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1. Review of the Day: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

cloud-and-wallfishCloud and Wallfish
By Anne Nesbet
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-8803-5
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Historical fiction is boring. Right? That’s the common wisdom on the matter, certainly. Take two characters (interesting), give them a problem (interesting), and set them in the past (BOOOOOORING!). And to be fair, there are a LOT of dull-as-dishwater works of historical fiction out there. Books where a kid has to wade through knee-deep descriptions, dates, facts, and superfluous details. But there is pushback against this kind of thinking. Laurie Halse Anderson, for example, likes to call her books (Chains, Forge, Ashes, etc.) “historical thrillers”. People are setting their books in unique historical time periods. And finally (and perhaps most importantly) we’re seeing a lot more works of historical fiction that are truly fun to read. Books like The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, or One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, or My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp, or ALL of Louise Erdrich’s titles for kids. Better add Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet to that list as well. Doing what I can only characterize as the impossible, Nesbet somehow manages to bring East Germany in 1989 to full-blown, fascinating life. Maybe you wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s certainly worth a trip.

His name is Noah. Was Noah. It’s like this, one minute you’re just living your life, normal as you please, and the next your parents have informed you that your name is a lie, your birth date is wrong, and you’re moving to East Berlin. The year is 1989 and as Noah (now Jonah)’s father would say, there’s a definite smell of history in the air. His mother has moved the family to this new city as part of her research into education and stuttering (an impediment that Noah shares) for six months. But finding himself unable to attend school in a world so unlike the one he just left, the boy is lonely. That’s why he’s so grateful when the girl below his apartment, Claudia, befriends him. But there are secrets surrounding these new friends. How did Claudia’s parents recently die? Why are Noah’s parents being so mysterious? And what is going on in Germany? With an Iron Curtain shuddering on its foundations, Noah’s not just going to smell that history in the air. He’s going to live it, and he’s going to get a friend out of the bargain as well.

It was a bit of a risk on Nesbet’s part to begin the book by introducing us to Noah’s parents right off the bat as weirdly suspicious people. It may take Noah half a book to create a mental file on his mom, but those of us not related to the woman are starting our own much sooner. Say, from the minute we meet her. It was very interesting to watch his parents upend their son’s world and then win back his trust by dint of their location as well as their charm and evident love. It almost reads like a dare from one author to another. “I bet you can’t make a reader deeply distrust a character’s parents right from the start, then make you trust them again, then leave them sort of lost in a moral sea of gray, but still likable!” Challenge accepted!

Spoiler Alert on This Paragraph (feel free to skip it if you like surprises): Noah’s mom is probably the most interesting parent you’ll encounter in a children’s book in a long time. By the time the book is over you know several things. 1. She definitely loves Noah. 2. She’s also using his disability to further her undercover activities, just as he fears. 3. She incredibly frightening. The kind of person you wouldn’t want to cross. She and her husband are utterly charming but you get the distinct feeling that Noah’s preternatural ability to put the puzzle pieces of his life together is as much nature as it is nurture. Coming to the end of the book you see that Noah has sent Claudia postcards over the years from places all over the world. Never Virginia. One could read that a lot of different ways but I read it as his mother dragging him along with her from country to country. There may never be a “home” for Noah now. But she loves him, right? I foresee a lot of really interesting bookclub discussions about the ending of this book, to say nothing about how we should view his parents.

As I mentioned before, historical fiction that’s actually interesting can be difficult to create. And since 1989 is clear-cut historical fiction (this is the second time a character from the past shared my birth year in a children’s book . . . *shudder*) Nesbet utilizes several expository techniques to keep young readers (and, let’s face it, a lot of adult readers) updated on what precisely is going on. From page ten onward a series of “Secret Files” boxes will pop up within the text to give readers the low-down. These are written in a catchy, engaging style directly to the reader, suggesting that they are from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who knows the past, the future, and the innermost thoughts of the characters. So in addition to the story, which wraps you in lies and half-truths right from the start to get you interested, you have these little boxes of explanation, giving you information the characters often do not have. Some of these Secret Files are more interesting than others, but as with the Moby Dick portions in Louis Sachar’s The Cardturner, readers can choose to skip them if they so desire. They should be wary, though. A lot of pertinent information is sequestered in these little boxes. I wouldn’t cut out one of them for all the wide wide world.

Another way Nesbet keeps everything interesting is with her attention to detail. The author that knows the minutia of their fictional world is an author who can convince readers that it exists. Nesbet does this by including lots of tiny details few Americans have ever known. The pirated version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that was disseminated for years throughout the German Democratic Republic? I had no idea. The listing of television programs available there? Very funny (did I mention the book is funny too?). Even the food you could get in the grocery store and the smell of the coal-choked air feels authentic.

Of course, you can load your book down with cute boxes and details all day and still lose a reader if they don’t relate to the characters. Noah could easily be reduced to one of those blank slate narrators who go through a book without a clear cut personality. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case here. And I appreciated the Claudia was never a straight victim or one of those characters that appears impervious to the pain in her life. Similarly, Noah is a stutterer but the book never throws the two-dimensional bully in his path. His challenges are all very strange and unique to his location. I was also impressed by how Nesbet dealt with Claudia’s German (she makes up words or comes up with some Noah has never heard of and so Nesbet has the unenviable job of making that clear on the page). By the same token, Noah has a severe stutter, but having read the whole book I’m pretty sure Nesbet only spells the stutter out on the page once. For every other time we’re told about it after the fact or as it is happening.

I’ve said all this without, somehow, mentioning how lovely Nesbet’s writing is. The degree to which she’s willing to go deep into her material, plucking out the elements that will resonate the most with her young readers, is masterful. Consider a section that explains what it feels like to play the role of yourself in your own life. “This is true even for people who aren’t crossing borders or dealing with police. Many people in middle school, for instance, are pretending to be who they actually are. A lot of bad acting is involved.” Descriptions are delicious as well. When Claudia comes over for dinner after hearing about the death of her parents Nesbet writes, “Underneath the bristles, Noah could tell, lurked a squishy heap of misery.”

There’s little room for nuance in Nesbet’s Berlin, that’s for sure. The East Berliners we meet are either frightened, in charge, or actively rebelling. In her Author’s Note, Nesbet writes about her time in the German Democratic Republic in early 1989, noting where a lot of the details of the book came from. She also mentions the wonderful friends she had there at that time. Noah, by the very plot in which he finds himself, would not be able to meet these wonderful people. As such, he has a black-and-white view of life in East Berlin. And it’s interesting to note that when his classmates talk up the wonders of their society, he never wonders if anything they tell him is true. Is everyone employed? At what price? There is good and bad and if there is nuance it is mostly found in the characters like Noah’s mother. Nesbet herself leaves readers with some very wise words in her Author’s Note when she says to child readers, “Truth and fiction are tangled together in everything human beings do and in every story they tell. Whenever a book claims to be telling the truth, it is wise (as Noah’s mother says at one point) to keep asking questions.” I would have liked a little more gray in the story, but I can hardly think of a better lesson to impart to children in our current day and age.

In many way, the book this reminded me of the most was Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. Think about it. A boy desperate for a friend meets an out-of-the-box kind of girl. They invent a fantasyland together that’s across a distinct border (in this book Claudia imagines it’s just beyond the Wall). Paterson’s book was a meditation on friendship, just like Nesbet’s. Yet there is so much more going on here. There are serious thoughts about surveillance (something kids have to think about a lot more today), fear, revolution, loyalty, and more than all this, what you have to do to keep yourself sane in a world where things are going mad. Alice Through the Looking Glass is referenced repeatedly, and not by accident. Noah has found himself in a world where the rules he grew up with have changed. As a result he must cling to what he knows to be true. Fortunately, he has a smart author to help him along the way. Anne Nesbet always calls Noah by his own name, even when her characters don’t. He is always Noah to us and to himself. That he finds himself in one of the most interesting and readable historical novels written for kids is no small thing. Nesbet outdoes herself. Kids are the beneficiaries.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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2. Review of the Day: They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

TheyAllSawCatThey All Saw a Cat
By Brendan Wenzel
Chronicle Books
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-4521-5013-0
Ages 4-7
On shelves now

It’s funny. Unless you’re a teacher or librarian, a grown adult that does not work or live with children will come into very little contact with picture books. Then, one day, they produce a few kids and BLAMMO! They are shot into a world they haven’t visited since they were young themselves. They grab frantically at the classics, discover that a lot of them don’t work with very very young children (since when did Horton Hatches the Egg have so many words?!?), and then occasionally turn to the experts for help. And why? Parents’ reasons are not united on this front. Some read to their kids to instill a love of reading. Others to build little brains. Others to simply fill the long hours of the day. Occasionally a parent will also use a book to teach some kind of a lesson. If the parent is unlucky they will get stuck with a book sticky with didacticism (an unpleasant book that sucks all the joy out of the reading experience). But if they are lucky (or they are in the hands of a capable professional) they might find just the right book, teaching just the right lesson. Here’s an example: Let’s say you wanted to teach a kid empathy or how our perceptions change depending on our own experiences and who we are. How do you show that in 32 pages? Well, you could pick up some cloying, toxic dribble that overuses words like “hugs” and “friendship”. Nine times out of ten, that’s what’s going to happen. Or, if you are a clever parent, you pick up a book like They All Saw a Cat. It looks at first glance like it’s just about a cat. Delve a little deeper and you’ll find it about science and art and perception and empathy. And it does it all with very simple sentences, repetition, and a lot of white backgrounds. Not too shabby. Not too shabby at all.

theyallsaw1“The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws . . .” In that walking it is seen. It is seen by a child, a dog, and a fox. It is seen by a fish, a mouse, and a bee. It is seen by a bird, a flea, a snake, a skunk, a worm, and a bat. And what’s important is that this “seeing” changes with every creature. For mice and dogs, the cat is perceived through the lens of their own interactions with it. For worms and bats the cat is only visible through the ways in which it moves through space (vibrations through the ground and the ways in which echolocation shape it). By the end we see a hodgepodge cat, a mix of how each animal sees it. Then the cat comes to the water, viewing its own reflection, “and imagine what it saw?”

The book this actually reminded me of the most was that old Rudyard Kipling story “The Cat Who Walked By Himself”. Unlike that tale we never really get this book from the cat’s perspective. Indeed, the cat is often only visible when others see him. The similarity to Kipling comes with the language. That very first sentence, for example: “The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws . . .” And as in the original art for that story, the cat here is often pictured from the back. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not a book written by one person and illustrated by another can ever be as strong as a book that is written and illustrated by the same artist. They All Saw a Cat makes a fairly strong argument that artist who are also authors are the better way to go. Wenzel’s sentences are so perfectly layered here. If anything, they match the personality of a cat. There aren’t many words, true. But the measured tone is at once soothing and scintillating. I liked how the book broke up the animals. The first three are potential predators. The second three are potential theyallsaw2prey. The final six are strict observers. It also ends perfectly with the best possible sentence. Not all picture books, no matter how beautiful they look, are capable of sticking their landings. This one does.

In this book the publication page (where they tend to describe the artist’s process) gets a little slaphappy. It reads (and I am quoting this precisely), “The illustrations in this book were rendered in almost everything imaginable, including colored pencil, oil pastels, acrylic paint, watercolor, charcoal, Magic Marker, good old number 2 pencils, and even an iBook.” The other day I was listening to a podcast where one of the speakers speculated that including this kind of information in a book changes the adult reader’s perspective. Would I think less of this book if I found out it was done in digital ink? Possibly, though I should note that I was blown away by the art long before I ever turned to see how it was made. And while digital art is great and has its place, I’d like to see the program that replicates what Wenzel’s done here.

theyallsaw3The sheer beauty of the book is what strikes you first when you read it. Consider the two-page spread where on the left-hand side you see the cat through snake vision, and on the right-hand side you see the cat through skunk vision. The snake’s view is a vibrant shock of color, all yellows and reds and blues. The skunk’s in contrast, looks like the soft grainy sepia-tones of an old film. Maybe Casablanca. Put together, side-by-side, the same cat is its own opposite. But if Wenzel were constantly wowing you with eye-popping images that wouldn’t really support the narrative flow. That’s why the pacing of the book is key. Wenzel starts the book out very slowly, with lots of white backgrounds and views akin to what we see as people. The child, dog, and fox all see the cat similarly (though I loved the oversized bell around its neck, indicating the fox and dog’s superior sense of hearing through a visual medium). The fish is the first moment you start to separate from human visuals. The cat’s large, yellow eyes are 80% of the two pages. But it is the mouse’s Basquiat-esque view of the cat that steals the show. The red background, and the cat all teeth and claws, and terrifying eyes is a far cry from the cuddly creature at the start of the story. It’s also the moment when the child readers come to realize that perception is personal.

An interesting criticism of this book is linked precisely to the more science-y aspects of the text. One of the commenters on a blog post I wrote, that included this book, said that, “I desperately wanted some nice science-y back matter to tell us how and why different animals see the cat the way they do. Sure, we can go OH, this animal must be colorblind! This animal ‘sees’ by sonar! But c’mon, throw us an edu-bone here. It felt like such a missed opportunity.” This is an interesting note. We’ve grown used to useful backmatter in this post-Core Curriculum world of ours. Would this book have been stronger if it had contained a science element to it? Yes and no. It would have been a real boon to teachers, you betcha, and probably to perceptive parents who could have turned it into a lesson for young readers. If I had to guess I’d say the reason it wasn’t done may have had something to do with the fact that Wenzel is mixing his fact and fiction here pretty closely. Each animal is “seeing” as it would in the wild, but that is not to say that the art is by any means scientific. The cartoonish quality to the animals (no better exemplified than in the mouse’s bulbous eyes) doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. I would have very much liked notes on the accuracy of the art, but I can understand the fear of asking the reader to take the work too seriously. I don’t necessarily agree, but I understand it.

theyallsaw4How do you discuss this book with kids? Well, you might read it to them, start to finish, and then ask them which picture shows what the cat really looks like. When they select (some will go with the human view but I’ve no doubt a couple will prefer the dog or bird p.o.v.s) you then tell them that actually all the pictures in this book are true. And if you really want to blow their little minds, you tell them that there’s a good chance that the way you see the world isn’t the same way the person next to you does. Everyone, everywhere sees the world different from his or her neighbor. Is it any wonder we have problems? The solution is to try and see things from another person’s view. Now, if the kids think you’re speaking literally or figuratively, it doesn’t really matter. You’ve planted the seed. Or, rather, the book has.

