Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred

Cleverly written and beautifully illustrated, The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred is the story of a young farm girl and a group of helpful animals who join together to make a large pot of rice pudding ~ arroz con leche.  Each new character adds a needed ingredient or cooking supply for the dessert recipe.

Written in the fashion of The House that Jack Built, Samantha R. Vamos introduces children to Spanish by first presenting a word in English and then replacing that word with its Spanish equivalent.  The result is a lyrical, bilingual book that engages children by using language in a fun, musical way.

The illustrations are rich and colorful and vividly portray the culture of Latin America.  Rafael Lopez is the artist behind these vibrant pages.  His magical style brings life to the farm maiden and animals, and the color and detail add excitement to every scene.  It is no wonder Rafael has won many awards for his art including the Pura Belpre Award - an award given annually to Latino authors and illustrators whose work captures and celebrates latino culture through children's literature.

I read The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred to my six year old daughter.  A young lover of music and language, she was interested and engaged in this poetic story.  There's a rice pudding recipe at the end of the book that we've decided to try.  It sounds delicious!  She and I both recommend this wonderful book.

Blog you later!

Ali B.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Small As An Elephant

I read this book in a day.

The story is compelling, and the main character Jack is well-written and believable.  From the first page of Jennifer Jacobson's middle grades book, I found myself emotionally connected to this brave and loyal boy.  I simultaneously wanted to save him and cheered his efforts to save himself.

Small as an Elephant is the story of Jack, a young boy who wakes up on the first morning of a camping trip and realizes his mother is gone.  Although worried and upset, Jack knows what has happened.  His mom has left. Again.

Alone in a strange state, Jack must find her.  But how does a penniless, eleven year old boy go about finding his bipolar mother?

Some of the things I loved about Small as an Elephant:

  • Jack's mother is not a character.  She only appears in Jack's thoughts and memories.  Her absence throughout the book makes Jack's predicament all the more heart-breaking and real.
  • Jack loves elephants.  His love for the animals and facts about elephants are important elements in the story.
  • Jack's journey is believable.  His efforts to find his mom, feed himself, travel, and not get caught are plausible actions for a resourceful young boy.
Small as an Elephant would make a great book club selection for middle grades readers or a book for a parent to share with their child.  There's much to be discussed in this wonderful story.

Blog you later!

Ali B.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Read To Me - Picture Book Challenge - Touch The Sky

I was a high jumper in high school.  A very mediocre high jumper.  Alice Coachman was a world class high jumper, ten time National Champion, and Olympic gold medalist.  In and of themselves, these are huge accomplishments, but as an African American woman in 1940's Albany Alabama, these are truly remarkable.

Touch The Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper is the story of a young, poor, African American girl with big dreams and even bigger talent.  Ann Malaspina wrote this captivating biography in lyrical free-verse, telling the story of Alice's life from her humble beginnings - she made her own high jump crossbar with sticks and rags - to the final page where Alice win's the Olympic gold medal in 1948.

The artwork captures Alice Coachman's story using beautiful illustrations by Eric Velasquez.  The Author's Note at the end of the book tells more about this remarkable woman who continued to inspire others long after becoming the first African America woman to win an Olympic gold medal.  The author includes early photos of Alice Coachman with her teammates from the Tuskegee Golden Tigerettes track team and of Alice in competition.

I try to read to my fourth grade son as much as possible, but sometimes he just doesn't want me to.  Fair enough.  I've always preferred reading to being read to.  I decided to share Touch the Sky with him.  I wanted a more mature perspective on the free verse story than my six year old daughter could provide.  He really enjoyed it.  He loves watching the Summer Olympics (me too) and thought it was cool that Alice Coachman won her gold medal in the same city where the 2012 Olympics will be held.  And, he loved the poetry.

Blog you later!

Ali B.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Honestly, I don't read a lot of YA.  The fads and trends are tiresome, and  I hate the constant comparisons.  That being said, I have read some incredible YA.  When the story is good, it sucks me in.  I can't put it down.  Literally!

Three years ago, while in the throws of my Twilight obsession, I read at stoplights, in parking lots, and yes, in the bathroom.  During one particularly engrossing reading session, I even agreed to let my son (then seven years old) give away all his money in a *cash sale*.  It wasn't until he had trouble dragging a kitchen chair out the door while trying to balance his piggy bank that I came out of my stupor.  I appreciated his philanthropic idea, but got nervous at the idea of my 1st grader sitting outside handing out cash to people who walked by and, in his word, needed it.

