Sunday, January 24, 2016

Spending Time in the Tropics with Margarita Engle's Books

My last post was all about cold. And then it got colder! What's a person to do but think warm thoughts and read award-winning books by Margarita Engle set in warmer climes? So for the past week, I've been dreaming about drumbeats, digging in Panama, and conquering dyslexia--all thanks to Engle's verse novels. Engle's ability to step into another's shoes makes her historical works for young people go straight for readers' hearts.

Like most of Engle's work, Drum Dream Girl is based on an historical person, Mila Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who dreamed of playing the drum--an activity reserved for boys & men only. Mila refuses to give up her dream, paving the way for girls and women to be drummers today. Engle uses research and imagination to tell Mila's story, which is beautifully and creatively illustrated by Rafael Lopez.  So beautifully, in fact, that this book won the Pura Belpre Illustrator Award for 2016. The book has won many other awards, too. Get a feel for the book here:

Both the setting and the girl's courage to follow her dream warmed me.

What did you learn in history about the Panama Canal? Probably something about the importance of building the canal to improve trade routes. Maybe a little about malaria. But what would it have been like to be the people who did the work? Engle's verse novel, Silver People, introduces us in alternating poems to Mateo, a young Cuban; Henry, a Jamaican; Anita, a local Panamanian, and others. They soon find out that the work recruiter's promises are false. They--and we-- learn that the world is divided into Gold People (whites, who are paid with gold) and Silver People (people of color who are paid with silver). The Silver People are further divided by the darkness of their skin, with the darkest skinned men doing the hardest, most dangerous work. To make matters worse, the Silver People see the Gold People living and working in comfort, while they struggle. Engle includes the environmental impact on the Panama Canal project by including poems from the forest--the howler monkeys, the sloths, the vipers, and the trees themselves. This book has earned many awards, including the Bank Street Center for Children's Literature 2015 Best Children's Book of the Year. While reading in sub-zero temps, I was sweating with Mateo in the jungle, and hoping he would make it out alive.

In The Wild Book, we read a fictionalized account of how Engle's grandmother overcame word-blindness, or as we know it today, dyslexia, by writing in a blank book her mother gave her. In a time of Cuban bandits following Cuba's independence from Spain, what Fefa learns helps save her family and their farm. Engle develops Fefa's character well, allowing her to go from an unsure girl to a confident young woman. Fefa and her mother both love poetry, but at first Fefa can only see them as "towers so tall/that I could never/hope/to climb/all the wispy/letters." Later, she flies "to the truth of words" and outs the villian. When things have settled down, she reflects that she has "grown/just a little bit/stronger/and wiser." A testimony to the power of reading and strength of character, The Wild Book has received honors including Kirkus Reviews New & Notable Books for Children, March 2012.

Enjoy these and other books by Margarita Engle and listen to her tell about her writing about Cuba:

Books can warm hearts even on the coldest days! What books warm you?

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Seasons Cycle

I have to tell you that January where I live can be brutal with cold, wind, snow, and ice. AND I. DO. NOT. LIKE. IT! Take today, for example--this morning, the temp is 2 degrees F, with a wind chill of -15 degrees. Take yesterday, for example, when this was the view out my kitchen window:

(the circle you see is a reflection of my camera lens, sorry)

That's why I am so grateful for Jane Yolen's new picture book, Sing a Season Song, beautifully illustrated by Lisel Jane Ashlock. Yolen's spare verse reminds me of the delights of each season--and that winter does have delights. The lush illustrations feature realistic animals in their natural habitats through the seasons. The book reminds me that winter will not last forever, but will dissolve into spring, followed by summer, and then fall--the cycle of our lives. 

Truly, the wise writer of Ecclesiastes was correct: "For everything there is a season." This harsh season of BRRRR will pass. Warm days and green grass will come again. Please hurry!

What is your favorite season & why? Do you have a favorite book about seasons?

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year and My Favorite Book of 2015

Happy New Year! May it bring you your heart's desire!

Unless you have avoided media completely for the last week or so, you have seen many, many "Best of" lists! This post is not one of those. I may not read a book in the year it was published, so instead, I chose my favorite book of 2015.

My criteria for a favorite book are stringent. The book must:
-be well-written as a whole (plot, characters, setting, theme)
-hold my interest intellectually and emotionally
-reveal some truth about life, preferably a positive, hopeful one
-stay with me for a long time after reading it.

