All Four Stars – A Review

All Four StarsTara Dairman is a world traveler, playwright, and author of the terrific middle grade novel: All Four Stars. In this book, (written, according to Ms. Dairman’s website, “in a mall in Brazil, a guesthouse in Morocco, and coffeehouses in Argentina, Cameroon, Gabon, and Tanzania”) eleven-year-old Gladys Gatsby, hands in a sixth-grade writing contest assignment, on something she is passionate about, that changes her life.

Her passion is food. Her parents are the world’s worst cooks, so Gladys buys her own groceries, prepares delectable dishes for herself, and hides the evidence before her parents come home from work each day. That is, until she uses her dad’s blow torch to put the finishing touches on her crème brûlée and sets the kitchen curtains on fire–just as her parents walk in. Banned from the kitchen for six months, Gladys focuses on her true passion. She wants to be a restaurant critic for the New York Standard. And that’s what her contest writing assignment was about. Unbeknownst to Gladys, her entry went astray, mistaken for an application to be a food critic. The woman in charge of that section of the newspaper invites G. Gatsby to send in a review for consideration. But how will Gladys get to New York City to critique a restaurant–without her parents knowing? Don’t miss the fun!

All Four Stars is receiving many positive reviews. I wager that awards will follow. Also following, a sequel is already in the works!

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Manuscript Similarities

I was at a writing workshop once with a woman who had been working on a picture book manuscript for years. She was a full-time professor at a university, if I remember correctly. Her manuscript was a biography of a famous person, but from a point of view that was unique. At least, I thought it was unique. A couple of years later, a book from that exact perspective, on that same individual, was published. My heart sank for the woman I’d met at the workshop. Recently, no less than four of my manuscript ideas / premises have been successfully published by other authors. quill-and-candle-1.jpgI’ve worked on my manuscripts with a writing coach and then a writing mentor, taken them to critique groups, had them critiqued by professionals at SCBWI conferences, and revised, revised, revised. They finally felt polished and ready, so I’ve begun the process of sending them out to agents and publishers. And then, in Horn Book or in our library children’s literature e-newsletter, or on blog posts, I’ve come across books recently published that, at first glance, are my stories. Each time, my breath caught between a gasp and a sob and my heart broke. — Then, I got back to work. I went to the library and checked out the books, one by one. Yes. There are similarities, but more differences. Each author took the story down sundry paths but not the paths I had chosen. The stories share some similarities, but are not at all the same. Will an agent or publisher give my manuscripts a long enough look, a chance? After all, I’ve often heard that there are only so many stories, so we need to find a fresh angle, a quirky character, an original, imaginative take on the theme. I think I have. So off the manuscripts go, with love and hope. Congratulations to the authors who have succeeded!

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One Candle – A Review

One Candle is an awe-inspiring example of Eve Bunting‘s ability to deal with painful or difficult realities in a gentle, honest manner, all while she touches the heart with hope. This picture book tells the story of a Jewish family gathering to celebrate Hanukkah, as seen through the eyes of one of the children. There is an added tradition in this family. One CandleGrandma brings a potato which sits on a plate in the center of the table all through the meal. Then, she hollows out the center of the potato and tells the story of how, while prisoners in the concentration camp of Buchenwald, she and her sister, Great-Aunt Rose, stole just such a potato from the kitchen where they were made to prepare meals for the guards. With a little stolen butter and a thread from Rose’s skirt placed in a hollow she’d carved out of the potato, and with a stolen match, they made a candle in their barracks on the first night of Hanukkah. “It lifted us to the stars,” Grandma says. And so the family makes a candle from the potato Grandma brought, light it and place it in the front window of the house, to honor being strong in the bad time, to remember in the good time, and for the women “who didn’t live to come out.”

“L’chayim,” Grandma says. “To life!” Raising a glass of wine or grape juice, each one in the family says, “To life!”

The words of this story are illustrated with extraordinary tenderness by K. Wendy Popp. She used children and adults in her community and family as models for the characters in the story, much as Norman Rockwell often did in his paintings. Ms. Popp captures authentic expression and emotion on every page.

Clearly, Eve Bunting and K. Wendy Popp are masters in their respective crafts.


