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1. Review of the Day: The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis

MadmanPineyWoods Review of the Day: The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul CurtisThe Madman of Piney Woods
By Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic
ISBN: 978-0-545-63376-5
$16.99
Ages 9-12
On shelves September 30th

No author hits it out of the park every time. No matter how talented or clever a writer might be, if their heart isn’t in a project it shows. In the case of Christopher Paul Curtis, when he loves what he’s writing the sheets of paper on which he types practically set on fire. When he doesn’t? It’s like reading mold. There’s life there, but no energy. Now in the case of his Newbery Honor book Elijah of Buxton, Curtis was doing gangbuster work. His blend of history and humor is unparalleled and you need only look to Elijah to see Curtis at his best. With that in mind I approached the companion novel to Elijah titled The Madman of Piney Woods with some trepidation. A good companion book will add to the magic of the original. A poor one, detract. I needn’t have worried. While I wouldn’t quite put Madman on the same level as Elijah, what Curtis does here, with his theme of fear and what it can do to a human soul, is as profound and thought provoking as anything he’s written in the past. There is ample fodder here for young brains. The fact that it’s a hoot to read as well is just the icing on the cake.

Two boys. Two lives. It’s 1901, forty years after the events in Elijah of Buxton and Benji Alston has only one dream: To be the world’s greatest reporter. He even gets an apprenticeship on a real paper, though he finds there’s more to writing stories than he initially thought. Meanwhile Alvin Stockard, nicknamed Red, is determined to be a scientist. That is, when he’s not dodging the blows of his bitter Irish granny, Mother O’Toole. When the two boys meet they have a lot in common, in spite of the fact that Benji’s black and Red’s Irish. They’ve also had separate encounters with the legendary Madman of Piney Woods. Is the man an ex-slave or a convict or part lion? The truth is more complicated than that, and when the Madman is in trouble these two boys come to his aid and learn what it truly means to face fear.

Let’s be plainspoken about what this book really is. Curtis has mastered the art of the Tom Sawyerish novel. Sometimes it feels like books containing mischievous boys have fallen out of favor. Thank goodness for Christopher Paul Curtis then. What we have here is a good old-fashioned 1901 buddy comedy. Two boys getting into and out of scrapes. Wreaking havoc. Revenging themselves on their enemies / siblings (or at least Benji does). It’s downright Mark Twainish (if that’s a term). Much of the charm comes from the fact that Curtis knows from funny. Benji’s a wry-hearted bigheaded, egotistical, lovable imp. He can be canny and completely wrong-headed within the space of just a few sentences. Red, in contrast, is book smart with a more regulation-sized ego but as gullible as they come. Put Red and Benji together and it’s little wonder they’re friends. They compliment one another’s faults. With Elijah of Buxton I felt no need to know more about Elijah and Cooter’s adventures. With Madman I wouldn’t mind following Benji and Red’s exploits for a little bit longer.

One of the characteristics of Curtis’s writing that sets him apart from the historical fiction pack is his humor. Making the past funny is a trick. Pranks help. An egotistical character getting their comeuppance helps too. In fact, at one point Curtis perfectly defines the miracle of funny writing. Benji is pondering words and wordplay and the magic of certain letter combinations. Says he, “How is it possible that one person can use only words to make another person laugh?” How indeed. The remarkable thing isn’t that Curtis is funny, though. Rather, it’s the fact that he knows how to balance tone so well. The book will garner honest belly laughs on one page, then manage to wrench real emotion out of you the next. The best funny authors are adept at this switch. The worst leave you feeling queasy. And Curtis never, not ever, gives a reader a queasy feeling.

Normally I have a problem with books where characters act out-of-step with the times without any outside influence. For example, I once read a Civil War middle grade novel that shall remain nameless where a girl, without anyone in her life offering her any guidance, independently came up with the idea that “corsets restrict the mind”. Ugh. Anachronisms make me itch. With that in mind, I watched Red very carefully in this book. Here you have a boy effectively raised by a racist grandmother who is almost wholly without so much as a racist thought in his little ginger noggin. How do we account for this? Thankfully, Red’s father gives us an “out”, as it were. A good man who struggles with the amount of influence his mother-in-law may or may not have over her redheaded grandchild, Mr. Stockard is the just force in his son’s life that guides his good nature.

The preferred writing style of Christopher Paul Curtis that can be found in most of his novels is also found here. It initially appears deceptively simple. There will be a series of seemingly unrelated stories with familiar characters. Little interstitial moments will resonate with larger themes, but the book won’t feel like it’s going anywhere. Then, in the third act, BLAMMO! Curtis will hit you with everything he’s got. Murder, desperation, the works. He’s done it so often you can set your watch by it, but it still works, man. Now to be fair, when Curtis wrote Elijah of Buxton he sort of peaked. It’s hard to compete with the desperation that filled Elijah’s encounter with an enslaved family near the end. In Madman Curtis doesn’t even attempt to top it. In fact, he comes to his book’s climax from another angle entirely. There is some desperation (and not a little blood) but even so this is a more thoughtful third act. If Elijah asked the reader to feel, Madman asks the reader to think. Nothing wrong with that. It just doesn’t sock you in the gut quite as hard.

For me, it all comes down to the quotable sentences. And fortunately, in this book the writing is just chock full of wonderful lines. Things like, “An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and the same can be said of many an argument.” Or later, when talking about Red’s nickname, “It would be hard for even as good a debater as Spencer or the Holmely boy to disprove that a cardinal and a beet hadn’t been married and given birth to this boy. Then baptized him in a tub of red ink.” And I may have to conjure up this line in terms of discipline and kids: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, but you can sure make him stand there looking at the water for a long time.” Finally, on funerals: “Maybe it’s just me, but I always found it a little hard to celebrate when one of the folks in the room is dead.”

He also creates little moments that stay with you. Kissing a reflection only to have your lips stick to it. A girl’s teeth so rotted that her father has to turn his head when she kisses him to avoid the stench (kisses are treacherous things in Curtis novels). In this book I’ll probably long remember the boy who purposefully gets into fights to give himself a reason for the injuries wrought by his drunken father. And there’s even a moment near the end when the Madman’s identity is clarified that is a great example of Curtis playing with his audience. Before he gives anything away he makes it clear that the Madman could be one of two beloved characters from Elijah of Buxton. It’s agony waiting for him to clarify who exactly is who.

Character is king in the world of Mr. Curtis. A writer who manages to construct fully three-dimensional people out of mere words is one to watch. In this book, Curtis has the difficult task of making complete and whole a character through the eyes of two different-year-old boys. And when you consider that they’re working from the starting point of thinking that the guy’s insane, it’s going to be a tough slog to convince the reader otherwise. That said, once you get into the head of the “Madman” you get a profound sense not of his insanity but of his gentleness. His very existence reminded me of similar loners in literature like Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson or The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton, but unlike the men in those books this guy had a heart and a mind and a very distinctive past. And fears. Terrible, awful fears.

It’s that fear that gives Madman its true purpose. Red’s grandmother, Mother O’Toole, shares with the Madman a horrific past. They’re very different horrors (one based in sheer mind-blowing violence and the other in death, betrayal, and disgust) but the effects are the same. Out of these moments both people are suffering a kind of PTSD. This makes them two sides of the same coin. Equally wracked by horrible memories, they chose to handle those memories in different ways. The Madman gives up society but retains his soul. Mother O’Toole, in contrast, retains her sanity but gives up her soul. Yet by the end of the book the supposed Madman has returned to society and reconnected with his friends while the Irishwoman is last seen with her hair down (a classic madwoman trope as old as Shakespeare himself) scrubbing dishes until she bleeds to rid them of any trace of the race she hates so much. They have effectively switched places.

Much of what The Madman of Piney Woods does is ask what fear does to people. The Madman speaks eloquently of all too human monsters and what they can do to a man. Meanwhile Grandmother has suffered as well but it’s made her bitter and angry. When Red asks, “Doesn’t it seem only logical that if a person has been through all of the grief she has, they’d have nothing but compassion for anyone else who’s been through the same?” His father responds that “given enough time, fear is the great killer of the human spirit.” In her case it has taken her spirit and “has so horribly scarred it, condensing and strengthening and dishing out the same hatred that it has experienced.” But for some the opposite is true, hence the Madman. Two humans who have seen the worst of humanity. Two different reactions. And as with Elijah, where Curtis tackled slavery not through a slave but through a slave’s freeborn child, we hear about these things through kids who are “close enough to hear the echoes of the screams in [the adults’] nightmarish memories.” Certainly it rubs off onto the younger characters in different ways. In one chapter Benji wonders why the original settlers of Buxton, all ex-slaves, can’t just relax. Fear has shaped them so distinctly that he figures a town of “nervous old people” has raised him. Adversity can either build or destroy character, Curtis says. This book is the story of precisely that.

Don’t be surprised if, after finishing this book, you find yourself reaching for your copy of Elijah of Buxton so as to remember some of these characters when they were young. Reaching deep, Curtis puts soul into the pages of its companion novel. In my more dreamy-eyed moments I fantasize about Curtis continuing the stories of Buxton every 40 years until he gets to the present day. It could be his equivalent of Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House chronicles. Imagine if we shot forward another 40 years to 1941 and encountered a grown Benji and Red with their own families and fears. I doubt Curtis is planning on going that route, but whether or not this is the end of Buxton’s tales or just the beginning, The Madman of Piney Woods will leave child readers questioning what true trauma can do to a soul, and what they would do if it happened to them. Heady stuff. Funny stuff. Smart stuff. Good stuff. Better get your hands on this stuff.

On shelves September 30th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

First Sentence: “The old soldiers say you never hear the bullet that kills you.”

Like This? Then Try:

Notes on the Cover:  As many of us are aware, in the past historical novels starring African-American boys have often consisted of silhouettes or dull brown sepia-toned tomes.  Christopher Paul Curtis’s books tend to be the exception to the rule, and this is clearly the most lively of his covers so far.  Two boys running in period clothing through the titular “piney woods”?  That kind of thing is rare as a peacock these days.  It’s still a little brown, but maybe I can sell it on the authors name and the fact that the books look like they’re running to/from trouble.  All in all, I like it.

Professional Reviews:

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2. Review of the Day: Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh Schneider

PrincessSparkleHeart Review of the Day: Princess Sparkle Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh SchneiderPrincess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover
By Josh Schneider
Clarion (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-544-14228-2
Ages 3-7
On shelves now

Sometimes I’ll just sit back and think about how the advent of the internet has affected literary culture. I don’t mean book promotion or reviews or any of that. I’m talking about the very content of books themselves. On the one hand, it accounts for the rise in Steampunk (a desire for tactile, hands-on technology, gears and all). On the other, it has led to a rise in books where characters make things. So why, you may be asking yourself, am I saying all this when ostensibly I’m supposed to be reviewing a picture book with the title Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover? Because, best beloved, Josh Schneider has created a picture book that provides solutions. If something terrible happens to something you love, do you sit on the floor and cry and bemoan your fate? NO! You go out and find the solution, even if it means getting your hands a little dirty. We’re seeing a nice uptick in books where kids make things and fix things on their own. Add in a jealous doggy and a twist ending that NO ONE will see coming and you have a book that could easily have been written in the past but contains a distinctly 21st century flavor through and through.

Amelia just couldn’t be happier. When she gets her new doll, Princess Sparkle-Heart, the two bond instantly. They do tea parties, royal weddings, share secrets, the works. Never mind that Amelia’s pet dog eyes their happiness with an envious glare. The minute the two are separated, it acts. One minute Princess Sparkle-Heart is reading a book to herself. The next, she’s a pile of well-chewed bits and pieces on the floor. At first Amelia is distraught, but when her mother proposes putting the doll back together Amelia provides direction and ideas. This is the all-new Princess Sparkle-Heart, ladies and gentlemen. One that is NOT going to be taken advantage of again.

PrincessSparkle2 300x191 Review of the Day: Princess Sparkle Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh SchneiderI’ll be the first to admit to you that I like a little weird with my children’s literature. The only question is whether or not kids like the same kind of weird that I like. There’s no question that some of them do have a taste for the unusual, after all. It’s adult selectors that grow disturbed by some of this author/illustrator’s choices. In the case of Princess Sparkle-Heart (can I tell you how much I love that her last name is hyphenated?) I’ve already seen a schism between some adults and others. Some adults find this book freakin’ hilarious. They love the odd way in which Schneider chooses to empower his heroine. Others aren’t amused in the least. For my part, I found it a wonderful new girl/doll story. I was particularly fond of the spread where Amelia looks at a wall of fashion magazines and zeroes in on the sole solitary superhero comic found there instead. So if Schneider is telling readers something, he’s being subtle about it.

I’ve also been noticing a rather nice trend recently in books starring young girls. There’s a real movement in the country right now to give girls the impetus to make and create and build. Books like The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires where the heroine not only builds but deals repeatedly with disappointment are really quite fabulous. In Princess Sparkle-Heart Amelia’s unseen mother is the one doing the construction of a new princess, but it’s Amelia who provides the number of parts and the specifications. If the new princess is completely different from her prior incarnation, that’s thanks to Amelia’s contributions. Meanwhile the Frankenstein connection that some have noted (and that I entirely missed the first time around) is clearly intentional. How else to explain the two screws that appear in the “M” of the front cover’s “Makeover”? No doubt Princess Sparkle-Heart’s conversion will strike some as monstrous. For others, it’ll be like your average everyday superhero origin story. Nothing wrong with that!

PrincessSparkle3 300x194 Review of the Day: Princess Sparkle Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh SchneiderI’ve been oddly amused by dog books this year. I am not a dog person. I can take ‘em or leave ‘em. But in 2014 we’ve seen some really spectacular canine picture books. Things like Shoe Dog by Megan McDonald, and I’m My Own Dog by David Ezra Stein, and now this. The dog in this particular book is awfully similar to the one in Bears by Ruth Krauss as re-illustrated by Maurice Sendak, with its jealousy of a beloved toy. Cleverly Schneider has positioned the dog’s growls to serve as a running commentary behind the action. A low-key “GRRRRRRRRRR” runs both on and off the page, bleeding into the folds, falling off the sides. Schneider’s humans never have pupils (and combined with her red hair this gives Amelia a distant L’il Orphan Annie connection) but the dogs and stuffed animals do. As a result, the dog ends up oddly sympathetic in spite of its naughty ways (and indeed there is a happy ending for all characters at the story’s close).

Occasionally folks will ask me for “Princess Book” recommendations. Admittedly I’m far more partial to subversive princess tales (The Paperbag Princess, The Princess and the Pig, etc.) than those that adhere to the norm. Keeping that in mind, this is definitely going into my princess book bag of tricks. With its twist ending, strong female character, and princess that looks like she could take down twenty monsters without a blink, I’m a fan. I wouldn’t necessarily hand it to the kid looking for fluff and fairies and oogly goo, but for children with a wry sense of humor (and they do exist) this book is going to pack a wallop. Funny and surprising and a great read through and through. You ain’t never seen a makeover quite like THIS before.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Dahlia by Barbara McClintock
  • Bears by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Other Blog Reviews: Sal’s Fiction Addiction,

Professional Reviews: A star from Publishers Weekly, A star from Kirkus,

Misc: There is a TON of stuff related to the book on the publisher’s website.  Everything from sewing patterns to a Q&A to early sketches to more more more!

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3. Review of the Day: Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

SeparateEqual1 300x300 Review of the Day: Separate is Never Equal by Duncan TonatiuhSeparate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegretation
By Duncan Tonatiuh
Harry N. Abrams
$18.95
ISBN: 978-1419710544
Ages 7-12
On shelves now

If I blame my childhood education for anything I suppose it would be for instilling in me the belief that the history worth learning consisted of a set of universally understood facts. One event would be more worthy of coverage than another. One person better positioned for a biography than another. It was only in adulthood that I started to understand that the history we know is more a set of decisions made decades and decades ago by educators than anything else. Why were weeks and weeks of my childhood spent learning about The American Revolution but only a day on the Vietnam War? Why did we all read biographies of Thomas Edison but never about Nicolas Tesla? And why did it take me 36 years before someone mentioned the name of Sylvia Mendez to me? Here we have a girl with a story practically tailor made for a work of children’s nonfiction. Her tale has everything. Villains and heroes (her own heroic parents, no less). Huge historical significance (there’d be no Brown v. Board of Education without Sylvia). And it stars Latino-Americans. With the possible exception of Cesar Chavez, my education was pretty much lacking in any and all experience with Latino heroes in America. I’m therefore pleased as punch that we’ve something quite as amazing as Separate is Never Equal to fill in not just my gaps but the gaps of kids all over our nation.

Sylvia is going home in tears. Faced with teasing at her new school she tells her mother she doesn’t want to go back. Gently, her mother reminds her that teasing or no, this is exactly what the family fought so hard for for three long years. In 1944 the Mendez family had moved to Westminster, California. When the first day of school approached their Aunt drove five of the kids to the nearby public school. Yet when they arrived she was told that her children, with their light skin and brown hair could attend but that Sylvia and her brothers would have to go to “the Mexican school”. Faced with hugely inferior conditions, the Mendez family decides to fight back. They are inspired by a lawsuit to integrate the public pools and so they hire the same lawyer to take on their case. In court they hear firsthand the prejudices that the superintendent of their district holds dear, but ultimately they win. When that decision is appealed they take it to the state court, and win once more. Remembering all this, Sylvia returns to school where, in time, she makes friends from a variety of different backgrounds. Backmatter consists of an extensive Author’s Note, a Glossary, a Bibliography, additional information About the Text, and an Index.

SeparateEqual2 300x258 Review of the Day: Separate is Never Equal by Duncan TonatiuhWhen I say that Sylvia’s story adapts perfectly to the nonfiction picture book form, I don’t want to downplay what Tonatiuh has done here. To tell Sylvia’s story accurately he didn’t have a single source to draw upon. Instead the book uses multiple sources, from court transcripts and films to books, websites, articles, and reports. Culling from all of this and then transferring it into something appropriate and interesting (that is key) for young readers is a worthy challenge. That Tonatiuh pulls it off is great, but I wonder if he could have done it if he hadn’t interviewed Sylvia Mendez herself in October 2012 and April 2013. Those who know me know that I’m a stickler for non-invented dialogue in my children’s works of nonfiction. If you can’t tell a real story without making up dialogue from real people then your book isn’t worth a lick. At first, it appears that Tonatiuh falls into the same trap, with Sylvia wondering some things and her family members saying other. Look at the backmatter, however, and you’ll see a note “About the Text”. It says that while the trial dialogue comes from court transcripts, the rest of the book came from conversations with Sylvia herself. So if she says her parents said one thing or she thought/pondered another, who are we to doubt her? Well played then.

Librarians like myself spend so much time gushing over content and format that often we forget one essential element of any book: child-friendliness. It’s all well and good to put great information on picture book sized pages, but will any kid willingly read what you have? In this light, framing this book as a flashback was a clever move. Right from the start Tonatiuh places his story within the context of a child’s experience with mean kids. It’s a position a great many children can identify with, so immediately he’s established sympathy for the main character. She’s just like kids today . . . except a hero. At the end of the book we have photographs of the real participants, both then and now. As for the text itself, it’s very readable, keeping to the facts but, aided by the design and the art, eclectic enough to maintain interest.

