"review" · Children's · concenter · Picture book · recommend · Tales

bringing art to life

30 days of pbDay Sixteen:  Brush of the Gods

by Lenore Look and Illus. Meilo So

Schwarz & Wade Books 2013

brush-of-the-gods_cover-imageWhen an old monk attempts to teach young Daozi about the ancient art of calligraphy, his brush doesn’t want to cooperate. Instead of characters, Daozi’s brush drips dancing peonies and flying Buddhas! Soon others are admiring his unbelievable creations on walls around the city, and one day his art comes to life! Little has been written about Daozi, but Look and So masterfully introduce the artist to children.–goodreads

An “Author’s Note” prefaces the story with a brief history of Wu Daozi (689-759) “known as perhaps China’s greatest painter.” Little has been written about him, and Brush of the Gods is “pieced together from references I found in translations of T’ang poetry and essays and from the many know facts about life in Chang’an during T’ang times.”

brush of the gods calligraphyEven at a young age, the classroom was no place for Daozi. He moves his creations into the community, onto the walls, earning and generously dispensing food and wonder for the impoverished. His work becomes increasingly magical, and it is not only the city’s children that become enchanted—the reader is drawn into a sense of awe. Look is eloquent and So’s brushwork likewise. Rendered in watercolor, ink, gouache, and colored pencil, So’s artwork seeks to transport the reader not only into a historical narrative but into an understanding of how captivating art can become.


Brush of the Gods is a beautiful and inspiring story of a human artist’s restlessness that rewards him his imagination, daring, and charitable life. It took time and perseverance and belief for Daozi–as well as a healthy dose of rebellion; his story encourages the same for the young artist.


Lenore Look is the award-winning author of numerous children’s books including the popular Alvin Ho series and the Ruby Lu series. Her books have been translated into many languages. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Meilo So Country of origin- China/ Made in Hongkong/ Packaged in England/ Domiciled in the Shetland Isles/A tangled history/ Or a kind of freedom/ Many cultures make a world citizen/ Not a purist/ Methods and media change as required/ Pen and ink, brush drawing, gouache/ Subjects endlessly varied/ Magic, history, animals, humour, children, sex/ Or a quick sketch from life (via “about“)

Her Children’s Books include: Water Sings Blue by Kate Coombs and Tasty Baby Belly Buttons by Judy Sierra.

{illustrations belong to Meilo So}

"review" · Children's · concenter · Picture book · recommend

a lemonade stand in winter?

30 DAYS OF PB 2013 aDay Twenty-Six: Lemonade in Winter: A Book about Two Kids Counting Money

by Emily Jenkins, illus. G. Brian Karas

Schwartz & Wade, 2012.lemonade in winter cover

I’ll start with the less positive spin: “A Lemonade Stand in a Snowstorm? No one will be on the street! No one will want cold drinks! But Pauline and her little brother, John-John, are already jumping with the idea” (jacket copy). Their parents fail to dissuade them (not that they seemed to try too hard), so instead they bundle them up and send them to the store, gather supplies, and spend hours out of doors in the snow. Okay, that didn’t sound all that bad; even with the snow-storming outside.

Here is the positive spin: In a starred review, Publishers Weekly writes: Lemonade in Winter is “a beautifully restrained tribute to trust and tenderness shared by siblings; an entrepreneurship how-to that celebrates the thrill of the marketplace without shying away from its cold realities; and a parable about persistence.”

The ridiculousness of the premise of a Lemonade Stand in Winter really speaks to the persistence Publishers Weekly picked up on. It is also the kind of premise kids are not going to readily ‘jump at the idea’–you hope. Just follow it with Keats’ Snowy Day.

lemonade_2The “trust and tenderness” between the siblings–which is worth the read alone–extends to the parents. The children go to the store, account for supplies, make the drinks, set up and come up with sales and marketing schemes: they just need their parents to let them go. They also need their community. Some happen by, others go out to show support. 

lemonade in winter

The children do not make a profit, which I appreciate Pauline’s notice. But the two have enough for what they want, and the venture was an exciting way to spend their day.  Lemonade in Winter is a sibling adventure, a small-business tale, and math lesson. It’s also nicely illustrated.

The choices for warm tones for the winter scenes takes the edge off. No crisp edged blues and violets and sharp whites here. Even so, the wind lets itself be known. These kids are either crazy, determined, or both. The illustrations have just enough cartoon, a playfulness to the otherwise real depictions and the reality of money. It is frequently messy around the children. And John-John getting juice in his eye is an amusing little detail. Jenkins brings a lot of personality to the text, but Karas matches her in energy and demonstration of childhood schemes. What I found mildly distracting was how small Pauline often is, yet how mature her understanding and her command of a situation. I suppose there is a lesson in that…


Lemonade in Winter is a nice departure from (money) counting books, readable in any season–though I’d recommend a hot cider for that winter read-along.

*there is a nice addition in the back called “Pauline Explains Money to John-John” wherein she does that very thing.

