On a peaceful note

If you’ve ever heard the song “Christmas in the Trenches” by folksinger John McCutcheon, yChristmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheonou will remember it. It’s become part of my Christmas tradition after hearing it on a local college radio station in ’84. In his beautiful picture book Christmas in the Trenches, McCutcheon has adapted his touching song about the Christmas Truce of 1914 for older children. The story’s narrator is an elderly man named Francis, who tells his grandchildren of the unique Christmas he experienced as a young soldier in WWI.  The soldiers in the trenches were bored and homesick on Christmas Eve. Suddenly, they heard German voices singing Christmas carols. The English soldiers decided to join in on “Silent Night,” an act that inspired a German soldier to cross No Man’s Land with a white flag and a Christmas tree. The two sides called a temporary, informal truce. Sorensen’s atmospheric oil paintings highlight the unexpected night of peace with a double-page spread showing the soldiers and the battlefield. Included are an author’s note, music notation, and a CD with the title song and “Silent Night/Stille Nacht,” along with a reading of the story. This sensitive picture book won a 2007 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.

For older children who want to learn more about the event, show them Jim Murphy’s Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting (Scholastic, 2009). Murphy gives an accessible overview of WWI and focuses on how peace was briefly restored when troops defied orders and met their enemies in the barren land between the trenches. Archival photographs, maps, and artwork help children understand the events.


Sidman’s Fresh Winter Poems

Winter’s splendors shine in the latest collaboration between award-winning children’s poet Joyce Sidman and illustrator Rick Allen, whose stellar prints graced the author’s Newbery Honor-winning poetry collection Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night (2010).Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold by Joyce Sidman
As with their previous work, Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold hums with a glorious trio of lyrical poetry, vibrant artwork, and natural science explained in crisp prose. The dozen brief poems show off a range of voices, tones, and formats in a full-throated effort to move readers to appreciate how the natural world adapts to the cold.
Employing a clear, consistent format of vivid double-page spreads showcasing the poem on the left and scientific information on the right, the poet and illustrator work harmoniously to stunning effect. Opening with the graceful “Dream of the Tundra Swan,” the team then moves on to feature coiled snakes, a new snowflake that “leaps, laughing/ in a dizzy cloud,/a pinwheel gathering glitter,” a rascally moose, winter bees, and others.
Ms. Sidman performs a sprightly dance with each of her subjects, dipping into rich sensory details with élan and displaying her facility with rhyme, rhythm, and poetic devices. She writes some poems from the perspective of a particular animal (“Brother Raven, Sister Wolf”) and throughout, shows a remarkable talent in her choice of poetic form. For “Under Ice,” Ms. Sidman writes of beavers in the form of a pantoum, distinguished by a pattern of using the poem’s second and fourth lines as the first and third of the next stanza. The last stanza employs the first and third lines in reverse order; thus, the poem’s final line is the same as the first. In this way the poet comes full circle, opening and closing with the image of the beavers’ snug winter home, “the fat white wigwam.”
These fresh poems spring to life with Mr. Allen’s original linoleum block prints, hand-colored and digitally scanned, composed and layered. The snowy images on these pages quiver with movement and assorted perspectives. As readers note the tundra swan’s upcoming “yodel of flight,/the sun’s pale wafer,/the crisp drink of clouds,” they can trace the V formations the vigorous swans make as they soar above a frosty lake. On subsequent pages, we see a chickadee preening, springtails flipping, a wolf prowling, and a ravenous moose reaching for a slender tree branch. The artist’s pleasing range of perspectives— from the upward view of tall trees and frigid sky to the downward gaze at a small fox coiled for warmth– can’t help but engage the reader. The illustrator offers fascinating glimpses of such internal worlds as the beavers’ cramped rooms beneath an icy pond and the winter bees clustered around their queen.
Winter Bees will make for a lovely companion on a chilly night, accompanied by hot cocoa and snuggles with young ones. Even middle-schoolers won’t be able to resist this bright concoction of art, words, and science. The glossary at the end serves to clear up any confusion about scientific terms and poem forms related to the text.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

See also …

Story of Snow The Science of Winter's Wonder by Mark Cassino with Jon NelsonEye to Eye How Animals See the World by Steve JenkinsOver and Under the Snow by Kate Messner

Lessons in the Snow

High in the Hindu Kush mountains of Pakistan, two snow leopard cubs curl up in a den while they await their mother’s return. The small male cub ventures out to explore, only to be spotted by a hungry golden eagle. Snow School by Sandra MarkleMother arrives in time to growl and swat and rescue her cub. In this way, he learns his first lesson: “Outside the den, it’s a dangerous world.”

The brother and sister cubs cuddle, play and pounce, all the while building muscles and growing in strength and agility. They survive by their mother’s wits, as she kills the prey that will nourish them. Just as important, though, are the vital skills she teaches her cubs so they will develop their own hunting prowess. They learn to mark their territory, to hunt quietly and quickly, to guard their food, to find shelter from a storm, and to stay away from humans.

