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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:


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

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


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

llustration & Animation by Evan Turk

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

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10 Comments on Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, last added: 4/10/2014
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27. Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady

Holden_aprilartEdith Holden was an artist and naturalist. She lived most of her life in the West Midlands of England where she spent her time teaching art to students at Solihull School for Girls and working as an illustrator of children’s books. Holden’s paintings were often exhibited by the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and in 1907 and 1917, by the royal Academy of Arts. But as these things go, women were not at that time taken seriously as artists and by the mid-twentieth century she was nearly forgotten.

In 1906 Holden created a diary notebook of watercolor paintings. The text that went along with them included excerpts of poems related to the month and time of year and short notes about nature walks she took. She did not create the book as a diary but as a text for teaching in order to model nature observation for her students.

In the mid-1970s, Holden’s great-niece showed the notebook to a publisher. It was published in facsimile in 1977 as The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Through the years over six million copies have been sold. There is a second book, Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady, that was published in facsimile in 1989.

Holden_aprilI read the first book, The Country Diary, and what a delight it is. At first I thought it was meant to be a diary and was disappointed that the text was not more detailed. I do love her neat hand though and the sepia color of her ink makes me want to find a bottle for my own pen.

The beauty and detail of the book is in the paintings. They are a real delight. She had a keen eye for color and composition. While I rushed through the text, I spent time just looking at and enjoying each drawing.

Sadly, Holden died in 1920 when she was only 49. While reaching out over a backwater of the Thames to break off a branch of chestnut buds she fell in and drowned.

I borrowed my copy from the library because of Grad. I am glad I spent time with this book. It was a pleasure to look at the paintings when the snow was deep, the temperatures arctic, and spring seeming so far away. For a little bit more about Holden and some more photos of her art, visit Morning Earth.

Filed under: Art, Books, Diaries, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: Edith Holden

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28. Cybils Finalist Review: ROSE UNDER FIRE by Elizabeth Wein

Full disclosure: the author of Cybils finalist Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein, is a blogging/writing friend of ours. Yes, that did make me excited to read this companion book to Code Name Verity (reviewed here by Tanita and here by me), which I... Read the rest of this post

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29. Review of You Can’t Have Too Many Friends!

gerstein you cant have too many friends Review of You Cant Have Too Many Friends!You Can’t Have Too Many Friends!
by Mordicai Gerstein; 
illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Holiday    32 pp.
4/14    978-0-8234-2393-4    $16.95    g
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-3101-4    $16.95

This retold French folktale (“Drakestail”) stars a farmer duck who, in this absurdist version, is wealthy in the jelly beans he has grown. When the little-boy king “borrows” his jelly beans and doesn’t return them, Duck sets off on a quest to get them back. Along the way, he meets a large, friendly, shaggy green dog who “shrinks and hops into Duck’s pocket”; “Lady Ladder” who does the same; a burbling brook that Duck carries in his gullet; and some wasps transported in Duck’s ear. These new friends all come in handy when the king declines to give back the candy. Listening children will anticipate the role of each of Duck’s pals and will enjoy seeing the king’s nasty acts rightfully rewarded, especially when he’s chased naked out of his bathtub by the wasps. This is anything but a heavy-handed moral treatment, though — Gerstein’s pen-and-ink, acrylic, and colored-pencil illustrations employ a cheerful palette, with scribbly lines and dialogue bubbles. Each picture includes humorous details such as the web-footed claw bathtub and the queen’s fuzzy slippers. And in the end, the king makes reparations, sitting down to a jelly-bean feast with Duck and his odd group of friends.

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The post Review of You Can’t Have Too Many Friends! appeared first on The Horn Book.

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30. LAUNCH: Maggie and Milo: frog hunters

Just in time for spring, a grandma (!) sends a surprise package of JUST what you need to Frog Hunt…so off go Maggie, a wee lively gal, and Milo, a huge loving dog!  Our Priscilla Burris brings the characters alive in her usual adorable and spunky way:  do check it out…. and it just begs for more adventures!  Kirkus Review loves it! as do others…. go Maggie and Milo!  and happy Spring finally to all….

A Maggi and Milo pic (3)cover, and below author reading to class….

milo author




What do you need for a frog hunt? Big polka-dot boots, a book about frogs and one giant border collie best friend.

Maggi, a wisp of a girl with spindly legs and a large, wobbly head, is an excellent adventurer. She can’t wait to try out her new boots and search the pond for frogs. After a good night’s rest—and imparting forbiddingly specific instructions to her brother at the breakfast table (“Please keep the chitchat to a minimum. I’m in a hurry!”)—Maggi and her shaggy sidekick, Milo, are ready. However, after waiting “a million minutes” (or three) in the water, they haven’t found a single frog. With shoulders slumped and head bent low, Maggi declares frog hunting to be capital B-O-R-I-N-G. Until…Milo finds a frog! And another. And another. After 16 frogs total, Maggi and Milo rest. (Frog hunting is hard work.) As the sun sets and the palette changes to a dusky blue, the frogs quietly croak “good night” to their new friends. Debut author Brenning has created a charming duo; Milo’s steadfast loyalty (and joyful, lolling tongue, courtesy of Burris) fully balances Maggi’s quirky proclivities. A simple, everyday adventure is always better when shared with a friend.

