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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Reviews, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Review: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreamingby Jacqueline Woodson. Nancy Paulsen Books, published by the Penguin Books. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Woodson uses poetry to tell the story of her childhood, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. She was born in Ohio; moved to South Carolina; and later to New York City. It's a story of Woodson growing up, and learning more about the world around her, and learning how to process that world using words and stories.

The Good: First, yes, this book is wonderful. Perfect. Amazing. I was so, so happy to see it selected as the National Book Award Winner for Young People's Literature. I mean, there is so much out there that already establishes this as terrific, what do I have to add to the conversation?

Brown Girl Dreaming starts with Woodson's birth in 1963:

I am born in Ohio but
the stories of South Carolina already run
like rivers
through my veins.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a look at what shapes one girl, born in Ohio in 1963, following her childhood until about fifth grade. And so on one level, the "obvious" level, it's a book aimed at those who are the child-Woodson's age.

It's also about a young African American girl in the 1960s and 1970s, living both in the South and the North, and her many worlds: the world of immediate family of mother and siblings, the bigger world of grandparents and aunts and uncles, the world of friends and school, and then civil rights and what that meant, or didn't mean. And all those things, while being told by a child, are things that readers of all ages are interested in.

For Brown Girl Dreaming, the age of the protagonist doesn't dictate the age of the reader; rather, the interests of the reader make this book open and of interest to readers of all ages.

So, people like myself -- born just three years after Woodson -- are potential readers. As are older readers who lived during that time. Just because, hey, I also remember watching The Big Blue Marble and singing along to the theme song, even if I did it from New Jersey.

The poetry may make it more accessible for some readers, but that doesn't mean it's easy or simple. Teen readers do like to read about teens -- but it's not the only thing they like to read about. Despite Woodson's age during the time of Brown Girl Dreaming, the things she lives through, her experiences, her world is bigger than her age. A parent's divorce; a move; a new sibling; a sick brother; learning about the world through books; and civil rights; all of this, all of what is in Brown Girl Dreaming, are of interest to all ages. I'd even argue that older readers -- older than ten, anyway -- will get more out of Brown Girl Dreaming because they will understand the references and the emotions in a way that younger readers cannot.

And, finally, selfishly, I don't want this to be it. I want the books that take Woodson further along her journey: Brown Teen Dreaming, Brown Woman Dreaming -- just to suggest a couple of possible titles.

Of course, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2014.



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

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

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2. F, a Novel

What is it with books and exquisite plotting lately? Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Jane Austen’s Emma (write up to come on that one!). I generally call myself a character novel person. Not that I don’t enjoy a good plot, I do! Most of the time though it seems that the best books are the ones centered on character with plot happening in order to provide the character with something to do. The meaning of the story lies in the character’s development. Books with meaningful characters and tight, meaningful plots that aren’t clunky or forced are hard to come by. At least in my experience.

But now to the list above I can add a fourth book, F by Daniel Kehlmann. Four books within two months. Unheard of!

F is about what happens when Arthur Friedland abandons his three sons to pursue a writing career. Arthur has a son, Martin, with his first wife whom he divorced. He has two sons, twins, Eric and Ivan, with his current wife. He has regular outings with his three sons and on this occasion he has taken them to see the Great Lindemann, a hypnotist. Arthur is certain he cannot be affected by hypnotism but when Lindemann calls him up on stage something happens. Was he really hypnotized or did Lindemann just manage to hit so close to the bone that Arthur could no longer remain in his mediocre life? Whatever the case, Arthur drops all three boys off at Martin’s house and disappears out of their lives. He doesn’t completely disappear, however, because he eventually becomes a best selling author.

Martin grows up and becomes a priest who doesn’t believe in God. Eric grows up to become a financial manager who begins an honest man but through a number of large investment errors ends up running a ponzi scheme in order to keep himself and his company afloat. Ivan sets out to be a painter but instead becomes a forger of paintings.

The story is told in sections. The first is the events with Lindemann. The second section belongs to Martin. This is followed by a section that is a portion of a book Arthur wrote about his family history which may or may not be fiction. The next section belongs to Eric and events in this chapter neatly coincide in places with Martin’s section while also moving forward in time. The fifth section is Ivan’s and it continues to move the story ahead while also fitting in with events that happened in Martin’s and Eric’s sections. The final section brings them all together again with the addition of a third generation, Marie, Eric’s daughter. This too, ties in with events that happened in earlier sections but also moves forward in time.

There is much in the book about work, choosing a path or having it chosen for you, determination and lack of it. Also, what happens when you aim for big things but discover you are only average?

What does it mean to be average — suddenly the question became a constant one. How do you live with that, why do you keep on going? What kind of people bet everything on a single card, dedicate their lives to the creative act, undertake the risk of the one big bet, and then fail year after year to produce anything of significance?

And what is work and all the things we do in life about anyway? Is it all just meant to fill up time until we die?

All the same, a day was a long time. So many days still until the holidays came around, so many more until Christmas, and so many years until you were grown up. Every one of them full of days and every day full of hours, and every hour a whole hour long. How could they all go by, how had old people ever managed to get old? What did you do with all that time?

Something only a child can ask.

The “F” of the title is never defined. It could mean all kinds of things: Friedland, family, faith, fate, forgery, fraud, father and probably a few others. The writing is fairly unadorned, there is no fancy styling here, just good, competent prose.

F has gotten a bit of buzz. While I was impressed with the plotting, I didn’t especially love the book. It might be because it has a rather bleak outlook on life. No one in the book is happy about anything. And when there are moments of happiness they tend to be fleeting or arise from escaping punishment. It all kind of feels pretty close to nihilistic. Of course the gray skies I have been living under for the past two weeks probably didn’t help matters. If the sun had come out once or twice I might have felt differently. I think it’s time to pull a more upbeat book from the reading pile!


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Daniel Kehlmann

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3. Review of Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel

farizan tell me again how a crush should feel Review of Tell Me Again How a Crush Should FeelTell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel
by Sara Farizan
High School    Algonquin    296 pp.
10/14    978-1-61620-284-2    $16.95    g
e-book ed.  978-1-61620-435-8    $16.95

Sixteen-year-old Iranian American Leila Azadi is, in her own words, a “Persian scaredy-cat.” Afraid to tell her best friends and her conservative family that she is gay, Leila finds herself in a secret relationship with Saskia, a gorgeous, sophisticated new girl with a decidedly wicked side. As Saskia reveals herself to be a master manipulator, Leila turns to an unexpected ally, Lisa, an old friend who recently lost her brother in a car accident. When Lisa and Leila’s friendship turns romantic, a spurned Saskia threatens the couple as well as their friends, who rally in support of the girls. The humor and cleverness of Leila’s first-person narrative lightens what, in less capable hands, could be an angsty story, while well-drawn secondary characters balance the novel’s more extremely rendered villain. While Leila’s coming-out process provides narrative tension, this is not a problem novel. Instead, Farizan’s second book (If You Could Be Mine, rev. 11/13) is more of a David Levithan–style romance in which a character’s sexual identity is neither problematic nor in question, and coming out is just one of many obstacles affecting the course of true love.

From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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4. Monday Review: UNMADE (THE LYNBURN LEGACY #3) by Sara Rees Brennan

Cool font, spooky silhouettes...me like.Summary: Okay, so, I have read books 1 and 2 of The Lynburn Legacy and failed to write about those, so this is really a review of the entire trilogy. I know, I know; I really MEANT to write about them... Read the rest of this post

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5. Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

And thus, we end. Though, with such a late ALA Media Awards announcement this year (Monday, February 2nd!) my predictions are coming a bit early in the game.  Still, it’s not as though I’ll be seeing much that’s new between now and 2/2.  I have watched with great interest the discussions on Heavy Medal and Calling Caldecott.  I’ve discussed and debated the contenders with folks of all sorts.  I’m eyeing the Mock Caldecotts and Mock Newberys with great fervor as they post their results (and I’m tallying them for my next Pre-Game / Post-Game Show).  I’ve gauged the wind.  Asked the Magic 8 ball.  Basically I’ve done everything in my power to not be to embarrassed when my predictions turn out to be woefully inaccurate.  And they will be.  Particularly in the Caldecott department.  Still, I press on!

I should mention that that throughout the year I mention the books that I think we should all be discussing.  This post is a little different.  It’s the books I think will actually win. Not the ones I want to win necessarily but the books that I think have the best chance. Here then are my thoughts, and may God have mercy on my soul:

Newbery Award

Winner: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

BrownGirlDreaming Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

What was it I wrote in my Fall Prediction Edition?  Ah yes. “This is Woodson’s year and we’re just living in it.”  Even without the National Book Award brouhaha and the fact that this book is being purchased by everyone from POTUS on down, Jackie would win in this category.  Why the certainty?  Well, I’m a big fan of thematic years.  I like to take the temperature of the times and work from there.  Look back at 2014 and what will we remember?  #WeNeedDiverseBooks for one.  The Newbery committee canNOT take such things into account, but it’s in the air.  They breathe it just like we do and it’s going to affect the decision unconsciously.  It doesn’t hurt matters that this is THE book of the year on top of everything else.  Magnificently written by an author who has deserved the gold for years, I haven’t been this certain of a book’s chances since The Lion and the Mouse (and, before that, When You Reach Me).

