Friday, December 23, 2016

PPBF: The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey

Merry Christmas to all!
There's no official Perfect Picture Book Friday today, but I wanted to share a very special picture book for the holiday.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, first edition.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey

Written Susan Wojciechowski

Illustrated by P. J. Lynch

Candlewick Press, 1995
Ages 6-10, 40 pp, 2860 words

Christmas, Overcoming Loss

"The Village children called him Mr. Gloomy. But, in fact, his name was Toomey. Mr. Jonathan Toomey. And though it's not kind to call people names, this one fit quite well. For Jonathan Toomey seldom smiled and never laughed."

A widow and her boy need the local wood carver to replace her heirloom nativity set. The wood carver happens to be Jonathan Toomey, the grouchiest man in town. As he works on each figure in the manger, the widow's young son watches intently. Despite the carver's scowls, the boy can't help interrupting. The sheep isn't happy enough. The cow isn't proud enough. The angel doesn't look important enough. As the relationship between the two progresses, the characters each begin to come to terms with their griefs. When Mr. Toomey faces his greatest challenge, how to represent the baby Jesus and his mother, his inspiration is drawn from a surprising source.

What I Love:
Some books have an enduring value that makes them timeless, even classic. This is one of those books. Published over twenty years ago, it has won awards, been reprinted multiple times, and continues to be sought by new generations of readers. Picture storybooks of the 90's were text heavy rather than stripped down like today's texts, but the story doesn't feel flabby. Instead the author takes time to develop backstory and uses plenty of dialogue.

Susan Wojciechowski's story is funny and heart-warming without being sappy. While the ending seems inevitable, it does not feel predictable.

If you've never experienced P. J. Lynch's luscious illustrations, you'll be spell-bound. His watercolors are more than life-like. They are rich and warm. The textures make you want to sit and stare.

P. J. Lynch's stunning watercolor illustrations add texture and emotion.

1. When my kids were small, I adapted the text, nearly word-for-word into a play for the school Christmas program. The kids enjoyed it and the audience laughed in all the right places. We used minimal sets and cast a narrator. Now that I think about it, we probably should've sold books as a fundraiser after the performance, giving the audience an opportunity to make it an annual event in their own homes.

2. I've seen the movie version. It was well-done and adequate, but it didn't move me like the book or like performing the story live.

3. My daughter is interested in whittling. We haven't tried it yet, but I recommend reading more on sites like JM Cremp's Adventure Blog. You can find a great selection of supplies at Mountain

4. We put our ceramic manger scene in a prominent place during Christmas. The figures were painted by my mom and the wooden stable was made by a dear friend's dad. I try to make it the first decoration so Jesus's birth stays central in our thoughts all season. I seem to remember an old Italian tradition in which nativity pieces were wrapped and one was opened each night like an advent calendar. Though I couldn't find internet evidence of that, there's an interesting article on traditional Italian Christmas celebrations on Kids World Travel Guide.

5. Read more Perfect Picture Book Friday reviews for seasonal titles: Goodnight, Manger, reviewed by Erik, Christmas in the Trenches, reviewed by Jarm, Christmas Lullaby, reviewed by Julie, or Twas Nochebuena, reviewed by Patricia.

6. Why not make this book a holiday tradition? Pair it with Patricia MacLachlan's The True Gift or Ruth Graham's One Wintry Night.

The True Gift,
by Pat MacLachlan and Brian Floca
One Wintry Night,
by Ruth Bell Graham and Richard Jesse Watson

Have you reviewed a Perfect Picture Book along this theme? Please leave the link in the comments below. Thanks!

