Monthly Archives: July 2007

SMART List #5: Wish you were ici, a Paris

french-flag.jpg  In a mere 3 hours I am off to Paris for the first time. Jaloux?

Paris promises: I solemnly swear to:

1) Eat one macaron a day – preferably a different colour every time.

2) Be chic in cute cafes.

3) Skip a stone on the Canal St. Martin.

4) See the tower all lit up at night.

5) Walk back and forth across the Pont Neuf wearing a scarf until no one can tell the difference between me and the real Parisians.

Since you can’t come along (tant pis), you can imagine your own fantasy holiday through the pages of these great Paris-themed reads (many a bit on the feminine side… but sorry boys, Paris is every girl’s dream).

SMART List #5: Wish you were ici, a Paris

A Poodle in Paris (music) – Connie Kaldor (2+)

This is Paris – M. Sasek (5+)

Madeline – Ludwig Bemelmans (5+)

Steal back the Mona Lisa – Meghan McCarthy (6+)

Ooh-la-la: Max in Love – Maira Kalman (7+)

Charlotte in Paris – Joan Macphail Knight (7+)

Eloise in Paris – Kay Thompson (6+)

Postmark Paris: A story in stamps – Leslie Jonath (8+)

Different like Coco – Elizabeth Matthews (7+)

Joan of Arc – Josephine Poole (8+)

Paris (Great Cities through the Ages) – Renzo Rossi (7+)

The Louvre in Up-Close – Claire D’harcourt (7+)

Horrible Histories: France – Terry Deary (9+)

Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles (Royal Diaries) – Kathryn Lasky (9+)

Marie Dancing – Carolyn Meyer (12+)

(If the envy is killing you, you may view the Eiffel Tower at any time at Eiffel Tower Cam)

Back in 2 weeks. Au Revoir!


SMART List #4: Inspiring books for SmARTy-pants

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It’s astonishing how fast kids get the idea that they are “bad at art.” In my opinion, school has a lot to do with this. It’s a shame that teachers have to grade art in the early elementary years, since I think that this is part of what ends up discouraging kids from experimenting and taking risks in art class. It doesn’t take much for a kid to judge themselves. I do not come from artistically-gifted parents, and in school I was never properly taught how to draw. So, I’ve always believed that I wasn’t good at art, in spite of the fact that I’ve never really tried to practice, and I certainly know from experience in music and writing that practice is at the heart of artistic development. I am intensely jealous and admiring of those with artistic talent, and I can’t help but feel a little miffed that I wasn’t given more encouragement to doodle, paint and play in art-land when I was young.

The long days of summer seem like the right time to help kids explore their hidden artist, and to experience some great works of art for the first time. This list has a sampling of some of the best (aka most fun!) books about making art, and some lovely books on art history, artists and art appreciation. Get messy! Get creative! (and no… this is not for marks…)

Making Art
Scribbles – Taro Gomi
Usborne Book of Art Skills – Fiona Watt
Big Book of Things to Draw – Fiona Watt
Drawing for the Artistically Undiscovered – Quentin Blake
Nature’s Art Box – Cain and Laura Martin
Avenue Road Art School’s Jumbo Book of Art – Irene Luxbacher
Usborne Art Treasury: pictures, paintings and projects – Rosie Dickins
Imagine that! Activities and Adventures in Surrealism – Joyce Raimondo (others in this series)
D is for Doodle – Deborah Zemke

Art appreciation, Art history and Art stories
Tell Me a Picture – Quentin Blake
Augustine – Melanie Watt
Art fraud Detective – Anna Nilsen
Art Up Close: from Ancient to Modern – Claire d’Harcourt
Faces, Places and Inner Spaces: a Guide to Looking at Art – Jean Sousa
You Can’t Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum – Jaqueline Preiss Weitzman
The dot – Peter Reynolds
Linnea in Monet’s Garden – Christina Bjork
Andy Warhol: Pop Art Painter – Susan Goldman Rubin
Seen Art – Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
Dan’s Angel – A Detective’s Guide to the Language of Paintings – Alexander Sturgis and Lauren Child

