Thursday, August 5, 2010

"No!", by David McPhail

Another wonderful picture book by David McPhail, "No" (2009) is short on words and long on visual story. McPhail's illustrations show us a city in western Europe during WWII, and just how strong one boy's stance against hatred and agression can be. Young picture book readers will understand one message: that standing up for yourself and saying no to bullies brings positive change. Older readers will understand its global message as well.

"The Report Card", by Andrew Clements

Clements harks back to his recent success, "No Talking", by having school students whip up another rebellion against the teaching establishment. This one challenges the significance of grades and how they make students feel about themselves, i.e., dumb or smart, depending on the outcome. It also poses questions about the validity of rote memorization and standardized testing. The protagonist, Nora, is an extremely academically gifted child who has managed to hide her gifts until now, and she did so because she wanted to seem normal and on par with everyone else, not elevated to a position of "better and smarter" than everyone else. She finds a confidant in the school's librarian, who helps Nora see that her public challenges and her gifts are important in their philosophy, but are not the right way to address these issues. The librarian suggests that Nora focus on discovering how she can use her talents to make things better when and as she grows up. Nora also finds out that the teachers often feel frustrated with the system as she does, but she realizes that there have to be standards that work as best they can for the whole, diverse population. Once again, Clements on his education soap box - a great little book with thoughts to ponder.

"The Green Glass Sea", by Ellen Klages

Ellen Klages' "The Green Glass Sea" captured the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and won numerous other recommendations and honors. The meaning of the title is not revealed until the last - the fireball of the Los Alamos atomic bomb test, three weeks before Hiroshima, turned seventy-five acres of the desert into glass (a new mineral scientists called Trinitite). Klages stumbled upon the existence of the glass as mere bylines during her Los Alamos book research, and the glass "sea" serves as a final focal point for one of her two main characters, Dewey, to heal her personal emotional turmoil. That turmoil encompasses both her personal tragedy and the mixed blessings of the creation of the bomb, the atomic age - both its destruction and its awe-inspiring wonder - borne of creative, scientific minds and a furvent desire for the better good.

Alternately told in first person by two young girls, this is a novel which skillfully explains historical, philosophical dilemmas in the context of family and growing friendship. It actively encourages girls to pursue their dreams and talents in the field of science, and to open their minds to creativity. Further, it discourages negative, female teen social cliques and promotes kindness in the face of social pressures. All this, and yet not at all too heady for young readers! A good novel for all teens, especially girls, aged 11-15.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"When I Crossed No-Bob", by Margaret McMullan

"When I Crossed No-Bob", by Margaret McMullan, is an extremely compelling read, direct and honest, historical and geographically significant. Set in Raleigh, Mississippi in 1875, it weaves together stories of many people: sympathetic white Anglos; proud Choctow Indians; poor, miscreant white folk involved in the KKK, colored folk finding their way post-emancipation. The protagonist is a poor, uneducated 12 year-old girl, Abby O'Donnell, abandoned by her parents after growing up in No-Bob, the woods adjacent to the township. She is a sensitive and bright child, wanting to do right by people, and as she falls into uncertain and even dangerous situations, she develops into a stronger person, highly resiliant and with a gentile noblility.

Some of my favorite passages from the book are as follows. "People. They are like lightning sometimes. Unexpected, beautiful, and scary - mostly you can't run away from either one." "Zula is right. Us Anglos are full up with too much noise and too many words. My ears ring with all the words. Children running around, screaming in the streets, women inside whispering whispering, and the men brawling in the Harrison Hotel, singing, shouting, and making more noise. They can't sit quiet. They can't sit still. When do they think? DO they think?" [Concerning Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn":] "Now I think I know what that John Keats fellow means about truth. Once the truth is all laid out in front of you and everybody else and the whole world to see, truth good and bad, it IS a sight to behold, and that sight might be where beauty lies sleeping."

"...No-Bob" is also a book about love - faithful and courageous - and about developing the courage to be true to yourself, while being able to see the value of the greater good in your actions. Highly recommended for ages 10-15 and for adults, too!

"Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring The Earth To Life", by Molly Bang, Peggy Chisholm

An amazingly complex tale of earth's life cycle (photosynthesis) between plants and humans/animals, told simply and powerfully for young children (early elementary). Great for booktalking because the illustrations catch the eye and the text is straightforward and dynamic. The author's substantial notes at the end of the book give more detail, providing an apology for the over-simplification of photosynthesis, while it acknowledges other ways living things extract, split and exhale periodic elements. These illustrated notes are most appropriate for much older readers (ages 9-12), making this book a good pick for both the younger and the older set.

"Judy Moody Predicts the Future", by Megan McDonald

Judy Moody Predicts the Future" gives us a smart, modern girl's tale immersed in the sixties and seventies culture-hype of fortune telling, Mood Rings, and Magic 8 Balls. It feels right that Judy Moody would want to see the future and be the sole bearer of its message! In her curious way, she embarks on a quest to be the all important one. However, by the end she is capable of a mature understanding about truly reading the emotional signs and clues people give. She also comes to realize that we make our own future. A terrific read for boys and girls aged 7-10.

