Jul 31, 2014

Dandelions

by Eve Bunting

This is the story of a family that moves west across the plains in a covered wagon: a father, expectant mother and two daughters. They settle on a claim in Nebraska Territory, but there are no near neighbors. The pictures show how wide, flat and empty the land seems. The older girl narrates the story, telling how lonely they feel. They have to do everything for themselves: sow the crops, dig a well, build a house. When driving three hours to the nearest homestead they can no longer see their sod home, swallowed up in the expanse of prairie grasses. Near the end of the book the older girl accompanies her father into town while her mother and younger sister stay with neighbors (there's some sibling jealousy here!) She's anxious about leaving her mom and sister behind, but excited to see the town. It's full of shops, dust and strangers. Just as they are leaving to return home, she spots a clump of bright yellow flowers growing in a corner- dandelions. She wants to dig them up and take home to her mother. Of course we see dandelions as a pesky weed, but the tough plant was a spot of brightness to them. And it made me smile to see what they did with the flowers: planted them on the sod roof of the house! So they could see it from afar, a bright patch of gold above the prairie grass. The illustrations are oil paintings by Greg Shed, with lifted out areas that show the texture of canvas underneath. I remember learning this painting method in art school and I really admire how it's done here.

Rating: 4/5      52 pages, 1995

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50 Below Zero

by Robert Munsch

A little boy wakes up in the middle of the night, hears a strange sound and finds his father sleeping in the kitchen- on top of the fridge! He yells at his dad to wake up, then goes back to bed. Wakes up a little later to find his father asleep in the garage, on top of the car- yells at him, goes back to bed. Repeat scenario in more and more strange places. Finally after finding his dad asleep outside in the snow, he pulls his dad inside, ties him by the toe to a door handle with a long rope, and goes back to bed rest assured that his dad won't get into a mess again. But it's mom who wakes up next time...

My kid thinks this story is really silly (which it is) but I find myself wondering if the author meant to depict sleepwalking? Reading a few other reviews online I realize that this is a shortened version, I bet the full story makes more sense. My three-year-old picked this one off the shelf at the public library.

Rating: 3/5       22 pages, 1986

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02b heavenly minded
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Jul 30, 2014

Butterfly House

by Eve Bunting

A young girl rescues a caterpillar from a jay that would eat it. Her grandfather teaches her how to raise the caterpillar, feeding it leaves and giving it twigs to climb on. She makes it a home in a box, decorated with colorful drawings of leaves and flowers. She watches the caterpillar grow until it makes a chrysalis. When the butterfly emerges, the girl is sad because her grandfather insists she must now let it go. Then the story leaps ahead and we see the girl as an old woman herself, with a garden full of flowers. The butterflies come in great numbers to her garden every summer, filling the air with color. Her neighbors wonder what is her secret: they grow the same flowers and don't have as many butterfly visitors. But she knows and smiles to herself: the butterfly she saved long ago and cared for so tenderly, has returned with its generations of descendants to show their love back to her.

Another lovely nature book illustrated by Greg Shed. The prose is very lyrical, arranged on the each page like a poem. Not only does it show children the life cycle of the painted lady butterfly, but also how to be compassionate to small creatures, and the importance of letting wild things live free. In the back a brief afterward by the author gives instructions on how to raise a caterpillar. It's very specific about giving the caterpillar a suitable living habitat and food, keeping it clean, leaving it alone at the proper time, and releasing the butterfly.

Rating: 3/5    36 pages, 1999

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Jul 29, 2014

Sneakers, the Seaside Cat

by Margaret Wise Brown

This is a nice, simple story about a cat who goes with his family to visit the seashore and explores the beach environment. Everything is new for Sneakers- the cold ocean water he dips his paw into, large seagulls who aren't afraid of cats, tiny shrimp jumping on the sand, sounds roaring distantly in a seashell. His most exciting encounter is a crab that pinches his toes. And then he watches the mysterious fog roll in. The last page has an odd little rhyme the cat sings to himself on the way home in the backseat of the car which felt out of place to the rest of the story- I almost don't want to read that part aloud when I share the book with my kid.

I like the illustrations by Anne Mortimer- they are very charming, with some lovely detail- the individual hairs on the cat's coat, barnacles on the rocks, feathers on the gull's wings. Very nice. The author of this book wrote the famous Goodnight Moon. I would never have noticed if it wasn't mentioned on the cover!

