Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Golden Sower’ Category

From Jeff Kurrus comes two glorious photo-fiction books for animal lovers of all ages. Have You Seen Mary? is about one sandhill crane’s faithful search for his mate. The Tale of Jacob Swift is about the struggles of a fox family to raise their sons in the harsh but beautiful grasslands. Younger readers will enjoy both the adventurous plots and the spectacular images, while older readers will treasure the coffee-style format and the universal themes.

It is difficult for me to say which draws me in first, the plot or the pictures. In Have You Seen Mary? John and Mary Crane have returned once again on their annual migration to the Platte River in Nebraska. In the middle of eating and drinking and being on guard against enemies, John loses sight of Mary. At first, John doesn’t panic. He simply gets some needed rest, confident that in the morning the two will meet up again. But the following morning, Mary is still gone. John watches his fellow cranes. Not once does he see her. He revisits their favorite haunts. Not once does he hear her. He even asks other animals. Not one can help him. Ever so slowly, Karrus heightens the tension, until the pivotal moment when after a month of searching John forces himself to think of a spot he has avoided: the power lines.

Similarly, in The Tale of Jacob Swift, two brothers emerge from their family den for the first time. They’re greeted by the sight of a rainbow hanging over the short grass prairie. And Jacob wonders, “Why do we live here? There’s nothing here.” His parents try to caution the brothers on the need to listen better, for there are eagles and coyotes and other dangerous predators. There are also prairie dogs and ground squirrels and other prey. One day, when the parents leave the pups alone, the two brothers begin to discover the thrill of the hunt but also the danger of being the hunted. As they grow up, they start to get stronger and faster, but will their abilities prove enough to survive? Again, ever so slowly, Karrus heightens the tension, until the pivotal moment when Jacob decides it’s time for him to leave. And his parents are not ready to let him go.

The photos in both books were taken by internationally-renowned photographers. In Have You Seen Mary?, Michael Forsberg delights with images of the sandhill cranes, their feeding grounds, and their migration route. Of these, I particularly enjoyed the shots of the cranes as they bathed, fought, danced, and courted. Interspersed are also photos of friends, foes, and scenic sites. I appreciated those of the skies filled with cranes and of Nebraska sunsets. My absolute favorite shot appears near the end, as John is trying to describe Mary, and tells of how she holds her chicks.

In The Tale of Jacob Swift, Rob Palmer similarly delights with images of the swift fox and their moments of family bonding, hunting, and playing together. Of these, I love the rough-and-tumble shots, as well as the blurred action ones, and…. Truly, it’s hard to pick just a few, because Palmer has so endearingly captured the sibling interactions of swift foxes. Interspersed as also photos of predators, prey, and the prairie landscape. I marveled at those of the magnificent eagles and raptor, and laughed at the portrait of a dancing prairie dog. My favorite shot, if I force myself to pick one, is of Jacob nuzzling his mother.

Naturally, both books have educational themes. Have You Seen Mary? points out in story form that sandhill cranes are fascinating animals who in some ways are like humans. They have families and rivalries. They pride themselves on their grooming. And they communicate through body language and different calls. The Tale of Jacob Swift tells of a species which used to exist in great abundance across the Great Plains, but now their numbers have declined. It is important for us to understand the importance of the grasslands if we are to see the swift fox thrive again.

As for the universal themes, I can’t do justice to them without spoiling the plot. Suffice to say, Have You Seen Mary? ranks high on the list of tender love stories, while The Tale of Jacob Swift is a poignant to tribute to family life which should strike a chord with parents and siblings everywhere.

At the end of each book, Jeff Kurrus shares the inspiration, writing process, and revision steps in creating his two photo-fiction tales. The hours, weeks, and months that he put into their writing and publication are obvious. The result is two entertaining and attractive books for which I have only praise.

My rating? Bag them: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.

How would you rate these books?

JeffKarrusThe last presenter I had the privilege to hear at the 2014 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival was Jeff Kurrus. Associate editor of the award-winning wildlife publication NEBRASKAland magazine, Karrus lives in the Midwest with his wife and two-year-old daughter. Karrus is the author of Have You Seen Mary?, which was nominated for the Golden Sower Award, and The Tale of Jacob Swift.

Kurrus had been an editor for roughly 17 years before joining the staff of NEBRASKAland. He also taught at the high school and college levels, which gave him experience helping students improve their work.

Although his title at NEBRASKALand is associate editor, editing is just one part of what he does. His responsibilities include writing, photographing, and editing. In addition to his contributions to the magazine, Karrus also regularly posts to his NEBRASKAland blog. Kurrus’ job relies on a combination of his love for nature and writing.

