as if being 12 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president! by Donna Gephart, 227 pp, RL: Middle Grade

Donna Gephart's debut novel for young readers, as if being 12 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president, winner of the 2009 Sid Fleishman Humor Award which is presented by the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, caught my eye the minute it hit the shelves.  Photos of  kids, especially where you can see their whole face, are rare in the world of kid's books these days, even books set squarely in the realm of realistic fiction.  Also, the girl on the cover has an understated look of annoyance, mistrust and an "are you kidding me?" expression that really clicked for me.  And main character Vanessa Rothrock has all that and more.  Not only is she smart - as a participant in the local and then regional spelling bee, Vanessa is a habitual speller of words which makes for some spectacular vocabulary in this book - but she is funny.  All kinds of funny - self-deprecating, dopey, unintentionally.  The one kind of funny she is not, though, is funny at someone else's expense, and I value that greatly.  Besides the perks of humor and vocabulary, Gephart weaves some nice little civics lessons into her book, as well as an actual brief tutorial from Vanessa herself at the end of the book with some great links to websites that offer more information about government, elections and spelling bees!

With Vanessa as narrator, we get terrific insight into her thought process and emotional ups and downs.  Vanessa's story begins shortly after her mother, the sitting two-term governor of Florida, wins the Iowa caucuses in January and ends with her accepting the Democratic nomination at the convention in Philadelphia in July.  After the caucus win, Vanessa is given a personal body guard, Mr Martinez, and she has to learn to deal with more public attention than what she already gets as the governor's daughter, which is excruciating (Excruciating. E-X-C-R-U-C-I-A-T-I-N-G. Excruciating) since she is a klutz, courtesy of her size 9 shoe, among other things, (as she says, "I frequently embarrass myself by tripping over air molecules") she has frizzy hair and her mom is busier  and more unavailable than ever.  In fact, after winning a spelling bee that her mother was unable to attend, a bee that she wins by spelling the word "deficiency," Vanessa begins to ponder her personal deficiencies, even making a list. The list is overseen by Reginald Trumball, her crush, who takes the opportunity to tease her mercilessly about her number one entry on the list:  "1. Boobs the size of cherry pits. (If life is a bowl of cherries, why are my boobs the pits?)"

Vanessa thinks about her breasts a lot. In fact, she frequently makes wishes that she hopes the Boob Fairy will hear and does some supposedly growth enhancing exercises.  I know that breast size is a concern for some girls, but is never was for me.  I was at the opposite end of the spectrum always trying to hide what was going on with my body in that region, so when this sort of concern pops up as a personality trait I am always a bit dumbfounded - much in the way that I, as a 5 foot tall person,  cannot imagine why anyone would complain about feeling tall.  But, Gephart uses this (perceived) deficiency of Vanessa's to great comic effect, and even pulls off a great one liner from Vanessa's mom on the subject.  Also, Vanessa's focus on her breasts is a great way to illustrate the tunnel vision about themselves that kids of this age seem to have.  This makes it a little easier to relate to Vanessa's griping and worrying and unhappiness about the way campaigning is taking her mom farther and farther away from her.

Gephart does a fabulous job making Vanessa seems like a rounded, real character, and she does an equally good job making Governor Rothrock seem both real and authoritative in her roles as mom and high ranking politician.  She has real gravitas but at the same time you get little glimpses into her as a mother.  When Vanessa is angry at her for not being there when she breaks her wrist at school and is rushed to the emergency room, she tries to talk to her daughter, to explain, to empathize, but Vanessa won't let her.  Gephart allows her to express her frustration and anger at not being able to be there for her daughter, not being able to connect with her when she is there because Vanessa is now angry with her, and she walks out to the room and slams the door.  Even though she is a politician, a woman running for president, a person with a high powered career and a role model for all girls reading this book, she is human and real and I applaud Gephart for this depiction, for not making Governor Rothrock a superwoman who can do it all.  Kids may not notice this as they read the book, but as a parent this is the kind of character I would want my daughter to read about.