Honors: West of the Moon by Margi Preus

WestMoon1 Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

Not a certainty but what is? It’s just enormously difficult not to appreciate what Preus is doing in this book.  Mind you, my librarians were not entirely taken with it.  Some disliked the heroine too much.  Others found it dense.  And perhaps it is a “librarian book” intended for gatekeepers more than kids, but I cannot look at the title and not see the word “distinguished” floating above it like a Goodyear Blimp.

Honors: Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson

BoysBlur Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

Also not a sure thing but I think we’d do well to remember it.  Wilson’s one of those guys who drifts just under the radar until BLAMMO!  Amazing book.  Read the first page of this book all by itself.  Right there, he’s got you.  I can’t help but keep thinking about it.  I try to bring up other potential winners, but again and again I turn to this one.  Zombie Beowulf.  It’s about time.

Honors: The 14th Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

14thgoldfish Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

Hm. Tricksy. Jenni has this magnificent ability to accrue Honor after Honor after Honor.  I’m not seeing gold written all over this book (that’s a lie . . . the gold would complement the blue of the cover so well and fit on the left side of the neck of the beaker, don’t you think?) but it’s a contender.  Committees adore her writing, and why not? She’s one of the best.  Newbery Honor best?  I’m going to say yes.

Wild Card: The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

FamilyRomanov Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

YA but not too YA.  Certainly pushes the old 0-14 age range, but still a beaut.  With Brown Girl Dreaming as well, we might end up with a very strong nonfiction Newbery year (and won’t Common Core be pleased with that?).  Mind you, if I hesitate to predict this as an Honor it has more to do with the fact that my heart was broken when Candy didn’t receive any award love for her brilliant Amelia Lost  biography.  Shouldawonshouldawonshouldawonshouldawon . . .

Wild Card: The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

NightGardener Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

Doll Bones Honored so why not another creepy little middle grade book?  Auxier pulls out all the stops here and is seriously literary in the process.  Is it distinguished?  Yep.  There’s serious heart and guts and other portions of the anatomy at work here.  It’s a smart book but appealing too.  Never downplay child appeal.  It’s worth considering.

Wild Card: The Riverman by Aaron Starmer

riverman Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

It’s probably a good sign when you can’t stop thinking about a book, right?  Again, we’re pushing up against the upper limits of the age restriction on Newbery Award winners here, but the book is worth it.  Objections I’ve heard lobbed against it say that Alexander doesn’t sound like a kid.  Well . . . actually, he’s not supposed to but you don’t really find that out until the second book.  So does that trip up the first one’s chances?  Maybe, but at least it’s consistent.  The objection that Aquavania isn’t realistic enough of a fantasy world would hold more weight if I thought it really WAS a fantasy world, but I don’t.  I think it’s all in the characters’ heads.  So my weird self-justifications seem to keep this one in the mix.  The only questions is, am I the only one?

Wild Card: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Crossover Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t even seriously considered this one until a friend of mine brought it up this weekend.  And OF COURSE it’s a contender!  I mean just look at that language.  It sizzles on the page.  I’m more than a little peeved that he didn’t garner a NAACP Image Award nomination for this title.  If he wins something it’s going to make them look pretty dang silly, that’s for sure.  They nominated Dork Diaries 8 and not THIS?!?  Okay, rant done.  In the end it’s brilliant and, amazingly enough, equally beloved of YA and children’s librarians.  The Crossover is a crossover title.  Who knew?

By the way, am I the only one with a shelf in my home of 2014 books that have Newbery potential and that I don’t want to read but am holding onto just in case I have to read them?  They ain’t gonna Moon Over Manifest me this year, by gum!  I am prepared!

Caldecott Award

Winner: Draw by Raul Colon

Draw Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

Betcha you didn’t see that one coming, eh?  But honestly, I think this is where we’re heading.  First off, this isn’t one of my favorites of the year.  I’m just not making the emotional connection with it that I’d like to.  My favorite Colon of 2014?  Abuelo by Arthur Dorros.  But no one’s talking about that one (more fool they).  No, they like this one and as I’ve watched I’ve seen it crop up on more and more Best Of lists.  Then I sat down and thought about it.  Raul Colon.  It’s ridiculous that he doesn’t have a Caldecott Gold to his name.  He’s one of the masters of the field and this could easily be a case of the committee unconsciously thinking, “Thank God! Now we can give the man an award!”  We haven’t had a Latin American gold winner since David Diaz’s Smoky Night (talk about a book tied to its time period).  It just makes perfect sense.  Folks love it, it’s well done, and it could rise to the top.

Honors: The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

FarmerClown 500x406 Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

Again, not one of my favorites.  I love Marla Frazee and acknowledge freely that though I don’t get this book, I seem to be the only one who doesn’t (my husband berates me repeatedly for my cold cold heart regarding this title).  I mean, I absolutely adore the image of the little clown washing the smile off of his face, revealing his true feelings.  So since I’ve apparently a gear stuck in my left aorta, I’m going to assume that this is a book that everyone else sees clearly except me.  It could go gold, of course.  It seems to have an emotional hold on people and books with emotional holds do very well in the Caldecott race sometimes.  We shall see.

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

BadByeGoodBye Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

Could be wishful thinking on my part, but look at the book jacket, man.  Look at how it tells the entire story.  Look at his technique.  Isn’t it marvelous?  Look at how it’s not just an emotional journey but a kind of road trip through Americana as well.  Look at how he took this spare sparse text and gave it depth and feeling and meaning.  That is SERIOUSLY hard to do with another author’s work!!  Look at how beautiful it is and the emotionally satisfying (and accurate) beats.  Look upon its works, ye mighty, and despair.  Or give it a Caldecott Honor.  I’m easy.

Honors: Viva, Frida by Yuyi Morales

VivaFrida 500x500 Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

Admittedly it’s not a shoo-in.  In fact I’m a bit baffled that it didn’t show up on the recent list by Latinas for Latino Lit called Remarkable Latino Children’s Literature of 2014.  There are admittedly some folks who want this to be a biography and have a hard time dealing with the fact that that is not its raison d’etre.  Still others aren’t blown away by the text.  That said, we’re not looking at the text.  We’re looking at the imagery and the imagery is STUNNING.  I mean, it could win the gold easily, don’t you think?  Models and photography and two-dimensional art?  Yuyi Morales should have won a Caldecott years ago.  I think it’s finally time to give the woman some love.

Wild Card: Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman

ThreeBearsBoat Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

“I still . . . I still, beeelieeeve!!!!”  Okay. So maybe it’s just me.  But when I sit down and I look and look and look at that image of the three little bears sailing into the sun with the light reflected off the water . . . *sigh*  It’s amazing.  I heard a very odd objection from someone saying that the bears don’t always look the same age from spread to spread.  Bull.  Do so.  Therein ends my very coherent defense.  It’s my favorite and maybe (probably) just mine, but I love it so much that I can’t give it up.  I just can’t.

Wild Card: Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine Roy

NeighborhoodSharks Newbery / Caldecott 2015: Final Prediction Edition

Because how cool would it frickin’ be?  Few have looked at this book and considered it for a Caldecott, but that’s just because they’re not looking at it correctly.  Consider the cinematic imagery.  The downright Hitchcockian view of the seal up above where YOU are the shark below.  The two page attack!  The beauty of blood in the water.  I mean, it’s gorgeous and accurate all at once.  I don’t think anyone’s giving the woman enough credit.  Give it a second glance, won’t you?

And that’s it!  There are loads and loads of titles missing from this list.  The actual winners, perhaps.  But I’m feeling confident that I’ve nailed at least a couple of these.  We shall see how it all falls out soon enough.  See you in February!!

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6. Thursday Review: WHEN WE WAKE and WHILE WE RUN by Karen Healey

Summary: When We Wake--and the companion/sequel While We Run--are the newest spec fic/sci-fi books by Karen Healey, whose books The Shattering (reviewed here) and Guardian of the Dead (reviewed here) I really enjoyed. If you're already a Karen... Read the rest of this post

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7. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

I did not expect to be cry at the end of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Nor did I expect to be so devastated by the ending. I was left with tears running down my face murmuring no, no, no. I wanted to have read the ending wrong so badly I turned back and read the final few pages again which only served to make me cry even more. Even now just thinking about it I am getting a bit teary.

