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About me: "Well, I work at the most succulent plum of children's branches in New York City. The Children's Center at 42nd Street not only exists in the main branch (the one with the big stone lions out front) but we've a colorful assortment of children's authors and illustrators that stop on by. I'm a lucky fish. By the way, my opinions are entirely my own and don't represent NYPL's in the least. Got blame? Gimme gimme gimme!"
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1. And All Our April Fool’s of Yesterday

It sort of defeats the purpose to write a post that reminds folks that it’s April Fool’s Day in the post’s very title, doesn’t it?  I guess I can’t go about claiming wild and wacky things, like Peter Sieruta used to.  Remember his 2012 post on “Selznick syndrome” or 2011′s Charlie Sheen Lands Children’s Book Deal or 2009′s Graveyard Book to Be Stripped of Newbery, or (my personal favorite) his 2008 Ramona piece de resistance?  No?  Then go read them.  The man knew from pranks.

This year pranking is doing very well in the middle grade category.  Mac Barnett and Jory John put out that great The Terrible Two (reviewed best by Travis Jonker).  I’d count The Tapper Twins Go to War by Geoff Rodkey as a great prank book as well.  And if we want to look at books that have come out in the past, I was always fond of Kim Baker’s Pickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School and M3: Sir John Hargrave’s Mischief Maker’s Manual by John Hargrave.

Today, I bring to you a specific picture book prank so light and airy and sweet that it can hardly be called “prank”.  It’s the kind of thing you might expect from the film Amelie or Color Me Katie.  It’s from last year and called More Bookish Prank Fun.  And to give you a hint of which picture book it references I shall leave you with just a single photograph.

Happy April Fool’s!

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1 Comments on And All Our April Fool’s of Yesterday, last added: 4/1/2015
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2. Review of the Day: Red by Michael Hall

Red: A Crayon’s Story
By Michael Hall
Greenwillow (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0062252074
Ages 3-6
On shelves now

Almost since their very conception children’s books were meant to teach and inform on the one hand, and to inform one’s moral fiber on the other. Why who can forget that catchy little 1730 ditty from The Childe’s Guide that read, “The idle Fool / Is whipt at School”? It’s got a beat and you can dance to it! And as the centuries have passed children’s books continue to teach and instruct. Peter Rabbit takes an illicit nosh and loses his fancy duds. Pinocchio stretches the truth a little and ends up with a prominent proboscis. Even parents who are sure to fill their shelves with the subversive naughtiness of Max, David, and Eloise are still inclined to indulge in a bit of subterfuge bibliotherapy when their little darling starts biting / hitting / swearing at the neighbors. Instruction, however, is a terribly difficult thing to do in a children’s book. It takes skill and a gentle hand. When Sophie Gets Angry . . . Really Really Angry works because the point of the book is couched in beautiful, lively, eye-popping art, and a story that shows rather than tells. But for every Sophie there are a hundred didactic tracts that some poor child somewhere is being forced to swallow dry. What a relief then to run across Red: A Crayon’s Story. It’s making a point, no doubt about it. But that point is made with a gentle hand and an interesting story, giving the reader the not unpleasant sensation that even if they didn’t get the point of the tale on a first reading, something about the book has seeped deep into their very core. Clever and wry, Hall dips a toe into moral waters and comes out swimming. Sublime.

“He was red. But he wasn’t very good at it.” When a blue crayon in a wrapper labeled “Red” finds himself failing over and over again, everyone around him has an opinion on the matter. Maybe he needs to mix with the other kids more (only, when he does his orange turns out to be green instead). Maybe he just needs more practice. Maybe his wrapper’s not tight enough. Maybe it’s TOO tight. Maybe he’s got to press harder or be sharper. It really isn’t until a new crayon asks him to paint a blue sea that he comes to the shocking realization. In spite of what his wrapper might say, he isn’t red at all. He’s blue! And once that’s clear, everything else falls into place.

A school librarian friend of mine discussed this book with some school age children not too long ago. According to her, their conversation got into some interesting territory. Amongst themselves they questioned why the crayon got the reaction that he did. One kid said it was the fault of the factory that had labeled him. Another kid countered that no, it was the fault of the other crayons for not accepting him from the start. And then one kid wondered why the crayon needed a label in the first place. Now I don’t want to go about pointing out the obvious here but basically these kids figured out the whole book and rendered this review, for all intents and purposes, moot. They got the book. They understand the book. They should be the ones presenting the book.

