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1. Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

Maybe it’s Common Core.  Maybe not.  I’m not always quite certain how far to place the blame in these cases.  However you look at it, children’s nonfiction bios are getting weird these days.  In some ways it’s quite remarkable.  I’m the first one to say that nonfiction for kids is better now than it has ever been.  I mean, when I was a young ‘un the only nonfiction I ever enjoyed was the Childhood of Famous Americans series.  Not that it was actually nonfiction.  I mean, it made these interesting suppositions about the youth of various famous people, complete with fake dialogue (I am the strictest anti-fake dialogue person you’ll ever meet).  I enjoyed them the way I enjoyed fiction because, for the most part, they were fiction.  Boy, you just couldn’t get away with that kind of thing today, right?

Right?

Meet three new “nonfiction” series of varying degrees of fictionalization and authenticity that caught my eye recently.  I can’t exactly call them a trend.  Rather, they’re simply interesting examples of how publishers are struggling to figure out how to tackle the notion of “nonfiction” and “high-interest” for kids.  And it’s now our job to determine how successful they’ve become.

First up, let’s go back old Childhood of Famous Americans.  They remain beloved, but they’re problematic.  So what do you do when you have a product that slots into that category?  You rebrand, baby!

Introducing History’s All-Stars from Aladdin (an imprint of Simon & Schuster).  Observe the following covers:

Sacagawea Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

JackieRobinson Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

Look vaguely familiar?  Pick up the book and you may find the words “Childhood of Famous American” in there individually, but never strung together in that particular order. The publication page only mentions that the books were previously published as far back as the 1950s (little wonder I’m worried about that Sacagawea title, yes).  Yet the design, as you can see, isn’t far off so we had to wonder.  Is it just the same series?  A side-by-side comparison:

BetsyRoss2 Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?BetsyRoss Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

The publisher description calls this “a narrative biography” which is technically the accepted term for this kind of book.  But there is no way you could use this for a report.  They’re fiction, baby.  A kind of fiction that doesn’t really have a designated place in a library collection at this time, though that could change.  Which brings us to . . .

Ordinary People Change the World – A series by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

AmeliaEarhart Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

AbrahamLincoln Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

It’s the series bound to wreck havoc with catalogers everywhere!  They look like Charles Schulz characters.  They read like nonfiction . . . sorta?  Kinda?  Kirkus said of I Am Rosa Parks that it was, “A barely serviceable introduction with far more child appeal than substance.”  Yet they’re bestsellers and visually incredibly appealing.  Published by Dial (a Penguin imprint), the books were a risk that appears to have paid off in terms of dollars.  In terms of sparking interest in these historical figures it’s also a success.  But is it factual?  Is it accurate?  Does it stand up to scrutiny?  Does it matter?  Why shouldn’t it matter?  You see the conundrum.

Finally, there’s a series coming out from Scholastic that looks like it might be along similar lines to these, but that I haven’t seen firsthand quite yet:

BenjaminFranklin Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

SallyRide Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

Called the When I Grow Up series, again we’re seeing historical figures as children.  But maybe these are entirely accurate in their retellings?  They’re Scholastic Readers, made to meet the needs of early readers.  It’s the title “When I Grow Up” that raises the red flag for me.  Because, you see, they’re written in the first person.  And as a librarian who has had to field reference questions from first graders asking for “autobiographies”, this is problematic.  If a book is entirely accurate but seems to come from the lips of its biographical subject, what is it worth in the pantheon of nonfiction?

People will always say that worrying along these lines is ridiculous.  If the books are good and spark an interest, isn’t that enough?  Why do you have to require strict accuracy at all times?  My argument would be that when biographies are written for adults, people are meticulous (hopefully) about maintaining authenticity.  Why should we hold our kids to different standards?

It’s a debate.  These books just crack it open wide.

Along the same lines (WARNING: Shameless plug looming on the horizon!) I’ve gotten out the jumper cables and restarted the old Children’s Literary Salon at NYPL.  Babies have been born and it is time to get back in the swing of things.  On that note, on Saturday, September 6th I’ll be hosting one of children’s nonfiction all-stars in a conversation that might very well touch on this topic.  Behold!

Personal Passions and Changes in Nonfiction for Children and Teens: A Conversation with Marc Aronson

Author, professor, speaker, editor and publisher by turns, Marc Aronson’s love of nonfiction and his conviction that young people can read carefully, examine evidence, and engage with new and challenging ideas informs everything he does.  Join us for a conversation about the changing role of nonfiction for youth, and the special challenges and advantages of this one-of-a-kind genre.

See you there, yes?

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10 Comments on Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?, last added: 8/26/2014
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2. Scholastic Expands its Book Club With More Preschool Titles

In a move to get books to younger children, Scholastic has expanded its book club reading program to reach kids from birth to age 5.

Scholastic’s new early childhood regime includes more books for readers under 5 in its Scholastic Reading Club, as well as Scholastic Preschool Book Fairs and early education-readiness parent workshops.