In Editing Matters, Kurrus offered a bit of advice for those interested in editing for a living. “You’re going to have to go and combine talent with an extreme amount of drive.” He says there are many other people out there working to improve themselves as writers and editors, and more than likely they’ll be the ones who get the jobs.

Over the next few days, I’ll post highlights from his presentation, review his two books, and provide a photo post of a local wildlife safari. Save the dates: November 5-8!


ALLISON: If you were to show us your childhood in photographs only, what types of images might we see?

JEFF: Lots of hunting and fishing photographs, time with family, and me dressed in various sports uniforms—namely baseball.

ALLISON: You have said in interviews that you are a writer first. What is your earliest memory of enjoying to write?

JEFF: I used to write westerns as a child. I’d call them my “books” and have one of my older sisters write titles in bubble letters on the front pages. I remember writing stories on top of a toy box, so it was in my early elementary school years. Mostly they were carbon copies of what I had read in books or seen in shows. The first one was entitled “Tom Horn,” and it was my interpretation of the movie of the same name. I remember revisiting that story a few years later (already a reviser) to try to make it better. The stories were written on notebook paper and placed in folders. I have no idea where they are now but would love to read them.

ALLISON: If you could “rewrite” one part of your life, what would it be?

JEFF: I don’t have a ton of regrets. My childhood was great, followed by excellent high school and college years. There were rough times, of course, but re-writing would be a bit strong of a word.

But, I would do a few things differently, if I knew that nothing in my current life would change. I’d listen in elementary school music class and learn how to play a guitar, I’d take photo classes in high school, and I’d date my current wife even longer when we were kids instead of being around anyone else when I was younger. Most of all, I would have more fun on a day-to-day basis. Nothing is as stressful as it seemed like it was two weeks later. I wish I could have always kept that in mind.

ALLISON: You taught in high school and college, but now are an editor. What do you miss about being in the classroom?

JEFF: The interaction with students. Sharing what I know about the writing process and seeing them develop as creatives. Being inspired by their work. Talking about writing.

ALLISON: If you were to return to the classroom, what would miss about being an editor?

JEFF: Being able to make decisions on content selection for our publication. Interacting with professional writers and photographers. Sitting down on a day-to-day basis with graphic artists and designers and watching a project come to fruition.


ALLISON: You love nature. What has been your most dangerous experience in exploring the Nebraskan outdoors?

JEFF: While hunting one morning, the father of a very close friend became entangled with a tree stand and was screaming for help, which in turn led my dad (who was hunting with us) to find him first and trying to keep the man’s leg’s from breaking because of the way he was hanging from this tree. I had to jump on my dad’s bad back and cut this man out of these foot straps to free him from this stand in the tree. If he had been hunting alone he would have died. It was lots of adrenaline, pressing this 200 pound man above my head and lowering him to the ground. (Normally, I am very weak and the last person you want with you in a fight). It was a very scary experience.

ALLISON: You have taken many photographs of animals. What has been your most memorable animal moment?

JEFF: The one that always sticks out to me is photographing a snapping turtle on a roadside. The photo, while nice, isn’t altogether unique, but it always reminds me of my buddy that was with me and how he pulled the truck over without me even having to ask. He knew I would want to photograph the turtle, and it reminds me of how in sync two lifelong friends can be when they’re together.

ALLISON: As an editor, you are aware of the importance of revision. How do you teach its importance to students?

JEFF: I tell them it’s everything. The first draft is for yourself, and then you start thinking about audience. I do this by going into the classroom and showing students how to revise using my work as test subjects. The students, after five minutes, feel quite comfortable helping me edit my work. I teach them that everyone revises, and show them how many drafts I do for individual pieces and how long they take me. I do a lot of modeling appropriate revision practices, hoping something sticks with them in their own work.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will gain from your two books: Have You Seen Mary? and Tale of Jacob Swift?

JEFF: A couple of things. I want students to learn about these species and their habitats. All animals are really cool for different reasons, and I hope these books are a jump start for students to continue their own outdoor development. I also want students to understand that there is more than one way to tell a story, and that having a mean character isn’t necessary. Some of literature’s greatest stories have conflict built on circumstance, and I think this is an interesting way to create tension without having bullies, mean-spirited people, etc. In Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, the conflict is Mount Everest and everything that is involved with trying to summit that peak. Even though it’s non-fiction, there’s something fascinating in that premise to me. Nature provides this outlet as well. Even when the golden eagle is trying to eat Jacob, it’s not doing so out of meanness. It’s doing so because golden eagles eat swift foxes. Nature just provides the perfect outlet for telling relatable stories to kids with fascinating photos.

