Tag Archives: children

My Best Friend

Do You Have a Cat? by Eileen Spinelli (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers; $16.00; 32 pages)

“A cat who likes to caterwaul is better than no cat at all!”

There’s an old saying that dogs and their owners begin to look like each other.   Well, I may be just a kitten but even I know that’s not true just for dogs…  And this book, Do You Have a Cat?, proves me to be right.   This book shows us – and especially the young humans in the reading audience – that 14 very famous people owned felines (that’s a cat, to you).   And, guess what?   These famous people looked just like their cats and vice-versa!

If you don’t believe me, just look at the swell drawings in this book.   You’ll see that everyone from Cleopatra to Queen Victoria and Charles Lindbergh and Albert Schweitzer and President Calvin Coolidge owned very special cats, all of whom just happened to be the spitting-image of their home owners!   And you’ll learn some very cool stuff, too, like the fact that President Coolidge went on the radio to tell the folks when his cat was lost.   Luckily, for Cal, Tiger was soon found and returned to the White House!

So, I’m a young cat but I know good books.   This one’s as good as a bowl of half-and-half!

Highly recommended.

Sasha (the kitten) Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Geraldo Valerio is the illustrator of this children’s book, recommended for ages 4 through 8.  

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Hang On Sloopy

Woof: A Love Story by Sarah Weeks; Illustrated by Holly Berry (HarperCollins, $16.99, 32 pages).   Age range: 4 to 8.

A dog is a dog/ and a cat is a cat/ And most of the time/ it’s as simple as that/ Or is it?

Young children’s literature is alive and well!   The dynamic duo of author Sarah Weeks and illustrator Holly Berry have teamed up to create a colorful, delightful and endearing picture book.   Woof is the story of a dog who, at first glance, becomes smitten with a lovely white kitty.   His tale is set forth in rhyming verses guaranteed to delight both the listener and the reader.   The illustrations are created using an imaginative combination of original woodcuts and photographic images.   The effect is just eye-catching enough to enliven the story without being jarring.

Woof is big enough for the reader to hold it while allowing the listener to easily turn the pages.   Although the story line is a bit improbable (it involves a buried trombone ), it sets the stage for a dialogue about ways of communicating that can take place between the person reading the book and his or her young listener.   Clearly, woof and meow are not the only way for the two characters to share their feelings.   Music is the key to their understanding of each other.  

Delightful – 5 Woofs (or Meows).   Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   “This humorous and heartfelt story is about the power of love and the power of music, told through the eyes of a lovelorn dog and the cat he adores.”   HarperCollins

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Disco Duck

Little Duck Says Quack by Judy Dunn, Author and Phoebe Dunn, Photographer (Random House Books for Young Readers [Board Book]; $8.99; 14 pages)

“The little duck stood up on his big orange feet.”

This is a very special children’s book, written by Judy Dunn and illustrated with pictures by world-renowned photographer Phoebe Dunn.   In addition, there is a button that, when pressed, sounds out a very realistic greeting, “Quack, quack, quack.”   The book has sturdy pages that will withstand many readings, first by adults to a child or children, and later as a book to be read by the child.

The story chronicles the life of Henry, a handsome duck, from before he hatches until his ultimate transition to adult life in a pond.   Along the way, Henry grows up and makes the acquaintance of many creatures, including a dog, a hen, a bunny, and a goat.   While he enjoys playing with the boy who found him, he wishes for more from life.   A nearby pond contains the answer to his wish.

Please note:  This reviewer’s kitty was somewhat taken aback by the notion of a duck in the house!   After a few repeats of “Quack, quack, quack” the novelty wore off.   Little children likely will not tire of pressing the magic button.

Highly Recommended for children and their caretakers.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Love You To

A Dog’s Purpose: A Novel for Humans by W. Bruce Cameron (Tor Forge; $22.00; 320 pages)

“And the people who hide themselves/ Behind a wall of illusion/ Never Glimpse the truth/ Then it’s far too late/ When they pass away.”   George Harrison (“Within You Without You”)

A Dog’s Purpose is a 320-page novel targeted for adults.   This is a story of a dog named Toby who dies and is reborn as Bailey, then becomes the female Ellie and finally Buddy.   It is a novel on the subject of reincarnation that will not convince anyone that it actually happens, but it’s told in a charming voice.   The dog’s voice, no matter which of the four dogs is being portrayed (and regardless of age) is that of a non-threatening and generally naive pup which is why children will identify with it.

