Review: Three Stars in the Night Sky

Zoo Scientists cover

Three Stars in the Night Sky cover

THREE STARS IN THE NIGHT SKY
by Fern Schumer Chapman
Gussie Rose Press/June 6, 2018
Grades 5-8, 56 pages

Here’s what the publisher says:

At the age of 12, Gerda Katz fled Nazi Germany and came to America all by herself. Decades before the label gained recognition, she became what’s now known as an “unaccompanied minor.” Gerda’s story of family separation reflects the dislocating trauma, culture shock, and excruciating loneliness many unaccompanied minor immigrants experience. As Gerda becomes an American, she never stops longing to be reunited with her family. Three Stars in the Night Sky illuminates the personal damage of racism in three countries – Nazi Germany, the Dominican Republic, and the United States during the 1930s and 40s — and the emotional devastation of a child coming to a new country alone.

And here are my thoughts:
This was an engaging, up close and personal look at an historical event that is sadly still relevant today for many reasons, including understanding World War II, anti-Semitism, refugees, and the very real impacts of immigration policies. There is also local relevancy here in western Washington state, as Gerda emigrated to Seattle to escape the persecution of Jews in Germany in 1938 and wound up facing the internment of the region’s Japanese-American citizens. I found the story and accompanying images to be interesting as well as informative. The format makes it looks like a picture book, but I would not recommend it for younger readers due to the sensitive topics covered and the way in which they are presented here. Highly recommended for grades 5 and up, however, whether as part of learning more about the World War II era or looking at current events through a historical lens. Gerda’s story will stick with me for some time to come, and I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to read about it.
For more books by this author, visit https://fernschumerchapman.com/.
*** Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher as part of judging the CYBILS contest. ***
Facts First! Nonfiction Monday

2018 CYBILS Round 1 judge

2018 Cybils Round 1 Judge logo
2018 CYBILS, here I come! I’m excited to share that I’ll be a CYBILS judge again this year. The CYBILS Awards recognize authors and illustrators whose books for children and young adults combine both literary merit and popular appeal. In the past, I’ve always helped with judging the younger nonfiction category (Nonfiction Picture Books in 2011 and 2012, and Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction in 2014). This time around, however, I’ll be a Round 1 Judge in the Junior/Senior High Nonfiction category, along with the following talented bloggers:

Nominations will open on October 1st, and our shortlists will be due in December. There are usually around 70 entries, so I’ll be doing a LOT of reading in the coming months. (And hopefully a lot of blogging, too–get ready for those reviews!) Finalists will be announced in January, and winners are announced in February.
2018 Cybils logo
 

Great news for TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE!

2018 is off to a great start so far with a bevy of awards and accolades for Two Truths and a Lie: It’s Alive!, and I’m so excited to share the latest good news with you here!

TLA Topaz list logoFirst, the Texas Library Association include it on their 2018 Texas Topaz Nonfiction Reading List. According to TLA, the Topaz List “highlights recently published nonfiction gems for readers of all ages. Adult services and youth services librarians serve on separate committees that consider hundreds of nonfiction titles for adults and youth respectively. The librarians debate the merits, appeal, and importance of the works to curate a list of engaging nonfiction titles intended to reveal new or little-known information, open doors to other worlds, or introduce fresh voices. With titles for adults and children PreK-grade 12, there is something for everyone on the Topaz list!”
Texas librarians ROCK, and being on this list is an incredible honor!
Nerdy Book Club bannerNext, the Nerdy Book Club announced their 2017 Nerdies for Long Form Nonfiction. I love reading this blog, and their passion for children’s books really comes through. Plus, some of my favorite books and authors are on this list, so I literally gasped out loud when I scrolled down far enough to see the cover of Two Truths and a Lie: It’s Alive! Thank you, Nerdy Book Club! So exciting!!
Cybils 2017 bannerThen, the Cybils announced their 2017 Elementary/Middle Grade Non-Fiction Finalists, and Two Truths and a Lie: It’s Alive! was on their list, too! Again, there are some amazing books here (including Zoo Scientists to the Rescue and Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, which I reviewed in past posts here), and I have been a Cybils judge in the past (so I know how seriously they take their work!). Being a Cybils finalist is an unbelievable thrill!
Booklist Lasting Connections bannerFinally, Booklist shared some love, in both their Special Feature: Lasting Connections 2017 and Editors’ Choice: Books for Youth, 2017.
Lasting Connections highlights their top 30 choices for the K–8 classroom, all published in the previous year and all selected for their natural connections across the curriculum and to the Common Core State and Next Generation Science Standards.
Booklist Editors' Choice bannerAnd the Editor’s Choice list is selected by the Books for Youth editorial staff, who are “committed to providing a broad selection of outstanding books that mixes popular appeal with literary excellence,” as best-of-the-year nonfiction and fiction books and picture books. Wow!

