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1. Review: Poisoned Apples

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann. HarperCollins. 2014. Reviewed from electronic galley.

The Plot: Fairy tale retellings, in poetry and photographs.

The Good: Seriously, I just adore retellings. Whether it's looking into the historical origins of fairy tales, modernizing them, twisting them -- I just love what people can do with the familiar and the unknown, making them new and fresh.

Poisoned Apples approaches fairy tales with a particular question: what do they say about what it means to be a woman? What does it mean in today's world?

"The action's always there
Where are the fairy tales about gym class
or the doctor's office of the back of the bus
where bad things can also happen?"

Where bad things happen. There, right there, it shows that the darkness of the fairy tales is what will be examined.

So many good, tight poems, and each is independent, so it's hard to write about because how to select just one or two.

Some are cynical -- the "Prince Charming" who is charming to parents but says to the girlfriend
"Girl,
you look amazing. That sweater
makes your boobs look
way bigger."

Others are not. "
Retelling" says, "What the miller's daughter should have said
from the start
or at any point down the line is,
no."

And then offers a better solution:
"Once upon a time
there was a miller's daughter
who got a studio apartment
took classes during the day."

"Retelling" may be my favorite because it says, you can say no. You can put yourself first. And that means a happier ending for everyone.

Poisoned Apples is a short book but not a quick read. There is a lot here to discuss; a lot to think about it; a lot to question. And the questions are not just about fairy tales and the poems. It's about what it is to be a woman, what that means, what society and family and friends say it means.

I reviewed this from an electronic galley; and let me say, I want to get my hands on the final print version because I think it's going to be an even more intimate reading.

Other reviews: Sense and Sensibilities and Stories; Kirkus Reviews.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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2. Review: Feral

Feral by Holly Schindler. Harper Collins. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Two girls: one dead, one left for dead.

Serena is the dead girl, but it's her story that starts the book.

Claire is alive, having survived a brutal attack months before. She's the new girl in town, arriving at the same time Serena's body is found.

Claire finds herself drawn into the mystery of Serena's death: was it an accident? Or was it murder?

The Good:  The cats. Oh dear lord, the feral cats.

I thought I was going to say that the scariest scene was Claire's attack. A confident teen, walking home alone in the dark, chased and surrounded and beaten and left for dead.

But then I think of the feral cats, the ones that went after Serena's dead body and that scene, and the later scenes were the cats seem to come after Claire, and I think, no, that's the scariest scene.

This is a mystery, yes, about what happened to Serena. The reader, from the start, knows what has happened: "The body belonged -- or really, the body had once belonged -- to Serena Sims, a B average junior who loved her best friend, the sound of the rain, writing for the school paper, and her mother's chocolate mayonnaise cake with homemade icing, a family specialty. . . . Seventeen and dead: it was the worst kind of vulnerable." Serena is dead, but she is somehow still present, still feeling everything. And sharing all that, every bump and thump as her killer drags her body and dumps it. And then the cats come.

But there is only so much that Serena shares with the reader.

Then there is Claire: still recovering, physically and psychologically, from her attack months before. She is drawn to Serena's death for many reasons, one of which is that everyone else seems to believe that Serena's death is accidental. It turns out that Claire's new house was one that Serena lived in years ago; the first teens she meets are friends of Serena's; the local feral cat is the cat Serena fed.

As the story progresses, as Claire chases down the truth, Serena's ghost -- if that's what she is -- grows unhappier and unhappier with her own death, and more dangerous.

One more thing: the setting is fabulous. The town, Peculiar, Missouri,

How all this comes together was something I didn't expect, and made me go back and reread the first few chapters to see what clues were there. Part of me doesn't want to give away what that is, but part of me wants to give it away so you can understand when I say: Brilliant. You had me, you convinced me, and when I realized the truth of what was happening -- yes. That's true and real. Well, maybe not real, because at the end? I'm not sure what was real or not, what was Claire's fears, what was a haunting. But I do know this:

Damn, those feral cats are scary.


Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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3. Shel Silverstein Books for National Poetry Month

I remember one of my nieces having a huge Shel Silverstein phase a few years back. They were the first books that she was excited to share with us, and I appreciated them for that. My grandmother also developed a strong enjoyment of Silverstein's poems late in her life. I still have her copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends. That is the beauty of Silverstein's work - his poems are timeless and appeal to people of all ages. 

This year, Harper Collins has released 40th and 50th anniversary editions of a number of Silverstein's books, including a special edition of Where the Sidewalk Ends that contains 12 extra poems. You might consider any of these for your National Poetry Month commemoration. Though I don't think there are very significant differences from earlier editions, these new editions are very crisp and shiny. I'm happy to have them for my daughter (with thanks to HarperCollins). 

1. Don't Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies: 50th anniversary edition. These are particularly quirky, featuring short, illustrated pieces like this:

Long-Necked Preposterous

This is Arnold,
A Long-Necked Preposterous,
Looking around for a female
Long-Necked Preposterous.
But there aren't any

2. Where the Sidewalk Ends: 40th anniversary edition with 12 extra poems. This book contains lots of classic, kid-friendly Silverstein, including the Boa Constrictor song. I remember listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary's version of this when I was young (on a record player). The 12 extra poems were not in the original edition, but were apparently added as part of the 30th anniversary edition, and included here. And of course this:

"... Yes, we''ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we'll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends."

3. Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back: 50th anniversary edition. This one is an illustrated story (told in chapters), and not a collection of poems. Though Silverstein does certainly play with language. Here's the start:

"And now, children, your Uncle Shelby is going to tell you a story about a very strange lion--in fact, the strangest lion I have ever met. Now, where shall I start this lion tail? I mean this lion tale. I suppose I should begin at the moment when I first met this lion." 

4. A Giraffe and a Half: 50th anniversary edition. This is an illustrated, cumulative nonsense-filled story, suited to younger listeners. Here's a snippet from mid-way through:

"If he put on a shoe
and then stepped in some glue...

you would have a giraffe and a half
with a rat in his hat
looking cute in a suit
with a rose on his nose
and a bee on his knee
and some glue on his shoe."

5. The Giving Tree: 50th anniversary edition. While this story of continuing self-sacrifice is not my personal favorite, there are certainly people who like it. 

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you). These books were received from HarperCollins. 

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

 

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4. A Few Valentine's Day Picture Books from Harper Collins

My three year old is getting excited for Valentine's Day. It is, after all, the next holiday coming up. And there will be chocolate involved. But in truth, much of her excitement was sparked by a box of Valentine's Day-themed picture books and early readers that Harper Collins sent us last week. They're not all my personal cup of hot chocolate, but my child is thrilled. 

Far and away the most exciting of the books for her is Pete the Cat: Valentine's Day is Cool, by Kimberly and James Dean. In this story, Pete initially thinks that Valentine's Day isn't "cool." However, encouraged by his friend Callie, he gets on board with using valentines to tell people how special they are. By the end of the book he's making valentines for the school bus driver and other people he encounters throughout his day. Pretty classic Pete the Cat storyline, all in all. But there is a pull-out poster, as well as stickers, and a set of tear-out valentine cards. This turned out to not be a great bedtime book, because my daughter was so excited by all of this. She just came in to my office needing help finding the cards, which I imagine she wants to give to her friends. I do like the "show people you appreciate them" message, delivered in a light-hearted fashion. 

My daughter also enjoyed Foxy in Love by Emma Dodd. We have not read Foxy, for which this book is a sequel. But the premise comes across fairly quickly. Foxy is a fox who can conjure things with a wave of his magical tail, though he doesn't always quite understand what his friend, a girl named Emily, wants from him. In Foxy in Love, Foxy comes across Emily as she is working on a valentine. He suggests that she draw what she loves in the card, hoping that she'll draw him. But instead, she focuses on things like balloons and rainbows. Not until the end of the book does Foxy finally tell Emily that "Valentine's Day is not about what you love... It's about who you love." Of course it all ends happily. Foxy's longing to be loved actually comes across in relatively subtle fashion throughout the book, and there is plenty of humor as he tries, with mixed results, to conjure the things that Emily wants (not tarts, hearts!). I think we'll keep this one in our arsenal. 

The first book that my daughter actually picked up from this box was Little Critter: Just A Little Love, an I Can Read book by Mercer Mayer. She adores Little Critter, and I've come to appreciate the humor in the differences between what he says is happening and what the pictures show. The expressions on the faces of the characters, particularly Mom and Dad, are often priceless (as when Dad looks rueful after Little Critter causes a flood in a gas station restroom). Just A Little Love is not actually a Valentine's Day book at all, though it certainly works for the season. Rather, the family members (pets included) have a series of mishaps as they set out to visit Grandma, who isn't feeling well. Each time someone ends up unhappy, someone else "gives him (or her) a little love." There's not enough of a storyline for this one to end up a favorite for us, I don't think, but one can't really argue with a book that makes us laugh, and in which family members console one another. 

It's Valentine's Day by Jack Prelutsky & Marylin Hafner is a level 3 I Can Read! book, full of love-themed poems. It's fairly text-dense, with a small illustration or two on each page. My daughter lost interest after the second poem. It's more a book for elementary school kids than preschoolers, it seems. But I thought that the poems, on subjects like how pets respond to receiving valentines, and how a child might be tempted to eat all of the chocolates that he bought for his mother, were clever and funny. This is a nice introduction to poetry for new readers, with colorful illustrations to make the book more accessible.

Love Is Real by Janet Lawler & Anna Brown is a picture book for the youngest listeners about all of the little things that people (well, animals doing human-type things) do that show their love for one another. Like this: "Love awakes... and helps you dress. Love will clean up any mess." These sentences are accompanied by three different images, each showing a different kind of animal parent helping his or her child (bunny, bear, fox). The same three families are followed throughout the book. The children sometimes are the ones who do things that express love. For us, this book skewed a bit young / sentimental. But the digital collage illustrations are fun. 

Finally, we read Tulip Loves Rex by Alyssa Satin Capucilli & Sarah Massini. Tulip Loves Rex is a picture book about a little girl who loves dancing, and dances everywhere, but has one unfulfilled wish. One day in the park she encounters a dog who, miraculously, loves to dance, too. And it turns out that this perfect-for-Tulip dog needs a home. I quite liked Massini's breezy illustrations, and I liked Tulip as a character, but the convenience of the ending felt a little flat for me. The parents "didn't mind a bit" bringing home a large stray dog from the park? Really? Perhaps I just don't want my daughter to get any ideas... 

All in all, though, these books are a welcome addition to our February reading.  Wishing you a happy run-up to Valentine's Day (or Balentine's Day, as it's called around here). 

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate. 

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5. Review of the Day: Giant Dance Party by Betsy Bird

GiantDanceParty 246x300 Review of the Day: Giant Dance Party by Betsy BirdGiant Dance Party
By Betsy Bird
Illustrated By Brandon Dorman
Greenwillow (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0061960833
Ages 3-7
On shelves now.

Gotcha!

I’m just messing with you.  No, I’m not going to actually review my book here.  I’m not going to wax rhapsodic over the hidden meanings lurking behind the mysterious cupcake on the cover.  I’ll refrain from delving deep into how Lexy’s emotional journey with the giants is just a thinly disguised metaphor for U.S. / Russia relations between the years of 1995-2004 (it isn’t, for the record).  I won’t even talk about the twist ending since spoilers make for interesting, if sometimes heartbreaking, reviews.

No, I’ll just talk instead about how happy I am that publication day is here at all.  And how pleasant it is to share that day with my buddy / pal / illustrious illustrator Brandon Dorman.  I’ve had a couple chances to present the book so far (including one disaster that I’ll get to in a moment) and here is what I have learned.

1.  It is possible to read this book to 3-year-olds thanks in large part to the pictures.

This is true.  The text is bouncy, which doesn’t hurt matters any, but when one is dealing with very small fry it is also mighty helpful when you have eye-popping visuals on your side.  And let me tell you, kids like the art of Brandon Dorman.  More than that, they love it.

2.  It is possible to read this book to 4-year-olds thanks in large part to the mentions of dances.

I have discovered by reading this at a couple daycares that if you teach kids jazz hands, interpretive dance, the twist, and the chicken dance in the course of reading this book, they don’t get bored.  As a children’s librarian I was always the storytime reader whose peripheral visual would zero in on the single kid out of thirty that looked bored.  This flaw in the programming has carried over to reading my own book.  If one kid is bored I suddenly get this manic tinge to my voice and everything becomes a little more frantic.  Be warned, easily bored children.  I’m gunning for you.

