Friday, August 31, 2012

Looking Forward

It's the last day of August, the kids are back in school, and I am hoping to get some quiet reading time soon.  Here's a quick list of my must-reads for the month:
  • What Came from the Stars by Gary Schmidt
I have tried to avoid reading reviews (which has not been easy) for Gary Schmidt's new fantasy because I hate spoilers, but the brief summary I did read sounds intriguing.  And . . . it's Gary Schmidt.
  • The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Adventure by Martin Sandler
Rescue story = good.  True rescue story = better.  In his review for The Horn Book Magazine, Jonathan Hunt calls The Impossible Rescue, "a spirited adventure tale".  I'm hoping.  
  • Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
Sheinkin's The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery from 2010 was one of my favorite books from that year.  Where was he when I was in school?  I swear I would have loved history taught the way he tells it.  
What's on your list?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Three Cheers: When Worrying Does Make It Better

There are people who forge through life, seemingly without a care in the world, and then there are those who, well . . . sweat the small stuff.  As much as I don’t like it -- and I really do not -- I find myself in this latter group much of the time.  In fact, this worrying habit itself troubles me, which doesn’t really help me break it at all.  With that in mind, here’s a look at three recently published picture books whose characters the worrier in me can relate to.

In Sophie’s Fish by A. E. Cannon, Jake agrees to take care of Sophie’s fish, Yo-Yo, but as he waits for Sophie to bring her fish to his house, Jake is beset by what-if doubts that start to overwhelm him.  “What if Yo-Yo gets hungry?  What if Yo-Yo wants to play a game?  What if Yo-Yo gets sleepy . . . or cold?”  He even worries, “Do fish care if their special blankets are all wet?”  But when Sophie arrives and beams at him, Jake’s worries subside.  After all, “How hard can it be to babysit a fish?”  Well, maybe harder than you would think.

My children loved the twist at the end of the story.  (And for some inexplicable reason my toddler now thinks the name Sophie is hilarious.  I guess she associates it with a funny book, but you would think Yo-Yo would be funnier.)

The collage illustrations by Lee White capture Jake's frantic energy and enhance the characters' personalities -- especially that of Jake’s imagined Yo-Yo.  With each subsequent reading I found more detail to appreciate, including fish-shaped water splashes, clock hands, tree leaves, and even a fish-shaped speech bubble.  White seamlessly incorporates mixed media elements -- from lace curtains and tissue to buttons and bowties -- into his watercolor illustrations.  Additionally, clever use of text provides depth and texture.

Sophie’s Fish is a delight on the first read and even better on the next.

Fears are not uncommon on the first day of school, but in a departure from traditional fare, Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten! by Hyewon Yum explores a mother’s worries. 

The story begins on the endpapers with an excited boy washing sleep from his eyes, brushing his teeth, and dressing himself as he readies for his first day of kindergarten.  He wakes his mother who is tinged blue and looks small and lost under her covers.  She worries, “What if you don’t have time to finish your sandwich at lunch?” but her son is not at all concerned, and he tells her, “I can eat fast, Mom.”  She worries, “Did I pack all your school supplies?”  Again her son reassures her, “Mom, I have my crayons and markers and everything.”  This pattern continues until they arrive at school, and the boy’s mom meets another student’s mother.  Brighter color and a bigger body show the mother’s growing calm, as again the illustrations reflect her emotions.  Now it’s the son himself who needs reassurance as he clings to his mother’s leg and turns a bit blue until he meets his teacher, regains his confidence, and discovers that “kindergarten is awesome”. 

Because I’ve been a mom bravely trying not to cry as I’ve left a kindergartner at the school doors, I especially appreciated the illustration of an enthusiastic son leading -- almost dragging -- his tiny blue mom by the hand.  (Been there.  Done that.)  Empowering children and comforting parents who may have their own concerns about letting young ones head to school, this book is a great twist on back-to-school anxiety.

The final book in this edition of “Three Cheers” is A Home for Bird by Philip Stead.  While out foraging, Vernon meets Bird, and although Bird says nothing, Vernon befriends him.  Vernon worries that Bird is sad, perhaps because, as Vernon’s friend Porcupine suggests, “He misses home”.  So, Vernon and Bird embark on a journey to find a home for Bird.  They travel down the river in a tea-cup boat, follow the wind in the same repurposed teacup tied to a balloon, and check out many homes along the way.  Finally, with the help of a “kind stranger," they find their way to a home that suits Bird.

