31 January 2008

I'm walking in the Air

Ah....snowman nostalgia. This is the good part, before he melts.

Frosty Favorites--Snowmen Books

At bedtime this evening we read Preston McDaniel's A Perfect Snowmen. It's not often that you can describe a snowman book as "Dickensian", but you can in this case. In fact, you could even describe it as "Andersenian" (as in Hans Christian, complete with little match girl.) As far as winter books goes, this one transcends the genre. Winter games and canceled schools are only part of the story. Rosy cheeks and jack-frost nipped noses are only enjoyable when they are relieved by a return to a warm house. For those left in the cold, the snow can be dangerous. And as the picture perfect hero of the story learns, it is better to be compassionate and a friend than perfect. And who knew that there was reward in Heaven even for snowmen?

Much as I was impressed with "Perfect", my all time favorite snowman book is Martin MacGregor's Snowman (Cook, Lisa Broadie and Adam McCauley, illus)in which a young boy is impatiently awaiting the first snowfall. When Mother Nature refuses to cooperate, Martin MacGregor comes up with some creative solutions of his own. And for total snowman fun, you might also like to check out:

A Stranger in the Woods: a Photographic Fantasy (Sams, Carl R. and Jean Stoick)
Snowman at Night (Buehner, Caralyn and Mark Buehner, illus.)
The Snowman (Briggs, Raymond)

30 January 2008

Book of the Week--A Story for Bear

Illustrator Jim LaMarche visited my daughter's school last year, and I wish I had been familiar with this book then, because I would love an autographed copy! This book encapsulates what readers already know: that although reading is generally a private occupation, there is an immensely rewarding bond that develops when a story is shared. That why readers tend to gush about books they like, or even dislike. You just can't keep a story to yourself. Similar ground is covered in Sandy Asher's Too Many Frogs! (one of my all time favorite story time books) but with more laughs--and frogs. A Story for Bear is a gentler book, contemplative and peaceful and well suited to the woodland setting. It starts with a flame-colored bear, softly glorious in watercolor and acrylic, who finds a piece of paper in the woods. There are words on the paper, although the bear has no idea what they say, or even what they are. But he treasures it and wonders over it. One day he happens upon a woman reading to herself. When she takes a break and goes into her cabin, the bear investigates her abandoned book, noticing the marks so like those on his paper. The next day he ventures back, and so starts a ritual where the woman reads to the bear, all through the summer. This book walks a fine line between anthropomorphizing and reality. But like music soothing the savage beast, there is no denying the spell that the woman's reading casts upon the bear. The woman shared her story with bear, and now I share their story with you.

What I am Reading--The Garden of Eve

Dead mothers are always a good plot device. There is nothing like the absence of a mother to create a suitable amount of angst, heartache, uncertainty, and self-doubt. Think of the Alice books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, where the first couple of books in the series are driven by the fact that pre-teen Alice is growing up without a mother, surrounded by men in her family, and suffers the nagging fear that she is not approaching the formative years of her life with due female influence. And more recently we have had the mother-less Bee from Being Bee, and Jack from The Night Tourist. Now there is Evie Adler in K.L. Going's The Garden of Eve. Her mother is ten months dead from cancer, and Evie is left with her botanist father who has never appreciated--or even understood--magic the way her mother did. He is too much of a scientist to put much stock in fairy tales, or stories in general. When he takes on the job of trying to revive a dead apple orchard in Beaumont, New York, far from their Michigan home, Evie is resentful. They move into a house right next door to a cemetery--but the only cemetery Evie cares about is the one back in Michigan, where her mother is buried. Her father devotes his time to the orchard--but all Evie can think of is the magic garden she used to plan with her mother, a perfect garden with magnificent trees and noble beasts where the three of them would always be together. When Evie is given a seed supposedly from the Garden of Eden, Evie thinks she has her chance to find that perfect garden, and consequently find her mother, too.

There is a lot going on in this book, some of it allegorical and some of it just old fashioned mystery. There is the boy Alex, whom Evie meets hanging around in the cemetery. Is he really dead, as he claims to be? Is the orchard where Evie's father toils really cursed, or has it simply been abandoned? When Evie plants her seed and enters the magical garden--by way of eating an apple, of course!--is she in Eden or is it a trap? There is another Eve who grew up in Beaumont and disappeared many, many years ago. What happened to her? And will Evie find peace after the death of her mother?

Some of the pieces in the book are tied together a little bit too neatly, but for the most part this is an engaging and thoughtful book. Evie is disillusioned without being broken. The father is pragmatically devoted to his work but all open-hearted and open-minded business when Evie needs him most. The supporting characters range from saintly (the dead mother)to utterly convincing (Alex). Readers who like their books with magic and symbolism will enjoy this.

27 January 2008

Bedtime Stories

Danny's First Snow (Gore, Leonid)
The Buffalo Storm (Appelgate, Katherine and Jan Ormerod, illus.)
Amanda Pig, Schoolgirl (Van Leeuwen, Jean and Ann Schweninger, illus.)

