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1. Review of the Day: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

cloud-and-wallfishCloud and Wallfish
By Anne Nesbet
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-8803-5
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Historical fiction is boring. Right? That’s the common wisdom on the matter, certainly. Take two characters (interesting), give them a problem (interesting), and set them in the past (BOOOOOORING!). And to be fair, there are a LOT of dull-as-dishwater works of historical fiction out there. Books where a kid has to wade through knee-deep descriptions, dates, facts, and superfluous details. But there is pushback against this kind of thinking. Laurie Halse Anderson, for example, likes to call her books (Chains, Forge, Ashes, etc.) “historical thrillers”. People are setting their books in unique historical time periods. And finally (and perhaps most importantly) we’re seeing a lot more works of historical fiction that are truly fun to read. Books like The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, or One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, or My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp, or ALL of Louise Erdrich’s titles for kids. Better add Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet to that list as well. Doing what I can only characterize as the impossible, Nesbet somehow manages to bring East Germany in 1989 to full-blown, fascinating life. Maybe you wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s certainly worth a trip.

His name is Noah. Was Noah. It’s like this, one minute you’re just living your life, normal as you please, and the next your parents have informed you that your name is a lie, your birth date is wrong, and you’re moving to East Berlin. The year is 1989 and as Noah (now Jonah)’s father would say, there’s a definite smell of history in the air. His mother has moved the family to this new city as part of her research into education and stuttering (an impediment that Noah shares) for six months. But finding himself unable to attend school in a world so unlike the one he just left, the boy is lonely. That’s why he’s so grateful when the girl below his apartment, Claudia, befriends him. But there are secrets surrounding these new friends. How did Claudia’s parents recently die? Why are Noah’s parents being so mysterious? And what is going on in Germany? With an Iron Curtain shuddering on its foundations, Noah’s not just going to smell that history in the air. He’s going to live it, and he’s going to get a friend out of the bargain as well.

It was a bit of a risk on Nesbet’s part to begin the book by introducing us to Noah’s parents right off the bat as weirdly suspicious people. It may take Noah half a book to create a mental file on his mom, but those of us not related to the woman are starting our own much sooner. Say, from the minute we meet her. It was very interesting to watch his parents upend their son’s world and then win back his trust by dint of their location as well as their charm and evident love. It almost reads like a dare from one author to another. “I bet you can’t make a reader deeply distrust a character’s parents right from the start, then make you trust them again, then leave them sort of lost in a moral sea of gray, but still likable!” Challenge accepted!

Spoiler Alert on This Paragraph (feel free to skip it if you like surprises): Noah’s mom is probably the most interesting parent you’ll encounter in a children’s book in a long time. By the time the book is over you know several things. 1. She definitely loves Noah. 2. She’s also using his disability to further her undercover activities, just as he fears. 3. She incredibly frightening. The kind of person you wouldn’t want to cross. She and her husband are utterly charming but you get the distinct feeling that Noah’s preternatural ability to put the puzzle pieces of his life together is as much nature as it is nurture. Coming to the end of the book you see that Noah has sent Claudia postcards over the years from places all over the world. Never Virginia. One could read that a lot of different ways but I read it as his mother dragging him along with her from country to country. There may never be a “home” for Noah now. But she loves him, right? I foresee a lot of really interesting bookclub discussions about the ending of this book, to say nothing about how we should view his parents.

As I mentioned before, historical fiction that’s actually interesting can be difficult to create. And since 1989 is clear-cut historical fiction (this is the second time a character from the past shared my birth year in a children’s book . . . *shudder*) Nesbet utilizes several expository techniques to keep young readers (and, let’s face it, a lot of adult readers) updated on what precisely is going on. From page ten onward a series of “Secret Files” boxes will pop up within the text to give readers the low-down. These are written in a catchy, engaging style directly to the reader, suggesting that they are from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who knows the past, the future, and the innermost thoughts of the characters. So in addition to the story, which wraps you in lies and half-truths right from the start to get you interested, you have these little boxes of explanation, giving you information the characters often do not have. Some of these Secret Files are more interesting than others, but as with the Moby Dick portions in Louis Sachar’s The Cardturner, readers can choose to skip them if they so desire. They should be wary, though. A lot of pertinent information is sequestered in these little boxes. I wouldn’t cut out one of them for all the wide wide world.

Another way Nesbet keeps everything interesting is with her attention to detail. The author that knows the minutia of their fictional world is an author who can convince readers that it exists. Nesbet does this by including lots of tiny details few Americans have ever known. The pirated version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that was disseminated for years throughout the German Democratic Republic? I had no idea. The listing of television programs available there? Very funny (did I mention the book is funny too?). Even the food you could get in the grocery store and the smell of the coal-choked air feels authentic.

Of course, you can load your book down with cute boxes and details all day and still lose a reader if they don’t relate to the characters. Noah could easily be reduced to one of those blank slate narrators who go through a book without a clear cut personality. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case here. And I appreciated the Claudia was never a straight victim or one of those characters that appears impervious to the pain in her life. Similarly, Noah is a stutterer but the book never throws the two-dimensional bully in his path. His challenges are all very strange and unique to his location. I was also impressed by how Nesbet dealt with Claudia’s German (she makes up words or comes up with some Noah has never heard of and so Nesbet has the unenviable job of making that clear on the page). By the same token, Noah has a severe stutter, but having read the whole book I’m pretty sure Nesbet only spells the stutter out on the page once. For every other time we’re told about it after the fact or as it is happening.