Repetition of the phrase, “Bird said nothing” throughout the story invites participation (especially from the pre-school set at our house).  Panel illustrations, spot pictures, and double-page spreads combine for a perfectly-paced story.  Stead’s brightly-colored illustrations in crayon and gouache include details, such as Vernon’s trinkets, that tell a story within the story for children who take the time to really look at the pages.  Notice the gifts Vernon leaves with Skunk and Porcupine when he says goodbye.  And if you missed the first picture, as I did on my first reading, go back and take a look at the details from the moving truck that show up later in the story.

What I like most about this book is Vernon.  Yep, Vernon.  I love his expressive eyes that show sadness, concern, and happiness.  I love his determination as he pushes Bird in a teacup and his repose as he watches clouds.  I love the way he thinks the best of Bird.  When Vernon introduces bird to his friends and Bird says nothing, Vernon points out that Bird is a “very good listener."  When they float up into the sky and Bird says nothing, Vernon thinks, “Bird is very brave."  Everyone needs a friend like Vernon -- a friend who will worry about you, journey into the “great unknown” with you, and carry you when you can’t climb.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

tara recommends Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale

I remember reading The Goose Girl for the first time and being entirely surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  The cover of the book was delightful (I miss the earlier unique illustrations that have been replaced by stock photos that all look the same) and the story was engaging.  From that moment on, I have been a fan of Shannon Hale.  Her books are always well written and interesting and I never have any worries about questionable content for a younger audience.  I always eagerly look forward to her next story.

Because of this, I pre-ordered Palace of Stone (Princess Academy 2) without any hesitation.  It has been a while since I read the first Princess Academy and could not remember much about the story.  I was afraid I would be lost reading the sequel, but I wasn’t at all.  She did a good job of naturally incorporating some of the recap into the story as she goes along and because of this, I would recommend this as a stand-alone novel as well as a sequel.

The story begins with Miri traveling down her mountain to spend the year in Asland with her friend Britta, who is preparing to marry Prince Steffan.  Miri is also excited to be studying at a special academy while she is there.  What she does not expect, however, is the unrest in the kingdom between the royals and the starving commoners.  She is torn between a group fighting for revolution and loyalty to her friend – who is the soon-to-be princess.  She also has to sort out her feelings for her childhood love and the possible romance with an intriguing boy she just met.

My favorite part about this book is the throwback to Jane Austen with Miri writing letters to her sister.  She signs the letters with phrases like “Your dull and bewildered sister” or “Your immensely entertaining sister,” perfectly finishing letters that are full of events of the day mixed with a healthy amount of self-reflection.  Once while she is questioning her cleverness she refers back to her time tending goats on her mountain: “Perhaps I should assure them that our goats enjoyed listening to me for hours on end.  I am certain their bleats meant “Do go on, Miri, darling.  You are immensely entertaining.”  As a closet self-conversationalist, I can relate to having conversations with myself and I found her reflections charming.

In the end, she discovers the magic of knowledge, the importance of words and the pain of bearing the consequences of your actions.  She also has to figure out who she really wants to be and where her heart lies.

Boring cover aside, this is another great story from Shannon Hale and I will watch for more from her in the future.

Palace of Stone: Princess Academy 2
by Shannon Hale
published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens
August 2012
Recommended for ages 10 and up

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

danyelle recommends Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

I had been looking forward to reading Rebecca Stead’s new book, Liar & Spy, all summer, so when I finally got a copy, I sat down and read it in one delicious gulp.  My husband came home somewhere around page 95 and asked, “How is it?”

I had to think for a minute before answering, “I’m not sure yet.  It could be really good or really strange.”

He passed me on the couch around dinnertime and asked, “Is it any better?”

Realizing he had misunderstood my earlier non-opinion, I tried to clarify it, “No, I mean I’m really enjoying it, but a lot is going to depend on where it goes.”

“Where it goes?  You’re almost finished.”

“I’m only on page 137.”

Had he asked me that same question 43 pages later, I would have told him, “Not only did I enjoy it, but this story goes remarkable places.”