We had a bit of snow today, which no one seemed to be expecting, so a snow book seemed a cozy fit. But tonight's real treat was The Buffalo Storm. It told the story of a pioneer family headed west for Oregon (its not clear where they started from.) The story is told through the eyes of a young girl who isn't afraid of anything, except storms. And although her heart breaks at leaving her grandmother behind, she is a brave little participant in a long wagon train, lyrically described as "beads slowly stringing." (The poetic moment was slightly tarnished, though, when my daughter commented that the covers of the wagons looked like toilet paper rolls. Which they did!) When the girl witnesses a buffalo storm--a wild, enthusiastic, stampede of "crazed with life" buffalo--she is able to put behind her both her fear of storms and her "homesickness" for her grandmother. This was a beautiful book, both visually and emotionally. I've been a fan of Jan Ormerod for years; I loved the Miss Mouse books, and she has a wonderful back catalog of wordless picture books. But I've always dismissed Katherine Applegate--also known as K.A. Applegate--as a writer of series fiction. That's not a diss of series fiction in general, because I'm a fan. But her long running Animorph's series has never appealed to me and has always struck me as formulaic (plus it made the dreaded jump to TV.) To have written a debut picture book that is such a departure from her previous work is a real testament to her talent. Perhaps now with The Buffalo Storm, and the highly regarded Home of the Brave, Applegate will move out of the shadow of her success and show us what other stories she has inside her.

26 January 2008

Bye bye Nestle Prize

Well that's a shame! The Guardian reports on the demise of the Nestle Book Prize. I've read the article a couple of times now and it still rings hollow. Booktrust will no longer promote the prize because it's putting its efforts into book distribution? Nestle will no longer sponsor it because it is focusing on nutrition and healthy eating plans? Nestle's reputation was tarnished because it promoted powdered milk in developing countries? Powdered milk is promoted in developed countries, too. This prize has given school kids in the UK a voice in the world of Children's Literature (I remember it well from my time there.) A bit of a waste, if you ask me.

What I am Reading Today--The First Two Lives of Lukas Kasha

Here's an oldie but a goodie. I reread this for a 5th/6th Grade Book Discussion Group that I am hoping to get off the ground at work. I'll be curious to see what the kids make of it.

I read somewhere (and I'll have to find the citation before Tuesday night!) that The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha was a very personal book for Lloyd Alexander. This is not hard to believe. Storytelling plays a crucial part in the book, and Alexander was a master storyteller.

Lukas-Kasha is a layabout young man who is at his best when making mischief. One day, a traveling magician, Battisto the magnificent, rolls into the town where Lukas lives. He sets up shop and calls for a participant who is "bold enough to face every peril, to dare the unknown." Lukas steps up to the challenge and promptly gets his head ducked into a bucket of water. He is transported to another location, where he is dragged out of the sea and promptly declared King Kasha. And that's just the start of his problems. He finds himself caught in a power struggle with his Vizier, caught between two warring nations, and caught between the desire to live the lazy life of a pampered king (a role he is naturally suited for) and the growing realization that he has the wisdom and the quick wits to rule wisely. All while wondering when and if Battisto will ever pull his head out of the water, and take this new life away.

When I read this book as a middle schooler, I felt it was bittersweet. I remember talking with the friend who introduced me to it about that (and we talk about it still!) Reading it now, I have a much different interpretation (not to mention a new theory for just what exactly happens to Lukas-Kasha while his head is submerged in the bucket.) I have since read every book Lloyd Alexander has written, and can neatly place this volume within the canon. I have the benefit of nearly 20 years between readings. As a pre-teen girl I was totally caught up in the interpersonal relationships between the characters and heartbroken when I saw them come to an end. I could see the point Alexander was making, but I didn't approve! This time around I "get" what Alexander was saying: life is a journey; there is no certainty but uncertainty; stories have the power to heal and protect us. I also noticed the non-stop action in this book, and thought that I really must recommend it to more boys! And I couldn't help thinking how much Nur-Jehan, the bold and spirited Beishangari slave girl (who of course is so much more than she seems--as are all of Alexander's heroines) sounds like a Klingon, with all her talk of honor and warrior codes. I love the way we (that's the royal "we" BTW) cross-pollinate Art with the references and experiences we pick up every day. There is a lot of that in this book, too, as the characters apply knowledge from one sphere of their experience onto another.

Alexander dedicated The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha to "all who can imagine it really happened, and for all who wish it could". I now count myself among both camps. They are equally satisfying.

24 January 2008

More Hugo Cabret

This article appears on School Library Journal.com. I'm not surprised at the debate around Hugo Cabret's eligibility for the Caldecott, although it does not match the level of controversy which met Sue Patron's Newbery for The Higher Power of Lucky last year. But it seems clear that there is a preconceived--or perhaps preapproved?--idea of what constitutes a picture book, and "Invention" deviates from that in a big way. But if you read the terms and criteria for the Caldecott medal, as specified by the American Library Association, then it is hard to argue that "Invention" is not a picture book.

