My Havana for Nonfiction Monday

My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood by Rosemary Wells with Secundino Fernandez (illustrated by Peter Ferguson; Candlewick, 2010) encompasses the decade of my own parents' childhoods, and the city young Dino describes in it is almost as familiar to me as if I remembered it myself:

Until I [Dino] am six years old, in 1954, my world is sweet. "We live in a city built by angels," Papi says. There is no cold in Havana, only sunshine and warm rain. The city's avenues are lined with arcades of coral stone archways, ancient doors, and window frames....

The architecture of the colonial capital fascinates Dino (he grows up to be an architect), and he fills his sketchbooks with drawings of buildings, windows and doorways. As if taken from Dino's sketchbook, pencil drawings of architectural details are overlaid on a view of the rooftops in this wordless double-page spread:

Peter Ferguson's painterly illustrations, done in oil with spot art in pencil, capture a city suffused with golden light: very different from both Madrid, where Dino lives with his maternal grandparents from 1954-56, and New York City, where he and his family settle in 1959 after Castro comes to power in Cuba. They're an integral part of this relatively short (65 pages), yet surprisingly rich book.

Rosemary Wells was inspired to write My Havana after hearing an interview with Secundino Fernandez in which he described his intense homesickness for Havana, and his attempt to alleviate it by building a cardboard model of the city on the floor of his bedroom in New York (that episode makes it into the book, too). It's a beautiful and evocative example of the power of place in childhood memory, and one for which I am especially grateful.

A note on politics: The text of My Havana touches on the repressive Franco regime in Spain as well as on the Batista dictatorship and the Cuban revolution under Castro. I only wish the author's note had not.


Moo, Moo, Brown Cow for Poetry Friday

Baa, Baa, Black Sheep is probably my favorite nursery rhyme--I sang both my children to sleep for years with Raffi's extended version, Cluck, Cluck Red Hen (Milly still likes to hear it at bedtime).  In Raffi's version, the singer asks a hen for eggs, a cow for milk, and a bee for honey. Here's the exchange with the cow:

Moo, moo, brown cow, have you milk for me?
Yes, sir, yes, sir, sweet as it can be.
Churn it into butter or make it into cheese.
Freeze it into ice cream or drink it if you please.

The little boy in Phyllis Gershator's new picture book Moo, Moo, Brown Cow (illustrated by Giselle Potter; Random House, 2011) does the same sort of thing (he also asks a gray goose for down, but otherwise the animals are the same); however, Gershator's narrative is more purposeful: the little boy is looking for a blanket for his bed, a pillow for his head, and a sweet and simple bedtime snack of bread and honey with a glass of milk.  Here's his exchange with the cow for comparison:

Moo, moo, brown cow, have you any milk?
Yes, sir, yes, sir, smooth as silk.
Does milk make me sleepy before I go to bed?
Yes, sir, yes, sir, the brown cow said.

It's also a little more difficult to sing (lines 3 and 4 of each stanza especially), but even I was able to manage it. The reward comes in the closing stanzas, when animals and boy alike go to bed ("in the hive... / in the barn... / in the coop... / in the shed").  Giselle Potter's final illustration shows him tucked in bed with his own collection of farm animals (there's even a bee mobile), dreaming of jumping over the moon.

Potter's palette could have been inspired by the classic colors of old-fashioned milk paint, which lends her work here a folksy farm feel. My favorite illustration is this one of the black sheep knitting the boy's blanket out of a ball of his or her own curly wool:

Bonus points for showing the sheep holding the needles correctly; how many times have you seen them pointing up in picture books?


Delicious: The Life and Art of Wayne Thiebaud

One of my favorite paintings in the East Building of the National Gallery is Wayne Thiebaud's Cakes (1963). Kids tend to love Cakes, too: the subject (of course), the number and variety of cakes in the painting to choose from, the ribbons and swirls of paint like icing on each one. It does look delicious.

Thiebaud paints more than just cakes, though; and Susan Goldman Rubin's Delicious: The Life and Art of Wayne Thiebaud (Chronicle, 2007) is an appealing introduction to both.  It's also ideal for upper elementary and middle school students looking for something more substantial (at just over 100 beautifully designed pages) than a picture book biography of an artist.

Rubin's text--like Thiebaud's life, it would seem--is simple and straightforward, punctuated with quotes from the artist in oversize block letters and illustrated on almost every facing page with carefully chosen examples of his work (many of which are from private collections). I especially appreciate Rubin's attention to these individual works of art: in just a few sentences, she models how to write about art in a way that kids can understand and appreciate.

