Nonfiction Monday:  Pompeii


What is it about the story of Pompeii that is so compelling?  I think it's not so much the volcanic eruption--although that's certainly compelling--as the record of everyday life in a Roman town that Vesuvius inadvertently created almost 2000 years ago.  Pompeii Lost and Found by Mary Pope Osborne, with frescoes by Bonnie Christensen (Knopf, 2006), is primarily about the record, and is the perfect introduction to the story of Pompeii for young readers.

About the illustrations in Pompeii Lost and Found:  According to the flap copy, Christensen "brings to works of nonfiction a style of art that is especially suited to the period in which each book is set."  For this book, she painted actual frescoes inspired in color and style by ones found in Pompeii (a note in the back of the book describes the technique).  One of the first spreads features small frescoes of six objects found in the ruins and asks readers to guess how they were used (answers in the back; my kids really liked this).  Many of the later spreads include a smaller fresco of a found object that relates to the larger fresco of a scene from everyday life:  a scene in the bustling outdoor marketplace (forum) is accompanied by scales and gold coins; one of a dinner party is accompanied by a loaf of bread and a glass pitcher.  I like the way this design encourages kids to imagine being archaeologists and reminds them throughout of the archeological evidence that allows us to imagine life in Pompeii, 79 AD.


Poetry Friday: Mother Earth and Her Children


The illustrations in this rhyming picture book won an unusual award:  Best in Show at the 2006 International Quilt Festival in Houston.  They began as a single quilt inspired by quilt artist Sieglinde Schoen Smith's favorite children's book, Etwas von den Wurzelkindern ("Something About the Root Children"). Written by Sibylle von Olfers, it was originally published in Germany in 1906.  Mother Earth and Her Children:  A Quilted Fairy Tale (Breckling Press, 2007) is the English translation of that book, illustrated entirely with details from Smith's award-winning quilt.  Yes, that cover image is from the quilt.

Renowned fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes translated von Olfers's short text about the changing seasons into English rhyming verse for the first time.  Here are the Root Children getting ready for spring:

"All are quick and ever ready
To sew spring clothes. Their hands are steady.
With needles, scissors, spools of thread,
They measure and cut, full steam ahead.

And when the children's clothes are done,
Kind Mother Earth admires each one."

I like the way these lines now recall Smith's work "with needles, scissors, spools of thread" as well as the Root Children's.

story%20of%20the%20root%20children.jpg[This is the English edition with the original art by von Olfers (Floris Books, 1980) that inspired Smith; plus an article about copyright responsibility re: Mother Earth and her Children.  In case you're inspired to recreate your favorite picture book in some other medium.]


The Roman Mysteries

thieves%20of%20ostia.gifI'm reading a new (to me) series:  The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence.  The first book, and the only one I've finished to date, is called The Thieves of Ostia.  I found it while looking for children's fiction set in or around ancient Rome, of which there isn't much; and unfortunately this one at least would be too scary for Leo, if not for me.  It's set in Ostia, the port of Rome, 79 AD (so far so good), and features four unlikely friends:  a sea captain's daughter Flavia, her new neighbor Jonathan, the slave girl Nubia, and the mute beggar boy Lupus.  Together they search for whoever is killing the neighborhood dogs.  The mystery is good; but the real appeal (again, for me) is the description of Roman life.

The second book in the series is The Secrets of Vesuvius.  In this one, the four friends are spending the summer with Flavia's uncle near Pompeii.   There they race to solve a riddle that may lead them to great treasure, and then to survive the volcanic eruption that ultimately buries the city.  I have some hope that this one will not be too scary to read to Leo; solving a riddle seems much less dangerous than catching a dog-killer.  But this is a kid who who won't read the Magic Tree House books by Mary Pope Osborne (which is fine) because Jack and Annie are always putting themselves in danger, no matter that they obviously come out of it okay:  there are 38 books in that series to date!  The Roman Mysteries will total 17, of which 14 are already available:  I better get reading.

[The Roman Mysteries is also a BBC series (not yet available on DVD).  See also the BBC page on Ancient History/Romans for additional information and fun interactive content.]


Nonfiction Monday: Ox, House, Stick

Today is the first Nonfiction Monday for children's book bloggers.  Thanks to Anastasia Suen for designating a day to post about nonfiction, which I love and which doesn't get as much attention as it might.  I also like having some sort of structure to my posting (see Poetry Friday, which I missed last week).  And we read a lot of nonfiction at our house.  Right now, it's mostly about Ancient Rome.  Maybe I should just make this Ancient Roman Week at bookstogether!