Having a book that you’ve worked hard on appear on lists like these is truly a dream come true, and I couldn’t be happier with this news. Cheers to 2018!

Be a Changemaker is a Cybils award finalist!


I woke up this morning to news that Be a Changemaker made the list of finalists for the 2014 Children’s and Young Adult Blogger’s Literary Award, better known as the Cybils, in the Nonfiction for Young Adults category. What a way to kick off 2015!
The nominations in this category were varied and impressive, and the books that made the finalist list are truly among the best I’ve read all year. It’s an incredible honor to have my book in such amazing company!

Alice + Freda cover Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis by Alexis Coe
Be a Changemaker cover Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something That Matters by Laurie Ann Thompson
Beyond Magenta cover Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin
Popular cover Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen
Family Romanov cover The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
Freedom Summer Murders cover The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell
Port Chicago 50 cover The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin

Thanks, Pat Zietlow Miller, for nominating it in the first place. Thanks, Stephanie Charlefour at Love. Life. Read., for the finalist write-up, and to the entire panel (also including Aaron Maurer from Coffee for the Brain, Michelle Lockwood from Blogs Like a Girl, Karen Ball from Mrs. B’s Favorites, and Danyelle Leach from Bookshelves in the Cul-de–Sac) for reading, considering, and ultimately selecting it. I’ve been a first round Cybils judge twice and am a second round judge in a different category this year, so I know what a lot of hard work and dedication goes into it! Finally, thanks to the people who keep the Cybils running. It’s one of my favorite awards in children’s books as a reader, author, and judge. I’m always glad to be a part of it, so having my own book make that finalist list means even more to me. Kidlit bloggers ROCK! 🙂

Review: THE SCRAPS BOOK by Lois Ehlert

THE SCRAPS BOOK cover

THE SCRAPS BOOK cover
THE SCRAPS BOOK: NOTES FROM A COLORFUL LIFE
written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert
published by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster, March 2014
72 pages

There have been several picture-book autobiographies of children’s book authors and illustrators over the past few years. Sadly, most have left me feeling just a little underwhelmed. While I personally enjoyed them, I felt like they were aimed more at their long-time adult fans than at contemporary child readers. While I, as an adult, was able to appreciate the rich context and interesting personal histories, I wondered if children would be able to relate to the stories and find directly relevant meaning within the pages. So, although I myself am a fan of Lois Ehlert, I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical when I picked up THE SCRAPS BOOK. Boy was I in for a delightful surprise!
Despite the high page count, there is nothing in this book that feels the least bit self-indulgent. Every page seems lovingly designed to encourage and instruct young artists. (And aren’t we all artists when we’re young? Perhaps with this book, more of us will remain so.) Throughout, Ehlert generously shares her inspirations, her processes, her notes and journals, even her messes and mistakes, giving readers insights into her books as well as her life as an artist.THE SCRAPS BOOK excerpt
I think this is truly a book people of all ages can enjoy, and the world is definitely a better place for having THE SCRAPS BOOK in it.
Facts First! Nonfiction Monday

(Disclaimer: Review copy was checked out from my local library.)

