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the hollow land cover imageThe Hollow Land by Jane Gardam
originally published in the UK, 1981;
published in the U.S. in 2014 by Europa Editions

I’ve just read such a gorgeous work of fiction.

It’s an exquisitely-crafted story set in Cumbria, that sweeps us into the lives of the characters with such aching familiarity, it’s painful to let them go as we turn the last page.

Popular British author Jane Gardam won the Whitbread Prize for it (they’re now called Costa prizes) in 1981 and it was finally released in the U.S. last year.

The Hollow Land is categorized as a children’s book, but there is nothing remotely childish about Gardam’s brilliant characterization, gloriously well-drawn setting, keen insight into life’s humor and poignancy, and dry wit. This is a short novel that will win the affection of adults as least as much as children, and probably lure you into Gardam’s other juvenile and adult works.

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The novel follows the lives of two boys, Bell Teesdale and Harry Bateman. At the outset, they are ages 8 and 4. In nine episodes we witness their growth to manhood, rather despite their many adventures and misadventures along the way. It’s truly a wonder they survive their reckless childhood days.

Cumbria, with its dramatic fells, dales, and peaks, is home to p1260215bfamilies who have farmed and kept sheep for generations. Tucked-away in small farmhouses, separated by steep hillsides and rushing becks, everyone still knows everyone else’s business. Hay fields, cow byres and sheep dips — this is the world Bell Teesdale has grown up in.

Harry Bateman’s family are outsiders, Londoners, who have come to lease Bell’s grandad’s old place, Light Trees. It’s to be a vacation cottage for them. Their initiation to Cumbrian life is a muddle of misunderstandings, as they carom up against a culture they don’t understand. Once harmony is established, though, the Batemans become as much a fixture of the country as the old Egg-Witch herself, and Harry and Bell become lifelong friends.

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These two find themselves in mortal danger more than once — exploring an abandoned mine in one go, and, on a search for some spectacular icicles, winding up stranded in a blizzard. A bit Swallows-and-Amazons-esque in the depiction of independence in the outdoors, come what may.

jane gardamJane Gardam grew up in Cumberland and North Yorkshire and her characters are as earthen and real as a nubbly wool sweater. We hear their broad dialect; see their windburned faces; know them in all their homely, unperturbed ways, and fall in love with them. She introduces us to some of the most eccentric characters this side of Dickens, with conversations and scenes that made me laugh out loud.

The Egg-Witch, for one, is as curmudgeonly a gal as you’ll ever meet, serving up revolting milk that “tastes of meat.”

Granny Crack has an epic, alarming episode with some blackberry juice.

And there’s a hilarious, soggy fishing expedition, capped off with the tale of The Hand of Glory, delivered in a marvelously understated fashion.

It’s a stunning array of both provincial and outlandish.

Throughout the story, the land itself is as much a character as any, with its sublime wildness, its rhythm of seasons and the work Scandale_Beck_at_Rydal_hall_by_lakelandcamaccompanying them, and its unpredictability. This land and the ancient ways of living upon it are indelibly marked on the psyche of those who love it, and the prospect of its loss is unbearable. And herein lies the greatest tension of the book, which bushwhacks us in a riveting final chapter.

Who do I recommend this to? As a read-aloud, it will work with children ages about 8 and up who are not put off by a multitude of British-isms. If you love the beauty of Willa Cather’s prose, the love-of-land of Wendell Berry, or the vivid characters of Marilynne Robinson, I believe you’ll also find something new to love here.

World-Eng-PosterI’ve got a new post on my Musings page. 

Musing about whether children’s lit is inconsequential in the face of the sorrows people around the world experience daily. It’s something I have to wrestle with as I spend hours and hours working on this blog.

You can read it by clicking here, or by clicking the Musings tab on the top of the page and then on the article.

What role does children’s literature play in your life?

February is long gone, but does this mean we don’t read black history titles? No, it does not.

March is Women’s History Month. And what do you know — there’s a sweet overlapping of these emphases…

… in these three exceptional new books you won’t want to miss.

my name is truth cover imageMy Name is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth, by Ann Warren Turner, illustrated by James Ransome
published in 2015 by Harper ~ Harper Collins Publishers

Sojourner Truth was a large, imposing figure with “a heart of gold and a tongue of flame.” This new biography beautifully captures in word and image her suffering, determination, warmth, and strength.

