Animal Teachers Invite a Fun Parent Child Dialog

Animal TeachersAnimal Teachers by Janet Halfmann illustrations by Katy Hudson. Blue Apple Books, Maplewood, NJ 07040.

“Did you ever try to bite your toes?” It’s the question asked after explaining how baby chicks peck at everything, including their toes. A young child may not remember biting his toes as a baby, but chances are Mom and Dad have a photograph of it.

Animal Teachers shows how animal parents teach their babies how to do things. The first page is “Food Lessons”, where we find baby chicks biting their toes. Mama has to teach the babies that toes are not food. The text asks: “Who taught you what’s good to eat?”

Each page has a parent animal teaching their baby an important skill. Then the question is posed as to who taught the child a similar skill.

“Shouting Lessons” is a particularly fun page. Prairie dog parents give their babies shouting lessons so they can be distinguished from all the other babies. “Do you yip? Can you bark? Or shout? Or yelp? How do you make yourself heard?” Kids will have a great time trying out all the different attention-getting noises they can come up with.

Did you know that penguin parents give their children singing lessons? I didn’t. Mama cheetah gives her baby running lessons. “Are you a fast runner? Have you ever chased something? Do your parents ever run after you?”

The questions on each page will undoubtedly lead to a spirited dialog between reader and child, and Katy Hudson’s big, bold illustrations perfectly depict the loving relationship between animal parents and their babies. This book is sure to charm both the child and the adult reader.

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One Plastic Bag, the Story of a Village and the Women Who Saved it.

one_plastic_bag_cover_miranda_paul[1]One Plastic Bag, Isatou Ceesay and the recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul, illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon, Millbrook Press, Minneapolis, MN 2015 

“Isatou walks with her chin frozen. Fat raindrops pelt her bare arms. Her face hides in the shadow of a palm-leaf basket…the basket breaks… The basket is useless now. She drops it, knowing it will crumble and mix back in with the dirt.”

But something different is caught by the wind and catches her eye. It is silky. It will hold the fruit that fell when the palm leaf basket broke. It is a plastic bag.

Before long, Isatou’s village is overrun with plastic bags. The garbage pile is unsightly and attracts bugs. It smells bad when burned. The village goats eat the bags, get sick and die.

One Plastic Bag is the true story of Isatou Ceesay, a woman entrepreneur in Gambia who learns to crochet strips of the plastic bags into decorative purses. At first she and the other women crafters are made fun of, but soon the purses become popular and everyone wants one. The garbage pile begins to disappear. Goats no longer find bags to eat.

Miranda Paul visited Gambia several times and met the women who started the recycling project in their village. She was impressed with how the simple craft of making purses out of plastic bags contributed to the health of their village gardens and animals and increased the self-confidence of the people.

Elizabeth Zunon’s collage illustrations are a burst of color, sure to catch the eye of the youngest reader. Older children will be fascinated by the courageous story of these women who went about in a very deliberative way to save their animals and improve their village. Paul’s poetic narrative makes this a pleasurable read for any adult—teacher or parent—looking for an important and engaging read-a-loud that also doubles as a visual treat.



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Crenshaw, a “Harvey” for our time.


Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate, a Feiwel and Friends Book, imprint of Macmillan. New York, NY 2015.

Crenshaw is a cat. A very large cat. If you’ve seen the movie, “Harvey,” with James Stewart, you might call Crenshaw a pooka, a shape changer from Celtic lore. Originally, Crenshaw was Jackson’s imaginary friend, when Jackson was seven. But Jackson is going into fifth grade and he hasn’t seen his imaginary friend since, well, since his family had to live in their van. But that was years ago. Now Jackson hears whispers that his family might not be able to stay in their apartment. They’re only whispers, because his parents never tell him anything important. All they say is that they are going to have a huge garage sale, hoping to make enough money to pay the rent.

Jackson believes in science. He does not believe in imaginary friends. He thinks he has enough problems, trying to figure out his parents. “Sometimes I just wanted to be treated like a grown-up. I wanted to hear the truth, even if it wasn’t a happy truth. I understood things. I knew way more than they thought I did.” He’s afraid they will end up living in their van again.

