"A library book, I imagine, is a happy book." Cornelia Funke

"Everything puts me in mind of a story." Ben Franklin

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Vasily and the Dragon by Simon Stern

Vasily & the Dragon by Simon Stern, 1982.

It’s true that young Vasily the Unlucky has an enemy in Marko the Rich. Before he is born, the Lord God proclaims that he will grow up to possess all of Marko’s money. Marko is a greedy man and this is unwelcome news, so he contrives to kill Vasily. He heartlessly attempts murder three times and is unsuccessful, managing only to unintentionally marry Vasily to his compassionate daughter. Then he hits upon a plan to send his son in law to question the Heathen Dragon. Will he be rid of Vasily once and for all? This tale was adapted from Marko the Rich, collected by D.N. Sadodnikov.

Stern’s art is a treat because the pictures have so many interesting surprise details. Marko’s home contains a life-size (taxidermied?) bear that holds gloves and canes. A stylized, grumpy looking pug dog attends Vasily’s wedding. A table in the dragon’s cave stands on one human foot as two hands support its top decorated by a skull with flowers growing out of its eye sockets. Stern does well with contrasts of light and shadow, and smooth and jagged textures. He shows the wicked Marko asleep in his darkened chamber, his face illuminated by the full moon outside his window. Vasily meets some beggars in a dark forest tunnel choked with twisted roots and foliage dripping branches, made more drear against the bright yellow sky beyond. I hope to add this book to my collection.

Salt by Harve Zemach

Salt: a Russian Tale adapted by Harve Zemach. Illus. by Margot Zemach, 1965.

As we have seen more than once in our Russian folktales, youngest brothers and fools often make out well when they head out into the world. This is the case for Ivan, who is both of these things. Out of pity, his rich merchant father provides him with a ship and a cargo of beams and boards, but Ivan soon discovers a mountain of salt and takes that with him to sell instead. He pleases a king in a far away land with savory new dishes and gains silver, gold, and the princess’ love. Although his jealous older brothers try to destroy his good fortune and steal his rewards, cheerful, musical Ivan wins in the end.

Again, I have to preface a description of the book’s art with a mention that it was published in 1965, and cannot compare to today’s standards of picture book art. This is primarily because there is very little color used. The pages are off white and the art is colored only in shades of brown, blue and gray. The pictures still have appeal though, with Zemach’s comfortable round villagers, lazy, smiling Ivan and a giant drying his mittens on his broad and upturned mustache providing charm.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

First Camp Read-A-Lot book: Trickster, Native American Tales a Graphic Collection

As I have for the past two summers, I will be serving as a “counselor” at Camp-Read-a-Lot, a summer reading program for teachers and media specialists. It is sponsored in the Twin Cities by MELSA and Metronet. I will be working with folks interested in materials for 6th-8th graders. We will meet to discuss our books on Wednesday, August 10 at Como Lakeside Pavilion in St. Paul. The special guest this year is Avi! Find out more Here.

I am excited to begin my Camp RAL reading with a book of folktales:

Trickster: Native American Tales a Graphic Collection. Compiled by Matt Dembicki, 2010.

Matt Dembicki was inspired to put together a collection of Native American trickster tales in comic form after delighting in trickster stories in a library book and realizing that he didn’t know much about Native American culture. Therefore, he started the project that became Trickster: twenty one tales each written by Native American storytellers and illustrated by artists of their choosing. Readers will be rewarded by a wide spectrum of stories with different graphic styles from wacky to realistic to otherworldly. They will meet the Trickster character in many forms: Coyote, Rabbit, Raven and even human (shaped!). These tricky ones fool and get the better of others and are tricked themselves. Their stories are contributed by storytellers from Choctaw, Pueblo, Cherokee and many more Native American Nations and are in diverse settings from Alaska to Hawaii. Some of the tales have a mysterious and dreamlike feel, some are creepy and others are funny and earthy. The Pourquoi stories tell us how the stars got in the sky, why the buzzards head is bald, why Rabbit has a little fluffy tail, and more. Dembicki states that he hopes that Trickster will help readers to learn about North America’s original inhabitants. That door has certainly been opened, and Trickster is getting critical attention as well. It is now on the short list for the 2011 Eisner award Comic-Con 2011  and was a nominee for Children’s Book Council’s 2011 Teen Choice Book of the Year. Teen Reads

Matt Dembicki's Blog

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cat Secrets by Jef Czekaj

Cat Secrets by Jef Czekaj.