Let us do away with the notion of “cat people” vs. “dog people”. This book is for “people”. End of sentence. And if I got a little crazy in my first paragraph here, filling you in on my view of world peace via picture books, you’ll understand when you read this book. That tired old phrase to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” makes no sense to a kid. But travel a page through another animal’s eyes? There’s never been a better fictional picture book that allows you to do this. If we all see something as simple as a cat this differently, what else might we not see the same? It’s a treat to eye, ear, and mind, but don’t forget. We’re all going to see this book through our own lenses. What will your kids see when they look at it? Only one way to find out.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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3. Monday Review: THE QUEEN OF BLOOD by Sarah Beth Durst

Synopsis: The Queen of Blood, which comes out TOMORROW, is a foray into YA crossover fantasy by Sarah Beth Durst, author of numerous wonderful, whimsical, fantastical MG and YA fantasy titles such as (most recently) The Girl Who Could Not Dream... Read the rest of this post

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4. Monday Review: PASADENA by Sherri L. Smith

Don't miss our interview with author Sherri Smith this Wednesday, as part of the Pasadena blog tour! Synopsis: "The thing I'm finally learning is that someone can be your best friend in the world, but you're not necessarily theirs." Pasadena. It's... Read the rest of this post

0 Comments on Monday Review: PASADENA by Sherri L. Smith as of 1/1/1900
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5. Review of the Day: Presenting Buffalo Bill by Candace Fleming

presentingbuffaloPresenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West
By Candace Fleming
A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Book Press (a division of Macmillan)
$19.99
ISBN: 9781596437630
Ages 9-12
On shelves September 20th

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we present history to our kids. Specifically I was thinking about picture book biographies and whether or not they’re capable of offering a nuanced perspective on a person’s complicated life. Will we ever see an honest picture book biography of Nixon, for example? In talking with a nonfiction author for children the other day, she asked me about middle grade books (books written for 9-12 year olds) and whether or not they are ever capable of featuring complicated subjects. I responded that often they’re capable of showing all kinds of sides to a person. Consider Laura Amy Schlitz’s delightful The Hero Schliemann or Candace Fleming’s The Great and Only Barnum. Great books about so-so people. And Candace Fleming… now there’s an author clearly drawn to historical characters with slippery slidey morals. Her latest book, Presenting Buffalo Bill is a splendid example of precisely that. Not quite a shyster, but by no means possessing a soul as pure as unblemished snow, had you asked me, prior to my reading this book, whether or not it was even possible to write a biography for children about him my answer would have been an unqualified nope. Somehow, Ms. Fleming has managed it. As tangled and thorny a life as ever you read, Fleming deftly shows how perceptions of the American West that persist to this day can all be traced to Buffalo Bill Cody. For good or for ill.

What do you think of when you think of the iconic American West? Cowboys and sage? American Indians and buffalo? Whatever is popping up in your head right now, if it’s a stereotypical scene, you’ve Buffalo Bill Cody to thank for it. An ornery son of a reluctant abolitionist, Bill grew up in a large family in pre-Civil War Kansas. Thanks to his father’s early death, Bill was expected to make money at a pretty young age. Before he knew it, he was trying his luck panning gold, learning the finer points of cowboy basics, and accompanying wagon trains. He served in the Civil War, met the love of his life, and gave tours to rich Easterners looking for adventure. It was in this way that Bill unwittingly found himself the subject of a popular paperback series, and from that he was able to parlay his fame into a stage show. That was just a hop, skip, and a jump to creating his Wild West Show. But was Bill a hero or a shyster? Did he exploit his Indian workers or offer them economic opportunities otherwise unavailable to them? Was he a caring man or a philanderer? The answer: Yes. And along the way he may have influenced how the world saw the United States of America itself.

buffalobill2So let’s get back to that earlier question of whether or not you can feature a person with questionable ethics in a biography written for children. It really all just boils down to a question of what the point of children’s biographies is in the first place. Are they meant to inspire, or simply inform, or some kind of combination of both? In the case of unreliable Bill, the self-made man (I’m suddenly hearing Jerry Seinfeld’s voice saying to George Costanza, “You’re really made something of yourself”) Candace Fleming had to wade through loads of inaccurate data produced, in many cases, by Bill himself. To combat this problem, Ms. Fleming employs a regular interstitial segment in the book called “Panning for the Truth” in which she tries to pry some grain of truth out of the bombast. If a person loves making up the story of their own life, how do you ever know what the truth is? Yet in many ways, this is the crux of Bill’s story. He was a storyteller, and to prop himself up he had to, in a sense, prop up the country’s belief in its own mythology. As he was an embodiment of that mythology, he had a vested interest in hyping what he believed made the United States unique. Taking that same message to other countries in the world, he propagated a myth that many still believe in today. Therefore the story of Bill isn’t merely the story of one man, but of a way people think about our country. Bill was merely the vessel. The message has outlived him.

I’ve heard folks online say of the book that they can’t imagine the child who’d come in seeking a bio of Buffalo Bill. Since kids don’t like cowboys like they used to, the very existence of this book in the universe puzzles them. Well, putting aside the fact that enjoying a biography often has very little to do with the fact that you already were interested in the subject (or any nonfiction book, for that matter), let’s just pick apart precisely why a kid might get a lot out of reading about Bill. He was, as I have mentioned, a humbug. But he was also for more than that. He was a fascinating mix of good and evil. He took credit for terrible deeds but also participated in charitable acts (whether out of a sense of obligation or mere money is a question in and of itself). He no longer fits the mold of what we consider a hero to be. He also doesn’t fit the mold of a villain. So what does that leave us with? A very interesting human being and those, truth be told, make for the best biographies for kids.

buffalo_bill_wild_west_show_c1899The fact that Bill is a subject of less than sterling personal qualities is not what makes this book as difficult as it is to write (though it doesn’t help). The real problem with Bill comes right down to his relationships with American Indians. How do we in the 21st century come to terms with Bill’s very white, very 19th century attitudes towards Native Americans? Fleming tackles this head on. First and foremost, she begins the book with “A Note From the Author” where she explains why she would use one term or another to describe the Native Americans in this book, ending with the sentence, “Always my intention when referring to people outside my own cultural heritage is to be respectful and accurate.” Next, she does her research. Primary sources are key, but so is work at the McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. Her work was then vetted by Dr. Jeffrey Means (Enrolled Member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe), Associate Professor of History at the University of Wyoming in the field of Native American History, amongst others. I was also very taken with the parts of the book that quote Oglala scholar Vine Deloria Jr., explaining at length why Native performers worked for Buffalo Bill and what it meant for their communities.

What surprised me the most about the book was that I walked into it with the pretty clear perception that Bill was a “bad man”. A guy who hires American Indians to continually lose or be exploited as part of some traveling show meant to make white Americans feel superior? Yeah. Not on board with that. But as ever, the truth is far more complicated than that. Fleming delves deep not just into the inherently racist underpinnings of Bill’s life, but also its contradictions. Bill hated Custer when he knew the guy and said publicly that the defeat of Custer was no massacre, yet would reenact it as part of his show, buffalobillwith Custer as the glorified dead hero. He would hire Native performers, pay them a living wage, and speak highly of them, yet at the same time he murdered a young Cheyenne named Yellow Hair and scalped him for his own glory. Fleming is at her best when she recounts the relationship of Bill and Sitting Bull. A photo of the two shows them standing together “as equals . . . but it is obvious that Bill is leading the way while Sitting Bull appears to be giving in. What was the subtext of the photo? That the ‘friendship’ offered in the photograph – and in Wild West performances – honored American Indian dignity only at the expense of surrender to white dominance and control.”

I’m writing this review in the year of 2016 – a year when Donald Trump is running for President of the United States of America. It’s given me a lot of food for thought about American humbuggery. Here in the States, we’ve created a kind of homegrown demagoguery that lauds the successful humbug. P.T. Barnum was a part of that. Huey Long had it down. And Buffalo Bill may have been a different version of these men, but I’d say he belongs to their club. There’s a thin line between “self-made man” and “making stuff up”. Thinner still when the man in question does as much good and as much evil as Buffalo Bill Cody. Fleming walks a tightrope here and I’d say it’s fair to say she doesn’t fall. The sheer difficulty of the subject matter and her aplomb at handling the topic puts her on a higher plane than your average middle grade biography. Will kids seek out Buffalo Bill’s story? I have no idea, but I can guarantee that for those they do they’ll encounter a life and a man that they will never forget.

On shelves September 20th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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6. Review of the Day: Makoons by Louise Edrich

MakoonsMakoons
By Louise Erdrich
Harper Collins
$16.99
ISBN: 9780060577933
Ages 7-12
On shelves now

They say these days you can’t sell a novel for kids anymore without the book having some kind of “sequel potential”. That’s not really true, but there are a heck of a lot of series titles out there for the 7 to 12-year-old set, that’s for sure. New series books for children are by their very definition sort of odd for kids, though. If you’re an adult and you discover a new series, waiting a year or two for the next book to come out is a drop in the bucket. Years fly by for grown-ups. The wait may be mildly painful but it’s not going to crush you. But series for kids? That’s another matter entirely. Two years go by and the child has suddenly become an entirely different person. They may have switched their loyalties from realistic historical fiction to fantasy or science fiction or (heaven help us) romance even! It almost makes more sense just to hand them series that have already completed their runs, so that they can speed through them without breaking the spell. Almost makes more sense . . . but not quite. Not so long as there are series like “The Birchbark House Series” by Louise Erdrich. It is quite possibly the only historical fiction series currently underway for kids that has lasted as long as seventeen years and showing no sign of slowing down until it reaches its conclusion four books from now, Erdrich proves time and time again that she’s capable of ensnaring new readers and engaging older ones without relying on magic, mysteries, or post-apocalyptic mayhem. And if she manages to grind under her heel a couple stereotypes about what a book about American Indians in the past is “supposed” to be (boring/serious/depressing) so much the better.

Chickadee is back, and not a second too soon. Had he been returned to his twin brother from his kidnapping any later, it’s possible that Makoons would have died of the fever that has taken hold of his body. As it is, Chickadee nurses his brother back to health, but not before Makoons acquires terrifying visions of what is to come. Still, there’s no time to dwell on that. The buffalo are on the move and his family and tribe are dedicated to sustaining themselves for the winter ahead. There are surprises along the way as well. A boasting braggart by the name of Gichi Noodin has joined the hunt, and his posturing and preening are as amusing to watch as his mistakes are vast. The tough as nails Two Strike has acquired a baby lamb and for reasons of her own is intent on raising it. And the twin brothers adopt a baby buffalo of their own, though they must protect it against continual harm. All the while the world is changing for Makoons and his family. Soon the buffalo will leave, more settlers will displace them, and three members of the family will leave, never to return. Fortunately, family sustains, and while the future may be bleak, the present has a lot of laughter and satisfaction waiting at the end of the day.

While I have read every single book in this series since it began (and I don’t tend to follow any other series out there, except possibly Lockwood & Co.) I don’t reread previous books when a new one comes out. I don’t have to. Neither, I would argue, would your kids. Each entry in this series stands on its own two feet. Erdrich doesn’t spend inordinate amounts of time catching the reader up, but you still understand what’s going on. And you just love these characters. The books are about family, but with Makoons I really felt the storyline was more about making your own family than the family you’re born into. At the beginning of this book Makoons offers the dire prediction that he and his brother will be able to save their family members, but not all of them. Yet by the story’s end, no matter what’s happened, the family has technically only decreased by two people, because of the addition of another.

Erdrich has never been afraid of filling her books with a goodly smattering of death, dismemberment, and blood. I say that, but these do not feel like bloody books in the least. They have a gentleness about them that is remarkable. Because we are dealing with a tribe of American Indians (Ojibwe, specifically) in 1866, you expect this book to be like all the other ones out there. Is there a way to tell this story without lingering on the harm caused by the American government to Makoons, his brother, and his people? Makoons and his family always seem to be outrunning the worst of the American government’s forces, but they can’t run forever. Still, I think it’s important that the books concentrate far more on their daily lives and loves and sorrows, only mentioning the bloodthirsty white settlers on occasion and when appropriate. It’s almost as if the reader is being treated in the same way as Makoons and his brother. We’re getting some of the picture but we’re being spared its full bloody horror. That is not to say that this is a whitewashed narrative. It isn’t at all. But it’s nice that every book about American Indians of the past isn’t exactly the same. They’re allowed to be silly and to have jokes and fun moments too.

That humor begs a question of course. Question: When is it okay to laugh at a character in a middle grade novel these days? It’s not a simple question. With a high concentration on books that promote kindness rather than bullying, laughing at any character, even a bad guy, is a tricky proposition. And that goes double if the person you’re laughing at is technically on your side. Thank goodness for self-delusion. As long as a character refuses to be honest with him or herself, the reader is invited to ridicule them alongside the other characters. It may not be nice, but in the world of children’s literature it’s allowed. So meet Gichi Noodin, a pompous jackass of a man. This is the kind of guy who could give Narcissus lessons in self-esteem. He’s utterly in love with his own good looks, skills, you name it. For this reason he’s the Falstaff of the book (without the melancholy). He serves a very specific purpose in the book as the reader watches his rise, his fall, and his redemption. It’s not very often that the butt of a book’s jokes is given a chance to redeem himself, but Gichi Noodin does precisely that. That storyline is a small part of the book, smaller even than the tale of Two Strike’s lamb, but I loved the larger repercussions. Even the butt of the joke can save the day, given the chance.

