National Poetry Month Kid Lit Review of “Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems” Selected by Paul B. Janeczko

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There are thirty-six very short poems in this collection, enhanced by stunning illustrations by Melissa Sweet.

The poems are divided into four sections, one for each season of the year. In Spring, for example, you will find this evocative gem by X. J. Kennedy:

Open-billed
gulls
fighting
for fish heads
creak
like rusted
gates.”

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Summer features, inter alia, the title poem, “Firefly July” by J. Patrick Lewis:

When I was ten, one summer night,
The baby stars that leapt
Among the trees like dimes of light,
I cupped, and capped, and kept.”

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In Fall you will find this wonderful thought by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser:

What is it the wind has lost
that she keeps looking for
under each leaf?”

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What would winter be without some Carl Sandburg?

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

it sits looking over harbor and city
on silent haunches and then moves on.”

You will find other beloved poets in this collection, including William Carlos Williams, Charlotte Zolotow, Langston Hughes, Robert Wallace, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Richard Wright.

Award-winning illustrator Melissa Sweet used watercolor, gouache and paper to create outstanding mixed-media collages representing the poems. Along with the poems, the artwork demonstrates how dominant colors and moods change throughout the year. Furthermore, the pictures are full of movement and whimsey and hidden delights. Each page is full of revelations, and lends understanding to the poetry as well.

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Evaluation: This book is not to be missed, even if you don’t think you are an aficionado of poetry. The poems are short and pleasing, and the pictures are wonderful.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2014

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Be sure to stop by Jama’s blog to check out her roundup of other poetry-for-kids-posts in honor of National Poetry Month. In addition, Serena at Savvy Verse and Wit also has a collection of posts about poets and poetry by participants from around the blogisphere.

Review of “Half Bad” by Sally Green

It is modern day England, but the world is full of witches, both good and bad (white and black), unbeknownst to the Muggles Fains. The white witches are deeply prejudiced against the black, and issue a series of decrees constraining their freedoms reminiscent of the restrictions on Jews when the Nazis came to power. The rationale for these edicts are that the whites are trying to rid the world of the malevolent blacks, but needless to say, it’s difficult to find anyone of any designation who isn’t very nasty. As it happens, in the name of eradicating the world of black witches, the whites seem to be expert in torture and murder.

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Nathan is the progeny of a white witch mother and black witch father, and as such is called a “Half Blood” or “Half Code.” Nathan is the only known Half Code, but since his father Marcus is allegedly the most evil of all the black witches, the whites direct most of their proclamations against Half Codes, presumably to lure Marcus and his magic knife out of hiding. When the book begins, Nathan, 16, is in a cage, where the white witches have put him in order to keep him under constant surveillance as well as to beat and torture him. Much of what led up to this time is told by Nathan in flashbacks.

When Nathan is 17, he, like other witch children, can become a full witch only if he receives – on his birthday – three gifts and a drink of blood from someone in his bloodline. If this doesn’t happen, rumor has it that a black witch child will die instead. Anticipating that Marcus may show up for Nathan’s big day, Nathan is taken by his captors to the headquarters of the white witches and given painful tattoos in preparation for controlling him to make him kill his dad. Nathan manages to escape, and sets out to achieve his goals: to become a full witch; to meet his dad but not kill him; and to have a girlfriend like a Real Boy.

But the whole white witch world is after him, his birthday gets closer and closer, and he hasn’t heard a word from Marcus.

Evaluation: Neither the plot line nor the writing impressed me as very sophisticated. The characters were too much black or white (regardless of whether they were black or white witches), and the romantic subplots far too sketchy to be believable or compelling. Moreover, the female characters are either “witchy,” or giggly and silly (except for the briefly appearing Grandma), and the supporting male characters are either total evil or unconditionally loving and sensitive. The “messages” in the story are “anvilicious.” [As described by tvtropes. org, “anvilicious” describes the use of dialogue or plot points to convey a particular message in such an obvious or unsubtle way that the author may as well etch it onto an anvil and drop it on your head.] The book seems to me like a messy hodgepodge of ideas.

Note: This is only Book One of an eventual trilogy.

Rating: 2/5

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), 2014.

