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Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Magical World of Mordecai Gerstein

Forget about eating turkey and watching football, November is the month to celebrate your love for picture books. For those of you that were not aware that there is an International Picture Book Month you should check out the website. There are activities, links to author websites, reading guides, a cool twibbon you can add to your twitter and/or facebook profile, and each day there is an essay by a different author about why they think picture books are important.

In honor of International Picture Book Month I have decided to write about one of my favorite author/illustrators who sadly passed away on September 24th, 2019. Mordecai Gerstein may not be a household name but he is an amazing artist whose stunning illustrations are instantly recognizable.

Gerstein, who would have celebrated his 84th birthday this November, first entered the picture book world when he began illustrating the books of Elizabeth Levy. Encouraged by Levy, Gerstein began writing and illustrating his own stories and his first book, Arnold of the Ducks, was published in 1983.  Following the success of Arnold, Gerstein wrote and illustrated over forty more books during a career that spanned nearly four decades.

What makes Gerstein's work so special? Well, his stories are witty, original, heartfelt, and the painted illustrations are dreamy yet full of entrancing details. I particularly love A Book which is a hilarious portrayal of a young girl who lives with her family inside a book and goes on a journey to discover her story. I am a sucker for books that break the fourth wall (directly speak to the reader) and Gerstein does this brilliantly, even drawing the illustrations as if being looked at from an upwards angle complete with shadows. Readers of all ages will be entertained by this charming and original story, but A Book is also an excellent way to teach the concept of genre.

The Night World in which a young boy wakes up and explores his shadowed home and backyard before the sun rises is a favorite of my youngest son. It is a gorgeous but unusual picture book in that the majority of the pages are black, white, and grey. In the final pages of the story the sun rises and there is a riotous explosion of color. My son especially loves the dark pages because he enjoys  identifying all of the different animals and objects that appear only as black shapes. If you have a little one who is frightened of the dark, The Night World will hopefully show them that nighttime can be beautiful.

Gerstein's most well known book is probably The Man Who Walked Between the Towers which wonthe prestigious Caldecott Medal in 2004.  Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001 Gerstein was inspired to memorialize the twin towers in picture book form. The book chronicles the daring actions of French high-wire artist, Phillipe Petit, who actually walked a tight rope between the two towers on August 4, 1971. It probably does not make sense that a book about something that happened in 1974 could be a tribute to the 9/11 tragedy. However, Gerstein's panoramic paintings of Petit walking between the towers from multiple view points are transcendent. The final picture shows two transparent, dream-like towers with a small figure suspended between them. Gerstein manages to take the horrible emptiness of the current New York skyline and remind us of the bravery, courage, and joy of humanity.

Here is a video of the real Phillipe Petit and his historic walk between the twin towers.

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Return of the Dark Crystal

Was I the only one howling and dancing like a fizzgigg when Netflix announced that they were releasing a prequel series of The Dark Crystal? I know that I am revealing my age, but I grew up with the work of Jim Henson. I carried a Dark Crystal lunch box to school, Fraggle Rock was my favorite TV show, and I desperately wanted to be Sara from Labyrinth.

Whether or not you were (and continue to be)  a Jim Henson-obsessed child of the 80s I highly recommend watching The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance.  The awesome thing about Netflix original shows is that they release an entire season at a time. The bad thing is that if you binge watch all ten episodes in one night you will have who-knows-how-long before the next season is released.

Lee with Naia of the Drenchen Clan
Luckily, there is a young adult prequel series of books to tide me over until Netflix releases season two. The author, J.M Lee, actually won the opportunity to write the prequel series in the Dark Crystal Author Quest in 2013. Grosset & Dunlap publishing company received nearly 500 submissions which they narrowed down to a top 25. Two of Jim Henson's children, Lisa and Cheryl, and famous puppeteer and fantasy artist, Wendy Froud, were part of the panel that chose the five finalists and, eventually, the winning story and author.