Makoons2As with all her other books Erdrich does a E.L. Konigsburg and illustrates her own books (and she can even do horses – HORSES!). Her style is, as ever, reminiscent of Garth Williams’ with soft graphite pencil renderings of characters and scenes. These are spotted throughout the chapters regularly, and combined with the simplicity of the writing they make the book completely appropriate bedtime reading for younger ages. The map at the beginning is particularly keen since it not only highlights the locations in each part of the story but also hints at future storylines to come. Of these pictures the sole flaw is the book jacket. You see the cover of this book is a touch on the misleading side since at no point in this story does Makoons ever attempt to feed any baby bears (a terrible idea, namesake or no). Best to warn literal minded kids from the start that that scene is not happening.  Then again, this appears to be a scene from the first book in the series, The Birchbark House, where Makoons’ mother Omakayas feeds baby bears as a girl.  Not sure why they chose to put it on the cover this book but it at least explains where it came from.

It is interesting that the name of this book is Makoons since Chickadee shares as much of the spotlight, if not a little more so, than his sickly brother. That said, it is Makoons who has the vision of the future, Makoons who offers the haunting prediction at the story’s start, and Makoons who stares darkly into an unknown void at the end, alone in the misery he knows is certain to come. Makoons is the Cassandra of this story, his predictions never believed until they are too late. And yet, this isn’t a sad or depressing book. The hope that emanates off the pages survives the buffalos’ sad departure, the sickness that takes two beloved characters, and the knowledge that the only thing this family can count on in the future is change. But they have each other and they are bound together tightly. Even Pinch, that trickster of previous books, is acquiring an odd wisdom and knowledge of his own that may serve the family well into the future. Folks often recommend these books as progressive alternatives to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, but that’s doing them a disservice. Each one of these titles stands entirely on its own, in a world of its own making. This isn’t some sad copy of Wilder’s style but a wholly original series of its own making. The kid who starts down the road with this family is going to want to go with them until the end. Even if it takes another seventeen years. Even if they end up reading the last few books to their own children. Whatever it takes, we’re all in this together, readers, characters, and author. Godspeed, Louise Erdrich.

For ages 7-12

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Professional Reviews:

Other Blog Reviews: BookPage

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7. Getting Book Reviews

There are steps you can take to increase the chances a blogger will want to review your book.

http://annerallen.com/book-review-10-tips/

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8. Thursday Review: THE CURIOUS WORLD OF CALPURNIA TATE by Jacqueline Kelly

I really like the cutout-look images on the cover, with the hidden animals...Synopsis: We don't necessarily review a ton of realistic MG fiction here (not as much Wonderland in the real world, I suppose) but it doesn't mean we aren't reading or... Read the rest of this post

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9. RIP Gene Wilder: Children’s Literature’s Avatar

Consider, if you will, the life of Gene Wilder.  Since his death, many people have been doing precisely that.  It makes me happy, but since I’ve harbored a not-so-secret crush on the man for decades (a quick search of this blog will back that up) I felt it necessary to point out that for all that he was a great actor, he was also, and often, key in bringing to life various famous children’s literary characters.

The most obvious of these was, of course, Willy Wonka.  Without Wilder’s mad genius, the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory could never have been the wonder that it was.  A brief hat tip to Gene there:

Mr. Wilder also portrayed The Fox in the live adaptation of The Little Prince.  Though not as odd as Bob Fosse’s Snake, it’s still a mighty peculiar role.

Some would then forget but Mr. Wilder also portrayed the Mock Turtle in a made-for-TV adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In his honor, then, allow me to post all the funny links related to Mr. Wilder and his roles as I can come up with.


 

First up, long before wrote the picture book Let Me Finish, Minh Lê created this stellar little post about a reality show called The Sweet Life.


 

I loved it when he was portrayed as one of the many American actors in this faux montage Celebrating 50 Years of American Doctor Who.

Admit it.  He would have been glorious.


 

Next up, one of my favorite How It Should Have Ended videos:


 

This other little gem came up not too long ago:


 

And in parting . . .

YellowBrick

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10. Review of the Day: Who Broke the Teapot?! by Bill Slavin

WhoBrokeTeapotWho Broke the Teapot?!
By Bill Slavin
Tundra Books
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-77049-833-4
Ages 3-5
On shelves now

In the average life of a child, whodunits are the stuff of life itself. Who took the last cookie? Who used up all the milk and then didn’t put it on the shopping list? Who removed ALL the rolls of toilet paper that I SPECIFICALLY remember buying at the store on Sunday and now seem to have vanished into some toilet paper eating inter-dimension? The larger the family, the great the number of suspects. But picture books that could be called whodunits run a risk of actually going out and teaching something. A lesson about honesty or owning up to your own mistakes. Blech. I’ll have none of it. Hand me that copy of Bill Slavin’s Who Broke the Teapot?! instead, please. Instead of morals and sanctity I’ll take madcap romps, flashbacks, and the occasional livid cat. Loads of fun to read aloud, surprisingly beautiful to the eye, and with a twist that no one will see coming, Who Broke the Teapot?! has it all, baby. Intact teapot not included.

The scene of the crime: The kitchen. The family? Oblivious. As the mother enters the room it’s just your average morning. There’s a baby in a high chair, a brother attached to a ceiling fan by his suspenders, a dad still in his underwear reading the paper, a daughter eating pastries, a dog aiding her in this endeavor, and a cat so tangled up in wool that it’s a wonder you can still make out its paws. And yet in the doorway, far from the madding crowd, sits a lone, broken, teapot. Everyone proclaims innocence. Everyone seems trustworthy in that respect. Indeed, the only person to claim responsibility is the baby (to whom the mother tosses a dismissive, “I doubt it”). Now take a trip back in time just five minutes and all is revealed. The true culprit? You’ll have to read the book yourself. You final parting shot is the mother accepting a teapot stuck together with scotch tape and love from her affectionate offspring.

WhoBroke2Generally when I write a picture book review I have a pretty standard format that I adhere to. I start with an opening paragraph (done), move on to a description of the plot in the next paragraph (so far, so good), and in the third paragraph I talk about some aspect of the writing. It could be the overall theme or the writing or the plotting. After that I talk about the art. This pattern is almost never mucked with . . . until today!! Because ladies and gents, you have just GOT to take a gander at what Mr. Slavin’s doing here with his acrylics. Glancing at the art isn’t going to do it. You have to pick this book up and really inspect the art. For the bulk of it the human characters are your usual cartoony folks. Very smooth paints. But even the most cursory glance at the backgrounds yields rewards. The walls are textured with thick, luscious paints adhering to different patterns. There’s even a touch of mixed media to the old affair, what with cat’s yarn being real thread and all (note too how Slavin seamlessly makes it look as if the yarn is wrapped around the legs of the high chair). Then the typography starts to get involved. The second time the mom says “Who broke the teapot?!” the words look like the disparate letters of a rushed ransom note. As emotions heat up (really just the emotions of the mom, to be honest) the thick paints crunch when she says “CRUNCHED”, acquire zigzags as her temper unfurls, and eventually belie the smoothness of the characters’ skin when the texture invades the inside of the two-page spread of the now screaming mother’s mouth.

So, good textures. But let us not forget in all this just how important the colors of those thick paints are as well. Watching them shift from one mood to another is akin to standing beneath the Northern Lights. You could be forgiven for not noticing the first, second, third, or even fourth time you read the book. Yet these color changes are imperative to the storytelling. As emotions heat up or the action on the page ramps up, the cool blues and greens ignite into hot reds, yellows, and oranges. Taken as a whole the book is a rainbow of different backgrounds, until at long last everything subsides a little and becomes a chipper cool blue.

WhoBroke1Now kids love a good mystery, and I’m not talking just the 9 and 10-year-olds. Virtually every single age of childhood has a weakness for books that set up mysterious circumstances and then reveal all with a flourish. Heck, why do you think babies like the game of peekaboo? Think of it as the ultimate example of mystery and payoff. Picture book mysteries are, however, far more difficult to write than, say, an episode of Nate the Great. You have to center the book squarely in the child’s universe, give them all the clues, and then make clear to the reader what actually happened. To do this you can show the perpetrator of the crime committing the foul deed at the start of the book or you can spot clues throughout the story pointing clearly to the miscreant. In the case of Who Broke the Teapot, Slavin teaches (in his own way) that old Sherlock Holmes phrase, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

I love it when a book turns everything around at the end and asks the reader to think long and hard about what they’ve just seen. Remember the end of The Cat in the Hat when everything’s been cleaned up just in time and the mother comes in asking the kids what they got up to while she was gone? The book ends with a canny, “Well, what would YOU do if your mother asked YOU?” Who Broke the Teapot?! does something similar at its end as well. The facts have been laid before the readers. The baby has claimed responsibility and maybe he is to blame after all. But wasn’t the mother just as responsible? It would be very interesting indeed to poll a classroom of Kindergartners to see where they ascribe the bulk of the blame. It may even say something about a kid if they side with the baby more or the mommy more.

WhoBroke3I also love that the flashback does far more than explain who broke the teapot. It explains why exactly most of the members of this family are dwelling in a kind of generally accepted chaotic stew. You take it for granted when you first start reading. A kid’s hanging from a ceiling fan? Sure. Yeah. That happens. But the explanation, when it comes, belies that initial response. The parents don’t question his position so you don’t question it. That is your first mistake. Never take your lead from parents. And speaking of the flashback, let’s just stand aside for a moment and remember just how sophisticated it is to portray this concept in a picture book at all. You’re asking a child audience to accept that there is a “before” to every book they read. Few titles go back in time to explain how we got to where we are now. Slavin’s does so easily, and it will be the rare reader that can’t follow him on this trip back into the past.

I think the only real mystery here is why this book isn’t better known. And its only crime is that it’s Canadian, and therefore can’t win any of the big American awards here in the States. It’s also too amusing for awards. Until we get ourselves an official humor award for children’s books, titles like Who Broke the Teapot?! are doomed to fly under the radar. That’s okay. This is going to be the kind of book that children remember for decades. They’re going to be the ones walking into their public libraries asking the children’s librarians on the desks to bring to them an obscure picture book from their youth. “There was a thing that was broken . . . like a china plate or something . . . and there was this cat tied up in string?” You have my sympathies, children’s librarians of the future. In the meantime, better enjoy the book now. Whether it’s read to a large group or one-on-one, this puppy packs a powerful punch.

On shelves now

Source: Publisher sent final copy for review.

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11. Review of the Day: Kid Beowulf by Alexis Fajardo

KidBeowulfKid Beowulf: The Blood-Bound Oath
By Alexis E. Fajardo
Color by Jose Mari Flores
Prologue Color by Brian Kolm
Amp Comics for Kids (an imprint of Andrews McMeel Publishing)
$10.99
ISBN: 978-1-4494-7589-5
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

This is a true story. I started college in 1996. Earlham College. Richmond, Indiana. Nice place. Little Quaker school (“Fight! Fight! Inner light! Kill, Quakers, Kill,” ← our sports chant). Little colleges have little cute traditions. Mine was keen on complicated pranks. One day I go down to the cafeteria for a bowl of Cheerios and lo and behold there, on the ceiling, is this epic mural of two cartoon characters touching fingers ala Michelangelo’s Adam and God in The Sistine Chapel. The characters in question were from a weekly comic in the school newspaper penned by one Alexis Fajardo. From that time onward I would Alexis Fajardo. And I followed his career. He kept up the comic strip (called “Plato’s Republic”) for a while and then started in on this Kid Beowulf graphic novel series. I didn’t get any chance to read them but they had a fun premise and the art really popped. Now, after all these many years, Amp Comics has picked up the series and given it a proper running start. In the grand tradition of Bone, Amulet, and countless other epic quest graphic novels, Fajardo gives us heroes to root for, villains to loathe, and complex characterizations around every turn. He’s come a long way from painting ceilings.

We start with the original epic poem of Beowulf. The original tale of man vs. monster is recounted but, the book assures us, “as men have told it – as I said, they twist the truth. Too blind to know the proper tale of a king’s run-rampant youth . . .” Now we are in the land of the Danes where a headstrong prince threatens a tenuous peace. Hrothgar cannot stand those Heathobards that he feels infringe on his homelands. When he encounters a dragon of great power he makes a deadly pact. Upon his return he begins a reign of destruction and ignorance, eventually fathering his own monstrous daughter. Named Gertrude, she is raised by the same dragon with whom Hrothgar made a pact. All this so that, in time, she will give birth to her own twins. One looks like her and is named Grendel. The other, a fully human boy, named Beowulf. And when they lose and find one another again, that’s when the story truly begins.

KidBeowulf3One thing I didn’t really expect when I picked the book up was to encounter Fajardo’s inclination to tell his tale in his own time. By all rights, all this book is really doing from the start is setting the stage for future tales to come. Yet though it’s named “Kid Beowulf”, the titular hero and his twin brother don’t even make an appearance until page 120, and even then they’re just babies. The reader’s patience is rewarded if that reader chooses to stick with the storyline, but it means that the best kids for this book won’t be the ones who like simplified narratives of action and adventure on every other panel. No, these books are going to be for those kids who like to sink deep into a world, dwell there for a time, scope out the situations, and understand the motivations. If you’ve a new graphic novel reader on your hands, I wouldn’t start them off with Kid Beowulf. This book is better suited for those kids out there with a little comic-reading experience under their belts.

