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Read like the Obamas

Over the weekend, the Obamas did some shopping at the DC indie bookstore Politics and Prose to support Small Business Saturday. Here’s what they bought. And here’s what The Horn Book thought of their selections when they were originally published. Reviews are from The Horn Book Guide Online and The Horn Book Magazine.

cronin_barnyardcollectionCronin, Doreen A Barnyard Collection: Click, Clack, Moo and More
120 pp. Atheneum (Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing) 2010. ISBN 978-1-4424-1263-7

(3) K–3 Illustrated by Betsy Lewin. This volume commemorates the tenth anniversary of the publication of modern classic Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. In addition to that story, this compendium includes Giggle, Giggle, Quack (2002) and Dooby Dooby Moo (2006), both starring the same crafty critters as in Click. A removable sticker sheet is appended.

jacques_redwallJacques, Brian Redwall
351 pp. Philomel 1987. ISBN 0-399-21424-0

(2) 4–6 Illustrated by Gary Chalk. The decline in the American taste for blockbuster fantasies, no matter how good, seems to have discouraged American authors. Such lengthy but acclaimed works as Watership Down (Macmillan) or Hounds of the Morrigan (Holiday) are by British authors; American authors tend to break up long works into volumes — Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, for example. We have in Redwall another long, beautifully written, exciting British fantasy. The hero is the mouse Matthias, a novice in the handsome Redwall Abbey, a haven of bounty, kindliness, and peace. The inhabitants of the Abbey are noted for their charity toward all their neighbors of Mossflower Woods. But the tranquil life of Redwall Abbey and the surrounding countryside is threatened by the advent of Cluny the Scourge, a rat of insane ferocity, and his horde of villainous fighters. Cluny has never been defeated and expects no trouble from Redwall. But Matthias, emboldened by his admiration for the legendary Martin, a notable warrior hero, mobilizes the defense of Redwall. Matthias also begins the search for Martin’s burial place and weapons, which he instinctively feels are the key to defeating Cluny. Matthias’s adventures alternate with Cluny’s, as the attacks on Redwall are fended off and the battle intensifies. The scenes of combat are quite fascinating, with the strategy and counter strategy cleverly and clearly worked out. The book offers an immense cast of distinctive characters, including the redoubtable Constance the badger, extremely strong and utterly fearless; Basil Stag Hare, a satirical replica of the regimental British officer; the sparrows, notably Warbeak, who speak a butter language reminiscent of that of the seagulls in Watership Down; and Abbot Mortimer, the epitome of goodness and gentleness. The flaw in the book, if there is one, is that the lines drawn between good and evil are never ambiguous, not allowing for that shiver of doubt and wonder about the outcome. But the book is splendid, with a delightful hero and a smooth, charming style.

jacques_mossflowerJacques, Brian and Chalk, Gary Mossflower [Book 2]
431 pp. Philomel 1988. ISBN 0-399-21741-X

(2) 4–6 series. Illustrated by Gary Chalk. In Mossflower, the prequel to Redwall (Philomel), we are introduced to the mouse, Martin the Warrior, the role model for Matthias in the later novel. Martin has come upon the Mossflower community just as their oppression by the evil wildcat, Tsarmina, has become too much to bear. As an experienced fighter, he takes control of the defense of the animals who live in Mossflower, aided by his new friends, Gonff, the Prince of Mousethieves; the strong, brave badger, Bella; the squirrel archers, led by Lady Amber; and the industrious moles; clever otters; and other small woodland creatures. Their chances against Tsarmina and her hordes appear small, but the woodlanders brace themselves to learn military ways and win several minor skirmishes; they even rescue some of their unfortunate comrades from the dungeons of Tsarmina’s stronghold. Martin realizes that further help is needed, and he undertakes a perilous journey to the fabled Salamandastron, in company with Gonff and other friends, to enlist the aid of Lord Boar the badger. The help is forthcoming, although not in the way that Martin expects, and Tsarmina is finally overthrown. The story is very long and contains what seems like a cast of thousands. The characterizatino is remarkably individual, sometimes funny and often even satirical, with many notable characters. There is, however, extended use of dialect, at times hard to follow; the moles make such remarks as “‘Goo boil yurr’eads, sloibeasts.'” The nonstop action suffers from too frequent transitions from one site of battle or intrigue to another. There is much talk of the delectable-sounding food — candied chestnuts, honeyed toffee pears, maple tree cordial — which, with the emphasis on cozy homes and devoted families, is reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows. Although lengthy and quite British, the book will provide excitement, fascinating characters, and an ultimately satisfactory conclusion.

jacques_mattimeoJacques, Brian and Chalk, Gary Mattimeo [Book 3]
446 pp. Philomel 1990. ISBN 0-399-21741-X

(4) 4–6 series. Illustrated by Gary Chalk. The final volume of the Redwall trilogy is a reprise of the other two books. Cruel villains, indomitable heroes, hearty adventures, and endless cozy talk of food do not quite compensate for the fact that it is far too long. For Redwall enthusiasts only.

park_juniebbusPark, Barbara and Brunkus, Denise Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus [Book 1]
70 pp. Random (Random House Children’s Books) 1992.
Library binding ISBN 0-679-82642-4
Paperback ISBN 0-679-92642-9