Lee's four book series gives an in-depth portrayal of Thra, Skeksis rule, and Gelfling civilization.The first novel, Shadows of the Dark Crystal, follows Naia of the Drenchen clan of Gelfling as she searches for her brother, a castle soldier who has been accused of treason by the Skeksis. This book was fantastic and I loved learning more about Naia, who is barely introduced in the first season of The Age of Resistance.

I have not read books two through four YET, but I am excited to learn more about Thra and the Gelflings as they unite the seven clans to battle the Skeksis. Lee is obviously a talented storyteller and chapter books can contain so much detail and back story that you cannot get from a television show.

I hope that I have piqued your interest about The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance as well as the prequel book series by J.M. Lee. Just in case you need more encouragement here is the trailer for the Netlix television show.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Alien Invaders

One of my favorite storytimes during our space-themed summer was all about aliens. No surprise considering that I am Star Wars, Star Trek, Sci-Fi/Fantasy nerd. You don't have to be a Trekkie, though, to enjoy these out-of-this-world picture books.

Say the word "underpants" in front of any child and I promise that they will giggle. That fact already makes the Underpants books by Claire Freedman and Ben Cort guaranteed crowd pleasers. Of course, for this blog post I want to recommend Aliens Love Underpants and Aliens in Underpants Save the World. The stories are silly and the illustrations are vibrant and adorable. Scholastic also has some fun and easy downloadable activities to go along with the books.

Your Alien and Your Alien Returns by Tammi Sauer were new to me this year even though they were published in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The former is like a condensed and less sad version of E.T. A spaceship crash lands in a boy's backyard and he instantly befriends the super cute green alien inside. After a fun-filled day of alien hijinks the diminutive extra terrestrial is homesick so the boy finds a way to contact its parents. In the sequel, Your Alien Returns, the human boy is invited by the alien to visit his home.

What really brings these two stories to life, though, is Goro Fujita's, stunning artwork. Fujita has worked for Dreamworks Animation and is currently using virtual reality to create amazing digital paintings.

My son loves the interactive picture books by Tom Fletcher. Seriously, I think that I have read There's a Dragon in Your Book over a hundred times. So, I don't believe anyone was more excited than me when Fletcher released There's an Alien in Your Book last May!  Young readers become part of the story as they are asked to do a variety of actions from tilting the book one way or the other, making faces, wiggling, blowing wind, etc. If you have a little one at home I highly recommend checking these out or buying them for your personal collection because they are sure to become favorites. If you need more convincing here is a video of Tom Fletcher reading There's a Monster in Your Book.


Even Aliens Need Snacks by Matthew McElligot is another picture book that has been a huge hit at storytime. An aspiring young chef is told by his big sister that no one on earth would eat his less than appetizing creations. The solution, of course, is to open a late night snack shop for visitors from other planets. Kids will laugh at all of the unique aliens and there are sure to be plenty of "EWWWWS" at the bizarre culinary creations.

Need more aliens? Here are a few more extra terrestrial picture books that I have enjoyed.
Life on Mars by John Agee
Three Little Aliens and the Big Bad Robot by Margaret McNamara
Earth to Clunk by Pam Smallcomb
Zathura by Chris Van Allsburg

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Summer Reading

Teachers may be counting down the days till classrooms are empty, but librarians everywhere are frantically preparing for the busiest time of the year. Oh I know, a lot of people imagine a library as a stuffy and somber buildings where some spinster wearing  cat-eye glasses and her hair in a bun is constantly shushing people. This particular stereotype may have had a bit of truth to it 75 years ago, but these days libraries are more than just repositories for musty books. Libraries are vital and active community centers where people of all ages can read, study, play, learn, create and grow.

Active is definitely the key word during the summer when families flood the library looking for inexpensive ways to entertain their kids. Cue superstar librarians that plan, prep, and host oodles of FREE summer programs for babies, toddlers, tweens, teens, and even adults.