I knew right away that my first Nonfiction Monday post would be about this book:  Ox, House, Stick:  The History of Our Alphabet by Don Robb; illustrated by Anne Smith (Charlesbridge, 2007).  [Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast had the same idea; see her review here.]  After all, our alphabet is Roman.

Ox, House, Stick was a Cybils nominee in the middle grade nonfiction category, and I would have been delighted if it had won (unfortunately, it's not a finalist).  The book, like the alphabet it describes, is a marvel of clarity, both visual--the illustrator, Anne Smith, is also a graphic artist--and informative.

It begins with a few pages about how people communicate; how written language developed from pictures and symbols to letters; and how those letters--our alphabet--spread "around the Mediterranean and through the centuries."  The rest of the book traces the origins of each letter or group of letters, interspersed with brief discussions of things like pronunciation, writing practices, and the invention of print.

All things that interest me, of course, but Leo was fascinated, too, as soon as he saw the ox head in the A (turn it upside down).  Thank you, Ancient Romans.

[And thanks again, Anastasia!  See more Nonfiction Monday posts listed here.]


The Post-Birthday World


I just started reading The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins, 2007).  This is notable because I haven't been reading many books that are just for grownups lately.  First there were the finalists for the Cybils, then the Newbery Honor books, and I still have a stack of middle-grade novels I can't wait to start.  I don't know if I'm going to finish The Post-Birthday World either (I think I've been spoiled by all those middle-grade novels).  It does have an interesting parallel-universe structure; and the protagonist, Irina McGovern, is a children's book illustrator.  I hope she gets some better assignments later in the novel, because this one doesn't sound promising:  "Irina collaborated on a second children's book with Jude--the overt manipulativeness of the first, along the lines of I Love to Clean Up My Room!, appealed to parents as much as it repelled children, and had ensured that it sold well" (6).


The Mysterious Benedict Society

mysterious%20benedict.jpgI just finished The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (Little Brown, 2007; check out the book's website here).  It took a lot longer than it should have--I kept leaving it upstairs where the children were sleeping, or downstairs after I went to bed myself, and at one point I had to return it to the library (it was overdue) and check out another copy.  Maybe I just didn't want it to end.  I love puzzle-mysteries, and this one has a great cast of characters, too.  Here are the four gifted children who form the society, working on an assignment:

The children--all except Constance, who was too busy humphing--set to their notes.  Sticky read so quickly that he seemed hardly to have started before he'd finished.  He sat quietly, deep in thought, waiting for the others.  Ten minutes later, Reynie had finished, too, and Kate, noting this, set aside her last few pages and asked the boys to fill her in (132).

Look at how Stewart identifies each of those characters in that one paragraph.  My favorite of the four has to be the diminutive Constance Contraire.  She felt familiar right away, although I didn't realize why until the end of the book [no spoilers here].  Here's a description of Constance:

Constance's face turned so red, her pale blue eyes glistened so brightly behind angry tears, and her wispy blond hair was in such a state of dishevelment that she looked more like a small child's painting of a person than an actual person herself (227).

I also love the ink and wash illustrations by Carson Ellis (on the cover, and at the beginning of each chapter).  The second MBS book (The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey) will be out in May, with illustrations by Diana Sudyka.  Can't wait.  I wonder if Trenton Stewart Ellis is a fan of the Decemberists?


Greek myths


I have high hopes for this collection of Greek myths, retold by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Pep Montserrat (McElderry, 2008).  Well, what I would really like is a companion volume of Roman myths (we're all about Ancient Rome over here right now), but perhaps if we all rush out to buy this one, the folks at McElderry will follow up.  And I have been looking for a book of myths to read the kids (see this post about my search).  It makes sense to start with the Greeks; almost everything else does.

It matters to me that the collection we choose be one that the kids and I will love to read and listen to, to look at and pore over.  Not just because it will have to fight for shelf space (and the kids' attention) with a lot of other books, either:  I think that knowing the myths is important, as important knowing the fairy tales or the Bible stories; and more to the point, I think that the book you first meet them in, the one where you visit them regularly, matters, too.

