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1. Essential Maps for the Lost by Deb Caletti

Both Madison (Mads) and Billy have their futures ahead of them - futures heavily shaped by their mothers. And, perhaps, by each other. But when the story starts, when their stories first intersect, only one of them is present: Mads, when her morning swim leads her straight into the path of a body, a woman who has taken her own life: Billy's mother.

Though the premise outlined above may sound grim, Essential Maps for the Lost by Deb Caletti is buoyed by hope: hope for better days, hope for positive change. The story is led by two characters who struggle to take control over their own lives while they search for reasons or answers related to recent events. Written in third person, the book flips back and forth between Billy and Mads, allowing the reader to see both perspectives - which is especially interesting when they are in the same scene, so the dual narrative allows us to be privy to both characters' thoughts. The third person style also permits a cool omniscient element, with occasional phrases directing the reader's attention to something - almost like a finger pointing, "Look there," "Remember this moment later" - that are more like gentle nudges than pushy wink-wink moments.

Billy and Mads, both post-high school and both innate caretakers, have found jobs they love: Billy works at a no-kill animal shelter and literally rescues dogs, while Mads babysits a baby girl that she wishes she could protect from the world. But neither of them are happy at home. Billy now lives with his grandmother, a woman full of cruel remarks and judgements about her late daughter, while Mads is staying with her aunt, uncle, and cousin for the summer while she takes real estate classes at Bellevue Community College - all part of her mother's plan for Mads to become her working partner the second she passes the licensing exam.

But once Mads and Billy meet, once their lives collide, their futures change. Or is it that their options change, and their true futures reveal themselves? It is not easy to alleviate the burdens of the abandoned or create a map for the lost. It takes courage to face the ogres of depression and loss. With strength of spirit combined with gut instincts and personal truths, Mads and Billy find their way out of the deep and onto their next journey.

Check out my reviews of other Deb Caletti novels, including The Nature of Jade and The Queen of Everything.

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2. Review of the Day: One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom

OneDayOne Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree
By Daniel Bernstrom
Illustrated by Brendan Wenzel
Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-235485-3
Ages 3-6
On shelves May 3rd

Like any children’s librarian, I like to assess each picture book that crosses by my eyeballs for readaloud potential. While every picture book (even the wordless ones) can be read aloud to a large group of children, only a select few thrive in that environment. It takes a certain magical combination of art and text to render a story readaloud-perfect. Books you can sing have a leg up. Ditto books with flaps or pull-tabs. But the nice thing about Bernstrom’s book One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree is that it doesn’t need to rely on those extra features to enrapture an audience. The book’s lilting rhymes, when practiced beforehand, have the potential to render an audience entranced. Add in the art of Brendan Wenzel, and how well it reads across a room, and you’ve got yourself the makings of what might possibly be the best readaloud picture book of the year.

A boy and his whirly-twirly toy are just the first things to disappear down the gullet of a hungry yellow snake. But rather than bemoan his fate, the boy gets to work in his new role as the snake’s inner id. Commenting on the sheer amount of room and space in the belly, the boy cajoles the snake into eating more and more and more. From birds and worms, to mossy sloths, to a single apple bearing a tiny fly, the creatures slide down the snake’s rapidly expanding throat. A final meal proves too much for the voracious viper and next thing you know boy, toy, and a host of other animals are upchucked back into the world from whence they came. A sly illustration at the end suggests that history may repeat itself soon.

OneDay1It’s not as if Mr. Bernstrom is the first person to find the word “eucalyptus” so exceedingly delicious to both tongue and ear, but he certainly seems to have been the most prominent in recent memory. As I read the book the language of the reading triggered something in my brain. Something long forgot. And though his name evokes strong feelings in every possible direction, it was Rudyard Kipling I thought of as I read this tale. Specifically the tale of “How the Elephant Got His Trunk”. Though that story does not realize how superb the word “eucalyptus” is when repeated, Kipling got a great deal of mileage out of illustrating thoughts with words. Terms like “great grey greasy Limpopo river”, “Kolokolo Bird”, and “the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake” make those of us reading the stories aloud sound good. Bernstrom is writing for a younger audience so he doesn’t flex his muscles quite as far as Kipling did, but at the same time you recognize that he has the potential to do so. One hopes his future publishing plans may include longer stories just meant for sharing aloud. Lord knows we need more authors like that these days.

The story itself sounds familiar when you read it, but that may have to do more with familiar tropes than a tale we’ve actually seen done. The book also taps into a very popular method of extracting eaten creatures from predators’ bellies: burping. Vomiting works too, though the word sounds more disgusting, so usually in cases like this book the critters are released in a big old burp. In this case, we’re basically seeing a nature-based version of that Monty Python skit where the diner is persuaded to eat one final item (“It’s wafer-thin”). It’s odd to enjoy so much a book where a kid tricks the animal it is within to throw up, but there you go. The storytelling itself is top notch too, though I had a moment of confusion when the snake ate the beehive. Seems to me that that moment is where the boy’s plan potentially takes a turn south. Being stuck in a snake’s belly is one thing. Being stuck in a snake’s belly with flying, stinging insects? Thanks but no.

OneDay2Illustrator Brendan Wenzel burst onto the children’s picture book illustration scene in 2014 but his rise in prominence since that time has been slow. The artist first caught everyone’s eye when he illustrated Angela DiTerlizzi’s Some Bugs but it was the cover art of Ellen Jackson’s Beastly Babies the following year that was the most eye-catching. That cover sold that book. An ardent conservationist, it makes a lot of sense to turn to Wenzel when you’ve a story chock full of sloths, snakes, and bees. With Bernstrom’s tale, Wenzel must render this tale in the style of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. Which is to say, he needs to balance horror with humor. Books where the protagonist gets eaten are common. Books where the protagonist gets eaten and then continues to comment on the action are rare. Wenzel’s snake falls into that category of villains that must be vicious enough to serve as a legitimate threat, but tame enough that a four-year-old won’t fear them on sight. To do this, Wenzel’s art takes on a distinctly jovial tone that treads towards the cartoonish without ever falling in completely. The colors are bright but not overwhelming, just as the action is consistent without horrifying the audience. Most of the creatures handle being eaten with gentle good grace (though the sloth looks more than a little put out about the whole thing).

The idea of being eaten whole is as old as “Little Red Riding Hood”. Heck, it’s even older than that. Look at the Greek myths of Cronus devouring his children whole. Look at any myth or legend that talks of children springing unharmed or fully formed from within nasty beasties. Together, Bernstrom and Wenzel take this ancient idea and turn it into a trickster tale. Usually it’s the eater doing the tricking, and not the eaten, but One Day in the Eucalyptus Eucalyptus Tree isn’t afraid to shake things up (or, for that matter, swallow them down). An oddly peppy little tale of surviving through another’s hubris, this is bound to become one of those readaloud picture books that teachers and librarians lean heavily on for decades to come. Look out, Bernstrom and Wenzel. You guys just went and created for yourselves a masterpiece.

On shelves May 3rd.

Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.

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2 Comments on Review of the Day: One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom, last added: 4/29/2016
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3. Monday Mishmash 4/25/16


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. Newsletter Subscriber Giveaway! I'll be giving away 3 signed paperbacks of one of my books to newsletter subscribers. Giveaway begins today. Not a subscriber? Fix that here.
  2. Editing No surprise that I'm editing for clients this week.
  3. Field Day I'll be helping out with field day at my daughter's school later this week. It's always fun to see her with her friends in a setting like this.
  4. Always Learning Something New I'm the type of person who likes to learn as much as possible about the publishing industry. Recently, I learned how to make full wrap book covers. No, I will not be doing this as a side job. I just wanted to learn.
  5. Looking For Reviewers I'm looking for some readers who would like to read Into the Fire and post an honest review on Amazon. If that's you, please email me at khashway(at)hotmail(dot)com.
That's it for me. What's on your mind today?

