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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Best Books of 2011, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 33
1. Review of the Day: Toys Come Home by Emily Jenkins

Toys Come Home: Being the Early Experiences of an Intelligent Stingray, a Brave Buffalo, and a Brand-New Someone Called Plastic
By Emily Jenkins
Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
Schwartz & Wade
ISBN: 978-0-375-86200-7
Ages 5-10
On shelves now

I’m feeling tetchy. Let’s set out some rules when it comes to prequels of children’s books then. Number One: You are allowed to write a prequel if you wrote the original book in the first place. Um . . . . okay, that’s all I can think of off the top of my head. But it’s a good rule in general, don’t you think? Follow that rule and you won’t have to deal with seeing Anne before she came to Green Gables or speculate as to how Captain Hook got to be so mean. Not that every author should consider writing a prequel, mind. I’m sure Harry Potter fans would love to see what capers his parents got up to in school, but then we’d probably have to deal with a How Edward Cullen Became a Vampire novel, and that’s a road I’d rather not tread. All this is to say that if you have to write a prequel to a popular children’s book, it needs to make a certain amount of sense. Fortunately for all of us Toys Come Home makes oodles of caboodles of strudels of noodles of sense. Over the years children have asked Ms. Jenkins how Sheep lost her ear. Now that and a host of other questions (including some remarkably huge ones) are answered at long last.

How do special toys become beloved? Not in the ways you might imagine. StingRay, the stuffed sting ray, arrived too late to be a birthday present at The Girl’s party. Faced with not being The Girl’s favorite present she put up with the insufferable Bobby Dot (a walrus who wasn’t very nice) until after helping rescue the Sheep and facing her fear of towels, she managed to become worthy of snuggling and cuddling on the high bed. Lumphy, the toughy little buffalo, was plucked from a bin full of teddies, proving his valor soon thereafter with a particularly energetic kitten. And Plastic’s sheer energy and curiosity about the world leads the others to ask the ultimate question. Literally. In this way, we get to see how the characters of Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party came to be who they are.

I have never, in all my live long days, seen an author recall the trauma that comes when a child throws up on their favorite toy better than Ms. Jenkins. It’s sort of a two-part trauma. The first part is the sudden disgusting nature of your once beloved companion and the second is what happens when they go through the wash. Jenkins doesn’t dwell too heavily on the death of toys (just the nature of existence itself, but more on that later) but it’s there and it’s r

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2. Best Books of 2011

I have never done a Best Books list, mainly because although I absolutely love to read these types of lists, I generally have a hard time choosing ten favorites from a given year.  I read so much, but for me to put a book on a BEST list, it had better be damn good. And some years, as much as I read, I don't read ten great books. Let's see if I make it to ten for 2011. My favorites, in no particular order:

LegendMarie Lu's smart, fast-paced addition to the dystopia coterie begs for a sequel. Violent and bloody, Legend is an in-your-face commentary on how the chasm between the haves and the have-nots in our society continues to expand.





The magician kingNot a YA novel, but I'm pretty sure The Magician King, the sequel to Grossman's The Magicians will show up on a lot of high school reading lists. It's Harry Potter for grown-ups, wizardry with humor and intellect. Completely unpredictable and totally original. I loved it.




Delirium-book-coverOf the spate of dystopian novels from this post- Hunger Games YA literary landscape, Delirium stands out. Sure, it's set up for a sequel, but that won't interfere with your enjoyment of this story. Is a life without love a life at all? Delirium is a perfect read for those who grew up reading The Giver and now want a YA experience.





Bookcover.phpMiss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a creepy, weird, atmospheric book. I love the harsh and hearty Welsh island setting.  The odd, quirky characters remind me of a kids' version of Twin Peaks. I think the use of the old photographs is a little gimicky, and sometimes, author Ransom Rigg seems more enamored of the photos than how they actually f

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3. Review of the Day: The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett

The Princess and the Pig
By Jonathan Emmett
Illustrated by Poly Bernatene
Walker & Co. (a division of Bloomsbury)
ISBN: 978-0-8027-2334-5
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

The princess craze is a relatively new phenomenon. I’m sure that little girls have pretended to be princesses for as long as the occupation has existed, but the current concentrated capitalization on that desire has taken the obsession to a whole other level. You can’t enter a toy department these days without being bombarded with the idea that every little girl should wear pink, frilly, sparkly costumes and woe betide the child that might prefer a good unadorned set of overalls instead. Naturally, all this sank into the world of picture books after a while. Stories like The Paper Bag Princess were now being ignored while the latest pink monstrosity would suck up all the attention. So you can probably understand why I was a little reluctant to pick up The Princess and the Pig at first. My first instinct was to just throw it on the pile with the rest of the princessey fare. Fortunately, I heard some low-key buzz about the book, making it clear that there might be something worthwhile going on here. Thank goodness I did too. Ladies and gentlemen, two men have come together and somehow produced a book that thumbs its nose at the notion of a little girl wanting to be a princess. In fact, when it comes right down to it, this is a tale about how sometimes it’s difficult to tell the royalty from the swine. Now that’s a lesson I can get behind!

The day the queen didn’t notice that she dropped her baby daughter off of the castle’s battlements could have been horrific. Instead, it led to a case of switched identities. When a kindly farmer parks his cart beneath a castle so as to take a break, he doesn’t notice when a flying baby lands in the cart and launches upward the cart’s former inhabitant, baby piglet. The piglet lands in the baby’s bassinet and the queen, seeing a change in her daughter, is convinced that an evil fairy must be to blame. Meanwhile the baby, dubbed Pigmella, is promptly adopted by the kindly farmer and his wife. She grows up to love her life while Princess Priscilla, a particularly porcine royal, pretty much just acts like a pig. Years later the farmer and his wife figure out the switcheroo but when they attempt to right a great wrong they are rebuffed by the haughty royals. So it is that Pigmella gets to marry a peasant and avoid the chains of royalty while Priscilla has a wedding of her own . . . poor handsome prince.

Normally I exhibit a strong aversion to self-referential fairy tales. You know the ones I mean. The kinds of stories that act like the Shrek movies, winking broadly at the parents every other minute whether it serves the story or not. And certainly “The Princess and the Pig” never forgets for a second that it is operating in a fairytale land. The king in the queen in this book have a way of using fairytales to justify their already existing expectations and prejudices, constantly holding them up as the solution to their every problem. Rather than feel forced, the royals’ silliness is utterly consistent with their characters. It was only after I reread the book that I realized that while they are under the distinct impression that every problem beg

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4. Review of the Day: The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker

The Luck of the Buttons
By Anne Ylvisaker
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5066-7
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

There are kids out there that like historical fiction. I know that there are. I’ve met them. They come into my library and curl their lips in disgust at the covers with the shiny dragons and sparkly motes of dust swirling and whirling. The thing is, they don’t know the term “historical fiction” and even if you told them that was the kind of book they preferred they’d look at you like you were attempting to make them eat something green and leafy. All they know is that they like stories about real kids and if those kids happen to live in the past, so be it. Why slap a label on what they love? Because if I don’t make it clear that this is a genre that gets read we’re going to find less and less books of that ilk appearing on our library and bookstore shelves. That would be a real pity too since books like The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker are some of the best in the biz. A svelte little novel that’s chock full of plum, pluck, and vinegar, Ylvisaker gives us a heroine you can believe in but never pity. And the readability? Through the roof, man. Through the roof.