I’ve said all this without, somehow, mentioning how lovely Nesbet’s writing is. The degree to which she’s willing to go deep into her material, plucking out the elements that will resonate the most with her young readers, is masterful. Consider a section that explains what it feels like to play the role of yourself in your own life. “This is true even for people who aren’t crossing borders or dealing with police. Many people in middle school, for instance, are pretending to be who they actually are. A lot of bad acting is involved.” Descriptions are delicious as well. When Claudia comes over for dinner after hearing about the death of her parents Nesbet writes, “Underneath the bristles, Noah could tell, lurked a squishy heap of misery.”

There’s little room for nuance in Nesbet’s Berlin, that’s for sure. The East Berliners we meet are either frightened, in charge, or actively rebelling. In her Author’s Note, Nesbet writes about her time in the German Democratic Republic in early 1989, noting where a lot of the details of the book came from. She also mentions the wonderful friends she had there at that time. Noah, by the very plot in which he finds himself, would not be able to meet these wonderful people. As such, he has a black-and-white view of life in East Berlin. And it’s interesting to note that when his classmates talk up the wonders of their society, he never wonders if anything they tell him is true. Is everyone employed? At what price? There is good and bad and if there is nuance it is mostly found in the characters like Noah’s mother. Nesbet herself leaves readers with some very wise words in her Author’s Note when she says to child readers, “Truth and fiction are tangled together in everything human beings do and in every story they tell. Whenever a book claims to be telling the truth, it is wise (as Noah’s mother says at one point) to keep asking questions.” I would have liked a little more gray in the story, but I can hardly think of a better lesson to impart to children in our current day and age.

In many way, the book this reminded me of the most was Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. Think about it. A boy desperate for a friend meets an out-of-the-box kind of girl. They invent a fantasyland together that’s across a distinct border (in this book Claudia imagines it’s just beyond the Wall). Paterson’s book was a meditation on friendship, just like Nesbet’s. Yet there is so much more going on here. There are serious thoughts about surveillance (something kids have to think about a lot more today), fear, revolution, loyalty, and more than all this, what you have to do to keep yourself sane in a world where things are going mad. Alice Through the Looking Glass is referenced repeatedly, and not by accident. Noah has found himself in a world where the rules he grew up with have changed. As a result he must cling to what he knows to be true. Fortunately, he has a smart author to help him along the way. Anne Nesbet always calls Noah by his own name, even when her characters don’t. He is always Noah to us and to himself. That he finds himself in one of the most interesting and readable historical novels written for kids is no small thing. Nesbet outdoes herself. Kids are the beneficiaries.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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2. Writing: A Path to Become an Intentional Educator

What if there was a way to build in opportunities to reflect, in writing, about my teaching right in the place where the lesson plans reside? And what if that place could also offer daily inspiration and opportunities to set positive intentions for the week ahead?

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3. Raymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo

I was a kid running wild and free in the 1970s, and I find myself intrigued with the fiction written these days that takes place during that time period. It's a convenient time period, for sure. By this I mean that technology hadn't yet tethered us to our parents, and I'm assuming that most kids were like my sister and I -- running around the neighborhood and beyond with friends and coming home when we got hungry.

Raymie is a girl who isn't really noticed much by her parents. Her father has actually just up and left with a dental hygienist and Raymie's mom is spending her time staring into space. Raymie finds some comfort in neighbor Mrs. Borkowski who seems to know everything and always has time to talk to Raymie. She has also hatched a plan to get her father to come home.

Raymie has decided that she will enter and win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975 pageant. This will result in her picture in the newspaper. Her dad will be so proud of her, he'll have to come home. When Raymie tells her dad's secretary her plan, Mrs. Sylvester says Ramie just has to learn to twirl the baton as her talent.  This is how she ends up at Ida Nee's place for twirling lessons along with Beverly Tapinski and Louisiana Elefante -- two girls who couldn't be more different from one another.

Louisiana is a wheezy and delicate girl, prone to swooning, while Beverly is the tough talking daughter of a cop who swears that she's seen things. In between these two, Raymie Clarke is a steadfast girl just doing her best to understand others.

Over the next few days, Louisiana dubs their trio the Rancheros, and even though Beverly refuses to live by the moniker, it becomes clear that Louisiana often gets her way. As the girls search for Louisiana's beloved cat, perform good deeds, experience loss, and do a little breaking and entering along the way, they slowly reveal their worries to one another.  They become tied together by the brokenness that surrounds them.

As always, DiCamillo leaves poetry on the page. But this book felt different to me. I was talking to a colleague about it and I noted that it felt like it had a big dose of Horvath in the pages. Some have said the girls are too quirky and almost derivative. I disagree. When you look closely, kids are weird. And if they allow themselves to be honest with who they are, Beverlys and Louisianas and Raymies are completely reasonable. Trying to mend neglect with toughness or fantasy is innately human. I really enjoyed this quiet and quirky summery read. I do wonder at today's kids sitting with the 1975 setting. I'm interested in their feedback.