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4. Review of the Day: Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner

SamuraiRisingSamurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune
By Pamela S. Turner
Illustrated by Gareth Hinds
Charlesbridge
$16.95
ISBN: 9781580895842
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now

When you read enough children’s books published in a single year, folks tend to believe that you’ve an ability to spot trends in the general literature. Trend-spotting is easy enough when you’re dealing with picture books (hot in 2016: Bears rampaging through picnics and blobfish!) but books written for older readers are trickier. I think I’ve hit on at least one incredibly popular trend for the current year, however: Overwhelming depression and sadness. Whether it’s baby foxes are getting their legs blown off in landmines, dads being deadbeat, or girls falling down wells, 2016 is officially The Year of the Hankie. So you can imagine the glee with which I devoured Samurai Rising. “A samurai fights for honor and survival in a real-life Game of Thrones,” reads the blurb for the book (minus the torture and nudity, of course). In producing a fantastic look at the true story behind Japan’s most famous samurai, Turner doesn’t just cheer up an otherwise depressed literary year. She highlights a figure too long ignored in America. Say goodbye to boredom. Say hello to crazy-eyed heroics and an anti-hero for the young masses.

On the book’s title page is written a small alert. “WARNING: Very few people in this story die of natural causes.” No lie, just fact. This is the story of Minamoto Yoshitsune. A boy who “could not yet walk when his father left him a lost war, a shattered family, and a bitter enemy.” Yoshitsune’s father (not the brightest samurai of all time) throws away his family’s comfortable existence protecting Japan’s Retired Emperor when he decides to kidnap the guy instead. Swiftly defeated by his rival Taira Kiyomori, the man’s son, little Yoshitsune, is spared but eventually sent to train as a monk. Determined to win back his family’s honor, the boy runs away and with the help of a friendly lord becomes a full fledged samurai. Not a moment too soon either. Forces are brewing and Yoshitsune’s older brother Yoritomo needs his brother’s help to revolt against Kiyomori’s reign. Through it all, Yoshitsune doesn’t just show the heart of a warrior. He shows he has the guts and brains to carry out even the craziest campaign. But with trouble brewing at home, it may be his own family that proves the deadliest enemy of all. Author’s Notes, Time Lines, a Glossary, Chapter Notes, and a Bibliography appear as well.

I was at a conference recently where the terms “creative nonfiction” and “narrative nonfiction” got tossed about like so many ping-pong balls. These terms are generally produced when someone writes a work of nonfiction that reads like a novel. In order to do this and yet still retain even a modicum of historical accuracy, the author in question must bend over backwards to get everything right. Fifty-whopping-two pages, or so, at the back of the book are dedicated to Turner’s chapter notes alone. Here you’ll find every quotation and historical detail cited (Turner also writes an intro to these notes, marking this as the first time I’ve ever seen an author sell the reader on reading them, since who could resist trying to figure out, “why Yoritomo didn’t use ninjas”?). As for Turner’s writing, you forget almost instantly that this is a work of nonfiction. This is both a good and bad thing. Good, because it proves to young readers that there’s more to nonfiction than what you’ll find in a textbook. Bad because life, unlike fiction, doesn’t always adhere to our understanding of narrative rise and fall. When Minamoto’s enemy Kiyomori died without ever having confronted Yoshitsune, I was momentarily baffled. Of course Turner, skillful as she is, is able to naturally call upon Yoshitsune’s older brother as the new enemy, and it’s done with slow, exquisite care.

When you’re watching a musical, the songs have to serve the story. You can’t just have characters burst into a melody without a reason. Likewise, a nonfiction book can be laden with facts, but only if they serve the narrative to its best advantage. Turner has all kinds of tricks up her sleeves, and integrating facts into the story is one of her greater strengths. She can move from the story of Yoshitsune learning how to be a samurai to a description of the brilliant work of engineering that is a samurai’s armor or sword with aplomb.

Even with all this, Turner’s working at a natural disadvantage. Her story is set in the 12th century. Source material from that time? Not exactly copious. So she relies upon informed speculation, i.e. what a character may have seen or may have considered in one scene or another. A number of years ago I read a book called Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron which was a true history of a child who lived in the wild and was brought back to “civilization” near the end of the French Revolution. The author leaned heavily on a plethora of “probablys” which is no crime. Honestly, it informs the reader as to what they do or do not know. Still, it can prove distracting if too many are clustered in one spot. The only time I found myself irked in a similar way here was around the beginning of the book when Minamoto and a gold merchant were avoiding the samurai. From “the homey smell of wood smoke probably drew the weary travelers to wayside inns” to “The teenage runaway probably watched, mouth agape, as entertainers performed the popular tales of his time”, I found my willingness to go along with Turner’s speculations stretched, if never quite broken. Fortunately it’s the only time in the book I found Turner’s reliance on probability too overt. For the most part, she does a fine job of keeping everything copacetic.

I was also taken with the humor of the book. Judicious use of it in any nonfiction title is a delicate art. Here, the author has the advantage of time (no one’s going to read about the beheadings of the 1100s and think “Too soon!”). So when she pulls out lines like “News of severed heads travels fast,” you can’t but help but admire the wordplay’s moxie. Ditto, “If things went badly, Kiso had the usual samurai backup plan: kidnap the Retired Emperor” (this line works better after you see how many times the poor guy gets kidnapped in the course of his life – a calming retirement it is not).

The inclusion of Gareth Hinds’ art in the book was good planning on someone’s part (mostly likely Art Director Susan Sherman, according to Turner’s Acknowledgements). Though he’s illustrated the occasional title for other authors (Gifts from the Gods) generally Gareth sticks to his own graphic novel adaptations of classics like The Odyssey or Beowulf or King Lear. A meticulous hand, Hinds’ interstitial art keeps the narrative moving without distracting from it. And while it did have the odd personal problem of making me really want a Minamoto Yoshitsune graphic novel (ahem ahem!), for the most part I think it’ll be of greatest use to those students that need a little visual stimulation with their descriptive texts.

Here’s a pretty basic question for the book: Is Minamoto a hero? The comparison to Game of Thrones on the book’s blurb isn’t all that wrong. Things get pretty ethically dicey in the midst of power plays and wars. Honestly, coming out of this book I had particular sympathy for two people in particular and neither one of them was Minamoto. Minamoto’s heroism in terms of bravery cannot be called into question, but if we’re trying to figure out why he comes across as sympathetic, a lot of that can be attributed to our innate sense of fairness, or lack thereof. He starts off clawing his way up, already at a disadvantage thanks to dear old dad, and then just when everything seems to be working out for him his own brother stabs him in the back (figuratively and nearly literally). He deals decently at times, establishing law and order at critical moments. Then again, he’s not against lighting the occasional peasant village on fire like some insane 12th century version of streetlights. And so I say to teachers and the leaders of bookgroups, if you are doing this book with a group of kids and you need a topic of discussion, just ask this: What is a hero? You’re bound to get some pretty interesting answers after the kids read this book.

As I write this review, the hottest musical on Broadway right now is Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It seems to me that we’re seeing a lot of narratives right now that discuss scrappy youngsters, eager to make their mark on the world, no matter the cost to themselves or others. So hey, if you need an idea for a new musical, have I got a book for you! Bringing to the attention of American kids new historical heroes from cultures they may not have any familiarity with is a difficult proposition. Turner and Hinds tackle the challenge with a kind of manic glee. The end result is infinitely readable and downright fun. So pile on the other tear-drenched novels for the kiddos. As long as I have a plucky samurai kid not throwing away his shot I’ll be satisfied. More fun than it deserves to be and a great read.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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5. Review: Luckiest Girl Alive

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Simon & Schuster. 2015. Library copy.

 
The Plot:Ani FaNelli has the perfect life: a great job at a magazine, a wonderful apartment in New York, just the right wardrobe, and a handsome, rich, old-money fiance. And she's 28 so it's all right on target.

Perfect. If you saw her, with the ring and the clothes and the haircut and her figure you'd see her and think.... perfect.