Because you see when I first encountered this story I applied my very very adult (and very very limited) interpretation to it. A first read and I was convinced that it was a transgender coming-of-age narrative except with, y’know, waxy drawing materials. And I’m not saying that isn’t a legitimate way to read the book, but it’s also a very limited reading. I mean, let’s face it. If Mr. Hall had meant to book to be JUST about transgender kids, wouldn’t it have been a blue crayon in a pink wrapper? No, Hall’s story is applicable to a wide range of people who find themselves incorrectly “labeled”. The ones who are told that they’re just not trying hard enough, even when it’s clear that the usual rules don’t apply. We’ve all known someone like that in our lives before. Sometimes they’re lucky in the way that Red here is lucky and they meet someone who helps to show them the way. Sometimes they help themselves. And sometimes there is no help and the story takes a much sadder turn. I think of those kids, and then I read the ending of “Red” again. It doesn’t help their situation much, but it makes me feel better.

This isn’t my first time at the Michael Hall rodeo, by the way. I liked My Heart Is Like a Zoo, enjoyed Perfect Square, took to Cat Tale, and noted It’s an Orange Aardvark It’s funny, but in a way, these all felt like a prelude to Red. As with those books, Hall pays his customary attention to color and shape. Like Perfect Square he even mucks with our understood definitions. But while those books were all pleasing to the eye, Red makes a sudden lunge for hearts and minds as well. That it succeeds is certainly worth noting.

Now when I was a kid, I ascribed to inanimate objects a peculiar level of anthropomorphizing. A solo game of war turned a deck of cards into a high stakes emotional journey worthy of a telenovela. And crayons? Crayons had their own lives as well. There were a lot of betrayals and broken hearts in my little yellow box. Hall eschews this level of crayon obsession, but in his art I noticed that he spends a great deal of time understanding what a crayon’s existence might entail if they were allowed families and full lives. I loved watching how the points on the crayons would dull or how some crayons were used entirely on a slant, due to the way they colored. I liked how the shorter you are, the older you are (a concept that basically turned my 3-year-old’s world upside down when she tried to comprehend it). I liked how everything that happens to Red stays with him throughout the book. If his wrapper is cut or he’s taped together, that snip and tape stay with him to the end. The result is that by the time he’s figured out his place in the world (and shouldn’t we all be so lucky) he bears the physical cuts and scars that show he’s had a long, hard journey getting to self-acceptance. No mean feat for a book that primarily utilizes just crayon drawings and cut paper, digitally combined.

Not everyone thinks, as I do, that Mr. Hall’s effort is successful. I’ve encountered at least one librarian who told me straight out that she found the book “preachy”. I can see why she’d say that. I mean, it does wear its message on its sleeve. Yet for all that it has a purpose I can’t call it purposeful. What Hall has done so well here is to take a universal story and tell it with objects that almost every reader approaching this book will already be familiar with. These crayons don’t have faces or arms or mouths. They look like the crayons you encounter all the time, yet they live lives that may be both familiar and unfamiliar to readers. And in telling a very simple fish-out-of-water story, it actually manages to make kids think about what the story is actually trying to say. It makes readers work for its point. This isn’t bibliotherapy. It’s bibliodecoding. And when they figure out what’s going on, they get just as much out of it as you might hope. A rare, wonderful title that truly has its child audience in mind. Respectful.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

Other Reviews: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast st Kirkus

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3. Fusenews: In which I find the barest hint of an excuse to post a Rex Stout cover