The ending must be so satisfying that I reread the last lines to let them soak in, and then, taking in the whole, I clutch the book to my chest before setting it down. 

With that in mind, my favorite read for 2015 was (drumroll) 

 The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. This was published in 2008! What took me so long? Well, it's narrated by a dog. How precious would that be? And we know how dog stories tend to go, so I avoided it. I'm so glad I read it! My curiosity from a writer's perspective finally forced me to see how a novel narrated by a dog would work. And I was hooked from the first page, because it's obvious that that this dog story was going to go the way they usually do, and how can a deceased character narrate a book? I found Stein's solution completely satisfying. See my review for more, if you haven't read the book.

I got to hear Stein speak at our state library association conference this fall. His storytelling in person is every bit as engaging as his writing, full of humor and pathos with a big dash of reality. It was worth standing in the loooong line to meet him and get my books signed.

In case you didn't know, he has a couple of Enzo (the dog) picture books out. In the newest, Enzo and the Christmas Tree Hunt, Enzo saves the day for Denny and Zoe, and the same themes as Art of Racing emerge here. (I just found this book in the New Books bin at the library or I'd have featured it before Christmas, but kids will like the story any time of year.)

Here's an interview where Stein gives some background about The Art of Racing in the Rain:

Stein also has a new book out for adults, A Sudden Light, that I look forward to reading.

What book was your favorite read of 2015? Are your criteria similar to mine? Here's to a happy, healthy new year full of good reading!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Waiting--'tis the Season

Kevin Henkes has won a Caldecott Medal before, and many children's lit folks thinks he is on target again with this title.

Let's face it, no matter what our age, we spend time waiting--and complaining about waiting. One source says we spend 6 months of our lives waiting in line!  If a website is too slow to load--a matter of a few seconds--it's bye, bye website. We hate waiting for anything.

By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

In my faith tradition, we are at the end of the period of waiting known as Advent. This kind of waiting is more like wild anticipation for Christmas, the birth of Jesus. Of course, those without faith traditions may also feel this anticipation as they wait for Santa to bring gifts from the North Pole. 

This kind of waiting is much more active than the waiting in line kind. Have you noticed the frenzy as we get closer to December 24 and 25? We remember friends and relatives with cards and gifts, though this may be the only time all year that we are in contact. Still, we appreciate them. We wait to hear from them, too. We flour our kitchens in a flurry of cookie baking, making specialties enjoyed usually once a year. And every year  we wonder if we'll get it all done on time--while we wait for Christmas to come.

As a child did you hate waiting for time to open presents? It's excruciating to wait for grown-ups to visit, and eat, and drink coffee, and clear the table, and do dishes until it's finally time to open gifts!

Which brings me back to this deceptively simple picture book.  Five toys on a windowsill watch and wait, each for something different. The toys are happy to get what they waited for, which happens at irregular intervals. And in the meantime, time goes by, and the toys wait.

I could read in some "live in the moment" advice here. Be happy while you wait. Joyfully anticipate what will happen next. Watch what's going on, and delight in the little things. Or maybe it's just a book about toys waiting on a windowsill.

Christmas is upon us and a new year is around the corner. What do you joyfully anticipate? What are you waiting for? 

I'll leave you with this for Merry Christmas, peace on earth, and goodwill to ALL, today and in the year ahead:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Finding Beauty, Giving Thanks, Serving Others

Last Stop on Market Street written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson is a lovely urban story about a boy who travels on the bus with his grandmother every Sunday after church. On the bus, CJ observes other riders and wishes out loud (aka "complains") to his grandmother.  In each case, she finds something beautiful and interesting in the situation, helping CJ--and us--see the world and people around us in a positive way. Nana demonstrates without preaching how--and why--to interact with strangers (keeping in mind all the stranger danger tips we know). The destination of the title's "last stop" is not given until the end (SPOILER ALERT), a soup kitchen.

This book is getting high praise from reviewers, including a nod for a possible Caldecott consideration. It resonates with me because of its themes. Our church participates in feeding the hungry at our city's Banquet

Why? "It's something you can do where you know you've made a difference," says our coordinator. Once a month, we serve breakfast at the downtown location and dinner at the Banquet West location. 

When CJ asks Nana why they serve at the soup kitchen, she reminds him that they get to know some interesting people. We have discovered that to be true, too. No breakfast is complete until we've heard a new joke from Ray. 

