Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas Song by Eleanor Farjeon

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been listening to Christmas music on the radio. And like me, you may wonder why, considering there are dozens of wonderful Christmas songs out there, radio stations seem to play the same 10 songs over and over—most notably Bing Crosby's "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." The only relief is that they might play 2–5 versions of each of those 10.

Who better to give us a new carol or at least different lyrics than British children’s poet and book writer Eleanor Farjeon (1881–1965)? She wrote more than 30 books, opera librettos, plays, and masques. “The Shepherd and the King” is from her book of Christmas poems, Come Christmas, but I’m guessing it was first performed as a carol in one of her Christmas masques. It is currently available as sheet music on the Internet.

In 1955 Farjeon won a Carnegie Medal for her story collection, The Little Bookroom. (The Carnegie is the British equivalent to the Newbery in the United States.) In 1956 she was the very first winner of the international Hans Christian Andersen Award for her “lasting contribution to children’s literature.”

Children’s literature people tend to talk about Farjeon's book Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard, but my favorites are two fairy tale retellings, both of which started out as plays: The Glass Slipper (Cinderella) and The Silver Curlew (Rumpelstiltskin plus a nursery rhyme, “The Man in the Moon”).

Eleanor Farjeon’s most famous work is actually a poem now familiar as the song lyrics performed by Cat Stevens, “Morning Has Broken.” Today it is often sung as a Christian hymn.

And so I give you a very Merry Christmas, with a little help from Eleanor Farjeon!

The Shepherd and The King

The Shepherd and the King,
The Angel and the Ass,
They heard Sweet Mary sing,
When her joy was come to pass.
They heard Sweet Mary sing
To the Baby on her knee.
Sing again Sweet Mary,
And we will sing with thee!

Earth, bear a berry!

Heaven, bear a light!

Man, make you merry

On Christmas Night.

The Oxen in the stall,

The Sheep upon the hill,

They are waking all

To hear Sweet Mary still.

The Baby is a Child,

And the Child is running free.

Sing again Sweet Mary,

And we will sing with thee!

Earth, bear a berry!

Heaven, bear a light!

Man, make you merry

On Christmas Night.

The People in the land,

So many million strong,

All silently do stand

To hear Sweet Mary's song.

The Child He is a man,

And the man hangs on a tree.

Sing again Sweet Mary,

And we will sing with thee!

Earth, bear a berry!

Heaven, bear a light!

Man, make you merry

On Christmas Night.

The Stars that are so old,

The Grass that is so young,

They listen in the cold

To hear Sweet Mary's Tongue.

The Man's the Son of God,

And in heaven walketh He.

Sing again Sweet Mary,

And we will sing with thee!

Earth, bear a berry!

Heaven, bear a light!

Man, make you merry

On Christmas Night.

—Eleanor Farjeon, from Come Christmas (1927)

Note: Illustration is by French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Poetry Friday: Animals Eat Sunlight

Poet Heidi Mordhorst of My Juicy Little Universe is hosting Poetry Friday today, and she asked us to write poems about "lighting the dark" by way of celebrating the Winter Solstice with her and her family. Here's my poem:

Animals Eat Sunlight

“Animals eat sunlight,” I tell my students.
They don’t believe me. I explain how light
is caught by the green nets of leaves
and eaten by cows that become fast food
hamburgers and how we eat leaves in salads—
bowls of sunlight adorned with ranch dressing
and croutons. “Sunlight is energy,” I say.
I don’t talk about the way the sun
has been worshipped for thousands of years
as a mighty golden god or the hope after winter.
I don’t tell them how my heart lifts
with each sunrise. How it astonishes me
that day is somehow here again.
I don’t speak of my fierce love for the star
first graders draw in the upper corners
of their pictures with yellow crayons,
that circle blessing the house with its chimney
and family, its row of red flowers
like smaller suns. At recess, I walk outside.
I do not look directly at the sun, deferential,
but I feel it touching my skin. I feel
like a tree, stretching my branches,
my green nets, my everything towards light.

—Kate Coombs, 2012
all rights reserved

For more poems and links, visit the Poetry Friday post at My Juicy Little Universe. Happy Solstice, Happy Holidays, Happy Season of Candlelight and Starlight!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sadness and Hope

The deeply painful events in Connecticut a few days ago make me think about sad books—and about hopeful books. Some books are one and the same. All three of these books have been out for a while, and the second one is out of print. They all make me think, not only about hurt and sorrow, but also about the great goodness in so many people.

Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti

The time is World War II. Rose Blanche, who is probably about 8, doesn’t know what that means. She doesn’t understand why soldiers and trucks have come to her town. But after she sees a little boy try to escape from one of the trucks and get recaptured, she follows the truck beyond the edge of town and comes to a barbed wire fence with people inside—including the boy. The people are thin and hungry, so Rose Blanche begins bringing them food, not telling anyone.

Then one day the soldiers start leaving, and soon the townspeople themselves flee. Rose Blanche has gone out to the camp again with food, but no one is there and the fence has been torn down. “Shadows were moving between the trees. It was hard to see them. Soldiers saw the enemy everywhere. There was a shot.”

Next we see that different soldiers have come to town. “Rose Blanche’s mother waited a long time for her little girl.” Spring comes. Flowers begin to bloom where the barbed wire fence and the camp used to be.

The End. Yes, it’s heart wrenching, but it's beautifully done. The author switches from Rose Blanche’s first-person account partway through, when the German soldiers begin to leave. Innocenti’s artwork is realistic and rendered in sober hues. This is a wonderful, terrible book that I think you’ll like very much. Because at some point, kids figure out how awful humans can be, like when they hear on TV that 20 first graders have been shot at school. And children need, we all need, to be reminded that humans can also be kind, even in the midst of dark days on this earth.

Sleeping Boy by Sonia Craddock, illustrated by Leonid Gore

Another war-themed book, this allegory is based on the story of Sleeping Beauty. A family named Rosen is celebrating the birth of their son in Berlin. All of the guests give their blessings to the baby except for poor old Tante Taube, who has dropped her knitting and can’t decide what to say. Then black-cloaked Major Krieg bursts in. He has long been angry at the baby’s mother for not marrying him, and now he puts a curse on the child: when Knabe Rosen is sixteen, he will hear the drums of the army marching by. “Off to war you’ll go—and you will not come home.”

The major leaves, but Tante Taube softens his curse. When Knabe Rosen hears the marching army and its drums, he will fall asleep. “He will sleep through poverty and war, bad times and sadness, until PEACE comes to Berlin.”

The Rosens forbid music in their home and keep marching bands well away, but on Knabe’s sixteenth birthday, he does hear the army marching with its drums. Knabe tries to run outside to join the army, but he and the entire household instantly fall fast asleep. They slumber just as Tante Taube said they would, “through poverty and war, bad times and sadness,” until at last peace does come to the city of Berlin. The wall is torn down, and Knabe and his family wake to celebrate.

This story is for older children and adults. The text is fairly dense, and Gore's illustrations are dark and a little blurred—a stylistic choice, but one that makes them harder to read. However, Sleeping Boy is a book I rather like: it works in its own way. Perhaps it would be best used as a read-aloud for older students who might then write their own allegories or fairy tale variations about some kind of trouble in the world.

Of course, the fact that we can’t magically sleep through troubled and troubling times gives this book a kind of reverse power. What will we do instead of sleep? Is “sleeping” what people are doing when they ignore the social ills that lead to things like war?

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

I dearly love this book. I own three copies, the most copies I own of any book. (Not even sure how I wound up with all of them!) Here is my post about author-illustrator Shaun Tan from last year. In it, I also talk about his book The Arrival, which astonished me by being even better than The Red Tree. (Truly. It’s one of my Top 5 Books of All Time. And I've read a lot of books.)

But today I want to talk about The Red Tree because it shows us despair and hope. Some have said that the book is specifically about depression. But I feel it has a broader meaning, as well.

The book starts with a girl sitting in her bed. A few black leaves (maple leaf-shaped) are scattered around her room. The text reads: “sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to”. On the next page the girl’s room is full of the black leaves. The text says, “and things go from bad to worse”.

Each spread then shows the girl struggling with different symbolic situations. Which makes the book sound dull, but instead it is absolutely gorgeous. For example, “darkness overcomes you” shows the girl and a few other people walking down a city street, and an ugly giant fish hangs over the girl’s head, casting a huge shadow. Other scenes follow, such as “the world is a deaf machine” [page turn] “without sense or reason”. And the artwork for these seemingly abstract statements gives form to the difficulties each of us sometimes faces, whether inside or out.

By the way, you’ll find that this is one of the world’s only second-person books that actually works!

Now. Watch. Because in each of Tan's marvelously challenging spreads you can find a small red leaf shaped just like those black ones from the beginning of the book. And when the book ends, that small leaf turns into hope, “bright and vivid/quietly waiting” [page turn] “just as you imagined it would be”.