Cybils nonfiction picture book roundup #2

My fellow judges and I are still hard at work trying to finalize our round one shortlist for the Cybils nonfiction picture book category. It’s a difficult task because there are so many great books this year! Here are some reviews of some of my personal favorites (Note: I had many, MANY favorites this year). I enjoyed and would recommend all of these.
 

LITTLE DOG LOST : THE TRUE STORY OF A BRAVE DOG NAMED BALTIC by Mônica Carnesi (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin)
This is the true story of a nameless dog seen floating on a piece of ice down a river in Poland. Initial attempts to save the dog fail, and he is washed out to sea. Fortunately, the crew onboard a research vessel sees him and finally succeeds in rescuing the dog and nursing him back to health. The story is told in simple but engaging text with delightful illustrations. I think kids and dog lovers of all ages will love this book. I know I did!
 

NORTH : THE AMAZING STORY OF ARCTIC MIGRATION by Nick Dowson, illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick)
This beautiful book is firmly on my list of all-time favorite nonfiction picture books. Rather than talk about why animals migrate south for the winter, this book looks at the flip side: why and how they come back from all over the world to live in the Arctic the rest of year. It presents a wide variety of animals, including many different kinds of land mammals, birds, whales, and fish. The artwork is stunning, the text is both factual and lyrical, and the layout maximizes the effect on each on every page. This is about as perfect a nature book as I could imagine. Highly recommended!
 

THERE GOES TED WILLIAMS: THE GREATEST HITTER WHO EVER LIVED by Matt Tavares (Candlewick)
This is another beautiful book by Candlewick. What I enjoyed most about this book is that the love the author has for his subject comes through on every page, in both the text and the illustrations. Even if you’re not a big baseball fan (which, admittedly, I’m not), there is still a lot to love about this book, especially Ted Williams’ admirable perseverance and dedication to his sport. The author’s note explains that Williams wasn’t perfect, which makes him even more human. There’s also a bibliography and, for true baseball fans, a detailed table of Williams’ career stats.
 

EGGS 1, 2, 3: WHO WILL THE BABIES BE? by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Betsy Thompson (Blue Apple)
I thought this was one of the stand-out books for younger kids, teaching number recognition and counting as well as introducing a variety of different animals that hatch from eggs and what those eggs look like. The text is appropriately simple but descriptive and interesting, with the repeated question, “Who will the babies be?” and a fold-out page providing the answer for each number 1-10. The collage artwork gives the pages a rich, three-dimensional look and adds tons of visual interest. My only complaint with this book is that I don’t think the numbers match how many eggs the animals might really have (nine frog eggs, for example), so it’s a bit misleading in that regard, but it does such a wonderful job of achieving its other goals that I’m willing to let that detail slide.
 

A LEAF CAN BE… by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Violeta Dabija (Millbrook/Lerner)
This is a deceptively simple, but really quite ingenious, rhyming poem about all of the different things a leaf can do or be used for throughout the year. The glowing illustrations provide the perfect accompaniment as well as an explanation of each line of the poem, plus there’s a section at the end of the book with even more details. I think young kids will love this book and it will open their eyes to a whole new appreciation of the nature all around them. Well done!
 
Disclaimer: All of these books were obtained from my amazing local public library system. 

2012 Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book report #1

Phew! Now that I got my revision done and sent in, I can get back to reading Cybils nominees in the nonfiction picture book category that I am judging. Last year I wrote up longer reviews of only a few of the Cybils nominees. This year I’m going to try to write many more, but shorter, reviews. Rather than offer comprehensive reviews, the goal will be to capture my initial impressions and thoughts. So, here comes the first batch!
 

BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY by Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin)
This is a wonderful book that should appeal to all kinds of kids, across a wide age range, and with many different interests. The artwork is stunning. The story of Tony Sarg and the beginnings of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade puppets is one that needed to be told, and this book tells it artfully, illustrating the man’s creativity as well as hard work and dedication. Entertaining, inspiring, and educational—all rolled into one beautiful package.
 