Move over Ladybug Girl (2008), there’s a new spunky gal-and-canine twosome in town. (Picture book. 3-6)

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31. The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill: Megan Frazer Blakemore

Book: The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill
Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore
Pages: 320
Age Range: 8-12

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill is a historical mystery novel set in a small Vermont town in 1953. Hazel Kaplansky lives with her parents in a home adjacent to the graveyard that they manage. She's prickly and smart, and doesn't fit in very well, despite having grown up in Maple Hill. At a time when everyone is nervous about Russian spies and possible nuclear attacks, Hazel is suspicious of the new gravedigger, a man with the too-banal-to-be-true name of Mr. Jones. Hazel soon enlists lonely new kid Samuel Butler in her investigation. But she soon learns that Samuel has secrets, too, which everyone seems to know about except Hazel. Hazel and Samuel's developing friendship is set against a backdrop that includes a McCarthy investigation of the men in the local factory, and corresponding swirl of local rumor and innuendo.

I think that Blakemore does a nice job integrating the historical time period with Hazel's story. She introduces lots of details, but keeps all of them tied closely to Hazel's perspective. For instance, she captures Hazel's mortification when she sneezes during an air raid drill. The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill covers everything from the scars that remain from the depression and influenza epidemic to how people treated unwed mothers during and after World War II to the fear and gossip triggered by McCarthyism. And she slips in little tidbits, too, like the fact that Alaska isn't a state yet. 

There is a bit of an old-fashioned feel to The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, as you would expect from a book so decisively set in the 50s. Bike riding, microfiche searches at the library, only mothers expected to show up at school events, etc. I think that the presence of a graveyard, together with active spying, will still keep kids interested, but there's always that risk with historical fiction that it will appeal more to adults than it does to the kids. There's a pretty clear sub-text in some of the scenes, where the adults, particularly Hazel's parents, talk over her head. I suppose that kids who understand this will have the chance to feel superior. Certainly I would expect young readers to be surprised at how different the world was 60 years ago. 

Anyway, I quite liked Hazel, despite (or perhaps because of) that fact that she isn't completely likable at all. She makes mistakes, she runs away with her assumptions, and she is flat out wrong about most things. But she's smart and loves books and doesn't really try to fit in - she is utterly herself. When a popular girl invites Hazel, unexpectedly, to a birthday party, she attends only so that she can conduct her investigation. She attempts to turn a mausoleum into a fallout shelter. She does remind me a bit of Harriet the Spy, writing things down in a little notebook, though the lives of the two girls are quite different. 

Here's a snippet, to give you a feel for Hazel:

"What was in that box?

Hazel sat up in the tree chewing her lip. Something was not on the up-and-up. Last year she had read every single one of the Nancy Drew mysteries, and just like Nancy always did, she had a hunch, but you didn't need to be a young sleuth like Hazel and Nancy to know that when a person locked something up, he was hiding something. And just like that, Hazel had her first real mystery." (Chapter 2)


"It should come as no surprise that Hazel loved the library. She loved everything about it, even the smell, like paper, and paste, and sometimes, when Richard Begos was there, a little bit like pipe smoke." (Chapter 6)

Despite the presence of some mean-spirited, gossipmongers in the town, there are several wonderful adult role models for Hazel, including a service station owner and a librarian. I also liked the fact that the conflict that Hazel has with a couple of mean girls is not resolved to any great degree. This comes across as realistic, and Hazel never feels like she needs their approval anyway. 

A hint of a mystery is left open at the end of The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill. It's not a cliffhanger, just something to keep the reader guessing. Kids who enjoy mysteries or realistic historical fiction (like Gary Schmidt's Okay for Now) will definitely want to check this one out. I enjoyed it as an adult, and I think that I would have loved it when I was ten (having been something of a geek like Hazel). Although this is Hazel's story, the engaging cover should help it to appeal to boys, too. Recommended! 

Publisher: Bloomsbury (@BWKids)
Publication Date: May 6, 2014
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

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

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

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32. Award news!

LiOS COVEREXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT! Life in Outer Space has been chosen as the winner of the 2014 Ena Noel Award, a biennial IBBY Australia Encouragement Award for Literature for Young People. Past winner include Markus Zusak, Sonya Hartnett, Catherine Jinks, and a host of other wonderful writers who I’m totally honoured to be in the company of.

