Susan Jeffers Creates a Nutcracker for All Ages

The Nutcracker by Susan Jeffers. Harper Collins New York, NY 2007.

When I look for a picture book, I look for the pictures. That may seem obvious, but all picture books are not created equal. I want the illustrations to jump out at me with their stunning beauty. Now, I have nothing against fanciful, even silly pictures. I own a copy of Steven Kellogg’s Three Little Pigs, a delightful, fun re-telling of that famous tale. But when I walk into a bookstore and see beautiful detail, colors that grab me and unforgettable faces, I am more likely to purchase that book.

I have seen many Nutcracker books. I’ve been to the ballet many times as well. When my daughter was small, we bought Maurice Sendak’s version (which is a translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale.) That book, with his signature artistic style, depicts both the darkness and light of human nature and childhood. Unabridged, it was translated by Ralph Manheim and published after Sendak was commissioned to design a ballet for the Pacific Northwest Ballet. As magnificent as that edition is, it is heavy on text and not something you can put on your lap and read to a young child. I was looking for something a little different this year to give to my six-year-old granddaughter, before we went to the ballet. A huge fan of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, when I saw Susan Jeffers name on this book, I immediately snatched it off the shelf. I wasn’t disappointed.

Jeffers says when she was asked to do a Nutcracker book, she wondered what she could possibly say that had not already been said. She concluded that it was all about the dance. Dancers make their way through every page of the story. Text is minimal. This Nutcracker is all about the illustrations. They are lovely and detailed without being overwhelming. The first page has several different pictures, in blocks, as if they are photographs, depicting adults in different parts of the house getting ready for the party. One in particular reminded me of something my mother told me. The picture shows the adults in the ballroom, under the Christmas tree, while the children wait with anticipation behind the closed door, outside in the hall. Mom was German-American and told us how, when she was a child, the custom was that the Christmas tree was trimmed in the parlor, behind French doors. On Christmas Eve, the doors remained closed, while the tree was decorated by the adults. The children would wait anxiously outside the doors. When they were finally opened, there stood the tree, glowing like some magical apparition, lit with real candles.

What I appreciated about this interpretation is that Marie and her mischievous brother Fritz are realistically portrayed to look like real children. The seven-headed Mouse King is sufficiently scary without being creepy. Jeffers use of double-page spreads emphasizes the visual aspects of the story over the text. That battle between the Mouse King and the toy soldiers? The “bullets” are wrapped hard candies. When Marie vanquishes the Mouse King his reflection is cleverly seen in a Christmas tree ornament. He looks like he is only sleeping. Jeffers inserts details like these that readers will discover anew with each re-reading. The dance of the Snowflakes and the Sugar Plum Fairy are all here. Once in the Land of Sweets, Marie and the Prince are treated to a performance by all the familiar characters of the ballet: Marzipan, Mother Ginger, and more.

Susan Jeffers has not just created another Nutcracker. She has created an accessible, beautifully illustrated version in which the pictures tell the story, and every little girl and boy who aspires to dance can dream their way into the magic.

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Stunning Hawk’s Rising will Inspire Many a Young Birder

Hawk Rising by Maria Gianferrari, pictures by Brian Floca. Roaring Brook Press, New York, NY, 2018.

“Father Hawk stretches wide his wings. You stretch your arms as Mars rises red in the sky.” Hawk Rising begins and ends with both Father Hawk and a little girl waking up. Hawk wakes up knowing he must search for food for his new-born chicks. The little girl watches that search from afar. This beautifully illustrated picture book captures the essence of the life of a hawk and its struggle to feed his chicks. The poetic text describes both that struggle and the curiosity of the little girl, who watches using her trusty binoculars. Floca’s realistic illustrations depict the fierceness of the red-tailed hawk: “Hooked beak, sharp as a knife.” Even the chicks are not particularly warm and fuzzy. Father Hawk spends an entire day looking for food for them. “Daylight blinking. Chicks waiting. You fading.” Father hawk still has not found food and the reader wonders if the chicks are fading too. As night falls, he finally traps a squirrel that was just a little too slow.

