Sensational Seasonal Books

Great seasonal books can enhance any celebration! There are a number of recently published titles out there, but in my mind, there are some classics that nothing really equals.

One of these is Elijah's Angel written by Michael J Rosen and illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. It is a story that is both a Hanukkah book and a Christmas book. I love how it illustrates the power of friendship and love across faith and cultures. As an additional bonus, the story is rooted in reality.

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins written by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated Trina Schart Hyman is another classic. It is one of those books that is just a great read aloud no matter what time of year it is! You can see the book and hear Kimmel reading it here.

One of my new favorite Hanukkah books is The Hanukkah Hop! written by Erica Silverman, and illustrated by Steven D’Amic. Reading this one out loud is a treat for both the reader and the listener. Everyone wants to get up and dance before you are done.

I adore Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs. This nearly wordless comic book is scrumptiously illustrated so that the tale unfolds step by step. It will keep little ones occupied for ages. (At least it did mine many years ago)


Unless you have been living in a cave for the last few decades you already know these other classic Christmas narratives that continue to entertain children of all ages: How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss and The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.


All these are lovely, but the Christmas yarn that I enjoy reading out loud most is The Cat on the Dovrefell: a Christmas Tale, translated from the Norse by Sir George Webbe Dasent and illustrated by Tomie de Paola. Jan Brett tells this story in Who's that knocking on Christmas Eve? but de Paola's version is just superior.


Pete the Cat Saves Christmas by Eric Litwin and James Dean might just become one of my new favorites. One of the best things about any Pete the Cat book is that it comes with a song that you can listen to for free. 


No Such Thing As Dragons by Philip Reeve

Brock, the dragon slayer, and his mute assistant, Ansel, travel from village to village in search of dragons to defeat. At first Ansel is torn between esteem for his master and fear of actually meeting up with one of the beasts.  Then Brock reveals that there is no such thing as a dragon and he is nothing more than a conman. Fortunately, there are a lot of superstitious people who will pay to get rid of their fear of a dragon.

Together they travel to a remote mountain village where the inhabitants are purported to be terrorized by a dragon.  Along with a local priest they head up into the hills expecting to hang out for a few days before killing a sheep and faking a dragon’s death.

On their way they find traces of a human sacrifice left by the villagers to appease the dragon. When they crowd into a shepherd’s cave to escape a violent storm they discover the girl alive. They assume she is delusional when she carries on about a dragon’s eye. 

No wonder, seriously, no one in their right mind believes in dragons.

Except that early in the morning, while outside to relieve himself, Ansel looks out and realizes a dragon is stalking him. He barely makes it back to the shelter. The creature in its fury batters itself against the wooden door till it manages to kill and grab one of their horses.

It appears that there is indeed such a thing as dragons.

The motley crew first attempts to flee the mountain, but is hampered by a landslide that decimated the trail.  Then the dragon returns; hunting once more. The survivors of this attack realize that they must climb up before they can come down.  It looks like they might make it until Brock gets it into his head that he will atone for his many sins when he kills the dragon.

I started this book because I am a sucker for Philip Reeve.
I finished it because not only is it a rollicking great adventure tale, it has hidden depths.   Sly truths about the human condition are slipped in midst the treachery, terror, and hair breadth escapes.

I liked that Reeves created realistic and fallible characters. He made me care about all of them, including the dragon. I admit to having some reservations about the priest, and I was often appalled by some of Brocks actions, but I still rooted for him to survive.  

This is one I will most definitely recommend to dragon fans. 

The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

I loved this book.

It is a charming story about friendship, family, and how our family stories pass down from generation to generation.

Grace Lin grew up as one of the few Chinese American students in her school. She loved to read, but never found herself represented in the literature in her school or public library. This novel is part of a growing collection of books that remedy this.

It is set in Upper New York State where Grace and her family are celebrating the Lunar New Year and onset of the Year of the Dog. Grace hopes that this year will bring her some awareness of what she will be when she grows up.