3.  Etsy is the creator of and solution to all of life’s woes.

I learned this truth when I constructed a necklace out of Caldecott cover Shrinky Dinks.  To make the necklace I wanted something that featured fuses (as a nod to the name of this blog).  So what do you do when you get such an urge?  You go to Etsy and search for such a thing.  In the case of my book presentations I decided I wanted blue furry boots.  So I type “blue furry boots” into Etsy and what do I get?  Something even better.  Blue furry rave legwarmers.  Oh, they’re the pip.  Here’s what I look like talking to the kids in ‘em.

Giant Dance Party Reading 1 500x375 Review of the Day: Giant Dance Party by Betsy Bird

Dance for me, little children.  Dance, I say!

Giant Dance Party Reading 2 500x375 Review of the Day: Giant Dance Party by Betsy Bird

They are also very easy to snuggle, if snuggling is what you want to do.

Giant Dance Party Reading 3 440x500 Review of the Day: Giant Dance Party by Betsy Bird

Special thanks to Melanie Hope Greenberg for the pics.

4. When you decide to go to a bookstore you’ve never visited before, give ‘em your phone number.  Beforehand.

Fun Fact: Did you know that there are TWO bookstores in Brooklyn called Powerhouse?  As of Saturday, I did not.  And thus begins my tale of woe.

I think there’s a general understanding out there that authors have at least one bad author experience tale they can tell.  But that experience, as important as it may be, is not usually their VERY FIRST BOOKSTORE APPEARANCE.  Because, you see, on Sunday I knew I was speaking at Powerhouse.  So I Googled it, got the address in Dumbo, and merrily traipsed over there.  The poor staff was cleaning up from an event the previous night and had no clue what I was talking about.  Still, they were very nice and helpful and though they didn’t have any copies of my book I just figured folks might order it.  Mind you, “folks” was a pretty optimistic term to be using in my head since nobody was there.  I mean nobody.  Little tumbleweeds would have been my audience had I spoke.

After giving it some time I packed up, the clerks apologized, and I went home.  Mildly mortifying that no one in Brooklyn came to see me, but it was 11:30 on a Sunday morning.  Not ideal.

And I would have proceeded in my merry little bubble for whole weeks at a time had I not gotten an email the next afternoon that made it very clear that I had gone to the wrong Powerhouse.  That there are, in fact, TWO stores out there with the same name.  Two.  Not one.  Two.  And my lovely publicist at Harper Collins had even gone so far as to send me a link to the event with the address front and center.  An address that was not in DUMBO at all but Park Slope.

So apparently (and this is where I sink into a puddle of 100% sheer uncut mortification) folks DID come to my event.  Folks I like.  Folks I would want to see.  Folks who would want to see me and who failed to do so because this doofus author merrily went to the wrong friggin’ store.

What have we learned here today, children?  Even if a publicist sets everything up for you, give the store your cell phone.  All this would have been solved if the store had had my info and had given me a ring.  There are other lessons of course (actually READ what your publicist sends you might be right up there) but you can bet I’ll be contacting all my future store appearances with my cell # right now.  Yup yup yup.

Onward and upward my patient fellows.

On shelves April 23rd (happy birthday to me!)

Source: Wrote the darn book.

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  • For the Harper Collins site I came up with a little explanation of How to Throw a Giant Dance Party.  Electric blue Kool-Aid may or may not play a hand in it all.

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I would be amiss in not including them.

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6. Review of the Day: Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems by Jack Prelutsky

Stardines1 300x247 Review of the Day: Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems by Jack PrelutskyStardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems
By Jack Prelutsky
Illustrated by Carin Berger
Greenwillow Books (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-201464-1
Ages 4-8
On shelves February 26th.

To non-children’s librarians the statistics are baffling. Your average poetry book isn’t exactly a circ buster. It sits on the shelf for months at a time, gathering dust, biding its time. When kids come to the reference desk to ask for titles, they don’t tend to ask for poetry unless they’ve some sort of assignment they need to fulfill. Yet for all that poetry books for kids are shelf sitters, it’s hard to find a single one that hasn’t gone out in the last two or three months. How to account for it? Well, there’s Poetry Month (April) to begin with. That always leads to a run on the 811 portion of the library shelves. But beyond that kids read poetry in dribs and drabs over the course of the year. Maybe as Summer Reading books. Maybe as class assignments. Whatever the reason, poetry has a longevity, if not a popularity, that’s enviable. Now Jack Prelutsky, our first Children’s Poet Laureate and creator of Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is following up his work with yet another delve into (in the words of Kirkus) “iambic ‘pun’tameter”. And while Prelutsky gives us a second round, illustrator Carin Berger steps up her game to give these hybrid birds and beasts a kick in the old artistic derriere.

Stardines1 263x300 Review of the Day: Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems by Jack PrelutskyForget everything you ever knew about animals. Not since On Beyond Zebra has the world seen a menagerie quite as wild as the one on display here. Step right up, folks, and take a gander at the rare and remarkable Fountain Lion. “The only lions no one dreads, / They all have fountains on their heads.” Delicious crustaceans more your speed? Then come and observe the rare Slobsters. “Their sense of decorum / Is woefully small. / Slobsters don’t have / Many manners at all.” Or for the kiddies, how about an adorable Planda? “They plan to learn to roller-skate, / To juggle, and to fence. / They plan to go to clown school / And cavort in circus tents.” With his customary clever verse, Jack Prelutsky invents sixteen imaginary animals of varying degrees of odd. Accompanying his rhymes is his old partner-in-crime Carin Berger, who has moved beyond mere collage and has gone so far to construct elaborate shadow boxes of each and every poem. The end result is impressive, hilarious, and one of the most original little poetry collections you’ll see in many a year.

The shadow box, that staple of undergraduate art projects everywhere, is a relative newcomer to the world of children’s literature. A shadow box, once you’ve designed it and filled it with cool images, needs to be photographed perfectly if it’s going to work on a flat page. That means you need an illustrator confident in their abilities to produce art that will look as good in two dimensions as three. Berger is clearly up to the challenge. A master of collage, in this book she bends over backwards to make her images the best they can be. She’s very good at conveying distance. She also conveys perspective quite well. A cut image of a bicycle makes it appear to be three-dimensional because it is photographed from above. I know the image itself is just a flat piece of paper, but the illusion is complete. Everything, in fact, appears to have been planned with a meticulous eye.

Even within the boxes themselves Berger’s job is not easy. Consider an early poem called “Bluffaloes” which combines the word “Buffaloes” with the word “Bluff”. It’s about buffalo types who are scaredy cats should you call their bluff. Fair enough. Now how the heck do you illustrate that? In Berger’s case it looks like she may have considered an alternative definition of the word “bluff” as in “a cliff, headland, or hill with a broad, steep face” since her bluffaloes look like nothing so much as little pieces of a cliff running hither and thither on newly sprouted legs. Artistic creativity is much called for when wordplay is open ended.

Stardines2 280x300 Review of the Day: Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems by Jack PrelutskyOf course, as an adult I’m going to be naturally inclined towards artsy fartsy styles. But this all begs the obvious question: Will kids dig it? Well, let’s stop and consider for a moment. What precisely has Berger done? She has made little boxes and put action-packed scenes within them. Who else does that kind of thing? If you said, “Kids who make dioramas for school” you have earned yourself a cookie. Yes, it appears to me that Berger has taken one of the oldest homework assignments of our age and has turned it into a book. An enterprising teacher would find a goldmine of assignment material here. What if they had their kids write their own poems in Prelutsky’s style? What if they made pairs of kids come up with the idea for the poem and then one kid could write it while the other made a diorama to go with it? Can you now say, “instantaneous original poetry project for Poetry Month”? I knew you could.

Then there’s Prelutsky. He always scans. He always rhymes. And he throws in big words that will give some children a good dictionary workout. For example, in the Sobcat poem he writes, “The SOBCAT is sad / As a feline can be / And spends its time crying / Continuously. / It has no real reason / To be so morose. / It’s simply its nature / To act lachrymose.” Nice. Of course the unspoken secret to many of these poems isn’t that they simply make clever pairings of words and phrases with animals but that they say something about certain types of people. The Planda makes eternal plans and never carries them out. The Sobcat “delights / In its own misery”. You can find many a friend and a relation found in the animals of these pages.

The pairings of the poems is sometimes key. It works particularly well when you place the “Jollyfish” poem next to the “Sobcat”, for example. There are other moments when you suspect that the layout and order of the poems was a carefully thought out process. The book begins, for example, with the titular poem “Stardines” which comments that “In silence, these nocturnal fish / Are set to grant the slightest wish.” That’s a good note to begin on. The book then alternates between animals with physical attributes that are their primary lure and animals with one-of-a-kind personality quirks. It’s interesting to see how all this ends with, of all the animals, the Bardvark. “BARDVARKS think they’re poets / And persist in writing rhyme. / Their words are uninspired / And a total waste of time.” So it is that book of poetry for kids ends by highlighting an animal that’s an atrocious poet. The final lines, “Undeterred, they keep on writing / And reciting every day. / That’s why BARDVARKS are a problem – / You can’t make them go away.” One can’t help but think Prelutsky is taking a little jab at himself here. Not a significant jab, but small enough to allow him to laugh at himself a little. Not a bad way to finish, really.

Stardines3 300x243 Review of the Day: Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems by Jack PrelutskyPerhaps a key at the back of the book explaining which animals and concepts were combined would not have been out of place. I found myself baffled by the “swapitis” (pronounced swap-uh-teez) and found myself wishing I knew what animal it hailed from. It looks somewhat deer-like. After a bit of internet searching I discovered an animal called a wapitis, which is a kind of North American deer. Good to know, though I suspect it won’t immediately pop to many folks’ minds unless prompted and prodded a bit. Of course having kids find the animals referenced could be a fun homework assignment in and of itself. There are possibilities there. Just no answers.

Jack Prelutsky is a staple. Folks my age still associate him with The New Kid On the Block. Kids these days have a lot more Prelutskyian choices to pick from. Berger, in contrast, is new and fresh and bright and shiny. Combine the old school rhymes and chimes of a Prelutsky with the crackling energy and visual wit of Berger and you’ve got yourself a heckuva team. Stardines may tread familiar ground once trod before, but its method of presentation is anything but overdone. Hand this one to the kid who moans to you that they “have” to read a book of poetry for school. Who knows? It may hook ‘em before they realize what’s what. One of a kind.

On shelves February 26th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Other Blog Reviews: Book Aunt

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  • poetryfriday Review of the Day: Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems by Jack PrelutskyRead this great little short interview with Ms. Berger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast as she discusses how, “This seemed a perfect opportunity to reference my passion for wunderkammers and early science — and crusty old museums.”
  • It’s Poetry Friday!  Head on over to Teaching Authors to see the round-up of other great poetry books of the day!

Video:

Take a studio tour into the world of Carin Berger to see some of the fantastic art from this book.

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7. Review: The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

HerosGuide hc c 210x300 Review: The Heros Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher HealyThe Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom
By Christopher Healy
Walden Pond Press (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-211743-4
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

Since when did fairytales become the realm of the girly? I blame Disney. Back in the days of Grimm your average everyday fairytale might contain princesses and pretty gowns and all that jazz, but it was also just as likely to offer its own fair share of dragons and murderers and goblins as well. Once the Disney company realized that princesses were magnificent moneymakers, gone was the gore and the elements that might make those stories appealing to the boy set. If you actually sat down and watched the films you’d see plenty of princes fighting beasts (or fighting beast princes) but the very idea of “Sleeping Beauty” or “Snow White” or any of those films has taken on a semi-sweet and sickly vibe. By the same token, it’s hard to find fractured fairytale children’s novels that can be loved just as much by boys as by girls. The great equalizer of all things is, to my mind, humor. Make something funny and gender is rendered irrelevant. There are certainly a fair number of funny fairytale-type stories out there, but to my mind none are quite so delightful and hilarious as Christopher Healy’s newest series. Starting with The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (and followed by The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle), Healy takes that most maligned of all fairytale characters and finally gives “him” a voice. You heard right. Prince Charming is finally getting his due.

