Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Review: Mister Orange, by Truus Matti (Enchanted Lion Books, 2013)

American cover
Release date:  January 22, 2013

Recommended for ages 9-14.

Few foreign books for children wind up translated into English, perhaps not surprisingly given the plethora of titles published each year by American and English-speaking authors from Canada, England, Australia, and other countries.  Often the ones that do make it for release in the U.S. are special titles, and that's the case with the new historical novel Mister Orange by Dutch author Truus Matti.  This title is especially unusual because, although written originally in Dutch and first published in the Netherlands, the book takes place in New York City during World War II and the protagonist is a young American boy, Linus, whose brother has shipped off to fight on the European front.

Mr. Orange, as adults might guess who see the American cover (the Dutch cover looks completely different, as is often the case), is none other than the famous Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, who has moved to New York to escape the repressive political environment in Europe.  With Linus' older brother off at the war, Linus inherits his grocery delivery route, and, unable to remember his customer's foreign name, dubs him Mr. Orange because of his twice monthly delivery of a box of oranges.  The two strike up an unusual friendship, as Mr. Orange shares with Linus his unusual perspective on life.  We learn, for example, how he attempted to capture in his work the raw energy of both boogie-woogie music and New York.

At home, Linus' family anxiously awaits word from Linus' brother Alfie, and each letter is eagerly devoured.  At first, the war seems like something out of his brother's beloved super-hero comic books, with his brother the hero, until Linus reads part of a despairing letter that his parents tried to keep from him.  As the real horrors of war hit home, Linus grows and changes as well.  Can imaginary heroes like Mister Superspeed do any good in a world filled with so much uncertainty and horrors?  Perhaps Mr. Orange can help Linus make sense of it all.

Back matter includes information on Piet Mondrian and his life in New York City in the 1940's.  Also included are additional resources for reading, watching on the Internet, and where to find Mondrian's paintings in museums around the United States.

This is an top-notch historical novel that should appeal to boys as well as girls. It's filled with characters that young people can easily identify with, and also provides interdisciplinary content on World War II, the home front, and art.  It can be effectively paired with a book on Mondrian or further exploration of the artist's works on the Internet in order to fully appreciate the mental images of his apartment and working style described in the book.
Dutch edition of Mister Orange

Truss' first novel, Departure Time, was a 2011 Batchelder Honor Book and I won't be surprised if this book is also recognized by that committee which awards honors to the most outstanding books originally published in a language other than English and then translated and published in the U.S.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Best Picture Books about Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King has been on my mind of late.  Now that I am working as a full-time children's librarian, I was excited to organize a program for our family storytime in his honor.  Since it happened that the program fell on his actual birthday, February 15, rather than the federal holiday, we read--and acted out--picture books about him, and sang Happy Birthday and instead of having cake, tasted his favorite dessert, pecan pie (served up in very small servings in cupcake liners!).  The program turned into a family occasion, as my banjo-playing mother-in-law and my teenaged son came to teach the children and adults some of the iconic civil rights protest songs:  We Shall Overcome, We Shall Not be Moved, and This Little Light of Mine.

There's a rich variety of books available on Dr. King, aimed at all ages, yet it was not difficult to choose which books I wanted to highlight.  Here are some of my favorites, although I was not able to read them all at the storytime.

I Have a Dream, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Schwartz & Wade, 2012).  Kadir Nelson has outdone himself with the magnificent oil paintings he produced to illustrate some of the most iconic excerpts from Dr. King's most famous speech (the complete text is included in the back of the book, as is a CD with Dr. King delivering the address).  This is a book that should be in every American classroom and library.  The dignified and statuesque artwork, combined with Dr. King's inspirational language, cannot fail to move anyone who sees and reads this book.

Martin's Big Words:  The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Hyperion, 2001).  In a book suitable for kindergartners on up, Rappaport brings Dr. King's career to life using simple but eloquent language and Dr. King's own powerful words, taken from various speeches and letters from throughout his lifetime.  Combined with outstanding artwork by Bryan Collier, her text is perfect for reader's theatre; at my own program, three children read the words of Dr. King and I read the narrator part, making a very moving small piece of drama perfect for the classroom or library storytime.