Rebecca Stead does brilliant beginnings, as evidenced by the first sentence in the book: “There’s this totally false map of the human tongue."  Nine words capture a reader’s imagination (What? A map of the human tongue?) and establish the narrator’s voice (“totally false” totally sounds like a seventh grader.)  By the end of a short first page, Stead has set up suspense and introduced the reader to Georges through his voice.  She had me hooked.

When his dad loses his job, Georges and his parents have to adjust.  His mom volunteers for extra shifts at work, his dad starts a new business, and Georges has to leave the only home he’s known when the family moves to an apartment twelve blocks away.  Georges and a friend he makes in his new building begin spying on the mysterious Mr. X, hoping to uncover his secrets, but in the process, the two boys end up discovering answers to questions they weren’t even asking.

Stead pays attention to her characters, giving each one enough distinct personality to bring them to life.  Dad likes order and faded elegance, Mom looks at the big picture, Yum-Li makes unique fortune cookies, Bennie counts back exact change, and Bob English draws with a superfine Sharpie.  Quirky details give flavor to the story.

And then there’s Georges.  The thing is, Georges is awfully likeable.  He’s thoughtful--sometimes about playful things, like when he imagines a bird decorator wearing his dad’s glasses (73), and at other times about more serious subjects, like how big a container would need to be to hold all the tears cried in a single day (38).  He’s considerate, choosing unwanted players for his team (114) and taking time to cheer up a lonely, little kid (106).  And without being self-absorbed, he is introspective, considering whether he is losing the real Georges (111).

All of this thinking gives the reader time to reflect on some pretty big ideas without ever slowing down the story.  In fact, with short chapters, and breaks from one scene to the next, this story keeps a lively pace.  I never once stopped to check how many pages I had to go--always a good sign.

Humor also keeps the book from weighing itself down.  Stead’s brand of smart-funny is the quiet kind of humor that continues to be funny even on repeated readings.  Clever descriptions (ignorant tongue map), amusing ideas (Candy’s idea to marry Mr. Orange), and great dialogue kept me smiling.  In fact, the one instance of coarse humor in the book (44), was the one place I thought fell flat.

Other random things I loved: the scrabble tile messages, sarcastic clapping, and the recipe for perfect scrambled eggs.

Rebecca Stead deftly weaves story threads to create a journey about looking at the big picture and living your life now, about facing your fears and breaking rules that don’t make sense, and about believing in friendship.

And that’s where this story goes.

Liar & Spy
by Rebecca Stead
published by Wendy Lamb Books
August 2012
Recommended for ages 9 and up

Saturday, August 18, 2012

diane recommends Bird & Squirrel on the Run! by James Burks, and Cardboard by Doug TenNapel

I decided--after a long time of staring at them--to pick up these two graphic novels: Bird & Squirrel on the Run! by: James Burks, and Cardboard by: Doug TenNapel.  I was very surprised to see that they mostly have the same general plot: an irritating person ruins things, they go through a huge adventure together, and then they become friends.   Bird & Squirrel on the Run! is for younger kids, and Cardboard is for older kids, and both books keep you captivated the whole time.  They both have plenty of humor, and they both keep you on your toes, never knowing what is going to happen next.

Bird & Squirrel on the Run! starts with an over-zealous bird flying around on a beautiful fall day.  Bird runs into a panicky squirrel.  Squirrel is annoyed at Bird because he is busy focusing on survival, gathering more, more, and even more nuts.  In a turn of events, Squirrel looses all of his nuts, and ends up going on a road trip with this crazy bird.  This is scary enough for Squirrel without a daunting cat coming and trying to crash the party.  Throughout their adventure, Bird and Squirrel become best friends.

I love the way James Burks captures the emotion on Squirrel’s face as a scary adventure turns into a life-threatening adventure.  Bird & Squirrel on the Run! has turns around every corner and just enough humor to keep the story running.  This is a really fun, short read, and the art keeps your eyes drawn to the story.  Bird can be a little annoying at times, but throughout the whole story, he is the one keeping things optimistic, and you couldn’t have the book without him.

Cardboard is about a boy whose life is a disaster.  His mother is dead, and he is left with a dad, who can’t find a job, and can’t move on in life.  For Cam’s birthday, his dad buys him a cardboard box.  They make a boxer out of it, and it comes to life.  Marcus--the neighborhood freak--gets his hands on the cardboard, and makes the monsters from his imagination.  The monsters get out of control, and in the end, Cam comes to understand Marcus, and even becomes friends with him.

