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1. El Deafo

eldeafo El DeafoThis week, I was lucky enough to have a thirty-minute window when I could pop into my favorite independent bookstore in Los Angeles. They have a large children’s section on the second floor that I love perusing because they do an excellent job at getting new books.

On one of their displays sat El Deafo by Cece Bell. Intrigued first by the illustration of a superhero bunny and second by the title, my immediate thought was “What is this book about and who is this written for?” As if by fate, a children’s book worker looked up from her task of stocking new books and said “Oh that’s a really cute story. I highly recommend it.” I inquired about the reading level and she said it could be from fourth grade to middle school. Opening it, I was stoked to find out it was a graphic novel. Sold. It may be one of the best impulsive $20 I’ve spent of late.

I read this book in two days. It follows the author’s childhood experiences of being deaf, and specifically highlights her experiences in school. What captured me was the depiction of how people treated her and, since it’s from Cece’s point of view, how she felt. Her emotions come through strongly in the text and illustrations, and made me stop and think about how I treat people even if my intention is good. I connected with Cece’s superhero persona, “El Deafo.” Cece uses El Deafo to imagine the ideal way to handle tough situations, even if that doesn’t play out in real life (something I did as a kid too). What I really loved about this book was how the author depicted her friendships with the other kids (the good and the bad). It reminded me that children can sometimes do really mean things but that most of the time they mean well and can be really amazing friends to each other. It’s a lesson I need to carry for the school year.

Cece’s journey starts at the age of four and ends in fifth grade, so as a fifth grade teacher, I’m very excited to bring this graphic novel to my classroom. I think the students will enjoy this book and learn a lot from it. I believe that it will carry lessons of tolerance and respect for those who are hearing impaired, and prepare my students with tools (Don’t cover your mouth while someone is lip reading! Don’t assume all deaf people can sign!) to create meaningful and comfortable experiences with someone who can’t hear well.

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2. Sinner, by Maggie Stiefvater | Book Review

SINNER is the fourth book in the SHIVER series by Maggie Stiefvater. Fans of the series are treated to a beyond-the-ending look into what happens to two of their favorite characters after the original series ended.

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3. Early Learning recap

Roger martha Early Learning recap

photo by Carolyn Sun

SLJ has posted a report of Martha and my presentation in Ohio last week of what makes  for a good preschool book. Look for Kevin Henkes’ excellent speech from that event on our site on Monday.

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4. The Maze Runner movie review

maze runner poster big The Maze Runner movie reviewI’m a sucker for a good secret. The Maze Runner is all about secrets.

If you’ve read James Dashner’s novel, seeing the Twentieth Century Fox movie (released September 19, 2014) is a completely different experience than it would be if you were new to the story. Instead of wondering how a gaggle of teenaged boys ended up trapped in a clearing surrounded by a constantly changing maze with their memories wiped, you wonder how director Wes Ball will handle all the information that the book gradually reveals.

The movie keeps the essence of the book as well as many of its details; the sense of confusion at the beginning is particularly well-rendered. Most of the significant changes are to elements that worked well in the book but would have been difficult to execute onscreen. Unsurprisingly, since the characters’ minds have been altered, much of the novel takes place on a mental level. Thomas (played by Dylan O’Brien) and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) communicate through telepathy, which doesn’t happen in the movie. In the book, code-breaking plays a bigger role, which might’ve felt dull on film.

But the biggest change is in how the story’s secrets are filtered through Thomas’s mind. Neither the book nor the movie is the sort of post-apocalyptic story whose characters think everything is as it should be because they’ve never seen a better way, though some residents of the Glade are satisfied that the order they’ve established is the only safe option. These characters know that someone is deliberately sending them to the Glade one by one. They just don’t know who or why. If you encounter the story first through the book, you’re likely to spend much of it feeling like questions are being dangled in front of you. Book Thomas has an overwhelming sense that the Glade is familiar and hides this feeling from the other Gladers, which leads to suspicion between them and him. Though the movie Gladers suspect that Thomas holds an important role in their situation, all we hear from Thomas is what he tells them — the secrets he’s keeping from them are not revealed verbally. (The movie forgoes voiceovers and similar devices.) Instead, we see flashes of memory as Thomas sees them, first very briefly and then in more depth when he takes risks to pursue more information. Although these flashes don’t give many details, they do show the setting of Thomas’s memories very early on, giving a major clue as to how everyone arrived in the Glade. Instead of dangling questions, the movie dangles bits of the answers.

A few plot points are eliminated for the sake of pacing, and the ending is structured a little differently, but the general story arc is preserved. So are the important characters’ personalities, with a couple of notable exceptions. First, hardened-but-ultimately-loveable leader Alby (Aml Ameen) is a softie throughout the movie. More importantly, what happened to Teresa? The novel’s only girl in the Glade comes in with useful information and figures out quite a bit, as befits the super-intelligent character she’s meant to be. Movie Teresa still shows up with a note in her hand declaring her to be the last arrival and still remembers Thomas’s name, but most discoveries that are hers in the book come instead from Thomas in the film. As the first Glader to show enough curiosity to bend the rules, Thomas has agency coming out of his ears. The movie could easily have let Teresa keep her more useful lines and still let its main character come off as the hero.