Markle, the author of more than 200 nonfiction books, excels at capturing thrilling moments in animals’ existence. Snow School demonstrates her skill at pacing and her shrewd selection of words to inform and to engage a young audience. She uses muscular verbs such as thrust, drag, munch, and tumble. Here’s how she evokes the mother’s daring chase of an ibex that lags behind: The ibex “runs fast downhill, leaping, twisting, turning. The cat charges after it–stays balanced–and pounces.” Such lyrical text makes for an absorbing read-aloud experience, especially as Markle repeatedly evokes the particular lesson the cubs learn from their mother.

Nearly all readers will paw over the snowy, energetic watercolor-and-pencil illustrations by Alan Marks, who succeeds in highlighting the snow leopards’ strength, grace, and speed.

The author provides additional information about these endangered animals, suggested titles, and a note about her research methods. Snow School belongs in every public or elementary-school library, as it is precisely the kind of engaging nonfiction that children crave. (Recommended for ages 8+)

See also …

A Mother's Journey by Sandra MarkleAnimal Book A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest ... by Steve JenkinsLong, Long Journey The Godwit's Amazing Migration by Sandra Markle


Christmas in the Country

Christmas Day in the MorningPearl Buck’s Christmas Day in the Morningfirst published in 1955, is a timeless treasure perfect for reading aloud. Reissued a decade ago with beautiful, wintry illustrations by Mark Buehner, this tender story features a man who lovingly recalls the time when, as a 15-year-old, he overheard his father telling his mother how he hated to awaken Rob so early to help with the farm chores. At that moment Rob begins to feel the enormity of his father’s love for him. How he yearns to do something to show his own love for his big-hearted dad.

Rob realizes the most meaningful gift of all would not involve purchasing an object. Rather, the boy decides he will slip out before anyone else — at 3 a.m. Christmas morning — to relieve his father of all the morning chores and let him enjoy just one morning of leisure. It would mean the farmer could at last witness his children’s expressions when they first see the Christmas tree and open their presents.
Perch yourself by the fire and read this touching story to older children. Be prepared for tears — and for sweet memories.

Another warm story set in a long-ago Christmas is poet Donald Hall’s recently published Christmas at Eagle Pond. The author circles back to the year 1940, when he experiences the treat of spending Christmas with his grandparents at their farm in New Hampshire. Hall lovingly recalls the sights, smells, and sounds of a life centered on family, community, and the land.

Christmas at Eagle PondTwelve-year-old Donnie fondly falls in with his grandparents’ routines. He joins Gramp in the barn, as he milks the cows and relates stories of the past or recites poems to the boy. At night, Gram fills hot-water bottles for the beds. “I walked through their icy bedroom to mine, even icier, and stuffed my hot-water bottle under the sheets to warm my feet. Crawling beneath the covers I shivered a moment, but the quilts were thick, my feet almost too hot, and soon I fell asleep in my familiar goosefeather bed at the house I loved most in the world.”
Donnie’s week in New Hampshire involves other simple events, such as seeing the Christmas pageant at church, getting new socks, and feasting on the huge meal Gram prepares. As the boy prepares to return home, the air becomes “heavy with fine snowflakes, the kind that fall at the start of a big storm.” How, Donnie wonders, will he be able to return home to Connecticut?

This quiet, nostalgic novella holds no dramatic action (although vegetarians might want to skip Gramp’s selection of chickens for the meal). Instead, Christmas at Eagle Pond offers a comforting, slightly bittersweet respite from the clash and bang of modern life. Be sure to read the author’s note.

Another highly recommended novella with a rural setting for ages 8+ is:Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

and for ages 6 to 8, consider these picture books:

Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant

Cobweb Christmas by Shirley ClimoWhile the Bear Sleeps retold by Caitlin Matthews

The Parakeet That Brought Them Together

“Suddenly David cried out, “Papa, look!” And he pointed to the window.
I looked up and saw something that seemed unbelievable. Outside on the windowsill stood a yellow-green bird watching the candles.”  Power of Light
With this unexpected event, the renowned Isaac Bashevis Singer shows how miracles can still brighten our dark, confused world. In “The Parakeet Named Dreidel,” one of the eight warm tales in The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah, Singer invites us into the apartment of a family as they make room for a lost parakeet attracted by the light of their menorah.
The parakeet possesses charming, near-human traits: it speaks a selection of Yiddish words; it hops on the author’s fingers as he types his stories; it even pushes a dreidel — hence, the inspiration for the family’s name for the pet.
In another pleasing twist, the original owner of the parakeet eventually comes into the son David’s life, an occurrence that ushers in a lovely change, which I leave to you readers to discover for yourselves. This sparkling collection will make for cherished memories of family story times during Hanukkah or the winter.
While The Power of Light is, lamentably, out of print, you can still find good used copies (by clicking on the live link for the title, you’ll see what’s available at Alibris).

See also my past post on Hanukkah titles and these
related articles:

Bears and their Stories

“It was almost winter and Bear was getting sleepy.
But first, Bear had a story to tell … .”
So begins Phillip Stead’s charming Bear Has a Story to Tell, about a gentle giant who knows about patience and about friendship. Bear approaches Mouse, then Duck, then Frog, in hopes for sharing his story, but each animal is too busy to listen. Soon, Bear, too, succumbs to winter’s spell, and curls up for the season.

