Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Garden for Pig and Up We Grow

I blush to confess I was of voting age before I realized that pickles come from cucumbers. My excuse is that I didn't care for either one, so I never gave them much thought. But it's safe to say the farm-to-plate life cycle of our daily fare was seldom emphasized in a post-war era that touted convenient packaging and quick preparation.

Something was lost amid all that processed convenience, and there's a growing sense we need to help our children rediscover their roots. Two new picture books tackle the subject from different angles.

In A Garden for Pig, by Kathryn K. Thurman and Lindsay Ward (Kane Miller, $15.99), a frolicsome pink pig grows tired of apples from Mrs. Pippins' farm and longs for vegetable scraps as a change of pace.

Apple? "Boring. Same. Over it!"
Carrots? "Fun, orange."
Lettuce? "Mmm...crunchy."

One day Pig's explorations land him in the forbidden vegetable garden, where he noshes on plump yellow squash. Mrs. Pippins quickly reins him in and resumes Pig's monotonous apple diet. Meanwhile, nature takes its course as the squash seeds Pig ingested work through his system and sprout in the damp dirt of his sty. Soon "the big leaves unfold, yellow flowers bloom. Squash is growing."

Pig is happy with his harvest, and presumably young readers will follow his example and learn to love their veggies. (Amusingly, Thurman writes, in 2003 her family's pet pig really did plant his own organic squash garden.)

Of course, children often see through the optimistic sheen applied by well-meaning adults; I still recall the betrayal I felt after my mother lured me into trying a vegetable that looked "just like little doll heads." A Brussels sprout, by any other name, would smell as rank. But A Garden for Pig gives it a good try, and if kids don't learn to love their veggies, they'll still enjoy the story. An afterword, "Pig's Tips for Growing Your Own Organic Garden," offers further inspiration.

Author Deborah Hodge and photographer Brian Harris of Vancouver, B.C., take a more direct approach in Up We Grow: A Year in the Life of a Small, LocalFarm (Kids Can Press, $16.95).

Lively photos and a straightforward but charming text lead young readers through the seasons on a small farm, where children and adults work cooperatively to plant, compost, wash and box the produce for sale at a farmer's market in a nearby city. One photo shows a farmer using a tractor to bring in the last of the harvest, but for the most part, this is hands-on farming with the happy, communal air of a street fair. Chickens scratch, goats are milked, honeybees swarm on a tray and children feast.

"When farmers work and celebrate together," says a text box titled "Caring for Each Other," they can help each other and share in the joy of caring for the land. Older farmers teach the younger ones, and everyone, including the children, takes part in the important work of growing food."

As idealized as it sounds, the book was inspired by the real-life farmers of Glen Valley Organic Farm Cooperative in Abbotsford, B.C. It's a delightful introduction to the rhythms of the year, the life cycle of food and the satisfaction of working and celebrating with neighbors.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


(Viking, $15.99, ages 14-up)

The jacket blurb read like a torrid teen romance and I set the book aside. Then I noticed the starred reviews -- from Booklist and Publishers Weekly -- and the fact that this slender novel had won the World Fantasy Award. And the fact that author Elizabeth Hand has won lots of awards, written 10 novels and reviewed for The Washington Post, Salon and the Village Voice.

Okay, maybe I was too hasty. I cast prejudice aside and gave Illyria a read.

Good decision.

Reducing this haunting and affecting novella to a plot line doesn't do it justice because much of the magic comes from Hand's spare yet mystical prose, her insightful character development and the alluring sense of place she creates. But here goes.

Madeline and Rogan are cousins growing up in a shabby-chic family compound along the Hudson River in the 1970s. Madeline -- the youngest of six girls -- and Rogan -- youngest of six boys -- are childhood playmates who evolve into kissing cousins and, eventually, sexual soul mates.

Hovering like a psychological mist is the faded memory of the clan's theatrical lineage, which Maddy describes as "a line of performers stretching back to Shakespeare's day. Our great-grandmother was the once-famous actress Madeline Armin Tierney. I was her namesake."

The theater no longer plays a role in this somewhat disengaged and conventionally striving clan until Maddy and Rogan (whose fathers are stockbrokers) win parts in a school production of Twelfth Night -- a production that will set their lives on unforeseen trajectories.