O’Brien and Scodelario play Thomas and Teresa with an appropriate sense of determination, and though some of the Gladers deliver exposition more smoothly than others, the movie is well-cast overall. Blake Cooper is perfect as guileless Chuck.

For a movie whose characters keep saying, “Everything is going to change,” The Maze Runner keeps most of the important things the same.

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5. Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animals’ Lives, by Lola Schaefer | Book Review

This whimsical and educational book combines a love for both animals and numbers, which makes it a great way to get animal lovers excited about math while giving them the opportunity to learn more about the individual animals as well.

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6. 2014 BGHB Fiction Day

Yesterday we gave you web extras on our BGHB Nonfiction Award winners — today we’re honoring the Fiction Award winner and Honorees. Read reviews of smith grasshopper jungle 2014 BGHB Fiction Dayall of the 2014 fiction winners here; see below for more web extras to celebrate them.

The 2014 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction Award winner is Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle (Dutton/Penguin).

boxers saints 2014 BGHB Fiction DayAuthor/illustrator Gene Luen Yang received a BGHB Fiction Honor for Boxers & Saints (First Second/Roaring Brook).

wein rose under fire 2014 BGHB Fiction DayElizabeth Wein received a BGHB Fiction Honor for Rose Under Fire (Hyperion/Disney).

Stay tuned for picture book web extras tomorrow!

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7. Same theme, different level

It’s a new year with new kids! I’m working with the same population, but the way this school deals with the social and emotional components of learning is amazing. With that said, I have a group of 8th graders who are very low-level readers. It was a bit surprising because most of them are articulate and fluent, but it turns out that academically, their language level is quite low.

Right now, I am preparing my literature circles and have been looking through books that hit relevant topics, such as bullying, abuse, and coming of age. Unfortunately, it looks like the books I had last year are a bit too high for this year’s group. Last year, I had a few of my kids read Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and Leila Sales’s This Song Will Save Your Life. Both the boys and the girls were understandably thrilled by the titles and read them avidly. It led to many interesting discussions.

flake skin 199x300 Same theme, different levelWith this year’s group, however, I am not certain about being able to introduce those books. Or at least, I’d have to wait until the end of the year. However, our interests were piqued by another book that addresses the same issue of bullying, but has a lower reading level: The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake. This book centers on Maleeka Madison, a middle-school girl who is the target of widespread bullying. Although the reading level is low, the subject matter is not, and Flake’s way of deftly introducing us to the key characters and issues is both satisfying and quick!

I know there are other books about bullying and peer pressure (many by Jerry Spinelli and Walter Dean Myers), but I think something about Maleeka really resonated with my students. Perhaps they are better able to relate to the context and issues that arise in The Skin I’m In than in the others. Regardless, my students and I are definitely huge fans!

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8. Jimi & Isaac 2a: Keystone Species, by Phil Rink | Dedicated Review

Good friends Jimi and Isaac set off on an oceanic coming-of-age adventure of a lifetime.

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9. Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girls

napoli storm Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girlsI’ve been reading a lot of Jewish-themed books lately (thank you, Sydney Taylor Book Award committee icon smile Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girls ). I just finished Donna Jo Napoli’s very-alternate Noah’s Ark novel Storm about a teenage stowaway who’s saved by two bonobos. Strange and lovely.

To celebrate Rosh Hashanah, here are some recent picture books. Lesléa Newman’s beautiful Here Is the World, illustrated by Susan Gall, is a lyrical, kid-friendly survey of Jewish holidays throughout the seasons.The sweet and rollicking Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt, begins (and ends, the following year) on Rosh Hashanah. You’ll never look at holiday sweaters the same way again.

newman here is the world Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girls    mcginty rabbibenjamin Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girls   
More recommendations from past years, courtesy of The Horn Book Guide:

cohen engineerari Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girlsCohen, Deborah Bodin Engineer Ari and the Rosh Hashanah Ride
32 pp. Kar-Ben 2008. ISBN 978-0-8225-8648-7

Gr. K-3 Illustrated by Shahar Kober. In 1892, Ari is chosen to drive the first train from Jaffa to Jersusalem at Rosh Hashanah. In his excitement and pride, he ignores two friends, which he later regrets. Ari returns to Jaffa as soon as possible to do teshuvah, the annual New Year’s effort to do better. Cheerful illustrations accompany the pleasant but didactic text. With an author’s note. Glos.

greene secretshofar Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girlsGreene, Jacqueline Dembar The Secret Shofar of Barcelona
32 pp. Kar-Ben 2009. ISBN 978-0-8225-9915-9
PE ISBN 978-0-8225-9944-9

