Poem by William Carlos Williams

National Poetry Month begins tomorrow! Once again, I will be devoting the whole month to poetry, although this year I WILL continue to run book reviews on Mondays and Fridays, and I have been reading some REALLY fantastic books! 

This year I decided to run reviews of books of poetry from past years - this is my FOURTH year celebrating National Poetry Month! I will be sharing poems that I love and hope kids will love too. 

I found this thoughtful quote from children's book author and poet J Patrick Lewis, the newest National Children's Poet Laureate taking the helm from the wonderful Mary Ann HobermanIf you need a good reason to read poetry with your children, here it is:

Children rarely gravitate to poetry on their own. It’s an acquired taste. They must be introduced to it early and often by their teachers and parents, the critical influences in their lives.

This quote is taken from an article titled "Can Children's Poetry Matter?" written for Hunger Mountain, the Vermont College of Fine Arts Journal of the Arts.

Here's a poem I never seem to tire of to kick off the celebration...


As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right

then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty

-William Carlos Williams


The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case, written by Alexander McCall Smith, illustrated by Iain McInstosh, 73 pp, RL 2

There are so many reasons why I am just over-the-moon with excitement for Alexander McCall Smith's newest series of books for children, and not one of them is because I am a fan of his adult novels. I've never read any of his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, of which the adult Precious Ramotswe is the star, nor have I read any of his many books for children. I am bursting with elation for The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case for even better reasons. First off, this book is a much needed infusion of new life (long life, I hope) to a class of books that is ruled by Junie B Jones and The Magic Tree House, with other (mostly copy-cat) series struggling to stay on the shelf long enough to build an audience. Secondly, outside of Cam Jansen and Nancy Drew, there are very few girl detectives in kid's books, or any kind of detective for that matter. To have a girl detective as the main character of a second grade level reading book is fantastic! Furthermore, Precious Ramotswe is NOT white. I was so excited about the setting for the book and the way that the main character realistically went about solving the mystery while also being a genuinely thoughtful and caring person that it was not until I was reminded of the significance of her skin color while reading Betsy Bird's review that I remembered how few non-caucasion characters there are on the shelves of the chapter book section at the bookstore where I work. Finally, The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case stands out among other chapter books because of the gorgeous, spectacular, utterly out of the ordinary (for a beginning reader chapter book) illustrations on almost every page by Iain McIntosh. As I read, I couldn't wait to turn the page to see what would be depicted next.

Although I just classified The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case as a second grade level book, I think that an ambitious first grader could definitely give it a go and this is yet another reason I love this book. Many of the second grade level books in the chapter book section are written at a second grade and higher reading level while there are very few written at a slightly lower level, which is a HUGE market if any writers out there are reading this! Aside from Megan McDonald's invaluable Stink series, Kate DiCammillo's Mercy Watson series and Dav Pilkey's Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot series, there is not much going on for readers who aren't quite ready for  Junie B Jones and The Magic Tree House. With pictures on almost every page and a slow paced, explanatory style of writing,  The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case is perfect for emerging readers. Adding to this wonderful aspect is the phonetic spelling of the names of some of the characters within the story itself, as well as a bonus section at the end of the book that includes a note from the author, a character guide with additional pronunciation tips, a page on the geography and people of Botswana, a reader's guide, a list of curriculum connections and, best of all, a recipe for "Precious' Sponge Cake Worth Stealing."

McCall Smith begins his book, "Have you ever said to yourself, Wouldn't it be nice to be a detective? Most of us will never have the chance to make that dream come true. Detectives, you see, are born that way. Right from the beginning they just know that this is what they want to be. An right from the beginning they show that solving mysteries is something they can do rather well. This is a story about a girl who became a detective. Her name was Precious." The rest of chapter 1 and chapter 2 are taken up with a brief description of Botswana, the country Precious lives in and the telling of a bedtime story, her favorite, in which her father, Obed, describes his face-to-face encounter with a lion in the night while visiting his cousins. It is Precious' favorite story and she has heard it often. As Bird points out, this bedtime story has no bearing on the rest of the book, but "it's so enjoyable I'm glad it's there even if it's utterly superfluous." I couldn't agree more. As I read  The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case everything about it was so new and interesting that I never even noticed that this story did not relate to the rest of the book. Actually, I thought that maybe the telling of her father's stories was something important from the adult books that had a bearing on her character and might be repeated as the start of every book in what I  hope will be a long series. Also, the telling of the story allows for a scene in which Precious, internally, questions the veracity of her father's insistence that a lion will get indigestion if he eats an angry person. She then tells her father that she doesn't believe him. To this Obed responds, "You can tell when people are making things up, can't you? Perhaps you will become a detective one day." 