 Perfect Picture Book Friday will return in 2017, available through Susanna Leonard Hill's blog.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Building Better Readers

"There is ample evidence that one of the major differences between poor and good readers is the difference in the quantity of total time they spend reading."
National Reading Panel, 2000*

Cat on shelves bookplate
Curtesy Miss Jacobs Library

*Via Read Faster

Monday, December 19, 2016

MMGM: A Child's Christmas in Wales

Today's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday pick

A Child's Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas,
Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
A Child's Christmas in Wales

Written by Dylan Thomas
Cover art by Trina Schart Hyman

Holiday House, 1985
Ages 8 and up
48 pages, 3000 words

Humor, Christmas, Memoir

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve of whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

Dylan Thomas rambles elegantly about the Christmases of his childhood, somewhere around 1924. His book is full of anecdotes about the eccentric uncles ("There are always uncles at Christmas. The same uncles.") and aunts and their holiday habits. But mostly this book is a reminiscence about a world long-gone. Not just nostalgic candy cigarettes and erector sets, but also enormously exaggerated snowfalls and childhood pranks expertly seen through the eyes of a boy and the lens of an old man.

This is the sort of classic which I probably would  never have gotten around to reading but for the copy I received, where the words magically came to life through Trina Schart Hyman's illustrations. The text is lyrical enough for younger readers, but the meaning may escape them. Certainly many of the historical references will leave them wondering, particularly if they are unfamiliar with European culture. But, like Victor Hugo, Thomas groups his examples in great bundles so one is sure to catch the meaning through context. For example, when listing the marvelous Christmas confections, Thomas mentions, "Hardboiled, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh." My mouth waters at the crunchy-chewy-sticky goodness of a bowl full of Christmas sweets despite the fact I've only ever eaten marzipan.

Kids will certainly relate to the excitement of a snowball fight, the dreadful practicality of a new pair of mittens, the familiarity of skulking in a room full of tipsy relatives singing at the top of their voices. I enjoyed Child's Christmas as a kid and I pick up something new each time I read it. (This year I get the joke about the "Happy Families" game and I finally know the difference between jelly beans and jelly babies!) Try it as a read-aloud and pair it with reminiscences of your own. Kids are fascinated by stories of grown-ups as children, especially how things were so different yet so similar.

1. If you enjoyed A Child's Christmas in Wales, you may like the audio version read by the author himself before he died. It's intriguing, but may be too hurried for young listeners.

Caedmon audio edition, 2002

2. If traditional illustration isn't your style, you can try these more recent versions.

1993 edition illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
2004 edition illustrated by Chris Raschka

3. I can't help myself. Trina Schart Hyman's work transports me. Here are more of her books which you might like to read.

A Christmas Carol
Reviewed for MMGM, December 2016
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
Reviewed May 2012

4. Start your own holiday tradition by making peppermint humbugs, for fans of Harry Potter as well as Dylan Thomas.

Peppermint humbug recipe courtesy Feast Magazine

5. Looking for candy cigarettes, jelly babies, space ships, rock candy, licorice pipes, and the like? You can find them all at Ballyhoo, old-fashioned ice cream parlor and candy shop, if you're ever in Pennsylvania.

Rob and Val, owners of Ballyhoo, Purveyors of fine ice cream and bubblegum cigars!

Have you reviewed a Marvelous Middle Grade Book along this theme? Please leave the link in the comments below. Thanks!

Check out all the Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations for December 19, 2016.

MMGM started way back in 2010 by Shannon Messenger, author of Keeper of Lost Cities. Each week, participating bloggers review our favorite books for ages 8-12. Why not join us?

Friday, December 16, 2016

PPBF: Non-Fiction Compendiums

There's no official Perfect Picture Book Friday today, but I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce a few of the worthwhile picture books I've read this fall.

Today's theme is FUN FACTS!

In Focus , Close-ups, Cross Sections, Cutaways
In Focus: Close-Ups, Cross Sections, Cutaways
Created by Libby Walden
Illustrated by Tracey Tucker, Thomas Pullin, Barbara Bakos, Chris Chatterton, Chester Bentley, Clair Rossiter, Lindsey Spinks, Jessie Ford, L'Atelier Cartographik, Jen Taylor,

360 Degrees, an imprint of Tiger Tales, 2016
Ages 8-11, 28 pp

Nonfiction, General Knowledge

"Enjoy a fresh perspective by looking at the wonders of the world from the outside, in. This super-size book slices its way through 101 objects, animals, and buildings to reveal some extraordinary interiors. Lift the giant flaps on every spread to see what surprises are hiding inside."