Gr. K-3 Illustrated by Doug Chayka. Rafael and his orchestra conductor father live as conversos (Jews who practice their faith in secret) in sixteenth-century Barcelona. The text describes how Rafael manages to blow the shofar for Rosh Hashanah right under the city leaders’ noses. The story is intriguing, but the telling is a little stiff. Well-composed gold-hued paintings illustrate the tale. An author’s note gives more information.

heiligman celebrate rosh large Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girlsHeiligman, Deborah Celebrate Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur
32 pp. National 2007. ISBN 978-1-4263-0076-9
LE ISBN 978-1-4263-0077-6

Gr. K-3 Holidays around the World series. Heiligman’s writing evokes respect for religious traditions while making them accessible to children. Her use of the inclusive “we” will encourage readers to embrace their own traditions or imagine themselves in less familiar ones. Festive photographs from around the world reinforce the unifying effect of the holidays. Additional facts, a recipe, a map, and a one-page essay about the holidays are appended. Reading list, websites. Glos.

jules whataway Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girlsJules, Jacqueline What a Way to Start a New Year!: A Rosh Hashanah Story
24 pp. Kar-Ben 2013. ISBN 978-0-7613-8116-7
PE ISBN 978-0-7613-8117-4

Gr. K-3 Illustrated by Judy Stead. A series of accidents prevents Dina and her family, who’ve just moved, from celebrating Rosh Hashanah with their former neighbors. Luckily, a new family invites them to dinner after services, making them feel welcome. The be-nice-to-your-neighbor message, reinforced by friendly illustrations, isn’t subtle; kids may enjoy reciting the book’s exasperated refrain (also the title). An explanation of the holiday is included.

perez evenHigher Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girlsKimmel, Eric A. Even Higher!: A Rosh Hashanah Story by I. L. Peretz
32 pp. Holiday 2009. ISBN 978-0-8234-2020-9

Gr. K-3 Illustrated by Jill Weber. Where does the rabbi disappear to during the days before Rosh Hashanah? His congregants think he visits heaven to intercede for them with God. When a skeptic comes to town, he follows the rabbi and learns of his true (earthly) good deeds. Kimmel’s lively adaptation of the I. L. Peretz tale is well matched by Weber’s spirited, child-friendly mixed-media illustrations.

kropf.itsshofar Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girlsKropf, Latifa Berry It’s Shofar Time!
24 pp. Kar-Ben 2006. LE ISBN 1-58013-158-1

PS Photographs by Tod Cohen. Clear color photos of preschoolers celebrating Rosh Hashanah are accompanied by simple, large-type descriptions of holiday essentials and related New Year fun. One caveat–any preschooler would find it almost impossible to blow the very long shofar pictured. This book is one of a series of photo-essays about Jewish holidays.

taliaand Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girlsMarshall, Linda Elovtiz Talia and the Rude Vegetables
24 pp. Kar-Ben 2011. ISBN 978-0-7613-5217-4
PE ISBN 978-0-7613-5218-1

Gr. K-3 Illustrated by Francesca Assirelli. Talia is confounded by her grandmother’s request for some “rude vegetables” (carrots, turnips, potatoes, etc.) for the Rosh Hashanah stew. While digging up an “ornery onion” and “garish garlic,” she thinks about her own behavior; all ends with holiday sweetness. The joke goes on a little long, but the end is rewarding. Autumnal colors and rounded shapes evoke comfortable family scenes.

 Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girlsOfanansky, Allison What’s the Buzz?: Honey for a Sweet New Year
32 pp. Kar-Ben 2011. LE ISBN 978-0-7613-5640-0

Gr. K-3 Photographs by Eliyahu Alpern. A group of students visit an Israeli bee farm and learn about how honey is made, just in time for Rosh Hashanah. Sharp color photographs against autumn-hued backdrops show the children enjoying the day. The text, though bland, delivers copious facts about bees and honey, which may be interesting to Jewish children preparing for the holiday. “Fun Facts” are appended.

silverman whenchickensstrike 246x300 Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girlsSilverman, Erica When the Chickens Went on Strike: A Rosh Hashanah Tale
32 pp. Dutton 2003. ISBN 0-525-46862-5

Gr. K-3 Illustrated by Matthew Trueman. Silverman adapts a tale by Sholom Aleichem, best known for his Tevye the Milkman stories. A young boy explains the custom of making Kapores — waving a chicken over one’s head to get rid of one’s sins — and recalls the year the chickens went on strike. Trueman’s comically angry chickens aptly reflect the humor of the tale. The rich, dark colors of his mixed-media paintings evoke the Old World setting.

newyearatthepier Blowing the shofar for fine books for boys and girlsWayland, April Halprin New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story
32 pp. Dial 2009. ISBN 978-0-8037-3279-7

Gr. K-3 Illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch. Izzy loves Tashlich, a Rosh Hashanah ceremony during which people apologize to those they’ve wronged then throw bread into the water to symbolize cleansing. Izzy has four apologies to make and is pleased when others apologize to him. The story’s educational aspects are handled with a light touch, a style reinforced by the loosely drawn pen-and-ink, watercolor, and gouache illustrations.