If you’re growing up in Goodhue, Iowa then you probably know the Button family. More to the point, you probably know that they’re just about the most luckless group of nobodies ever to place a foot on God’s green earth. This has been true for generations and there’s no reason to think that Tugs Button would be any different. Yet this year, she seems to be. First thing, Tugs wins the three-footed race with fancy Aggie Millhouse as her partner (Aggie’s another story right there). Next, she wins the essay content for a piece of writing she though she’d dumped in the trash. And then third, she wins a raffle for a real, honest-to-goodness, Brownie camera. A gorgeous camera that takes great photographs. If the luck of Tugs is turning around, she’d definitely going to need it. There’s a fast-talking newspaper man in town taking donations for a new paper, and Tugs is certain the fellow’s up to no good. The result is a story of a girl who’s been sleepwalking through her own life until, one day, she gets lucky.

There are two books out this year where smooth-talking shysters try to talk some money out of the local rubes. In The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm, the shyster gets away scot-free. In Luck of the Buttons . . . well, I shouldn’t give anything away. Suffice to say, Tugs is onto this Harold Hill wannabe, pretty much from the get-go. And part of what I respect about Ylvisaker’s writing is that Tugs has her reasons. She also has her handicaps. There is, first and foremost, the fact that she’s a girl, and second there’s the fact that her family lies on one of the lower rungs of their small town’s status. Who’s going to believe the suspicions of somebody that inherently (through no fault of her own) untrustworthy?

In fact, it’s the small town mentality here that I really loved. It’s easy to condemn small towns for their single-mindedness and stubborn memories. It’s also easy to hold small towns up as bastions of truth, justice, and the American w

5 Comments on Review of the Day: The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker, last added: 12/8/2011
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5. Review of the Day: Everything Goes by Brian Biggs

Everything Goes on Land
By Brian Biggs
Balzer & Bray (an imprint of Harper Collins)
ISBN: 978-0-06-195809-0
Ages 3 and up
On shelves now

There is much to be said for simplicity. The elegant understated picture book that contains peaceful moments of serenity with the idea that a child might get lost in the image of a single field during a snowstorm, say, for hours at a time. Yes indeed. Nothing like it. There is much to be said for simplicity, but let me level with you. When I was a kid I liked quiet books, but only when my craving for the wild, colorful, frantic, and fast-paced had been fulfilled. It’s easy to swallow Tasha Tudor when you’ve supped first on some Seuss and Scarry. Part of what I love about picture books is that there’s room for all kinds. The long and the short. The classic and the new. The understated and, in this particular case, the overwhelming. Brian Biggs has brought to life the literary equivalent of Pop Rocks and Pixie Stix dissolved into Jolt Cola. A hugely entertaining, entirely loving citywide romp that puts the author/illustrator on the map and (I predict) will be impossible to pries from the hands of many a vehicular loving tot.

In the first few panels we see a boy and his father hop into their car and take off. Onto highways, off ramps, and finally into the big city. The two take note as they drive of all the kinds of vehicles they see. Different kinds of cars and bicycles. An array of motor homes and motorcycles. Trains and trucks. Buses and subways. Basically if you can think of the method of ground transportation, it’s in here somewhere. Biggs breaks up his incredibly detailed city scenes with close examinations of the vehicles in question. You might see the different parts the bicycle on one page or the way a motorcycle comes together on another. Finally, we learn about the duo’s ultimate destination and then it’s a quick jaunt home yet again.

No surprise that Mr. Biggs loved to pieces his copy of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go when he was a kid. This book feels like nothing so much as the lovechild of Richard Scarry and Robert Crumb with a healthy dose of Mark Alan Stamaty for spice. I explain. The Scarry comparison is obvious. One of the great joys of his books is that in the midst of great big city scenes you can find small storylines and continuing gags. Like Scarry, Biggs makes a point of identifying vehicles of different types and kinds. Yet he also

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6. Review of the Day: The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

The Unforgotten Coat
By Frank Cottrell Boyce
Photographs by Carl Hunter and Clare Heney
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5729-1
Ages 9-12
On shelves September 13th.

Contemporary Mongolia doesn’t have all that many English language children’s novels to its name. And if you asked me to name everything I knew about Mongolia today, I’d probably find myself referring to key scenes in that recent documentary Babies more than anything else. I don’t think I would have selected author Frank Cottrell Boyce to shed any light on the country or its inhabitants. Heck, I’ll take it one step further. With books like Millions and Cosmic under his belt I wouldn’t have even thought he’d want to write a book about immigration, cultural identity, fitting in, and having your assumptions wrecked. Shows what I know because write such a book he has and the result is a svelte little novel that may be his best. The Unforgotten Coat is the kind of book you get when an author gets an original idea and works it into something memorable. This is one story kids will read and then find difficult to forget.

Julie first sees the boys on the playground during break. When the class returns inside the boys follow and suddenly there they are. Chingis and Nergui, two brothers from Mongolia. Almost immediately Chingis identifies Julie as their “Good Guide” who will show them around and tell them everything they need to know. Julie embraces her role with gusto, but as she helps the boys out she wants to know more and more about them. Where do they live? Why do they insist that Nergui is being tracked by a demon that will make him “vanish”. What’s their real story? The trouble is, the moment Julie realizes what’s going on it is far too late.

The book is great. No question. But it’s the Afterword that deserves just as much attention. In it the reader learns where Boyce got the inspiration for this story. Turns out, during the very first school visit Mr. Boyce ever did, he sat with a group of kids that included a Mongolian girl by the name of Misheel. Then one day the Immigration Authorities took her away in the night and Boyce was left with the image of Misheel’s abandoned coat. He wanted to make a documentary with the kids of going to Mongolia to return the coat but that fell through. So it was he wrote this story instead with new characters and, at its core, an abandoned coat. Again.

The best works of protest are those that don’t harangue you but softly win you over to their point of view. Boyce is not a fan of some of the actions taken by the U.K.’s immigration authorities, that’s for sure. In his Afterword he even goes so far as to say, “I do know that a country that authorizes its functionaries to snatch children from their beds in the middle of the night can’t really be called civilized.” And he could have made the characters of Chingis and Nergui adorable moppets who win your heart with a smile and a wink. He doesn’t. Chingis is demanding and Nergui isn’t far off. You do grow attached to them, but not because they’re cute or anything. If you like them it’s because you got to know them a little better, just

3 Comments on Review of the Day: The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce, last added: 8/24/2011
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7. Review of the Day: Never Forgotten by Patricia McKissack

Never Forgotten
By Patricia C. McKissack
Illustrated by Leon and Diane Dillon
Schwartz & Wade
ISBN: 978-0-375-84384-6
Ages 4 and up
On shelves October 11, 2011

The more I read children’s literature the more I come to realize that my favorite books for kids are the ones that can take disparate facts, elements, and stories and then weave them together into a perfect whole. That someone like Brian Selznick can link automatons and the films of Georges Melies in The Invention of Hugo Cabret or Kate Milford can spin a story from the history of bicycles and the Jake Leg Scandal in The Boneshaker thrills me. Usually such authors reserve their talents for chapter books. There they’ve room to expound at length. And Patricia McKissack is no stranger to such works of fiction. Indeed some of her chapter books are the best in a given library collection (I’ve a personal love of her Porch Lies). But for Never Forgotten Ms. McKissack took tales of Mende blacksmiths and Caribbean legends of hurricanes and combined them into a picture book. Not just any picture book, mind you, but one that seeks to answer a question that I’ve never heard adequately answered in any books for kids: When Africans were kidnapped by the slave trade and sent across the sea, how did the people left behind react? The answer comes in this original folktale. Accompanied by the drop dead gorgeous art of Leo & Diane Dillon, the book serves to remind and heal all at once. The fact that it’s beautiful to both eye and ear doesn’t hurt matters much either.