SeparateEqual3 300x182 Review of the Day: Separate is Never Equal by Duncan TonatiuhWhen we talk about Tonatiuh’s art it’s important to understand why he’s chosen the style that he has. In interviews the artist has discussed how his art is heavily influenced by ancient Mexican styles. As he said in an interview on the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, “My artwork is very much inspired by Pre-Columbian art, especially by Mixtec codices from the 14th century. That is why my art is very geometric, my characters are always in profile, and their ears look a bit like the number three. My intention is to celebrate that ancient art and keep it alive.” Heads of participants are always shown from the side. This is combined with the decision to digitally insert real hair, of a variety of shades and hues and colors, onto the heads of the characters. The end result looks like nothing else out there. There are mild problems with it, since the neutral expression of the faces can resemble dislike or distaste. This comes up when Sylvia’s cousins are accepted into the nearest public school and she is not. Their faces are neutral but read the wrong way you might think they were coolly unimpressed with their darker skinned cousin. Still, once you’ve grown used to the style it’s hardly an impediment to enjoying the story.

I think it’s important to stress for our children that when we talk about “integration”, we’re not just talking about African-American kids in the 1950s and 60s. Segregation includes Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and more. At one point in this book the Mendez family receives support from the NAACP, the Japanese American Citizens League, and the American Jewish Congress amongst others. Sylvia’s mother says, “When you fight for justice, others will follow”. For children to understand that freedom is never a done deal and that increased rights today means increased rights in the future is important. Books like Separate is Never Equal help drill the point home. There is absolutely nothing like this book on our shelves today. Pick it up when you want to hand a kid a book about Latino-American history that doesn’t involve Chavez for once. Required reading.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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4. Review of the Day: Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

AbsolutelyAlmost Review of the Day: Absolutely Almost by Lisa GraffAbsolutely Almost
By Lisa Graff
Philomel (an imprint of Penguin)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-399-16405-7
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

In the stage musical of Matilda, lyricist Tim Minchin begins the show with the following lines about the state of children today: “Specialness is de rigueur. / Above average is average. Go fig-ueur! / Is it some modern miracle of calculus / That such frequent miracles don’t render each one un-miraculous?” This song ran on a bit of a loop through my cranium as I read Lisa Graff latest middle grade novel Absolutely Almost. For parents, how well your child does reflects right back on you. Your child is a genius? Congratulations! You must be a genius for raising a genius. Your child is above average? Kudos to you. Wait, your child is average? Uh-oh. For some parents nothing in the world could be more embarrassing. We all want our kids to do well in school, but where do you distinguish between their happiness and how hard you’re allowed to push them to do their best? Do you take kindness into account when you’re adding up all their other sterling qualities? Maybe the wonder of Absolutely Almost is that it’s willing to give us an almost unheard of hero. Albie is not extraordinary in any possible way and he would like you to be okay with that. The question then is whether or not child readers will let him.

Things aren’t easy for Albie. He’s not what you’d call much of a natural at anything. Reading and writing is tough. Math’s a headache. He’s not the world’s greatest artist and he’s not going to win any awards for his wit. That said, Albie’s a great kid. If you want someone kind and compassionate, he’s your man. When he finds himself with a new babysitter, a girl named Calista who loves art, he’s initially skeptical. She soon wins him over, though, and good thing too since there are a lot of confusing things going on in his life. One day he’s popular and another he’s not. He’s been kicked out of his old school thanks to his grades. Then there’s the fact that his best friend is part of a reality show . . . well, things aren’t easy for Albie. But sometimes, when you’re not the best at anything, you can make it up to people by simply being the best kind of person.

Average people are tough. They don’t naturally lend themselves to great works of literature generally unless they’re a villain or the butt of a joke. Lots of heroes are billed as “average heroes” but how average are they really? Put another way, would they ever miscalculate a tip? Our fantasy books are full to overflowing of average kids finding out that they’re extraordinary (Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Meg Murry, etc.). Now imagine that the book kept them ordinary. Where do you go from there? Credit where credit is due to Lisa Graff then. The literary challenge of retaining a protagonist’s everyday humdrum status is intimidating. Graff wrestles with the idea and works it to her advantage. For example, the big momentous moment in this book is when it turns out that Albie doesn’t have dyslexia and just isn’t good at reading. I’ve never seen that in a book for kids before, and it was welcome. It made it clear what kind of book we’re dealing with.

As a librarian who has read a LOT of children’s books starring “average” kids, I kept waiting for that moment when Albie discovered he had a ridiculously strong talent for, say, ukulele or poker or something. It never came. It never came and I was left realizing that it was possible that it never would. Kids are told all the time that someday they’ll find that thing that’ll make them unique. Well what if they don’t? What happens then? Absolutely Almost is willing to tell them the truth. There’s a wonderful passage where Calista and Albie are discussing the fact that he may never find something he’s good at. Calista advises, “Find something you’d want to keep doing forever… even if you stink at it. And then, if you’re lucky, with lots of practice, then one day you won’t stink so much.” Albie points out, correctly, that he might still stink at it and what then? Says Calista, “Then won’t you be glad you found something you love?”

Mind you, average heroes run a big risk. Absolutely Almost places the reader in a difficult position. More than one kid is going to find themselves angry with Albie for being dense. But the whole point of the book is that he’s just not the sharpest pencil in the box. Does that make the reader sympathetic then to his plight or a bully by proxy? It’s the age-old problem of handing the reader the same information as the hero but allowing them to understand more than that hero. If you’re smarter than the person you’re reading about, does that make you angry or understanding? I suppose it depends on the reader and the extent to which they can relate to Albie’s problem. Still, I would love to sit in on a kid book discussion group as they talked about Albie. Seems to me there will be a couple children who find their frustration with his averageness infuriating. The phrase “Choose Kind” has been used to encourage kids not to bully kids that look different than you. I’d be interested in a campaign that gave as much credence to encouraging kids not to bully those other children that aren’t as smart as they are.

I’ve followed the literary career of Lisa Graff for years and have always enjoyed her books. But with Absolutely Almost I really feel like she’s done her best work. The book does an excellent job of showing without telling. For example, Albie discusses at one point how good he is at noticing things then relates a teacher’s comment that, “if you had any skill at language, you might’ve made a very fine writer.” Graff then simply has Albie follow up that statement with a simple “That’s what she said.” You’re left wondering if he picked up on the inherent insult (or was it just a truth?) in that. Almost in direct contrast, in a rare moment of insight, his dad says something about Albie that’s surprising in its accuracy. “I think the hard thing for you, Albie… is not going to be getting what you want in life, but figuring out what that is.” I love a book that has the wherewithal to present these different sides of a single person. Such writing belies the idea that what Graff is doing here is simple.

Reading the book as a parent, I could see how my experience with Absolutely Almost was different from that of a kid reader. Take the character of Calista, for example. She’s a very sympathetic babysitter for Albie who does a lot of good for him, offering support when no one else understands. Yet she’s also just a college kid with a poorly defined sense of when to make the right and wrong choice. Spoiler Alert on the rest of this paragraph. When Albie’s suffering terribly she takes him out of school to go to the zoo and then fails to tell his parents about this executive decision on her part. A couple chapters later Albie’s mom finds out about the outing and Calista’s gone from their lives. The mom concludes that she can’t have a babysitter who lies to her and that is 100% correct. A kid reader is going to be angry with the mom, but parents, teachers, and librarians are going to be aware that this is one of those unpopular but necessary moves a parent has to face all the time. It’s part of being an adult. Sorry, kids. Calista was great, but she was also way too close to being a manic pixie dream babysitter. And trust me when I say you don’t want to have a manic pixie dream babysitter watching your children.

Remember the picture book Leo the Late Bloomer where a little tiger cub is no good at anything and then one day, somewhat magically, he’s good at EVERYTHING? Absolutely Almost is the anti-Leo the Late Bloomer. In a sense, the point of Graff’s novel is that oftentimes kindness outweighs intelligence. I remember a friend of mine in college once commenting that he would much rather that people be kind than witty. At the time this struck me as an incredible idea. I’d always gravitated towards people with a quick wit, so the idea of preferring kindness seemed revolutionary. I’m older now, but the idea hasn’t gone away. Nor is it unique to adulthood. Albie’s journey doesn’t reach some neat and tidy little conclusion by this story’s end, but it does reach a satisfying finish. Life is not going to be easy for Albie, but thanks to the lessons learned here, you’re confident that he’s gonna make it through. Let’s hope other average kids out there at least take heart from that. A hard book to write. An easy book to read.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Other Reviews: BookPage

Interviews:

  • Lisa speaks with BookPage about the creation of the book.

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5. Review of the Day: West of the Moon by Margi Preus

WestMoon1 334x500 Review of the Day: West of the Moon by Margi PreusWest of the Moon
By Margi Preus
Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams)
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-4197-0896-1
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now.

These are dark times for children’s literature. Pick up a book for the 9-12 year-old set and you just don’t know what you’re going to find. Whether it’s the murderous foliage of The Night Gardener, the implications of Nightingale’s Nest, or the serious subject matter of The Red Pencil, 2014 is probably best described as the year everything went dark. Don’t expect West of the Moon to lighten the mood any either. Like those books I just mentioned, it’s amazing. Dark and resilient with a core theme that simply cannot be ignored. Yet for all that Preus has tapped into a bit of harsh reality with her title that may give pause to all but the stoutest hearts. Fortunately, she tempers this reality with an artist’s license. With folktales and beautifully written prose. With a deep sisterly bond, and a serious consideration of what is right and what wrong and what is necessary in desperate circumstances. I don’t expect everyone to read this book and instantly love it, but I do expect people to read it. Slow to start, smart when it continues, and unlike anything you’ve ever really read before.

“Now I know how much I’m worth: not as much as Jesus, who I’m told was sold for thirty pieces of silver. I am worth two silver coins and a haunch of goat.” That’s Astri, discussing the fact that her aunt and uncle have just essentially sold her to Svaalberd, the local goat herder. Though she is loathe to go, she knows that she has little choice in the matter, and must leave her little sister behind with her foul relatives. Svaalberd turns out to be even fouler, however, and as she plans her escape Astri hits up on the idea of leaving Norway and going to America. With time and opportunity she makes good her plans, taking little sister Greta with her, protecting the both of them, and making difficult choices every step of the way.

I’ll just give away the game right from the start and confess to you that I’m a big time fan of this book. It’s sort of a brilliant combination of realism with folktales and writing that just cuts to the heart thanks to a heroine who is not entirely commendable (a rarity in this day and age). But I also experienced a very personal reaction to the book that as much to do with Preus’s extensive Author’s Note as anything else. You see, my own great-great-grandfather immigrated to America around the same time as Ms. Preus’s great-great-grandparents (the people who provided much of the inspiration for this book). I’ve always rather loved knowing about this fellow since most of the immigrants in my family disappeared into the past without so much as a blip. This guy we actually have photographs of. Why he left had as much to do with his abusive father as anything else, but I never really understood the true impetus behind leaving an entire country. Then I read the Author’s Note and learned about this “America fever” that spread through Norway and enticed people to leave and move to the States. It gives my own family history a bit of context I’ve always lacked and for that I thank Ms. Preus profusely.

On top of that, she provides a bit of context to the immigrant historical experience that we almost never see. We always hear about immigrants coming to America but have we ever seen a true accounting of how much food and staples they were told to bring for the boat trip? I sure as heck hadn’t! You can study Ellis Island all the livelong day but until you read about the 24 pounds of meat and the small keg of kerring folks were asked to bring, you don’t really understand what they were up against.

It should surprise no one when I say that Preus is also just a beautiful writer. I mean, she is a Newbery Honor winner after all. Still, I feel I was unprepared for the book’s great use of symbolism. Take, for example, the fact that the name of the girl that gives Astri such a hard time is “Grace”. And then there’s the fact that Preus does such interesting things with the narrative. For example she’ll mention a spell she observed Svaalberd reciting and then follow that fact up with a quick, “I’ll thank you to keep that to yourself.” You’re never quite certain whom she is addressing. The reader, obviously, but anyone else? In her Author’s Note Ms. Preus mentions that much of the book was inspired, sometimes directly, by her great-great-grandmother Linka’s diary. Knowing this, the book takes on the feel of a kind of confessional. I don’t know whom exactly Astri is confessing to, but it feels right. Plus, it turns out that she has a LOT to confess.

As characters go, Astri is a bit of a remarkable protagonist. Have you read Harriet the Spy recently? See, back in the day authors weren’t afraid to write unsympathetic main characters. People that you rooted for, but didn’t particularly like. But recent children’s literature shies away from that type. Our protagonists are inevitably stouthearted and true and if they do have flaws then they work through them in a healthy all-American kind of way. Astri’s different. When she recounts her flaws they take on the feeling of a folktale (“I’ve stolen the gold and hacked off the fingers and snitched the soap and swiped the wedding food. I’ve lied to my own little sister and left Spinning Girl behind, and now I’m stealing the horse, saddle, and bridle from the farm boy who never did anything wrong except display a bit of greed.”) But hey, she’s honest! This section is then followed with thoughts on what makes a person bad. Does desperation counteract sin? How do you gauge individual sins?

If I’ve noted any kind of a theme in my middle grade children’s literature this year (aside from the darkness I alluded to in the opening paragraph) it’s a fascination with the relationship between lies and stories. Jonathan Auxier explored this idea to some extent in The Night Gardener, as did Jacqueline Woodson in Brown Girl Dreaming. Here, Preus returns to the notion of where stories stop and lies begin again and again. Says she at some point, “soon I’ve run out of golden thread with which to spin my pretty stories and I’m left with just the thin thread of truth.” Astri is constantly telling stories to Gerta, sometimes to coax her into something, sometimes to comfort her. But in her greatest hour of soul searching she wonders, “Is it a worse sin to lie to my sweet sister than to steal from a cruel master?” And where does lying start when storytelling ends? There are no easy answers to be found here. Just excellent questions.

So let’s talk attempted sexual assault in a work of children’s literature. Oh, it’s hardly uncommon. How many of us remember the reason that Julie in Julie of the Wolves ran away to join a furry pack? In the case of West of the Moon the attempt could be read any number of ways. Adults, for example, will know precisely what is going on. But kids? When Astri sees her bed for the first time she takes the precaution of grabbing the nearest knife and sticking it under her pillow. No fool she, and the act turns out to be a good piece of forethought since later in the book the goatman does indeed throw her onto her bed. She comes close to cutting his jugular and the incident passes (though he says quite clearly, “Come summer, we will go down to the church and have the parson marry us. Then I’ll take you to my bed.”). Reading the section it’s matter-of-fact. A realistic threat that comes and goes and will strike a chord with some readers instantly and others not at all. There will be kids that read the section and go to their parents or teachers (or even librarians) looking for some clarification, so adults who hand this to younger readers should be ready for uncomfortable questions. Is it inappropriate for kids? That is going to depend entirely on the kid. For some 9 and 10-year-olds there’s nothing here to raise an eyebrow. Astri hardly does. Later she hates the goatman far more for baby lambicide than any attempted rape. For others, they’ll not care for the content. Kids are great self-censors, though. They know what they can handle. I wouldn’t be worried on that score.

If we’re going to get to the heart of the matter, this book is about grace and forgiveness. It’s about how even victims (or maybe especially victims) are capable of terrible terrible things. It’s about making amends with the world and finding a way to forgive yourself and to move on. Astri is, as I’ve said before, not a saintly character. She steals and tricks good people for her own reasons and she leaves it to the reader to decide if she is worth forgiving. This is an ideal book discussion title, particularly when you weave in a discussion of the folktales, the notion of stories vs. lies, and the real world history. It’s not an easy book and it requires a little something extra on the part of the reader, but for those kids that demand a bit of a challenge and a book that’ll make ‘em stop and think for half a moment, you can’t do better. Remarkable.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer – Few can weave folktales into text as well as Farmer, so naturally when I saw what Preus was doing here I thought of this epic series.
  • The Carnivorous Carnival by Lemony Snicket – Because if anyone understands how to bring up the notion of whether or not sinking to the level of the bad guys makes YOU a bad guy, it’s Snicket. And this was the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events to come up with the notion.
  • The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier – These two books wouldn’t have a lot in common were it not for the fact that Auxier delves into the relationship between lies and stories as deeply as Preus and with similar conclusions.

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Interviews: KUMD spoke with Ms. Preus about her books and her work on this one in particular here.

Book Jacket: Oo!  In case you didn’t get to see the back cover . . .

WestMoon2 Review of the Day: West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Misc: For a look behind-the-scenes of the book check out this article Award-winning Duluth author pulls from folk tales, ancestral diary for newest novel from the Duluth News Tribune.

Videos: And here’s the book trailer!

West of the Moon / Margi Preus Book Trailer from Joellyn Rock on Vimeo.

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6. Review of the Day: brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

BrownGirlDreaming Review of the Day: brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodsonbrown girl dreaming
By Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen Books (an imprint of Penguin)
$16.99
ISBN: 978- 0399252518
Ages 9-12
On shelves August 28th

What does a memoir owe its readers? For that matter, what does a fictionalized memoir written with a child audience in mind owe its readers? Kids come into public libraries every day asking for biographies and autobiographies. They’re assigned them with the teacher’s intent, one assumes, of placing them in the shoes of those people who found their way, or their voice, or their purpose in life. Maybe there’s a hope that by reading about such people the kids will see that life has purpose. That even the most high and lofty historical celebrity started out small. Yet to my mind, a memoir is of little use to child readers if it doesn’t spend a significant fraction of its time talking about the subject when they themselves were young. To pick up brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is to pick up the world’s best example of precisely how to write a fictionalized memoir. Sharp when it needs to be sharp, funny when it needs to be funny, and a book that can relate to so many other works of children’s literature, Woodson takes her own life and lays it out in such a way that child readers will both relate to it and interpret it through the lens of history itself. It may be history, but this is one character that will give kids the understanding that nothing in life is a given. Sometimes, as hokey as it sounds, it really does come down to your dreams.

Her father wanted to name her “Jack” after himself. Never mind that today, let alone 1963 Columbus, Ohio, you wouldn’t dream of naming a baby girl that way. Maybe her mother writing “Jacqueline” on her birth certificate was one of the hundreds of reasons her parents would eventually split apart. Or maybe it was her mother’s yearning for her childhood home in South Carolina that did it. Whatever the case, when Jackie was one-years-old her mother took her and her two older siblings to the South to live with their grandparents once and for all. Though it was segregated and times were violent, Jackie loved the place. Even when her mother left town to look for work in New York City, she kept on loving it. Later, her mother picked up her family and moved them to Brooklyn and Jackie had to learn the ways of city living versus country living. What’s more, with her talented older siblings and adorable baby brother, she needed to find out what made her special. Told in gentle verse and memory, Jacqueline Woodson expertly recounts her own story and her own journey against a backdrop of America’s civil rights movement. This is the birth of a writer told from a child’s perspective.

You might ask why we are referring to this book as a work of historical fiction, when clearly the memoir is based in fact. Recently I was reading a piece in The New Yorker on the novelist Edward St. Aubyn. St. Aubyn found the best way to recount his own childhood was through the lens of fiction. Says the man, “I wanted the freedom and the sublimatory power of writing a novel . . . And I wanted to write in the tradition which had impressed me the most.” Certainly there’s a much greater focus on what it means to be a work of nonfiction for kids in this day and age. Where in the past something like the Childhood of Famous Americans series could get away with murder, pondering what one famous person thought or felt at a given time, these days we hold children’s nonfiction to a much higher standard. Books like Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s No Crystal Stair, for example, must be called “fiction” for all that they are based on real people and real events. Woodson’s personal memoir is, for all intents and purposes, strictly factual but because there are times when she uses dialogue to flesh out the characters and scenes the book ends up in the fiction section of the library and bookstore. Like St. Aubyn, Woodson is most comfortable when she has the most freedom as an author, not to be hemmed in by a strict structural analysis of what did or did not occur in the past. She has, in a sense then, mastered the art of the fictionalized memoir in a children’s book format.