“It is crucial that every child be exposed to age-appropriate books and early reading materials before they enter preschool,” stated Francie Alexander, Chief Academic Officer. “Scholastic continues to bridge the learning and literacy gap by providing an array of preschool programs, books and resources for parents and teachers to ensure all children have the opportunity to discover the power and joy of reading at an early age.”

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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3. Best Selling Kids Series | August 2014

This month we have a blast from the past on top of The Children’s Book Review’s best selling kids series list. Who remembers the Mr. Men and Little Miss books?

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4. Donalyn Miller Hired to Join the Scholastic Book Fairs Team

Donalyn Miller has been hired as the manager of independent reading and outreach at Scholastic Book Fairs.

Here’s more from the press release: “In this newly created role, Ms. Miller will serve as the national ambassador for independent reading, speaking at employee and parent trainings, book fair chairpersons’ workshops and professional learning seminars for educators to raise awareness of the importance of independent reading for all children. In addition, she will be responsible for tracking research on the role of independent reading in children’s growth and development through data collection and in-depth interviews with childhood literacy thought-leaders.”

Miller will report to the vice president of program development, Anne Lee. In the past, she devoted twelve years of her life to a career in education. In addition to teaching, she has also established herself as a speaker, author, and blogger.

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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5. Six Early Readers (2014)

Petal and Poppy. (Level 2, Green Light Readers) Lisa Clough. Illustrated by Ed Briant. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Poppy is not here. It is time to practice my tuba. Bah-bwab-baah! Bwah-bu-baah! 
Ack! Petal is practicing. It is time to go scuba diving!

Petal and Poppy are best friends. (Petal is the elephant. Poppy is the rhinoceros.) They are best friends, but, they are very different from one another. In this first book, readers learn that Petal can be a worrywart, and that Poppy is very understanding.

Poppy goes scuba diving. Petal comes along. She brings her tuba. She alternates playing her tuba and panicking about Poppy. Is Poppy okay? How about now? And now?

Did I like it? Sure. I didn't not like it. With the exception of Elephant and Piggie, I am unlikely to get EXCITED about any early readers I pick up.

Petal and Poppy and the Penguin. (Level 2, Green Light Readers) Lisa Clough. Illustrated by Ed Briant. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Someone has stomped on my flowers. Uh-oh--a storm is coming! Boom! Honk, honk! Who is there? Ahhh! A monster! 

Was there really a monster? Or was Petal, the elephant, just panicking again? Poppy, the rhinoceros, is such a good and understanding friend. Poppy will "save" Petal from the monster outside who is stomping on the flowers. Who is the monster making spooky sounds? A penguin, of course! It is called Petal and Poppy and The Penguin after all. These two take the penguin in. Petal very reluctantly. But these three may be great friends yet.

I liked this second book better than the first. I'm not surprised. I think with series books it can take a few books sometimes for readers to make a connection with characters. The third book in the series will be released at the end of August.  Petal and Poppy and the Spooky Halloween.

Steve & Wessley in The Ice Cream Shop. (Level 1 Reader) J.E. Morris. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Steve walked down the street. 
Steve walked by an ice cream shop.
Did someone say "ice cream"?
Steve liked ice cream.
Steve liked ice cream very much.

I like Steve. I do. He may not be very bright or smart. But there is something about him that is just likable. (Maybe he reminds me of Pinky?) In this book, Steve really wants ice cream. He wants it bad. One thing is standing in his way. The door. It won't open. Steve is very frustrated. What is the deal with this door?!

Wessley is much smarter than Steven. He realizes that some doors you push, and other doors you pull. 

I liked this one fine. The second book in this new series will release at the end of August. The Sea Monster.

Days of the Knights. (Level 2 Reader) Robert Neubecker. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

"What's up, Joe?" asked Lilly. 
"I'm doing a report on the Middle Ages." Joe shrugged. 
"With knights and queens and castles? What fun!"
"I guess so," mumbled Joe.
"I'll help you research," said Lilly. She tapped the keys on the library computer...

In Days of the Knights, readers meet Lilly, Joe, and Red the Time Dragon. Red the Time Dragon is their personal guide to the middle ages. Lilly and Joe learn a handful of facts about the middle ages during their brief stay. Red the Time Dragon also manages to find time to lead a peasant revolt against Sir Vile, a selfish knight.

I don't know what to think about this new series. I really don't! The second adventure is Racing the Waves. It releases in late August.


Little Big Horse: Where's My Bike? (Level 1) Dave Horowitz. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I can't wait for class to be over. 
Finally.
To the bikes!
Where is my bike? I left it right here.

Someone has stolen his bike! Who did it? Why? What motivated the crime? Will he get his bike back?

This one is very simple. Of all the books I'm reviewing today, this one is the simplest. Simple can be a good thing. Young readers need access to simple books with big font.

I liked it well enough. I liked the illustrations. I liked reading the emotions on the faces of the two characters we meet.

Drop It, Rocket! (Step 1) Tad Hills. 2014. Random House. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Rocket and the little yellow bird love words. They love their word tree, too. "Are you ready to find new words for our word tree?" asks the bird. "Yes, I am!" says Rocket.