  • I’ve been watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt recently.  So far the resident husband and I have only made it through two episodes, but I was pleased as punch when I learned that the plot twist in storyline #2 hinged on a Baby-Sitter’s Club novel.  Specifically Babysitter’s Club Mystery No. 12: Dawn and the Surfer Ghost.  Peter Lerangis, was this one of yours?  Here’s a breakdown of the book’s plot with a healthy dose of snark, in case you’re interested.
  • And now a subject that is near and dear to my heart: funny writers. Author Cheryl Blackford wrote a very good blog post on a comedic line-up of authors recently presented at The Tucson Festival of Books. Mac Barnett, Adam Rex, Jory John, Obert Skye, and Drew Daywalt were all there.  A good crew, no?  One small problem – we may be entering a new era where all-white male panels cannot exist without being called into question.  Indeed, I remember years ago when I attended an ALA Conference and went to see a “funny authors” panel.  As I recall, I was quite pleased to see the inclusion of Lisa Yee.  Here, Tucson didn’t quite get the memo.  The fault lies with the organizers and Cheryl has some incisive things to say about what message the attendees were getting.
  • Speaking of Adam Rex, he’s got this little old major feature film in theaters right now (Home).  Meanwhile in California, the Gallery Nucleus is doing an exhibition of Rex’s work.  Running from March 28th to April 19th, the art will be from the books The True Meaning of Smekday and Chu’s Day.  Get it while it’s hot!
  • Boy, Brain Pickings just knows its stuff.  There are plenty of aggregator sites out there that regurgitate the same old children’s stuff over and over again.  Brain Pickings actually writes their pieces and puts some thought into what they do.  Case in point, a recent piece on the best children’s books on death, grief, and mourning.  The choices are unusual, recent, and interesting.

Chomping at the bit to read the latest Lockwood & Company book by Jonathan Stroud?  It’s a mediocre salve but you may as well enjoy his homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Mind you, I was an Hercule Poirot fan born and bred growing up, but I acknowledge that that Doyle has his place.  And don’t tell Stroud, but his books are FAR closer to the Nero Wolfe stories in terms of tone anyway.

Over at The Battle of the Books the fighting rages on.  We’ve lost so many good soldiers in this fight.  If you read only one decision, however, read Nathan Hale’s.  Future judges would do well to emulate his style.  Indeed, is there any other way to do it?

You may be one of the three individuals in the continental U.S. who has not seen Travis Jonker’s blog post on The Art of the Picture Book Barcode.  If you’re only just learning about it now, boy are you in for a treat.

“Really? Rosé?”

That one took some thought.

  • Daily Image:

And now, the last and greatest flashdrive you will ever own:

Could just be a librarian thing, but I think I’m right in saying it reeks of greatness.  Many thanks to Stephanie Whelan for the link.

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4. Review of the Day: Tricky Vic by Greg Pizzoli

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
By Greg Pizzoli
Viking (an imprint of Penguin Group USA)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-670-01652-5
Ages 8-11
On shelves now

I was listening to a favorite podcast of mine the other day when the panelists began discussing the difference between heist films and con man films.  A heist film is one where the entire movie is a build-up to a great and fabulous heist.  Ocean’s 11 and that sort of thing.  In the children’s book world this would be The Great Greene Heist.  A con man film is different.  There you have a single individual, and not necessarily a heroic one either.  Catch Me If You Can is a con man film.  And on the children’s book side?  Honestly, we don’t have a lot of them.  Maybe Pickle by Kim Baker but that’s a stretch.  It really wasn’t until I laid eyes on Greg Pizzoli’s Tricky Vic that I could appreciate what I had been missing all these years.  Told with a relaxed easygoing style, Pizzoli takes one of the world’s most notorious individuals in the con game, and refuses to humanize him.  Here we see a character that was larger than life.  Makes sense that he’d try to sell a structure that was in many ways his equal.

In 1890 he was born Robert Miller, but that didn’t last.  Names came and went and by the time he was an adult, Miller was a professional gambler turned con artist.  His preferred method of payment was gambling on transatlantic ocean liners but then along came WWI and Miller, now calling himself Count Victor Lustig, needed a new occupation.  Through a little low level trickery he got the blessing of Al Capone and then set about bilking the easy rich.  But his greatest feat, and the one that would put him down in the history books, was his successful con of “selling” the Eiffel Tower to prospective buyers.  Though in time he was eventually caught and jailed (in Alcatraz, no less), Vic’s odd life shines a spotlight on those individuals willing to get ahead on our own greed and misplaced hope.  Backmatter includes an Author’s Note, Glossary, Selected Sources, and a note on the art.