The juxtaposition of the Hawk’s search and the little girl’s observation keeps the story moving along. The spare, poetic text should appeal to the youngest child sitting on a lap. The glossary will appeal to teachers and older children curious about birds and the way they live. This is an excellent book for the classroom science collection and would also fit well into a poetry unit. The artwork is perfect as inspiration for art lessons. The author thanks the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for its work on behalf of birds (see November post, On Duck Pond by Jane Yolen). The illustrator thanks the Horizon Wings Raptor Rehabilitation Education Center in Connecticut, where he undoubtedly was inspired to draw such striking and realistic illustrations of hawks.


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Sleeping Beauty Grows up in E.K. Johnston’s YA Novel, Spindle

Spindle by E.K. Johnston, Hyperion, New York, NY, 2016.

“The little rose was only five years old when her parents ruined my mother and brought ruination to my own life. I can tell the story like I was there, though I wasn’t. Even if I had been, I had only six years to my life then, and my memory would likely fail me on the finer details. So it is better that I heard the story from others, others I trusted. That means I know the truth.”

And so begins Spindle, a young adult novel of extraordinary prose, with a back story in classical fable that weaves the time-honored archetypical plot of good vs evil. Spindle begins in the voice of the demon, explaining how humans, for centuries, have foiled those like her from sewing their dark magic. Bound as they are by iron, demons can do little but watch the humans. They have, however, two advantages: they cannot die and they can learn.

Spindle begins with the telling of a story. The story Yashaa has heard since he was a small boy. A story of how a demon came uninvited to a small princess’ birthday party and cast a vicious spell on her. A spell that would ruin the lives of all who lived in Kharuf but a spell that would specifically torture the spinners, who forever after would be exiled, as practicing their craft in Kharuf caused them to be desperately ill. The demon had made sure of that.

So, the Spinners from Kharuf travelled to the desert, the home of their ancestors. But Yashaa’s mother chose instead to take her son and what few other spinners remained in Kharuf over the mountains to Qamih in hopes that they could ply their trade there. But a harsh guild system would not allow them to sell in the public markets. Life was difficult and Yashaa has since blamed the little Rose.

This novel presents a fascinating culture: a mix of humans, piskey’s, sprites, dragons and, of course, demons. That alone should attract readers of fantasy, but it is so much more. Johnston takes a fairy tale that readers are familiar with and develops it into a story of mature characters who wrestle with good and evil. In the end it is the tale of making the choice to serve the needs of the many, rather than capitulate to the pleasures of the moment, certainly a message worthwhile in a teen novel.

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Award Winning Hawk a Cautionary Tale for Earth Day

Hawk by Jennifer Dance, Dundurn Publishers Toronto, Ontario, 2016

“Less than an hour ago, I was Adam, the long-distance runner. Now I’m Adam, the boy who…I can’t even bring myself to say it.”

The young adult novel, Hawk, begins from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Adam, who has just found out he has leukemia. Then the point of view switches to a female “fish-hawk,” better known as an osprey, who is returning to Alberta. It is her first migration back to the place she was born; she is here to find a mate. Throughout the novel, the osprey pair and the teenager will be forever linked through a chance encounter, and more importantly, through their individual struggles to survive.

Alberta Canada is home to what is usually referred to as the “tar sands.” The people who live in the area, many of whom are First Nations, rely on the industry for their livelihood. The money they make at good jobs supports their families and has improved their lives in many ways.

But there is a dark side to this windfall. Many are getting sick. Bile duct cancer, which is quite rare, shows up more in the tar sands area. Although this novel is a work of fiction, Dance has done her research painstakingly. Her conclusions, and the conclusions of a real-life doctor, Dr. John O’Connor, may be controversial, but the reality is that there is usually a price to pay for disturbing the balance of nature.

The story of Adam, though, overshadows all the controversy and argument. He’s just a kid who wants to be a long-distance runner. He’s also a kid with a complicated relationship with his parents, who he calls, Angel and Frank. It’s his way of punishing them for leaving him with his grandfather when he was a baby. Seven years ago, Adam’s parents brought him back to Fort McMurray to live with them, but he still refuses to call them Mom and Dad. They try to explain to him that they left him with his grandfather because they needed to move to Fort McMurray to get jobs. That’s where the money was. They only wanted what was best for him. And when Adam is honest with himself, he actually does miss the time he lived with his grandfather in the wilderness. But he is too angry at everyone to admit anything of the sort.

Dance creates a well-developed portrait of a teenager angry at the world. He’s angry that his parents “abandoned” him, and he uses that word purposely. He’s angry at cancer.  When he and his grandfather visit his father’s workplace and discover a fish hawk struggling in a tailings pond, covered with tar, Adam begins to think about things he never considered before. What is the company his father works for doing to the environment?   When he and the osprey both struggle to survive, Adam discovers there is a way he can make a difference.