Meet Princes Liam, Frederic, Duncan, and Gustav. If their names don’t ring a bell with you, don’t be too surprised. Known better by their pseudonym “Prince Charming” the princes are a bit peeved at the lousy P.R. their adventures have garnered. The bards have found that their stories tell better when the girls get all the credit (and actual names) and it isn’t just the princes that are peeved. A local witch is more than a little upset, and that anger may have something to do with the slow disappearance of the bards themselves. Now it’s up to our four heroes, brought together through the strangest of circumstances, to band together to defeat an evil witch, strike down a giant or two, outwit bandits, and generally find a way to make their faults into strengths.

HeroGuide2 Review: The Heros Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher HealyI take a gander at debut author Christopher Healy’s credentials and I am oddly pleased. A reviewer of children’s books and media he has written for Cookie, iVillage, Parenting, Time Out New York Kids, and Real Simple Family. In short, he’s from the parenting sphere. Clearly he’s taken what he’s learned and applied it here because it’s his wordplay that stands out. For example, he might list the jobs Cinderella has to perform as using “every waking hour performing onerous tasks, like scrubbing grout or chipping congealed mayonnaise from between fork tines.” By the same token, the sneaky sidenote is a delicate beast. It requires of the author a bit of finesse. Go too far as a writer for children and you end up amusing only the adults who happen to pick up your book. With this in mind, Healy is a sneaky sidenote master. He’ll give away a detail about the future and then say, “Oops, sorry about that. I probably should have said, `Spoiler alert’.” That’s 21st century foreshadowing for you. Or he might sneak in a Groucho Marx reference like “Captain Spaulding” once in a while, but it works within the context of the story (and amuses reviewers like myself in the meantime). Or he’ll mention that part of the witch’s plan is shooting bears at people out of cannons. It’s hard not appreciate a mind that comes up with that kind of thing.

HeroGuide3 300x249 Review: The Heros Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher HealyIn his New York Times review of the book Adam Gopnik took issue with the sheer enjoyment one can have with the book, going so far as to say, “Each page offers something to laugh at, but it can be an effort to turn each page.” His objections were steeped in the world building happening here, unfavorably comparing it to The Princess Bride (an unfair comparison if ever there was one) and even shooting quite low when he dared to invoke the name of the Shrek films. Oog. The fact of the matter is that if you’re looking for deep insightful probes into the human psyche, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a perfectly fun story that meanders a bit but always stays on its feet, here’s your book. The princes are broad portraits, stereotypes that break out of their chosen roles, if reluctantly. They are also fellows you would follow from book to book to book. They have on-page chemistry (my wordier version of on-screen chemistry). You believe in these guys and you want them to succeed and not get beaten up too badly. It’s a fun and funny book and though it won’t win huge children’s literature awards it will be adored by its readership and discussed at length on the playgrounds of this good great nation. And that is just fine and dandy with me.

HeroGuide4 262x300 Review: The Heros Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher HealyConsidering how many contemporary updates to fairytales there are in pop culture right now (Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Snow White & The Huntsman, etc.) it’s strange to me that I can’t think of a book to quite compare with this one. A book that takes standard fairytales and familiar characters, renders them unfamiliar but human, and then loads the storyline up with bucketfuls of humor. I mean, books like A Tale Dark and Grimm and In a Glass Grimmly are newfound looks at old standards but they haven’t the light bouncy breezy quality of Healy’s work. These are fairytales for folks who love Disney, hate Disney, love fractured fairytales, love the original fairytales, and/or just like a good story in general. It’s perfect bedtime fare and ideal for those kids who want something amusing to read on their own. You know when a kid walks up to you and says they want a “funny” book? This is for them as well. Basically it’s for everyone, fantasy fans and fantasy haters alike. If ever you feel sick of the sheer seriousness of some fantasies (*cough* Eragon *cough*), this is a book for you too. Put it on your To Read list and pronto.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

First Sentence: “Prince Charming is afraid of old ladies. Didn’t know that, did you?”

Book Jacket Nattering: Love it. It’s nice when a cover artist makes it clear that they actually read the book. And Todd Harris must have read this puppy several times because not only are his cover illustrations dead on, the interior ones are great as well. Mind you, I have had a lot of kids complain to me about the fact that though the four princes do appear on both the front and back covers of this book, if you look just at the front cover only two of them made the cut with Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella thrown on there as well. This problem has been fortunately remedied with the sequel where you will find all four of our heroes front and center. Here’s the full front and back of the first book’s cover:

HeroGuide5 Review: The Heros Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

Oh.  And love that British cover, I do.  Just not as much.

HeroGuide6 Review: The Heros Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Misc:

  • The official website is here.

Video:

  • A book trailer!  Huzzah!

  • And here’s an interview with the author, who is rather charming himself.  Clearly he writes what he knows.

  • And a Vlog Review.  Awwwww.

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8. Librarian Preview: Harper Collins (Spring 2013)

Oh the previews are here, they’re here, they’re here,
The wonderful previews are here
Time to go out, go out, go out,
Go out and order a . . . . beer?  No, no . . .

From that catchy little tune (working on it) I hope you realize that preview season is upon us yet again.  Time to sit down and hear what is in store for the future.  Will 2013 completely and utterly stop any and all supernatural romances dead in their tracks (which is to say, are vampires finally over?)?  What picture book idea will spontaneously manifest itself at two entirely different publishers without rhyme or reason?  And what, the heckedy heck, is up with fuzzy blue giants?  Why are they so awesome?

Yes.  It’s finally happened.  The pandering.  The blatant self-promotion.  The self-satisfied mugging.  You thought I was insufferable when I wrote my ALA Editions textbooky thing a couple of years ago?  Brother, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen my fiction side in action.

So it is that we begin today’s Harper Collins Preview at the Greenwillow table.  As you may recall, Harper Collins is one of those publishers that allow you to sit at their tables, eat their bagels and muffins, and hear their editors tell you face-to-face about their upcoming season.  Sure, they could do a boring PowerPoint to a big room, thereby saving themselves some sanity, but the fact that they take the time to talk to us in this intimate fashion makes them one of the better previews in town.  It’s the personal touch that counts, y’know?  Plus I’m far more likely to remember a book when the editor has taken my questions about it firsthand than if I’m dozing in a big audience with a bunch of other folks, later desperately trying to remember why one teen novel with a flowy gown on the cover is different from another teen novel with a flowy gown on the cover when it’s time to do my ordering.

In any case, the clock is ticking, there are books to be discussed, so we begin with Greenwillow.

Actually we begin with me.  They didn’t.  I’m just mucking with the order of presentations here because I’m so pleased to announce my pretty little Giant Dance Party picture book.  It comes out on my birthday (April 23rd), and isn’t THAT a lovely present to receive?  Brandon Dorman is the illustrator behind it, and a nicer fella you couldn’t hope to find.  You may know his book covers on everything from Savvy to the more recent Goosebumps novels.  As you can see, the title is self-explanatory.  The tale follows young Lexy, a girl who can cut a rug better than most her age.  That is, if she’s dancing for her parents or herself.  Put her onto a stage and you might as well be staring at a frozen ice pop in the shape of a young girl.  When Lexy decides the answer to her problem is to teach rather than perform, she finds that no one wants to have a kid as her teacher.  No one, that is, except a herd (is that the best term for it?) of benign furry blue giants.  All seems to go well until the day of their recital when Lexy discovers that maybe she’s not the only one with stage fright problems out there.

Don’t let the cute nature of the cover fool you.  Is it cute?  Yeah.  Guilty as charged.  But there are some slammin’ moves to be found inside and, as I may have mentioned in a previous post, this is the first picture book I have encountered that includes krumping.  I kid you not.  Expect me to come up with some kind of video to accompany this soonish.  Suggestions are welcome.  I’m slightly stumped since Dan Santat created the world’s greatest dance-related picture book trailer three years ago for Tammi Sauer’s Chicken Dance.  More to come about this in time.

And there are apparently other books coming out in 2013 as well!  Did you know that?  I was stunned!  For example, they have decided to republish the original picture book edition of Amelia Bedelia for one and all to see.  Not an easy book, mind you, but a full picture book sized title with all the art reproduced full and some in-depth backmatter at the end.  And you know I love me some backmatter.  I guess the success of the young Amelia Bedelia picture book series gave the idea the extra push it needed.  In any case, look for this soon.

Speaking of the younger version of AB (Amelia Bedelia), the new title coming out in the spring with be Amelia Bedelia’s First Library Card.  Otherwise known as the picture book hundreds of children’s librarians will be using for first-time library users visiting their branches.  In a new twist, they’ve also noticed that those early chapter book Fancy Nancy books have been doing rather nicely.  As a result, you can expect some early chapter books of young AB as well.  It makes me think that if these also sell a whole world of possibilities opens up.  What if they did longer Nate the Great or Cam Jansen books?  What if they made an Amelia Bedelia middle grade novel?  Or teen!  Lord knows I’d pay good money for an Amelia Bedelia supernatural romance novel.  A penny to anyone who gives me a serviceable plot to go with it.

Shadow boxes.  There is nothing cooler on this globe than shadow boxes.  I’m sure there are art students in colleges across the country that would agree.  Yet for the most part you don’t see them used in children’s books all that often.  Sometimes here and there, but it’s not consistent.  In Stardines Swim High Across the Sky we definitely see some in action.  A kind of follow up to Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Carin Berger, this is yet another wordplay rich book of poems by Mr. P.  The particular draw, however, is how Ms. Berger chose to do the art.  But why describe the style when I can simply show you?

Caldecotty!  Best of all, you’ll get to see a display of this art at ALA in Chicago this coming June.

This next book is a bit of a riddle: How do you resist a tiptoeing bear?  Answer: Why bother?  Anything big that tries to be small and quiet is instant picture book gold.  In Tiptoe Joe by Ginger Foglesong Gibson (illustrated by Laura Rankin) a bear in sneakers highs himself hence on sneaky sneakered feet.  The book’s  a simple cumulative tale with readaloud potential.  Put it on your preschool readaloud radar then.

Harper Collins is the publisher that seeks out self-published authors of picture books more often than other publishers I’ve seen.  And since old Pete the Cat has paid off very very well for them indeed (catchy songs are ALWAYS a plus) it seems natural that they’d take everything a step further and look into self-published apps/ebooks that convert to the picture book format.  That apparently is the case with Axel the Truck: Beach Race by J.D. Riley, and illustrated by MY illustrator Brandon Dorman.  What’s interesting about this book is the fact that it’s more of an easy book than anything else.  Perhaps the first self-published app turned easy book out there.  Interesting.

All I will do for Penny and Her Marble by Kevin Henkes is write down some of the descriptive direct quotes the editors tossed about when describing the easy book.  Ahem.

“The great American novel in I Can Read form.”

“Gut-wrenching.”

There you have it, folks.  Need more be said?

Now it’s cover art comparison time!!!

Of the two I think I prefer Jeff Baron’s upcoming I Represent Sean Rosen.  And not just because of the Christoph Neimann art either.  The kid just seems more appealing.  Basically, this is just your average story about a kid hitting it big.  Like The Toothpaste Millionaire but without the business angle.  You see, Sean Rosen is a kid with a great idea, but he’s not gonna tell you what it is because clearly you’d steal it.  Whatever it is, it’ll change the entertainment industry.  Sean decides to sell the idea to Hollywood instead but runs into the problem of not having an agent.  The solution?  Meet fake agent Dan Welsh (one trip to the fridge will tell you where Sean got that name).  Author Baron’s a playwright himself, so he’s been working up some “podcasts” of Sean’s.  Podcasts/YouTube videos.  Here’s the first.

Anna Was Here by Jane Kurtz is a PK middle grade novel.  Those of you in the know will be aware that PK = Preacher’s Kid.  And frankly, I don’t see a lot of those.  We see a lot more army brats in a given year than preacher kids.  Wonder why that is?  In this case, the story is about Anna’s move from Colorado to Kansas (I was this close to writing Cansas).  Even more interesting is the fact that the book discusses without fanfare a family where the Bible is just a regular part of the day to day.  Apparently not in a strident way or anything either.  Just a way of life.  We’ll check it out.