I’m not sure how to write about this book it is so good. You have probably heard it is not an easy read. The style is challenging but it is beautiful. It has its own rhythms. And even though the sentences are often short and incomplete, it does not feel choppy at all and even is lyrical:

What’s. See it spin. Look around. What if. I could. I could make. A whole other world a whole civilization in this city that is not home? The heresy of it. But I can. And I can choose this. Shafts of sun. Life that is this. And I can. Laugh at it because the world goes on. And no one cares. And no one’s falling into hell. I can do. Puke the whole lot up.

The narrator of the story is the unnamed girl of the title. We begin when she hasn’t even been born yet. The language of the book here is marvelous and difficult and confusing and exactly conveys a sense of being in utero (at least as we can imagine it).

Most of the time the girl is addressing the you who is her brother, two years older than she is. Her brother, before she was born, had a brain tumor. The doctors removed it but his brain was damaged and they can’t promise that the tumor won’t someday return. She loves her brother dearly but the damage is such that he is never able to live on his own and work at anything besides stocking shelves. In spite of how much the narrator loves her brother he is equally as frustrating, especially when they reach their teens and go to a new school. The teenage world is a savage place and she struggles between wanting to protect her brother and throw him to the sharks.

Their father left when they were small and they are raised by a devoutly Catholic mother. Mammy is very protective of her son and has a tendency to take out her frustrations over his disability on her daughter. She frequently tells her daughter she is no good and nothing but trouble. Combine this with the girl’s uncle raping her in the kitchen when she was thirteen and it seems nearly inevitable that the girl tries hard to really be no good. While she does well in school she starts having sex with any boy who asks. Sex becomes a way to punish herself but it also serves as a substitute for the emotional pain she does not know how to deal with. Eventually she escapes home and goes off to college where she and her roommate regularly go out, drink too much and pick up men.

Just when it seems she might be starting to figure things out, her uncle shows up again and sends her spiraling out of control. When her brother’s tumor returns it is almost more than she can bear.

I have managed to make this book sound really depressing, haven’t I? It’s not depressing. It is raw and disturbing and uncomfortable. It is beautiful and heartbreaking. Now and then it is joyful. By turns I wanted to yell at the narrator, laugh, or wrap her in my arms and hold her tight. I cheered for her to find a way through her pain and dreaded that she never be able to.

You may have heard McBride wrote this book ten years ago when she was twenty-seven. It took nine years for her to find a publisher. I am glad a publisher finally decided to take a chance on Girl. It is an extraordinary book.


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Eimear McBride

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8. Citizen

Earlier this year I read and very much enjoyed Claudia Rankine’s book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Rankine is a poet whose poetry is written in prose. It has taken me a while to figure this out and I am not certain why. I am used to seeing a prose poem now and then in a poetry collection but an entire book of prose poetry? It puts me off balance. I think it probably does many people because I remember back in college a favorite professor scoffing at the idea that there could even be such a thing as a prose poem.

In the case of Rankine’s newest book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, one is thrown off balance just looking at the cover: stark white with a black fabric thing of some kind. Looking closely the black fabric thing is the hood part of a hoodie. The hoodie became a national conversation piece when Trayvon Martin was shot and murdered by George Zimmerman in 2012. Once past the unsettling cover, comes the prose poetry illustrated with the occasional photograph or illustration.

The poems are about being black in a racist country. They are all written in second person which I can imagine inspires a community feeling for a black reader. For this white reader the “you” pulled me in and forced me to see the world from a different perspective. Sometimes it was uncomfortable. Most of the time I was sad, heartbroken even, and angry over the injustice:

The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something — both as witness and as friend. She is not you; her silence says so.

The racism in the poems is most often of the every day sort, the small things that happen all the time whether on purpose or through ignorance, the kinds of things that a person privileged with white skin never has to think about.

On the train the woman standing makes you understand there are no seats available. And, in fact, there is one. Is the woman getting off at the next stop? No, she would rather stand all the way to Union Station.

The space next to the man is the pause in a conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill. You step quickly over the woman’s fear, a fear she shares. You let her have it.

The man doesn’t acknowledge you as you sit down because the man knows more about the unoccupied seat than you do.

While most of the poems deal with the every day, there are others that take on more publicized racism. I very much liked the series of poems about Serena and Venus Williams, beautiful women (I love their muscles!) and amazing tennis players who have been the victims on racism both on and off the court. There is also a series of poems described as situation scripts for video in collaboration with Rankine’s husband John Lucas. You can see one of these videos, “Stop and Frisk” as well as a video or Rankine reading one of her other poems from Citizen in a PBS article about Rankine and her poetry. Several of the scripts are about the violent deaths of black men, but also about other things like Hurricane Katrina and last summer’s World Cup.

The poems are short and powerful. The writing lyrical and beautiful. This is a timely book. An important book. It is a book I think people of all colors should read, but especially those of us who are white. As a woman I know what it is like to be part of an oppressed group. As a white woman I have privilege that black women do not have. I vaguely know this but haven’t spent much time thinking about it. I haven’t had to, that’s what privilege gets me. But ever since reading Citizen I have been thinking about it. It’s an eye opening book that will be sticking with me for a long time to come.

Every day your mouth opens and receives the kiss the world offers, which seals you shut though you are feeling sick to your stomach about the beginning of the feeling that was born from understanding and now stumbles around in you — the go-along-to-get-along tongue pushing your tongue aside. Yes, and your mouth is full up and the feeling is still tottering —


Filed under: Books, Nonfiction, Poetry, Reviews Tagged: Claudia Rankine

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9. Call for Submissions: Off the Coast

Off the Coast is accepting submissions for the Winter 2015 issue.

Deadline: December 15, 2014
Send us your poetry, artwork & photos and poetry books for review via Submittable.

Editorial decisions are not made until after the December 15 deadline. Notifications will go out early to mid-January. Contributors receive one free copy. Additional copies of the issue their work appears in available for half the cover price.

Poetry:

Send 1-3 previously unpublished poems, any subject or style, using our submission manager.
Postal submissions with SASE with sufficient postage for return.
Please include contact information and brief bio with submission.
We accept simultaneous submissions, but please inform us immediately if your work is accepted elsewhere.

Photos & Artwork:
We accept B&W graphics and photos to grace the pages of Off the Coast, and color or B&W for the cover.

Send 3-6 images in tiff, png or jpg format with 300 ppi minimum resolution. Images in portrait orientation work best for the journal.
Please use submission manager to send artwork.

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10. Review of What There Is Before There Is Anything There: A Scary Story

liniers what there is before there is anything there Review of What There Is Before There Is Anything There: A Scary StoryWhat There Is Before There Is Anything There:
A Scary Story

by Liniers; illus. by the author; trans. from the Spanish by Elisa Amado
Primary    Groundwood    24 pp.
9/14    978-1-55498-385-8    $18.95

Argentinian cartoonist Liniers’s (The Big Wet Balloon, rev. 9/13) bravely existential picture book eschews cute monsters in closets to capture the true reality of night terrors — the relentless, all-consuming, staring-into-the-void kind. “It’s the same every night”: a small boy’s parents tuck him into bed and turn off the light, and then “where there was a ceiling, now there is nothing…Now there’s only a black hole…black and infinite.” Down from that blackness floats a succession of bizarre creatures who perch at the bottom of the boy’s bed and stare at him. Finally — as happens every night the ceiling disappears — comes something dark and shapeless, “blacker than blackest darkness,” announcing, “I am what there is before there is anything there.” At this point the terrified boy hightails it to his parents’ room; they groan, “Not again,” but allow him to get into bed with them. A more conventional picture book would end here, but Liniers provides a more realistic if deeply unsettling conclusion: as the boy lies safely between his sleeping parents, another creature floats down from the ceiling. This is a scary story indeed — and the crosshatched ink and wash illustrations are as unflinching as the text, effectively interweaving the banal with the nightmarish — but for those kids who suffer through similar tortured bedtimes, it may provide validation. And though there is no happy ending, some young readers may find comfort in the mother’s reassurance — “It’s just your imagination…It’s good to be able to make things up” — suggesting they may grow up, like Liniers, to use their imaginative powers for good.

From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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11. Monday Mishmash 12/8/14


Happy Monday! Monday Mishmash is a weekly meme dedicated to sharing what's on your mind. Feel free to grab the button and post your own Mishmash.