Every great picture book biography finds something about an individual that is interesting to child readers.  In The Boy Who Loved Math it was Paul Erdos’s sheer enthusiasm and childlike goofiness.  In The Noisy Paintbox it was Kandinsky’s ability to translate sound to sight and back again.  And in Tricky Vic it’s shamelessness.  Kids don’t often encounter, in any form, adults that unapologetically do wrong.  Vic ultimately pays for his crimes, and in many ways that’s the only way you can get away with what Pizzoli is doing here.  You see, the trouble with con man storylines is that they’re just too much fun.  You can’t help but root for Vic when he pulls the old Romanian Money Box scheme or when he cons the great Al Capone himself.  Really one of the few objections I’ve heard lobbed against the book is a question as to whether or not kids will have any interest in an obscure two-bit criminal.  But like all great nonfiction authors for kids, Pizzoli knows that children’s biographies do not begin and end with Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln.  Sometimes kids appreciate far more the biographies of the people who didn’t go about with halos hovering around their ears.  There’s room on our shelves for the baddies.

Now when Greg Pizzoli debuted with his picture book The Watermelon Seed two years ago, there was nothing to indicate to me that he had any inclination to go the nonfiction route.  “The Watermelon Seed” utilizes a three-color print job and distinctly retro aesthetic.  That aesthetic remains intact in Tricky Vic but Pizzoli but the technique has been cranked up to eleven.  In “A Note About the Art in This Book” at the back, Pizzoli says that the illustrations seen here were “created using pencil, ink, rubber stamps, halftone photographs, silkscreen, Zipatone, and Photoshop.” The end result is a book that straddles the line between those picture books actually concocted in the 1930s and a distinctly contemporary creation.

Dig a little deeper and Pizzoli’s illustration choices go beyond mere novelty.  The choice to render Vic’s head as a thumbprint has so many different uses.  With a mere change in tone or color, Pizzoli can render his personality and character different from one page to the next.  This chameleon of a man couldn’t ask for better representation.  But much of the success of the book lies in how it tackles the question of Vic as a bad person.  Pizzoli’s choice to make Vic expressionless throughout the book is key to this.  Because kids aren’t exactly reading about a role model, it’s important that Vic never look like he’s having too much fun.  Remove his mouth and eyes and voila!  An instant blank slate on which to project your storyline.  Let the facts speak for themselves.

And speaking of facts, in no time in our nation’s history have picture book biographies for children fallen under as much scrutiny as they do today.  Time was the D’Aulaires could write varying fictional accounts of everyone from Pocahontas to Abraham Lincoln and win Caldecotts for their efforts.  These days, the debate rages around how much an author is allowed to do and the crux of that debate centers on made up dialogue.  I am firmly of the opinion that made up dialogue is unnecessary in a children’s book biography.  However, when handled creatively, there are exceptions to every rule.  And “Tricky Vic” is, if nothing else, vastly creative.  If you read the book the actual text is all factual.  There is some mucking about with the timeline of one of the major events in Vic’s life, but Pizzoli comes clean about that in his Author’s Note in the back, and I give a lot of credit to folks who fess up plainly.  Getting back to the text, look a little closer and you’ll see that there is some made up dialogue but Pizzoli keeps it at a minimum and gives it its own separate space.  Little speech balloons between the characters will occasionally crop up at the bottom of the pages.  The feeling is that these are interstitial fictional bits that simply support the rest of the text.  A reader doesn’t walk away from them thinking that they’re strict representations of the past.  They are, instead, a little colorful complement to the text to give it a lighter bouncier feel.

I recently conducted a Salon in my library on children’s nonfiction picture book illustration and historical accuracy.  During the course of the talk we discussed Vincent Kirsch’s work on Gingerbread for Liberty and the times when a bouncier, more light-hearted feel to the illustrations best fit the text.  In Tricky Vic Pizzoli isn’t going for a meticulous reconstruction of past events in his art.  He’s going for something with a historical feel, but with fun built in as well.  The design elements are what really step things up a notch.  I also loved the factual sidebars that complemented the text but never dominate.  As kids read they encounter sections talking about Prohibition, The Tower’s Critics (the folks who hated it from the get-go, that is), the Hotel de Crillon, Counterfeiting, and Alcatraz.  The end result is as dynamic as it is informative.

I wonder vaguely if this book will receive any challenges from concerned parents living in the mistaken belief that Pizzoli has penned a How To manual for little budding criminals.  As I mentioned before, the line between celebrating your biographical picture book subject and simply reporting on their life is thin.  The beauty of Tricky Vic, I think, is that his life is just as wild and weird as any fictional character.  There is value in showing kids the fools of the past.  I don’t think anyone will walk away from this thinking Vic had it all figured out, but I do think a fair number of them might want to follow-up on Pizzoli’s Selected Sources for a little independent reading of their own.  And if this book encourages just one kid to rethink their attitude towards nonfiction, then this title has earned its place in the world.  The gorgeous art and great writing are just gravy.  For one.  For all.  Un-forgettable.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews: 100 Scope Notes

Professional Reviews: The New York Times

Interviews: Greg Pizzoli discusses his technique at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

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5. Walking and Talking with . . . Andrew Smith

That’s right.