 Precious thinks this is a strange idea at first, comes to like it, saying, "Surely it will be years and years before I get my a case." She was wrong about that. When the sweet treats from students' lunches go missing, they accuse a fellow student. Precious knows they are wrong and sets her mind to solving the mystery, which is pretty basic. However, the descriptions of Precious' school and its surroundings are entrhalling. There is Big Mrs Molipi, the school cook who prepares a "sort of paste made of corn" and green peas and mashed turnips every day because she thought it was healthy and her deferential assistant and cousin, Not-So-Big Mrs Molipi. There is an illustration that makes the names of these two very clear. Then there is the dream that Precious has that helps her crack the case and the very funny and creative way she goes about proving Poloko's innocence. It turns out that Precious' mother is dead and her father is not such a good cook. Using a "well-tried recipe for sponge cake" along with a secret ingredient, Precious sets a trap and at the same time makes a new friend in Poloko who suggests the name for Precious' future detective agency when he tastes her (non-booby-trapped) sponge cake declaring it to be, "First-class, number one cake." The last lines of the book read, "When I have a detective agency, I'll call it the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Many years later, she did just that."

As Bird points out, the majority of young readers will know nothing about McCall Smith's mystery series for adults, but that they will definitely enjoy seeing the how the seed of an idea is placed in Precious' mind, how it takes root and grows and,  by the end of the book I am sure they will be thrilled to know that Precious really does grow up to be a detective with her own agency. How many chapter books for kids refer to the future adult lives of their main characters?  I think that this grounds the book in reality for readers while at the same time giving them something to look forward to in books to come.

More Chapter Books from Alexander McCall Smith:
In 2005, this trio of books written at a true second grade reading level features ten-year old Akimbo, who's father works as a park ranger. 


The Shark King: A Toon Book by R Kikuo Johnson, 39 pp, RL 1.5

When I write a review, I try to be professional and refrain from gushing, but sometimes a book is so spectacular that I can't help myself. The Shark King by R Kikuo Johnson, the newest title from TOON Books is one of those. The Shark King, which I hope might become a series, has action, adventure, mythology, exotic (to me) locales, and a playfully curious, brave protagonist in Nanaue (pronounced nah-NOW-way.) And, on top of a great story, The Shark King is told through artwork that is elegant and vibrant with a timeless feel with Johnson's use of black silhouettes adding a sense of drama and grandeur to the tale. Johnson, who grew up on the island of Maui, drew on Hawaiian folklore, specifically the shape-shifting shark god, Kamohoalii and his son with the insatiable appetite, Nanaue. Best of all, The Shark King is a graphic novel for emerging readers and, aside from the fact that it is just plain great, it represents some much needed, all-around diversity in books of all genres written at this reading level. I arrived home from work at midnight, dragging myself in the door, but when I saw the envelope with this book in it waiting for me, I tore it open, propped up my eyelids and devoured it, twice. Thank you, TOON Books and thank you Mr Johnson for this gem.

Chapter One finds a young woman, Kalei combing the rocks for opihi (op-PEE-hi) which, Johnson tells us,  is a "delicious sea snail." Suddenly, a massive wave is upon her, a wave that seems to have an enormous shark at the heart of it. However, instead of drowning, the young woman is pulled from the sea by a man who returns her opihi to her. As is often the way with mythological tales, a romance follows and soon a baby is on the way. One day Kalei's husband disappears, diving off the cliff, saying only, "I'm making a place for our son at the bottom of the pool." Then, the night before their son is born, he disappears for good, leaving his cape with Kalei, insisting that their son will need it one day.

Nanaue is born, healthy and full of life and with a giant appetite, but with a strange marking on his back. The pages that show Nanaue and Kalei's life on the island are so full of energy and joy that I read the pages over a couple of times. However, this idyllic life soon fades when other islanders discover these two and Nanaue finds he cannot contain his differences enough to keep them from being frightened by him. In the end, it is Nanaue's appetite that gets him into trouble and causes him to finally, desperately, need that mysterious place that his father made for him at the bottom of the pool.

I don't want to give away too many of the details of this engaging story, but I will leave you with a bit more of the superb artwork from this great new book.