Here's what's on my mind today:
  1. My Birthday  Today's my birthday. Can't say I'm thrilled to get a year older, but I guess that's inevitable, huh? 
  2. Editing  December has become the month of edits. I'm booked through January with no breaks at all. I hope I can fit Christmas in there. ;)
  3. Christmas Shopping  I'm 98% finished. I just have some grandparent gifts to take care of, but that should be easy enough. Now…wrapping. Ick.
  4. Reviewing/Blurbing  I have two books to read. One I agreed to blurb and another I agreed to review. (I think I'm going to wish for more hours in my days for my birthday.)
  5. Holiday Shop with the PTO  I'm also working at my daughter's school this week helping the PTO with the holiday shop for the kids. (Yup, definitely wishing for more hours in my days.)
That's it for me. What's on your mind today?

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12. Review of the Day: Halfway Home by Christine Mari Inzer

HalfwayHome 323x500 Review of the Day: Halfway Home by Christine Mari InzerHalfway Home: Drawing My Way Through Japan
By Christine Mari Inzer
Naruhodo Press
$11.95
ISBN: 978-0-9907014-0-8
Ages 12 and up
On shelves now

There’s been a lot of talk about the role of the reviewer when it comes to self-published books. Horn Book Magazine makes a point of not reviewing self-published fare of any sort. Kirkus, in contrast, makes quite a penny off of doing precisely that. And bloggers? Bloggers make their own rules. Some eschew anything but the professionally published while others are open to all comers. I fall somewhere in the middle. In my experience, you should always be open to self-published books because once in a while you’ll find a diamond in the rough. It might take a while to find them but they’re out there. I receive roughly 2-3 requests to review self-published fare a day, on average. I don’t review books not originally published in the current year and I don’t review books that are only available in an ebook form. That knocks out roughly 60% of the requests I receive right there. I also don’t review YA, so when I was contacted about Christine Mari Inzer’s illustrated memoir Halfway Home I sent a politely regretful email saying I’d be unable to review the title. As it happened, the book had already been sent to me in the mail so I figured I’d just hand it over to the YA specialist in my office and be done with it. Then I saw it firsthand. You know, when folks like Jeff Smith (Bone), Hope Larson (A Wrinkle in Time), and Kate Williamson (A Year in Japan) are blurbing a high school senior’s memoir of a time spent in a foreign country, you know something’s probably up. Funny and smart with a personal journey that’s infinitely relatable to young readers everywhere, Inzer’s first foray into publishing will leave readers wanting something very specific: more.

Meet Christine. In the summer of 2013 she had a chance to spend a whopping eight weeks in Japan with her maternal grandparents. Born in America with a Japanese born mom, Christine hadn’t visited Kashiwa, a small city outside of Tokyo, since she was ten. Now she’s traveling by herself and recording it all. From crepes and ramen to Kashiwa Matsuri and 6 a.m. sushi, Christine records everything with wit and a surprising amount of acumen. By the time she returns home she’s older, wiser, and more self-assured, though she misses Japan like crazy even before she’s home. But as the quote in the front of the book says, “Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home” – Matsuo Basho.

It’s hard to get perspective on your life when you’re 30, 40, even 50 years of age. Now imagine that you’re a senior in high school and you’ve managed to define for yourself what it is to straddle two very different cultures, both of which you love deeply. Near the end of the book Christine is traveling on a train back to the airport to leave Japan once more. She writes, “What was most painful was when the train doors closed, and Baba was standing outside. And also, the scenery outside the window. Old house rooftops and rice fields and everything, so vivid with color, and I was passing by all of it for the last time.” She concludes eventually that being split between the two countries, she can only be halfway home at any given time. Though the book could be read as a graphic novel, it’s the author’s written passages like this that give it heft and weight. You’re not reading fluff when you read “Halfway Home”. You can get something out of it and apply it to your own life.

To be honest, when I saw the blurbs the book had received I found them interesting but it was Inzer’s artistic style that actually put my mind to rest best. The book is drawn like an artist’s sketchbook, only it has a coherent narrative present throughout. Inzer alternates between pages where the text and images cohabit together to panels to simple images of architecture or food. Photos are also meshed into the final product and help it enormously. The end result is a book that will inspire as many teen readers as it will amuse.

To my mind, all the great cartoonists have one thing in common: if they are writing a memoir then they consistently make themselves less attractive in their comics than they are in real life. This makes perfect sense. If you’re being honest about your life and how you live then often you’ll draw yourself as the “you” that you feel matches the “you” inside your skin. So while the pronounced eyebrows do their best to render Christine heavy browed, you get the distinct sense that she’s just drawing the “Christine” that best represents her inner self. It’s a sophisticated choice on her part. One you’d expect from a cartoonist far older than her scant 17 years.

And it’s funny! Honestly really very funny. Yet not primarily in an “isn’t it funny how they do things in Japan” way. Plenty of books go that route and it’s honestly the easiest way to write a travel manual. I-went-here-and-saw-this-crazy-thing will only get you so far when you’re trying to write a serious book. Fortunately, Christine mixes things up. Because the book has a sketchbook style to it, you really do feel like you’re with Christine every step of the way. And while she’ll milk humor from enormous corner condom stores, toilets, and bathtime, she also knows how to work in situational humor (her Baba’s conversation with a monk is classic), flights of fantasy (imagining Tyra Banks hosting “Japan’s Next Top Maiko”), and everyday moments (flight woes, being eaten alive by deer, etc.). She even uses tropes that I enjoyed greatly, like having her 10-year-old self interact with her present day self (very Hark, a Vagrant).

I once worked the children’s reference desk just a floor below a very active teen library. Since my floor had the nearest bathrooms, we were constantly fielding an array of rather adorkable YA readers. Those that always fascinated me the most were the ones obsessed with Japan. They’d been introduced to it via manga and that obsession had turned into a full on love affair. They learned the language. They read everything they could about it. For them, Halfway Home would read like a How To manual of everything they’ve ever wanted in life. But its appeal stretches far beyond those kids already fixated on the topic. Humor and heart are difficult things to invest in any YA title. You usually either get one or the other. Inzer gets both in a book that feels professional and reads beautifully. Recommended heartily and with a MOS Burger lifted in thanks.

On shelves now.

Like This? Then Try:

Source: Final copy sent by author for review.

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

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13. Far From the Madding Crowd

I have been meaning to read Thomas Hardy for ages so when Danielle proposed we read Far From the Madding Crowd together it was easy to say yes. I was expecting a very depressing book because that’s my impression of Hardy, but I apparently managed to read his least depressing story. In fact, as I mentioned when I began the book, it was actually full of humor. The humor fades out to occasional as the book progresses and the farmhands are always the ones who provide it, which ends up coming across as mocking the uneducated worker at times.

The story is about Bathsheba, a young, pretty and clever woman whom Gabriel Oak declares vain upon first meeting her. Bathsheba ends up inheriting her uncle’s farm and instead of hiring someone to take care of it for her, decides to do it herself. It is a brave move on her part since women aren’t supposed to have a head for farming or business, but she holds her own and even does better than many. Unfortunately it is subtly hinted that part of her success comes from the use of her feminine charms to disarm the men and confuse them into paying her more for her grain.

Bathsheba’s strength is also further undermined by the steady Gabriel Oak who, unbeknownst to Bathsheba, performs many of the duties the hired overseer would do if Bathsheba had decided to have one. Oak begins the book as his own farmer, just starting out with his own sheep, an undertaking he has scrimped and saved for and invested everything in. All is going well until he decides to get a new dog to help his ageing dog herd the sheep. Only the new dog takes too well to his sheep herding training and manages to herd the entire flock of sheep off a cliff! I know I am not supposed to find this funny but it makes me laugh every time I think about it. Gabriel is ruined and ends up working as the shepherd for Bathsheba on her farm. Oh, and Oak loves Bathsheba and when he was still a farmer had asked if he could court her and she turned him down with “You’re a nice man and all but I’m not interested in marrying so can we just be friends?”

Bathsheba’s farming neighbor is Mr. Boldwood who is, as his name suggests both wooden and bold. First we get the wood. A prosperous farmer, he is the most eligible bachelor around but in spite of all the ladies trying to catch him he is just not interested. His inability to be swayed by flirtation provokes Bathsheba to send him a Valentine card as a joke. But the joke backfires as the wooden man suddenly is swept away by love and becomes bold to the point of harassment. Bathsheba does not love him though and when finally pressed, tells him so, even says she suspects she would never love him. She apologizes repeatedly for her bad joke but Boldwood refuses to leave the woman alone so certain is he that she will eventually love him back.

When the dashing Sergeant Troy meets Bathsheba one evening as she is walking around her farm checking on things before retiring for the night, he is immediately charmed. Troy catches his spur in Bathsheba’s dress which forces many minutes of inappropriate closeness while Troy bumblingly (on purpose) disentangles himself. Troy is actually in love with another woman with plans to marry her, but is so taken up with the challenge of making Bathsheba love him that he abandons poor Fanny Robin to an ultimately sad end. Bathsheba falls hard for Troy just like boldwood fell for her. Troy’s flirtation is relentless and he is all things charming and irresistible given that her other prospects were Oak and Boldwood. The pair marry which causes Boldwood to slip into a depression so deep he begins neglecting his farm and losing money.

