Archive for the ‘Children’s’ Category


If you were a bird, would you prefer to live in a lush, green forest or one that was blackened and burnt by a recent wildfire? Surprisingly, as we learn in this slim, fully-illustrated, children’s non-fiction book, several bird species actually prefer to live in burnt forests. Sneed B. Collard III discusses work done by University of Montana biologist Dick Hutto, who set out to learn about the natural environment of areas blackened by wildfires. Hutto and his wife Sue counted more than 100 species of birds in several dozen burn areas in 1988, a year where more than 72,000 separate wildfires burned more than five million acres of land in the United States.

Hutto’s research found that some birds, including American Robins, Chipping Sparrows, Mountain Bluebirds, several species of woodpeckers, and others, find abundant food and shelter in burnt areas, often more so than in what we would normally consider healthier, richer environments. It isn’t just birds that thrive; insects, wildflowers, shrubs and other life also flourish in areas that have been recently burned. Instead of trying to suppress more wildfires, perhaps we should allow more of them to burn naturally.

Hutto also questions the current practice of loggers going into a forest after a wildfire and removing the remaining trees for industry. His reasoning is that wildfires are part of nature, and such “salvaging” disturbs the natural burnt environment and can do damage to the wildlife that thrives in those areas. However, Dr. Steve Arno, considered to be a world expert in fire and forest management, believes that logging after a burn can be helpful in making sure a more severe fire does not occur after the first “because you have all that dead fuel on the ground.” Dr. Vicki Saab, a wildlife biologist working with the U.S. Forest Service, is also featured in the book. She and her team have come up with scientific models that show what logging can be done in a burned area to balance the needs of some woodpecker species with industry’s desire to log the still-standing trees. The author shows that where industry, politics and nature meet, answers are not always easy or clear.

Although this 47-page book was written for children ages 8-14, I thought it was a good distillation for adults, too, of the complex issues surrounding wildfire. Those of us who grew up hearing Smokey Bear’s admonition, “Only you can prevent forest fires!” may start looking at wildfires a little differently.

The book is illustrated with many beautiful photographs of birds and burn areas. Scattered throughout the text are ten “Featured Fire Birds.” A photo of the bird is accompanied by a box of short text about the bird and how it survives in a burned area. This book focuses on Western bird species, since that is where most of the wildfires take place and where much of the scientific work is being done, but Virginia readers may recognize American Robins, Dark-Eyed Juncos, Northern Flickers, Hairy Woodpeckers and House Wrens.

Check the WRL catalog for Fire Birds

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Recommended to me by a children’s librarian who was making a display of children’s books that adults love to read, this little book provided some unexpected moments of grace in a grumpy day.

Prolific Newbery award-winning author Cynthia Rylant has produced a book that all ages could find quirky, thought-provoking and beguiling. It may not be for everyone, since the basic premise is that God is visiting earth in various everyday situations to see what living on earth is like. Written in verse, it includes some startling moments such as when God opens a shop called “Nails by Jim,” an idea I find surprising, but oddly beautiful:
“He got into nails, of course,
Because He’d always loved
Hands ——
Hands were some of the best things
He’d ever done”

God Got a Dog portrays God personally with human failings and doubts:
“He knew He WAS
but he didn’t
always feel that way. Not every day).”

Like Cynthia Rylant’s other books it is idiosyncratic, unconventional and gently effervescent, and made me look at the world in a slightly different way. Reading it was a small break from the day.

These poems were previously published as part of a longer teen book called God Went to Beauty School. To appeal to a younger audience, in God Got a Dog each poem has a lovely, calm and muted illustration, with a wide viewpoint that gives a sense of large scale.

God Got a Dog will suit adult readers who are interested in children’s books and it will also appeal to anyone who is eager to explore quirky ideas about religion.

Check the WRL catalog for God Got a Dog.

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WinnieAnyone coming from Winnipeg is well aware that the most famous of all bears, Winnie-the-Pooh, was named after that Canadian city. Many people know that the real Christopher Robin visited the real Winnie Bear at London Zoo, but London is thousands of miles away from Winnipeg, so the connection back to Canada is not well-known, even to fans of the Bear of Little Brain. Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh sets out to change this grave lack!