Maybe you'd be jealous. Maybe you'd hate her. Maybe you'd want to be her.

Anyone else may want to hide her past and where she came from, and so, OK, yes, her name used to be TifAni. And TifAni was suburban middle class but private school and just the right college have helped her become Ani. And Ani wants to show everyone just how perfect her life is, so she's agreed to appear in a documentary about what happened at her school when she was 14. Her fiance doesn't want her to do it, doesn't want her revisiting such terrible times, but she's going to show them all.

Show them with her perfection.

And if Ani can't sleep, so what? Who can tell? And if she's tired of pretending to be the perfect girl to show she's worthy of the perfect fiance, well. Everyone pretends, right? Everyone gets angry, right? No one wears their true face.

The Good: Ani's seething anger is revealed in the first pages. She is shopping for her wedding registry with Luke Harrison, her fiance (and wow, she cannot wait to ditch FaNelli and become a Harrison), and as they look at knives she fantasizes stabbing him.

Ani name drops right and left, to show she knows. She knows. And you don't. She knows the right shoes, the right slacks, the right bag, the right diet, the right way to pass the salt and pepper. She's dedicated her life to being the person who fits in with a certain class of people, Luke's class, and at first I was as annoyed as I get at 7th graders in middle grade fiction who only care about being popular. Why -- why does it matter so much?

Why is it so important, what other people think? Why can Ani only see value in herself based on how others see her? And it's not in an ingratiating way, because Ani also has an edge to her. An anger to her. So she uses her knowing the right thing to do as weapon against those who don't know. And Ani, of course, can figure out those who think they know -- until she shatters that belief by how she dresses and what she eats and what she does for fun.

And the chapters take us back to when Ani was 14, when she was one of those kids who wanted to be popular and liked. To have friends and a boyfriend. And Ani was at a new school, a private school with rich privileged kids who came from the right type of money. And if you haven't guessed, someone named TifAni FaNelli doesn't come from the right type of money.

Something happened, at that perfect school with those perfect kids. And it's terrible. And the aftermath is terrible. And you can see how that shapes the grown up Ani, why she became who she is.

And then, something even worse happens to teen TifAni. And that's the mystery, of course -- what happened to that teenager, and what she did. And how that made her who she is.

But as the reader realizes how the past shaped Ani, down to her anger, the question arises -- when will Ani figure it out? Just as she made herself perfect with her clothes and her hair, she figured out what Luke wanted and became that perfect girl. (And I don't feel sorry for Luke, because whenever Ani slips and shows her true self, Luke is horrified and tries to put her back into the box of perfect girlfriend.) And while the "big reveal" may have been those terrible things from her high school years, and part of the mystery is how that shaped the adult Ani, what I read for, eagerly, was for adult Ani to realize that what she had done to recover and heal was now damaging.

Basically, I waited for her to realize that "winning" isn't being married at 28 to Mr Wonderful -- especially when Mr Wonderful isn't.

Anyway. I LOVED this book, and definitely teen appeal. I'll put it down as a Favorite Read in 2016. And yes, it's a 2015 book so I'm sure many of you have already discovered it -- but I'm getting read for the Edgars Award later this month and this is a nominee so that explains why I didn't read it until now.






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

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6. The Marvel Rundown: So Why Did C-3PO Have a Red Arm, Anyways?!

NEG5S7bB1b4cIN_2_b (1)This week, Marvel is following up their stellar Black Panther #1 launch with some special one-shots and series kick-offs! First up author James Robinson (Fantastic Four) and illustrator Tony Harris (Ex Machina), who last collaborated on the lauded series Starman, return to comics for a special C-3PO story that explains the strange red arm viewers saw him with during Star Wars: the Force […]

1 Comments on The Marvel Rundown: So Why Did C-3PO Have a Red Arm, Anyways?!, last added: 4/15/2016
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7. Review of the Day: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

RaymieNightingaleRaymie Nightingale
By Kate DiCamillo
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-8117-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

My relationship to Kate DiCamillo’s books is one built entirely on meaning. Which is to say, the less emotional and meaningful they are, the better I like ‘em. Spaghetti loving horses and girls that live in tree houses? Right up my alley! China rabbits and mice with excessive earlobes? Not my cup of tea. It’s good as a reviewer to know your own shortcomings and I just sort of figured that I’d avoid DiCamillo books when they looked deep and insightful. And when the cover for Raymie Nightingale was released it was easily summarized in one word: Meaningful. A girl, seen from behind, stands ankle-deep in water holding a single baton. Still, I’ve had a good run of luck with DiCamillo as of late and I was willing to push it. I polled my friends who had read the book. The poor souls had to answer the impossible question, “Will I like it?” but they shouldered the burden bravely. Yes, they said. I would like it. I read it. And you know what? I do like it! It is, without a doubt, one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but I like it a lot. I like the wordplay, the characters, and the setting. I like what the book has to say about friendship and being honest with yourself and others. I like the ending very very much indeed (it has a killer climax that I feel like I should have seen coming, but didn’t). I do think it’s a different kind of DiCamillo book than folks are used to. It’s her style, no bones about it, but coming from a deeper place than her books have in the past. In any case, it’s a keeper. Meaning plus pep.

Maybe it isn’t much of a plan, but don’t tell Raymie that. So far she thinks she has it all figured out. Since her father skipped town with that dental hygienist, things haven’t been right in Raymie’s world. The best thing to do would be to get her father back, so she comes up with what surely must be a sure-fire plan. She’ll just learn how to throw a baton, enter the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, win, and when her father sees her picture in the paper he’ll come on home and all will be well. Trouble (or deliverance) comes in the form of Louisiana and Beverly, the two other girls who are taking this class with Ida Nee (the baton-twirling instructor). Unexpectedly, the three girls become friends and set about to solve one another’s problems. Whether it’s retrieving library books from scary nursing home rooms, saving cats, or even lives, these three rancheros have each other’s backs just when they need them most.

DiCamillo has grown as an author over the years. So much so that when she begins Raymie Nightingale she dives right into the story. She’s trusting her child readers to not only stick with what she’s putting down, but to decipher it as well. As a result, some of them are going to experience some confusion right at the tale’s beginning. A strange girl seemingly faints, moaning about betrayal in front of a high-strung baton instructor. Our heroine stands impressed and almost envious. Then we learn about Raymie’s father and the whole enterprise takes a little while to coalesce. It’s a gutsy choice. I suspect that debut authors in general would eschew beginning their books in this way. A pity, since it grabs your attention by an act of simple befuddlement.

Initial befuddlement isn’t enough to keep you going, though. You need a hook to sustain you. And in a book like this, you find that the characters are what stay with you the longest. Raymie in particular. It isn’t just about identification. The kid reading this book is going to impress on Raymie like baby birds impress on sock puppet mamas. She’s like Fone Bone in Jeff Smith’s series. She’s simultaneously a mere outline of a character and a fully fleshed out human being. Still, she’s an avatar for readers. We see things through her rather than with her. And sure, her name is also the title, but names are almost always titles for Kate DiCamillo (exceptions being The Magician’s Elephant, The Tiger Rising, and that Christmas picture book, of course). If you’re anything like me, you’re willing to follow the characters into absurdity and back. When Beverly says of her mother that, “Now she’s just someone who works in the Belknap Tower gift shop selling canned sunshine and rubber alligators” you go with it. You don’t even blink. The setting is almost a character as well. I suspect DiCamillo’s been away from Florida too long. Not in her travels, but in her books. Children’s authors that willingly choose to set their books in the Sunshine State do so for very personal reasons. DiCamillo’s Florida is vastly different from that of Carl Hiaasen’s, for example. It’s a Florida where class exists and is something that permeates everything. Few authors dare to consider lower or lower middle classes, but it’s one of the things I’ve always respected about DiCamillo in general.