Dramatic as a mother-daughter relationship can be, the real suspense in the book comes from the the drama of being a public persona and a presidential candidate and the child of one.  While Vanessa is receiving secret love notes in her locker at school, she also begins to receive threatening hate notes telling her to stop her mother from running OR ELSE.  The notes also instruct Vanessa not to tell anyone the danger will only escalate and spread.  Vanessa rips up the first note without telling anyone about it and carries the burden of this knowledge alone.  Understandably frightened, especially since she already lost her father in an airplane crash, she begins to try to think of ways to get her mother to drop out of the race.  Again, I have to compliment Gephart's writing here.  While the loss of a parent to a child is obviously an event of serious impact, Gephart does not make it a major thread of the plot.  Initially, Vanessa refers to her father here and there and it becomes clear that, not only is he not in the picture, he has died prematurely.  By the middle of the book, when Vanessa is coping with the threat to her mother by herself, we learn more about her loss and her grief when she removes a special box from a hiding place in the closet.  Filled with tangible memories of her father, the reader almost learns more about his death, but Vanessa isn't ready to cope with it and the box goes back in the closet.  Later on, when she is really in need of parental support and nurturing, the box comes out again and the reader learns a bit more.  Mostly, though, these scenes highlight how alone Vanessa is.  Gephart manages to end the book on a happy note and with a very satisfying willingness to compromise on both sides.

Despite the serious nature of the previous paragraphs, this is a really funny book and light at heart.  Kids will read it and laugh and love it and love Vanessa, a multilayered character with interesting quirks.  In fact, Gephart is on the faculty of the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators 25th Anniversary conference that meets in May of 2011 where she will be giving two workshops on writing humor and creating quirky characters.

Gephart's newest book is How to Survive Middle School.  And, in the Spring of 2012 we will be treated to Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, a book about a girl who's dream is to appear on the game show Jeopardy!


Welcome to Donna Gephart Week at books4yourkids.com!!!


One of the great perks of writing this blog is being contacted by authors asking me to consider reading and reviewing their books.  Even better when the author contacting me has written a book or two that I have already noticed on the shelves of the bookstore where I work.  That was the case when I got an email from Donna Gephart a few months ago.  Her first book, which has the same cover in hardback and paperback, as if being 12 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president!, caught my eye right away.  Not only does it have the rare appearance of an actual human being's face on the cover (and that model is the PERFECT fit for main character Vanessa) but it was released in February of 2008, a month after the Iowa Caucuses and eight months before the presidential election.  The timing was perfect!  And, the appearance of a young readers book with any kind of politics as part of the plot, any time of year, is rare.   Gephart's first book lived up to and beyond my expectations, but her second book concerned me.  Middle school, a boy narrator and a hamster did not sound like a winning combination to me, personally.  It sounded like a lot of other books already on the shelf.  But, I enjoyed Gephart's first book so much I decided to give it a try.  Again, Gephart brought so many unique and winning aspects to How to Survive Middle School that it was impossible for me not to like it.  It was also hard to put down - I read the last half straight through. After reading both books, I found myself wondering, "How did she think of that?" and "How does she know that about kids?" and just plain, "Wow, how did she write that?"  So, I thought I'd take the opportunity to walk around in Donna Gephart's writer's brain for a while and share it with you!  Don't miss my reviews of as if being 12 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president! and How to Survive Middle School on Monday and Wednesday, respectively, and my interview with Donna on Friday!


Movie Maker: Everything You Need to Know to Create Films on Your Cell Phone or Digital Camera!

Another home run hit from Candlewick PressMovie Maker:  Everything You Need to Know to Create Films on Your Cell Phone or Digital Camera! by Suridh Hassan, Tim Grabham, Clare Richards, Dan Reeve and illustrated by Garry Parsons definitely lives up to it's name. And what a better time to publish a book/kit like this! I'm sure there is a busload of little auteurs out there just waiting to yell "Cut!"

This kit really does come with everything, just like it says, and all of it fits nicely into the clapboard box, which you can use in your directorial debut.  Four tab folders hold the things you will need for Premiere Night (tickets, awards and other punch-out goodies for a festive event), Sound Studio (a CD with 99 sound effects), Animation Studio and Props & Special Effects (more punch-out things.)  The interior of the folder is also printed with text telling the movie maker how to use the contents.  There is also a StoryBoard Book, not pictured above, that explains what a story board is, lists some terms used and provides a few unfinished story boards with ideas to get screenwriters and directors thinking.  There are also blank pages for creating your own story board.  

But, best of all, there is a Director's Handbook which is really full of fabulous information organized and written at a fourth or fifth grade reading level.  As the illustration above notes, the four contributing authors are all film makers in their own rights and have been practicing their craft since they were the age of the intended readers of this book!  


