Zaira and the Dolphins, by Mar Pavón, Ill. by Cha Coco

July 9, 2012

Zaira y los delfinesThe Book

This 32-page picture book, originally written in Spanish, is intended for children ages 5 and up, according to Amazon.

It was written by award-winning author, Mar Pavón, and illustrated by Cha Coco. Publisher Cuento de Luz has made this picture book adaptation available in English (in Spanish it’s titled Zaira y los delfines).

The Story

Zaira’s imagination has her seeing dolphins playing in a fountain, spending time with a cadre of imaginary friends, and taking joy in everything around her. But the town’s children keep making fun of her when she describes how the dolphins jump and play in the fountain. When Zaira’s world suddenly changes because she no longer sees water or dolphins in the fountain, the other children’s mockery truly begins to sting.  None of her imaginary friends are near and she is all alone…until a fairy appears. Will the fairy help bring back the dolphins?

The Good

This book can be appealing for kids who enjoy fairy tales. The writing is clear and kid-friendly. The descriptions of Zaira and her world encourage the reader to see the world from her point of view, despite the comments from the other children. The plot can help encourage conversations concerning friendship, bullying, and self-confidence.

The “hmm…”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book until the fairy made an appearance. What first gave me pause was her name: “Takethat”. I chuckled to myself thinking, it’s the revenge fairy. Then she used magic to wipe the smiles of the children who were laughing, followed by a proud “take that!” I wasn’t chuckling any more. I was puzzled.

I won’t give away the rest of the story, but the bullying was never addressed in a constructive way (actually, we never see the kids again). It was simply magicked away in an act of revenge. The story then continues Zaira’s journey to find her dolphins again, which involves paying attention and being a good girl.

Again, I am puzzled. Zaira had not misbehaved at any time in the story, but the fairy insisted that she observe and behave.

Perhaps this is part of the “whimsical” in this story. Then again, “whimsical” does not mean that issues like bullying should be downplayed. I can’t help but think that the story lost its way as soon as the bullying was simply shrugged off with magic.

The Art

This was my first time seeing Cha Coco’s work and I am now a fan. I must admit, the drawings are what first drew me to this book and I was never disappointed. She created a bright, whimsical, and colorful world for Zaira and her imaginary friends. Sometimes they were larger than life and helped illustrate Zaira’s fantastic view of the world.

Have you read this book?

If you have read this book (in either language), I’d love to know what you think.

Would  you recommend this book to parents and their children? Why?

Do you have reservations when it comes to this book?

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Witches Handbook, by Mónica Carretero

May 31, 2012

Witches Handbook

I’ve been putting off writing about this particular book. After reading it, I wanted to take a step back, think about it, and avoid writing something that was more knee-jerk reaction than a thoughtful review.

But most of my original knee-jerk reaction still prevails, so I really can’t put this off any longer.

The Book

This picture book, originally written in Spanish, is intended for children ages 5 and up, according to Amazon. It’s rather heavy on the narrative, and some of the vocabulary makes me wonder about claiming a Kindergarten audience, but kids would enjoy sharing this with their parents for a read-aloud. It was written and illustrated by award-winning author and illustrator, Mónica Carretero. Publisher Cuento de Luz has made this picture book adaptation available in English (in Spanish it’s titled Manual de Brujas).

The Story

Siblings receive a letter from estranged Aunt Amarga, enticing them to visit her to find out if witches really do exist. You see, Aunt Amarga’s life is coming to an end and she doesn’t want “the secret” to be lost forever. When the children visit her, she tells them all about witches and even warlocks. This includes information on how to recognize a witch, famous witches and warlocks (including well-known characters such as the witches from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty), the broom as a mode of transportation, and others. By the end of the story, the kids are in for a surprise and learn something that even Aunt Amarga did not know.

The Good

This book is appealing for kids who enjoy fairy tales, stories about witches, and not-so-scary stories. It is well-written and there are several instances where the narrative directly addresses the reader, inviting them to engage in several ways with the story. At the end of the manual, kids will enjoy a word puzzle, riddles, and even learn how to cook spell-removing pancakes. There are many whimsical aspects to the story and parts that will have children chuckling.

The Not So Good

I will admit, I am a fan of a good, scary story. I am also inclined to the magical and the funny. I don’t mind the not-so-scary, such as this book, but I do not appreciate the one-sided witches story that presents only a negative message. The author tells us that witches are bad. They are bad because they are lonely. If only someone had given them one kiss; it would have done them “so much good”. Recognizing witches is easy. Simply look for someone who dresses outlandishly and don’t be fooled by an innocent appearance. To make sure you have found a witch, try to approach her affectionately. A witch will reveal herself (become ugly with a bigger nose, apparently), and turn away.

All of that by page 8 (out of 32).