In Focus actually offers 60 pages of inside/outside peeks at animals on land and underwater, historical and modern buildings from Egypt to the artic, detailing inside the smallest seed to beyond the farthest star. Turn the page to view a new topic by a new illustrator, let's say"Transportation" illustrated by Jen Taylor. The "Outside" pages introduce readers to a sampling of items in that category, in this case, a submarine or a hovercraft. Then readers can lift the page flap showing the "Insides," cutaways and part diagrams revealing a smattering of facts.

This is the ultimate trivia book. I enjoyed the variety of illustrators and the overall graphic style. I found the concept fascinating. However at first read, I thought the text too cursory and some of the cross sections vague.
So I handed it to a kid in the target age. First I let him take a look at it alone. Being a reluctant reader, he didn't give it more than a few seconds. He lifted a few flaps half-heartedly and asked if he could go. Being the scheming ogre I am, I asked him to read inside or outside once on every spread (that's only 10 sections / 10 facts.) He came back 45 minutes later and regaled me for the next week with random facts.
"Did you know a starfish can grow up to forty arms?"
"Did you know the strawberry isn't really a berry?"
"Did you know the frame that holds up the yurt at school is called a khana?"
So if you can get this book into the hands of a kid, I recommend you do. While it's not earth-shatteringly informative, it is fun and worthwhile. It would make a great companion on car trips or while waiting for Christmas dinner. Who knows what conversations it will spark around the table.
The Slowest Book Ever, by April Sayre and Kelly Murphy
The Slowest Book Ever

Written by April Pulley Sayre
Illustrated by Kelly Murphy

Boyds Mill Press, 2016
Ages 8-12, 176 pp, 10000 words, 940L

Nonfiction, Nature, General Knowledge

“Warning: This is a S-L-O-W book. Do not read it while surfing, water skiing, or running to escape giant weasels. Avoid skimming it while swimming the backstroke or speed skating. Please consult a qualified librarian before reading your next book; after this, a fast-paced book might discombobulate your brain.”

Another book of random trivia, this one compact and quirky. The Slowest Book Ever by its very layout, invites readers to take their time reading through the pages. The author uses thought-provoking language like "thought potatoes" meaning ruminate about this idea. She encourages readers to "Read them. Think about them SLOWLY. Slow thoughts are often big thoughts.  So don't fret if it takes awhile to understand them. Don't worry if you need to read them twice. Traveling in a circle is, after all, still traveling."

The sections are random, but they lead from one concept to the next quite well. The information is not limited to outlandish facts about slow things like sloths and snail mail, but infuses slowing down into every page. One section is called "Chewy Nature Thoughts" inviting young minds to chew and digest before moving on to the next page. Page 148 is a blank spread on which to rest your face as you ponder the slowness of the universe. No kidding. Copious end notes and personal touches make this an outstanding book to inform and delight.

Animal Planet Animal Atlas
Animal Planet Animal Atlas
ed. James Buckley, jr.

Animal Planet, 2016
Ages 7-10, 96 pp, 1000L

Nonfiction, Animals

"Most of the Earth's land is divided into the seven continents, and each of the seven continents includes a range of biomes. The animals pictures on this map represent just a few of the millions of species that live in them. You can look for your favorites and jump forward to the continent that they live on, or read page-by-page to discover new places and animals."

This book is just what it says, an over-sized atlas highlighting short tidbits about animals around the globe. The main difference with this book, is it is sorted by biome. Though the table of contents lists sections by continent, within each section, the map will be divided by the biomes on that continent. This was a fun and interesting way to look at the world and a good way to introduce facts which might be omitted from other similar books.

May I also recommend
The Human Body,
A compendium of physical facts.
Welcome to New Zealand,
A journal of flora and fauna.

Glow, A school of glowing sea creatures.

