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Clever Rachel, by Debby Waldman and Cindy Revell

  • October 24, 2009 9:05 am
Clever Rachel

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What crosses the river but cannot move? What has an eye but never sees? In this retelling of a Jewish folk-tale, Clever Rachel is a girl who loves riddles. A smart boy, Jacob, hears about her and decides to challenge her.  He is astonished when she answers his best riddles in no time flat. 

But when a desperate woman visits Rachel needing answers to some riddles, Rachel and Jacob realize they must work together to help solve the riddles, which will allow the woman to marry the man she loves.

My seven-year-old son really enjoyed guessing the answers to the riddles woven into this story. Seven more riddles are printed on the last page. This would be a great book to read aloud to a class.

You can buy this book from my girls list.

When the Bees Fly Home, by Andrea Cheng

  • October 10, 2009 10:20 am
when the bees fly home

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Jonathan, an elementary-school boy, is not strong enough to help his father, a beekeeper, with his work, and his father is annoyed. The father seems to prefer Jonathan’s preschool brother, who loves to show off his muscles. The family is struggling financially: a dry spell means less honey to sell.

One day, Jonathan helps his mother make beeswax candles by decorating them with tiny beeswax sculptures. His father is impressed, and starts to appreciate Jonathan’s artistic skill. The decorated candles sell out at the farmer’s market, and Jonathan collects many more orders.  That night, Jonathan and his father enjoy some quiet time on the porch as the rain finally comes down.

This unusual picture book contains bee facts on each page. My sons were interested to learn, for example, that bees’ wings beat 180 times per second.

Another thing I liked about this book is that the parents are a mixed-race couple. This is never mentioned in the story, but the watercolor pictures by Joline McFadden show a fair blond father and a brown-skinned, black-haired mother. It is rare to see a mixed-race couple presented in a picture book in a matter-of-fact way, without a lot of commentary.

You can buy this book from my boys list.

That’s Not Fair! by Tafolla and Teneyuca

  • October 3, 2009 8:36 am
that's not fair

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This picture book tells the true story of Emma Tenayuca, who at the age of 21 led thousands of Mexican-American pecan shellers in a successful strike.

The authors, Carmen Tafolla and Sharyll Teneyuca, focus on Emma’s childhood and her awakening empathy with Mexican-American laborers. Emma was not born poor: she attended school in San Antonio, Texas, and had enough clothes and food. Yet she encountered children who could not learn to read because they were working  as farm laborers. She saw kids who didn’t have enough to eat, and not enough clothes to keep them warm.

Even as a schoolgirl, Emma taught a friend to read, and gave food and clothing to children in need. As a teenager, she began to give speeches about the injustices suffered by Mexican-American laborers. In 1938, she led 12,000 pecan shellers in a two-month strike that resulted in higher wages.

Because it focuses mostly on Emma’s childhood, his book will appeal to kids in the lower elementary grades. Kids may not understand the concept of labor unions, but they do understand fairness, and that’s what this book emphasizes. The pictures by Terry Ybanez are colorful, simple, and appealing. The text is printed in both English and Spanish.

You can buy this book from my Girls list.

Little Zizi, by Thierry Lenain

  • September 19, 2009 7:04 am
Little Zizi

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This funny picture book deals with a subject that many little boys think about, but that is rarely written about in children’s books. One day, while Martin is changing his clothes after swimming, another boy, Adrian, makes fun of Martin, saying that his “zizi” is too small, and that he will never be able to make babies with a little zizi. Martin is worried because the girl he likes, Anais, wants to have 10 babies! How will he possibly make all those babies?

To make matters worse, Adrian decides that the boys should have a peeing contest to decide who will be Anais’s boyfriend. Despite hours of practice, Martin loses the contest, Adrian wins, and Adrian declares himself the boyfriend of Anais.

But Anais has other plans. She rejects Adrian and writes a love note to Martin. The book ends with a reassurance: “love isn’t a question of a zizi — large or small.”

This book was originally written in French and published in Canada. The author says he wrote the book because he believes that “much of the world’s misfortune comes from men thinking they have to assert their manliness,” according to the jacket copy.

My two boys found this book a bit shocking, but fascinating. The illustrations are very tasteful (the story takes place in an old-fashioned city), and the book makes its point without preaching.

You can buy this book from my Boys list.

Elizabeth’s Song, by Michael Wenberg

  • September 12, 2009 7:11 am
Elizabeth's song

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This picture book for ages 5 and up is based on the true story of Elizabeth Cotten, who composed the well-known folk song “Freight Train” at the age of 11.

Elizabeth was born in 1893 in North Carolina. She loved music and taught herself to play her brother’s guitar — but since she was left-handed, she played it upside-down and backwards. When her brother left to look for work and took his guitar with him, Elizabeth saved money from odd jobs and bought herself a guitar.

While the story ends with the composition of “Freight Train,” in fact Cotten was not “discovered” as a musician until much later in her life. According to the epilogue, from her mid-teens until her early 50s, Elizabeth almost gave up music — she was busy with work and raising a family. In the mid-1940s, by chance she got to know the folk-singing Seeger family, and they encouraged her to pick up her guitar again. She released her first album in 1958, at the age of 66.

After my kids and I read this book, we wanted to hear her music. We bought the album Freight Train, which includes her famous composition as well as other folk songs that she learned as a child.

You can buy Elizabeth’s Song from my Girls list.