Dreams Are Never Too Big for the Brave

coverWelcome to the worldview of Sonia Cunningham Leverette, author of BJ’s Big Dream, a work that more closely captures the way a child’s mind works than any I have read in a long time. That said, no doubt the writer’s insight into the young comes from more than 30 years experience in education. She is an assistant superintendent in Spartansburg, South Carolina, as well a parent. Her earlier children’s books, He Never Slumbers, about a bullied boy who seeks help from God, or What is that Stinky Winky EEEwww Smell? , which counsels against selfishness, add more to prove that Leverette earnestly wants to instill positive values and speak to the real issues that bedevil children in the early years.

Anyway, the author gave me a copy of the book for an honest review. Let’s get to it.

Bj’s Big Dream will be a hit in most story circles for early readers. The bright, colorful illustrations by artist Deanna M, blend beautifully with the narrative that on surface is about a little boy who wants dreadlocks. At first, the narrative seems a little hesitant. The author does not spend a lost of time on details or try to tie story elements together. Leverette provides an acceptable sequence of events, combined with beautiful images. That alone will rivet little eyes and minds.

Beneath the spare, straightforward paragraphs where the author blends BJ’s  actual experience with a daydream of a walk in the woods where he is threatened by three wolves and an angry bear, lies a tale that offers adults a chance to show and talk to young people about their power to make a dream come true. BJ’s Big Dream is a charming blend of fantasy and fact that urges children to strive with courage beyond what they see as their limitations. Yes, and there was that part that made me say, “Whoa! That’s how my grandson’s mind works.”

BJ, the main character, as the story is told drives a rides through the forest on an all-terrain vehicle. “BJ dreamed he was driving a four-wheeler when a huge snake fell from a tree and wrapped around his shoulders,” the book states. As I said, “Whoa!”

That small scene is the kind of fantastic story element that is likely spark in the mind of a child eight years old or less. My grandson is likely to tell me a story and have some thing like that happen, and I would be drawn aback to say, “What?”

The adult mind might find such “out of nowhere” events jar the way they see reality develop. That is the main reason most authors would have a number of steps that lead to the drop of the snake. The incident has to come together in a sequence that grownups see as “logical.” Sonia Cunningham Leverette taps into the fantastical and recreates that part of the stories and others in a child’s logic.

BJ’s Big Dream will bring great excitement when read to those whose mastery of books is about to blossom. The main character, BJ, is resourceful and quick-witted. The adults in the tale are supportive. Youngsters might gain a number of impressions from the story. Clearly, one is that daydreams happen, yet hard work – at times even a little effort and a plan – can make real desires come true.

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A Reader Rescues a Bully’s Love

GibbsAuthor, B. S. Gibbs, summarizes this as a “chapter book for kids … illustrated with a dozen intricate, beautiful drawings.” True. The attorney/storyteller inspired by Jane Austen, light fantasy, “and all things medieval,” goes on to tout Janetta and the Book Thief  as a trove of positive pleas for reading, kindness, inclusiveness, and anti-bullying. Those things are apparent. What is not immediately evident, yet makes the 47-page story stand out, is its elegant plot, straightforward prose, and ability to be a great discussion-starter.

The story is largely uncomplicated. That makes the read ideal for third- to fifth-graders whose energy levels almost forbid them to focus on anything that moves slowly. Gibbs’ mystery tale about someone who takes the last chapters of books is easy to follow and grasp, which is the book’s strength and weakness.

Janetta, the main character, chases down the who and why behind the thefts, which first struck me as a weird story element. What is the value of the last chapter of a book?

I then looked at the work from some other angles. I considered what life might be if the last chapter of every story disappeared. The incompleteness hit me. I was able to connect with Janetta’s motivation. The character says, “I can’t imagine my life without reading!”

To that extent, Gibbs’ heroine might interest a reader, yet comes off as too perfect (apologies, but that is the only word that comes to mind) to square with reality. An average 8- to 12-year-old is not obsessed with reading, despite most parents’ wishes.

The fairies who invite Janetta to Eloria, the book-fairy land, Queen Esmeralda and the villain, Sir Grumpsalot, do not have enough edge to compete with the kinds of characters contemporary grade-schoolers find in other books and on television. Gibbs’ chapter book reminded me of plots and characters I have read in works from some Latin American writers. That is the book’s major shortfall.

A minor one is a slip in the digital layout. In the Kindle version I perused, several of artist Anca Gabriela Marginean’s illustrations slid into the lines above them. Sentences were obscured, which distracts the reader. The saving grace is that the story is pretty easy to grasp, so the gaffs do not cause a person to get lost.