New series, new series!  Now this preview happened pre-Sandy, but you just know that had it happened afterwards this next book would have had an evident tie-in.  The Lightning Catcher by Anne Cameron (all similarities to The Lightning Thief title-wise or the lightning bolt letters on all the American Harry Potter book jackets are strictly coincidental, you betcha, uh-huh, uh-huh) is the first in a four book series.  In this debut young Angus is whisked to The Exploritorium for Violent Storms.  Turns out his parents are two of the world’s greatest living lightning catchers, keeping the world safe from wild weather.  When the parents are kidnapped, that’s when the rubber meets the road.  It follows in a definite trend of weather-related middle grade novels like Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner and The Storm Makers by Jennifer E. Smith, but to name but a few.

I’ll be eschewing most of the YA stuff today, as per usual, but I will say that I’m thrilled to see the eleventh book in The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney is due to come out.  Slither is the first book in the series to be told from the p.o.v. of one of the creatures.  Fans will be happy to hear that Rimalkin is in it but sad to hear that Tom is not.  FYI: The movie is definitely slated to come out in October of 2013!  It’s called Seventh Son and will star folks like Julianne Moore (Mother Malkin!), Jeff Bridges (when he isn’t working on The Giver, apparently), and Ben Barnes a.k.a. Hot Prince Caspian as Tom Ward.

DING!

That’s enough from Table Four.  Onward to Table Five with big time folks like Barbara Lalicki, Rosemary Brosnan, Tara Weikum, and Erica Sussman.  I see that at this point in my notes I’ve turn philosophical, writing stuff like “In many ways previews break down to a variety of people telling you all kinds of stories.”  Oh aye?

First up, the book Adam Rex was tweeting about long ago when it was first arranged.  His first collaboration with Neil Gaiman.  Chu’s Day follows a sneezy little panda and the havoc he creates thanks to an itchy nose and distracted parental units.  Apparently it was inspired by a trip to China, and indeed if you see an F&G or final copy of this book you will encounter a jacket photo of Gaiman with a panda on his lap.  Rex, insofar as I can tell, has never done pandas much before.  But back in early 2011 he did a series of posts where he drew different types of pandas (seen here and here and here and here).  Now you know why.

You can read the real reason Gaiman wrote the book here (long story short, he’s trying to get printed in mainland China for once). And there is, naturally, a book trailer.  As Rex says of it, “Fun fact–Gaiman wasn’t available to make this video, so I played him wearing a Neilsuit a la the British ‘pantomime’ tradition.”

I’m sure the process was very much like the old Black Books skit.  Dylan Moran even looks like Gaiman (though Rex, happily, has few similarities to Manny).

You know, go to enough of these previews and you begin to get a sense of which editors you really trust.  The ones that crank out books you can’t get enough of.  Rosemary Brosnan fits that category.  Often I’ll compliment someone at HC for a book and then find it’s one of hers.  You may know her best from editing Rita Williams-Garcia’s marvelous, miraculous One Crazy Summer.  Well, hold onto your hats, ladies and gentlemen.  The sequel, P.S. Be Eleven, is due out this May.  As Rosemary said, she can’t stop smiling about it.  And, she pointed out, she signed Rita up for it long before the first book won those four shiny shiny medals that now grace its cover.  Kudos to Ms. Rita, it’s more than a little daunting to follow-up any book that got as much attention as her first did with a sequel of any type.  In this book anyway Delphine is tall, dad is betrothed, there are crushes, Panthers, and a 6th Grade dance.  The jacket, as you can see, matches the art of the paperback edition of the first book.  And yes, folks.  Number three is in the works.

You’ve gotta kind of respect a middle grade novel that begins with the heroines convinced that they’ve just watched their guidance counselor killing someone only to find that she was merely making pickled beets.  Sophie and Grace have their own spy club in The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittshcer but beets or no beets there is indeed something sinister going on.  The sequel is already slated with the title Tiara on the Terrace.

Here’s some more exciting reissue news, particular for those of you looking to get some summer reading paperbacks on your shelves.  All the Ramona Quimby books are about to be repackaged with interior and exterior art by one Jacqueline Rogers.  Eight titles in all, they’re coming out simultaneously in hardcover and paperback just in time for Ms. Cleary’s 97th birthday.  And if these catch on they may do the same with other Cleary titles too.  An excellent idea.  High time we had some new art.

I was surprisingly taken with Ms. Tui T. Sutherland’s novel this year.  I don’t know if you read Ms. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire which Scholastic put out, but for a talking dragon novel it wasn’t too shabby.  Now she’s got a book out with HC called The Menagerie which she wrote with one Kari Sutherland.  In it a boy moves a small Iowa town and, once there, finds a griffin cub under his bed.  Turns out there’s a magical menagerie in the town, and the boy must find the other griffins and uncover a big time mystery.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai will indeed be out in paperback this January (I’ve already ordered my copies) and as we speak she is working on a second book.  Meanwhile Molly Moon and the Monster Music, the sixth and final Moon title, by Georgia Byng is out this March, and should be well-timed with that MM movie in the works.

DING!

Now a flip around and a walk to Table 1.  Here we have the good mistress Alessandra Balzer and sweet mistress Donna Bray.  And Jordan Brown, of course.  He’s not mistress of anything.

Mo Willems is back, baby!  Not that he really went away but while his Elephant & Piggie books have been consistently primo, his picture books have merely been amusing.  All that may change with the publication of That is NOT a Good Idea! In it, Willems stretches himself a little further.  Becomes a bit more subversive and strange, but in a thoroughly good way.  Channeling himself some Hilaire Belloc we have a silent film inspired presentation.  Fox (or is it a wolf?) meets chicken.  Chicken meets fox/wolf.  Romance and possibly dinner (eek!) ensue.  And all the while you’ve this steadily increasing Greek Chorus of chicks pooh-poohing the characters’ decisions.  I’m thinking big time readaloud potential on this one.  Can’t wait to see the final product.

Bob Shea returns as well with Cheetah Can’t Lose.  In it an overly self-confident, not to mention obnoxious, cheetah finds himself at odds when he crosses two adorable little kittens.  Hilarity, not to mention Shea’s copyright customary sympathy for bullied bullies, ensues.

Just the other day I went and reviewed one Michelle Markel’s remarkable picture book bio called The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau.  Well the woman is keeping busy, now coming out with Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909.  Aside from the cool nonfiction picture book subject matter (Yiddish Clara went on to lead the longest walkout of women workers in American history) the illustrations are by none other than Melissa Sweet.  And Ms. Sweet, aside from winning a Caldecott Honor for A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, won a Sibert last year for the fantastic Balloons Over Broadway.  In this book she’s worked in time cards and sewing into her art.  I can’t help but wonder if with the rise in interest in strikes (the folks in Wisconsin and Chicago come to mind) we’ll be seeing more of these union-centric titles in the coming years.  It just makes sense.

“This is our Core toe book, I like to say.”  As a mom of a toddler I admit that I now view with great interest any and all picture books that adapt nursery rhymes and simple songs into a written and illustrated format.  And quite frankly This Little Piggy by Tim Harrington fits the bill.  It starts with the usual five and their mildly disturbing desire for things like road beef and then goes onto the second foot as well.  Why on earth have I never heard of anyone doing that before?  The other foot!  It’s obvious when you say it.  By the way, as more toes get involved they seem to have a lot more occupations to work with.  In some cases they’re selling hotdogs (what IS it with the meat and these hungry piggies?).  And in the vein of the aforementioned Pete the Cat there will be an accompanying song with this online.  Clever piggies.  Of course, I should probably mention that Tim Harrington is the lead singer of Les Savy Fav and you can see what he looks like here.  Sort of a pseudo-celebrity.  I tell ya, man.  Eventually everyone comes to my world.  Eventually.

Little Women with wings featuring Tinkerbell’s little sister.”  I keep beginning these write-ups with quotes but c’mon.  Can you blame me?  And I admit that though I love Julia Denos (the illustrator on these books) I wasn’t really sold until I saw the author.  The new Fairy Bell Sisters series may be more of the fairy same, but the author is Margaret McNamara a.k.a. former Harper Collins editor Brenda Bowen.  Donna Bray then whipped out her history chops by quoting the great long dead editor Ursula Nordstrom.  “If I can resist a book, I resist it.”  Ooo.  Well played, madam.  Ratchet it all up another notch and we were told that these books echo classics and act as gateway drugs to books like The Secret Garden and Little Woman AND they’re great readalouds to boot.  Geez o’ petes.  If you’re gonna sell librarians on a new fairy series, you may as well pull out all the stops, eh?

Jarrett Krosoczka is convinced that this little blog o’ mine (I’m gonna let it shine) was the first place to debut the cover of his upcoming Platypus Police Squad series opener The Frog Who Croaked.  I told him I just lifted it wholesale from Barnes & Nobles.  Okay, so there are a lot of reasons to love what’s going on here.  I think it’s fair to say that you guys are just as sick of the nursery rhymes-meet-noir detective novel style books as I am.  Sometimes I feel like we see one a year.  There’s just too much faux noir out there.  I’m sick of it.  But buddy cop children’s books?  Dude . . . I can’t think of any.  So it is that we get “Frog and Tad meets Law & Order” (I usually leave all the “meets” until the end of this post, but this one I could resist including here).  In his first full-length novel Krosoczka presents a heavily illustrated tale of a hotshot rookie and a grizzled old timer as they fight crime.  Said his editors, “It marries his love of buddy cop films with his love of platypuses”.  Sold.  There will be four books in the series altogether and please note that the hotshot rookie on the cover is pulling a boomerang out of his black leather jacket.  Suh-weet.

My notes at this point read “Jenny Lee – writes for Shake It Up”.  But I don’t know what that means so I Google it.  Ah ha.  Shake It Up.  A television series that has so far run from 2010 to 2012 on the Disney Channel and is about the following: “Two Chicago teens attempt to realize their dream of becoming professional dancers by landing spots on a popular local show.”  Gotcha.  Well, in any case we see a couple television writers crossing over to make children’s books but they tend to write for adult fare like The Daily ShowElvis and the Underdogs was sold as marrying literary quality with fun.  Fair enough.  Benji, our hero, is a sickly kid whose best friend is a male nurse.  Naturally, he’s bullied quite a bit and in the course of things gets himself a therapy dog.  A 200-pound Newfoundland of a therapy dog named Elvis with the personality of Fraiser Crane (he was supposed to go to the President of the United States, thank you very much).  So there’s that and a mystery as well.  Oh, and the dog talks.  I think you had me at Fraiser Crane, anyway, though.

As titles go, my favorite this season (from Harper Collins anyway since I still think Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is mildly brilliant) has gotta be The Girl from Felony Bay.  Now THAT gets a person’s attention!  Written by J.E. Thompson and set in rural South Carolina (so hand it to fans of Three Times Lucky) the book was described as “Carl Hiaasen rummaging through Margaret Mitchell’s closet”.  In this book a dad is framed so our heroine and her buddy have to go through some serious Southern heritage to clear his name.

Editor Jordan Brown could sell you flaming cheese in Hell.  The man is just that good.  So good, in fact, that I have to put my guard up when he starts talking because otherwise this preview will turn from a sane and sober What’s Coming Out Next Year into a wild free-for-all encapsulation of Jordan Brown’s Greatest Hits.  In this particular case we hit upon Kevin Emerson (The Lost Code)’s The Fellowship for Alien Detection.  As Brown tells it, this middle grade novel is sci-fi for non-sci-fi readers.  In this book two kids travel about with some folks who investigate possible alien sightings.  Brown called it a Men in Black type book that will please many a Joss Whedon fan.

With The Laura Line I am very pleased to see the return of Crystal Allen.  Her debut with How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba Sized Trophy was an excellent middle grade a year or two ago (I recall reading it on a plane and having a flight attendant grill me about what it was about).  Allen is one of the very few authors out there writing about contemporary middle grade African-American kids.  In this particular book our overweight protagonist is convinced that she is about to be humiliated.  Her teacher has just organized a field trip to the slave shack that sits on her property.  I don’t know much more about it, but you can bet that this will be one of the first books I read for next year when I get my hands on it.

Sidekicked by John David Anderson was described as “A mash-up of what you’d get if you asked Louis Sachar to write an Avengers novel.”  Which, naturally I now want to do.  In lieu of that plan, this book is about a kid who develops super powers but ends up being super sensitive as a result.  It’s a clever idea.  We’ll see how the final product tackles this not-often-seen metaphor.