Readers may be familiar with the character of Rocket already. Rocket is the star of several picture books: How Rocket Learned to Read and Rocket Writes a Story.

This story is simple and repetitive. Rocket wants to learn new words and add new words to the word tree. He brings new things--new objects--to his friend the yellow bird. The bird tells him to "drop it" each time. Rocket is usually a good dog, so he obeys. New words are added. But what happens when Rocket does not want to drop it?

I liked this one. I liked the problem solving. It's a cute story.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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6. Nine 2014 Picture Books

Clifford Visits the Zoo. Norman Bridwell. 2014. Scholastic. 40 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I'm Emily Elizabeth and this is my dog. His name is Clifford. Today we are going to the zoo. The people at the zoo have never seen anything like Clifford. So I tell them, Clifford is my dog. And he is very friendly. The first animals we see are penguins. The penguins are small. And Clifford is very, very big!

There are many, many books in the Clifford series. In this latest book, Norman Bridwell has Clifford visiting the zoo with Emily Elizabeth. The focus is on opposites. Readers observe one thing about an animal (the penguins are small) and note how Clifford is the exact opposite (he is very very big). This pattern continues through the entire book: animal by animal. The opposites include small and big, sleeping and awake, light and heavy, dirty and clean, noisy and quiet, slowly and quickly, hard and soft, up and down, curly and straight, wet and dry. The book concludes with a few facts about each of the animals visited at the zoo: penguins, koalas, monarch butterflies, hippopotamuses, howler monkeys, sloths, tortoises, birds, chameleons, and seals.

I liked this one. I'm not a big fan of Clifford in general, with a series this big, it would be hard to have each book in the series be of equal quality. But this one was a nice book.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Dreidel. Caryn Yacowitz. Illustrated by David Slonim. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I know an old lady who swallowed a dreidel,
A Chanukah dreidel she thought was a bagel...
Perhaps it's fatal.
I know an old lady who swallowed some oil--
A pitcher of oil, 'bout ready to boil.
She swallowed the oil to wash down the dreidel,
A Chanukah dreidel she thought was a bagel…
Perhaps it's fatal.

I have read a handful of "Old Lady Who Swallowed A…" books in the past. This one fits the pattern, but with an obvious Jewish theme. Items swallowed include a dreidel, oil, latkes, sauce, brisket, gelt, menorah, and candles.

For readers of all ages who enjoy those kinds of books, then this one will prove an interesting addition. For more impatient readers who tired of the "Old Lady" books after the first or second imitation, this one is not extraordinary enough to make it a must read. At least the text alone isn't extraordinary enough. However. I must say that the illustrations are quite wonderful.

David Slonim chose classic art masterpieces to parody in his illustrations. Each spread pays unique tribute to a masterpiece while matching perfectly the text of the story. The masterpieces: Mona Lisa, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp, American Gothic, The Milkmaid, The scream, Nighthawks, Campbell's Soup Cans, Spectrum II, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Whistler's Mother), The Thinker, Doctor and Doll, Christina's World, The Starry Night, and Dance I. The illustrators note includes the name of each piece, the date, and the museum location of the original.

I definitely enjoyed this one; I enjoyed it mostly because of the illustrations. But I don't think that is a bad thing. Illustrations are very important to storytelling and reading.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 7 out of 10

If Kids Ran the World. Leo and Diane Dillon. 2014. Scholastic. 32 Pages. [Source: Review copy]

If kids ran the world, we would make it a kinder, better place.
Maybe we'd run the world in a big tree house, and everybody would be welcome.
We'd take care of the most important things.
We know people are hungry, so all over the world, everyone would have enough to eat.


If Kids Ran The World is saturated in lessons. It's just dripping with moral messages. It's not that the message of peace and love and joy and harmony are bad. But as the Peppa Pig episode, "International Day" CLEARLY shows, "Peace and harmony in all the world," is not easily achieved even among children, or especially among children.

The book's premise is that children are more mature than adults. That somehow children are more innocent, more kind, more forgiving, more loving, more sensitive, more compassionate, more generous than adults. The premise is that children could solve problems like health care, the environment, bullying, world hunger, poverty, etc. just by being their little lovable selves. (Of course kids NEVER are selfish, ALWAYS willing to share, NEVER tell lies, ALWAYS speak kindly. NEVER exclude anyone or call names ALWAYS include everybody no matter their age or gender.)

Is that premise true? Each reader will have to decide that for themselves. Some readers may embrace the optimism and positiveness of this one. Others may question it from cover to cover.

I found this one to be very message-heavy. And the illustrations in my opinion were strange and quirky. It was little things really. Like all the slanted eyes. Like all the rosy cheeks. But there were a few big things as well that made this one, well, creepy. Like on the title page. The illustration has a globe of the Earth for a head on a body. This "person" also has wings. This globe-head character also shows up towards the end in a two-page spread that features two other creepy additions. A child's body with a lion's head and a child's body with a lamb's head. 

Perhaps the illustrations are supposed to "represent" children from around the globe? But if this is the case, it has a very "It's A Small World" feel to it.