Bathsheba starts losing money too because it turns out Troy is not what he represented himself to be and takes distinct pleasure in neglecting his new duties as head of farm and instead going to the racetrack to lose Bathsheba’s money. If this isn’t soapy enough for you, the suds increase when Troy runs away, goes skinny dipping in the ocean, gets caught in a ripetide and rescued just in time by some men in a boat at which point he decides to ship out with them. But someone from the neighborhood saw Troy being pulled out to sea and missed the rescue. Of course no body is found. Nonetheless, Boldwood is back on harassment duty and forces Bathsheba into to agreeing to marry him after seven years when Troy can be legally declared dead.

The years fly by but as the seven year date approaches and Boldwood is readying to swoop in for the win, well, you will just have to read the book yourself to find out. It’s very Days of Our Lives. But the book can’t end without Bathsheba being married because a woman on her own is not allowable.

Throughout the book Hardy makes comments and observations about marriage and relations between men and women. His culminating statement comes down to this:

This good-fellowship—camaraderie—usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death—that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.

Hardy rocked the stach wikimedia

Hardy rocked the stache
wikimedia

Far From the Madding Crowd was an early novel, published the same year Hardy married his first wife with whom he was passionately in love. The pair eventually became estranged and two years after her death in 1912, Hardy married his secretary who was 39 years his junior. So I’m not sure one would want to take any kind of relationship advice from him. I have to admit though, the man really knew how to rock a mustache.

Do pop over to A Work in Progress for Danielle’s thoughts about the book.


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Thomas Hardy

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14. THURSDAY REVIEW: CIRCLE OF STONES by Catherine Fisher

Summary: I'd just like to start by saying how much I have LOVED Catherine Fisher's work so far--both the Incarceron books and the Obsidian Mirror books. Incarceron in particular is up there with my (admittedly rather long) list of favorites. So I... Read the rest of this post

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15. Review of The Right Word

bryant right word Review of The Right Wordstar2 Review of The Right WordThe Right Word:
Roget and His Thesaurus

by Jen Bryant; illus. by Melissa Sweet
Primary    Eerdmans    48 pp.
9/14    978-0-8028-5385-1    $17.50

Apt language and ingenious imagery combine to tell the life story of Peter Mark Roget, creator of the thesaurus. A solitary, though not unhappy, child, Roget spends his time keeping lists and ordering the natural and cultural wonders he finds in abundance. He studies to become a doctor, teaches, joins academic societies, raises a family, and continues to capture and classify the universe, eventually publishing his Thesaurus, a catalog of concepts ordered by ideas, in 1852. Bryant’s linear telling follows Peter closely, expressing his curiosity, sensitivity, and populist spirit in language that is both decorous and warm. Clever book design and visionary illustration add layers of meaning, as images come together in careful sequence. On the cover a cacophony of iconographic ideas explodes from the pages of a book. The opening endpapers arrange these same concepts in a vertical collage that recalls spines on a bookshelf. The title spread features the letters of the alphabet as stacked blocks, as a child manages them, and from there the pages grow in complexity, as Roget himself grows up. Sweet embellishes her own gentle watercolors with all manner of clippings and realia, corralling the pictures into order according to concept, number, or color. A timeline and detailed author and illustrator notes follow the narrative, with suggested additional resources and a facsimile page of Roget’s first, handwritten book of lists. And the closing endpapers, with the comprehensive classification scheme of the first thesaurus, fully realize the opening organizational promise.

From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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16. Review of Gracefully Grayson

polonsky gracefully grayson Review of Gracefully GraysonGracefully Grayson
by Ami Polonsky
Intermediate, Middle School    Hyperion    247 pp.
11/14    978-1-4231-8527-7    $16.99

Grayson, a sixth grader at Porter Middle School, passes the time doodling and daydreaming about what it would be like to go through life as a girl, despite being seen by everyone else as male. Struggling with the total isolation that comes with harboring a secret, Grayson keeps people at a distance until Amelia moves to town. The two develop a friendship that awakens Grayson’s need for companionship and acceptance. When that friendship falls apart, Grayson tries out for (and lands) the female lead in the school play as a means of testing out a female persona. Facing abuse and derision from classmates and resistance from members of her adoptive family (both birth parents were killed years before), Grayson fights for the right to present her truest self to the people around her — both on and off the stage. Luckily, an invested teacher and several open-minded cast mates offer understanding and support as Grayson begins to sort out the complexities of her own identity. Polonsky captures the loneliness of a child resigned to disappear rather than be rejected, and then the courageous risk that child eventually takes to be seen for who she is. The first-person narration successfully positions readers to experience Grayson’s confusion, fear, pain, and triumphs as they happen, lending an immediate and intimate feel to the narrative.

From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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17. The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I haven’t read a book as intense and unrelenting as Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North in a really long time. I began the book on Wednesday and finished it last night so I could return it to the library. I wouldn’t recommend such a concentrated reading especially while one is eating pumpkin pie and drinking hot coffee while the characters in the book are starving to death. It felt a bit wrong. The book, however, is most excellent.

I managed to get in the library hold queue early, before the Booker Prize because of Sue’s marvelous review at Whispering Gums.

The main focus of the book is Dorrigo Evans. Born into a working class family he manages through smarts and hard work to become a surgeon. But his life takes a turn when World War II breaks out. He becomes an army doctor and has the misfortune of being captured with hundreds of other men by the Japanese. He ends up being the ranking officer among the Australian POWs he is sent with to work on The Line. The Emperor has decided these POWs will be put to work as slaves to build the Thai-Burma Railway, something western engineers declared could not be done. The book moves fluidly back and forth between pre-war, war, and post-war times. And it doesn’t always stay focused on Dorrigo Evans. We get to know some of the other POWs as well as a couple of the Japanese officers who are working the men to death. And each character, no matter how short his part in the story, is fully created. We know his motivations, we know his tricks to keep alive.

The only characters in the book I found a bit flat were the women. Because this isn’t just a war story, it’s a love story too. Dorrigo falls in love with Ella, a pretty girl from a well off family. She has connections that will help him go far. But when he meets Amy in a bookshop he realizes what he feels for Ella isn’t really love at all. This bold girl in the bookshop with the red camellia in her hair rocks Dorrigo’s world and then she’s gone, a chance meeting and nothing more. Only Dorrigo soon finds out that Amy is married to his uncle. Dorrigo and Amy have an affair.

When Dorrigo returns from the war it is Ella he marries but he spends the rest of his life thinking of Amy and how Ella is not her. He also becomes a womanizer. We end up knowing more about Amy but not much at all about Ella. Why does she stay with Dorrigo? How can she put up with his affairs and with his unspoken accusations that she is not Amy? She is a bit like Penelope to Dorrigo’s Odysseus. Which is appropriate given how Dorrigo loves poetry and his guiding poem is Tennyson’s Ulysses.

Poetry is an important element in the book. Dorrigo is always reciting it, it is his method of getting by in the POW camp as well as a means of seducing women. But Dorrigo is not the only poetry lover in the book. Two of the Japanese officers bond over their love of haiku. But whereas poetry for Dorrigo is something that guides him and touches him and sustains him, Colonel Kota and Nakamura had a different experience of poetry:

They recited to each other more of their favorite haiku, and they were deeply moved not so much by the poetry as by their sensitivity to poetry; not so much by the genius of the poem as by their wisdom in understanding the poem; not in knowing the poem but in knowing the poem demonstrated the higher side of themselves and the Japanese spirit — that Japanese spirit that was soon to daily travel along their railway all the way to Burma, the Japanese spirit that from Burma would find its way to India, the Japanese spirit that would from there conquer the world.

At the beginning of each section of the book a haiku appears. And, Flanagan’s title is the same as the title of the great poet Basho’s travel book of prose and poetry.

Flanagan has an unsparing eye for detail whether it be a POW debating with himself about when he should eat his daily ration of one small rice ball to a moving scene when the daily pyre of cholera victims and their possessions was being burned:

As Dorrigo Evans bowed his head and stepped away from the flames, Jimmy Bigelow stepped forward, shook his bugle to dislodge whatever scorpions or centipedes might have taken shelter there, and raised it to his lips. His mouth was a mess, the palate having shed its skin in rags. His lips had swollen up as well, and his tongue — so swollen and so sore that rice tasted like hot grapeshot — sat in his mouth like some terrible plank of wood that would not properly do its work.

And the scene goes on in great detail so we know just how difficult and painful it is for Jimmy to play the bugle but he does it anyway. Every single day for the newly dead.