There would be lots of ways to sell Director Chris Columbus as a co-author on a book like House of Secrets.  The smartest way for this particular book?  Goonies.  Yeah, break out the Goonies connection (he wrote the screenplay) because secretly that’s what every children’s librarian secretly wishes they could find in a book.  Alongside co-writer Ned Vizzini (no stranger to the movie world himself what with his It’s Kind of a Funny Story hitting the big screen a year or so ago) House of Secrets is the first of a three book series that promises a new installment every spring.  It follows the Walker family and its three kids consisting of an eldest boy and two younger girls.  Sorta like The Emerald Atlas, I guess.  When their surgeon dad moves them into a creepy house in San Francisco, they discover that they are part of a secret legacy.  Add in some giants, witches and skeleton pirates and you have, what they were calling, “An American Cornelia Funke”.

Finally, one of the cleverest sequel titles I’ve seen.  Did you like The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom?  Me too.  I just keep meaning to review that puppy.  Well, hopefully I’ll be able to do so before I read The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, due out in April.  Can I just praise that title a little more?  I mean, how smart is it to reference The Princess Bride like that?  Very smart.  The book series would certainly be enjoyed by Princess Bride fans, that’s for certain, so by invoking the name you do yourself many favors.  Plus, from what I can tell the cover sports all four princes.  I remember the kids really were upset that only two princes made the front cover of the first book with the other two princes on the back.  This time, all four.  Awesome.

DING!

Next table, Table #2.  With the honorable Katherine Tegen, Maria Modugno and Molly O’Neill presiding.

First up.

Yep.  All I really need to say about that.  It’s Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson and editor Katherine Tegen had the idea for the book four years ago when it was Mandela’s 90th birthday.  Now it’ll be out in time for his 95th.  Considering that he and the aforementioned Beverly Cleary are both celebrating their 90-something birthdays with HC books, those crazy kids should have a joint birthday party.  (Now imagining what the guest list for a Beverly Cleary/Nelson Mandela birthday party might consist of.)

Katheryn Fitzmaurice returns with the middle grade novel Destiny, Rewritten.  In it, a girl named after Emily Dickinson hides a secret desire.  Though her mom would love her to be a poet, what she REALLY wants to do is become a romance novelist.  Um . . . that is awesome.  She then goes in pursuit of a lost book and finds ways to stand up for herself.  The book is set during Poetry Month, which is clever, and includes a series of one-sided letters written by Emily to Danielle Steele.  The good Harper Collins folks did send a copy to Ms. Steele to let her know about this book but as of this preview had not heard back.  Pity.  It’d be a helluva blurb.

Big news here!  At long last the Septimus Heap saga is reaching its end in a grand finale with Fyre!  Every single character of significance will make an appearance in this last book, clocking in at 544 pages if Amazon is to be believed, 750 pages if the preview is.  Can’t say which one is true, but it’ll be complete, you can bet on that!

New illustrator alert!  When shopping for a new artist of picture books, it can be a good idea to hand them a classic text and see what they do with it.  So when newbie Mike Austin was given The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown, the results were a fresh new approach.  Now he does a helluva monster.  Now you probably already know Mike from over at Blue Apple Books where he’s done work on A Present for Milo and other stuff.  Monsters Love Colors is his first Harper Collins title.  One has to wonder if there will be an app for it as well someday.  Who knows?

If you think 123 Versus ABC looks very Adam Rex you’re not alone.  As far as I can tell, that’s a good thing.  We need more Rexian art out there.  Plus, let’s face it, this is a remarkably good idea for a children’s book.  Written and illustrated by Mike Boldt, this eyebrow-rific title shows what happens when numbers go to war with letters.  “They’re refrigerator magnets come to life.”  Note to self: Buy refrigerator magnets for child.  Those things are awesome.

See, the thing about Fancy Nancy is that she’s ain’t half bad.  As a librarian you always have this instinctual gut-reaction when you see one of her books.  Your innards want to say they’re just cheap pinkness meant to lure in unsuspecting little girls.  But the doggone things have substance, and that kills me.  They are written well and the art is lovely each and every time (at least, if it’s Robin Preiss Glasser actually doing it).  The newest FN title is Fancy Nancy: Fanciest Doll in the Universe.  When Nancy’s younger sister puts a permanent ink tattoo on her fancy doll’s previously fancy tummy it is not a happy household.  Yet when the time comes for Nancy to pick her doll out of an identical line-up, guess who doesn’t have any difficulty?  Sounds like it would make a perfect companion to Barbara McClintock’s Dahlia.  Love that book.  There is also a new addition to the Fancy Nancy early chapter book series, Nancy Clancy, Secret Admirer.

DING!

One final table to go and it sports Anne Hoppe and Phoebe Yeh.

Now first and foremost, here’s a book that I could have easily have passed over had I but thought it was that most unfortunate of literary genres, the eco-thriller.  Something about the very term screams “didacticism” to me.  Fortunately, Jinx by Sage Blackwood has been read by a couple folks I trust and though you could conceivably slap that moniker on it, it’s so much more.  The first in a trilogy, the book is recommended to fans of Angie Sage, though Anne said the writing adhered more to Diana Wynne Jones.  She also said it had “The best first chapter of anything I’ve published.”  All I care is that it sounds like a good companion to The Mostly True Story of Jack, has a villain called The Bonemaster, and contains were-chipmunks.  Honest-to-god were-chipmunks.  Love.

From the author who brought you The Princess Curse a year or two ago comes Merrie Haskell’s next standalone middle grade title Handbook for Dragon Slayers.  According to her editors, Haskell’s strength lies in her ability to conjure up complex girls coming of age and determining what their role in society will be.  Noted.

At this point Phoebe Yeh mentioned that 2012 was a hard year for great authors.  We lost two, Maurice Sendak and Jean Craighead George, almost simultaneously.  As such, we’re seeing some of their books coming back into print where once they were gone from our shelves.  In terms of Maurice two books of his are due this spring.  One is a reprint and one a new title never seen before.  The older book is the Caldecott Honor winner The Moon Jumpers.  Apparently the art for this was still available so they re-separated it and reshot it to get the full effects.  Sendak even signed off on the proofs before his death.

The other title is Sendak’s last book (or perhaps penultimate if that nose book ever comes out from Scholastic) and one of his most personal.  Called My Brother’s Book, it focuses on Sendak’s older and much beloved brother.  Tapping into the man’s deep and abiding love of Blake, this is being marketed as an adult title but is recommended to those high school teachers who do work with Shakespeare as well.  There are, I should note, more than a few Shakespearean references inside.

The Jean Craighead George book is a new picture book by the name of A Special Gift for Grammy.  George was apparently in the middle of two picture books when she died.

Next up, one of the best pushed and marketed books I’ve seen in a while.  When KidLitCon was held at NYPL this year there was a moment when I saw a young man really talking up and pushing copies of this next title at my attendees.  I’m not certain if that young man was a Harper employee or author Eric Kahn Gale himself but whoever it was it got my attention.  Right off the bat we were told that this is a controversial little sucker because it’s a book that in the course of its story outlines how one goes about becoming the perfect bully.  In this tale a kid who is bullied decides to handle the situation on his own.  Told through both journal entries and the aforementioned bullying rules, the book taps into some serious black humor.  They mentioned Jack Gantos as a possible comparison.  Apparently Gale wrote the book after meeting with some of the bullies of his own youth only to find they’d grown up to become nice and decent people.  I like to call that The Facebook Effect.  It’s the moment when a person who made your life a misery in school Facebook friends you.  We talked about this a bit in a recent Children’s Literary Salon at NYPL.  Good stuff.  In any case they’re going all out for this book, giving it a 3/4 jacket (something they haven’t done for a title since Walter Dean Myers and Monster).

Next up, a guy who was in the same screenwriting program at Columbia as my husband.  I don’t know Mr. Soman Chainani myself but Matt tells me that he was a very nice guy and did often speak about this book of his being published with Harper.  The School for Good and Evil sounds like nothing so much as Wicked with a twist (and less Oz).  Two best friends are kidnapped and sent to different schools.  One is a school for evil and the other for good.  Thing is, they sort of get the wrong schools.  At least that’s what I gathered from the cover.  Still a little unclear but it looks fun.

Next up, a book that will make for an excellent nonfiction companion to Simon & Schuster’s Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle.  Alex Ko: From Iowa to Broadway, My Billy Elliot Story is one of those stand up and cheer books, but good for kids with Broadway dreams.  Raised in Iowa with a dad that didn’t want him to have a life on the stage (then died of cancer), Alex had his chance to live his dream thanks to older siblings who were willing to do extra jobs to help him out.  And as luck would have it he really did have a chance to become Billy Elliot on Broadway.  Then, on the first night of his performance, he hurt himself and needed therapy to recover.  Happily he returned and all was well and these days he performs with the New York City Ballet.

Here’s a tip to publishers: Want me to want a book instantly?  Do as How to Read Literature Like a Professor: For Kids by Thomas C. Foster did.  All you need to do really is get Kate Beaton, the woman behind the wonderful Hark, A Vagrant webcomic, to do the jacket.  I will buy anything she touches.  Seriously.  Love love love love this.

I eventually got almost all the references, even the Lord of the Flies one, but the lion still stumps me a little. Suggestions on that one are welcome.  Best I could come up with was Pyramus and Thisbe.

Not entirely certain how a Zits illustrated novel by syndicated cartoonist Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman could be YA (they’re suggesting ages 13 and up?!?).  Pity since if it were middle grade (like the actual comic strip) you could add it to the trend of syndicated cartoonists writing books for kids in 2012 (The Odd Squad and Timmy Failure respectively).  Maybe there’s some sex and stuff in it?  The mind boggles.

That, as they say, is it.  Except . . . .

On with the Meets!!!

Best Meets

“The Natural History Museum meets Tim Burton” – Not sure if someone said this or I made it up myself (I suspect the former) but that’s a description of Carin Berger’s work on Stardines Swim High Across the Sky by Jack Prelutsky

Storm Chasers meets The Mysterious Benedict Society” – The Lightning Catcher by Anne Cameron

The Artist meets Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” – That Is NOT a Good Idea! by Mo Willems

Life is Beautiful meets The Walking Dead” – That’s actually my description of it, but I don’t think I’m too far off.  That’s for The End Games by T. Michael Martin

13 Reasons Why meets Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” – Wild Awake by Hilary Smith

Ender’s Game meets Hogwarts in space” – Vortex by S.J. Kincaid

“Roald Dahl meets Lemony Snicket meets Gregory Maguire” – The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

8 Comments on Librarian Preview: Harper Collins (Spring 2013), last added: 11/12/2012
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9. Kudos and Publishing Industry News

I am happy to announce that Katia Raina sold her Historical Young Adult novel titled, Castle of Concrete to namelos - pub. date TBA.  This was the first book she wrote and is her debut novel. I remember reading this manuscript at one of our New Jersey Writing Retreats.  It is set in the collapsing Soviet Union and is about a shy Jewish teen who falls for a boy whose political convictions make her question her own identity.  I am sure you will all join me with congratulating Katia.  Just goes to show if you don’t give up and you work hard, it will happen!  Wishing Katia more published books to come.

Harper Announces Paperback Mystery Line, Bourbon Street

Harper Collins will launch Bourbon Street Books to publish “all types of mysteries,” featuring paperback originals, reprints, backlist titles, and reissued classics. The line starts with fall with two paperback originals: British author Oliver Harris’s debut THE HOLLOW MAN and Lynda La Plante’s seventh book in the Anna Travis series, BLOOD LINE, both publishing on October 23. Also in October they will bring back into print Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey with Harriet Vane series and in winter they will reissue four Mary Kay Andrews novels — Happy Never After, Homemade Sin, To Live and Die in Dixie, Every Crooked Nanny ― all originally written and published under her real name, Kathy Hogan Trocheck.

As part of the Harper Paperbacks imprint (it has a logo and a list, but it’s not an imprint–just a “line”), Bourbon Street will draw resources from the Perennial staff and any Harper Collins editor will be able to acquire for the line. It falls under the direction of Jonathan Burnham and Cal Morgan.

Former Harper UK executive John Bond and former Harper Press senior editor Annabel Wright have formed Whitefox Publishing Services. They “deliver bespoke, cost-effective and flexible creative excellence to help publishers, agents and writers to solve every publishing challenge.”

Eric Winbolt has been promoted to the newly created role of digital creative director at Harper UK, reporting to group publisher Belinda Budge.