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10. 2014 BGHB Nonfiction Day

September Nonfiction Notes comes out today, and in this issue we’re highlighting our 2014 BGHB Nonfiction Award winner and honor books. You can read it online or sign up if you’re not already subscribed. Read reviews of all of the 2014 nonfiction winners here; see below for a lot more web extras to celebrate them.

sheinkin port chicago 50 2014 BGHB Nonfiction DayThe 2014 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Award winner is Steve Sheinkin’s The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights (Roaring Book).

jenkins animal book 2014 BGHB Nonfiction DaySteve Jenkins received a BGHB Nonfiction Honor for The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest — and Most Surprising — Animals on Earth (Houghton).

powell josephine 2014 BGHB Nonfiction DayAuthor Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrator Christian Robinson received a BGHB Nonfiction Honor for their biography Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle).

For more on children’s nonfiction, check out these articles from The Horn Book:

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11. The Pilot and the Little Prince

sis pilot and the little prince The Pilot and the Little PrinceThis is a hard post to write. I love Peter Sis’s work, and his latest book, The Pilot and the Little Prince, is getting lots of starred reviews, but I’m having trouble jumping on that bandwagon.

Most of my issues with this book wouldn’t fly in a real Caldecott committee discussion. The art is gorgeous and thought-provoking, but I don’t love the text. As you know, the committee is only allowed to compare books to other titles published the same year. This one might stack up well against other 2014 picture book biographies, but I just don’t think it’s as good as Sis’s previous books.

Let me get the non-valid stuff over with in this paragraph so we can get on to what the committee would be talking about. The Pilot and the Little Prince follows a format very similar to The Tree of Life, Sis’s biography of Charles Darwin. But  Tree had a clear reason for its three distinct narrative threads and provided insight into what made Darwin tick. Pilot‘s structure is less clear and doesn’t go into much detail about who Saint-Exupery was on the inside. Given the title of this book, I was hoping to learn more about what led to his writing the extraordinary and mysterious Little Prince. Instead, I don’t feel as if I know Sis’s subject any better than I did after reading Saint-Exupery’s Wikipedia entry.

Phew, that’s done.

What the committee CAN discuss about this book is the art and how it works as a whole with the rest of the book’s elements. Sis never takes the easy path. His pointillist style allows him to include myriad small details and references. As a designer, I know how hard it is to put so many images and ideas together on one spread and end up with something balanced and harmonious rather than busy and dissonant.

For example, look at the first spread in the book. We see two small circles showing young Antoine: on the left he is in bed being read to by his mother and on the right he’s a bit older reading by himself. Surrounding these circles we see what he imagines as he absorbs these stories. How do we know that’s what we are seeing? The text doesn’t tell us that the central circles are fact and the surroundings are imagination. It reads, “It was an exciting time of discovery in the world. Things people had only dreamed about were being invented — including flying machines.”

There is a LOT going on in this spread, but the circles showing Antoine use cool colors surrounded with a nearly white background, egg-like. Everything else is warm: red, orange, yellow. There is so much to look at here. I see references to works by Jules Verne and early filmmaker George Melies, both active at the time of Saint-Exupery’s birth and likely to have fueled young Antoine’s interest in flying. There are lots of other references that undoubtedly mean something. I understand the elephant under the hat (from The Little Prince, of course), and Icarus, and the Pterodactyl. But what about the big face in the center that seems to be part of the land? It’s repeated later in a wordless spread after Antoine has started to fly. What does it mean? I like that this book is smarter than I am. There are so many reasons to keep looking and thinking.

I love nearly every visual choice Sis makes in this book. I would love to hear your theories about one choice that I don’t understand. Early in the book, Sis uses negative space to illustrate people in Saint-Exupery’s life who have died. We see his father, who died when he was four, as a white silhouette against a stark landscape and later see his brother and sister, who died in 1917 and 1926, the same way. So what does it mean when Saint-Exupery is shown as a large white silhouette against a map of Paris? Is this foreshadowing? But why on this particular spread? Or is it just a way of designing this spread that doesn’t have anything to do with the visual language he set up earlier?

I think the real committee is likely to spend a lot of time discussing this book. As it should. And as we should right now.

 

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12. Cause to celebrate?

stormcenter Cause to celebrate?If it’s time for Banned Books Week it’s also time for my annual bucket ‘o scorn for ALA’s  cynical exercise in spin. Like Bette Davis in Storm Center, “I’m tired. I’m tired and beaten. There’s no use pretending.” Now Davis, playing a beleaguered librarian trying to uphold the freedom to read in McCarthy’s America, was truly fighting the good fight (too bad she didn’t have a good script, though; the young boy driven mad by Red-baiters and setting fire to the library was a Bit Much). ALA, on the other hand, has simply set up its usual straw men in the form of its dramatic list of “top ten most frequently challenged books.” (The Association recorded 307 challenges in all but does not say how many challenges each book had.)