She began life as Isabella, one member of a large enslaved family in New York State, witness to her parents’ heartbreak as their many children were sold off “like horses.”

Isabella herself was also sold from one master to another, loaded down like an ox and viciously beaten, until one day she ran for freedom. Her new life was that of a preacher, and to mark that newness, she took a new name: “Sojourner because I travel far and long” and Truth because of her work proclaiming God’s truth wherever she went. 

my name is truth illustration james ransome

The lyrical narrative of this account radiates vigor and dignity, while James Ransome’s handsome watercolors portray a sturdy, resolute, warm cast of characters.  A lengthy Author’s Note provides quite a bit more information. Beautiful pairing of text and artwork for ages 4 or 5 and up.

chasing freedom cover imageChasing Freedom: The Life Journeys of Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony Inspired by Historical Facts, by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Michele Wood
published in 2015 by Orchard Books ~ Scholastic

Nikki Grimes often gives us poetry, but here she uses her vivid imagination and power with words to create a conversation between two women who were contemporaries and who did indeed meet up at various times — Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony.

It’s a fascinating piece of historical fiction, set in 1904 at a convention for women’s suffrage in Rochester, New York. Sipping on tea in Susan’s parlor, these two phenomenal persons talk chasing freedom illustration michele woodtogether about their callings, rigorous efforts, hardships, sorrows, and dreams. 

Accompanying their narratives are stately paintings in acrylics and oils. Careworn, somber faces dominate these pages, as well as motifs from American patchwork quilts.

Mini-biographies of fellow activists of the era, and additional notes giving historical background to many elements mentioned by the women, are included, as well as an Author’s Note describing how Grimes composed this material.

This work has a serious tone, and is of great value for anyone ages 6 to adult. It is a longish text which would need to be read in episodes to those at the younger end of the spectrum.

28 days cover image28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World, by Charles R. Smith, Jr., illustrated by Shane W. Evans
published in 2015 by Roaring Brook Press (A Neal Porter Book)

Geared for the 28 days of February’s annual Black History Month celebrations, this is a phenomenally artistic, compelling, and energetic collection.

Each bold entry features one important figure or moment from black history. The book is organized in chronological order. First up is Crispus Attucks who was killed in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, and last is Barack Obama. One extra leap-year day is dedicated to you, the reader. Here are men and women, athletes, politicians, soldiers, an astronaut, pilot, explorer, doctor, singer, and some schoolchildren. 

The entries feature brief summary captions, many forms of poetry, excerpts from historic documents, acrostics, eulogies, and brief biographical sketches. It’s a joyous, creative variety that makes the pages sparkle.

28 days moments in black history smith and evans interior image

Shane Evans’ brilliant collage work booms with glorious strength, dramatic color, and surging energy. Stunning work. They could create posters out of every one of these pages. 

Super resource to dip into again and again, for ages 5 to adult.

the case of the missing moonstone cover imageThe Case of the Missing Moonstone (The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency No. 1), by Jordan Stratford, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
published in 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf

“‘Force…equals…mass…times…acceleration,’ muttered Ada as she wrote in her notebook…What if, Ada wondered…you could accelerate a sock? What if the sock were moving so fast that it could have the same force as a hammer? How fast would the sock have to go, and how could you make a sock go that fast?”

Meet Lady Ada Byron, age 11, of London. A small, brilliant, the case of the missing moonstone illustration kelly murphyfirecracker, who at this moment is puzzling out the engineering of a sock cannon. She’s a mathematical genius, a social misfit, and the daughter of Lord Byron, the English poet.

Riding in a carriage unchaperoned was a brave and arguably rebellious act for a fourteen-year-old girl. Discovering a stowaway was another sort of adventure altogether. But arriving at the house of the great, mad, dead poet Lord Byron, to be tutored alongside an actual Lady, was almost too much to bear…This was a real adventure, with herself in a starring role. It was this, or the dreaded, confining, dull gray horror of “school” about which Mary had only heard from cousins.

the case of the missing moonstone illustration2 kelly murphyAnd meet Mary Wollstonecraft, who will grow up to write the most famous gothic romance of all, Frankenstein.