The Director's Handbook is divided into four sections:  Making Movies, Fiction, Documentary and Animation.  Making Movies goes over all the important aspects of planning and executing ideas.  Equipment, sound, light, preproduction, location, rehearsals, wardrobe, movie design, and special effects and shots are discussed. Great illustrations break up the text and keep the book from being a dry tutorial.   One feature that I love, each section contains at least one box with suggestions for movies to watch that demonstrate the concepts and techniques being discussed in each chapter. The Fiction section of the book talks about the different movie genres. Each section has a graphic that looks like film cells and is used to illustrate the ideas being discussed, a perfect visual for the sometimes abstract concepts in the book. What I especially love about The Director's Handbook is the chapter on documentaries, where I learned a few things I didn't know. I think that documentaries are such a  great way to tell a story, a true story, and a wonderful way to communicate a personal experience, be it your own, someone else's or even an animal's, and share what it means to be alive in this world. Director's Notes in this chapter encourage filmmakers to choose a subject that they feel strongly about and to be inquisitive while you are filiming, among other things. There are instructions for filming wildlife and nature, sports, travelogues, observational, authored and biographical documentaries and wonderful suggestions for appropriate movies to watch.

Finally, there is a chapter on making animated movies, the most complex of the group.  There are instructions on the cel and drawn technique, stop motion, computer animation and experimental.  There is a handful of software on the market that can be used to help with movie making. A few years back my brother gave my son, now thirteen, who was really into clay animation at the time, iStopMotion, a software that let him make some really great movies with his clay creations.  Now that Movie Maker:  Everything You Need to Know to Create Films on Your Cell Phone or Digital Camera! is in our house, my six year old son has gone through the box and started filling out his story board. The roles have been cast and we start shooting on location over the winter vacation!

And, of course, there is a movie to go with the book...


Vintage Books from Your Shelves!

Thanks to those of you who left comments on my postVintage Kid's Books From My Shelves!  It has been such a treat and delight to be reminded of forgotten old books and introduced to wonderful new books by you!  As more comments roll in I will add cover images to this post.  Here are books from your shelves...

Molly's Moe

Reader nopinkinhere remembers Molly's Moe written and illustrated by Kay Choraro - out of print. Molly loses her toy dino named Moe and finds all sorts of things in the process of searching for him.

Two similar books that came to mind for me, the first in print, the second not, are:  I LOST MY BEAR by Jules Feiffer.  Very funny and true, but the illustrations aren't as gentle and sweet as Choraro's.  The Something written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt is the story of a little creature who is having bad dreams.  His mother buys him some clay so he can make an image of the scary thing from his dreams.  Turns out he is dreaming about a little girls and when he meets her in his dream he realize that he doesn't have anything to be scared of.

I Lost My Bear by Jules Feiffer: Book Cover

Reader Donna share's her (and her boys) love of Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion with pictures by Margaret Bloy Graham.  Don't miss Graham's BE NICE TO SPIDERS from 1967!  I had this as a kid and loved it!  Check out the review from August of 2007 on Burgin's blog.

Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion: Book CoverBe Nice to Spiders by Margaret Bloy Graham: Book Cover

And, there is Eve Titus's wonderful French mouse and his family in the Anatole and Anatole and the Cat books, still in print.  Other Anatole books that are out of print include:  Anatole and the Piano, Anatole and the Pied Piper, Anatole and the Poodle, Anatole and the Robot, Anatole and the Thirty Thieves, Anatole and the Toy Shop, Anatole in Italy and Anatole Over Paris.

Donna and her boys also like the Billy and Blaze series started in 1936 by Clarence William Anderson.
Billy And Blaze by C. W. Anderson: Book CoverBlaze Finds the Trail by C. W. Anderson: Book Cover

And, the Little Tim series by Edward Ardizzone.

Reader Laura was inspired to visit her father-in-law and raid his bookshelves, specifically for MY ICKY PICKY SISTER by Beth Hazel, now out of print.  That looks like a gem!

Laura's book reminded me of the out of print book from my childhood by Anne Mallett, illustrated by the always amazing Steven Kellogg, HERE COMES TAGALONG.  Man, that was a great story about fitting in, being left behind and finding a new tribe.