All kitty secrets are about to be revealed. Three round headed, big eyed, and expressive cats are about to let them slip. This book is only for cats, and so your storytime crowd had better be ready to prove through sound and actions that that they are truly feline. But, if your audience is trustworthy, then what about the little mouse that keeps appearing under the suspicious cats’ noses?

Czekaj delivers a storytime perfect offering with appealing animal characters and a plot that demands audience participation. Like Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books, this story will have kids begging for rereads.

Masha and the Firebird

Masha and the Firebird by Margaret Bateson-Hill and Anne Wilson, 1999.

This is an original story by Bateson-Hill using Russian folklore characters that have frequently appeared in my picture book study. Young Masha lives with her parents and tends the hens, decorating some of their eggs with a paint box her mother has bought her. One day, while playing in the forest, a Firebird entreats her to protect its eggs from Baba Yaga. The Firebird is the guardian of the eggs of the Four Elements, and Masha paints each egg to disguise it. Once three of the eggs are hidden, Baba Yaga is unable to find them. But, the egg of Fire, unguarded, is stolen. Using the Firebird’s feather and with the help of a wolf, a fish, an eagle, and the Firebird herself, Masha is able to confront and triumph over Baba Yaga. The story includes a poem written in Russian using the Cyrillic alphabet and with an English translation. Egg decorating suggestions follow the story.

There is much to love about the tale’s bright art, but the decorated eggs and the glorious Firebird are definitely the show pieces. The burnt orange Earth egg features a wolf, mice, mushrooms and flowers. The Water egg is awash with shells and fishes. The egg of Air shows two sky views, one sparkling with stars and a crescent moon and the reverse has a blue sky, brilliant sun and an eagle flying across it. Both the Fire egg and the Firebird seemingly blaze with crimson, yellow and orange flames. Baba Yaga is fearsome, easily six times the size of Masha, with long, rectangular iron teeth.

All together, this new twist on traditional motifs is a splendid addition to picture books of Russian folklore .

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Little Humpbacked Horse

The Little Humpbacked Horse retold by Margaret Hodges. Illus. by Chris Conover, 1980.

Youngest brother Ivan is thought to be a fool, but when someone is trampling down his father’s wheat, he is the sibling who discovers the intruder. He finds a pretty white mare who gives him three colts in return for her freedom: two beauties and a funny little humpbacked colt with long ears. This odd horse becomes his trusted companion and helps him when he becomes the Tsar’s Master of the Stable, finds a Firebird’s feather, and gets himself into dilemma after dilemma. Some of the plot elements that follow are nearly the same as in Demi’s Firebird. Children will enjoy the lovable horse, Ivan’s lifelong friend, who claps his ears for joy and frisks about.

The book’s jacket says that Conover has reinterpreted traditional Russian motifs for The Little Humpbacked Horse. She uses mostly muted colors and her art has a sweet touch. Her picture of the golden maned mare and her two black foals, contrasts nicely with the fuzzy, wobbly looking humped horse.

The Little Humpbacked Horse: A Russian Taleadapted by Elizabeth Winthrop. Illus. by Alexander Koshkin, 1997.

This story begins the same way as Hodges’ with Ivan finding the thief and befriending the tiny camel-humped horse. This animal protects Ivan when the Tsar is told by jealous men from the stables that Ivan is an evil sorcerer, and Ivan is sent to find the Sow with Golden Bristles and Silver Tusks and her babies. Once successful, he must also capture the Magnificent Mare with Seven Manes and her seven stallions and finally, bring a beautiful Tsarevna from across three times nine lands to be the Tsar’s bride. Fortunately, the horse and the Tsarevna are resourceful.