These two girls, whose true histories have been fictionally merged by author Jordan Stratford for the sake of this delightful new mystery series, are joined in this first volume by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Dickens, and Charles Babbage, and plunged into a mystery liberally influenced by that great English detective story, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.

So, it’s a clever concept right from the start — incorporating historical characters, events, places, and a good bit of scientific thinking,  into an adventurous mystery well-suited to children ages 9 and up. It’s a great device to open minds to further exploration of these real-life figures. Beyond that, these female characters are strong, astute, independent — terrific characters in this zesty tale.the case of the missing moonstone illustration3 kelly murphy

The girls, thrown together at the outset of this story, muse one day about criminals. They conclude that the criminals who get caught are not very clever, but there must be many others who are too clever for the constables to thwart, but no where near as clever as the brilliant Ada.

Why not form a detective agency? It would mean intrigue. Adventure. Secrets. Brain-work. Everything, in short, that these two crave.

The result of their advertising is the mystery/adventure of this book and it involves a stolen heirloom, a foray into Newgate Prison, three suspicious men in fezzes, and a heart-stopping hot air balloon ride…among other things!

Kelly Murphy’s graphite illustrations illuminate the period and

If you've never read The Moonstone, you should! Monumentally great novel for highschoolers and older.

If you’ve never read The Moonstone, you should! Monumentally great novel for highschoolers and older.

characters handsomely. Several pages of notes give historical facts about the year 1826 in which this book is set, eight true figures who appear in the story, and other historical references. 

It’s great fun, and especially well-suited to girls ages 9 and up. A second adventure, The Case of the Lady in Gray,  is awaiting publication.

red butterfly cover imageRed Butterfly, by A.L. Sonnichsen, illustrated by Amy June Bates
published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Belonging.

Such a yearning in the human heart — to belong someplace. To belong to someone — a family; a group. Someone.

Once I wrote the word “belonging” here, I began to wonder: What is the origin of this word? What does it mean, to belong?

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Apparently it comes from Middle English. It means “to be appropriately assigned to.” Here — Here is where you can thrive.

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The “long” part carries the sense of being together-with. There is a sense of a rightness about the place and company you find yourself together with. It’s where you fit. It’s the just right spot where we feel settled and at peace, in the company of people who know and love us.

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Red Butterfly is a poignant story of one girl’s hunger for belonging in the midst of a tumult of displacement. It’s a riveting, emotional novel-in-verse, and I highly recommend it for middle-grade readers through adults.

chinese-orphans2Kara is Chinese by birth, abandoned as an infant, and raised in China by an American woman. Her upbringing has been peculiar. Chinese on the outside; American on the inside. Her mother cloisters herself in their apartment and cautions Kara against over-mingling with others. 

We are as much in the dark as Kara about the strangeness of this pride and prejudicelife. Why is this devoted mother so secretive? Why is an American woman staying locked away in China while her husband and grown daughter live in Montana? Why must Kara remain so isolated?

With the answers comes a monumental upheaval in Kara’s life. A tearing away that is bewildering, frightening, and searing to her very core. 

In one terrible flash, strangers, it seems, have more of a say in where Kara belongs than she does. Who decides who we are and where we belong? How do we face separation from the people we love and places where we feel at home? Can we be separated from our true self and how do we right that? How do we adjust to new spaces of belonging?

The book employs a metaphor of metamorphosis, with sections Butterflies-butterflies-9186362-640-480titled Crawl, Dissolve, and Fly. Kara is an immensely compelling character and we feel, viscerally, the huge, raw emotions of her journey. It’s an amazingly honest, unflinching story, borne out of the author’s experience and others’ experiences. Small, whispery, illustrations in black-and-white complement the mood of the text.

Although I believe throngs of people will love this book, let me recommend it especially to a few groups of people:

Third-culture-kids and their families.

Foster families and fostered children ages 11 and up.

Those with a heart for orphans and adoption, especially international or special needs adoptions.

