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1. Vacation


I'm on vacation this week - escaping the cold.

Until I get back, perhaps you'll enjoy my recent reviews for AudioFile Magazine:


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2. Thoughts on Last Stop on Market Street

In 2008, librarians surprised everyone by choosing the 533-page, The Invention of Hugo Cabret as the winner of the Caldecott Medal honoring the "most distinguished American picture book for children."  This year, the award committees surprised us again with the choice of a picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, as the winner of the Newbery Medal, given to "to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." 

The short video below featuring author, Matt de la Peña, reading from his book will convince you that this is a wonderful book. 
My concern as a public librarian, however, is how best to share this book with kids.  The book is a little lengthy for my usual storytime crowd, and school-aged kids can seldom be convinced to check out a picture book.  It's in instances like these, that I envy school teachers and media specialists, who have such a wonderful opportunity to share great books with large numbers of kids.  This is perfect book for reading aloud in school.

But, how to share it in a public library setting?

Last week, I had a last-minute inspiration and it was a rewarding experience.  I have a small book club that meets every month. This month, I asked each of the kids to read Last Stop on Market Street - right then. In addition to positive comments about the book, I loved two of the observations that they reported:

  1. I never would have chosen this book if you didn't hand it to me.
  2. The people at the soup kitchen look like regular people.
We then discussed public transportation (none of the kids had ever been on a bus) and soup kitchens (none had ever been to one).  Working in a suburban library with poor public transportation, I can understand this. However, as a suburban parent, I can tell you that I made sure that my own children volunteered at the local food pantry and experienced public transportation (I made all of them ride the public bus with me to the mall even though it was more expensive than driving my minivan and took twice as long).  As a suburban librarian, I can't take kids on the public bus or to the soup kitchen, but at minimum, I've ensured that a few more children are now aware of the lives that others lead.This is one of the many things that makes my job worthwhile.

One of the missions of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks (TM) campaign is to make sure that "all children can see themselves in the pages of a book."  This is important, but also important is recognizing that all people are just "regular people."  We always have more in common than we think.


Last Stop on Market Street
by Matt de la Peña, Illustrated by Christian Robinson

Read it. Share it.

**Winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal
**A 2016 Caldecott Honor Book
**A 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book
A New York Times Bestseller
Four Starred Reviews
Finalist for the 2014 E.B. White Read-aloud Book Award
A Junior Library Guild Selection

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3. Sydney Taylor Awards and more

 As the motion picture industry has multiple awards including the Academy, Screen Actors Guild, and Golden Globe, so too, does the publishing industry. In books for young people, the best known are the Caldecott and Newbery Medals, which were awarded this month, and I wrote about earlier. ( See the complete list of winners here: [http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2016/01/american-library-association-announces-2016-youth-media-award-winners])


There are however, numerous other awards including (but not limited to) the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, the Cybils Awards (chosen by bloggers and for which I have twice been a judge), The Schneider Family Book Award (which recognizes excellence in portraying the disability experience), the Coretta Scott King Awards (recognizing books by African Americans that reflect the African American experience), and the Pura Belpré Awards (honoring books that celebrate the Latino cultural experience). 

Also recently awarded were the Sydney Taylor Book Awards for children and teens.  These awards are given to books that "authentically portray the Jewish experience."  You can read the official press release here: [http://jewishlibraries.org/blog.php?id=315]   

Many schoolchildren are introduced to the Jewish experience only through Holocaust education.  The Sydney Taylor Awards recognize all aspects of Jewish culture.


The Association of Jewish Libraries asked for my assistance in promoting this year's winners, and I am happy to do so.  A complete list of winners and honor books is below. 

 If you haven't read any of the winners of these or other awards celebrating the many facets of our diverse world, consider adding several to your TBR pile.


The Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Younger Readers:
The Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Older Readers: 
  •  Adam & Thomas by Aharon Appelfeld, translated by Jeffrey M. Green with illustrations by Philippe Dumas (Seven Stories Press)
 The Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Teen Readers:
Sydney Taylor Honor Books for Younger Readers:
  • Everybody Says Shalom by Leslie Kimmelman with illustrations by Talitha Shipman (Random House) Shanghai Sukkah by Heidi Smith Hyde with illustrations by Jing Jing Tsong (Kar-Ben Publishing)
 Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Older Readers:
 Sydney Taylor Honor Books for Teen Readers:
  • Serendipity’s Footsteps by Suzanne Nelson (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House) Stones on a Grave by Kathy Kacer (Orca Book Publishers) 

Note:
Keep watch for the 2015 Cybils Awards winners.  They will be announced on Valentine's Day, February 14th. 