Alice Rahaeuser has joined Random House Children’s as production associate, reporting to Timothy Terhune. Most recently she worked at Neuwirth and Associates, managing book production for customers including Tor, The Experiment and Pegasus Books.

At Harlequin, Emily Rodmell has been promoted to editor at the Love Inspired imprint.

Annie Stone has joined Harlequin Teen as associate editor. Previously she was an assistant editor at Harper.

Laura Hopper has joined Hyperion as editorial director of franchise publishing, based on the West Coast, focusing on identifying, developing, and editing new print and digital projects within the Disney/ABC Television Group for Hyperion. Hopper was vp of the motion picture department for Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, and most recently she represented writer and director clients on various film and television projects.

Victoria Comella has joined HarperCollins 360 as publicity manager. Previously she was a publicist at Putnam.

Jeanette Shaw has been promoted to editor at Perigee Books/Prentice Hall Press.

Cengage’s Gale has sold Sleeping Bear Press to Minnesota-based Cherry Lake Publishing. Sleeping Bear and their staff of 10 will remain in their Ann Arbor, MI offices.

Graphic Arts Books has acquired the trade titles and publishing rights of Pruett Publishing Company in order to build and expand its imprint, WestWinds Press. Pruett, based in Boulder, CO, was founded in 1954 and , specializes in western regional publishing.


Filed under: publishers, Publishing Industry, success Tagged: Harlequin Teen, Harper Collins, Hyperion, Katia Raina, Namelos, Random House, Sleeping Bear Press

5 Comments on Kudos and Publishing Industry News, last added: 9/10/2012
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10. Review of the Day: Cat Tale by Michael Hall

Cat Tale
By Michael Hall
Greenwillow (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-191516-1
Ages 6-10
On shelves August 28th

When we are old and gray and the stars gleam a little less brightly in the wide firmament above our heads, I have no doubt that there will STILL be children’s librarians out there debating the merits (or lack thereof) of picture books designed with older child readers in mind. To bring this subject up is akin to throwing a lit match on diesel soaked tinder, but what the heck. You see, walk into any decent library and you’ll find a picture book section teaming with fantastic 32-48 page titles that simply do not circulate. And why? Because of the standard belief, sometimes by children, sometimes by adults, that when you reach a certain age you “outgrow” picture books. As if they were a pair of shoes liable to give you blisters if you kept them around too long. This is, naturally, bupkis. Picture books are appropriate for all ages, really (and if you don’t believe me why don’t I just introduce you to a little number I know called The Woolvs in the Sitee). So the fact that a book like Michael Hall’s Cat Tale exists pleases on both the 6-year-old level as well as the 10-year-old level should surprise few. Wielding homonyms like weapons, Hall brings his artistic sensibilities (to say nothing of his love of controlled chaos) to the wordplay realm and the end result is that everyone’s a winner for it.

Meet Lillian, Tilly and William J. Three little cats that are out for a day. In rhyming verse we watch as at first their adventures are small. “They pack some books and kitty chews. They chose a spot. They spot some ewes.” As the book continues they cats become more adventuresome. “They train a duck to duck a shoe. They shoo a truly naughty gnu.” Yet the words begin to get tangled and the cats are in a state. Should they use a rock to squash a berry or use a squash to bury a rock or (after a pause) use their paws to rock a squashberry? Finally everything gets too crazy and the cats find their way out thanks to their tails/tales.

Like many people, when I think of homonyms in works of children’s literature my mind instantly leaps to good old Amelia Bedelia. She continues to reign as the homonym queen to this day. After all, without them she wouldn’t get confused in the slightest. Hall could have done a storyline very much like Amelia’s. The cats could have just wandered about and gotten confused about the difference between boarding a plane and getting to plane a board. Ho and also hum. Instead, Hall takes a risk. He actually connects the sentences and uses his illustrations to make seemingly disparate phrases relate to one another. Now the text reads, “They flee a steer. They steer a plane. They plane a board. They board a train.” All this makes sense in the book since we see the progression from place to place. Note too that just to ratchet up the challenge a little, Hall is making this book rhyme on top of everything else. That’s sort of explained on the title page (Hall wastes no time) where it reads, “From word to word they find their way, Lillian, Tilly, and William J.” Interesting that Hall went with “Lillian” rather than “Lily” since “Lily and Tilly and William J.” has its own nice rhythm. There’s no denying how satisfying it is to begin with a Lillian and end with a William, though. Even if they don’t rhyme precisely.

When Hall wrote his previous book The Perfect Square there was wit on display but it seemed to be mostly of the visual variety. Cat Tale doles out the wit a little more on the verbal end of the spectrum, but there’s no denying that the art is also just great. As with the aforementioned Perfect Square Hall’s art consists of acrylic painted textures and paper cutouts that were combined digitally. Not that you can tell where the computer came in or how it was used. The colors in this book don’t have that faux clip-art coloring so often found in slapdash computer art. Instead it looks like Hall took out his sponge and his brightest hues and created something truly lovely. From the vibrant orange of the train to the deep and satisfying blue of the steer, there’s a method to Hall’s madness. A beautiful sumptuous method.

There is admittedly one moment in the book where I got seriously confused, so I wonder how it’ll fly with the pre-adolescent set. To be fair, that’s sort of the whole point of the spread. As the cats go along the homonyms gets crazier and crazier until there’s a virtual explosion of cats, steer, gnus, ducks, cars, shoes, ewes, you name it. The trouble is that I couldn’t make the mental leap from that image to the next one involving the cats’ tails. I know it makes sense on a practical level, but I felt like the transition was a bit too rough. Something a bit slower, a bit more staid, could have suited the storyline a little better.

I know a librarian who uses older picture books for her 2-3rd grade parent/child bookclub. It’s as good a solution as any I know to get those book circulating, that’s for sure. Of course, my dearest hope is that teachers discover this book as well. With the rise of interest in the Core Curriculum, folks need to remember that teaching homonyms doesn’t have to be rote and dull as dishwater. It can involve naughty gnus and rocked squashberries! A visual feast and too clever by half, Hall’s latest begs to be read aloud and pored over. A little book that deserves all the attention it can receive. Teachers, parents, librarians, and booksellers, take note.

On shelves August 28th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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5 Comments on Review of the Day: Cat Tale by Michael Hall, last added: 9/8/2012
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11. Cover Shot! The Cloak Society by Jeramey Kraatz

Cover Shot! is a regular feature here at the Café. I love discovering new covers, and when I find them, I like to share. More than anything else, I am consumed with the mystery that each new discovery represents. There is an allure to a beautiful cover. Will the story contained under the pages live up to promise of the gorgeous cover art?

Supervillains.  I love them.  Especially when they are, deep in their heart, good guys.  Look at this guy.  Does he look like a devious doer of evil?  Nope!  I can hardly wait to get my hands on The Cloak Society by Jeramey Kraatz, to see just how bad Alex really is.  Or isn’t.  In stores October 2012

 

The Cloak Society: An elite organization of supervillains graced with extraordinary powers. Ten years ago they were defeated by the Rangers of Justice and vanished without a trace. But the villains of Cloak have been biding their time, waiting for the perfect moment to resurface. And twelve-year-old Alex Knight wants to be one of them.

Alex is already a junior member, and his entire universe is Cloak’s underground headquarters, hidden beneath an abandoned drive-in theater in Sterling City, Texas. While other kids his age are studying math and history, Alex is mastering his telekinetic powers and learning how to break into bank vaults. His only dream is to follow in his parents’ footsteps as one of the most feared supervillains in the world. Cloak is everything he believes in.

But on the day of his debut mission, Alex does the unthinkable: he saves the life of a young Ranger named Kirbie. Even worse . . . she becomes his friend. And the more time he spends with her, the more Alex wonders about the world outside of Cloak—and what, exactly, he’s been fighting for.

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12. Book Review: Stuff

How awesome is it when a cover and title do their job this well? I knew plenty about this book without opening it.
My son collects far too much stuff, so we've enjoyed reading and rereading this gem. Written by Margie Palatini and illustrated by Noah Z. Jones, Stuff may not get your little one to do away with his collections, but it might plant a seed, and will definitely bring you smiles and chuckles.

0 Comments on Book Review: Stuff as of 1/1/1900
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13. Review of the Day: Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker

Summer of the Gypsy Moths
By Sara Pennypacker
Balzer & Bray (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-196420-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Spoiler Alert – I am giving away every little detail about this book in this review. You have been warned.

As a librarian I’m always on the lookout for good middle grade books I can booktalk to kids. Often you don’t need an exciting cover or title to sell a book to kids. Heck, sometimes you don’t even need to show the book at all. Yet in the case of Sara Pennypacker’s debut middle grade novel Summer of the Gypsy Moths I fully intend to show the cover off. There you see two happy girls on a seashore on a beautiful summer’s day. What could be more idyllic? I’ll show the kids the cover then start right off with, “Doesn’t it look sweet? Yeah. So this is a book about two girls who bury a corpse in their backyard by themselves and don’t tell anyone about it.” BLAMMO! Instant interest. Never mind that the book really is a heartfelt and meaningful story or that the writing is some of the finest you will encounter this year. Dead bodies = interested readers, and if I have to sell it with a tawdry pitch then I am bloody selling it with a tawdry pitch and the devil take the details. Shh! Don’t tell them it’s of outstanding literary quality as well!

Convinced that her free floating mother will return to her someday soon, Stella lives with her Great-aunt Louise and Louise’s foster kid Angel. The situation is tenable if not entirely comfortable. If Stella is neat to the point of fault then Angel’s her 180-degree opposite. They’re like oil and water, those two. That’s why when Louise ups and dies on the girls they’re surprised to find themselves reluctant allies in a kind of crazy scheme. Neither one of them wants to get caught up in the foster care system so maybe that’s why they end up burying Louise in the backyard, running her summer cottages like nothing’s wrong. They can’t keep it up forever, but in the process of working together the two find themselves growing closer, coming to understand where they’re both coming from.

I always knew Pennypacker could write, of course. She cut her teeth on the early chapter book market (Clementine, etc.), which, besides easy books, can often be the most difficult books to write for children. The woman really mastered the form, managing with as few words as possible to drive home some concrete emotions and feelings. In Summer of the Gypsy Moths she ups the proverbial ante, so to speak. Now that she has far more space to play with, Pennypacker takes her time. She draws Stella and Angel into a realistically caring relationship with one another that overcomes their earlier animosity. By the end of the story you understand that they really do like one another, differences of opinion and personality aside.

Then there’s the writing itself. First and foremost, Pennypacker knows how to write some stellar lines. Things like, “Angel stared at me, looking like she was caught between snarling and fainting.” She’s also ample with the humor, as when Stella goes to school after the incident and reports, “Nobody seemed to notice the big sign I felt sure I wore, the one th

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14. Review: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

 

 

   Title: Inside Out & Back Again

   Author: Thanhha Lai

   Publisher: Harper Collins

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.

For all the ten years of her life, HÀ has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.

But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. HÀ and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, HÀ discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.

This is the moving story of one girl’s year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next. 

Review:

I love books about different cultures or ways of life, and Inside Out & Back Again delivers up an emotionally enthralling account of a young Vietnamese girl’s flight from her home country to the US.  As I read Ha’s adventures, recounted in simple yet moving free verse, I wondered what it would be like to have everything familiar ripped away.  Before the fall of Saigon, life for Ha was happy and content, despite the growing hardships caused by the war.  Her father has been missing in action since she was an infant, but her family still holds out hope that he will return home one day.  She loves her family, she is doing well in school, and she is eager for her papaya tree to finally yield fruit.  Her three brothers are happy, as well, and they are excellent students with bright futures ahead of them.  Everything changes with the fall of Saigon.

Ha’s mother is trying valiantly to raise four children by herself, but life has gotten more difficult.  It’s harder to make ends meet, and the price of everything keeps climbing.  As the communists threaten Saigon, she has a family meeting and asks everyone what they should do.  Should they flee, and try to built a new life in a country without Ho Chi Min and the war?  Ha and her brother Thoi don’t want to go.  How can they leave Ha’s papaya tree and Thoi’s chicken?  The pain of leaving their most prized possessions was a bitter pill to swallow for a new life with no guarantees.  I don’t think I could have done it.  Photographs, clothing, memories; all were left behind in Vietnam.