You can find out more about the award here

The good people at IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) have this to say:

Melissa Keil’s debut novel arrived on the YA scene with a refreshing, individual style which has impressed not only its target audience but also readers across generations…Keil has a superb knack of capturing the teenage ‘cringe’ factor: the beach picnic episode is a laugh-out-loud account of awkwardness and developing confidence. The ingenuous style of this novel makes it highly readable and amusing.

Colour me chuffed.


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33. Advance Review: Inhuman #1

From the creative team of Charles Soule, Joe Madureira, Marte Gracia and Clayton Cowles, Inhuman #1 finally sees release this week, and Marvel have offered an advance copy for review. Originally planned to be written by Matt Fraction, the series saw delays before Fraction dropped out himself, and Soule came onboard the project instead. Following on from a plot point seeded – pun possibly intended – in the Infinity event, this first issue has a few problems, but actually makes for a surprisingly coherent whole.


The concept of the series is fairly simple, in that it’s the concept of the X-Men. At the end of Infinity, magic Inhuman dust was sprinkled over the Earth, and it affected anyone on Earth who had Inhuman heritage. If you are descended from the Inhumans, the dust cocoons you in an egg, and you hatch with powers – essentially, a new racial group are invented overnight, and society will both hate and fear these new egg people.

Working off notes from Fraction and what must have been an already half-completed set of comic pages from Madureira, Soule does a decent job of working Marvel method and writing dialogue into an already-existing story. Not very much happens particularly over the course of the issue, and we still don’t have a proper idea of the hook for the series – but Soule manages to make the characters distinct, with interesting voices. He best handles Medusa, who seems as though she’ll be stepping into the protagonist role for the book. With all the other already existing Inhumans conspicuously absent from the issue, she’s the sole voice of experience present in the pages. Every other character here, I believe, is brand new.


So it’s a little bit of a shame really that Madureira’s designs don’t move beyond perfunctory for any of them. The antagonist, in particular (seen above), is massively uninspired, and looks thoroughly generic. He can tell a story nicely, and towards the end of the issue he does some excellent work in positioning a fight sequence in a very tight environment – but you do also have to be okay with huge exaggerations in anatomy and body shape when you read the issue. His art tends to be very much focused on muscle and boobs in this issue, with Medusa often completely covered in shadow apart from her chest.

Saving the art is Gracia, whose colouring has been some of the best at Marvel recently. Here he mutes the brighter colours from his X-Men run and uses purple and blue as the two primary colours – soaking everything in an Inhuman light, in essence. The issue is set at night, but even when indoors Gracia soaks the characters in purples, which acts alongside Madureira’s already-heightened character models and makes them look truly out-of-the-ordinary. It’s excellent work, and helps to justify the choice of artist for the project. Soule and Madureira don’t feel like a creative team who are working together quite yet (which, as Soule only came onto this issue at the last minute, isn’t the fairest of criticisms for me to make, I understand), and so there’s a nineties sense of melodrama in the art and a more contemporary, cooler and calmer scripting style.

This isn’t to say that Inhuman #1 is a bad issue – this is perfectly fine stuff, albeit without any particular hook to draw you in for the next issue. Things are offered to the reader on a fairly small scale, designed to involve us more thoroughly in the character tics and mannerisms of the new cast, several of whom only get a few pages to make an impression. This dulls down the hype Marvel offered that this was going to be a World-changing type of comic, but actually offers us a far more interesting story than if this were presented as a Great Big Deal. Soule’s dialogue offers the new characters likeability, if not too much individuality as of yet, and his take on Medusa strides across the pages, an excellent choice of lead character.


Overall, Inhuman #1 is a solid story, despite the various disparate pieces that the creative team have had to reassemble here. This had every chance to be a complete disaster – but it’s a perfectly fine, decent superhero comic. It can’t stand up to the other #1 launches Marvel have had recently (Moon Knight, Captain Marvel, Ghost Rider and Soule’s own She-Hulk all far outstrip this issue for creative content), but Marvel have managed to at least give us a compelling start to a story. It’ll hopefully pick up once the creative team are properly collaborating with one another, or the next artist comes onboard.

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34. Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read

What a relief. Over the weekend I managed to finish Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books. I borrowed this book from the library and since there is a waiting list there are no renewals. I have to return it Wednesday. I also finished the book I was assigned for review by Library Journal, The Critic in the Modern World: Public Criticism from Samuel Johnson to James Wood. And I wrote and submitted my tiny review; 190 words, I was not to go over 200. I am not sure what the etiquette of writing about that book here is. I’ll have to figure that out.

I started reading both of these books about the same time. I did not get off to a good start with theThe Critic and was very angry that in nearly 300 years of public literary criticism none of the essays focused on a female critic. But I had Lesser’s book going and she was making me happy, so very easy going and chatty, I had a hard time being interested in The Critic. But as irony would have it, I ended up liking The Critic quite a lot and Lesser’s book, meh.

There is nothing especially wrong with Why I Read. As I said, Lesser has an easy going, chatty style and she loves books and reading. She says in the prologue that she decided to write the book in order to figure out not why she reads so much as what she gets from from it. But really the book is about various aspects of books that she finds interesting, that motivate her to read and give her pleasure.