Whenever I write a review for a book I play around with the different paragraphs. Should I mention that the book is sad at the beginning of the review or at the end? Where do I put my theory about historical fiction? Should character development be after the plot description paragraph or further in? But when it comes to those written lines I really liked in a book, that kind of stuff shouldn’t have to wait. For example, I adore the lines, “There was something scary about watching an adult sleep. It was as if no one at all were in charge of the world.” DiCamillo excels in the most peculiar of details. One particular favorite was the small paper cups with red riddles on their sides. The Elephantes got them for free because they were misprinted without answers. It’s my secret hope that when DiCamillo does school visits for this book she’ll ask the kids in the audience what the answer to the riddle, “What has three legs, no arms, and reads the paper all day long?” might be. It’s her version of “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Now let us discuss a genre: Historical fiction. One question. Why? Not “Why does it exist?” but rather “Why should any novel for kids be historical?” The easy answer is that when you write historical fiction you have built in, legitimate drama. The waters rise during Hurricane Katrina or San Francisco’s on fire. But this idea doesn’t apply to small, quiet novels like Raymie Nightingale. Set in the summer of 1975, there are only the barest of nods to the time period. Sometimes authors do this when the book is semi-autobiographical, as with Jenni Holm’s Sunny Side Up. Since this novel is set in Central Florida and DiCamillo grew up there, there’s a chance that she’s using the setting to draw inspiration for the tale. The third reason authors sometimes set books in the past is that it frees them up from the restrictions of the internet and cell phone (a.k.a. guaranteed plot killers). Yet nothing that happens in Raymie Nightingale requires that cell phones remain a thing of the past. The internet is different. Would that all novels could do away with it. Still, in the end I’m not sure that this book necessarily had to be historical. It’s perfectly fine. A decent time period to exist in. Just not particularly required one way or another.

Obviously the book this feels like at first is Because of Winn-Dixie. Girl from a single parent home finds friendship and (later rather than sooner, in the case of Raymie Nightingale) an incredibly ugly dog. But what surprised me about Raymie was that this really felt more like Winn-Dixie drenched in sadness. Sadness is important to DiCamillo. As an author, she’s best able to draw out her characters and their wants if there’s something lost inside of them that needs to be found. In this case, it’s Raymie’s father, the schmuck who took off with his dental hygienist. Of course all the characters are sad in different ways here. About the time you run across the sinkhole (the saddest of all watery bodies) on page 235 you’re used to it.

Sure, there are parts of the book I could live without. The parts about Raymie’s soul are superfluous. The storyline of Isabelle and the nursing home isn’t really resolved. On the flip side, there are lots of other elements within these pages that strike me as fascinating, like for example why the only men in the book are Raymie’s absent father, an absent swimming coach, a librarian, and a janitor. Now when I was a child I avoided sad children’s books like the plague. You know what won the Newbery in the year that I was born? Bridge to Terabithia. And to this day I eschew them at all costs. But though this book is awash in personal tragedies, it’s not a downer. It’s tightly written and full of droll lines and, yes I admit it. It’s meaningful. But the meaning you cull from this book is going to be different for every single reader. Whip smart and infinitely readable, this is DiCamillo at her best. Time to give it a go, folks.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Song to Listen to With This Book: King of the Road
Alternative Song: I Wanna Hold Your Hand

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8. Wicked Cool Overlooked Books: Non-Pink Jean

Welcome to the first Monday of the month, and another episode of Wicked Cool Overlooked Books! I completely missed September somehow -- but I'm back! In honor of Beverly Cleary's 36,526th day on Earth (we have to count the Leap Years, people, come... Read the rest of this post

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9. Review: Aama is intelligent, mind-bending science fiction with a core of humanity

Taking the idea of awareness and screwing with it from multiple vantage points — self-awareness, awareness of the space around you, familial awareness, scientific awareness, societal awareness — Aama addresses, among other things, the notion of a hive mind and presents mankind as a damaged entity, one in which each part is out of sync […]

2 Comments on Review: Aama is intelligent, mind-bending science fiction with a core of humanity, last added: 4/12/2016
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10. The Marvel Rundown: The Battle for Wakanda Begins as Readers Discover the Origin of a Fan-Favorite Star Wars hero

tumblr_o050hiXkgH1r3j9f2o1_1280No other series at Marvel has been promoted better this year than this week’s new release, Black Panther. That’s a statement I never thought I would make! When the publisher tapped popular author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic) to write the series, Marvel took advantage of the opportunity to create a comic that could reach more […]

2 Comments on The Marvel Rundown: The Battle for Wakanda Begins as Readers Discover the Origin of a Fan-Favorite Star Wars hero, last added: 4/9/2016
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11. Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

cover artI’ve never read a biography about any of the Brontës before so when the publisher offered me the chance to read Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman I said, sure! This year is the two hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth and that we are still reading her and talking about her books and her weird family really says something. Harman’s biography is advertised as “landmark” because it “transforms Charlotte Brontë from a tragic figure into a modern heroine.” I’ve never thought of Charlotte as being a tragic figure and I didn’t feel like the biography made her out to be a modern heroine. This is not a criticism of the biography itself, only of the book’s marketing.

Because the biography was pretty good. It didn’t spend much time at all analyzing the novels, which is good because while a little analysis is fine, I don’t read literary biographies hoping for a dose of lit crit. Of course the books are talked about, especially in relation to their autobiographical elements that somehow always seem to have much to do with Charlotte’s obsession with Monsieur Heger, her teacher and eventual employer in Belgium.

Let’s talk about that relationship a bit, shall we? Heger was married to the woman who ran the school. It appears that he really did like Charlotte more than he should. But it also seems like he managed to more or less skate along the border of propriety. He knew she liked him and he would write her notes or give her small gifts or “academic encouragement” to egg Charlotte on. But he never told her he loved her or made any overt overtures or promises. Madame Heger was too vigilant for one, and I get the impression that Charlotte was a teacher-student crush that got way out of hand because Heger did not expect Charlotte to crush on him so hard. Charlotte was borderline stalker and if she had been in modern times I could see her doing a Fatal Attraction kind of thing. Because Brontë.

You write about one Brontë you kind of have to write about them all. I knew they were not your normal sort of family but I didn’t realize just how crazy they all were. Anne I think was the most normal of them all and she was doing ok, had a good gig as a governess in a family she liked that also liked her. She even got her no good brother Branwell a job as a tutor for the boy in the family. Only Branwell had to go and have an affair with the lady of the house and Anne had to quit with the shame and humiliation.

Branwell was so full of himself and his entitlement because of Patrick his father who was also full of himself and his entitlement. Patrick is kind of like a male version of Mrs. Reed in Jane Eyre and Branwell is like John Reed through and through. And because of those two jerks, all the Brontë women were made to suffer.

Also, their closed little world at the Parsonage was not a mentally healthy situation. If Anne was the most normal, Charlotte was the second most normal. Sure she was a stalker, but she was at least functional and even had friends. Emily on the other hand, totally bananas. If you have ever wondered what sort of quiet retiring person could come up with the sick and twisted relationship that is Cathy and Heathcliff, I tell you this little story about Emily.

She was out walking one day and came upon a dog in the road. Emily liked animals and she stopped to talk to the dog. Only the dog bit her. Terrified she might have rabies but not wanting to tell anyone, she went home and cauterized the dog bite with a hot iron. Good thing women dressed so modestly back then otherwise can you imagine the dinnertime conversation when everyone got an eyeful of dog bite and iron burn? Not something one can easily explain away. Then again we are talking about the Brontës here so maybe they would have been like, Emily you are so badass! Or just made a collective whatever kind of shrug.

The biography details the trials and travails of the sisters trying to get published, goes into detail regarding Charlotte’s writing schedule and relationship with her publisher and her public. It seems she pretty much always refused to make any changes to her manuscripts. She was shy and socially awkward but her publisher treated her kindly, inviting her to London to meet the literati. In spite of his pleasantness, he paid Charlotte significantly less for her books than a man would have been paid. So what else is new, right?