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4. Dead Boy - an audiobook review



Below is my review of the audio book version of Dead Boy by Lauren Gale and read by Robbie Daymond.  Great plot with some unexpected turns.
GALE, Laurel. Dead Boy. 5 CDs. 6 hrs. Listening Library. 2015. $35. ISBN 9781101916827. digital download.

Gr 5-7–Crow was once a regular boy who played baseball and had friends and loving parents. But now, he’s dead. At first, being dead wasn’t so bad, but then his rotting flesh began attracting maggots. He couldn’t eat or sleep. His parents divorced. His mother will tell him only that his parents “wished him back to life,” but what kind of life? He’s trapped in a house kept purposefully cold to slow the putrefaction of his flesh. When Melody and her father move in next door, she and Crow become secret friends against the wishes of their parents. Together, they begin to unravel the terrible secret of his parents’ wish. Their forbidden friendship will be tested as they face a series of deadly challenges in their quest for the truth. Though the book’s description promises humor, narrator Robbie Daymond’s presentation of Crow is morose and forlorn. His cheerful portrayal of Melody offers the only break from the macabre atmosphere. VERDICT - Not for the squeamish, this one will be best for middle school fans of ghoulish favorites like The Night Gardener (Abrams, 2014) or The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls (S. & S., 2012). [“A great recommendation to middle grade fans of dark humor”: SLJ 7/15 review of the Crown book.]

  Copyright © 2016 Library Journals, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc.
Reprinted with permission.

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5. The Official Scratch Jr. Book - a review

Because I've shown an interest in coding in the past, No Starch Press was kind enough to offer me a review copy of The Official ScratchJr Book by Marina Umaschi Bers and Mitchel Resnick. (2015)



Sadly, I don't have an iPad or Android-based tablet, so I was unable to download the ScratchJr app to test it, but judging by the book and my experience with Scratch, I'm sure it's a wonderful tool for inspiring creativity and logical thinking.

Here's what I like about The Official ScratchJr. Book:
  • It targets a very young audience - ages 5 and up
  • It can be useful for parents and teachers and librarians - especially those who might find coding to be intimidating
  • Unlike the Hour of Code (which I love and have used as a resource for library programming), The Official ScratchJr Book focuses more on inspiring creativity than learning the nuts and bolts of logical thinking
  • The above statement notwithstanding, it still can be used to learn the nuts and bolts of simple coding and logical thinking
If at first there was a great rush to teach kids to code, there is now a push in the opposite direction. Just Google "Should kids learn to code?" and you will find a wealth of opinion on either side. Personally, I liken the "argument" to car repair.  In days gone by, many people knew how to do most repairs on their automobiles.  Now, cars' systems are so intricate, that most people have trouble doing anything other than the simplest of repairs.  Most people have cars.  Should we know how to repair them?  No, I don't think so.  There will also be a need for an auto mechanic. But, knowing how to change a flat tire sure comes in handy!  If working on cars appeals to you, become a mechanic.  The same is true of coding.  Give it a try.  If your kids are looking for a follow up to the Frozen Hour of Code project, "Code with Anna and Elsa," The Official ScratchJr Book is probably a good place to start (if you have a tablet that can run the ScratchJr app).



I'm going to pass my copy along to my school district's media specialist.  The kids have Chromebooks and should be able to make good use of it.

Visit the STEM Friday blog for reviews of more great STEM books for kids and teens.

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6. ALA Youth Media Awards announced today!

Watch the Golden Globes last night?  Well, it's award season for books, too!

The big news today for librarians, parents, teachers, and fans of #kidlit, is the announcement of the American Library Association's Youth Media Awards. I'll be driving to work as the live webcast begins, but I'll be checking in as soon as I get to work!

Most people know the Newbery and Caldecott Medal awards, but there are many others.  You can check them out the complete press release here: http://www.ala.org/news/mediapresscenter/presskits/youthmediaawards/alayouthmediaawards

You can watch a live stream of the event beginning at 8:00AM EST today, January 11, 2016.  Here's the link: http://ala.unikron.com/2016/ .

You can also follow the Twitter hashtag #ALAyma for live updates.

I hope to see a few of my favorites!



Image source: openclipart.org

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7. The last word goes to Mo and Dale of Tupelo Landing

I can't let the year end without a shout out to Sheila Turnage's Mo and Dale.  Her latest Mo and Dale Mystery is The Odds of Getting Even (Penguin, 2015).  The Mo and Dale Mystery series is my favorite middle grade series. Each new book is as good as the last.  Each is filled with insightful humor, Southern-style hospitality, and all the eccentricities of small town living. The characters in Sheila Turnage's fictional town of Tupelo Landing, NC, will leave you begging for another chance to visit.

In The Odds of Getting Even, Mo and Dale, a.k.a. The Desperado Detectives, have another case on their hands.  Dale's no-good dad is on the lam and the whole town is on edge.

