Friday, February 29, 2008

Public Service Announcement

I've a stack of books (as per usual) I want to blog about, but, for now, I will break the trend of writing about reading, writing, and children's books and mention Gluten-Free Girl by Shauna James Ahern (aka, the Gluten-Free Girl, who is not only a fine writer, but takes the most lovely photos of food!) Like Shauna, my husband has celiac disease, which is a condition in which your body is intolerant to the gluten in wheat, barley, rye (and some would say oats; his diet is still oat-free at the moment). Intolerant makes it sound a bit wishy-washy, but it is a very serious disease and very underdiagnosed. Since it manifests in so many different ways, the symptoms are often lumped in with something else or brushed away and dismissed. I've heard of people who were essentially starving (grown women about 90 pounds), who suffered from chronic headaches, who had severe and constant canker sores, who had miscarriage after miscarriage, who had constant stomach, bowel digestive woes, etc. The picture of a person with celiac disease can vary wildly. So, my public service announcement is...if you, or someone you know, has been sick for awhile and no one can seem to figure out why, do a bit of reading on celiac disease. It might not be this disease of course, but it just might, too. (Shauna's blog and book are great places to start.)

Bookshelf Envy

Ooh, ooh, can you imagine the procrastination you'd get up to on this staircase? One day I hope for built-in bookshelves under our little staircase (and, for that matter, I need a few more wall's worth in my office), but this is one idea to file should I ever build a house. Thanks to the link from The Dewey Divas and the Dudes, who, in turn, linked this from apartmenttherapy. Too cool or what?

Ribbet, ribbet - Happy Leap Day

It isn't everyday one gets to blog on the 29th of February and on scanning my blog yesterday I see that I made a measly two posts this month (and that after beginning the year with such gusto). But, my friends, February was a busy, busy month. I, like the leaping amphibians that are being celebrated worldwide today, was leaping here and there, too.

As mentioned, I did make it to Make Way for Ducklings Land (aka Boston) and here's the proof. Yes, okay, okay, so it's a touristy photo -- everyone must sit on poor momma duck -- but I was not going to let this moment pass after walking almost every inch of Boston Common searching for this sculpture. (Tip to Boston tourism types: Put "Make Way for Ducklings" sculpture on your sign post markers!) (Oh, and a big smooch to my brother-in-law who said that I looked like Diana Krall in this photo! I left the slinky gown and 4-inch stilettos back at the hotel, but, after all, it was hovering around zero, which was hard on this west coast girl.) I was in this fabulous city to attend the AAAS annual meeting, which was a whirlwind of symposia, press breakfasts, impromptu meetings with scientists, other media types, and a few old friends. Lots of very interesting, and very sobering, talks, particularly those on the health (or lack thereof) of our oceans. I am humbled and inspired.

One of the things I loved about Boston, aside from its wonderful walkability, the great coffee and treats at Caffe Vittoria in the North End, and the pulsing brain power in this town with 50 (!) colleges and universities, was its public art. Check out this mosaic set into the sidewalk at the site of the city's first school public school, founded in 1635. (Sorry, I tried to rotate this image, but it wouldn't save this way.)

After Boston I was off to Maple Ridge for a week of school visits. A big shout out and thank you to the schools I visited -- Yennandon, Whonnock, Eric Langton, Riverside, Hammond, Laityview, and Alexander Robinson -- and to the fabulous whirlwind of a district librarian, Suzanne Hall. It was a great, but very busy, week. I met hundreds of children enthusiastic about science and writing and reading, with lots of great questions and, of course, wonderful stories of their own. (I forsee great things from you, Mr. Creator of super hero, Toast Man!) It was also a blast hanging out with The Science Lady, too. (Thanks, especially, for the low-down on Lost.)

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Parisian Hat-Trick

The last thing I have time for at the moment is this post, but I'm one who likes to tie up loose ends before I go on a trip, so thus a triple-header. The Cybils winner is chosen (sorry, I'm not divulging; in time, in time) and soon I will be making dispatches from "Make Way for Ducklings Land." For now, though, three picture books with one tie that binds: Paris.

First up, Degas and the Little Dancer by Laurence Anholt. This book was brought to my attention by one 10-year-old lucky duck who just came back from Paris (and Italy and Austria). Through the eyes of a guard at an art gallery, we learn the story behind The Little Dancer, Le Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans. This is a great introduction, not only to the sculpture, but also to Degas. The book includes some of the other images of this impressionist and provides a brief bio. of Edgar Degas at the end. Through the story of Degas and the model, Marie, we learn a bit about Degas's life, why he came to paint the dancers at the Paris Opera House, and some of the fictionalized life of the model. I was lucky enough to see this sculpture at the Musee de'Orsay a few years ago. (I guess it was one of the 20 copies made as the original apparently resides in the Louvre -- although the gallery shown in this book sure looks like that in Musee de'Orsay).

This book is one a series by Anholt, where he tells the story behind certain paintings. Other titles include: Camille and the Sunflowers (van Gogh), Picasso and the Girl with the Pony Tail, and Leonardo and the Flying Boy. I'll be checking those out too.