Because of course in fiction you can give your life a form and a function. You can look back and give it purpose, something nonfiction can do but with significantly less freedom. There is a moment in Jackie’s story when you get a distinct sense of her life turning a corner. In the section “grown folks’ stories” she recounts hearing the tales of the old people then telling them back to her sister and brother in the night. “Retelling each story. / Making up what I didn’t understand / or missed when voices dropped too low . . . / Then I let the stories live / inside my head, again and again / until the real world fades back / into cricket lullabies / and my own dreams.” If ever you wanted a “birth of a writer” sequence in a book, this would be it.

At its heart, that’s really what brown girl dreaming is about. It’s the story of a girl finding her voice and her purpose. If there’s a theme to children’s literature this year it is in the relationship between stories and lies. Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener and Margi Preus’s West of the Moon both spend a great deal of time examining the relationship between the two. Now brown girl dreaming joins with them. When Jackie’s mother tells her daughter that “If you lie . . . one day you’ll steal” the child cannot reconcile the two. “It’s hard to understand how one leads to the other, / how stories could ever / make us criminals.” It’s her mother that equates storytelling with lying, even as her uncle encourages her to keep making up stories. As it is, I can think of no better explanation of how writers work then the central conundrum Jackie is forced to face on her own. “It’s hard to understand / the way my brain works – so different / from everybody around me. / How each new story / I’m told becomes a thing / that happens, / in some other way / to me . . . !”

The choice to make the book a verse novel made sense in the context of Ms. Woodson’s other novels. Verse novels are at their best when they justify their form. A verse novel that’s written in verse simply because it’s the easiest way to tell a long story in a simple format often isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Fortunately, in the case of Ms. Woodson the choice makes infinite sense. Young Jackie is enamored of words and their meanings. The book isn’t told in the first person, but when we consider that she is both subject and author then it’s natural to suspect that the verse best shows the lens through which Jackie, the child, sees the world.

It doesn’t hurt matters any that the descriptive passages have the distinct feeling of poems to them. Individual lines are lovely in and of themselves, of course. Lines like “the heat of summer / could melt the mouth / so southerners stayed quiet.” Or later a bit of reflection on the Bible. “Even Salome intrigues us, her wish for a man’s head / on a platter – who could want this and live / to tell the story of that wanting?” But full-page written portions really do have the feel of poems. Like you could pluck them out of the book and display them and they’d stand on their own, out of context. The section labeled “ribbons” for example felt like pure poetry, even as it relayed facts. As Woodson writes, “When we hang them on the line to dry, we hope / they’ll blow away in the night breeze / but they don’t. Come morning, they’re right where / we left them / gently moving in the cool air, eager to anchor us / to childhood.” And so we get a beautiful mixing of verse and truth and fiction and memoir at once.

It was while reading the book that I got the distinct sense that this was far more than a personal story. The best memoirs, fictionalized or otherwise, are the ones that go beyond their immediate subjects and speak to something greater than themselves. Ostensibly, brown girl dreaming is just the tale of one girl’s journey from the South to the North and how her perceptions of race and self changed during that time. But the deeper you get into the book the more you realize that what you are reading is a kind of touchstone for other children’s books about the African-American experience in America. Turn to page eight and a reference to the Woodsons connections to Thomas Woodson of Chillicothe leads you directly to Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Page 32 and the trip from North to South and the deep and abiding love for the place evokes The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. Page 259 and the appearance of The Jackson Five and their Afros relates beautifully to Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven. Page 297 and a reference to slaves in New York City conjures up Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. Even Jackie’s friend Maria has a story that ties in nicely to Sonia Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano. I even saw threads from Woodson’s past connect to her own books. Her difficulty reading but love of words conjures up Locomotion. Visiting her uncle in jail makes me think of Visiting Day as well as After Tupac and D Foster. And, of course, her personal history brings to mind her Newbery Honor winning picture book Show Way (which, should you wish to do brown girl dreaming in a book club, would make an ideal companion piece).

It’s not just other books either. Writers are advised to write what they know and that their family stories are their history. But when Woodson writes her history she’s broadening her scope. Under her watch her family’s history is America’s history. Woodson’s book manages to tie-in so many moments in African-American history that kids should know about. Segregation, marches, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. One thing I really appreciated about the book was that it also looked at aspects of some African-American life that I’ve just never seen represented in children’s literature before. Can you honestly name me any other books for kids where the children are Jehovah’s Witnesses? Aside from Tom Angleberger’s The Qwikpick Papers I’m drawing a blank.

The flaws? Well it gets off to a slow start. The first pages didn’t immediately grab me, and I have to hope that if there are any kids out there who read the same way that I do, with my immature 10-year-old brain, that they’ll stick with it. Once the family moves to the South everything definitely picks up. The only other objection I had was that I wanted to know so much more about Jackie’s family after the story had ended. In her Author’s Note she mentions meeting her father again years later. What were the circumstances behind that meeting? Why did it happen? And what did Dell and Hope and Roman go on to do with their lives? Clearly a sequel needs to happen. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this.

I’m just going to get grandiose on you here and say that reading this is basically akin to reading a young person’s version of Song of Solomon. It’s America and its racial history. It’s deeply personal, recounting the journey of one girl towards her eventual vocation and voice. It’s a fictionalized memoir that nonetheless tells greater truths than most of our nonfiction works for kids. It is, to put it plainly, a small work of art. Everyone who reads it will get something different out of it. Everyone who reads it will remember some small detail that spoke to them personally. It’s the book adults will wish they’d read as kids. It’s the book that hundreds of thousands of kids will read and continue to read for decades upon decades upon decades. It’s Woodson’s history and our own. It is amazing.

On shelves August 28th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Reviews: Richie’s Picks

Misc: A look at the book and an interview with Ms. Woodson from Publishers Weekly.

Videos: In this opening keynote from SLJ’s Day of Dialog in 2014, Ms. Woodson talks about the path to this book.

Jacqueline Woodson keynote | SLJ Day of Dialog 2014 from School Library Journal on Vimeo.

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7. Review of the Day: Roller Derby Rivals by Sue Macy

RollerDerbyRivals 245x300 Review of the Day: Roller Derby Rivals by Sue MacyRoller Derby Rivals
By Sue Macy
Illustrated by Matt Collins
Holiday House
$16.95
ISBN: 978-0-8234-2923-3
Ages 5 and up
On shelves July 1st

In my next life I will come back as a roller derby queen. Since the majority of my adult life has come and gone in complete and utter ignorance of this sport, I figure that means it’s too late for me now. But the more I learn about the sport the more I like it. Women on roller skates knocking the bejeesus out of each other in a circular fashion? Yes, please! Not that the sport has ever been particularly well documented in children’s literature. Generally speaking, roller derby tends to show up in YA literature more often than not. Since kids don’t have roller derby teams in elementary school or junior high, fiction leaves them high and dry. That means nonfiction would have to be the place to go, but until Sue Macy decided to write Roller Derby Rivals there wasn’t much to find. Meticulously researched, funny, and fast, Macy and Collins (who perfected their partnership in their previous title Basketball Belles) give us a highly original sports book like no other. A slam bang offering (with an emphasis on the “slam”).

The year: 1948. The place: New York’s 69th Regiment Armory. The event: Roller derby, baby! It’s here that two derby rivals, Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn and Gerry Murray give life to the game. Toughie’s the bad guy in this storyline. A down and dirty girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Gerry’s the glamour girl and the crowd favorite. In a typical game the two take potshots at one another. It’s the era of television and the sport is more popular than ever. But the truth? These two gals are actually friends, and one couldn’t exist without the other. An extensive Author’s Note, Roller Derby Time Line, and listing of Sources and Resources (including Film Clips, Web Sites, and Books) alongside Source Notes and Roller Derby Rules at the start of the book give the tale context.

When writing this book, author Sue Macy had to decide what era of roller derby to cover. She definitely wanted to cover a rivalry, but would she go with something recent or older? Ultimately she went with an older rivalry, and one that wasn’t as well known today. The derby of the 40s and 50s was really something. Here you had post-war women quietly going back to their roles as wives and mothers, and meanwhile on the television other women were knocking the stuffing out of one another on a rink. As Macy puts it, “The bruising, brawling women of Roller Derby were a throwback to the raucous war years, when women’s achievements knew no bounds.” Finding examples for kids of occasions when the women of the past weren’t Donna Reid can be tricky. Here’s one such example.

One thing I’ve never really realized about the sport of roller derby is how similar it is to professional wrestling in terms of “story”. There’s a reason that roller derby, wrestling, and boxing became the most watched sports during the rising of television programming. As Macy explains in her Author’s Note, “they took place indoors and in a confined area, so camera operators could control the lighting and focus on the faces of the participants as well as the action.” Little wonder that personality became an integral part of the sport as well. You had your heroes and you had your villains. Macy acknowledges this in the text for only the briefest of moments right at the end when she writes, “Fans would be shocked to learn that the two women, sworn enemies on the track, actually get along just fine. After all, they need each other. Every hero needs a villain. And every villain needs a worthy opponent.” Admittedly I would have liked the book to spend just a little more time on this topic. The showmanship of roller derby becomes an important part of the sport and one begins to wonder what’s real and what isn’t (and if the audience is implicit in this show or unaware that it’s happening). But I suppose those aren’t suppositions for a picture book, no matter how cool the subject matter might be.

A friend of mine recently pointed out to me that I’m a hard-core stickler for accuracy in my nonfiction picture books. To be blunt about it, I’m not very nice. If I think that a book is dodging accuracy for the sake of interest (including fake dialogue, merging or making of characters, etc.), I get very down on the whole kerschmozzle. How then to judge a book where the original television footage is lost? It’s not as though Macy isn’t just as much a stickler for accuracy as I am. Heck, the woman’s first four books were edited by Marc Aronson, so backmatter and factual writing is important to her. In the case of this book her backmatter includes “An important Notice from the Author and Illustrator” in which they note that since no television footage of the December 5th match survives they had to recreate it from their sources. “All dialogue and skating action are dramatizations based on our research.” Some folks may balk at where their suppositions take them, but I think Macy keeps it pretty within the realm of possibility at all times.

Illustrator Matt Collins gives the entire enterprise a kind of hyper reality. He has a lot to play with here, too. From women flying over rails into audiences to the look and feel of the late 40s/early 50s, this is a cool enterprise. One shot of people gathered outside an appliance store to watch the televisions there has a brilliant view of the seams up the back of a mother’s pantyhoes. There’s an attention to detail here worth noting. You are left in no doubt of the time and place.

One objection I’ve heard to the book is that the Author’s Note is so interesting it makes the rest of the book pale in comparison. I don’t happen to agree with that assessment, though. That’s sort of kicking a book for having interesting source material. It also suggests that though the picture book is interesting, what the reader really wanted was a chapter book on the subject. And believe me, a chapter book on Gerry and Toughie would be fabulous, but that’s a different project. What we have here is a picture book that wants to show a rivalry and does so. And professional rivalries in children’s books can be rare things. Few books for kids tell the really interesting stories about political or sports rivals. Rollerderby Rivals just proves that you’ve gotta start somewhere.

If you tell a kid to find a nonfiction picture book about a sport, nine times out of ten they’ll grab a book about baseball. That’s because baseball makes for perfect children’s literature. Fiction, nonfiction, you name it, baseball is king. Once in a great while another sport will get their day in the sun, but it’s rare. For once, I’m happy to read a book about women. And since finding a book that discusses TWO female athletes at the same time is almost impossible (single bios proliferate but multiples, not so much) it’s just an extra treat that Roller Derby Rivals is as enjoyable as it is. Not like anything else out there, and worthy of note. Ladies and gentlemen, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

On shelves July 1st

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Interviews: Sporty Girl Books talks with Macy a bit about this project.

Videos:

A simply lovely book trailer for this book, featuring roller derby expert Gary Powers:

Curious to see what Toughie really looked like?  I sort of adore this film she starred in.  Love the narrator too.

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8. Review of the Day: Hug Machine by Scott Campbell

HugMachine Review of the Day: Hug Machine by Scott CampbellHug Machine
By Scott Campbell
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-4424-593509
Ages 3-7
On shelves August 26th

Do you remember that old Shel Silverstein poem “Hug O’ War”? This may be considered sacrilege but did you ever notice how the guy could do something brilliant one moment, like “Sister For Sale” and then turn around and do something just doggone maudlin like “Hug O’ War” the next? Here’s a taste of what I mean: “Where everyone hugs / Instead of tugs / Where everyone giggles / And rolls on the rug”. You get the picture. The trouble is that hugs are hard. Adults love ‘em. Kids love ‘em. But writing about them inevitably drops you into sad saccharine territory where even great men like Silverstein find themselves inextricably mired in goo. It takes a sure and steady hand to navigate such territory. For that reason I think you need to take a close look at what Scott Campbell’s done with Hug Machine. There’s nothing wrong with writing a sweet picture book so long as it’s smart and/or funny. It’s harder than just pouring sugar in there and hoping people go along for the ride, which may explain why the market is glutted with schmaltz. Forget the “cute” picture books that make obvious overtures for your heartstrings. Opt instead for something that comes by its adorableness honestly. Hug Machine, man. It’s just the best.

Just call this kid a hugaphiliac. If there’s something out there he can wrap his arms around, he’s going to hug it. In fact, he’s so incredibly good at hugging that he has dubbed himself a “Hug Machine”. “No one can resist my unbelievable hugging,” says he, and he’s right. And what does the Hug Machine do on an average day? Well, it might hug everyone on the street. It might hug animals that are easy (turtles) and animals that are hard (porcupines). What does it eat? Pizza. And what does it hug? Everything! But when the day is done and the Hug Machine can hug no more, it takes a special set of arms to get the Hug Machine back in business again.

Some folks just take to the picture book form like a duck to water. I wish I could say that every cartoonist out there has the knack, but it just ain’t so. Many’s the time I’ve picked up a book from an artist I admired, hoping against hope that the transfer from adult to children’s books was seamless, only to find they just didn’t have what it took to speak to the small fry. Now the nice thing about Scott Campbell is that he’s sort of eased his way into the form. Under the name “Scott C.” he has penned many a grand book for grown-ups, like The Great Showdowns. Now we see his picture book authorial debut in Hug Machine. The verdict? I’m happy to report that all is well and right with the world. Here is a man who knows how to pack humor and heart all within a scant 40 pages.

This isn’t Campbell’s first time at the rodeo, of course. The man has tackled the wide and wonderful world of picture books before. If he wasn’t drawing romance stricken zombies on the one hand (Kelly DiPucchio’s Zombie in Love) then it was Bob Dylan lyrics (If Dogs Run Free) or, my personal favorite, dragons with conflict resolution issues (Robyn Eversole’s East Dragon, West Dragon). What do these all have in common? Probably just the simple fact that Campbell was doing the art on these books. Not the writing. And in at least one or two cases the art clearly outshone the texts. So how does he fare when he’s doing his own book? Magnificently, I’m happy to report. Because while I loved the art here, it was the text that made it work. Consider, for example, the section where The Hug Machine (there really isn’t any better term for him) encounters a porcupine. The porcupine laments, “I am so spiky. No one ever hugs me.” Turn the page and the boy has outfitted himself in a catcher’s mask, pillow on the middle, and oven mitts. The text reads, “They are missing out!” It is a wonderful phrase and not one you’d necessarily expect to see in a picture book. For whatever reason it reminded me of the wonderful wordplay of fellow picture book author/illustrator Bob Shea. To my mind it takes a special kind of talent to pluck just the right words out of the ether and to apply them at the perfect moment.

I mentioned earlier that Campbell, under the name of “Scott C.” created such amusing fare as The Great Showdowns. A bit of that aesthetic comes to mind when you check out the endpapers of this book. It necessitated an explanation to my three-year-old about what exactly a checklist is. You see, on the front endpapers of Hug Machine you see a range of different characters, each next to a little box. Turn to the back of the book and on these endpapers each character has been checked off. A child reader could easily spend hours matching each character to its appearance in the book. By the same token, kids could also have a great deal of fun just counting the number of hugs in this book in total.

I’ve little doubt that there will be an adult out there who is disturbed by the notion of a kid hugging complete strangers. I would point out, though, that we don’t actually know whether or not the people he’s hugging are strangers or not. For all we know he lives in a small town and is knows every person’s name, from the picnickers to the joggers to the construction workers. And that pretty much encapsulates any possible objections I could possibly find to the book. It would be an ideal readaloud for storytime (I’m jealous of the librarians and booksellers who will get to use it) to say nothing of reading it one-on-one. A real keeper. Share it with your own resident hug machine today.

For ages 3-6.

On shelves August 26th

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews:

Other Reviews: The Early Career Committee of CBC

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9. Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

Sloooooowly the predictions begin.  As I post this I’m hitting the sweet spot right between Book Expo and the annual American Library Association conference.  Which is to say, this is the moment in time when some folks have seen the fall galleys from BEA while other folks are about to see them at ALA.  On maternity leave, I am hampered significantly by what I see.  Most galleys are being sent to my workplace where they are out of my reach.  So while I’ve still seen a wide swath of things, I know that there are books I’m missing.  The fall prediction edition will be more complete, I am certain.  Plus, by that time we’ll see Heavy Medal and Calling Caldecott back up and running and predicting as well.

Meantime, I’m not the only one making predictions these days.  If you missed it, Travis Jonker did a heckuva great post when he predicted this year’s New York Times Best Illustrated.  These are books that might not be eligible for the Caldecott but that would be complete and utter contenders under different circumstances.  Worth your glance.

And now, some thoughts on the matter!

2015 Newbery Predictions

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

NightGardener  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

I’ve been very happy with the buzz surrounding Auxier’s latest.  When I reviewed it back in March I suspected that it had fine, outstanding qualities worthy of award consideration.  That suspicion has since been confirmed several times over by the multiple starred reviews and the online conversations I’ve observed.  Typical of the dark fantasy trend in middle grade in 2014 (aside from Snicker of Magic, everything’s pretty gloom and doom this year) Auxier’s book does what Doll Bones did last year, blending classic horror elements with deeper themes and questions for young readers.  His is a book that asks kids to question the nature of storytelling and lying (another 2014 trend, and a prevalent one that I intend to explore more thoroughly).  At the very least, I predict that this will be showing up on many many Mock Newbery lists this year.

Curiosity by Gary L. Blackwood

Curiosity  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

This is actually not garnering the buzz I’d expect of it this year.  Surprising since the release of a new Blackwood is a cause for celebration.  My suspicion is that the man has been out of the middle grade field for so long that new crops of young librarians are unaware of his work.  This is a true pity since Curiosity hits all the pleasure points of a Brian Selznick story.  With a killer cover and some superb writing, my hope is that the buzz is just on a low-boil and will be turned up significantly as we near the award season.  Perhaps this is my dark horse candidate this year, but I don’t think you should count it out.  It could definitely pull a Paperboy or Breaking Stalin’s Nose surprise win out of its hat.

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

AbsolutelyAlmost  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

For years I’ve wanted a Lisa Graff book to make it onto my prediction lists, but every time there was just something holding me back.  No longer.  The remarkable thing about Absolutely Almost is that it dares not to be remarkable.  Or rather, it celebrates kindness over being special.  I’ll keep my thoughts to myself for the review I’ll write of it but Graff has accomplished here is something incredibly difficult.  Plus I love the idea of a major award going to a book that celebrates Captain Underpants like this one does.

The Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin

NightingalesNest  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

Another dark horse, and maybe one of the more divisive books on this list.  Loftin makes a lunge for magical realism with her story, which is a very difficult thing to do in middle grade novels.  The controversy surrounding it concerns The Emperor and what he did or did not do to the story’s heroine.  To my mind, any child reader who goes through this story will only recognize that he stole the girl’s voice by recording it.  End of story.  But because this book can be read very differently by adults vs. children, that may inhibit its chances.  Only time will tell.  The writing, few can argue, is superb.

The Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Greenglass  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

One of my favorite books of the year.  Pure pleasure reading through and through.  I’ve heard it described as “Clue meets The Westing Game” and that’s not too far off.  We haven’t had a Westing Game kind of book win a Newbery in a while, unless you count When You Reach Me.  It would be awfully nice for a mystery to win once more, and Milford’s talents at creating a whole and complete world within her pages is stellar.  Definitely a contender.

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

WestMoon1  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

There are only two books out this year that I think are surefire Newbery contenders, and this is one of them (you’ll meet the other soon).  Preus is a marvel.  This book, again, taps equally into darkness and storytelling vs. lies while also managing to pluck all the use out of fantasy and yet remain fairly historical fiction-y.  It’s a quick read and a gripping one.  Additional Bonus: Lockjaw!

Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson

BoysBlur  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

Good buzz is surrounding Wilson’s latest, which is excellent.  I’ve already felt a little pushback to it, but the strong writing is working very well in its favor.  It’s not a sure thing, but if any Wilson book can finally make a decent lunge for the Newbery it is this.  Already I can predict that Heavy Medal will have a hard time with it (I would LOVE to be mistaken about this, though).  Plus it probably has the best book trailer of the year thus far.

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

BrownGirlDreaming  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

The frontrunner, as far as I can tell.  No question.  There is nothing one can call a sure thing when it comes to Newbery or Caldecott books.  Heck, a couple of years ago I would have said that One Crazy Summer was a shoo-in.  Shows what I know.  That said, if this book does not win the Newbery proper then there will be blood in the streets.  Gushing torrents of scarlet red blood.  In a year of #WeNeedDiverseBooks what a capper it would be to give the Award to what is, not only, the best book of the year but also one that stands as a necessary piece of African-American history.  Not that the committee can think in those terms.  All that they can do is say whether or not the book is one of the most distinguished of the year.  Spoiler Alert: It is.

That’s what I think in terms of the frontrunners.  But there are plenty of other books that people are discussing.  Consider, for example, Rain, Reign by Ann M. Martin.  She won a Newbery Honor years ago.  Will she be able to recapture the magic with her latest?  Maybe, but not with this particular book.  It’s nicely done but as a woman hepped up on postpartum hormones, it tried to make me cry and didn’t quite get there.  That’s telling.  The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm is another fantastic and fun read (and pure science fiction, which is very rare indeed).  It feels like a slightly younger When You Reach Me, which is a fine and fancy pedigree.  But Newbery?  I didn’t feel it.  The Riverman by Aaron Starmer was definitely one I was thinking of when I first read it, but when I heard it was the first in a series that changed my interpretation of the ending.  Will the committee feel the same way?  The writing is, after all, fabulous.  Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana was a book I loved earlier in the year.  I still love it, though in the wake of other strong contenders I’m not sure if it’ll make it to the award finish line.  And, of course, there is Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd.  Forget what I said about Nightingale’s Nest.  THIS is the most divisive book of 2014.  The writing is very accomplished and it’s got great lines.  Plus it’s nice to see something But Newbery?  To win it’ll have to convince the committee that the (totally unnecessary and occasionally infuriating) cutesy parts are overwhelmed by the good writing.  Its win relies entirely on the tone of the committee.  I don’t envy them the debates.

Phew!  Moving on . . .

2015 Caldecott Predictions

Um . . no idea.  Honestly, I haven’t felt this out to sea in terms of the Caldecott in years.  I’m just not feeling it this year.  There are some superb books but surprisingly few of them grab me by the throat and throttle me while screaming “CALDECOTT!!!!”  in my ear.  I always fall apart on Caldecott predictions anyway.  Last year at this time I only mentioned two of the eventual winners, not even mentioning the other two (and HOW on earth did I fail to mention the glorious Flora and the Flamingo, I ask you?!?).  This year I just keep coming back to the books I mentioned in my spring prediction edition.  Fortunately, a couple additional books caught my jaded eye . . .

Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood, ill. Jonathan Bean

BadByeGoodBye  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

Bean wowed the world last year with his Building Our House, a winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.  But you know what Caldecott committees really like?  Variety.  That’s why his latest change of style is so exciting.  The beautiful simplicity of Underwood’s text, which manages to tell a complete story with a minimum of words, is matched page for page by Bean’s art.  The pairing results in a particularly strong product and since Caldecott committees are extraordinarily interested in books that pair art and text well, it seems to me we may have a winner on our hands here.

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy Dempsey, ill. Floyd Cooper

DanceStarlight1  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

A Floyd Cooper.  An honest-to-god Floyd Cooper prediction. Considering the man’s output, this may strike some as surprising.  No one ever contests that he’s accomplished but he’s one of those perpetual Caldecott bridesmaids never brides (see my post on such folks here).  It doesn’t matter how gorgeous his art is, he gets passed by time after time.  Except . . . something about this book is different.  My librarians, for one thing, who have always been Cooper-tepid are GAGA over this.  It’s not just the fact that the text manages to do the whole Live Your Dream storyline without getting cheesy.  There’s some stellar art at work.  This is a bad scan, but if this book does well I think it’ll be because of this image:

DanceStarlight2  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, photographs by  Tim O’Meara

VivaFrida 500x500  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

Speaking of always bridesmaids . . . but this book.  I mean, just wow.  Not that a Caldecott committee has ever, to the best of my knowledge, awarded three-dimensional art (scholars, correct me!).  But that’s the wonder of this book.  It isn’t JUST three-dimensional art, but two-dimensional as well.  The book itself celebrates the very concept of being an artist (a swell thing for a Caldecott committee to reward) and as I learned last year, Ms. Morales has residency here in the States so she certainly could win this thing.  Some folks don’t like that it isn’t a straight biography but something a little more artistic and esoteric.  Pfui to them, sez I.  You simply cannot read this and not find it stunning.

Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth

HiKoo  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

Never count out a Muth.  Though this book has far less lofty ambitions than his past Caldecott win, it has heart and lovely watercolors.  This could easily be sidelined altogether, or go for the big gold.  Certainly hard to say at this point.

Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman

ThreeBearsBoat  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

It’s my personal #1, which makes me worry for its future.  When I get emotional about a book I find it sometimes hampers my view of its award chances.  That said, no one doubts the sheer beauty of the art here.  Soman’s always been someone to watch, even when working on something as popular as the Ladybug Girl series.  Can he win hearts and minds with bears?  I say yes.

Firefly July and Other Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

FireflyJuly  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

We know Sweet is automatic Caldecott bait, but you’re never quite sure which of her books will attract the committee.  This book isn’t afraid to be long and strong on the poetry.  I’ve heard grumbles in some quarters that the poems don’t always necessarily pair with one season or another, but that’s nothing against the art.  Still, it might affect its chances in the end.

Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Evan Turk

GrandfatherGandhi 478x500  Newbery / Caldecott 2015: The Summer Prediction Edition

If any debut deserves love it’s this one.  A remarkable combination of art and heart, with different styles and a heckuva great take on the subject matter.  Turk’s one to watch and this book is already one of the year’s favorites.  Even if it doesn’t win, it bodes well for the artist’s future.

In terms of books getting some nice buzz, I’ve heard some folks mentioning The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat.  I love me a good Santat and Dan certainly poured his heart and soul into this one.  So why don’t I think it’s a surefire winner?  Hard to say.  The art is certainly nice enough. Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch by Anne Isaacs, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes hasn’t shown up on a lot of lists, but Anne Isaacs has a way of writing books that catch the eye of award committees.  My own librarians are very taken with this latest effort, and Hawkes should at least get a mention if only for the sheer disgustingness of his desperadoes.  Baby Bear by Kadir Nelson is one of those books that should, by rights, be a Caldecott contender.  Indeed there are some stirring images here.  Unfortunately there’s something off about this particular Nelson book.  It’s hard to pinpoint but it lays in the art.  Nelson’s due for a big gold someday.  This, however, probably won’t be “the one”.  Breathe by Scott Magoon is absolutely lovely and I would love Magoon to get an award one of these days.  It definitely belongs to the whale trend of 2014.  Will it get an award?  It may be too subtle for that.  We’ll see.  Finally, Sparky! by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans, is the book getting a lot of the buzz.  I loved the story and the art but while I found it lovely and funny by turns I didn’t feel the award hum at work.  I think Appelhans is definitely one to watch.  You’re just going to have to keep watching.

For additional thoughts, be sure to check out the Goodreads lists of Newbery 2015 and Caldecott 2015 to see what the masses prefer this year.

So!  What did I miss?

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10. Review of the Day: Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Greenglass Review of the Day: Greenglass House by Kate MilfordGreenglass House
By Kate Milford
Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-544-05270-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves August 26th

When I was a kid I had a real and abiding love of Agatha Christie. This would be around the time when I was ten or eleven. It wasn’t that I was rejecting the mysteries of the children’s book world. I just didn’t have a lot to choose from there. Aside from The Westing Game or supernatural ghostly mysteries sold as Apple paperbacks through the Scholastic Book Fair, my choices were few and far between. Kids today have it better, but not by much. Though the Edgar Awards for best mystery fiction do dedicate an award for young people’s literature, the number of honestly good mystery novels for the 9-12 set you encounter in a given year is minimal. When you find one that’s really extraordinary you want to hold onto it. And when it’s Kate Milford doing the writing, there’s nothing for it but to enjoy the ride. A raconteur’s delight with a story that’ll keep ‘em guessing, this is one title you won’t want to miss.

It was supposed to be winter vacation. Though Milo’s parents run an inn with a clientele that tends to include more than your average number of smugglers, he can always count on winter vacation to be bereft of guests. Yet in spite of the awful icy weather, a guest appears. Then another. Then two more. All told more than five guests appear with flimsy excuses for their arrival. Some seem to know one another. Others act suspiciously. And when thefts start to take place, Milo and his new friend Meddy decide to turn detective. Yet even as they unravel clues about their strange clientele there are always new ones to take their places. Someone is sabotaging the Greenglass House but it’s the kids who will unmask the culprit.

To my mind, Milford has a talent that few authors can boast; She breaks unspoken rules. Rules that have been dutifully followed by children’s authors for years on end. And in breaking them, she creates stronger books. Greenglass House is just the latest example. To my mind, three rules are broken here. Rule #1: Children’s books must mostly be about children. Adults are peripheral to the action. Rule #2: Time periods are not liquid. You cannot switch between them willy-nilly. Rule #3: Parents must be out of the picture. Kill ‘em off or kidnap them or make them negligent/evil but by all means get rid of them! To each of these, Milford thumbs her proverbial nose.

Let’s look at Rule #1 first. It is worth noting that with the exception of our two young heroes, the bulk of the story focuses on adults with adult problems. It has been said (by me, so take this with a grain of salt) that by and large the way most authors chose to write about adults for children is to turn them into small furry animals (Redwall, etc.). There is, however, another way. If you have a small innocuous child running hither and thither, gathering evidence and spying all the while, then you can talk about grown-ups for long periods of time and few child readers are the wiser. If I keep mentioning The Westing Game it’s because Ellen Raskin did very much what Milford is doing here, and ended up with a classic children’s book in the process. So there’s certainly a precedent.

On to Rule #2. One of the remarkable things about Kate Milford as a writer is that she can set a book in the present day (there is a mention of televisions in this book, so we can at least assume it’s relatively recent) and then go and fill it with archaic, wonderful, outdated technology. A kind of alternate contemporary steampunk, if there is such a thing. In an era of electronic doodads, child readers are going to really get a kick out of a book where mysterious rusted keys, old doorways, ancient lamps, stained green glass windows, and other old timey elements give the book a distinctive flavor.

Finally, Rule #3. This was the most remarkable of choices on Milford’s part, and I kept reading to book to find out how she’d get away with it. Milo’s parents are an active part of his life. They clearly care for him, periodically checking up on his throughout the story, but never interfering with his investigations. Since the book is entirely set in the Greenglass House, it has the feel of a stage play (which, by the way, it would adapt to BRILLIANTLY). That means you’re constantly running into mom and dad, but they don’t feel like they’re hovering. This is partly aided by the fact that they’re incredibly busy. So, in a way, Milford has discovered a way of removing parental involvement without removing parental care. The kids are free to explore and solve crimes and the adult gatekeepers reading this book are comforted by the family situation. A rarity if ever there was one.

But behind all the clues and ghost stories and thefts and lies what Greenglass House really is is the story of a hero’s journey. Milo starts out a soft-spoken kiddo with little faith in his own abilities. Donning the mantle of a kind of Dungeons & Dragons type character named Negret, he taps into a strength that he might otherwise not known he even had. There is a moment in the book when Milo starts acting with more confidence and actually thinks to himself, “And I didn’t even have to use Negret’s Irresistible Blandishment . . . I just did it.” Milo’s slow awakening to his own strengths and abilities is the heart of the novel. For all that people will discuss the mystery and the clues, it’s Milo that holds everything together.

Much of his personality is embedded in his identity as an adopted kid too. I love the mention of “orphan magic” that Milford makes at one point. It’s the idea that when something is sundered from its attachments it becomes more powerful in the process. At no point does Milford ever downplay the importance of the fact that Milo is adopted. It isn’t a casual fact that’s thrown in there and then forgotten. For Milo, the fact that he was adopted is part of who he is as a person. And coming to terms with that is part of his journey as well. Little wonder that he gathers such comfort from learning about orphan magic and its potential.

I’m looking at my notes about this book and I see I’ve written down little random facts that don’t really fit in with this review. Things like, “I did wonder if Milo’s name was a kind of unspoken homage to the Milo of The Phantom Tollbooth. And, “The book’s attitude towards smuggling is not all that different from, say, Danny, the Champion of the World’s attitude towards poaching.” And, “I love the vocabulary at work here. Raconteur. Puissance.” There is a lot a person can say about this book. I should note that there is a twist that a couple kids may see coming. It is, however, a fair twist and one that doesn’t cheat before you get to it. For the most part, Milford does a divine job at writing a darned good mystery without sacrificing character development and deeper truths. A great grand book for those kiddos who like reading books that make them feel smart. Fun fun fun fun fun.

On shelves August 26th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

First Sentence: “There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you’re going to run a hotel in a smugglers’ town.”

Professional Reviews:

Interviews: Milford reveals all with The Enchanted Inkpot.

Misc:

  • In lieu of an Author’s Note, Kate provides some background information on Milo and adoption that is worthy additional reading here.
  • Cover artist Jaime Zollars discusses being selected to illustrate the book jacket here.
  • Discover how the book came from a writing prompt here.

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11. Review of the Day: The Dumbest Idea Every by Jimmy Gownley

DumbestIdea1 206x300 Review of the Day: The Dumbest Idea Every by Jimmy GownleyThe Dumbest Idea Ever
By Jimmy Gownley
GRAPHIX (an imprint of Scholastic)
$12.00
ISBN: 9780545453479
Ages 9 and up
On shelves now.

Is it or is it not a good idea to tell young people that they are special and unique? It’s a legitimate question. When I was growing up the emphasis in school was clearly on self-esteem. On Track and Field Day everybody got the standard participation ribbon. Effort, even minimal effort, was rewarded. And if you grew up in a small town there was the extra added benefit of getting to be a big fish in a small pond. The combination of being told you were one-of-a-kind, the best of the best, and more combined with local aplomb has a way of going to a kid’s head. It’s the stuff of the best memoirs, actually, but usually of the adult or YA variety. Not a lot of kids stop to think about how they stack up against the rest of the world when they’re trying to find their feet. What makes The Dumbest Idea Ever different, then, is that it combines the familiar children’s book motif of “finding the thing that makes you special” and the takes it one step further to say “but not THAT special . . . and that’s okay.” I’ve never really seen anything like it. Then again, I’ve never really ever seen an artist like Jimmy Gownley – a guy who has paid his dues and just cranks out better and better work all the time as a result. And The Dumbest Idea Ever gives us a hint of how he got started.

Jimmy’s not special. He was for a while, making the best grades and acting as the star of his Catholic school’s basketball team. But a bout of chicken pox followed by pneumonia changes everything. When Jimmy’s grades start to slip it feels like they’re now out of his control. And faced with the knowledge that he’s no longer special, Jimmy starts turning to the comfort of his comic books more than ever. When a comic he writes inspires a friend to suggest he do something a little more realistic, Jimmy’s not convinced (hence the book’s title). Yet a realistic comic is exactly what propels him out of local obscurity into small time stardom. Now he’s dating the cutest girl in school, getting interviewed by the local news, the works! It’s all going great, but what happens when you discover that the work you’ve been doing isn’t as big and important as you always thought? What happens when you realize that you’ve only just begun?

DumbestIdea2 300x214 Review of the Day: The Dumbest Idea Every by Jimmy GownleyI’ve noticed an odd little theme in the middle grade (ages 9-12) novels of 2014. A lot of books are tackling the idea of what it means to be average. Books like Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff, where the kid really isn’t exceptional and never will be. It’s like we were afraid to talk about this to children in the past, opting instead to drill it into our kids that they have to excel in everything at all times. Now in the age of helicopter parenting and overbooked schedules, literature for kids is backing off a tad. Admitting that while some kids really are extraordinary, for others it’s okay not to be top of your class or the best in all categories. The journey Jimmy takes in this book starts with his fall from grace as the golden boy of school. It’s the slippery slope of no longer being top dog and then having to deal with that.

I’m one of those children’s librarians who honestly thinks that Jimmy Gownley’s Amelia Rules series is one of the greatest graphic novel arcs in children’s literary history of all time. I own every single book in the series and reread them constantly. For me, Gownley’s characters are flesh and blood and real to me in ways I’ve almost never encountered anywhere else. What’s more, the books get better as they go and aren’t afraid to bring up big questions and dark issues. When Gownley ended the series I was heartbroken. I waited with baited breath for him to give me something similar. ANYTHING, really. So when I heard that he’d penned a graphic memoir of his own life as a kid I was thrilled beyond measure . . . and wary. I’ve been burned before, man, and memoirs of children’s book authors are tricky things. I love ‘em but they’re tricky. Does the writer encapsulate their entire life or just a section? What’s interesting about The Dumbest Idea Ever is that it’s the closest thing I’ve found to Raina Telgemeier’s Smile. Yet through it all there is something distinctly Gownleyish about this entire endeavor that you’d never mistake for anyone else. And how he chooses to frame the book is exceedingly smart.

DumbestIdea3 Review of the Day: The Dumbest Idea Every by Jimmy GownleyThe heart of the novel, as I see it, is the personal journey we all have to take at some point. We all want to be good at something. Preferably something cool that few others around us are as good at. We want acclaim for this specialness. And then, ultimately, what we really want is universal love and acceptance, preferably without a whole lot of work. It’s that last desire that’ll get you in the end. The crux of the book comes with Jimmy visits New York City for the first time. In some ways, NYC was created for the sole purpose of crushing little souls, like Jimmy, into the dust under its grimy shoe. No matter how good you are at something, there’s somebody in NYC who’s better and the city isn’t afraid to let you know about that fact repeatedly. And when you face the fact that you are, indeed, ordinarily a big fish in a small pond, what do you do? Do you try to better yourself so that you can compete in a big pond, do you relegate yourself to your small pond (no shame in that), or do you give up entirely? That’s something kids everywhere need to think about, even if the choices we’re talking about won’t be something they need to deal with for a couple years.

