Palo Alto Weekly

- December 3, 2010

Let's read aloud this winter!

Plucky kids abound in these books for young readers

by Debbie Duncan

Children who are read to reap numerous benefits. And cold winter nights are a perfect time to curl up on the couch with a child and a book to read aloud. Remember, books make the best gifts!

"The Christmas Eve Ghost" by Shirley Hughes; Candlewick, 2010; 30 pp., $16; ages 2-8.

This heartwarming tale by a master British storyteller and illustrator is historical and also relevant to families today.

After her husband is killed in a coal-mining accident, Mam moves with young Bronwen and Dylan to Liverpool, where she supports the family by taking in laundry and painstakingly cleaning it in the washhouse out back. Mam warns her children not to speak to the O'Rileys next door, who go to a church "for a different sort of people." Yet it's Mrs. O'Riley who comes to the rescue when Bronwen and Dylan need help solving a scary Christmas Eve mystery.

Little ones will love the gentleness of the story and illustrations. That they may also appreciate poverty and learn tolerance are side gifts of the season.

"The Boss Baby" by Marla Frazee; Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane, 2010; 32 pp.; $17; ages 4-8.

Here's a laugh-out-loud book starring a baby who's the boss of the household from the day he arrives. "He put Mom and Dad on a round-the-clock schedule, with no time off." He makes demands. He holds meetings, "many in the middle of the night." All of this without saying a word — until he does.

Frazee's illustrations are reminiscent of classic 1950s and 1960s picture books, but the narrative is thoroughly modern.

"The Dreamer" by Pam Muñoz Ryan, drawings by Peter Sís; Scholastic Press, 2010; 372 pp.; $18; ages 8 and up.

Prose, poetry and illustrations sing off the green ink adorning the pages of this fictionalized account of the troubled childhood of Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda changes his name from Neftalí Perez "to save Father the humiliation of having a son who was a poet."

Neftalí finds allies in his younger sister, a newspaper editor uncle and a sympathetic stepmother and to a lesser extent his older brother, also a talented artist but who bows to their father's bullying and his demands.

That young Neftalí is able to find beauty in his world is testament to the triumph of the human spirit, and makes "The Dreamer" a hopeful and inspiring work in itself.

"Penny Dreadful" by Laurel Snyder, drawings by Abigail Halpin; Random House, 2010; 304 pp.; $17; ages 9-12.

Penelope Grey is a bored big-city rich girl with an active imagination fueled by a healthy diet of children's literature. She wishes "something interesting would happen ... just like in a book." Soon her father quits his job and the mansion falls into disarray. That isn't what she meant!

So she wishes again, and her mother inherits a run-down house in Thrush Junction, Tenn., with attached cottages that are home to an assortment of colorful, quirky characters. Penelope is so thrilled with her new home and new friend that she changes her name.

Penny's father also discovers he can cook, her mother becomes a garbagewoman, and all is hunky dory — well, except for a family money problem that Penny takes it upon herself to fix. Will she find the treasure? Or has she already?

The conclusion will surprise and delight readers of all ages.

"Doodlebug" by Karen Romano Young; Feiwel & Friends, 2010; 100 pp.; $15; ages 9-12.

Twelve-year-old Dodo, AKA the Doodlebug, figures out — after being expelled from her school in L.A. for innocently selling the Ritalin she didn't want to take — that she can keep her A.D.D. under control by doodling. She quickly establishes a new identity and makes friends in her much larger San Francisco middle school. The entire family loves S.F., in fact, but Mom, Dad and younger sister Momo all have to overcome personal obstacles to be able to stay.

This impressive graphic novel with a local touch is filled with humor, as well as insight into the impulses and learning style of kids who simply cannot sit still.

"Turtle in Paradise" by Jennifer L. Holm; Random House, 2010; $17; ages 9-12.

Family history inspired Newbery Honor author Holm, who lives in Foster City, to tell the story of a spirited girl sent to live with relatives on Key West during the Depression. Turtle has a hard shell and a level head. Most people she meets seem to be related to her (except for a certain writer named Papa).

She hangs out with her cousin and his friends who run a babysitting business they call the Diaper Gang. She says they're "a bunch of dumb boys."

In Turtle's world, kids find their own entertainment, make do with little to nothing and search for pirate treasure. Historical references, including the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, add authenticity and flavor to this charmer, perfect for reading aloud.

"Forge" by Laurie Halse Anderson; Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 2010; $17; ages 10 and up.

Multi award-winning author Anderson told a Peninsula audience recently that she walked barefoot in snow to get a feel for the extreme cold her characters would have experienced as soldiers camped in Valley Forge, Penn., in the winter of 1777-78. As a result, I recommend readers have a blanket — and a warm snack — handy while reading this phenomenal historical novel. You will feel the cold, and be grateful not to have to subsist on a diet of firecake with a side of squirrel.

"Forge" begins with one escape and ends with another race toward freedom for a 15-year-old former slave, Curzon, who's stubborn, smart and loyal. He enlists in the Continental army, as was allowed by the Patriots. Still, he's far from free and indeed is enslaved again by his former master, also in Valley Forge and working for the young Congress. There he re-unites with Isabel, a fellow slave and friend from New York. Isabel is even forced to wear an iron collar around her neck. With a little help from Curzon's army buddies, the pair use their wits once again to escape the chains that bind them.

"Bamboo People" by Mitali Perkins; Charlesbridge, 2010; $17, ages 12 and up.

The teen soldiers in this gripping novel are fighting in a contemporary conflict, in the troubled country of Burma. When book-smart Chiko thinks he's applying for a teaching job, he's forced to join the army and its ethnic cleansing campaign along the Thai border.

Chiko makes friends with wily, street-smart Tai, who teaches Chiko how to handle beatings. Chiko, in turn, teaches Tai to read and write. They are separated, with Chiko sent into the jungle to be a land-mine clearer for a group of soldiers spying on the Karenni rebels. One of those rebels, Tu Reh, a teen seething from having his village burned by the Burmese army, finds a badly injured Chiko.

Tu Reh acts, but he also struggles for the rest of this thought-provoking book with whether he made the right decision for himself or for his people.

Stanford resident Debbie Duncan has been the Weekly's children's books reviewer since 1997. Her latest publication is an essay in the new book, "Filled with Glee."

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