What bothers me most is the conflation of “banned” and “challenged.” Banned means the book has been removed from a library (or restricted therein), or–and less definitively to my mind–from a required or suggested reading list. Challenged means a citizen or group has ASKED a library in a “formal, written complaint” to restrict or remove a book from a library (or from a required or suggested reading list). There’s a big difference. Wouldn’t you like to know how many of these challenges resulted in banning? Beyond anecdotal evidence about some of them, ALA doesn’t tell us.

These “formal, written complaints” are generally done at the library’s behest on a form issued by that library as directed by its collection policy. Why do we get so bent out of shape when people actually use it? The answer is–and here’s the cynical part–that we don’t get bent out of shape at all, instead using these challenges to revel in our sense of cultural superiority and to raise a fund-raising alarum. No wonder ALA finds book banning something to “celebrate.”

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13. The kid-friendly, kid-maintainable classroom library

If you’re a teacher reading this blog, you likely devote significant attention to carefully selecting literature to add to your classroom library. And, if you’re like me, you want your students to have access to these books, but also to not spend hours after school reorganizing and looking for titles that have mysteriously disappeared. Last year, I found a solution to keeping my classroom library well-stocked and maintainable, but before I share it, let me explain the rationale behind it.

When I was in elementary school, there were always books out on display in my classrooms, but there were also many, many titles hidden away in cupboards and closets that my teachers would search through after exclaiming, “Have I got just the book for you!” This practice always struck me as odd and restrictive — I loved going to the library precisely because the number of titles was overwhelming and it seemed that there were treasures to discover as I explored the shelves.

In my own classroom, I am committed to making sure that my students have constant access to as many titles as possible. However, it is essential to me that the books can remain organized without much effort from me — which is something of a challenge when you work with second graders.

The solution that I’ve come up with for my own classroom library is pretty simple. I started by drawing up a list of categories into which I could sort all of the books in my classroom library. Current categories include biographies, world cultures, biology and chemistry, and, my favorite, “Books Miss Hewes loves.” Next, I assigned each category a specific color-code, using dot and star stickers. For example, biographies have a yellow dot with a green star, while easy readers have just a silver star. Then, I bought bins and clearly labeled them with the proper codes and category names.

photo 1 e1409716191871 500x375 The kid friendly, kid maintainable classroom library

photo 2 e1409716078349 375x500 The kid friendly, kid maintainable classroom library

The next step was the most labor-intensive — putting the proper labels on each and every book in my library. While I was doing this, I also used the free tools available at Book Source to create a digital catalog of my library, which came in handy during the year as I wondered whether or not I actually had a certain book. (You can check out the organizer at  http://classroom.booksource.com/). Finally, after labeling the books, I put them into the appropriate bins and then put all of the bins on display in my classroom.

photo 3 e1409715975770 375x500 The kid friendly, kid maintainable classroom library

photo 4 e1409716039837 375x500 The kid friendly, kid maintainable classroom library

This system proved to be an overwhelming success last year. It allowed me to saturate my students in books without needing to go find a perfect book that I have tucked away somewhere in my room. Additionally, when I looked through the bins over the summer to check on them — something I faced with trepidation after having seen my students’ cubby area — I only found four books out of place. Most importantly, I am confident that my students found books to treasure as they independently navigated the bins — something I hope helped steer them towards becoming lifelong readers.

photo5 500x375 The kid friendly, kid maintainable classroom library

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14. Strong Female Characters in Dystopian Worlds

I want to talk about strong female characters in dystopian worlds, but right off the bat, I’m going to be difficult and say, “Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. What do we mean by strong exactly?”

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15. Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems

Before we start chatting about specific 2014 picture books, take a moment to read the Caldecott criteria. They’re posted over there on the right, but I will help you find the important parts. Here they are, in part:

In identifying a “distinguished American picture book for children,” defined as illustration, committee members need to consider:
  1. Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
  2. Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
  3. Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
  4. Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
  5. Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.

Tattoo those categories onto the inside of your eyelids so you will understand why, when we talk about books, we stick to the same points over and over. We have to. The committee discusses all books in light of the published criteria, and the chair keeps everyone close to these five main ideas. 

janeczko firefly july2 Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems It’s tricky to start our discussion this year with a collection of poems, because it brings up the age-old question of whether this is a picture book or an illustrated book. I refer you to the definitions. Let’s just agree (for the moment, at least) that this fits the definition of a picture book as it is essentially a visual experience. Feel free to say otherwise in the comments. That’s just not where I want to go at the moment.