Had this been truly written for adults, it would have been better structured as a novella.   It goes on too long to make the rather simple point that love between humans and their pets is always reciprocated.   Any child who has loved stories like My Dog Spot will likely be enchanted with this one, but the adult reading it to a child is best advised to break it into 40 or so digestible bites.

Any they lived happily ever after, and were reborn again and again and again.   Woof!

Take Away:   This novel, sold as a childlike story for adults, is actually a long children’s story that might be read to children by adults.   There are, however, dozens and dozens of great children’s books currently available, any one of which might be a better choice.     

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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The Barricades of Heaven

The Opposite Field: A Memoir by Jesse Katz (Three Rivers Press)

“Better bring your own redemption when you come/ To the barricades of Heaven where I’m from…”   Jackson Browne

“Some nights I think, just maybe, I have found the place I belong.”   Jesse Katz

There are probably just three groups of people who will be attracted to this memoir by Jesse Katz – parents, baseball fans and those who love the greater city of Los Angeles.   No, make it four groups, as nomads must be included.   Nomads in this case being defined to include those who were born and grew up in one part of the United States but found their true, instinctual home in another part of the country.

Jesse Katz is one of those nomads but in his case it was genetic.   His parents met and were married in Brooklyn, but felt the need to move a million miles west to Portland, Oregon.   This was the pre-hip Portland, a city of mostly white persons before it became the ultra-cool city that attracted Californians – a city with a bookstore so big that it requires a map to get around inside of it.

Author Katz grew up in a humble apartment complex near downtown Portland’s Chinatown, his father a suffering artist and later a professor at Portland State.   Katz’ mother was a late bloomer, a Robert F. Kennedy inspired feminist-activist who eventually was elected to the State Legislature, then became the first woman elected as Speaker of the Assembly before becoming a two-term Mayor of the Rose City.

But this is Katz’ story which describes his escape from Portland as a teen, moving to the wilds of Los Angeles, a city that he so accurately describes as the anti-Portland.   In L.A. Katz – “a white boy” – found that, “I had become a minority, the exception…  I was a curiosity even.   God how I loved it!   Los Angeles…  Where had you been all  my life?”

Katz first lives north of downtown before he moves to the multicultural community of Monterey Park.   Monterey Park, a city of taco stands, noodle shops and Mexican restaurants, bereft of national retailers, where the local 7-Eleven sells the Chinese Daily News.   There he burrows into the Hispanic-Asian suburb (yet an independent city) just 7 miles east of downtown L.A.’s skyscrapers.   And he finds a new life that centers around the seemingly minor sport of Little League baseball.

Katz, a reporter by profession, becomes the Little League coach of a team that plays at the La Loma fields in Monterey Park; coaching a team that includes his son Max.   Max, unlike his father, is himself multicultural, the product of his Jewish father and Nicaraguan mother.   The game of baseball as played by children may not seem to offer great lessons, but Katz comes to find the truth as expressed by writer John Tunis:  “Courage is all baseball.   And baseball is life; that’s why it gets under your skin.”

The game gets under Katz’ skin to the point where he agrees to serve as the Commissioner of Baseball for the multi-age league centered at La Loma.   This means that every waking moment for several years, not devoted to reporting on gangs for the Los Angeles Times or writing about the city for Los Angeles magazine, is reserved to keeping the league afloat.   It is, in many respects, serious business but also fun…  “I could not escape the feeling that Little League was like summer camp for adults, a reprieve from whatever drudgery or disorder was besetting our regular lives, a license to care about things, about events and people, that otherwise would have passed us by.”

Katz wisely chooses to omit little of the successes and failures that he encountered, both as “The Commish” and as the single father of a teenage son.   This is a look back at a life lived both large and small, and a look at a city, Los Angeles, that embraces the people who make up its communities.   Yes, the city and its suburbs embrace its citizens in a fashion that is far more real than the media’s myths of L.A.’s violence and tawdriness.