Reader Katherine Tillotson, who is also an illustrator and has worked with Megan MacDonald (of Judy Moody and Stink fame) on three of her picture books, reminds us of all things wonderful from Leo Lionni.  2010 marks the 100th anniversary of Lionni's birth in Holland and as happy result, almost all of his picture books (of which I think there are about 30) are still in print!!!  Below are two books that seem to be OUT OF PRINT by Lionni and MY favorite Lionni book, Let's Make Rabbits, which came into my life as a tattered library discard from my husband's childhood!

A Flea Story by Leo Lionni: Book CoverMr. McMouse

Let's Make Rabbits by Leo Lionni: Book Cover

Not out of print in the least, below is a little treat - some of Katherine's artwork:

from When the Library Lights Go Out by Megan MacDonald, pictures by Katherine Tillotson.


Vintage Kids' Books from My Shelves

Reading Burgin Streetman's blog, Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves inspired me to go through the books from my childhood that made it into adulthood with me AND survived my kids, as well as a few gems from my husband's childhood.  I would LOVE IT if anyone else wants to share favorite titles from their childhoods that can qualify as vintage (over 20 years old - in print or out of print.)  If I get enough responses, I promise to do the legwork to find cover images and create a post featuring them - all you need to send me is the title and the author, if you know it. (Apologies for the horrible formatting in this post. These were some difficult images to work with...)

Anita Lobel, children's book author, illustrator and wife of Arnold Lobel, with whom she collaborated on the Caldecott winning On Market Street, wrote one of my all time favorites, Under a Mushroom. A family of four trolls lives under a very cozy mushroom that quickly becomes cramped and uncomfortable when all the little creatures of the forest seek refuge there during a rainstorm. The trolls' house is destroyed in the ensuing mayhem, but when the clouds clear a field brimming with new mushrooms is revealed and the trolls find themselves, once alone and lonely, now in a neighborhood.

And, on the theme of mushroom villages, I just discovered this picture book, The Mushroom Center Disaster writtten by NM Bodecker (illustrator for Edward Eager's Magic series of books that should not be missed) and illustrated by his friend Erik Blegvad, the same team who created Hurry, Hurry Mary Dear, the wonderful picture book along the lines of the Little Red Hen story, but with Mary getting a bit of revenge in the end...

The Sorely Trying Day cover

You all know Russell and Lillian Hoban from their classic stories featuring Frances the Badger,  but you may not know their other books. Harvey's Hideout left a deep impression on me as a kid.  Harvey and Mildred Muskrat, siblings who are relentlessly mean to each other in a way that felt very real to me as a child. They lie, bicker, argue and sling mud (literally) but in the end they realize that, when they are lonely they can also be friends.  Charlie the Tramp is much more lighthearted and evokes childhood freedoms that are rare these days.  If your interest is piqued, be sure to seek out The Sorely Trying Day by the Hobans, newly reprinted by The New York Review of Books Children's Collection.  The book features a father, just home from work and hoping to rest his aching feet, a mother who has been at home all day with her quarrelsome brood and how they all come to find a bit of peace and quiet in their day - and all in a Victorian era setting!

I never knew this since my copy is from 1964, but Rain Makes Applesauce by Julian Scheer and Marvin Bileck won the Caldecott Honor in 1965!  This book is a magical, long, winding poem full of beautiful internal rhymes and intricate, sometimes murky pen and ink illustrations with splashes of color. The illustrations are so intricate and amazing I had to share them in the biggest way possible. The book begins, "The stars are made of lemon juice and rain makes applesauce. I wear my shoes inside out and rain makes applesauce.  My house goes walking every day and rain makes applesauce..." My favorite illustration/line was and is, "Monkeys mumble in a jellybean jungle." Well worth a read and probably not too hard to find!

Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr: Book CoverMog's Amazing Birthday Caper by Judith Kerr: Book CoverMog's Bad Thing [With CD (Audio)] by Judith Kerr: Book Cover

Mog in the Dark by Judith Kerr: Book CoverMog and the V.E.T. by Judith Kerr: Book CoverGoodbye by Judith Kerr: Book Cover