BROTHERS AT BAT by Audrey Vernick (Clarion)
This is the true story of the Acerra family and their 12-member all-brother baseball team. Baseball fans especially will love this heartfelt telling of the family’s travails and triumphs, both on the field and off, but the expertly told family story offers something for everyone. The text and art work together beautifully to bring the historical period to life.
 

A PLACE FOR BATS by Melissa Stewart (Peachtree)
Okay, I have to admit that I have a bit of a bat phobia. On a rational level, I know they’re helpful and I’m glad they’re out there, but I really don’t like having to think about them. Stewart does an excellent job of raising awareness about the importance of bats as well as offering ways people can help them thrive. The fascinating illustrations are realistic and not “cute-ified,” which did make me squirm a little, but Stewart’s text compensates by creating sympathy for the creatures. Even as an adult reader, I learned a lot about bats. This book would make a good science read-aloud for preschool and early elementary grades. And maybe those kids won’t develop an irrational bat phobia like mine!
 

ANNIE AND HELEN by Deborah Hopkinson (Schwartz and Wade)
I love Deborah Hopkinson’s work, and the story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, has always fascinated me, so I was excited to see this one in the nomination list. It didn’t disappoint. Told sparingly and through primary sources, it focuses on the early relationship between the two women and on Sullivan’s struggles to break through Keller’s barriers. The art adds a beautiful, historical feel to the text, and the book ends on a triumphant note with Keller’s first written letter home.
 

BON APPETIT! by Jessie Hartland (Schwartz and Wade)
This is a delicious biography of Julia Child! Although a tad overwhelming and busy at first glance, the art and text quickly draw readers in and hook them, and reading it becomes a rewarding adventure. Hartland uses energy, humor, and compassion to follow Child’s life story from childhood on in a style that mimics her personality and how she lived her life. Jam-packed with facts and entertaining details, this longer picture book with fascinate older picture-book readers.

It's time to get busy

Cybils 2012 logo

I’ve been working like crazy lately on a revision for the editor of my first book. I’m simultaneously blown by away by how much work she’s asking me to do AND by how much better it’s going to make the book. Most of her comments feel so utterly, obviously right–AFTER I’ve read them–that I’m left wondering why I didn’t think of them myself.  (I’m also left wondering why she ever bought the book in the first place, but in that way lies madness, so let’s not go there, okay?) I thought I had given everything I had to this book, thought there was nothing more I could do, but now I realize how lazy I’d actually been. A few days ago, Mitali Perkins wrote about being grateful for traditional editors. I couldn’t agree more. The process is not only making a better book, but making a better writer. That’s not to say there hasn’t been some gnashing of teeth, banging of head on desk, and wine and chocolate binges, of course. And I’ll be over-the-moon happy when I think I’m finally done. But it’s getting there. I think I can see what it might one day be, and it sure feels good.
Cybils 2012 logo
As soon as I wrap up the big revision I’m looking forward to fully jumping into two more exciting activities! First, I’m thrilled to be judging the Non-Fiction Picture Books category of the Cybils again this year. We have just over 100 nominations to read. I’ve had a slow start given the revision, but hope to be picking up steam soon. I’m maxing out my check-out limit at the library and building huge stacks of beautiful books to indulge in. What could be better?
 

And, I’m also attempting to do agency-sister Tara Lazar‘s Picture Book Idea Month (or PiBoIdMo). The goal is 30 picture-book ideas in the 30 days of November. I had a great big bunch of them right before the challenge officially started, and today, on the first official day, I had two more (and I even fully drafted out one of them–WOOT!). This is a fun challenge with a ton of support and camaraderie for all levels, and I can’t wait to see what else comes out of it.