Charlotte eventually did get married to Arthur Nicholls, her father’s curate. Her father was very unhappy about this because he was a mean, old selfish man who, instead of being happy for his only surviving child, was angry at her for not devoting her life to his care and feeding. But Charlotte smoothed it over by continuing to live at the Parsonage, much to her new husband’s displeasure. But that just goes to show how much Nicholls loved her, willing to live under the same roof as Patrick Brontë.

Unfortunately once Charlotte was married she pretty much stopped writing. She dedicated herself to the care of her husband and duties as a curate’s wife. And then she got pregnant and the pregnancy killed her. Her death certificate says she died from tuberculosis, but all evidence indicates that she had hyperemesis gravidarum. The cause is unknown but one theory suggests it to be an extreme reaction to pregnancy hormones resulting in a constantly upset stomach, nausea and other issues. These days she would have been able to go to the hospital like Kate Middleton did, but back then there was no help and Charlotte slowly wasted away and died. Given that she had stopped writing, I can’t help but wonder if, even had she lived, there ever would have been another book. It is too bad we never got to find out.

If you, like me, have never read a bio about Charlotte or the Brontës, this one was pretty good. Knowing a bit about their lives casts their books into a different light. But don’t just take my word for it, Jeanne and Jenny have both read and reviewed the book as well.


Filed under: Books, Memoir/Biography, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: Charlotte Bronte, Claire Harman

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12. Review: Michael DeForge’s ‘Big Kids’ tells us something about ourselves

Millennials are often portrayed by the older generation – my own, to be clear – as a generation of victims. Like most cross-generational proclamations, this is a self-righteous pile of bull built from Gen Xers’ and Boomers’ stumbling reading of Millennial discourse, as well as some resentment for our own repression and the ability of […]

1 Comments on Review: Michael DeForge’s ‘Big Kids’ tells us something about ourselves, last added: 4/6/2016
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13. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Volume Two

cover artIt is so hard to get any reading done with the Dashwoods! Not that they are intrusive or anything they are just so gosh darn cute I want to sit and watch them all day. So reading on the weekend, not much happened between the Dashwoods and cycling and me giving Astrid a nice spring cleaning. But I did read volume two of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl! I must say I came very close to admitting that squirrels were kind of almost awesome. But I stopped short and veered left and laid the awesome on Squirrel Girl instead.

Volume two sees Doreen Green, aka Squirrel Girl, meeting a few new friends — Chipmunk Hunk and Koi Boy. Koi Boy is kind of weird, but Chipmunk Hunk is hilarious. He has a little puffy tail! This comic is so oddball but in such a charming and exuberant way I can’t help but like it. Squirrel Girl has such an upbeat attitude, and while she gets in the punches as good as any other superhero does, most of the time she solves problems by talking and since she is a squirrel girl she knows how to chatter and not shut up! So you could kind of say she wears her enemies down with her unceasing chit-chat.

The main story arc through volume two is the arrival of Girl Squirrel who actually turns out to be Ratatoskr, a Norse squirrel god with a unicorn horn? Ratatoskr is actually legit. S/he is a squirrel that runs up and down the world tree Yggdrasil. Apparently even world trees need squirrels!

In Squirrel Girl, Ratatoskr is bent on destroying Midgard (Earth) by stirring up trouble and playing on peoples’ insecurities causing them to get angry and go rioting and other destructive mayhem. With the help of her non-superhero roommate, Nancy, Chipmunk Hunk, Koi Boy, Lady Thor, former Thor, and Loki who shapeshifts into Cat Thor to annoy his brother, Ratatoskr is defeated and Midgard is saved.

It is all great rollicking fun and the tiny commentary at the bottom of the page adds extra entertainment as do the letters fans have sent in with photos of themselves with baby squirrels or doing Squirrel Girl cosplay.

So you can get the flavor of Squirrel Girl, here is part of a speech she is shouting through a megaphone at a crowd that Ratatoskr has sent after her:

Envy isn’t about the person you are jealous of: it’s about yourself. It’s your mind telling you exactly what you want, and you know what that is? That’s friggin’ self-knowledge, and it’s the first, most valuable thing in the universe. It’s how we tell ourselves what we need to work on in order to make ourselves the better, happier, more awesome versions of us that we deserve to be … Let’s be the change we are insecure and jealous about in the world!!

Heh. Oh and Buffy fans, there is a scene in which roommate Nancy breaks down over the fact that all her friends have super powers and she doesn’t and she moans, “I’m the Xander.” That one cracked me up!

If you have read the first volume of Squirrel Girl, get yourself the second. If you have not read Squirrel Girl and are looking for an offbeat, fun and positive comic, you’d be hard pressed to find something better.


Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels, Reviews Tagged: squirrels

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14. Thursday Review: THE NAMELESS CITY by Faith Erin Hicks

Synopsis: If you keep up with Finding Wonderland, you'll know I already have plenty of awe and amazement for graphic novelist Faith Erin Hicks. (See reviews here, here, and here, and interview here.) Her latest contribution—officially to be... Read the rest of this post

0 Comments on Thursday Review: THE NAMELESS CITY by Faith Erin Hicks as of 3/31/2016 3:39:00 PM
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15. The Marvel Rundown: Does X-Men ’92’s Second #1 Hit the Sophmore Slump?

XM922016001001scol_200X-Men ‘92 was one of the hidden gems of Marvel’s Secret Wars event tie-in comics. The creative team for the series, including Chris Sims and Chad Bowers, had a concept so novel that they didn’t have to compete with some of the other offerings in the direct market. In fact, Marvel liked the creators ongoing series so […]

1 Comments on The Marvel Rundown: Does X-Men ’92’s Second #1 Hit the Sophmore Slump?, last added: 4/1/2016
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16. Review of the Day: Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Don'tCallDon’t Call Me Grandma
By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Carolrhoda Books (a division of Lerner)
$19.99
ISBN: 978-1-4677-4208-5
Ages 4-7
On shelves now.

In 2016 a picture book won a Newbery Award. Which is to say, a picture book was declared the best-written work for children between the ages of 0-14. After its win there was a fair amount of speculation about what precisely the Newbery committee was trying to say with their award. For that matter, there was a fair amount of speculation about what it meant for children’s literature in general. Are we, as a people, less tolerant of loquacious books? Considering the fact that a book with 592 pages was a runner-up, I think we’re doing just fine in terms of wordy titles. Just the same, I hope that if anything comes out of this surprise award it’s a newfound appreciation for the picture book’s art of restraint. A good picture book shows but doesn’t tell. Don’t believe me? Read the original manuscript of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are where he spells everything out for the reader. All these thoughts were in my head recently when I read the remarkable Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Tackling the almost nonexistent subcategory of grouchy great-grandparents, Ms. Nelson deftly encapsulates a woman’s personality and lifetime of experiences in a scant 32 pages.

“Great-grandmother Nell is scary.” You got that right, kid. She also does not hug, or kiss, or chase her great-grandchild for fun. Instead she sips an intoxicating beverage from a glass bedecked with a spider. She serves up fish for breakfast, buggy eyes and all. But she also has a vanity full of mysterious perfumes, lipstick as red as rubies, and memories as sharp and painful as the day they were made. And when her great-granddaughter sneaks a kiss, Nell is still scary. But that’s okay. “…I like her that way.”

Don'tCall2First and foremost, this is not a fuzzy grandparent (or great-grandparent) book. There are plenty of fuzzy books out there, filled to brimming with warm snuggly feelings. If that is the kind of book you require then grab yourself the nearest Nancy Tillman and content yourself accordingly. What we have here instead is a kind of character study. Whatever expectations you carry into this book, they will be upended by the text. Nell is an amazing character, one that I’ve never seen in book of this sort. Her prickly nature may well hide that “broken heart” she mentions obliquely, but it could just as easily hide more prickles. We get three distinct memories of her past, but it’s a single wordless two-page spread that probably says more about her than anything else. As an adult, I found myself speculating about her life. How perhaps she had dreams of dancing professionally but that she put those dreams aside when she had her children at a very young age. No kid is going to read into Nell what I have. That’s what makes reading this book so dynamic. Come for the prickly relative. Stay for the enticing, unknowable back story.

