Marco Polo: History's Great Adventurer, Being an Account of His Travels 1270 - 1295, written by Clint Twist, including extracts from The Travels of Marco Polo, illustrated by Templar Books, RL 4

If you are familiar with the other books in this series, especially Clint Twist's Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure, then you need read no further. You know how exhaustive and author Twist is and how engaging and intriguing these books are. As I said in a previous review, the scrapbook format of this book, made popular by Candlewick Press's Ology series of books, is what makes Marco Polo: History's Great Adventurer, Being an Account of His Travels 1270 - 1295 so easy to pick up and fall into.
Every page is filled with easy to digest bites of information surrounded by wonderful illustrations and an assortment of flaps, maps and envelopes to open, unfold and explore. Twist begins the story of Marco Polo in a prison cell in Genoa, Italy in 1298. Polo and his cellmate Rustichello da Pisa, a professional soldier who also wrote poems for nobles, are prisoners of war in the ongoing battle between Venice and Genoa. During their months of captivity, Polo tells da Pisa of his travels. The two eventually produced a book titled A Description of the World, later known as The Travels of Marco Polo.
From there, the book follows Marco Polo's life (which began in 1254 and ended in 1324) starting with 1260 - 1270. Based in Constantinople, Polo's father and uncle ran a an import-export business while their families resided in Venice. Sensing a growing hostility toward Venetians, the brothers sold their belongings for a bag of gemstones and headed off across the Black Sea hoping to sell them to a local ruler. They ended up in Mongolia where they were befriended by Kublai Khan, who made them ambassadors to Europe. Kublai asked them to return to his growing Mongol empire with holy oil from Jerusalem and 100 Christian monks to exchange knowledge with the khan's own advisers. After returning to Venice and leaving again for Jerusalem, Niccolo Polo invites his seventeen year old son Marco to join them, changing his life forever. 

1271 - 1272 finds the Polos traveling from Jerusalem to Hormuz with some interesting information about the Crusades. From 1272 - 1273 they are making their way across Persia and Afghanistan and we begin to learn about the Silk Road, the span of Alexander the Great's empire and that Afghanistan was, at that time, the only known source for the beautiful blue stone lapis lazuli, which could be ground into a powder to make the precious blue paint that was used exclusively for the robes of the Virgin Mary in paintings.

The Polos cross the Gobi desert and reach the Imperial City where they are invited to join Kublai, who takes a liking to the inquisitive Marco, as he completes his conquest of China. Kublai sends Marco to what is now known as Burma, by way of Tibet where he learns that they use blocks of salt as currency, to spy for him. Marco Polo also escorts a Mongolian princess and participates in a royal wedding, returning to their home almost twenty years later with pockets full of pearls where their families, unable to recognize the grizzled and bearded men, refused to acknowledge them as family! The final pages of the book tell of Marco Polo's legacy and includes an envelope which holds a replica of a map, c.1450, that reflects the contribution that Marco Polo and his travels made to the knowledge of the geography of the world.

A truly amazing book about an incredible adventure. I usually have little to no interest in history unless it is wrapped in a fictional bow, however, I was completely engrossed with Marco Polo: History's Great Adventurer, Being an Account of His Travels 1270 - 1295, just as I was with Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure. And, as with that book, my six year old son was entranced as well. This beautiful book would make the perfect gift for any young explorer - of the world or of knowledge. Look for my review of the next book in this series, William Shakespeare: His Life and Times, and, in the fall, Charles Dickens: England's Most Captivating Story Teller!


Hurry Down to Derry Fair written by Dori Chaconas and illustrated by Gillian Tyler

Hurry Down to Derry Fair, written by Dori Chaconas and magnificently illustrated by Gillian Tyler reminds me of books from my childhood. I grew up with everyday intricacies of Richard Scary's stories and illustrations and the darkly magic world of Maurice Sendak, but I also grew up with the lush watercolors and intimate domestic details of the books of Tasha Tudor and Beatrix Potter. And, while I love them all, I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for Tasha Tudor and Beatrix Potter. Perhaps this is what makes the works of Janet and Alan Ahlberg of The Jolly Postman Fame, immediately lovable to me. Sadly, Janet Ahlberg died in 1994, but Alan continued to write and work with other illustrators. Gillian Tyler's style comes closest to that of Janet Ahlberg's, both illustrators capturing the the lush feel and attention to detail that I love in Tudor and Potter's work.