Text: 1 out of 5
Illustrations 1 out of 5
Total: 2 out of 10

My Grandfather's Coat. Jim Aylesworth. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

My grandfather came to America when he was very young. He came alone and with little more than nothing at all. The years passed, and he became a tailor. He worked very hard. And then, on the luckiest day of his life, he met my grandmother, and they fell in love. When she agreed to marry him, my grandfather went right to work. He snipped, and he clipped, and he stitched, and he sewed, and he made for himself a handsome coat…that he wore on his wedding day.

This is a retelling of a story based on the Yiddish folksong "I Had A Little Overcoat." It is a sweet story spanning the generations. The beloved coat transforms from coat to jacket to vest to tie to toy to material for a mouse's nest, to nothing but a story. It's a family-oriented story which makes it a gem in my opinion.

I loved the illustrations. I just LOVED, LOVED, LOVED the illustrations. I love seeing the story come to life. I love watching his family grow. From his own wedding to his daughter's wedding to his playing with his own grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There was just so much sweet going on. I loved it!!!

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 5 out of 5
Total: 9 out of 10


The Night Parade. Lily Roscoe. Illustrated by David Walker. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Have you ever wondered what happens at night while mothers and fathers lie sleeping? Children wake up. They clamp out of their beds, some crawling, some running, some leaping. As the moon shines down they escape into town. To the night parade they go sneaking…

The Night Parade is a silly, imaginative book. Roscoe has created a "secret world" of sorts where children nightly sneak out of their houses and do amazing things with other children. Things like make cakes for the moon, turn somersaults in the park, dress up in costumes, tell mermaid stories, etc. They also read LOTS AND LOTS of books. By morning, all children will be safely back in their beds.

This one was okay. I didn't love it. I didn't hate it. The children are super-active, super-creative. The illustrations match the playfulness of the text. My favorite page was probably of the children marching by in their costumes. Even the moon is dressed up. Then again, I also liked the idea of all those cakes and all that frosting.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10


Noodle Magic. Roseanne Greenfield Thong. Illustrated by Meilo So. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

The emperor's birthday was coming, and excitement filled the air. Every day, Mei watched Grandpa Tu make magic with his hands and a bit of dough. She loved the powdery flakes that hung in the air and freckled the morning light. Every evening, Grandpa slapped the dough on the table, kneaded it with his hands, and stretched it into coils. Everyone oohed and aahed over Grandpa Tu's noodles--even the Moon Goddess, who brightened the night sky.

Mei loves, loves, loves to watch her Grandpa Tu make noodles. She thinks--the whole village in fact--thinks that there is something magical about Grandpa Tu's noodles. So everyone--Mei included--is shocked that Grandpa Tu chooses NOT to make noodles to celebrate the emperor's birthday. Instead he chooses Mei for the job. He wants her to find the magic within herself, he wants her to see that she too can do it. Readers watch as Mei tries and tries her best to make noodles special enough, magical enough, for the occasion. At times, it seems Grandpa Tu has more confidence in his granddaughter than she does in herself. Even the moon goddess thinks Mei can do it!

I liked this one. I really liked some aspects of it. I liked the writing, the language. I liked the imagery. For example, "powdery flakes that hung in the air and freckled the morning light." There were places this one worked really well for me. I also liked the focus on the grandfather-granddaughter relationship. I definitely liked the ending!

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 7 out of 10

The Cat, The Dog, Little Red, the Exploding Eggs, The Wolf, and Grandma. Diane and Christyan Fox. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

The Cat, The Dog, Little Red, the Exploding Eggs, The Wolf, and Grandma celebrates storytelling. To be precise, this book celebrates interruptions at story time. The cat is trying very, very hard to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood to the dog. By the end, this cat is VERY frustrated. The dog, you might say, has trouble focusing his attention on the actual story. Dog imagines the story a bit differently. For one, he gets the wrong impression from the very beginning. The dog hears about the red cape and instantly thinks SUPER HERO, SUPER POWERS. The cat has to veto all the dog's changes to the story, which is where the EXPLODING EGGS come into it. The dog does ask some good, solid questions. For example, if the wolf wanted to eat the little girl--as he clearly does when he's dressed up as Grandma--WHY didn't he eat her in the woods to begin with?

This book was fun and playful. I liked the focus on storytelling, liked the questioning of it too.

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 7 out of 10

Thanksgiving for Emily Ann. Teresa Johnston. Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Emily Ann just had to say, she was not very thankful on Thanksgiving Day.
Her brother was mean. Her sister, a bore.
And with Grandpa in town she slept on the floor.
There was food to be cooked and chores to be done.
With everyone busy there was no time for fun.


Well, it is what it is. It's a Thanksgiving-themed story in rhyme. Emily Ann goes from ungrateful to grateful in 32 pages. The story includes all the things you'd expect: an emphasis on food, and an emphasis on family. The rhyming. Well. Some pages worked better than others. I liked the illustrations better than the text.