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4. Jedi Academy: A New Class by Jarrett Krosockza, 176 pp, RL 4




Jeffrey Brown authored the first three books in the Jedi Academy series, two of which I enthusiastically reviewed here. This trilogy is HUGELY popular in my school library and a fantastic alternative to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Before that, Brown wrote a trilogy of Darth Vader, a comics series that imagines Vader's life as father to Luke and Leia. Brown's new series debuted in August and features prehistoric siblings Lucy and Andy as they deal with typical kid stuff while also being filled with scientific information and facts about pre-history. 



Jedi Academy was too good to let go, and quite smartly, Scholastic has tapped Jarrett Krosoczka, author of the Lunch Lady series of graphic novels. Jedi Academy: A New Class finds young Victor Starspeeder making a midyear transfer from the Jedi Academy at Obroa-skai, where he has had a series of mishaps to the Jedi Academy at Coruscant. Victor decides that he is going to start keeping a journal of his time at Jedi Academy because that is what his father, who died when Victor was a baby, did.

The Jedi Academy has its own challenges, starting with Christina, Victor's big sister, who already goes there. She tells him in no uncertain terms that once they are at school, they are strangers. Navigating the new school on his own, Victor is swayed by Zach, and older student, who turns out to be a bully and a prankster with his own agenda. He also gets stuck with Artemis, an asthmatic kid in a black hooded cloak who just might be a Sith. Victor tries to make friends, impress a girl, and get his special project on the planet Endor completed while also trying to stay out of trouble and keep Zach from getting him kicked out.


Krosoczka hits all the right notes in Jedi Academy: A New Class, continuing and updating features that Brown introduced in the first three books like handwritten notes between characters, school schedules and pages from the school newspaper, including an advice column by Ms. Catara, the school guidance counselor who is also a Gungan. Krosoczka also creates a couple new twists, including the Galaxy Feed, which is a social media type feature that pops up on a tablet like device, and a page of comic strips that look at classics like Family Circus, Peanuts and Garfield through the lens of Star Wars. I especially liked, "Huttfield," in which Jaba the Hutt is the lazy, food loving star of the strip.

While I love that this series continues on (and I hope that, after another three books a new author/illustrator takes on this challenge) and am thrilled that I have more of these books to offer students, for me, Krosoczka's take on the academic world of the young Jedi lacks a bit of the depth, heart and humor that I found in Brown's books. But hey, I'm pretty sure I'm not the target audience for these books...

Source: Purchased

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5. It’s Slice of Life Tuesday!

WRITE a slice of life story on your own blog. SHARE a link to your post in the comments section. GIVE comments to at least three other SOL bloggers. Today’s inspiration comes from… Continue reading

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6. Dog Loves Counting

Dog Loves Counting. Louise Yates. 2013. Random House. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: Dog loved books. He loved reading them late into the night and didn't like to leave them for long.

Premise/plot: Dog knows he should go to bed, but, he's having trouble falling to sleep. He decides to count something--not sheep--to help him sleep. So he opens a book, finds himself inside, of course--Dog gets lost in books, becoming part of the action--and starts to find things to count. He makes friends too, of course.

My thoughts: Of the three books, this is my least favorite. I still love Dog as a character. And I can even relate to not wanting to put down his book and go to bed. But as an adult reader, I can't really lose myself in a book that focuses on counting from one to ten and back again. I just can't. For young children, of course, this one is still recommended. But it feels more 'educational' than the previous two in the series.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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7. The Inquisitor's Tale, or Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly, 384 pp, RL 4


In 2010, A Tale Dark and Grimm the debut novel by Adam Gidwitz, captured my attention and that of many other readers, young and old. Gidwitz is a master story teller and his reworking of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, many of them less than well known, is marvelous. I was thrilled when my son shared my enthusiasm for this book and even more excited when I discovered that reading it out loud was a great way to entice my students, many of whom are reluctant and/or struggling readers, to persevere with a longer book. True to his story telling nature, Gidwitz is back with The Inquisitor's Tale, a manuscript illuminated by Hatem Aly and like no other children's book I have read before.

Set in 1242 and echoing the structure of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, The Inquisitor's Tale finds an (initially) unnamed narrator at the Holy Cross-Roads Inn, a day's walk north of Paris. It is the perfect night for a story as a group gathers around the rough wooden table, sticky with ale. The king will be marching past the inn on his way to war with three children and their dog. A brewster, a librarian, a nun, a butcher, a jongleur, a chronicler, a troubadour and the innkeeper take turns telling stories of these three children and their dog, each one adding to the tapestry of their story. Subtly but surely, Gidwizt presents characters who are discriminated against or (much) worse, for gender, religion, and class.