 If that’s not you, don’t skip it! But if it is — don’t miss this old pianopowerful story. Dominated by female characters, it will appeal more to girls, I think. A lovely Author’s Note tells of her own experiences which led to the book.

We’re all aware that mice star in oodles of kids’ books…

lilly by kevin henkes

…as well as bunnies…

peter rabbit by beatrix potter

…cats…

the three little kittens cover image

…dogs.

angus and the ducks Marjorie Flack 1971

Recently I’ve recognized the sizable number of alligators and crocodiles lurking there as well. What business do these toothy, scary fellows have in stories for tots?!

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Today’s list introduces crocs and gators who are darling, kind, gullible, nibbly…and okay, there’s one menacing guy who needs prompt attention!

the baby swap cover imageThe Baby Swap, by Jan Ormerod, illustrated by Andrew Joyner
published in Australia in 2013; first published in the U.S. in 2015 by Little Simon

Caroline Crocodile has a new baby brother.

Mama cannot stop gushing over him. Oooh, isn’t he gorgeous, she croons. “He is as green as a grub and his eyes are as yellow as egg yolks.”

On and on it goes, this mooshy adoring, this colossal affection.

Caroline just doesn’t see it. This baby is a smelly, dribbly, mess. Furthermore, Mama’s smacky-smoochy kisses belong to her, not that little bugger. So, she decides to swap him out. Trade him in at the Baby Shop for another brother.

She tries out tiger twins, a cute panda, a jolly baby elephant. Which of them will win the role of the just-right baby brother?

the baby swap ormerod and joyner interior

Funny, rollicking, and sweet, this is a warmhearted take on the new-baby-syndrome storyline written by beloved author Jan Ormerod before her untimely death. Andrew Joyner of the Boris early readers livens things up with his happy, energetic, retro illustrations.  A lovely last book from one of my favorite author/illustrators, for ages 2 and up.

winston and george cover imageWinston & George, by John Miller, illustrated by Giuliano Cucco
published in 2014 by Enchanted Lion Books

Along a sleepy river deep in the jungle, there once lived a very, very patient crocodile named Winston.”

Winston has a buddy, a crocodile bird, named George. These guys hang out every day fishing together on the limpid, languid, river. They make a terrific team.

However, George gets bored far too easily and unfortunately for Winston, George turns to pranks to amuse himself. The pranks all feature Winston and his crocodile companions as the fall-guys. These other crocs are not nearly as nice as Winston and urge him to give that bird what he’s got coming. Winston steadfastly refuses.

One day, though, George’s prank goes seriously awry and puts Winston in mortal danger. When he’s finally rescued, will Winston have mercy on George, or take the advice of the jungle community and punish the pest once and for all?!

winston and george illustration giuliano cucco

This book followed quite a unique road to publication, which you can read about in the end notes. It was written, actually, back in the 1960s, and you’ll have to check it out to find out how it finally saw the light of day just last year. The brilliant illustrations, with vibrant colors radiating the heat of the jungle, were made by an Italian artist who has since died.  They are gorgeous.

Enjoy this vigorous tale of friendship with children ages 2 and up.

mrs. chicken and the hungry crocodile cover imageMrs. Chicken and the Hungry Crocodile, by Won-Ldy Paye and Margaret H. Lippert, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
published in 2003 by Henry Holt and Company

This story originated with the Dan people of northeastern Liberia, a people known for their rice farming, story-telling, and mask-making.  It’s such a clever tale, brought to us by Won-Ldy Paye who heard it from his grandmother.

Mrs. Chicken, vain thing that she is, loves to gaze at her reflection in puddles. The problem is, puddles are just too small to see all her beautiful self, so she hot-foots it down to the river to have a better look.

Hungry Crocodile lurks in the river, and as Mrs. Chicken preens and lingers, Crocodile shrewdly positions himself…until…SNAP! He’s caught her. A delicious dinner is a’comin, he thinks.

mrs. chicken and the hungry crocodile illustration julie paschkis

Not so fast, though. Mrs. Chicken may be conceited, but she’s also keen-witted. She hatches a mighty clever plot to save herself from the cooking pot. Will she succeed? Or not?!