(4) 1–3 First Stepping Stone series. Junie B. Jones is a likable character whose comic mishaps on her first day of school will elicit laughs from young readers. But the first-person narration by a kindergartner quickly becomes tedious, and the net result is more annoying than amusing.

park_juniebmonkeyPark, Barbara and Brunkus, Denise Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business [Book 2]
46 pp. Random (Random House Children’s Books) 1993. LE ISBN 0-679-83886-4 PE ISBN 0-679-93886-9

(4) 1–3 First Stepping Stone series. Junie brags at school that her new brother is a ‘real, alive baby monkey.’ The principal uses her misunderstanding to talk with Junie’s first-grade class about expressions that are not to be taken literally. The cutesy tone makes Junie sound babyish and bratty but is finally dropped for a satisfying ending.

perkins_nuts to youstar2 Perkins, Lynne Rae Nuts to You
260 pp. Greenwillow 2014. ISBN 978-0-06-009275-7

(1) 4–6 Jed the squirrel’s odyssey begins dramatically when he is captured by a hawk and carried far away from his community. Using an “ancient squirrel defensive martial art,” he escapes and so begins his journey home. Meanwhile, his two best friends Chai and TsTs set off to find him. In the course of these two (eventually converging) adventures, our heroes meet some helpful hillbillyish red squirrels, a threatening owl, a hungry bobcat, and a group of humans who are cutting brush and trees for power-line clearance, thus threatening the squirrels’ habitat. The three make it safely home only to face their biggest challenge: convincing their conservative community to relocate before the humans destroy their homes. Part satire, part environmental fable, and all playful, energetic hilarity, this story takes us deep into squirrel culture: their names (“‘Brk’ is pronounced just as it’s spelled, except the r is rolled. It means ‘moustache’ in Croatian but in squirrel, it’s just a name”); their games (Splatwhistle); and their wisdom (“Live for the moment…but bury a lot of nuts”). Perkins uses language like the best toy ever. The storm “howled and pelted, whirled and whined; it spit and sprayed and showered. Its winds were fierce. Its wetness was  inescapable.” The book begs to be read aloud, except that you’d miss the wacky digressions, the goofy footnotes, and the black-and-white illustrations with their built-in micro-plots.

rundell_cartwheelingRundell, Katherine Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms
248 pp. Simon 2014. ISBN 978-1-4424-9061-1 $16.99

(2) 4–6 Will (short for Wilhelmina), the only daughter of William Silver, white foreman of the Two Tree Hill Farm in Zimbabwe, leads a “wildcat” life with her Shona best friend Simon, filled with good rich mud, lemons pulled from the tree with her teeth, harebrained stunts on horseback, and baby hyraxes in the barn. This idyll ends abruptly and tragically with her father’s death from malaria. The farm’s European owner, gentle Captain Browne, becomes Will’s guardian, but the captain has recently married the scheming Miss Vincy, whose ambition is to sell the farm and ship Will off to boarding school in England. This she does despite Will’s concerted opposition. Will’s arrival at school is a bumpy one — the other girls at Leewood insist she’s a “stinking savage” and a “filthy tramp” — and their continual harassment causes Will to finally run away. The protagonist’s passionate engagement with the world around her, her high moral standards (but not moralism), and her unconquerable search for joy will win readers to her side from the start, while Rundell’s finely drawn etchings of the people in Will’s sphere and rich descriptions of African colonial farm life sprawl across the page in sensual largesse. Only when Will has been reduced to almost complete destitution does Rundell allow a glimmer of hope into her life, but the ending, with its promise of relief from loneliness and despair, is that much sweeter for the wait.

woodson_brown girl dreaming_170x258star2 Woodson, Jacqueline Brown Girl Dreaming
328 pp. Paulsen/Penguin 2014. ISBN 978-0-399-25251-8 (g)

(1) 4–6 Here is a memoir-in-verse so immediate that readers will feel they are experiencing the author’s childhood right along with her. It starts out somewhat slowly, with Woodson relying on others’ memories to relate her (1963) birth and infancy in Ohio, but that just serves to underscore the vividness of the material once she begins to share her own memories; once her family arrives in Greenville, South Carolina, where they live with her maternal grandparents. Woodson describes a South where the whites-only signs may have been removed but where her grandmother still can’t get waited on in Woolworth’s, where young people are sitting at lunch counters and standing up for civil rights; and Woodson expertly weaves that history into her own. However, we see young Jackie grow up not just in historical context but also — and equally — in the context of extended family, community (Greenville and, later, Brooklyn), and religion (she was raised Jehovah’s Witness). Most notably of all, perhaps, we trace her development as a nascent writer, from her early, overarching love of stories through her struggles to learn to read through the thrill of her first blank composition book to her realization that “words are [her] brilliance.” The poetry here sings: specific, lyrical, and full of imagery: “So the first time my mother goes to New York City / we don’t know to be sad, the weight / of our grandparents’ love like a blanket / with us beneath it, / safe and warm.” An extraordinary — indeed brilliant — portrait of a writer as a young girl.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.

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