Jeanne is a peasant girl who is seized with visions of the future. As an infant, her parents killed her babysitter/protector, Gwenforte, a white greyhound with a copper blaze on her snout, thinking that the dog had attacked Jeanne. Far from the truth, the loyal Gwenforte had saved the baby from an adder that made its way into the house. Realizing their mistake, they gave the dog a proper burial in a grove that quickly became a holy place and the dog thought of as a saint. Years later, after seeing a beloved neighbor, thought to be a heretic, hauled off by a huge, fat, red headed monk from Bologna, Jeanne knows she must keep her fits and the visions that follow a secret. She must also keep Gwenforte, who has come back to life, a secret.

The second child is William, an oblate. The son of a great lord fighting in Spain against the Muslim kings and a Saracen from Northern Africa, he was left at a monastery as a baby. More than his dark color, the size of William is a constant source of amazement and occasional frustration - or worse - to the monks. William's great size, strength and appetite, both for food and knowledge, make him a threat to some of the monks and he is sent away with a donkey, saddlebags full of books to be delivered to another monastery by way of a forest inhabited by fiends. 

Finally, there is Jacob, a Jew who survives the burning of his village by Christian boys and has the ability to miraculously heal the sick and injured. Jacob only wants to be reunited with his parents, but his ability to read and his love of his religion shape his path. As The Inquisitor's Tale unfolds, it becomes clear that, not only is this a story about stories and storytelling, it is a story about books. There are many strange twists and turns in The Inquisitor's Tale, including a hilarious incident with a dragon who, by way of a lactose intolerance issue, comes to pass gas that sets knights on fire. This leads to a fantastic scene with a cure from Jacob that involves vomiting up a tremendous amount of French cheese, Époisses, which Jeanne describes as tasting like life, "Rotten and strange and rich and way, way too strong." As the tales are told, we come to learn that King Louis is planning a book burning that the children will inevitably be part of. In fact, he has had his monks gather up all the texts written in Hebrew and  created an enormous bonfire in the heart of Paris. Being an oblate, William has a deep reverence for books, knowing the time and effort that goes into copying out a text. Being Jewish and able to read, Jacob also has a great reverence for books and the word of the Talmud. It is this reverence for books that leads the three children and Gwenforte to an amazing standoff with the king and his terrible mother at Mont Saint-Michel, the incredible island commune in Normandy.

While The Inquisitor's Tale has a deep vein of Christian thought and history running through it, Gidwitz makes his story richer and more engaging by also highlighting those who suffered in the face of Christianity. He begins the book, which he researched for six years and includes an extensive and interesting author's note as well as an annotated bibliography, with a quote from poet W. H. Auden that calls for loving "your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart." It is this thought, one that Jacob reads in the Talmud and Jeanne notes that Jesus said, but in reverse, that drives the story and the children. As their adventures escalate and they meet many broken, crooked, questionable adults (they are the only children in the story) and they forgive and love their neighbors over and over. When they find themselves discussing Cain, Abel and the use of the word "bloods" (and not "blood," which William attributes to drunk scribes) they compare the loss of one life, which is really the loss of many - the descendants that person may never have - to the loss of books and the knowledge they contain and can eventually touch many lives with, Willam saying, 

A scribe might copy out a single book for years. An illuminator would then take it and work on it for longer still. Not to mention the tanner who made the parchment, and the bookbinder who stitched the book together, and the librarian who worked to get the book for the library and keep it safe from mold and thieves and clumsy monks with ink pots and dirty hands. And some books have authors, too, like Saint Augustine or Rabbi Yehuda. When you think about it, each book it a lot of lives. Dozens and dozens of them.

To this, Jeanne adds, "Dozens and dozens of lives, and each life a whole world." Having worked in almost all aspects of the world of kid's books at this point in my working life, I feel compelled to add to this idea. It is truly amazing, even in this day when books are printed by machines and illustrations can be created on computers, to realize how many hands touch a written work before it becomes a book on a shelf, from the literary agent (and the agent's assistant) to the editor at the publishing house to the booksellers, reviewers and librarians who embrace the story and pass it on, retelling it to invite new readers. And that's not even mentioning the writer's critique groups and family and friends who read manuscripts in the early (and late) stages. Storytelling touches us all, whether we write the words or not, and I am grateful to Adam Gidwitz for reminding us of this - especially with such a highly entertainingly readable book like The Inquisitor's Tale!

source: review copy











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8. Making Comparisons: A Little Glimpse at Discovering Similes

This week I’ve been checking and monitoring my students’ work and making plans. I’ve been delving into some fun lessons from, The Big Book of Details by Roz Linder for inspiration and using… Continue reading

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9. Fusenews

Happy Fusenews day to you, guv’nor.  In today’s episode we tip our hat to a post last week that is probably my most popular of all time.  Who knew knitting needles could be such lightning rods?  In any case, on with the newz!


 

boywhodrewHow old is the picture book biography as we know it today?  Recently I’ve been thinking long and hard about what its purpose is, as well as its limitations.  Jacqueline Davies has thought longer and harder in some ways, though, since her recent post Writers and the Real Estate Market takes a very personal look at the choices she made when she wrote The Boy Who Drew Birds.  She makes some remarkably interesting points about content and format.