This handsome volume presents 8 to 10 poems per season and, just as the subtitle says (“A Year of Very Short Poems”), each poem is very short. This gives the volume a clear arc and allows the illustrations to gently explore how color and line might change over the course of a year, as the seasons unfold. The paper cover and the case cover are the same, and the endpapers are a lovely muted blue. Though I am generally a fan of flashy endpapers, it makes sense that these are calm, given the energy that illustrator Melissa Sweet brings to each spread.

Spring is the first season, and the first page is a celebration of spring things, including a robin, which I love. There are also daffodils and other early-spring bulbs blooming. The small poems march on, but it is the illustrations that hold them together. As we move to summer, the Langston Hughes poem “Subway Rush Hour” is made summery by the bouquet of daisies that accompanies it. Summer moves on and the colors change as the leaves fall. The transition is seamless; indeed, the divisions between the seasons are subtle and easy to miss, much like the artificial dates on the calendar that mark the change. By wintertime, the hues have completely changed–darkened by the lack of sun, yet whitened by the presence of snow.

Sweet’s art, a joyous combination of watercolor, gouache, and mixed-media collage, tells each poem’s story while allowing the young reader to consider each poem for herself. Her use of color and line build each illustration, sometimes joining two poems (such as” Fog” and “Uses for Fog”) together on a double-page spread, other times allowing the gutter to divide the scenes. The art is completely appropriate to the collection; indeed, it’s her illustrations that make these poems accessible to the child audience (and here the audience could be as young as 3 and as old as an appreciative adult). The mood is set by the illustrations, and Sweet does not bore the reader with trite homages to each season–she requires the reader to look deeper at each spread and think about the connection to the words.

I just looked up the part of the definitions about the term “distinguished,” and here that is:

  1. “Distinguished” is defined as:
    1. Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
    2. Marked by excellence in quality.
    3. Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
    4. Individually distinct.

Most of the books we will talk about this fall and winter are distinguished, and this one certainly is. Each spread is filled with emotion and care, with design meshing seamlessly with color and line. There are many places to look, but it never looks busy or overdone, as each page turn creates its own little world.

Though the real committee can (and will) compare this book to Sweet’s other 2014 title (The Right Word), I have found it difficult to do that in a single blog post. So, feel free to compare if you wish, but know that Martha will be talking about that one soon. For me, I cannot choose between these two very special books. Perhaps Sweet will “pull a Klassen” and receive two phone calls from Chicago in January.

 

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16. Twelve Dancing Unicorns, by Alissa Heyman | Book Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of Twelve Dancing Unicorns, written by Alissa Heyman and illustrated by Justin Gerard. Giveaway begins September 21, 2014, at 12:01 A.M. PST and ends October 20, 2014, at 11:59 P.M. PST.

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17. Fantasy League, by Mike Lupica | Book Spotlight

Twelve-year-old Charlie is a fantasy football guru. He may be just a bench warmer for his school's football team, but when it comes to knowing and loving the game, he's first-string.

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18. If I Stay movie review

if i stay movie poster If I Stay movie reviewSo, I saw that movie based on a YA novel about teens in love who are faced with questions of life and death. No, not that one, at least not most recently. I’m talking about the New Line Cinema/MGM adaptation of Gayle Forman’s 2009 novel If I Stay, directed by R. J. Cutler and released August 22, 2014. (Warning: If you stay with this post, you’ll find some major spoilers.)

When I went looking for a viewing companion, the premise produced shudders from more than one friend. For the uninitiated, the title refers to seventeen-year-old Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz)’s wrenching decision to go on living — or not — as she observes her comatose body after a car accident that left her critically injured and the rest of her family even worse.

In case you haven’t noticed, YA movies are hot these days, and studios seem to get that the books are hot, too. Like The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, and other recent movies based on YA novels, this one keeps its story very close to the original text. Mia’s cello playing is important in the book, and so it’s important in the movie, too, even though it’s not as “Hollywood” as her boyfriend Adam’s (Jamie Blackley) rock band.

If I Stay is a cinematically paced book, which helps. Forman alternates between scenes of Mia’s pre-accident life and the post-accident drama. This structure saves both the book and the movie from long strings of hospital scenes and breaks up the emotional intensity with happier moments that increase our emotional investment in these characters. Mia’s rocker parents, affably performed by Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard, and little brother Teddy, played by a sincere Jakob Davies, are simply fun and lovable characters; we want to spend time with them and understand why Mia does, too.

Though the movie mostly adopts the book’s pacing, it does make a few significant tweaks. In the book, Mia and the reader find out very quickly (and slightly more graphically) that both parents have died. The movie ratchets up tension by revealing her mother’s death later and having her father live long enough to arrive at the hospital. The change creates more reasons to keep watching the hospital scenes: Mia has hope for her family early on, and viewers who haven’t read the book (or, well, seen the trailer) might be on the edge of their seats. Teddy’s death comes later in both the book and the movie — but as movie-Mia stays in the same hospital instead of being helicoptered out, she finds out much more directly and it’s more of a defining moment.