You’d think that with all that the book would be depressing. But it isn’t. I’m not quite sure why. I definitely felt drained by the end, a little sad, but not depressed. So if you are thinking the subject matter of the book will be too overwhelming for you to bear, don’t worry. It’s full of horrors but Flanagan manages with pacing and scene and time changes to keep the reader from sinking into despair.

An excellent book. A moving book. A book I will not soon forget.


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Richard Flanagan

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18. Starred reviews, January/February 2015 Horn Book Magazine

SissonSagan Starred reviews, January/February 2015 Horn Book MagazineThe following books will receive starred reviews in the January/February 2015 issue of the Horn Book Magazine. Coming this Wednesday: Fanfare, our choices for the best books of 2014.

Once Upon an Alphabet; written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel)

The Bear Ate Your Sandwich; written and illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach (Knopf)

Supertruck; written and illustrated by Stephen Savage (Roaring Brook)

The War That Saved My Life; by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley  (Dial)

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny; written and illustrated  by John Himmelman (Holt)

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future; by A. S. King (Little, Brown)

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos; written and illustrated by  Stephanie Roth Sisson (Roaring Brook)

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19. Wrestling Alligators: On Embracing Curiosity

AuthorPhoto_LizCrainBY LIZ CRAIN

GIVEAWAY: Liz is excited to give away a free copy of the second edition of her just released book, Food Lover’s Guide to Portland, to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in the US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before.


The summers that I was 6 and 7 years old in early ’80s, I went to a day camp in the woods maybe 30 minutes or so from the suburbs of Cincinnati where I grew up. There were a lot of memorable things about that camp, as there tend to be, but without a doubt the most memorable was Mr. Brady—the camp nature guide whose office was the old barn across the way from the open-air dining hall—and his resident alligators. The seven or eight alligators ranging in age from a couple years to several years lived in a large, maybe 10-foot diameter, round metal trough topped with a piece of plywood.

One day, every summer, Mr. Brady would take the youngest, or maybe just the most docile, alligator out of the trough, put it in the bed of his old beat-up blue pick-up truck and drive it down the hill behind the barn to the creek, where 15 or so of us would be waiting with our counselor. What happened next is not a dream. I am still friends with one of the campers and can verify that Mr. Brady—longish white beard, rubber pants and suspenders, boots—would then spend the next 40 minutes or so of our nature session wrestling with the alligator in the murky creek. Our task: watch. And in the process scream, laugh and hug each other tightly.

I’m sure there were some teachable moments that I’m missing that occurred during the alligator wrestling. There might have been words about habitat and behavior in the wild and maybe even a little bit about how humans are not typically a part of the alligator diet. Of course, all I remember, and all I am sure that most campers remember, is an old man wrestling an alligator in the creek. By choice. He seemed to have no fear, and he seemed to genuinely love doing it.

Although I have changed the names and some identifying details of the alligators what follows is my own story of wrestling with alligators, except that the alligators are humans and the wrestling is being done with writing.

When I first started freelance food writing shortly after moving to Portland, Oregon, in my mid-20s, I said yes to just about anything work-wise that came my way, including waiting tables, nannying and working in a Montessori after-school program. I also covered a lot of writing territory. I wrote a corporate fitness manual without ever having worked in an office, smoking cigarettes and drinking most nights of the week and never setting foot in a gym. Clearly I was an expert. I also wrote website copy for a few hotel and hospitality companies, health and fitness articles for a smaller circulation magazine in Arizona and movie reviews for an online art and culture startup in New York.


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I tried my hand at a lot of different types of writing and, in doing so, did the opposite of what most writing manuals tell you to do—write what you know. Instead, apropos of an ambitious 20-something-year-old, I wrote more often what I did not know.

I always brought my limited life experience and subjectivity to the page, of course, and I researched and dug as deep as my usually too-fast-approaching deadline would allow, but let’s just say I was in all of these writing endeavors far from an expert. And that lack of expertise led directly to lack of confidence. That first year of freelancing I spent a lot of time researching and educating myself, but my primary motivator was a little off. I wanted to know the right things that, in my 20-something year old mind, translated to all of the things that would make me not sound stupid.

Nobody likes a snoop and that’s exactly what I was that first year of freelancing. My regular gig was ghostwriting food and drink pieces for AOL Online. For that, I’d visit restaurants, bars, clubs and markets in and around Portland and then write short profiles of each. I took copious amounts of notes about menus, inventory, décor and service in my tiny black refillable notebook, and if I ever caught whiff that someone was on to me I’d commit the remaining visit to memory as best I could sacrificing any more documentation to save face.

I would only ask one or two questions per visit, and then only if I thought I could get away with it without revealing anything personal. I’d avoid eye contact. My heart would race and my palms would sweat as I took ridiculous notes under the table about things such as the microgreens topping my scallops (“What are the little purpley-green spade-like micros? Mustard?”). If you kicked all that fear-built subterfuge down, I wasn’t being Ruth Reichl-like, in disguise in order to maintain journalistic integrity. I just didn’t want to have a real conversation with anyone that might reveal all that I did not know. Instead, I would go home after dinner and suffer through mind-numbing Google searches of  microgreens until I settled on the variety that looked the most similar before ultimately deciding not to use it in the profile anyway. No time wasted at all!

On those rare occasions when I did find myself face-to-face and engaged with folks who I was interviewing or meeting with for some sort of professional reason, I showcased what I knew as best I could and tried to hide what I didn’t know. In other words, I was a bit like 20-year-old Ira Glass in his early interviews with members of the cast of MASH, which he talks about on the “Cringe” episode of This American Life. The worst is when Glass asks Harry Morgan, who played Colonel Potter, a series of needling questions about why he’s never been the lead on any show. So painful.

This sort of bravado is inherently juvenile, but we’ve all done it. Here’s how I got rid of being scared of not knowing: I stopped using my tiny black notebook to take notes in in public and I got a big notebook. I stopped sneaking away to the bathroom to take notes—I’m sure that a few waiters had me pegged as incontinent—and started writing them openly. I stopped muzzling my curiosity and ended more sentences with question marks. I had more and more face-to-face interviews that I needed to conduct for seasonal food stories with weekly deadlines that I was writing—more projects in general. I no longer had time to digest the latest study just enough so that I’d sound smart, to make obscure references that were only tenuously related to the subject at hand (references I’d secretly hope no one would actually try to turn into a real conversation). All of these things that we do from time to time to puff our feathers when we feel intimidated or unconfident, and as a result, hide our truer selves.

After a year of freelancing, I was too busy with assignments to keep up appearances anymore. The real, vulnerable, curious and often ignorant me stepped out into plain view. It turns out that first year of freelancing I’d wasted a whole lot of time getting in my own way. I simply got out of my way and the decade since I’ve been more than willing to often be the fool or even, from time to time, when it seems helpful to the interview and subject at hand, play the fool.

In general, people love to be asked questions—personally and professionally. Ask away. Be brazenly curious. Be proud of not knowing. The less you know means the more you have to learn and that’s a big part of what’s most fulfilling, fun and interesting about writing—the learning. Don’t be a bore and always try to prove yourself and outwit others. No one is impressed and it’s tiresome. Show how ignorant you are—we all are!—and you’ll have a lot more fun and be a much better writer as a result. The best writers are the most curious risk-takers who want to burn and learn and live
life to the fullest. Stop being scared and be one of them. In other words, wrestle those alligators in the creek. By choice. See, I knew I could bring it back to the alligators.

*No alligators were harmed in the writing of this essay.


Cover_FoodLover'sGuidetoPortlandLiz Crain is a fiction writer as well as the author of Food Lover’s Guide to Portland and Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull. A longtime writer on Pacific Northwest food and drink, her writing has appeared in Cooking Light, Budget Travel, VIA Magazine, The Sun Magazine, The Progressive, The Guardian and The Oregonian. She is also editor and publicity director at Hawthorne Books as well as co-organizer of the annual Portland Fermentation Festival.

You can find more from Liz Crain on Twitter (@foodloverPDX) and her website, lizcrain.com.

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20. Happy Thanksgiving! Now Go Listen to a Podcast

Joyeux Turkey Day, my fellows!  Between bites of sweet potato and rolls, perhaps it might do the soul good to listen to a l’il ole podcast that’s actually a bit perfect for the day.  The “original” Thanksgiving was between Pilgrims and Native Americans, or so we were taught in grade school, yes?  Well perhaps we should do away with the myths and listen to some American Indians today in one of my Children’s Literary Salons.  Normally they’re not recorded but Cheryl Klein and her husband James Monohan turned one such Salon into a podcast.  Here’s Cheryl’s description of it:

In happier news, the recording of the Native American Young Adult literature panel at the New York Public Library is now available here: http://www.thenarrativebreakdown.com/archives/698. Joseph Bruchac (author of KILLER OF ENEMIES), Stacy Whitman, Eric Gansworth (author of IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE), and I had a terrific conversation (moderated by Betsy Ramsey Bird) about finding Native authors, the editor-author relationship across cultural lines, creating authentic covers, and the many pleasures of Native YA books. Please listen! ‪#‎Weneeddiversebooks‬

Go!  Enjoy!  You’ll feel happy you did.  They were an impressive crew and kept me on my toes.