Andrew Smith.

And it’s fantastic. The latest in Steve Sheinkin’s series “Walking and Talking”.

Enjoy it.

Big time thanks to Steve for putting these together and for this one in particular.

Previous editions of this series include:

 

 

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1 Comments on Walking and Talking with . . . Andrew Smith, last added: 3/27/2015
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6. Where the Wild Books Are: Addressing the State of Global Publishing in America

It’s amazing what a blog post can do. About a year or so ago I wrote some thoughts about picture books created in other countries, and how they are received when they are brought to American shores.  I’ve a great deal of experience with librarians considering some types of illustrations too “weird” to promote to children and parents and it rankles.  Likewise, there are many publishers that eschew a certain kind of look that comes with picture books from other countries.  My blog post sparked something, it seems.  The great illustrator Etienne Delessert caught on to it and the result is the following program, coming this April 18th.  If you are in town and around, I highly suggest you check it out.  The line-up is AMAZING! Plus it’s free and you can register here for it.

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7. Video Sunday: Movie, book, library, and audiobook trailers trailers trailers!!

Morning, folks. We’re beginning this Sunday morn with stuff that’s good for the soul.  How often have you said to yourself, “I’d love to own some original art from illustrator Matthew Cordell but I’m too busy spending all my cash on children’s literacy foundations”?  Well, fear not!  Now you can do both.  In celebration of their book Special Delivery, Messrs. Cordell and Philip Stead are going to hold a raffle for five pieces of awesome art.  You win by donating money to good causes.  The details are here and the video here:

Next up, the American Hogwarts.  I mean, it is if by “Hogwarts” you’re referring to a well-established university setting with a clear cut amazing children’s collection, staff, program schedule, and more.  Princeton finally decided to create a little trailer for the Cotsen Children’s Library, and I have to say I’m stunned. First off, there’s my girl Dana Sheridan killing it with the storytimes.  Then there’s the just wide range of services they provide.  And the furniture, dear GOD the furniture!!  I’m fascinated by the Cotsen Critix program too since bookclubs for 9-12 year-olds are my weakness.  Wish I lived closer to it!  Here’s more background information and here’s the trailer:

Someday I shall teach a course on the art of the book trailer. In it I will show all the different myriad styles and techniques one can utilize when coming up with your very own.  And always assuming that I remember, I shall include this simple, lovely trailer for The Mystery Hat by Rune Brandt Bennicke and Jakob Hjort Jensen .  Sometimes it’s all in the soundtrack, folks.

There go Scieszka and Biggs.  I’ve suspected for years that they were in the pocket of Big Audiobook but never had the proof . . . until now!!

Seriously, though, I’m-a wanting that crazy white wig.

So this year we are seeing not one but TWO different early chapter book series about Latino girls. This is a good thing since the running tally before 2015 was . . . um . . . yeah, it was zero.  Zero series in total.  The first is the Emma Is On the Air series by Ida Siegal and illustrated by Karla Pena.  The second is the Sofia Martinez series by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Kim Smith.  But only one of these (as of this post) has a book trailer:

It’s not a children’s book.  It’s not even a YA novel.  It’s (*gasp* *shudder*) an adult book . . . but its book trailer is adorable.  I can resist it, not at all.

Thanks to Alison Morris for the link.

I had not yet taken the time to see the trailer for the Lena Dunham/Hilary Knight documentary. Nothing too surprising to see here, but it’s certainly a very clear cut case of a famous person attempting to shine their light on someone they admire who might not be a household name (though Eloise certainly is).

Thanks to educating alice for the link.

And I’m not feeling too creative on the off-topic video of the day.  And when the going gets tough, the tough links to cat/dog videos.  So goes the world.  So goes the world.