Hawk is a serious book about a timely and important subject. People can argue about the pros and cons of tar sand development, but in the end it is we humans who must find a way to live on this earth. It is our decisions that will determine the health and life expectancy of not only wildlife, like the osprey, but our very own descendants well-being. Adam’s grandfather re-names Adam Hawk and tells the teenager about how canaries were used as a warning system in coal mines. His grandfather says that the birds who suffer and die from oil slicks are like those canaries. They are a warning to us. And children, who get diseases like leukemia, may also be a warning, a kind of fragile “canary.”

Every April, Northland College of Ashland Wisconsin, chooses books in several categories for their Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award (SONWA). Hawk was last years’ choice in the YA category. To see this year’s winners and a complete list of past winners, click on this link:

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Midnight Teacher a Suspenseful Non-Fiction Choice

Midnight Teacher Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by London Ladd. Lee & Low Books Inc., New York, NY 2018.

“From a young age, Lilly Ann Eliza Cox believed the path to freedom was through education.” She was a slave in Kentucky where she lived in the master’s house. “When the adults weren’t watching, the master’s children often played school with her.” And so, using an old speller the children found for her, Lilly Ann learned to read. Although it was not illegal for slaves to learn to read and write in Kentucky, it was frowned upon. Slaves might get ideas about freedom and running away, if they had the ability to read. She was proud when she learned to write and to read the Bible on her own.

As she grew older, she shared her knowledge with other slaves. On Sundays, while the master’s family attended church, she and others would find a secret place to practice their words using sticks to form letters in the dusty soil.

Lilly went through hard times when her master died, and was bought by a plantation owner in Mississippi. She was put to work in the cotton fields. Reading and writing by slaves was against the law in Mississippi, but Lilly managed to carry on with her secret school, teaching young and old alike. Eventually, she was found out.

After the war, Lilly Ann went on to become a teacher and advocate for education. She helped establish Natchez Seminary, which is now Jackson State University.

Midnight Teacher is a suspenseful piece of non-fiction. Yes, you read that correctly. Like Janet Halfmann’s previous book, Seven Miles to Freedom the Robert Smalls Story, Midnight Teacher takes the reader, along with the protagonist, through a perilous journey. Based on a true story of a courageous woman who takes risks so that she can accomplish her goal of educating other slaves, this book is the ideal companion to a Social Studies unit on slavery and the Civil War.

Janet’s research spanned about ten years and many interviews with not only scholars, but also with family members of Granderson’s (Lilly’s married name). Her respectful research and writing are a tribute to the care she took with this story and Robert Small’s. When asked how she finds these stories of little-known people, she said if she reads an article and someone like Lilly or Robert is mentioned, she jots the name down and begins her research.

This is an inspiring and fascinating read. Teachers are searching for high quality non-fiction, and a suspenseful, fast-paced read is just what is needed to keep kids engaged in both reading and, in this case, social studies. This book belongs on every classroom shelf.

Check out The Storied Past blog to see reviews of many great books, including my review of Seven Miles to Freedom.   

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Three New Picture Books Make Great Gifts

If you haven’t finished your holiday shopping (or even if you have-there’s always room for books, right?) here’s three delightful picture books for the younger set that were just published in 2017.

Spring Hare by Eugene Yelchin. Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY, 2017.

This book reminded me of another wordless picture book from my days of student teaching. Of course I can’t remember the name of that book—only the pictures. I believe there were bears involved. Spring Hare begins with a little girl about to jump onto a trampoline as a small rabbit watches. She in turn gives him a look that seems to say, “Come along.” And come along he does. He follows her up, up, up into the air as she rides in an airplane, a hot air balloon and a rocket ship. All the while, the girl keeps an eye on the little rabbit following her. He has some trouble along the way, but young children will have no trouble at all making up their own story to go along with the pictures. Yelchin’s whimsical illustrations are sure to delight the youngest child as well as the adult sharing this book.

I Promise by David McPhail. Little Brown & Company, New York, NY 2017.

Mama Bear and her baby are splashing in a waterfall when Baby Bear asks Mama to sing to him. She replies, “Later, dear…I promise.” When they decide to dry off, Baby Bear asks her what a promise is.

