Eleven-year-old Tate P. Ellerbee needs to write to a pen pal for the school year and her teacher wants her class to choose a child from a school in Japan so they will get to know someone from a different country. Some kids hesitate because this story is set in 1949 and World War II is still fresh in the minds of all. Glimpses of the prejudice and anti-communist feelings are obvious. Tate decides she wants to write to Hank Williams, an up-and-coming country and Western singer she’s heard on a Saturday night radio program each week with her family. Although the story is told entirely via letters Tate writes to Mr. Williams (and his only response is sending autographed photographs), she is not deterred because he never writes back. Once you get past the idea that Tate never gets any letters in return from the singer (I would have found a different pen pal who wanted to correspond with me!), the reader will enjoy the narrative. Her letters are almost journal entries as she tells about her day-to-day life practicing her singing for a talent show, laughing with uncle Jolly’s girlfriend, and cuddling with her dog. Tate’s parents are absent and she lives with Aunt Patty Cake and her Uncle Jolly. We later learn that her actress mother is serving time in prison because of a bad choice she made and her father is off supposedly taking photographs all over the world for his job. Tate has not been dealt a fair hand in life but she is still a positive and upbeat character who loves her caring aunt, funny uncle, and especially her dog, Lovie. Her annoying brother, Frog, adds an important element to the story, especially in the surprise ending to the book. As Tate continues writing to a complete stranger, her personality and outlook on life unfold revealing a very real character with spunk, humor, and hope for the future. I love historical fiction and have enjoyed other books by Kimberly Willis Holt so this story was a great choice for me to read and be able to recommend to 4th-6th grade readers this summer. A tender, and at times heartbreaking story, this book will surely take the reader on a memorable ride in a by-gone time.
Author Archive for Katherine Habley
Consummate storyteller Anne Tyler has written her 20th novel to great reviews. This is the story of four generations of Whitshanks who lived in a house in Baltimore beginning in the 1920′s. Recounting her romance with Red that began on a glorious “yellow-and-green afternoon” in July of 1959, the matriarch, Abby, relates all their complicated lives full of love, jealousy, and secrecy. The author touches on her insights into assumptions about class, gender, race and age and the story is told with humor and great dialogue. Her family is now trying to figure out how best to care for Abby and Red in their old age and some wish to sell the old homestead. The novel switches back and forth in time as it unfolds the family’s history and this may be a bit confusing for some readers. The conversations, the stream of consciousness, the wisdom and wit all make for a great choice for Book Group discussion. The three-dimensional characters are memorable such as Linnie Mae, Junior’s wife; Stem, Red and Abby’s adopted son who still feels like he plays second fiddle; Denny, who can’t be counted on and comes in and out of everyone’s lives bringing his young daughter into the mix; and sharp-tongued Amanda. A Spool of Blue Thread is a story about family–the good, the bad, and the ugly. Tyler’s prose is as touching and truthful as ever when dealing with a family in all its complexity–something most of us can surely relate to in our own families, especially those of use in the sandwich generation. Bravo, Anne Tyler, you’ve done it again.
Jaqueline Winspear’s latest Maisie Dobbs novel is an intriguing mystery sure to engage readers even if not familiar with the popular series. The title comes from a quote by Albert Einstein, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” Set in 1937 at the precipice of World War II, the psychologist/private investigator’s life has been turned upside down with the untimely death of her husband and subsequent miscarriage four years earlier. After a trip to India to find solace, Maisie is still grieving and just not ready to return to London and her concerned father and stepmother. She disembarks in Gibraltar where the Spanish civil war is happening just across the border. There she comes across the body of a man, Sebastian Babayoff, while out walking one night. He was a photographer and Sephardic Jew, and the circumstances surrounding his murder cause Maisie to want to find out the truth about his death. Having something meaningful to sink her teeth into helps lift Maisie out of her depression and suicidal thoughts. She begins her investigation in the British garrison town full of refugees trying to piece together the bits of information she gathers from Babayoff’s family and the Jewish community. Complications arise when she herself comes under scrutiny and she finds herself being investigated by the British Secret Service. The period detail is descriptive and accurate about life and times on “the Rock.” This novel will be appealing to readers of historical fiction and followers of the intrepid protagonist.