As usual, the café run by Mo and her "family of choice," the Colonel and Miss Lana, takes current events in stride,

I turned back to the Azalea Women. "Welcome and thank you in advance for your generous tips."  Generous tips equals a flat-out lie, but like Miss Lana says, you don't stop pitching just because nobody's swinging.  I draped a paper napkin over my arm. "Today, our Get Out of Jail Free Delight feature Free-Range Eggs, Potatoes at Large, and Bacon a la Parole.  We also got the Colonel's famous Tofu Incognito--a vegan delight featuring tofu scrambled up to look like somebody else.  A Special runs six dollars and includes a basket of All Rise Biscuits.  May I take your order?"

"Get Out of Jail and coffee," they chorused.  "How's Dale holding up?"

Once again, Sheila Turnage has written a book that deals with a serious topic (a father who is frequently on the wrong side of the law) in a humorous way. As narrator, Mo LoBeau offers up witty, often hilarious dialogue and commentary. There is much homespun wisdom in the the little town of Tupelo Landing.  Here are just a few examples from The Odds of Getting Even:

Mo (on the perceived indignity of wearing hand-me-down clothes):
"Dale's a musician.  He enjoys vintage outfits," ... "Besides, Miss Lana says most everything in life worth having is handed down."

Dale (voicing his opinion to a news reporter):
Your articles make it seem that way.  But a lot of people thinking flat don't change round.
Mo (her take on beauty):
Attila's face would be pretty if she didn't live behind it.
Dale (on "getting even"):
The only even you ever get is inside yourself--when you don't need to get even anymore.


If you haven't read them yet, don't miss the first two Mo and Dale Mystery novels.

Book 1

Three Times Lucky - a link to my review of the audiobook read by Michal Friedman
[http://shelf-employed.blogspot.com/2013/08/three-times-lucky-audiobook-review.html]

Book 2
The Ghost of Tupelo Landing - a link to my review for AudioFile Magazine
[http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/88494/]


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8. My favorite books of 2015

It's the end of the year and I had great plans of writing about all my favorite books of the year - there were so many!  But there was also ALSC committee work, my fledgling freelance writing career, that five days a week thing they call work, and my family.  As I write this, I'm waiting for the last of my children to arrive home for the holidays (one's flight was canceled, the other one's delayed).

So, for now, the best that I can do is this:

In middle grade fiction, I loved Echo: A Novel by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Here's a link to my review: http://shelf-employed.blogspot.com/2015/02/echo-novel-review.html  




In picture books, If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson is simply perfect. My review is here: http://shelf-employed.blogspot.com/2015/03/picture-book-roundup-new-or-coming-soon.html



I listened to lots of great audiobooks, but I think Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was tops. I reviewed it for AudioFile Magazine.  Here's the link: http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/101740/  (Diary of a Mad Brownie is a very close second!)



For the best in dealing with sad news, I was taken by Anastasia Higginbotham's, Divorce is the Worst (for school-aged kids), and Todd Parr's, The Goodbye Book for little ones dealing with loss.


In adult books, it was Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah VowellIt's no surprise.  I love everything she writes. I love my well-researched history with a humorous dose of irony and sarcasm.

Whether I review a book or not, if I've read it, I log it and star it in LibraryThing.  Yes, I know that Goodreads is more popular, but LibraryThing's aesthetic matches mine.  I'm comfortable there.  You can see my virtual library of over 1600  searchable books and 800 reviews on LibraryThing.

I may take the next week off, perhaps not, but just in case - best wishes for a safe and happy holidays.

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9. I am Princess X - the sleeper hit that I didn't review this year

I received an advance copy of I am Princess X months before the book's actual release. The artwork wasn't completed—but it didn't matter.  Even with sample art and text descriptions of illustrations, I loved it.  I shared it with my colleagues, I gave it to one of the kids in my book club, I nominated it for a 2015 Cybils Award in the YA Fiction category (fingers crossed).  The one thing I didn't get around to doing is reviewing it. So, better late to the party than never ...

I am Princess X is a unique mix of webcomic and prose. Set in Seattle, it's a mystery, a thriller, and a look into a lifestyle that includes the literal Seattle underground and the dark web

Here's a quick booktalk you can use:

May is 16-yrs-old when she begins seeing stickers and graffiti of Princess X throughout Seattle.  When May was younger, she and her friend, Libby, created the Princess X comic.  May wrote the story and Libby illustrated it—but that was years ago—before Libby died.  So who's drawing Princess X now?

I think it's a sleeper hit, that will only become more popular with time. It received starred reviews in School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist.


