Monthly Archives: May 2006

Mama by Jeanette Winter

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Mama by Jeanette Winter

Winter, Jeanette. Mama. Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 978-0152054953. 32 pp. $

****

Providing a marked contrast to the photo-realism detailed account of the tsunami aftermath presented in Owen & Mzee, Mama is a nearly wordless tale of a hippo rescued after a tsunami that avoids a discussion of grim facts or sobering details and instead uses only artwork to show how the life of a young hippo, Baby, is transformed the day the wave hit. Winter, author of The Librarian of Basra—another story punctuated by death and loss—delivers a message of compassion and hope by merely repeating two emotion laden words: “Mama” and “Baby,” throughout the ordeal. Mama represents the entirety of Baby’s world, and without her, his world is dark and scary.

Acrylic paintings featuring intense shades of green, orange and pink give way to darker blues and purples as Baby struggles to make sense of his new surroundings. Without benefit of text or narrative, the two characters embody love and demonstrate the capacity of all creatures to tender this most basic human behavior. As Baby finds a surrogate parent in an elderly tortoise, a heaven bound image of Mama watches him begin life again. This is a compressed experience that will require some adult storytelling with the 5- to 7-year-olds who will be attracted by its format.

This review was originally published on the Hip Librarian’s Book Blog May 31, 2006.

Planet Mars (Seemore Readers) by Seymour Simon

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Planet Mars (Seemore Readers) by Seymour Simon

Simon, Seymour. Planet Mars. Chronicle Books, 2006. ISBN 978-0811854054 32 pp. $6.99

**

This repackaged version of Simon’s Destination Mars (HarperCollins, 2000) is a fact-filled photographic journey to the red planet, updated with the most current Mars research findings. The 32 pages explore the possibility of life on Mars, unmanned scientific missions to the planet, and statistics about it’s size, distance, topography, and satellites. Information for the most part is related simply, comparing Mars’ qualities to Earth counterparts such as Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon. Short straightforward sentences don’t leave enough room to explain or define concepts such as early Rome and it’s polytheistic religion, polar ice caps, or the impact of discovering bacteria fossils in meteorites from Mars. Most words contain fewer than two syllables, and proper names appear with in text pronunciation guides. The levels on the back mark this volume as for readers in grades Pre-K to 1; this seems to be a bit unrealistic.

The text is large and lettering is high contrast for beginning readers, but the design technique of placing a colored block that matches the tones in the photo, rather than contrasts them, give a dull and static tone to the images. The photos, courtesy of NASA and ESA, are beautiful and majestic, but the small format doesn’t do them justice. There are no source notes, glossary, or index–although not traditional in easy readers, this is a work of nonfiction, and should contain a bibliography at the very least. Purchase in paperback.

Sing, Nightingale, Sing! by Francoise de Guilbert, illustrated by Chiaki Miyamoto, music by Daniel Goyone

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Sing, Nightingale, Sing! by Francoise de Guilbert, illustrated by Chiaki Miyamoto, music by Daniel Goyone

de Guilbert, Francoise. Sing, Nightingale, Sing. illus. by Chiaki Miyamoto, music by Daniel Goyone. Kane/Miller, 2006. ISBN  978-1929132980 $

****

Organized by habitat–garden, forest, ocean, pond, mountains and zoo–this birding book presents over 50 species common to Europe. Stylized representations with thick lines and bright colors of common owls, gulls and finches are depicted along with more exotic flamingoes, puffins and peacocks. Each image is accompanied by a fact-filled paragraph that gives tips for identification, such as social behaviors, special skills, and preferences for food, sleep, and flight.

Every entry includes colors of plumage and markings, length, beak style, song, diet and nest. The entries are numbered, with the number appearing on a static silhouette. The numbers correspond to tracks on the accompanying CD, which contains the bird songs of nearly every bird detailed in the book. The CD also contains original and lovely inspired compositions by Daniel Goyone that create a duet between bird and piano.