If you thought Mia and Adam’s undying-unless-she-goes-to-Julliard love was a little cheesy in the book, you’ll find the same goops of cheddar in the movie. But neither book nor movie pretends their relationship is perfect, and the movie makes their conflict harsher but bases it on the same issues. Although the ending is essentially the same, Adam’s promises leading up to it manage to make the love story more sentimental. (These changes in Mia and Adam’s relationship also make it seem less likely that the studio plans to film the 2011 book sequel, Where She Went.)

Just like that other tear-jerking YA movie about love and mortality, this one emphasizes the choices its characters get to make. Even before Mia must decide whether to live, she’s deciding what to do with her life. Maybe that’s what so many teens like about these kinds of stories. Teens are at a time in their lives when even ordinary decisions start to have higher stakes. There’s something validating about stories that acknowledge that, in some cases, a teenage life is an entire life, and maybe something reassuring about seeing teens confronted with questions so big that choices about school and relationships seem lighter.

Yes, these tragic tales show that some things are beyond teens’ control, but they also make it clear that some things aren’t.

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19. Five Family Favorites with Salina Yoon, Author of Penguin and Pumpkin

SALINA YOON is the award-winning author/illustrator of nearly 200 books for children. Check out which picture books are her family's favorites!

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20. Books that inspire community

Lately — and by accident — I’ve been reading Spanish versions of many French-authored children’s picture books. For some reason, most of the books I’ve recently bought from bookstores in Lima and Buenos Aires to use for storytelling in Spanish were translated from French authors. I didn’t realize it at the time, but once I started to read them together I realized that they shared a strong message about the “we” instead of the “me.”

pedro y la luna Books that inspire communityThis prompted an informal search for other books that would have the same underlining message. For example, Pedro y la Luna by Alice Brière-Hacquet and Célia Chauffrey is about a boy who wants to bring the moon to his mom. To do so, he has to involve his entire community and beyond. Then there is the Portuguese story O Grande Rabanete by Tatiana Belinky. In it, a grandfather decides to plant radishes and progressively needs help with the harvest because of the radishes’ large size.

 Books that inspire communityI then tried to think about other books that send the message of doing things together for a common cause and couldn’t think of many other than the classic stories “The Pied piper of Hamelin” and “The Little Red Hen.” In the 1990s there was The Rainbow Fish by Swiss author-illustrator Marcus Pfister. A fish with the shiniest scales in the sea refuses to share his wealth and then becomes lonely. He rediscovers community only once he shares his scales. And of course, there is also The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, a book published in 1971 that depicts what happens to a verdant land when the “Once-ler” chops down all the truffula trees and drives the (Seussian) animals away. The last hope to rebuild the environment — and the community — is for a boy to plant the last remaining truffula tree seed.

shannon nodavid 224x300 Books that inspire communitySo much of children’s literature, especially today, is about common things that happen to kids, such as the boy a lost his bear and found it swapped in the forest in Where’s My Teddy? by Jez Alborough, or the boy who misbehaves with his mom in No, David! by David Shannon, or the classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, no Good Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. The list is endless.

All this made me think about the often repeated phrase, “literature is life.” So, are these books a reflection of our society? Are children’s books in other societies a reflection of a more “communal” (we) society instead of a more self-centered (me) society? Or is it that younger children relate better to stories that have more of a personal narrative tone? Can anybody think about books that transmit this message in their original languages?

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21. Does one size fit all?

Stephenson t CA0 popup1 Does one size fit all?

illus. by André da Loba from the New York Times

Leonard Marcus gave a swell talk about Robert McCloskey last night, but what’s really sticking with me is a response he gave to a question at the end about ebooks. Size matters, he essentially said, when it comes to picture books and other books for young children. Of course, we all know this, but I hadn’t thought about the point in the context where Leonard was placing it, that the size and shape of whatever ebook you’re reading is subsumed by the size and shape of whatever screen you’re reading it on. The difference between the board book, picture book and big book editions of Goodnight, Gorilla disappears in your e-reader edition (which–I just tried it–is a disappointing experience indeed). I’m thinking I may need to gin up a jeremiad for our Cleveland presentation on Friday.

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22. #we need diverse (picture) books

little melba 300x248 #we need diverse (picture) booksOf course we do. Last year’s amazing crop of picture books included those illustrated by artists of color such as Yuyi Morales, Brian Pinkney, Jerry Pinkney, Angela Dominguez, Bryan Collier, Don Tate, and Kadir Nelson. This year we will see picture books illustrated by Christian Robinson (two of ‘em), Yuyi Morales, Raul Colon, Duncan Tonatiuh, Jason Chin, Susan Guevara, E.B. Lewis, Kadir Nelson, John Holyfield, Pat Cummings, James Ransome….and Christopher Myers and Frank Morrison….and more? I’m not even counting the many international artists who aren’t eligible for the Caldecott. (And my off-the-cuff list also doesn’t take into consideration books like Grandfather Gandhi, not illustrated by a person of color, but featuring diverse characters.)

