Friday, July 18, 2014

Spotlight on Fiction 2014

Pigsticks and Harold and the Incredible Journey
by Alex Milway

“Pigsticks [is] the last in a noble line of pigs,” but he hasn’t done anything great yet.  After reading about his forepigs, Pigsticks decides to travel to the Ends of the Earth and (“unlike [his ancestor] Colonel Pigslet) . . . make it back alive!”  After a futile search for an assistant, Pigsticks serendipitously meets a small hamster named Harold who is strong, honest, and just what Pigsticks is looking for.

“The job’s yours . . . We shall leave tomorrow, before breakfast!”
“But I’m going to a tea party tomorrow . . . There will be cake.”
“We shall take a cake with us.”
“I don’t mean to be rude . . . but I could never leave before breakfast.”
“We shall take two cakes with us!” (21)

Reluctantly--and only after a promise of three cakes, one of them Battenburg--Harold agrees to the arrangement, and the unlikely pair set off on an adventure.

Pigsticks’ studied inattention, Harold’s penchant for cake, and the dialogue between the two create unpredictable humor and some absurd situations.

An interesting, elevated vocabulary makes this upper-level easy reader a great choice for independent readers who still want shorter stories with plenty of pictures.

*Received Netgalley ebook for review.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
by Karen Foxlee

 “Ophelia did not consider herself brave . . . but she was very curious.  She was exactly the kind of girl who couldn't walk past a golden keyhole without looking inside.” (9)  That keyhole happens to be in a snowy foreign city where her father has just taken a job at the museum. Her mother died three months ago, and since her father is distracted with work, and her sister is moody and distant, Ophelia explores the museum alone.  But the museum is a confusing place with signs pointing the wrong direction and guards that knit, sleep, and yell for no good reason, and of course, that golden keyhole.  Behind the keyhole she finds a 303-year-old boy who claims his name was taken by a “protectorate of wizards from the east, west, and middle . . .” (14) and that he is a prisoner of the Snow Queen.  He needs Ophelia’s help to find a magical sword and the One Other who will know how to wield it.  In short, he needs her to save the world.

Foxlee gives readers a wonderfully wicked villain.  The Snow Queen is “dazzlingly beautiful,” ice cold, deceptively kind, and she smells like hot chocolate. (13)  Eleven-year-old Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard is an equally delightful heroine.  She has a pale face, ragged braids, smudgy glasses, and asthma, and she simply refuses to believe in magic.  (Oh, and she likes sardines.) (76-77)

With lyrical writing, an adventure-filled plot, and the triumph of love over misery, this Snow Queen story is everything that a modern-day fairy tale should be.

*Review copy received from publisher.

Half a Chance
by Cynthia Lord

For 12-year-old Lucy Emery, moving to a lakeside cottage in New Hampshire means starting over in a new place again.  While her dad is out of town on another photography assignment, Lucy makes friends with Nate, the boy next door, and together, they spend the summer trying to find the perfect shots for a photo contest that Lucy is determined to win.  They hike a mountain, kayak on the lake, and watch the loons, but when one photograph reveals too much about Nate’s grandmother, it might mean the end of their friendship.

Lucy’s thoughtful observations provide insight into the characters and the human experience.  For instance, Lucy’s thought that kids “care a lot about other people, but most times . . . don’t have the power to change things for them” rings true. (71)  And her reaction to meeting new people (“Practice only makes familiar . . . Never easy.”) made me stop and think what many introverts might think: “Yep! That’s exactly right!” (6)  The sometimes difficult subjects of aging and dementia are treated in a candid, yet sensitive way.

This is a perceptive story about new beginnings, saying goodbye, and all the moments captured in between.

by Deborah Wiles

Segregation is a way of life in Greenwood, Mississippi, so 12-year-old Sunny Fairchild doesn't think much about why only white people go to the movies at the Leflore, or why no black children swim at the city pool, or why the only black woman at church is not a congregant, but a nursery assistant.  Besides, Sunny has worries of her own: her mother left when Sunny was a baby and her father’s new wife and children are “stuffed” into her home (80).  But this summer--the summer of 1964--agitators from the North are invading Mississippi, bringing big changes to the South, and as Sunny learns to look beyond her own concerns, she finds herself changing, as well.