In a lot of ways, the book series reminds me of the old Asterix and Obelix comics. It’s not an entirely fair comparison since the tone of the two comics is completely different. Yet both spend an inordinate amount of time in an ancient world. Fajardo himself acknowledges this with the creation of two characters that intentionally have many of Asterix & Obelix’s personality quirks. Still and all, the book was far more complicated than I expected. Kids love that stuff, by the way. They love it when an author has the guts to tell a story without feeling obligated to explain everything constantly. And Fajardo doesn’t water down the complexity. You’re either on board with the storytelling from the start or you’re not. The politics of the region is what the plot hinges on continually, so you need to read this with an open mind towards the Geats, Danes, Heathobards, and others. People also come and go, betray one another, and reappear after years and years. To keep track of it all there is a Character Glossary but unfortunately it’s located in the back of the book where it might easily go missed for some time. If you’re handing this book to a kid, I recommend that you point that little element out to them first thing. They’ll thank you for it later.

After sitting down and thinking long and hard about it, I came to the shocking realization that Fajardo likes three-dimensional characters. That shouldn’t be all that shocking, actually. Lots of authors do. But consider the format here. We’re dealing with an epic quest graphic novel series. I mentioned Bone and Amulet earlier and if there’s one thing those stories have in common it’s bad guys that sulk about without so much as a sympathetic hair on their heads. Kid Beowulf is different. There are plenty of guys (and gals, sorta) working for their own selfish interests, but that also are capable of learning and growing. Hrothgar is probably the most flawed fella in the book, but even he does a slow 180-degree turnaround over the decades. And sympathetic characters like Gertrude also have their greedy moments for which they’ll have to pay the price later. It’s so interesting that you could even get this kind of shading in a book based, as it is, on a good vs. bad epic poem like Beowulf. That’s the irony at work.

KidBeowulf2Considering the time period, the role of women in this book is worthy of examination. Fajardo has sort of a single style when it comes to human women (human girls don’t seem to exist) which is a heavy-lidded femme fatale look, regardless of their positions or names. The one exception to this rule is, of course, Gertrude, and in her monster form she gets to have all the freedom of any of the boys around her. She fights. She gets more than just a couple pages here and there. The book doesn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel Test, and Gertrude’s methods of finding a mate are disappointingly stereotypical, but for the most part she’s a strong female character worthy of examination. There is, however, room for improvement and I sincerely hope future installments will contain at least one other woman who does more than think only of the men in her life.

Sit down for five minutes in any public school in America today and don’t be surprised if you hear the words “Common Core State Standards” waft by at some point. These standards aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and with their focus on nonfiction and folktales, it just makes good clean sense for any author of a fictional work to find some kind of curricular tie-in. Fajardo does just that. In fact, he goes a little bit crazy with it. I could understand the World Map at the start and the finish as well as in color in the backmatter. And the second map, the one of Daneland circa 450 A.D., that was a nice touch. But about the time I noticed the glossary of terms, character glossary, and family tree, to say nothing of the section about the original epic poem itself, Fun Fact section, and Bibliography of recommended sources (which, for the record, is a beautiful collection) I was floored. Add in a large section on how Fajardo draws his characters, inks and colors them, and more and . . . well, you’d be forgiven for feeling that this more akin to a full college course on Beowulf and graphic novels than a single collected comic.

KidBeowulf1I haven’t mentioned the art itself, of course, which is poor form when reviewing a graphic novel. Fajardo employs two different styles in this book. The first part, during the retelling of the original Beowulf epic poem, is done in a more realistic, cinematic style. Even the colorist is different from the colorist in the rest of the book. Then the book becomes far cartoonier. Tiny too, considering how many panels Fajardo is able to pack into a single page. For some, the seriousness of the content (the fate of Yrs, for example) doesn’t match the style. For others, it will seem a natural complement. For my part I did find the cartoonishness a surprise, considering the actions of the characters, but as the story continued I got used to it. Kids, I suspect, will feel the same way.

There is a school of thought that says that if you let a kid read whatever they want, they’ll work their way around to the classics in time. I read a ton of really truly terrible Harvey comics as a kid. Later I would delve into works like Les Miserables and Middlemarch for fun. Is there a connection? Nobody knows! A lot of parents fear that their kids will gorge themselves on comics, making them wholly and entirely unable to digest literature without pictures. To them, I hand Kid Beowulf. I truly do believe that a comic done correctly, done with panache and interest and a unique style of its own, will garner fans that will seek out other material on the same topic. Not every kid who reads Fajardo’s book is going to take a crack at a little Old English on their own. They may, however, dive into some of those books Mr. Fajardo so helpfully included in his Bibliography. Or they might learn a bit about the poem’s origins. Or they might want to make their own comics about ancient texts. Whatever the case, you can look at this book either as a springboard for bigger better things, or just a good rip-roaring tale that can stand on its own two feet. Whatever your justification, Fajardo has the goods. That painting he made on the ceiling years ago seemed impossible. This series? Attainable. Now go attain it.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

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12. Review of the Day: Ghost by Jason Reynolds

ghost-9781481450157_hrGhost
By Jason Reynolds
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-4814-5015-7
Ages 9-12
On shelves August 30th

This is a generalization, but in my experience librarians really enjoy reading within their comfort zones. They’ll travel outside of them from time to time but always they return to the books that they like the most. Children’s librarians are just the same. The fantasy readers stick to fantasy. The realism fans go with realism. Graphic novel readers with comics. When I served on a yearly committee of librarians in New York I’d notice that some books were difficult to get anyone to read. Horse books, for example, just sat on our shelves untouched. Nonfiction could take some prodding. And as for sports books . . . forget about it. Nobody ever got near them. Still, you can’t give up on them. Mike Lupica and Tim Green may rule the field but that doesn’t mean other people don’t make a lot out of athletics. If our Newbery winning The Crossover by Kwame Alexander taught us anything, it was that. Now Jason Reynolds, a young adult author until this year, has produced a middle grade novel centered on that must unlikely of sports: track. It skirts the clichés. It dodges the usual pitfalls. It makes you care about a kid who keeps messing up over and over and over again. It’ll make you like sports books, even if you can’t generally stand them. And now we’ve got to find a way to get a lot of it into the hands of kids. Stat.

Call him Ghost. You can call him Castle Crenshaw if you want to (that’s technically his name) but he’s been calling himself Ghost ever since the night his dad got drunk and threatened Castle and his mom with a gun. Ghost learned to run that night and you might say he’s been running ever since. He’s got a load of anger inside that he doesn’t know how to deal with so he tends to take it out on others at school. Then one day he spots a track warm-up and takes an instant dislike to the albino kid in the expensive tracksuit. Without thinking about it twice Ghost beats the guy on the track, running on the outside, which gets the attention of the coach. Coach begs Ghost to join and Ghost reluctantly agrees but it isn’t what he expected. The other kids there all have their own lives, few of them easy. The running is much harder than anything Ghost has ever experienced before. And then there’s the fact that no matter how fast he is, Ghost can’t run away from trouble. It follows him and if he’s not careful it’s going to follow him right onto the track.

Baseball. Basketball. Even football. These are the sports of fiction. I doubt anyone has ever run any statistics on it, but if you were to gather together all the children’s sports books and group them by type, the baseball books would undoubtedly outweigh all the others 2:1. That’s because baseball is a game with a natural rise and fall to its action. Basketball has speed and football has brute force, all good things when writing a story. Track? In track you run and then you stop. At least that’s how I always looked at it. For Jason Reynolds, though, it’s different. He didn’t write this book with track as a single focus. He looks at what the sport boils down to. Basically, this is a book about running. Running from mistakes (forgive the cliché), from very real threats, for your life, and for your team. Why you run and where you run and how you run. And if that’s where you’re coming from, then track is a very good choice of a sport indeed.

On paper, this book looks like it’s the sort of story that’s all been done before. That’s where Reynolds’ writing comes in to play. First off, it’s worth noticing that Mr. Reynolds is blessed with a keen sense of humor. This comes to play not just in the text but also in little in-jokes here and there. Like the fact that one of the runners (that, I should mention, gets cut later in the book because his grades are slipping) is named Chris Myers. Christopher Myers is the son of Walter Dean Myers, and a friend to Jason Reynolds. I love Jason’s descriptions too. Mr. Charles at the corner store, “looks just like James Brown if James Brown were white. . .” Or Ghost saying later, “… for something to make you feel tough, you gotta be a little bit scared of it at first.” There are some pretty fantastic callbacks hidden in the story as well. Right at the start, almost like it’s some kind of superhero origin story, we hear how Ghost heard the gun go off that night he ran away from his home with his mom and “I felt like the loud shot made my legs move even faster.” That ties in beautifully with the starter pistol that goes off at the very very end of the book.

But maybe what I like the most about Jason Reynolds’ books is that he applies this keen sense of the complexity to his characters. I don’t think the man could write a straight one-dimensional villain to save his soul. Even his worst characters have these brief moments of humanity to them. In this case, Ghost’s dad is the worst character. You don’t get much worse than shooting at your wife and kid after all. Yet for all that, Ghost still can’t help but love the guy and eats sunflower seeds in his memory. Each character in the book has layers that you can peel away as the story progresses. Even Ghost, ESPECIALLY Ghost, who makes you want to yell and him and cheer for him, sometimes at the same time.

There’s been a monumental push for increased diversity in children’s literature in the last few years. Diversity can mean any number of things and it often focuses on race. In a weird way, increasing the number of racially diverse books on a given publisher’s release calendar isn’t hard if the publisher is dedicated to the notion. Far more difficult is figuring out how you increase the economic diversity. Middle grade characters are almost always middle class. If they’re working class then they tend to be historical. Contemporary lower income kids in realistic novels are almost unheard of. For example, how many books for children have you ever read with kids living in shelters? I’ve read just one, and I’m a children’s librarian. So I watched what Reynolds did here with great interest. Ghost isn’t destitute or anything but his single mom makes ends meet by working long hours at a hospital. Middle class kids are remarkably good at ignoring their own privilege while kids like Ghost become almost invisible. In the book, Ghost’s decision to initially race Lu isn’t solely based on how Lu struts around the track, thinking he’s the bee’s knees. It’s also on his clothes. “…Lu, was decked out in the flyest gear. Fresh Nike running shoes, and a full-body skintight suit . . . He wore a headband and a gold chain around his neck, and a diamond glinted in each ear.” Later Ghost makes a decision regarding a particularly fancy pair of running shoes. That’s an economic decision as well. Those are the most obvious examples, but the book is full of little mentions, peppered throughout, of where Ghost’s class comes in to things. It’s nice to see an author who gets that. We are often affected by forces outside our control, forces we don’t even necessarily notice, particularly when we’re children. If young readers see it, they’ll be reading between the lines, just like Reynolds wants them to.

Right at the beginning of the book, when Coach is trying to convince Ghost’s mom that he should be running, Ghost realizes that he’s in a situation that’s played out in loads of sports films. He thinks, “If this went like the movies, I was either going to score the game-winning touchdown (which is impossible in track) or . . . die.” Sometimes you can gauge how good a book is by how self-aware its characters are. But sometimes you just read a book, put it down, and think, “Man. That was good. That was really good.” This is a book that actually made me tear up, and there aren’t a lot of middle grade books that do that. I was rooting for Ghost hard, right until the end. I was caring about a sport that I’d never otherwise think about in a million years. And I was admiring it from start to finish for all that it accomplishes in its scant 180 pages. This is the book you hand to the kids who want something real and good and honest. There are a lot of Ghosts out there in the world. Hopefully some of them will discover themselves here. Run, don’t walk, to pick this book up.

On shelves August 30th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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13. Review of the Day: Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol

LeaveMeAloneLeave Me Alone!
By Vera Brosgol
Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
$17.99
ISBN: 9781626724419
Ages 4-7
On shelves September 13th

Knitting. It shouldn’t be so hard. I say this as the grown daughter of a chronic knitterer (not a word). I grew up neck deep in roving. I know the difference between a gossip wheel and a walking wheel (these are different spinning wheels). I know that if you want a permanent non-toxic dye for wool you use Kool-aid, that wool straight from the sheep is incredibly oily, and that out there are people who have turned the fur of their dogs and cats into sweaters. Yet the simplest act of knitting is lost on a good 50% of the children’s book illustrators out there that year after year can’t even be bothered to figure out which way the knitting needles are supposed to go. Down, people. The ends go down. In 2016 alone we’ve seen books like Maggie McGillicuddy’s Eye for Trouble get it wrong. Fortunately 2016 has also seen correctly positioned needles in Cat Knit, Ned the Knitting Pirate, and the greatest knitting related picture book I’ve seen to date Leave Me Alone! A superb readaloud of unparalleled visual humor, this is a knitting picture book par excellence and a pretty darn good original folktale too, come to think of it. Allowing for the occasional alien, of course.

“Once there was an old woman. She lived in a small village in a small house . . . with a very big family.” And by big family we mean big extended family. One gets the feeling that all her grown kids just sort of dump their own children on her, because there are thirty small grandchildren running amok in her home. Winter is coming soon and the old woman is keen on getting some knitting done for her extended brood. Trouble is, knitting and small children do NOT mix. So she picks up her stuff and goes into the deep, dark forest. That’s where the bear family finds her. So she goes to the mountains. Where the goats find her. Next it’s the moon. Where curious aliens find her. That leaves a wormhole where the void turns out to be her saving. Only problem is, it’s lonely in the void. Once her work is done, she heads back and when she sees her grandkids again, she doesn’t have to say a single word.

Here is the crazy thing about this book: It’s Vera Brosgol’s first picture book. I say that this is crazy because this does not read like a debut. This reads like Brosgol has been churning out picture books for decades, honing her skill, until finally at long last she’s produced a true diamond. But no. Some people get all the talent apparently. This is not, I should not, Ms. Brosgol’s first book in general. Her graphic novel Anya’s Ghost got a fair amount of attention a couple of years ago, and it was good. But nothing about that title prepared me for Leave Me Alone! Here we have a pitch perfect combination of text and image. If you were to read this book to someone without mentioning the creator, I don’t think there’s a soul alive who wouldn’t assume that the author and illustrator are one and the same. This is due largely to the timing. Just open the book to the first page. Examine the old woman on that page. Turn the page. Now look how that same woman has been transposed to a new setting and her expression has changed accordingly. Basically this sold the book to me right from the start.