Next up, Hugo & Miles in I've Painted Everything! (An Adventure in Paris) by Scott Magoon. Poor Hugo, an elephant from Cornville, has run out of things to paint. His friend Miles has a solution -- they need to shake things up a bit with a road, er, plane, trip. So, off they go to Paris. "They spend days exploring the whole city." We see them outside Notre Dame, Sacre Couer, the Arc de Tiomphe, and, of course, inside the many galleries. Here, Hugo finds inspiration. He will make large paintings ("Hugo-mongous"), he will paint in a solid colour ("Hue-Go"), he will paint "an impression of how he feels" ("Van Hugo"), etc. Hugo just needs to look at the world in a different way and his trip to Paris helps him do just that. A fun tale and a nice introduction to different artistic styles and takes on life. (Hmmm, I'm feeling a little narrow in my perspective on the world too. Me thinks I need to take a plane ride...!) Here's a review from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

And, finally, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. Phew, what a fabulous book with absolutely stunning art. No wonder this won the Caldecott medal in 2004. Here we have the story of Philippe Petit, a New York street performer who decided one day to walk a tightrope between the Twin Towers. (Can you just imagine that breakfast conversation? "Morning honey, what are you doing today?" "Oh, you know, I thought I'd haul 440 pounds of cable up the Twin Towers, use a bow and arrow to string it between the two and walk across it." "That's nice dear.") Petit had performed a similar feat once before -- in Paris between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral (thus, my Paris connecton), but the Twin Towers was another thing altogether. Of course the feat/stunt was illegal and he knew he would never get permission to do it. So, with friends, subterfuge, and more nerve than I can even begin to imagine, he manages to get the wire up and to walk across it. The true story is fabulous enough, but Gerstein manages to pare it down perfectly for a picture book. His art is constantly shifting perspective from a close-up showing the thickness of the wire between Petit's fingers, to the mind-wobbling view of the streets of New York with his foot on the wire in the foreground. I could go on; this is a wonder. Here's a review from Wendy Lukeheart, published in the School Library Journal, that says it better than I ever could.

As this story opens, French funambulist Philippe Petit is dancing across a tightrope tied between two trees to the delight of the passersby in Lower Manhattan.
Gerstein places him in the middle of a balancing act, framed by the two unfinished World Trade Center towers when the idea hits:
"He looked not at the towers, but at the space between them and thought, what a wonderful place to stretch a rope".

On August 7, 1974, Petit and three friends, posing as construction workers began their evening ascent from the elevators to the remaining stairs with a 440 pound cable and equipment, prepared to carry out their clever but dangerous scheme to secure the wire.
The pacing of the narrative is as masterful as the placement and quality of the oil and ink paintings. The interplay of a single sentence or view with a sequence of thoughts on panels builds to a riveting climax.
A small, framed close-up of Petit's foot on the wire yields to two three-page fold-outs of the walk. One captures his progress from above, the other from the perspective of a pedestrian.
The vertiginous views paint the New York skyline in twinkling starlight and at breathtaking sunrise.

Gerstein captures his subject's incredible determination, profound skill, and sheer joy.
The final scene depicts transparent, cloud-filled skyscrapers, a man in their midst. With its graceful majesty and mythic overtones, this unique and uplifting book is at once a portrait of a larger-than-life individual and a memorial to the towers and the lives associated with them.

- Wendy Lukehart, Washington D.C Public Library

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Manitoba's Jazz Singing, Book Writing, Jewel

I've known of Martha Brooks for years -- she's a well established writer of YA fiction in Canada, and a very accomplished jazz singer to boot, yet it's taken me until the past few months to finally get down to reading some of her work. I was first introduced to her writing with the short story, The Kindness of Strangers, which eventually became the novel Being With Henry. (The short story was part of the collection, Traveling On Into the Light.) It was a fabulous story -- most memorable to me was the well-wrought characters with such vivid descriptions of the main protagonists, a runaway boy who is befriended by an elderly man. You just know that every word has been well thought out and serves the story well.

So, with such a wonderful introduction to her writing, I followed it up with True Confessions of a Heartless Girl and, the more recent, Mistik Lake. In both, Brooks captures the life, challenges and occasional angst of teenaged girls. Since Mistik Lake is the most recent (and my favourite of the two), I'll briefly focus on that, but be sure to check out this fabulous writer's books soon, especially if you know some teenaged girls ready for intelligent, and captivating, stories.

In Mistik Lake, Odella, her two younger sisters, and her father have recently been abandoned by their mother/wife who has left for Iceland. Although a seemingly heartless act, we learn that Sally's life is complex and tortured by her past. As Odella struggles in her adolescence and also tries to fill the void her mother has left in the family, Brooks slowly reveals the complexities of Sally's history. Odella's story is threaded with that of her great-aunt, Gloria, a closeted (until recently) lesbian. Brooks uses diary entries, occasional flashbacks, and a shared narration (alternating between Odella and Gloria) to develop this charming, captivating, heartbreaking, and heartwarming story. This book has been well received and, no doubt, a bit of Googling will reveal many reviews. Here's one from Canadian Materials, which gives a great overview, and another from Canadian Literature.

Here's an interview with Ms. Brooks from Quill and Quire. It's somewhat dated, but interesting nonetheless. And here's a shorter, but more recent interview from School Library Journal. I have one minor quibble about Mistik Lake and that is the cover image. I'm afraid I don't find it at all compelling and, for the life of me, I can't figure out the image behind the "slotted blinds" (?). I think it might be of a car? If you know, please enlighten me!