Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Secret Life of Boys in The Fourth Stall

Reading Chris Rylander's  The Fourth Stall, I felt like I entered a secret “boy world” that adults seldom access.  Christian “Mac” Barrett keeps his family and his business separate.  He loves his parents, but feels they must be protected from his actual everyday life.  Mac’s nickname comes from the television show MacGyver.  Like that fabled character, Mac is a fixer.  He solves problems for kids and gets them things they need.  He and his best friend Vince have been so successful that these sixth graders have cleared almost $6000 in profits.  Another screen character Mac calls to mind is Michael Corleone.  The book is full of Godfather references, which may be over the heads of its readers but will certainly entertain adults.
Problems are not solved without a cost, however, and Mac faces a fearsome foe in an older boy named Staples.  Staples is encroaching on Mac’s elementary school turf by having his young representatives act as bookies in the school yard.  Everything is translated to the kid world (they’re betting on the JV football game) but the stakes are still high.  Parents may pause over some violence.  The kids’ fear is real and so are a few of the “roughing up” scenes.  Certainly Mac’s encounters are nothing compared to Alex Rider fighting it out with international terrorists, but the realistic contemporary setting makes this plot element a little more scary.

For me, that concern is far outweighed by the clever writing, superb plot development, and sheer fun of The Fourth Stall.  Mac and Vince share a friendship based on personal history and common interests, a relationship which is not often depicted in books for boys.  My favorite supporting character might be Kitten, the bully who fools all the teachers with his excellent manners and neat attire.  I think I've met a few Kittens during my elementary school years, but none were quite this entertaining.  The Fourth Stall would make an excellent family read aloud for children 4th grade and up--Lucinda Whitehurst. (Walden Pond Press, 2011)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Halloween and Pumpkins

 Halloween is here again.  Many kids say it is their favorite holiday, and why not?  Jack-o-Lanterns, costumes, Trick or Treating, and at the end of the evening, lots of candy!  Here are some wonderful books for this time of year--Wilma Snyder.

In Corinne Demas’ Halloween Surprise, Lily wants to choose the perfect Halloween costume for Trick-or-Treat and to surprise her father.  She tries out several traditional costumes and none is just right.  Her final solution will offer a fun surprise for every young reader.  Artist R. W. Alley makes any picture book more fun. (Walker & Company,  2011)

The youngest readers will enjoy What Am I?  Halloween by Anne Margaret Lewis.  Every page is interactive as the suspense builds.  Big bright pictures and sturdy covers make this perfect for toddlers.  This book is a part of the “My Look and See Holiday Book” series. (Illustrated by Tom Mills.  Albert Whitman,  2011)

Elizabeth Spurr says that she is very fond of monsters, having raised five of them.  She knows the kind of story that appeals to many children and uses her knowledge in Monsters, Mind Your Manners!  These ill-mannered monsters are so rude and rowdy that young readers will feel deliciously superior.  Good for lots of giggles.  (Illustrations by Simon Scales.  Albert Whitman,  2011)

Cat and his friend Mouse work together in the garden.  Mouse shows Cat how to grow pumpkins – from planting the seeds, giving water and sunlight, planting the seedlings outside to watching them grow, protecting them and building a scarecrow to frighten away the crows.  Then when it is time to pick the pumpkin, Mouse has a big surprise for Cat.  Anne Mortimer’s gorgeous art makes this charmer a sure winner.  Look for Pumpkin Cat. (HarperCollins, 2011)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Vivid Nonfiction

Young children are endlessly fascinated by pictures of the natural wonders of the plant and animal worlds.  Many kids will choose brightly illustrated nonfiction books over fanciful picture books.  Here are some new books which will be wonderful additions to home and classroom libraries--Wilma SnyderCaterpillars by Marilyn Singer is a sure favorite.  Kids will listen with rapt attention to the fact-filled text, but the main attraction will be the amazing photographs.  There are more than 100,000 kinds of moths and butterflies which lay eggs. All of their eggs hatch into larvae – popularly known as caterpillars.  Poet and teacher Singer explores the world of caterpillars,  explaining morphology and behavior, choosing mysterious facts, and accompanying all of this information with beautiful photographs.  Includes quiz, glossary, matching game, references and index.