Rating: 3/5      28 pages, 1995

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Reading for My Kids

Jul 28, 2014

Days of the Blackbird

by Tomie de Paola

I will tell you about this book starting with the end: the author's explanation. De Paola relates how he once dined in a restaurant in northern Italy on a very cold day at the end of January. The proprietor told him that in the area of Italy he was from, the last three days of January, coldest of all the year, were known as the Days of the Blackbird because "it gets so cold that the white doves hide in the chimney tops to stay warm. And when they come out, they are black from the soot." Inspired by the imagery, de Paola wrote this fable-like tale about a young girl and her father, Duca Gennaro.

They both enjoy the songs of birds in their courtyard garden all summer, and wait through winter for the birds to return in spring. One year Gennaro falls ill, and his daughter worries that he will not survive the winter without the hope the birdsong gives him. She begs the birds to say, giving them food and shelter. But as the days get colder and colder, more birds leave for the south. Only one remains, her favorite white dove. In the dead of winter the bird sits in a chimney top to keep warm at night, only coming out to eat and sing at the window. On the third day the bird has turned black from the soot and is renamed La Merla. When spring finally comes, Gennaro has recovered and La Merla gladly welcomes back the other birds. In this story the bird remains black for ever after.

It's a beautiful tale, enriched with depictions of a bygone era in Italy (or so I imagine, the time period of the story is not exactly specified) with dress styles, the architecture of the homes, cultural holidays and more. The narrative is a bit sophisticated for my three-year-old, so I paraphrase a little when reading to her, she still likes the story with its pretty birds and the devotion of a girl to her father.

There's another version of the blackbird fable shared on one of the blogs linked to below.

Rating: 4/5     32 pages, 1997

more opinions:
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Jul 27, 2014

Have You Seen My Cat?

by Eric Carle

In his classic cut-paper collage style, Eric Carle introduces different cat species from around the world. The delivery method is simple and fun as well as instructive. A boy goes looking for his missing cat, and people of different cultures (identifiable by costume and background elements) point out various felines to him, from a fluffy persian cat to a wild bobcat, fierce tiger, black panther, african lion, speedy cheetah and so on. Each time the boy asserts: this is not my cat! In the end (looking exasperated) he asks a couple on a park bench and finds his own cat at last- with a nice surprise. We've borrowed this book from the library several times, my kid likes it so much.

Rating: 3/5      28 pages, 1987

Jul 24, 2014

Four Boots One Journey

by Jeff Alt

This book is about a husband and wife team who hiked the John Muir Trail. They set off on their 220-mile journey shortly after the author's wife lost her brother to suicide. They made their hike a campaign for mental health awareness- wanting to inform people that depression is readily treatable, and how beneficial exercise in the great outdoors can be. Mostly the book is about their walk on the trail- the long miles, great views, a few encounters with wildlife, difficulties overcome, how their relationship changed and grew during the hike, the variety of people they encountered and so on. It's a good story and for a great cause, but not the most compelling reading. I wished for a little more depth and insight, that's all. I finished reading it last night, but can't think of anything very memorable to tell about it. Read it if you enjoy hiking and outdoor adventures, otherwise it probably won't be interesting.

Also the presentation left something to be desired- I noticed quite a few typos and the map at the beginning of the book is laughable. It's so nondescript I am puzzled why it was even included. The photographs are poor quality too. I saw most of them in full color as they were included in the promotional package; nice enough in that format. But they did not covert to black-and-white printing well. I received an advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher. It has also been published under the title A Hike for Mike.

Rating: 2/5      225 pages, 2005

Jul 22, 2014

Princess Hyacinth

by Florence Parry Heide

Princess Hyacinth is different. She floats. She has to wear heavy weighted princess clothes, or be tied down to the furniture! Her life is tedious, because she can't play outside like other children- her parents are worried she will just float away. She can't go swimming, and a walk in the garden is a drag with all those heavy clothesOne day the Princess sees a man holding balloons on the palace grounds, and has an idea. She takes off her heavy stuff, ties her ankle to a string and floats up with the balloons. Unfortunately she breaks away from the balloon man and floats higher and higher. She is fortuitously rescued by her friend, a boy with a kite. And thus finds a solution to her problem, which not only allows her to float outside but strengthens her friendship as well. Of course the Princess still has to eat meals tied down to a chair, but her floating problem is much more tolerable from now on!