With Hurry Down to Derry Fair, Tyler's talents are on full display. Dori Chaconas' tale of a little boy, Dinny Brown, anxious to the fair, is playful and melodic. Dinny goes to each of his family members asking to be taken to the fair. But mother is making lemon pies with the hope of winning a prize, father is chopping wood to sell and sister Lucy is grooming her animals for show.
Double page illustrations that show Dinny going from family member to family member are interspersed with single page pictures that show what awaits him at the fair.
Finally, Dinny finds Grandma Patty in her garden. Grandma Patty answers his plea with, "You're right! It's late!" and the two run off, hand in hand.
The last pages of the book are a fold out, four page spread that is marvelous, one quarter of which can be seen below. Tyler captures the excitement and treats that await Dinny and his pocket full of coins. I realize that state fairs (Chaconas grew up in Wisconsin) and one-day country fairs (Tyler is British and lives in Penistone, an ancient market town that holds England's largest annual one-day fair) are not typical childhood experiences for most young readers. However, I think that the exoticness of this event (for some readers) is what makes it all the more appealing and possibly even magical. I never saw a corgi dog, hedgehog or colorful garden patch when I was growing up and maybe that is why I found so much to be fascinated with in the works of Beatrix Potter and Tasha Tudor. With the detailed filled illustrations of Gillian Tyler, I have no doubt that other children, whether they can relate to this story or not, will fall in love with it the way I did.
 One last nifty detail - the back of the book is a poster for the fair with the barcode serving as a ticket!

If you aren't familiar with Gillian Tyler or Alan Ahlberg, be sure to seek out these books!
Treasure Hunt is the story of toddler Tillie and her parents, who have fun hiding her toy rabbit and her breakfast banana so she can hunt for it. Tillie likes to surprise her parents by hiding from them. Tyler's charming, detailed illustrations bring the child's world to life. The Snail House tells the story of three siblings who shrink down and live in a house that is on the back of a snail. Magical and sometimes suspenseful moments make this book a visual feast. Sadly, both are out of print but might be at your local library.

Treasure Hunt 5Treasure Hunt 2


To Market, To Market written and illustrated by Nikki McClure

I first encountered the work of Nikki McClure at story time in 2009 when I read All in a Day, written by Cynthia Rylant. The following year, I featured Mama, Is It Summer Yet? in my post of great books for Mother's Day. It was right around that time that I discovered the blog Mishaps and Adventures, written by Chad Beckerman, the Art Director for Abrams Books and Amulet Books for Young Readers. You can read about the evolution of a book cover over at Mishaps and Adventures, as well as interviews with artists and authors Mr Beckerman works with in the creation of what are consistently excellent books with a very high production value. These books are truly for people who love books. Beckerman's peek into McClure's studio and work process is a treat. A self-taught artist, McClure has been making paper-cuts since 1996 and every illustration and work of art she creates comes from one piece of paper! Combine this vivid artwork with McClure's powerful sense of the virtues of hard labor and patience, community and sustenance, and you have a remarkable book. Which is exactly what To Market, To Market is. Anyone who visits a farmer's market with his or her child should rush out and buy this book immediately, especially if you live in McClure's hometown of Olympia, Washington because the Olympia Farmer's Market is featured in this book!
To Market, To Market reminds me of the kind of life I would like to live and the values I would like my children to take into adulthood. This book has the incredible ability to simultaneously make me feel guilty, appreciative and hopeful. To Market, To Market makes me wish I had more time to visit my tiny local farmer's market and prepare more homemade food beyond the dinner I cook every night. But, after reading McClure's book, I also find myself being reminded of the foods that I do cook, how much my family loves it and how these meals do bring our family together, whether it's for a simple meal or a celebration. While I am a firm believer that picture books are meant to entertain and expand the imagination, I also have a deep belief that, at their best, they are for guiding and instructing. McClure's book represents the best of this ideal, instructing, reassuring and celebrating. As the blurb for To Market, To Market so perfectly puts it, 

Known for art that celebrates the virtues of community, hard work, and living gently on the planet, Nikki McClure here explores a topic close to her heart: the farmers market. Alternating between story and fact, this lovingly crafted picture book follows a mother and son to the weekly market. As they check off items on their shopping list, the reader learns how each particular food was grown or produced, from its earliest stages to how it ended up at the market. To Market, to Market is a timely book that shines awareness on the skill that goes into making good food.