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3 Comments on Video Sunday: Movie, book, library, and audiobook trailers trailers trailers!!, last added: 3/23/2015
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8. Review of the Day: Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye Stranger
By Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-74317-4
Ages 10-14
On shelves August 4th

After much consideration, I think I’m going to begin this review with what has to be the hoity toity-est opening I have ever come up with. Gird, thy loins, mes amies. In her 2006 book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (don’t say you weren’t warned), philosopher Rebecca Goldstein wrote the following passage about the concept of personal identity: “What is it that makes a person the very person that she is, herself alone and not another, an integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be — until she does not continue any longer, at least not unproblematically?” In other words, why is the “you” that you were at five the same person as the “you” at thirteen or fourteen? Now I don’t know that a lot of 10-14 year olds spend their days contemplating the philosophical meanings behind their sense of self from one stage of life to another. But if they hadn’t before, they’re about to now. Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead has taken what on the surface might look like a fluffy middle school tale of selfies and first loves and turned it into a much more layered discussion of bodies, feminism, the male (and female) gaze, female friendships, relationships, and betrayals. And fake moon landings. And fuzzy cat ear headbands. Hard to pin this one down, honestly.

By all logic, Bridge should have died when she was eight years old. She skated into the street and got hit by a car, after all. Yet Bridge lived and with seemingly no serious repercussions. Recently she’s been taking to wearing little black cat ears on her head, but her best friends Emily and Tab don’t mind. It’s their seventh grade year and there are bigger things on their minds. Emily’s been flirting with a cute older soccer player, Tab’s trying to save the world in her way, and now Bridge has become friends with Sherm, a guy she’d never even talked to until this year. When a wayward selfie throws the friends into a tizzy, it’s all the three can do to keep their promise to one another never to fight. Meanwhile, several months in the future, an unnamed teenager is skipping school. Something terrible has happened and she wants to avoid the blowback. But while thinking about her ex-best friend and the way things have changed, she may be unable to hide from herself as well as she hides from others.

Let’s get back to that idea that with every new age in your life, you’re an entirely different person than you were before. That philosopher I was quoting, Ms. Goldstein, asks, “Is death one of those adventures from which I can’t emerge as myself?” Actual death, she’s saying, is where you change into something other than your own “self” for good. But aren’t the changes throughout your life little deaths as well? Is that five-year-old you in that photograph really you? Do you share something essential? Stead isn’t delving deep into these questions but simply raising points to make kids think. So when her teenage character ponders that her best friend has undergone a change from which her old self will never return the book reads, “But another part of you, the part that stayed quiet, began to understand that maybe Vinny, your Vinny, was gone.” Poof! Sherm wonders something similar about his grandfather and the man’s odd actions. He writes in a letter that his grandfather now feels like a stranger and then says, “Is the new you the stranger? Or is the stranger the person you leave behind?”

To write one part of the book, the teenager, in the second person was a daring choice. It’s so unusual, in fact, that you cannot look at it without wondering what the reasoning was behind its direction. When Ms. Stead was deciding how to put Goodbye Stranger together, there had to come a point where she made the conscious decision that the teenager’s voice could only work in the second person. Why? Maybe to make the reader identify with her more directly. Maybe to make her tale, which is significantly less fraught than some of the other stories in this book, more immediate and in your face. Insofar as it goes, it works. The purpose of the narrative is perhaps to prove to kids that age does not necessarily begat wisdom. For them, the revelation of the identity of the runaway, who was previously seen as so wise and older, should prove a bit of a shocker. It also drives home the theme of changing personalities and who the “self” really is from one age to another really well.

Right now, I can predict the future. Don’t believe me? It’s true. I see hundreds of children’s books clubs assigned this book. I see hundreds of teachers having kids read it over the summer. And time after time I see kids handed sheets of paper (or maybe virtual paper – I’m flexible) with a bunch of questions about the book and their interpretation of the events. And right there, clear as crystal, is the following question: “What is the significance of Bridge’s cat ears?” Don’t answer that, kids. Don’t do it. Because if the adult who handed you this book is asking you that question, then they themselves didn’t really read the book. You could ask a hundred questions about “Goodbye Stranger” but if the cat ears are your focus then I think you took the wrong message away from this story.

And there’s such beautiful prose to be enjoyed as well. Sentences like “You can see the sun touching the tops of the buildings across the street, making its way through the neighborhood like someone whose attention you are careful not to attract.” Or, “You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once.” And maybe my favorite one, “You know what my dad told me once? He said the human heart doesn’t really pump the way everyone thinks . . . He said that the heart wrings itself out. It twists in two different directions, like you’d do to squeeze the water out of a wet towel.” Trust me – if I could spend the rest of this review just quoting from this book, I’d do it. I suspect that would only amuse me in the end, though.

