PENGUIN AND PINECONE by Salina Yoon

A penguin? A pinecone? How can a writer possibly bring these random things together in a fully-developed and beautiful story about friendship and love? When you read this new picture book by prolific and uber-talented Salina Yoon, you’ll see exactly how.

I asked Ellie to write a review of PENGUIN AND PINECONE for A Mom’s World because she was so touched by the characters from the moment she saw the book trailer:

It’s a short video, but during those 59 seconds Ellie cried and laughed and clapped and cried some more. She thought it seemed like a sad book and wondered how it would end. Would Pinecone be gone forever? What would Penguin do without his new best friend? We had to get the book to find out, of course, and while we read it, Ellie cried and laughed and cried and laughed. Then we read it another dozen times. She slept with it. She brought it to school. Finally, after a week of carrying it around, the book has a place of honor on our ottoman in the living room, because you never know when you HAVE to read it again.

In a nutshell, PENGUIN AND PINECONE is a friendship story: When Penguin finds a lost pinecone one day, an unlikely friendship blooms. But Grandpa reminds Penguin that pinecones can’t live in the snow — they belong in the warm forest far away. Though he will miss his friend, Penguin returns Pinecone to his home, dreaming of the day they can reunite. And when he finally returns to the forest to check on his friend, Penguin discovers that love only grows over time-and so do little pinecones! 

And here is Ellie’s review — I asked her some questions and typed her answers as she talked.

  • What did you think about the book?  Sad. Happy. Enjoying. When Penguin has to leave Pinecone it is sad. It is happy at the end when Pinecone grows into a big tree because now it snows sometimes and Penguin and Pinecone get to be together. It’s enjoying when they get to be together when they first become friends before Grandpa tells Penguin it’s too cold for Pinecone here.
  • What did you like best about the book? When Penguin tries to figure out what Pinecone is. It is really, really funny!
  • What are your 3 favorite things about the story?  1. It’s funny.  2. It’s also sad.  3. It’s learning – if you didn’t know this, pinecones have seeds in them and if you leave them alone they can grow into trees.
  • What is your favorite word/lines?  “Pinecone was sad to see Penguin go, but the forest is no place for a penguin.” Because it’s sad, but it’s funny because the tree has a scarf.And it’s also really exciting because Penguin saw how Pinecone had grown so big.  “When you give love, it grows.” All the trees have scarves, hats, mittens on and those were all the pinecones that grew up. They had love. Because of the hats and things.
  • Who is your favorite character? What do you like best about that character?  Penguin – because he is most funniest and also really sad when Pinecone has to leave. He’s caring. About Pinecone.
  • What was your favorite illustration?  The picture that shows when Penguin leaves Pinecone in the forest. He made an “I” with sticks, made a heart with stones, and a “U” with pine needles. And he put Pinecone right in the middle. It shows how much Penguin loves Pinecone and how it feels to lose a friend.

Ellie wants you to know that you should read this book too, but only if you really like penguins and pinecones and also books that are happy and sad at the same time. She was thrilled to find out that Penguin has his own blog now too, so she can stay in touch with him and find out what he’s doing these days. We both look forward to many more adventures with Penguin in books to come!

Ellie also wants to say THANK YOU to Salina for sending her Penguin’s story, AND a copy of her board book, WHERE’S ELLIE?, which has not yet come down from the top bunk where it is read nightly. She hopes that some day she can meet Salina in person and give her a hug.

VAMPIRINA BALLERINA by Anne Marie Pace

Hey, just because you’re a vampire it doesn’t mean you can’t dream about dancing! We were so excited to get our copy of Anne Marie Pace‘s newest book — at one time or another, each of my girls have had the ballerina bug, and anything pretty, sparkly and twirly is right up our alley. At the same time, the girls are also not strangers to using the occasional spooky costumes to enhance their tiaras.