{images belong to G. Brian Karas}

"review" · Children's · Picture book · recommend

a mighty good picture book

30 DAYS OF PB 2013 aDay 13: The Mighty Lalouche

by Mathew Olshan and illus by Sophie Blackall

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2013

mighty lalouchecover“One hundred and a few-odd years ago, in Paris, France, there lived a humble postman named Lalouche” (1). When he is let go from the postal service and needing work, he finds that the skills that made him successful as a postman proved especially useful winning in La boxe française.

mighty lalouche-insert

The above image gives you a sense of scale and difference; the commanding presence and theater of “The Anaconda” over the ‘under-dog’ a newcomer with a straightforward name and approachable face.

The mightly Lalouche is a modest man whose vanities and dreams are relatively small, a virtue that is rewarded. The Mighty Lalouche is a quiet story whose elegance could easily be overlooked by its own modest presentation–of story, anyway. Mathew Olshan creates a disarming character in Lalouche and historical Paris. Disarming, too, is Sophie Blackall’s illustrations. Like Olshan’s story, her images would invite the reader into the remarkable man’s life and times. (my favorite scene, left page, here.)

I decided to create layered dioramas which would give depth to the scenes. I painted first in Chinese ink, the way I always do, then painted the color washes over that, then cut out all the individual elements and assembled the scenes. It was very time consuming, but really, really fun. –Sophie Blackall, in Book Page interview.

It takes on that beautiful effect of the paper-craft films (example). This would be a lovely project, Blackall’s art, Olshan’s words. This, too, would translate into a clever series of historical figures. The Mighty Lalouche is such a coherent work, pleasing to the ear and eye. And there are bonus features, a small glossary of French terms at the start and a note on certain historical aspects (with photographs) at the end.

mighty Lalouche-with-trophies

The Mighty Lalouche is one of the easiest picture books thus far to recommend in that it should appeal to any and all.


7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast hosts a piece on the making of the book!

Angela Leeper for The Book Page interviews Sophie Blackall.

{images belong to Sophie Blackall}


{books} saving summer & certain allergies

Today is the last day of the school year for N and we are looking forward to summer. She has already signed up for the Summer Reading Program at the local Library. I need to sign up (they have awesome drawings–even for adults!). So I hope you’ve signed up with your Library. There is Scholastic’s program on-line. And Barnes & Nobles has a program for up through 6th grade, too (w/ forms in English & Spanish). I’m sure there are many more.

We rarely chose books for their Summeryness. But I have read two summery juvenile fictions to add to those summer reading suggestions you’ve been (maybe) hearing about. (recommended both boys & girls, ages 6-10)


How Tia Lola Saved the Summer (Tia Lola Stories, bk3) by Julia Alvarez, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011; hardcover, 141 pages) I had been missing this one from the quartet, so now you will have all my thoughts on this fantastic series.

Miguel Guzman isn’t exactly looking forward to the summer now that his mother has agreed to let the Sword family—a father, his three daughters, and their dog—live with them while they decide whether or not to move to Vermont. Little does Miguel know his aunt has something up her sleeve that just may make this the best summer ever. With her usual flair for creativity and fun, Tía Lola decides to start a summer camp for Miguel, his little sister, and the three Sword girls, complete with magical swords, nighttime treasure hunts, campfires, barbecues, and an end-of-summer surprise!–publisher’s comments.

How Tia Lola Saved the Summer is magical and full of fun summer activities and adventures. It also continues with Alvarez’s flair for handling tough issues with a deft hand. As with previous books, Alvarez begins with Miguel, but effortlessly shifts between the perspectives of other characters in following chapters. 7 of the 10 chapters are dedicated to each family member’s troubles they must overcome : Juanita wants to feel special; Victoria, the eldest and maternal daughter wants to be able to be young and carefree sometimes; Mami fears making another mistake (still dealing with her divorce and confronted with a new chance at love)… The chapters hold to a time-line and a quick procession through the week of the Espada’s visit. Miguel’s worries and struggles find some resolutions without being pat. He (and the others) are growing throughout the series–it’s really nicely done.

Tia Lola has a way of making people feel brave. It isn’t that she creates possibilities necessarily, but she makes others aware of them. She is also fun and fosters creativity and community. Alvarez has a way of depicting magic, possibility, humor, and fun without diminishing the sincerity of her characters emotions or situations.

Did I just turn that into a grown-up book? (sigh)…It really is a fun read. And you can bet treasure hunts and smores will ensue!


Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters by Lenore Look, Pictures by LeUyen Pham, (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2009; hardcover, 170 pages). I adore this series, too.

Alvin Ho back and his worst fear has come true: he has to go camping.What will he do exposed in the wilderness with bears and darkness and . . . pit toilets? Luckily, he’s got his night-vision goggles and water purifying tablets and super-duper heavy-duty flashlight to keep him safe. And he’s got his dad, too. -Publisher’s Comments

Alvin Ho is so freaking hilarious. The binds Alvin finds himself in, and the sweet rescue by his father–and all this before the idea of going camping forms. Believing his older brother Calvin to be wise, Alvin seeks his advice and gear his purchased (via plastic–‘so nobody has to pay for it’). An Uncle shows up to offer his own advice, and amusingly you begin to see a parallel between Uncle and Calvin, and an alignment between Alvin and his father. All set to go, fears still intact, Alvin and father are packed to go–but so is little sister Anibelly.