What I Learned From the Cybils

CYBILS logo

CYBILS logo
The Cybils’ Nonfiction Picture Book panel for round one, which I was thrilled to be a part of this year, recently finished our deliberations.
The panelists were:

There were 87 nonfiction picture books to read. Of those, 23 ended up on my “possible contenders” list, and only four of those ended up on my “absolutely must fight for” list. The seven of us had to ultimately agree on seven (or fewer) titles to send on to the round two judges. (And, I’m happy to report, we did it! But you’ll have to wait a few more days to find out what we chose.)
What a thought-provoking and educational experience this was to go through, as both a writer and as a reader. These smart, savvy, and opinionated book-loving women validated many of my own feelings about nonfiction for kids, and brought to light some nuances that I hadn’t really thought about before, and the whole process really made me think about the titles that I loved through both lenses of the Cybils criteria: literary merit AND kid appeal. It wasn’t enough to have one or the other (which many titles did). Our job was to identify at most seven titles we felt were the best of both worlds. A few titles were easy shoe-ins: we agreed on those right away. The remaining spots were only filled after great debate, with some arguing for and other against. The reasons not to include something on the short list were often even more enlightening than the reasons to include something.
Major reasons why otherwise deserving titles got passed over:

  • Insufficient back matter. Back matter can really make or break a nonfiction book, even a picture book for the youngest
    readers. If we, the adults, don’t trust you, the author, we’re not going to put that book into a kid’s hands. Authors and publishers: it’s worth budgeting the space for those extra pages at the back. Consider it your chance to show off your hard work and prove your expertise, as well as to share your passion with your readers, adults and children alike. Sadly, I think insufficient back matter hurt both literary merit and kid appeal on many otherwise wonderful titles.
  • Art and design. Not being an artist myself, I was surprised how divisive this area could be. Sometimes we loved the art, but didn’t feel the words were up to par. Sometimes we loved the text, but rejected the art. Sometimes we even loved both, just not together! And often, we had conflicting opinions across the panel. Sometimes the layout and design added to the other elements, sometimes it took so much away as to knock a title out of the running altogether. As an author, I’ll have no control over this (gulp!), but it makes me even more aware of how important it is to find an editor and a publishing house that I can trust to get it all right.
  • Age appropriateness. There were subjects that seemed either too young or too old for the audiences they were written for, either too dumbed down or too sophisticated to be appealing to the intended readers. It’s tough to strike that balance of reading level, interest level, and relevancy, but as an author (and illustrator), you just have to do it. I’ll be holding up my own manuscripts to much greater scrutiny in this area.

I want to thank each and every one of the panelists for a thoroughly enjoyable and eye-opening decision-making process. I hope the round two judges are pleased with our choices and look forward to their choice for the winner. I don’t envy their job one bit!

Review: Bring On the Birds

Bring On the Birds cover

Bring On the Birds
written and illustrated by Susan Stockdale
Peachtree Publishers (February 1, 2011)
32 pages, ages 4 and up

This is one of my favorite books of all the nominations in the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book category this year, and I just can’t get over how absolutely perfect it is. The poetic text is a simple but elegant rhyme with spot on rhythm and meter:

“Swooping birds,
whooping birds,
birds with puffy chests.
Dancing birds,
diving birds,
birds with fluffy crests.”

The illustrations are bright, clean, and not only depict the various birds, but also place them in their appropriate habitats.
The 21 birds featured run the gamut from the common robin to the more exotic blue-footed booby, from the great blue heron to the blue bird-of-paradise. This book covers an enormous diversity of life, then ends just right with what they all have in common:

“All of them have feathers,
and all are hatched from eggs.”

This is a wonderful introduction to birds for the youngest readers. It could also be used to talk about diversity, habitats, and classification.
At the end of the book, Stockdale includes a perfectly brief and spot-on paragraph with information about each bird profiled in the book. The book also includes a bibliography.
STEM Friday logo

To check out the rest of today’s roundup of books for kids about topics in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, head on over to this week’s STEM Friday roundup over at Anastasia Suen’s Booktalking.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from my local library. I received no monetary compensation for this review. All opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone.)

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