Bear awakes with the same desire to tell his story, but first, he goes about sharing thoughtful little gifts: an acorn for Mouse, a mud puddle for Duck, and some sunshine for Frog. At last, all are ready to hear Bear’s story — but he’s forgotten it! His friends, however, offer ideas to help him create a new one, and so the story comes full circle: “It was almost winter and Bear was getting sleepy.”

This sensitive, hopeful story serves to show young ones the value of patience — sometimes, we must wait … for the season to change … for someone to listen … for someone to get still. This picture book reassures children that they, too, have a voice, and they will indeed “get their turn.”  Yet another outstanding work by the talented husband-and-wife team who created the Caldecott winner A Sick Day for Amos McGee.  Share this irresistible story with ages 4 to 7.

Another remarkable pair has created the endearing picture book The Bear in the BookKate Banks again shows her skill in describing events from a child’s perspective, an approach beautifully revealed by Georg Hallensleben’s big, bright images of the furry bear, the child cuddling with his mom, and the fat snowflakes that “began to fall across the pages of the book. The snow sat snugly in the boughs of the trees. The boy could almost feel it.”

In simple, lyrical language, Banks draws humorous and affectionate comparisons between the sleepy black bear and the boy. This lovable little story will engage those ages 3 to 6. And do look for others by this pair, notably Fox and Close Your Eyes, a NYT Best Illustrated Award winner.

Fairy tale lovers will be charmed by Rose Red and the Bear Prince , adeptly retold and illustrated by Dan Andreasen. Based on a Grimm’s folktale that has echoes of the beloved “Beauty and the Beast,” this version features a confident maiden named Rose Red. An only child, she bravely admits a bear that comes knocking at the cottage door one wintry evening. The two become friends, but the bear leaves to seek the wicked dwarf who stole his three treasures. Soon, Rose Red happens to meet the dwarf and even offers to help him; in return, she demands one of the stolen treasures each time. She even manages to break the spell that had turned a handsome prince into the bear, thus bringing about the tale’s happy ending.

With its touches of gilt and its repeated swirls — from Rose Red’s locks to the dramatic tree branches, from ripples of water to the dwarf’s tangled mane — this is an elegant and pleasing edition for ages 7 to 9.

Hoban’s Wild Terrain

In a bracing mash-up of magic realism set in the far North of the author’s fierce imagination, Russell Hoban traverses the wild terrain of life, death, and regeneration and unearths the intrinsic duality of human existence.

With Soonchild, his quick-paced, often startling last novel, Mr. Hoban, who died last year, once more eschews conventional expectations in favor of the precarious role of a shape shifter. The author creates his story by fusing a storm of discordant elements: genres (Is this a young-adult novel? an extended modern fable? a graphic novel for adults?); the physical world and the spiritual; and language, mingling traditional motifs of Inuit folk literature with colloquialisms bred by a modern, consumerist society. The territory Mr. Hoban explores is ultimately internal, as each human contains a world within worlds.

The protagonist of Soonchild is a shaman so full of fear he has 16 faces, not nearly enough to deal with all the dangers out there. Sixteen-Face John has taken to ignoring the unruly spirit world by settling into an ordinary life of a little hunting, fishing, carving, and trapping with a skiddoo instead of a dogsled. When John’s not doing whatever it takes to survive, he plops in front of the TV, drinks a Coke and peruses magazines with centerfolds. The spirits still whisper in his head, but he makes sure there’s “always a lot of other noise on top of it.”

The impending first child, however, manages to pull John from his mundane distractions. His wife, No Problem, warns him the baby they call Soonchild is refusing to leave her womb. Their daughter’s problem, the shaman learns, is that she cannot hear the World Songs, so she refuses to believe in an existence other than the one she already knows.

Thus, the bumbling father sets out on an unlikely quest to stake claim to the Master Song that contains all the songs of the world. His perilous journey demands that he confront demons both external and internal, morph into myriad shapes, enter deep trances, and create his own songs. Fortunately and unfortunately, John is not always alone in his undertaking. He encounters not only terrors but also a motley cast of vital spirit helpers, ranging from his poker-playing, deceased great-grandmother to the ice bear Nanuq.

The most significant assistance, however, comes from Old Man Raven, drawn from the Inuits’ mythical trickster figure credited with creating the world. Raven, who “speaks his word of black,” can blink John into his eye and defy time, fear, and gravity, thereby enabling the shaman to rescue the song that will convince Soonchild to join her parents.

The reader’s experience of this singular novel is enriched by Alexis Deacon’s powerful charcoal and pencil drawings of eerie, significant images: the ice bear’s fierce claws, the owl-woman’s watchful eyes, the snoring ton of walrus, the fangs of ghost wolves. These illustrations, combined with the author’s lyrical language, engage the reader in a magical, thought-provoking expedition.

Like the wolves, Soonchild tracks “the paths of the living, the paths of the dead,” leaving readers a legacy of hard-won wisdom.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

And see these intriguing posts from artist/writer/blogger Anne E. G. Nydam:

Inuit Stone Block Prints” and “Transformations.”


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