You can listen to an audio excerpt of I am Princess X here: [http://iamprincessxbook.tumblr.com/post/124693032795/listen-to-an-excerpt-from-i-am-princess-x] (not sure how that will work without the embedded comic book pages)

The Canadian Scholastic site also posted a print excerpt.  You can access it here: [http://www.scholastic.ca/books/view/i-am-princess-x]

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10. Under a Painted Sky - an audiobook review


Under a Painted Sky, a debut YA novel set in 1849,, was recommended to me by an adult library customer who said his mother enjoyed it.  I was happy to receive an opportunity to review this unique historical fiction, adventure, romance novel for AudioFile Magazine.  A link to my review is below, as well as the official book trailer. The review contains an audio excerpt.  Enjoy.

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee.  Read by Emily Woo Zeller.
Tantor Audio, 2015.  10.25 hrs.


A link to my review for AudioFile Magazinehttp://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/102637/

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11. Picture Book Roundup - December Holiday edition

Each year, hundreds of new holiday books are printed. Many are trite, forced, or pedantic—but not these gems.  Here are my five new favorites. Readjoice! 

  If you have trouble viewing the slideshow, visit it on Riffle.
Featured books:
  • A Homemade Together Christmas
  • Oskar and the Eight Blessings
  • Me and My Dragon: Christmas Spirit
  • Too Many Toys!
  • Miracle on 133rd Street

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12. Drowned City - a review

 The National Council of Teachers of English recently named Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) the winner of its prestigious Orbis Pictus Award.

The NCTE Orbis Pictus Award  was established in 1989 for promoting and recognizing excellence in the writing of nonfiction for children. The name Orbis Pictus, commemorates the work of Johannes Amos Comenius, Orbis Pictus—The World in Pictures (1657), considered to be the first book actually planned for children. (from the NCTE website)


Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans is a spare, but powerful graphic novel account of the tragedy that befell the City of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.  Don Brown researches and illustrates Drowned City in his usual fashion.  It has extensive Source Notes and a corresponding Bibliography.  Every direct quote is sourced.  The illustrations are serious and in muted colors to accurately convey the gravity of the events; but they are sufficiently vague to spare the individual horror experienced by victims, survivors, and rescuers.  As he has done with other topics, Don Brown creates a focused, accurate, and powerful story - suitable for visual learners and for readers in a wide age range.


Other Hurricane Katrina books reviewed on this site:
Also by Don Brown and reviewed by Shelf-employed:

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13. Bunjitsu Bunny's Best Move - a review

Bunjitsu Bunny's Best Move


by John Himmelman
(Henry Holt, 2015)

When Bunjitsu Bunny's Best Move came across my desk, my nose wrinkled and I thought, "Oh, this is going to be goofy."  But yet, I loved the cover art, and dove in anyway - taking it on my lunch break.  I'm so glad I did.

In fourteen, short, illustrated chapters, Isabel, John Himmelman's "bunjitsu" expert, learns important lessons of wisdom that are the perfect complement to her martial arts prowess.  In the second chapter, "Bunjitsu Bunny Fails," the usually perfect Isabel fails to master the "bunchucks."  She is profoundly disappointed,

     "You should not be unhappy," said Teacher.
     "But everyone passed the test except me," said Isabel.
     "Do you know what you did wrong?" asked Teacher.
     "Yes," said Isabel.
     "Can you do better?" asked Teacher.
     "Yes," said Isabel.
     "Lucky you," said Teacher. "They passed the test, but you learned the most."
Bunjitsu Bunny learns wisdom through action and observation.  Her lessons are similar to those imparted in John Muth's award-winning Zen Shorts picture books. However, the Bunjitsu Bunny books are simple chapter books for a suggested age range of 6-8 years.  The words are large, and the red, black and white illustrations are bold and full of expression.  The final chapter includes instructions for making an origami bunny face. Bunjitsu Bunny is a winner.

This is the second book in the series.  The first was Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny. (Images and excerpts here: [http://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250068064]) 


Bunjitsu Bunny is similar in reading level with one of my other favorites, Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson books.  I reviewed Mercy Watson to the Rescue in 2012


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14. The Blackthorn Key - an audiobook review

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands
Read by Ray Panthacki
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2015
7.25 hrs
Grades 5-9