LeaveAlone2 copyFunny picture books. For an author, creating a picture book that is funny means doing two things at once. You must appeal to both children and parents with your humor at the same time. Do you know how hard that is? Making something that a five-year-old thinks is funny that is also humorous to their parental unit is such a crazy balancing act that most picture book creators just fall on one side of the equation or the other. Make it funny only to adults and then you may as well just forget about the kids altogether (see: A Child’s First Book of Trump). Opt instead to only make it funny to kids and you doom the grown-ups to reading something they’d rather eat hot nails than read again (see: Walter the Farting Dog). But I honestly believe Brosgol has found the golden mean. Both adults and kids will find moments like the older sister stuffing a yarn ball in her brother’s mouth or the presence of the samovar (even in a wormhole) or the bear tentatively touching its nose after the old woman’s vigorous poke very funny indeed.

And let’s not downplay the writing here. There is serious readaloud potential with this book. I’ll level with you. In a given year you’ll see hundreds and hundreds of picture books published. Of these, a handful make for ideal readalouds. I’m not talking about books a parent can read to a child. I’m talking about books you can read to large groups, whether you’re a teacher, a librarian, or some poor parental schmuck who got roped into reading aloud to a group of fidgeting small fry. Few books are so good that anyone and everyone can enrapture an audience with them when read out loud. But Leave Me Alone! may be one of those rare few. Those beautiful butterflies. Those little jewels. The language mimics that of classic folktales, bandying about phrases like, “deep, dark forest”. And there are so many interactive possibilities. You could teach the kids how to yell out the phrase “Leave me alone!” all together at the same time, for example.

LeaveAlone3 copyAs for the art, it’s perfect. There’s a kind of Kate Beaton feel to it (particularly when babies or goats have full balls of yarn stuffed into their mouths). As I mentioned before, Brosgol knows which way knitting needles are supposed to lie, and better still she knows how to illustrate thirty different, and very realistically rendered sweaters, at the story’s end. There are also some clever moments that you’ll notice on a third or fourth read. For example, the very first time the woman yells, “Leave me alone!” she’s exiting the gates to her home and her children’s homes. The only people who hear her are her grown children, which means we don’t have to worry about small ears hearing such a caustic phrase from their grandma. Smart. And did you see that the twins get identical sweaters at the end of the book? Finally, there are the visual gags. The goats that surreptitiously followed the old woman to the moon, nibbling on a moon man’s scanner, for example.

I’ve seen a fair amount of hand wringing over the years over whether or not a children’s book can contain a protagonist that is not, in fact, a child, an animal, or an inanimate object rendered animate. Which is to say, are children capable of identifying with adults? More precisely, an adult who just wants to be alone for two seconds? The answer is swift and sure. Certainly they can. Particularly if the kid reading this book is an older sibling. The concept of being alone, of craving some time for one’s own self, is both familiar and foreign to a lot of kids. I’m reminded of the Frog & Toad story “Alone” from Days With Frog and Toad where Toad has a dark morning of the soul when he learns that Frog would like to have some alone time. Because of all of this, we see a lot of picture books where a character wants to be alone, has difficulty getting that “me time”, and eventually decides that companionship is the way to go (Octopus Alone, A Visitor for Bear, etc.). A few celebrate the idea (All Alone] by Kevin Henkes) but generally speaking parents use these books to convince their perhaps less than socially adept children that there are benefits to the concept of friendship. And there is a place in the world for such books. Fortunately there is also a place in the world for this book.

Folks sometimes talk to me about current trends in picture books. Sometimes they’re trying to figure out what the “next big thing” might be. But of course, the best picture books are the ones that at their core don’t really resemble anything but themselves. Leave Me Alone! isn’t typical. It reads aloud to big crowds of kids with great ease, lends itself to wonderful expressions, pops off the page, and will make anyone of any age laugh at some point. It’s a great book, and if I have to write another 500 words to convince you of it, I can do so. But why delay you from seeing it any longer? Go. Seek. Find. Read. Savor.

On shelves September 13th.

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Source: Galley sent by publisher for review.

Misc: Cute promotion or THE CUTEST PROMOTION?  As you can see from this Bustle interview, Ms. Brosgol knit twenty-five teeny tiny sweaters to promote this book.  I steal the image for my own nefarious purposes and show it to you here:

LeaveAloneSweaters

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14. Monday Review: MIRROR IN THE SKY by Aditi Khorana

Synopsis: This surprisingly literary speculative fiction / friendship / family story is another welcome addition to the growing shelf of books about A) people of color, B) South Asians, and C) teens of mixed heritage. Tara Krishnan, the narrator, is... Read the rest of this post

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15. Review of the Day: Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe

Radiant ChildRadiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
By Javaka Steptoe
Little, Brown & Co.
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-316-21388-2
Ages 5 and up
On shelves October 25th

True Story: I’m working the children’s reference desk of the Children’s Room at 42nd Street of New York Public Library a couple years ago and a family walks in. They go off to read some books and eventually the younger son, I’d say around four years of age, approaches my desk. He walks right up to me, looks me dead in the eye, and says, “I want all your Javaka Steptoe books.” Essentially this child was a living embodiment of my greatest dream for mankind. I wish every single kid in America followed that little boy’s lead. Walk up to your nearest children’s librarian and insist on a full fledged heaping helping of Javaka. Why? Well aside from the fact that he’s essentially children’s book royalty (his father was the groundbreaking African-American picture book author/illustrator John Steptoe) he’s one of the most impressive / too-little-known artists working today. But that little boy knew him and if his latest picture book biography “Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat” is even half as good as I think it is, a whole host of children will follow suit. But don’t take my word for it. Take that four-year-old boy’s. That kid knew something good when he saw it.

“Somewhere in Brooklyn, a little boy dreams of being a famous artist, not knowing that one day he will make himself a KING.” That boy is an artist already, though not famous yet. In his house he colors on anything and everything within reach. And the art he makes isn’t pretty. It’s, “sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.” His mother encourages him, teaches him, and gives him an appreciation for all the art in the world. When he’s in a car accident, she’s the one who hands him Gray’s Anatomy to help him cope with what he doesn’t understand. Still, nothing can help him readily understand his own mother’s mental illness, particularly when she’s taken away to live where she can get help. All the same, that boy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, shows her his art, and with determination he grows up, moves to Manhattan, and starts his meteoric rise in the art scene. All this so that when, at long last, he’s at the top of his game, it’s his mother who sits on the throne at his art shows. Additional information about Basquiat appears at the back of the book alongside a key to the motifs in his work, an additional note from Steptoe himself on what Basquiat’s life and work can mean to young readers, and a Bibliography.

radiantchild2Javaka Steptoe apparently doesn’t like to make things easy for himself. If he wanted to, he could illustrate all the usual African-American subjects we see in books every year. Your Martin Luther Kings and Rosa Parks and George Washington Carvers. So what projects does he choose instead? Complicated heroes who led complicated lives. Artists. Jimi Hendrix and guys like that. Because for all that kids should, no, MUST know who Basquiat was, he was an adult with problems. When Steptoe illustrated Gary Golio’s bio of Hendrix (Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow) critics were universal in their praise. And like that book, Steptoe ends his story at the height of Basquiat’s fame. I’ve seen some folks comment that the ending here is “abrupt” and that’s not wrong. But it’s also a natural high, and a real time in the man’s life when he was really and truly happy. When presenting a subject like Basquiat to a young audience you zero in on the good, acknowledge the bad in some way (even if it’s afterwards in an Author’s Note), and do what you can to establish precisely why this person should be mentioned alongside those Martin Luther Kings, Rosa Parks, and George Washington Carvers.

There’s this moment in the film Basquiat when David Bowie (playing Andy Warhol) looks at some of his own art and says off-handedly, “I just don’t know what’s good anymore.” I have days, looking at the art of picture books when I feel the same way. Happily, there wasn’t a minute, not a second, when I felt that way about Radiant Child. Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Do you know what one of the most difficult occupations to illustrate a picture book biography about is? Artist. Because right from the start the illustrator of the book is in a pickle. Are you going to try to replicate the art of this long dead artist? Are you going to grossly insert it into your own images, even if the book isn’t mixed media to begin with? Are you going to try to illustrate the story in that artist’s style alone, relegating images of their actual art to the backmatter? Steptoe addresses all this in his Note at the back of the book. As he says, “Instead of reproducing or including copies of real Basquiat paintings in this book, I chose to create my own interpretations of certain pieces and motifs.” To do this he raided Basquiat’s old haunts around NYC for discarded pieces of wood to paint on. The last time I saw this degree of attention paid to painting on wood in a children’s book was Paul O. Zelinsky’s work on Swamp Angel. In Steptoe’s case, his illustration choice works shockingly well. Look how he manages to give the reader a sense of perspective when he presents Picasso’s “Guernica” at an angle, rather than straight on. Look how the different pieces of wood, brought together, fit, sometimes including characters on the same piece to show their closeness, and sometimes painting them on separate pieces as a family is broken apart. And the remarkable thing is that for all that it’s technically “mixed-media”, after the initial jolt of the art found on the title page (a full wordless image of Basquiat as an adult surrounded by some of his own imagery) you’re all in. You might not even notice that even the borders surrounding these pictures are found wood as well.

radiantchild1The precise age when a child starts to feel that their art is “not good” anymore because it doesn’t look realistic or professional enough is relative. Generally it happens around nine or ten. A book like Radiant Child, however, is aimed at younger kids in the 6-9 year old range. This is good news. For one thing, looking at young Basquiat vs. older Basquiat, it’s possible to see how his art is both childlike and sophisticated all at once. A kid could look at what he’s doing in this book and think, “I could do that!” And in his text, Steptoe drills into the reader the fact that even a kid can be a serious artist. As he says, “In his house you can tell a serious ARTIST dwells.” No bones about it.

How much can a single picture book bio do? Pick a good one apart and you’ll see all the different levels at work. Steptoe isn’t just interested in celebrating Basquiat the artist or encouraging kids to keep working on their art. He also notes at the back of the book that the story of Basquiat’s relationship with his mother, who suffered from mental illness, was very personal to him. And so, Basquiat’s mother remains an influence and an important part of his life throughout the text. You might worry, and with good reason, that the topic of mental illness is too large for a biography about someone else, particularly when that problem is not the focus of the book. How do you properly address such an adult problem (one that kids everywhere have to deal with all the time) while taking care to not draw too much attention away from the book’s real subject? Can that even be done? Sacrifices, one way or another, have to be made. In Radiant Child Steptoe’s solution is to show Jean-Michel within the lens of his art’s relationship to his mother. She talks to him about art, takes him to museums, and encourages him to keep creating. When he sees “Guernica”, it’s while he’s holding her hand. And because Steptoe has taken care to link art + mom, her absence is keenly felt when she’s gone. The book’s borders go a dull brown. Just that single line “His mother’s mind is not well” says it succinctly. Jean-Michel is confused. The kids reading the book might be confused. But the feeling of having a parent you are close to leave you . . . we can all relate to that, regardless of the reason. It’s just going to have a little more poignancy for those kids that have a familiarity with family members that suffer mental illnesses. Says Steptoe, maybe with this book those kids can, “use Basquiat’s story as a catalyst for conversation and healing.”

That’s a lot for a single picture book biography to take on. Yet I truly believe that Radiant Child is up to the task. It’s telling that in the years since I became a children’s librarian I’ve seen a number of Andy Warhol biographies and picture books for kids but the closest thing I ever saw to a Basquiat bio for children was Life Doesn’t Frighten Me as penned by Maya Angelou, illustrated by Jean-Michel. And that wasn’t even really a biography! For a household name, that’s a pretty shabby showing. But maybe it makes sense that only Steptoe could have brought him to proper life and to the attention of a young readership. In such a case as this, it takes an artist to display another artist. Had Basquiat chosen to create his own picture book autobiography, I don’t think he could have done a better job that what Radiant Child has accomplished here. Timely. Telling. Overdue.

On shelves October 25th.

Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.

Professional Reviews:  A star from Kirkus

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16. Review of the Day: The Mighty Odds by Amy Ignatow

MightyOddsThe Mighty Odds
By Amy Ignatow
Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams)
$15.95
ISBN: 978-1-4197-1271-5
Ages 10 and up
On shelves September 13th

If you could have one weird superpower, what would it be? Not a normal one, mind you. We’re not doing a flight vs. invisibility discussion here. The power would have to be extraordinary and odd. If it’s completely useless, all the better. Me? I think I’d like my voice to be same as the voice you hear in your head when you’re reading something. You know that voice? That would be my superpower. A good author can crank this concept up to eleven if they want to. Enter, Amy Ignatow. She is one of the rare authors capable of making me laugh out loud at the back covers of her books. For years she’s penned The Popularity Papers to great success and acclaim. Now that very realistic school focus is getting a bit of a sci-fi/fantasy kick in the pants. In The Mighty Odds, Ignatow takes the old misfits-join-together-to-save-the-world concept and throws in a lot of complex discussions of race, middle school politics, bullying, and good old-fashioned invisible men. The end result is a 21st century superhero story for kids that’s keeps you guessing every step of the way.

A school bus crashes in a field. No! Don’t worry! No one is killed (that we can tell). And the bus was just full of a bunch of disparate kids without any particular connection to one another. There was the substitute teacher and the bus driver (who has disappeared). And there was mean girl Cookie (the only black girl in school and one of the most popular), Farshad (nicknamed “Terror Boy” long ago by Cookie), Nick (nerdy and sweet), and Martina (the girl no one notices, though she’s always drawing in her sketchbook). After the accident everything should have just gotten back to normal. Trouble is, it didn’t. Each person who was on or near the bus when the accident occurred is a little bit different. It might be a small thing, like the fact that Martina’s eyes keep changing color. It might be a weird thing, like how Cookie can read people’s minds when they’re thinking of directions. It might be a powerful thing, like Farad’s super strength in his thumbs. Or it might be a potentially powerful, currently weird thing like Nick’s sudden ability to teleport four inches to his left. And that’s before they discover that someone is after them. Someone who means them harm.