I loved Ha and found her easy to relate to.  She has been thrust into a new life that she doesn’t want, and one that doesn’t seem to want her.  Her new neighbors in Alabama aren’t very neighborly, she can’t understand the confusing language she is immersed in, and her classmates mock and bully her.  Her teacher doesn’t understand her and doesn’t try to make her feel welcome.  Instead, Ha, a bright, curious girl, is left feeling stupid and ignorant.  As she begins to pick up the language, she wishes she did not understand the names she is called or the jokes that her peers make about her.  She is angry, justifiably, but there is no outlet for her rage.  Ha is the one who must make concessions to fit in with a group of kids who can only see

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15. Review: Storybound by Marissa Burt

 

Title: Storybound

Author: Marissa Burt

Publisher: HarperCollins

ISBN: 978-0062020529

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

When Una Fairchild stumbles upon a mysterious book buried deep in the basement of her school library, she thinks nothing of opening the cover and diving in. But instead of paging through a regular novel, Una suddenly finds herself Written In to the land of Story—a world filled with Heroes and Villains and fairy-tale characters.

But not everything in Story is as magical as it seems. Una must figure out why she has been Written In—and fast—before anyone else discovers her secret. Together with her new friend Peter and a talking cat named Sam, Una digs deep into Story’s shadowy past. She quickly realizes that she is tied to the world in ways she never could have imagined—and it might be up to her to save it.

Review:

I am having a fantastic winning streak of wonderful Middle-Grade novels so far in 2012.  Storybound turned out to be another winner.  The premise is fantastic, and I could not put the book down.  I was literally glued to my reading chair for an entire afternoon as I frantically turned pages, eager to see what kind of trouble Una would find herself in.

Like Harry Potter, Una has never known her parents.  She has been shuffled through the foster care system, and she currently lives with Ms. McDonough, an odd woman who speaks to her cats far more frequently than she speaks to Una.  Una is fine with that, because she finally has some time to herself after being fostered in big families where she never felt that she belonged.  She feels invisible, both at her foster home and at school.  One day when Una is reading in the library in the basement at school, she finds a mysterious book.  A book about her.  Before she even has a chance to catch her breath, she finds herself sucked into the book, trapped as a character in the story.  Now she must  find her way back out again, all without getting killed.  Whoa!

In the land of Story, Una finds must become a student at the school where the children of Story learn how to be characters in books.  All of the citizens of Story have roles in books, and they all have to behave in a manner consistent with the character they are playing.  I loved the concept of this world.  Una’s ally, Peter, is learning to be a Hero.  He takes his studies very seriously, and when Una is magically zapped into one of his practical exams, he is not very happy when she screws it up for him.  With Peter’s help, Una learns that she was Written In.  Peter is shocked, because no one has been Written In since the Tale Keepers overthrew the evil Muses and took control of Story.

I am going to gush about how much I adored Una.  She is resourceful, clever, and loyal, and she is my favorite kind of protagonist.  She meets setback after setback, but each one makes her more determined to figure out what is going on.  Something is stinky in the land of Story, and Una won’t rest until she discovers what it is.  There is something wrong with the Tale Keepers, and she doesn’t believe that the Muses were evil.  With the help of Peter and Sam, a talking cat, she  searches for the truth, even when it puts her in mortal danger.  And Una is in a lot of danger.  She doesn’t belong in Story, and she needs to get back home before someone fi

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16. Harold and the Purple Crayon

Is graffiti art or vandalism? Keep reading… Our Mayor has been on a warpath, making it his agenda to clean up the city. I happen to live behind one of the city’s most notorious graffiti alleyways, and I think it’s beautiful. These pieces aren’t made by gangs marking their territory and damaging private property, these [...]

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17. Review of the Day: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan
By Katherine Applegate
Illustrated by Patricia Castelao
Harper Collins
$16.99
ISBN: 9780-06-199225-4
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

All right, the topic is Famous Ape Books of Children’s Literature. And . . . go. Care to name any? Well there’s Curious George, of course (often mistakenly called a monkey in spite of his lack of tail). He’s the most famous but after that it gets harder. Eva by Peter Dickinson might count (also a chimp). Or a book like Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby (chimp). Gorillas appear to be much rarer, which is funny when you consider it. I would think an animal as big and impressive as a gorilla would be a no brainer children’s book hero. As it happens, Ivan of The One and Only Ivan is a rarity, and not just because his story covers ground that few other books have (with the exception of the odd Good Night Gorilla). Katherine Applegate’s title is a cry for animal rights that works on its reader in slow subtle steps. You will find no screeds or speeches or long lengthy lamentations. Instead, it’s just a gorilla living what life he can, until the day he can stay silent no longer. Thanks to its restraint the book ends up being a gem. One of the best of the year, no doubt.

Basically what we have here is Charlotte’s Web if you took that tiny spider and replaced her with a 300-pound gorilla. Which, to be frank, would normally bode badly for said gorilla. And certainly badly is how Ivan, the titular hero of this tale, bodes when you consider that he is trapped in an off-highway mall circus. Ivan’s never questioned his fate seriously, considering that he’s been there for twenty-seven years. Then one day Mack, the owner of the mall, decides that the only way to drum up more business will be to buy a new resident. There’s already Ivan and Stella, the elephant with an injured foot that doesn’t seem to be getting better. To this mix comes Ruby, a baby elephant not long captured from her home in the wild. Thanks to Ruby, Ivan sees that this is no place for a baby of any sort and he must use all his brains and intelligence to find a way to save not just her but himself as well.

It is the temptation of every author, bad or good, to simplify ethics when they write for kids. Bad guys are bad, good guys are good, and never the twain shall meet. This is particularly true of animal abuse stories. After all, who wants to go about digging up a heart of gold in a character that kicks puppies? Yet the best books for kids are often the ones that allow for at least a glimpse of the human inside the villain. It’s the reason Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s 6 Comments on Review of the Day: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, last added: 3/7/2012

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18. Review of the Day: Everything Goes by Brian Biggs

Everything Goes on Land
By Brian Biggs
Balzer & Bray (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$14.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-195809-0
Ages 3 and up
On shelves now

There is much to be said for simplicity. The elegant understated picture book that contains peaceful moments of serenity with the idea that a child might get lost in the image of a single field during a snowstorm, say, for hours at a time. Yes indeed. Nothing like it. There is much to be said for simplicity, but let me level with you. When I was a kid I liked quiet books, but only when my craving for the wild, colorful, frantic, and fast-paced had been fulfilled. It’s easy to swallow Tasha Tudor when you’ve supped first on some Seuss and Scarry. Part of what I love about picture books is that there’s room for all kinds. The long and the short. The classic and the new. The understated and, in this particular case, the overwhelming. Brian Biggs has brought to life the literary equivalent of Pop Rocks and Pixie Stix dissolved into Jolt Cola. A hugely entertaining, entirely loving citywide romp that puts the author/illustrator on the map and (I predict) will be impossible to pries from the hands of many a vehicular loving tot.

In the first few panels we see a boy and his father hop into their car and take off. Onto highways, off ramps, and finally into the big city. The two take note as they drive of all the kinds of vehicles they see. Different kinds of cars and bicycles. An array of motor homes and motorcycles. Trains and trucks. Buses and subways. Basically if you can think of the method of ground transportation, it’s in here somewhere. Biggs breaks up his incredibly detailed city scenes with close examinations of the vehicles in question. You might see the different parts the bicycle on one page or the way a motorcycle comes together on another. Finally, we learn about the duo’s ultimate destination and then it’s a quick jaunt home yet again.

No surprise that Mr. Biggs loved to pieces his copy of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go when he was a kid. This book feels like nothing so much as the lovechild of Richard Scarry and Robert Crumb with a healthy dose of Mark Alan Stamaty for spice. I explain. The Scarry comparison is obvious. One of the great joys of his books is that in the midst of great big city scenes you can find small storylines and continuing gags. Like Scarry, Biggs makes a point of identifying vehicles of different types and kinds. Yet he also

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19. Old School Sunday: Nutshell Library Review #3: One Was Johnny by Maurice Sendak

One Was Johnny 
by Maurice Sendak
1962 | 32 pages | Picture Book

A few weeks ago, Elizabeth Bird posed a question on her blog: Which Maurice Sendak book are you?  Though I never had the chance to reply to her post, I knew my answer almost immediately. One Was Johnny, about a little boy who lives by himself and likes it like that, perfectly describes my introverted personality, and much of my behavior during childhood.

Johnny becomes overwhelmed as more and more creatures invade his house, coming in uninvited and making themselves at home. A rat and a cat are bad enough, but things reach fever pitch when a blackbird pecks Johnny's nose, a tiger comes in selling clothes, and a robber steals his shoe. "What should Johnny do?" the text questions. His solution? He threatens to eat every last one of his guests if they don't leave before he finishes counting backwards from ten.

This book represents everything I love about Maurice Sendak's work. He understands that somewhat darker side of childhood, filled with frustrations, annoyances, and worst of all, other, more obnoxious kids. So many children's books promote sharing, togetherness, and community. I can think of very few that sing the praises of solitude, and which demonstrate an understanding that sometimes other people are pushy and annoying, and we just want them to go away. This book rings so true because it doesn't force Johnny to share with his pushy houseguests, or to make room for them, or to apologize for wanting to be left alone. Rather, Johnny is  the master of his domain and he throws all of those obnoxious creatures right out on the street! In my experience, well-meaning adults panic when kids show signs of wanting to be alone. They assume it means the child is dysfunctional in some way, or not a team player, but for the introverted child, and even introverted adults like me, the notion of all of those people in your space can be extremely overwhelming, and I think it's important to teach kids how to protect that personal space, and that it's okay to like being alone.

As a counting book, this book doesn't work so well, since there aren't necessarily the correct number of countable objects on each page. It does work as a lesson in counting to ten, but I don't know that it really strongly illustrates the meaning of each number. Still, though, the illustrations, which are all drawn against the same background of Johnny's kitchen table, are greatly entertaining as the chaos of the scene increases, and the changes in Johnny's expressions could almost tell the entire story on their own.

This is without a doubt my favorite in the Nutshell Library. Hear Carole sing it below, and check back next week for the conclusion to this review series, a post about Pierre.



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I borrowed One Was Johnny from my local public library. 

0 Comments on Old School Sunday: Nutshell Library Review #3: One Was Johnny by Maurice Sendak as of 11/27/2011 6:41:00 AM
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20. Review: The Book of Wonders by Jasmine Richards


 

Title: The Book of Wonders

Author: Jasmine Richards

Publisher: HarperCollins

ISBN: 978-0062010070

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Sorcerers, Cyclops, Djinnis . . . Magic.

Thirteen-year-old Zardi loves to hear stories about fantastical beings long banned from the kingdom of Arribitha. But anyone who is caught whispering of their powers will feel the rage of the sultan—a terrifying tyrant who, even with his eyes closed, can see all.

When her own beloved sister is captured by the evil ruler, Zardi knows that she must risk everything to rescue her. Along with Rhidan, who is her best friend, and an unlikely crew of sailors led by the infamous Captain Sinbad, Zardi ventures forth into strange and wondrous territory with a seemingly impossible mission: to bring magic back to Arribitha and defeat the sultan once and for all.

Review:

I spent most of my holiday vacation reading.  I am amazed by all  of the great stories I was able to enjoy during my time away from work.  The Book of Wonders is one of the titles that I devoured, and I literally spent most of a day flipping the pages of this fun middle-grade adventure.  An exciting spin on the 1001 Nights, there is plenty of action, adventure, and death-defying feats to keep readers entertained.  I liked the characters, especially the spunky Scheherazade (nicknamed Zardi).  She managed to get herself into, and back out of, an alarming amount of trouble over the course of the book.  With her best friend’s help, she remained surprising unscathed even during the most trying of circumstances.

Zardi lives with her family and her best friend, Rhidan, in the city of Taraket.  Her country is ruled by the evil sultan, Shahryar, who has outlawed all magic from his kingdom.  He is a cruel and vicious ruler, and he delights in the discomfort and pain of others.  When Zardi’s older sister, Zubeyda, is chosen to be the sultan’s next praisemaker, Zardi knows only fear.  The career of each praisemaker is terrifyingly short, and each ends with a hunt.  Zubeyda will be tracked down and killed!  Zardi is determined save her gentle sister from this cruel fate, and she will risk her life to save her!