ALLISON: What was it like to have Have You Seen Mary nominated for a Golden Sower award?

JEFF: It was amazing. Truly. I knew nothing about the award until schools starting contacting me and I found out how special it was to be included on this list. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and I am extremely grateful that so many students were able to learn about these amazing birds.

ALLISON: What’s next?

JEFF: That’s always an interesting question. Here’s what I’m working on right now, in no definite order: 1) The Magic Brush Shoppe, a short chapter book about a man who owns a hair brush store in a town where nearly everyone shaves their head. 2) The sequel to Have You Seen Mary? It’s a story I’ve been chasing for a long time. 3) Turtle’s Big Idea, a photo-fiction story about an animal Olympics being held on the tall grass prairie. 4) An unnamed photo-fiction project about an animal that just doesn’t think he’s good enough to be conserved.

Cover of "The Road to Paris (Coretta Scot...

Cover via Amazon

Welcome to the fourth installment of Andy’s Sack o’ Books.

The Road to Paris By Nikki Grimes

Paris Richmond is trapped by love. She loves her foster family, who has taught her what a family should be. She loves her brother, who has lived in a group home since he was deemed “incorrigible” for stealing from a previous foster family. She loves – and hates –  her alcoholic mother, whose weakness and selfishness has sabotaged her life.

Paris’ happy life with her new family is shattered by a phone call from her mother, who wants her back. The rest of the story is about how Paris came to live with, and love, her new family. It is also about her conflicted heart. She wants to love her mother. She wants to completely belong to a family. She wants to be with her brother again. But she also wants to remain with the family that loves her.

That’s a lot to put on an eight-year-old girl.

The Road to Paris gets many things right. In some cases, I know with certainty that it does. In other cases, it convinces me that it does even though I have no way of knowing – it sounds right; it fits with what I think I know of human nature.

The author creates a very real and perfect conflict for Paris. For the most part, there are no villains in this story. Paris’ mother has her problems; often Paris hates her, but she also wants to love her and she wants her family to be whole again. When Paris goes to visit her halfway through the book, we find out that Viola is not a monster and that a spark of love has survived the years of hurt. The foster family too is not composed of monsters. How many stories have we seen and heard about kids who bounce from once horrific foster family to another? Paris and her brother have certainly bounced around, but the book is not about those families; it is about the one family that turned out to be the right family.

Nikki Grimes is interested in real life and real feelings, not melodrama. We’ve all seen television shows and movies, and read books, where a character suddenly and without warning has an extreme reaction to something seemingly insignificant. This leads to the realization that the character has A Secret, which of course leads to the inevitable Discovery or Disclosure of The Secret. And of course that Disclosure or Discovery is drawn out as long as possible, for maximum emotional impact. Because that’s drama and drama is good. Right? In The Road to Paris, Paris does in fact have the occasional “freak out” that, to those around her, must seem unwarranted. For instance, there is an early meal at the Lincoln house where Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln each decide to have a can of beer. Why should this send Paris running to the bathroom to throw up, and why does she then seclude herself in her bedroom for the rest of the evening? And why is she surprised the next morning that normal life has continued uninterrupted? The Lincolns don’t know, and never know. Or do they? It doesn’t matter.

At another point in the story, Paris has an unfortunate reaction to sleeping in a completely dark bedroom. And again, this Secret is not kept through the entire book. In fact, Paris immediately spills the beans to one of her new brothers, and the situation is quickly and perfectly resolved.

What I really appreciate about Nikki Grimes’ writing is that she “gets” that many of us have hot button issues, and that we usually don’t take the time to explain our inner workings to everyone we meet. And so we often have reactions that take others by surprise and must make us seem somewhat crazy. However, Grimes does not use this for cheap drama. And the way that she avoids going for cheap drama is that while the Lincolns and others may not understand what sets Paris off, we do. Because while Paris has her secrets, they are not kept secret from the readers. And this is as it should be – the story is told from Paris’ point of view, and so to share some of her thoughts with us but not others would be, well, cheap.

Another aspect of this that Grimes gets right is that Paris’ reactions always fit the circumstances. We understand why she reacts the way she does to the beer. It fits. And we understand why she reacts the way she does to the pitch black bedroom. There is also a situation involving a perceived betrayal by her best friend. Readers may not agree that Paris has been betrayed, but they can certainly understand why she would be upset and why she would never want to go that girl’s house again. We even understand why she would build a wall around herself when another girl tries to be her friend.