Along the way she makes another best friend, has a crush on a boy, goes away to camp, and ultimately discovers herself.

I loved the stories with in the novel. I loved how Grace negotiates her way between her Taiwanese heritage, and her American reality. Grace is the kind of girl you would like for your own best friend.

I am looking forward to more of her books in our library.

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party, by Ying Chang Compestine, is the story of Ling Chang, a young girl growing up in China in the 1970’s, the time of the Cultural Revolution.  She lives with her father, a western trained surgeon, and her mother, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. They are an upper class (bourgeois) family living in an upper class apartment near the Wuhan hospital where both of them work.  This story, based on the author’s own experiences of that time, is told from Ling’s perspective.  Much of what occurs is at first confusing and unfathomable to her.
The family’s comfortable life begins to disintegrate when one of their rooms is taken over by Comrade Li, a political officer of the Communist Party.  Bit by bit their lives are filled with escalating suspicion, fear and betrayal.  At school Ling’s hopes to become a member of the Red Guard are destroyed because of her family’s status. She is bullied and harassed at school by her classmates who have become members.  Loud speakers blast revolutionary slogans constantly. One by one other tenants in the apartment are publicly humiliated and begin to disappear.  The Chang family is forced to burn their English books and decorate their house with Mao posters and slogans.
It isn’t enough. In spite of everything they do they are still targeted by the revolutionary guards and accused of being anti-revolutionary.  First Ling’s father loses his status as a surgeon and is forced to work as a janitor in the hospital. Their home is ransacked a number of times and eventually he is taken away.  For the next few years Ling and her mother are left to struggle to find enough food to survive.  They have no idea where Dr. Chang has been taken.  It turns out that he has been taken to jail, but is called in to operate on top party officials who won’t trust themselves to the ‘barefoot doctors’ trained by the party.
This is a stellar book on many levels.  It is well written and compelling.  It is an engaging story of a strong girl growing up and coming of age in extremely difficult circumstances.  It is an historical novel that educates the reader about the events in China in this time period. There is an authenticity to the element of sadistic violence in the name of Chairman Mao that is chilling.  Yet at the same time as it speaks to our human capacity for cruelty, it reminds us that we also have the capacity for kindness and survival.
This book pairs up perfectly with another children’s book about China at the same time, Chu Ju’s House by Gloria Whelan.  Whelan’s story is set in the country instead of the city.  Chu Ju’s family were poor farmers. Her father was one of the ‘barefoot doctors’ referred to in Compestine’s novel.  While Chu Ju’s House hints at potential violence and corruption, Revolution is Not a Dinner Party, spells it out much more clearly.  Both are wonderful reads.

This book has been on my to read list for a long time.  I am so glad I finally got around to it!
I think we need a set for literature circles.

To Stand On My Own: The Polio Diary of Noreen Robertson by Barbara Haworth-Attard (Red Cedar Club 2012)

This is the diary of Noreen Robertson, an eleven year old girl from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in 1937. The country is in the midst of a polio epidemic. In the heat of the summer Noreen, Edmund, her brother, and Bessie, her best friend, disobey their parents and go to the public swimming pool to cool down.  Shortly after this Noreen comes down with polio.
The book follows Noreen's progress with the disease throughout the next year. At first she ends up in the isolation ward in the hospital in Saskatoon. Then after a time of recovery at home, Noreen is sent to a special rehabilitation facility in Regina. 
It is a difficult time for Noreen. Bessie, her best friend, abandons her but she discovers a true friend in someone she once thought beneath her. Her new friends at the facility help each other to become strong in spite of the obstacles they have to overcome. 
 I liked that in spite of everything, Noreen grew in many ways over the year.
Like all the books in the Dear Canada series, the reader gets a personal perspective of history. I was born at the end of the last polio epidemic in Canada so it was interesting to read what it was like before we had vaccines. It was also interesting to read about the controversy surrounding best treatment for survivors. 
However, this book didn't excite and wow me in the same way that Exiles from the War by Jean Little, another Dear Canada book and another 2012 Red Cedar Club nominee did. Neither was it half as exciting as The Giant-Slayer by Iain Lawrence, a candidate from last year's club, and a book about polio. I don't think this is a terrible book. For me, it just didn't hold up in comparison with these other books. 

