Monday, March 30, 2009

Non-Fiction Monday: Food For Thought

I picked up this lovely-looking book at the library yesterday and, judging it by its cover, thought it would make a perfect Non-Fiction Monday post AND would be a possible Sibert contender for next year. And by gum, I'm going to review it even though I didn't like it.

Food for Thought: The Stories Behind the Things We Eat by Ken Robbins, Flashpoint/Roaring Book Press, 2009.

I thought this looked good, even though I generally relegate foodie books for kids to the same category as art museum and modern poetry books for kids--it's what adults would really, really like kids to enjoy. They think "if I was a kid, this is what I would want to read". But even though I like going to art museums better than just about anything else as an adult, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been interested in books about going to art museums when I was a kid. And even though I love everything about food--food-blogs, food-books, food-stores, food itself--when I was a kid, I was much more interested in reading Frank Asch's Popcorn or Tomie de Paola's Strega Nona than anything that might be termed, like this, a "foodie" book.

Robbins supplies a mishmash of mythology, history, and biology for each section (Apples, Oranges, Corn, Bananas, Tomatoes, Potatoes, Pomegranates, Grapes, and Mushrooms). Some of the facts are interesting and at least a little esoteric--the history of ketchup, as told in the Tomatoes chapter, is the kind of thing kids thrive on--but others are so obvious as to be kind of silly; a list of the ways people eat potatoes? In an already-short chapter, "We do like them baked, roasted, boiled, and perhaps most of all, fried" is not particularly compelling.

I also quote from the strange Grapes chapter, which is all about wine: ..."if you are a child, you're generally not allowed to drink it until you're older. The reason for this is simple: a little bit of alcohol, when it is drunk, makes people feel good, but just a very small amount more also robs them of their ability to think clearly. Adults, who may legally drink, tend to believe that children don't think all that clearly in the first place and should, therefore, never drink. It should be noted that some of those adults who drink probably shouldn't either."

...I find that reasoning behind laws and cultural beliefs about children and alcohol... sort of skewed.

There also aren't any references or back-matter of any kind. I would have been really into a timeline showing when these foods were introduced or popularized, or a For Further Reading list, or something like that.

I give this one a pass, but will take recommendations for foodie-books-for-kids that are good--even if kids don't really like them, maybe I would.

See more Non-Fiction Monday posts at Tales From the Rushmore Kid.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Onion John, and the Story Behind the Story

Peter at Collecting Children's Books is always turning up the best bits of information--I've already passed along the Paula Fox/Courtney Love connection to everyone I talk to who could possibly be interested--and today he's got a great post about the history behind Joseph Krumgold's Onion John.

Onion John was one of my favorite Newbery discoveries; I thought it was a very funny and honest exploration of fathers and sons, kind of like It's Like This, Cat (but if you're one of the many people who mysteriously dislikes that title, don't let my comparison turn you off Onion John). I had dreaded reading it, but found it immediately delightful.

Peter mentions that today, when a book is based on a true story, we generally know a lot about it from the beginning; with older books it's harder. I LOVE finding out the stories behind books, even if it's just finding out what inspired the author. But do others find that half the fun is in the exploration and fact-finding? Most of the time, the true story isn't nearly as interesting as the book; or if the book follows the true story too closely, it can be disappointing to discover that the author wasn't as creative as she seemed.

Digging through archives to discover whether a particular magazine cover really existed is great--I spent a splendid afternoon at the Carleton library looking for yearbook photos of the "real" Molly, Tina, and Janet from Tam Lin, and a few mornings finding every scrap of information I could in the archives about the "real" Carney from the Betsy-Tacy books, who spent a miserable year at Carleton before going off to Vassar--but seldom, when the hunt is over, am I left with anything that really enriches the fiction. And sometimes when you find a true story, you wish you hadn't--I never reread Beverly Cleary's The Luckiest Girl now without remembering that Cleary wrote in her memoir that the family hadn't invited her back for a second year in California.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Non-Fiction Monday: I Face the Wind

When I was compiling Sibert thoughts a while back, I went through the past winners and honor books to estimate how many of them are historical. (Ans: about 20 out of 32, depending on your definitions and based solely on what I can guess from the title.) I had assumed at first that I Face the Wind (a 2004 Sibert Honor) was some kind of inspiring biography, and amused myself by trying to guess whose biography it might be. John Muir's? A Revolutionary War hero's? A Dust Bowl survivor's?