For example, in Chapter 6, "From Farms to 'Fantasy City'," Rubin focuses on Thiebaud's landscape and cityscape painting. Here's Rubin's description of Dark City (1999):

Dark City portrays San Francisco at night. Tall skyscrapers painted in deep shades of purple and periwinkle blue create a mood of excitement. The colors, though not true to life, give the feeling of nighttime. Little dabs of yellow and red suggest lit windows, street lamps, and cars driving up and down a hill that seems to go straight up into the air. The painting is huge--over 6 feet high--and is all verticals. Even the steep hill rising up in the middle like a roller coaster is shaped like the rectangular buildings on either side. (84)

[Me again.] Dark City is also gorgeous, all the more so for being a bit of surprise (to me, at least). Thiebaud's landscapes of the Sacramento River Delta, too, are strikingly beautiful.

But he always returns to Cakes, and so will I. At the gallery, I like to ask kids to sketch just one cake, making it fill the whole page. Next time I might ask them to describe it in words as well. Which cake would you choose?



Spellbound, the second volume of The Books of Elsewhere by Jacqueline West (Dial, 2011) picks up right where The Shadows left off, with eleven-year-old Olive stuck outside the magical paintings in the McMartin house, and what's worse, her friend Morton stuck inside them. The cats (especially Horatio) are reluctant to help Olive--in fact, they're actively discouraging her. But when her new neighbor Rutherford suggests she look for the McMartins' spellbook, Olive is somehow inexorably drawn to it (that's it in the painting on the cover). Can she use the spellbook to help Morton escape Elsewhere, or is it using her to help the McMartins do the same?

I loved The Shadows, which won a Cybil award last year; and Spellbound might be even better, in that there is more of everything to love and some new things besides.  Olive continues to explore the old stone Victorian on Linden Street (which West says looks almost exactly like the LeDuc House in Hastings, MN): the library, the attic, the basement (sorry, Leopold!), and the garden, as well as some previously undiscovered paintings.

Spellbound also introduces a new character in the gallant yet rumpled Rutherford, and revisits Morton, whose plight is increasingly poignant (spoiler alert: he's still stuck inside his painting). Olive herself does some devastating things while under the spell of the spellbook--even the cats abandon her at one point--but ultimately faces up to Annabel McMartin and the mysterious Mrs. Nivens. Not for the last time, though: now Olive is more determined than ever to rescue Morton...and Annabel is on the loose.

I read an ARC of Spellbound (thank you, Penguin!) with cover art and fantastic black-and-white interior illustrations by Poly Bernatene, who also did the illustrations for The Shadows. I wish all my favorite middle grade novels had illustrations as perfect for them as these, actually--they add so much atmosphere. Spellbound will be out in hardcover on July 12, and I'm already looking forward to Volume 3.

A note about the author: When asked what paintings she might sneak into if she got her hands on Olive's glasses, Jacqueline West said she'd have to go with Salvador Dali's, "because they would be such amazing worlds to explore. I imagine everything would feel rubbery and slick, sort of like Silly Putty or fried eggs." I would pick Vermeer, because of the order and light.  What about you?


Books that Cook: The Runaway Wok

[Books that Cook: A very occasional feature in which the Books Together Test Kitchen (that would be me and my kids) prepares a recipe from the back of a picture book.]

The Runaway Wok: A Chinese New Year Tale by Ying Chang Compestine (illustrated by Sebastia Serra; Dutton, 2011) doesn't overflow with rice (more's the pity, because the Festive Stir-Fried Rice recipe we tried was really good)--it's based on a traditional Danish folktale, The Talking Pot, instead. I found the economics (not to mention the ethics) of The Runaway Wok a little problematic, actually: the wok steals from the selfish, rich Li family to give to the poor, generous Zhang family. The Zhangs share the wealth with all the poor people of Beijing at a New Year's feast. And then they open up a wok shop!

Ying Chang Compestine, who has written a number of cookbooks as well as children's books, includes an informative Author's Note about the Chinese New Year. She says, "The most significant dish for children is the festive stir-fried rice, cooked in a wok. The various ingredients in this dish represent harmony and happiness. Parents urge their children to eat it so they will get along in the coming year." We'll see.

Notes from the Test Kitchen

  • This recipe works best with day-old rice. We used brown rice to make it extra-healthy. 
  • Feel free to make substitutions, like cubed fresh mango (instead of dried cranberries) and cashews. Delicious! I just hope it doesn't void the "harmony and happiness" clause.

Me, Frida

Amy Novesky's picture book biography of Frida Kahlo, Me, Frida (illustrated by David Diaz; Abrams, 2010), encompasses only one year--from 1930 to 1931, when the newly married Frida accompanied her husband Diego Rivera to San Francisco--but it's a critical one in Frida's development as an artist. Rivera, already an established artist himself, had been commissioned to paint a mural for the city and set to work almost immediately.