The majority of libraries in the U.S. utilize the Collaborative Summer Library Program to help plan their summer schedule. The CSLP is a consortium of states that work together to develop a variety of materials, guides, artwork, and more that libraries can use for little or no cost. Each year the CSLP comes up with a unique theme and this year it is A UNIVERSE OF STORIES! Who doesn't get super geeked about space!

In celebration of the space theme our library is having a StarLab inflatable planetarium at our kick-off event. I have never been in one of these portable planetariums, but they look like an amazing way to experience a planetarium without leaving your hometown or paying for an expensive ticket. The knowledgeable folks from Dynamic School Assemblies will show and teach us all about what we can see in our midwestern summer sky in a thirty minute show. Obviously, not everyone can fit for one show so there will be six shows on Monday, June 17th from 4-7pm.  While waiting there will be face painting, space activities and, of course, you can sign up for the take-home portion of the summer reading program.

The take-home portion of the summer reading program is designed to get kids excited about reading books over the summer.  Basically, you sign up your child and they receive a reading log and every time they finish a level (there are eight total) you can bring it back for a prize and a chance to enter a drawing for a grand prize. Children will also have the opportunity to add a star sticker for every book they read to our library moonscape. By the end of summer we hope that our young readers will have it completely covered.

In addition to the kick-off our library will be hosting other amazing space-themed programs for multiple age groups throughout the summer. We will have a rocket building and launching competition, you can graduate from a padawan to a Jedi at Jedi Academy, tie-dye galaxy t-shirts, a sci-fi teen book club, and so much more. If you are not lucky enough to live in the Portland community, I highly encourage you to check out your local library.

Of course, parents aren't just looking for fun things for their kids to do. Many are hoping to bridge the gap between school years and prevent the dreaded summer slide. No, summer slide is not a piece of playground equipment. It is the knowledge that school aged kids lose over the summer. As you can see from the graphic at the left (provided by scholastic) and pretty much everyone else doing research on literacy, reading, and summer slide (including the Children's Literacy Initiative) reading and taking your child to the library are two of the best ways to prevent summer slide. This is awesome news, parents. You don't have to force your child to do worksheets or sign them up for expensive classes or tutors. All you have to do is let them read, and not boring classics or books that they would rather go to the dentist then read. Take them to the library and let them pick whatever they want. Wow! That is so easy and studies show that just having your child read 2-3 hours per week can prevent summer slide.

I hope that all of you will remember your library this summer when you are looking for things to do. They are free, fun, and educational. Seriously, there are no negatives to frequenting your local library. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Thumbs Up 2019

It's Thumbs Up time!!! If you missed my post about this last year or if you are not a Michigan librarian the Thumbs Up is an award given by the Michigan Library Association to the top teen book of the year. Unlike the majority of literary awards the Thumbs Up also includes a teen vote. A committee of Michigan youth librarians reads a ton of books (and, yes, I mean that literally) and whittles it down to ten nominees. Teens are then encouraged to read the top ten books and vote for their favorite online.
There were so many amazing teen books published in 2018 that narrowing it down to only ten titles was not an easy task. Overall, though, I think that the committee came up with a list of nominees that is diverse in characters, plots, settings, and genres. I think that there is really something that every reader will enjoy.

Without further ado, here (in no particular order) are the ten nominees for the 2019 Thumbs Award:

1. Sadie by Courtney Summers
And it begins, as so many stories do, with the body of a dead girl.

Sadie is one of those books that even months after finishing I still keep thinking about. Part of what makes Sadie stand out is its unique format. The story has a dual narrative. The first being by a investigative reporter doing a podcast about a girl, Sadie, who went missing soon after that the violent murder of her younger sister. In between podcasts and the reflections of the reporter are flashbacks written from Sadie's point of view.

We have all watched true crime shows like 48 Hours or Forensic Files that go behind the scenes, so to speak, of a major crime.   Sadie takes the premise of these shows and turns them upside down by transforming the silent victim into a courageous and compelling heroine.