My favorite part in the book was when Cam made a “little dad” out of cardboard.  The dad discovers it, and the “little dad” says, “Hey! It’s a big fat me!”  Throughout the entire book, the “little dad” keeps saying odd things that make you laugh.   The characters are all really likeable, and funny.  This book can get a little scary at times, but always has funny parts to lighten it up.

Bird & Squirrel on the Run!
by James Burks
published by GRAPHIX
August 2012
Recommended for 5-8 year old readers

by Doug TenNapel
published by  GRAPHIX
August 2012
Recommended for 8-12 year old readers

Monday, August 13, 2012

It's That Time of Year

One of my favorite blogs--"Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog," authored by Nina Lindsay and Jonathan Hunt--published its first post of the season today.  They only post during the fall and winter, ending for the season shortly after the Newbery announcements, and today's post was really just an announcement that they will be back on September 4th.  If you haven't read their blog, you should check it out next month.  You can follow the link from our tab "Reading About Reading."  In the meantime, here is a list of some of my favorite books of the year so far:
  • May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
  • Crow by Barbara Wright
  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
  • The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielson
  • Three Times Lucky by Shelia Turnage
  • Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
I still have a list of books that I am looking forward to reading:
  • Princess Academy: Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale
  • Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz
  • Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin
  • What Came from the Stars by Gary Schmidt
What books am I missing from my lists?  Any favorites from this year?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

tara recommends Brand New Readers

Summer is quickly drawing to a close and that puts one thing on my mind – school.  I have had many years of having the kids all to myself, but, soon my five-year-old will be off to new adventures in the classroom – and not wanting to send her unprepared, we have amped up our reading endeavors. 

There seems to be a gap between learning your letters and diving into the early reader books that I remember from my childhood (Frog and Toad, Danny the Dinosaur, etc.).  It can just be painful when it is a struggle to sound out every word on the page and there is so much text.  Luckily, this summer we found a solution.

The Brand New Readers are small, thin paperback books that seem unsubstantial at first glance, but they serve their purpose very well.  Each box contains 10 different books, as well as a chart and stickers to map progress (which I have to admit, we have never used, but they look like they may be useful). 

I would not expect any genius story lines or witty dialogue, but the great thing about these books is their somewhat predictable text (the pictures tell the story) and with the minimal word count, they don’t require nearly the attention span of the longer early readers.  As an added bonus, they are also short enough to read to a busy Daddy!

After burning through almost 3 boxes, now my daughter has moved on to the harder and more word-heavy easy readers.  Luckily, now she is much more confident and has more patience to read the longer sentences!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

tara recommends (with some reservation) The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats

I love books and will happily read almost anything that comes my way, but I have always been drawn to historical fiction.  There is nothing quite like stepping into the past through a well-crafted story.  Whether it is The Witch of Blackbird Pond or Bud, Not Buddy – a new era is just a few pages away. 

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up The Wicked and the Just, but if there is anything better than historical fiction, for me it is European historical fiction – so, I figured I couldn’t go wrong.  Set in 13th century English-occupied Wales, Cecily and her father move from England to enjoy the opportunities given to those willing to settle in a land still socially unstable, where relationships between the English and Welsh are uneven and strained.

This story presents a well-developed picture by alternating voices between two girls – one Welsh and the other English.  Their voices counterbalance the attitudes of the time well and by using some Old-English and Welsh language you feel immersed in their world (sometimes, I was a bit distracted by the unfamiliar words, but overall it made the story more real).

Cecily opens the story as an entitled and unhappy girl who has been forced to moved from her home and is trying to make the best of it in her own way.  Because she has been taught that she is better than the people of Wales, she comes across as cocky, na├»ve, and sometimes just mean.  As she interacts with Gwenhyfar, the servant girl (who also shows a strong will and spitefulness), a recurring theme of “justice for those who deserve it” emerges.

I liked the historical feel of the story.  The unique relationship between the two girls was fun to explore and the fact that neither girl was particularly likeable at the beginning made them seem more real as the book ends.

As a caution, this story is not a light one and contains some strong language and adult situations (including murder, rape and other sexual situations) that would make me hesitant to recommend it to anyone under a mature 16.