What I would really like to praise in this review, if nothing else, is just how deftly author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson parses words into sentences that swell with meaning. Take, for example, the moment when our heroine enters Great-Grandmother Nell’s bedroom. She considers playing with the cloth ballerina on the best but abstains, saying, “her expression makes me think she might tell.” Later she kisses her great-grandmother in her sleep. “Even asleep, Great-Grandmother Nell is scary. But I like her that way.” The very last line? “She won’t know”. It would be fascinating to see Nelson’s original manuscript. Was it just this sparse and spare? Or was it much longer and cut down to the bone in the editing process? Whichever it was, it works.

Don'tCall3The child in this book is much like the child who will be reading it with an adult. Both she and they sense that there is more at work here than meets the eye. And it is the art by Elizabeth Zunon that backs that feeling up. Elizabeth Zunon has been a force to reckon with for years. I first noticed her when she illustrated William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, though I unknowingly had already been a fan of hers when she illustrated Jeanne Harvey’s My Hands Sing the Blues. In Don’t Call Me Grandma she begins with a straightforward contemporary story. Even then, her endpapers start telling the tale long before the words do (not counting the title). She fills these early pages with strings of pearls. Fat pearls, small pearls, pink and gray and white pearls. Note that in the text there is just one mention of those pearls, and it’s in the context of a lot of other things on Nell’s dressing table. But Zunon is getting a grip on her personality in her own way. Because of her we get a distinct sense of Great-Grandmother’s style, poise, and dignity. There are fun little details too, like the family peering out through the window as Nell gives a singing bird what for and how to. Zunon also lends Nell a humanity on the sidelines. When her great-granddaughter looks around her room we see Nell observing affectionately from the sides (though she’d be the first to deny it if you accosted her with the evidence). Then there are the memories. Depicted as splotchy watercolors, Zunon subtly changes her style to indicate how some memories are crystal clear even as they blur and go soft around the edges. The two-page spread of objects representing other memories (everything from photographs of Civil Rights marchers to tickets to an Alvin Ailey ballet) will require giving child readers some context. Nothing wrong with that. Sit them down and explain each thing you see. Don’t recognize something? Look it up!

A woman of my acquaintance used to make a big show of objecting to any and all picture books that depicted grandmothers as white-haired, doddering old women, tottering on the very edge of the grave. To her mind, there should be at least as many books that show those women as resourceful, spry, and full of energy. Great-Grandmothers probably have few books where they’re wrecking havoc with the universe. Generally speaking they just dodder and die. There will be no doddering and certainly no dying in Don’t Call Me Grandma, though. Nell isn’t just a character. She comes off the page like a full-blown human being, warts and all (just an expression – Nell would take me to the cleaners if she heard me indicating she has any warts). Sharp and smart, this is one of those picture books I’d like to see more of. Which is to say, stories I’ve never seen before.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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17. Review: New York Review of Books’ new comics line is off to an amazing start

It was a fantastic day for artful, intelligent comics when the New York Review of Books added comics to its publishing line. The focus so far is on making obscure graphic novels available again, and the March 22 release of Mark Beyer’s riotous Agony sets an interesting tone for the line. Beyer’s work, which is about the size […]

5 Comments on Review: New York Review of Books’ new comics line is off to an amazing start, last added: 3/31/2016
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18. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

Hermione Winters is about to start her senior year of high school. As summer draws to a close, she heads off to cheer camp with her coach and her teammates, including Polly, her best friend and co-captain, and Leo, her boyfriend. Knowing this will be the last time she attends the camp, Hermione intends to make it the best one ever, to work hard, to enjoy the challenges and the routines and the music and the friendships, and to set a good example for her teammates and friends.

Then, on the night of the camp dance, Hermione is raped - her cup of punch drugged by a boy, she blacks out and wakes up in the hospital. The night holds no memories for her past the blackout. She cannot remember the face of her attacker, nor does she have any recollection of what he actually did to her. All she knows is what the doctors, nurses, and detectives have put together from examining her.

Her town is small; everyone knows what happened. The hallways of her school are filled with whispers and judgmental looks, and her relationship with her boyfriend dissolves. But Hermione doesn't withdraw from social interaction or change schools - the latter doesn't even occur to her. She doesn't like being the subject of gossip or scorn or pity. She remembers who she was, she knows who she is, and she is determined to stay true to herself while dealing what has happened.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston was above and beyond what I hoped it would be. Compelling writing, complex characters, realistic dialogue - there is much to praise here. This book could have been riddled with cliches; it was not. It could have been predictable or saccharine; it was neither. The events and reactions were feasible, believable, never farfetched or contrived. The story was layered and nuanced, allowing for warmth and humor sometimes when you least expected it (and most needed it).

Hermione tells her story in first-person narrative. She is an intelligent, resilient, mature young woman who is stronger than she knows. The characters that surround her are so vividly drawn - especially Polly, the fierce and loyal best friend who is equal parts fire and compassion - that any one of them could have a book of their own. And that is one of the loveliest things here: that the supporting characters are truly supportive of Hermione, that she is not dealing with this alone - and also that the supporting characters have their own arcs, their own problems and heartbreaks and priorities.

There is so much I want to say about this book. How it treats subjects such as sexual assault, doctor's visits, therapy, and victim shaming head-on, honestly and openly; how it encourages cheerleaders to be seen as athletes, not airheads; how it includes a variety of characters of various ages and personalities; and, most of all, how it allows its protagonist to be human, to wrestle with emotions and choices and ultimately emerge triumphant not because of or in spite of what happened/happens to her, but because of how she chooses to see herself, not a victim, not a statistic, not diminished, and how she chooses to live, unashamed, undeterred, always moving forward.

I knew before I was raped that this year would be the end of something. I just thought I'd be able to control the ending.

And, again, the magnificent writing: the choice of words, the steady pacing, the characterizations; the importance of a chair, a song, a friend; the details of a waiting room, a quiet house, an exuberant squad; the feeling of flying -- There is so much to applaud here.

Both thought-provoking and profoundly memorable, Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston is a triumph. I encourage people to read and re-read this book and to share it with others. Don't be surprised if you find yourself both crying and smiling as you turn the final page - and then start reading it all over again.

I included this book on my Tough Issues for Teens booklist and will undoubtedly include it on my Best Books of 2016 list.

If you like this book, you will also like Swollen by Melissa Lion and All the Rage by Courtney Summers.

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19. The Illustrated Emily Dickinson Sketchbook

cover artFor better or worse I am a sucker for things Emily Dickinson. I love her poems so very much and she was such an interesting person — poet, gardener, baker of bread. So when offered the chance to review The Illustrated Emily Dickinson Nature Sketchbook I could not say no. Unlike past times I couldn’t say no, I was not disappointed this time around.

Just in time for National Poetry Month comes this gorgeous book that collects some of Dickinson’s poems about nature. But it isn’t just poetry. Illustrator Tara Lilly from Portland, Oregon, has created page illustrationvisually enchanting artwork to go along with the poems. Birds and flowers and mushrooms, butterflies and bees, I love the colors and just sat looking at them and smiling. Together with Dickinson’s poems, the art creates an uplifting and pleasant experience.

But that is not all. Perhaps inspired by the popularity of adult coloring books, The Illustrated Emily Dickinson is also a sketchbook. Most of the poems have blank pages opposite on which the reader is encouraged to create her own art while under the influence of Emily. And maybe you believe you cannot draw anything worthwhile. You don’t have to draw if you don’t want to. Maybe you just have fun swirling some colors around the page. Or, the pages are thick and could support collage if that takes you fancy.

sketch pageThere is no need to fear your own personal creations will be somehow lacking especially up next to Lilly’s art. Her illustrations are of the simple sort that look so easy anyone can do them. And even though we all know that is a difficult thing to pull off, it is comforting to the art-challenged because you feel like you can make a go of it. In other words, the illustrations are not intimidating but heartening. You could also use the book as a writing journal or even use the poems as writing prompts and the sketch pages as your writing area.