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Tweak Tweak – A Review

Eve Bunting and Sergio Ruzzier teamed up in 2011 to give us another great picture book story with terrific illustrations called Tweak Tweak TweakTweak. Children everywhere ask, “What’s that?” and little elephant is no different. She and Mama go for a walk and see a frog, a monkey, a crocodile, and other creatures. Little elephant gives a couple of tugs on Mama’s tail: tweak tweak. “What is that?” she asks. Questions from little ones often come strung together like beads on a necklace. “What’s he doing? . . . Can I jump, climb, swim in the river . . . ?” Each time, Mama explains that little elephant is not a butterfly or a song bird, or a frog, or monkey, or crocodile, so she can’t fly, sing, jump, climb, or swim. Mama shows her instead that she can flap her ears, trumpet her trunk, stomp her foot, rub her back on the tree the monkey climbed, and spray water over herself with water she draws up in her trunk. She can “grow to be a big, strong, smart, beautiful elephant.” What a gentle story about learning differences and strengths!

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Have You Seen My New Blue Socks? – A Review

Eve Bunting, one of the greatest children’s book authors, is an American treasure. I’ve decided to read and learn from a sampling of her recent picture books. Have You Seen My New Blue Socks? was published in 2013  by Clarion Books. How many of us have not misplaced something? Children will readily relate to the little green duck who has lost his socks. He had them just a minute ago. He asks fox, and ox, and he looks on the rocks by the pond. He tries not to feel depressed, but “Without my socks I feel undressed.” Things start looking up when he asks the peacocks if they’ve seen his blue socks. One of them notices “a touch of blue underneath (his) laced-up shoe!” Well, now. How many of us have looked for our glasses, only to find them on our nose? Parents will relate to the little duck’s experience, too.Have You Seen My New Blue Socks Sergio Ruzzier has multiplied the delight of reading this story with his clever, colorful, and sympathetic illustrations. Eve Bunting and Sergio Ruzzier, two pros, make it all look so simple, but writing and illustrating a good children’s book is the work of master craftswomen and men. Hats off! Or socks, maybe?

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Old Bird – A Review

Irene Morck, author, and Muriel Wood, illustratorOld Bird, created a stunning story picture book that was published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside in Canada in 2003. Based on a true story, Old Bird is far more than just a tale about a horse.

Arnfeld and his older brother, Archie, walked four miles round-trip to go to school. It was a long haul for two small boys. Papa decided to buy an old horse so they could ride to and from school. They’d be home in time to do their many chores around the farm and supper wouldn’t have to be delayed. Old Bird came to live with the family, to be the boys’ transport–except the horse had other ideas. He wanted to work, to do real work, farm work. When Papa didn’t catch on, Old Bird showed how determined he was in clever ways, until finally he got his way. Once he was back at work on the farm, he carried the boys to school without further “mishaps” and became a trusted member of the farm family.

Old doesn’t mean useless. Retirement doesn’t mean one can’t participate in life in ways one enjoys! Determination will get you where you want to be.


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Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya – A Review

Here is another beautifully written picture book by Donna Jo Napoli: MamaMitMama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya, which was illustrated by Caldecott Honor Award winner, Kadir Nelson. Awards abound:

  • winner of the Anne Izard’s Storytellers’ Choice Award
  • winner of the Frances and Wesley Bock Book Award
  • Black-Eyed Susan Book Award list, Maryland Association of School Librarians
  • Elementary California Readers list for 2013
  • starred review KIRKUS
  • starred review PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
  • nominated for the NAACP Image Award
  • Best Books of the Year list ESSENCE magazine
  • Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People
  • Amelia Bloomer Project Recommended List
  • used as the focal point for the Maryland Artist/Teacher Institute, summer 2013

Ms. Wangari, the subject of this book, was the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. She loved the trees of her native Kenya, planted them one by one, and inspired women throughout the country to also plant native trees. The trees provide fruit, firewood, animal fodder, medicine, thorns to keep out predators, stakes for gardens, and timber for building. Even the roots of one particular tree filters water in nearby streams. Trees that had disappeared from the countryside were replanted. Kenya was transformed, one tree at a time, by this extraordinary woman who valued each one for the gifts it provides.

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