Novesky's elegant text delineates Frida's initial sense of loss and isolation (she had never traveled outside of Mexico and didn't speak English or have friends in San Francisco); her growing self-confidence as she explores the city on her own; and her arrival at what would become a distinctive style of painting--very different from Rivera's--intimate and inspired by 19th century Mexican folk art and portraiture.

The book culminates with the painting of this portrait, now in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (and reproduced in the Author's Note):

"That night, Frida painted something great: a colorful wedding portrait of herself and Diego. She painted Diego big, and she painted herself small, just as the world saw them.

But Frida knew she was more than this. And she put herself first. In the beak of a pink bird, she wrote a tiny note on violet ribbon:

Here you see us, me, Frida Kahlo, with my adored husband Diego Rivera. I painted these portraits in the beautiful city of San Francisco, April of 1931."

David Diaz's paintings for Me, Frida are gorgeous, glowing works of art themselves. They were done in acrylic, charcoal and varnish on primed linen; in vibrant colors (acid yellow, turquoise, red-orange and hot pink) evocative of Frida's Mexico, and of San Francisco, too. I especially love their composition, the way Diaz's final painting, in which Frida stands in front of the wedding portrait at the opening of her first show, neatly reverses the scale of the two figures to herald Frida's arrival as an artist in her own right:

Diaz includes the pink bird from Frida's wedding portrait in almost every double-page spread, perched beside Frida or peering over her shoulder as she works. And although Novetsky's text doesn't mention the childhood illness and injuries that made walking painful for Frida (so often the focus of books about her, such as Jonah Winter's Frida--I should review that one next), she is sometimes shown, statuesque and beautiful, carrying a cane.

David Diaz and Me, Frida won a 2011 Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor.  Richly deserved, and highly recommended, for everyone.


Nonfiction Monday

Welcome to Nonfiction Monday at books together! My contribution is Me, Frida by Amy Novesky, illustrated by David Diaz (Abrams, 2010), which won a Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor this year. Please comment with a link to your Nonfiction Monday post (and a brief description if you'd like), and I'll round them up here throughout the day.  Thanks for participating in this edition of Nonfiction Monday!

Amy at Hope is the Word reviews Martin Jenkins's new book about endangered species. I've read Can We Save the Tiger? and agree that it is gorgeous.

The Coelocanth is in the news again! Robin of Bookmuse knows where to find more information about this mysterious fish.

Alex as The Children's War reviews a workbook for teaching World War II using primary sources. Be sure to check out Alex's other reviews of World War II-themed books for children and young adults, too.

Roberta at Wrapped in Foil has a glowing review of the newest book by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long, A Butterfly is Patient.

Jennifer at Jean Little Library reviews Puppet Play, a craft book that would be great for a teen puppet program.

Jeff at NC Teacher Stuff reviews an Augmented Reality book about dinosaurs from DK.

And Lori at Lori Calabrese Writes! reviews National Geographic's Dinosaurs for emerging readers.

Shirley at SimplyScience reviews Hummingbirds by Jeanette Larson and Adrienne Yorinks, which offers an interesting combination of facts and folklore about hummingbirds.

Roll up your sleeves for Nonfiction Book Blast's projects from Explorers of the New World by Carla Mooney.

Tammy at Apples with Many Seeds is looking at all kinds of animal eggs.

Brenda at Proseandkahn writes about forces of nature.

Carol at Rasco from RIF features an ABC book that tells a story.

Paula at Pink Me is in with a review of Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin, a middle grade book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that took place one hundred years ago this year.

At Bookends today Cindy and Lynn review Meadowlands by Thomas F. Yezerski.

Heidi at Geo Librarian reviews Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature by George Sullivan.

Jeanne at True Tales and a Cherry on Top reviewed a picture book biography of artist Josef Albers specifically for books together.  Thank you, Jeanne! N.b., Jeanne's next picture book, My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden's Childhood Journey (illustrated by Elizabeth Zinon, will be out in September.

And Anastasia Suen is in with Spiky, Splimy, Smooth: What is Texture at Picture Book of the Day and The Story of Oil: How it Changed the World at Chapter Book of the Day.

Thanks, everyone!


A Family of Readers

Many thanks to the folks at the Horn Book, who recently sent me a copy of A Family of Readers: The Book Lover's Guide to Children's and Young Adult Literature (Candlewick, 2010), signed by editors Roger Sutton and Martha V. Parravano. I've been dipping into A Family of Readers here and there since it arrived, concentrating on the chapters about genre, nonfiction, and Girl and Boy Books in Part Three: Reading on Their Own. Each section closes with a list of More Great books of that particular sort, and since I tend to like what the Horn Book likes (see: this year's Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winners), I'm usually either nodding my head in agreement or adding titles to my TBR list. [Roger and Martha were at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast when A Family of Readers first came out to note which new books they would have liked to include, too.]

