Monday, December 15, 2008

Review: The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree

This year I went shopping for a Christmas story for my five-year-old nephew. When I looked at the range of titles on display, before I realized it, my hand had picked up The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree. In so many ways, it was the perfect book for him.

Although it is a very sweet story of love and hope fulfilled in an earlier time than ours, it isn't necessarily a simpler time because the story occurs during and immediately following World War I. It was a time of such upheaval in the world that it reached even to the farthest places in the Appalachian Mountains where the story takes place.

The real connection for my nephew is that his mother went to school not far from where this story takes place at Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina. And he actually has come to visit a friend in a cabin in Maggie Valley - also in the same mountain range. Since he lives in Florida where there is not much of a chance for a white Christmas, I know that he will be able to relate this story to his post-Christmas visits in our snowy mountains.

There doesn't have to be a personal connection for a story to have an impact on us, of course, but I think it's a lovely bonus when there is one. This story by Gloria Houston and illustrated by Barbara Cooney is one of the handful of modern classic Christmas stories that stands the test of time year after year. It is a story that is gently told and beautifully illustrated about love and hope and the magic of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Review: Singing to the Sun

What a beautiful storybook this is. This new fairy tale by Vivian French unfolds as it should and Jackie Morris' illustrations are lush and gorgeous. Renaissance motifs and jewel tones bring this magical story alive.

In all good fairy tales, there is a clear depiction of good and evil and Singing to the Sun follows this tradition. Our hero is raised in a loveless home by a father focused on power and a mother focused on wealth. He is watched over and nurtured by the court jester and a wise tabby cat.

When he leaves his home to find his fortune, adventure and surprises are in store. There is a unique twist at the end of the story which brings the story to a delightful and satisfactory conclusion. This is a book to linger over and read again and again with your favorite child.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Review: Give a Goat

This true story of a fifth-grade class that raised money to donate to Heifer International was written by the daughter of the organization's founder. Jan West Schrock grew up in a house where philanthropy and community were integrated into family life. As a career educator, Mrs. Schrock had many opportunities to travel and work with children around the world and to see in person the impact of "passing on the gift."

Investing in families by giving them a goat (or a cow or chickens or...) provides them the opportunity to feed their families and improve their situation. "Passing on the gift" requires that the family pass on a baby goat or chicks to another family and so on throughout the community until all the families have increased their standard of living. From a tiny idea, Heifer has now helped more than 8.5 million people in more than 125 countries - even in the U.S.

The idea that even "regular fifth graders" can change the world is an inspiring story that deserves to be shared with young children so that just like Mrs. Schrock, they will grow up with an understanding of the importance of helping others and building communities.

Watercolor illustrations by Aileen Darragh complement the story by bringing the kids and their journey to life realistically and with a dose of humor.

At the Tilbury House website, there are curriculum activities and lesson plans that will help teachers integrate this book into a larger unit on global issues, world poverty and hunger, philanthropy, and the importance of helping others through service learning.

This is a terrific story of how anyone and everyone can make a significant difference in our world - an increasingly important message as we prepare our students to become 21st century global citizens.