The thing that librarians tend to forget about children is that they love reading about older kids. You think large swaths of 17-year-olds are reading Archie comics just because the kids are in high school? Not even. So when Jimmy allows himself (so to speak) to enter into high school and to start dating, I didn’t even blink. My worry is that someone will read this book, see that the character ages, and slot this book solely into the YA section of their bookstore or library. And certainly there’s nothing wrong with that. A teen would get a lot out of Jimmy’s journey too. Still I think there’s a lot of value in letting kids see what happens when a child like themselves has their ego squashed into a small pile of goo (to their betterment). It’s nothing something I’ve found in that many books for children, after all.

I live and work in New York City where all the kids I see are little fishies in the world’s biggest pond. You’ll always find little ponds within a big one (my metaphors are breaking down – abandon ship!) so kids will always find people and places that praise them, even when surrounded by a mass of other talented people. That said, NYC kids miss out on the experience of feeling special in a smaller setting. It’s something that yields remarkably creative people, and if they follow that drive to keep going and to succeed based on their own hard work then you sometimes end up with something really cool . . . like The Dumbest Idea Ever. It’s a graphic memoir covering a subject both original and incredibly familiar. Your children’s book bookshelves are better off with this book on them.

On shelves now.

Source: Borrowed printed copy from library for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Interviews:

Misc: This is fun. Mr. Gownley went back to the schools portrayed in this book to talk about the experience of writing it.

Videos: A low-key book trailer rounds us out.

 

 

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12. Review of the Day: The Mermaid and the Shoe by K.G. Campbell

MermaidShoe1 254x300 Review of the Day: The Mermaid and the Shoe by K.G. CampbellThe Mermaid and the Shoe
By K.G. Campbell
Kids Can Press
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1554537716
Ages 3-7
On shelves now

Why are magical creatures so hard to write? I’m a children’s librarian. That means that a goodly portion of my day can consist of small starry-eyed children asking for an array of otherworldly cuties. “Do you have any unicorn books?” “Any fairies?” “Any mermaids?” Actually, more often than not it’s their parents asking and you can read between the lines when they request such books. What they’re really saying is, “Do you have any books about a fairy that isn’t going to make me want to tear out my eyebrows when I end up reading it for the 4,000th time?” Over the years I’ve collected the names of picture books that fulfill those needs. Like fairies? The Dollhouse Fairy by Jane Ray is for you. Unicorns? You can’t go wrong with Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea. But mermaids . . . mermaids posed a problem. It isn’t that they don’t have books. They simply don’t have that many. For whatever reason, writers don’t like doing mermaid books. Easy to understand why. What is a mermaid known for aside from brushing their hair or luring young sailors to a watery grave? Add in the fact that most kids associate mermaids with a certain red-haired Disney vixen and you’ve got yourself a topic that’s avoided like the plague. It takes a bit of originality, spark, and verve to overcome these obstacles. Having read his picture book Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters I knew that K.G. Campbell was a bit of a witty wordsmith. What I didn’t know was that he was capable of creating wholly new storylines that are as satisfying to adult readers as they will be to children. You want a mermaid book? The Mermaid and the Shoe is officially my latest recommendation.

Mermaids are talented creatures. Just ask King Neptune. The merman has fifty (count ‘em) fifty daughters and every single one of them has a talent. Every single one . . . except perhaps Minnow. The youngest daughter, Minnow can’t garden or train fish or sing particularly well. Instead, she asks questions. Questions that nobody seems to know the answers to. One day, a strange red object falls from above. No one, not even Minnow’s stuck up sister Calypso, can say what it is or what it does. Inspired, Minnow goes up to the surface to discover its use. What she finds shocks her, but also gives her a true purpose. She’s not just the youngest daughter in her family any more. No, Minnow is an explorer through and through.

MermaidShoe2 245x300 Review of the Day: The Mermaid and the Shoe by K.G. CampbellMy three-year-old daughter has a laser-like ability to hone in on any new picture book that appears in my bag when I come home from work. I hadn’t necessarily meant to try out The Mermaid and the Shoe on her, but once she zeroed in on it there was no stopping her. At this point in time she doesn’t have much of a magical creature frame of reference so it was interesting trying to explain the rudimentary basics of your everyday merman or mermaid in the context of Campbell’s book. She had a bit of a hard time understanding why Minnow didn’t know what a shoe was. I explained that mermaids don’t have feet. “Why don’t they have feet?” Not much of an answer to be given to that one. Happily she enjoyed the book thoroughly, but with its emphasis on cruel older siblings and the importance of making your own path, this is going to be best enjoyed by a slightly older readership.

As I may have mentioned before, Disney ruined us for mermaids. There will therefore be kids who read this book and then complain that it’s not a cookie cutter Ariel mass media affair. Still, I like to think those kids will be few and far between. First off, the book does have some similarities to the Ariel storyline. King Neptune/Triton is still the buff and shirtless father of a bunch of mermaid sisters and he still has his customary crown, flowy white beard (beards just look so keen underwater, don’t you think?), and triton. The story focuses yet again on his youngest daughter who longs to know more about the world up above. She’s accompanied by an adorable underwater sea creature. But once you get past the peripheral similarities, Campbell strikes out into uncharted territory, so to speak.

MermaidShoe4 245x300 Review of the Day: The Mermaid and the Shoe by K.G. CampbellWith this book Campbell strikes a storytelling tone. It’s a bit more classic than that found in some other contemporary picture books, but it fits the subject and the art. When you read that Calypso called her little sister “useless” the text says, “for sisters can be mean that way.” There’s an art to the storytelling. I loved that Minnow considers the shoe important because “This thing . . . was made with care. It has a purpose, and I will discover it!” As for the plot itself, I’ve never seen a book do this particular storyline before. Maybe it’s because authors are afraid of incurring the litigious wrath of Disney, but shouldn’t more mermaids be curious about our world? The fact that they’d be horrified by our feet just makes complete and utter sense. If you didn’t know they weren’t hands then of course you’d consider them knobby, gnarled and smelly (though how they know about that last bit is up for contention). Campbell knows how to follow a plotline to its logical conclusion.

I also love the core message of the book. Minnow’s talent lies in not just her brain (which I would have settled for) but also in how she sets about getting answers to her questions. At the end of the tale her father proclaims that her talent is being an explorer but I’m not so sure. I think Minnow’s a reporter. She not only asks the right questions but she sets out to find answers, no matter where they lead her. Then she comes back and shares information with her fellow mermaids, reporting her findings and sticking to the facts. You could also call her a storyteller, but to my mind Minnow is out there chasing down leads, satisfying her own curiosity over and over again. You might even say she comes close to the scientific method (though she never sets up a hypothesis so that would be a bit of a stretch).

MermaidShoe3 300x185 Review of the Day: The Mermaid and the Shoe by K.G. CampbellThere’s been a lot of talk over the years as to whether or not the greatest picture books out there are always written and illustrated by the same person (just look at the most recent Caldecott winners if you doubt me). You could argue both ways, but there is little doubt in my mind that Campbell just happened to be the best possible artist for this book . . . which he also just happened to write. I hate the term “dreamlike” but doggone it, it’s sort of the best possible term for this title. Notice how beautifully Campbell frames his images. In some pages he will surround a round image like a window with aspects of the scene (seaweed, fronds, or in the case of the world above, wildflowers). Consider too his use of color. The single red shoe is the only object of that particular bright hue in the otherwise grey and gloomy underwater lands. The mermaids themselves are all white-haired, a fact that makes a lot of sense when you consider that sunlight never touches them. They’re like lovely little half-human cavefish. And then there’s the man’s scope. I was reminded of a similarly aquatic picture book, David Soman’s Three Bears in a Boat in terms of the use of impressive two-page spreads. There’s an image of Minnow confronting a whale that could well take your breath away if you let it. The man knows how to pull back sometimes and then go in for the close-up. I have heard some objections to the mermaids’ teeny tiny seashells that seemingly float over their nonexistent breasts. And true, you notice it for about half a second. Then you get into the book itself and all is well.

With its can do mermaid who seeks answers in spite of her age and size, its beautiful watercolor and pencil crayon imagery, and writing that makes the reader feel like they’re indulging in a contemporary classic, there is no question in my mind that The Mermaid and the Shoe is the best little mermaid related picture book of all time. Utterly charming and unique, I can only hope it inspires other artists and authors to attempt to write more quality works of picture book fiction about magical creatures for the kiddos. It’s not an easy task, but when it works boy HOWDY does it work! Beguiling and bewitching, there’s only one true word to describe this book. Beautiful.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews:

Other Reviews: Hooray for Books,

Videos: And here’s a lovely little book trailer to round us all out.

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13. Review of the Day – Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko

FireflyJuly 257x300 Review of the Day   Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. JaneczkoFirefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems
Selected by Paul B. Janeczko
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-4842-8
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

Is reviewing works of poetry essentially a ridiculous thing to attempt? I’m not trying to be facetious or anything, I honestly want to know. It took me a long time to appreciate poetry on any level, but when I did I was able to come to it understanding that its closest relative in the arts world is music. Music that a person enjoys is a deeply personal experience. Only you can replicate the feelings and emotions that certain combinations of notes inspire. By the same token, poetry should be purely a one-on-one experience. And part of the job of books of collected poems for kids is to get each child reader to find that one poem that speaks to them. Maybe if they find one, just one, that hits home then that person will seek out other poems. Maybe it’ll expand their little minds, lead them to modes of thought they might not have reached otherwise. If the ultimate goal of children’s poetry is simply to inspire in kids a love of words and wordplay, then critiquing books that seek to do that is a uniquely difficult proposition. I mean, how can you judge something that’s so subjective? The best that you can do is simply determine if the poems in a collection are good, put together in a logical way, and worthwhile reading. And in the case of Firefly July the answer to all three of those queries is yes and yes and you betcha.

Four seasons yield 36 poems. Selected by children’s poet Paul B. Janeczko, Firefly July slowly introduces each time of year with gentle, short verses that lure you in. Each poem highlights a different element of the season, whether it’s a cat stalking through the daisies in the summer or winter wind “tearing itself to shreds / On bared-wire fences.” A pleasing mix of canon poets (Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, etc.) and canon children’s poets (Charlotte Zolotow, J. Patrick Lewis, James Stevenson, etc.) the book touches lightly on those elements that make a season memorable. With illustrator Melissa Sweet’s interpretations of each poem in tow, this collection proves to be the kind of book of poetry no library or poetry-minded household can seriously be without.

FireflyJuly2 258x300 Review of the Day   Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. JaneczkoLike I said before, so much of critiquing poetry is subjective. So on an entirely personal level, I can at least tell you that I didn’t really begin to warm up to these poems (no pun intended) until we hit the Summer section. Nothing against the Spring, mind you. It’s there that you’ll find a lot of the old standards like the William Carlos Williams poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”. But Summer proved a lovely surprise. Langston Hughes waxing eloquent on “Subway Rush Hour” followed by Joyce Sidman’s lovely “A Happy Meeting” (which conjures up memories of the e.e. cummings poem “in Just”) and then the titular “Firefly July” by J. Patrick Lewis (which really does deserve to have its name appropriated for the title of this book) combine to give one a true, rounded sense of the season. Teachers and parents would do well to read this book to kids and then ask them what their favorite season is. Mine now appears to be summer. Who knew?

The real advantage to this book is in the subtitle. “A Year of Very Short Poems”. Though I struggle in vain to find the right way to sell my poetry collection in months other than April, I can’t help but think that maybe size does matter. Books containing long and lengthy poems (like the delightful A Pond Full of Ink by Annie M.G. Schmidt) will be ideal for the already indoctrinated, but if you’re trying to lure in the poetry shy, short is the way to go. Short and sweet. And brother, it hardly gets any sweeter than this.

Melissa Sweet’s art was an interesting choice as illustrator. It makes sense when you think about it. After all, her Caldecott Honor was bestowed upon the picture book biography of poet William Carlos Williams A River of Words. In this book she is the sole artist interpreting these various works. There are no head scratching moments. No times when you feel as though she’s taking advantage of her position as the illustrator. She switches vantage points and views consistently as well, keeping the viewer awake and interested. Of all the pages, my favorite Sweet was the two-page spread accompanying Carl Sandburg’s poem “Window”. There, panel after panel after panel show scenes from a railway car looking at the countryside. Later, Ted Kooser’s “Snow Fence” contains the striking image of crows perched on a simple red fence set against the pure white drifts. One might argue that Sweet takes few risks with this book but if I’m going to trade in beauty for risk, I figure that’s a pretty fair deal.

FireflyJuly3 257x300 Review of the Day   Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. JaneczkoAs I am a librarian and not a teacher I don’t usually think up classroom applications for books when I read them. Firefly July proves to be the exception to the rule. Reading this book I could imagine all sort of interesting uses. For example, teachers might want to actually revive an old school standard and have the kids in their classroom memorize one of these poems for recitation type purposes. We’ve seen some books collect poems for this very specific purpose (see: Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart, selected by Mary Ann Hoberman) but in this particular case I think the quality of the selections recommend it highly. There is, after all, no better way to learn a poem heart, body, and soul than to incessantly read it over and over and over again.

With its pedigree in place it’s little wonder that Firefly July entranced me as much as it did. I don’t consider myself a poetry connoisseur so it takes something special to break through to me as much as this book did. I still maintain that reading poems of any sort is a personal business and that what suits the goose will never do for the gander. That said, for a work of introductory poems specially selected so as to calm and comfort the reluctant poetry reader, Firefly July ain’t a bad way to go. Lulling and lovely, there’s something for everyone inside. All you have to do is just give it a chance.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews:

Misc: Jules Danielson considers the book at her Kirkus blog.

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14. Review of the Day: The Fox and the Crow by Manasi Subramaniam

FoxCrow1 300x274 Review of the Day: The Fox and the Crow by Manasi SubramaniamThe Fox and the Crow
By Manasi Subramaniam
Illustrated by Culpeo S. Fox
Karadi Tales
$17.95
ISBN: 978-81-8190-303-7
Ages 4 and up
On shelves now

In the classic Aesop fable of The Fox and the Crow where do your loyalties lie? You remember the tale, don’t you? Long story short (or, rather, short story shorter) a prideful crow is tricked into dropping its bread into the hungry mouth of a fox when it is flattered into singing. Naturally your sympathies fall with the fox to a certain extent. Pride goeth before the bread’s fall and all that jazz. Now there are about a thousand different things that are interesting about The Fox and the Crow, a collaboration between Manasi Subramaniam and Culpeo S. Fox. Yet the thing that I took away from it was how my sympathies fell, in the end, to the prideful crow victim. His is a miserable existence, owed in part due to his own self-regard and also to not seizing the moment when it presents itself. Delayed gratification sometimes just turns into no gratification. Lofty thoughts for a book intended for four-year-olds, eh? But that’s what you get when something as lovely, dark, and strange as this particular The Fox and the Crow hits the market. Gorgeous to eye and ear alike, the story’s possibilities are mined beautifully and the reader is left reeling in the wake. If you’d like a folktale that’s bound to wake you up, this beauty has your number.

A murder of crows gathers on the telephone wires. Says the text “When dusk falls, they arrive, raucous, clamping their feet on the wires in a many-pronged attack.” One amongst them, however, cannot help but notice a fresh loaf of new bread at the local bakery. Without another thought it dives, steals the bread, and leaves the baker angrily yelling in its wake. Delighted with its prize the crow takes to a tree branch to wait. “Bread is best eaten by twilight.” Below, a hungry fox observes the haughty crow and desires the tasty morsel. She sings up to the crow. “A song is an invitation. Crow must sing back.” He does and, in doing so, loses his prize to the vixen’s maw. The last line? “A new day breaks. An old hunger aches.”

Turning Aesop fables into full picture books is a bit of an art. If you read one you’ll find that it’s remarkably short on the page. It requires a bit of padding on the author’s part. Either that or some true creativity. Look, for example, at some of the best Aesop adaptations out there. Some artists choose to go wordless (The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney). Others get remarkably loquacious (Lousy Rotten Stinkin’ Grapes by Margie Palatini). In the case of Subramaniam, she makes the interesting choice of simplifying the text with long, luscious words while expanding the story. The result is lines like “Crow’s stomach burns with swallowed song” or “Oh, she’s a temptress, that one.” No dialogue is necessary in this book. Subramaniam shoulders all the work and though she doesn’t spell out what’s happening as simply as some might prefer (you have to know what is meant by “Crow’s pride sets his hunger ablaze” to get to the classic Aesopian moral of the tale) it’s nice to see a new take on a story that’s been done to death in a variety of different spheres.

Artist Culpeo S. Fox is new to me. From Germany (for some reason everything made a lot more sense when I learned that fact) the man sort of specializes in foxes. For this book the art takes on a brown and speckled hue. Early scenes look as though the very dirt of the ground was whipped into the air alongside the crows’ wings. Yet in the midst of all this darkness (both from the story and from the art) there’s something incredibly relatable and kid-friendly in these creatures’ eyes. The crow in particular is rendered an infinitely relatable fellow. From his first over-the-shoulder glance at the bread cooling on the windowsill to the look of pure eagerness when he alights on a private branch. It’s telling that the one moment the eye is made most unrelatable (pure white) is when he’s overcome with fury at having basically handed his loaf to the fox’s maw. Fury can be frightening.

FoxCrow3 500x228 Review of the Day: The Fox and the Crow by Manasi SubramaniamIt’s also Fox’s inclination to change from a horizontal to a vertical format over and over again that makes the book unique in some way. It’s probably the element that will turn the most people off, but it’s never done without reason. To my mind, if a book is going to go vertical, it needs to have a reason. Caldecott Honor book Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens, for example, knew exactly how to make use of the form. Parrots Over Puerto Rico in contrast seemed to do it on a lark rather than for any particular reason. In The Fox and the Crow each vertical shift is calculated. The very first encounter between the fox and the crow is a vertical shot. Most interesting is the next two-page spread. You find yourself not entirely certain what the best way to hold book might be. Horizontal? Vertical? Upside down? Only after a couple readings did I realize that the curve of the crow’s inquiry-laden neck echoes the fox’s very same neck curve (albeit with 75% more guile).

It’s not just the art and the story. The very size of the book itself is unique. It’s roughly 11 X 12 inches, essentially a rather large square. Work with enough picture books and you get a feel for the normal dimensions. But normal dimensions, you sense, wouldn’t quite encompass was Fox is trying to accomplish here. You need size to adequately tell this story. The darkness and beauty of it all demand it.