I read Sadie, but I have been told that the audiobook version is amazing.  In fact Sadie was the recipient of the 2019 Odyssey Award, which is given to the most outstanding audiobook for children and teens each year.

Whatever format you choose, Sadie is not a book to miss. You will cry, rage, and, most importantly, hope for a future in which Sadie, and all indomitable young women like her, find peace and happiness.

2. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
So, we all have genres that we prefer to read and fantasy is mine. I actually first heard about Children of Blood and Bone when Jimmy Fallon announced that it was going to be the inaugural book for his Tonight Show Summer Read.  First, let me get out of my system how awesome it was that a popular late night show promoted reading and chose a young adult fantasy written by a Nigerian-American woman. Honestly though, I do not think that Children of Blood and Bone even needed the extra publicity, because Adeyemi's writing, world building, and characters in this first book of the Legacy of Orishi trilogy are phenomenal.

Years ago the king of Orisha attempted to eradicate magic from the land by slaughtering the majority of adult magi (wielders of magic). Those left behind, easily identified by their white hair, have lost all connection to magic and are despised and disenfranchised. It is up to Zelie, who witnessed the brutal murder of her mother, to restore not only magic but peace and balance to Orisha.

Not only is Children of Blood and Bone fresh and exciting with a kickass heroine, I cannot express how important I think it is to see African mythology and characters in fantasy literature. Let's be honest, there are not very many black characters in fantasy, let alone main characters. I understand that as a white woman I can never truly understand the importance of representation, but I believe that there should be more diversity in all genres of books. I remember once having a conversation with a good friend and her telling me that just because she is black doesn't mean she only wants to read about the Underground Railroad or the Civil Rights Movement. Don't get me wrong, those are incredibly important stories to tell, but there needs to be more horror, more mysteries, more fantasies, more stories of every genre featuring all kinds of people.

3. Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake
What would you do if someone you loved did something despicable? That is is the dilemma Mara faces when her beloved twin brother is accused of raping his girlfriend. Everyone, including her parents, expect Mara to stand by Owen. How can Mara be a supportive sister when she believes Hannah's version of events?

Girl Made of Stars is an important story of sexual assault and the courage it takes for victims to come forward. Blake examines the scrutiny, harassment, and skepticism that sexual assault victims frequently encounter from peers, law enforcement, community members, and even family.

4. I Am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall
I have been describing I Am Still Alive as Hatchet on steroids. Seriously, if you loved Gary Paulsen's Newbery Medal winning book about a young boy stranded in the Canadian Rockies following a plane crash you should check out I Am Still Alive.

After losing her mother and suffering severe injuries in a car crash Jess is sent to the Canadian wilderness to live with the father she has not seen in a decade. Embittered and grieving Jess has no interest in adapting to her new home. However, when her father is murdered and their cabin burned Jess must learn to survive on her own and quickly before the arrival of the harsh northern winter.

Even though it made me cry like a baby for days, I Am Still Alive was one of the best books that I read last year. Marshall made me feel like I was right beside Jess in a snow covered forest, alone, desperate, and unsure if I could endure another day.

5. The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
This is probably the most "lighthearted of the titles on this list. That being said The Prince and the Dressmaker addresses significant issues such as gender identity and acceptance. The story is set in 19th century Paris and Prince Sebastian's parents are desperately hoping to marry him off. Sebastian is less interested in brides than in setting the Paris fashion scene on fire as the daring Lady Crystallia. Aiding Sebastian is his friend, Frances, a young and talented designer. A rift grows between the two, though, when Sebastian asks Frances to put her own dreams on hold in order to maintain his secret. 

If you are not familiar with Jen Wang, I hope that you will pick up The Prince and the Dressmaker or check out some of her other work. If you are a gamer, In Real Life, which was written by Cory Doctorow and illustrated by Wang is awesome! Wang's artwork is unique and fun and sure to appeal to teens. The Prince and the Dressmaker uses her engaging and lively artwork and storytelling to deliver a message that is relevant to today's teen readers.