My Uncle Martin's Big Heart, by Angela Farris, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Abrams, 2010).  This warm-hearted picture book tells Dr. King's life told from the perspective of his young niece.  Dr. King comes through as a family man, Uncle M.L. who loved to laugh, not just an icon of the Civil Rights movement.

My Brother Martin:  A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by Christine King Farris (Simon & Schuster, 2003).  In this outstanding book written by King's older sister, we see Martin Luther King as a mischievous young boy, not wanting to practice the piano, surrounded by a warm and loving well-educated family who tried to shield their children from the worst of segregation.  Dr. King's father, stood up to the worst of the bigotry of that time, and the young King learns the importance of standing up for justice and equality.  A powerful book that can be easily understood by elementary school-aged children.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Review: A Spash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

Recommended for ages 7 and up.

This new picture book biography by Jen Bryant chronicles the unusual story of Horace Pippin, a self-taught African American folk artist who didn't complete his first painting until he was over forty years old.  Born in 1888, Horace quickly demonstrated a love of drawing, and everyone loved his pictures.  One day, Horace entered a magazine contest, and won his first art supplies--paints, colored pencils, and brushes.  In 8th grade, he had to quit school to go to work to help out his family, but he continued making pictures using whatever materials he could find.

Horace joined the army and went to France to fight in World War I, and even in the horrible trenches, where conditions were miserable, Horace filled his notebooks with drawings for his friends.  But a serious injury to his arm by a bullet left Horace unable to lift or move his arm the way he used to.  Would he ever be able to draw again?

But Horace's desire to create was not easily stopped, and he managed to teach himself to paint by using his left hand to hold up his right.  Through his art he expressed the pain of his war experiences, as well as chronicling a variety of other subjects from domestic scenes of women working in the kitchen to Bible stories and scenes of cotton fields.  It took him three years to finish his first painting, and soon he was able to hang his paintings around town.  But no one bought them, at least not until the head of a local artists' club saw Horace's pictures, and brought his friend, the famous painter N.C. Wyeth to see them.  Soon Horace achieved great fame, and his paintings were collected by people from all over the world.

Back matter includes a historical note with further biographical background on Pippin, notes from the author and illustrator, and suggestions for further reading, as well as recommended websites on Pippin and quotation sources.  The end papers show a map of the United States indicating places where we can see Pippin's paintings, along with reproductions of some of his original works.

I was not familiar with the work of Horace Pippin before reading this work.  Jen Bryant's text, while accessible for young children, will spark the imagination of older children and even adults to explore further the work and life of this African-American artist.  Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet do a wonderful job of capturing not only the spirit of Pippin's artwork, but his determination and resolve to rise above the many difficulties he experienced in his life.  Sweet, the author-illustrator of Balloons over Broadway and the illustrator of more than eighty other picture books, manages to evoke Pippin's use of color and composition in her own illustrations.  The illustrations are created using watercolor, gouache, and collage, and incorporate quotations from Pippin as well as images.  Sweet writes in her illustrator's note that "Lettering Pippin's quotes within the illustrations gave me a way to illuminate his simple and heartfelt approach to making art."

This is a terrific book to share for Black History Month or any time you would like an inspirational picture book biography to share with children or a class.

Amazon has selected A Splash of Red as one of its Picture Books of the Month for January.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Book Review: Sophia's War: A Tale of the Revolution, by Avi (Beach Lane Books, 2012)

Recommended for ages 9-14.  

The versatile Avi, who won a Newbery years back for his historical novel Crispin:  The Cross of Lead, pens a real historical thriller in his latest novel, Sophia's War, set during the American Revolution.  This is definitely my favorite Avi novel since The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.  Like that celebrated adventure/historical nove, Sophia's War features an indomitable young heroine, who thrusts herself in the center of political and military intrigue during one of the most famous betrayals in American history.