"Lawn Boy", by Gary Paulson

Clever way to insert an introduction to economics into an enjoyable summertime story about a boy and his grandpa's lawnmower. Lots of interesting characters...

"NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children", by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

"NurtureShock" is compulsory reading for those keenly interested in the inner workings of our brain. Vast new brain research from the past decade, done with MRI scans, shows exactly how and where our brain turns on to function in relation to most things: sleep, speech, visual learning, playing video games, receiving praise, etc. The book analyzes that research, stressing how biological processing is the foremost factor we should consider when trying to understand how children behave and learn. If we better understand how our brain functions in relation to age, sex, and task, then we are in a better position to teach and mentor our children - to guide them down the right path. I especially liked the chapters on speech/language development, the inverse effects of praise and the explanation of the dopamine "reward center", the benefits of constructive arguments, and the quantitative effects of sleep deprivation. Great read for teachers and parents.

"Elephant's Story", by Harriett Blackford

The simple, warm and fuzzy illustrations add to the charm of this picture book. "Elephant's Story" accomplishes two things: calms and comforts children with its emphasis on a mother's love, a family's protection and care, and shows children that an elephant herd is a close-knit family. The author's end notes teach kids about the elephant's status as an endangered species and give many facts about the three kinds of elephants. The notes (appropriate for ages 6-8) speak to a slightly older audience than the text of the book does (for pre-k through grade 1).

"Sandy's Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder", by Tanya Lee Stone

I love books that talk about a famous person's humble beginnings in a way that kids can understand. Most know Alexander Calder's art to be important in the 20th Century museum context, but how many know that he invented the mobile, and "stabiles" (enormous metal sculptures)? Likewise, that he rose to fame by creating and exhibiting a traveling miniature, metal 3-D circus of working, moving "children's theatre" that was appreciated by both children and adults alike? Great colorful illustrations with movement and detail - perfect for booktalking.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Carole King and James Taylor Troubador Reunion Concert - July 19, 2010, Oracle Arena

Monday night, Carole King and James Taylor proved that they've retained their musical charisma! We were treated to bluesy, soulful, playful, heartfelt musical energy! A once in a lifetime experience, seeing these two legendary singer/songwriters live! Their deep friendship was evident, and I really enjoyed the anecdotal banter about how or why a particular song was written, or how, while playing at the Los Angeles Troubadour Club 40 years ago, Taylor suggested that King write her own lyrics and record her own songs.  Many times, as an introduction to the next piece, Taylor payed tribute to King's songwriting talent by stating, "Another one of hers".  Here is a beautiful example of friendship that inspired one woman and one man to be their heartfelt, personal best - and changed the course of their professional lives and personal success.

The artists explained that they wanted to make the setting appear as like the Troubador Club, so they designed the closest seats as nightclub tables. Those premium seats raised $1.1 million dollars, split among their publicized charity, as well as Bay Area charities! There was a video screen way above the players, a sort of giant, circular lampshade shape that projected colorful graphics or videos from the past, in keeping with the theme of the songs. Occasionally, vintage photos of all the artists on stage appeared as well. That was a wonderful addition to the live experience!

Both artists poked fun at the fact it’s been a long time since their early success, stating they met back in 1903! They had several of their original studio recording group all playing together on this tour, and appreciated the fact they were together again. They opened with "Something in the Way She Moves", followed by "You're So Far Away", and the haunting narrative "Machine Gun".  Old favorites like "Shower the People" and "Mexico" followed soon after.  I loved Taylor's characterization of a few of their songs as "agnostic spirituals" (such as King's "Beautiful" and “Way Over Yonder”, and Taylor's "Country Road")! Taylor explained that “Sweet Baby James” was written from Boston to Carolina as he drove to meet his newborn nephew, James. He rendered "Steamroller" with comical physicality, in a light-hearted and fun manner - recreating his youthful attempts to project Muddy Waters and other blues artists' style. Of course, they played mainly from “Tapestry” and Taylor’s “Greatest Hits”, but their other selections were fantastic!  For example, King did a wonderful rendition of her ‘70’s hit “Jasmine”.

Overwhelming audience enthusiasm to King's "You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)" and "It's Too Late" showed just how deeply these songs reflect the tapestry of the human experience. King briefly told of her youthful marriage to Goffen and their early songwriting success together. Then she began speaking of 1970, when she recorded “Tapestry”, allowing the audience to feel that nothing in the middle years compared to the experience of making her own, first album.

King and Taylor sang several moving duets, including King’s songs “Up on a Roof” and “Crying in the Rain” (a hit by the Everly Brothers). They were especially tender with their (slower tempo) rendition of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow". The audience didn't want them to leave at the end of the show, and brought them back for two more songs. Applause continued, and Taylor hailed one more tune together, a sweet, friendship song, about remembering our time together, singing the song once we've left, and "staying as long as you like". At the close, the end of their tour, there were tears in King's eyes as she hugged Taylor. It was an unforgettable evening of music from two very memorable artists.