Seymour Simon focuses on monarch butterflies and their migration patterns in Butterflies.  In classic Simon fashion, he connects facts about butterflies with scientific research, history, poetry and a great respect for nature.  Kids ages 5 to 9 will enjoy Simon’s accessible text, beautiful photography, and directions for planting a butterfly garden.  Includes glossary, index and list of resources.

Catherine Ham comes up with an original idea in Animal Naps.  This book is chock-full of photographs showing how various animals sleep.  Rhyming text provides information about every pictured animal making this one perfect for sharing with a group.   
Animal Naps

Monday, October 3, 2011

Troy Howell and The Dragon of Cripple Creek

Troy Howell will be signing books at bbgb Tales for Kids on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011, from 3:30 to 5:30 pm.  Troy will be in town to appear at the James River Writers Conference which runs Oct. 6-8, 2011.

Troy kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his work in an interview with Lucinda Whitehurst.

LW:  When you started The Dragon of Cripple Creek, did you have any idea how topical your story would be with the economy stalling and gold prices skyrocketing?
TH:  Actually, yes.  I started writing the book six years ago and kind of projected what I thought might happen with the economy.  Silver prices had been going up;  I thought gold prices would be next.

LW:  I wish I had your forethought!  Now so many children are facing a situation similar to Kat's, where the loss of a job means possibly losing their house, school, friends—essentially their way of life.
TH:  Yes, I have seen this happening to so many people, including friends and family members.  It's been a terrible time to try to make a living.  My first inspiration for Dragon of Cripple Creek, though, was that there should be a dragon in North America.  Then I thought of putting him in a gold mine in the American West.  I wanted to break dragon stereotypes; to not follow reader expectations based on other dragon stories and legends.

LW:  Greed as a concept is not often discussed in children's books, but it is such an important issue for children to confront.
TH:  I think materialism is the cause of evil in society.  I'm working on a YA book about that topic right now.

LW:  You include references to other works throughout The Dragon in Cripple Creek.
TH:  Yes, it's a way for me to be more creative.  You start with a reference point that others may recognize, then go beyond that original source.

LW:  I thought about the Alice in Wonderland references, but I did not come up with the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour until reading your author notes.  Kat certainly goes on a Magical Mystery Tour of her own, veering off track, meeting unusual people and of course Ye.  When I looked at the title list, I could see that "All You Need is Love," "Penny Lane," "Hello Goodbye," "Flying," and "Baby You’re a Rich Man" definitely could relate to your story.  Did you listen to the album as you wrote?
TH:  No, actually I listened to Western music!  I've always been a Beatles fan, and Kat's mother is a Beatles fan, so the songs just came into the story that way.

Howell first became famous in the children's book world through his cover illustrations for Brian Jacques' Redwall series.  His dramatically posed warrior-animals caught the imagination of a generation of young readers.  Since Mr. Jacques recently died, I asked Troy if he would miss the series.
TH:  Actually, I've been ready to move on from those books for some time now.  I always read the manuscripts and came up with ideas for the covers, but as time went on, I was allowed less and less creative expression.  As an artist, it's difficult to have someone else control what elements should be included in a painting.  {For more information about Troy's work with the Redwall series, check out this excellent interview}

LW:  You've had success as an artist.  Are you going to continue to illustrate or turn more to writing now?
TH:  I'm still doing some picture books and illustrated books, such as a new version of The Grey Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, but I'm moving more into writing.  I have several projects going right now, including a middle grade book about a boy who meets Hans Christian Andersen's ghost in Copenhagen.  My hope for my work is that I will touch people with what I do and do my best.

LW:  Are you going to talk about anything particular at the James River Writers Conference?
TH:  I'm going to tell people that we're all in this together.  I'll never stop learning, but I'm glad to share what I have learned with others.

Many thanks to Troy Howell for a wonderful conversation!