Lesser works her way through the various elements, discussing her favorite books and how they are examples of the chapter topic. She gives us a chapter on plot and character, novelty, authority, grandeur and intimacy, things like that. And it is all very well and good and I now have a short list of books she mentions that sound really interesting some of which I have never heard of.

In the end, however, I found myself wondering why I should even care about why Lesser reads. While I added some books to my TBR list, her discussions were nine parts enthusiasm to one part useful and interesting. Judging from the lack of pages I marked, I might actually need to downgrade that to only 1/2 of one part useful and interesting. She doesn’t bring anything new to the table, nothing fresh, and definitely nothing that would aid a reader in her own reading of any given book.

The final chapter is an “afterword” in which Lessor retreads the digital versus print debate. She owns an ereader and buys and reads digital books but firmly believes in the superiority of print. Which is fine, but I found it hard to care by this point and became really disturbed by her lack of understanding in the realm of copyright and why so many mid-twentieth century books are not available in a digital format.

I feel like I am being a bit too hard on Why I Read because it suffered from being read alongside The Critic. Lesser wasn’t aiming for insightful commentary or an intellectual history. She just wanted to spend some time conversing about all the things that make reading books so enjoyable. In that she succeeds. It just turned out that I wanted thought-provoking instead of easy going.

Filed under: Books, Nonfiction, Reviews

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35. Cybils Finalist Review: OUT OF THE EASY by Ruta Sepetys

One of this year's Cybils finalist titles in YA Fiction was Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, who wrote the much-acclaimed Between Shades of Gray. Sepetys seems, so far, to specialize in historical fiction, which is a genre I've come to appreciate... Read the rest of this post

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36. A GIft for Mama: Linda Ravin Lodding and Alison Jay

Book: A Git for Mama
Author: Linda Ravin Lodding
Illustrator: Alison Jay
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4 to 8

When A Gift for Mama arrived, my daughter took one look at the cover and said: "We have another book about that boy." She wasn't strictly correct, but she did recognize that the boy on the cover of this book looks a lot like the boy from The Cloud Spinner, by Michael Catchpool. Both books are illustrated by Alison Jay, and she has a very distinctive illustration style. This works well, because of the tone of the two stories is similar.

In A Gift for Mama, a young boy in old-time Vienna buys a gorgeous yellow rose as a gift for his mother's birthday. Oskar thinks that the flower is "the perfect present" until an artist offers to trade a paint brush for the flower. Oskar decides that if he paints a picture for his Mama, that will be "the perfect present." But then a conductor needs the paintbrush as a temporary baton, and offers Oskar something else in return. And so on. Oskar's mood fluctuates as these trade keep occurring, some without his consent at all, but his innate optimism keeps him thinking that each thing is "the perfect present." 

An author's note at the end of the book gives brief historical context to the Viennese figures that Oskar has encountered, including the Empress Sisi and the artist Gustav Klimt. Understanding who these figures are transforms Oskar's story into a tour of Vienna in 1894. This information isn't really necessary to appreciate the book, but it does add another layer. 

In truth, my almost four year old was a bit baffled by this book, asking "Why does everyone keep taking the boy's things?". But this didn't stop her from wanting to read it again. Oskar is an appealing character, with his up and down moods, and his clear love for his mother. There's a scene in which Oskar experiences a particular disappointment, and my daughter could absolutely relate to his hunched posture (exactly the same way she hunches over sometimes when things don't go her way). 

Lodding's text is full of exclamations and drama, and uses relatively advanced vocabulary. Like this:

"With a tug on the reins, the carriage lurched to a roll.
"Mama's book!" cried Oskar. "It's ruined."

But as Oskar looked up, there was the Empress herself!
She held out a box. "Candied violets," she said kindly. "To say sorry for your book.""

Oskar bower. "Thank you Your Highness!"
The dainty, delicious sweets were the perfect gift for Mama!"

Here Oskar's words as he declares the book ruined, as well as "the perfect gift for Mama" are in slightly larger text, encouraging the adult reader to emphasize those sections. I like books that give cues like this for read-aloud. 

But what I love are Jay's sepia-toned illustrations. They have faint jigsaw lines across each image, like one would see on a very old painting. The people are a bit rounded, wide in their waists, and the use of perspective emphasizes Oskar's powerlessness as the large (and famous) adults manipulate him. 

A Gift for Mama is going on our "keep" shelf. Next to The Cloud Spinner, of course. The conbination of story and pictures leaves readers with a warm feeling. And the fact that there is a bit of historical knowledge hidden in the book adds a special bonus. Recommended for ages four and up for home or library use. 

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: March 25, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

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

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

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37. Review of the Day: Curiosity by Gary Blackwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On shelves April 10th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

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

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

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus


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

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

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38. Happy Birthday to Little Passports!