Wiles uses Freedom Summer--the summer when 1,000 volunteers descended upon Mississippi and worked in a coordinated effort to empower black residents by registering them to vote--as the setting for her story. 

Revolution is the second book in The Sixties Trilogy, and as in the first book, period photographs, music lyrics, speech excerpts, and brief biographical sections are inserted between pages of story.  The factual--LBJ, Muhammad Ali, the Beatles, escalation of the war in Vietnam, and the murder of three Freedom Summer volunteers--intersects with Sunny’s fictional story, enhancing both and creating a memorable read.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.  RevolutionFreedom Summer by Susan Goldman Rubin and the young adult book, The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell are all excellent for exploring this pivotal period in our nation’s struggle with civil rights.

Spotlight on Nonfiction 2014

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life
by Lois Ehlert

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life is like a mini-presentation Lois Ehlert printed and bound between two 8 ¼ inch-square covers.  With just a sentence or two per page (and an occasional third), Ehlert tells of her childhood, the inspiration for her art and stories, and her process for creating books.

Photographs of her parents, tools, supplies, and workspace, along with her artwork (both in progress and from her books) fill the pages, while notes label the pictures and provide additional detail.  She even shares a few art project ideas that readers can try.  The book’s scrapbook style is perfectly suited to the colorful collage art.

Fans of Lois Ehlert will love learning about her work, and budding artists may be inspired to create collages of their own.

He Has Shot the President!: April 14, 1865: The Day John Wilkes Booth Killed President Lincoln

by Don Brown

He Has Shot the President! is the most recent title in Don Brown’s Actual Times series--a series that

belongs in every library.  These excellent nonfiction books for younger children chronicle significant moments in America’s history such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the start of the Revolutionary War, and the discovery that triggered the California gold rush.

He Has Shot the President recounts the events of April 14, 1865--the day John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln, detailing not just the assassination, but also, the larger story of the conspiracy to cripple the Union’s leadership and the ensuing manhunt.

Brown’s use of sharp angles and diagonal lines creates emotion and movement in the watercolor illustrations.  With impeccable pacing and a tightly spun narrative, this book is enough to make a history fan out of anyone.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights 
by Steve Sheinkin

On July 17, 1944, just after 10 p.m., two explosions destroyed the 1200 ft pier at Port Chicago Naval
Magazine in California. 10 million pounds of ammunition packed into a naval ship created an immense bomb, destroying a second docked ship, disintegrating the locomotive and box cars on the pier, and killing 320 men. 202 of those men were black. (65-68)

Although the Navy began accepting black volunteers to train as sailors in 1942, they were strictly segregated, and at Port Chicago, the dangerous job of loading ammunition went only to black sailors. The men were not adequately trained to handle explosives, and white officers sacrificed safety for speed as they raced their divisions to load the most cargo. (47)

When the 328 surviving men from Port Chicago were ordered to return to loading ammunition at Mare Island Naval Shipyard a few weeks after the explosion, over 200 refused. After threats of court-martial, 50 men still refused to load ammunition under the same officers with unchanged conditions. These were charged with mutiny, resulting in the largest mass trial in U.S. Naval history.

Sheinkin is one the best writers of children’s historical nonfiction today. His narratives are engaging, powerful, and eminently readable. This story of 50 men primarily follows Joe Small (the man accused by prosecutors of leading the mutiny), keeping it focused and personal. Brief examples of segregation and racial discrimination endured by servicemen elsewhere give a broader context to the story. And contemporary reports and transcripts, recollections of participants, and photos bring this compelling moment in history to life.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia
by Candace Fleming

In 1903, 1.5 per cent of the Russian population owned 90 percent of the country’s wealth. (4)  While peasants and factory workers struggled just to get enough food to eat, this small minority enjoyed unparalleled privilege, fabulous wealth, and “an unshakable belief in their own superiority.” (4)  Foremost among these were the Romanovs: Tsar Nicholas who was ill-prepared to lead when he became Russia’s “Little Father” at age 26; Alexandra, his German-born wife, who was aloof and superstitious; the four Grand Duchesses who disappointed the Russian people by being born girls; and the heir, Alexei, who held a deeply-guarded family secret. (24, 31, 45, 55, 58)

Extensive research and first-hand accounts make this story of Russia’s last Imperial Family strikingly personal.  Fleming looks at people and events that were inextricably linked to the Romanovs (Lenin, Rasputin, peasants, factory workers, and World War I), but adroitly contains the details so they never threaten to eclipse her primary subject.  This bigger picture helps readers understand the social and political forces that led to unrest, revolution, and ultimately, the Romanovs’ demise.