Have you reviewed a Perfect Picture Book along this theme? Please leave the link in the comments below. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Still in the Library

"In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed."
~Germaine Greer*

Sylvan bookplate by George Wolfe Plank
Courtesy Pratt Institute Libraries

*Via Quote Garden

Friday, December 9, 2016

PPBF: Art, Scupture, Photography

There's no official Perfect Picture Book Friday today, but I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce a few of the worthwhile picture books I've read this fall.

Today's theme is FINE ART!

Dorothea's Eyes, the biography of
photographer Dorothea Lange
Dorothea's Eyes: Dorothea Lange Photographs the Truth
Written by Barb Rosenstock
Illustrated by Gerard DuBois

Calkins Creek, 2016
Ages 8-12, 40 pp, 580L

Biography, Disability, Nonfiction, Photography

Dorothea opens her grey-green eyes.
They are special eyes.
They see what others miss . . .

Photographer Dorothea Lange may have been shy as a child, but when she developed polio, leaving her with a limp, she wanted to completely disappear. By hiding behind her camera, she could almost do that. Though she wished to remain invisible, Lange wanted nothing more than to draw attention to the invisible people she saw through her lens. As a photo-journalist, she told the stories of the poor and destitute. Her work speaks powerfully for the voiceless common people, saying, "This is the way it is. Look at it! Look at it!"

This was a great story and an interesting biography. Of course I know Lange's work and have studied her influence, but I didn't know anything about her as a person, nor how her personal struggles changed the course of her life and informed her photography. As with all of Barb Rosenstock's books, Dorothea's Eyes is well researched, thoughtfully written, and superbly organized.

 For more reviews of this book, check out the posts from fellow PPBF participants, Beth Anderson and Sue Heavenrich.

Seeing Things, A Kid's Guide to Looking at Photographs
Joel Meyerowitz: Seeing Things: A Kid's Guide to Looking at Photographs
Written by Joel Meyerowitz
Illustrated with photos of thirty famous photographers

Aperture, 2016
Ages 8-12, 80 pp

Art Appreciation, Nonfiction, Photography

"I chose the photographs in this book with the hope that the things you discover in them will encourage you to open your eyes and your mind so that you can see the world around you in a new way."

"The moment of seeing is like waking up."
The author's goal is to teach readers how to think about photography. What to look for. How the photo was created. Why the photographer chose that particular moment in time. The result is stunning. Broken into sections such as Timing is Everything, Shadow Play, and The Frame Within the Frame, this could be a textbook on artistic composition or a study of the world's great photographers. Each section has a photo by a different artist which illustrates something specific to look for: repetition of shapes, components that move the eye around the page, the use of reflections, the power of a human gaze. Readers will appreciate art in a new way. They will not only take away tools to use in seeing the world or in making their own art, but also a greater understanding and appreciation for photography as an art form. I loved this book. I recommend it for every student, and I don't say that lightly. It is engaging, enlightening, transforming. After reading Seeing Things, I have no doubt many kids will stop to think as they snap chat or pose for their next selfie. And that's a good thing.

I should note that both front and back covers are cutouts, with the eye, iris, cornea being on different layers. It may help draw readers to this book, but it is not the kind of  design that will last in a school library or classroom. I was disappointed the book didn't contain an index of photographers. Also, the typesetting was bizarre, offsetting paragraphs and drastically changing font sizes. I guess the changes were meant to keep kids reading through the whole page, but it was a bit annoying for me, seeming haphazard and arbitrary. But don't let it stop you from reading and recommending this book.

Cloth Lullaby,
The biography of sculptor Louise Bourgeois
Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois
Written by Amy Novesky
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Harry N. Abrams, 2016
Ages 5-8, 40 pp, 1000L

Biography, Non-fiction, Art

"Louise was raised by a river. Her family lived in a big house on the water that wove like a wool thread through everything."

Cloth Lullaby uses poetic imagery and highly stylized illustrations to underscore the idea that Louise's experiences and memories wove together to lead her to become a fabric sculptor as an adult. Her mother was a weaver, and the idea of tapestries is a recurring theme throughout. Spiders and webs, too, find their way into the illustrations. As well as reinforcing the idea of weaving, they prefigure what is perhaps Bourgeois's most famous work, Maman, a thirty-foot spider.

