These two new titles pass a test drive with kids and teachers

published in the News and Observer OCTOBER 23, 2017

I’m pretty good at judging the power of a children’s book, but there’s nothing like taking one on a test drive. When classrooms respond either with laughter or complete quiet, I know a book is super for sharing. When I read aloud in a teacher workshop and we all get goosebumps, that book is made for re-reading. Two recent experiences revealed spectacular new titles.

When one of my writing students imagined a tree as a character, I let him borrow a book from my towering “to read pile.” “I’ve got to own this,” he said as he returned “Wishtree” by Katherine Applegate (Feiwel & Friends, ages 8 and up). Inspired by his rave reviews, I plunged in and finished the book within hours.

Applegate animates the viewpoint of Red, a caring oak, who knows well the habits of creatures in her world and treats readers to an insightful analysis. Trees, for example are talkers, but they can’t tell a good joke. “Birds? They’re delightful. Frogs? Grumpy, but goodhearted. Snakes? Terrible gossips.” It’s easy to suspend disbelief with Red’s wise voice, active mind and caring soul.

Red’s concern reaches out to humans as well as trees and animals. When Muslims move into the neighborhood and a human carves “Leave” into her bark, Red responds with acerbic puzzlement, “Two hundred and sixteen rings, and I still haven’t figured them out.” This act of violence propels Red into taking a brave action. The story’s wit and humor keep it from being heavy-handed, as do vivid portrayals of minor characters, especially Bongo, the sarcastic crow who is Red’s best friend. This is a book made for family sharing and discussion.

In a teacher workshop, I read a book that wowed me and had immediate corroboration. Dave Eggers’ “Her Right Foot” (Chronicle, ages 8-adult) begins as a quirky narrative about the Statue of Liberty. Shawn Harris’ bold cut paper and ink illustrations merge with Eggers’ musings, facts, humor and emotions. Together, these trace the story of the gift given by France to the United States for its 100th birthday. The author stresses the collaboration of those who designed, sculpted, engineered, constructed, deconstructed, shipped and reassembled the statue’s 214 pieces. Lady Liberty’s color changes are described as well as the symbolism of her book, crown, torch and broken chain. These blend with odd bits of trivia such as Thomas Edison’s proposal – placing a giant record player inside the great lady.

Nearing the end, the book’s focus shifts. As the author zooms in on Lady Liberty’s lifted right foot, he realizes the many themes he’s inferred throughout. He urges readers to notice and wonder why she “is on the move.” Clue? She’s not going “to SoHo to get a panini.” This 450,000-pound statue who wears 879 sized shoes, herself an immigrant, has welcomed millions to this country. While more wait, she can’t stand still, “is unwilling to rest.” Not content to wait, “She must meet them in the sea.” The careful layering and pacing of this book is chilling. It demands re-reading and sharing with others.

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