Review of “One Mile Under” by Andrew Gross

This is a page-turner by an experienced thriller writer (who has co-written books with James Patterson). His skill at keeping you on the edge of your seat is evident in this fast-moving and topical story about fracking operations in Colorado.

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It begins with the discovery of a body by Dani Whalen, 25, who knows the dead man, Trey Watkins, and knows he is too skilled to have been in a kayak “accident” – especially one in which he was not wearing his helmet. But when she tries to get her ex-stepfather, Sheriff Wade Dunn, to investigate, he throws her in jail and calls her father to get her not to interfere. Dani’s father is in Chile on a teaching sabbatical and cannot come, so he asks his college roommate, Ty Hauck, who is also Dani’s godfather, to go see what kind of trouble Dani is in and help her out.

Ty Hauck, apparently a recurring character of Gross’s who is sort of a superhero type, finds out that Dani may be right about Trey having been murdered, but it also looks like the murder is part of something much bigger, and much more dangerous to everyone involved.

Discussion: If you are unfamiliar with the Karen Silkwood story (which many people know about only because of the outstanding movie made in 1983 on her life starring Meryl Streep and Cher, you might find what happens in this book too improbable. [And in fact, the New York Times called the story of Karen Silkwood “a vivid case of life imitating bad art…”) To learn more about what happened to her, I highly recommend the 1981 book The Killing of Karen Silkwood: The Story Behind the Kerr-McGee Plutonium Case by Richard Rashke.]

In spite of the thrilling pace and tension, you will learn a great deal about the “fracking” process for extracting gas and oil from shale rock by injecting water, sand and chemicals into the rock at high pressure to allow the gas to flow out to the head of the well. You will get a good idea about why there is a lot of uproar, not just because of potential toxic effects, but also because of the appropriation of sand and particularly water for this process.

Fracking

Fracking

This important information is not delivered in a didactic or info-dump-ish way; rather, it’s well-integrated into the unfolding of edge-of-your-seat action.

Evaluation: I love the adrenalin of thrillers, but they are even better when they include useful knowledge, rather than just a dead body, a killer, and a chase. This is a good read!

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015

Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The First World War” by Jim Eldridge

I think this is a very good book for many reasons, but it’s quite obvious it was written from a British point of view (Professor Ian Beckett of Rutherford College, University of Kent, is listed as Consultant), especially because of its glaring omissions.

But let’s start with the positives.  The book is loaded with reader-friendly infographics, excellent and colorful maps, photos, fact boxes, and pretty good, if brief, coverage of most aspects of the war.  I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

The only criticism I have of [that part of] the book is the inclusion of too many exclamation marks.  The whole war was unimaginable; there is no reason to keep throwing in exclamations!

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Let’s proceed to the first hint you get that this book was produced in Britain, which would be the story of the Gallipoli Campaign. The area of the battle was extremely important; the Dardanelles is a narrow strait leading to the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus and the Black Sea.

The Dardanelles, a long narrow strait dividing the Balkans (Europe) along the Gallipoli peninsula from Asia Minor

The Dardanelles, a long narrow strait dividing the Balkans (Europe) along the Gallipoli peninsula from Asia Minor

It was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, blocking off both a supply route to the Russians and preventing the Allies from conquering the Ottomans. The Battle of Gallipoli turned out to be a huge disaster for the Allies, giving true meaning to the term “turkey shoot” since the Turks had an open field of fire from the heights on the Allies trying to advance. But  most tellingly:  whose idea was it, and who was responsible for its poor planning and execution?  None other than Winston Churchill, at that time First Lord of the Admiralty, never mentioned anywhere in the book.

Gaba Tepe (Anzac), the spot where the Australians "landed" upon the Gallipoli Peninsula. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Gaba Tepe (Anzac), the spot where the Australians “landed” upon the Gallipoli Peninsula. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Churchill fails to appear at least two additional times when he definitely should have.  The next occasion came with the sinking of the Lusitania, which was a major factor in bringing the U.S. into the war.  Churchill has long been suspected of knowing the Lusitania would be in danger, but of welcoming the opportunity to get the U.S. involved.  As Hampton Sides wrote in a recent review of Erik Larson’s new book about the Lusitania:

Shortly before the disaster, Churchill had written in a confidential letter that it was ‘most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.’ Afterward, he all but celebrated the sinking as a great Allied victory, saying, ‘The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of a hundred thousand fighting men.’”