Superhero misfits are necessarily new. Remember Mystery Men? This book reminded me a lot of that old comic book series / feature film. In both cases superpowers are less a metaphor and more a vehicle for hilarity. I read a lot of books for kids but only once in a while do I find one enjoyable enough to sneak additional reads of on the sly. This book hooked me fairly early on, and I credit its sense of humor for that. Here’s a good example of it. Early in the book Cookie and a friend are caught leaving the field trip for their own little side adventure. The kids in their class speculate what they got up to and one says that clearly they got drunk. Farshad’s dry wit then says, “… because two twelve-year-olds finding a bar in Philadelphia that would serve them at eleven A.M. was completely plausible.” Add in the fact that they go to “Deborah Read Middle School” (you’ll have to look it up) and I’m good to go.

Like I’ve said, the book could have just been another fun, bloodless superhero misfit storyline. But Ignatow likes challenges. When she wrote the Popularity Papers books she gave one of her two heroines two dads and then filled the pages with cursive handwriting. Here, her heroes are a variety of different races and backgrounds, but this isn’t a Benetton ad. People don’t get along. Cookie’s the only black kid in her school and she’s been very careful to cement herself as popular from the start. When her mom moved them to Muellersville, Cookie had to be careful to find a way to become “the most popular and powerful person in school.” Martina suggests at one point that she likes being angry, and indeed when the world starts to go crazy on her the thing that grounds her, if only for a moment, is anger. And why shouldn’t she be angry? Her mom moved her away from her extended family to a town where she knew no one, and then her mother married a guy with two kids fairly fast. Cookie herself speculates about the fact that she probably has more in common with Farshad than she’d admit. “He was the Arab Kid, just like Cookie was the Black Girl and Harshita Singh was the Indian Girl and Danny Valdez was the Hispanic Guy and Emma Lee was the Asian Chick. They should have all formed a posse long ago and walked around Muellersville together, just to freak people out.” Cookie realizes that she and Farshad need to have one another’s backs. “It was one thing to be a brown person in Muellersville and another to be a brown person in Muellersville with superpowers.” At this point in time Ignatow doesn’t dig any deeper into this, but Cookie’s history, intentions, and growth give her a depth you won’t find in the usual popular girl narrative.

For the record, I have a real appreciation for contemporary books that feature characters that get almost zero representation in books. For example, one of the many things I love about Tom Angleberger’s The Qwikpick Papers series is that one of the three heroes is Jehovah’s Witness. In this book, one of the kids that comes to join our heroes is Amish. Amish kids are out there. They exist. And they almost never EVER get heroic roles in stories about a group of friends. And Abe doesn’t have a large role in this book, it’s true, but it’s coming.

Having just one African-American in the school means that you’re going to have ignorant other characters. Cookie has done a good job at getting the popular kids in line, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is suddenly enlightened. Anyone can be tone deaf. Even one of our heroes, which in this case means Nick’s best friend, the somewhat ADD, always chipper Jay. Now I’ve an odd bit of affection for Jay, and not just because in his endless optimism he honestly thinks he’ll get permission to show his class Evil Dead Two on the field trip bus (this may also mark the first time an Evil Dead film has been name dropped in a middle grade novel, by the way). The trouble comes when he talks about Cookie. He has a tendency to not just be tone deaf but veering into really racially questionable territory when he praises her. Imagine a somewhat racist Pepe Le Pew. That’s Jay. He’s a small town kid who’s only known a single solitary black person his entire life and he’s enamored with her. Still, that’s no excuse for calling her “my gorgeous Nubian queen” or saying someday they’ll “make coffee-colored babies.” I expected a little more a comeuppance for Jay and his comments, but I suppose that’ll have to wait for a future book in the series. At the very least, his words are sure to raise more than few eyebrows from readers.

Funny is good. Great even. But funny doesn’t lift a middle grade book out of the morass of other middle grade books that are clogging up the bookstores and libraries of the world. To hit home you need to work just a smidgen of heart in there. A dose of reality. Farad’s plight as the victim of anti-Muslim sentiment is very real, but it’s also Nick’s experiences with his dying/dead father that do some heavy lifting. As you get to know Nick, Ignatow sprinkles hints about his life throughout the text in a seamless manner. Like when Nick is thinking about weird days in his life and flashes back to the day after his dad’s funeral. He and his mom had “spent the entire day flopped on the couch, watching an impromptu movie marathon of random films (The Lord of the Rings, They Live, Some Like It Hot, Ghostbusters, and Babe) and eating fancy stuff from the gift baskets that people had sent, before finally getting up to order pizza.” There’s a strong smack of reality in that bit, and there are more like it in the book. A funny book that sucker punches your heart from time to time makes for good reading.

MightyOdds2Lest we forget, this is an illustrated novel. Ignatow makes the somewhat gutsy choice of not explaining the art for a long time. Long before we even get to know Martina, we see her in various panels and spreads as an alien. In time, we learn that the art in this book is all her art, and that she draws herself as a Martian because that’s what her sister calls her. Not that you’ll know any of this for about 125 pages. The author makes you work to get at that little nugget of knowledge. By the way, as a character, Martina the artist is fascinating. She’s sort of the Luna Lovegood of the story. Or, as Nick puts it, “She had a sort of almost absentminded way of saying things that shouldn’t have been true but probably were.” There is one tiny flub in the art when Martina draws all the kids as superheroes and highlights Farshad’s thumbs, though at that point in the storyline Martina wouldn’t know that those are his secret weapons. Other than that, it’s pretty perfect.

It’s also pretty clearly middle school fare, if based on language alone. You’ve got kids leaving messages on cinderblocks that read “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” or “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” That may be the most realistic middle school detail I’ve read in a book in a long time. The bullying is systematic, realistic, and destructive (though that’s never clear to the people doing the bullying). A little more hard core than what an elementary school book might discuss. And Cookie is a superb bully. She’s honestly baffled when Farad confronts her about what she’s done to him with her rumors.

A word of warning to the wise: This is clearly the first book in a longer series. When you end this tale you will know the characters and know their powers but you still won’t know who the bad guys are exactly, why the kids got their powers (though the bus driver does drop one clue), or where the series is going next. For a story where not a lot of time passes, it really works the plotting and strong characterizations in there. I like middle grade books that dream big and shoot for the moon. “The Mighty Odds” does precisely that and also works in some other issues along the way. Just to show that it can. Great, fun, silly, fantastical fantasy work. A little smarter and a little weirder than most of the books out there today.

On shelves September 13th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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17. Review of the Day – A Toucan Can: Can You? by Danny Adlerman and Friends

ToucanCanA Toucan Can, Can You?
By Danny Adlerman
Illustrated by Lindsay Barrett George, Megan Halsey, Ashley Wolff, Demi, Ralph Masiello, Wendy Anderson Halperin, Kevin Kammeraad, Pat Cummings, Dar (Hosta), Leeza Hernandez, Christee Curran-Bauer, Kim Adlerman, and Symone Banks
Music by Jim Babjak
The Kids at Our House Children’s Books
$19.95
ISBN: 9781942390008
Ages 3-6
On shelves now

Under normal circumstances I don’t review sequels. I just don’t, really. Sequels, generally speaking, require at least a rudimentary knowledge of the preceding book. If I have to spend half a review catching a reader up on the book that came before the book that I’m actually reviewing, that’s just a waste of everyone’s time. Better to skip sequels entirely, and I include chapter book sequels, YA sequels, middle grade sequels, nonfiction sequels, graphic novel sequels, and easy book sequels in that generalization. I would even include picture book sequels, but here I pause for a moment. Because once in a while a picture book sequel will outshine the original. Such is the case with Danny Adlerman’s audibly catchy and visually eclectic A Toucan Can, Can You? A storyteller’s (and song-and-dance parent’s) dream, the book is is a sequel to the book How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chuck but comes into its own as a writing assignment for some, a storytime to others, and a darn good book for everybody else.

Many of us are at least passingly familiar with that old poem, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” But why stop with the woodchuck? What other compound words can you break up in amusing ways? And so we are sucked into a delightful world of teaspoons spooning tea, spaceships shipping space, and ice cream screaming “ice!” Each one of these catchy little poems (which are set to music on the accompanying CD) is paired with art from an impressive illustrator. Part collaboration and part exercise in audible frivolity, Danny Adlerman’s little book packs a great big punch.

For a group collaboration to work in a picture book there needs to be a reason for it to even exist. Which is to say, why have different people do different pieces of art for the same book? To best justify bringing these artists together you need a strong hook. And brother, I can’t think of a stronger hook then a catchy little rhyme, turned into a song, and given some clever additional rhymes to go along with it. Let’s hear it for the public domain! It’s little wonder that the customary “Note to Parents and Teachers” found in books of this sort appears at the beginning of the book rather than the end. In it, mention is made of the fact that the accompanying CD has both music with the lyrics and music without the lyrics, allowing kids to make up their own rhymes. I can attest as someone who did storytimes for toddlers and preschoolers for years that music can often be a librarian’s best friend. Particularly if it has a nice little book to show off as well. So for the storytimes for younger children, go with the words. And for the older kids? I think a writing assignment is waiting in the wings.

I was quite taken with the rhymes that already exist in this book, though. In fact, my favorite (language-wise) might have to be “How much bow could a bow tie tie if a bow tie could tae bo?” if only because “tae bo” makes shockingly few cameos in picture books these days. Finding the perfect collaboration between word and text can be difficult but occasionally the book hits gold. One example would be on the rhyme “How much ham could a hamster stir if a hamster could stir ham?” Artist Leeza Hernandez comes up with a rough riding hamster in cowboy gear astride an energetic hog. Two great tastes that taste great together.

Obviously the problem with any group collaboration is that some pieces are going to be stronger than others. But I have to admit that when I looked at that line-up I was a bit floored. In an impressive mix of established artists and new up-and-comers, Adlerman pairs his illustrators alongside rhymes that best show off their talents. Demi, for example, with her meticulous details and intricate style, is perfectly suited to honeycombs, honey, and the thin veins in the wing of a honeybee, holding a comb aloft. Meanwhile Wendy Anderson Halperin tackles the line “How much paint could a paintbrush brush” by rendering a variety of famous works, from Magritte to Diego Rivera in her two-page spread. Mind you, some artists are more sophisticated than others, and the switch between styles threatens to give one a bit of whiplash in the process. Generally speaking, however, it’s lovely. And I must confess that it was only on my fourth or fifth reading that I realized that the lovely scene illustrated by newcomer Symone Banks at the end of the book is dotted with animals done by the other artists, hidden in the details.

I don’t have to do storytimes anymore. In my current job my contact with kids is fairly minimal. But I have a two-year-old and a five-year-old at home and that means all my performance skills are on call whenever those two are around. I admit it. I need help. And books like A Toucan Can: Can You? can be lifesavers to parents like myself. If we had our way there would be a book-of-the-week club out there that personally delivered song-based picture books to our door. Heck, it should be a book-of-the-DAY club. I mean, let’s be honest. Raise a glass then and toast to Danny Adlerman and his fabulous friends. Long may their snowshoes shoo, their jellyfish fish, and their rockhoppers hop hop hop.

On shelves now.

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Source: Galley sent from author for review.

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18. Thursday Review: SPARKERS by Eleanor Glewwe

Synopsis: With cover blurbs from the likes of Rachel Hartman, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Anne Ursu, and Ingrid Law, the MG fantasy Sparkers by Eleanor Glewwe should have caught my eye earlier. I met Eleanor at a conference this summer and I'm a... Read the rest of this post

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19. DC Reborn Review: GREEN LANTERNS #2 fails to reignite a flagging franchise

BannerGreen Lanterns struggles to make us care about its rookie lanterns and high-stakes

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20. Review: ‘Shadoweyes’ is a true transformative superhero

It’s a rare occasion that you can use words like sweet, thoughtful, and gentle to describe a science fiction superhero story taking place in a brutal, dystopian urban battleground, but thanks to Sophie Campbell’s Shadoweyes from Iron Circus Comics, that day has arrived. Set in a cluttered and decaying city of the future, Dranac, Campbell introduces […]

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21. Review of the Day: The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

InquisitorsTaleThe Inquisitor’s Tale or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog
By Adam Gidwitz
Illuminated by Hatem Aly
Dutton Children’s Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-525-42616-5
Ages 9 and up
On shelves September 27th

God’s hot this year.

To be fair, God has had some fairly strong supporters for quite some time. So if I’m going to clarify that statement a tad, God’s hot in children’s literature this year. Even then, that sentence is pretty vague. Here in America there are loads of Christian book publishers out there, systematically putting out title after title after title each and every year about God, to say nothing of publishers of other religions as well. Their production hasn’t increased hugely in 2016, so why the blanket statement? A final clarification, then: God is hot in children’s books from major non-Christian publishers this year. Ahhhh. That’s better. Indeed, in a year when serious literary consideration is being heaped upon books like John Hendrix’s Miracle Man, in walks Adam Gidwitz and his game changing The Inquisitor’s Tale. Now I have read my fair share of middle grade novels for kids, and I tell you straight out that I have never read a book like this. It’s weird, and unfamiliar, and religious, and irreligious, and more fun than it has any right to be. Quite simply, Gidwitz found himself a holy dog, added in a couple proto-saints, and voila! A book that’s part superhero story, part quixotic holy quest, and part Canterbury Tales with just a whiff of intrusive narration for spice. In short, nothing you’ve encountered in all your livelong days. Bon appétit.