The novel opens in 1776 in loyalist-occupied New York City, the same setting for Laurie Halse Anderson's Seeds of America novels Chains, and Forge.   Twelve-year old Sophia Calderwood adores her older brother, William, who has enlisted in the revolutionary army.  Although she's a well-educated young woman who is well-versed in all the revolutionary rhetoric of the time, Sophia can't help herself when she becomes infatuated with the handsome and charming British officer, John Andre, who is billeted with her family.  But when her brother becomes a prisoner in the horrible prison ships off the coast of New York and Andre refuses to help, Sophia's feelings change, and soon she is eager to avenge her brother's fate.

When Sophia is approached by an acquaintance to spy for the revolutionaries by working as a maid at the British general's grand house, she discovers a nefarious plot--one which involves not only the handsome John Andre, but her hero, the acclaimed American officer Benedict Arnold.  Can she pass on what she knows to the revolutionary command, and will anyone believe her?

This is a tremendously exciting novel, one which I devoured in one sitting.  Told in the first person by Sophia, the novel is fast-paced, and action-packed.  While easy to read, the novel includes 18th century phrases scattered through the text, giving Sophia an authentic voice for the period without making the text too difficult for middle grade readers to read.  A few of the colorful phrases, such as "bosky," sent me to the glossary of 18th century words included in the backmatter.  Avi also includes an Author's Note, which explains that the characters of Sophia, her parents, and brother, are entirely fictitious, but the other figures who populate the novel are real enough and the stories of the American prisoners in New York and the handsome British officer John Andre are as historically accurate as he could write them.

Avi concludes his note with a passionate defense of historical fiction:  "History provides endlessly amazing stories.  Historical fiction, I believe, can illuminate these stories with the ordinary people who make extraordinary history...Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction makes truth a friend, not a stranger."

Thanks, Avi, for another terrific historical title for young people to add to your impressive canon of over 70 works.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Book Review: The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A novel of snow and courage, by Chris Kurtz (Harcourt Children's Books, 2013)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

Children's books are filled with memorable pig characters.  Classics such as Freddie the Detective, Charlotte's friend Wilbur, and Babe the sheep-pig have been joined in more recent years by characters such as Poppleton, Mercy Watson, and Nanny Piggins.  To those wonderful porcines we must add a new member:  Flora the sled-pig.

What animal lover, young or old, could resist a book with the unlikely title:  The Adventures of a South Pole Pig?  How on earth would a pig wind up in the Antarctic, we wonder?  Well, readers, never fear, author Chris Kurtz weaves indomitable piglet Flora into a charming South Pole adventure story filled with slops, friendship, danger, and humor.

Flora, a piglet on a farm that raises sled dogs, wants nothing more than to explore beyond the limits of the pigpen she shares with her mother and siblings.  When she briefly escapes and has a chance to meet the dogs training at pulling sleds, she wants to join their pack, and soon is on the way to the South Pole with a bunch of dogs.  While she thinks she has a special mission to help the sled dogs, the reader quickly suspects that the cook has other plans for her (bacon, anyone?).  But when an iceberg hits their ship in the South Pole, it's the courageous Flora who saves the Captain's life.  Few of her shipmates survive, and soon it's Flora who has the chance of a lifetime to prove her mettle as a brave and irreplaceable member of the pack.  Will she succeed in helping to rescue her shipmates?

This story would make a terrific read-aloud for a classroom or family, as well as a novel that children 8-12 could read easily on their own.  The novel has many appealing characters, among them a somewhat haughty cat, Sophia, who needs Flora's help to catch rats, a wise lead dog, Oscar, and a courageous young cabin boy, Aleric.  The novel is enhanced with adorable black and white illustrations by Jennifer Black Reinhardt.  Highly recommended!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Book Review: The Marble Queen, by Stephanie J. Blake (Amazon Children's Publishing, 2012)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

Debut author Stephanie J. Blake has written an appealing middle-grade novel about a heroine with an unusual name:  Freedom Jane McKenzie.  It's 1959, and Freedom is a tomboy through and through.  She'd rather be playing marbles with the boys than engaging in more lady-like pursuits like tea parties and playing with Barbies.  She dreams of winning the annual marble competition at the Autumn Jubilee, but it's not clear her mother will even let her enter, since her mom thinks marbles aren't proper for young girls.  It's not easy growing up, particularly when your best friend (a boy, of course) doesn't want to have anything to do with you anymore, since he's getting teased for being friends with a girl.  And on top of everything, your parents are constantly arguing over your dad's drinking.  With her mother pregnant, Freedom has to take on plenty of chores at home, but still finds time to befriend the scary old lady who's their neighbor.  Mrs. Zierk soon turns out to be the one person who has time to listen to Freedom, and soon is teaching her piano and jam-making.