Happy Birthday to Little Passports!

Little Passports is 5 years old and to celebrate, we are offering a 15% discount to all of our readers.

Sale: 15% Off New Subscriptions through 4/8
Dates: 3/26 – 4/8
Promo Code: HAPPY5

Little Passports 5th Birthday Wish is for You to get 15% Off!

That’s right, Happy Birthday to Little Passports who is now 5 years old and growing fast. Parents and kids are raving about the Little Passports subscription package that shows up each month in the mail. (Which is the first cool part of the process for your little ones…what kid doesn’t love getting mail!?) Each month, Sam and Sofia – the Little Passports guides, take your child on a journey to a different state or country around the world and teaches them about the culture, geography and history of each location. The exercises are fun and colorful, keeping your kids engaged while learning! Click on the link or banner below to sign up for your subscription today and get 15% off by using the code: HAPPY5 from today through Tuesday, 4/8.


15% Off New Subscriptions at Little Passports from 3/26-4/8 with code: HAPPY5

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39. Friday Feature: Divergent

Divergent (Divergent, #1)In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue--Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is--she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are--and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, Tris also learns that her secret might help her save the ones she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

My thoughts:
I won this book a long time ago on Medeia Sharif's blog but it's been sitting on my bookshelf. Why? As much as I wanted to read it, I was worried about all the hype. I thought it wouldn't live up to it. But I finally decided to give it a try, and I'm so glad I did. Tris is a character I could identify with from the start because she felt so real. She doesn't fit in with her family or her faction. And when her simulation says she's Divergent and confirms that she doesn't fit in anywhere, she has to make a big decision. Being Divergent is dangerous. If people found out, she would be killed. So Tris makes a big decision and leaves her faction for one she thinks will save her.

I was really glad that Tris struggled a lot in her new faction. Things were tough, yet she'd have small victories along the way. I thought it was the perfect balance. She also develops some great relationships, though not all end well for her. While it's obvious that there's going to be something between Tris and Four, there were plenty of surprises there too, and I loved seeing what was going to happen next.

I wish I didn't put this serious off for so long, and I'm looking forward to the movie adaptation and book two.

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40. Cybils Finalist Review: ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell

I'm a bit late in coming to this one. I was late in reading it, too, by the time it crossed my desk for Round 2 of the Cybils, and I have to admit—it's often a death sentence (or at least a wrench in the works) when a book has been hyped as much... Read the rest of this post

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41. Hot Rod Hamster: Monster Truck Mania!: Cynthia Lord and Derek Anderson

Book: Hot Rod Hamster: Monster Truck Mania
Author: Cynthia Lord
Illustrator: Derek Anderson
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

Cynthia Lord and Derek Anderson's lovable Hot Rod Hamster is back for a new adventure in Hot Rod Hamster: Monster Truck Mania!. When Hamster and his friend Dog attend the Monster Truck Rally and carnival, the speed-loving Hamster wants to try everything. His goal is figure out which is the BEST attraction. The one that turns out to be the winner is a surprise for everyone, especially Dog. 

As with the other books in the series, the beauty of this book lies in Hamster's enthusiasm. On the very first page spread, when Dog says that they have a bit of time, and asks Hamster what he wants to do, Hamster cries: "RIDES!". The big letters, the bold font, and the image of Hamster leaping up from the ground, arms in the air, all combine to show young readers how Hamster feels. When Hamster has a choice of boats on one ride, we already KNOW that he's going to want the pirate boat. And if the bumper cars include a race car option, well... He's like an excited preschooler, but round and furry. 

Dog, meanwhile is the perfect sensible counterpart, and the character that parents will relate to. He weaves coming off of the teacups, and keeps track of how much time is left. He heads into the stadium early, to make sure they get good seats, and then laments when he thinks that his friend is missing the show. The mice make an appearance also, and, as in the other books, play a silent but pivotal helper role. 

Cynthia Lord's bouncy, rhyming text makes for a fun read-aloud:

"Truck day, treat day, cotton-candy sweet day.
Fun day, fair day, music in the air day."


"Sports car, race car, fun in outer space car.
Cop car, mail car, make the siren wail car.
Which would you choose?"

Interspersed between the rhymes are bursts of punchy dialog, with Hamster's words dramatized by color and fonts. Derek Anderson's illustrations are colorful and chaotic, and capture the feel of a fair perfectly. The actual monster truck scenes are vibrant enough to almost make this adult reader a tiny bit motion sick. 

My daughter and I both greeted the arrival of this book like an old friend had come to visit. Monster Truck Mania did not disappoint. A must-read for Hamster fans, and a sure winner with carnival and/or car-loving kids. I hope that we'll see Hamster back in the future for many more adventures. Vroom! Vroom!

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: March 25, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

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

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

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42. Today @KirkusReviews...