I am consumed with professional jealousy after reading the Kirkus review of this book. Their takeaway line? “Aesop noir”. It’s rather perfect, particularly when you consider that one reading of this book would fall under that classic noir storyline of a seedy soul done in by the wiles of a woman. Or vixen, rather. I don’t know that any younger kids would necessarily take to heart the moral message of the original story, but slightly older readers will jive to what Subramaniam is getting at. We need folktales in our collections that shake things up a bit. That aren’t afraid to get original with the source material. That aren’t afraid to get, quite frankly, beautiful on us. The pairing of Subramaniam and Fox is inspired and the book a lush treat. An Aesop necessity. Aesop done right.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Fables by Aesop, illustrated by Jean-Francois Martin

Professional Reviews:

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15. Review of the Day: Curiosity by Gary Blackwood

Curiosity Review of the Day: Curiosity by Gary BlackwoodCuriosity
By Gary Blackwood
Dial (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8037-3924-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves April 10th

Blackwood’s back, baby! And not a minute too soon. Back in 1998, the author released The Shakespeare Stealer which would soon thereafter become his best-known work. A clever blending of historical fiction and adventure, the book allowed teachers the chance to hone Shakespeare down to a kid-friendly level. Since its publication Mr. Blackwood has kept busy, writing speculative fiction and, most recently, works of nonfiction for kids. Then there was a bit of a lull in his writing and the foolish amongst us (myself included) forgot about him. There will be no forgetting Mr. Blackwood anytime now though. Not after you read his latest work Curiosity. Throwing in everything from P.T. Barnum and phrenology to hunchbacks, Edgar Allan Poe, automatons, chess prodigies, murder, terrible fires, and legless men, Blackwood produces a tour de force to be reckoned with. In the press materials for this book, Penguin calls it “Gary Blackwood’s triumphant return to middle grade fiction.” They’re not wrong. The man’s about to acquire a whole new generation of fans and enthusiasts.

Fear for the children of novels that describe their childhoods as pampered or coddled. No good can come of that. Born weak with a slight deformity of the spine, Rufus lives a lovely life with his father, a well-respected Methodist minister in early 19th century Philadelphia. That’s all before his father writes a kind of predecessor to The Origin of the Species and through a series of misadventures is thrown into debtor’s prison. Fortunately (perhaps) Rufus is a bit of a chess prodigy and his talents get him a job with a man by the name of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. Maelzel owns an automaton called The Turk that is supposed to be able to play chess against anyone and win. With Rufus safely ensconced inside, The Turk is poised to become a massive moneymaker. But forces are at work to reveal The Turk’s secrets and if that information gets out, Rufus’s life might not be worth that of the pawns he plays.

Making the past seem relevant and accessible is hard enough when you’re writing a book for adults. Imagine the additional difficulty children’s authors find themselves in. Your word count is limited else you lose your audience. That means you need to engage in some serious (not to mention judicious and meticulous) wordplay. Blackwood’s a pro, though. His 1835 world is capable of capturing you with its life and vitality without boring you in the process. At one point Rufus describes seeing Richmond, VA for the first time and you are THERE, man. From the Flying Gigs to the mockingbirds to the James River itself. I was also relieved to find that Blackwood does make mention of the African-Americans living in Richmond and Philly at the time this novel takes place. Many are the works of historical fiction by white people about white people that conveniently forget this little fact.

Add onto that the difficulty that comes with making the past interesting and accurate and relevant all at once. I read more historical fiction for kids than a human being should, and while it’s all often very well meaning, interesting? Not usually an option. I’m certain folks will look at how Blackwood piles on the crazy elements here (see: previous statement about the book containing everything from phrenology to P.T. Barnum) and will assume that this is just a cheap play for thrills. Not so. It’s the man’s writing that actually holds your focus. I mean, look at that first line: “Out of all the books in the world, I wonder what made you choose this one.” Heck, that’s just a drop in the bucket. Check out these little gems:

“If my cosseted childhood hadn’t taught me how to relate to other people, neither had it taught em to fear them.”

“I was like some perverse species of prisoner who felt free only when he was locked inside a tiny cell.”

“Maelzel was not the sort of creator imagined by the Deists, who fashions a sort of clockwork universe and winds it up, then sits back and watches it go and never interferes. He was more like my father’s idea of the creator: constantly tinkering with his creations, looking for ways to make them run more smoothly and perform more cleverly – the kind who makes it possible for new species to develop.”

As for the writing of the story itself, Blackwood keeps the reader guessing and then fills the tale with loads of historical details. The historical accuracy is such that Blackwood even allows himself little throwaway references, confident that confused kids will look them up themselves. For example, at one point Rufus compares himself to “Varney the Vampire climbing into his coffin.” This would be a penny dreadful that circulated roundabout this time (is there any more terrifying name than “Varney” after all?). In another instance a blazing fire is met with two “rival hose” companies battling one another “for the right to hook up to the nearest fireplug.” There is a feeling that for a book to be literary it has to be dull. Blackwood dispels the notion, and one has to stand amazed when they realize that somehow he managed to make a story about a kid trapped in a small dark space for hours at a time riveting.

Another one of the more remarkable accomplishments of the book is that it honestly makes you want to learn more about the game of chess. A good author can get a kid interested in any subject, of course. I think back on The Cardturner by Louis Sachar, which dared to talk up the game of Bridge. And honestly, chess isn’t a hard sell. The #1 nonfiction request I get from my fellow children’s librarians (and the request I simply cannot fulfill fast enough) is for more chess books for kids. At least in the big cities, chess is a way of life for some children. One hopes that we’ll be able to extend their interest beyond the immediate game itself and onto a book where a kid like themselves has all the markings of true genius.

It isn’t perfect, of course. In terms of characterization, of all the people in this book Rufus is perhaps the least interesting. You willingly follow him, of course. Just because he doesn’t sparkle on the page like some of the other characters doesn’t mean you don’t respond to the little guy. One such example might be when his first crush doesn’t go as planned. But he’s a touchstone for the other characters around him. Then there’s the other problem of Rufus being continually rescued by the same person in the same manner (I won’t go into the details) more than once. It makes for a weird repeated beat. The shock of the first incident is actually watered down by the non-surprise of the second. Rufus becomes oddly passive in his own life, rarely doing anything to change the course of his fate (he falls unconscious and wakes up rescued more than once,) a fact that may contribute to the fact that he’s so unmemorable on the page.

But that aside, it’s hard not to be entranced by what Blackwood has come up with here. Automatons sort of came to the public’s attention when Brian Selznick wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Blackwood takes it all a step further merging man and machine, questioning what we owe to one another and, to a certain extent, where the power really lies. Rufus finds his sense of self and bravery by becoming invisible. At the same time, he’s so innocent to the ways of the world that becoming visible comes with the danger of having your heart broken in a multitude of different ways. In an era where kids spend untold gobs of time in front of the screens of computers, finding themselves through a newer technology, Blackwood’s story has never been timelier. Smart and interesting, fun and strange, this is one piece of little known history worthy of your attention. Check and mate.

On shelves April 10th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

First Line: “Out of all the books in the world, I wonder what made you choose this one.”

Notes on the Cover: And now let us praise fabulous cover artists. Particularly those creating covers that make more sense after you’ve finished the book. The glimpse of Rufus’s eye in the “O” of the title didn’t do much more than vaguely remind me of the spine of the The Invention of Hugo Cabret at first (an apt comparison in more than one way). After closer examination, however, I realized that it was Rufus in the cabinet below. The unnerving view of The Turk and the shadowy Mr. Hyde-ish man in the far back all combine to give this book a look of both historical fervor and intrigue. And look how that single red (red?) pawn is lit. It’s probably not actually a red pawn but a white one, but something about the image looks reddish. Blood red, if you will. Boy, that’s a good jacket.

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

Misc:

  • Care to read Edgar Allan Poe’s actual article for The Messenger about The Turk?  Do so here.
  • A fun BBC piece on the implication of The Turk then, now, and for our children.  It appears to have been written by one “Adam Gopnik”.  We’ll just assume it’s a different Adam than the one behind A Tale Dark & Grimm.

Videos: Want to see the real Turk in action?  This video makes for fascinating watching.

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16. Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus

GrandfatherGandhi 287x300 Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany HegedusGrandfather Gandhi
Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus
Illustrated by Evan Turk
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon and Schuster)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-1-4424-2365-X
Ages 4-8
On shelves now.

Are you familiar with the concept of booktalking? It’s a technique librarians developed to get people interested in books they might otherwise not pick up. The whole concept is to develop a kind of movie trailer style talk that gives a sense of the book’s allure without giving up the plot. Typically booktalking is done for middle grade and young adult works of fiction, but enterprising souls have had a lot of luck with nonfiction as well. Now with an increased interest in nonfiction in our schools it’s more important than ever to make the books we hawk sound particularly good. It doesn’t hurt matters any when the books actually ARE good, though. Now let’s say I’m standing in front of a room of second and third graders with a copy of Grandfather Gandhi in my hands. How do I sell this book to them? Easy peasy. Some books practically booktalk themselves. Here’s how you sell it:

“Have any of you ever heard of Einstein? Yes? He’s the guy that was a total genius. Now imagine you’re his grandkid and you’re not that smart. Okay now, have any of you heard of the Beatles. Yes? Well imagine you’re one of THEIR grandkids . . . and you’re bad at music. Now here’s the big one. Has anyone heard of Gandhi? He was a great guy. He managed to free his country and stop a lot of oppression and he did it without any violence at all. Martin Luther King Jr. got some of his ideas from Gandhi about nonviolence. All right, well, now let’s image you are Gandhi, the most peaceful man IN THE WORLD’s grandson. What if you get mad? Can you imagine what it would be like to have everyone whispering every time you got a little steamed about something?”

So there you go. Quick. Simple. To the point. I’ve met a fair number of picture book memoirs in my day, but Grandfather Gandhi may well be my favorite. Smartly written with an unusual hook and art that will just knock your socks off, this is one title you are going to have to see firsthand for yourself.

GrandfatherGandhi2 300x258 Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany HegedusWhen young Arun and his family first arrive in his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi’s village, he’s mighty shy around his incredibly famous relative. Yet right away Grandfather is warm and welcoming to them, and when he praises Arun for walking the distance from the train station the boy swells with pride. Unfortunately, having Gandhi as your grandpa means having to share him with the 350 followers who also live in the village. Arun struggles with his lessons in Gujarati and the fact that there are no movie theaters around, but there are upsides to village life too. He’s pretty good at soccer with the other kids, and occasionally Grandfather will take him for a walk just mano a mano. But then, one fateful day, Arun gets into a skirmish on the soccer field and his anger is overwhelming. Shamed that the grandson of Gandhi himself would react in anger he confesses to his Grandfather immediately, only to find the man isn’t angry or disappointed in him in the least. Anger, Gandhi explains, is like lightning. You can use it to destroy or you can use it to light the world, like a lamp. Which will you choose?

I think it’s fair to say that there have been a fair number of children’s picture books from family and relatives of famous peacemakers. Most notable would be Martin Luther King Jr.’s clan, where it sometimes seems like every son, daughter, niece, and nephew has his or her own spin on their infinitely famous relative. Gandhi’s a bit different. One wouldn’t expect his own descendants to have much in the way of access to the American publishing industry, so biographies of his life in picture book form have concentrated occasionally on his life and occasionally on The Great Salt March. When I saw that this book was co-authored by his fifth grandson I expected the same sort of story. A kind of mix of “this guy was fantastic” with “and I knew him!”. Instead, Hegedus and Gandhi have formulated a much more accessible narrative. Few children can relate to having a famous relative. But what about controlling their anger in the face of injustice? What’s fascinating about this book is that the authors have taken a seemingly complex historical issue and put it into terms so child-friendly that a five-year-old could get the gist of it. That Gandhi’s anger went on to become what spurned him to make lasting, important changes for his people is the key point of the book, but it takes a child’s p.o.v. to drill the issue home.

GrandfatherGandhi3 300x176 Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany HegedusAbove and beyond all that, this is a book that advocates quite strongly for peace in all its myriad forms. Hardly surprising when you consider the subject matter but just the same I sometimes feel like “peace” is one of those difficult concepts without a proper picture book advocate. I went to a Quaker college where PAGS (Peace and Global Studies) was a popular major, and it was in making Quaker friends that I learned about picture books dedicated to the concepts embraced by that particular religion. Books like The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, The Table Where Rich People Sit by Byrd Baylor, Thy Friend, Obadiah by Brinton Turkle, and more. I’m sure that many is the Quaker household, or really any household that believes that peace is a practical and attainable solution, that will embrace Grandfather Gandhi as one of their own.

It’s been a long time since I ran across a picture book with as long and lengthy a list of materials used in the illustrations as I have here. On the publication page it reads, “The illustrations for this book are rendered in watercolor, paper collage, cotton fabric, cotton, yarn, gouache, pencil, tea, and tin foil. Cotton hand spun on an Indian book charkha by Eileen Hallman.” Phew! You might think that all that “stuff” might yield something clogged up or messy, but that would be doing Mr. Turk a disservice. Observing how well he gives his pictures depth and texture, life and vitality, you might be shocked to learn that Grandfather Gandhi is his first picture book. From the spinning wheel endpapers to montages of sheer explosive anger, Turk makes a point of not only adhering to some of the more metaphorical aspects of the text, but finding new and creative ways to bring them to visual life. To my mind, the materials an artist uses in his or her art must, in the case of mixed media, have a reason for their existence. If you’re going to use “cotton fabric, cotton” and “yarn” then there should be a reason. But Turk clearly did his homework prior to doing the art on this book. He doesn’t just slap the images together. He incorporates the fibers Gandhi knew so well and turns them into an essential aspect of the book’s art. The art doesn’t just support the text here. It weaves itself into the story, becoming impossible to separate from the story.

GrandfatherGandhi4 300x213 Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany HegedusIt’s Arun’s anger that proved to be the most visually interesting aspect, to me, in the book. Turk deftly contrasts the calm white thread produced by Gandhi’s spinning with the tangled black ones that surround and engulf his grandson whenever his feelings threaten to break free. The scene where he’s tempted to throw a rock at the boy who shoved him down is filled with thread, Arun’s magnificently clenched teeth, and black shadow figures that reach out across the field to the soccer net, dwarfing the three other little figures below. Later you can see the negative space found in cut paper turning from a representation of lightning into a thread of cotton in the hands of Gandhi illuminating a passage about making your anger useful. Yet Turk doesn’t just rely on clever techniques. He’s remarkably skilled at faces too. Arun’s expressions when he gets to see his grandfather alone or makes him proud are just filled with wide-eyed eager hope. And his frustrations and anger pulse off the page from his features alone.

Picture books for kids about dealing with their anger tend towards the fictional. There’s Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry . . . Really Really Angry and Robie H. Harris’s The Day Leo Said, “I Hate You”. These are two of the good ones. Others veer towards the preachy and paternalistic. Imagine if you started using something like Grandfather Gandhi instead. More than just a memoir, the book offers a broad look at the benefits of channeling your anger. Better still, it’s a true story. Kids respect the true. They’ll also respect young Arun and his uncomfortable position. Fair play to author Bethany Hegedus for hearing him speak more than 13 years ago about this moment in his life, knowing that not only was there a picture book story to be had here, but a lesson kids today can grasp. As she says in her “Note from the Authors” at the end, “We world we live in needs to heal – to heal from the wars that are fought, to the bullying epidemic, to mass killings by lone gunmen, to poverty, to hunger, and to issues that contribute to internal anger being outwardly expressed in violent actions.” Gandhi’s message never grows old. Now we’ve a book that helps to continue his work for the youngest of readers. A necessary purchase then.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Interviews:

  • ReaderKidZ speaks with Ms. Hegedus about the book.
  • Meanwhile Kirkus interviewed the two authors and the illustrator here.

Misc: This is a book with a very nicely maintained and updated website of its own.  Some of my favorite posts include this one from Evan Turk on how he got access to the spun cotton fiber featured in the book.  I also light his piece on Light & Shadow and this one on how he chose his art.  Arun even has posts up containing family Gandhi stories that would make an excellent follow up books should the need arise.  Be sure to read the one on pumpkins and eggs when you get a chance.

Video:

One of the top best book trailers I’ve seen in a really long time.  Accomplished and it does a brilliant job of highlighting Turk’s art.

llustration & Animation by Evan Turk

Music: “Ambwa” used by permission of artist Ustad Ghulam Farid Nizami
Voices: Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus
Sound: Evan Turk, Carrington MacDuffie & The Block House, Justin Yelle & Kaotic Studios, and William Dufris & Mind’s Eye Productions.
Project Management: Curious City

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17. Review of the Day: Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

RulesofSummer 300x279 Review of the Day: Rules of Summer by Shaun TanRules of Summer
By Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic)
$18.99
ISBN: 978-0-545-63912-5
Ages 4 and up
On shelves April 29th

When I was a young teen my favorite book was Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Steeped in Bradbury’s nostalgia for his youth, I was in the throes of adolescence, probably on some level nostalgic for my own younger days. In this book I reveled in a childhood that was not my own but felt personal just the same. Summer seemed like the perfect time to set such a tale, what with its long days and capacity for equal parts mischief and magic. I loved my summers, even as I failed to know what exactly to do with them. I think of Bradbury’s novel from time to time, though its use for me has long since passed. I found myself going back to it after seeing Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer. Encompassing a full summer season, Tan indulges his capacity for the odd and extreme while also managing to delve deeply into a relationship between two brothers. The family story is this book’s heart and soul meaning that when all is said and done this is a book for big siblings and little siblings. Miraculously both will see themselves reflected in the pages of the text. And both, if they approach it from the right direction, will find something to pore over in here for years and years to come.

“This is what I learned last summer,” says the book. It’s the kind of statement you might expect to find in an essay on How I Spent My Summer Vacation. Instead, what follows is a series of imaginative, wholly original extremes. Two brothers live in a world of fantastical creatures and gizmos. The younger continually breaks the rules as the elder either berates him or tries to save him from himself. A dinner party of well-dressed birds of prey contains the sentence, “Never eat the last olive at a party” as the older brother pulls his younger away from the potentially deadly entrée. “Never leave the back door open overnight” sees them both facing a living room awash in vegetation and giant lizards, the older boy clearly put out and the younger carrying a bucket and shovel. As the book continues you realize that the younger boy is often at odds with the rules his elder is trying to instill in him. The final straw comes after a massive pummeling, after which the elder brother sells his little bro off to a flock of black birds (“Never lose a fight”). Fortunately, a rescue is made and the book subtly shifts from admonitions to positive statements (“Always know the way home”). The final shot shows the two boys sitting on the couch watching TV, the walls of their living room wallpapered with drawings of the out-of-this-world creatures encountered in the rest of the book.

RulesSummer4 300x211 Review of the Day: Rules of Summer by Shaun TanAs a general rule I try to avoid reading other reviews of the children’s book in my hand until I’ve read the stories myself and gotten a sense of my own perspective. In the same frame of mind I avoid reading the bookflaps of books since they’ve a nasty tendency to give away the plot. Usually I’ll even avoid looking at them after I’ve read the book in question, but there are exceptions to every rule. After reading Rules of Summer I idly turned the book over and read this one on the back cover: “Never break the rules. Especially if you don’t understand them.” Huh. Oddly insightful comment. Aw, heck. I couldn’t resist. I looked at the bookflap and there, lo and behold, the book started to make more sense. According to the flap the rules are those seemingly arbitrary ones that younger siblings have to face when older siblings come up with them. Slowly a book that before had seemed to have only the slightest semblance of a plot began to make a lot more sense. Had I not read the flap, maybe I would have come up with an entirely different interpretation of the pages. Not sure. Whatever the case, I like where the flap took me, even as I suspect that some kids will have entirely different takes.

Tan’s strength here lies partly in the fact that these brothers command your equal respect. When I read the book through the first time I thought that the younger brother was the hero. A couple more reads and suddenly the older one started to get more and more sympathetic. Consider, for example, that very first shot of the two after the endpapers. The text reads, “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.” There, hunched against a fence, the two brothers huddle while a scarlet-hued red-eyed rabbit eyes the sock in question. The older brother has one arm protectively around the younger’s back and his other hand gently cupping his mouth. In later images the younger will mess something up and the older won’t bother to hide his frustrations. The lack of parents in this book is the only way to make it work. When kids deal with one another in the absence of adults, they make their own rules. Even when the elder sells his brother to a flock of birds for a dented crown (his least likable moment) you’re almost immediately back on his side when he rescues his little brother with a pair of bolt cutters a couple pages later. And honestly, what older brother and sister hasn’t fantasized at some point about selling off their annoying little brothers and sisters (see: The great Shel Silverstein poem “Brother for Sale”)? Tan is capable of seeing both sides of the sibling equation. Few picture books even dare.