Little Vampirina is adorable — so what if she doesn’t look like the other dancers? So what if her family’s a little…unusual? I love the way Vampirina keeps trying her hardest, no matter what happens (like when her pets scare the class or when she trips over her cape). At first, her classmates regard her with fear and frank judgement, but as Vampirina presses on, they come to accept and even applaud her. The text itself is series of wonderful advice for all aspiring ballerinas (drink plenty of water and always get a good day’s sleep), and the accompanying pictures deftly apply those rules to little Vampirina.

The illustrations by the super-talented LeUyen Pham are fabulous and truly take advantage of extending the story, which is what picture books ought to do. The color scheme — with Vampirina dressed in black and gray, of course, and the ballet scenes depicted in soft pinks and whites — plays up the idea that Vampirina is out of place, at least, until the final image where Vampirina is surrounded by her smiling classmates and they all blend together (except for Vampirina’s fangs, of course.) My girls really loved picking out the small details throughout, and one of the favorites is the way that Vampirina turns into a bat whenever she’s embarrassed or upset (I mean, isn’t that how we all feel?). I loved the vintage feel to the book, which is probably appropriate for an immortal character.

In the end, the story is about never giving up on your dreams, and, after all her hard work, this plucky, adorable vampire ultimately earns the coveted status of Ballerina.

With Halloween just days away, you’ll want to add this book to your holiday library — but pick up a pair of plastic fangs for your little one. You might be facing a last-minute change from Cinderella to Vampirina.

ONE FOR THE MURPHYS by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Mitzi and I recently read “One for the Murphys” by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Last week, on our way down to Cape Cod for the holiday weekend, we discussed it, but as it was very late (close to midnight) and dark and I was tired. We talked for an hour but I didn’t take notes, so, for the record, her opinions expressed here are based on my memory of her remarks that night.

First, the jacket flap:

Carley uses humor and street smarts to keep her emotional walls high and thick. But the day she becomes a foster child, and moves in with the Murphys, she’s blindsided. This loving, bustling family shows Carley the stable family life she never thought existed, and she feels like an alien in their cookie-cutter-perfect household. Despite her resistance, the Murphys eventually show her what it feels like to belong–until her mother wants her back and Carley has to decide where and how to live. She’s not really a Murphy, but the gifts they’ve given her have opened up a new future.

Mitzi and I both loved Carley — she’s sassy and smart and really funny. But she’s very honest too, and her conflict is real. She tries her best to resist the affection that Mrs. Murphy offers her, but eventually gives in to it and comes to love Mrs. Murphy — perhaps even more than her own mother, who we don’t see much of in the book, though we do hear about the violent incident that landed Carley in foster care in the first place. Carley loves her mom and has loyalty towards her, but isn’t sure if she can forgive her for what she’s done.

Meanwhile, Carley has to adjust to the three Murphy boys. The youngest two seem to like her right away and are easy with their friendships. But the older son, Daniel, resents Carley’s presence, and it’s not until the pair find a common ground in basketball that they start to get along. Then there’s Mr. Murphy, a fireman, who also seems put out by having Carley in his life. He’s slightly suspicious of her, and doesn’t hold back his obvious irritation. Throughout the book, though, he warms up to Carley, in part due to Carley’s new friend, Toni, who razzes Mr. Murphy about his obsession with the Red Sox.

But the real story here is the one between Carley and Mrs. Murphy, who is an absolute contrast to Carley’s mother. Both Mitzi and I agreed that Mrs. Murphy is a wonderful character who helps Carley let down her wall so she can make new relationships and trust those who are trying to be nice to her and love her. We also both felt sucked into the story, like we were living it right alongside Carley. And, like Carley, we were sad at the end with the decision Carley ultimately makes.

I think Mitzi is tougher than me when it comes to reading books like this one — there were plenty of moments that had me in need of a tissue, but that might be because I can’t help but read with my mom-lenses on. This book is definitely not a tear-jerker, but it does have quite a few heart-wrenching moments.

The bottom line: we loved this book. Carley is strong and opinionated and funny — and also emotional, in that, she has them. Her character rang true with us, and Mitzi’s only disappointment was that she won’t get to know what happens next to Carley. “I really hope the author writes a sequel!” For me, I’m not sure that a sequel is in the cards, but I’m truly looking forward to the author’s next book. Her writing is just amazing. But don’t take it from me — go get your own copy!