Koshkin has illustrated the story with watercolor, tempera and gouache paintings. His pictures have a completely different feel than Conover’s. The little horse is sleek and somewhat wild eyed, with golden hooves. Some of Koshkin’s outstanding illustrations include Ivan and his horse rounding up the golden pigs, the little horse comforting Ivan by sitting in his lap and licking his face, and the Tsarevna arriving at Ivan’s tent in her gilded swan boat.

That Apple is Mine!

That Apple is Mine!  Retold by Katya Arnold, 2000.

"I saw it first! It's mine!

I had it last! It's mine!

Oh, can't you see it's made for me?

It's mine, it's mine, it's mine!


from Mine! Mine! by Trout Fishing in America

In the autumn, one last apple hangs on a tree. Rabbit spies it, but Crow picks it and Hedgehog catches it. Who does this tasty fruit belong to? It’s up to Bear to mediate and teach the others to share. Arnold has based this tale on a story of Vladimir Suteev’s. According to Arnold’s note, Suteev was a kind of Russian Walt Disney who made films and picture books in the twentieth century.

Arnold created her art for the book with black line drawings over hand-painted collages. This results in backgrounds of sky blue, apple green and butter yellow and characters spot lit in broad strokes of contrasting colors. There is a playful retro feel here. The animals indeed look like cousins to beasties in early Disney films. Rabbit sports sneakers, with stars, Crow favors a bead necklace and Bear wears a flowered dress and kerchief. Careful observers will notice one more little creature vying for the apple, before the reveal on the final page.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Wicked History: Russian Rulers

Wicked History Series: Russia

I have been curious about Scholastic’s Wicked History series, and my Russia project gave me the perfect opportunity to dive into some of the books. I find them interesting and yes, I am learning history as I read. I was surprised to look them up on Scholastic’s site and see them recommended for a range from 6-12th grades. Each biography is short at around 130 pages, and reads quickly. There are illustrations throughout, as well as a photo or drawing section, mid book. Some pictures are reused during the course of the book. A map of the land at the time of the subject is offered for reference. Each book usually has a “Wicked Web” that shows the subject’s family, allies and enemies, a “Timeline of Terror” and when needed, a summary of why the person might be considered evil. They also include a glossary, suggestions for further reading and an Author’s Note. The books’ covers are attention grabbing, with a caricature of the subject and across them is graffitied a derogatory accusation such as “wicked,” “despot,” etc.

Ivan the Terrible: Tsar of Death (Wicked History) Ivan the Terrible: Tsar of Death by Sean Price.

To today’s readers, Tsar Ivan IV certainly seems to have been a crazy and evil man. Price tells us that Ivan was admired for building the Russian empire and redefining what it meant to be a Russian ruler, but he also killed thousands of people and did horrible deeds. We are introduced to Ivan during his planned massacre of his own city of Novgorod. He apparently enjoyed torturing and murdering both animals and people. Ivan had an awful childhood, becoming orphaned at age seven and being a puppet ruler, torn between noble families vying for power. When Ivan took the throne as an adult, he married a woman that he loved, who helped to control his cruel side. After she died, he went on to reduce Russian peasants to serfs and eventually murder his own son and heir. This title is full of details of his many other gory crimes. Interestingly, Ivan considered himself deeply religious and he did repent and ask for forgiveness before he died.

 Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia (Wicked History) Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia (Wicked History) by Zu Vincent.

Catherine’s tale starts as she is seizing the throne from her childish, apparently unintelligent husband, Tsar Peter III. Then, Vincent flashes back to when Catherine was a young woman called Sophie, who lived in Germany and had an ambitious mother, who raised her daughter to marry into royalty. She describes the lonely years that Catherine spent living with Empress Elizabeth, who didn’t trust her, and Peter, who didn’t love her. She came into power with the support of much of Russia, and had great plans for her country. She accomplished some important things, such as expanding the Russian Empire and improving her country’s educational system. Catherine also was scandalous because she took plenty of lovers, bearing three children by different men while she was with Peter, and failing to remarry after his death. She was bright, powerful and free-willed, making a perfect subject for a Wicked History biography.