But the most important omission of the many roles of Churchill comes with the very sketchy discussion of the part the British played in the disposition of the Middle East – including Saudi Arabia and Palestine, the awful effects of which we are still experiencing today.  The ways in which the Allies decided to split up the region were rather mind-numbingly complex, but were designed to ensure, inter alia, that Britain would have access to the oil in the area.  [And in fact, the current leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, specifically referenced his intention to erase the shame of the secret French-British pact of 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, as one of the goals of his movement.] Certainly there were a number of other important players who divided up the Middle East like pieces on a chess board, but Churchill was a major actor. 

T. E. Lawrence, or more familiarly, "Lawrence of Arabia"

T. E. Lawrence, or more familiarly, “Lawrence of Arabia”

There are a couple of other flagrant omissions, besides that of Churchill.  The text makes it seem as if the Russian Revolution was mainly a reaction to the wealth gap, war failures, and food shortages experienced during the reign of the Russian leader at the time, Nicholas II.  Certainly these played a role, but Russia had a long history of such problems, and new ideologies, both in Russia specifically and roiling the waters throughout Europe generally, made a huge contribution as well.  The book only records that Lenin, who was a “revolutionary,” and his group of “Bolsheviks” (undefined), set up a “communist” state (likewise unexplained).

Finally, towards the end of the book, the casualties are toted up, along with mention of “shell shock” (today called PTSD) and the single phrase about civilians that “many more died from disease or famine brought about the war.”  In fact, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, spread with the help of troop movements around the world, killed more people than the war itself, estimated by the U.S. Department of Health  at somewhere between 30 and 50 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history.  A fifth of the world’s population was infected including 28% of all Americans.  An estimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza during the pandemic, ten times as many as in the world war.  That seems like it would be worth a mention.

But, the fact is, there are numerous histories of World War I, and depending on the historian, country of origin, archives accessed, and year published, you will see many different versions of what happened.  This book does a great job at introducing the subject to students.  All the eye-popping pictures and facts will no doubt inspire further inquiries, at which time the omitted portions of the history will become clear.

Evaluation:  Great maps and infographics with plenty of photos will make the time fly as you learn the basics about the Great War. The publisher recommends the book for ages 7 and up.

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2014

Churchill in 1916 (he managed better with his second chance at a world war....)

Churchill in 1916 (he managed better with his second chance at a world war….)

Review of “Origami City: Fold More Than 30 Global Landmarks” by Shuki Kato & Jordan Langerak

As this book explains, origami is the Japanese word that means “folded paper.” It dates back at least 500 years in Japanese culture. Most early origami art involved cutting the paper, but “purists” don’t do any cutting, just folding. This book follows the purist tradition, providing diagrams for 30 landmarks and other city-themed objects (such as a pigeon and a park bench).

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It begins with “The Basics” to introduce you to notations and basic folds. (The book comes with 30 sheets of colored origami paper but you might want to get some additional papers so you can practice. I have found good supplies at both Michael’s and Costco.)

I love the names of the folds. It sounds like Yoga except you don’t even have to get up off the couch! (To me, that’s the best part.) There is the “squash fold,” the “swivel fold,” the “spread sink” and so on. The instructions are quite clear, and the authors provide helpful pictures for each step of the fold.

As you might expect, the projects start out simple, and then get more complex (but not undoable by any means). Like the recent craze for coloring books for adults, this craft will provide “relaxation support” (as the coloring books promise), as they can’t help but take your mind off of your worries. (Because trust me, you will need to concentrate to execute the folds.) Yet, readers will be pleased to note you can still listen to books as you work on these buildings!

Patterns include such iconic structures as The Washington Monument, The White House, The Empire State Building, Big Ben, The Burj Al Arab (that very cool hotel in Dubai that looks like the sail of a ship), and many more you will recognize instantly. They even show you how to make a leaning Tower of Pisa. It is absolutely amazing what you can make from folded paper!