 The Road to Paris is a very realistic depiction of a very real situation for many kids. And while alcoholism and foster care are not happy topics, this is not a depressing book. In a way, it is the story of a girl who, after years of pain, finds herself with too much love.

Welcome to Andy’s Big Sack o’ Books. For the next few weeks, I will be relieving my wife of some of her book reviewing duties so that she can devote more time to her studies. In connection with her studies, I will be reviewing multicultural Golden Sower nominees and winners from the past ten years. And to be honest, I only offered to do these reviews so I would have an excuse to read some of the many cool books I discovered while helping her with her research.

Boxes for Katje, by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Stacey Dressen McQueen

Cover of "Boxes for Katje"

Boxes for Katje, a story of international generosity,most assuredly did not leave this full-grown man teary-eyed. It’s just my allergies. I swear.

Written by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen, this colorful picture book is set immediately after the end of World War II. The people of Europe are hurting. Charities organize drives to collect and mail needed supplies overseas. One small box finds its way to Holland, where it is delivered into the hands of a young girl named Katje. Opening the box, Katje discovers socks, soap, and chocolate, which she shares with her mother and the postman. She writes Rosie a thank you letter and life goes on. Months later, another box arrives from Rosie, and Katje sends another thank you note in return. And then still more boxes arrive.

Not only will children be as excited as Katje upon the arrival of each package, but they should also enjoy exploring Dressen-McQueen’s jam-packed illustrations. Every page is a circus of color and action.

Boxes for Katje is a simple but moving story about helping others in need, even strangers. Funny thing about helping strangers – sometimes they become our friends. That’s what happened to Fleming’s mother, whose real-life boxes for Katje were the inspiration for this book.

This book made me nostalgic for the days of penpals. Sometimes life is not improved by technology, and penpals are a case in point. These days, chatting with someone from another country is as simple as going online. But where’s the fun in that?  With “snail mail,” you get to fret and anticipate and wonder – not for minutes or hours, but for weeks. You get to experience the excitement and enjoyment of checking the mailbox every day, day after day. And then a letter finally arrives, festooned with exotic stamps and postmarks, in an envelope that’s not quite the same as ours, and you can just tell it’s traveled thousands of miles to get to you. And when you read your penpal’s letter, it’s not just words – it’s a letter that was once in the hands of another person on the other side of the world, and now it’s in yours.

Okay, I know I’m off topic here, but that’s what a good book can do!  Is there a way for kids to find penpals these days?  Well, it appears that there is. Do a Google search for “penpals” and you’ll find a number of websites that purport to help people find penpals. If you’re under eighteen, be sure you check with your parents before you register at any of these sites!

I Love Saturdays y domingos, by Alma Flor Ada, illustrated by Elivia Savadier

I Love Saturdays y domingos tells the story of a little girl who jumps back and forth between cultures every weekend – and loves every minute of it.

The nameless little girl has a father who is European American and a mother who is Mexican American. Every Saturday she visits her father’s parents – Grandpa and Grandma. And every Sunday she visits her mother’s parents – Abuelito y Abuelita.

And there you have the beauty of this story. The two sets of grandparents are very similar, and many of the same words are used to describe the girl’s time with each, which gives readers the opportunity to learn some Spanish. (Yes, I’m assuming most readers will be native English speakers, since the book is 90% English.)

There’s some interesting comparing and contrasting going on between the grandparents. The girl’s Grandma collects owl figurines. The girl’s Abuelita has chickens. Real chickens. The girl’s Grandpa and Grandma show her a movie about a circus. The girl’s Abuelito y Abuelita take her to a real circus. The girl’s Grandpa has an aquarium. The girl’s Abuelito takes her to the seashore. The two sets of grandparents are similar, which is good, because this teaches kids that people are people. And they’re also different, which is also good, because people are different — whether they come from different cultures or not. But I did find it odd that the European American grandparents are more into artificial things while the Mexican American grandparents are more into real things. But maybe the only value judgements here are my own, as the girl enjoys her time with both sets of grandparents equally.

I eventually began to worry that the girl’s two cultures were going to stay separate throughout the book, which I didn’t think would send a very good message, but the story ends with the girl’s birthday party, with both sets of grandparents teaming up to coordinate their gifts. So it was good to discover that the grandparents talk and interact and get along, and don’t confine themselves to their allotted half of the weekend.

