Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Picture Book Roundup

My blogging tends to slow down considerably at the beginning of our summer reading program. Now that I'm back in the summertime groove, my blogging productivity should have some resemblance of normalcy!

The Last Day of Kindergarten

First day of school books are nothing new, but books about the last day of school? Not so much. This sweet book takes us through the last day of school (helping teacher clean up the room, sitting in circle time for the last time, lining up for the graduation ceremony, and performing in front of parents and other honored guests) through the eyes of a little girl who's not so sure that she wants to move on to first grade. Of course, she's rarin' to go at the end of our story. This is a very cute book about the real emotions that kindergarten students may face at the end of the year. The illustrations are very multicultural (instead of just having one token minority character).

The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families

We had our Treerific Tales program yesterday, so I'm in a tree state of mind. Wish I had read this before yesterday; I would have shared some of it with the group. I can't tell you how awesome I think this book is: it's a positive environmentalist story, it's a positive and hopeful story from Africa, and it features a Japanese-American scientist (information on prominent Asian-Americans is tough to come by in children's books). A small village in the recently independent African country of Eritrea was struggling with feeding themselves, their children, and their livestock.

By the Red Sea,
in the African country of Eritrea,
lies a little village called Hargigo.
The children play in the dust
between houses made of cloth,
tin cans, and flattened iron.
The families used to be hungry.
Their animals were hungry too.
But then things began to change...
all because of a tree.

Dr. Gordon Sato's mangrove tree project on the shores of the salty Red Sea took hard work; hard work from him in researching and designing the program, and hard work from the villagers, who were very much involved in the project.

Women planted the trees and earned money for their families. Dr. Sato figured out a diet for the livestock using the mangrove tree leaves. The livestock grew stronger and delivered healthier babies. Sea creatures found shelter in the trees, and fishermen increased their bounty. More livestock and fish mean healthier families...all because of trees. What a beautiful story!

An afterword includes photographs of the village and villagers, as well as a short biography of Dr. Sato's inspiring life story. I can't recommend this remarkable story of community work and achievement highly enough.

Energy Island

Continuing in the theme of positive environmental stories featuring communities working together to provide solutions (my favorite kind of environmental stories) is Energy Island. This lighthearted but information-packed story of the tiny Dutch island Samsø's journey to energy independence is a fascinating and awe-inspiring tale. Samsø was chosen to take part in an energy-independent experiment, to the consternation of many islanders. Due to the island's mighty wind power, the community decided to use wind energy to power their island. There are mishaps along the way, but this is a unique and powerful story of community involvement and hard work. Children were an important part of the project, which will attract young readers.

A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis

This is receiving some Caldecott predictions. No wonder; the pictures are exquisite, as can only be expected from Kadir Nelson. Matt de la Pena's picture book biography of the phenomenal Joe Louis is exceptional. It's received excellent reviews, yet some have argued with the depiction of Max Schmeling. An author's note would have helped matters a bit; oddly enough, there is no afterword about Louis or Schmeling. Schmeling, who never joined the Nazi party, much to Hitler's fury (he was drafted as a paratrooper in revenge), helped two Jewish teenagers flee Germany during the war. An author's note might have also explained that de la Pena frequently refers to Schmeling as "Hitler's German" because that was how Schmeling was referred to in the American press; this isn't something that de la Pena made up.De la Pena is reflecting the general attitude of Americans toward Schmeling and anything/anyone German at the time.

Granted, this is a biography of Louis, not Schmeling, but the lack of any further biographical information, which is fairly standard in children's nonfiction picture books, would have gone a long way in deflating the criticism. Rather a shame, for this is a masterful creation from a fantastic author and illustrator. They movingly depict Louis's difficult childhood, his determination, rise to stardom, and how he briefly united a segregated nation.

I'm looking forward to starting The Lost Crown this afternoon. The author, Sarah Miller, wrote the wonderful Miss Spitfire, so I've been eagerly anticipating her novel about the ill-fated Romanov daughters. For reasons too complex to go into here, news of a fictionalized account of the Romanov children made me rather wary, despite it being in the hands of a fine author. Fortunately, reviews have been quite good, which eases my wariness. I'm hoping to add it to my list of historical fiction recommendations.

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