Mama explains to Baby that a promise is “…when you say you will do something, and then do your very best to do it.” She further explains that a broken promise is not easily fixed.

McPhail’s watercolor illustrations, done in the soft tones of nature, have a soothing quality which makes this the perfect bedtime story. And it will reassure all Baby Bears everywhere that Mother Bears keep their promises to not just sing to them, but to love them, “…always and forever.” As Mother Bears everywhere know.

On Duck Pond by Jane Yolen, pictures by Bob Marstall. The Cornell Lab Publishing Group, 2017.

“As I walked by the old Duck Pond,
Its stillness as the morning dawned
Was shattered by a raucous call:
A quack of ducks both large and small.”

And so begins this rhyming story about a single moment in time, when the water of a quiet pond is disturbed by a group of rowdy ducks. The boy telling the story notices that even his reflection in the water is distorted:

“And my reflection, too, looked strange—
Every part of me was changed,
I looked like I’d been re-arranged.”

Marstall’s illustrations are big and bold. For example, a frog leaping off a lily pad takes up almost a whole page, and clearly shows the terror the frog is feeling on being so suddenly disturbed.

This book is published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but don’t let that cause you to file it away for older children. The cadence of the poetry makes for a faster read with the youngest child, while older children will be enthralled with the detailed illustrations. The last three pages identify the birds and other animals in the story, as well as activities and resources to pursue. This book can and should be used in K-5 classrooms, as it surely would appeal to a wide range of ages. And like the book Journey which I recently reviewed in this space, On Duck Pond can be used in many subject areas, from poetry and writing to science and math.


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One Wolf’s Fascinating Journey will Delight and Educate Young Readers

JOURNEY Based on the True Story of OR7 The Most Famous Wolf in the West by Emma Bland Smith, illustrated by Robin James. Little Bigfoot, imprint of Sasquatch Books, Seattle WA, 2016.

When a young girl, Abby, hears that a wolf has ventured from Oregon to California—the first wolf in California since 1924—she becomes fascinated by his journey. The wolf has a collar and is named OR7, the seventh wolf to be collared in Oregon. Thirteen months after receiving the collar, he leaves his pack, and people begin keeping track of him. Many are excited to have a wolf heading to California. But when Abby gets on the website where people are tracking him, she discovers that some do not like the idea of a wolf coming to California.

Abby “…scrolled down on the screen and read comments from other readers. Many people were happy about the wolf. But others were afraid, and that fear was turning to anger. ‘That wolf better keep away from my farm, or else,’ one comment read.
Abby knew what that meant. The wolf was in danger. Was there anything she could do to help?”

When a conservation group sponsors a contest asking kids to name the wolf, Abby jumps at the chance. With a real name, OR7 will be too famous to harm.

Journey is a fascinating true story of one wolf’s solitary venture far from his original pack. Journey travels three years and almost 2,000 miles in search of a mate so he can establish a family, a pack of his own. It is also a fictional story of a little girl’s determination to help make the wolf “too famous to harm.”

Robin James’ lushly illustrated pages alternate between Journey’s story, from his point of view, and Abby’s. Journey’s pages beautifully depict the Pacific Northwest as a vast, untouched wilderness, while Abby’s pages show her determination to track and protect the wolf. Her zeal will ring true with many young readers who’ve maybe felt that same desire to protect some little piece of wilderness near their own homes. Children have a natural desire to want to create and work on projects that mean something, particularly when it comes to helping animals. Abby’s character is empathetic and engaging. When the contest organizers choose her name—Journey—for the wolf, OR7 becomes famous all over the world. Abby’s cousins in New York call her, as well as her grandparents in Mexico. OR7, aka Journey, really does become “too famous to harm.”

The final pages have a timeline and map of the wolf’s journey, as well as real photos of Journey and his pups. Also included are discussion ideas taken from the teacher’s guide, which is available on-line. This book should be in every K-5 classroom. Besides being a good story that kids will love, it’s an invaluable resource that cuts across many subject areas, from language arts to science. It’s not easy to write non-fiction that engages kids. Smith accomplishes that by threading Abby’s fictional story throughout. It’s a unique approach and works very well.

Journey received the 2016 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award (SONWA) best book for children from Northland College in Ashland Wisconsin. The college chooses three books each year on Earth Day in the categories of Adult, Young Adult and Children. View all the winners at this link:

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