Jan/Feb 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

Stories for Winter Reading

Review by Colleen Mondor

Caldecott Medal winner Uri Shulevitz takes a story from his childhood and turns it into a fantastical episode that will appeal to many children with his gorgeous title, How I Learned Geography. In spare prose the author and illustrator explains how when he was very young, "war devastated the land" and he and his parents had to leave their home with nothing. They came to another country, a city "of homes made of clay, straw and camel dung, surrounded by dusty steppes, burned by the sun." Struggling to stay alive they visited the local market for food and one day Shulevitz's father bought a map instead of bread. At first the child was furious to be robbed of a meal but after the map was hung on the wall of their room it "was flooded with color." Young Uri was fascinated by the map, studying it, copying it and most importantly, imagining what life would be like in the exotic places the map portrayed. In many ways the map, and the promise of life beyond their difficult existence, became Uri's new world. "I spent enchanted hours far, far from our hunger and misery," he writes. The map became more than a single meal could ever have been.

On the book's final page Shulevitz provides a brief biography explaining how he left Poland at the age of four or five, sought refuge with his parents in modern Kazakhstan and from there eventually lived in Paris, Israel and the U.S. He recalls the original map from the story and shows a couple of his childhood drawings. This brief explanation of the book's factual basis was an excellent idea and hammers home the story's impact that much more.

I'm sure an argument could be made that the events in Geography are strong stuff for a children's picture book—you have war, extreme poverty and the life of refugees laid out as simple facts of life. I always roll my eyes when I hear this sort of thing however as it is children who are most often the victims of war, poverty and homelessness so it seems to me that more than anyone, they should be the ones reading about these subjects. Moreover, Shulevitz reveals the darker moments of his childhood in such a forthright manner—this is how it was and what we did—that fear doesn't seem to play a big part of the story. I would argue that this is actually a powerful story about hope and looking beyond your current circumstance to the future. I thought it was exceptional in all respects (the artwork is spectacular and changes to evoke moods of despair on one page and exuberant joy on another) and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a wide range of young readers, from kindergarten to middle school. How I Learned Geography is a book to broker future discussions on a wide range of topics and while it can be enjoyed simply for its story, there is a real strength here in the ideas that Shulevitz about conflict and refugees.

My initial attraction to Sandy's Circus was based on Boris Kulikov's wonderful color illustrations that manage to be both realistic and quirky at the same time. His pictures seem almost theatrical in presentation, something that made sense when I learned he is also a costume designer. Kulikov easily draws the reader in, makes the book irresistible from the very beginning but it is author Tanya Lee Stone who should be credited with discovery an amazing story and running with it. As it turns out, Sandy's Circus is the story of artist Alexander Calder, the man who invented the mobile.

Stone's story begins with Sandy's childhood as the son of an artist and sculptor. His creative talent for building things was evident from an early age but it took several years before he settled on an artistic career. Sandy's unusual talent was to form portraits out of wire, a gift that led him to build intricate dioramas of animals and people and eventually form his own miniature mechanical circus. Stone describes how the pieces were constructed and Kulkov's illustration frame Sandy's hands, as he makes the small moving people and animals. Soon enough, the circus became a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic as something "full of joy and fun." The author then recounts how Sandy took the ideas of movement from his circus and crafted other things that move. He "turned ordinary objects into extraordinary art, and invented the very first mobiles."

There are many charming and wondrous things about Sandy's Circus. The story is compelling and will draw children in from the very beginning. The mere idea of what Sandy created is compelling for any child with the slightest artistic tendency and beyond that—the mechanically curious are going to love the idea of anyone inventing mobiles. Highly recommended.

Don Brown excels at history titles for young readers and his lovely book about the very quirky Albert Einstein, Odd Boy Out is exactly the sort of book that a parent loves to read to a precocious child. Albert had a very bad temper, was exceedingly strange in his interests and preoccupations (for the average child anyway) and utterly inept in pretty much all social situations. The only thing he loved a lot was math which one can imagine left his parents confused and concerned at the same time. He was clearly on track to be a genius or (tragically) a serial killer. We all know how the story ends but one does wonder, really, how on earth he got there.

Brown writes the book to his audience and keeps Albert's story straightforward and simple; any child who has ever not fit in will find a way to identify with some aspect of his life. His illustrations are particularly a good fit here, with the brown background complementing Albert's stark moods and frustrations (and Albert himself, in his brown clothes and grumpy face is exactly the sort of little boy who would seem to suffer all the difficulties that Brown discusses in the text). What I can't help but wonder though is if the book will truly connect with the young children the format is aimed at when it is typically older ones (from the fourth or fifth grade and up) who will be better able to identify with Albert Einstein's life. For me, Odd Boy Out might appear to be for first or second graders but really should be presented to older elementary school or even junior high readers. It's a book to give hope to misfits; kids who resolutely won't fit in. If they know how big the reward for following their own hearts can be then it might help them hold out through the tough times. After all, if Albert Einstein could forge his own way through some monumentally tough times, then so could you—so could any of us.