On a related note, the Horn Book is starting a new blog, Calling Caldecott. A companion to SLJ's Newbery blog, Heavy Medal, Calling Caldecott will also run from early fall through the winter (basically award season for children's books). And now that I've taken KT Horning's Caldecott class, I hope to be able to contribute something to Calling Caldecott other than its name.

Why couldn't I have come up with something catchier when I named this blog, though?


BEA and back again

I made it to BEA and back in one day and lived to tell about it! Here's my BEA story: I took the 7:25 train from DC on Thursday morning--it wasn't even the high-speed train and I still got to Penn Station by 10:45. I love the train. I can read on it, for one thing, which I can't do on a bus or in the car. And it's nice to look out the window from time to time.  All those little towns!

Anyway, I walked to the Javits Center, checked my empty suitcase (I packed the bare minimum for what was meant to be overnight stay--more about that later) and wandered around the exhibit floor, where I made several very nice contacts and got a poster signed for Milly by Peter Brown and an "I went to BEA and all I got was this lousy t-shirt" t-shirt for myself.

No, that's not exactly true. But people have remarked that books (ARCs or otherwise) were in short supply at BEA this year, and that was definitely the case on Thursday. I was a little disappointed, but in the end I came home with a few coveted titles (thank you, Susan Kusel, for Wonderstruck!) and the promise of more to come in the mail. I love the mail just as much as the train.  All those fat envelopes!

This might be a good time to mention the difference between BEA and ALA's annual meetings, which I attended last year when they were held right here in DC. In my experience, ALA was more collegial (and I'm not even a librarian); there was a sense of common purpose. BEA was more competitive and businesslike, as in business was being conducted right in the booths and everyone seemed to be in a hurry to close up shop by 3. Fortunately I knew what to expect and came prepared with a mission statement and a stack of cute business cards.

Charlotte of Charlotte's Library and Pam of MotherReader had graciously agreed to share their hotel room with me Thursday night, and I met them and several other kidlit bloggers (Alex of The Children's War and Susan of Wizards Wireless among them) for a thankfully very collegial lunch.  Afterwards, Pam led the way back onto the exhibit floor (see How to Work an Event Like a MotherReader for some excellent tips), where things were already starting to wind down. Note to self: If you attend BEA next year, try getting there on Monday.

Here's where I went off the rails, so to speak.  The plan was to meet up with Charlotte and Pam (who had another event to attend) at our hotel a couple of hours after the exhibits closed, and then go to Kidlit Drink Night at a nearby bar.  But it was hot and crowded and New York City, and as I walked back to Penn Station to catch an uptown train to the Met, I caught sight of the Vamoose bus to Rosslyn.  Next thing I knew I had traded in my Friday morning ticket and was on that bus. It was 4:30.

I had to make a couple of sheepish phone calls (thank you for understanding, Charlotte and Pam!), but it was definitely the right decision for me. I was even able to read a little of Wonderstruck on the bus. Best of all, supper was waiting for me when I got home...and it was still hot.


BEA Bound

I'll be at BEA on Thursday, provided my early morning train from DC doesn't get derailed and I don't get lost walking to the Javits Center from Penn Station. Can you tell I'm a little anxious about getting there? It's the first time I've attended Book Expo America and I'll be arriving late in the morning of the last day. Here's hoping there are still lots of lovely new books to be had! And that everyone I hope to meet is still more excited than exhausted by then.

Oh, here's a wee BEA wishlist (the middle grade edition):

A Year Without Autumn by Liz Kessler (Candlewick). A certain seven-year old I know is very fond of Kessler's Emily Windsnap series! This one looks like a lovely standalone novel with an interesting time travel element.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (HarperCollins). I liked Ursu's Cronus Chronicles even more than Percy Jackson and the Olympians. This one is a fairy tale retelling (The Snow Queen) with gorgeous cover and interior illustrations by Erin McGuire (whose forthcoming picture book, French Ducks in Venice by Garrett Freymann-Weyr, is on that wishlist, too).

Brotherband Chronicles, Book 1: The Outcasts or Ranger's Apprentice: The Lost Stories by John Flanagan (Philomel).  For Leo especially (see this post for more). 

The Kronos Chronicles, Book III: The Jewel of the Kalderash by Marie Rutkoski (FSG). This one's for me, because I adored the first two, Cabinet of Wonders (my Cybils nominee that year) and The Celestial Globe.

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George (Bloomsbury).  Princess maps ever-changing castle and saves kingdom! It has a gorgeous cover, too.

See you there!