Cover of Johnny Appleseed by Jodie Shpherd; Illustrationed by Masumi FurukawaJohnny Appleseed. Written by Jodie Shepherd. Illustrated by Masumi Furukawa. Scholastic. ISBN: 978-0-545-22306-5. $3.99 (Amazon: $3.99 / No yet on Kindle).

Johnny Appleseed was a real person. Most of us heard the stories of how he traveled about the country 200 or so years ago planting apple trees everywhere he went. But, he was a real person. He was born in Massachusetts and named Johnny Chapman.

Jodie Shepherd tells the story of the boy and the man behind the legend. Every legend has a beginning and Johnny Appleseed didn’t start out to be a legend — he lived his life and his works spoke for him.

It is a simple story, well told and beautifully illustrated with lovely representational folk art (only more realistic and with perspective) in nice muted colors.

It can be a book you read to a child, or a slightly older children can read for themselves. If your child is interested in apples, and early American legends, this might be a good way to get them excited about books and the written word.

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Cover of I Survived: The Sinking of the Titanic, 1912 I Survived the Sinking of the Titantic, 1912 by Lauren Tarshis. Scholastic Paperbacks (June 1, 2010). ISBN: 978-0545206945. 112 pages. Cover by Steve Stone. Interior Illustrations by Scott Dawson. RL4 007-010. Includes Facts about the Titanic and an Author’s Note.

Book Blurb:

Ten-year-old George Calder can’t believe his luck — he and his little sister, Phoebe, are on the famous Titanic, crossing the ocean with their Aunt Daisy. The ship is full of exciting places to explore, but when George ventures into the first class storage cabin, a terrible boom shakes the entire boat. Suddenly, water is everywhere, and George’s life changes forever.

Tarshis opens the story on Monday, April 15, 1912 at 2:00 a.m. on the deck of RMS Titanic, the ship is sinking and ten-year-old George Calder is on the deck holding on to the rail in the freezing cold. The ship begins to tilt and George looses his grip and is knocked unconscious. Thus ends Chapter 1. What? The ship is already sinking and our main character is unconscious. I doubt there is a reader born who could put the book down at this point. We’re hooked.

Chapter 2 starts nineteen hours earlier on Sunday, April 14 at 7:15 a.m. in a first class suite on B Deck. Now we go back and meet George and his eight-year-old sister Phoebe. They are returning to America after visiting London and the surrounding area with their Aunt Daisy.

As we follow George, we learn that he is always getting in trouble and is as curious as a cat. He’s been all over the ship even to areas where he is not supposed to go. He’s made friends in steerage and exasperated his aunt and his sister — not to mention a number of the other first class passengers.

George, in other words is a typical boy who if there isn’t an adventure handy will invent some of his own. We also learn that his behavior had previously been causing problems between him and his father. Since George and Phoebe’s mother died a few years ago the family just hasn’t been the same. This trip was a time-out for father and son — a chance to get some distance and calm down.

So, even though he’s only ten, George is observant and makes a great point of view character for us. We see the ship through his eyes as he explores the ship. He meets some of the people who become famous or infamous due to their connection with this ship and the tragic end of its maiden voyage.

The author researched the ship and the accident that sunk her and tells a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat even knowing what is going to happen. Now though, it’s seen and told through the experiences of a ten-year-old boy who will never be the same. He saw great courage and great cowardice. He found strength he didn’t know he had. He survived and, while he doesn’t understand survivor’s guilt, he nonetheless feels it keenly.

The George who survives the sinking of the Titanic, is not the same person we got to know when we flashed back nineteen hours and then moved forward to the collision with the iceberg.

At the end of the book there’s an author’s note listing the references used and a section of Facts about the Titanic. I think it would have been nice to list some books where young readers could learn more about the Titanic and the people who survived and died that night in 1912.

I can’t think of a better way to learn about history than through fictional stories that allow you the opportunity to see how a historic event affected the people who lived through it. If you know a young person who is interested in the Titanic, this just might be the book they’re looking for.

On a side note, a few years ago I attended a convention in California where the Queen Mary is anchored. The ship is now a hotel. In walking about the decks that first day I wondered how much smaller it was than the Titanic. I found a chart target in the little soda shop and learned that the Queen Mary is much larger, which surprised me. The Titanic always looked so huge in the movies and reading about all the decks and people (staff and passengers), I just assumed it was huge. We all keep learning all the time.

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Stick Man by Julia Donalson; Illustrations by Axel Scheffler
Stick Man by Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Arthur A. Levine Books, AN Imprint of Scholastic Books. ISBN: 978-0-545-15761-2, hardcover. $16.99 US/$19.99 CAN.