My favorite parts: The boys playing out camping only to be one-upped by the girls and stranded in school playground trees in their underwear. The steps for setting up the tent. The new friend Alvin makes. Why the children’s insistence on using a toilet instead of a pit was a good idea.

It’s cool to see Alvin overcome fears when it really counts, when we really need him to be heroic. He loves his father who isn’t a superhero but always comes to the rescue anyway. Alvin is able to save his father; of course, how his father gets into trouble in the first place…

Look’s sense of characterization and that comedic timing finds a way to make us laugh with Alvin and his fears without demeaning his fears or his character. These books are silly and sweet and full of tension and marvelous adventure that feels all too gloriously possible.


both of these books are a taste of childhood. they are good and fun options for summer reading.

"review" · chapter/series · Children's · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · recommend · series

{book} Alvin Ho: Allergic to Dead Bodies, Funerals, & Other Fatal Circumstances

A cure for those hours steeped in academia ala textbooks and essays? Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho. I’ve been intrigued by the title for awhile, Alvin Ho: Allergic to Dead Bodies, Funerals, and Other Fatal Circumstances, so when I saw it face-out on the Library shelf I brought it home. This is the fourth book in a series that I’ve been assured will continue with a fifth in 2013. I picked up the other books from the Library today. Yes, I adored my first treatment that much.

Let’s face it. When it comes to death, everything is scary. Especially if your name is Alvin Ho and you maybe, sort of, agreed to go to a funeral for your Gunggung’s best friend (who was your friend too).

Alvin’s all freaked out, and here’s why:

  1. He starts seeing bad omens…everywhere.
  2. People are telling him creepy things, like how a dead body cools one degree a minute until it reaches room temperature.
  3. The dead body might wake up, like in the movies!
  4. He has to dress special for the funeral (including clean underwear!)
  5. He has to be brave. He has to look death smack in the eye.

But being brave is hard. What if Alvin’s not ready to say goodbye to someone he loves?

–inside jacket copy.

Alvin Ho is an anxious 2nd grade boy. I don’t know what is going on with him, but he seems frightened by most everything (real or imagined); which, of course, is the greatest source of the reader’s angst and amusement. The sweet comes from Alvin’s ability to articulate his anxieties with childlike brilliance (you know, that coincidental poignancy young people often express in their language).

“My vocal cords grew hair.

And the hair tangled into a hairball.

I gagged silently.

Everything in the room faded to gray.” (81)

Look has a great way of describing things.

The story surrounding a serious topic takes on the morbid curiosity and fantastic imagination of the young. For example, their living in Concord, Massachusetts, the local kids think the Historic House tours are led by the ghosts of the celebrity occupants. The story takes unexpected turns that remain consistent with the characterization—I realize this should be a given, but it feels especially organic in this instance.

 “I love it when he calls me that. Son. I love it more than my own name. I love it so much that hearing it could make me cry. So I did.” (157)

I must add my adoration for the family and friends.  Alvin has loving parents and grandparents; and his siblings are sources of frustration and affection, in other words, familiar. (Man does big brother Calvin sound like my two older brothers combined.) The school staff seem to get Alvin, and I absolutely love Flea. (“She’s a girl and she was all dressed up like a girl too, which, as everyone knows, is horrible, especially when it makes her look clean and shiny like a new car.” 179) Characters have their quirks without running risk of being cute. The father and his cursing in Shakespearean had me laughing out loud. There was a lot that had me laughing. The novel was punctuated by a deeply felt smile. Look has an excellent sense of timing. And her hand with suspense isn’t too shabby either.

 “Deep breathing helps when the heart falls out of your chest. I learned this from the psycho who is my therapist, but I could never remember to do it, until now.”(43)

I was so thoroughly charmed by this read. I don’t know how well it goes over with the young (intended) audience, but reading these with a child would be no chore what-so-ever.

The Illustrations have as much personality as the words. And LeUyen Pham does not skimp on the quantity. They are a really nice company and I think they free Look to spin lovely similes and metaphors. Want to cultivate a young writer?–or Illustrator? [check out Pham’s site.]


recommended: for any young grade-school reader (or learning to read), and even older elementary because they can probably laugh a bit more easily (having survived the earlier grades); for those who prefer books you may learn from but is not heavy-handed (obvious) with the messages. Look/Pham offer a light-hearted treatment of the subject Death and Dying without losing gravity.

of note: I noticed what seemed to be references to earlier books, but I was not lost or deprived of enjoying the read.

The different cultural responses to Death and burial (or non-) are nicely sewn in and very interesting. Not only would this make a fun read for a family, but a source of great conversation as well. Allergic to Dead Bodies is a good Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) suggestion that will help you include the younger members of the family.


Alvin Ho: Allergic to Dead Bodies, Funerals, and Other Fatal Circumstances

By Lenore Look, Pictures by LeUyen Pham

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011.

187 pages, hardcover. Pages 189-197 “Alvin Ho’s Deadly Glossary”

Ages 6-10.