When the great Mende blacksmith Dinga found himself with a baby boy after his wife died he bucked tradition and insisted on raising the boy himself. For Musafa, his son, Dinga called upon the Mother Elements of Earth, Fire, Water and Wind and had them bless the child. Musafa grew in time but spent his blacksmithing on creating small creatures from metal. Then, one day, Dinga discovers that Musafa has been kidnapped by slave traders in the area. Incensed, each of the four elements attempts to help Dinga get Musafa back, but in vain. Finally, Wind manages to travel across the sea. There she finds Musafa has found a way to make use of his talent with metal, creating gates in a forge like no one else’s. And Dinga, back at home, is comforted by her tale that his son is alive and, for all intents and purposes, well.

McKissack’s desire to give voice to the millions of parents and families that mourned the kidnapping of their children ends her book on a bittersweet note. After reading about Musafa’s disappearance and eventual life, the book finishes with this: “Remember the wisdom of Mother Dongi: / ‘Kings may come and go, / But the fam

4 Comments on Review of the Day: Never Forgotten by Patricia McKissack, last added: 8/27/2011
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8. Review of the Day: Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Jefferson’s Sons
By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Dial (an imprint of Penguin)
ISBN: 978-0-8037-3499-9
Ages 9-12
On shelves September 15th

When I was in high school I started reading Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved on my own. At the time, my mother said something about the book that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. She noted that the novel was remarkable because it showed that even the best possible slave situation was still an intolerable one. There is no “good” slaveholder, no matter how nice they might be, and no matter how well they treat their slaves. I understood a bit of this but I’ve never really encountered a book for kids that approaches this idea. I’d say that a good 95% of middle grade novels written for kids about slavery tend to show the same idea. The slaveholders are all evil except for one or two wives/daughters/granddaughters who teach our hero/heroine to read. Kids know that people who own slaves are bad so what’s the point in throwing in questionable morality? Yet Jefferson’s Sons couldn’t exist under those restrictions even if it wanted to. If a good chunk of the American population has a hard time wrapping its head around the idea that the Founding Fathers owned slaves then how much harder would it be for an author of children’s literature to bring the point up? Kimberly Brubaker Bradley doesn’t just tackle the issue of someone like Thomas Jefferson owning slaves, though. She tackles the notion that he owned his own children as well. To pull this storyline off and to make it child appropriate, Bradley has a couple tricks up her sleeve. And danged if it doesn’t pay off in the end. To her I doff my cap.

Three residents of Monticello. Three boys with a connection to its owner, Thomas Jefferson. The first boy, Beverly, is the eldest son of Sally Hemings. He is also, as it happens, a son of Jefferson himself. Born with light-colored skin, Beverly comes to learn from his mother that when he turns twenty-one he is expected to leave Monticello, never see his family again, and go into the world as a white man. On this point he is conflicted (to say the least). After him comes Madison, or Maddy for short. Born with darker skin, Maddy will never be able to live as a white person like his siblings, and he fights with his anger at his father and at the system of slavery itself. Finally there is Peter, a young slave boy, who ends up suffering the most at the hands of Jefferson’s negligence. Through it all, these three boys help one another and attempt to come to terms with how a man can be considered great and yet participate in an institution of evil.

Before we get any further I’m going to cut short an objection to this book that a segment of adult gatekeepers are going to lob straight off. The idea that Thomas Jefferson sired children with Sally Hemings is widely but not universally accepted. Some people believe that her kids were fathered by a cousin of Jefferson’s. Bradley even incorporates this theory into her story, mentioning that Jefferson’s daughter Martha spread the rumor of the cousin to distract the curious from making connections she deemed inappropriate. Bradley also tackles the fact that the Hemings/Jefferson connection is something she and “almost everyone else who’s investigated the subject” believes. She offers up a plethora of research for this, including a “Report of the

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9. Review of the Day: Witches! by Rosalyn Schanzer

Witches!: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem
By Rosalyn Schanzer
National Geographic Children’s Books
ISBN: 978- 1426308697
Ages 10 and up
On shelves September 13th

Sometimes I wish I could sit down with my 10-year-old self and have a conversation. We’d chat about the improvements that will come to fashion someday (I think 10-year-old me would really appreciate knowing that 1988 was America’s low point), the delight to be found in School House Rock and eventually I’d turn the conversation to books. From there we’d give praise to good Apple paperbacks like The Girl With the Silver Eyes or pretty much anything with a ghost in it (does anyone even remember Ghost Cat?) but eventually I’d have to start pushing myself. “So what,” I might say, “would it take to get you to read nonfiction?” Even from a distance of twenty-three years I can feel the resistance to such a notion. Nonfiction? You mean like the latest edition of The Guinness Book of World Records, right? Nope. I mean like straight up facts about a moment in history. And not any of those Childhood of Famous Americans books either, missy thang. Then I’d pull out my secret weapon: Witches!: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem. The cover? Enticing. The subject? Not off-putting. The overall presentation? Enthralling.

When 9-year-old Betty Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams began to twist and turn in the home of the Reverend Samuel Parris there was only one possible reason for it: witchcraft. And why not? This was Salem, Massachusetts where the Puritan populace knew anything was possible. What they didn’t know was that the afflicted girls would be joined by fellow accusers and launch the town, and even parts of the state, into a series of witch trials the land of America had never seen before. Rosalyn Schanzer tells it like it is, recounting many of the details, giving information on what happened to all the players when the dust settled and things got back to normal. Notes, a Bibliography, an Index, and a Note From the Author explaining how she abridged, updated, and clarified some of the original texts follow at the end.

I’ll admit it. I’m not ashamed. Here I am, thirty-three years of age with a Masters degree to my name and if you had asked me to recount exactly what happened during the Salem Witch Trials I’d have been hard pressed to come up with anything I didn’t just learn from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Okay . . . so I’m a little ashamed. And I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know until I started reading Schanzer’s book. The author lays out her book chronologically. It’s like watching an episode of Law & Order. You see the “crime”, the characters, and the endless strange courtroom scenes (Note: Teacher’s wishing

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10. Review of the Day: What Do You See? by Martine Perrin

What Do You See?
By Martine Perrin
Albert Whitman & Co.
ISBN: 978-0-8075-6712-8
Ages 0-4
On shelves now.

*Offspring Approved*

I have always acknowledged the danger of having a child of my own. You see, as a children’s librarian I deal with parents that truly believe that if their kid does or does not like a book, that is the final word on the matter. So if I try to suggest a book the child did not like they will curl their lips in severe distaste or, worse, try to have it removed from my collection. Likewise if I eschew a book the offspring adored they will assure me that it’s the best in my children’s room. Parents have a kind of selective tunnel vision with their heirs, which is understandable up to a point. And for eight years I’ve been a childless librarian with only my experience to call upon when reviewing books. Now the tables have turned. I find myself with a small human in my home and I become desperate to amuse her. Board books, once appreciated only in a vague theoretical way, are now for me mysterious godsends with secrets waiting to be uncovered. The danger I alluded to is that I will become one of those very parents I dislike, saying to the world that simply because my progeny likes a book, therefore all progeny everywhere will follow suit. This is not the case. With that in mind, just consider this a review that was once tested on a child of two months and held their interest. For what it’s worth.