 

Boy, it must be hard.  Every year, without fail, Marjorie Ingall (Mamaleh Knows Best) scours the publishing world for great Jewish-centric books for kids.  The pickings are almost always slim, but once in a while you get some really good biographies. Picture book biographies (I sense a theme to today’s post) no less.  The first is of the current Ruth Bader Ginsberg bio in the piece Teaching Kids the Value of Dissent and the other Rich Michelson’s most recent bio in Leonard Nimoy’s Fascinating Life.  Great books.  Great write-ups.


 

Librarians.  We have one of those professions where it’s pretty clear that whenever we appear in the news, 50% of the time it’s not about something good.  Case in point, the recent news about a thrifty library cataloger who donated $4 million to his employer after his death.  His employer, however, was a university library.  So, naturally, $1 million of that is going to a football scoreboard.  Some folks are less than entirely pleased with that development.


 

I mentioned it last week but I’m mentioning it again today because it’s a darn good cause.  If you don’t know about why authors and illustrators alike (as well as celebs like Al Roker and Nicole Kidman) are painting piggy banks for auction, you should fill yourself in here.  A good cause and you get art.  The bidding just started yesterday, so don’t be left behind. And I know I won’t get it, but this is my own personal favorite piggy:

bruelpiggy


 

I already read this four years ago, but with the recent passing of Gene Wilder I saw it included in a Chronicle Books newsletter and just couldn’t resist putting it up again.  It’s Gene Wilder’s handwritten notes on the changes he’d prefer to the Willy Wonka costume he was initially given.  Ole blue eyes himself.


 

Daily Image:

Maurice Sendak was initially going to design that old movie Return to Oz?!?  Apparently it never happened but he did create a publicity poster for the ad campaign.  Not that it really looks like any of the characters in the movie (I’m working on a couple theories on who the guy on the far right is) but in terms of the book Ozma of Oz, it’s not terrible.

sendakoz

Many many thanks to J.L. Bell at Oz and Ends for this image.  Yet another old post from 2012.  I’m having that kind of a day.

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10. The Grand Tour

The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones. Rich Kienzle. 2016. 288 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Would he or wouldn't he show up?

Premise/plot: The Grand Tour is a biography of George Jones that seeks to balance a focus on his life and on his music. The author takes on the role of music critic and biographer. In the prologue he explains his approach, "Jones's life and music are inseparable. The music often triumphed even during his worst personal moments. His evolution from twangy imitator to distinctive new voice, from influential vocalist to master of his craft, is as important as his personal failings. Exploring that musical side--how he found songs and recorded them; the perspectives of the public, those involved in creating his records, and Jones himself--is pivotal to understanding the story. I've attempted to take the long view, examining not only his life and the events that shaped him from start to present, but simultaneously exploring his immense musical legacy, all in a clear chronological context." (13)

My thoughts: I started listening to George Jones' music this summer. And what I loved, I really, really LOVED. So I was curious to pick this new biography up at the library. I picked it up as a new fan and not an expert, so perhaps keep that in mind. But I enjoyed this biography very much. I think I might have appreciated aspects of it even more if I was familiar with more of his albums, more of his songs.

The prologue of this one had me hooked. Here is how the author describes Jones' voice: "The voice was raw nerve put to music...Yet above all that was his consummate ability to explore pain, sorrow, heartbreak, and emotional desolation." (9)

It was an often absorbing read full of highs and lows. I would definitely recommend it.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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11. Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia. Brandon Sanderson. 2009. Scholastic. 299 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: So there I was, hanging upside down underneath a gigantic glass bird, speeding along at a hundred miles an hour above the ocean, in no danger whatsoever.

Premise/plot: This is the third book in the Alcatraz fantasy series. IN this one, Alcatraz and company arrive at last in the Free Kingdoms, in Nalhalla. Alcatraz wrestles with fame and ego in this one. Though raised in the Hushlands in a Librarian-controlled nation, he's FAMOUS in Nalhalla already, even starring in his own book series. (The book series being written by the Prince himself). Open up one of his books, and his theme music plays. You don't really get more famous than Alcatraz Smedry, of course, it's not really, truly HIM that is famous, more an idea of him. Also in this one, Bastille is put on trial. Will she be stripped of knighthood? How long will her punishment last? I should also not forget to mention that the LIBRARIANS want to come to peaceful terms and end the war at last. But Alcatraz and his friends suspect the WORST. But so many people want peace that they seem willing to give the Librarians the benefit of the doubt....

My thoughts: This one is an action-packed read full of fun and humor. I love this series. And I think I enjoyed this third book even more than the first two books. Folsom was a great new character to introduce--loved his talent, by the way. And it was nice to meet a librarian who wasn't evil for a change!!!

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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12. The Worst Best School Year Ever

The Best (Worst) School Year Ever. Barbara Robinson. 1994. 117 pages. [Source: Bought]

First sentence: Unless you're somebody like Huckleberry Finn, the first day of school isn't too bad.

Premise/plot: This book is a sequel to the Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Both books are narrated by a girl named Beth who bear witness to the awfulness of the Herdman family. The book loosely takes place between the first and last days of school. The chapters are more episodic than linked to one another. All focus in on the Herdman family. Some chapters are better than others. I wouldn't say that any were wonderful.