This reader, who lived in L.A. and learned to love it (and was embraced by it), would love to raise a toast to Jesse Katz (AKA Chuy Gato).   Perhaps one day he will let me buy him a beer at the Venice Room in Monterey Park (“the seamy cocktail lounge that sooner or later everyone ended up at…”).   A toast to greater L.A., the barricades of Heaven; a place to which we were not born, a place we discovered before it was too late.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from The Crown Publishing Company.   The Opposite Field was released in trade paperback form by Three Rivers Press on July 13, 2010.

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The Other Wes Moore

other wes moore

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (Spiegel & Grau)

“The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine.   The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

This uniquely titled nonfiction book was written by Wes Moore, the Rhodes Scholar, U.S. Army paratrooper and White House Fellow.   He is the successful Wes Moore.   His namesake from the same town on the east coast is serving a life sentence in the Jessup State Correctional Institution.   The crime was murder and there is no possibility of parole.

The author’s recent appearance on the Oprah Show gave this reviewer the opportunity to observe him in the spotlight.   He came off as poised, charming and amazingly confident.   I wondered if this was an act, perhaps a well-polished persona that wins friends and influences people?   There are plenty of hucksters who achieve fame.   The book would provide the answer.

Within the first couple of chapters it was obvious that Wes Moore is beautifully literate, yet without pretentiousness.   What you see is definitely what you get.   His unfaltering curiosity about the other Wes Moore has resulted in a book that explores the outcomes for both these men and how they arrived at adulthood.

The story revolves around two young men with all-too-familiar life circumstances that include being an African American male raised by a single parent living in a poor, or declining, urban neighborhood.   The narrative is set forth in three major phases concerning their coming of age.   The fellows and their life experiences are differentiated as the author uses the first person for himself and the third person for the other Wes Moore.

The story is filled with painful realities – it’s easy to fall into the gang life; defensiveness and alienation are part of each day; and escaping the neighborhood (Baltimore or the Bronx) requires courage, determination and sacrifice.   The author began his life with two parents raising him; however, due to a tragic medical condition his father died of a rare but treatable virus.   The other Wes Moore only met his father once, accidentally in passing.

Each man encountered challenges as well as opportunities.   The opportunities were provided by family and friends.   Always there is balance in the presentation of each man’s life including photographs that illustrate the text.   They both tried and failed more than once when attempting to change the course of their lives.   The difference in the outcome can be characterized by the expectations placed upon the author and his willingness to keep trying regardless of how hard the challenge might be.   He was also immensely fortunate to have family who were willing to make financial sacrifices to obtain some of the opportunities.

Wes Moore, the author, has included a comprehensive resource guide at the back of this book.   The nationwide listing features organizations focused on assisting youth.   Because this list is a point-in-time snapshot of resources, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised to see that a continually updated version is available on the internet.

A reader who is interested in learning more about success and how it can be achieved would be well served to read The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk.   Both books explore the impact of environment on personal success and the role hard work plays in achieving it.

The Other Wes Moore:  One Name, Two Fates will alert a reader to the possibilities for a better future for our youth, especially children who face undeniably tough circumstances.   Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The Other Wes Moore was released by Spiegel & Grau on April 27, 2010.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Close Encounters

Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind by Phillip Done (Center Street, $22.99, 336 pages)

Phillip Done (rhymes with phone) is a veteran third-grade teacher with 25 years of experience in the classroom.   Done charms the reader with his take on “teacherhood,” a word he has coined.   He uses the school year, beginning with August, to frame relevant vignettes featuring classroom activities from the teacher’s perspective.  

In this book he keeps it real, uncomplicated and genuinely funny.   His breezy, fast-paced style draws the reader into a world that is full of energy, wonder and discovery.   Third graders are quick to seize the moment and tell jokes and riddles.   Done willingly goes along feigning surprise and breaking up with laughter even though he’s heard the jokes over and over again.

Some of the most innocent statements by the children are hilarious, such as this after school exchange when a teacher on duty with Done calls out, “Mindy, aren’t you a bus rider?”   “No,” she shouts back, “I’m a street-walker.”

All is not fun and games as the author deftly proves he can get the reader to laugh and cry at the same time.   Recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano and is reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review.   Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind is the follow-up to Phillip Done’s first book, 32 Third-Graders and One Class Bunny.

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