The Spellman Files

spellman_files_cover.jpg  I regularly find myself tooting the horn of a “children’s” author, trying to convince anyone who’ll listen that x author’s latest book is every bit as good as the finest grown up fiction out there.  But then sometimes a teenager wanders into the bookstore and has read anything and everything YA-like with a little Goose Girl and Catcher in the Rye and Kite Runner mixed in, and it is at that moment that I am grateful for our table of miraculous “Crossover books” (Crossover books are titles which work equally well for the late teen and adult crowds, although they may not be marketed to both groups).  The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz has not yet found its true place in the crossover collection, but it is only a matter of time.  This book is a hoot.  A wacko family, a breezy mystery, an all-about-the-characters romp.

Think thoroughly modern girl-gumshoe – a little Bridgit Jones, a little Nancy Drew.  Izzy Spellman, P.I., comes from a family of P.Is.  In fact, she works for the family firm, Spellman Investigations.  Nobody invades privacy like the Spellmans.  Izzy is good at what she does.  She cracks cases.  She’s tough.  She never gives up.  She wants a date.  She wants her parents to stop tailing her wherever she goes.  Rae, Izzy’s little sister, is like Harriet the Spy, the extreme version.  She is a “recreational surveillance” addict who keeps turning up at the local bar for Ginger Ales while she’s on the job.  Add Izzy’s nutty parents, her hard-living uncle, perfect-lawyer brother, and an ever-growing list of ex-boyfriends and hilarity ensues.

Yes… this book is not so strong on plot.  There’s enough here to hold it together, but come on, that’s not why we’re reading it.  We’re reading it because when Izzy’s new boyfriend asks what she does for a living, she pretends she’s a teacher since it’s a whole lot safer than revealing the true weirdness of her family life.  Then she decides she needs to “dress like a teacher” in order to keep her cover.  Her new attire (mostly tweed) catches her family’s interest and so she must fly low on the radar:

“Defenestration became my coming-and-going method of choice, but it’s hard to say what is more suspicious: a sudden, drastic change in wardrobe or not using doors.”

Funny.  Lutz’s book is full of great one-liners.  It’s clever and at times, hilarious.  The voice and the strange happenings remind me of David Sedaris’s stuff.  I could imagine him writing this if he had grown up in a family of private investigators (a scary thought).  The Spellman Files is the first in what will be a series, and there are whisperings of a film.  Good news for all from 15-99!

SMART List #3: Cartoony Creatures with Talent

Two of the best reasons to have pets are:

1) They make you laugh.

2) They have hidden talents (that usually make you laugh).

For example: My dog Malcolm. Malcolm learns a new trick every summer. In the past, he has learned how to pirouette, sit up like a troll, and do the hokey-pokey (sort of). He is currently in the midst of mastering how to “Rambo” (aka crawl across the kitchen floor towards a piece of kibble. Don’t ask… I am not the trick-chooser).

I find that many of the most memorable cartoony animals in picture books are also charming because they have talent, and they crack us up. Here are some of my favs (Canadians first…):

Scaredy Squirrel – Melanie Watt (Talent: scaredyness)

Grumpy Bird – Jeremy Tankard (Talent: grumpiness)

New Boots for Hudson – Marc Tetro (Talent: fashion sense, being Canadian)

Lost and Found – Oliver Jeffers (Talent: getting lost and being found)

Officer Buckle and Gloria – Peggy Rathmann (Talent: safety-tips and acrobatics)

Lottie’s New Beach Towel – Petra Mathers (Talent: beach towel use)

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus – Mo Willems (Talent: driving, whining)

Diary of a Wombat – Jackie French (Talent: sleeping, eating carrots)

Where Willy Went – Nicholas Allan (Talent: swimming)

The True Story of Stellina – Matteo Pericoli (Talent: balancing on the ends of pencils)

Wolves – Emily Gravett (Talent: choosing library books)

And the Cutest Cartooniest Cover Awards go to:

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Oh Harry… lighten up.