Grigory Rasputin: Holy Man or Mad Monk? (Wicked History) Grigory Rasputin: Holy Man or Mad Monk? by Enid A. Goldberg.

Goldberg begins Rasputin’s story in the midst of his murder, to hook the reader’s interest before backtracking to his peasant’s childhood and them telling the rest of his tale in chronological order. She shows us Rasputin the “saint” who could supposedly heal sick animals and people, who had visions of God and also his “sinner” side, who drank, seduced women and was power hungry. Readers also learn about Rasputin’s relationship with Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra and their family and how he had so much influence over the royal couple and Russia in turn. Goldberg uses sensational chapter headings such as “Death! When Grigory was eight he was scarred for life” “Miserable Worms: Rasputin’s enemies gain strength,” and “Drunken Nights: Rasputin begins to spin out of control,” which are in keeping with the series flashy, high interest approach.

Joseph Stalin (Wicked History) Joseph Stalin by Sean McCollum.

Readers will be interested to know that although Stalin was a teenage thug and gang leader, he was also intelligent, did well in school and went to seminary with intention to become a priest. But soon he became intrigued with Marxism and the idea of revolution. He was kicked out of seminary and joined the Russian Social-Democratic workers party. He became a gangster for Lenin and in spite of repeatedly being banished to Siberia, he went on to participate in the Russian Revolution. Stalin helped to force communism on the Russian people and beat his rivals, taking control of the country. Although he industrialized Russia, he terrorized the Russian people, forcing them onto collective farms, sending them to labor colonies and murdering them outright. He also starved millions of Ukrainians by taking the grain that they produced and selling it to other countries. Stalin’s wickedness speaks for itself.

Blue Chameleon by Emily Gravett

Blue Chameleon by Emily Gravett.

I’m ever the fan of Gravett’s picture books and I adore this new one as well! Poor chameleon is lonely and looking for a friend. Therefore, the lizard physically mimics anything it meets in hope of striking up a friendship. Humorous and sweet pictures show it trying to impress a cockatoo, a western boot, a banana and more before another chameleon appears. This would be a fun storytime read to point out colors and have the kids pretend to be each of chameleon’s would-be chums.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Clever Katya by Mary Hoffman

 Clever Katya retold by Mary Hoffman. Illus. by Marie Cameron, 1998.

This book is based on the folk tale “The Wise Little Girl.” When two brothers, Dmitri and Ivan, have a dispute over the ownership of a new foal, they take their case before the young Tsar. He sets them a riddle, and the horse will belong to he who answers best. Luckily for Ivan, his seven year old daughter, Katya, easily solves the puzzle. Unfortunately, the Tsar sets her another riddle, and if she fails to solve it, it will be off with Ivan’s head. She must appear at the palace neither on horseback nor on foot, neither naked nor dressed and neither bringing a present nor empty-handed. Could Katya be clever enough to fulfill the bargain, save her father and impress the Tsar?

Cameron’s vivid pictures are bordered with patterns of sunbursts, leaves and birds in a palette of gold, red and deep blue. These are matched by the design around the letters beginning the first word of each page’s text. Every frame is bursting with things that please the eye, including Katya appearing at the palace, with her non-garment streaming out of the border.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My Russia project continues: Easter Picture Books

The Birds’ Gift: a Ukrainian Easter Story. Retold by Eric Kimmel. Illus. by Katya Krenina, 1999.

Katrusya and her grandfather are enjoying a walk in the new winter snow, when they spot a golden bird buried and half-frozen beneath a tree. They decide to take it home and save as many more birds as possible, enlisting help from their family, the local priest, and finally the entire village. The birds live in the eaves of the houses and church, and near winter’s end, they indicate that they need to be free. Katrusya misses them, but a special surprise awaits her on Easter when the birds return. The story has a spiritual message to trust in God to take care of every creature and to believe in miracles. After the tale, Kimmel has an Author’s Note explaining about Pysanky, the art of decorating eggs.