One for the Murphys” is appropriate for ages 10 and up, and would be a great book for parents and kids to read together, as there’s much to discuss throughout, from foster families to relationships to honesty to trust, and more. Definitely a five-star book! 

SEE YOU AT HARRY’S by Jo Knowles

At the beginning of the summer, I spied a copy of “See You at Harry’s” by Jo Knowles on the ‘new books’ shelf at our library. I snatched up immediately, having heard all the pre- and post-release buzz on the internet. When I tweeted that I had it in hand and was getting ready to dive in, a friend tweeted back: Keep a box of tissues nearby. (She also said how awesome it was, of course.)

My friend was not wrong. I read the book in one sitting, ignoring the impossibly beautiful summer day outside. I just could not put it down. The kids, perhaps sensing my intensity, had a rare afternoon of playing nicely with one another. By the end, I was wrung out. I needed space and time to process the world I’d just been living, the ways that the author had seamlessly created a story that felt so real it could have happened to a neighbor, a friend.

And I think this is one of the strengths of this novel — Knowles has created characters that have quirks and problems, and a family that is somewhat dysfunctional, but it’s all so normal, and in some ways, familiar.

Before I go on with my thoughts about this book, here is the jacket flap copy:

Twelve-year-old Fern feels invisible. Her dad is always busy planning how to increase traffic to the family business. Her mom is constantly going off to meditate. Her sister Sara, who’s taking a “gap year” after high school, is too busy finding ways not to work; and her brother Holden is too focused on his new “friend” to pay attention to her. And then there’s Charlie: three years old, a “surprise” baby, and  the center of everyone’s world. 

If it wasn’t for Ran, Fern’s best and oldest friend, there would be nowhere to turn. Ran is always calm, always positive. His mantra “All will be well” is soothing in a way that nothing else seems to be. And when Ran says it, Fern can almost believe.

But when their lives are unexpectedly turned upside down, Fern feels more alone than ever, and responsible for the event that wrenches the family apart. All will not be well. Or at least, all will never be the same.

Fern is a wonderful character, well-developed and authentic. Like many “number threes” in a four-child family, she is desperate for her mom’s attention — this is established in the first pages, as Fern remembers that the best day of her life was when she was sick with a stomach bug, and her mother spent the day alone with her, taking care of her. And, like a typical 12 year old, Fern also finds the rest of her family annoying and frustrating: Dad’s attention is on his latest scheme to improve the family’s struggling restaurant. Sara spends more time with a busboy than doing her job, and when she is around is a little too blunt in her comments and observations. There’s Holden, coming to terms with his sexuality and struggling to be open about it. Mom spends her time either seeking inner peace or doting on Charlie. Charlie, always sticky and demanding in the adorable way of most three year olds, is very attached to Fern, who is often the one left to watch over him, even when she’d rather be doing other things.

Knowles spends the first third of the book developing the family dynamics and Fern’s reaction to it all. The family reminds me of many other families in the world — two working parents who are often so focused on making ends meet their children are not a priority.  And that is, unfortunately, life for a lot of us. In the first third, there is some humor, especially with Charlie and Fern (for instance, Charlie is always holding his beloved Doll and shaking its naked plastic tush in Fern’s face).  And while Fern finds her siblings irritating, the mutual affection is obvious, especially the bond she shares with Holden. There might be bickering and annoyance, but in the end, there is love and support. As a side note, Holden’s issues — coming out and dealing with school bullies — are woven into the world of this book, rather than dominating it, which I find masterful. It also contributes to the reality here — it’s something that happens in a lot of families, but it is not always the only thing going on.

It is all so very real and familiar it makes what comes later that much more shattering.

So, without spoilers I can’t say much more about the story. But as Fern moves through the second half of the book, we struggle with her, and we thrash and we want to cry out. Her pain becomes ours — and if you are a parent reading, it becomes that, too. The end is not a neat wrap-up, a solid conclusion that life will be rosy from now on. But, true to the needs of the middle grade reader for whom this book is intended, there is moving on, the beginning of peace, and the hope that some day the world will be patched back together again — even if the end picture is not what you had before.