The dog was dead to begin with. A greyhound with a golden muzzle that was martyred in defense of a helpless baby. As various pub goers gather in the year 1242 to catch a glimpse of the king, they start telling stories about this dog that came back from the dead, its vision-prone mistress (a peasant girl named Jeanne), a young monk blessed with inhuman strength (William, son of a lord and a North African woman), and a young Jewish boy with healing capabilities (Jacob). These three very different kids have joined together in the midst of a country in upheaval. Some see them as saints, some as the devil incarnate, and before this tale is told, the King of France himself will seek their very heads. An extensive Author’s Note and Annotated Bibliography appear at the end.

If you are familiar with Mr. Gidwitz’s previous foray into middle grade literature (the Grimm series) then you know he has a penchant for giving the child reader what it wants. Which is to say, blood. Lots of it. In his previous books he took his cue from the Grimm brothers and their blood-soaked tales. Here his focus is squarely on the Middle Ages (he would thank you not to call them “The Dark Ages”), a time period that did not lack for gore. The carnage doesn’t really begin in earnest until William starts (literally) busting heads, and even then the book feels far less sanguine than Gidwitz’s other efforts. I mean, sure, dogs die and folks are burned alive, but that’s pretty tame by Adam’s previous standards. Of course, what he lacks in disembowelments he makes up for with old stand-bys like vomit and farts. Few can match the man’s acuity for disgusting descriptions. He is a master of the explicit and kids just eat that up. Not literally of course. That would be gross. As a side note, he has probably included the word “ass” more times in this book than all the works of J.M. Barrie and Roald Dahl combined. I suspect that if this book is ever challenged in schools or libraries it won’t be for the copious entrails or discussions about God, but rather because at one point the word “ass” (as it refers to a donkey) appears three times in quick, unapologetic succession. And yes, it’s hilarious when it does.

So let’s talk religious persecution, religious fundamentalism, and religious tolerance. As I write this review in 2016 and politicians bandy hate speech about without so much as a blink, I can’t think of a book written for kids more timely than this. Last year I asked a question of my readers: Can a historical children’s book contain protagonists with prejudices consistent with their time period? Mr. Gidwitz seeks to answer that question himself. His three heroes are not shining examples of religious tolerance born of no outside influence. When they escape together they find that they are VERY uncomfortable in one another’s presence. Mind you, I found William far more tolerant of Jacob than I expected (though he does admittedly condemn Judaism once in the text). His dislike of women is an interesting example of someone rejecting some but not all of the childhood lessons he learned as a monk. Yet all three kids fear one another as unknown elements and it takes time and a mutually agreed upon goal to get them from companionship to real friendship.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, religion doesn’t usually get much notice in middle grade books for kids from major publishers these days. And you certainly won’t find discussions about the differences between Christianity and Judaism, as when the knight Marmeluc tries to determine precisely what it is to be Jewish. What I appreciated about this book was how Gidwitz distinguished between the kind of Christianity practiced by the peasants versus the kind practiced by the educated and rich. The peasants have no problem worshipping dogs as saints and even the local priest has a wife that everyone knows he technically isn’t supposed to have. The educated and rich then move to stamp out these localized beliefs which, let’s face it, harken back to the people’s ancestors’ paganism.

Race also comes up a bit, with William’s heritage playing a part now and then, but the real focus is reserved for the history of Christian/Jewish interactions. Indeed, in his wildly extensive Author’s Note at the end, Gidwitz makes note of the fact that race relations in Medieval Europe were very different then than today. Since it preceded the transatlantic slave trade, skin color was rare and contemporary racism remains, “the modern world’s special invention.” There will probably still be objections to the black character having the strength superpower rather than the visions or healing, but he’s also the best educated and intelligent of the three. I don’t think you can ignore that fact.

As for the writing itself, that’s what you’re paying your money for at the end of the day. Gidwitz is on fire here, making medieval history feel fresh and current. For example, when the Jongleur says that some knights are, “rich boys who’ve been to the wars . . . Not proper at all. But still rich,” that’s a character note slid slyly into the storytelling. Other lines pop out at you too. Here are some of my other favorites:

• About that Jongleur, “… he looks like the kind of child who has seen too much of life, who’s seen more than most adults. His eyes are both sharp and dead at the same time. As if he won’t miss anything, because he’s seen it all already.”
• “Jeanne’s mother’s gaze lingered on her daughter another moment, like an innkeeper waiting for the last drop of ale from the barrel tap.”
• “The lord and lady welcomed the knights warmly. Well, the lady did. Lord Bertulf just sat in his chair behind the table, like a stick of butter slowly melting.”
• “Inside her, grand castles of comprehension, models of the world as she had understood it, shivered.”
• And Gidwitz may also be the only author for children who can write a sentence that begins, “But these marginalia contradicted the text…” and get away with it.

Mind you, Gidwitz paints himself into a pretty little corner fairly early on. To rest this story almost entirely on the telling of tales in a pub, you need someone who doesn’t just know the facts of one moment or the next but who could claim to know our heroes’ interior life. So each teller comes to mention each child’s thoughts and feelings in the course of their tale. The nun in the book bears the brunt of this sin, and rather than just let that go Gidwitz continually has characters saying things like, “I want to know if I’m sitting at a table filled with wizards and mind readers.” I’m not sure if I like the degree to which Gidwitz keeps bringing this objection up, or if it detracts from the reading. What I do know is that he sort of cheats with the nun. She’s the book’s deux ex machina (or, possibly the diaboli ex machina) acting partly as an impossibility and partly as an ode to the author’s love of silver haired librarians and teachers out there with “sparkling eyes, and a knowing smile.”

Since a large portion of the story is taken up with saving books as objects, it fits that this book itself should be outfitted with all the beauties of its kind. If we drill down to the very mechanics of the book, we find ourselves admiring the subtleties of fonts. Every time a tale switches between the present day and the story being told, the font changes as well. But to do it justice, the story has been illuminated (after a fashion) by artist Hatem Aly. I have not had the opportunity to see the bulk of his work on this story. I do feel that the cover illustration of William is insufficiently gargantuan, but that’s the kind of thing they can correct in the paperback edition anyway.

Fairy tales and tales of saints. The two have far more in common than either would like to admit. Seen in that light, Gidwitz’s transition from pure unadulterated Grimm to, say, Lives of the Improbable Saints and Legends of the Improbable Saints is relatively logical. Yet here we have a man who has found a way to tie-in stories about religious figures to the anti-Semitism that is still with us to this day. At the end of his Author’s Note, Gidwitz mentions that as he finished this book, more than one hundred and forty people were killed in Paris by terrorists. He writes of Medieval Europe, “It was a time when people were redefining how they lived with the ‘other,’ with people who were different from them.” The echoes reverberate today. Says Gidwitz, “I can think of nothing sane to say about this except this book.” Sermonizers, take note.

On shelves September 27th.

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22. Midwestern Investigative Report: NerdCampMI 2016 – Day One

nerdcampThere are advantages to living in New York City. Good museums. Lots of books and readers.  The sweet morning aroma of hot garbage on the street to greet you at the break of day. Consumed in such a heady aroma it can be easy to forget that there are disadvantages to the city as well. Living in the center of the universe is all well and good but one has a tendency to forget that there is a UNIVERSE outside of that center. Pull yourself away from the gravity and you discover all sorts of interesting things.

This brings us to NerdCampMI.

Unfamiliar?  Here’s a quick description of the conference from its website:

“Day 1 is much like a traditional education conference.  We have scheduled speakers to get you all fired up about teaching reading and writing in the classroom.  For more specifics on day 1, please visit the page by clicking the link to your left.

Day 2 of nErDcamp is designed differently than your typical conference.  It’s an (un)conference with a focus on literacy in learning.”

What they don’t mention is that this is very much a school-based event.  Which is to say, school librarians (a few) and school teachers (the bulk) attend this event en masse.  This makes a great deal of sense, of course.  Prior to the creation of NerdCampMI and the corresponding Nerdy Book Club, there was a need for a large scale site dedicated to people working within the educational system.

Now like a lot of folks in NYC I’d heard about this phenomena. Phenomenon? Phenomeniacal? At any rate, it was like pulling teeth finding people who’d been. In spite of the fact that the con tends to pull in 1500 attendees, the majority appear to come from the Midwest.

NerdCampPano

And yet, this wasn’t everyone.

 

Now I’m a public, rather than a school, librarian. That means that my contact with teachers is entirely reliant on this blog. Yet I’d never met a teacher who had attended, though I had met the occasional author.

It was time to rectify the situation.  Oh ye folks around the country who hear about NerdCamp from time to time and think, “You mean Nerdcon? No? Camp? Wait, is that the huge thing in Parma, MI?” I am here to report and tell all.

Once, long ago, oh best beloved, I ran a conference. It was the Kidlitosphere Conference and I led it out of the main branch of New York Public Library. It was, insofar as I can recall, a success. With the exception of one Skype session, all the tech worked. It was free, like NerdCamp. There was a lot of swag, like NerdCamp. But there were significantly less people.  If we’re looking at the number of children’s literature bloggers in the country vs. the number of teachers in the country, that’s par for the course, but my point is that my con was pretty small and relatively easy. It was also not an unconference, an element that I feel ups the difficulty factor tenfold.  So when I walked in yesterday morning for Day One (Day Two is the unconference part and that’s actually happening right now) I didn’t quite know what to expect.  I expected registration.  I did not expect the epic-ly long swag line.

Swag1

Swag2

Nor did I expect that my favorite children’s bookstore BookBug would be the one selling titles.  Hooray, Bookbug!  Hooray too to the fact that they were carrying my picture book. I was not expecting that.

BookBug1

BookBug2

We all filed into a large gym where bleachers served as the seats for the massive group in attendance.

Bleachers

Once we were all seated we were ready for a series of small talks from a variety of different speakers. Each one spoke no longer than about 5 minutes apiece. And each one had a very specific topic they wanted to address.

Colby Sharp was the one who officially started off the day, but not with a long history of Nerdy Book Club and its accomplishments, as you might expect. Instead, he started in almost immediately with the story of Heidi, a small girl who lost all her books in a fire. After she thanked the audience members for replacing her library it was time for the first speaker.

Educator Kathy Burnett came up to the music of “My Shot” from Hamilton. Knowing her audience, she began her talk with a shout-out to Gilmore Girls.  And let that be a lesson to you, oh future speakers.  Mention GG at the top of any speech to librarians or teachers and the response is instantaneous.

KathyB

Kathy2

Proving that my generation is now the one in charge of the universe, Kathy also made statements like “I read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, and I DID those chest exercises” (which got a lot of appreciation) followed up with knowledge that by reading V.C. Andrews you learn to avoid powdered donuts. But for the most part she spoke on a personal level about how books were a way to escape from the world when she was a child and her teachers became her surrogate parents.   The speech ended with “I Rise” by Maya Angelou.  It got a standing ovation.

By the way, I’m soliciting guesses on the background behind the speakers.  I’m going to say that the high school was doing a production of The Wizard of Oz.

Teri Lesesne was next and she began by referencing a Richard Peck article about censorship, which was the focus of her talk. She talked at length about “censorship in all its forms” including disinvitations of authors to schools. The Phil Bildner and Kate Messner incident was mentioned (someone clapped during it and without missing a beat Teri said, “You can’t clap. This is timed.”). She then urged everyone to read Kate Milford’s continuing dialogue with the teacher responsible in some way for her disinvitation. There was an interesting moment when Teri said something along the lines of, “Gatekeeping is an insidious form of censorship”, which I am paraphrasing and which made me wish she had a lot more time to unpack that statement.  I wouldn’t make “gatekeeping” a dirty word, necessarily, but I’m open to learning more about why some people think it is. In relation to this, Teri talked about books that are simply not purchased for libraries. Of course there are differences between public librarians and school ones.  I guess I’d never thought much about school librarian issues of this sort.  It reminded me of that recent debate between Roger Sutton and Daniel Jose Older about the librarian’s role and when you do and don’t deny a kid access to a book. Teri ended by quoting Liberian peace activist Leyman Gbowee: “You can never leave footprints if you always walk on tiptoe”, stressing finally that every kid should see that they’re not alone.

Raina Telgemeier followed and hers was a very personal talk. Raina discussed a time when she was young and was “the artist” in class. She was quiet and had a hard time making friends, so her art was a way to stand out. Then she met a boy named Shawn who could also draw. They could both do TMNT and The Simpsons. Naturally she had a huge crush on him. And so if you read her best known book Smile, he’s the boy in it (this is where I wish that Shaun were Shaun Tan, by the way). In the intervening years lots of girls have since written and asked if she married “Shawn”, or (at the very least) if he knows he was immortalized. Raina points out to them that most 36-year-old men do not seek out her art on their own. Fast forward a little.  Raina was still friends with Shawn (not his real name) on Facebook.  Then, last year, he got Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Raina wanted to help out in some way, but since Shawn and his family are quiet, private people she was limited in what she could do. Then she learned he was in hospice. Near the end, he just wanted people to share memories of him. So she told him at long last about the book, his role in it, and she sent him a copy with a letter of thanks. He loved it, and his nephews were thrilled that a book they already knew had their uncle in it. Shawn passed away in April of this year and Raina attended his memorial a few weeks ago. There she learned that apparently an item on Shawn’s bucket list was to become a character in a comic book. Mission accomplished.  It was a nice heartfelt speech.

Now because I don’t know my average famous teachers, the name Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) was unknown to me.  No longer.  A grade teacher in WI, some speculation was made later as to whether or not she has copious experience with Poetry Slams.  Such was the energy of her talk. Pernille dove right in, recounting that it was exactly 4 seconds into the new school year (last fall) before a kid in her class loudly declared how much they hated reading. You know the type.  “You say reading and they cannot wait to say loudly how much they hate it . . . because this is how they identify.” These students beg you, “please don’t tell me I just haven’t met the right book yet, because that’s what ALL the teachers say.” This is, to Ms. Ripp’s mind, a pernicious problem, “because when they hate reading . . . then it just doesn’t matter what kind of strategies I am trying to teach them.” Nothing matters. “When they hate reading then that is all they can think about”. Then everything in school is attached to something they hate. “And I get it. Why would you want to do something more of something they despise.” Her advice to combat this?  When you get a kid who says they don’t like to read, don’t say “no you don’t”. Try asking, “Why?” “We won’t know until we ask. A question is all we need.” Asking and talking and digging is important. “Hating reading is not their end destination.” One of her more controversial statements was that if a reading program is making even one child hate reading then that program should be ended. Interesting!  Another good line regarding generations of people who don’t like to read, “Along with their genetic heritage they will also pass on their hatred of school and books.” A great talk.

Also very good? Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks) .  Shared a NerdyBookClub post that she wrote last November, The House That Reading Built which you should probably read rather than allow me to summarize.  Just the same, part of what I liked about it so much was its acknowledgment of socio-economic status and disparity.  “I grew up clinging to the lowest middle class rung”. In the piece Donalyn explains how both she “grew up on her library card”, as did her husband. I appreciated that she acknowledged her white privilege in spite of class burdens and took time to mentions how so many children of poverty, disproportionately of color, grow up without easy access to books. As she then pointed out, diversity in publishing isn’t just about the publishing itself. Publishing more diverse authors and illustrators only takes us so far if children do not have access to these books. Book access is the gamechanger for our children. It means that all books should accurately reflect their experiences and the experiences of children with different stories to tell and give access to “the promise” that literacy provides. The division and hatred scrolling across our screens these days can fill us with impotence and despair. Literacy, therefore, is the way to help all of us write a different story.

Then there was a special guest in town.  Three guesses who it was and the first two don’t count.

DiCamillo

Yep, peeking above that podium there is special guest Kate DiCamillo. And the crowd, naturally, goes crazy. In an interesting twist Kate told a very fun story about an incident from her youth involving a wishing bone (how William Steig!), a girl next door with purple lipstick, and a pony.  It had a lot of good lines too like the fact that the girl next door was named Beverly Pagoda and, “I was forever trying to impress her and I had yet to succeed.” Also, “It was summer. I was 8-years-old. My heart was a small motor humming in my chest.”  I liked that she said that the art of writing is what Raymond Chandler called “being at your station”. Of course as she was talking about what you can’t find in a writing manual, one could not help but think that should she ever want to write one, she could potentially write the children’s book version of Bird by Bird.

Then it was time for my session.  Did I not mention I was speaking at this event?  Oh yes!  And look at my cohorts:

NerdCamp2

 

Travis whipped that one up.  Isn’t it nice?

Mind you, I’m a bit shaky on reading schedules so this is what I saw when I looked us up.  Mine is the one that says “Nibling” on it:

Nibling1

Oh no!, thinks I.  I’m speaking about 9/11?  Then I looked at the top of the page.

Nibling2

Oh!  That makes more sense.

By the way, this was in our room on the wall.  I adored it.

wall

I recap my talk but I’m absolutely terrible about that sort of thing.  Fortunately my panelists were enormously talented bloggers so I’m just going to hope that one or both of them write it up themselves and I’ll be able to link to it here.

For the next session, it was a tricky choice (as you can see from the form).  In the end I decided to sit in on “Author Jeopardy”, hosted by the writer Erica Perl.

SessionIt was a nice crew of authors too.  There was author Melanie Conklin who’d written Counting Thyme.  There was The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib author, Adam Shaughnessy. There was the writer behind Gertie’s Leap to Greatness (Kate Beasley) who is from Georgia and is damned adorable. She had cute shoes and mentioned (on an unrelated note) that her family farm has 120 miniature cows.  Extra points to Adam then for jumping in to ask, “Is that where those school milks come from?” Nice.  Kelly Barnhill was there to discuss The Girl Who Drank the Moon.  At one point the conversation turned to Skype visits and Kelly said she would occasionally have the kids talk to her new puppy Sirius Black or her truly disgusting guinea pig Günter. Which, right there. That’s a book. Erica S. Perl herself talked about her upcoming The Capybara Conspiracy, calling it a book, a novel, and a play all in one. Author John David Anderson of Ms. Bixby’s Last Day is actually the author I’m reading right now at this exact moment in time.  And, if I might say so, his latest book has a KILLER first chapter.  He described it as “The Holy Grail meets Stand By Me meets Mr. Hollin’s Opus meets . . . . cheesecake.” And finally there was YA author Aimee Carter who has written her first middle grade book in a series.  The book was actually very interesting to me.  It’s called Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den and damned if it doesn’t look a lot like those books that came out around the time Harry Potter was hot.  We haven’t seen a book like this in a long time.  I’ll be watching its progress with interest.

The audience was pretty big and when they asked questions they asked good practical ones, how the authors connect with kids when they Skype into a classroom.

This left the final session of the day and it was a tricky choice. Do you want to see Raina Telgemeier draw from audience suggestions or Kate DiCamillo in conversation with Mr. Schu? For me, I wanted to see the aforementionedTeri and Donalyn in action. Their topic:

Taking CARE of readers: Choice (and community), Access, Response, Engagement

And what happens? I walk in and hear them asking the audience a question: Who was the first Latino to win a Newbery? Due to the fact that like a Pavlovian dog I cannot not listen to a question about children’s literature trivia without needing to be the one to answer it RIGHT NOW, I put my hand up like a fool and declared “Paula Fox” loud and proud. Which won me a bag of goodies by accident.  Oops. I just wanted to answer it SOOO MUCH!!

The gist of this final talk was about the nitty gritty aspects of getting kids to identify as readers. Folks talk so much about getting the skill set down but they don’t spend much time discussing how to get kids to the self-identify as reading kids.

LoveSecretSniperFirst off, the two presenters gave us their “reading audiobiography” over the years, in brief.  And somehow or other, Teri managed to find a real Fabio cover called Love’s Secret Sniper for the talk. Extra points for that.

These days, the two women are now what you might call Free-Range Readers, reading whatever interests them. In fact, they aren’t afraid to recommend the occasional adult book.  For example, at one point they gave a shout out to The Unpersuadables by Will Stork, which sounded absolutely fascinating.  In this book the author examines why it is that otherwise intelligent people are so willing to discount research. Donalyn has seen firsthand that you can tell people how reading is important and yet they won’t believe it even if you have the fact at your disposal.  Why is that?  Turns out, people will jettison beliefs to be part of a group that is important to them. Ignorance is tribalism in these cases, where the deniers of one thing or another find supportive friends. That is FASCINATING! I always love it when a person applies an adult book to the world in which we live and work.  Now I have to find this book.

Going back to the reading autobiography, creating one can be a great thing to do with students.  When they hand them in to you (the teacher) and you look at them, can you identify the engaged readers and the ones who aren’t engaged “yet”?  And really, do books belong to me or do I belong to books or is it some kind of symbiotic relationship?

So how do we best demonstrate our love of reading to our kids (both to your students and, I’d say to your own kids). Donalyn says that passion is key. But if you don’t like reading, they won’t either.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 12.14.43 AMThis led to another book recommendation: Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books by Carlsen and Sherrill. The book examines the common experiences in building readers in the early grades through high school. It’s out of print (pub date 1988)but you can actually just download the entire text. The truth is that when it lists all the factors that make a reader, they sound awfully familiar.  Owning books, sharing them with friends, setting time aside for it, teachers reading aloud, discussions, and receiving help from librarians all are there.

Then we got into the nitty gritty of it all.  Stand back for . . .

Factors Affecting Reading Identity

They are . . .

  • Time
  • Role models at home and school
  • Access to books
  • Choice of reading materials
  • Diversity.

I won’t delve into what all was said about these points, but Teri and Donalyn did say that their slides will be up on SlideShare and that they’ll post a link on their Twitter accounts soon.

Actually, I will latch on to one of their points, and it’s something I was thinking about a lot at this conference.  As Donalyn was careful to point out, diversity is more than just a hashtag. In her talk she gave the history of #WeNeedDiverseBooks (or #WNDB) with Teri also mentioning that it includes body image and socioeconomic status (YES!). And Teri said straight out that it’s not enough to get all the Pura Belpre and CSK titles in your school or classroom library. Donalyn: “The broader our collections are the more likely we are to invite readers into the communities we are trying to build”.

Since I didn’t attend that many discussions, it’s possible that We Need Diverse Books and diversity in general was covered in other sessions too.  Still, I was a bit disappointed to find that only one of the first speakers of the day (Donalyn again) mentioned it at the start of the conference.

Now let’s bring it back a bit. Let’s talk about outside perceptions of NerdCampMI. One concern that I’ve heard from others about the conference in the past is how white it is. White in terms of the speakers and the books and authors and the attendees.  So let’s unpack that.

First off, it’s true that very few people of color were attending the conference as attendees.  There were some, but even from my group shots you can pretty much see that it was somewhat white.  I don’t know how NerdCampMI organizes or if they make tweaks each and every year.  Nor do I know what goes on behind the scenes.  If I were to guess, I’d say that reaching out to teachers of color is definitely slated for the old To Do list.  As for the books, there were authors of color like Tracey Baptiste, Minh Le, and others, and there were speakers like Kathy Burnette.  Again, efforts have been made in those areas, but there’s some room for improvement.  Fortunately, as Donalyn proved, there’s clearly the inclination and the drive to be inclusive.

This is, as I say, just a recap of Day One.  For the Day Two unconference you’ll need to look for someone else reporting from the scene.

Many thanks to Colby Sharp and Travis and Minh for letting me present and visit NerdCampMI for the first time.  Thanks to the people I met and the sessions I attended.

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6 Comments on Midwestern Investigative Report: NerdCampMI 2016 – Day One, last added: 7/13/2016
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23. DC Reborn Week Five– Ranking the Rebirth Books & Round Up

SupesBannerAlex Lu and Kyle Pinion round up this week's Rebirth reviews and rank the first month of releases!

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24. Monday Review: NEVER MISSING NEVER FOUND by Amanda Panitch

Synopsis: Suspense stories that deal with kidnapping and imprisonment (consider that your trigger warning) don't always put an equally weighty focus on the aftermath of the trauma. This particular thriller suspensefully covers both the dramatic... Read the rest of this post

0 Comments on Monday Review: NEVER MISSING NEVER FOUND by Amanda Panitch as of 7/13/2016 4:55:00 AM
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25. Application for the ALA/ALSC representative to USBBY

This is so neat that I wish I could apply for it myself.  I cannot, but if you’re a member of ALSC, you could (you lucky thing).

 


 

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) is seeking a personal member interested in representing ALA/ALSC on the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY).

One representative will be selected by the ALA Executive Board to serve a two-year term from January 1, 2017 through December 31, 2018. If you are interested in representing ALA/ALSC on the USBBY Board, please complete the online application (http://bit.ly/29S9ojN) and submit a cover letter addressed to the ALA Executive Board, a resume/CV, and one letter of recommendation no later than Tuesday, September 6, 2016.

Required Qualifications

The applicant must:

* Be a current ALSC personal member

* Have demonstrated experience in evaluating, selecting and promoting children’s literature

* Attend all USBBY meetings and conferences during his/her term of appointment. Expenses to attend USBBY meetings/conferences are the responsibility of the individual or his/her institution. USBBY, ALA and ALSC do not provide financial support

* Have knowledge of key ALSC services and resources in order to serve as an effective liaison between USBBY and ALSC’s Board of Directors

* Be a competent user of new technologies, such as wikis and electronic chat platforms, in order to accomplish work in a virtual environment between meetings

* Have demonstrated leadership skills necessary to serve on an organization’s board of directors

 

Responsibilities of USBBY board members

  1. Attend and participate in the three annual board meetings (typically in February at CBC in New York City; in June at the ALA annual conference; and in October/November at the IBBY Regional Conference (in odd numbered years) or the NCTE conference (in even numbered years).
  2. Submit USBBY news to newsletters, journals, web sites, and electronic discussion lists of related organizations.
  3. Recruit new members, nurture current members, and make the Board and Nominating Committee aware of potentially active committee members or volunteers.
  4. Serve as the official liaison between ALSC and USBBY 5. Assist with planning USBBY board meetings at conferences 6. Assist with planning USBBY co-sponsored programs at conferences

 

Documentation needed

The ALA Executive Board requires that suggestions for nominations be accompanied by a resume/CV and cover letter which indicates:

* A short summary statement of the nominee’s qualifications and indication of present position

* Affirmation that the person can fulfill the meeting attendance and travel requirements

 

Additionally, the ALSC Board requires:

* A letter of recommendation

 

Timeline

* Sept. 6 2016: deadline to submit online application and resume to ALSC for consideration

* Sept. 6- 23, 2016: ALSC’s Board of Directors evaluates applications and selects one applicant to recommend to the ALA Executive Board for appointment

* Week of Sept. 26, 2016: ALSC notifies applicants as to the status of their application

* Early October: ALA Executive Board meets and considers ALSC’s recommendation

* Week of October 24, 2016: ALSC notifies nominee of ALA Executive Board’s decision

* Jan. 1, 2017: Appointee begins representation on USBBY Board

 

2017 USBBY Board Meetings:

*           March 3, 2017: Representatives First 2017 USBBY Board meeting

*           June 22, 2017: Chicago during ALA Conference

*           October 19, 2017: Seattle just before the IBBY Regional Conference

 

To learn more about USBBY go to www.usbby.org/<http://www.usbby.org/>.

 

Please contact Aimee Strittmatter (astrittmatter@ala.org<mailto:astrittmatter@ala.org>) for questions about the ALSC application process.

 

 

Aimee Strittmatter, MSI, CAE

Executive Director

Association for Library Service to Children a division of the American Library Association

50 East Huron Street

Chicago, IL 60611

312-280-2163 | fax: 312-280-5271

astrittmatter@ala.org<mailto:astrittmatter@ala.org>

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