That kind of genius payoff makes the whole popular kids thing seem irrelevant in the long run and when you're twelve, the long run is usually all you've got. Go Don Brown!

Piano Starts Here is an intimate biography of pianist Art Tatum, focusing primarily on his growing-up years. With fluid illustrations which complement the musical subject, jazz musician Robert Andrew Parker tells a gentle story about a young boy, his impressive talent and the people who loved him along the way and provided valuable encouragement. Tatum suffered from a problem with his eyes that greatly affected his vision (surgeries did not help) but he persevered and never stopped playing, eventually making it to New York and the musical big time.

Parker does a nice job of grounding Tatum's story in his family, friends and the church that led to his first public performance. This is a sweet story, told in first person, about a man who left home but never left behind the people he cared about. Parker includes a detailed note at the end about Tatum and his reasons for writing a book about his childhood (as most books concentrate on his professional career). This makes the whole story that much more personal and will likely resonate with readers who are seeking information for book reports. (Hopefully they will seek out some of Tatum's music as well.) Nicely done and it would be lovely to see similar titles on other musicians in the future.

One of the things that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed about U.S. society is how very little we know about those countries. James Rumford's Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad is an original way to teach children about the country and its unique history of calligraphy. It also features an introspective soccer playing protagonist who struggles to maintain his love for letters during war and political chaos. By the story's end children will most certainly have found a reason to be curious about Afghanistan and more importantly, will likely see themselves in the story of young Ali.

Rumford's obvious love for lettering is on every page of Silent Music as Ali explains how much he enjoys soccer, music, and calligraphy. "I love to make the ink flow—from my pen stopping and starting, gliding and sweeping, leaping, dancing to the silent music in my head." The author accompanies this descriptive text with large illustrations across the page in muted colors that showcase Ali's calligraphy in unique ways. The letters fly across a backdrop of mosaics and fabrics, tiles and wallpapers of blues, reds and oranges that draw attention for their elegance. Afghanistan is revealed through the writing and doodling Ali as a place of unparalleled beauty and ordinariness: of a script that flows like nothing in English, and of parents and grandparents who patiently encourage a young boy enraptured by words. Ali learns the story of Yakut, the famous calligrapher from Baghdad eight hundred years before. He dreams of creating comparable beauty, but slowly finds himself struggling as bombs rain down on his city in the year 2003. Hiding under blankets late at night, Ali clings to his art. "I filled my mind with peace," Rumford writes, showing how hard it was for any child in that place and time to distance himself from the war.

The book ends with a return to the soccer players with gorgeous silhouettes against a golden sky of calligraphy. Silent Music is ultimately a beautiful book about both a little boy like so many others and an ancient art that is largely unknown to American readers. It appears to be something both exotic and moving and achieves as a book that should appeal far beyond the youngest readers it is directed toward. Silent Music is a singular artistic achievement; it's something lovely and relevant and completely unforgettable.

Barbara Lehman excels at fantastic wordless picture books that manage to transport readers to other worlds while still keeping a foot firmly placed in reality. In Trainstop a young girl is on a rather mundane rail trip until the train passes through a tunnel. On the other side she finds herself in a circus-like atmosphere, and everyone else on board has fallen asleep. She steps off the stalled car and finds herself a Gulliver-like character called to assist the much smaller residents of this new place who need a hand with a long reach. Once the job is done she returns to the train, continues her travel and heads home with her family. Lehman always makes sure to include something in the final pages that proves the whole episode has not been a dream however and in Trainstop she continues this tradition with great aplomb.

In a lot of ways, Lehman's book are "wishing" books. They show readers how things might happen if they are open to the possibilities around them. These are books that engender awareness as they are enjoyed, and even though words are not present, they still tell powerful stories. Don't look for Lehman for the wee little ones; she is an excellent choice for elementary school age children with big imaginations who want a story that lets them add their own ideas.