Zig and Wikki in THE COW, by Nadja Spiegelman and Trade Loeffler, 40 pp, RL 1.5

TOON Books creators Nadja Spiegelman and Trade Loeffler are back with another story about an alien, Zig, and his talking, walking computer, Wikki. As we saw in their first adventure,  Zig and Wikki in Something Ate My Homework, Zig is curious and fascinated by all the things he discovers on earth while Wikki, kind of cranky and bossy, just wants to get back on the space ship and head home while occasionally flashing bursts of pertinent information on his stomach, um, I mean screen. In the first book, Zig needed a pet for a school project and captures a fly to take home with him. When Zig and Wikki in The Cow begins, we find Zig worrying about the lethargic state of his pet.
Wikki, just a tiny bit jealous, convinces Zig (with a flash of his screen that teaches them the concept of "ecosystem") to take the fly back to Earth. One of the really innovative and fantastic things about the Zig and Wikki books are the way that Spiegelman incorporates facts into the book, by way of Wikki's screen. This is genius on two levels. Kids in our screen oriented society will relate to this right away, and the sort of "candy coating" of the fictional story of Zig and Wikki makes the factoids all the more interesting. As the mother of two boys who have an intense interest in nature and science, I think I have a pretty good fact base when it comes to books like this. But, as with Zig and Wikki in Something Ate My Homework, I find that I am still learning new things. The kind of things you want to turn around and share with the person sitting next to you.
Zig and Wikki learn about farms and land in a pasture where Wikki promptly releases the fly. Upset, Zig chases after him and the two go on to learn about ruminants, energy, dung beetles, decomposers, soil and microorganisms while almost being eaten by a cow. When Wikki realizes that their ship has been eaten by a cow - you guessed it - the two hide in the grass and let themselves get eaten, ruminated and eaten again. Eeewww. In the end, they are burped out (did you know that each day a cow burps about 400 times more gas than a human does? I learned that from Wikki's Fun Facts at the end of the book.)

Zig and Wikki in The Cow is by far more interesting and entertaining than any other non-fiction beginning reader  book I have come across lately and is sure to be enthusiastically embraced by any emerging reader who comes across it!

Chick and Chickie: A Toon Book by Claude Ponti, RL 1

TOON Books has done it again, maybe even giving Elephant and Piggie a bit of (much needed) competition. I mean, there is room for two more slightly subversive buddies in the world of emerging reader books, right? Chick & Chickie: Play All Day introduces us to the French author and illustrator of over sixty children's books Claude Ponti. As much as I love Mo Willems and what he has done for the world of picture books and beginning readers, especially, Elephant and Piggie, I think it is possible to create a book at an even simpler reading level that is still smart and entertaining to kids and adults, and that is exactly what Ponti has done with Chick & Chickie: Play All Day.
The story begins on the cover where Chick and Chickie are deciding what to play. Chick says, "Let's make masks," and Chickie agrees. After making the masks, they proceed to scare each other and have a laugh about it. Observant eyes will notice Chick and Chickie's masks trembling and sweating as they face each other while Chick and Chickie swap compliment on their mask making skills.

 Next the two decide to play school and haul out an enormous, squishy looking, inflatable letter A. The two torment the letter, just a bit, tickling it, throwing it, scaring it with a giant pin, all the while the A exclaimimg, "AAAAH!" and "HAHAHAHA" and "AAAAAAAaaaaaaaa." However, Chick and Chickie are nice to the A as well. As they end their play time (and the A runs away) the two decide they had fun and will look for B to play with tomorrow...

The language in Chick & Chickie: Play All Day is genuinely simple, somewhere between the über-basic BOB Books and the kind of frustrating Biscuit beginning reader books. If you want to give an emerging reader a treat - a book they might actually be able to read and enjoy - definitely put Chick & Chickie: Play All Day at the top of your list.