Right from the cover onward this book works hard to suck in infant interest. Turn the cover and the wavy pattern on the boat becomes an ocean scene with a red fish cresting the waves. After that the book begins in earnest. “Rolling yarn, in a little house . . /” turn the page and, “Look! Here comes Kitty, ready to play! Meow, meow!” A checked pattern of red and white square that had previously been the makeup of the house now become a floor with a silhouette of a black cat in the upper right hand corner. Meanwhile the page you’ve just turned reveals that the house is now red and white too. This sets up the rest of the book. Patterns will appear within objects, and when you turn the page the colors of the objects will change and the patterns become something else. From black stripes to orange polka dots to green zigzags, Perrin creates patterns that seem to move when the eye takes them in. At the end of the book older children can identify the objects, colors, and animals that were spotted throughout.

Board books, those sturdy denizens of the nursery library, have never been more popular. At some point publishers realized that if they simply took already existing picture books and turned them into board book versions they could potentially double their sales. Some of these work. Many do not. Books that have always been board books from conception onward fare better with small fry, but they still n

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11. Review of the Day: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

By Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press
ISBN: 978-0545027892
Ages 9 and up
On shelves September 13, 2011

Hype. What’s the point? A publisher believes that a book is going to be big so they crank up the old hype machine and do everything in their power to draw attention to it long before its publication date. That’s what they did for Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck and I was sad to see it. As far as I was concerned, Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret was too tough an act to follow. Here you had a book that managed to get hundreds of librarians across the nation of America to redefine in their own minds the very definition of “picture book”. Cabret was remarkable because it combined words and pictures in a manner most closely resembling a film. Indeed the whole plot of the book revolved around filmmaking so what would be the point of writing another book in the same vein? If Cabret credits its success in part to its originality, doesn’t that give his Wonderstruck a handicap right from the start? You’d think so, but you might also forget something about Cabret. While the art was spectacular and the plotting just fine, the writing was merely a-okay. By no means a detriment to the book, mind you. Just okay. And maybe that’s partly why Wonderstruck works as well as it does. The art is just as beautiful as Cabret’s, the plotting superior, and the writing not just good, but fantastic. Where Cabret wowed readers with spectacle, Wonderstruck hits ‘em where it hurts. Right in the heart. For once, we’re dealing with a book that is actually worth its own hype.

Ben: Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, June 1977. Rose: Hoboken, New Jersey, October 1927. Ben’s Story – written: Newly orphaned when his mother dies, Ben comes to believe that he has a father, hitherto unknown, living in New York City. When an accident involving a telephone and a bolt of lightning renders him deaf, he sets out for the big city in search of clues to who his father really is. Rose’s Story – seen almost solely in pictures: A seeming prisoner in her own home, Rose too sets out for New York City to see the actress Lillian Mayhew for reasons of her own. The two children both end up in The American Museum of Natural History and both discover something there that will help to give them what they need to solve their own problems. And in that discovery, they will find one another.

I’ll just state right here and now that you could probably tell from the opening paragraph of this review that it’s extraordinarily difficult to talk about Wonderstruck without invoking Hugo Cabret in the same breath. This is mostly because of the unique written/image-driven style Selznick utilizes in both of these books. It’s not an unheard of technique, alternating written passages with visual ones, but it’s rarely done this well. What strikes me as significant, though, is that the style is chosen f

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12. Review of the Day: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls
By Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd
Illustrated by Jim Kay
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5559-4
Ages 11 and up
On shelves now

I don’t mind metaphors as much as I might. I think that generally I’m supposed to hate them when they show up in children’s literature. I don’t if they’re done well, though. Maybe if I were an adult encountering The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time I’d find the Jesus allegory annoying, but as a kid it flew right over me. Similarly, if I were an eleven-years-old today and someone handed me A Monster Calls I could read this whole book and not once speculate as to what the monster “really means”. Author Patrick Ness (who also wrote a book called Monsters of Men just to confuse you) writes a layered story that can be taken straight or at an angle, depending on what you want out of the book. What I wanted was a great story, compelling characters, and a killer ending. That I got and so much more.

The monster comes at 12:07. It would probably be easier for everyone, the monster included, if Conor were afraid of it, but he isn’t. Conor’s afraid of much worse things at the moment. His mom has cancer and this time the treatments don’t seem to be working as well as they have in the past. He’s plagued by a nightmare so awful he believes that no one else ever need know of it. Bullies at school pound him regularly, his grandmother is annoying, and his dad lives with a different family in America. The crazy thing is that Conor kind of wants to be punished, but the monster has a different purpose in mind. It’s going to tell him three stories and when it’s done Conor will tell him a fourth. A fourth that is the truth and also the last thing he’d ever want to say.

For the record, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate a book that includes the word “monster” in the title and then proceeds to include lots o’ monster. Since we’re dealing with the serious subject matter of a boy learning to forgive himself as his mother dies of cancer, Ness could also be forgiven for just putting a dab of monster here or a dribble of monster there. Instead he starts with the monster (“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”) continues to pile on the monster scenes, and by the time you reach the end there’s not a kid alive who could say they were mislead by the cover or title. The monster in this book isn’t the only wild Green Man to be published this year. Season Of Secrets by Sally Nicholls

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13. Review of the Day: Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
By Kadir Nelson
Balzer and Bray (an imprint of Harper Collins)
ISBN: 978-0-06-173074-0
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Humans tend to be a highly visual species. When folks tell you not to judge a book by its cover, that’s an optimistic sentiment rather than a rule. People like to judge by covers. Often we haven’t time to inspect the contents of all the books we see, so the jackets bear the brunt of our inherent skepticism. With this in mind, Kadir Nelson has always had an edge on the competition. If the man wants to get you to pick up a book, he will get you to pick up a book. You often get a feeling that while he doesn’t really care when it comes to the various celebrities he’s created books for over the years (Spike Lee, Debbie Allen, Michael Jordan’s sister, etc.) when it’s his own book, though, THAT is when he breaks out the good brushes. Nelson wrote We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball a couple years ago to rave reviews. Now he’s dug a little deeper to provide us with the kind of title we’ve needed for years. Heart and Soul gives us a true overview of African Americans from start to near finish with pictures that draw in readers from the cover onwards. This is the title every library should own. The book has heart. The pictures have soul.

An old woman stands in front of a portrait in the Capitol rotunda in Washington D.C. Bent over she regards the art there, recounting how it was black hands that built the Capitol from sandstone. “Strange though . . . nary a black face in all those pretty pictures.” Looking at them you would swear black people hadn’t been here from the start, but that’s simply not true. With that, the woman launches into the history of both our nation and the African Americans living in it, sometimes through the lens of her own family. From Revolutionary War soldiers to slavers, from cowboys to union men, the book manages in a scant twelve chapters to offer us a synthesized history of a race in the context of a nation’s growth. An Author’s Note rounds out the book, along with a Timeline, a Bibliography, and an Index.