This is a fast-paced read, with one frantic adventure following another.  With the help of Rhidan, Zardi leaps into the adventure of a lifetime.  She thinks that the key to saving her sister is finding the Varish, a group of rebels threatening to overthrow the sultan and return Aladdin, the rightful ruler, to the throne.  Rhidan, who was abandoned by his family and raised  by Zardi’s family, believes that the sorcerers of the Black Isle will hold the key to his true identity, as well as help save Zubeyda.  And so the two sneak away in the middle of night, and soon find themselves working on Sinbad’s ship.

I thought Zardi was a fun character.  She refused to allow anything to get in the way of saving her sister.  Not even being a shipwreck,  the Cyclops, or the queen of snakes could deter her from her goal.  Each new challenge was met with the grim knowledge that she could not fail, or her sister would die

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21. Review of the Day: Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It by Gail Carson Levine

Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems
By Gail Carson Levine
Illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Harper (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-178725-6
Ages 5-10
On shelves March 13th

I tend to run my bookgroup for kids between the ages of 9-12 like a gentle dictatorship. I choose the books, the kids vote on them, and so it goes. Now if the kids had their way we’d be reading fantasy novels day in and day out every single week. With that in mind, I like to try to make them read something a little different once in a while. For example, one week I might try to get them to read a Newbery winner. The next I would try to encourage them to dip into some nonfiction. One type of book I haven’t had the nerve to attempt for years, though, is poetry. Finding a really good, really interesting, really smart book of poetry for kids of that age is tricky stuff. Poetic tastes vary considerably, so it’s best to start with a book with a hook. And by hook or by crook, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It is basically the answer to my prayers I’ve been seeking all these long and lonely years. It has everything. Humor, engaging illustrations, a clever premise, potential (and very fun) applications, and a passive aggressive streak that’s nearly a mile long.

Do you know that old William Carlos Williams poem about the plums in the icebox? The one that calls itself “This is Just to Say”? When you think about that poem, I mean really think about it, it’s just the most self-satisfied little number you ever did see. Williams is clearly not sorry, though he included the words “forgive me” in there. With that as her inspiration, Gail Carson Levine has penned forty-five or so false apology poems modeled on Williams’. The rules are simple. “The first stanza states the horrible offense. The second stanza describes the effect of the offense. The last stanza begins with ‘Forgive me’ and continues with the false apology, because the writer is not sorry at all.” Mixing together fairy tales and silly situations, Levine’s poems span the gamut, from the cow in Jack and the Beanstalk taking issue with her monetary worth to a girl’s pets asking pseudo-forgiveness for enjoying her diary’s contents. Saying sorry without meaning it has never been this charming.

On the book’s dedication page read the words “To Susan Campbell Bartoletti, who led me down the poetry path.” I am currently in the process of putting in an order with FTD in the hopes of sending Ms. Bartoletti some flowers of my own. Whether intentionally or not, she has been at least partly responsible for helping to bring to this world a poet of undeniable talent. We all know Ms. Gail Carson Levine for her fantasy novels. Her Newbery Honor winning Ella Enchanted is probably her best known work. But when I saw that she had gone into the poetry business I couldn’t suppress a groan. Great. An author who thinks they can write. Whooptie-doo. Can’t wait to see what recycled trope makes its 100th appearance on the printed page yet again. Imagine my surprise then when I saw not only the idea behind the book (snarky in its mere conception, which is no easy task when you work in the world of juvenile literature) but the poems themselves. Ladies and gentlemen if I blame Ms. Levine for anything it is for denying the world her drop dead gorgeously twisted poin

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22. Review: Incarnate by Jodi Meadows

 

Title: Incarnate

Author: Jodi Meadows

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books

ISBN: 978-0062060754

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

NEWSOUL

Ana is new. For thousands of years in Range, a million souls have been reincarnated over and over, keeping their memories and experiences from previous lifetimes. When Ana was born, another soul vanished, and no one knows why.

NOSOUL
Even Ana’s own mother thinks she’s a nosoul, an omen of worse things to come, and has kept her away from society. To escape her seclusion and learn whether she’ll be reincarnated, Ana travels to the city of Heart, but its citizens are suspicious and afraid of what her presence means. When dragons and sylph attack the city, is Ana to blame?

HEART
Sam believes Ana’s new soul is good and worthwhile. When he stands up for her, their relationship blooms. But can he love someone who may live only once, and will Ana’s enemies—human and creature alike—let them be together? Ana needs to uncover the mistake that gave her someone else’s life, but will her quest threaten the peace of Heart and destroy the promise of reincarnation for all?

Jodi Meadows expertly weaves soul-deep romance, fantasy, and danger into an extraordinary tale of new life.

Review:

Incarnate is one of the more hyped books for the winter, and I was very eager to dive into the narrative.  This is an interesting take on the dystopian genre, which is which is one of my favorites.  In Ana’s world, there are one million souls, and they have been re-incarnated for thousands of years.  When Ana is born, however, she is a new soul.  A nosoul.  Nobody knows where she came from.  People are a bit afraid of her.  In order for her to exist, another soul had to disappear, so people aren’t happy that she’s joined them.  Her life means someone else’s permanent death, and a shocking shake up of the status quo.

Ana is left in the care of her mother, Li, a fierce woman who wants nothing to do with her.  Unlike other children, Ana is a blank slate.  She has no memories of her previous lives, because she has none.  What a terrible disadvantage for her to have to deal with!  While her peers are heading off on their own to continue the lives that they had temporarily left, Ana has no skills, no prospects, no expectations of things getting better for her.  Li is a cruel and detached caregiver.  She doesn’t see the sense in putting any effort into her duty when Ana probably only has one life.  Why become invested in someone who will only be around for the blink of an eye.

This is the aspect that I found the most fascinating about the book.  Everyone is thousands of years old. Everyone has a history with everyone else.  Everyone but Ana.  She is truly an infant to these people; young, ignorant, a disturbance in their carefully ordered society.  She doesn’t fit anywhere, and people are not shy about letting her know that.  They are dismissive of her, because they don’t know if she will be reincarnated after she dies, and they don’t think it’s worth their time to get to know her for her blip of a life.  The concept of a life not being worth much because it will likely be only about 70 years is a little disturbing.  While I understand the point of view of the citizens of Heart, I ju

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23. Review: Winterling by Sarah Prineas

 

Title: Winterling

Author: Sarah Prineas

Publisher: Harper Collins

ISBN: 978-0061921032

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

“We live here, my girl, because it is close to the Way, and echoes of its magic are felt in our world. The Way is a path leading to another place, where the people are governed by different rules. Magic runs through them and their land.”

With her boundless curiosity and wild spirit, Fer has always felt that she doesn’t belong. Not when the forest is calling to her, when the rush of wind through branches feels more real than school or the quiet farms near her house. Then she saves an injured creature—he looks like a boy, but he’s really something else. He knows who Fer truly is, and invites her through the Way, a passage to a strange, dangerous land.

Fer feels an instant attachment to this realm, where magic is real and oaths forge bonds stronger than iron. But a powerful huntress named the MÓr rules here, and Fer can sense that the land is perilously out of balance. Fer must unlock the secrets about the parents she never knew and claim her true place before the worlds on both sides of the Way descend into endless winter.

Sarah Prineas captivates in this fantasy-adventure about a girl who must find within herself the power to set right a terrible evil.

Review:

When I saw the coal black horse with glaring red eyes on the cover of Winterling, I immediately wanted to know more about it.  It’s a Middle Grade fantasy, and as I have been having quite a bit of good luck finding satisfying stories with these books lately, I couldn’t wait to start reading it.  Once I picked it up, I could not put it down again.  This is an exciting, magical read with a strong and feisty heroine who is moved by her heart to do the right thing.  My favorite kind of character.

Fer feels that she doesn’t fit in her world.  She hates school and the hurtful taunts of her classmates, and worse, once she climbs aboard the bus and is taken to the city, she starts to feel ill and muddle-headed.  Her grandmother, Grand-Jane, doesn’t seem to understand how wrong Fer feels when she’s surrounded by the city and her schoolmates, and she keeps insisting she go to school.  She has no sympathy when Fer gets into trouble for fighting, and Grand-Jane expects Fer to stay out of mischief.  Miserable, the girl forces herself to suffer through one endless day after another.

One day on her way home from school one day, she witnesses three wolves attacking a dog.  Upset that they are ganging up on the smaller animal, Fer bravely scoops up a fallen branch and wades into the middle of the fight, fearlessly chasing the wolves away.  When she checks the dog for injuries, she discovers, much to her surprise, that the dog isn’t a dog at all; he is really a strange boy named Rook.  Rook tells Fer about the Way, a magical portal to his world, and suddenly, Fer’s life will never be the same again.

This book had me hooked when Fer, despite her fear, bravely defended Rook against the wolves.  She is a girl who doesn’t know how to back down.  There is no challenge too frightening for her to turn away from, and she constantly puts herself at risk to save those around her.  I loved her bravery, and more than that, I loved her selflessness.  Fer never wanted anything in return, and she readily gave of herself, in a lan

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24. The Wolves in the Walls

Lots of things go bump in the night. When I was a kid, any sound coming out of the dark would send my imagination running wild (to be honest it still does). For years I would sleep under the covers, thinking it would hide me from any monster, goblins or ghosts. My philosophy: if I [...]

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25. Interview with Madeline Miller, Author of The Song of Achilles

Madeline Miller is the author of The Song of Achilles, a retelling of the Iliad.  I love Greek mythology, so I was delighted when Madeline dropped by the virtual offices to tell us more about her book.

[Manga Maniac Café] Describe yourself in 140 characters or less.

[Madeline Miller] Teacher, writer, director, reader, in any order. Flusterable yet determined, a hang-on-I-need-to-think-about-it type. Adventure lover.

[Manga Maniac Café] Can you tell us a little about The Song of Achilles?

[Madeline Miller] The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the myths around the Greek hero Achilles, narrated by his closest friend and lover, Patroclus. The story begins with the two meeting as boys and continues up through the events of Homer’s Iliad and beyond.

[Manga Maniac Café] What drew you to Patroclus and made you want to tell his story?

[Madeline Miller] What initially got me interested in Patroclus wasn’t the man himself—he’s actually a very minor character in the Iliad—but Achilles’ intense and shocking reaction to his death. The great hero, when he hears that Patroclus has been killed, is plunged into utter, grief-stricken despair. I was very moved by that, and also intrigued. Why does Patroclus mean so much to Achilles?

The more I learned about him, the more interested I was. He is a fascinating person, from his disastrous childhood, to his devotion to Achilles, to his characterization as “always gentle.” I became determined to give him the chance to speak for himself.

[Manga Maniac Café] Did you feel any apprehension when you started to tackle this project?

[Madeline Miller] I should have! But at the time I was too entranced with the story. I felt almost like a scribe, sitting down to take Patroclus’ dictation. Little did I know that it would be ten years of writing and re-writing before I would be finished.

[Manga Maniac Café] What was the most challenging aspect of writing The Song of Achilles?

[Madeline Miller] Finding Patroclus’ voice. From the beginning Patroclus’ personality and perspective were very clear to me—they were the bedrock of my story. But figuring out his diction and speech patterns was very challenging. I actually wrote a full draft of the story and ended up throwing it out and rewriting it from scratch, because I wasn’t happy with how I had him speaking. Finally, after lots of blundering around, I found something that felt right.

[Manga Maniac Café] Why do you think Homer’s works have endured over the centuries?

[Madeline Miller] Homer is timeless because his work is built on the universal truths of human experience. Take away the trappings of divinity and royalty and his characters emerge as utterly real—just like us in their flaws, follies and virtues. And, of course, they are also great stories, full of adventure and action.

[Manga Maniac Café] What three things do you need in order to write?

[Madeline Miller] Though I do sometimes jot down a sentence or two on paper, I need my computer for serious writing. My longhand isn’t fast enough to keep up with my thoughts, but my typing is!

I have never been one of those people who can listen to music while I write. I need total quiet to be able to hear my own thoughts.

No internet. If my browser is open, it’s so easy to fall down the internet rabbit-hole rather than work. I do best when I just turn off the house’s wifi for a while.

[Manga Maniac Café] Other than The Iliad and The Odyssey, can you share some books that turned you on to reading?

[Madeline Miller] I absolutely loved and read to pieces this old series of books by Wa

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