Moon at nine...I wrote about Deborah Ellis' Moon at Nine:

It’s a book that will likely end up in the Important Book category—books that get taught in school or get used in book groups—rather than in the Best-selling Book category, which is unfortunate. Farrin and Sadira’s story is one that deserves to be heard, and as it’s just one of many, it deserves to be heard all the more widely. While it doesn’t seem likely that there will be a sequel, I do hope for one—while the book certainly stands alone, it left me with a BUT WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?-shaped hole in my chest.

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43. Reading Rainbow app review

reading rainbow friends and family Reading Rainbow app reviewThe Emmy and Peabody–award winning Reading Rainbow, hosted by LeVar Burton, ran for twenty-three years on PBS. Now young readers can explore the Reading Rainbow app (RRKidz, 2012), which retains a similar style to the show complete with its signature, catchy theme song: “Take a look, / it’s in a book, / a reading rainbow…” The app contains a library of hundreds of children’s e-books in addition to book-related activities and live-action “video field trips” narrated by Burton.

When children enter the app, they are prompted to create a profile including name, age, gender, and three things they like — I chose wizards & fairies, things that go, and animals. These choices allow the app to tailor reading options for each child (accounts can be created for up to five children). The app is geared toward kids ages 3–9 and includes fiction and nonfiction book titles, with new e-books and videos being added every week. There is also a web- and app-accessible parent dashboard where a parent can monitor their child’s reading progress, search for specific e-books by title or author, and manage their subscription. There are three subscription options with this app: a free subscription for five e-books and seven videos, a monthly recurring subscription for $9.99, or a six-month recurring subscription for $29.99.

The app itself is very easy to navigate. The home screen allows access to everything in the app, the most important of which is a portal to different themed floating “islands” where kids can explore “worlds of reading”: Action Adventures & Magical Tales, Genius Academy, Awesome People, National Geographic Kids, Animal Kingdom, My Friends My Family, and Music Mountain. Simply scroll to the island of your choice and tap on it to enter. Once inside, you’ll see two scrolling rows full of theme-connected e-books and videos. There is also a scrolling row of videos to watch about fascinating people, places, and things related to the theme (and all of the videos are also available via a button on the main screen). Within the scrolling row of e-books, some are marked as new or recommended e-books “just for you” (based on the child’s age and interests as chosen in their profile). And some e-books will fit more than one category, so you may see an e-book on several islands’ lists. After you select an e-book, there is a sneak peek description to introduce the e-book to a reader. If you want to get the e-book, just click yes when prompted and it will download in your “backpack.”

reading rainbow book recs Reading Rainbow app review

A child’s backpack is reachable via the home screen, where you’ll also have easy access to everything in the app. You can see the e-books you’ve checked out when you click on the backpack (the design of which is customizable — I chose the sports theme). You can only have five e-books in your backpack at a time, so when you’re finished reading an e-book just “return” it through the return slot so you can check out another e-book. There are also helpful “how-to” videos in your backpack. Once you click on an e-book in your backpack, it’s time to read!

There are two modes of reading: “read to me” and “read by myself.” While reading an e-book, there is the option to browse through the page spreads, pause the narration by touching the text, and play a game (although I was only able to play a matching game with each of my five e-books). When you want to leave an e-book, just click on your backpack and it will bring you back out of the e-book so you can continue exploring the app. If you come back to an e-book you haven’t finished yet, the app will return you to the page where you stopped reading. After you’ve completed an e-book, sticker rewards are given to motivate further reading.

Right now the available e-books are from publishers including Charlesbridge, Holiday House, National Geographic Kids, Kindermusik, Abrams, Sleeping Bear, Shenanigan, Peachtree, Kane, and Little, Brown. While there’s nothing flashy to be found within the app’s e-books, the extensiveness of this collection makes it an invaluable resource that will provide children with hours of education and entertainment. “But,” as LeVar Burton says, “you don’t have to take my word for it” — check it out yourself.

Available for iPad (requires iOS 5.1 or later); free. Monthly subscription to content is $9.99, or a six-month subscription is $29.99. Android and web versions coming later this year.

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44. Review of Sophie Sleeps Over

russo sophie sleeps over Review of Sophie Sleeps OverSophie Sleeps Over
by Marisabina Russo; 
illus. by the author
Primary    Porter/Roaring Brook    32 pp.
3/14    978-1-59643-933-7    $16.99    g

Sophie and Olive are BBFFs (best bunny friends forever). When Olive announces a sleepover birthday party, Sophie is excited to go (“‘Sleepover parties are my favorite kind,’ said Sophie, even though she had never been to one”). She packs her overnight bag, puts on her tiara, and heads over to Olive’s. She gets a rude awakening, though, when she knocks on Olive’s front door and it’s opened by Penelope, who purports to be “‘Olive’s best friend.’ ‘No, I’m her best friend,’ said Sophie, but all of a sudden she wasn’t so sure.” During the party Penelope undercuts her at every turn (“You could just keep score,” Penelope suggests during ping-pong), and things come to a head over Sophie’s best-friend birthday gift to Olive. After lights-out, though, the competing bunny girls reach détente over their inability to sleep and missing their favorite dolls, paving the way for a new three-way best-friendship. Russo knows her way around drawing rabbit-children (The Bunnies Are Not in Their Beds; A Very Big Bunny, rev. 1/10), and in her tidy gouache illustrations these three bunnies, dressed in their birthday party best, display clear emotions that will be immediately recognizable to young readers and listeners. Friendship bliss, anticipation, hurt feelings, homesickness — all are familiar to (human) kids and are all conveyed with respect and sensitivity.