For the youngest of readers as well as for the staunchest of fans the book does a wonderful job of capturing the amazing details of Winnie Bear’s life. It all started during World War I when a Canadian solider, Harry Colebourn, impulsively bought an orphaned bear cub when his troop train stopped briefly in Ontario. Despite the astonishment and doubts of his officers he promised to look after their new, small, brown mascot, named Winnipeg after their regiment’s home city. Harry was a veterinarian and his job was looking after the army’s horses and to his surprise Winnie fitted in well with the normally skittish horses. Harry’s regiment took Winnie along with them on their troop ship to England, but thought France would be too dangerous for the small bear, so Winnie lived out his days at London Zoo, as a bear so friendly that children were allowed to ride on his back.

Warmly illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss, this short book is a must-read for Winnie-the-Pooh fans of all ages. It is great for the whole family to share as older readers will enjoy the author’s note and pore over the historic photographs of the real bear and his real people. Very young Winnie-the-Pooh fans will be fascinated by the connection between their bear who is a toy and a real wild animal.

Check the WRL catalog for Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.

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ComingHomeWith just a few words per page Coming Home captures the excitement and the anxiety, but mostly the joy, of a military homecoming. An elementary-school-aged boy is waiting at the airport with many other families, all smiling, but with tension showing in their body language. When the plane full of military personnel lands, all the waiting families run out to the runway, and then the hugs and happiness start. As the pages turn the boy witnesses many happy reunions but he gets more anxious as he searches for and fails to find his own loved one.

The warm earth tones of Coming Home’s expressive full-page spreads contrast with the action of the boy’s red shirt. The angles of view highlight his emotions, from the close up of the anxiety on his face to his isolation as he searches through the crowd, to his joy as he finally hugs his loved one.

Coming Home is spare and hopeful in its focus on the short period of the homecoming rather than the long wait. A much darker picture book about a child’s view of military deployment is Year of the Jungle, by The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins. Coming Home is a great book to be shared with any lap-sized child, either a small military child or any child who has ever waited for anything and finally got their heart’s desire.

If you are interested in other books about military family lifestyles, look at my website Books for Military Children.

Check the WRL catalog for Coming Home.

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AvatarTheLastAirbenderI know that having children is a life-enriching experience but I didn’t expect my almost-grown children to get me hooked on an initially unappealing children’s T.V. show; Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. At first the cartoons and martial arts action seemed cheesy, but the show delivers a compelling story filled with friendship, family (good and bad), coming of age, and sympathetic but realistically flawed characters.

The story is set in a fascinating universe where certain people have an innate ability to move and control physical matter, called bending. All benders can move only one element: either earth, water, air or fire. All, that is, except the Avatar who can bend all four, and this power is meant to be used to keep balance and harmony in the world. The Avatar disappeared over one hundred years ago which allowed the Fire Nation to wage a war to take over the world. In the first episode our heroes Katara and Sokka discover that the Avatar, Aang, has been frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years as a twelve-year-old boy. The three of them set off on journeys and adventures all around the world, gathering friends and enemies, such as plump, kindly General Iroh who dispenses sage advice and cups of tea, or short, blind Toph who seems helpless, but is much tougher than everyone else. The situation often looks dire, but as Katara says in the opening sequence, “I believe Aang can save the world.”

The well-developed universe includes real martial art systems as the basis for each type of bending and buildings, costumes and cultures based on real ancient Asian cultures (although sometimes mixed). But the best invention may be the chimeric animals! Aang has a huge, furry, guinea-pig-shaped Flying Bison named Appa that you can’t possibly see without wanting one.

There are many spin-off works such as the sequel The Legend of Korra  which expands on the story of the Avatar. It occurs seventy years later than Avatar: The Last Airbender and features that show’s character’s children and grandchildren. They live in Republic City which bears an uncanny resemblance to 1920s New York City.  There are also graphic novels some of which are drawn by the same artists and include original stories that are not in the original show like Avatar the Last Airbender: The Promise.

Like Doctor Who or Spirited Away this is great for the whole family to watch together. The stories are simple enough (and active enough) to appeal to the youngest set while the geopolitical wrangling and character development is enough to keep adults coming back for more.