Text: 2 out of 5
Illustration: 3 out of 5
Total: 5 out of 10


Fly Guy #14 Fly Guy's Amazing Tricks. Tedd Arnold. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

A boy had a pet fly. He named him Fly Guy. And Fly Guy could say the boy's name--Buzz!
Chapter 1: Buzz's friends came to see The Amazing Fly Guy Circus. Buzz said, "Get ready for Fly Guy's amazing new tricks!" "Now," said Buzz, "The Backstroke." "Now," said Buzz, "The Dizzy Doozie!" "And now," said Buzz, "The Big Booger!" "Time for supper, said Mom. Buzz's friends all went home.

I liked this one. Fly Guy has learned some "amazing" new tricks. The tricks went over well with his friends for their circus. The tricks do not go over well with his parents when Fly Guy performs at the dinner table. Of course that wasn't the end of Fly Guy. But. He did have to learn when NOT to perform. The last chapter is perhaps the funnest. Someone starts teasing Buzz, and, Fly Guy "saves" the day by driving the bully away.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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7. The Last Present (2013)

The Last Present (Willow Falls #4) Wendy Mass. 2013. Scholastic. 256 pages. [Source: Review copy]

The Last Present is the sequel to 13 Gifts. The two books are closely connected. 13 Gifts had a cliffhanger ending--for better or worse. Much of 13 Gifts was spent hinting that Leo and Amanda had a BIG TASK AHEAD which required them to sacrifice talking to one another for an entire year. (Only texting and writing was allowed.) Tara, the heroine of 13 Gifts, came to town in the last weeks of their sacrifice. At first, Leo and Amanda, guess that it's all about Tara, and then that it's all about David. Two friends celebrating birthdays the same weekend in July. But at David's party, the truth becomes obvious. Grace, the younger sister of Connor, one of David's friends, falls into a coma after babbling nonsense. Amanda and Leo have no doubt that Angelina will be needing them to save the day somehow, someway. Such is the case.

The two will be traveling back in time. They will travel to each of Grace's birthday parties. They will fix what went wrong with Angelina's "blessing of protection." What they notice from the start is that Connor and another relative seem to be acting against them each and every time. They have no idea if Connor is ruining his sister's parties on purpose or if it's completely accidental. Their mission is clear. How that mission is actually accomplished remains a bit of a puzzle. Readers are just told at each twist and turn that it's the work of Angelina, and that she alone knows what is going on, and since Angelina wouldn't ever dream of sharing that knowledge with anyone no matter what, everything the kids do is on faith.

I liked this one. I didn't not like it anyway. But for a book that supposedly answers all the questions and solves the mystery that is Angelina, this one left me unsatisfied. Out of all the novels, this one is definitely the clearest that this is FANTASY and that magic is going on all around. But the little details seem messy from my perspective.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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8. Reread #25 Julia Gillian And the Art of Knowing

Julia Gillian (And the Art of Knowing) by Alison McGhee. 2008. Scholastic. 290 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Several years ago, I read the Julia Gillian series. The first book in the series is Julia Gillian And the Art of Knowing. The book introduces us to a lovely little heroine, Julia Gillian, who is something. She is not really like other children her age (she's about 10) and she's not really like other adults either. She is individual, unique, special. While I did not see myself in each and every bit of Julia Gillian, there was one thing in particular we share. (Or should I say shared.) Julia Gillian is afraid of books with sad endings. Julia Gillian has recently bought a book, a green book, I believe, with a dog on the cover. (As a child, I would have known to avoid it.) When she started the book, all was well. A few chapters in, and Julia has become WORRIED, very WORRIED about the dog in the story. She's afraid that the dog might...dare she say it...DIE in the end. The second she begins to worry, she stops reading. She puts the book aside. But. Julia Gillian can't stop thinking about the book, about the characters. Though she's not spending time with the book anymore, it's still haunting her. Her parents guess this, as do some of her older friends, and for some reason they make her finish the book. (The reason why sounded a bit unbelievable to me.) Can Julia Gillian survive reading a sad book, a sad dog-dying book?

Julia Gillian lives life. She is very, very, very close to her dog, Bigfoot. Her dog is her best, best friend. So it's understandable why she has such a hard time reading the book. Her fear is, in a way, not so much that the fictional dog will die as it is that HER beloved dog will die.

There are several little stories going on in Julia Gillian and the Art of Knowing. I liked how Julia reaches out to a neighborhood girl who is about to start kindergarten. They have two conversations, I believe, but in them we see Julia Gillian at her best.

I definitely enjoyed rereading this one.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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9. Biographies for Young Readers: Dip into the Minds of the Greats

There's a fine art to turning a great life into something digestible for a child. The art lies in finding the essence, an almost haiku-like writing that condenses, getting only the most salient details on the page. Each of the following biographies rises to that fine art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On shelves now.