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

There are stories, and then there are stories. You know what I mean. The ones that grab you in a gut wrenching hold from the first sentence and leave you exhausted, wrung out, and ultimately a different person by their end. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is one of them.  

It is based on the true story of Ivan, a silverback gorilla who after being taken from the wild, spent his first few years in a human home. Then he spent the next three decades in a cage in a mall in Washington State.

Katherine Applegate has given him a voice that enables the rest of us to begin to understand what it might have been like for him all those years.

In this fictional account of his life, Ivan has a few other animals he is close to; Bob the mongrel dog that shares his cage, and Stella the ill and aging elephant who lives in the small enclosure next to him. At first Ivan seems almost content with his life and his painting. Then Ruby, a baby elephant is brought into the mall. Ivan is forced to face deeply buried memories in order to come up with a plan to save Ruby from an existence like theirs. 

While reading this one I wept. I laughed. It is complicated: From the stories of the humans who saved Ruby, to the humans who killed her family, and Mack, the mall owner, who seemed to love Ivan as a son, yet kept him in a cage for so long. 

 All this is punctuated with moments of poignant stinging truths.

“But many days I forget what I am supposed to be. Am I a human? Am I a gorilla? 

Humans have so many words, more than they truly need. Still, they have no name for what I am. “

When describing why the picture on the billboard is not him, Ivan explains, “…I am never angry.

Anger is precious. A silverback uses anger to maintain order and warn his troop of danger. When my father beat his chest, it was to say. Beware, listen, I am in charge. I am angry to protect you, because that is what I was born to do. 
Here in my domain, there is no one to protect.”

Thank you Katherine Applegate for writing this book. I wish I had gotten around to reading it sooner.

Do yourself a favor. Read this book. Do it now.


Clone Codes by The McKissacks

Clone Codes by The McKissacks, is a dystopian novel for younger readers.
I read it because Wendy gave me her copy and told me it was good.
It is a science fiction novel set in 2170. Human clones are created to be slaves. Cyborgs, (humans with more than 60% replacement parts) are looked upon as lesser creatures.
It isn’t a bad read, but neither is it particularly stunning. While it is unfortunately predictable, it has some redeeming qualities.
In the first place I am a sucker for any book that informs the reader of history, and in this case history is revealed through pretty exciting experiential learning for Leanna, the protagonist, and thus vicariously the reader.
Second, the book is full of adventure and some suspense – something that is sure to draw younger readers in. Leanna, who has lived a life of privilege, is full of prejudice and contempt for creatures she sees as less than she is. She has a very steep learning curve when she discovers that she is not who she thought herself to be. It isn’t easy to change the way she looks at herself and the rest of her world.
Third, the book is full of futuristic technology and creatures called biobots. Imagine something akin to flesh eating police dogs, but much much nastier. 

While this simple story is not particularly well told, that is not my complaint with it. It is one of those books that doesn’t really have an ending. I hate books like this. I don’t care if books are part of a series. Each book has to feel satisfying and this one just doesn’t do it for me. On the other hand, this is just what keeps kids coming back for more, so really, who am I to complain?

Giraffe and Bird & Don't Laugh at Giraffe by Rebecca Bender

Friendship is complicated.

Giraffe and Bird are unlikely best friends as we discover in Giraffe and Bird. “Spat, scrap and squabble - they almost always get on each other’s nerves. The funny thing is, you rarely see them apart.” When they are apart they miss each other terribly.


In Don’t Laugh at Giraffe, Giraffe is having trouble getting a drink of water and the other animals end up laughing at him. Bird understands that this makes Giraffe feel bad, and goes out of his way to make them laugh at him. In the process, he ends up getting Giraffe laughing and overcoming his fear of the water.


Thank you Rebecca Bender!

These books are perfect for fans of Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggie books!