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21. Station Eleven

Thanksgiving laziness came upon me early. No not laziness exactly because I have managed to finish two books I was in the middle of and get to the halfway mark of another book I had not even begun until Wednesday and that I need to finish by Sunday so I can return it to the library Monday. Plus there has been a couple inches of snow to shovel and the coldest Thanksgiving in 29 years to eat my way through. And Waldo and Dickens have been piling on top of me and oh, the mean looks they shoot at me should I dare to move! But enough excuses, let’s get to one of those books I finished reading.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel has been getting lots of buzz in the U.S. and in blogland. As a post-apocalypse novel it falls into the genre of science fiction which made it the first science fiction novel to make it to the shortlist of the National Book Awards. It didn’t win, but that’s ok.

To say that Station Eleven is a post-apocalypse novel will likely give you some immediate assumptions. While civilization as we know it has come to an end due to a global epidemic of a highly contagious and fast acting strain of swine flu that kills around 90% of the world’s population, this is no doom and gloom story. It is not The Road or Oryx and Crake or Mad Max. It is a more hopeful book than that and in some ways feels truer because of it, though it could only be wishful thinking on my part.

The focus of the book is on the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who travel in a horse-drawn caravan along a fairly regular route on the coast of Lake Michigan in what used to be the state of Michigan. On the lead caravan is painted a quote from Star Trek Voyager: “Because survival is insufficient.” It is the Symphony’s motto and it keeps them going through the worst of times. Along with the music, the actors perform Shakespeare plays. Early on they had tried to perform other plays but everywhere they went people preferred Shakespeare so now that is all they do. The world, however, is not completely safe. The Symphony travels armed, with scouts fore and aft, and sets guards around their camp in the evenings.

The book begins in an undated present with the famous actor Arthur Leander playing Lear on stage in Toronto. In the second half of the play he collapses and dies on stage from a heart attack. There were three young girls in the play acting as hallucinatory visions of Lear’s daughters are children. One of those girls, Kirsten aged eight, had befriended Arthur. She survives the flu epidemic and ends up with the Symphony. Much of the post-flu story belongs to Kirsten, but other stories are woven in as well.

Pre-flu, the story belongs mostly to Arthur Leander, his acting career, his three wives, his best friend Clark. It is Arthur and the lives he touched that spin out the story both pre and post flu. The book moves back and forth in time between Arthur pre-epidemic and Kirsten twenty years after the epidemic as well as a couple other characters that flesh things out and add additional angles and dimensions. The transitions are beautifully fluid and nearly seamless. The plotting intricate and detailed. A story like this could so easily feel forced and fake as the author directs all the various elements to fit together no matter what, but there was hardly a clunker to be found.

I loved that the story makes some wonderful observations and asks some interesting questions. Since it is now twenty years after the epidemic there are an interesting mix of people, older adults who remember everything that has been lost, adults who were children at the time like Kirsten who have fading memories of electricity and cars and flying in airplanes but didn’t know quite enough of the world to feel that they had lost so very much. And now there are children who have been born in the aftermath, who know nothing of what the world was except from the stories the adults tell and from pictures in books. At one point someone questions whether they should even teach the children about what the world was like before. His young daughter is upset and angry upon learning that lifespans were so much longer before due to all the medical technology and medicines available and is devastated by the unfairness of it all.

There are terrifying moments of watching the world come to an end. Jeevan and his brother Frank are holed up in Frank’s Toronto apartment. Jeevan, getting a tip from a doctor friend at the hospital just as the flu hit Toronto, had time to buy shopping carts full of supplies and haul them to his brother’s high rise building and from the windows they watch the world fall apart:

On silent afternoons in his brother’s apartment, Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. No one delivers fuel to the gas stations or the airports. Cars are stranded. Airplanes cannot fly. Trucks remain at their points of origin. Food never reaches the cities; grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted. no one comes to work at the power plants or the substations, no on removes fallen trees from electrical lines. Jeevan was standing by the window when the lights went out.

The title of the book comes from the title of a comic book in the story, Station Eleven. Station Eleven is a space station designed as a planet. The station/planet has been badly damaged from a wormhole and the inhabitants of the station are fighting to survive and find a way to get back home. This comic plays an important role in the novel but it doesn’t become completely clear until the end.

As scary and realistic as the book’s premise is, this is not a depressing dystopian kind of book. Bad things happen in it but it ends on a hopeful note. If you are not a general fan of science fiction or post-apocalyptic novels this one is different enough that you just might enjoy it. And if you are a fan of this sort of book, well, it’s a real treat and a breath of fresh air in what is generally a genre composed of a pile-up of horrors.

For a bit of background on the book from the author, be sure to read her short interview with the National Book Foundation.


Filed under: Books, Reviews, SciFi/Fantasy Tagged: Emily St. John Mandel

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22. Review of the Day: Lulu and Pip by Nina Gruener

LuLuPip1 200x300 Review of the Day: Lulu and Pip by Nina GruenerLulu & Pip
By Nina Gurener
Photography by Stephanie Rausser
Cameron & Company
$18.95
ISBN: 978-1-937359-60-7
Ages 3-7
On shelves now

To what do we credit the distinct increase in children’s books containing photography this year? I posed that very question to a group of children’s book photographers not that long ago and the answers were telling. In the past, creating a book of high quality color photographs cost beaucoup de bucks. Plus children’s books illustrated with photos were in black and white. Yet as color photography became more and more ubiquitous, publishers found that folks were unwilling to buy children’s books that were black and white. The era of The Lonely Doll, J.T., and others was over. Yet prohibitive costs kept photos in children’s books minimal. Then came the rise of digital photography and cheaper printing techniques on the part of publishers (see 100 Scopes Notes for the full round-up for 2014: http://100scopenotes.com/2014/08/01/the-state-of-photography-illustration-in-2014/).  The floodgates consequently opened and what we’re seeing now is a variety of different types of children’s books that use everything from handmade models to wildlife to cut paper techniques. Few of these really harken back to the 1950s and 60s big books of photography. Few, that is, but Lulu and Pip. A companion of sorts to the author/artist’s previous book Kiki and Coco in Paris, the book shouldn’t work as well as it does. Yet all the elements align so perfectly that there is nothing to say except that it is undoubtedly the most charming work of pure photography in a children’s book format that I’ve seen in years.

LuluPip2 236x300 Review of the Day: Lulu and Pip by Nina GruenerMeet Lulu. She’s a girl. Meet Pip. She’s a doll. The two are inseparable and that’s a good thing since living in a big city like San Francisco can be intimidating. Then one day the two pack up their things. Today they’re leaving the city for a campout in the wild and that means leaving behind all the toys, except Pip. Once there Lulu adjusts to the differences. She’s wary of the donkey they meet and she realizes that she may have brought too much stuff. Still, next thing you know the twosome are cooking their food on a fire and getting a glorious view of the universe above. The next day it’s all fishing, swimming, and exploring. But when Lulu and Pip get lost without a clue how to return to their campsite, they find help from an unexpected source.

I was in a wonderful independent bookstore when I first spotted this book. Because of the nature of my job I don’t usually buy children’s books all that often, but there was something unique about this title. The size, for one thing. Coming in at an impressive 9.8 x 12.8 inches, the book stands just slightly taller than the other picture books on your average bookshelf. It distinguishes itself. Then there’s the arresting cover. Photography is too often the last bastion of the sentimental. Whether we’re talking Anne Geddes or the art in the style of Nancy Tillman, there are those that believe that photography only works when its used in the service of the easy aww. The jacket image seen here of a little girl kissing a donkey would seem to support that belief, but that’s a textbook case of judging a book by its cover. I had only to open the book to see that this wasn’t the usual fare. Not by half.

LuluPip4 300x202 Review of the Day: Lulu and Pip by Nina GruenerFirst and foremost, the star of this book is photographer Stephanie Rausser who carries a particular talent for photographing kids and lifestyle types of images. The red-haired moppet that is her subject is a charmer. Cute but not cloying. The shots of her that pepper the book are carefully selected and cropped. As for the photos themselves, I took great joy in them. There’s a shot of Lulu and Pip’s feet in a stream, the sunlight filtering through the water that socks it to you. In books of this sort I’m not a huge fan of images that feel staged. I’d rather go about believing that the photographer is some kind of guerrilla-style rebel than a professional who sets up her shots. Still, because she has the lifestyle background, Rausser gets very natural shots out of her young muse. Only the occasional image (peeking around a tree, exiting her tent, etc.) feel like you’ve accidentally picked up a copy of Parents Magazine or something. For the most part, Rausser keeps it real.