Until then, they had only starred in their own secret fantasy world, acting out adolescent passion and self-discovery within the dark and musty attic eaves of Fairview, the crumbling manse of Rogan's family. The darkness and clutter and secrecy of their den behind the Shiny Brite Christmas ornaments becomes a character in its own right.

And yet it's not entirely of this world. Hidden within the walls, Maddy and Rogan find a miniature paper theater that seems to change from one visit to the next -- mysteriously lit one day, bathed in sparkly snow the next. The paper confection is as magical and fragile as their adolescent love.

Romantic as this sounds, Illyria is more than a love story. It's a portrait of a time and place, of families with private burdens and of the choices and forces that shape lives.

Unlike most YA novels, Illyria carries the reader forward several decades to reveal how the adult Maddy and Rogan have fared with the passage of time. This adds to the poignancy of what is, in many ways, a very adult book. Younger readers may miss some of those subtleties but will nonetheless appreciate the story, atmosphere and well-drawn characters.

Incidentally, you can read about the back story (some of it inspired by Hand's teen years in Yonkers) and see photos of the real "Fairview" at Elizabeth Hand's website.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Stand Straight, Ella Kate

Anyone who has shot a head taller than friends, seemingly overnight, will feel for Ella Kate Ewing, a real-life giant who lived from 1872 to 1913. A shy, sensitive girl, Ella Kate suffered taunts and unwanted attention as a result of a glandular disorder that caused galloping growth. By age 22, she stood 8-foot-4 in her size 24 shoes.

But living large has its compensations, as we learn in Stand Straight, Ella Kate: The True Story of a Real Giant, written by Kate Klise and illustrated in cheerful acrylics by her sister, M. Sarah Klise (Dial, $16.99).

In their capable hands, Ella Kate's life is a story of self-acceptance and empowerment. With emotional support from her loving "Mama" and "Papa," she even turns hardship to advantage. Although gawkers stare at Ella Kate throughout her brief life, they end up paying for the privilege once she began touring the country as the star attraction of circuses and exhibitions.

Anyone old enough to remember the degrading term "freak show" (which you won't find in this uplifting picture book for ages 6 to 8) might wonder if the tale glorifies a form of entertainment that repels modern sensibility. Ella Kate's story, engagingly told in first person, does mention the job's drawbacks: enduring occasional cruel comments and pin pricks from spectators who wondered if she was standing on stilts.

But it emphasizes that her job as a touring star emancipated Ella Kate financially and enabled her to see the country and witness important events of her day -- experiences she shared between tours with friends back home in Missouri. She became known as the Gentle Giantess, and her memory was honored in 1969 when Scotland County, Mo., dedicated Ella Ewing Lake. You'll find that nugget in a biographical afterword that includes a sepia photo of Ella Kate Ewing towering above a female traveling companion.

Make no mistake, this lady was large. Blue-and-white drawings on the end papers show the actual size of her shoe and glove, and I imagine few readers will resist the urge to place their own modest paws inside the formidable outlines.

Ella Kate's size made her fascinating, but this warm, empathic tale makes her human and gives kids who are different one more reason to stand tall.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Outside of a Horse

The bond between horse and human is a staple of children's literature, but few titles in recent memory bring as much dimension and topical interest to the genre as The Outside of a Horse, by Ginny Rorby (Dial, $16.99).

The title comes from an old English proverb, "There's nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse." That certainly proves true for Hannah Gale, a young teen in northern California who longs for her father's return from the war in Iraq. She thinks of him whenever she stops by a paddock fence on her way home from school, recalling his stories about a long-ago summer when he worked breaking wild horses in Nevada.

Soon Hannah begins volunteering at the neighborhood stable, where she thrills to her first riding lesson and learns the gentle, humane techniques of the Parelli method of training horses. Through Dillon, the kind-hearted stable manager, and Sophia, a devout horse rescuer, Hannah also learns about an ugly, hidden side of the horse world -- the widespread slaughter of newborn colts, the cruelties of horse racing and the sad abuses inflicted on Premarin mares.

When Hannah's father returns from the war, the longed-for homecoming proves sadly disillusioning. The war has left him broken in body and spirit -- an amputee plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse that drives away Hannah's stepmom and baby half-brother. The stable becomes Hannah's only refuge during months of stress and discouragement, until she realizes that horses may hold the key to her father's recovery and hope for a new life -- if she can just convince him to try.