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45. Review of Caminar

brown caminar Review of Caminarstar2 Review of Caminar Caminar
by Skila Brown
Middle School    Candlewick    197 pp.
3/14    978-0-7636-6516-6    $15.99    g

“Forest sounds / all around / but on the ground / the sound / of Me / grew. Echoed. / I heard a path I could not see.” Exquisitely crafted poems are the basis of an unusually fine verse novel set in 1981, in the middle of the Guatemalan civil war. When the government helicopters appear in the air over the small village of Chopán, young Carlos obeys his mother when she tells him to go into the forest to hide. When all is quiet, he climbs down from his tree and soon comes across a group of four guerrilla rebel soldiers, lost in the forest. They confirm his greatest fears — that Chopán was burned to the ground, and that the people there were massacred by the government soldiers. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, Carlos begins to walk — caminar — on a mission to reach his grandmother’s village at the top of the mountain, to warn them about the helicopters. The poems, all written from Carlos’s point of view, are emotional, visceral, and lyrical. Layered and varied, some are shape poems; some can be read in more than one way, as if written from two perspectives; and all are accessible to young readers. When Carlos first encounters Paco, the rebel soldier his own age, their meeting is described in a poignant mirror poem. All combine to give us a chillingly memorable portrait of one child surviving violence and loss in a time of war.

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46. The Mark of the Dragonfly: Jaleigh Johnson

Book: The Mark of the Dragonfly
Author: Jaleigh Johnson
Pages: 400
Age Range: 10 and up

I quite enjoyed The Mark of the Dragonfly a brand-new middle grade/middle school fantasy novel by Jaleigh Johnson. The Mark of the Dragonfly is set on another world, one that bears a resemblance to ours, but also includes non-human races and humans with unusual gifts. Piper lives on her own in the bleak Scrap Town 16, eking out a living as a scrapper and a machinist. Scrappers salvage items from other worlds that arrive in certain areas via meteor storms (an example is a book: "Embossed on the front cover was a picture of a girl and small dog. Next to her stood a grinning scarecrow, a lion, and man who looked like he was made entirely of metal.") 

Piper has a gift for machinery, and is good at refurbishing some of the recovered items. But she longs for more. Her life changes forever when she finds a mysterious, fragile girl in the scrap fields. Piper ends up on a quest to help Anna find her home, though the two girls are pursued by a powerful and dangerous man.  

The adult quibbler in me questions how Piper's world can be similar to ours in many ways, despite being on an apparently separate planet. But this wasn't enough to dampen my appreciation for the book. I liked Johnson's inclusion of other intelligent races, coexisting with humans in the world. 

But the real reason that I enjoyed the book is that the characters in The Mark of the Dragonfly are quite strong. Piper is angry about her father's death, and determined to make a better life for herself. She struggles plausibly with doing the right thing. Anna is a bit more of an enigma, by design, but she is fascinating, too. She has only fragmented memories of her life, but she is drawn to books, and can spout various arcane bits of knowledge. There are some nice supporting characters, too, including a potential love interest for Piper (all quite PG, still suitable for upper elementary and middle school kids).

The plotting in The Mark of the Dragonfly moves along quickly, with several dangerous encounters that will keep readers turning the pages. The ongoing puzzle regarding who Anna is, and why she is being pursued, lends a more over-arcing suspense. 

The Mark of the Dragonfly wraps the initial story up nicely. No cliffhangers here. But given the depth of the world that Johnson has created, I do hope that there are future installments. Recommended for fans of middle grade fantasy with strong characters and unusual worlds. This one is going to stick in my memory, I'm sure. 

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: March 25, 2014
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

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

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

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47. Don't Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski

On October 2nd, the kids from homeroom 10B at Bloomberg High School in Manhattan got flu shots.

On October 3rd, they developed telepathy.

In Sarah Mlynowski's latest novel, the aptly-titled Don't Even Think About It, a group of fifteen-year-olds realize that knowledge is power -- and that power isn't all it's cracked up to be. Initially, some of them think it's neat to be able to read other people's thoughts, but then they realize it's a two-way street, and that other people from their homeroom can read their thoughts, too. The kids have to figure out ways to shield their thoughts or else risk exposing not only their own secrets, but also things that they know about their friends and family. Now they know each other's silly, fleeting thoughts and trivial concerns about zits and jeans and crushes as well as more serious matters of cheating (on boyfriends and girlfriends, on quizzes and tests) and they aren't sure what to do about their unexpected condition. During their private lunchtime meetings, self-perception mixes with group reception. When people realize what their friends, family members, and classmates really think about them, they get hurt, and alliances shift. Soon, it's clear that they have to decide whether or not to tell others about their telepathy - whether or not they are prepared for the fallout.