6.The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
I know that novels in verse are a hard sell. I even wrote a whole post about novels in verse hoping that more kids and teens would check them out.  I do talk a lot about The Poet X in that previous post so I do not want to repeat myself too much here. Let me just say that I read The Poet X in less than a day and the majority of that was on my phone which I was holding in one hand while I pushed my toddler on a swing with the other. That is one of the great things about novels in verse (especially good ones); they do not take very long to read.

If you do not want to take time to read The Poet X, the audiobook is read by the author and since she is famous for performing at poetry slams I cannot imagine that it is anything less than fantastic.

I feel like I learned so much reading The Poet X. About Dominican culture, Catholicism, New York City, and also the wonderful outlet that poetry can be for teens to express themselves. It may be out of your lane, so to speak, but please give it a go. Literature (in all genres and all formats) is a way for us to connect to people, ideas, cultures, places, etc. that we may never have the chance to experience in person.

7. I Have the Right To:  A High School Survivor's of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope by Chessy Prout and Jenn Abelson
I am going to be honest. While reading a good portion of this book, which is set in an elite ninth through twelfth grade boarding school , all I kept thinking was "Where the hell are all of the adults!!!!"  This is the autobiographical account of a young women, Chessy Prout, who while a freshman is targeted and raped by a senior boy. As a mother of young men and a young woman I Have the Right To was incredibly difficult for me to read. First off, if I found out that any of my three sons were speaking of or treating women like the boys at this school I would be really pissed and ashamed, like I had failed as a mother to teach them basic morality. As a mother of a daughter a part of me wants to say "you need to be smarter and more careful", but then I am angry that I feel like I need to place the responsibility on her. Why do we place all of the blame on girls? Just because a girl goes on a date or is alone with a boy does not mean that whatever he chooses to do is her fault.

This book is all about addressing the culture that says girls need to be constantly vigilant because boys will be boys. And that is a major discrepancy that needs to be addressed and changed (at least in my opinion ). I cannot express the admiration I feel for Chessy who because she was only fifteen could have remained anonymous. She chose to tell her side and bring into the light how society has enabled this behavior from our young men. We can and should expect more.

8. Monday's Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
This was another tough book for me that I could not stop thinking about weeks after I finished it. As a parent we also become so close to our children's friends. What would I do as a parent if I saw something wrong with one of my child's friends? Would I intervene? I hope so. Monday's Not Coming is a tragic and powerful story of friendship, abuse, and poverty. I feel like if I go into the details of the plot I will give too much away. All I can say is you should definitely read this book. It will make you think and cry and think and cry some more.

9. Dread Nation by Jessica Ireland
Jessica Ireland wrote and alternate ending to the civil war involving zombies and it totally worked.  Not just worked, but was amazing! I still am in shock that I enjoyed Dread Nation as much as I did because, to be honest, I think that zombies have been a bit overdone lately.

In the midst of the civil war the dead, both gray and blue, begin to walk and they do not care who they kill. In this new world racism only strengthens its grip on America when it is deemed that negroes remain little more than slaves, expendable soldiers that can protect whites from the zombie plague.

As a young, black woman the best Jane can hope for is  to become a companion, a trained fighter paired with a white lady of society to protect her from zombies. Jane's penchant for breaking rules and questioning authority already makes becoming a companion a near impossibility but when she begins investigating missing families she is entrenched in a conspiracy that will have her struggling just to stay alive.

Action packed and weird yet still a dramatic and poignant commentary on racism in America Dread Nation will have you on the edge of your seat.

10. A Heart in a Body of the World by Deb Caletti
A Heart in a Body in the World is why you should never judge a book by its cover or its title. Even when other librarians told me how amazing this book was I did not want to read it. It just did not look or sound interesting to me and the title is so long and cheesy. Honestly, by that title I assumed it was a typical teen romance that was going to be high on angst and low on actual plot. I could not have been more wrong. A Heart in a Body in the World is beautifully written and thought-provoking story about gun violence, the #MeToo Movement, PTSD, and so much more.