Kid Artists, the newest book in the Kid Legends series
Kid Artists: True Tales of Childhood from Creative LegendsWritten by David Stabler
Illustrated by Doogie Horner

Quirk Books, 2015
Ages9-12, 208 pp, 1010L

Biography, Sports, History, Nonfiction

DaVinci, Van Gogh, Potter, Carr, O'Keeffe, Nevelson, Seuss, Pollock, Schulz, Ono, Basquiat, Monet, Picasso, Kahlo, Lawrence, Warhol, Haring,

This was my first glimpse at the True Tales series. I can see the kid-appeal. The stories, picked from actual childhood events, are usually amusing, generally inspiring, and frequently educational. The style of illustration is absurd, aimed at luring kids who might not normally read biography books. I liked how the author grouped the artists: incidents during which the artist was influenced by nature, artists' whose work was shaped by difficulties like illness or loss, and artists who showed persistence in spite of obstacles or failures. I also liked the variety of artists the author chose. This guide seems like a great introduction for young readers despite the decidedly ridiculous tone and the lack of any actual reproductions of their work.

Check out these and other Perfect Picture books at your local library.

Gordon Parks,
by Carole Boston Weatherford and Jamey Christoph
What Degas Saw,
Samantha Friedman and Cristina Pieropan

Have you reviewed a Perfect Picture Book along this theme? Please leave the link in the comments below. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Patiently Step Forward

"Being a writer takes more than simply the ability to write. In fact, we have to do more than engage the audience, more than catch the eye of that dream publisher, more than sculpt the perfect story arc with characters that are powerful and memorable.
"We have to do it all with the patience and tenacity to forge through a journey with no path, no timeline and a million different directions."
Erika Wassall*

Stepping Stones bookplate,
by Otto Krebs via Pinterest

*Via Kathy Temean's Writing and Illustrating

Monday, December 5, 2016

MMGM: The True Gift

Today's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday pick
The True Gift: A Christmas Story,
by Patricia MacLachlan and Brian Floca
The True Gift: A Christmas Story
Written by Patricia MacLachlan
Illustrated by Brian Floca

Atheneum Books For Young Readers, 2009
Grades 2-6, 81 pages
6400 words, 480L


       Liam and I sit on the backseat of Papa's old car. The car heater isn't working, so Liam and I share a blanket. We can see our breath in the air.
       "How many books did you bring?" whispers Liam.
       Liam and I share a worry. Our school closes for ten days, and we're going to Grandpa and Gran's house. We always go there in December, waiting for Christmas and Mama and Papa to come Christmas Day. We worry about not taking as many books as we'll need.
       "I brought fifteen books," I say.
       "I brought thirty-seven," says Liam.


Maybe this is more of a chapter book, but the narrator is old enough to be a middle grade character, and the story is so touching and well-written, that it would make a great fireside read for all ages this season.

Lily and Liam go to their grandparents farm like they do every Christmas. When Liam notices the white cow in the field is all alone this year, he gets the idea she must be lonely. And when Liam gets an idea in his head, all his sister can do is hang on for the ride.

As in all MacLachlan's books, the voice is genuine from the first page. She reveals the innermost thoughts of her characters effortlessly through dialogue and actions. Her subtlety is unmatched. I love the ending after the ending in this story, but I warn you, it may bring a tear, or maybe I'm just extremely sentimental. If you are already of fan of Sarah Plain and Tall, then you know there's every reason to give this book a try.

 1. If you enjoyed The True Gift, I recommend any of Patricia's other books, including those reviewed by other MMGMers below.

Sarah, Plain and Tall
Illustrated by Marcia Sewall
Reviewed by Jennifer
White Fur Flying,
Cover art by Amy June Bates?
Reviewed by Mundie Moms
Kindred Souls,
Cover art by Erwin Madrid
Reviewed by Karen
The Truth of Me
Cover Art by Erwin Madrid
Reviewed by Jennifer
Reviewed by Michael

The Poet's Dog, Art by Kenard Pak
Reviewed by Patricia
Reviewed by Rosi
and one of my personal favorites

Journey, Illustrated by Barry Moser
review from Publisher's Weekly

2. Want to know more about Patricia MacLachlan? You can read a Q & A with the author on Publisher's Weekly or listen to an audio interview from Reading Rockets. Harper Collins has provided a video biography below.