There's a lovely lightness in Sarah Mlynowski's YA books. That's not to say that she doesn't tackle serious subjects, because she does (what one character in particular discovers about his parents will break your heart), but the fact is she allows her characters to be young and act young and be impulsive sometimes and be selfish sometimes and occasionally have narrow fields of vision simply because that's their world right now - that what happens in their home and at their school and with their friends, that's their whole world. Then these characters realize what life is really like for other people, that what you see is not always what you get, and that every single person has ups and downs and worries and hopes. They ultimately realize what Buffy told Jonathan in Earshot, the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that also dealt with the ramifications of telepathy:

"Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It's not. It's deafening."

Mlynowski has chosen to use the first-person plural "we" throughout the book, never pinning the narrator to be one specific character but instead letting the group at large relate their story. Nicely, each of the main characters has a distinct storyline and personality, from the easily-worried Olivia to the carefree Cooper, from Tess, who has a crush on her best friend, to BJ, who hits on every girl in his path.

YA readers may also pick up on little shoutouts to other authors and books, such as one character's nail polish color being called We Were Liars, a nod to a novel by E. Lockhart.

If you liked Don't Even Think About It, keep your eyes peeled for the sequel, Think Twice, which is scheduled to come out in 2015.

If this is your first taste of Sarah's writing, check out her backlist of titles, which also includes novels for adults and for younger readers.

Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Interview with Sarah Mlynowski (2010)
Interview with Sarah Mlynowski (2009)
Interview with E. Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski, and Lauren Myracle
Book Review: How to Be Bad by E. Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski, and Lauren Myracle
Book Review: The Magic in Manhattan series by Sarah Mlynowski
- and recently posted at readergirlz:
7 Things You Don't Know About Sarah Mlynowski

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48. REVIEW: NYC Basic Tips and Etiquette by Nathan W. Pyle


NYC Basic Tips and Etiquette
Nathan W. Pyle
William Morrow/HarperCollins
$10, 144 pages
ISBN 978-0-06-230311-0

I kept expecting this book of cartoon tips to be funny and it wasn’t. Then I realized it wasn’t meant to be funny. It was meant to be what the title says: tips and etiquette, like how to order pizza and how not to hang on the subway pole (I admit I do that because I don’t like touching its mega-germy surface), avoiding garbage and similar pieces of wisdom. Most of these tips—like the smelly garbage one—would be germane in 50% of the places on earth, but there is the occasional nugget like the Horror Of The Empty Subway Car (usually involves two or more of the following: a bum, puke, piss, poo.)


This book started as a webcomic by Pyle, a recent Ohio emigre who came to NYC to produce TV shows. The tips got socialed all around and a book deal followed. Pyle’s art falls into one of the Seven Kinds Of Weak Comics Art categories that I have identified over the years, namely “Thinks He’s Toth, But He’s Not”—relying completely on contrasty pages with stark white and black areas, without really having a great grasp of anatomy or architecture. The simplicity of the imagery does carry it through though, and people like diagrams.


I have never used this particular TJs technique but might give it a shot.

Despite these flaws, this is a useful book if you have just arrived in New York or even if you needed a brush up on some of the basics. Now that NYC has been turned into a complete shopping mall/holiday for nouveau riche euro trash, Hedge funders, trustafarians and Tom Brady, it’s good to remember the olden days when street smarts—and not the Benjamins—were the key to survival.
I have never used this particular TJs technique but might give it a shot.

No website but there is a FB page.

6 Comments on REVIEW: NYC Basic Tips and Etiquette by Nathan W. Pyle, last added: 3/26/2014
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49. Review of the Day: The Fox and the Crow by Manasi Subramaniam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Fables by Aesop, illustrated by Jean-Francois Martin

Professional Reviews:

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1 Comments on Review of the Day: The Fox and the Crow by Manasi Subramaniam, last added: 3/26/2014
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50. Call for Book Reviewers of Catholic Literature: Catholic Fiction.Net

Who has a strong opinion on literature? Would you like to review a Catholic work and have your review published?

Catholic Fiction.net has received a tremendous amount of exposure and success over the last year. We have reached up to 18,000 views in a day and average several thousand a day. The work you do has enabled us to spread the word about Catholic Fiction.

The success has brought challenges. Simply put, we have a lot of books to be reviewed. In fact, we have over 130 books waiting to be reviewed! This is a great opportunity for those looking to break into the world of great literature. Become a part of the community.

Please visit our website for more information.

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