I have just returned from Potter-Party Preparation Headquarters. The Harry Potter loot bags have been stuffed. The Harry Potter costumes have been pressed. The Harry Potter art work has been displayed. The Harry Potter curtains have been hemmed. The Harry Potter every-flavour beans have been purchased and sampled. The Harry Potter wands have been tested. The Harry Potter instruction manual has been written and revised. All we need now are the Harry Potter books. I have been humming the Harry Potter movie theme over and over and over for the past 10 hours. I hope to wake up tomorrow healthy and normal once more.

These pictures (courtesy of Mugglenet’s Photoshop Fun) were somehow just what I needed at the end of such an intense day.

Something to help all of us take HP7 a little less seriously.  Before our favourites start biting the dust, have a laugh on them:

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SMART List #2: Mystery Treatments (for laziness)

When I was a kid, there was always this point in my summer holiday, usually about the third or fourth week into July, when the full laziness of my situation would overwhelm me. It was about this time that my sister and I would start hating each other’s guts (having had enough of the pleasures of the Slip n’ Slide for another season), and I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. One way to shake myself out of this state was to take one complete day to sink down into a good mystery and read it cover-to-cover, only getting up from my nest to replenish snacks and lemonade. It always seemed that by the end of the book the reading had somehow sucked all of the laziness out of me, and I was ready to return to the real-world the next day, eager for more summer action.

Here is a list of effective mystery treatments (a rainy day is best for this sort of thing, and really, I find that the treatment works well at any time of the year):

The Eleventh Hour – Graeme Base (7+)

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick – Chris Van Allsburg (7+)

Bunnicula – James Howe (7+)

Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective – Donald Sobol (8+)

Coraline – Neil Gaiman (9+, weird-creepy… not for all 9 year olds)

Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh (9+)

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – E.L. Konigsburg (10+)

Hannah West series – Linda Johns (9+)

Chasing Vermeer (and The Wright 3) – Blue Balliett (10+)

Down the Rabbit Hole – Peter Abrahams (10+)

Young Bond: Silver Fin – Charlie Higson (10+)

The Face on the Milk Carton – Caroline Cooney (teen)

Gilda Joyce: Psychic Investigator Jennifer Allison (12+)

The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin (teen *could appeal to brainy 11 or 12 year old)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time – Mark Haddon (teen)

Come to think of it, I’m feeling a tad lazy right now….

Wolf Brother

wolf_brother.jpg If you haven’t read Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother, I am jealous. Very jealous. It’s part ancient historical fiction, part adventure, with some fantastical elements woven in for good measure. The story is set in the Stone Age, in a world that is divided into clans, represented mostly by animals. Each clan has a particular gift that its members inherit, making them experts in a certain skill necessary for survival in their environment. The story opens with a young boy, Torak, witnessing the death of his father by a giant, otherworldly bear. As his father lies dying, he communicates to Torak that Torak is destined for an important task, a task that will save the forest and the clans from destruction. At the beginning of his journey, Torak stumbles across an orphaned wolf cub, and he wonders if this cub has some role to play in his mysterious destiny. There’s only one word for what comes next: wow.

Some of you are probably already saying, “No thanks. Giant bears possessed by spirits? Animal clans? A mysterious epic journey? Sounds a little too classic weirdo-fantasy for me.” Well just give it a try. Fantasy is not my #1 genre, but this book is too good to miss. Wolf Brother is the first in a series of what will be 6 titles (the 4th, Outcast, comes out in the fall). And if fantasy is really not your bag, you should read this book simply for its impressive power to immerse you in an ancient world. This believability did not just happen by accident. Michelle Paver devoted a great deal of time to researching the Stone Age – its housing, hunting methods and weaponry. Also, she researched more recent hunter-gatherer and indigenous cultures, traveling around the world to learn about their societies first hand. I mean, come on – how many authors go to Lapland to sleep on reindeer hides and learn about how to transport fire? I guess dining on elk-heart is what it takes to write a best-seller.

Michelle Paver has a website that’s worth a visit: Michelle Paver; and an official website for the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series: The Clan.