Those elements aside, teachers and parents will find that the message about the effects of bullying in Janetta and the Book Thief  and the power of one kind act to change a person’s life overtakes most of the work’s weakness.

Janetta tells her fairy friend Violetta that Sir Grumpsalot, “rejects all of you so that you cannot reject him.” That defensive stance is at the heart of many rubs and scrapes, even in adult life. The line is a great place to launch a discussion with young people on a bully’s motivation, or offer them insight as to why they indulge in brusque acts.

Fear is powerful, as the story makes clear. “I believe he also tells himself that he doesn’t like any of you. But, I believe he desperately wants to be friends. He just doesn’t know how and he is scared to try.”

I won’t give away the end. Gibbs’ story is a saga about loves. Janetta loves books. Book fairies love to inspire writers. Grumpsalot loves to be mysterious. As those elements collide the reader comes to a happy conclusion. The path is worth a glance. Violetta and the other fairies learn that no one is beyond redemption. For youth today, that is a most important lesson.

Stanley Stirs School Excitement and Memories

Stanley at School
By Linda Bailey
Kids Can Press
Published: Aug. 1 2015
ISBN: 1771380969

The calendar has changed faster than the weather outside my window. As the first beams of gray daylight make it possible to see more than shadows moving down the street, I see the

high school students on the way to timely meet attendance on the first day of school. In an hour or so, the elementary school kids will follow. Like clockwork, every school day, I watch the faces as young people of all sizes move past me. Some are on foot. Some ride bikes. Book bags are on their backs. I barely still remember when I was one of them. Full disclosure – I liked school from the first day of kindergarten to college. I cannot fully recall everything that happened on the first day of school in those years. Memories grow faint, but the sense of curiosity and anticipation never fade. Those elements are guaranteed to stir some of the same feelings in those who read, or listen, to the fast-paced action in award-winning Canadian author Linda Bailey’s delightful picture book, Stanley at School.

Anyone who thinks that praise is just hype should give the 32-page work a read. I won’t share much of the story, because you really have to hear the tale for yourself. In fact, the way the author uses words is the first remarkable aspect of the book. First, let me be candid.

When I first saw the title and read the description for this work, I was intrigued yet unimpressed. Several authors have written read-aloud books about dogs (or other animals and creatures) going to school. A standout is Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat’s tale of how Charlie the Ranch Dog makes it in a classroom. Several audience polls rate in slightly higher than Norman Bidwell’s classic Clifford’s First School Day. On its face, Stanley at School, seemed too close in theme and content to Constance McGeorge’s nicely written, Boomer Goes to School, published in 2012. That is why it pays to look beyond the cover.

Stanley at School is a romp in language and art. Bailey repeats key words at pivotal parts in the narrative to poke the readers attention. The way the writer sort of seeps words drop by drop to the point cinches along the action. That breeds a gentle tension:

‘What do we do now?’ asked Alice.
But she already knew the answer. All the dogs knew. They had to wait outside.
‘Don’t you ever get tired of waiting?’ asked Stanley. ‘Wait outside the library. Wait outside the coffee shop. Wait outside the bakery.’
And that is when Stanley got an idea. A big idea. A bold idea! An idea so daring it made his fur stand up.

Happy but embarrassed to admit I was right there in the conversation with those dogs. More than that, award-winning Illustrator Bill Slavin’s vibrant drawings make the scene more believable. His image of the closed school doors up a long flight of stairs not only gives the reader an insight into a dog’s vantage point. I could imagine how a three- or four-foot child might similarly see the setting.

Parents who want to slake the interest of a preschooler, or ease the jitters of someone in kindergarten, will find Stanley a great resource. Even readers like me, who have not answered the school bell for a half century will smile, laugh and at some points guffaw, at the tightly woven tale. Those familiar with Bailey’s five earlier Stanley books will attest, the goofy, yet adventurous character strikes something beautiful in the core of many people. Bailey, who is head over heels for her Golden Retriever Sophie, asserts that Stanley is “the dog I would love to be.” That spirit also infuses the narrative, you will see.

It is obvious that I enjoyed the experience, but some of the pictures seemed out of sync with the text. In a couple places the text came on a page after the drawing. I read an e-book, and even went into two-page mode to see if the alignment changed. It did not. I was distracted. Nonetheless, a clever narrator, can hold the image in order for a child. Well, let Stanley at School take you back to that first day when you thought the worst nightmare lay behind a school door.