Tan’s always had a bit of a fascination with the surreal world of middle class life. Suburbia is his Twilight Zone, and he hardly has to add any mechanical monsters or sentient birds to make it unusual. In Tales from Outer Suburbia it was language that primarily painted suburban Australia’s canvass. Here, words are secondary to the art. As I paged through I began to take note of some of the mechanics present on a lot of the pages. Water towers, oilrigs, and even the occasional nuclear power plant. Most beautiful and frightening were the extremely large structures holding the power lines. In one picture the younger brother plays a paddle-based game against a robot opponent while his older brother arbitrates. The sky is an overcast slate gray with these unnerving grids of line and metal towering over them in the background. Extra points if you can find the single black bird that makes an appearance on almost every spread until that climatic moment when it no longer appears.

RulesSummer3 300x168 Review of the Day: Rules of Summer by Shaun TanEven the endpapers of this book have the power to make you sit and stare for long periods of time. They inspire a feeling that is just impossible to put into words. The endpapers are also the place where Tan makes it clear that he’s going to be playing with light quite a lot in this book. For a fun time, try to figure out where the light source is coming from in each and every one of the book’s pictures. Sometimes it’s evident. Other times, the answer could well be its own little story.

The thickness to Tan’s paints also marks this as significantly different from some of his other books. Nowhere is this more evident than the cover. Look at the Picasso-like grassy field where the older brother scowls at his younger sibling. The midday sun, the paints so thick you feel like the cover would feel textured if you stroked it, and even the pure blue of the noonday sky has a different Tan tone than you’re used to.

I don’t know if Tan has sons of his own. I don’t particularly care. For all I know the inspiration behind this book came from a relationship with his own brother at an early age. Wherever it might have appeared, one cannot help but feel that Tan knows from whence he illustrates. Thanks to films like Frozen we’re seeing an uptick in interest in stories about siblings of the same gender. Brothers have a tendency to tricky to render on the page (see: the aforementioned Dandelion Wine) but it can be done. Tan has perfectly rendered one such relationship with all its frustrations, betrayals, fights, complaints and deep, enduring love. This book sympathizes with those kids, regardless of their birth order. The rules of childhood are built on shifting sands, causing children everywhere to look longingly at the seeming sanity of adulthood. It’s only when they cross over that these kids will find themselves nostalgic for a time of outsized rules and their overblown importance. Without a doubt, the best book about what summer means to child siblings I’ve ever read.

On shelves April 29th.

Source: Galley acquired at ALA Conference for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Other Reviews: Australian Comics Journal

Interviews: Gillo talks to Shaun Tan about the book here.

Misc:

  • The book is available as an app, with music by the hugely talented Sxip Shirey.
  • Download the Teacher’s Guide for the book here.
  • If you don’t mind knowing as much as Tan himself knows about this book, you can read his commentary about each image here. And yes, he was quite close to his own older brother growing up.  So that solves that mystery.

Video:

Seven videos about this book exist on Tan’s website.  Check ‘em out if you’ve half a mind to.

And here’s a sneaky peek at the aforementioned app:

And here’s an interview with him about the book on ABC RN:

 

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18. Chasing Cheetahs by Sy Montgomery

Chasing Cheetahs: the race to save Africa's fastest cats Scientists in the Field Series Text by Sy Montgomery; Photographs by Nic Bishop Houghton Mifflin. 2014 ISBN: 9780547815497 Grades 5 thru 12 I borrowed a copy of this book from my local public library The decision as to who reviews what goes fairly smoothly between Cathy and I until there is a new Scientists in the Field book, then,

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19. Review of the Day: Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson

BoysBlur Review of the Day: Boys of Blur by N.D. WilsonBoys of Blur
By N.D. Wilson
Random House Books for Young Readers
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-449-81673-8
Ages 9-12
On shelves April 8th.

I like a kid’s book with ambition. It’s all well and good to write one about magic candy shops or goofy uncles or simpering unicorns or what have you. The world is big and there’s room for every possible conceivable type of book for our children you can imagine. But then you have the children’s book authors that aim higher. Let’s say one wants to write about zombies. Well, that’s easy enough. Zombies battling kids is pretty straightforward stuff. But imagine the chutzpah it would take to take that seemingly innocuous little element and then to add in, oh I dunno, BEOWULF. N.D. Wilson is one of those guys I’ve been watching for a very long time. The kind of guy who started off his career by combining a contemporary tale of underground survival with The Odyssey (Leepike Ridge). In his latest novel, Boys of Blur Wilson steps everything up a notch. You’ve got your aforementioned zombies as well as a paean to small town football, an economy based on sugar cane harvesting, spousal abuse, and rabbit runs. It sounds like a dare, honestly. “I dare you to combine these seemingly disparate elements into a contemporary classic”. The end result is a book that shoots high, misses on occasion, but ultimately comes across as a smart and action packed tale of redemption.

There is muck, then sugarcane, then swamps, then Taper. The town of Taper, to be precise, where 12-year-old Charlie Reynolds has come with his mother, stepfather, and little sister to witness the burial of the local high school football coach. It’s a town filled with secrets and relatives he never knew he had, like homeschooled Sugar, his distant cousin, with whom he shares an instant bond. Together, the two discover a wild man of the swamps accompanied by two panthers and a sword. The reason for the sword becomes infinitely clear when Charlie becomes aware of The Gren. A zombie-like hoard bent on the town’s obliteration (and then THE WORLD!), it’s up to one young boy to seek out the source of the corruption and take her (yes, her) down.

I had to actually look up my Beowulf after reading this. The reason? The opening. Wilson doesn’t go in for the old rules that state that you should begin your book with some kind of gripping slam-bang action scene. His first page? It reads like an ode. Like a minstrel has stepped out of the wings to give praise to the gods and to set the scene for you. Only in this case it’s just the narrator telling you what’s what. “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.” Read that line aloud for a second. Just taste and savor what it’s saying. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Like you’ve read it somewhere else before (particularly that “look for the” part). Then there’s that last line. “Out here in the flats, when the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, there can be only quick. There’s quick, and there’s dead.” So I looked up the beginning of Beowulf just to see if, by any chance, Wilson had cribbed some of this from his source material. Not as such. The original text is a bit more concerned with great tribal kings past, and all that jazz. That doesn’t make Wilson’s book any less compelling, though. There’s a rhythm to the opening that sucks you in immediately. It’s not afraid to be beautiful. It begs to be heard from a tongue.

And while I’m on the topic of beautiful language, Wilson sure knows how to turn a phrase. If he has any ultimately defining characteristic as a writer it is his complete and utter lack of fear regarding descriptions. He delves into them. Swims deep into them. Can you blame him? Though a resident of Idaho, here he evokes a Florida that puts Carl Hiaasen to shame. Examples of some of his particularly good lines:

“As for the church bell, it crashed through the floorboards and settled into the soft ground below. It’s still down there, under the patched floor, ringing silence in the muck.”

“Charlie looked at the sky, held up by nothing more than the column of smoke he’d noticed during the service.”

“Charlie stopped at the end, beside a boy with a baby face on a body the size and shape of someone’s front door.”

And I’m particularly fond of this line about new siblings: “When Molly had come, she had turned Charlie into a brother, adding deep loves and loyalties to who he was without asking his permission first.”

The book moves at a rapid clip, but not at the expense of the characters. For one thing, it’s nice not to have to read about a passive hero. From early in the book, we know certain things about Charlie that are to serve him well in the future. As the story says, thanks to experiences with his abusive father, “he could bottle fear. He’d been doing it his whole life.” This gives Wilson’s hero a learned skill that will aid him in the rest of the story. And when there are choices to be made, he makes them. He isn’t some child being taken from place to place. He decides what he should and should not do in any given moment and acts. Sometimes it’s the right choice and sometimes it’s wrong, but it is at least HIS choice each time.

The sugarcane fields themselves are explained a bit late in the narrative. On page 64 or so we finally get an explanation about why the boys are running through burning fields to catch rabbits. For a moment I was reminded of Cynthia Kadohata’s attempts to explain threshing in her otherwise scintillating book The Thing About Luck. Wilson has the advantage of having an outsider in his tale, so it’s perfectly all right for Charlie to ask why the only way to successfully harvest cane is to burn it, “Fastest way to strip the leaves . . . Stalks is so wet, they don’t burn.” Mind you, this could have worked a little earlier in the story, since much of the book requires us to take on faith why the rabbit runs occur.

It’s also an unapologetically masculine story as well. All about swords and fighting and football and dangerous runs into burning sugarcane fields. The football is particularly fascinating. In an age when concussions are becoming big news and people are beginning to turn against the nation’s most violent sport, it’s unique, to say the least, to read a middle grade book where small town football is a way of life. Small town football almost NEVER makes it into books for kids, partly because baseball makes for a better narrative by its very definition. Football’s more difficult to explain. Its terms and turns of phrase haven’t made it into the language of the cultural zeitgeist to the same extent. For an author to not only acknowledge its existence but also give it a thumbs up is almost unheard of. Yet Boys of Blur could not exist without football. Charlie’s father went pro, as did his stepfather. The book begins by burying a coach, and there are long seated animosities in the town behind old high school football rivals. For many small towns, life without football would be untenable. And Boys of Blur acknowledges that to a certain extent.

The women that do appear are few and far between, but they are there. One should take care to note that it’s Wilson’s source material that lacking in the ladies (except for the big bad, of course). And he did go out of his way to add a couple additional females to the line-up. It’s not as if Charlie himself doesn’t notice the lack of ladies as well anyway. At one point he ponders the Gren and wonders why there aren’t any girls. The possible explanation he’s given is that much as a selfish man is envious of his sons, so would a selfish woman find her own daughters to be competition. Take that as you may. We veer close to Caliban country here, but Wilson already has one classic text to draw from. Shakespeare can wait.

Charlie’s mother would be one other example of a woman introduced to this story that gets a fair amount of page time. On paper you’d assume she was just a victim, a woman who continues to fear her ex-husband. But in reality, Wilson gives her much more credit. She’s the woman who dared to get out of an untenable situation for the sake of her child. A woman who managed to find another husband who wasn’t a carbon copy of the first and who has done everything in her power to protect her children in the wake of her ex-husband’s threats. And most interesting, Wilson will keep cutting back to her in the narrative. He doesn’t have to. There’s a reason most children’s fantasy novels star orphans. Include the parents and there’s a lot of emotional baggage to attend to. But Wilson’s never liked the notion of orphans much, so when his story cuts back to Natalie Mack and what she’s up to it’s a choice you go along with. In Wilson’s books parents aren’t enemies but allies. It goes against the grain of the usual narratives, wakes you up, and makes for better books.

Where do heroes find their courage and resolve? In previous books Wilson had already gone underground and into deep dark places. In Boys of Blur he explores the dual worlds of cane and swamp alike. Most epic narratives of the children’s fantasy sort are long, bloated affairs. They feel like they can’t tell their tales in anything less than 300 pages, and even then they end up being the first in a series. Wilson’s slick, sleek editing puts the bloat to shame. Clocking in at a handsome 208 pages it’s not going to be understood by every child reader. It doesn’t try for that either. Really, it can only be read by the right reader. The one that’s outgrown Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. The one who isn’t scared off by The Golden Compass and who will inform the librarian that they can’t possibly impress him or her because they’ve read “everything”. This is a book to stretch the muscles in that child’s brains. To make them appreciate the language of a tale as much as the action. And yes, there are big smelly zombies that go about killing people so win-win, right? Some may say the book ends too quickly. Some will wonder why there isn’t a sequel. But many will be impressed by what Wilson’s willing to shoot for here. Like the boys in the cane, this book speeds out of the gate, quick on its feet, willing to skip and hop and jump as fast as possible to get you where you need to go. If you’ve read too much of the same old, same old, this is one children’s book that’s like no other you know out there. Gripping.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from author for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi – Lots of similarities, actually. Particularly when it comes to beating down zombies in cane fields / corn fields.
  • Beowulf by Gareth Hinds – Undoubtedly the best version of Beowulf for kids out there, this is Hinds’ masterpiece and is not to be missed.
  • The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton – Bear with me here. It makes sense. In both books you’ve mysterious African-American men hiding a secret of the past, scaring the local kids. I draw my connections where I can.

First Line: “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.”

Other Blog Reviews:

Misc: Read some of the book yourself to get a taste.

Videos:
Remember, if you will, that Wilson both shot and narrated the following book trailer. One of the best of the year, too:

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20. Review of the Day: The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

MostMagnificent1 300x300 Review of the Day: The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley SpiresThe Most Magnificent Thing
By Ashley Spires
Kids Can Press
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-55453-704-4
Ages 3-7
On shelves now

I was at a conference of math enthusiasts the other day to discuss kids and the state of math related children’s books. Not my usual scene but I was open to it. Despite what some might fear, the day was thoroughly fascinating and the mathematicians in attendance made many fine and salient points that I had never thought to consider. At one point they took it upon themselves to correct some common math-related misunderstandings that have grown over the years. Most fascinating was the idea of trial and error. Kids today live in an era where it often feels to them that if they don’t get something right the first time then they should just give it up and try something else. It’s hard to make them understand that in a lot of professions, math amongst them, much of the job consists of making mistakes and tinkering for long periods of time before getting to the ultimate solution. It got me to thinking about how there really aren’t a lot of children’s books out there that tackle this subject. Or, for those few that do, tackle it well. The remarkable thing then about a book like The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires isn’t just the way in which she’s gone about discussing this issue, but also the fact that it works as brilliantly as it does. This is the anti-perfection picture book. The one that dares to suggest that maybe a little trial and error is necessary when trying to get something right.

A girl and her dog are best friends. They do everything together from exploring to racing to making things. So when the girl has an idea one day for “the most MAGNIFICENT thing” that they can make together, the dog has no objection. Plans are drawn up, supplies gathered, and the work begins. And everything seems to be fine until it becomes infinitely clear that the thing she has made? It’s all wrong! Not a problem. She tosses it and tries again. And again. And again. Soon frustration turns to anger and anger into a whopping great temper tantrum. Just when the girl is on the brink of giving up, her doggie partner in crime suggests a walk. And when they return they realize that even if they haven’t gotten everything right yet, the previous attempts did a right thing here or a right thing there. And when you put those parts together what you’ll have might not be exactly like it was up in your brain, but it’ll be a truly magnificent thing just the same.

MostMagnificent2 300x300 Review of the Day: The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley SpiresI think perhaps the main reason we don’t see a lot of books about kids trying and failing is that this sort of plot doesn’t make for a natural picture book. I won’t point any fingers, but the usual plot about success follows this format: Hero tries. Hero fails. Hero tries. Hero fails. Hero tries. Hero succeeds. Now hero is an instant pro. You see the problem. I’ve seen this plotline used on everything from learning to ride a bike to playing an instrument. And what Spires has done here that’s so marvelous is show that there’s a value in failure. A value that won’t yield success unless you go over your notes, rethink what you’ve already thought, reexamine the problem, and try it from another angle. In this book the failure is continual and incredibly frustrating. The girl actually has quite a bit of chutzpah, since she completes at least eleven mistakes before finally hitting on a solution. Useful bits and pieces are culled, but it’s also worth noting that the inventions left behind, while they don’t do her much good, are claimed by other people with other ideas. It sort of reinforces the notion that even as you work towards your own goals, your process might be useful to other people, whether or not you recognize that fact at the time.

Spires doesn’t cheat either. Our unnamed heroine idea is actually clear cut about what she wants to make from the start. On the page where it reads, “One day, the girl has a wonderful idea. She is going to make the most MAGNIFICENT thing” you can see her on her scooter explaining her idea to her now thoroughly exhausted pup. It’s only on the last page that we learn that the thing in question was to be a pug-sized sidecar for the aforementioned scooter.

Now Ms. Spires is no newbie to the world of children’s literature. If you have not seen her Binky the Space Cat graphic novel series for kids, it is about time you hied thee hence and found those puppies. In them, you will discover that not only is she remarkably good at the subtle visual gag, but that her writing is just tiptop. Some of the choices she made for this book were fascinating to me. It’s written in the present tense. Neither the girl nor the dog has a name. At the same time it’s incredibly approachable. I love how Spires relates the girl’s travails. The final solution is also all the better because even with her success it’s not perfectly perfect. “It leans a little to the left, and it’s a bit heavier than expected. The color could use a bit of work, too. But it’s just what she wanted!” Perfection can be a terrible thing to strive for. Sometimes, just getting it right can be enough.

MostMagnificent3 300x300 Review of the Day: The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley SpiresAnd yes, I have to mention it at some point: It’s about a scientifically minded girl character. Now you might feel like this ain’t no big a thing, but let me assure you that when I was wracking my brain to come up with readalikes for this title, I came up nearly empty. Picture books where girls are into nature science? Commonplace. But books where girls are into math or invention? Much more difficult. There are a couple exception to the rule (Violet the Pilot by Steve Breen, Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty, and Oh No! Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World by Mac Barnett come to mind) but by and large they are rare. Yet if this had been a book where the whole point was something along the lines of even-girls-can-love-science I would have loathed it. The joy of The Most Magnificent Thing is that the girl’s goal is the focus, not the girl herself. Her love of tinkering is just natural. A fact of life. As well it should be.

On the back bookflap for this book we are able to discover the following information about Ms. Spires: “Ashley has always loved to make things and she knows the it-turned-out-wrong frustration well! All of her books have at one point or another made her cry, scream and tear her hair out as she tried to get them JUST RIGHT.” I guess that children’s authors really are the finest authorities on trial and error. They know frustration. They know rejected drafts. They know how much work it takes to get a book just right. And when all the right elements come together at last? Then you get a book like The Most Magnificent Thing. I don’t know how long it took Ms. Spires to write and illustrate this. All I know is that it was worth it. In the end, it’s precisely the kind of book we need for kids these days. Perfection is a myth. Banged up, beat up, good enough can sometimes be the best possible solution to a problem. A lesson for the 21st century children everywhere.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Misc: Just wanted to point out this little note on the publication page.  It’s easy to miss but when discussing the art it reads, “The artwork in this book was rendered digitally with lots of practice, two hissy fits and one all out tantrum.”  Cute.

Videos:

Here’s the official book trailer:

The Most Magnificent Thing Book Trailer from Kids Can Press on Vimeo.

And here we have the world’s most adorable author hacking her own book:

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21. 2013: Best Books, High School

If I was starting a library in a high school, these are the first books I'd buy, along with the ten listed in 2010: Best Books, High School.    

Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, edited by Bill Bigelow

Killer of Enemies, by Joseph Bruchac

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

House of Purple Cedar, by Tim Tingle

Code Talker Stories, by Laura Tohe

The Moon of Letting Go: And Other Stories, by Richard Van Camp

Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson 

Short annotations for these books are at School Library Journal in a column I wrote for them in November of 2013: Resources and Kit Lit about American Indians.

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22. 2013: Best Books, Middle School

If I was starting a library in an elementary school or if I was ordering books for a middle school library, these are ten books I'd buy right away, along with the ten listed in 2010: Top Ten Books Recommended for a Middle School Library.

With these books, students will read the works of Native and non-Native writers who know what they're talking about. 

Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection. Edited by Matt Dembicki.

My Name Is Not Easy, by Debby Dahl Edwardson

If I Ever Get Out of Here, by Eric Gansworth

Triple Threat, by Jacqueline Guest

Under the Mesquite, by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky: Poetry and Prose by Lakota Youth at Red Cloud Indian School, edited by Timothy P. McLaughlin; illustrated by S. D. Nelson

Native Writers: Voices of Power, by Kim Sigafus and Lyle Ernst

Super Indian: Volume One, written and illustrated by Arigon Starr

How I Became a Ghost, by Tim Tingle 

Annotations for the books are at a column I wrote for School Library Journal in November of 2013:
"Resources and Kid Lit about American Indians"

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23. Review of the Day: The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

greatgreene Review of the Day: The Great Greene Heist by Varian JohnsonThe Great Greene Heist
By Varian Johnson
Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-545-52552-7
Ages 10 and up
On shelves May 27th

What is the ultimate child fantasy? I’m not talking bubble gum sheets or wizards that tell you you’re “the chosen one”. Let’s think a little more realistically here. When a kid looks at the world, what is almost attainable but just out of their grasp for the moment? Autonomy, my friends. Independence. The ability to make your own rules and to have people fall in line. Often this dream takes the form of numerous orphan novels (it’s a lot easier to be independent if you don’t have any pesky parents swooping about), tales in which the child is some form of royalty (orphaned royalty, nine times out of ten), and other tropes. But for some kids, independence becomes a lot more interesting when it’s couched in their familiar, everyday, mundane world. Take middle school as one such setting. It’s a place a lot of kids know about, and it wouldn’t take much prodding for readers to believe that beneath the surface it’s a raging cesspool of corruption and crime. The joy of a book like The Great Greene Heist is manifold, but what I think I’ll take away from it best is author Varian Johnson’s ability to make this a story about a boy who knows how to do something very well (pulling cons) while also telling a compelling tale of a kid who knows what it means to be in charge and never abuses that power. If the ultimate child fantasy is to be in charge, the logical extension of that is to be the kind of person who is also a good leader. With that in mind, this book is poised to make a whole lotta kids very happy.

Since The Blitz at the Fitz the former con king Jackson Greene has gone straight. Trained in the art of conning by his own grandfather, Jackson’s the kind of guy you’d want on your side when things go down. Yet he seems perfectly content to put that all behind him, just tending the flowers of his garden club like he’s a normal kid or something. Normal, that is, before he gets wind that something shady is going on and it involves the upcoming school election. Gabriela de la Cruz (a.k.a. Gabby), the girl he inadvertently betrayed, is running for Class President against the ruthless Keith Sinclair. Worse? It looks like Sinclair and his dad have the principal in their pocket and that no matter what Gabby does she’ll be facing a defeat. Now it’s time for Greene to come out of retirement and assemble a crack team to use Keith and the principal’s worst instincts to their ultimate advantage. All it’s going to take is the greatest con Maplewood Middle School has ever seen.

To write a good con novel you have to be a writer confident in your own abilities. Johnson exudes that confidence, particularly when he takes risks. Since, at its essence, this is the story about a boy tricking a girl into doing what he wants, it would be easy for Johnson to slip up at any time and make the storyline either condescending or downright offensive. That he manages not to do this is nothing short of a minor miracle of modern writing. Much of this book is also actively engaged in the act of testing the reader’s sympathies. Johnson is misdirecting his readers as often as he is misdirecting his characters and he’s doing it with the given understanding that if they stick with the story they’ll be amply rewarded with more sympathetic motivations later on down the line. To do this in a book for kids is risky. You’re asking your readers to look at your hero as an antihero. And even if they’re sympathetic to his cause, will that translate into them continuing to read the book? In this case . . . yes.

One takeaway I took from this novel was the fact that Johnson really knows his age bracket. More to the point, he knows what kids today are really like. At first I found myself confused when I discovered that The Tech Club and The Gamer Club in this book were two very distinct and different entities. Under the old rules of middle school literature, anything that sniffed of video games or techie concerns would have been filed under “hopeless geekdom”. But in the 21st century we’re all geeks on some level. We’re all hooked up to our phones and computers. Big plot points in this book focus on the bribing of other kids with video games. The lines are blurring and at no point does anyone, even a bully, call another kid a nerd or geek. That isn’t to say that the bullies are nice or anything. It’s just that when it comes to base insults, some terms just don’t always carry the same cache. The nerds may make our toys but that still doesn’t mean a lot of us are going out and befriending them.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the dearth of kids of color in books for children. Last year I tried to count as many middle grade books starring African-American boys and I topped out at around six or seven (and most of those were written by celebrities). With its truly multicultural cast (name me the last time you read a contemporary book for kids where TWO of the characters were Asian-American and not twins) and black boy hero dead front and center on the cover, we’re looking at a rare beast in the market. Author Varian Johnson also does a dandy job at avoiding certain tropes that librarians and teachers have grown to detest. For example, one way of making it clear what a character’s skin color is (or eye shape) is to compare them to food. I’m sure you’ve read your own fair share of books where the hero had “caramel colored skin” or “almond shaped eyes”. After a while you begin to wonder why the white kids aren’t being described as having “cottage cheese tinted cheeks” or “eyes as round as malted milk balls”. Johnson, for his part, is straightforward. When he wants to make it clear that someone’s black he just says they have “brown skin and black, curly hair”. See? How hard is that?

He also tackles casual racism with great skill and aplomb. At one point Jackson is facing the school’s senior administrative assistant. She says to him “Boys like you are always up to one thing or another.” Jackson’s response? “He hoped she meant something like ‘boys named Jackson’ or ‘boys who are tall,’ but he suspected her generalizations implied something else.” That is incredibly subtle for a middle school book. Some kids won’t pick up on it at all, while others will instantly understand what it is that Johnson is getting at. Because this character is minor (and her assumptions get neatly turned against her later) this storyline is not pursued, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t appreciated. Racism lives on long and strong in the modern world, but few authors for kids think it necessary to point out the fact. They should. It’s important.

Now you would think that since I walked into this knowing it was a kind of junior high Ocean’s 11 I’d have been on the lookout for the twist. All good con films have a twist. Sometimes the twist is good. Sometimes it’s unspeakably lame or capable of stretching your credulity to its limits. I am therefore happy to report that not only does The Great Greene Heist keep you from remembering that twist is coming, when it does come adult readers will be just as flummoxed by it as the kids.

If I were to change one thing about the book, it would be to include something additional. For some readers, keeping characters straight can be difficult. Johnson respects his readers’ instincts and intelligence, so he drops them almost mid-stream into the story. You have to get caught up with Jackson and Gabby’s falling out, and when we start our tale we’re in the aftermath of a once grand friendship. That’s fine, but had a character list been included in the beginning of the book as well, I would have had an easier time distinguishing between each new person we meet. I read this book in an early galley edition, so perhaps this problem will be changed by the time the book reaches publication, but if not then be aware that some readers may need a bit of help parsing the who is who right at the beginning.

You know, we talk a lot about the lack of diversity in our books for kids these days. There’s this two-headed belief that either kids won’t pick up a book with a kid of color on the cover and/or that such books are never fun. And certainly while it may be true that the bulk of multicultural literature for children does delve into serious subjects, there are exceptions to every rule. I look at this book and I think of Pickle by Kimberly Baker. I think of fun books that look amusing and will entice readers. Books that librarians and booksellers will be able to handsell with ease by merely describing the plot. With its fun cover, great premise, and kicky writing complete with twist, this book fulfills the childhood desire for autonomy while also knocking down stereotypes left and right. That it’s like nothing else out there for kids today is a huge problem. Let us hope, then, that it is a sign of more of the same to come.

On shelves May 27th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Pickle by Kim Baker – Similar, but less a con novel than a pranking novel. Both types of stories require that the kids be in charge and the adults fall in line.
  • The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander – If The Great Greene Heist has an Ocean’s 11 feel then The Fourth Stall is The Godfather. Nothing wrong with that.
  • Griff Carver, Hallway Patrol by Jim Krieg – A highly underrated novel and almost completely forgotten thanks to its gawdawful cover. But this joke on the hard-boiled cop genre definitely reminded me of the tone Varian Johnson set with his own book.
  • You Killed Wesley Payne by Sean Beaudoin – Perhaps only because it features cliques as distinct entities vying for power, but that’s enough for me. But it’s YA so make note of that as well.

First Sentence: “As Jackson Greene sped past the Maplewood Middle School cafeteria – his trademark red tie skewed slightly to the left, a yellow No. 2 pencil balanced behind his ear, and a small spiral-bound notebook tucked in his right jacket pocket – he found himself dangerously close to sliding back into the warm confines of scheming and pranking.”

Notes on the Cover:  Yes.  Yes and also thank you.  Now granted, the original cover was pretty cool.  Seen here:

GreatGreeneHeist2 Review of the Day: The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

But at least they kept the same artist.  Now it has more of a movie poster feel.  Nothing wrong with that.  As long as Jackson himself is front and center that is all I care.  Good show, Scholastic.  Way to knock it out of the park!

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Misc: 

  • The book has become a bit of a touchstone for diversity discussions as of late.  Thanks in large part to Kate Messner independent bookstores are all working to sell it in droves in what they’re calling The Great Greene Heist Challenge.  Impressively, author John Green even offered ten signed copies of The Fault in Our Stars to any bookstore in the U.S. that handsells at least 100 copies of The Great Green Heist in its first month of publication.  No small potatoes, that.  I certainly hope lots and lots of people will be attempting to read and buy this one.
  • Read the story behind the story here.

Video: As of this review there is no book trailer for this book.  I hereby charge a middle school somewhere in this country to make an Ocean’s 11 style trailer out of it.  Make it and I will post it, absolutely.  For a guide, I direct you to this Muppet version of that very thing.

Okay.  Now do that with this book.

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24. The Secret Hum of a Daisy, by Tracy Holczer

Grace is used to traveling from place to place with her wandering mom, so when she passes and Grace has to stop, she is worried.  She knows that if she could just stay with Mrs. Greene and Lacey she will be alright.  But that is not the plan.  The plan is that she has to stay with her grandmother.

The problem is, she never met her grandmother before.  In fact, all she knows about her is that she kicked her mom out of the house when she was a teenager and pregnant with Grace.  Grace feels that if her grandmother didn't want her then, how can she possibly want her now?

Once she lands in her mother's hometown, she starts to see signs and find clues that her mother is still with her.  It's just like when she was younger and they would move to a different place -- her mother would send her on a scavenger hunt through the town.  This time, it all starts with an origami crane, stuck in the bushes on Grace's first day of school after the funeral.  "Mama thought birds were signposts sent to let us know we were headed in the right direction.  We'd look for birds on road signs, in murals or billboards, anywhere they might show up.  So I took that bird as a sign of encouragement." (pg. 57)

But is Grace on the right path?  Is trying to make her grandmother angry so she will send her back to Mrs. Greene the right thing to do?  Or should she stay in her mama's town and learn more about her mama, her late father and grandfather and her grandmother as well?  Should Grace give her a chance?

This is less a story of loss than it is a story of finding oneself.  Grace is quiet and thoughtful and is torn apart with her idea of Before mama died and After mama died.  The passing of her mother is fresh (days old at the start) and the reader joins Grace on this journey of trying to do more than simply exist in the After.  The Secret Hum of a Daisy possesses a simplicity that I find refreshing.  There is a poetry to the prose that is as far from flowery as you can get, but manages to land just right.  Several times I had to pause, close the book and just sit in wonder for a moment.  This is one that will simmer with you for a very long time after you read the final words.

Beautiful.

0 Comments on The Secret Hum of a Daisy, by Tracy Holczer as of 5/3/2014 4:01:00 PM
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25. Review of the Day: My Country, ‘Tis of Thee by Claire Rudolf Murphy

MyCountryTis 230x300 Review of the Day: My Country, Tis of Thee by Claire Rudolf MurphyMy Country, ‘Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights
By Claire Rudolf Murphy
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Henry Holt and Company (an imprint of Macmillan)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8226-5
Ages 7 and up
On shelves June 3rd

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve worked as a children’s librarian. It doesn’t matter how many books for kids you’ve read or how much of your life is dedicated to bringing them to the reading public. What I love so much about my profession is the fact that I can always be surprised. Take My Country, ‘Tis of Thee by Claire Rudolf Murphy as a prime example. I admit that when I glanced at the cover I wasn’t exactly enthralled. After all, this isn’t exactly the first book to give background information on a patriotic song or poem. We’ve seen a slate of books talking about “We Shall Overcome” over the years (one by Debby Levy and one by Stuart Stotts) as well as books on the Pledge of Allegiance or “The New Colossus”. So when I read the title of this book I admit suppressing a bit of an inward groan. Another one? Haven’t we seen enough of these? Well, no. Turns out we haven’t seen enough of them. Or, to be more precise, we haven’t seen enough good ones. What Murphy manages to do here is tie-in a seemingly familiar song to not just the history of America but to the embodiment of Civil Rights in this country itself. So expertly woven together it’ll make your eyes spin, Murphy brings us a meticulously researched, brilliant work of nonfiction elegance. Want to know how to write a picture book work of factual fascinating information for kids? Behold the blueprint right before your eyes.

The press for this book says, “More than any other, one song traces America’s history of patriotism and protest.” More than you ever knew. Originally penned in 1740 as “God Save the King”, the tune was sung by supporters of King George II. It soon proved, however, to be an infinitely flexible kind of song. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s followers sang it in Scotland to new verses and it traveled to America during the French and Indian War. There the colonists began to use it in different ways. The preacher George Whitefield rewrote it to celebrate equality amongst all, the revolutionary colonists to fight the power, the loyalists to celebrate their king, and even a woman in 1795 published a protest verse for women using the song. In each instance of the song’s use, author Claire Rudolf Murphy shows the context of that use and then writes out some of the new verses. Before our eyes it’s adapted to the Northern and Southern causes during The Civil War. It aids labor activists fighting for better pay. Women, Native Americans, and African-Americans adopt it, each to their own cause until, ultimately, we end with Barack Obama as president. Backmatter includes copious Source Notes documenting each instance of the song, as well as a Bibliography and Further Resources that are split between “If You Want to Learn More” and “Musical Links”. There is also sheet music for the song and the lyrics of the four stanzas as we know them today.

MyCountryTis3 300x251 Review of the Day: My Country, Tis of Thee by Claire Rudolf MurphyThere’s always a bit of a thrill in being an adult reading information about history for the first time in a work for kids. I confess readily that I learned a TON from this book. But beyond that, it was the scope of the book that really captured my heart. That it equates patriotism with protest in the same breath is a wonderful move in and of itself. However, part of what I like so much about the book is that it is clear that our work is nowhere close to done. Here is how the book ends: “Now it’s your turn. Write a new verse for a cause you believe in. Help freedom ring.” Right there Murphy is making it clear that for all that the Obama’s inauguration makes for a brilliant capper to her story, it’s not the END of the story. People are still fighting for their rights. There are still causes out there worth protesting. Smart teachers, I hope, will brainstorm with their students the problems still facing equal opportunities in America today and will use this book to give kids a chance to voice their own opinions.

There’s a trend in nonfiction for kids right now that you’ll usually find in science picture books. When it comes to selling books to children, it can be awfully frustrating for an author to have limit their work to a very precise age range or reading level since, inevitably, your readership ages out of your book fairly quickly. The solution? Two types of text in the same book. The author will write a simple sentence on a page and then pair that with a dense paragraph of facts on the other. The advantage of this is that now the book reads aloud well to younger ages while still carrying information for the older kids. Or, put another way, children studying a subject can now get more information out of a single book if they’re interested and can disregard that same information if they’re not. I mention this because the layout of this book looks at first like that’s what Murphy was going for. You’ll have the factual information, followed by the new verses of the song. Then, at the end, in larger type will be a simple sentence. Yet as I read the book it became clear that what Murphy’s actually doing is using the large type sentences to draw connections from one page to another. For example, on the page about women marching for the right to vote, the section ends with the large type sentence, “But the privilege to vote didn’t extend to Native Americans, male or female” (a fact that, I am ashamed to say, I did not know). Turn the page and now we’re reading about the Native American struggles for Civil Rights and after reading the factual information the bolded sentence reads, “Equality did not exist for everyone in America.” Turn the page and there’s Marion Anderson. And it is at this point that Murphy draws her most brilliant connections between the pages. Marion Anderson leads to Martin Luther King listening to her Lincoln Memorial performance on the radio when he is ten, then we turn the page to King proclaiming “My country, ‘tis of thee” in his “I have a dream” speech, which then naturally ties into Aretha Franklin singing the song at the inauguration of Barack Obama. Amazing.

MyCountryTis2 300x180 Review of the Day: My Country, Tis of Thee by Claire Rudolf MurphyNow I’ve a funny relationship to the art of Bryan Collier. Sometimes I feel like he gives a book his all and comes out swinging as a result. If you’ve ever seen his work on Uptown or Knock Knock or Martin’s Big Words or Dave the Potter then you know what he’s capable of. By the same token, for every Uptown there’s a Lincoln and Douglass where it just doesn’t have that good old-fashioned Collier magic. I worried that maybe My Country, ‘Tis of Thee would fall into that category, particularly after seeing the anemic George Washington awkwardly placed on the book’s cover. As it turns out, that’s probably the weakest image in the book. Go into it and you’ll see that Collier is in fine fettle for the most part. For example, in a section discussing how both the North and the South adopted this song and sang their own verses to it, Collier brilliantly overlays a soldier’s tent against a plantation background. Inside the tent are shots of the battle raging, letters from the soldiers spilling out over the sides like a fabric of their own. Turn the page and now the fields are bare, the Emancipation Proclamation having been declared, and the papers you see floating across the earth and into the sky all begin with “A Proclamation”. This is the kind of attention to detail that gets completely ignored in a work of nonfiction, even when the artist has taken a great deal of care and attention. It took me about five or six reads before I would notice the photographs of kids interspersed with the drawn people. And sure there’s the occasional misstep (the tea dumped by the Bostonians looks a bit more like the wings of birds than something you’d like to consume, and while Collier nails Aretha Franklin better than anyone I’ve ever seen he just can NOT get George Washington quite right) on the whole the book hangs together as well as it does because Collier knows what he’s doing.

I can already tell you that this book will not get the attention it deserves. And what it deserves is a place in every single classroom, library, and bookstore shelf in the nation. Yet this isn’t a work of children’s nonfiction that slots neatly into a pre-made hole. There’s nothing else really like this book out there. That it works as a brilliant piece of nonfiction as well as a smart as all get out piece of history and classroom ideas for teachers is clear. What it has to say about our country and our people and how they’ve fought for their rights should not, under any circumstances, be missed. It’s hard to write patriotic American fare for kids that doesn’t just sound like boosterism. This book manages to pull it off and you feel pretty good after it does. Do not miss it. Don’t.

On shelves June 3rd.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song by Debby Levy – More of a picture book like this one and nowhere near as well researched, but fun and a good companion in the old history-of-a-song-in-America genre.

Professional Reviews:

Interviews:

  • Bryan Collier talks about his work and discusses this book a little bit as well with SLJ.

Misc:

  • How cool is this?  Murphy has linked to a My Country Tis of Thee Music Project where “Choirs of all ages and abilities are invited to participate in the Music Project by singing and recording their own versions of My Country, Tis of Thee at school and in their communities.”  Want to know more?  Go here and then listen to some of the choirs that are already up for your listening pleasure.
  • Murphy answers a couple questions about the book here.

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