Mitzi read this after I’d finished and really liked it (I think she also read it in one sitting). It’s recommended for ages 10 and up; however, depending on how sensitive your reader is, 10 might be a little young for the intensity of the novel — just read first to check.

But read it, you should. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, which is really saying something. I thought about it for a long time after I read it initially. Then I had to read it again. A few weeks ago I took it out of the library for a third time, though this borrowing was for another reason: this is exactly the kind of book I’d like to write one day. A book that grabs the reader, makes them laugh, breaks their heart, then rebuilds it — in all the right ways, the ways that make it real and true.

As a writer, I want to study Knowles’ work as if it were a textbook. Parse it to find out how she built the world, how she carved the characters, how she did it all so precisely — and effortlessly (although I know this last is not true, that a book this well-written was certainly the result of a lot of hours, sweat, tears, and chocolate). There is a lot I can learn from this book, and I hope to — also, that with each book I write I get closer to the awesome that is “See You at Harry’s.”

How to build a reader, part 2

Yesterday I shared the story of how I helped Cooper grow as a reader. We are both very proud of the way his literary muscles have strengthened over the past two years!  He came home from school yesterday with a book from the library, a huge, fat book — he walked through the front door with it held high over his head, as if it was a trophy (which of course, it was, sort of, since it had been on hold for a few weeks and he was psyched it was finally available to him.)

Then last night I read this awesome post by the amazing Laurel Snyder. You should go read it. Now. I’ll wait for you right here.

*gazes thoughtfully out the window*

*drums fingers*

Okay, you’re back.

Laurel’s post just blew me away, because, in her usually beautiful style, she said exactly what I believe to be the immeasurable value of picture books — who needs them, and why, and what we’re losing by forcing our kids to read bigger and harder books at earlier ages.

Then I thought, “Oh crap!” Because I really didn’t want anyone who read my blog yesterday to have gotten the message that I was suggesting that it’s a good idea to push kids in their reading. Because there is a difference between forcing kids to read up too soon, and helping a child expand his repertoire, broaden his literary horizons. In the former, you’re forgetting about all the wonderful things children — and adults — get from reading picture books, and you’re forgetting why we need those things. In the latter, you’re encouraging a reader to branch out and try something new.

I happened to be sitting at the dining room table while I read Laurel’s post last night, and Cooper happened to be sitting next to me doing his homework. I asked him if he still liked to read picture books. He looked at me like I was nuts. “Why?”

“Because some adults think that kids should be reading harder books at younger ages. They think that picture books are for babies.”

Cooper rolled his eyes and said, “That’s stupid. Picture books are awesome!”

And you know what? Before bed he read one to Joanna. And despite his new library borrow, I saw him take a few picture books to bed.

There are just some things you never outgrow.

Thank goodness.

How to build a reader, in four (not-so) easy steps…

Last evening, after we’d dropped Cooper and Ray off at the baseball field and brought Mitzi to her softball game, Joanna, Ellie and I headed to the library. I wanted to get a book for Cooper’s project on John Adams, and figured it was a good time to restock our supplies. The girls loaded up with a dozen picture books and easy readers, and I chose a similar amount of middle grade reads for me and the big kids to share. Picking titles for Mitzi is easy — really, she reads just about anything, and there were some books I wanted, so we could share them.

Choosing for Cooper was harder.

Once upon a time, my son, child of my literary loins, did not like to read. It didn’t come easily to him at first, and he is the sort who, used to certain things being easy for him, gets immensely frustrated when things are hard.

It was difficult to watch — he struggled and gave up. Nothing interested him. He wanted to play sports, not be still with his nose in a book. As much as I try to let my kids be the little people they are, frankly, this drove me nuts. I love reading. Reading is awesome! CHILD, YOU MUST LEARN THIS TRUTH! Oh, he was happy to flip through picture books, mostly of the nonfiction variety, and, okay, that was fine, but I was there on the sidelines with a whole library just waiting for him. I began to worry that, even though he was going to be *able to read, he would never have that passion I truly wanted him to have.