No, in fact, I Face the Wind (written by Vicki Cobb, illustrated by Julia Gorton) is a science-based book about wind for very young children. And it's good.

Offhand, I can't remember ever reading a non-fiction book for this age level (pre-school?). Are there any classics? Or is this a newer phenomenon?

I Face the Wind is for children so young that the author doesn't even expect them to be able to read; a page titled "Note To the Reader" is aimed at parents. Since this is the first page of the book, I was immediately suspicious: would this book really WORK?

It does. In fact, I wanted to go out and do the simple experiments myself--especially the one where you prove that air is heavier than... well, more air is heavier than less air. Fascinating!

While the book is apparently meant for a readaloud, and I'm sure it functions well that way, Cobb and Gorton successfully make this a book that transcends levels. It isn't babyish in the slightest--the multimedia illustrations are actually kind of cool. A second-grader could read this to herself and conduct the experiments without ever thinking that she was reading a baby book.

Wind struck me as a strange topic to choose for a book, but in the end, this is all about "science is cool"--the topic doesn't matter much, and they make it work. I'd recommend this for ages 3-9.

For more Non-Fiction Monday posts: Mother Reader.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Caldecott Roundup 2009

I don't have much faith in my ability to judge picture books; as I've mentioned in the past, I can formulate some ideas about the text as text, and I'd like to think I'm pretty good at looking at art (my BA was in art history), but as for putting the two together? I get lost. Add in the fact that my own picture-book-reading era was pretty short, and you can see why I felt cast adrift when I started reading Caldecott possibilities before the awards were announced.

Winner: The House in the Night, illustrated by Beth Krommes, written by Susan Marie Swanson

This was one of the first picture books of the year that really impressed me, so I wasn't surprised when it won. The text and illustrations do fit together quite seamlessly. The pictures are great, but I will say that I didn't think this was one of the most child-appealing books of the year; I think it's a little busy for young eyes. But I've no doubt that this will be a special book for many children, one that they will keep on their shelves after others have been given away. What we have here is an excellent example of an artist making the most of her medium, and that, in my opinion, is what really makes this book distinguished. I think it was a worthy choice.

Honor: A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee

I can pull out the "just not my thing" card once in a while, right? When I read this I was puzzled that it was being put forth as a possibility for the Caldecott; I didn't think they could be serious. Surprise on me! I would be pleased to hear praise for this one if it IS your thing. To me, it was sort of comic-booky (wait, just realized that's not a universal insult...), and really felt like it was from an adult's point of view. But probably when kids read it they get something different.

Honor: How I Learned Geography, written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz

I felt incredibly pedantic when I read this and mostly felt the mother's annoyance at the father coming home with a map instead of food. "Your child is hungry!" I wanted to shout. Yeah, yeah, physical hunger loses to spiritual hunger... I also couldn't get past being annoyed that the character was supposed to be learning all about these different places from the map, but obviously he had access to an encyclopedia or something. I'm as bad as Ramona Quimby. Anyway, I did like the pictures a lot, but I was even more interested in the author's teenage version of one of the illustrations in the back. Of course the ones in the book were technically better, but I loved the liveliness of the youthful one.

Honor: A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, written by Jennifer Bryant

Okay, I have heard that there are children out there who love William Carlos Williams. Any time he was introduced when I was in school, though, none of us were impressed. (I am maybe, maybe, finally coming to some appreciation. I can see now why my elementary school teacher said "This is Just to Say"--the one about the plums--was one of the great love poems of the English language.) I approached this book with suspicion, thinking it was probably one of the many picture books that's nothing more than what adults want children to enjoy. I liked it much more than I expected to, though. I'm not convinced on child appeal, but I found it very lively, creative, and well put together. This was my favorite of the Honor books this year.

So, I'm still bummed that my favorites of the year didn't make it (What to Do About Alice, Wonder Bear, Twenty Heartbeats, Dinosaur vs. Bedtime), but I'm putting my lack of enthusiasm for the honored books down to ignorance. I reserve the right to appreciate them more in the future.