Krenina’s heartwarming art is filled with little birds snuggled into Katrusya’s shawl and mittens, flying in a beam of light inside the church and perching in trees and on rooftops after their return. Other outstanding pictures are of the Easter celebration, with the family in their colorful Ukrainian costume, and the young daughters wearing crowns of flowers with streaming ribbons. A two page spread shows the beautifully decorated eggs with their fine and complicated designs. Katrusya’s own egg is very special, with little golden birds against a sky blue background.

Rechenka’s Eggs by Patricia Polacco, 1988.

In this story, another kind person is rewarded with beautiful eggs and a special surprise. Babushka, who paints elaborately patterned eggs for the Moskva (Moscow) Easter Festival, also feeds the local caribou in winter. One day, when caring for the animals, she sees a goose shot down by a hunter, and takes her home to tend, naming her Rechenka. As Rechenka recovers, she begins to explore the house and accidentally breaks the painted eggs that Babushka has prepared. However, every morning after until the festival, Rechenka lays a gorgeous and miraculous egg for Babushka, who is able to go to the festival after all. When she returns, there is one more lovely treat awaiting her.

Polacco’s charming art partners wonderfully with this sweet story. I especially like the scenes where Babushka is with her animals, feeding the caribou in the snow or sharing her tea with her little goose. The pictures are full of color and details that remind us that the story is set in Eastern Europe. Babushka’s patterned dresses and scarves stand out against the mostly white backgrounds. Her eggs are complex and serious, with black ink to contrast with the colors. Rechenka’s eggs are much brighter, with heavy use of pink, red, orange and blue. Polacco includes Russian religious icons In Babushka’s home and at the festival. She shows us the fantastic onion domes of the city. This all adds up to a book that has been rightfully popular with readers since the 1980s.

Take a look at her blog at: Patricia Polacco.

Clay Boy by Mirra Ginsberg

Clay Boy adapted by Mirra Ginsburg. Illus. by Jos. A. Smith, 1997.

In this bizarre folktale, an old couple desires another child, and so Grandpa makes a boy out of clay. When their son comes to life he is incredibly hungry. He eats all of the food in Grandpa and Grandma’s house, then swallows down his new parents and gradually eats up the whole village! Luckily, for all, Clay Boy meets a clever white goat. Smith’s aquarelle and goache paintings show Clay Boy as round and cute like a gingerbread cookie, but as he grows the pictures become pretty grotesque, such as when he dangles grandma into his toothless, open mouth. I think that the story and pictures are creepy, but some people might just see it as funny. I prefer Margaret Read MacDonald's Danish Folktale  The Fat Cat because although the cat also devours everything, there is a little more humor involved, and the feline is redeemed.

Fat Cat: A Danish Folktale

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Two cute new picture books!

Dog in Boots by Greg Gormley. Illus. by Roberta Angaramo.

Inspired by the footwear in Puss in Boots, Dog goes to the shoe shop to get two pair for himself. But, he soon learns that such fancy boots are poor for digging. He swaps out pair after pair of shoes until he finds just what he needs. Until he reads Little Red Riding Hood… The adorable pictures of the little brown and white dog and his fashion choices will amuse and please your audience, and for even more fun check out the back end paper of Dog modeling all manner of fairy tale head wear!

I Must Have Bobo! by Eileen Rosenthal. Illus. by Marc Rosenthal.

Willy loves his sock monkey Bobo. Unfortunately, so does Earl the cat. Therefore, the struggle to possess Bobo ensues. The picture book crowd will enjoy this simple story and root for Willy, who does everything with Bobo’s help, or crafty Earl, who just really wants to snuggle with the monkey. Line drawings with touches of bright color allow the expressive characters to take center stage. Rosenthal captures Willy’s moods of wide eyed dismay when Bobo disappears, worry when he and his monkey must walk past a big dog’s yard, and displeasure when he discovers Earl silently making off with Bobo. Earl looks cute and blank-faced. Mostly. His other expressions are hilarious. Just fun.