Check the WRL catalog for Avatar: The Last Airbender.

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WestmarkThis trilogy of children’s adventures is a longtime favorite of mine, but I find it difficult to categorize. Libraries shelve it in juvenile fiction, which is misleading, as it has more tragic deaths than Game of Thrones, plus an ironic style that would likely whoosh over the heads of most children. It certainly did mine. On the other hand, it made me cry like a kid when I was in my thirties…

Three volumes with a Dickensian ensemble cast, from monarchs to street urchins, cover several years of political upheaval in the imagined countries of Westmark and neighboring Regia. Theo is the viewpoint character, a printer’s assistant who is driven from his livelihood by an increasingly despotic government bent on censoring the press. He takes up first with a traveling ensemble headed by showman and charlatan “Count” Las Bombas, where he meets Mickle, a streetwise apprentice thief, ventriloquist, and (unknown to anyone, including herself) missing princess. The escapades grow more serious when Theo falls in with a cell of student revolutionaries headed by the charismatic pragmatist Florian, a dashing figure in a soldier’s greatcoat. Now Theo is loyal both to the next monarch of Westmark and to the soldier-philosophers who want to abolish the monarchy.

Theo’s adventures present him with several moments of split-second decision making followed by self-doubt—is his hesitation to take a life a moment of conscience or of cowardice? Ideals are tested to the breaking point in the second book of the trilogy, The Kestrel. As Regia invades, the young are betrayed by the old, and fighting in the countryside intensifies, conscience seems ever more a luxury. Readers who thought this would be a light and fast-paced adventure will instead be traumatized by the sharp turn the series takes into harrowing warfare. The third book, The Beggar Queen, sees the survivors dealing with the legacy of their decisions, their lives further complicated as former enemies and worshipers of fallen heroes try to shape their country to different ideals.

The Westmark books are crowded, packed full of characters and events, and yet they aren’t long books. Alexander’s style is so streamlined, not a word is wasted; like a caricaturist, every line counts either to sketch a character or further the action. The books are fast-moving and dramatic, with characters and situations reminiscent of the French revolution, the Three Musketeers, or other Ruritanian adventures like The Prisoner of Zenda.  There’s a lot of overlap between devotees of this series and fans of the gallant, doomed student revolutionaries of Les Mis. With well-drawn characters and moral complexity, it’s also a natural choice for readers of Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series, starting with The Thief

Check the WRL catalog for Westmark.

The series continues with The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen

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Cover art, Satchel Paige on baseball moundThis week I have selected titles in honor of Black History Month. For other recommended titles that I have already reviewed, please check out Bayou, Incognegro, and African-American Classics.

Calling the life of Leroy “Satchel” Paige remarkable seems an understatement unworthy of its subject. But how else could you describe a man who, though held back by the bitter shackles of Jim Crow, embarked upon a baseball career that lasted six decades and earned accolades from fans and competitors alike. Joe DiMaggio called Paige “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”

Rather than a straightforward biography of Paige, the author chooses to present the story through the eyes of a man named Emmett, an African-American sharecropper from Alabama who has baseball aspirations of his own. Emmett’s story overlaps with Satchel Paige’s every few years, starting in 1929 with Paige’s early days in the Negro leagues through 1944, which is four whole years before Paige becomes one of the oldest rookies ever in Major League Baseball at age 42.

Emmett’s life and experiences as a sharecropper are filled with reminders of his place in society: daily doses of disrespect and not-so veiled promises of violence if he steps out of line. He watches Paige, a talented, cocky, showboating athlete who doesn’t seem to show the weight of society’s injustice on the mound. In this biography, Paige lets his pitching do the talking for him, tightening up his form and getting strikeouts when it matters most, whether it is in a Negro League game or a white team vs. black team barnstorming game.

This story is a well-paced, easy read, and although categorized as a children’s book, it is approachable by readers of all ages. The art is clean, although the characters aren’t particularly expressive; this serves to keep the emotional focus of the story on the narration.

Recommended to readers of history, specifically sports history and civil rights history.

Check the WRL catalog for Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow

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