Deb Lund and illustrator Robert Neubecker combine monsters and trucks in the most delightful manner in their very colorful book Monsters on Machines. The story (told in verse) follows Dirty Dugg, Gorbert, Stinky Stubb and Melvina as they operate all the traditional heavy machinery like tractors, bulldozers and pavers as they strive to get a job done. The building covers a two-page spread when completed and is a colorful blend of castles, the Taj Mahal and something out of Disney's "It's a Small World" ride (and I mean that in the most complimentary manner possible). In the end there is a monster meal and monster naps and then the completion of landscaping, sidewalks and "they each do their share." It's a fun book, easy to read out loud, clearly written for big laughs and with illustrations that put the monsters way over the top, as the text wants them to be. (I should stress here that these are not scary monsters but silly sweet ones and will be welcomed by even the youngest readers.) Monsters on Machines is a book that makes you wonder why it wasn't written years before. (Monsters plus machines? Of course!) It's a relief to see it live up to its title, just as one would expect from this author/illustrator combo.

Susan Lendroth's Ocean Wide, Ocean Deep is in many ways a traditional piece of historic fiction written in verse. Harkening a bit to Jane Yolen's World War II picture book, All Those Secrets of the World, Lendroth's title is also about a young girl left behind when her father goes off to sea. In this case the setting is 19th century Cape Cod however and the main character watches the seasons change and her baby brother grow as she waits for her father to return from the "China trade." The sea is a huge part of the story as Raul Allen incorporates it into several of the full page spreads using dark commanding shades and strokes to capture the reader's attention. There is no ignoring the water here which is as it should be for this story. The water—and the work of men on the water—is key to the waiting and hoping that the story is about and the young girl's understanding of why her father is gone ("I dream of silks of every hue/and willowware of deepest blue..."), gives the story an emotional depth that thoughtful children will appreciate. One audience to consider for this one is military families who will certainly understand the significance of marking the change in seasons against a long absence of a loved one.

Ocean Wide, Ocean Deep really struck me as a particularly timeless story and gentle in both its verse and illustration. This is the sort of book that can get lost among flashier titles but it has real staying power—my son really liked it and I can see it being a book we return to again and again.

The Polar Bear Puzzle is yet another well-done entry in the Adventures of Riley series by Amanda Lumry and Laura Hurwitz. This blend of fiction and nonfiction designed around illustrations and photograph collages follows the ongoing explorations of young Riley and his scientist uncle. This time while visiting Uncle Max and Aunt Martha, the family travels to Churchill, Canada to study polar bears. As always, the authors pepper the text with small boxed quotes from real scientists on subjects as varied as ringed seals, snowy owls and the northern lights. The main story concerns diminishing sea ice and its effect on the polar bears, an incredibly timely story that will be in the news more and more as the battle over the animal remaining on the endangered species list rages. There are lessons in the Riley books but they are part and parcel of the fun-filled story and innovative way the titles are designed. Any child the slightest bit interested in animals (and there are millions of them) will find Riley's adventures addictive; The Polar Bear Puzzle is only one more in a line of books they won't want to put down.

Finally, I love a good pop-up and Robert Crowther's Ships is a perfect example of how a creative design can draw children into a potentially dull topic. (Okay, dull might be a harsh word to use for ship design; but the subject doesn't offer the kind of ready-made excitement that you find in holiday books.) With a horizontal design that folds up, Crowther opens with outriggers, Egyptian boats and Greek biremes. There are lots of working parts here as there are on the succeeding pages, which feature the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, ocean liners, aircraft carriers and a very cool pop-up working port with all sorts of boats nearby. I hate to be gender biased but my son loved this book, really loved it, and has pored over Crowther's many flaps and folds again and again. It's basic information, smoothly put together and a joy to peruse if you appreciate a job well done. Ships is a solid choice for the six and up crowd who take care of their books and are perpetually curious about what makes things go.


How I Learned Geography
By Uri Shulevitz
Farrar Straus Giroux 2008

Sandy's Circus
By Tanya Lee Stone
Illustrated by Boris Kulikov
Viking 2008
ISBN 978-0-670-06268-3

Odd Boy Out
By Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin 2004
ISBN 0-547-01435-7

Piano Starts Here
By Robert Andrew Parker
Schwartz & Wade 2008
ISBN 0-375-83965-8

Silent Music
By James Rumford
Roaring Brook Press 2008
ISBN 1-59643-276-4

By Barbara Lehman
Houghton Mifflin 2008
ISBN 0-618-75640-7

Monsters on Machines
By Deb Lund
Illustrated by Robert Neubecker
Harcourt 2008
ISBN 0-15-205365-9

Ocean Wide, Ocean Deep
By Susan Lendroth
Illustrated by Raul Allen
Tricycle Press 2008
ISBN 1-58246-232-1

The Polar Bear Puzzle
By Amanda Lumry and Laura Hurwitz
Scholastic 2008
ISBN 0-545-06837-1

By Robert Crowther
Candlewick 2008
ISBN 0-7636-3852-8


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