When Crenshaw shows up, it’s the last straw. “I invented you when I was seven…and I can un-invent you now.” Jackson doesn’t need one more problem. When he pleads with Crenshaw to leave, the oversized cat explains: “Imaginary friends don’t come of their own volition. We are invited. We stay as long as we’re needed.” Jackson insists he did not invite him.

Crenshaw, the cat, is not thrilled to have to put up with the family dog, who senses the pooka, if he doesn’t actually see him. This is a wonderful book that hits all the right notes. It’s never too dark for middle grade readers and Crenshaw is pure delight as an opinionated cat with attitude. And doesn’t that sound like most cats you know? 

The story of Jackson’s family is a reflection of the times in which we live. As a substitute teacher, I know of children who live in their family car. I know of teachers who keep a stash of granola bars in their desks for kids who’ve missed breakfast. I know that attendance at the free breakfast programs in our schools has increased. But the homeless families, for whatever reason, get way less press than the homeless men who linger on street corners and make everyone nervous. Yes, that is a situation we need to come to grips with, especially the homeless who are mentally ill. But let’s not forget about the families who’ve become homeless, like Jackson’s, through no fault of their own. A major medical crisis or a lost job can send a family, already living paycheck to paycheck, spinning into a downward financial crash.

Like Jackson, we need to see the truth, even if it’s an unhappy truth, before we can solve the problems of homelessness and hunger. Let’s make sure these kids and their families can be seen, and like Crenshaw, remain seen until the problem is solved.

There have been food drives, inspired by the book Crenshaw, at bookstores all over the country. If you’d like to find out how you can do more to help kids, click on the link below.



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Dia De Los Muertos a Joyous Celebration of Life

Dia de losMuertosDia De Los Muertos by Roseanne Greenfield Thong, pictures by Carles Ballesteros. Albert Whitman & Company, Chicago, IL. 2015.

I must admit, when I first learned of the holiday known as Day of the Dead, I was a little taken aback. Walking into a gift shop in Tucson some years ago and being greeted by an array of skeletons, I could only wonder, what was the appeal?

Then, ironically, a man who attends Quaker Meeting, where I am a member, introduced the holiday to our Sunday school children. He had made beautiful papel picado, cut paper banners, carefully carved with an exacto knife. I was told this holiday helps people remember their relatives who have passed on and is meant to be a joyous event.

Roseanne Greenfield Thong has certainly accomplished that goal. Carles Ballesteros’ illustrations exude all the joy and fun of the closely related holiday of Halloween. But Dia de los Muertos, rooted in pre-Christian tradition, is more closely allied to All Souls Day, the day Catholics remember their deceased loved ones. The Day of the Dead is about honoring and remembering those who’ve passed, and celebrating their lives in a joyous way. The children in the story gather gifts to adorn remembrance altars. Treats and mementos fill the altars in hopes of enticing the spirits of the dead to come back and visit for one night. Perhaps a picture of grandpa, “…who’s riding on horseback just like Pancho Villa!” Dollhouses and trains may be left out for small angelitos (children who’ve passed.)

The rhyming text keeps the story playful, not scary, and describes all the treats the children make for themselves—and their ancestors. “Sweet Calaveras, so sugary white—they give toothy smiles, but never a fright.”

The vibrant pastels and deep reds, blues and greens of the illustrations are a welcome relief to the ubiquitous orange and black colors of Halloween. There is a two page addendum explaining the holiday and a glossary assists in understanding the Spanish words. This is a beautiful book and has convinced this skeptic that the Day of the Dead is indeed a joyous and necessary holiday. I couldn’t help but think how this holiday could’ve served my needs as a child, when I lost my father at a young age. Although we remember our loved ones with sorrow, Dia de los Muertos reminds us of the happiness they brought into our lives. I am sure this story will spark fond memories in many children, as well as the adult readers. A very special book.


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The Dress-Up Mirror a Spooky Choice for October Read-Aloud

DressUoMirrorCover6x9.inddThe Dress-Up Mirror by Raymond Bial. Crispin Books, Milwaukee, WI. 2015

“On Friday night there were more noises, loud and frantic, throughout the night. Amanda heard muffled shrieks of ‘Murder! Murder!’and some sort of quarreling about a mirror. She looked around the dark bedroom, petrified. Amanda wanted to flee to her parents’ bedroom, but how weird would that be? She was thirteen.”