Set against dramatic black pages, I love Julie Paschkis’ work. Her popping colors and m-o-v-i-n-g lines and folk art motifs show up wonderfully in every book she has a hand in. This delightful story will entertain kids ages 2 and up.

doodle bites cover imageDoodle Bites (A Tilly and Friends Book) written and illustrated by Polly Dunbar
published in 2009 by Candlewick Press

Tilly lives amiably with her friends in a darling yellow house. There’s Tumpty the elephant, Hector the piggy, Pru the chicken, Tiptoe the bunny, and Doodle — a restless and toothy alligator.

Maybe it’s the Spring in the air, maybe it’s just a growth spurt…who knows…but one morning Doodle wakes up feeling bitey!

She just can’t control herself. First it’s the cereal…and cereal bowl…and cereal box. Then it’s the lamp shade. But it’s when she spies Tumpty’s curvaceous and tempting bottom that things really get out of hand.

doodle bites polly dunbar interior

How will Tilly and company manage Doodle’s naughty nibblings?! There are lots of tears to start with, until the tide starts to turn and a generous heaping of love and copious bandaging set things right.

Darling story with Polly Dunbar’s cute-as-punch illustrations, in a story that hits the sweet spot for ages 18 months and older.

warning do not open this book cover imageWarning: Do Not Open This Book!, narrated by Adam Lehrhaupt, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe
published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (A Paula Wiseman Book)

There are plenty of warning signs right from the get go in this alarming and rambunctious tale!

The end-papers are strewn with them: “Stop! Don’t Turn the Page! Wait!!” they admonish. There’s even a gaunt skull lying about with a label: Here Is The Last Guy Who Read This Book.

So!

It’s all on you if you recklessly proceed.

If you do — and I should know because I ignored all the warnings and like a fool plowed ahead — I’ll just tell you that you’ll meet marauding monkeys, tumultuous toucans. And. An. ALLIGATOR!!

warning do not open this book illustration matthew forsythe

In the end, Adam Lehrhaupt mercifully gives us instructions for how to trap them all back in the pages of the book. Do you think you’ll be able to follow them?!

Slapstick, rowdy fun here. Perhaps not a bedtime story! But a read-it-again zinger for ages 18 months and up. Matthew Forsythe’s bold illustrations careen and flap and bluster with pandemonium!

Like what you see? Share it with others!

terry-pratchettAs most of you have heard, Terry Pratchett, the prolific and beloved author of the Discworld series amongst many other novels, died last week. His imagination, wit, and word-magic, have given him a loyal fanbase in the many-millions.

As it happens, just a couple of days prior to his death, I’d received his latest book to be published in the U.S.

dragons at crumbling castle cover imageDragons at Crumbling Castle and Other Tales, by Terry Pratchett, illustrations by Mark Beech
first published in the U.S. in 2015 by Clarion Books

It’s a zany collection of stories Pratchett wrote in the mid-1960s when he was a teenager, and a junior reporter for a local newspaper. At that time, Pratchett tells us in this book’s introduction, he “began writing stories of my own — stories for young readers that were published every week in the newspaper.”

Those stories, tinkered with just a mite by the adult Pratchett, make up the contents of this book. It is amazing to see the madcap imagination, ping-pong ball action, eccentric characters, and fanciful otherworlds that already were present in Pratchett’s mind at such a young age.

The Carpet People got their start here.

The Carpet People got their start here.

Here, in particular, are a couple of lengthy episodes of the Carpet People who appear later in a full-blown novel of their own. There are also egg-dancing contests, adventuresome tortoises, missing baby dragons, and various and sundry knights with various and sundry foibles.

dragons at crumbling castle illustration2 mark beech

Dip into this volume by reading it aloud to children ages 6 and up, being sure they are snuggled closely enough to enjoy the EXTREMELY LARGE TYPE peppered here and there in the stories, just to knock us off our feet once in a while, and Mark Beech’s oddball, Quentin-Blake-esque illustrations which add greatly to the book’s humor.

dragons at crumbling castle illustration mark beech

There are over 300 pages of lovable silliness here, sure to spread some smiles in your world, and a complete listing of Pratchett’s other works so you know where to look for a second helping, and a third.

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