What do we teach our daughters? To be polite and friendly, but not too friendly. What is the difference between being polite and flirting? Are we afraid of being labeled a tease or a bitch? A Heart in a Body in the World made me think of all these questions. Unfortunately, I still don't have the answers, but I hope that this novel at least starts the conversation.

Well that is the 2019 Thumbs Up top ten. I hope that you will read at least a couple of them and if you do please vote at Happy reading:)

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Stuffy Sleepover

Staff in Jammies
Our library recently hosted a stuffy sleepover. If you missed this incredibly adorable event, don't worry, we plan on having another at some point in the future. For those of you who do not live near Portland you should absolutely beg your local library to host one, because the little ones here loved it. Basically the kiddos came to the library with a stuffed friend for a special evening story time. We encouraged all the kids to wear jammies and the staff had theirs on too. I don't know about you, but I am always up for going anywhere in my pj's and a couple of parents told me that their children could not wait to wear theirs to story time.

Upon arrival the kids had their pictures taken and filled out an information sheet about their stuffy. This included their stuffy's name, favorite snack, favorite color, and it also had a place for them to draw a picture of their stuffy. The photo and information sheet would become part of the book that each participant would receive when they picked up their stuffy the next day.

During the story time portion of the program the kids listened to bedtime stories, sang songs, and made a super cute sleepy teddy craft.

After story time the kids tucked in their stuffies for the evening. First they wrote the stuffy's name on a sleep mask made of craft foam and yarn and put them in the story time room.

Once all the kids had left the staff took tons of pictures of the stuffies reading books, playing with trains, coloring, taking over the director's office, etc. The next morning the kids picked up their stuffed friends and received a book (complete with photos and simple text) all about their stuffy's overnight adventures in the library.

Planning this program made me think about all of my favorite stories, rhymes, and songs that are about bedtime and sleeping. Even if you cannot attend a stuffy sleepover any time in the near future, you can still share a wonderful sleepy story time with your little one in the comfort of your own home.

Of course, since it was the Stuffy Sleepover I had to read Bedtime for Yeti by Vin Vogel. Yeti spends every moment with his stuffed doppelganger, Chunk, but one evening Chunk disappears right before bedtime.  Not only is Yeti (and Chunk) super cute the book has some fantastic onomatopoeia (sound words like rawr, boom, crash) to get kids involved in the story.

A couple of classic picture books about sleeping and bedtime that may not be as well known as say Goodnight Moon are The Napping House by Audrey Wood and Moritmer by Robert Munsch. Both of these are silly and feature some fun repetition.

I don't know about you, but I gravitate towards picture books with some humor. Not only do kids love books that make them laugh, but they are just so much more enjoyable to read.
Jory John's book Goodnight, Already! is sure to make parents and kids giggle. Poor bear just wants to go to bed but his bothersome neighbor, Duck, won't let him. Will Bear ever get Duck to go away and let him sleep? If you like Goodnight, Already! check out this hilarious duo in their latest adventure, I Love You Already!

Kids are sure to think that Don't Blink by Amy Krause Rosenthal is a hoot (haha, pun intended!). This whimsical and interactive picture book promises the reader that they can skip bedtime and stay awake if they can just avoid blinking. Every time you blink you have to turn the page and bedtime awaits the reader at the end of the book. After all sorts of tricks like staring and holding your eyes open, the reader discovers that the best way to avoid blinking is to close your eyes and go to sleep.
Before I end this post I just want to share one bedtime song. Goodnight by Laurie Berkner is a sweet and charming lullaby that is simple to remember and sing. You can easily add extra verses with different animals (as long as you know what sound they make since one child at the program suggested giraffe and I had no clue what that noise would be). Also, when I sing it to my two year old I always sing "I'm a little Zacky" instead of "I'm a little kid" for the final verse.

We all have our favorite bedtime stories and songs so feel free to share a few of your in the comments.