Even if you never find the confidence to add your own art, it is still a lovely book all on its own. It would also make a great gift for anyone with an artsy bent or who just plain loves Emily Dickinson.


Filed under: Art, Books, Poetry, Reviews Tagged: Emily Dickinson, Tara Lilly

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20. To Keep Time

cover artYou may not know it since I don’t do a whole bunch of poetry reviews here, but I read poetry pretty regularly. My friend Cath in the Netherlands and I have a postal poetry exchange in which we choose a poem or two to send to the other every month or so. This year we decided to concentrate our poetry reading on poets we have never read before who are currently writing and who focus on nature in their poetry. I began the year with Wendell Berry and was a bit disappointed. His A Timbered Choir didn’t take flight for me. In the introduction to the book he claimed to be an amateur poet and, while there were a number of poems in the collection I did enjoy, he really isn’t the best of poets.

My next choice of poet, Joseph Massey, did not disappoint me. I don’t recall exactly how I came upon his work. I think I read about him in the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has a number of collections and since I had never read anything by him before it was difficult to choose. But when I came across a description of To Keep Time as being inspired by the landscape of Humboldt County, California, that is the one I decided to read.

What’s so special about Humboldt County? Well, when I graduated high school and decided to major in biology (I wanted to be a veterinarian) I decided to attend Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. You change a lot when you are eighteen and far away from home for the first time. Before my freshman year was out I had changed my major to English and decided I was going to teach. It meant going to a different university in Los Angeles my sophomore and following years. Nonetheless, my year at Humboldt was amazing and unforgettable.

HSU sits on a hill looking over the Pacific ocean. Stretching out behind the school are acres and acres of redwood forest. It is hands down one of the most beautiful places I have ever lived in my life. I would live there again if I could. So, poetry inspired by this landscape of ocean, redwoods, mountains, rain, fog and damp, yes please!

Massey’s poems have a haiku sensibility to them. Some are short and some are multi-parted. They are contemplative and surprising. It is the unexpectedness that I found so utterly marvelous; an image, a turn of phrase. I loved most when he would mix senses, for instance in “Microclimates”:

I squint
to hear the ocean
pierce an aperture
in sky

not wide enough
for words—

even a word—
to escape.

Also from “Microclimates”:

Bewilder-
ment persists
in this persistent
pressure gradient.
What I want to say
I can’t see to say

I can’t see to say it.

I also love the alliteration and the way he takes a word like “persists” and then changes it to “persistent.” Is there a word for that technique? I have come across it before in other poets and it is something that always gives me a little thrill.

Here is “Anchoritic”:

Listening to wind
dislodge objects
in the dark around
my room, I want
to think thinking
is enough to locate
a world, but it isn’t.
It isn’t this one.
It isn’t this world,
weather.

The word “anchoritic” is an adjective derived from the noun “anchorite.” An anchorite is a religious recluse, someone who has left the secular world to focus on their spiritual life. The poem itself is not particularly religious, but the title opens all sorts of suggestions and avenues of thought both secular and spiritual. It also suggests “anchor” as in anchored in place, but also a physical stability in the wind that is dislodging objects that contrasts beautifully with the thinking that is clearly unanchored. As you can see, the poems might be short but Massey packs in quite a lot!

I very much enjoyed To Keep Time and plan to read more of Massey’s work in the future. It is a happy occasion to discover a “new” poet.


Filed under: Books, Poetry, Reviews Tagged: Humboldt County, Joseph Massey, nature

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21. Review of the Day: When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano

WhenGreen1When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons
By Julie Fogliano
Illustrated by Julie Morstad
A Neal Porter Book / Roaring Brook Press (Macmillan)
$18.99
ISBN: 9781596438521
Ages 6 and up
On shelves now.

I don’t think I can adequately stress to you the degree to which I did not want to review this book. Not because it isn’t a magnificent title. And not because it isn’t pleasing to both eye and ear alike. No, it probably had more to do with the fact that it’s a work of poetry. I make a point of reviewing poetry regularly, though I’d be the first to say that it wasn’t my first language (if you know what I mean). I respect it but can occasionally find it tough going. I was determined to give this book its due, though. And the only way I could make myself physically sit down and review it was to read it cover to cover again. As I did so I was struck over and over, time and again, by just how melodious the language is here. Look, I’ll level with you. Seasonal poetry books are a dime a dozen. But what Fogliano and Morstad have created together is a lot more than just a book of poems for the changes of the year. This book manages to operate on a level that presents the very act of the seasonal cycle as positively philosophical, yet without distancing itself from its readership. It’s tricky territory, but together Fogliano and Morstad get the job done.

“from a snow-covered tree / one bird singing / each tweet poking / a tiny hole / through the edge of winter”. In the very first poem in When Green Becomes Tomatoes (a poem called “march 20”) the child reader is alerted to a change in the air. The snow is still present and the weather still gloomy, but there is hope on the horizon. Yet rather than turn the book into a paean to warmer weather, poet Julie Fogliano takes time to both celebrate and criticize the passing seasons. By the end of spring you look forward to summer and the end of summer leads to the relief of autumn, and so on and such. Accompanying these thoughts are small poems in lowercase and illustrations carrying the weight and expectations these seasons evoke in us. The end result can only be described in a single word: beautiful.

WhenGreen2Like I said, I’ve read a lot of poetry books for kids about the seasons in my day. The good ones have some kind of a hook. Like Joyce Sidman tackling it with colors in Red Sings from Treetops or Jon J. Muth writing the poems entirely as haikus as in Hi, Koo! A Year in Seasons. But Fogliano doesn’t really have a hook, and so I approached the title with trepidation. No hook? You mean it was just going to be . . . poems?! It takes the courage of your convictions to do a poetry book for kids straight these days. And it’s not true that Fogliano didn’t have one ace up her sleeve. A lot of works of poetry start in January (when the year itself technically begins). Using a technique of highlighting random dates, this poet begins the book on March 20th, the first day of spring. A small hook, sure, but at least it’s something.

As for the poems themselves, I was impressed not just with the writing, but with Ms. Fogliano’s grasp of what each season actually entails. There are a LOT of cloudy days, rainy days, and generally blah days in this book. They don’t weigh down the narrative or really make it all that gloomy. You just end up experiencing precisely the same feeling you have when you’re living those days. This is the rare book that acknowledges that spring doesn’t immediately mean sunshine and 55-degree temperatures. There’s a lot of snow and some mud and a whole ton of rain. Listen to how she puts it, though: “today / the sky was too busy sulking to rain / and the sun was exhausted from trying / and everyone / it seemed / had decided / to wear their sadness / on the outside / and even the birds / and all their singing / sounded brokenhearted / inside of all that gray.” It really isn’t until June that things even out, and I respect that. All the seasons are like that. It’s great to watch.

As you might have noted, the poetry found in this book straddles a line between being child-friendly and introspective (the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but neither are they always natural pairs). I found myself noting line after line after line that I wanted to quote. Here’s a small taste for each season.

On Spring: “shivering and huddled close / the forever rushing daffodils / wished they had waited.”

On Summer: “if you ever stopped / to taste a blueberry / you would know / that it’s not really about the blue, at all.”

On Fall: “october please / get back in bed / your hands are cold / your nose is red / october please / go back to bed / your sneezing woke december.”

On Winter: “a gust of wind / blew by my nose / i think i will be frozen soon / this living room / (all cozy chairs and fireplace) / has some real explaining to do.”

Some books of children’s poetry lean heavily on the works of other poets. I won’t presume to name her influences but if the July 12th poem is any indication then William Carlos Williams might have had some influence here. And maybe e.e. cummings too (with all that mudlicious mud).