My thoughts: I really LOVE, LOVE, LOVE The Best Christmas Pageant ever. And I think the reason why was that it had a point--a redemptive point. The Herdmans surprised everyone with their humanness, and, they weren't just the town joke when all was said and done. That isn't the case with The Worst Best School Year Ever. While there was one touching moment when Beth, the narrator, noticed Imogene at her best, that alone wasn't enough to make up for all the "let's laugh at the Herdmans." The scene I did like was when Beth noticed the initials on the blanket "returned" to baby Howard. I.H. When Howard lost his blanket--he was the bald baby whose head the Herdmans tattooed with waterproof markers--Imogene gave him her old blanket and pretended it was his that she had found. Only Beth suspected the truth. The first book seemed to end with a fuzzy removal of the "us" and "them" distinction. Not so with this one. And that is disappointing.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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13. Wagon Wheels

Wagon Wheels. Barbara Brenner. Illustrated by Don Bolognese. 1978. HarperCollins. 64 pages. [Source: Bought]

First sentence: "There it is, boys" Daddy said. "Across this river is Nicodemus, Kansas. That is where we are going to build our house. There is free land for everyone here in the West. All we have to do is go and get it."

Premise/plot: Wagon Wheels is an early chapter book based on a true story. Set in the late 1870s, the book follows the adventures of the Muldie family as they settle in Kansas. First the family settles in Nicodemus, Kansas, a black community. Then the father leaves the boys behind and searches for a better place to settle down and call home, this time near Solomon City. The boys--all on their own--travel to rejoin their father. (The father disliked the flat land and missed trees and hills.)

The book is narrated by Johnny, one of four boys being raised by a widower. The text is simple, and the action is straight-forward. Though simple, it was packed with just the right amount of detail. This book is much, much shorter than any of the Little House books, but, it is just as vivid.

My thoughts: I really liked this one. The edition I picked up is all black-and-white illustrations. I could not tell based on the cover alone that it was a black pioneer family. So I was very pleasantly surprised when I started reading the text to find some diversity. The family--and the community--are saved from starvation by the generosity of Indians--Osage, I believe. Unlike the Little House books, the Indians are portrayed positively. Yes, they are referred to as "Indians" but not savages or redskins or the like.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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14. The Six Week Check-in

Many of us are fast approaching the sixth week of school. Many of us consider that the first of countless milestones in our school year. Six weeks in, routines are beginning to solidify,… Continue reading

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15. Book Review: George by Alex Gino

Title: George
Author: Alex Gino
Published: 2015
Source: Local Library

A note: While she's called George through most of the book, Melissa is the name she's chosen for herself, so that's what I'll use in this review. Please see: How to Talk About George at AlexGino.com

Summary: Melissa knows she's a girl, even if the whole world seems to think she's a boy named George instead. She's scared to tell anybody - her mother, her brother, even her best friend - the truth that she knows in her heart. But when the chance to play Charlotte in Charlotte's Web comes her way, she realizes that this may be a way to be who she is.

First Impressions: This was so quietly sweet, and yet so comprehensive in how the world was enforcing gender on her. I keep getting the sniffles over it. I also loved how unexpected some of the reactions were.

Later On: The thing that kept running through my head was how thoroughly this is a children's book. Melissa is in the fourth grade. The class play is Charlotte's Web. There's little to no discussion of sexuality or attraction - it's this vague, misty thing that feels as far away as the moon. There's a little discussion of genitalia: she hates taking a bath and having to see "what's between her legs", and she talks briefly and vaguely about transitional surgeries and medication with her best friend. But Melissa is primarily and appropriately concerned with a child's world - her family, her friends, school woes, why nobody seems to know who she really is.

Her gender is a source of constant stress - not confusion. I think it's important to clarify that. She knows her own gender, even though everything from the bathroom pass to the play's casting call conspires to shout at her, boy boy BOY BOY BOY. It's this constant screaming that makes her miserable. When she gets the chance to be her real self, in public, with her loving and accepting best friend at her side, I swear that I felt a weight lift off my shoulders.

I know that strictly because of the topic, this will be shelved in some YA sections. That's the wrong place for this book. This is a tender, beautiful, relatable book for children of all gender identities.

More: Waking Brain Cells
Interview with Alex Gino at School Library Journal

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16. Benny and Penny in How to Say Goodbye by Geoffrey Hayes, 32 pp, RL 2


Benny and Penny in How to Say Goodbye is the sixth book featuring these bickering siblings and, as always, Geoffrey Hayes captures the intense and fleeting emotions that young children feel and how they make sense of the world around them perfectly. And, as always, his illustrations are marvelously charming and the natural world that the mice live in gently beautiful. Hayes's graphic novel series is perfect for emerging readers looking for something beyond Frog & Toad and Amelia Bedelia.


In How to Say Goodbye, Hayes has his mice brother and sister encounter death. While playing together in the fall leaves, Penny finds a salamander she named Little Red. She knows that it is dead, having a grasp of what death it. Benny reacts with anger, throwing the salamander into the bushes.