Kadir Nelson, insofar as I can tell, enjoys driving librarian catalogers mad. When he wrote We Are the Ship some years ago he decided to narrate it with a kind of collective voice. The ballplayers who played in the Negro Leagues speak as one. Normally that would slip a book directly into the “fiction” category, were it not for the fact that all that “they” talk about are historical facts. Facts upon facts. Facts upon facts upon facts. So libraries generally slotted that one into their nonfiction sections (the baseball section, if we’re going to be precise) and that was that. Now “Heart and Soul” comes out and Nelson has, in a sense, upped the ante. Again the narrator is fictional, but this time she’s a lot more engaged. The Greek

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14. Review of the Day: What Animals Really Like by Fiona Robinson

What Animals Really Like
By Fiona Robinson
Abrams Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-0-8109-8976-4
Ages 4-8
On shelves now.

I’m sitting in a room with other children’s librarians. Together, we are attempting to determine what the best children’s books of a given year are. It’s late in the publishing season and we haven’t a lot of time left when one of us walks in with Fiona Robinson’s What Animals Really Like. None of us are familiar with Ms. Robinson’s work (though we’ve heard nice things about The 3-2-3 Detective Agency) so our expectations are pretty low. The librarian who has the book, though, informs us in no uncertain terms that this is one of the best of the year. She then proceeds to read it aloud. Ladies and gentlemen, there are few finer pleasures that being read a picture book that works. I don’t care if you’re 5 or 55 or 555. Everyone likes storytime and many people like learning about great new picture books through readalouds. By the time the librarian was done it was unanimous. We were in love with What Animals Really Like and ready to join Fiona Robinson’s fan club, should someone ever feel the urge to start one. And trust me, after this book gains a bit of a following, folks are going to be lining up around the block to start organizations in honor of its author/illustrator. You want a surefire storytime gem? Baby, I got your back.

Maestro Herbert Timberteeth has written a brand new song going by the name of “What Animals Really Like”. For this one time performance he has assembled a chorus of some twelve different groups of animals. At the start, all goes according to plan. The lions reluctantly sing, “We are lions, and we like to prowl.” Next a tepid, “We are wolves, and we like to howl.” “We are pigeons, and we like to coo.” Finally, “We are cows, and we like to . . . dig.” There stand the cows holding various digging accoutrements and looking very pleased. Herbert, suffice to say, is not amused. He’s even less amused when the warthogs suddenly declare mid-song that they like to blow enormous bubbles. As the book continues, more and more animals start to sing what they really like to do, rather than what society expects them to. And though it causes him some serious stress, Herbert eventually lets everyone sing what it is that they really like, even though it doesn’t rhyme or, sometimes, make a lot of sense.

I’m a sucker for any book that upsets expectations. Kids are so used to picture books that allow them to guess the rhyme that when they encounter a book that turns that idea on its head they’re initially flummoxed, and then soon delighted. Not many picture books have the guts to do this. The best known, to my mind, is Mac Barnett’s Guess Again!, which takes the idea to its logical extreme. What’s nice about Robinson’s book is that while it’s not as downright goofy as Barnett’s, the upset expectations serve the story. In a way, all readers are automatically placed in the shoes of Herbert Timberteeth. We may not iden

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15. Review of the Day – Then to Now: A Short History of the World by Christopher Moore

From Then to Now: A Short History of the World
By Christopher Moore
Illustrated by Andrej Krystoforski
Tundra Books
ISBN: 978-0-88776-5407
Ages 9 and up
On shelves now.

I have nothing but respect for contemporary historians. A few of them, let us be honest, are rock stars. They have to take something as strange and ephemeral as knowledge (such as it stands) about the past and make it into something relevant and interesting and coherent. These days historians also need to make sure they don’t follow in the footsteps of their forefathers and just focus everything on white people. I grant that it was easier to write history when it came down to just a single ethnicity, but talk about restrictive! Then there are the historians for children. They have to not only do all the aforementioned steps, but make history as accurate and simple, without being simplistic, as possible. It would be difficult enough to do all of this if your book was about a person or a country. Now imagine the challenge that comes from writing about the entire history of humankind in a scant 188 pages. With pictures, no less. Leave it up to the Canadians to get it right. Toronto historian Christopher Moore does his best to render an entire world in a single book without putting the whippersnapper young readers to sleep. That he manages it has got to be some kind of miracle right there.

As Moore says in his Preface, “When does a history of the world – even a short history of the world – start? This history starts with people.” So it is that we are plunged into the past. From rice farmers in China to The Great Pyramid of Giza. From Cleopatra to Martin Luther. Though he can only provide the barest of overviews, Moore takes care to give history a kind of structure, allowing student readers the chance to find the aspects that interest them the most for future study on their own. The book includes an explanation of BCE and CE vs. BC and AD in an Author’s Note, as well as an Index and a map on the endpapers of places named in the text. Very oddly, no Bibliography appears here. Strange indeed.

The endpapers of this book, displaying a map with highlighted locations, pretty much give you a blunt encapsulation of where Moore’s attention is going to focus in this text. You can sort of tell that the author is a Canadian right off the bat since L’Anse aux Meadows and Ramah Bay make the cut. The map identifies places that will come up in the text. Folks will undoubtedly object to the areas of the world that seemingly do not warrant a mention, but don’t be fooled. Just because a major metropolitan area in Australia doesn’t appear on the map that doesn’t mean that it has been excised from Moore’s history. A cursory examination of the Index yields at least 18 pages where the lands, and the Aborigines, are mentioned.

As for the text itself, Moore has been exceedingly careful. He starts off with the hominids of Africa, gives an overview of how they spread, launches into the Ice Age, goes into the whole hunter/gatherer society thing, and next thing you know you’re in the next chapter, “Learning to Farm”. He doesn’t mince words, this guy. As you read, you realize that Moore’s focus

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16. Review of the Day: Lemonade by Bob Raczka

Lemonade: And Other Poems Squeezed for a Single Word
By Bob Raczka
Illustrated by Nancy Doniger
Roaring Brook (a division of Macmillan)
ISBN: 978-1-59643-541-4
Ages 4-10
On shelves now.

The lady from Manhattan would like to register a complaint. The lady from Manhattan is aware, perfectly aware, that there are plenty of fabulous children’s poets in a given year. The lady from Manhattan would further state that she likes many of these authors and would like to review them more often but she feels that her hand is forced, FORCED I say, to instead review the works of one Bob Raczka. This, in her opinion, is unfair. Mr. Raczka should do everything in his power to write significantly less interesting books of children’s poetry. Perhaps he should consider a collection of bad limericks. That would certainly lower the bar enough for one to review his brethren with impunity. Instead, when a book like Lemonade comes across your plate, you have no choice but to review it. Brilliant and head-scratchingly insane by turns, Raczka writes one of the more inspiring books of poetry to come out in recent history. It really isn’t fair in the least. The lady objects.

Take a word. Now find as many words as you can out of that word. Now take those words and make a cohesive, coherent, and downright good poem. Impossible? Not if you ask Bob Raczka. Inspired by poet Andrew Russ’s “one-word poems”, Raczka manages to find and write twenty-two such poems. Sometimes they are short (the poem “friends” really just boils down to “fred finds ed”). Sometimes they are longer than you’d expect (“spaghetti” starts with “papa has a pasta appetite”). And in each poem you have to read the letters as they appear under their starting words on one page, and then in order as a normal poem on the next. A clever literary technique yields even cleverer little poems. This is a premise that surpasses its initial gimmick.

There are few books I have encountered that give you the feeling that you’re learning to read all over again. This is one of the few. Just reading a single poem, no matter how short, can be a challenge. Because the letters drop down to appear under their respective letters in the title, they do not fall into natural spaces or breaks. The result is that you might read the words “ivan in / ava in / ian in” instead as “ivan in a vain”. It almost feels like code breaking after a while (a not unpleasant sensation). Another advantage of the format is that certain poems mimic their subject matter. The poem “moonlight”, for example, mimics its subject, a moth, flitting in concentric circles down a page.