And then….Captain Underpants swooshed into our lives. It was perfect for Cooper — a graphic novel with hilarious text (bathroom humor and all) and fun interactive features (Flip-O-Rama!). As soon as he gobbled those up, I introduced him to the spectacular Lunch Lady series by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. (These, too, were a hit, not just with Cooper, but all my kids.) Suddenly, Cooper was reading eagerly, whenever he got the chance.

It was time for my move. I’m a fan of graphic novels, but I wanted him to try longer texts, to challenge himself, to work his reading muscles because, darn it, there are so many awesome books out there that I knew he’d love if only he had the confidence to crack their spines. Around this time we had gone to my parents’ for a visit, and I was perusing a box of books I’d been saving for when my kids were old enough, books from my childhood that I read so many times they were battered and worn.

And there it was. The perfect book for Cooper: How To Eat Fried Worms. I knew he’d love the plot, but also the fact that the chapters are quite short and not intimidating. I smuggled the book home and when the time was right, I offered it. Okay, I seriously played up the gross factor of eating worms and the competitive aspect of the challenge, but, hey. I knew they’d hook him. And it worked. He probably read that book a half-dozen times. It was our Chapter Book Milestone. From there he went on to books like Encyclopedia Brown, again, with short chapters and a fun pace.

Soon after, he had The Big Kid Book Epiphany when he found Dan Gutman’s series of baseball books.

Then it was Origami Yoda by John Angleberger, Warp Speed by Lisa Yee, and How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephardt. The 39 Clues. Then came The Full-On Novel Breathrough — Percy Jackson. I saw this as a huge step. Long chapters, lots of characters to keep track of, a twisting plot, and lots of books in the series. But he was addicted to them, staying up far to late to “just read one more chapter.”

And so Cooper became a reader. He is still unpredictable in his tastes — I’ve gotten him books that I was sure would be perfect, only to have him labor through the first few chapters.

So it was, at the library, that I picked up The Prince of Fenway Park by Julianna Baggott and Scumble by Ingrid Law. I also told him that he was welcome to read any of the others I got — Hound Dog True by Linda Urban or Eleven by Lauren Myracle — though I did tell both the kids that the copy of Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore was just for me.

I think all kids can learn to love to read. As a parent, you just have to keep trying. If I could get Cooper from Captain Underpants to Percy Jackson in two years, you can do it too.

The library is an excellent place to start.

4,327 books…and counting

That’s how many books I’ve read with my children in the past 10 years.

*thud*

In truth, it’s an approximation, but it has been over 4,000. I know this because each of my four children participated in our elementary school’s 1,000 Book Club program — four kids, each completing the program, equals 4K books.

It’s a neat idea, based on the research which shows that a child needs to read 1,000 books in order to have a strong enough foundation in literacy to become an independent reader. Parents sign up, and can borrow a bag of 10 books (the Red Bag that we’ve spent many a day searching for around here). You keep the bag for up to 2 weeks, exchange it for a new one, and so on, until you reach 100 bags, or 1,000 books. Students earn awards along the way, at each 25 milestone. At the end, they get a trophy. Students can start in their last year of preschool, but must finish by the end of kindergarten.

Which is where we were last week, applauding Joanna as she (just under the wire with only one month left in school) finished the program.

I am so proud of her — of all my kids — but really glad to be done. It’s just a grind, keeping track of the bags and their contents, keeping charts, returning books on time. I’ve been doing it for six years and AM VERY HAPPY TO BE DONE.

But in the end, we read a whole lot of books. Because not only did we read those 4,000, we borrowed books from the library and read those too, and also the hundreds that we have in our own family library.

4,327 books in 10 years….and more to come. And I just keep thinking — how awesome would it be if EVERY child could have the chance to read this much. How amazing it would be if every 4 or 5 year old (aw, heck, every kid of every age) had the opportunity to enjoy a thousand books in two years — and how I wish more adults tried to make this happen for all kids, not just those in communities like mine.