One page of the story is followed by another page with a couple of paragraphs of factual information about the item on the shopping list being purchased. We meet the farmer/baker/creator who is selling the item, then we learn a bit about how the item is grown and harvested, made or prepared, and how it gets to the market. Almost like two books in one, the person reading the book out loud has option to read the whole book or pick and choose information that younger listeners might not have the patience to sit through. One subtle aspects of To Market, To Market that I especially like is McClure's inclusion of the names of the farmers and other people working at the market, personalizing the experience even further, making the link between the food on your plate and the people who brought it to you an even shorter one.

I love the illustrations and subject matter in To Market, to Market, so I have included many of them here. The page I am most excited to share is the one featuring kale. Two years ago I discovered this recipe at Tori Ritchie's Tuesday Recipe which I have adapted slightly and will share here. Turn your oven on to broil and place rack in the center. Take a bunch of kale, preferably one from your farmer's market, remove the stems and chop coarsely. Place on a cookie sheet and sprinkle with olive oil, salt and red pepper flakes, if you so desire. Place in oven on the middle rack and watch closely. After two to four minutes take the kale out of the oven and toss. Return to oven for a few more minutes, watching closely. When the kale is dark and crispy remove and eat immediately. I have witnessed many people who claim to dislike green veggies, children and adults alike, gobble this stuff up! I always make two bunches at a time for my family of five. Enjoy the kale and I hope you and your children enjoy this fabulous book! Be sure not to miss the last picture here, which is also the final page of the book and ends with the words, "We remember all the people and all the creatures who worked to make this feast. Thank you for this sustenance. We will see you next market day!  Cheers!"


How Did That Get in My Lunchbox? The Story of Food written by Chris Butterworth, illustrated by Lucia Gaggiotti AND Yum-Yum Bento Box: Fresh Recipes for Adorable Lunches by Makiko Ogawa, Pikko Pots and Crystal Watanabe

Chris Butterworth and Lucia Gaggioti's How Did That Get in My Lunchbox takes a page from Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day, taking an in depth (for the 7 and under crowd) look at where things come from. Packed full of great illustrations and information, How Did That Get in My Lunchbox is surprisingly readable for a non-fiction book for kids.My kids and I love the Magic School Bus and the DK Eyewitness books, but they aren't always fun to read out loud. How Did That Get in My Lunchbox reads just like a picture book, but with a little bit of jumping around on the page.

The design of the book is great. A sturdy cover with no dust jacket and pleasingly rounded edges holds thick glossy pages, giving the reader the distinct feeling you could eat while reading this book and wipe it clean in the event you got a bit of food on it. The book begins with a group of kids excitedly looking into their lunch boxes followed by a two page spread that shows what might be in those lunches.
From there we follow the production line from field to factory for everything from the bread in the sandwich to the apple juice in the juice box to the chocolate that adds chips to the cookie for dessert. The steps are numbered and simplified so that little ones don't loose interest.

But, best of all, the book ends with another two page spread that shows a dinner plate filled with foods from all the food groups, divided according to the recommended daily portions, and labeled. The last two pages are taken up with some interesting food facts, including the importance of drinking water (and why) and, my favorite, second only to the inclusion of a map in a book, an INDEX! It's never too early to teach kids to learn good reference skills.