Crafty Chloe, written by Kelly DiPucchio with illustrations by Heather Ross

There are a lot of things I like about Crafty Chloe, the new picture book from Kelly DiPucchio and Heather Ross (crafter and author of Weekend Sewing) and just one thing I don't, so I might as well get if off my chest right now. I don't like the presence of London, the mean rich girl with the tiny dog. I see how a character like London, who exclaims things like, "Your going to make her something?" when Chloe reveals she might make a birthday gift for their friend Emma, creates tension, but I think this story deserves more than this simple plot. In her wonderful and similar books from 2008 and 2009, Fanny and Fanny & Annabelle, Holly Hobbie presents a character who makes her own doll when her mother won't buy her a "Connie" [read Barbie] doll like all her friends have, saying "I don't like the way Connie dolls look. They're just too . . . much." Instead she gives Fanny a sewing machine for her birthday and the doll Annabelle is created. Fanny's friends don't think too much of Annabelle or Fanny's creativity, but soon they are playing together again, handmade dolls and Connies.
That said, I am so thrilled to see a book that embraces making things by hand and all the creativity and imagination that goes with it! As far as I know, Crafty Chloe is the first picture book since Fanny came out in 2008 to take up this activity that I know is a part of many children's (and parent's) lives. Besides giving voice to a heretofore unheard from audience, this book is really inspirational! (Don't miss links to other kid-craft-friendly blogs and books at the bottom of this review.) As I said in my review of Fanny, I made my own dolls and their accoutrements when I was a kid. And, like Chloe, I wasn't very good at sports, dance lessons or video games.
Like Chloe, I was good at making stuff. Chloe knows that "a whole new outfit can be made out of Dad's old shirts, and that coffee filters make very good flower hats for show-and-tell, and that anything becomes less boring with googly eyes on it." Chloe also makes clothes for her dog Bert, and Ross's illustrations of her creative process are fantastic. After poring over the artwork then reading the back flap, I was not surprised at all to find that Ross herself is a professional crafter. In fact, there is even a website with craft ideas inspired by Crafty Chloe!
When Chloe is invited to Emma's birthday party she has the idea to get her the newest "Flower Girl" doll, Violet, but London beats her to it then tries to make Chloe feel bad when she says she's going to make a gift for Emma. Chloe almost fakes an illness to get out of going to Emma's party when she can't think of the perfect gift to make her, but then she is struck by a bolt of inspiration. Sewing machine and glue gun work at top speed as Chloe crafts, the end results hidden from readers until the final pages of the book. When London's little dog trips her up and Violet falls in a mud puddle, crafty (and kind) Chloe shares her present with London and saves the day. Turns out London is quite impressed with Chloe's creations and Emma loves her gifts. Despite my complaints about the plot of Crafty Chloe, I think it's a great book that would make a superb gift - along with a low-heat glue gun, glue sticks, popsicle sticks, tulle, pompoms, ribbon and googly eyes, things that are always on hand in my house. In fact, my middle son has been making things (boats, castles, replicas of historical ships) from popsicle sticks since he was very young.

Check out this other awesome book from Kelly DiPucchio!! 
As a dedicated fan of robots, Clink is going on my wish list asap!

(Please share your favorite crafting blogs and books with me as a comment!)

Playing by the Book is my favorite crafty-book-blog to follow. Started by a mother of two little girls and based in the UK (this means sometimes she reviews books we don't have in the States...) this blog is a fantastic resource for  book related crafts. Details, instructions and photos of her adorable girls making the projects are always included. In fact, Playing by the Book just participated in the Edible Book Festival and some of the entrants can be seen here. Recognize David McKee's Elmer the Elephant and Emily Gravett's Odd Egg?

I was drawn to Amanda Blake Soule's The Creative Family the minute it hit the shelves in 2008. Soule's prjoects are simple but elegant and useful and just a little bit like the things you see in the Pottery Barn Kids catalog. Soule, her husband their five children live the idyllic creative country life that I might have once imagined for myself and my family. While I had a few good years of making cool stuff for and with my kids, I had to accept that my life just wasn't headed in that direction. However, it's still nice to peek into the life of the Soules (Amanda is a fantastic photographer) and see what lovely things they are making, doing or playing.
The Creative Family: Simple Projects and Activities for You and Your Children That Encourage Imagination and Nurture Family ConnectionHandmade Home: Simple Ways to Repurpose Old Materials into New Family Treasures

Rosie Flo's Fashion Show by Roz Streeten

Rosie Flo is the moniker Roz Streeten gave to the line of coloring books that she (and husband Steve Kamlish, both graphic designers) developed after spending hours coloring and creating with her daughters. Of her collection, Streeten says, "I have paid attention to al the things which irritated me as a child, and then as a parent. The paper quality is thick enough to avoid showing through or damaging the picture on the next page. It is sturdy enough to withstand a few journeys without falling apart and small enough to fit into a child's hand luggage. The lines are intentionally not too thick, as it makes it look as it is only for preschool children." Best of all, these book support imagination and creative play, especially with the creation of Rosie Flo's Fashion Show, a 3D paper play set that lets kids color in the fantastic dresses and fill in the faces and limbs of the paper dolls. 

And, the play set comes with tickets, a little paper camera and pop-out chairs for the audience! And, of course, a catwalk! Everything is very kid appropriate, yet elegant and a little bit grown up at times. These images are from a very cool design-living blog Bloesem Kids. There are dresses with crossword patterns, ice cream cone prints, and a very cool jingle bell dress, among others. Also, this play set is ridiculously simple to put together and very easy to put away. I only colored three of my paper dolls because I am going to visit my 9 year old niece in a couple of weeks and I thought this would be fun to do together. I'll add pictures of our creations next month!

But, I'll let my paper dolls do the talking for now...

MORE FROM ROSIE FLO (and Johnny Joe)!!