LuluPip3 236x300 Review of the Day: Lulu and Pip by Nina GruenerWhat also struck me as remarkable on a fifth or sixth reading was how well the design of the book incorporates the text into these images. I don’t know if Ms. Rausser took them while thinking in the back of her head about where the text was supposed to go. Illustrators are very keen on such matters, so photographers should be just as vigilant. As it stands, the book does a very good job of breaking the images into more than just full-page bleeds. Some pictures will appear only on the left or right hand side of the page. Other times the pictures will fill both pages in long horizontal spreads. Because of the nature of the shots the text changes from black to white and back again depending on the levels of contrast to be found. In spite of that, the book is easy to read and visually stimulating.

Full credit where credit is due to author Nina Gruener too. I don’t know the background behind this book. I don’t know if Ms. Rausser, in her capacity as a photographer, took these images first and then they were handed to Ms. Gruener to cobble together into some kind of story. If that was the case then she is to be commended. Such assignments often come off as feeling forced or false. Not so here. Gruener keeps the tone light and the storyline frisky. It is equally possible that Ms. Rausser was handed the text first and then took the pictures to match, of course. Or perhaps it was a bit of a combination of both. Whatever the case, the book reads very nicely. It’s not swimming in purple prose or anything but neither is it austere or simplistic. It tells the story it has come to tell and tells it well. Nuff said.

LuluPip5 300x200 Review of the Day: Lulu and Pip by Nina GruenerBecause my daughter is a city kid I was much taken with the plot of a urban child’s first rural campout experience. As odd as it sounds, camping isn’t a common activity in children’s picture books. Not realistic camping sans bears anyway. And though the book does eschew the issue of mosquitoes, it’s realistic in its portrayal of campfires, smores, tents, night sounds, hiking, and star filled skies. It fills a gap in library and bookstore sections everywhere and will be of great use to those parents trying to excite their kids with the prospect of sleeping beneath the stars. Mind you, it may raise expectations of certain kids a bit far. If they’re hoping to bag a gigantic rainbow trout on their first fishing trip then they are bound to be woefully disappointed.

Perhaps Lulu & Pip marks the beginning of something. Maybe we’ll be seeing large format picture books of fictional stories featuring real kids a lot more in the future. Maybe. Certainly Rausser takes care not to include much of anything that will significantly date this book. Technology and gadgets are nonexistent and Lulu herself is dressed in contemporary children’s fashions that, with only a few exceptions (sneakers, etc.) won’t be dated anytime soon either. There’s a lot to love about this one-of-a-kind little book, and a lot to enjoy. With any luck, Rausser and Gruener will continue their partnership of creating great books and we the readers will be the lucky beneficiaries. Marvelous unique stuff.

On shelves now.

Source: Copy purchased at The Book Beat.

Like This? Then Try:

Misc: Don’t miss the outtakes.  Ms. Rausser’s site has additional photographs of this book.  Some made the cut.  Some did not.

Video: And finally, some more info on the book.

 

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23. DECEMBER UPDATE!

December is here and there's lots to talk about, including an appearance and exciting new stuff! BOOKS! Elephant and Piggie's WAITING IS NOT EASY! came out last month and the response has been nice.  Thanks to you, the story debuted at #2 on The New York Times Bestseller List. (Not to be left out, THE PIGEON NEEDS A BATH! joined Waiting is Not Easy! on the next 2 weeks). The New York Times

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24. Unspeakable Things

I got myself on the hold list for Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution because of what Ana wrote about it. And like Ana all I want to say over and over again is “my heart needed these words.” The thing is, I didn’t know I needed these words until I started reading the book. But within the first few sentences I was hooked:

This is not a fairy tale.

This is a story about how sex and money and power put fences around our fantasies. This is a story about how gender polices our dreams. Throughout human history, the most important political battles have been fought on the territory of the imagination, and what stories we allow ourselves to tell depend on what we can imagine.

Unspeakable Things is unapologetically feminist. It is angry and it is not sorry for being angry either because there is a lot to be angry about.

Broken up into five essays that examine gender from different angles, the book is personal — Penny writes of spending time in a mental institution when she was 17 and anorexic — but also broader, historical, systemic, economic. This patriarchal neoliberal capitalist system we live in has damaged us all but especially women and GLBT folks and really anyone who doesn’t fit into prescribed gender roles.

In the chapter “Fucked-Up Girls” Penny looks at the female body and the ways in which it policed and controlled, the damage such policing does to the psyche of girls and women. In “Lost Boys” we see how patriarchy damages boys and men, makes them promises that are never delivered, and how these failed promises intensifies and promotes hatred of women. “Anticlimax” is about sex, sexual desire, sexual objectification, rape and reproduction. “Cybersexism” is about the promise of the internet to be a place free from sexism and how that has failed spectacularly. If you have been following the horror that is Gamergate over the last few months you will understand just how very ugly it is online. The book concludes with “Love and Lies,” a chapter about the load of bull we’ve been served up about love and romance. I actually thought this final chapter was the weakest. Nonetheless, it was still good and hard hitting.

One of the things I really liked about this book was how Penny doesn’t tone down her language, doesn’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings, refuses to be a nice girl bland feminist who talks about problems but in such way that they can be dismissed as somehow happening somewhere else to someone else. She does acknowledge that all men aren’t rapists or woman haters but this does not let them off the hook:

What we don’t say is: of course not all men hate women. But culture hates women, and men who grow up in a sexist culture have a tendency to do and say sexist things, often without meaning to. We aren’t judging you for who you are, but that doesn’t mean we’re not asking you to change your behaviour. What you feel about women in your heart is of less immediate importance than how you treat them on a daily basis. You can be the gentlest, sweetest man in the world and still benefit from sexism, still hesitate to speak up when you see women hurt or discriminated against. That’s how oppression works.

What I loved about this book and why, like Ana, I want to say over and over, “my heart needed these words,” is because I feel like I have been recharged. I am reminded of how I felt in my early twenties when feminism found me in a college literature class and I was so very angry about how I had been lied to (girls can do anything!) and how I would challenge men on their sexist comments and behavior. And over the ensuing years that spark dwindled under the onslaught of every day sexism.

The spark was revived for a while when I worked for a feminist nonprofit that no longer exists. Recently, between Mala Yousafzai winning the Nobel Peace Prize, things in my personal life, horrible news stories of domestic violence and rape, and gamergate, I’ve been feeling stirred up, grumpy, and sometimes just straight up pissed off. Unspeakable Things came along and relit the spark. It reminded me I am not alone in being pissed off; not alone in wanting to change the way things work. I’m finding my twenty-something courage again. It’s dulled by life and a thick crust of cynicism, but it’s in there.

In an Afterword Penny writes:

If we want to escape the straightjacket of gender under neoliberalism, we must stop trying so hard to hold ourselves and others up to impossible standards, standards we didn’t set ourselves. We have to resist the schooled inner voice telling us to be good girls, tough boys, perfect women, strong men. If we are to realize a greater collective humanity, we must learn to see one another as human beings first.

Unspeakable Things is a potentially incendiary book. It is dangerous. I highly recommend it.


Filed under: Books, Essays, Feminism, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: Laurie Penny

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25. Review of Flora and the Penguin

idle flora and the penguin Review of Flora and the PenguinFlora and the Penguin
by Molly Idle; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Chronicle    48 pp.
9/14    978-1-4521-2891-7    $16.99

Having mastered the art of the dahhnce in Flora and the Flamingo (rev. 7/13), the same little-girl protagonist takes up figure skating. While lacing up her skates, she spies an orange beak peeking out of a hole in the ice. It’s a penguin, and Flora reaches out her hand in friendship. At first there’s no friction; the two glide across the ice, Torvill and Dean–style, skating backwards and on one foot and performing synchronized leaps. When her partner plunges back down under the ice, though, Flora is disappointed and a little put out. The penguin produces a fish for her, but Flora, still feeling miffed, throws the fish back…then thinks of a creative way to make amends. Just as in the previous wordless book, dynamic flaps (this time they’re horizontal and two-sided) help set a graceful, rhythmic pace. The limited color palette, too, recalls Flamingo, though here — befitting the wintry scene — the pictures are all in pale blues, with yellow pops of color (Flora’s hat looks like her Flamingo bathing cap but with a puffball tassel on top), some pink (her peaches-and-cream complexion), and the white of the page. The main action is on land, but underwater there’s another playful story starring those sleek little fish. A gatefold near the end provides the tale’s acrobatic climax before the warm-hearted pair skates off the copyright page.

From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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