Penny gets help from Melina and the two make plans for Little Red, Benny skulking around the edges of their activities. As the they prepare for the burial, Benny and Penny have memories of Little Red, each feeling their grief in their own ways. They also find ways to honor the life of the salamander. As the story draws to an end, another salamander appears and a new friendship begins.



You can read my reviews of other 
Benny & Penny books here





Source: Review Copy


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17. The Sibling Reality: When Picture Books Stop Being Nice and Start Getting Real

I love it when a blog title makes me sound old.

Now that my kids have reached the ripe ages of five and two, I’m finding myself more interested in picture books that pick apart the nature of sibling relationships in interesting ways .  I don’t mean fighting.  I mean that crazy pushmepullyou of loving each other to the extreme mixed with scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs annoyance.  With that in mind, I’ve been trying to come up with a variety of picture books that celebrate this tricky balance.  Books where it’s not all sweetness and light nor vinegar and . . . uh . . . darkness (note to self: work on metaphors before posting to readership).

Here’s just a quick smattering of some of my favorites at this precise moment in time.

Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan, ill. Sophie Blackall

BigRedLollipop

I am now and forever Team BRL.  Back in the day when I reviewed it I mentioned that for me this is a book about grace.  Telling kids to forgive other kids is tricky, but telling them to forgive their little annoying siblings?  Add in the fact that this is one of the very rare picture books you’ll find about a American Muslim family that isn’t about their faith in some way and you’ve got yourself a winner.

Cooking with Henry and Elliebelly by Carolyn Parkhurst, ill. Dan Yaccarino

cookinghenry

Speak truth to me, but softly.  Give me picture books about siblings, but get a little heart in there.  Now in some ways, I feel that Parkhurst’s book remains one of the funniest and most honest displays of sibling relationships I’ve ever seen.  That moment when the mom says, “Sweetie, she’s two. You don’t have to do what she says,” just squeaks with familiarity.  I am that mom.  I live that mom’s life.  Albeit with the genders of the kids switched.

A Birthday for Frances by Russell Hoban, ill. Lillian Hoban

birthdayfrances

I’m in that weird position as a librarian where I know all the “classic” children’s picture books and I know to read them to my kids, but I’m still shocked when I finally discover that some of them are more contemporary, funny, and honest than a lot of the stuff being published today.  Take Frances.  Now there’s a character I hope we never lose.  She has lots of great books but this may be my favorite.  Clearly Russell Hoban knew children, because that relationship between Frances and her sister has all the qualities of a real sisterhood.

Baby Says by John Steptoe

BabySays

*checks watch*

Nope.  Still not back in print.  Still weird.  He just got a street named after him, guys.  The fact this isn’t even a board book is bizarre.  My son loves it, possibly because the baby gets to bean the brother upside the head with a teddy bear and all that brother does is sigh and get the kid out of his crib.  But that shot of the messy baby kiss on his brother’s nose . . . I’m not a sentimental soul in the least, but that gets me.

I’m open to any and all suggestions for more titles of this ilk, if you have them.

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18. Alcatraz versus the Shattered Lens

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens. Brandon Sanderson. 2010. Scholastic. 294 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: So there I was, holding a pink teddy bear in my hand.

Premise/plot: The fourth book in the Alcatraz fantasy series for children. Is Alcatraz brave or stupid in this one? He insists that bravery and stupidity are essentially the same. The free kingdom of Mokia is in danger of falling. Their capital city seems doomed to fall within days...if not hours. The royal family has been evacuated, so we're told, and unless a famous person whose life is so very, very, very valuable is there to be saved, no knights or soldiers will be endangered or sacrificed recklessly. Alcatraz's scheme? To go to Mokia so that the KNIGHTS will go to Mokia. Once he arrives, he learns, well, that would be SPOILERS. But he learns that he isn't the only person with Smedry blood to be stupid or brave. Bastille is along for this adventure....Kaz as well.

The new character introduced in this one is Aydee, and, her talent is being BAD AT MATH.

My thoughts: This one is definitely the best of the series perhaps. Or rereading all four books within two weeks has made me care so very much about these characters?! Either way, I recommend the series.

This book left so many unanswered questions. I had almost come to terms with having no true answers...when I learned that the fifth book will be released this year. So after years, I can finally know what happens next!

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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19. Library Loot: September

New Loot:
  • Stories from the Life of Jesus by Celia Barker Lottridge
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • It's Not About Perfect by Shannon Miller
  • Won Ton by Lee Wardlaw
  • The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest
  • Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
  • Louise & Andie: The Art of Friendship by Kelly Light
  • Won Ton and Chopstick by Lee Wardlaw
  • This Is My Dollhouse by Giselle Potter
  • March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin
  • March: Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin
  Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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20. Nine Years Old!


Pixabay image

Every year as September winds down, I like to give a little birthday party for the blog. She's nine years old now and half a million views from her beginnings in 2007 as a class project.

The blog has connected me to you, dear readers, over the years and continues to call me - even if I resist her siren song far more in semi-retirement.

Thanks for all your support and friendship. I still can't promise more frequent posts but we shall see what next year brings.

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21. Protecting Student Writing Time

My students won’t become writers just because I want them to be writers. Writers need to wallow in new information, time to let all the words, ideas and questions wash over them, connect with their schema, and let the new information become their own.