Delightful story with expressive and decorative illustrations by Lane Smith. I loved the Princess, her spunky attitude and her ingenious solution. And the message it gives kids: you can't always get rid of your problems, but you can find a way to manage them and still enjoy life. (And for some reason this book reminds me of the Secret Lives of Princessess).

My only complaint is a minor one: after reading several pages, my tongue really starts to trip over the name Princess Hyacinth. For some reason it's difficult to say out loud too many times in a row.

Rating: 4/5     44 pages, 2009

more opinions:
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Jul 21, 2014

The Life and Love of Cats

by Lewis Blackwell

This is a gorgeous book. A must-have for any cat lover. It is full of stunning photographs- larger than life-size- celebrating feline grace and mystery. The striking images are interspersed with quotes on cats, and a number of essays by the author on different aspects of cats and their relationship with humans. Very thoughtful and insightful. Blackwell muses on why we find cats so appealing and irresistible (quoting the number of google results for cat compared to dog to assert their greater popularity), even scrutinizing the many websites where people share photos of cats (and attribute human thoughts to their behaviors). He examines how cats and people have come together historically- sometimes merely tolerated but more often inspiring such passion as to be revered or heavily persecuted. Looks into some pervasive myths regarding cats' abilities and how they probably arose, the reasons why cats have not evolved such diverse shapes like dog breeds (why was the munchkin cat not mentioned?); the mixing of domestic cats and wildcats, the affect cats have on our moods, and much more. I was surprised to read about how cats' body parts have been used in folkloric medicine in historical times. I was dismayed to read about the Paris cat massacre of 1730. I came away with a short list of more titles on cats, and inspiration to search the internet to learn more about domestic/wild crosses. But most of all I kept returning to the book just to look at the pictures. I had never seen such a closeup of a cat's tongue before, showing the barbels that make it raspy. The many images of cats in front of or outside of windows, looking through, infused with contemplation, are lovely. Overall it was just delightful.
These are some of my favorite images from the book:
This cat's eyes are my absolute favorite color:
This cat looks like one that used to hang around an apartment I lived in for a brief time in southern California. It was very friendly and purred like mad whenever I held it. I asked around; none of the neighbors admitted to owning the cat. My roommate urged me to take the cat home on the plane with me! but I couldn't think how that was possible (I was moving back to my parents' house soon):
So elegant:
So strange and curious:
I love the smoky dark color and burnished gold eyes:
Beautiful. I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 5/5      216 pages, 2012

more opinions:
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Jul 20, 2014

The Elephant Whisperer

by Lawrence Anthony

The author of this remarkable story ran a wildlife reserve in Zululand. He unexpectedly became the owner of a family of "rouge" elephants when their lives were threatened: they were such troublemakers that they were going to be killed. When first introduced to the Thula Thula reserve, the elephants did continually break out at first, trying to return to their former home (where if found they would be immediately shot). Anthony got the elephants to stay not only by building stronger electric fences, but by convincing the wild elephants (determined to trample any humans they saw) that he was not a danger to them, and to keep them calm until they accepted the new place as their home. They grew to trust him enough that he was eventually able to approach the adults closely, and they even began to seek out his company. The story relates his continual struggle to keep the animals (and people who worked or lived on the reserve) safe- dealing with poachers, neighboring tribal strife, floods and storms that broke fences, his own dogs confronting dangerous wildlife, poisonous snakes, preparing the reserve to receive guests (and then dealing with a new set of problems they brought) for the much-needed income, and so on. There are funny moments as well as sad ones- more than once evoking an involuntary verbal outburst from me as I read the pages. There were also many incredible moments, as Anthony learned how to communicate with these giant, wild animals in an effort to gain their trust and promote healing from the atrocities they had suffered at the hands of man (much of their family killed before they came to the reserve). It is definitely a book I want to read again.

When looking for more reviews about this book online, instead I found numerous articles relating how after his death in 2012, the author's home was visited by two herds of elephants. The elephants had not been to his house in three years, but travelled miles through the bush to pay a visit upon his death. They stayed for two days, then trekked back into the bush. No one knows how they were aware of his passing.

Anthony also wrote a book about rhinos, and one about his efforts helping to rescue wildlife from the Baghdad Zoo in 2003. Want to read both of those now.

Rating: 4/5       368 pages, 2009