Bane of the cataloging librarian’s job, this book is a middle school title for middle schoolers. Not young kids. Not jaded teens. Middle. School. Kids. As such, were it not for the author’s fantastic writing and already existing fan base, it would languish away in that no man’s land between child and teen fiction. Fortunately Stead has a longstanding, strong, and dedicated group of young followers who are willing to dip a toe into the potentially murky world of middle school. There they will find exactly what we all found when we were that age. There will be kids who seem to be enjoying an extended childhood, while others have found themselves thrust into mature bodies they have no experience operating. With this book the selfie has officially entered the children’s literature lexicon and woe betide those who seek to turn back the clock. Naturally, this will lead some adults to believe that the book is better suited in the YA and teen sections of their libraries and bookstores. I condemn no one’s choice on where best to place this book, particularly since some communities are a bit more conservative in their tastes and attitudes than others. That said, I am of the firm opinion that this is a book for kids. We may like to believe that the situations that occur here (and they are very PG situations, for what it’s worth) don’t occur in the real world, but we’d be fooling ourselves. If the heroine of the book had been Bridge’s friend Emily and not Bridge herself, then a stronger case could be made for the book’s YA inclinations. Moreover the tone of the book, while certainly filled with intelligent kids, is truly intended for a child audience. Adults will enjoy it. Teens might even enjoy it. But it’s kids that will benefit the most from it in the end.

The trickiest part of the book, and the part that may raise the most eyebrows, is Stead’s handling of the notion of feminism and the perception of girls and women. Emily and Bridge’s friend Tab takes a class from a woman who seems to have stepped out of a 1974 women’s studies college course. Her name is Ms. Berman but she says the kids can call her Berperson. Tab, for her part, devours everything the Berperson (as they prefer to call her) says and then takes what she’s learned and applies it in a bad way. She’s a middle schooler. There are college girls who do very much the same thing. So I watched very closely to see how Tab’s feminist interpretation of events went down. First off, the Berperson does not approve of what Tab does later in the book. Then I wanted to see if Tab’s continual feminist statements made any good points. Sometimes they really really do. When it comes to the selfie, Tab’s the smartest of her three friends. Other times she’s incredibly annoying. So what’s a kid going to take away from this book re: feminism? For the most part, it’s complicated but the end result is that Tab is left, for all her smarts early on, a fool. That’s a strong message and one that I’m worried will cast a long shadow over the concept of feminism itself, reinforcing stereotypes that it’s humorless and self-righteous. On the flip side, there are some very intelligent things being said about how girls are perceived in society. When a girl is slut shamed (the exact phrase isn’t used but that’s what it is) for her picture, she says later, “But the bad part wasn’t that everyone was looking at the picture. I mean, it was weird and not great. But the bad part was that it felt like they were making fun of my feeling good about the picture. Of me liking myself.” Lots to unpack there.

If Stead has a known style then perhaps it’s in writing mysteries that aren’t mysteries. Every question raised by the text along with every loose end is tied up by the story’s close. Characters are smart and their interactions with one another carry the thrill of authenticity. Stead is sort of a twenty-first century E.L. Konigsburg. Her kids are intelligent but (unlike Konigsberg, I would argue) they still feel like kids. And there are connections between the characters and events that you didn’t even think to hope for until, at last, they are revealed to you. I heard one adult who had read this book say that it was “layered”. I suppose that’s a pretty good way of describing it. It has this surface simplicity to it but even the slightest scratch to that surface yields gold. I’ve focused on just a couple of the aspects of the title that I personally find interesting, but there are so many other directions that a person could go with it. If Stead has a known style, maybe it isn’t mysteries or kids smart beyond their years or multiple connections. Maybe her style is just writing great books. The evidence in this case speaks for itself.

On shelves August 4th

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Those of a certain generation may be unable to read the title of this book without the Supertramp song of the same name coming to mind. So, with them in mind . . .

Note the waitress.  I wonder if she’s taking a vanilla shake and cinnamon toast to a table.

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5 Comments on Review of the Day: Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead, last added: 3/21/2015
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