and tween audience (though it’s perfect for them!), this book is a terrific read for the whole family. Volcano answers questions about what happened to cause the biggest eruption in United States history.  And even more, we discover what was left in its wake, and what scientists learned from the entire event.  The format is a photographic essay, with a clear and easy to follow explanation to accompany the images.  (And it’s a Newbery Honor Book, in case you’re wondering.)

THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander: Poetry in Motion

May 11, 2015

CrossoverThe Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Just listen to 12-year-old Josh Bell:
“With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering.”  That’s right, this ode to basketball is written all in verse by the protagonist.  Clearly, Josh (aka Filthy McNasty)  is a poet with a ear for a beat in both words and music as well as an athlete.  As the story of Josh and his twin brother Jordan  unfolds, we see the struggles of adolescence and family change in a compelling voice.  And it’s a winner:

2015 Newbery Medal Winner
2015 Coretta Scott King Honor Award Winner

Recommended for middle school and older.

May 4, 2015 is Star War Days: May the 4th Be With You

May 2, 2015

Star-WarsThat’s right, Star Wars now has its own day to celebrate, with tongue firmly in cheek.  For more information on how to honor this day, check out the web page for Star Wars Day

According to the official site:

“One of the earliest known records of “May the 4th” used in popular culture is in 1979, as described here by author Alan Arnold while he was chronicling the making of The Empire Strikes Back for Lucasfilm:

“Margaret Thatcher has won the election and become Britain’s first woman prime minister. To celebrate their victory her party took a half page of advertising space in the London Evening News. This message, referring to the day of victory, was ‘May the Fourth Be With You, Maggie. Congratulations,’ further proof of the extent to which Star Wars has influenced us all.”

With this history in mind, we have a fitting book to recommend to all our Star Wars literary fans.

StrikethThe Empire Striketh Back by Ian Doescher

Part of the series Shakespeare’s Star Wars, this second in the series is my favorite.   If you are a dual fan of both Shakespeare and Star Wars, as I am, what are you waiting for?  Get thee to a galaxy far far away!  I know you are skeptical, but this is actually a terrific blend of George Lucas’ story and Shakespearean style.  Actually written in iambic pentameter!   I also appreciate the choruses, asides, and soliloquies.  It’s a great reminder of what a darn good story it really is.  And like one reviewer, I found depth in much of the writing:   “I really love Doescher’s books the best when he shares our cherished character’s innermost thoughts. For instance, how does C-3PO really feel about R2-D2, or vice-versa? Haven’t we all wondered what Obi Wan was really thinking when he told Luke his father was killed by Darth Vader? Speaking of Vader, what are the thoughts behind that monstrous mask? Are Stormtroopers people with ideas and hopes, or just faceless soldiers? How did Luke and Leia feel when they found out they were siblings after their infamous kiss? Is the Emperor all bad?”  Read on, fans!

Celebrating a Love of Words

April 25, 2015

The-Right-WordAnd speaking of award-winners (that’s our theme this month, you recall), have you read this one?

The Right Word:  Roget and His Thesaurus by Jan Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

How about this for piling up the well-deserved awards?  The Right Word is the winner of:

2015 Caldecott Honor Book

2015 Sibert Medal Winner

2015 Orbis Pictus Honor Book

Meet the man behind the handy reference tool for writers.  Peter Roget, a quiet child, had a lot going on inside.  He was a true book lover, compiling list after list of words that he delighted in.   His lists show his passion for classifying things, and for the natural world around him.  Bryant’s writing helps readers appreciate Roget’s love of words and Sweet’s lovely and intriguing watercolors are an ode to creativity.  I especially loved the addition of the vintage biology drawings and  ledger papers.  Well researched, written, and illustrated, this is a superb picture book  biography to add to your book shelves.

Interested in a few more picture books that delight in the wonder of words?  Check these out:

WordsThe Boy Who Loved Words by Roni Schotter, illustrated by Giselle Potter

Selig is passionate about everything to do with words:  their sound, their taste, and most important of all, the way they move his heart.   He collects his precious words on little scrapes of paper.  As a lover of magical realism, I appreciate the way he carts his words with him on his journey, only to put them up in a tree where they fall right where they need to–into the hands of a poet who needs them desperately. His journey doesn’t end here; check out the book for the pleasure of learning how this word lover comes to discover himself,  and find fulfillment and true love. The folk-art illustrations are the perfect complement.  (And it’s another award-winner from a few years back, recipient of the Parent’s Choice Gold.)


MissMiss Alaineous:  A Vocabulary Disaster by Debra Frasier

On one level, this is a tale of schoolgirl mortification.  When Sage misunderstands one of her teacher’s vocabulary words, she is embarrassed in front of her classmates (“Obliterate me, send me to oblivion–no one could outdo my stupidity”).  The book becomes an ode to the wonder of words–and the playfulness of language.  The lilting language and hilarious pictures add the book’s engaging qualities.  A wonderful book for word lovers of all ages!


Word-collectorThe Word Collector by Sonja Wimmer

Wimmer has crafted a wonderfully poetic story about the magic of words. Lulu adores words–and appreciates their power.
Children like lulu who are passionate about words that sing and hop, words that are long and complicated, will love this very unique picture book.  I know many children who are “word collectors,” keeping lists of their favorite words.  They will identify with Lulu as she discovers that some of the best words she loves are slowly disappearing from the world–until she does something about it.  The illustrations are delightfully different with collage artwork that dances with the words across the pages.


  MaxMax’s Words by Kate Banks

And speaking of collectors. . .Max’s whole family is very keen on collections.  Karl collects coins and Benjamin collects stamps.  But when the youngest brother Max decides to start a collection, he decides on words. His collection soon spills out into the hallway, and he finds the best thing about his collection is. . .that words create stories.  He not only categorizes his words, but finds they ways they connect to each other–and to the people he gives his precious words to.   It even works as a read-aloud.

And the Winner is. . .VIVA FRIDA

April 18, 2015

VivaThe winners of the 2015 Pura Belpré  Award were recently announced, and we were delighted to see one of our favorite new books was the winner of the Illustrator Award!  Not to mention, it is an honor book for the 2015 Caldecott Award.

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, illustrated by Tim O’Meara have been deservedly recognized for this fine addition to biographical children’s literature.  Frida Kahlo has been a favorite artist and distant mentor of mine for many year’s (Ruth here). [ I always said that if I had to get a tattoo (still hasn’t happened), I would have an image of Frida Kahlo on one wrist and Zora Neale Hurston on the other.  Stay tuned. . .]

Anyway, this lovely new book celebrates the life and art of this feisty, interesting, creative woman who lived a life of courage and not a little tragedy.  The pictures are the heart of the book, with spare text, in both English and Spanish that capture the mood and essence of each picture, floating dreamily on the page.  I can’t recommend this introduction to Frida Kahlo for young readers strongly enough.  Check it out as soon as you can, and enjoy sharing it with your little ones–and your artist friends, too.


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