Many of you know that I am a huge Beatrix Potter fan and as a children’s librarian, have been charmed by her 23 small books about Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle Duck, Squirrel Nutkin, Benjamin Bunny and her other animal friends for many years. I have collected Beatrix Potter books and related merchandise my entire career and have displayed my collection at the Iowa City Public Library and the Coralville Public Library. So when I accidentally came across Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales, needless to say, I was thrilled. Oh, and did I tell you that I am a flower gardener? Author Marta McDowell from the New York Botanical Garden gives an account of the famous children’s writer and illustrator’s life. Included in the book are old photographs, quotes from Potter’s books, letters, book illustrations, journal entrees, and her beautiful watercolor sketches of flowers and book characters. The second part of the book is a seasonal overview of what is blooming in Potter’s gardens at Hill Top Farm and her other properties in the Lake District of England. The book culminates in a traveler’s guide with information about visiting Potter’s home and gardens today. Readers may not have known that Beatrix Potter left her privileged life in London to farm, raise sheep, write, garden, and conserve the beautiful landscapes in the north of England. Most impressive are all the thousands of acres of land she left to the National Trust upon her death. I’ve read several biographies about Beatrix Potter so I didn’t learn anything new about her life; however, her passion for gardening and the expert information by the author, a consulting horticulturalist, was most informative and a pleasure to read. Someday I hope to travel to the Lake District and visit Hill Top Farm and before I do, I’ll re-read this fascinating book.
Librarian Ashley Weaver’s debut novel is the kind of cozy mystery I really enjoy. Set in 1930′s England, wealthy Amory and Milo Ames have been married five years and Amory’s charming playboy husband is still acting like he’s a bachelor. He’s just returned from the French Riviera when her old fiance, Gil Trent, looks Amory up and asks her to join him at a seaside resort to hopefully dissuade his sister, Emmeline, from marrying a cad, Rupert Howe. On the second day at the posh Brightwell Hotel, Emory finds Howe’s body, apparently pushed over a railing onto a terrace below. Lots of friends and acquaintances staying for the week are possible suspects, but Gil is the primary target of the investigation. Then Milo appears on the scene and things get complicated as Amory wants to clear Gil’s name and figure out if her marriage to Milo is worth saving. Another murder takes place and the group of secondary characters each have their own secrets and reasons not to be trusted. Red herrings abound and Milo’s reluctant assistance in helping Amory find the killer keeps the readers’ interest. The sarcastic repartee between Amory and Milo is amusing and the the reader will keep wondering who Amory will end up with, Milo or Gil. The clues start adding up for the detective, but will the mystery be solved before another murder is committed? The romance aspect of the story adds to a fun light read set in a lavish location and time period. I recommend this engaging mystery to fans of Agatha Christie’s books. This first novel would make a great series with Amory Ames as the amateur sleuth.
The Main Coon’s Haiku and Other Poems for Cat Lovers is a 2015 new poetry book for children that I checked-out in preparation for the library’s annual Poetry Workshop for Kids coming up Saturday, April 11th, from 2:00–4:00 p.m. I enjoy facilitating this program for tweens each April in honor of National Poetry Month and am always amazed at the creative poems kids write. We talk about haiku, originally a poetic form from Japan describing a moment in nature in 17 syllables (5-7-5) written in three lines. Nowadays we take lots of poetic license in the writing of haiku as illustrated in this new collection of poems by Rosen who gave us The Cuckoo’s Haiku in 2009. Each of the twenty haiku are about a particular kind of cat. For example, in the haiku entitled “Burmese,” it goes like this: “Only the blazing/forsythia blooms rival/the Burmese cat’s gaze.” Another poem I enjoy is “Maine Coon” written in three simple lines of verse: “Crouched before the couch,/suddenly, cat has all night/for just one sound–mouse.” Haiku is a great form of poetry to teach because it’s short and understandable for young readers and writers. Children can use their imagination to think of a scene in nature that for one brief moment is worthy of notice and describe it in a haiku. It is personal, reflective, and quiet poetry that relies on eliciting feelings, emotions, and wonder. The illustrations in this book are by Lee White and are done digitally in muted colors. A bonus in The Maine Coon’s Haiku is the thumbnail description and image from the book of the breed. Don’t forget to register your 3rd-6th grader for the Poetry Workshop and we’ll talk more about haiku and write some of our own. In the meantime, check out this book on the New Book Shelves and celebrate National Poetry Month!
Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold written by Joyce Sidman is a lovely new picture book of poems suitable for grade K to grade 4. Although there are only a dozen poems included, they are very descriptive of animals surviving in the cold long winter. The author sometimes uses unfamiliar words in her poems but there is a brief glossary of 22 definitions in the back of the book that defines words children might not know. Some poems rhyme but most do not. Two of the poems are in a particular poetic form–a pantoun and a triolet–adding to the reader’s knowledge of the poetic structure used. Sidman has certainly done her research on each animal of the frozen North she writes about. She lives in Minnesota and has observed these creatures first hand; but the addition of a paragraph of information about each hardy animal living in the winter is something that will appeal to animal lovers, parents, and teachers who choose to share this book in the classroom. Some of the animals included are the tundra swan, a big brown moose, winter bees, a vole, and wolves. The aspect of this new volume of poetry that I particularly love are the beautiful illustrations by Rick Allen, another Minnesota native. He is a printmaker and has employed his considerable skills in printing from linoleum blocks and then adding color by hand. The prints were then digitally scanned, composed, and layered to create the artwork for the poems. Winter Bees is a book for those who love the natural world. And even though the poems depict winter scenes, the book ends with the coming of Spring. Hallelujah!
Soon it will be April and I’ll be pulling out my folder for my favorite rainy day stories in preparation for a library storytime or an outreach storytime at any one of a number of community preschools and day care sites. A new picture book is a perfect addition to toddler and preschool storytimes and for any parent whose child might be fearful of a thunderstorm. Blue on Blue is Dianne White’s first book. It is written in a rhyming text that is short and sweet. The book depicts a day that is bright and beautiful until a storm comes along with rain, thunder, and lightning. By late afternoon the little girl takes her umbrella outside and the sun peeks out from behind the rain clouds. The dogs go outside to play and the pigs roll happily in the mud. The mother and baby watch the sunset, the father washes the dogs in the trough, and finally it is time to go back inside for a bath and bedtime. How fortunate for a first-time author to be paired with the Caldecott Award winner illustrator, Beth Krommes. As in The House in the Night, Krommes employs the technique of scratchboard and watercolor to create realistic, detailed artwork that is within the realm of a young child’s understanding of the world. Each beautiful spread has familiar objects in each scene depicted. By the front door we see a red tricycle, a jump rope, an umbrella stand, a basket of laundry and a bag of clothespins, a ball, and a cat looking in while the puppy looks out. Those same objects are later seen in another image outside. The father tills the soil from a distance with the horses out in the field, and then drives the tractor into the barn and rounds up the horses while his daughter hides with her doggie under the covers upstairs in her bed. Turtles, ducks, flowers, lightning bugs, stars, and a toad are other things that will be fun for a small child to point out when the story is shared with an adult. What a happy combination of story and illustrations that mesh together beautifully. Enjoy!
A book on the New Shelf that caught my eye is entitled Smick! and written by the author of many ridiculously funny picture books like Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, Diary of a Worm, and Giggle, Giggle, Quack. This one is very short with only a couple of words per page that often rhyme. There is a dog named “Smick” who plays with a stick and cavorts with a chick. The illustrator is Juana Medina, a Colombia native and graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. She now lives and works in Washington, D.C., and teaches at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. Her spare artwork is done in mixed media. The dog is drawn in what looks like black crayon; the stick looks like a photograph; and the chick appears like a red and yellow photo of a flower petal with black crayon features. This simple story and pictures is a delightful picture book that has already proven to be a hit in storytime. All the white space on the pages combined with the artwork demonstrates that less is definitely more. Check out Cronin’s newest offering and sit back and enjoy all the laughs with the toddler and preschool set.
In the past I’ve enjoyed David Elliott’s books of short poems for young children (On the Farm, In the Wild, and In the Sea) illustrated by Holly Meade. In his newest book, On the Wing, his poems are illustrated by first-time picture book artist, Becca Stadtlander. Here, the 16 poems included are all about different kinds of birds such as the bald eagle, the hummingbird, the Caribbean flamingo, the Australian pelican, and the great horned owl. In free verse the avian-inspired poems are short and sweet and meant to be read aloud. Take the concise poem entitled, “The Puffin.” “The puffin/is unique–especially/it’s beak.” Or how about “The Macaw” verse: “The Macaw/Who spilled the paint?” I can just hear kids laughing at that one when they see the colorful gouache illustration of this particular bird. All of the pictures are a double-spread design and the print is large for young readers to read on their own. The artwork for the cardinal poem and the Japanese cranes poem are particularly lovely. Introducing preschoolers and primary grade children to brief poems helps them with language development and sparks their imagination. Books like On the Wing make a perfect introduction to poetry beyond nursery rhymes. Check out all of David Elliott’s neat picture books of verse and have fun sharing them with little ones. You can find this book on the New Book shelves in the Children’s Room of the Iowa City Public Library.
Katherine Habley at the Library