When Amanda’s mother brings home an antique mirror, Amanda persuades her to put it in the attic of their new home-a rambling Victorian with many passageways and closets.  Amanda, an aspiring fashion designer, keeps old clothing up there to mix and match, experimenting with different ensembles. After many nights of hearing noises and sleeping poorly, she convinces her mother that she should allow Amanda to have a sleep-over. She hopes not having to sleep in her room alone, and with two friends to distract her, she can forget about the creepy noises she keeps hearing. That night, the girls are impressed by the charm of the beautiful mirror. And then the trouble begins.

Raymond Bial has spun an exciting time travel story that keeps the reader wanting more. But it’s not just a mystery. Description of the historic details of the haunted house in the first chapter is reflective of the Victorian period to which Amanda and her friends will be thrown into in the following chapter. It is in 1912 that they learn all was not charming about this period in history. Immigrants were looked down upon. People were fighting for better working conditions, and prejudice was rampant. But once the girls are thrown back in time by the mysterious mirror, they must figure out why they have been brought to the exact same house in 1912.

The Dress-Up Mirror is a fast, fun read. Finally, even though the girls learn some ugly truths about our rapidly growing country at the turn of the last century, they also learn that most people are kind and want to help others.

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Two Books that Reflect Turbulent Times in America

dust of edenDust of Eden, a novel by Mariko Nagai. Albert Whitman & Company, Park Ridge, IL. 2014

Thirteen-year-old Mina Tagawa is singing in Sunday school choir, practicing Silent Night, when a man crashes through the door, yelling,

“‘…the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.’ The world stopped.”

Mina Tagawa has a best friend that she shares secrets with. She has a big brother with a room full of track trophies. She has a grandfather who raises roses. But suddenly, in December 1941, she has a new identity: enemy.

Dust of Eden is a powerful story, told simply in verse. The beautiful writing and simple lines belie the tragedy of the subject: for three years Mina and her family live behind barbed wire for no other reason than that they are of Japanese-American ancestry.

I am an American, I scream in my head.”

Mina wishes she could change her hair color to match Jamie’s, her best friend; change her name; change her parents. But of course she cannot. When they are told they must leave, there are two lists. A list of things they must take and a list of things they may not. Basho, their scruffy cat, must stay behind. Mina explains to Jamie, who will be taking care of him:

“He doesn’t understand English; he grew up around us, listening to Japanese. He doesn’t drink milk. He grew up drinking miso soup…”

At first it is a matter of putting up with classmates and others throwing that hated word, “Jap,” in her face. But once they are removed to an internment camp, there are more ordinary challenges in an extraordinary circumstance: how to take a shower. How to keep a dirt floor clean. But most of all, how to keep her father and brother from fighting.

Dust of Eden tells the story of one of America’s great shames. But it also tells the story of the ties that bind a family and friends,who remain true even when a prejudice tide sweeps away so many.

How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson. Dial Books, New York, NY. 2014

Four-year-old Marilyn, sitting next to her mother in church, wonders why Lot had to flee from the bad city.

“imagine having a pet flea.”

“I giggle soundlessly, but Mama swats my leg, holding a finger to her lips.”

Written in unrhymed sonnets, How I discovered Poetry, is both a heartwarming and disturbing memoir. It is Marilyn Nelson’s story of growing up in the 1950’s, an African-American girl, daughter of one of the first African-American career officers in the Air Force. It is the story of a military family, moving many times, following her father’s transfers all over the States and constantly saying goodbye to friends.

Set against a travelogue of a military family, How I Discovered Poetry is also an exploration of the fifties: racism, the civil rights movement, bomb shelters and the beginning of women’s liberation. It also tells the story of a young girl coming to grips with what is happening in the South. She prays for the students in Little Rock. She recoils at the poem her teacher insists she read to the class, a poem filled with:

“…darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats.”

But most of all, it is a poignant memoir of a young girl, coming to maturity and recording, in beautiful verse, her own history, so similar, but different, to the history of so many others.




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The Way Home Looks Now

The Way Home Looks Now

The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wan-Long Shang. Scholastic Press, New York, NY, 2015.