Even readers who aren't part of the horsey set will be moved by this tale of mutual healing between two- and four-legged (or in some cases, one- and three-legged) characters. Rorby deftly draws parallels between the afflictions of horses and humans and, like a latter-day Anna Sewell, provides gripping, factual detail about society's moral failings toward horses. Her description of the Parelli method and the growth of certified therapeutic riding are thoroughly absorbing, making The Outside of a Horse an unforgettable read that appeals to head and heart.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Seattle is a stop on Suzanne Collins' November Mockingjay tour

Northwest fans of The Hunger Games trilogy are in for a treat: Author Suzanne Collins will stop in Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., this November as part of a 12-city tour to promote Mockingjay, the final title in the futuristic series. We'll let you know the details of when and where as soon as publisher Scholastic Inc. finalizes the tour dates.

Meanwhile, Scholastic announced it is increasing the first printing of Mockingjay to 1.2 million, up from a previously announced 750,000. The series finale, which is embargoed, will be published in the U.S. and Canada on Aug. 24.

The Hunger Games, which launched a dystopian series set in the ruins of North America, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 93 consecutive weeks since its September 2008 publication. The sequel, Catching Fire, debuted at No. 1 on the USA Today bestseller list when it was published last September.

It's only fitting that Seattle should rate a stop on The Hunger Games tour. After all, it was 17-year-old Kaylee Hyde of Seattle who won Scholastic's 2009 essay contest challenging readers to describe how they would survive the televised, Survivor-style fight-to-the-death that lies at the dramatic heart of the series.

This is one of my favorite series for Young Adult readers, so I have blogged about it before. If you want to know more about the books or link to outside sources I have mentioned in the past, click on these 2009 posts: May 23 , June 25, August 24 and September 10.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hot Wings? Hot Damn!

Even if you've never cracked one of Stephenie Meyer's mega-selling Twilight novels, you can't help but notice they made hunky teen vampires very, very hot -- and made Meyer very, very rich. And to think.... it all started with a dream.

New Yorker writer Larry Doyle recently had a dream of his own -- about the Next Big Thing:


Specifically, one specific celestial cutie -- "very buff," he muses, "but also vulnerable somehow. Long, flowing locks, but his face and body hairless. Smells like chocolate."

Doyle's hypothetical blockbuster may not make it off the ground, but his wicked send-up of writer's lust -- "Hot Wings": Notes on My Next Best-Seller," is heaven-sent. You'll find it in the Shouts & Murmurs column of the June 5 New Yorker -- or you can link to it here.

I mention this because I think it's a brilliant piece of writing -- hilarious and not to be missed. The only thing that would have made it better is if I had thought of it myself.

One can only dream.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Yes, Virginia, Books Matter

Two new studies published in Science Daily underscore the important role books play in children's educational attainment.

In one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever conducted on what influences the level of education a child will attain, researchers found that being raised in a home filled with books boosts a child's future educational attainment as much as having college-educated parents.

Even more startling, growing up in a bookless home was found to have the same dampening effect on education as being raised by parents who are barely literate.

The 20-year study of 27 countries, led by Mariah Evans, associate professor of sociology and resource economics at the University of Nevada, Reno, found that both factors -- having a 500-book library or having university-educated parents -- expanded a child's educational attainment by an average of 3.2 years. In the United States, the average was 2.4 years, and children of less-educated parents benefited the most.

"Having as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education," Evans said, "and the more books you add, the greater the benefit."

The message was not lost on Page Ahead Children's Literacy Program, a Seattle nonprofit that has been giving new books to low-income children in Washington state for 20 years. It recently gave away its two-millionth book.

Jacki Crowther, Page Ahead’s Books for Kids program manager, said she hopes the study will raise community awareness about the importance of books in the home.

“Giving books to children in need isn’t just ‘a nice thing to do’ – it’s essential to their success in school," she said. "The more books a child has, the more he reads. The more he reads, the better he does in school. The better he does in school, the more likely he is to stay in school and graduate.”

The second study, published online ahead of print last month in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, found that children develop better language skills and literacy by the time they enter school if their parents have read to them.

It seems a no-brainer. But the study -- a review of previously published research -- also found that the style of reading has more impact on children's language and literacy development than the frequency of reading aloud.

According to Science Daily, "Middle class parents tend to use a more interactive style, making connections to the child's own experience or real world, explaining new words and the motivations of the characters, while working class parents tend to focus more on labelling and describing pictures. These differences in reading styles can impact on children's development of language and literacy-related skills."