I don’t know if it’s the raised awareness surrounding last spring’s #weneeddiversebooks campaign or whether in truth the numbers are growing, but it feels like there is a tiny bit more representation this year, at least among the books I’ve seen, and certainly among the ones that are currently rising toward the top of my admire-it pile: Josephine; Draw!; Viva Frida; Separate Is Never Equal; Little Roja Riding Hood. More women, more illustrators of color — although the numbers for that particular overlap are still insupportably low. And although, of course, we still have a lonnnng way to go.

It somehow feels too tentative to make any pronouncements. I think Sam Bloom summed up my cautious optimism in his comment on Robin’s Monday post:

“Of course, this brings me to the single biggest issue I see in the picture book world, which has definitely been publicized well of late: the need for more diverse characters. Of course, there are comparatively few authors/illustrators of color to begin with, another well-known fact. It seems to be getting a bit better – I’ve noticed quite a few REALLY strong books by or about people of color this year – but I wonder if it truly IS better, or maybe it’s just the fact that I’m paying close attention to the situation so it seems like more.”

What are you seeing? Are you sensing some movement toward more diversity in this year’s picture books? Does anyone have any numbers to back up (or refute) my admittedly highly anecdotal experience? Equally crucially — is the actual Caldecott committee noticing the strength and award-worthiness of these titles?

 

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23. Marla Frazee, wipe that smile off your face!

The story below is one reason we love Marla Frazee. Find out many more by reading her Talks with Roger interview.

I was once a clown, in high school. A bunch of us were nominated to be on the homecoming court — twenty-five or thirty people — and I did not want to be one of those. Not interested in that at all. There was this assembly — we were supposed to appear before the entire student body — so I wore this head-to-toe clown costume. Full-on, with the ruffle and the big shoes and the red nose. I worked on the makeup for a really long time. I drove to school in my ’67 Mustang, smoking a cigarette, and then I had to hide before the assembly because we weren’t allowed to wear costumes to school. So the curtains opened and we were all there, introduced to the students, and then as I was walking off the stage in the dark, I felt this hand grip my upper arm. It was the girls’ vice principal, who hauled me outside, walking me to her office. I’m slapping in my clown shoes, you know. She’s saying to me, as we’re walking side by side, “How dare you disrespect the school this way? How dare you disrespect” the whole homecoming-whatever-it-was. And then she wheels me around and stares at me and goes, “Wipe that smile off your face.” I’m laughing behind this smile. It took me about forty years — I don’t know if there’s something in this book [The Farmer and the Clown] about that, the “Wipe that smile off your face” line, but it definitely has stayed with me my whole life.

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

talkswithroger header Marla Frazee, wipe that smile off your face!

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24. Blasting the canon

As a new English department chair, I’ve already been faced with decisions about book orders. Our high school opened in 2007, but our middle school just opened with a sixth grade class last year. This means it was time for us to create a seventh grade curriculum.

I believe in leadership through structured freedom, so I decided that I would create a list of texts and let the seventh grade English teacher select the books she wanted to use for her class. My instinct, like usual, was to turn to Google. I searched terms such as “books all middle schoolers should read,” “classic literature for middle school,” and “best seventh grade texts.” I scoured random syllabi and reading lists from all over the country.

Though there was variation, by and large the books I kept coming across could be considered part of the literary canon. You could probably guess several of them, and chances are you read many of them if you attended middle school in this country over the last century.

I know I have a habit of blogging about old questions, but here I am with another: how important is it that our students read canonical works?

Do our West Philly middle and high schoolers really need to study Red Badge of Courage or Call of the Wild? Why not The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, or Copper Sun by Sharon Draper?

crane redbadgecourage2 225x300 120x160 Blasting the canon     london callofwild 197x300 105x160 Blasting the canon

graveyard book 107x160 Blasting the canon     yang americanbornchinese 204x300 108x160 Blasting the canon     draper coppersun 198x300 105x160 Blasting the canon

I’m not saying that the newer texts are better. Some are. Some aren’t. However, I do think that many of us—especially those of us in the position to put books in front of kids—need to question our unquestioning allegiance to the “classics.”

I suppose there are two arguments in their defense: 1. These books represent the very best writing in the English language; 2. Students will gain cultural capital from familiarity with these stories.

Yet, neither of these sway me.

I think it’s more accurate to say the canonical works used to represent some the best writing, but times change. Great books are published every year, whether or not they end up on some school’s curriculum or a bestseller list.

As for the cultural capital argument, that seems to me just a straight fallacy. The true value of a book comes not from the power to impress others but from whatever that book impresses upon its reader.

So instead of automatically turning to the canon because of faulty assumptions, let’s trust ourselves to find stories that will speak to our children.

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25. The Thing About Being a Debut Author

JENNIFER LONGO holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Theater from Humboldt State University. She credits her lifelong flair for drama to parents who did things like buy the town graveyard and put their kids to work in it-because how hilarious would that be?

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