Stick Man is a delightful story about a stick man who lives with his stick wife and children in a very nice tree house. He goes out to jog and spends nearly a year having one adventure after another trying to get back home to his wife and children. Stick man is mistaken as a throwing stick, a Pooh stick, nesting material, beach detritus, building material, and kindling among others. Each mistaken identity leaves him struggling to escape and find his way home.

The drawing are semi-realistic as you can tell from the cover image. The drawing adds visually to the journey, showing the changing seasons and the various plights in which Stick Man finds himself. The colors are bright and cheerful and the people and animals realistic.

The text is simple and mostly rhymes. It’s difficult to do a book in rhyme and Donaldson manages to do without being too cutsey or over-the-top. I’d imagine a young reader would get caught up in the tale and cheer on Stick Man to find his way home.

The book was published in September 2009. The ending is very Christmas oriented and leaves a nice feeling of completion to the story. I’d suggest that this would make a great book for children anytime of the year but the tie to Christmas at the end makes it an especially good Christmas book.

The only problem I had with the story is wondering about the message underlying the story. Stick Man goes off one morning and doesn’t come back for a year. He doesn’t, of course, call home and he just shows up expecting to be taken back into the bosom of his family as if nothing has changed at all. It worked for Job’s wayward son but I’m wondering about the subliminal impact the book would have on children whose fathers have abandoned the family. Would they see this story as a reason to believe that he’d return and everything would be as it was? I don’t know. It just occurred to me on a third reading that there was another way children might interpret the story so I thought I should put it out here for potential buyers of the book to be aware of the circumstances of the child to be gifted with the story. In some cases this might be just the underlying message you want to convey in other, well, maybe not.

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Crow Call by Lois Lawry; Illustrated by Bagram IbatoullineBibliographic Info:
Crow Call by Lois Lowry.
Illustrator: Bagram Ibatoulline.
ISBN: 978-0-545-03035-9
Scholastic Press.
$16.99 US/$21.99 Canada.
Published: October 2009.

The cover was so stunning that I just stared at it for a while before I bothered to open the book. The front flap said the story was based on the author’s personal experience. I flipped through the pages before reading and the art is all of that wonderful muted colors that, while not really old, gives the impression of time past and long ago. The scenes are all realistic and, for this reader, made me remember my own childhood in Maine. The town. The cars. The restaurant/diner. The countryside. Perhaps I don’t really remember but only think I do from photos, but nonetheless the images evoke that feeling of long ago but almost now. A magical time.

The story is a simple one. A young daughter is trying to connect to the father than has been gone for so long, fighting a war in a far off land. He’s back now. Her father. A stranger. This quote from the book, which was also on the flap makes the young girl’s feelings clear:

I sit shyly in the front seat of the car next to the stranger who is my father, my legs pulled up under the too-large wool shirt I am wearing.

I practice his name to myself, whispering it under my breath. Daddy. Daddy.

Saying it feels new. The war has lasted so long. He has been gone so long.

It’s the next page when she finally talks to him to say, “I’ve never gone hunting before….” that caused me to hesitate. At this point the story could go many different ways. Lowry has often taken me where I didn’t want to go in her books. So, I took a deep breath to calm myself and continued. Yes, they’re off to go hunting — crows not deer. The crows are eating crops and need to be culled.

But first there are a few incidents that are great opportunities to talk with children. They stop for breakfast at a diner. Obviously they are going hunting and girls don’t hunt. Liz has her braids tucked into her shirt and the waitress calls her “son”. Neither Liz nor her father correct the mistake and later they joke about it. I had to laugh because nowadays girls are allowed to do so much more than they were when I was a child and children on farms were often taught to do the same chores no matter what their gender. But, it’s more than that — it’s a nice bonding moment for Liz and her dad.

Once they arrive at the field where they will hunt the crows. Liz takes out her Crow Call. It’s her job to call the crows to them so her father can shoot them. They discuss this a bit and Liz is determined to go through with it because she wants to show her dad that she can be strong — but it’s fairly obvious that she doesn’t feel right about this.

Once she blows the call, the crows rise into the air and respond. The moment in story and illustration becomes almost magical. Have you every watched birds just fly for the fun of it. Circle on the air. Chase each other. Ride thermals. Can you imagine hundreds of crows answering a call of another crow in the distance.

It’s a simple story but one with many opportunities to talk with your child(ren) about what life was like, about activities that you or your grandparents used to play. Does anyone play kick the can or one-two-three-red light anymore? Or just spin and spin until you fall over and then watch the stars and fireflies until the world settles down? The world before Nintendo and Wii.

On the other hand, even though the world has changed since Lois Lowry was a child (there’s a photo at the end of the book of her in her big woolen shirt), this is still a story that children of today can relate to and enjoy. The fact that it’s also beautifully presented and is a bit of nostalgia for adults doesn’t hurt either when you’re looking for a good book for a gift.

In the world of PC and “won’t someone think of the children”, there’s nothing here that should upset children — or adults.

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