3. And if you are very clever, perhaps you can make a White Cow or Brown Cow Christmas ornament using the pattern on Doobie's Doings. The book and ornament together would make a great gift.

cow Christmas ornament courtesy Doobie's Doings

Have you reviewed a Marvelous Middle Grade Book along this theme? Please leave the link in the comments below. Thanks!

Check out all the Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations for December 5, 2016.

MMGM started way back in 2010 by Shannon Messenger, author of Keeper of Lost Cities. Each week, participating bloggers review our favorite books for ages 8-12. Why not join us?

Friday, December 2, 2016

PPBF: Winter Trees

Today's Perfect Picture Book Friday pick

Winter Trees, poetry in linoleum print collage,
by Carole Gerber and Leslie Evans 
Winter Trees
Written Carole Gerber
Illustrated by Leslie Evans

Charlesbridge, 2008
Grades K-5, 507 words
reading level 3.7

Poetry, Nature, Winter

Crunch! We walk through fresh new snow that sparkles on the frozen ground.
It's peaceful here among the trees—our footsteps make the only sound.

Illustrated with linoleum prints, the book follows a child's trip through the woods, identifying seven species of trees as they appear in winter, leafless.
Both the MC and his dog explore the woods using all of their senses to enjoy the beauty of winter even as the text identifies characteristics of the trees found in most Northeastern deciduous forests. Intricate illustrations and lyrical text make distinguishing different types of trees easy--even in the middle of winter, when only bare branches stand like skeletons against the sky.

What I Love:
I love the perspective used in this book. Thinking about how nature looks during a different season makes this story fresh. Leave it to a poet to see things with new eyes. Startlingly beautiful as a walk in the woods, when your heart pounds and you hold your breath because the stillness is so complete. Rhyme is off in one places with a couple nearly-off meters, but still rhythmic and informative, moving the narrative forward. I loved it. Highly recommended!

Selected for the 2008 John Burroughs Young Readers List and as a NSTA/CBC Outstanding Tradebook for 2009.


Thanks to Stacey of GluedToMyCrafts
for this crafty painted tree
1. Obviously, the best activity would be to use this book as a guide and see how many of the trees in your neighborhood match the trees in the book. If you don't live near a deciduous forest, use your senses to take note of the trees which grow in your area. I recently reviewed Welcome to New Zealand, where I posted links for starting a nature journal along with the suggestions mentioned in the book.

2. Sue blogs about ideas to look for and record in your nature notebook every "Wild Wednesday" on Archimedes Notebook.

3.For a holiday themed tree craft, get messy on KidsActivitiesBlog using their instructions for a cute handprint Christmas tree.

4. eHow has step-by-stepp instructions for creating birdseed ornament feeders which readers con hang during their nature walks.

5. Where Imagination Grows produced simple glass jar luminaries for fall, but by changing the color of the tissue paper, I think these would be a beautiful craft to go along with the book, and they double as pretty teacher gifts.

6.A few cookies and a little decorator's icing from FineMotorSkills, and you'll have cookies as pretty as hers, decked out in wintery branches and snowflakes. Her step-by-step instructions include plenty of photos and her text is easy to follow.

7. Check out these and more Perfect Picture Books at your local library.

Reviewed by Sue
Reviewed by Penny

Reviewed by Loni
Reviewed by Cathy

Reviewed by Susanna
Reviewed by Joanne

Reviewed by Julie
Reviewed by Joanne

Have you reviewed a Perfect Picture Book along this theme? Please leave the link in the comments below. Thanks!

Check out all the recommended titles for Perfect Picture Book Friday
for Friday, December 2, 2016 available on Susanna Leonard Hill's blog.