It’s good for kids to see themselves in the books they read. But while there are a significant number of kids who occupy more than one culture, I suspect there aren’t enough children’s books that reflect this reality. I Love Saturdays y domingos is one book that does, and it teaches some good lessons and even some Spanish.

Henry’s Freedom Box, by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Cover of "Henry's Freedom Box (Caldecott ...

Let’s start with the easy stuff.

Henry’s Freedom Box tells the true story of Henry Brown, who escaped slavery by having himself shipped north in a box in 1849.

The facts of the story are amazing. Ellen Levine keeps it simple, but she captures the highs and lows – from Henry’s loss of his family when they are sold to another slave owner, to his harrowing journey inside the box. The illustrations by Kadir Nelson are big and gorgeous. Unfortunately, perhaps due to a desire not to crop out or obscure any more of the illustrations than necessary, often the text is printed directly over the illustrations, which in some cases make the text difficult to read – and even to find!  But this is a small quibble.

Now, I couldn’t help but feel that the book pulls a bit of a bait ‘n’ switch on its readers. The cover shows a young boy, and not being familiar with the story I expected the story to be about little Henry. But Henry doesn’t stay little for long, and soon he’s a married man with kids of his own. I am not complaining that the book begins Henry’s story when he’s young, as doing so gives readers a very somber moment when his mother likens the tearing of autumn leaves from their trees to the tearing of slave children from their families, foreshadowing Henry’s bleak future. And I think kids will be so absorbed in the story that they won’t care that the boy on the cover quickly grows into a man. So this too is a small quibble.

More at issue is that this is a very “heavy” book. I apologize for using outdated jargon, but that’s the word that comes to mind: heavy. Levine does not hold back when it comes to the disturbing details of Henry’s story. There’s the threat of beatings if he makes a mistake. There’s his wife and children being sold and sent away. There’s intentional burning of his hand with acid so he will be excused from work and won’t be missed while he makes his escape.

That brings us to the heaviest aspect of this book, which of course is that it’s about slavery. It’s a picture book; Amazon says that it’s for four-year-olds and up. Should four-year-olds be reading about slavery?  Some would say yes. Some would say no. I think I’ll leave it at that, other than to say that I enjoyed my years of blissful ignorance concerning racism when I was younger. And yet I am well aware that such ignorance is a luxury that is not enjoyed equally by all. In other words, I suppose I would recommend not exposing our children to the ugliness of the world any sooner than necessary. While they can, I think kids should be allowed to think as little of skin color as they do of hair color. They’ll learn soon enough about who hates who and what stupid stereotypes have been imagined about each group.

Henry’s Freedom Box is an amazing story, and if you think your child would like it or benefit from it, and is ready for it, then by all means I encourage you to make it available.

Never judge a book by your first read. Two years I ago, I read Road to Paris by Nikki Grimes and disliked it. Although I still don’t care for the ploy in the preface of a “deadly” phone call, this time around I did really enjoy this foster care story.

Eight-year-old Paris and her older brother Malcolm have been deserted by their mother. When they run to their grandmother for help, she tells that she’s already raised her own kids and is too old to start again. As for foster parents, being as abusive as their mom’s boyfriend, they haven’t worked out well either. Then Paris moves in with the Lincolns. Now the question is can Paris ever trust anyone again?

Why am I rereading a book that I initially disliked? Well, Road to Paris was a 2010 Golden Sower nominee. If you read author Nikki Grimes’ bio, you’ll find that the book seems largely drawn from her real life. Her parents were separated and united several times, before they divorced. Consequently, Grimes and her older sister were bounced around from relative to relative and foster home to foster home. Many of those experiences sadly were horrendous. Is it any wonder that several of her books including Road to Paris are about foster homes?

As for multicultural aspect, the first clue to the ethnicity of Paris occurs on page nine: “Paris’ white blue-eyed father abandoned her when she was four. Apparently, he couldn’t handle walking down the street with a child whose skin was so much darker than his own.” The next clue comes on page twenty: “…. pressed her brown face against the cool window of the train….” Then when Paris meets the Lincolns, we learn that they are one of three black families on the block.”

Paris suffers prejudice in two ways: one due to being a foster child and other due to her color. For example, although Mrs. Lincoln acts loving and kind, her sister reacts to Paris by saying, “This is the new one, huh? My God, Sis, you collect sick kids like strays.” Then later Paris feels ready to give up on white folks when her best friend’s father calls her “a nigger face girl”. After the latter incident, Mrs. Lincoln has a heartfelt talk with Paris about how to handle hateful people.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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