Christopher Rowe, is a lucky lad.  Plucked from the orphanage for his intellectual potential, Christopher is apprenticed to the kindly apothecary, Master Benedict Blackthorn. Despite his lowly upbringing, relayed by narrator Ray Panthacki's hint of a Cockney accent, Christopher receives training in Latin, astronomy, ciphers, potions, and other tools of the apothecary's trade. In the midst of a suspicious atmosphere following great political upheaval, a mysterious cult of murderers arises. Christopher will need all his skills and more to decode a series of clues to a dangerous plot that threatens to upset the balance of world power. Panthacki clearly defines each of The Blackthorn Key's large cast of characters, creating distinctive voices that reflect their standing in British society.  Christopher's best friend is Tom, an apprentice baker.  Like Harry Potter and Ron, they are a memorable pair, and their dialogue sounds honest and warm.   Whether in terror, danger, or mere horseplay, the listener feels the emotion in and between the characters.  The only thing that slows the pace of adventure in this gripping mystery is the occasional reading of lengthy ciphers. Print readers may well try their hand at decoding them, but for listeners, they're primarily a drag on the action. The setting is as rich as the plot in this mid-17th century adventure brought to life by veteran actor Ray Panthacki.

 


My review copy was provided by AudioFile MagazineMy review of The Blackthorn Key for AudioFile Magazine (along with an audio excerpt) appears here. [http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/107274/]

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15. The Green Bicycle - a review

The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour
(Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015)

Eleven-year-old Wadjda lives with her parents in Saudi Arabia.  Lately, however, she's seen very little of her father. Rumor has it that he is seeking a second wife.  Because money is scarce and women are not permitted to drive, Wadjda's mother takes an hours-long cab ride each day to a remote village to teach school.  Covered in black from head to toe, she shares the ride (without air-conditioning) with other teachers - crammed in a dilapidated cab in the sweltering desert heat.  Wadjda, due to her young age and family's financial circumstances, has a special note that allows her to walk alone to school each day—but she longs to ride a bike like Abdullah.  She and Abdullah were once friends, but now that she is older, she is not permitted to fraternize with boys.

Wadjda, however, does not easily take "no" for an answer.  She rebels against the tedious rules of her girls-only school. Why shouldn't she be able to sell mix-tapes of Western musicians? She rebels against her mother and father. Why can't she play video games in her living room designated for men only. She rebels against the constraints of her culture. Why can't she talk to Abdullah if she wants to? And why can't a girl have a bicycle?  Despite the obstacles and consequences, Wadjda is determined to have her way.

     A lecture she'd heard in science class tickled her memory.  Again and again, her teacher had told them that dark colors absorb heat, while lighter colors reflect it back.  She ended the lesson my stating that this phenomenon was one of the miracles of the universe.  It proved there was one almighty God, Allah, and that he had created everything for a purpose.
     Beneath her hot black veil, Wadjda twisted her lips.  She wondered if people knew this scientific secret when the tribal code assigned black to women and white to men.  Maybe the real miracle of the universe was that she was able to walk home in Riyadh's sweltering afternoon sun without passing out!
     The boys were gone now.  Their bicycles moved like a flash around the corner.  Wadjda squinted into the dusty afternoon and continued slowly on her way.  As she walked, she pitched the stone Father had given her at various targetst— a can, a stick, a funny-colored brick on the side of a buildingt—thinking all the while about the different miracles of the universe.  It had taken so much to get her to this exact spot, at this exact moment.  So what was her purpose, now that she was here?
Wadjda is an endearing protagonist because, despite a setting that is foreign to the American reader, Wadjda is familiar to us.  She is just a girl like most girls—sometimes obedient, sometimes rebellious, sometimes remorseful, sometimes not.  To women and girls of the West, life as a female in Saudi Arabia seems oppressive, cruel, unfathomable. To a girl like Wadjda, it is just life—a life in which she must eke out moments of hope, happiness, and laughter.  Along with heartache, Haifaa Al Mansour has showed us those moments.

I've heard that the movie is phenomenal.  Whether by book or by movie, I urge you to know Wadjda's story, The Green Bicycle. I think you will love this spirited young girl.

Below is the trailer for the movie Wadjda, on which The Green Bicycle is based.
What makes this even more inspiring is that this movie, made in Saudi Arabia was written and directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour, in a country without movie theaters and where women are not even supposed to be outside without a male relative. You can read highlights of an interview with Haifaa Al Mansour here: [http://www.npr.org/2013/09/22/224437165/wadjda-director-haifaa-al-mansour-it-is-time-to-open-up]

My copy of The Green Bicycle was provided by the publisher at my request.

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16. What Does Otis See - thoughts on beginning readers

What Does Otis See? - Thoughts on beginning readers and a roundabout recommendation for a very "beginning reader."

I don't usually review beginning reader books, because I don't like many, and I'm frustrated by the lack of publisher consensus on what constitutes the levels.*  I've seen harried parents grab a selection of "Level 2" books off the shelf and assume that their second grade child will be able to read them (not a totally unreasonable assumption). However, aside from the obvious fact that not all children in a particular grade read at the same level, not all "Level 2" books are the same level of difficulty.  I intervene with assistance whenever possible, but pity the poor child whose parent doesn't receive assistance and returns home with insistence that the child slog through a book that doesn't match her ability. This is not the recipe for an enthusiastic reader!