WhenGreen3When she was much younger it’s clear that author Julie Fogliano made some kind of a blood sacrifice to the God of Perfect Illustrator Pairings. How else to explain how she has managed to work alongside such artists as Erin E. Stead and now Julie Morstad? Morstad is no newbie to the field, of course. I’ve been a big fan of her for years, starting with her art for The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson. Morstad’s great talent lies not necessarily in her waiflike black-eyed children, but rather in how she creates tone. Though there are plenty of sequences in this book of kids playing together or sharing food and soup, for the most part her characters go it alone. These poems are the contemplations of a young person with time and space and nature in spades. I don’t know that if I read Ms. Fogliano’s poetry without the art I would have picked up on that myself. Note too how cyclical the book is. The first poem is the last, sure as shooting, but so too is the person seen at both the beginning and the end. It’s the same kid wearing the same clothes, which makes a subtle implication that though a whole year has gone by, time is simply doubling back on itself. Not sure what to make of that one, frankly.

With poetry, we have to play the game of answering what ages we think the poems are appropriate for. This book poses a bit of a challenge on that front. Some are younger, some definitely older. This mix will allow kids of all ages to take part in the fun, even as the book asks questions like whether or not there is a space between where things begin and things end “or just a slow and gentle fading”. Enticing to the eye but, more importantly almost, alluring to the brain as kids parse what Fogliano is trying to say, this is a book that has the potential (with the right teacher or parent) to convert the formerly unconvertible to the wonders of poetry itself. The truth of the matter is this: Fogliano and Morstad will make poets of us all.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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5 Comments on Review of the Day: When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano, last added: 3/27/2016
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22. A Non-Review and Bullet Journaling

My review for Melville in Love by Michael Shelden is submitted to Library Journal and now I can get back to my own reading. I don’t feel like I can write a review of the book here, but you should know it is really good. I have a whole new picture of Melville now that I am still boggled over.

Melville fathered two children during this long-term affair with Sarah Morewood but Morewood’s husband chose not to notice that they did not look like him as did Melville’s wife. You may have heard that Melville had major financial problems, well, that’s because he bought a farm that he could not afford in order to live next door to his lover. However, Shelden presents a good argument that Moby-Dick, Pierre and Billy Budd would not be what they are if it had not been for Morewood inspiring Melville to greatness. So, look for the book when it comes out in June. It’s a good one!

How’s that for a non-review?

I get email newsletters from my favorite fountain pen store, Goulet Pens, and in a recent newsletter there was some mention about bullet journaling. I did not bother to investigate further because I assumed it meant writing a journal/diary using bullet points and what was the point of that? But today Goulet Pens posted a link on their Facebook page to a Los Angeles Times newspaper article, Why is Everyone Crazy for #bujo?. I realized this is obviously a thing so I read the article and have now been enlightened.

Have you heard of bullet journaling? It has nothing to do with keeping a diary or journaling your thoughts and feelings. It turns out to be a time and project management technique that involves using a blank journal and a pen or pencil instead of an app or a calendar or elaborate Franklin Planner. The guy who invented it has a website with a video and other step-by-step explanations on how to do it.

At first it seemed like an elaborate system but the more I followed along, the more intrigued I became. It isn’t so very elaborate after all, and once you have the basic structure down you can customize it to your needs and do whatever you want with it. The customizable bit is the most interesting part. Because you are using a blank journal (of course you can buy a “bullet journal” that has already been set up for you if you want to) you can make it your own. And the website has photos and videos of how other people do bullet journaling. Some of it is quite elaborate and intimidating and artsy and made me wonder why would you waste time drawing and doing all kinds of other stuff in a calendar/project journal? But that, it turns out, is the neat part about it.

So I’ve been wondering if I should try it. It could potentially be an efficient way to keep track of current and future events, gardening things, bookish things, work things, blog post ideas, essay ideas, things I want to look into further, to do lists, and on and on all in one place. Have any of you tried it? And if so, what do you think? Just one more bandwagon sort of thing or something truly useful?


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Bullet Journaling, Herman Melville, Sarah Morewood

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23. Review: Wonder Woman #50 Asks Little, Delivers Little

WonderWoman_50_coverIt's not that it's a terrible comic book -- I wish it were! Terrible comic books can be fun in their own right. It's just that it's ... fine.

2 Comments on Review: Wonder Woman #50 Asks Little, Delivers Little, last added: 3/26/2016
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24. Monday Review: NEED by Joelle Charbonneau

I think this is a pretty effective cover.Synopsis: Need, which I randomly picked up as part of a recent library haul, is a suspenseful thriller with a topical premise—the insidious power of social media and the questionable ease of online... Read the rest of this post

0 Comments on Monday Review: NEED by Joelle Charbonneau as of 1/1/1900
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25. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

Hermione Winters is about to start her senior year of high school. As summer draws to a close, she heads off to cheer camp with her coach and her teammates, including Polly, her best friend and co-captain, and Leo, her boyfriend. Knowing this will be the last time she attends the camp, Hermione intends to make it the best one ever, to work hard, to enjoy the challenges and the routines and the music and the friendships, and to set a good example for her teammates and friends.

Then, on the night of the camp dance, Hermione is raped - her cup of punch drugged by a boy, she blacks out and wakes up in the hospital. The night holds no memories for her past the blackout. She cannot remember the face of her attacker, nor does she have any recollection of what he actually did to her. All she knows is what the doctors, nurses, and detectives have put together from examining her.

Her town is small; everyone knows what happened. The hallways of her school are filled with whispers and judgmental looks, and her relationship with her boyfriend dissolves. But Hermione doesn't withdraw from social interaction or change schools - the latter doesn't even occur to her. She doesn't like being the subject of gossip or scorn or pity. She remembers who she was, she knows who she is, and she is determined to stay true to herself while dealing what has happened.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston was above and beyond what I hoped it would be. Compelling writing, complex characters, realistic dialogue - there is much to praise here. This book could have been riddled with cliches; it was not. It could have been predictable or saccharine; it was neither. The events and reactions were feasible, believable, never farfetched or contrived. The story was layered and nuanced, allowing for warmth and humor sometimes when you least expected it (and most needed it).

Hermione tells her story in first-person narrative. She is an intelligent, resilient, mature young woman who is stronger than she knows. The characters that surround her are so vividly drawn - especially Polly, the fierce and loyal best friend who is equal parts fire and compassion - that any one of them could have a book of their own. And that is one of the loveliest things here: that the supporting characters are truly supportive of Hermione, that she is not dealing with this alone - and also that the supporting characters have their own arcs, their own problems and heartbreaks and priorities.

There is so much I want to say about this book. How it treats subjects such as sexual assault, doctor's visits, therapy, and victim shaming head-on, honestly and openly; how it encourages cheerleaders to be seen as athletes, not airheads; how it includes a variety of characters of various ages and personalities; and, most of all, how it allows its protagonist to be human, to wrestle with emotions and choices and ultimately emerge triumphant not because of or in spite of what happened/happens to her, but because of how she chooses to see herself, not a victim, not a statistic, not diminished, and how she chooses to live, unashamed, undeterred, always moving forward.

I knew before I was raped that this year would be the end of something. I just thought I'd be able to control the ending.

And, again, the magnificent writing: the choice of words, the steady pacing, the characterizations; the importance of a chair, a song, a friend; the details of a waiting room, a quiet house, an exuberant squad; the feeling of flying -- There is so much to applaud here.

Both thought-provoking and profoundly memorable, Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston is a triumph. I encourage people to read and re-read this book and to share it with others. Don't be surprised if you find yourself both crying and smiling as you turn the final page - and then start reading it all over again.

If you like this book, you will also like Swollen by Melissa Lion and All the Rage by Courtney Summers.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear is included on my Tough Issues for Teens booklist.

This review was originally published at my blog, Bildungsroman.


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