Sometimes hope does feel small, especially in the wake of overwhelming sorrow. But hope can grow, becoming an entire bright tree.

Let’s hold on to hope.

Note for Worried Parents: Because of their difficult themes, these three books are for the older child, or for teens and adults. They are well worth reading and discussing, however.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Three Picture Books for the Thoughtful Child

Some picture books are wonderful because they sing out like a brass band, but others are just as marvelous because they murmur like a night wind. Here are three such books.

Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole

Making a picture book that’s wordless is usually more of a storytelling choice than a symbolic one, but here the wordlessness is both, as the title implies. This is a story about keeping quiet for all the right reasons, about keeping a secret to keep someone safe. It is also about not needing to speak to help someone out—which makes me think of quiet kindnesses in everyday life.

As our story begins, a young farm girl bringing the cow home from the pasture watches five men pass on horseback. The first one is carrying a Confederate flag, so we understand that this story takes place in the South during the Civil War era. The girl goes to feed the chickens, and then her mother sends her to fetch the eggs from a small barn. As she does so, she is frightened to realize that someone is hiding in a big stack of corn stalks laid in one corner of the barn, perhaps to dry for feed.

The girl runs back to the house, but even before she goes inside, she starts to calm down and think about what this means. She does not say anything to her family, but after dinner she goes out to the barn with some food for the fugitive. Perhaps my favorite part about this story is a spread showing different hands holding different food items on the same checked cloth—showing that each member of the family separately slips out to the barn to feed the runaway slave hiding there.

The next day two men come to the farm looking for a runaway slave, but the girl’s family sends them away. That night the runaway is gone, but she has left a simple gift behind for the girl, something she has made from the checked napkin and the corn husks.

A good picture book is like a poem. It is hard to tell a story well in just a few words or just a few pictures, but Cole succeeds beautifully. The entire book is done in charcoal pencil on cream-colored textured paper, giving it a sepia look like photos from the late 1800s as well as a subtle richness. The North Star, or rather the Little Dipper containing the North Star, is a motif used in a piece of art that appears on the book cover and inside the book; it is also shown on two other spreads, tying the story together.

Unlike a graphic novel, the picture book format does not allow for a lot of sequential storytelling, but Cole has chosen his moments well, and the narrative flows logically. I like the way he shows most scenes at a medium distance, but includes the occasional close-up. One of the best spreads in the book is simply all those corn stalks with their marvelous texture—and one eye of the hidden girl looking out.

Cole includes an author’s note that explains about the Civil War stories he heard as a boy growing up in Virginia, as well as more information about how slaves used the North Star to guide their escape to freedom.

Unspoken may require you to use a few words of introduction to give young readers historical context. But the sense of quiet urgency, the threat of discovery, the courage of the runaway, and one farm family’s kindness need no words, as Henry Cole so wisely shows us.

The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins

I knew a guy in Los Angeles who created original artwork using photographs of beetles. They were really gorgeous, so it’s no surprise to me that the beetle art in Jenkins’ latest nature book is, too. The cover alone is worth the price of admission!

I will admit I was a little put off when I first opened the book and saw how small the font size is, but I quickly got used to it and realized that its size means the text doesn't compete with the illustrations. Beetle names are in boldface in the text, which is helpful. Another nice touch is that the author-illustrator gives us many of the beetles in black silhouette to show their actual sizes.

Jenkins lets the stark white backgrounds set off the beetles’ strong colors and shapes, taking full advantage of negative space and the beetles' symmetry to create graphic art-influenced illustrations. Many of the beetles are static, portrait-style, but some are shown in action, most notably two rhinoceros beetles dueling to win a mate. The illustrations are all the more breathtaking when you realize that they are done entirely using “torn- and cut-paper collage.” Jenkins has joined the rarified ranks of Eric Carle and Lois Ehlert in his use of the technique.

The science content may remind you a little of an Eyewitness book. The Beetle Book is filled with fun facts. For example, have you ever heard of the forest fire beetle? "[It] has special heat-sensing spots on its body. It can detect a fire from more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) away. These beetles fly to the site of the forest fire and lay their eggs in charred wood—wood that is now free of predators." I thought he was going to say the beetles sensed the fire and flew away from it, but instead the beetles fly to the fire!