There is simply too much in this book that serves to perpetuate various negative stereotypes. For example, that ugly people are bad, that people who dress “differently” are weird, that there is something wrong if a woman remains single, that there is something wrong with people who don’t like or cannot receive affection as easily as others, etc. The messages clash with the whimsical writing, the bright and colorful illustrations, and the seemingly positive relationship between Aunt Amarga and her niece and nephew.

The Art (the best part!)

I am not a fan of watercolor art. However, Mónica Carretero expertly uses this medium to create bright and colorful characters that come to life on paper. She has my deepest respect as an illustrator and the illustrations in this book make me want to see more of her work. Each character is carefully planned and full of detail that manages to be captivating but not overwhelming.

Have you read this book?

If you have read this book (in either language), I’d love to know what you think.

Would  you recommend this book to parents and their children? Why?

Do you have reservations when it comes to this book?

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Drops of Life, by Esko-Pekka Tiitinen, illustrated by Nikolai Tiitinen

May 23, 2012

Drops of Life“The strong give the weak the power to do more when the wind is behind them!”

This is a story cooperation, collaboration, and love of life on Earth.

The Book

This picture book is intended for children ages 5-8. It comes from Finland, adapted from a play created by Esko-Pekka Tiitinen for the Environment Online (ENO) Programme, which is a “global virtual school and network for sustainable development”. The play has been performed in over 70 different countries and publisher Cuento de Luz has made this picture book adaptation available in English and Spanish (titled Gotas de Vida).

The Story

A lonely owl reminisces about the seemingly care-free days of his youth. A dove, desperate to reach Africa, asks him for help. The two embark on a journey where they face death but are rescued by an unlikely new friend: a whale. From then on they reach a home different from what the dove remembers. What was once a dense forest is now desert. It is up to them, along with the sun, a gust of wind, and other animals from around the world, to plant the seed of life back into the desert. It is not easy and it takes a lot of help, including help from the humans.

This book is appealing for those who enjoy the theater arts and animal stories. It can also appeal to those who enjoy a good mystery. The story never clearly explains how the dove’s home got destroyed, nor why the owl is bogged down by the memories of his youth. Readers are free to fill in these empty spaces by looking for clues in the dialogue-rich narrative, where they can make connections between the desert landscape and humanity’s progress coupled with indifference for others and the environment. The book, however, never points a finger of blame. Instead, the focus is on how we can all cooperate and collaborate to bring back the rich forests to now sandy terrain.

The Art

Nikolai Tiitinen combines bright and vibrant colors with rich, earthy tones. The blended backgrounds emphasize the fantastic nature of the characters and plot. The illustrator pays careful attention to each animal’s face, casting them in brighter colors, which helps draw the eye to them and encourages the reader to acknowledge them and empathize with their plight.

What questions might you ask to get kids talking about the book?

  1. If you were the dove, would you have asked the owl for help? Why?
  2. Why do you think the whale’s brothers and sisters risked their lives to deliver a message?
  3. How does planting trees help everyone who lives on this planet?

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Elephants Cannot Dance! by Mo Willems

September 21, 2011

Elephants Cannot DanceEver been told you can’t do something?

This is the story of someone who tried anyway!

The Story

In this picture book for ages 4-8, a little pig in a tutu tries to get Gerald the elephant to dance. Despite Gerald’s insistence that even books say elephants cannot dance, he is convinced to at least try. Can he do it? What happens when he tries?

Kids who love music, the theater arts, and animal stories will be attracted to this book.

Boys in particular might relate to the idea of giving up on something they enjoy, such as dancing, because others say it’s something only girls should do. By seeing Gerald’s trials, kids might feel hopeful and encouraged to try something outside of what a boy supposedly should or should not do. Gerald and Piggie let the reader know it’s ok to try.

What questions might you ask to get kids talking about the book?

  1. Why do you think Piggie insisted that Gerald try to dance?
  2. What are some of the things you have not tried because you think you can’t?
  3. Why is it important to try to do something, even if you think you can’t?

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The worst-case scenario survival handbook: Junior edition, by Borgenicht & Epstein, Ill. C. Gonzales

August 31, 2011

Want to laugh?

Want to be grossed out?

Just open up this book!

The Skinny

The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook is for kids ages 9-12. It offers humorous and sometimes gross advice on the many perils of childhood. Every chapter revolves around a theme, such as “Survival skills for your social life”, which is then divided into small sections including different scenarios, such as “How to survive farting in public”.

Who will love this book?

Kids who love humor, the “gross factor”, and practical advice will love this book (some grownups will like this as well!). The titles of each scenario alone can draw the attention of readers, even those who are reluctant to pick up a book. The illustrations are colorful and slightly exaggerated for maximum laughter. Behind the humor and gross aspects, kids can also find trivia, helpful information on self-confidence, being bullied, doing well in school, and how to survive getting into trouble with grownups.  The practical advice is down to earth and believable.