If you’re tired of the old haiku you could do worse than to try blackout poems where you take newspaper articles and black out with a magic marker everything but a few words. Or how about spine poetry, where you create poems out of the titles of books piled on top of one another? Raczka’s one-sentence poems are inspired by a fellow by the name of Andrew Russ. Yet while Russ may have come up with the notion of making poems from common letters, it was Raczka who recognized the real kid-potential of the form. As a result, I suspect tha

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17. Review of the Day: Nurse, Soldier, Spy by Marissa Moss

Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero
By Marissa Moss
Illustrated by John Hendrix
Abrams Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-0-8109-9735-6
Ages 6-12
On shelves now.

If I want to depress myself on a given day I’ll compare the list of biographical subjects that kids in school are handed to pick and choose from with the biographical subjects that I had to pick and choose from when I was a kid some twenty odd years ago. It’s disheartening. Essentially, it’s the same list. Teachers always include Edison, Einstein, Washington, Tubman, Keller, etc. Once in a while someone will fall out of favor (Benjamin Banneker) to be replaced with someone new (Matthew Henson) but that’s just the way of things. How I long for the day when the core biographical subjects are thrown out the window and kids can take full advantage of the range of amazing stories in their libraries’ biography sections. That’ll be the day when a kid has an assignment to find a historical female hero who fought in a war and I can hand them Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero. Until then, I’ll just have to hawk the book on its own merits. Fortunately, this is not too terribly difficult to do.

I’m sure you’ve all heard stories of those women who cut their hair, donned men’s clothes, and joined the armed forces during the Civil War. Many a woman did this, but few were as brave and inventive as Sarah Edmonds. Having run away from home at the age of sixteen to escape an arranged marriage, Sarah had been living as a man for three years when she returned to Michigan to join the Union cause. On the field she proved a brave nurse, soldier, and eventual spy. When told to spy on the enemy, Sarah became a believable black male slave and managed to extract some much needed information across enemy lines. An Author’s Note at the end explains how the rest of Sarah’s life went and how she became “the only woman invited to join the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the association for Civil War veterans of the Union Army.”

Marissa Moss is best known for her Amelia’s Notebook series, an early chapter book grouping of titles that served as the precursor to the current Diary of a Wimpy Kid journal boom we’re now in. I was under the distinct impression that fiction was Ms. Moss’s one and only bag, and this feeling was helped in no small part by the biographical sketch of her that appears on this title’s bookflap. Dig a little deeper, however, and you see that Ms. Moss has a longstanding appreciation of history that has manifested itself in a variety of different ways over the years. Penning everything from historical novels like Galen: My Life in Imper

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18. Review of the Day: I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

I Want My Hat Back
By Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5598-3
Ages 4-8
On shelves September 27th.

I knew it! I knew it, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! When Caroline Stutson’s Cats’ Night Out was released by Simon & Schuster in 2010 it contained art by an animator going by the moniker of Jon Klassen. And frankly I just thought it contained some of the slickest art I’d seen in a picture book in a long while. I hardly even noticed that he was the same guy behind the pictures found in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. Still and all, until now he hadn’t illustrated his own book. I was fairly certain he might at some point, and I wasn’t sure I’d be looking forward to it. I mean, I thought the man was grand, but could he tell a story? Well, turns out I was right about the fact that his art is magnificent and now, with the release of his first author/illustrator picture book I Want My Hat Back, Klassen shows once and for all that his storytelling talents match his illustration technique pound for pound.

A bear has lost his hat. To find it he questions a variety of woodland creatures including a fox, a frog, a turtle, a possum, a dear, a snake and a rabbit. The rabbit, for the record, refuses to acknowledge having seen the hat in spite of the fact that he appears to be wearing it. And when the bear realizes the true culprit there will be a price to pay. A deeply amusing price. Painted with Chinese ink and digital art, Klassen’s book falls into that growing category of subversive picture books out there. What makes it stand out, however, is how beautifully put together it all is.

A criticism leveled at the aforementioned Cats’ Night Out involved the expressionless faces of Klassen’s kitties. Here you had a book where felines engage in a variety of different dances, yet their faces retain the exact same universal look of deep concentration. I thought it was a hoot. Other folks felt it made the cats too cold and static. So it will be with great interest that I watch the critical reception of I Want My Hat Back. That is because here, being expressionless isn’t just the name of the game, it’s a comedic technique. Klassen can do more with the set of this bear’s head than most artists do with entire bodies. And watch how the eyes work in this book. For most of the spreads the bear and other animals are looking right at you. All that changes the instant the bear lies on the ground, despairing of ever finding his hat again. Now his eyes, and the eyes of the other characters, are looking at one another. It isn’t until you get to the final coup de grace that you realize that the bear is looking at you once more.

As I mentioned before, Mr. Klassen is one of those animators-turned-picture-book-artist. Usually when you encounter one of these (like, say, Tony Fucile or 10 Comments on Review of the Day: I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen, last added: 5/28/2011

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19. Review of the Day: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
By Catherynne M. Valente
Illustrations by Ana Juan
Feiwel and Friends (an imprint of Macmillan)
ISBN: 978-0-312-64961-6
On shelves now.

Well devil if I know what to do with it.

Never complain that you are bored, ladies and gentlemen. Say such a thing and you might find that the universe has a couple tricks up its sleeve. Let’s say, for example, that a certain children’s librarian was getting bored with the state of fantasy today. Maybe she read too many Narnia rip-offs where a group of siblings get plunged into an alternate world to defeat a big bad blah blah blah. Maybe she read too many quest novels where plucky young girls have to save their brothers/friends/housepets. So what does the universe do? Does it say, “Maybe you should try something other than fantasy for a change”? It does not. Instead it hands the children’s librarian a book with a title like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and (if she hasn’t hyperventilated after reading the title) says to her, “Here you go, smart guy. Try this on for size.” That’s what being cocky will get you. It’ll have you reading a book that walks up to the usual middle grade chapter book fantasy tropes and slaps ‘em right smack dab in the face. I have never, in all my livelong days, read a book quite like Catherynne Valente’s. My job now is to figure out whether that is a good thing, or very very bad.

When September is asked by The Green Wind whether or not she’d be inclined to take a trip to Fairyland with him, she’s so excited to get going that she manages to lose a shoe in the process. Like many a good reader September is inclined to think that she knows the rules of alternate worlds. Yet it doesn’t take much time before she realizes that not all things are well in the realm of magic. A strange Marquess has taken over, having defeated the previous good ruler, and before she knows it September is sent to try to retrieve a spoon from the all powerful villain. Along the way she befriends a Wyvern who is certain that his father was a library, and a strange blue Marid boy named Saturday who can grant you a wish, but only if you defeat him in a fight. With their help, Saturday realizes what it means to lose your heart within the process of becoming less heartless.