The book is not flawless–a map to show range of each species, or any kind of geographic indication, would make this more useful for report or amateur bird watching. As it’s a European book , many North American species aren’t included: the oriole, cardinal, screech owl, sandpiper, pelican, egret or turkey, just to name a few, and there is no introduction to define the scope of the book. The index is simply an alphabetical list of species.

The graphics are wonderful, however. While it’s true that photos would have made identification impossible to miss, the illustrations are truly fantastic. Miyamoto shows birds in flight, birds close up, and birds together in their habitat. Somehow the artist imbues the characteristics of the breeds into the expressive drawings, so that a warbler looks cheery, and a raptor, predatory.

Perhaps better suited to European purchasers, the book does hold value to American audiences for the artwork, clever facts and companion CD, all for a bargain price of less that the cost of the average picture book.

Skunks (Kids Can Press Wildlife) by Adrienne Mason, illustrated by Nancy Gray Ogle

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Skunks (Kids Can Press Wildlife) by Adrienne Mason, illustrated by Nancy Gray Ogle

Mason, Adrienne, illus. by Nancy Gray Ogle. Skunks. Kids Can Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1553377344. 32 pp. $11.99

****

Did you know that the spotted skunk does a handstand before spraying its musk at potential predators? Or that skunks eat snakes? This picture book covers species, habitat, anatomy, feeding habits and more of these black and white nocturnal mammals. Written in simple language and illustrated with vibrant and painstaking detail, the narrative is punctuated by boxed “Skunk Facts” on each page. Illustrator Nancy Gray makes the natural world nearly tangible. Each animal, each leaf has a unique look, and the details of each habitat are authentic. Quantitative data such as size and weight is made relative through comparison to objects a child might be familiar with: apples, cats, city blocks. Figures are given in metric and English measurements.

The book concludes with an examination of people’s attitudes towards skunks, and a reminder of the benefits of these badger-like animals. Occasionally there are teasers that remain unfulfilled; such as the author stating that the scientific name for skunk means bad odor – but not giving the scientific name. Geographic range is only depicted for one species, although over a dozen are illustrated. Such eliminations, coupled with a lack of source notes or further reading materials, make this an inappropriate choice for school reports. As leisure read, however, it is engaging and fascinating.

A page on skunk signs (scat, paw prints), a glossary (only about half of the words defined within the context of the book are included) and index are appended.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

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It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

Vizzini, Ned. It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Disney Hyperion, 2007. ISBN 978-0786851973. 464 pp. $12

****

It’s Kind of a Funny Story made me understand mental illness the way that Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (Doubleday, 2003) made me understand autism. The happiest day of Craig’s life was when he got into a prestigious private New York college prep high school. Studying for the entrance exam gave him something to focus on, and he does well, but once at school he begins to crack under rigorous academic pressures coupled with social stresses. Soon he is rendered incapacitated by the worst case scenario implications of failing academically. Loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and voices in his head drag him down into a deep depression.

In desperation one night, he calls a suicide hotline, and when the voice on the other end tells him to head to the ER, he does–checking himself into a mental ward where a mix of teens and adults with varying degrees of dysfunction become more normal to him and easier to understand than his peers in the outside world. Living with a group of people who have problems to solve aids Craig in dealing with his own issues and help him find an anchor–art–that creates stability. Getting back on his meds helps, too. The drawing of maps is an apt metaphor of finding one’s path.

The voice is pitch perfect, darkly funny, self-deprecating, and straightforward, and the first person perspective lends an confiding air.  These elements create an empathy for Craig and his struggle with typical teen issues on a deeper level than most. A great deal of growth and change occurs in an almost unbelievable short amount of time. The physicality of young romance, earthy language, and drug use (prescribed and unprescribed) add to the authenticity of the story.  The conclusion, while hopeful, is also honest: there will always be a possibility of backsliding, but now tools to cope are in place and there are options.

Highly recommended for public and school collections serving ages 14 and up.