The Wicked and the Just
by J. Anderson Coats
published by Harcourt Children's Books 
April 2012
Recommended for young adult readers

Saturday, August 4, 2012

danyelle recommends Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

I admit it.  Shadow and Bone is probably not a book I would have read had it not been for a recommendation given to me by a librarian acquaintance during a week when my to-read stack was dwindling.  Something about the title made me think that this was going to be overly dark for my taste and on the upper end of young adult.  (Perhaps it was a slight confusion somewhere in the back of my mind with the similarly titled, Daughter of Smoke and Bone.)  Whatever the reason, I am grateful for the recommendation because I thoroughly enjoyed a book I would have otherwise missed.

On the surface the story feels familiar: poor orphaned girl, neglected and unappreciated, discovers she has special powers and is drawn to those who recognize her importance.  Will the allure of power and recognition pull her into dangerous pathways or will she safely navigate her new world?  Yet, this story is not a stale rehashing of something you’ve read before.  Leigh Bardugo weaves a fresh tale by creating a world filled with political intrigue where the practice of the Small Science brings power and privilege and the desire to belong feels achingly important.

Alina and Mal are orphans of the border wars that have plagued their country for over 100 years.  Taken in by Duke Keramsov, they grow up together in what is essentially an orphanage on the Duke’s estate, relying on each other for support and companionship.  As chapter one opens, they are headed, as members of the First Army, into the Shadow Fold, a nearly impenetrable dark expanse that is home to the man-eating volcra.  Alina, a junior cartographer’s assistant, is unremarkable and largely unnoticed, but when volcra attack her and Mal in the Fold, she discovers she has unique abilities that may help reunite her country.  Almost immediately, guards take her from life in the army (and Mal) to the Little Palace behind the double walls of Os Alta, where she trains with other Grisha who practice the Small Science. For the first time in her life she is important, and other people recognize that, but she still feels ties to her childhood friend.

Vivid descriptions flavored with a Slavic accent bring Alina’s world to life -- I particularly like the term “exhausting extravagance” to describe the Grand Palace (104).  Entering the Fold “was like standing at the end of everything” (29).  Baghra “with her head cocked to one side and her eyes glittering black in the firelight . . . [looking] like a very mean sparrow” scared me when she said, “And there’s nothing wrong with being a lizard either.  Unless you were born to be a hawk” (178-79).  And I could keep going if I wanted to spoil the plot.

What I like most about the book, though, are the interactions between Alina and Mal that portray a genuine relationship.  The barbed letter that Alina writes to Mal expresses her frustration with not hearing from him:
I haven’t heard from you, so I assume you’ve met and married a volcra and that you’re living comfortably on the Shadow Fold, where you have neither light nor paper with which to write” (176).
But her final plea, “Please write” confirms her longing to hear from him (177).  And while Mal can be insensitive, almost to the point of callousness at times, when he whispers, “I’ll meet you in the meadow” the reader hears in his words what he feels for Alina (33).  Finally, after Alina tells Mal, “Thanks for finding me,”  he answers, “Always,” and I forgave him all previous stupidity (263).

I'm anxiously awaiting the next book in this trilogy.
Shadow and Bone (Grisha Trilogy)
by Leigh Bardugo
published by Henry Holt and Co.
June 2012
Recommended for young adult readers.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Inside Jokes

Allusions to picture books are common at our house, so when my teenage daughter tells me her sister is Ella Sarah today, I know just what to expect.  "It is not Gloria's yet!" is just another way of saying, "But, I don't want to share."  (Actually, that is one of many oft-repeated lines we borrow from the Frances books.)  And the question "How goes the work?" conjures up a sleepy, weepy farmer duck and usually reluctant grins all-around when we have almost finished a long day of yard work.

Yesterday, a dark purple blanket with my toddler beneath it came running into the kitchen calling, "Roaar! I'm a monstee!  I'm going to eat you."

And my sweet daughter bit me through the blanket -- not terribly hard, but definitely hard enough that I knew this "monstee" meant business.  I pulled her away from my leg and said, "Bootsie, I don't want to play that game."

Clearly, I didn't get my message across because she lunged at my leg again with another, "Roaar!"

This time I yanked the blanket off her head, looked her straight in the eye and said, "I am a PALEONTOLOGIST!  Would you like to play?"

A wicked grin lit up her face as she cried, "Yes!  I AM BOOTSIE BARKER!"

Some of the best jokes come from inside books.

Check out Bootsie Barker Bites
by Barbara Bottner
illustrated by Peggy Rathman
published 1992