Divisive. Each year you’ll encounter one big children’s book that can be labeled as such. Certain books and certain writers can have violent affects on their readers, unsuspected until the official reviews start pouring in. Then suddenly folks with opinions start pouring out of the woodwork. The books are as varied as Mockingbird, The Underneath, 1 Comments on Review of the Day: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente, last added: 6/1/2011

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20. Review of the Day: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

By Anne Ursu
Illustrated by Erin McGuire
Walden Pond Press (an imprint of Harper Collins)
ISBN: 978-0-06-201505-1
Ages 9-12
On shelves September 27, 2011

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen is, let’s admit it, the world’s greatest puberty metaphor. A boy and girl are friends. Something happens and he grows cold and distant. In the midst of his indifference he’s spirited away and must be won back. Okay, the metaphor kind of breaks down at the end there, but the separation of boy/girl best friends is very real. With that in mind author Anne Ursu has done the mildly impossible. She has updated the old tale to the 21st century, thrown in references to other Andersen tales, and generally written one of the more fascinating and beautifully written, if sad, fantasy novels for middle grade readers of the year. If there’s a book to watch this season, Breadcrumbs is it.

Hazel and Jack are best friends, now and forever. At least that’s how Hazel sees it. Sure, she knows that Jack’s a little depressed because of his mother’s mental illness, but he’s always there for her no matter what. That’s a good thing since Hazel doesn’t like dealing with her new school and she definitely doesn’t want any other friends. Then, one day, everything changes. Jack suddenly turns cold on Hazel. He refuses to be her friend, and then without warning disappears altogether. His parents give one reason for where he has gone, but when Hazel learns that Jack was spirited away by a beautiful woman in a carriage she sets off into the nearby woods to find her friend and to save him, no matter what the cost (no matter if he wants to be rescued, for that matter). Trouble is, you can read all the books about adventures that you like, but when it comes to real rescue missions nobody can prepare you for the moment when you have to face your own problems.

To my mind, Ursu does for Hans Christian Andersen in this book what Adam Gidwitz did for The Brothers Grimm in his A Tale Dark and Grimm. Which is to say, she picks him apart. Andersen was an odd author. There. I said it. His stories were rarely happy-go-lucky affairs. I mean, have you ever read The Swineherd? There’s a darkness to his tales. With Breadcrumbs that darkness isn’t there simply because this is based on one of his stories. His influence permeates everything in this tale. Hazel’s travels bring her in contact with stories that bear some resemblance to The Red Shoes and The Little Match Girl. Other stories seem to reference 7 Comments on Review of the Day: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, last added: 6/29/2011

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21. Review of the Day: Hidden by Helen Frost

By Helen Frost
Frances Foster Books (Farrar Straus & Giroux)
ISBN: 978-0-374-38221-6
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now.

If poems had been introduced to me as a child as puzzles, maybe I would have taken to them a little more. A poem is a kind of puzzle, isn’t it? Depending on the kind of poem you have to make the syllables and words conform to a preexisting format. Unless it’s free verse, of course. Then all bets are off. That’s what you do when you’re writing a poem, but can reading one be an act of puzzle-solving as well? Earlier this year I reviewed Bob Raczka’s Lemonade: and Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word which required the reader’s eyes to leap around the page, piecing together the words. Hidden by Helen Frost requires relatively less work to read, but the reader willing to seek out the messages hidden (ho ho) in some of the poems will be amply rewarded. The result is that “Hidden” manages to be both a book of poetry and a wholly original story of two girls bound together by a singular, accidental crime.

When you go to a new summer camp you usually have to deal with not knowing anyone. That’s not Darra’s problem though. Her problem is that she does know someone and, worse, that person knows her too. Years and years ago Darra’s father accidentally kidnapped a young girl by the name of Wren Abbot. He didn’t mean to, of course. He was carjacking, unaware that Wren was hidden in the back of the car, frightened out of her mind. Years later Darra, who once helped Wren, runs into the girl that, she is convinced, led the cops back to her home and got her dad arrested. Now they have no idea how to act around one another, and in the midst of the usual tween summer camp dramas they need to return to the past to clarify what happened and to figure out if they both can recover from the experience.

I’ve been a fan of Frost’s for years. Lots of authors write verse novels (stories written in free verse) and most of them are little more than just a series of sentences broken up without much reason except to pad out the pages. Frost is never like that. When she writes a verse novel she commits. Her books are written in various forms for a reason. In The Braid she created an intricate braid-like form of poetry that twisted and turned on itself. In Diamond Willow her poems were diamond shaped with special messages hidden inside. Hidden take a different tactic. Wren’s voice is straight up free verse, while Darra’s requires a little more work. As Frost puts it, “The last words of the long lines, when read down the right side of the page, give further insight into her story.” Well when I read that I had to flip the book back to the beginning to see if it was true or not. Sure as shooting, each and every one of Darra’s sections yields a new side of her story. The words behind her words, you might say. The experience of discovering this is akin to a small treasure hunt. When pitching this book to kids, make sure you play up this aspect. Some children will immediately decode the m

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22. Review of the Day: The Incredible Life of Balto by Meghan McCarthy

Balto 255x300 Review of the Day: The Incredible Life of Balto by Meghan McCarthyThe Incredible Life of Balto
By Meghan McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf (an imprint of Random House)
ISBN: 978-0-375-84460-7
Ages 4 and up
On shelves August 9th

I’m not a dog person. Like ‘em fine. Don’t see much particular need to interact with them on a regular basis. Sometimes, though, I’ll feel like my life as a children’s librarian would have been easier if I had been a canine fanatic. A large swath of children’s literature each year is dedicated to man’s best friend. This year alone I’ve seen dogs traveling vast distances to be reunited with their loved ones (A Dog’s Way Home), convince kids that they are transformed accountants (The Ogre of Oglefort), and even appear as gallons of orange juice (When Life Gives You O.J.). Nonfiction doggies proliferate as well but I can usually steer clear of them. Unless Meghan McCarthy is involved, of course. Then I’m going to have to see what all the fuss is about. In this particular case, Ms. McCarthy has taken what at first appears to be a well-known story then finds the lesser known tales lurking inside of it. The result is a biography that’s bound to please dog lovers and dog neutrals (like myself) alike.

The year: 1925. The place: Nome, Alaska. The problem: An epidemic of diphtheria was imminent and yet a horrible blizzard was preventing all incoming planes from delivering the much needed serum. The solution: Balto. Sled dogs, you see, were dispatched with the serum on board and Balto was at the head of one of these teams. When Balto’s group missed the next team at the next checkpoint, they were lead onward by Balto until they got to Nome themselves. That’s the story lots of people know. What is less well known is what happened next. Balto was celebrated throughout the States, appearing in movies, on dog food cans, and even earning a statue in Central Park. Sadly, he and his team went on the vaudeville circuit and ended up underfed and neglected. Yet surprisingly the good people of Cleveland banded together to purchase the brave dog and his sled mates. As a result he spent the remainder of his days running around the Brookside Zoo where he, “could relax and enjoy the rest of his life.”

Balto2 300x146 Review of the Day: The Incredible Life of Balto by Meghan McCarthyThe queen of the amusing nonfiction picture book for young readers, McCarthy’s titles are always remarkable because they cover ground no one else does. Whether it’s the invention of bubble gum or a false report of an alien invasion, McCarthy’s titles are always wholly new. That’s why I was so surprised by her choice to tackle Balto next. As real

3 Comments on Review of the Day: The Incredible Life of Balto by Meghan McCarthy, last added: 7/11/2011
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23. Review of the Day: Marty McGuire by Kate Messner

MartyMcguire 211x300 Review of the Day: Marty McGuire by Kate MessnerMarty McGuire
By Kate Messner
Illustrated by Brian Floca
ISBN: 978-0-545-14244-1
Ages 5-9
On shelves now

It’s high time “tomboys” rescued their term from its negative connotations. One very rarely runs across parents who use the word with pride. It happens, sure, but more often than not it’s paired with a complaint. Same goes for tomboys in children’s books. They exist but they tend to appear in works of historical fiction more often than not. The contemporary tomboy is, oddly enough, relatively rare these days. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I loved Kate Messner’s Marty McGuire as much as I did. Not only do you have a genuine one-of-a-kind 21st century tomboy on your hands, she’s rejecting the princess culture too! Finding great early chapter books can be an enormous chore. Now Marty makes my job as a children’s librarian that much easier.