Stinky beetles, shiny beetles, poisonous beetles (if you eat them!) and camouflaged beetles—Jenkins introduces readers to a colorful cast of characters. One of my favorites is an Australian beetle called Wallace’s longicorn, which has a body that’s not quite 4 inches long and antennae that can reach 15 inches or so in length. (Illustration above is a dung beetle.)

I’ll just end with one final fact, Jenkins’ opening sentence: “Line up every kind of plant and animal on Earth… and one of every four will be a beetle.” So yes, we’re outnumbered. But if you’ve got a budding scientist on your hands, get him or her The Beetle Book.

Here’s Chris Marley’s website if you want to see his beetle art and other pieces.

Also: See The Beetle Book cover art below at the end of last week's post.

The Moon Jumpers by Janice May Udry, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

This is a golden oldie, a Caldecott Honor Book back in 1960, predating Sendak’s 1964 Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are. I am happy to bring it up now because Harper Collins is reissuing the book in February. So just how well does The Moon Jumpers hold up?

It is retro in two obvious regards: it’s a quiet book, and the dad in the book smokes a pipe. The text of the story would be a real hard sell if Udry sent it out to Scholastic or any other publisher today. Fortunately, she sold it in a kinder, gentler day, and then Sendak’s illustrations made a slight story into something significantly more magical. Basically, four kids go outside and play around. Then their mom calls them in and they go to bed.

So what does Sendak do with this material? He adds a cat, for one thing. He shows how four kids can make a game out of anything, including a tree branch and the moon. And he gives the whole thing this really atmospheric feeling, reminding us that there is something mysterious and a little wild about the night and the moon. The four children—two girls and two boys—are a bit pretty, especially the girls, but we can happily forget that as they strike kid poses and flop around and goof off. (See Sendak’s brilliant work showing how kids move and the faces they make in Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig.)

The spreads here are flatter and simpler than in some of Sendak’s later work, though you can see hints of Where the Wild Things Are in his trees and bushes. The shapes of the house, the trees, and the shadows make new meaning out of the night, as do the figures of the children. One spread I particularly like doesn’t show the children at all, just the house, the night, and the cat.

But I am not giving enough credit to Janice Udry for her own understanding of children. What do the children do, playing outside?

"We climb the tree just to be in a tree at night.
And we make a little camp and pretend we’re on an island for the night.
We make up songs. And poems. And we turn somersaults all over the grass.
We tell ghost stories. And holler “Boo!” under the window.
We jump and jump, over and over, and higher and higher. But nobody has ever touched the moon."

Today, even if you had four kids instead of two and weren’t afraid of them getting snatched from the yard and could get them out the door after dark, they would probably sit on the porch playing video game apps.

I hate to cite nostalgia, but it’s another good reason for liking this book. Most of all, though, I think I like it for the mood. People don’t necessarily talk a lot about that as a book illustration skill, but one reason Maurice Sendak is considered a master illustrator is because he could create a tone so distinct it was like a voice calling softly through the night.

The Moon Jumpers reminds me of that—and of catching fireflies when I was a child in my grandmother’s backyard. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Best of 2012: Shopping Lists and Book Buzz

I read a lot of great books this year, so I’ll just list the ones here that I think of most happily as I look back—always a good sign! Some of these books are just for fun and others are more serious, but I can recommend them all to you as Christmas gifts or anytime reads. (I’ll tell you more about the books that are getting the most buzz for awards below.)

My Top Picks


Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A modern-day fairy tale wrapped up in yarn. A celebration of creativity, kindness, and not needing to explain yourself.

Z Is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Zebra is staging an alphabet book, but Moose just can’t wait for his turn. He disrupts letter after letter, and Zebra gets increasingly exasperated… Fun and funny, with a couple of twists you won’t see coming.

Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Seeger helps us look at the color green in so many different ways, and the cutouts add to the appeal of this visual poem. The last few pages take us in new directions.

Freedom Song by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Sean Qualls

Make this a companion book to the perhaps better-known Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson. This newer version of Henry "Box" Brown’s life and escape to freedom is simply lovely—and I am referring as much to the words as to the pictures.


National Geographic’s Book of Animal Poetry

As I mentioned in my recent review, some genius figured out that animal photos from the National Geographic archives would make the perfect accompaniment to an anthology of animal poems. The poems themselves are beautifully rich and varied—plus there are a lot of them!


Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

Another madcap adventure in the Florida Everglades from Hiassen, author of Hoot, Scat, and Flush as well as numerous adult mysteries. I like how he escalates the absurdity along with the peril.