I had a copy of Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr when I was a kid.  Neither the book nor the name of the book made it with me to adulthood.  I had only a vague memory of a stripy cat who couldn't remember how to get back in the house and scared a burglar. Weird story, but I have to tell you how the book came back into my life.  I indulge my baser nature while at work by reading gossip magazines on my break.  I like to look at the British tabloids since I rarely know who any of the people are.  I happened to be flipping through HELLO! when I saw a picture of all the little boys in Elizabeth Hurley's wedding party being read to by a nanny while they waited for the ceremony to start.  There, staring out at me from the cover of the book was MOG!  Makes sense, Judith Kerr is a Brit.  I immediately ordered in a 6-in-1 collection of stories as well as a few others.  I love them to bits.  The illustrations are simple and definitely look like they are from the 1960s (the first MOG book was published in 1970) but there is something winsome and lovable about Mog and the scrapes she gets herself into.  Actually, got herself into.  Goodbye Mog, published in 2002, is about Mog's peaceful death and is one of the BEST picture books dealing with the passing of an animal I have ever read.  

A huge influence on my childhood and love of kid's books as an adult has been the magical realism of Richard Scarry and the animal filled world he created.  Most of the books from my childhood, which rest on a shelf of honor, spines tattered and falling apart, have been out of print for many years but are gradually being printed again, although, sadly, in a slightly altered fashion.  Once owned by Simon & Schuster and Western Publishing, Golden Books was the original publisher of the multitude of books by Scarry.  Golden Books is now owned by Random House, and is responsible for reprinting Scarry's work.  Busy, Busy World was my favorite Richard Scarry and remains out of print, probably for a plethora of what would now be considered culturally insensitive stories and illustration.  Another favorite illustrator/author responsible for several classic Golden Books is Tibor Gergly, who illustrated greats like The Pokey Little Puppy, Tootle and Scuffy.  However, my favorite Gergly book, also written by him, is Busy Day, Busy People, which, although filled with humans and not animals, has a decidedly Scarry feel to it. 

I find anything Garth Williams takes his pen/pencil/brush to absolutely magical and evocative of the childhood I wish I had.  Here are a few of his books on my shelf you may not have heard of - all of which are out of print:  The Three Animals, written by Margaret Wise Brown, Emmett's Pig, written by Mary Stolz, and Benjamin's Treasure, a picture book adaptation of an episode from a novel that Garth Williams wrote.  Color and adaptation byRosemary Wells!

And, Arnold Lobel!  The Ice Cream Cone Coot and Other Rare Birds was a childhood favorite of mine that I am happy to report I now own again, thanks to PaperbackSwap.  And, while I still have my copy of Miriam Young and Lobel's Miss Suzy, it was out of print for quite a time but can now be purchased from Purple House Press!

This is a strange but charming book that came with my husband.  Who Needs Donuts by cartoonist, political cartoonist and kid's book writer Mark Alan Stamaty - IN PRINT AGAIN!!!

And one last book from my childhood I am still trying to get my hands on (for less than an arm and a leg) about a monster who is hungry but can't speak properly.  He asks for "fickles" when what he really wants is pickles, and so on.  Not sure why it stuck with me, but I'll find out soon enough since I broke down and ordered it online.

Turns out this is isn't too hard to find, same for the sequel, The Hungry Thing Returns.  Much to my delight, I discovered that a third (OUT OF PRINT) book about the Hungry Thing, The Hungry Thing Goes to a Restaurant, is illustrated by Elroy Freem, also known as MARK TEAGUE!!!  He has long been a favorite of mine, ever since I read Moog Moog the Space Barber and Frog Medicine (who's main character is named ELMO FREEM), both written and illustrated by him, as well as the spectacular Poppleton beginning reader series, written by Cynthia Rylant.  Elroy/Mark also illustrated this Thanksgiving picture book...

Speaking of out of print, Mark Teague, most famous now for illustrating Jane Yolen's How Do Dinosaurs... series, has illustrated and written and illustrated some really great books that, while not vintage (less than 20 years old) still worth seeking out at a library sale of thrift store!

Since I've never given much space to him and I love his work so much, I'll leave you with some Mark Teague books that are still in print.

LaRue Across America by Mark Teague: Book CoverLaRue for Mayor by Mark Teague: Book Cover
Dear Mrs. LaRue by Mark Teague: Book Cover

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition) by Mark Teague: Book CoverThe Secret Shortcut by Mark Teague: Book Cover

Funny Farm by Mark Teague: Book CoverFirehouse! by Mark Teague: Book Cover

The Doom Machine by Mark Teague: Book Cover

And, his first young adult novel which I bought the day it was released and promise to review soon....