At Williamsburg Regional Library we face a problem common to many public libraries; seasonal items are, well, seasonal. The hold lists for the most popular Christmas DVDs, CDs and books gather steam in late November and peak just before Christmas, so many people find they are finally getting their Christmas items in January or later. For me this was a happy circumstance. Christmas is over, but our wintry weather isn’t, so I have been enjoying Downton Abbey’s magnificent music CD well into March.
This two-disc set has almost fifty tracks performed by a variety of artists, including famous singers like Kiri Te Kanawa and the Choir of the Kings College Cambridge. They showcase a variety styles but there are no rock versions; all the music is traditional. With my astounding musical knowledge I would describe them as “tinkly.” The tracks range from single voices (O Holy Night) to joyful and uplifting choir numbers (Joy to the World, The Lord is Come) to somber organ music (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen) to instrumental (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy).
Even if you don’t have a voice like Kiri Te Kanawa (I’m guilty!) these are wonderful songs for singing along. Some beloved Christmas carols have been sung for hundreds of years and are the Christmas songs of millions of childhoods. I may not be able to hold a tune but I know all the words to Good King Wenceslas, and I feel better for belting them out on my commute. I have to admit that I have gotten some funny looks at traffic lights but I know confining my sing-alongs to my car is better for everyone’s health and safety. I suspect if I sang along at work I might find myself out the window despite (or because of) any winter storm warnings
I recommend this CD for all year long (coming from the southern hemisphere, I’ve always been a bit seasonally confused when it comes to Christmas). You don’t have to be a Downton Abbey fan to need and enjoy comforting, inspiring music that will get you out there exercising your lungs!
Check the WRL catalog for Christmas at Downton Abbey.
I chose two books to highlight today. They each show a mother and baby polar bear interacting in their snowy home. The illustrations in both books are rendered in blues, grays, and whites. The animals are not photographic or cartoonish in style. Instead they are soft with rounded shapes against neutral backgrounds. These are excellent for preschool story time.
In Baby Polar, the little one sees snow falling and asks to go out and play. Mother says yes but warns him that a storm is coming. We enjoy the gentle play of the baby but he doesn’t listen to his mother tell him to come back. And then he can’t find his mother or the tracks he had made in the snow as he played. He is bewildered by the snow coming from all directions and stinging his nose. He digs a snow cave to find some protection from the storm. And guess who he finds in his cave. The theme of losing and then finding Mother is perfect for a preschooler. I would suggest this book for a very small group or a couple of children snuggling up with Mom or Dad.
Check the WRL catalog for Baby Polar.
In My Little Polar Bear, a cub wants proof that it is a polar bear. Mother describes things that identify a polar bear. The little one points out that there are some things that it can’t do. Mother tells him not to worry because she will teach him all he needs to be a polar bear. In the end, the little one announces that there is one thing that it already knows—that its mother loves him. The desire to belong to a group is as important to preschoolers as it is to baby polar bears. Parents may find that this book allows them to talk a little about what it means to be part of a family. I would also use this book only with a small group or in a family setting because the lovely illustrations do not have enough contrast to be visible from a distance.
Check the WRL catalog for My Little Polar Bear.
The term “architecture” usually means buildings. In this book the term can mean structures made of materials from outside of an animal’s body, such as a bird’s nest or beaver dam. It can also mean structures made with materials from animal’s bodies such as webs, or even ones that stay on their bodies such as shells.
Some of the featured animals are very small, such as the caddis fly, but the sparkling photographs with black backgrounds show every hair-like appendage on the tiny creature’s body and every minute piece of wood, stone, leaf, shell or straw in the amazing cases that they build to protect their soft bodies. The photograph with the largest scale goes to another of the smallest animals. The compass termite in northern Australia builds 3 meter (10 feet) high mounds and the aerial photographs taken at dawn and dusk show a flat semiarid field with long shadows highlighting hundreds of aerie gravestones. On any scale, we are not the only creatures who can mold our environment. The changes can be destructive for the host like the galleries of the bark beetle larvae or cause great changes to the entire local environment like beaver dams, termite mounds, or coral reefs.
The photographer, Ingo Arndt, has won numerous awards and been published by National Geographic and it’s easy to see why. These photographs are immediately arresting but also bear long study to examine the intricacies of the galleries of the bark beetle larvae, the bower bird’s opus, or the staggering variety of corals. The text by Jurgen Tautz takes up less space but it provides clear and digestable chunks of information about these spectacular architects.
Try Animal Architecture if you like the spectacular nature photography of The Oldest Living Things in the World, by Rachel Sussman, The Songs of Insects, by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger or Sea, by Mark Laita. Or if you are interested in the substances that these creatures use try Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, by Mark Miodownik.
Check the WRL catalog for Animal Architecture.
Five centuries after the birth of Christ the ancient Mediterranean world was booming; architecture, literature, trade, and philosophy, were experiencing great leaps in development. In Constantinople, Justinian was trying to hold together the Roman Empire despite inroads from barbarians from all directions. By all accounts he was an able (if at times brutal) leader, but he was unable to fight the first pandemic of Bubonic plague. From 541-542 it is estimated to have killed 25 million people, depopulating cities and perhaps leading to the shape of the modern world from the European nation states to the rise of Islam.
Justinian’s Flea tells this story with sections ranging from the biology of rats, and their passengers of fleas and Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague), to the political intrigues of Justinian’s Court. The author has brought together disparate disciplines and facts including climate estimates from tree rings, the technological advances of ancient warfare, grave sites, and notarized wills. The book is fleshed out with wrenching quotes from contemporary accounts such as the prolific Procopius who said “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.”
Justinian’s Flea is a weighty but readable tome and since I don’t usually read nonfiction history, I learned an enormous amount. I lean towards science nonfiction and this book is a great companion for other books about the role of diseases in human history such as The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, Plague: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Slack, or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
For fiction readers, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, which is set in the time of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague 600 years later), includes harrowing descriptions of the disease and the effects on people even if they survived. For those interested in visuals you could also try the History Channel DVD The Dark Ages.
Check the WRL catalog for Justinian’s Flea.
Road Work Ahead is a treat for any child who likes construction equipment. A road trip to Grandma’s house takes a little boy and his mother through a variety of road work situations including tree trimming and concrete pouring. There are male and female workers shown busily improving the streets and surrounding areas. The rhymed and rhythmic text is a pleasure to read.
Jannie Ho’s colorful illustrations add to the delight of the story. Spend some time with your child exploring the scenes to discover little stories within the story. Hint: Can you find the missing chicken?
I have used this successfully with small groups but the detailed illustrations will be better enjoyed by an adult and one or two children curled up on the couch.
Check the WRL catalog for Road Work Ahead.
I know that having children is a life-enriching experience but I didn’t expect my almost-grown children to get me hooked on an initially unappealing children’s T.V. show; Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. At first the cartoons and martial arts action seemed cheesy, but the show delivers a compelling story filled with friendship, family (good and bad), coming of age, and sympathetic but realistically flawed characters.
The story is set in a fascinating universe where certain people have an innate ability to move and control physical matter, called bending. All benders can move only one element: either earth, water, air or fire. All, that is, except the Avatar who can bend all four, and this power is meant to be used to keep balance and harmony in the world. The Avatar disappeared over one hundred years ago which allowed the Fire Nation to wage a war to take over the world. In the first episode our heroes Katara and Sokka discover that the Avatar, Aang, has been frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years as a twelve-year-old boy. The three of them set off on journeys and adventures all around the world, gathering friends and enemies, such as plump, kindly General Iroh who dispenses sage advice and cups of tea, or short, blind Toph who seems helpless, but is much tougher than everyone else. The situation often looks dire, but as Katara says in the opening sequence, “I believe Aang can save the world.”
The well-developed universe includes real martial art systems as the basis for each type of bending and buildings, costumes and cultures based on real ancient Asian cultures (although sometimes mixed). But the best invention may be the chimeric animals! Aang has a huge, furry, guinea-pig-shaped Flying Bison named Appa that you can’t possibly see without wanting one.
There are many spin-off works such as the sequel The Legend of Korra which expands on the story of the Avatar. It occurs seventy years later than Avatar: The Last Airbender and features that show’s character’s children and grandchildren. They live in Republic City which bears an uncanny resemblance to 1920s New York City. There are also graphic novels some of which are drawn by the same artists and include original stories that are not in the original show like Avatar the Last Airbender: The Promise.
Like Doctor Who or Spirited Away this is great for the whole family to watch together. The stories are simple enough (and active enough) to appeal to the youngest set while the geopolitical wrangling and character development is enough to keep adults coming back for more.
Check the WRL catalog for Avatar: The Last Airbender.
It can be fun working right next to Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum; not only do we get to see Thomas Jefferson wandering along the street texting, but we also get to walk past old-fashioned zigzag, split rail fences and see fields of farm animals in the middle of the city.
Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals is a great way to learn about these animals. It includes sections on cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, pigeons, fish, horses and pets, with simple, clear descriptions of animal management and use, in both colonial times and the present day. It points out that in colonial times animals shared people’s daily lives in a way that they don’t often do today. Of course the colonists used the meat, milk, eggs, and wool from their animals but there were also surprising uses such as including animal hair in plaster for house building, which Colonial Williamsburg brickmakers still do, as they always strive for authenticity.
Modern farm animals have been bred for specific traits over the last several hundred years so to be authentic, Colonial Williamsburg has researched, bought and raised rare breeds such as the Leicester Longwool Sheep. Their research includes works written by the colonialists so Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future has several quotes from George Washington about how he managed his animals.
The text explains and complements the pictures, but like the other books about Colonial Williamsburg Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future is an enjoyable and worthwhile book just for the photos. Every page includes wonderful photographs of the interpreters in costumes performing their farming tasks by hand, as well as photographs of the animals as they go about their lives.
This book is great to read with other Colonial Williamsburg titles: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene, or The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook, by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It also includes the history of chickens which you can learn about in greater depth from Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.
Check the WRL catalog for Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future.
Dog has just finished reading a very good book. And then he heads to the shoe store to find a pair of boots. Wonderful boots. But he finds that boots don’t really fit his lifestyle. The same goes for high heels, flippers, and skis. What does Dog really need for his feet? The large bright illustrations show the problem with each of Dog’s choices. Let your children guess what Dog finally decides to wear.
When Dog is happy with his feet, he begins to read a new book. Hmmm, could there be another clothing search in Dog’s future?
Check the WRL catalog for Dog in Boots.
I am always on the lookout for academic fiction. I love novels set in English departments and featuring an amusing cast of characters—David Lodge, Michael Malone, James Hynes, Richard Russo, and Jon Hassler are among my favorites. Now I can add Julie Schumacher to the list.
Told as a series of one-sided letters of recommendation, this novel is both funny and poignant. The protagonist, and writer of recommendations, is Jason Fitger, a tenured English professor at Payne, a not so highly rated Midwest university. The letters here are for students, some of whom he has never taught but who are desperate for a recommendation for a job or a fellowship, and for fellow faculty members and college staff.
Fitger’s voice is the only one we hear, and he is in turn cranky, sarcastic, and petulant, but he is also concerned about his students’ well-being and clearly cares deeply for his friends and colleagues, even those with whom he has fallen out over the years. At first the book seems mostly a satire, but as you get into the story, the letters reveal the story of Fitger’s life, his struggles as a writer, and his contention with the human condition. He becomes a character for whom the reader cares, and the end of the novel is both somber and redemptive.
Check the WRL catalog for Dear Committee Members.
It’s one of those days when Frankie and Sal feel like they’ve done it all. The only solution, “Let’s do nothing!” And they certainly make an attempt, pretending to be motionless statues, trees, and skyscrapers. Unfortunately, Frankie’s imagination is too active to do nothing. As a statue he attracts pigeons, as a tree he attracts a dog with a full bladder, and as a skyscraper he attracts King Kong. Each attempt at doing nothing fails, but Sal is undeterred. What will they do if they can’t do “nothing”?
The visuals in this book are highly entertaining and will have readers laughing out loud. This one is a crowd-pleaser perfect for an older storytime audience.
Check the WRL catalog for Let’s Do Nothing!
Charlotte’s post about Lloyd Alexander got me thinking about books for younger readers that are also of interest to adults. I think that Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart and its sequels, Inkspell and Inkdeath fill the bill here. Although they are marketed as young adult fiction, they will work equally well for anyone who is a fantasy fan.
These are very literary stories, premised on the ability of the some characters to read people in and out of fictional tales while reading aloud. It sounds like a great idea at first, but the problem is that when something is read out of a story, something present in the real world is read into the story. Meggie, our heroine, is the daughter of a bookbinder named Mo, and she wonders why he will not read her stories from books. We discover that Meggie lost her mother when Mo accidentally reads her into a dark tale. Worse, Mo has read out of the story its arch villain, Capricorn, who is bent on getting back into his story and uses Meggie as a tool to coerce Mo into once again reading aloud.
As Meggie and Mo are pursued, captured, and attempt to escape, they meet with unexpected help, are betrayed by some that they thought true, and must rely on the power of language to face Capricorn and his men. Funke tells a delightful though dark tale about the power of words and the love of books and reading. It is a great story for anyone who shares that love.
Check the WRL catalog for Inkheart
Interactive books are great for storytime. It’s even better when the book is both entertaining and educational. Let’s Count Goats will provide the necessary fun, as these anthropomorphized goats behave much like humans. This book will also give children a chance to practice their counting. And, as children love to point out, “It’s a rhyming book!”
“Here we see a show-off goat playing on the bars. But can we count the rowdy goats careering round in cars?”
Anything written by Mem Fox is a sure bet, and Jan Thomas’ pictures are perfect, as usual. The illustrations are cute, humorous, and flooded with color.
Check the WRL catalog for Let’s Count Goats!
At first, it sounds like some sort of NPR show or something, but All Things Reconsidered is actually a delightful collection of essays that Roger Tory Peterson published in Bird Watcher’s Digest over the last decade and a bit of his life. Peterson’s name is a household word among birders, and his Field Guide to the Birds can be found all over the country, often in tattered, field-worn condition (my personal copy is taped together and dates from ornithology class at William and Mary ca. 1982).
In addition to being an excellent illustrator, Peterson is an engaging writer, with an obvious affection for and appreciation of the natural world. Whether writing about confusing fall warblers, birding in Kenya, or the renaissance of the Peregrine Falcon, Peterson’s clear prose style and narrative line are a delight to the ear, and the photographs and drawings are a delight for the eye. These are personal stories, introducing the reader to many of the characters of the bird world, both avian and human. They also are a fascinating look at the environmental and citizen science movements over the years, as seen through Peterson’s life and work.
Another great collection of stories to prepare you for observing spring migration.
Check the WRL catalog for All Things Reconsidered
It is Spring once again (or almost anyway) and soon the Williamsburg area will begin to see migrant birds coming through on their way North. After a long, cold Winter, it is a joy to get outside and be alert to what birds might appear today. It is almost as good to be inside reading Miyoko Chu’s fascinating book about bird migration.
Chu, who works at the acclaimed Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, has written a book anyone who loves birds should read. It is a deft blend of science and history, along with practical information about watching migrant birds at the different seasons of the year. Chu covers topics from birdsong to nesting to banding in her discussion of migrating birds. Her narrative style moves easily from the specific (looking at a particular species’ migratory habits) to the general (examining how habitat loss at either end of the migration affects bird populations). Her writing is crisp and elegant, and always accessible for the lay reader.
Anyone who enjoys birding will find something to like here. It is a great book for those rainy days where the birds are not calling or moving much.
Check the WRL catalog for Songbird Journeys
Back in 2012, I wrote about Mary Doria Russell’s superb historical novel Doc, where she relates the backstory of the gunfight at OK Corral, looking at the early lives of Doc Holliday and the Earps. I am happy to report that she does an equally excellent job in her newest novel Epitaph, bringing the story forward through the incident in Tombstone and beyond.
As in the earlier story, Russell focuses on characters and there are lots of them in this story. While not quite as complicated as a Russian novel, the cast here is large and you have to pay attention. This is in part because of the fluid nature of the relationships between the characters–friends, or at least drinking buddies, one day and then deadly enemies the next.
In many ways this is a sadder and darker story than Doc. Where the first story was haunted by premonitions of death, death is constantly present in Epitaph. There is also the pain of seeing relationships that seemed so strong in Doc, especially between Wyatt and Holliday, be tried, and sometimes found wanting. Nonetheless, anyone interested in the Western history, or in the study of human nature, will find much to enjoy in this somber sequel.
Check the WRL catalog for Epitaph
Sometimes you just need a book of practical advice. Such as, “If an elephant stands on your foot, keep calm. Panicking will only startle it.” Unfortunately, our hero lets out a shriek anyway, and now must run from a startled elephant. The book’s next piece of advice: “Running my attract tigers.” You see where this is going.
What to Do If an Elephant Stands on Your Foot is a cumulative story in which the actions of a young boy on safari put him in one perilous situation after another. He can’t seem to follow the book’s advice, so he finds himself being chased by everything from the titular elephant to a family of snakes.
Children will enjoy watching the young hero get into and out of some sticky spots with the help of the narrator (and some helpful monkeys). This humorous story is sure to entertain.
Check the WRL catalog for What to Do If an Elephant Stands on Your Foot.
This is a beautifully written story by Elizabeth Laird, a specialist in African Folklore. Liz Pichon, the illustrator, has used a large vivid format ideal for group storytelling. I was reminded of Little Red Riding Hood. Only Beatrice is going through the African jungle to take bananas to her grandfather’s house. She is bringing him lovely, ripe bananas. However unlike Red Riding Hood, Beatrice meets careless but kindly animals throughout the jungle. Giraffe flicks the bananas out from Beatrice’s hand but picks her some flowers. The bees settle on the flowers and squash them but present her with a honeycomb to take to her grandfather. She continues to lose and receive various gifts. Finally, elephant picks another bunch of bananas for her and she eventually gets to grandfather’s house without further mishap. This book would make a good addition to a story time about jungle animals. My favorites are Who Is the Beast? by Keith Baker and Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathman.
Check the WRL catalog for Beautiful Bananas.
The story’s hero, Mark Watney, must have broken a mirror while walking under a ladder with a black cat on another Friday the 13th. When the story begins, he is stranded on Mars, thought dead by his crew and mission control. A fierce Martian windstorm has forced his exploration team to evacuate the surface, and an accident during the process destroyed the life support telemetry of his suit. Coming to and finding himself alone on the planet and discovering that he has no radio to contact the crew or NASA nearly crushes Mark. But a creative and indomitable spirit keeps him going as he reconfigures the living quarters, begins working out how he’ll survive until the next planned landing – which is 3000 kilometers away and a couple of years off – and looks for ways to communicate with Earth.
Most of the story is told in first person through the logs Watney keeps of his work and experiments in survival. These are not official or officious, but personal, wisecracking, and profane. Sometimes the audience is everyone off the planet Mars and sometimes it seems to be himself as he works out the details of his extraordinary plans. (If the space programs of the world would let their astronauts communicate in a voice like Watney’s, there would probably be more support for interplanetary exploration.)
However, Mark’s efforts to communicate with Earth turn the story’s focus back to our home planet, and to the committed, skillful, and highly individualistic people who will try to rescue Mark. How they deal with the enormous personal and engineering obstacles involved make for as compelling a story as Mark’s survival epic.
In one sense, I suppose the first person to be born or to die in a new place can be called its first citizen. (The terminology of European expansionism in human history aside.) In this case, we are rooting for Mark to not become the first Martian, but in the end of course he does. How he gets to that place is an intensely adventurous and gripping blend of hard science and science fiction. And it forces me to understand that I wouldn’t last ten minutes in Mark’s situation. I’ll take the desert island scenario any day.
Check the WRL catalogue for The Martian
The Harmattan is a fierce wind that blows across sub-Saharan Africa, stripping vegetation, drying out watering places, and causing health problems for the inhabitants of the Sahel, as the region is known. The dust clouds it creates can block the sun, and have even been strong enough to lift sand particles which are carried by trade winds as far west as Florida. In Jeffrey Tayler’s skilled hands, the Harmattan becomes a metaphor for the insurmountable problems that affect countries across the widest and poorest part of continent.
Jeffrey Tayler, who served in the Peace Corps and writes for The Atlantic, traveled from Chad to Senegal, encountering first-hand the ancient traditions and modern troubles that define Africa for many Westerners. Fluent in both Arabic and French, he was able to speak with all types of people without the filter of an interpreter. These encounters turned up both superstition and up-to-the minute awareness of international affairs (many people weren’t shy about criticizing the Iraq War, then two years old), but were for the most part genial and even-handed. One tradition, that of hospitality, has not diminished even in the face of desertification, unrest, and religious extremism.
Even ten years after Angry Wind was published it remains a timely read. Boko Haram’s power base is in the Sahel. Niger holds the last spot on the Human Development Index. Mali suffered a revolution co-opted by an al Qaeda offshoot and had to have French assistance to quell it. Chad is overwhelmed by refugees from Darfur, and has a history of coups d’etat that could destabilize the central African region that surrounds it. And history dominates it all – Tayler finished his journey in the House of Slaves on the Atlantic Coast of Senegal, where men, women, and children from the region would have their final views of Africa. Anyone who wants background on this essential region of a continent headed for its own maturity owes it to themselves to read Tayler’s journey.
Check the WRL catalogue for Angry Wind
This is a great story with a message for any child that is different! Award winning illustrator, Shane Evans enhances the simple story with his extremely large illustrations. These big illustrations make it ideal for a class reading for preschoolers, kindergartners or first graders too.The dark skinned little boy in the picture calls himself *Chocolate ME* and he laments to his mother that he wants to look like his light skinned friends. His mom shows him a spoon with chocolate on it.
“you have skin like velvet frosting mixed in a bowl (you can lick the bowl)
Cotton candy hair soft to the touch of my fingertips or braided like rows of corn with a twist.”
He begins to look at himself and likes what he sees. He shares delicious chocolate cupcakes with his friends-and finally comes to terms with the color of his beautiful skin. Chocolate Me! This is an excellent story about self esteem and acceptance.
Check the WRL catalog for Chocolate Me!