This is Candace Fleming at her best.

*Review copy received from publisher.

Spotlight on Picture Books 2014

Little Santa
by Jon Agee

I know . . . it’s 93 degrees outside, but just for a minute, imagine snow--lots and lots of snow.  Because in Jon Agee’s book, Little Santa, that is what there is--snow, cold, and hard work.  In fact, life is so tough at the North Pole, that the Clauses (well, the parents and six of the children, at least) are miserable.  Santa, the youngest of the bunch, loves the North Pole, and his red suit and cheerful face stand out in comical contrast to his family’s glumness.  Just when the Clauses decide to leave the “miles and miles” of snow and move to Florida, they get trapped by a “terrible blizzard,” and young Santa has to go for help.

This is not the story from the TV specials, instead it’s the story of how Santa flies on a reindeer, meets some helpful elves, and ends up staying at the North Pole--all told with Jon Agee’s characteristic dry humor and cartoon illustrations.

Perfect for Christmastime . . . and pretty terrific even in July.

by Lori Nichols

Before she was born, Maple’s parents planted a tree for her, and as Maple and her tree grow, she spends
time singing, swaying, and pretending with her tree.  Some days the “leaves . . . dance for her.”  Then one day, a sapling appears near Maple’s tree, and she learns that she will soon be a big sister.

A restrained text in this sweet book about sisters lets readers discover for themselves just what is happening in the story, creating a couple of great “Aha” moments.

Details in the pencil and digital-color illustrations, including Maple’s toys and a nest made by the birds in spring, encourage multiple readings.  The painterly feel of the maple tree, created with gorgeous shades of green and yellow, will have you seeking out the shade of a welcoming tree.

Look for the next book about these sisters, Maple & Willow Together, due to release in November.

Peggy: A Brave Chicken on a Big Adventure
by Anna Walker

Peggy (the chicken) lives in a “small house on a quiet street” where she enjoys a nice, simple routine, until “one blustery day” when a “gust of wind” scoops her up and carries her far from home.  Undaunted our plucky heroine “pick[s] herself up, ruffle[s] her feathers, and [goes] for a walk.”

Here the splendid, double-page, ink and photo collage illustrations tell the story best and heighten the humor.  Peggy wanders amidst an umbrella-carrying, faceless crowd, rides the escalators, tries on shoes, and watches a movie (with popcorn, of course).  Just try not to giggle when she comes face to face with the chicken-shaped gravy boat.  After exploring the city, Peggy makes it safely home, but her daily routine will never be quite the same.

Anna Walker is an Australian author and artist whose concern for her own bantam hens blowing over the fence sparked the idea that grew into Peggy’s adventure.  It’s funny, beautiful, and utterly charming.

Rules of Summer
by Shaun Tan

“Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.”

That’s the first rule of summer.

“Never be late for a parade.”
“Never give your keys to a stranger.”
“Never forget the password.”

While it seems to be all about the rules, it is more about the relationship between brothers.  This is one of those books that you really have to read for yourself, but I’ll give you half-a-dozen adjectives:  captivating, enigmatic, emotive, thought-provoking, powerful, and inimitably Shaun Tan.

One reading is not enough.

Have You Seen My Dragon?
by Steve Light

In Have You Seen My Dragon by Steve Light, a small boy searches the city for his dragon.  “Maybe he got hungry and stopped for a hot dog./ Or perhaps he went downtown on the bus.”  Detailed illustrations capture the frenetic energy of a city.  And the dragon looks perfectly at home in the busy double-page spreads where he can be found swimming in the harbor, riding atop a subway car, and visiting the playground.  As readers join in the search for the dragon, they will find something new to count with every page turn.  Splashes of color on the otherwise black and white pages highlight 2 hot dogs, 3 buses, 4 sailboats, and so on, up to 20 Chinese lanterns.

This book works on multiple levels: a spot-the-dragon book; a counting book; a wow-check-out-everything-that-is-going-on-in-this-city book.  And besides, who wouldn't love to pick up a book with a green foil dragon on the dust jacket?