Two projects in the book:  Left: Canary Wharf Tower Right: Taipei 101

Two projects in the book: Left: Canary Wharf Tower Right: Taipei 101

I really like the fact that before each project, the authors (each of whom contributed designs) tell you background about the building.

Evaluation: This book will provide hours of unexpected relaxation and preoccupation, as well as give you a huge sense of accomplishment as you complete the projects. Amaze your friends and family with your creations!

Published by Rockport Publishers, a member of Quarto Publishing Group USA, 2015

National Poetry Month Kid Lit Review of “Lizards, Frogs, and Polliwogs” by Douglas Florian

What’s so great about Douglas Florian is that he excels at both writing and illustrations, and that he makes poetry so much fun. Here he takes a topic bound to appeal to many kids, which concerns those living things that go slithering, hopping, and moseying along in the grass or the sand, and that so fascinate people, especially little ones.

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His poetry is quite entertaining. Here is what he says about the cobra, for example:

It’s wise to stay clear
Of the dangerous cobra.
All months of the year,
Including Octobra.”

As someone who used to follow Gila Monsters around whenever I was lucky enough to see one in Tucson, I appreciated this one because it’s so true:

They call me monster just because
I have short legs and clumsy claws,
And poison in my jaws,
And look
Like someone’s composition book.”

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Kids will even learn some things about amphibians and reptiles painlessly and fun:

We polliwoggle.
We polliwiggle.
We shake in lakes,
Make wakes,
And wriggle.
We quiver,
We shiver,
We jiggle,
We jog.
We’re hearing
To turn ourselves
Into a frog.”

The illustrations, whimsical and clever, are done in watercolor on primed brown paper bags with collage. My favorite is the one of the box turtle.

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Evaluation: I don’t think anyone can go wrong by choosing a poetry book written and illustrated by Douglas Florian.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Harcourt, Inc., 2001

Be sure to stop by Jama’s blog to check out her roundup of other poetry-for-kids-posts in honor of National Poetry Month. In addition, Serena at Savvy Verse and Wit also has a collection of posts about poets and poetry by participants from around the blogisphere.

Review of “Empire of Night” by Kelley Armstrong

This is the sequel to Sea of Shadows, a story about Moria and Ashlyn, 16-year-old twins from the village of Edgewood, abutting The Forest of the Dead, a place thick with spiritual energy from the dead criminals who have been exiled there. Moria and Ashyn have been born with the ability to communicate with spirits, and thus Moria has become a “Keeper” and Ashyn is a “Seeker,” one of four such pairs of specially endowed twins in the Empire. Ancestral Spirits guide and direct them, and each girl is aided by a special beast. Moria has a Daigo, a wildcat, and Ashyn has Tova, a hound. It is thought that the spirits of former warriors reside in the beasts.

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At the end of Book One, their village has been destroyed and the children taken away by forces directed by Alvar Kitsune, a man with powers of a sorcerer who seeks to overtake the Empire. Moria and Ashlyn set out for the imperial capital to get help. There, Moria meets Tyrus, the kind bastard son of the Emperor who is interested in Moria. But Tyrus keeps his distance; he suspects Moria fell in love with Alvar’s son, Gavril, before she found out he was working for his father. She felt hurt and betrayed and so turned to Tyrus. But Tyrus, who had been childhood friends with Gavril, can’t believe Gavril is evil like his father. He fears that if and when Gavril would come and explain himself, Moria would give in to her feelings for Gavril, and Tyrus would be hurt.

Meanwhile, Tyrus and Moira set out to find out where the children are, accompanied by Ashyn and Ronan, an exiled criminal who miraculously has survived The Forest of the Dead. They are in extreme danger, especially since Alvar has spread the story that Tyrus and Moira betrayed the Emperor and should be executed for treason; a large bounty is on their heads.

As the tension builds, Armstrong throws in two huge cliffhanger twists, making it difficult to wait for Book Three.

Evaluation: Kelley adopts some standard YA tropes, but she manages to make them fresh and entertaining, with layered characters and always, strong female heroines. This book is not a standalone, however, and it would probably be in one’s best interest to wait for Book Three before starting the series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2015

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