Now… I’ve saved the best for last. Sir Ian McKellan (of Gandalf fame) narrates the audiobooks for the series (and does a mighty fine job of it). As a special summertime treat, the Guardian is offering a FREE podcast of Wolf Brother. They’re presenting it in episodes, and all of them are available at Wolf Brother Podcast.

You’re welcome!

SMART List #1 (Stop Messing Around and Read This): Classic Animal Adventure Stories

In my opinion, there’s very little more satisfying than a ripping animal adventure story. Give me a book with animals who think and feel and act as compelling central characters, and all is right with the world. Take Watership Down for instance. It is one of those books that I could use as a “friend-tester.” You know – the book that you can give someone to read, and if they like it, you know that you probably have years of friendship ahead. If they don’t like it… well, you can just shake your head and wave goodbye (after you get your book back). Ah yes… a good animal story. You can’t beat it. In fact, I find that a good animal story will usually draw in even the most ambivalent reader.

But this post will not touch Watership Down. I will save that one for a day when I need to escape to my happy place. Today I offer my first SMART List (“Stop Messing Around and Read This” List). I am hesitant to say that a book is “guaranteed” to please, but SMART Lists will provide tidy selections of beautiful books that almost every sane person will love. The books will be presented in no particular order, and will be a glorious mish-mash of types, from picture books right up to teen fiction, and even the odd adult title.  Every so often I will provide a close-up look at some of the best of the best from the SMART Lists. Then perhaps, a GENIUS list will follow?

SMART LIST #1: Classic Animal Adventure Stories

The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban (7+, great read-aloud)

James Herriot Treasury for Children (6+, great read-aloud)

Stone Fox – John Reynolds Gardiner (8+… sadness warning)

Babe the Gallant PigDick King-Smith (7+, great read-aloud)

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh – Robert C. O’Brien (9+)

Whittington – Alan Armstrong (9+)

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips – Michael Morpurgo (9+)

Wolf Brother (Spirit Walker, Soul Eater and more to come) – Michelle Paver (10-12+)

Watership Down – Richard Adams (10-12+)

Silverwing, Sunwing, Firewing (and Fall 2007 = Darkwing…goodie) – Kenneth Oppel (10-12+)

The Golden Compass Philip Pullman (12+)

Life of Pi – Yann Martel (teen)

How I Live Now – Meg Rosoff (teen) (Ok… not really an animal adventure story, but there is a dear goat in it named “Ding” who will change the way you look at goats forever. I swear. And they spend a lot of time in a barn.  This book will find a way onto as many SMART Lists as I can manage until the world has recognized its perfection. Just read it).

Cricket meets Snicket

Sometimes when you’re grown up, you come across something that you know you would have been just crazy about when you were a kid. A while back, I discovered Cricket magazine. I continue to be amazed that my literary, science-loving father did not order a subscription for me on the occasion of my birth. I love the eclectic blend of facts, poems and stories. I love the letter from Old Cricket that closes each issue. I love the ladybug cartoons. I can see my 12-year old self walking down the lane to our mailbox, snatching the latest magazine, and flip-flopping my way to a shady spot in the backyard to while away the summer afternoon. Alas, I must be content imagining this bliss and buying Cricket “for my students.”

A few months ago I had a lucky find at my local bookstore. Crow Toes Quarterly is a Canadian publication of short stories, poetry and art work for children, all with a spooky, slightly-twisted bent. Basically, Crow Toes Quarterly is Cricket’s evil twin. It is what might happen if Lemony Snicket decided to edit a literary children’s magazine. What’s not to love? Now for the moment CTW is only for sale on my side of the border, but subscriptions are available in the US too.

A visit to the website will give you a feel for the spirit of the magazine. There you will find a sampling of the stories and poetry, as well as a few nifty games in the “Shiny Things” section. You can dress up the “Staff Villain” in Santa beard and 3-D glasses, participate in a haiku “duel,” or ask the “Unsettled Scarecrow” a question and receive a deliciously gloomy answer along with a dastardly cackle. So, check it out at . It’s what Wednesday Addams would read during her summer vacation.