Second grade was fine. Marty had no beef with second grade. But for all that her second grade teacher made third grade sound like a bed of roses, Marty is having a rough time of it. Her best friend Annie has been stolen by princess-loving girly girl Veronica Grace and now she won’t go frog hunting or do any of the other fun things she used to with Marty. So when the school play is announced (The Frog Prince) guess who’s shocked and appalled when she ends up with the role of the princess? That’s right. Marty has to be seriously convinced that this is a good plan and even then she’s reluctant. Fortunately, actors always have little tricks to make their roles their own. And Marty has a trick up her sleeve that’s a doozy.

MartyMcGuire1 257x300 Review of the Day: Marty McGuire by Kate MessnerThe rise of the princess culture is a relatively recent phenomenon. I’m referring to the abject shameless marketing to little girls of anything and everything princessy. It didn’t really exist when I was a kid, only hitting its stride in the last decade or so. The result in the literary world has been a veritable cornucopia of pink and sparkly princess books for girls of every age. If a girl isn’t into princesses and their omnipresent pinkness they may sometimes find the literary pickings (at least in some bookstores) few. Marty McGuire’s brave rejection of all of that comes as a breath of fresh air. Here we’ve got a girl on the cover reaching for a frog in jeans and sneakers. Pink sneakers, sure, but you go with what you’ve got. The tiara falling to the side seems like more of an afterthought than anything else. I mean clearly this is a different kind of book.

Which makes the story all the more difficult to pull off. In a way, you’re rooting for Marty and her anti-princess stance. The idea of her forced princessing is tricky territory. But Messner somehow manages to walk a fine line, never making this a book about “embracing your inner princess” or similar dreck. Instead, this is very clearly a story about trying something new and making it your own, even if it pulls you out of your comfort zone. That’s actually a very useful, if rare, lesson tha

9 Comments on Review of the Day: Marty McGuire by Kate Messner, last added: 7/23/2011
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24. Review of the Day: The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred by Samantha R. Vamos

The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred
By Samantha R. Vamos
Illustrated by Rafael Lopez
ISBN: 978-1-58089-242-1
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

I am lucky to work in a children’s room with a significantly sized bilingual section. The books you’ll find there cover a wide range of languages. Chinese, Arabic, Urdu, you name it. Of them the largest section by far is the Spanish language section. Of course, what we don’t really include in this section are books that integrate Spanish words into English text, though the stories are predominantly in English. There really isn’t a name for this kind of book, which is a real pity since they serve a definite use. Now you can go about integrating Spanish and English any old way you prefer, but Samantha Vamos has you beat. According to the back bookflap “Samantha R. Vamos was cooking one day when the idea for this book popped into her head.” The idea goes beyond a mere food related plot and ends up being one of the most creative ways of working Spanish elements into a work of English I’ve seen in years. Top off the fact that the art is enough to give your jaw a downward plunge, and I’d say you were dealing with one of the cleverer picture books of the year.

Are you familiar with the cumulative tale format? Well Ms. Vamos takes the idea and twists it a little. A variety of different farm animals aid a farmer and a farm maiden as they work together to make some rice pudding. A donkey picks limes, a duck buys sugar, a hen grates, and by the end everyone has done their part. Of course, in the midst of some dancing the pudding almost gets out of hand, but our heroes are able to save it in time. The end of the book includes a Glossary of Spanish Words and a recipe for the pudding.

I’ll say right here that the way in which Vamos has seamlessly integrated Spanish words into her text is extraordinary. Until now the standard method of doing this was just to throw the words into random sentences and cross your fingers. Best case scenario, you end up with something like Gary Soto’s Chato’s Kitchen. Worst case scenario and the words become jarring and needless. The trick Vamos uses here is to take the cumulative format and make it work for her. Normally a cumulative story doesn’t shake up the words. It’s the old House That Jack Built idea. This did this, that did that, it did it, etc. But Vamos has a different idea going on here. She starts out with an English word on the first reading, then switches that word to its Spanish equivalent when it’s repeated. So the first sentence in the book reads “This is the pot that the farm maiden stirred”. Fair enough. Turn the page and suddenly you read, “This the butter that went into the Cazuela that the farm maiden stirred.” You see what she’s

10 Comments on Review of the Day: The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred by Samantha R. Vamos, last added: 8/7/2011
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25. Review of the Day: The No. I Car Spotter by Atinuke

The No. 1 Car Spotter
By Atinuke
Illustrated by Warwick Johnson Cadwell
Kane/Miller (a division of EDC Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-61067-051-7
Ages 7-11
On shelves September 1st.

When I discovered the amazing, remarkable, one-of-a-kind, never before seen Anna Hibiscus books by Atinuke last year I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It just didn’t seem possible. A contemporary early chapter book set on the continent of Africa? To understand how rare this was visit your local library sometime. Ask for fiction about Africa that takes place today for early readers. Specify that you’d rather not take out a work of older fiction that’s deadly serious, but rather something light and fun. And while you’re at it, why don’t you ask for the moon as well since you’re just as likely to get that as what I’ve just described unless it’s Anna Hibiscus (in America anyway). Now Anna is joined by yet another Atinuke character. No. 1 lives in a rural village with his family and friends and his stories, like those of Anna Hibiscus, linger in your brain long after you’ve read them.

Meet No. 1. He’s what you might call a car spotter. If there’s a car driving past his village, you can be sure he’ll not only spot it but identify it and long before anyone else. Life in No. 1’s village isn’t easy, of course. If a cart breaks down then everyone’s got to figure out how to get the produce to the market (it’s No. 1 who comes up with a brilliant solution). If a woman wants to get lipstick at the market she sometimes will have to send a boy (No. 1 ends up doing the right thing entirely by accident then too). If people need chores done they have to rely on the kids (a problem when No. 1 wants to only help the auntie who makes the best food). And if someone gets seriously sick… well, sometimes it’s not always No. 1 who comes up with the solutions to problems. But he’s always around to help out.

I adore Atinuke’s ear for language. This book just begs to be read aloud as you go through it. Pitch perfect bedtime reading fare, that’s what you have here. You get such magnificent lines out of it too. For example, there’s the section where No. 1 aids a single particular mama in the hopes of getting some of her delicious akara. At one point the author just writes, “As I was an able-bodied boy in the vicinity of a shouting mama I started to run around as well.” Something about the construction of that sentence just pleases me to no end. Later No. 1 explains to Coca-Cola that he can’t risk helping him out anymore because he might end up with a name like 7Up. Coca-Cola, visibly upset, points out that his own nickname is from a soft drink. I love No. 1’s method of comforting his friend. “That… is because Coca-Cola is the number one soft drink. Some people prefer Fanta. It is true. And some people prefer Sprite. Some people don’t touch Coca-Cola. But Coca-Cola is still number one.” As pep talks go, I’ve never heard on

4 Comments on Review of the Day: The No. I Car Spotter by Atinuke, last added: 8/20/2011
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