We have learned that most of the people who come to the Banquet are employed but may have to choose between paying rent and buying food. Some come because they are unable to work because of illness or injury. Some come for a warm meal and companionship in an otherwise lonely world. If you live in our area and want to join us, contact me for info. If you don't live in our area, consider helping out at a feeding ministry in your town.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Veterans Day: a Sweet Remembrance

On November 11, 2015, the United States observes Veterans Day to honor those who have served their country in the US military. Ceremonies, parades, reunions, and reminiscences will take place. Service in battles will be recalled, and while that is certainly of utmost importance, I'd like to draw attention to other important work of United States soldiers--that of humanitarian aid.

The children's book Candy Bomber tells the true story of US Air Force Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen and other troops and citizens during the Berlin Airlift. Michael O. Tunnell's  book is aimed at fourth-sixth graders, but adults would appreciate it and its many photos from those times. (Thank you, Linda Baie at TeacherDance for pointing this book out to me!)

Lt. Halvorsen became known to the children of West Berlin as "Uncle Wiggly Wings," or "Uncle Chocolate" after he saw destitute children who needed a sweet boost. In addition to air drops of food and other supplies, Lt. Halvorsen and others dropped parachutes containing candy. He'd "wiggle" his aircraft wings to let the children know it was him, and they would eagerly rush for the falling parachutes. Lt. Halvorsen became famous for his efforts, but it was not fame he sought. He merely wanted to help others, bringing them hope. See more at his website, and take time to hear Lt. Halvorsen tell about his mission:

The US military continues to provide humanitarian aid around the world. Here are just a few illustrations: News Photo 101022-M-9842K-158 - Victims of Super Typhoon Megi unload humanitarian aid supplies from a U.S. Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter in Divilacan Isabela province
(By English: Lance Cpl. John Kennicutt, U.S. Marine Corps ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
US Marines delivering supplies to the typhoon-stricken Philippines in October 2010

US Navy 100126-M-8605C-002 A Marine assigned to the Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine regiment, distributes humanitarian rations at an aid station near a landing zone in Leogane, Haiti
(By U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Bobbie A. Curtis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
US Marines handing out supplies in Haiti, January 2010 News Photo 050514-A-1566H-055
(By English: Sgt. Arthur Hamilton, U.S. Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
US Army personnel handing out food and candy in Iraq, 2005

Thank you for your service, veterans.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Native American Day: Celebrating Oscar Howe, Native American Artist

This weekend marks a holiday known in some places as "Columbus Day," but from 1990 forward, in my state it is called "Native American Day." Since 2015 is the 100th birthday of South Dakota artist Oscar Howe, we have been celebrating him with a special exhibit of his work at the Washington Pavilion and a new book.

The Pavilion exhibit displayed works that spanned Howe's lifetime. The accompanying text explained Howe's groundbreaking importance. When his entries for an exhibition were rejected, he fired off a letter that shows his determination and individuality. See the text here. He would not be boxed into a style other than his own.

The Pavilion exhibit held special interest for us because a friend told us about how her family came to have an Oscar Howe original. Her father was then president of Dakota Weslyan College. Her parents did a lot of entertaining, with Howe sometimes among the guests. Her mother asked for a painting, and the next time he came to the house, he brought one with him. We were delighted to see the painting in this exhibit!

The book, Native American Master Artist: Oscar Howe, was written by teachers Lisa Vande Vegte Dresch and Lois Sayre, who admired his work and the personal traits that led to his success. Though written for children, adults can also learn more about Howe's life, personality, and artistry. Designed by Marnie Teppen, the book contains many of his works, beautifully reproduced and true to the original color--not something all printers can do successfully. The book also includes information about the Dakota people and photographs of Howe. For more about the book, see the FaceBook page.

Howe's work is still displayed in many places, including public buildings. Ten of his murals, done as WPA work in the 1940's, are displayed in the Scherr-Howe Arena in Mobridge. Here's a photo I took of the dome he painted in the Carnegie Research Center, Mitchell. The photo does not begin to capture the size, color, or design of the whole.

More of Howe's work can be seen here and in person at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, as well as other art galleries and museums.

His legacy lives on as his work and teaching continues to influence artists and art lovers.

I'll close with the question posed on page 37 of the book, "If you could meet Oscar Howe, what would you ask him?"