Choosing books for Kindergarten children can be even more frustrating.  "Pre-level 1," "Emergent reader," "Ready to read," "Level 1" -- the choices are endless and the books often much too difficult for the earliest of readers. I love David Milgrim's Pip and Otto books, but ours are coming out of circulation due to age-related wear and tear.  BOB Books are wonderful, but too flimsy for library circulation.

Aggravated is an understatement for my feelings about the whole easy reader situation.

And then along comes What Does Otis See?

What Does Otis See? by Loren Long
Penguin Young Readers, 2015
Level 1, Guided Reading Level C (for those of you keeping score - I'm not)

What Does Otis See? features Otis the tractor exploring the farm. Here's what I like about it:
  • There are only three or four simple words to each double-spread illustration, "Otis sees a calf."
  • The illustrations are detailed, but simply presented with ample use of white space - not busy or distracting.
  • The illustrations offer foreshadowing and invite examination. The page preceding "Otis sees a calf," depicts Otis examining a flowery meadow with the calf partially obscured by grass and flowers.
  • Otis and the dog are adorable.

 
That Otis is an old tractor might make him unfamiliar to urban and suburban kids, but any child who has watched Disney/Pixar's Cars will certainly remember the tractor tipping scene.

Until publishers come to an agreement on a standard of leveling, I will continue to ignore the numbers on the book jacket.  I'll look on the inside and find the right book for each reader.  It takes more time, but it's what needs to be done.  If you're looking for a very easy, "easy reader," What Does Otis See? is worth checking out.


Note:
*In 2010, I wrote a piece for Children & Libraries titled "The Conundrum of Choosing Book Levels." My frustration level hasn't changed much.

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17. Lincoln's Spymaster: Allan Pinkerton, America's First Private Eye - an audiobook review

Lincoln's Spymaster: Allan Pinkerton, America's First Private Eye by Samantha Seiple, Read by Danny Campbell
Scholastic Audiobooks
3.5 hours
Best for upper middle grades and/or high school

I recently reviewed Lincoln's Spymaster for AudioFile Magazine.  A link to my review of this biography of the nation's most famous private investigator is here: [http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/107600/]  Pinkerton's is a compelling story, well-told and read.


Antietam, Md. Allan Pinkerton ("E. J. Allen") of the Secret Service on horseback, Creator(s): Gardner, Alexander, 1821-1882, photographer, Source: Library of Congress 

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18. The Other Side of the Wall - a review

The Other Side of the Wall by Simon Schwartz

Translated from German by Laura Watkinson
Published by Graphic Universe, 2015
112 pages, best for grades 6 and up
Paperback

Simon Schwartz was born in East Berlin in the 1980s.The Other Side of the Wall is his graphic memoir of growing up in the divided city, of his parent's three-year struggle to obtain an exit permit to leave East Berlin, and of his later forays between the two Berlins.

His parents met in college. His father came from a family of staunch Communist Party members.  His mother's family was secretly more liberal, though any deviation from expected Party behavior was cause for examination and surveillance by the Stasi, or secret German police.  It was dangerous to stray from party orthodoxy, particularly if you were a teacher, as Simon's father was. His parents became disillusioned with life in the restrictive East German city.

The Soviet Union had recently invaded Afghanistan. My dad worked on his speech, night after night.
     "God, how can you describe a war as just?  They want me to use fancy words to justify this invasion."
     "Just write something you can square with your own conscience -- at least in part."
     "I don't know if I can do that."

When his parents requested exit permits, their lives became fraught with poverty,ostracism, and physical danger.

The book's layout is as structured as Communist life - with few exceptions, four blocks per page - each bordered in black. The artwork is monochromatic, fitting for the stark reality of life behind the Wall. The story is told  in speech bubbles, text blocks that set the scene or relay back story, and the occasional footnote explaining terms that may not be familiar to readers (well-known  politicians or artists of the time, and uniquely German or Communist terms). Several panels are wordless - vague remembrances of the young Schwarz.

Back matter includes a glossary, a timeline of the Berlin Wall, and maps of Germany and Berlin 1961-1989.

I recently reviewed the historical fiction novel, A Night Divided, that describes life in East Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the Berlin Wall's construction.The Other Side of the Wall is a perfect companion book - a nonfiction, graphic novel account of the Wall's waning days.  For younger readers not familiar with day-to-day life in the Cold War Era, this is a chilling introduction.