The Second Life of Abigail Walker by Frances O’Roark Dowell

This is what they call a small gem of a book. You’ll find a touch of magical realism in Dowell’s story of a sixth grader harassed by friends and family for being a little overweight. Abby’s world changes when she stands up to the mean girls, encounters a fox that’s more than meets the eye, and crosses a creek to discover someone who is worse off than she is. (I've been meaning to review this, but I loaned it to a friend….)

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

Recent winner of the National Book Award for Children’s Literature. Apparently not everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved main character Rownie; the lyrical, atmospheric storytelling; and the way the world building just was, without long explications.

Caddy’s World by Hilary McKay (ages 10 and up)

I am a true-blue fan of McKay’s Casson family books. You really should read the first five books before this one. (And check out her Exiles books, too!) The parents are artists and bordering on negligent, but the humor and humanity in these books just can’t be beat.

Renegade Magic by Stephanie Burgis

As the Booklist reviewer said earlier this year, “Regency romance meets Harry Potter with a strong jolt of twenty-first century feminism” in Burgis’s Kat Incorrigible series. This is Book 2, and it’s just as much fun as Book 1.


Dodger by Terry Pratchett

The brilliant Brit turns his predecessor Dickens’ Artful Dodger into a determined young hero in this adventure novel. Thoroughly satisfying and even moving as you cheer for Dodger to overcome his humble beginnings, solve a mystery, defeat his enemies, and save a damsel in distress (who is not a total wimp!).

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

In today’s sci-fi/fantasy genre there are endless variations of worlds where different human-ish species coexist uneasily. But this book gets it right in terms of character development, court intrigue, and mystery. Seraphina is partly about prejudice, but mostly about a girl trying to survive the turmoil in her life.

Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson

Sarah Dessen fans take note: this is a really good read that works the way Dessen’s books do but is not an imitator. The theme of second chances takes on a couple of different meanings, and the humor in the book is counterbalanced by the sorrow—or vice versa!

Cat Girl’s Day Off by Kimberly Pauley

This one's about a version of our world in which some people have talents like levitation and divination, including Nat’s older sister. Nat’s talent, on the other hand, is that she can talk to cats. Hilarity ensues, especially when a film crew comes to town and a mystery is afoot. I hope they make this into a movie.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Slow-paced, solemn, sinister—so why do I like this so much? Mostly the characters, not to mention Stiefvater’s ability to build suspense with a supernatural twist bit by bit. Throw in some Welsh legends and a boys’ school for good measure. Bottom line: The Raven Boys is really, really well written. That would explain the five starred reviews it got!

Books with Buzz

Now, of course I haven’t read everything, so let’s also take a look at some other recommendations… 

What I’ll do is list books that made it to at least two of the following—the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, the Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus best books of the year lists, the New York Times Best Illustrated Books of 2012, and the Heavy Medal blog’s shortlist (SLJ). I also considered books that received 4–6 starred reviews as of late June (thanks to ShelfTalker). See also the New York Times list of Notable Children's Books for 2012 (thanks to Charlotte for the link).


And Then It’s Spring by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin Stead

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (5 starred reviews)

A Home for Bird by Philip C. Stead

I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King, Jr., illustrated by Kadir Nelson

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

Z Is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (6 starred reviews)


Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Son by Lois Lowry

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin

Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sarah Pennypacker

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Wonder by R.J. Palacio


Note: Because not all of the YA lists for 2012 are out yet, I am going to rely mostly on starred reviews and the Publishers Weekly list of best books for teens.

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (6 starred reviews)

The Diviners by Libba Bray

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (6 starred reviews)

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Nelson

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman


The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins

Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust by Doreen Rappaport

Chuck Close: Face Book

Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 by Phillip Hoose

One Times Square: A Century of Change at the Crossroads of the World by Joe McKendry

We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson

Note: If you've read any of these books and would like to tell us how good they are and why, please leave a comment!

Update 12-4-12: The New York Public Library has published its list of the best books of the year. Thanks to Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 for the link.

Update 12-9-12: Here are the Goodreads Choice Awards for 2012. You'll find many of the books listed above here. See also the Horn Book Fanfare list for 2012, another link I got from Betsy Bird.

Update 12-10-12: The Atlantic Wire has a great list of Y.A./Middle Grade Book Awards for 2012; I really like their categories! Aaaand the Kirkus list, Best Teen Books of 2012, is out! Watch for those duplicates between lists. They tell us a lot.

Update 12-12-12: Also the Amazon lists. I'm not impressed by the picture book list, but the middle grade and teen lists seem to be right on target.