Divergent is worth every stolen moment of YA pleasure.  All my doubts about reading another dystopian series vanished when Veronica Roth introduced me to Tris.  Tris has a lot in common with other noteworthy dystopian heroines - Katniss comes to mind - but Tris is her own person.  She's strong, stubborn, and a bit of a bad-ass.  I'm a fan!

There are five factions in the Divergent's Chicago of the future.  Amity is the faction of peace.  Candor is honesty.  Erudite is intelligence.  Abnegation is selflessness.  Dauntless is bravery.  On choosing day, all sixteen year old citizens must choose a faction.  The choice of factions decides your friends, beliefs and loyalty, but first you must pass initiation.

Setting up a society where people are separated by virtue - this can't go smoothly.  Am I right?

Divergent  is my kind of YA.  I can't wait for the sequel - Insurgent - coming May, 2012.

Blog you later!

Ali B.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Debut Author Challenge - The Whole Story of Half a Girl

Middle School is a horrible place for some kids.  The three years you spend in middle school are filled with changing bodies, social expectations and cliques.  The pressure to *fit in* is overwhelming.  Popularity becomes a goal, and some kids will go to any lengths to achieve it.  In her debut MG book, Veera Hiranandani skillfully captures the social dynamics of middle school.  Reading her book transported me back to my own adolescence - some of it good and some of it bad.

The Whole Story of Half a Girl tells the tale of Sonia Nadhamuni, a half Indian and half Jewish American girl, whose life is turned upside down when her father loses his job and Sonia and her little sister are forced to leave private school to attend the local public school.  The two schools are worlds apart.  At her old school everyone hung out together, but now Sonia must decide between hanging out with the popular crowd or with a group of kids who bus in from a different town.

There are other elements to the story that make The Whole Story of Half a Girl compelling for Middle Grades readers:

  • Depression
  • Race
  • Cultural identity
  • Prejudice
  • Boy/Girl relationships
The Whole Story of Half a Girl is a great choice for MG readers (especially girls) who are struggling with navigating social pressures while trying to remain true to themselves.

Blog you later!

Ali B.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dead End In Norvelt

Jack Gantos knows how to write great characters.  Of course, one of his characters IS Jack Gantos, but I don't know if that made it easier or harder to write.  The characters kept me reading his Newbery Award winning book, Dead End in Norvelt.  The story was interesting enough, but I wouldn't have enjoyed the book if it weren't for Jack, Bunny - his best friend, and his feisty old neighbor, Miss Volker.

Jack is a smart kid with odd parents and a nose that bleeds whenever he gets scared, stressed or excited.  He makes some bad choices and ends up grounded for the summer in the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Norvelt.  Jack's only diversion is helping his neighbor write obituaries for the founding citizens of Norvelt.   Jack doesn't mind writing obituaries, but he doesn't like dead bodies and his best friend lives in a mortuary.

Bunny Huffer is Jack's best friend.  She isn't a main character, but her story appearances are memorable and funny.  Bunny is an abnormally short and stout young girl with a big mouth and big ideas.  She's the self-proclaimed leader of her Girl Scout troop and the Norvelt little league team.  She has no sympathy for Jack's predicament and often berates him for not being able to join her for summer fun.  She's scared of nothing and willingly starts a neighborhood watch group to track down the gang of Hell's Angels terrorizing Norvelt.

Miss Volker is Jack's elderly neighbor.  Hounded by the town's lovesick busy body, Miss Volker occupies her days writing for the Norvelt newspaper.  The town of Norvelt was a planned community, championed by Eleanor Roosevelt to help poor coal miners and their families buy their first homes.  Mrs. Roosevelt gave Miss Volker the responsibility of tracking the health of Norvelt's founding townspeople, and Miss Volker believes that duty extends to writing their obituaries.  Jack's mom volunteers him to help write and type the obituaries, but Miss Volker also enlists Jack's help as a chauffeur, errand runner, and exterminator.

There is plenty going on in Norvelt - motorcycle gangs, mysterious deaths, fires - to keep readers interested in Jack's *sleepy* little town.

Jack Gantos knows how to write great characters.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Blog you later!

Ali B.