Source: Borrowed printed copy from library for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Interviews:

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

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

 

 

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11. Where The Rock Splits the Sky (2014)

Where The Rock Splits the Sky. Philip Webb. 2014. Scholastic. 272 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Where The Rock Splits The Sky definitely has a unique and intriguing premise: there has been alien invasion which destroyed the moon and altered life on earth forever. Some areas are more affected than others. There is "the zone" where anything and everything can happen: no natural rules or laws apply. This "zone" is in the new-old west. Yes, this science fiction has a very western feel to it. Outlaws and sheriffs. Horses and Stagecoaches. Of course, modern technology does not work in the zone. The good news, and this novel desperately needs good news, is that the heroine discovers that ALIENS are just as vulnerable INSIDE the zone as un-invaded humans. She doesn't know why, she doesn't particularly care about the why.

Megan, Luis, and Kelly set off into the zone. Technically, Kelly is a friend they pick up in the zone after their official mission has started. But. Kelly is probably the most intriguing character in the novel. I'm not sure she's meant to be. All three join together, but, all three have their own personal agenda. Luis wants revenge, in other words, he wants to kill some aliens. Kelly is looking for answers. Twenty years of her life is missing. She wants to know if any of her family or friends have survived. And Megan, the heroine, wants to find her father. Megan is the leader of the three, she is the one most in-touch with the zone, most sensitive to its strangeness.

Where The Rock Splits the Sky is not my kind of book. I'm allergic to westerns even if there are aliens it seems. I was hoping the science-fiction would overcome that. It didn't quite work for me, but, it might work for you.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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12. Best Selling Kids Series | July 2014

Thanks to World Cup Soccer, the new Magic Tree House book, Soccer on Sunday, has the series on top of The Children’s Book Review’s best selling kids series list.

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13. Hidden Like Anne Frank (2014)

Hidden Like Anne Frank. Marcel Prins. Peter Henk Steenhuis. Translated by Laura Watkinson. Scholastic. 256 pages. [Source: Review copy]

If I had to pick just a few words to describe this Holocaust collection, I would choose the words honest and haunting. Hidden Like Anne Frank is a collection of fourteen true stories of survival. All of these stories are set in the Netherlands during World War II. All focus on children (or teenagers) who hid from the Nazis. Anne Frank is perhaps the most famous hidden child from the war, but unlike Anne Frank, these are the survivor stories, the so-called happy-ending holocaust stories. Before I read the book, I would have considered the fact that they survived through the war enough to make it a happy ending. What I learned was that was not always the case.

What followed was years of tears. A whole lifetime. That war will not be over until I take my last breath. (211, Donald de Marcas)

The fourteen: Rita Degen, Jaap Sitters, Bloeme Emden, Jack Eljon, Rosemary Kahn, Lies Elion, Maurice Meijer, Sieny Kattenburg, Leni de Vries, Benjamin Kosses, Michael Goldsteen, Lowina de Levie, Johan Sanders, and Donald de Marcas.

I liked the fact that these were individual stories. Each writer, each survivor, has their own voice, their own story, their own message. No two stories really read alike. This is as it should be. Readers catch glimpses of what life was like before, during, and after the war.

I found Hidden Like Anne Frank was a book I had to read very slowly. To read more than two or three stories at a time proved too much. This one is not a light read. It is compelling and honest and important. But it is not easy.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

0 Comments on Hidden Like Anne Frank (2014) as of 7/14/2014 10:33:00 AM
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14. Scholastic’s Revenue Grew 2% in 2014, 8% in Q4

Scholastic’s total revenues for fiscal 2014 reached $1.82 billion, representing a 2 percent increase from $1.79 billion in 2013. The company also revealed that its fourth quarter revenues for the year were $549.3 million, up 8 percent from the $506.9 million in revenue that the company brought in during the fourth quarter of 2013.

The company also revealed that its Book Clubs revenue rose 12 percent during 2014 and that its  education technology sales grew by 9 percent during the year.

The publisher expects their momentum to continue into 2015. Here is more from the press release:

In fiscal 2015, Scholastic expects revenue growth and enhanced profitability across the majority of its businesses and channels.  In its children’s book businesses, the Company’s outlook reflects expectations for continued growth in its re-positioned book clubs and increased revenue per fair in its book fairs unit.  Scholastic also expects the recent success of Minecraft to continue, with two additional titles and a boxed set scheduled for release later this year, as well as new titles in many of its bestselling series, like Captain Underpants and Star Wars: Jedi Academy.

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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15. Swift Boys and Me (2014)

The Swift Boys & Me. Kody Keplinger. 2014. Scholastic. 272 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Having read The Swift Boys & Me, I'm not sure the book matches the cover. I think the cover is cute enough, mind you, but The Swift Boys & Me is not exactly a "cute" kind of book. For one thing, this coming-of-age novel is much more serious than you might suppose. I also don't like the fence, though I suppose it might work symbolically to show the new and uncomfortable distance between the heroine, Nola Sutton, and the three Swift brothers (Brian, Canaan, and Kevin). Still. In Nola's subdivision, there is only ONE house with a fenced in yard. All the other houses are fence-free. The children run and play WHEREVER they want, WHENEVER they want throughout the neighborhood. Teddy Ryan is the boy who lives in the fenced-in house. He is the boy in isolation, the boy with no friends.