This is one of those few, well-rounded books that has the capability of appealing to a very large audience.

What questions might you ask to get kids talking about the book?

  1. What methods have you tried to calm down an angry parent? Has any of it worked?
  2. What should you do when you get into trouble at home? Why?
  3. Have you ever felt you needed advice and did not know who to ask? What kind of advice were you looking for?

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The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister, by Linda Lodding

August 21, 2011

Busy people…
Busy beyond belief…
You’ve heard of them.
You’ve seen them.
Hey, you might even BE one!

I know I am.

And so is Ernestine Buckmeister.

The Story

Ernestine is a little girl who sculpts, knits, yodels…well, let’s just say she has a full calendar! And that’s not counting her homework! Her parents want her to live life to the fullest. But as she is half-dragged, exhausted, to her next extracurricular activity, she looks longingly at her friend Hugo, who has time to play.

She gets an idea.

Ernestine is going to take her schedule into her own hands!

Linda Lodding does a wonderful job of pulling the reader into the story with a reminder to “live life to the fullest!” A good message, certainly. But before long, Linda has the reader questioning this motto and how people can take it to unhealthy extremes. After all, how can poor Ernestine live life to the fullest if she never has time to play?

The Art

I must confess an immediate attraction to Suzanne Beaky’s colorful illustrations. The characters’ expressions are poignant without becoming exaggerated. The character placement and attention to detail encourage the reader to imagine and relate with all the silly and funny elements, while emphasizing a real concern over burning out due to an overabundance of activities. My favorite illustration, by far, is of Ernestine  with her arms thrown wide open, inviting the characters around her and the reader to stop and inhale.

Questions

I love it when I stumble into – or have sent my way by well-meaning souls – a book that speaks to adults as much as it speaks to children. Linda Lodding does this very well. She reminds adults, children, and the parents and caregivers who love them about the importance of play without being preachy. While this book is aimed at children ages 5 and up, I highly recommend it to parents and caregivers as well for its insight into the mind of a child who is suffering more than benefiting from a packed schedule.

This picture book encourages the reader to ask questions such as:

  • What does it mean to live life to its fullest?
  • How can we encourage our children to live life to the fullest?
  • Why are learning activities such as the ones Ernestine participates in considered essential to having a full life?
  • What is the importance of play?

Book trailer

To take a closer look at the life of Ernestine Buckmeister, check out this book trailer, made by Linda Lodding’s daughter. The book is published by Flashlight Press and is scheduled for release October, 2011.

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I’d like to thank Linda for sending this wonderful book my way for review. It came at the most opportune time where “busy” has become synonymous to my name. It has reminded me to stop and inhale and remember what is most important. And to get back to blogging kidlit!

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Linda Ravin Lodding: writer, working mom, expat, shutter-bug, yoga class drop-out, cheesecake lover, hula-hooper, dreamer.

Follow Linda on Twitter

Join Ernestine on  Facebook (for fun play ideas!)

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Broken Memory: A Novel of Rwanda, by Elisabeth Combres

August 17, 2010

Rating: 3.5/5

Broken Memory is a story of a girl who survives her mother’s murder during the Rwandan 1994 genocide of the Tutsi people. She has no dreams, no ambitions, and no interest in her future. She has only one goal in mind: to fulfill her mother’s last wish…

“You must live, Emma.”

When I sat down to read this book, I braced myself for the horrors of genocide.

What I found was simple and thought-provoking.

This is not an in-depth look at a young survivor’s life or a detailed account of the horrors of genocide; it is a series of events that lead the character to catharsis and leave the reader with…an impression. A broken image.

It’s up to the reader to pick up the pieces and consider what makes us human and what can turn us into monsters.

It is a tiny book with barely a pause for characterization, where Emma’s story is quickly narrated and we are carried down a stream of words watching images of the old woman who takes pity on Emma and keeps her despite the danger to her life; of the gossiping women in the village who don’t like the sight of her; of the boy whose spirit and body have been broken but who she cannot help but befriend; of the old man who has suffered more than she thought anyone could bear; of the trials of murderers; and her journey back to her mother’s home.

While I want to give this book a high rating, its lack of characterization, its rushed prose and anticlimactic epilogue prohibit me from doing so. However, despite its shortcomings, it addresses an important part of history, and its fast pace will likely be appealing to many reluctant readers.

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Broken Memory won the Prix Nouvelle Revue Pédagogique and the Prix des lycéens allemands, where German high school students select their favorite book.

Broken Memory is part of the 2010 National Books for a Global Society’s list of outstanding K-12 multicultural literature.

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