Do you remember a particular collection of myths or fairy tales from your childhood?  You might even remember the words and pictures of a favorite story from that collection.  If you do (please tell me if you do), then you know what I mean.

[See an excerpt of The McElderry Book of Greek Myths here.]


Picture book finalists (Cybils)

I've read three of the seven Fiction Picture Book finalists for the Cybils.  All three of them are wonderful books (of course), but reading them together, I was struck by how different from one another they are, and how difficult the job of choosing one winner would be.

Leaves by David Ezra Stein (Putnam's, 2007)


For the littlest picture book readers (and listeners) on up; about the seasons of a bear's first year.  Spare text and expressive art, created with bamboo pen and a warm palette of watercolors.  This one feels timeless.

The Incredible Book-Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel, 2007)


Eating was a common medieval metaphor for reading.  This boy, however, literally consumes his books.  He could be forgiven for taking a bite of this one's creamy, krafty matte pages.  I love the art, which was created with paint, pencil and Letraset "on pages from old books that libraries were getting rid of, the artist found, or people were throwing out."

Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Doug Chayka (Eerdmans, 2007)


This book is dedicated to Zanib, a refugee girl who asked for a book about children like her (read more about how it came to be written at the author's website).  The girls who share the sandals in this story are living in a refugee camp outside of Peshawar, but the themes of friendship and separation are universal.

[Okay, I also read Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity by Mo Willems (Hyperion, 2007).  You probably have (too).  And did you hear it won a Caldecott Honor?  Of course you did.  So you don't need me to tell you how good it is, although I will if you want.]

How does one choose a winner from among these books?  Hmm, maybe I need to take a closer look at the judging criteria for the Cybils.


The cage in the Station Inspector's office [updated]

One of the benefits of reading aloud to your kids that's sometimes overlooked is that it develops their sense of story.  Plop Leo (and to a lesser extent, Milly) down in the middle of a new book and he'll get his bearings pretty quickly.  He can tell you a good story, too.

The other night he had to answer this question about his leveled reader, Ski Patrol:  "After you read page 5, did you think there would be an avalanche in the story?  Why or why not?"  I think the answer they were looking for was yes, because the weather conditions were right.  Leo's answer was yes, because if they mention an avalanche on page 5, there will probably be one later in the story.  It's a meteorological Chekhov's gun. (That last sentence is mine.  Leo prefers Tolstoy.  Kidding!)

hugo%20cabret.jpgLater that (same) night, Leo and I started reading Brian Selznick's brilliant (and Caldecott Award-winning, hooray!) The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007).  At the end of chapter 2, Hugo looks into the Station Inspector's office:  "[He] could see the Station Inspector's desk, and in the corner of the office, the cage of a small jail cell that sat waiting for any criminals caught in the station.  Hugo had seen men and women locked up in there, and a few times he had even seen boys no older than himself in the cell, their eyes red from crying.  Eventually, these people were taken away, and Hugo never saw them again" (80).  We stopped reading there, turned out the light.  In the darkness, Leo asked, "Will Hugo end up in that cage, Mommy?"

You don't need me to tell you that at the beginning of Chapter 10, he does.

[Given permission to read ahead, I happily finished the entire book.  I think Hugo would have loved it himself, especially the ending.  After all, "He thought every good story should end with a big, exciting chase" (202).]


Poetry Friday: Behind the Museum Door

behind%20the%20museum%20door.jpgI'm a museum person:  I'll look at just about anything if it's behind glass and has a little plaque.  Fortunately for me (and for the kids, who also get to go there on field trips), we live within frequent visiting distance of the Smithsonian Institution and its complex of wonderful--and free--museums.  The 14 poems in Behind the Museum Door: Poems to Celebrate the Wonders of Museums, selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen (Abrams, 2007), are framed by a school visit to a museum whose exhibits range from mummies to moccasins, fine art to fossils.  My favorite (poem, if not exhibit) is Alice Schertle's "O Trilobite."  Against a dark blue background teeming with the little critters, these are the opening lines:

O trilobite, there are a few,
here in the Fossil Room, of you.
Once billions strong, you ruled the sea,
a Cambrian Age majority.

In print, the left margin of the poem's lines forms a gentle convex curve, like the shape of a trilobite's shell.

I love Stacey Dressen-McQueen's rich and expressive artwork, made with acrylic paint, oil pastel, and colored pencils.  The multicultural group of children she's painted here is clearly delighted with their trip to museum.  I would be, too.