So. The Swift Boys & Me is a coming-of-age novel. It opens with Nola witnessing something big, though she was clueless at the time. She sees Mr. Swift drive away late one night. She doesn't learn until later that his driving away meant he was LEAVING the family for good. Brian, Canaan, and Kevin react to their dad leaving in different ways. Though none of the ways really includes staying friends with Nola. Kevin, the youngest, stops talking. He blames himself for the last argument. Canaan, after the first forty-eight hours or so, decides that Nola is nothing to him. That he should start hanging out with other boys his age instead. He ends up getting in with a group of boys who thinks it's fun to step on dog's tails and spray paint mailboxes with bad words. And Brian, well, he essentially runs away from home skipping around from friend-to-friend-to-friend. This will be the very first summer that Nola remembers where she is NOT friends with the Swift brothers at all. Do you see why the description "Four friends. One summer." is a bit off?!

So since Nola is NOT friends with Canaan and Kevin and Brian, how does she spend her days?! She spends them working small jobs and hanging out with other neighborhood kids. She discovers that she LIKES spending time with other kids. Even Teddy Ryan. In fact, she might like like him. She also spends her time getting ready for her mom's wedding. She also is preparing to pack up and MOVE neighborhoods.

The Swift Boys & Me is definitely a book about changing and growing up. Nola is essentially preparing to say goodbye to what was. Changing neighborhoods isn't the only change in her future. She'll be starting middle school in the fall. The fact that she is no longer speaking to the Swift brothers (with the slight exception of Kevin who sometimes still comes around though he doesn't really speak) makes the change easier to accept.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

0 Comments on Swift Boys and Me (2014) as of 7/25/2014 12:48:00 AM
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16. Review of the Day: The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On shelves September 30th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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

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

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17. Revolution, by Deborah Wiles | Book Review

Revolution, Deborah Wiles’ second novel in The Sixties Trilogy, sends readers on a journey to Greenwood, Mississippi in the summer of 1964, also known as “Freedom Summer."

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18. Scholastic to Shutter Storia

Scholastic is closing its children’s book platform app Storia in favor of pushing its subscription model reading platform Storia School Edition. Essentially the publisher will no longer be selling eBooks, and will instead offer access to its collection of 2000 books for an annual subscription price that costs $2000 (based on school size). There will also be a family plan available next year.

“With the launch of Storia School Edition on September 1, Scholastic will transition to a streaming model for children’s eBook delivery,” the publisher explained on its website. “The switch to streaming means that eBooks you’ve previously purchased may soon no longer be accessible.You may be able to continue using your eBooks by making sure to open them on a bookshelf at least once by October 15.” (more…)

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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19. Best Selling Picture Books | June 2014

The Children's Book Review's best selling picture book for this month is the gorgeously illustrated picture book from Jon J. Muth, The Three Questions. As per usual, we've also shared our hand selected list of the most popular picture books from the nationwide best selling picture books, as listed by The New York Times.

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20. Best Selling Kids Series | June 2014

Best Selling Books for Kids This month, DK Readers: Star Wars are on top of The Children’s Book Review’s best selling kids series list.

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21. Reread #23 11 Birthdays

11 Birthdays. Wendy Mass. 2009. Scholastic. 267 pages. [Source: Library book]

I am so glad I reread 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass. I had forgotten how lovely this one is. Amanda and Leo share a birthday in June. For ten years, these two kids shared a big birthday party together. For ten years, these two were close friends. But at the tenth birthday party, Amanda overhears Leo's friends asking him WHY he was having a birthday party WITH A GIRL. Leo, wanting to stop the teasing, said something he shouldn't have. He said that he "had" to have a party with Amanda, that he didn't "want" to. Amanda, crushed, fled the party and a great friendship was at an end. The book opens on the day before their eleventh birthday party. For the first time, Amanda and Leo will be having separate parties, for the first time, their classmates, their friends, will have to choose which party to attend. Amanda is not exactly in a happy place when the novel opens...

11 Birthdays is a FUN read about families, friends, and reconciliation. Leo and Amanda celebrate their eleventh birthday eleven times! Yes, Amanda and Leo are caught in a time loop! It will take them working together, speaking together, forgiving one another to break the spell...

I definitely recommend this middle grade novel!

I first reviewed 11 Birthdays in March 2010.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

0 Comments on Reread #23 11 Birthdays as of 6/6/2014 11:49:00 AM
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22. Syracuse School District Distributes Almost 100,000 Books For Summer Reading

A school district in Syracuse New York has plans to send every K-5 student in the district home with a backpack full of 10 books for summer reading. This adds up to 92,910 books. Scholastic donated more than $100,000 in materials to the project and brought out Clifford the Big Red Dog to help distribute the backpacks to the first-graders. Syracuse.com has the story: Scholastic Upstate account executive Bob Webber said Scholastic runs the program in many school districts across the country, but this is the first time the Syracuse district has participated. The district kicked off the program this morning at Salem Hyde Elementary School. Mayor Stephanie Miner spoke to first-graders at the school, urging them to read throughout the summer.