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19. The Death Knell for Show-and-Tell

 The Death Knell for Show-and-Tell
For  Library Card Sign-Up Month, I visit every Kindergarten class in town.  I talk about all the great reasons to have a library card, drop off applications for each student, and read a book - preferably a funny one.  Because I visit at least 12 different classrooms, I usually bring an assortment of books so I don't get bored reading the same one in each class.

This year, I brought Otto the Book Bear by Katie Cleminson (not funny, but a perfect choice for pitching libraries!) A Perfectly Messed-Up Story by Patrick McDonnell (the "what not to do with your library book" book), and Elise Parsley's, If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don't!.


If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don't (2015, Little, Brown) is a new book that I find hilarious.   A little girl brings her alligator to school for show-and-tell, and all havoc breaks loose.  I thought it would bring some giggles to Kindergarten kids.  At my first visit, I asked the teacher if the kids had begun show-and-tell yet. I wanted to make sure they would get the joke.  I was told that the new, more rigorous Kindergarten curriculum did not allow the time necessary for the rather lengthy process of show-and-tell.  The teacher suggested that the book would be best shared with preschoolers as they are the only ones with time for show-and-tell.  How sad.

This isn't an individual teacher's decision, it is a by-product of strict, standards-based education.  I get it.  I truly do, but I am glad that I am not a child today.  Today's body of knowledge is so much greater than it was when I was in school, and the process of educating children has moved to a business-like model.  These factors combine to remove much of the joy of early learning - free play, music, art, and show-and-tell.

If you're a parent or librarian or teacher with a few minutes of free time, spread some joy wherever you can.  Life is hard - even in Kindergarten. 

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20. Picture Book Roundup - October 2015 edition

This edition of the Picture Book Roundup features three funny books, a hilarious cautionary tale, and a sweet bookish story to melt your heart. Enjoy!

Review copies of Night Animals by Gianna Marino (Viking, 2015) and In! Over! and On! by Ethan Long (Penguin, 2015) were provided by the publishers at my request. The Good Little Book by Kyo Maclear (Tundra, 2015), Everyone Loves Bacon by Kelly DiPucchio (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2015), and Ragweed's Farm Dog Handbook by Anne Vittur Kennedy (Candlewick, 2015)

If you can't access the slide show with reviews below, you can see it on RiffleBooks at this link. [https://read.rifflebooks.com/list/185319]

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21. A Night Divided

As a child, I remember the Olympics mainly as an opportunity to root against the Eastern Bloc countries.  That may seem petty, but my family has/had relatives in the former Czechoslovakia, and that's what we did.  In our family, a loss by an Eastern Bloc country was a win for democracy - as if beating East Germany in pole vaulting could somehow make things better.  In reality, for the people of the Eastern Bloc, losing likely made their miserable lives worse - if they even knew about it at all.

There are many historical fiction books about wartime Germany.  A Night Divided deposits the reader in post-WWII Germany — in Berlin, on the wrong side of the wall.

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
(Scholastic, 2015)



In A Night Divided, 12-year-old Gerta, narrates the dangerously oppressive lifestyle into which she was unwilling thrust,

It was Sunday, August 13, 1961, a day I would remember for the rest of my life.  When a prison had been built around us as we slept.

Erected without warning, the fence (and later, the wall) that separated East Germany from West Germany sprang up overnight - a night when Gerta's father and brother had been visiting the West.  Gerta is trapped in the East with her resigned mother, and her rebellious older brother, Fritz.  Rebellion in East Germany is costly, and the price can be your life.

     "We will never be able to leave," Mama said. "The sooner you both accept that, the happier you will be."
     I nodded back at her. But I new I could never again be happy here. And I refused to accept my life inside a prison."
This is a deeply affecting novel that does not gloss over the reality of living under the constant watchful eyes of the police, the Grentztruppen or border police, and the brutal secret police, the Stasi.  In 1960s, East Germany, even a casual comment to a neighbor can be life-threatening.

Each chapter is introduced with a quote or German proverb that sets up the rationale for Gerta's continued, secretive resistance. "The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. — Albert Camus, French novelist"

Gerta Lowe is a character that the reader will cheer and remember.  A Night Divided is a chilling and riveting book, balanced by the hope of one family's love and courage.

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22. Completely Clementine - an audiobook review

Below is my review of Completely Clementine, as it appeared in the October 1, 2015, edition of School Library Journal.


PENNYPACKER, Sara. Completely Clementine. 2 CDs. 2 hrs. Recorded Books. 2015. $25.75. ISBN 9781490625225. digital download.