Fresh Recipes for Adorable Lunches
by Crystal Watanabe and Maki Ogawa

If you read my review of Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, you know that there is no way that I review a book about food with the word "lunchbox" in the title and stop there. I have been using bento boxes as lunchboxes for my three kids for a few years now. They are cheaper than most traditional lunchboxes, depending on what you get, and they allow me to avoid using baggies, plastic wrap and other disposable things like that. I am fortunate enough to live near some great Asian markets and that is where I get my bento boxes, which cost less than $5.00. However, I discovered this website that has some great looking, simple boxes. Laptop Lunches. Below are some pictures of the different kinds of bento boxes you can buy. The last image is of a traditional wooden bento box. 

And, what do you put in those bento boxes? The Japanese have turned lunch into an art form, a super cute (or kawaii, the Japanese word for cute) art form. Yum-Yum Bento Box: Fresh Recipes for Adorable Lunches by Makiko Ogawa, Pikko Pots and Crystal Watanabe is a great example of healthy, creative ways to fill your kids' (and your own) lunchboxes. Below are some pictures of lunch-filled bento boxes from around the internet, one or two are true works of art.  Scroll down for some more American-type bento box fillings and a great website for recipes and ideas. 

Where the Wild Things Are!
This amazing box created by Anna the Red, Bento and Plush Designer.

My Neighbor Totoro!
For some excellent lunch ideas, visit Lunch in a Box. Mom, avid cook and speedy lunch packer, Biggie lived in Japan in her 20s. Her son is now in kindergarten at a Japanese immersion school where al the kids bring bento boxes to school. Her recipes include gluten-free and vegetarian options and are all very balanced. Her website is also a great resource for websites to purchase all the necessaries. Check out her post on bento shopping in Japantown, San Francisco.

Ravioli bento lunch for preschooler

Mac & cheese lunch for preschooler


The Cabinet of Wonders written, by Marie Rutkoski, 253 pp, RL 4

The Cabinet of Wonders: The Kronos Chronicles: Book IThe Cabinet of Wonders (The Kronos Chronicles Series #1)

The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski falls into the category of "one of those books that caught my eye but took me a year or two to get around to reading and boy am I glad I did!" It seems like books from the fantasy genre are the kind that most often fall into this category for me, for some reason. I think that is because books of this nature are so prevalent these days and sometimes they tend to blur together without many distinguishing characteristics. However, from the cover, with it's superb illustration by David Frankland, to the main character to almost every aspect of the plot, The Cabinet of Wonders has many wonderful distinguishing characteristics that  it had me reaching for the second book, The Celestial Globe, the moment I finished the last page of The Cabinet of Wonders.

"The yellow hills rose and fell in sunny tops and valleys. The Bohemian countryside on this August morning looked almost like a golden ocean with huge, swelling waves." These are the opening lines of  The Cabinet of Wonders and this golden plant, the brassica plant, is as central to the story as it is to the world Rutkoski has built around it. The brassica plant, which has a distinctive smell that some love and others find nauseating, provides the oil that greases the world of Bohemia and of Master Mikal Kronos, metalworker and father of the twelve year old Petra. Master Kronos has made what has to be one of the coolest sidekicks in the world of kid's fantasy since Philip Pullman paired Lyra Belaqua with her dæmon, Pantalaimon. Astrophil, a tiny metalwork spider, is the constant companion of Petra, most often hidden in the tangles of her hair, and the voice of reason. He is also a constant pursuer of knowledge, especially since he has never been known to sleep like the rest of the menagerie of tin animals Master Kronos crafted. Astrophil spends his nights reading in the library of the Sign of the Compass, Master Krono's storefront and home. It seems that Master Kronos' skill with metal comes from more than just his superior craftsmanship. Master Kronos has a magical way with the metal - he can speak to it, move it with his mind and even craft invisible objects from a very special kind of metal. However, in Bohemia magical ability, outside of the nobility, is extremely rare and occasionally dangerous.