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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23. Finally (2012)

Finally (Willow Falls #2) Wendy Mass. 2010. Scholastic. 304 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Finally is a companion book to Wendy Mass's 11 Birthdays. Both books are set in Willow Falls. Both books feature "the old lady with the duck birthmark on her cheek," Angelina D'Angelo. Both books reveal Angelina's "thing" about birthdays. Did I enjoy Finally as much as I enjoyed 11 Birthdays? Probably not.

Rory Swenson, our heroine, is something. Before she turns twelve, she's a bit on the whining side. She has a list of twenty-two things she wants to do when she turns twelve. Eleven are supposedly big things; eleven are supposedly little things. Because Rory lives in Willow Falls, because Rory catches the attention of a certain old lady, none of the things on her list will go well for her...at all.

Rory truly is unlucky in Finally. All of these unlucky circumstances point back to Angelina in some ways, but not all ways. I have to believe that we still get to know the real Rory in spite of all the misfortune. She happens to learn that she's allergic to certain plant-based cosmetics. Her face swells up in a horrid reaction. She happens to learn that she's allergic to gold when she pierces her ears. Again another allergic reaction. She happens to scratch her eye when trying to get her first pair of contacts out which leads her to having to wear an eye patch until it heals. She happens to do some serious damage to one of her legs while shaving for the first time. She happens to lose her cell phone within ten or fifteen minutes of buying it with her dad. The list goes on and on and on.

Rory's humiliations catch the notice of a certain movie star, a teen celebrity, that, of course, just happens to be filming at her very school in Willow Falls. Thirty extras are needed for the film, and Rory and her friends--some new friends, some old friends--are chosen, of course.

Everything, or almost everything, that happens in Finally is for Rory's ultimate good, or, so we're led to believe. Rory's trials are transforming her life for the better. Her misfortune is bringing new friends into her life. These friendships and relationships are life-changing.

Finally was an entertaining read. In my opinion, the Willow Falls series isn't supposed to be taken seriously as realistic fiction. That was perhaps a little more obvious in 11 Birthdays with the reliving-the-same-day-eleven-times plot. But it's true here as well. The town is far from ordinary, and its citizens are touched--some more than others--by hints of spells, curses, and magic. 

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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24. 13 Gifts (2011)

13 Gifts. (Willow Falls #3) Wendy Mass. 2011. Scholastic. 341 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Tara Brennan is the heroine of Wendy Mass's 13 Gifts. It is a companion novel to 11 Birthdays and Finally. It is set in Willow Falls. Tara's mom and dad were born and raised in Willow Falls. They have moved dozens of times since they got married. Tara is tired, very tired, of all the moving. Tara wishes that she had some place to call her own, to be HOME. After an incident at school involving a stuffed goat in the principal's office, Tara is "sent away" to Willow Falls to live with her aunt, uncle, and cousin. This cousin, Emily, was first introduced in Finally. Emily was Rory's first babysitting job. Tara just happens to be the same age as Rory, Leo, and Amanda. All characters introduced in previous books. The group soon realizes that Tara belongs, that she too has been chosen by Angelina d'Angelo. Tara is given a task, a big task, a can't-handle-it-by-herself task to accomplish by her thirteenth birthday in July. She is to acquire what appears to be completely random items from individuals in the town.

The list:
  • One wicker basket with handles in the shape of hearts
  • One gray wool blanket with two-inch red stripes around the border
  • One brass candlestick in the shape of a fish
  • One large white shawl with the initials ER on the left corner
  • One knife with a black handle inside a red sheath
  • A 2-ounce purple glass bottle with a silver stopper
  • One long strand of pearls with a gold clasp
  • One leather-bound copy of the Bible, black, Book of Genesis repeated twice
  • One wooden key with the words "Made in Willow Falls, 1974" carved in the shank
  • One black steamer trunk with gold latch
  • One violin, silver plating on back reads Sam, 1902
  • One bottle of apple wine, 1925, brewed by Ellerby-Fitzpatrick Brewers
  • One wooden cane, handle shaped like a duck's beak
Tara needs friends; she needs friends who are smart and resourceful and who KNOW Willow Falls. Her new friends have ideas and are more than willing to help her on her quest. In addition, readers meet new characters like David, Connor, and Grace.

I enjoyed 13 Gifts. I liked how Tara's quest was about healing the community and righting past wrongs. I liked that Tara--and readers--were clueless about the bigger task until the very end. I liked spending time in Willow Falls. Readers get to spend more time interacting with residents than in any previous novel. It was fun.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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25. Scholastic Opens Applications For Kids News Press Corps

The Scholastic News Kids Press Corps has opened up the applications process and is accepting submissions from 2014-2015 applicants.

Students aged 10-14 that are interested in journalism and writing are encouraged to apply. The news crew covers stores in all new categories including current events, breaking news and entertainment stories. The stories are featured online, as well as in select print editions of Scholastic Classroom Magazines. Past participants have interviewed politicians, entertainers, authors, scientists and sports stars.

The deadline for applications is September 26, 2014.

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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