Will Freedom become the Marble Queen, or will she have to give up her marbles and become a different person now that she's growing older?

This is a well-written story for 8-12 year olds; told with a humorous voice in the first person, the novel offers us an engaging heroine, a girl with plenty of spunk who we'd like living in our neighborhood.  The author provides plenty of historical details about the era, including the building of bomb shelters, the novelty of television, having sundaes at the dime store, and the introduction of Barbie, among others, to give the book an authentic feel for the era.  She also recreates effectively the pace of life at that period, when children roamed around their neighborhoods during the summer and after school without their parents fearing for their safety.

Freedom is a character I'd like to hear more from in the future.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Book Review: Finding Zasha, by Randi Barrow (Scholastic, 2013)

Recommended for ages 9-14.

Author Randi Barrow's debut novel, Saving Zasha, was one of my favorite historical fiction titles of 2011, and was recognized with many honors.  Not only was it terrific historical fiction, it was a great dog story, one that could appeal equally to both boys and girls.  I was therefore excited to read her newest novel, Finding Zasha, a prequel to Saving Zasha. 

Set in the middle of World War II Russia, Finding Zasha is another page-turner, filled with adventure, danger, and yes, adorable German shepherd puppies being raised by the Nazis for nefarious purposes.  As the novel opens, we meet our hero, twelve-year old Ivan, who lives in Leningrad with his mother and loves to play his concertina.  When Leningrad is besieged by the Germans and its citizenry begin to starve, Ivan's mother sends him on a dangerous journey across a frozen lake to stay with an uncle in the countryside.  But as the Germans march across Russia, this seemingly safe town, too, is occupied by the Germans, and Ivan is determined to help the war effort by joining the Partisans, who work secretly to undermine the Nazis however possible.

When a Nazi officer, the sadistic Major Recht, discovers Ivan's musical talents, he brings him to stay in the German camp, a valuable opportunity for Ivan to discover information which he can feed to the partisans.  At Nazi headquarters, Ivan also befriends two adorable German shepherd puppies, Thor and Zasha.  The Nazi commander plans to train the puppies to hunt Russians, and then breed them to create a corps of Russian-hating dogs.  Ivan can't imagine a worse fate for the innocent puppies, and dreams of somehow rescuing the prized dogs from their Nazi handlers.

When a turn of events in the war provides an opportunity for Ivan and the puppies to escape the Nazi's clutches, he's separated from Zasha, and is torn between trying to rescue her and possibly put the partisans in danger or saving himself and the other puppy Thor.  And he lives with the knowledge that the vindictive Recht will stop at nothing to get his prized dogs back.  Will he ever find safety for himself and the dogs?

Once again, Randi Barrow has penned an outstanding title with appeal for boys and girls alike, a "historical thriller"  (a phrase I borrow from author Laurie Halse Anderson) that will especially capture the imagination of animal lovers, students interested in history and World War II, and anyone who enjoys a good adventure novel.  I had a hard time putting the book down, as I followed Ivan's nail-biting story of the hardships of life in Leningrad during the Nazi siege, his harrowing journey out of Leningrad, his life with the partisans and under the nose of the Nazis, and his eventual escape.  This book can be read with or without having read its companion novel, Saving Zasha, although undoubtedly those who have read one of the books will be eager to read the other.

The author includes a helpful afterword on Russia and World War II, which gives some historical context to the story, particularly to Hitler's campaign against Russia, the siege of Leningrad, during which one and a half million civilians starved, and the role of the partisans in Russia's war effort.