When The Cabinet of Wonders begins, we find Master Kronos being returned to Okno after spending six months in Prague. Having been commissioned by the young prince of Bohemia to build the world's finest astronomical clock, Master Kronos has been banished from Prague and the clock remains incomplete, as does Master Kronos. Before he could finish the heart of the clock, the magical piece that would allow the prince to control the weather and destroy his enemies, Prince Rodolfo removed Master Kronos' eyes and sent him home, intent on completing the work himself with the help Master Kronos' bewitched eyes. Master Kronos accepts his fate with a calm that Petra is not even remotely capable of, especially when she learns that the reason her father took the job in the first place (as if one could say "no" to the prince) was to secure a place for her at Karlov University, the magical academy attended only by the children of the wealthiest Bohemians. Petra is so sure that none of her father's magical talents have been passed on to her that she has not bothered to learn any of the properties of the metals that he works with, convinced that she will not continue on his trade. And, in light of this, she has never once felt the desire to attend the stuffy Academy with a bunch of stuck up rich kids. Distraught thinking that her father has lost his livelihood trying to obtain a position for her that she never wanted, Petra impetuously heads for Prague and the Salamander Castle where Prince Rudolfo and her father's eyes reside.

The plot of The Cabinet of Wonders itself follows the common quest theme. What Rutkoski brings to this story is the rich imagery, the unique (for this genre) setting and the wonderful characters that populate Bohemia.  Petra's best friend in Okno, Tomik, is an apprentice to his father, Master Stakan who runs the Sign of Fire, the glassblower's establishment. Although most magical abilities begin to show themselves when a child is fourteen, Tomik's are already revealing themselves. He has invented three glass balls, each filled with something that will multiply one hundred times when broken. Tomik gives these Marvels - one filled with lightning, one with water and one with an angry wasp - to Petra as she sets off on her journey. Once in Prague, Petra has the good fortune to have her purse stolen by a Gypsy named Indraneel, or Neel. Catching him out and keeping him from being sent to jail builds a bond between the two and and proves helpful when the time comes to enter the castle. The gypsies also provide another interesting branch of magical abilities and mythology that weaves nicely into the story. With the help of Neel's sister, Petra obtains a job in the castle, first as a kitchen maid and, when she is fired from her job after only a matter of hours, she is sent to the Dye Works. In yet another fascinating wrinkle to her story, Rutkoski creates Irenka Grisetta December, the sixth Countess of Krumlov, Iris for short. A crotchety old crone, Iris is also an absentminded genius who runs the Dye Works, which is part of the Thinker's Wing of the castle, which is a series of laboratories where the prince's magicians experiment and create. Iris is plagued by the odd affliction of becoming acidic when emotional and melting everything that surrounds her. Because of this, she is feared by almost everyone in the castle, but Petra has a respect for her that allows them to become fast friends - even though Iris never thinks to ask Petra her name.

The goings on at the castle and the wickedness of Prince Rodolfo and Petra's inevitable theft (or reclaiming) of her father's eyes from the prince's Cabinet of Wonders make up most of the story. But, the details of life in the castle (especially the magical doors to the prince's room - AMAZING! I would love to see them illustrated) are so intriguing that you almost forget that Petra is there for a reason. The little ways that Rutkoski introduces magic into the story are also a treat. Like the Worry Vials created by Master Stakan that are made to contain and relieve the owner of his or her troubles. However, Tomik has discovered a flaw in the design that could be the end of his father's business or might be the key to Petra's success at the palace. In addition to a magnificent imagination, Rutkoski is a truly wonderful writer and passages will make you stop and think, then read them again. Here is one of my favorites:

Petra had not cried once since the day her father was brought home in the cart, and she refused to do so in front of this lithe and untrustworthy thief. She had to get out of the tavern. Right then she felt like a sheet of thin paper soaked with dirty water, and just one more drop would make her disintegrate into shreds.

Another wonderful piece of writing occurs again, when exploring the Thinker's Wing Petra encounters the polite and welcoming painter Kristof, working studiously on what appears to be a blank canvas, a canvas she later learns has the magical ability to make people disappear. Rutkoski writes,

Petra thought about Kristof, about his unlocked door and sweet manner. She thought about how the prince had tricked her father into thinking he was a friend. If you would like to know how easy it is to overlook evil, to see it for something else, Petra could tell you: it is the easiest thing in the world.

Books II & III of the Kronos Chronicles 
Book II, The Celestial Globe, is newly in paperback. For a great review visit Charlotte's Library.

And, as if often the case, updated covers: