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Staff Picks: Books

Once Upon an Alphabet

Once Upon an Alphabet, by Oliver Jeffers, is one of my favorite alphabet books for kids (but also really fun for adults) since The Alphabet from A to Y with bonus letter, Z! by Steve Martin and Roz Chast. Some alphabet books, like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, are perfect for introducing the alphabet to little ones in an engaging way. But alphabet books aren’t only for teaching the ABCs. Leonard Marcus wrote, in an article in The Horn Book, that “the 26 character Roman alphabet could hardly be handier as a framework for organizing information within a thirty-two-page book, the standard picture book format”.
This organizational format has long worked for adults, too. Ambrose Bierce’s classic work of American satire The Devil’s Dictionary works well because you can open anywhere and read within the familiar framework of A to Z order. Alphabet picture books can be about anything or, like Seinfeld, about nothing at all. Alphabet books are so familiar that, in a way, they have earned the privilege of being able to poke fun at themselves. Once Upon an Alphabet is a series of short stories with really wonderful accompanying drawings. The connections between the words and the text, and among the different entries, is great fun. Plus there are even a few puzzles to solve along the way. And even though this alphabet book isn’t really about anything at all it’s really fun!

A Christmas truce during World War I?!

Did you know that during the first world war the troops on both sides (British, French, and German) along many miles of the Belgium-France border put down their weapons and exchanged gifts, sang carols together, and lit Christmas trees on December 25th? I had never heard of such a thing, which is why books are so great! Shooting at the stars by John Hendrix tells a fictionalized version of a very real event, known as the Christmas Truce of 1914. Unfortunately, this was the first and last time such Christmas fellowship would unfold during four long years of the war. This book, although in our JE collection, would also be enjoyed by older children and adults…be warned that a few pages describe how the soldiers came together to bury their fallen comrades before they celebrated.

Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar

Here’s something you might not expect … Keith Richards (yes, that Keith, the Rolling Stone) is now a children’s book author! Books about Richards and his famous little rock & roll band would certainly fill a modest library, but Richards as we now know is quite a fan of books. As a youngster, Richards admits that he always wanted to be a librarian. In his memoir, Life, he said that two institutions mattered to him most when growing up; the church, which, he said, belonged to God; and the public library, which belonged to the people.

But, as John Cleese says, “…now for something completely different.” This is Keith’s first foray into the world of children’s literature, and it’s adorable. Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar tells the story of how young Keith discovered a love for music through his grandfather, who was also a musician. To complete the family circle, Gus & Me is illustrated by Keith’s daughter, Theodora Dupree Richards, and it includes an audio disc with a recording of Keith himself reading his story. It’s a sweet inspiring story that will melt your heart. And so, Grandpa or Grandma, unplug your iPod for a few minutes and add this to your favorite youngsters’ (or grand-youngsters’) read-to list. You won’t be disappointed.

Peggy, No Ordinary Chicken

“Peggy” is the title of a book about a chicken. But not just any old, run-of-the-mill, barnyard hen. No, Peggy happens to be one very brave, extraordinary chicken. As such, she joins the Chicken Coop Hall of Fame populated by other famous children’s literature pullets such as Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Tillie, Yelta, the Little Red Hen, Rosie, Lottie, Hilda, and my all-time personal favorite, Minerva Louise.

Written and illustrated by Australian Anna Walker, Peggy enjoys her day-to-day existence living in a small house on a quiet street out in the sticks. Life is very good indeed! However, one windy day, she is blown away by a particularly strong gust, and lands in the busy city and all that that implies – traffic congestion, great restaurants, department stores, big buildings and bustling crowds.

As she roams around, she comes to realize how much adventure and excitement she missed out on by living in the confines of the country. But as she widely wanders, she also wisely wonders how she will ever find her way back home, because after all is said and done, there’s no place like......well you know!

On a whim, she follows a sunflower like the one she remembers growing in her yard. Sure enough, this (along with a little help from a flock of pigeon friends), leads her back to where she really belongs.

The wonderfully detailed illustrations are delightful and well-suited for this satisfying chicken tale. “Peggy” is highly recommended for pre-schoolers, as well as early-ed children.

I Feel Five!

It’s Fritz’s birthday . . . he’s five now and he’s ready to leave that four-year-old year behind.  Finally he’ll be able to snap his fingers and his teeth will start wiggling any moment now.  But as the day goes on, he realizes that change doesn’t always happen so quickly.  The illustrations in I Feel Five! really set this book apart from other growing-up stories; you’ll love the dog.




From Preschool to Prosperity

How can very young children help Michigan’s economy? Simple. Attend a high-quality preschool.

Really? Really!

Tim Bartik, who is an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research here in Kalamazoo, believes that our economic future can be improved by expanding high-quality early education programs and making sure that all children have the opportunity to participate. Dr. Bartik’s new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, is available as a free download here:

While economics might be a subject that can seem intimidating, if you care about kids in our community please take a look at this book. It’s short, readable, and so very important. Let’s keep working hard in Kalamazoo to make sure that all of our kids have the opportunity to reach their potential. 

Hear an interview with Dr. Bartik on WMUK’s WestSouthwest.

Norway's New Literary Star

But Knausgaard’s book is more abstract than that; it’s about more than the experience of a son. That’s because, in exploring that experience, Knausgaard has ended up exploring all experience. If being a writer is like being a swimmer, and life is like the ocean through which you swim, then Knausgaard’s book starts out being about the waves but ends up being about the stroke.—The New Yorker Magazine’s Joshua Rothman

Conceived as a multi-volume memoir (My Struggle) that possesses elements of fiction, or at the very least, creatively massaged recollections, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard has emerged out of nowhere (i.e. unknown to U.S. readers) to become a literary sensation this year. His books have been compared to Proust’s magnum opus (In Search of Lost Time), his rock star-like visage has graced the pages of countless newspapers, journals and websites and he’s garnered the high praise of critics (James Wood) and fellow writers (Zadie Smith). The meteoric success and media exposure have also brought the inevitable backlashes and petty snark common to our time, with not everyone finding his meticulous descriptions of his life’s struggles worthy of their sustained interest. After reading so much of the hype, I purchased the first volume knowing that I wanted to take my sweet time reading the book and not have to worry about a due date.

First off, this kind of confessional (a term he’s distanced himself from) writing will not appeal to everyone and the length will likely be prohibitive for many but once you embrace his exhaustive commitment to detail (and detail he does) and buy into the elegant simplicity of the prose, you will find the journey rewarding. In volume one, he spends a great deal of time in plumbing the depths of his feelings toward his emotionally cold, alcoholic father, whose presence, even after death, hovers over both the teenage and adult Knausgaard like a menacing specter. As I close in on finishing the first book in the series, I cannot wait to dive into the second book. I still struggle (pun intended) to pinpoint the source of what makes the book work for me but in some strange and beguiling way, it does and maybe that’s the point, that in everyday life, the roots of transcendent storytelling are masked in ordinary toil.

Have You Seen My Dragon?

Have You Seen My Dragon?  by Steve Light

This counting book is great because of the intricate black and white drawings that feature full page spreads of a little boy looking for his dragon amidst busy New York City backgrounds. Kids and adults will have fun searching for the dragon and for the little boy and for the consecutive numbers of items from one through twenty page by page. On every two-page spread the item to look for is in color. The first spread features one green dragon on a detailed black and white New York City background… “Have you Seen my Dragon? No? I will look for him.” The next spread features two orange hot dogs on a different detailed black and white background, and the dragon is drawn in black and white and so is the little boy, the next spread features three purple buses on a different black and white background including the dragon and the little boy, and on and on until the last spread which features twenty red lanterns. 

Every time you look at the illustrations you discover something you hadn’t seen before; this book stimulates curiosity, picture puzzle skills, and counting concepts. The inside back cover is a map of the dragon’s route. Stop by any of the Kalamazoo Public Library locations and search for more dragon books, they are forever popular!

This is a Moose

With a host of woodland and other animal friends under the direction of one Billy Waddler, a documentary movie is being made. It’s titled This is a Moose, but the doc’s duck director is having a difficult time getting his subject to conform to his ideas of just what is a moose. Take after take, these animals have their own non-conformist, and hilarious, ideas about the roles they want to play. You might find yourself rolling in the aisles when you read, or read aloud, this new picture book from Richard T. Morris with illustrations by the great Tom Lichtenheld.

Some Luck

Jane Smiley’s new novel, Some Luck, follows the Langdon family of Denby, Iowa, for thirty years. Each year is a chapter: 1920 – 1953. The family endures the depression, trading the horses for a tractor, a son in World War II, the cold war, births and deaths.

Much of the focus is on first born, Frank, who was “born with an eye for opportunity,” but all family members are developed. Luck is never to be relied on, but it plays a role.

Smiley plans a trilogy that will follow the Langdon family well into the 21st century. Their story is off to a strong start.

This is likely to be one of my favorite books of the year, although there are still two months of good reading left.