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22. Counting Kids - Still Thinking About Summer Reading/Learning

There was recently a thread on the ALSC listserv discussing whether there was a national "finisher" rate for summer reading program.

It became clear pretty quickly that definitions of finishing ranged from counting the number of kids who signed up to the library setting a goal and counting the kids who reach it - and everything in between. It was also pretty apparent that each library takes an individual approach to SLP and the idea of any national benchmark beyond number of kids participating (and even that is shaky) is apples and zucchinis.

I have had my turn at this dance over the years. When we shared information with our schools, we kept careful excel sheet or database data that we updated each time a child returned. When we looked to increase usage by certain grade levels or from certain schools, we loved our stats - and used 'em. When we handed incentives along the way or created a goal, we kept track to see when kids hit that level. I have been stat bound on some level most of my career.

But this summer I watched as colleagues at my former library dispensed altogether with sign-ups. When children registered they put a sneaker on a pillar. Throughout the program, kids could pick up weekly activity sheets. Both methods used the "count back" strategy to arrive at numbers. You know how many sneaker cut-outs you began with and count what you have leftover to determine sign-up numbers (1000 sneakers; 25 left = 975 kids starting the program). You have 300 copies of a weekly activity sheet and at the end of the week you have 10 = 290 kids participated that week.

This took the pressure and onus off the staff and provided less widgeting for kids. Since the library went prizeless a few years ago (except for a book for the kids) and seldom used stats on grade level or school, this was a simple evolution. Kids earned a book this summer after returning once and a "Summer Reader Lives Here" yard sign when they self-reported a 5th return visit.

Record keeping and definitions of success can be administration/board driven or an internal call to crazy stat keeping. But when we break down what we really - no I mean, REALLY - need in stats we gather (whether in-house or online), it may become clear that we are over-asking kids and over-working staff for returns that have no larger meaning.

Finding ways to simplify the process of getting the numbers we need (kids signed up; average participation rate) can take some real stress out of a busy time and carve needed time to reach out and really interact with kids and families. And seems worth the change!

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23. It’s a Boy! Share your Joy!

We have been on pins and needles over here at Two Writing Teachers as Stacey’s due date approached. We have all been anxiously checking our email and text messages for news. Today we… Continue reading

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24. My Thoughts: We Know it Was You by Maggie Thrash

4 yummy frosted ginger cookies

Cover Love:  I'm not sure.  I don't hate it, but I don't love it.
I just don't feel it is very eye catching nor does it fit the tone of the book, however, I like it as a cover.  I like the font and the huge, accusatory title.

Why I Wanted to Read This:  I was in the mood for a suspense book and this one sounded like it fit the bill.  Here's the synopsis from GoodReads:

It’s better to know the truth. At least sometimes.

Halfway through Friday night’s football game, beautiful cheerleader Brittany Montague—dressed as the giant Winship Wildcat mascot—hurls herself off a bridge into Atlanta’s surging Chattahoochee River.

Just like that, she’s gone.

Eight days later, Benny Flax and Virginia Leeds will be the only ones who know why.
Romance?: Not really. There are a lot of romances that happen or were already happening in the book (it's set at a high school), there just isn't any romance for or between our main characters.

My Thoughts:
I really liked this book for several reasons.  First off, it takes place at a boarding/prep type school.  Although there is a dorm, there aren't a lot of "boarders" and they are kind of looked down upon by the local kids who attend the school.  I like this reversal for a prep school type setting.  Normally, the local kids are the ones looked down upon, rather than the boarders.  Because of this setting the population of kids is pretty small, everyone knows everyone and the class lines area kind of blurred.  Seniors are friends with lower class men and pretty much everyone knows everyone else!

The author writes from several different points of view during the course of this book, with Benny and Virginia being the main two characters.  One thing I loved was how the author wrote about the perceptions each character had of the others.  Benny constantly was devaluing Virginia in his head and she was constantly thinking about what a nerd Benny was.  Neither of them truly saw what was going on with each other, nor were these perceptions easily changed.  It just felt really true to teenagers and high school because sometimes its so hard to change your reputation.  People don't want you to change who you are!

The mystery was also really well done, a lot of red herrings.  I found the "who done it" to be a little implausible, but overall was keep interested the whole book.  I also liked all the little kernels the author threw out there that didn't get answered.  This book is titled "Strange Truth #1" so I am looking forward to learning more about Benny and Virginia in upcoming books.  There is a mystery involving Virginia that is alluded to several times in the book that I am especially looking forward to learning more about.  I really liked Virginia!

Overall, I liked the setting of a small. elite school and  the mystery.  The smallest thing that kind of bothered me was the ages of Benny and Virginia, they seemed a bit older and more mature than 15.

To Sum Up:  Even though Benny and Virginia are 15 year olds, I feel that there were a few things in this book that make it too mature for my library.  However, it's a great mystery and a fun read so I will recommend our high school librarians buy it for their collections.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy!

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25. You Can Find Us at #TheEdCollab Gathering Today

Beth, Dana, and Deb will be live at 1:00 EST today

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