Gr 2–4—Clementine faces a host of rising fourth-grader issues as the school year ends. She’s feuding with her father over his refusal to become a vegetarian like the rest of the family, she can’t bring herself to say goodbye to her third-grade teacher, and the family’s new baby is due soon and they haven’t even chosen a name yet. Picking the baby’s name should be easy, but her other problems are more serious. She’s avoided her teacher and given her dad the silent treatment for so long that she begins to regret it—but it’s so hard to stop! Clementine and her friends sometimes exhibit the concerns of adults (school friends worry about future wedding plans), but Clementine’s steadfast good nature and silliness are endearing and relatable. Jessica Almasy narrates, bringing infectious enthusiasm to Clementine’s usually upbeat and slightly sassy personality. Other character voices are clearly defined, with Clementine’s parents sounding especially authentic. VERDICT Fans of the series and kids ready to move up from Junie B. Jones will enjoy. [“This last title in the popular and laugh-out-loud chapter book series is a must-have for library collections": SLJ 2/1/15 review of the Disney-Hyperion book.]

 Copyright © 2015 Library Journals, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc.
Reprinted with permission.

 ##

Note:
The review was edited slightly and did not include the following:
Jessica Almasy narrates all of the Clementine books. A New Yorker herself, she sounds more Southern Californian than befits Clementine’s Boston environs, but she brings infectious enthusiasm to Clementine’s usually upbeat and slightly sassy personality. 

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23. Fuzzy Mud - a review

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar, winner of the Newbery Medal and National Book Award for Holes.  Narrated by Kathleen McInerny with a full cast and an author's note read by Sachar himself. (Listening Library, 2015)
4 hours
Target audience: Grades 5 and up

I reviewed Fuzzy Mud for AudioFile Magazine, and loved it. As I should have expected from Louis Sachar, there is much more to it than I first expected.  It's a sci-fi, adventure thriller,that focuses on the very broad concept of ecology as well as the more intimate problem of bullying. A link to my review for AudioFile Magazine is here. [http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/104469/]

I highly recommend it.

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24. New Jersey - The 50 States Fun Fact Blog Extravaganza!

New Jersey knows that it's the butt of jokes throughout the nation, but we also know that we've got a great state with unique features that no other state can match.  From the mountains to the shore, from the cities to the Pines, we've got a wealth of natural beauty, history, and culture.  It's like a well-kept secret.  But now, The Fifty States: Explore the U.S.A. with 50 fact-filled maps, written by Gabrielle Balkin and illustrated by Sol Linero (Quarto, 2015) is bringing some of our secrets to light.


Take a peek at the New Jersey page, and then I'll share a few of my favorite NJ gems.



Three of my NJ favorites which are featured in The Fifty States: Explore the U.S.A. with 50 fact-filled maps:
 BRIGHT IDEA In West Orange you can visit inventor Thomas Edison’s lab and house.
Thomas Edison National Historical Park is a fascinating place to visit.  In my opinion it beats visiting Thomas Edison Center in Menlo Park, NJ and his winter estate in Fort Myers, Florida.  He didn't just invent the light bulb, he invented everything you need to use a light bulb - from the lamp to the power grid.  And of course, he invented much more than the light bulb.  Not a perfect man, by any means, but a perfectly brilliant inventor!
"Edison labs Main St Lakeside Av jeh" by Jim.henderson - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edison_labs_Main_St_Lakeside_Av_jeh.jpg#/media/File:Edison_labs_Main_St_Lakeside_Av_jeh.jpg

LUCY THE ELEPHANT In 1881 the U.S. Patent Office granted inventor James Lafferty the right to make animal-shaped buildings for 17 years. His first creation, Lucy, still stands in Margate, Atlantic City.
She's a whopping 6-stories high and 134 years old, and she sits right next to the beach.  And what a view from inside!  I'm not positive but I do remember that her interior paint color is "stomach," or something similarly intestinal.
By Harriet Duncan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
FEBRUARY 1913: Silk workers in Paterson begin a six-month-long strike for better working conditions.
Paterson, NJ, may not be your first thought when seeking tourist sites, but it's well worth a visit.  Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park is one of the nation's newest National Parks. The falls (one of the largest in the nation) and park sit in the midst of an urban city of more than 145,000 people. The falls and the people of Paterson were powerhouses of the U.S. Industrial Revolution.
Photo by L Taylor (c)
If you want to know more great sites in NJ, you'll have to come see for yourself. (BTW, Come See For Yourself, was once our state slogan. I think they should have gone with the more popular, "New Jersey - You got a problem with that?")

Note:
Book images and quotes were provided by the publisher.  I have no publisher or bookseller affiliations and received no compensation.  I am participating for love of state.

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25. Some library humor at the ALSC Blog



You can find me over at the ALSC Blog today with a little bit of library humor.  Please stop by and read about one of my favorite library patrons.  [http://wp.me/p5Z0QG-32Q]

And if you know of a good, new, middle-grade book trailer, please tell me about it in the comments.  My book club is meeting this afternoon.  Thanks!

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