When Peter’s brother, Nelson, is killed in a car accident, his family’s life is changed forever. Once a good student, Peter now forgets to put his name on papers and sometimes skips homework altogether. One day, he comes home to find his sister locked out. He panics, fearing his mother has locked her out on purpose. He runs to the back of the house, looks through the window and is comforted to see his mother sitting on the couch watching TV, like she has done every day since his brother died. Through the window, he sees his father arrive home and calmly walk into the house with his sister racing around him to check on Mom.

“If I could write my own TV show, Ba would hurry inside. He would know that something is wrong when Elaine is locked out. And he wouldn’t act like Mom watching TV all day is normal. I wonder how it is that he can see so little when I see so much.”

Peter knows something is wrong with is mother, but he has no name for it. He makes sure to get the mail everyday so Mom doesn’t see they are still getting things addressed to Nelson. His life revolves around the impossible goal that he has to protect his mother and make her better. His father seems to not notice his mother’s behavior, simply saying, “Leave your mother alone, Peter. She is tired.”

Peter is a twelve-year-old boy struggling with the death of his brother and the emotional breakdown of his mother. His father is distant and seems to only be interested in Peter getting good grades. He avoids his old friends and classmates. Soon they stop coming around, except for Sean, who was more of an acquaintance. But all Sean wants to do is play baseball. Peter can’t bring himself to do that, because Nelson taught Peter everything he knew about baseball, and Nelson is gone. Baseball evokes too many memories.

One day, for just a brief moment, Peter and his mother share a memory about when they went to the Little League World Series. This leads Peter to make a decision. He will play baseball again. And he gets the surprise of his life when Ba volunteers to coach.

This story is both heart wrenching and joyous. No, his mother is not cured of her depression by the end of the book. But Peter’s father explains that as in baseball, sometimes you just have to be patient. When your team has a bad year, there’s always next year. Be patient and they will win again.

“As long as I have waited for Mom, I must wait some more, even when it’s the last thing I want to do.”

This story resonated with me for two reasons. The first is my memories of baseball. The ’57 Milwaukee Braves, who won the World Series that year, are a bittersweet memory for me. I was only eight years old the summer of 1957 and Dad was a big fan of the Braves. Earl Gillespie’s radio broadcasts were background music in those days. That was the year I learned what a pennant race was. All the names of the players, Hank Aaron, Johnny Logan, Warren Spahn, or Spahnny as Dad and everyone else called him, were like guests in our farmhouse. I see that summer now through a soft focused lens. I was the luckiest little girl in the world, who had my own horse, wild strawberries to pick and long, summer days with nothing to do but wander the farm fields and daydream. Could it have been that perfect?

This brings me to the second reason this story resonates with me. Only one short year later, my father would be dead of a heart attack. We would no longer live on the farm. The horses would be sold. The radio, eerily quiet. After my father died, my mother also went through a depression, although not as severe as Peter’s mother. But I recognized that same emotional disconnect, even if Mom didn’t sit on the couch all day watching TV.

Baseball, and my parents, are emotionally interwoven in my heart. Mom eventually became a Brewers fan and listened to Bob Uecker’s broadcasts until she passed away. As a teenager, I forgot about baseball. Many years later, when I had kids of my own we went to see the movie, Field of Dreams: a story about a man who reconnects with his dead father through baseball. I was a puddle of tears by the end. I started listening to those radio broadcasts again. Baseball has saved me on my darkest days, but not only me. A few years ago I read Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki. It tells the story of Japanese men and boys who started teams while living in the World War Two internment camps. As one internee at Manzanar, Takeo Suo, recalled, “Putting on a baseball uniform was like wearing the American flag.” Even Walt Whitman thought baseball could bind up our wounds after the Civil War. “…anything which will repair such losses may be regarded as a blessing to the race.”

Oh, and about that World Series win of 1957? Some years ago, I went to a Mallards game at which Johnny Logan was signing autographs. When it was my turn, I told him I remembered the 1957 World Series and that my dad was a big baseball fan. Then I told him Dad died the following year. Johnny Logan looked at me said, “I’m so sorry,” and handed me his World Series ring. “Here, take a look at it.” It’s a moment I’ll never forget.

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