A "picture book for children" as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.

That's the first criteria. And since I feel that for the reader The Invention of Hugo Cabret is all about an experience, I'm won over with the very first point. And besides, who could begrudge such a magnificent book this honor?

Book of the Week--Birthday at the Panda Palace

This is a crowd pleaser all around: great for story time, great as a birthday gift, great for bedtime (evidenced by the fact that my daughter asked to hear it twice this evening.) That big happy panda from Dinner at the Panda Palace is back, and he's hosting birthday parties now. He's got all his friends round to celebrate Mouse's birthday. The story is told in smooth, easy to read rhymes, with a few speech bubbles thrown in towards the end to fill in the back story. And once it's time for the gifts, the text sets up a page turner with ample opportunity for little listeners to shout out the answer. This is such a cheerful, happy book. And to be honest, with a child's birthday party to host fast approaching, I could sure use some of Panda's expertise and panache!

21 January 2008

Bringing up Baby

I'm back home after a trip to Delaware (the maligned state of children's literature,) on the occasion of a baby shower. One of my college roommates and her husband has recently returned from Vietnam with their brand new baby boy. I've become fairly well-versed in the process and procedure of international adoption, as I have not one, but two friends, who are adopting from Vietnam. And sort of like the case that when I was pregnant I suddenly noticed how many pregnant women there were in the world, now that I have a vested interest in adoption, I have noticed a lot of books around on the subject. Three recent ones that come to mind are:

Motherbridge of Love (Anonymous and Josee Masse, illus.)
The Red Thread: an Adoption Fairy Tale (Lin, Grace)
We Belong Together: a Book about Adoption and Families (Parr, Todd)

And a few that are not strictly about adoption but about the fact that some families are made up of unexpected pieces:

The Thunderstruck Stork (Olson, David and Lynn Munsinger, illus.)
And Tango Makes Three (Richardson, Justin, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole, illus.)
Owen and Mzee: the True Story of a Remarkable Friendship (Hatkoff, Craig, etc.)

Owen and Mzee have become a bit of a cottage industry (sort of like Bunnicula and Good Night Moon.) You can choose the original book, a sequel (of sorts--it rehashes a lot of the original,) a board book edition, and an easy reader--not to mention Mama: a True Story in which a Baby Hippo Looses his Mama During a Tsunami, but Finds a New Home and a New Mama, by Jeanette Winters, wherein the title is longer than the book!

Anyways, the weekend was lovely, the shower was impressive, the gifts were literary (I've never seen so many board books in one room this side of my local Barnes and Nobles--and there were only two duplications!) and the baby of the hour himself was a charmer. Congratulations!

17 January 2008

Hugo Cabret in the News

And you can expect to see him a lot more in the future, now that The Invention of Hugo Cabret (my 2007 Book of the Year, by the way!) is the recipient of the 2008 Caldecot Medal. Newsweek has a very nice interview with author Brian Selznik, in which he talks about his time working in a bookshop and the fact that Martin Scorcesse in making the book into a film (although I kind of wonder if that's totally necessary. And will it be silent?) There are a few spoilers in the article, so if you are planning to read it anytime soon (and why wouldn't you?!) and don't want to know the secrets of the story.....consider yourself warned.

16 January 2008

For all you Eragon fans, Book 3 is coming

Because I get asked so often at work.....

However, I notice it already has 21 reviews, even though it's not due out until September 2008. Oh, to have such a fan base!

Not your average crossover

I don't read much adult literature these days (although I did recently read Steve Martin's Born Standing Up and highly recommend it,) and I NEVER read Dean Koontz, so this might have completely passed me by. But in a Publisher's Weekly article about the importance of post-Christmas bookstore sales, (December 3, 2007, Vol. 254, No.48, p. 20) it was mentioned that the paperback release of Kate DiCamillio's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane has been bumped up. Why, you ask? And what does this have to do with Dean Koontz? Well, evidently the book features heavily in Koontz's Brother Odd, and Candlewick, the publishers of "Tulane" are hoping to snag some adult readers, all on the basis of that connection. I for one can't argue with their reasoning. As a high schooler I read Candide--which was brutal, I might add-- simply because of the lyric, "It's just like a scene out of Voltaire" (That's from Duran Duran's Last Chance on the Stairway, just in case you didn't already know!) And I read Moby Dick as a preamble to Nathanial Philbrick's In The Heart of the Sea (although I probably should have read them in reverse. I recommend that one, too, BTW.)

I'd love to know if the strategy works. If it does, I wonder if it will lead to product placement among authors--prearranged mentioning to connect adult readers to kids books and vice versa. Actually, now that I think about it, I hope the strategy fails spectacularly! Far too contrived. I guess it's a shame that I found no value in my reading of Voltaire, but at least I got there on my own.

14 January 2008

What I am Reading--The Case of the Left-Handed Lady

The second of the Enola Holmes Mysteries picks up where the first one left off. Enola, on the run from big brothers Mycroft and Sherlock (he of Baker Street fame,) has set herself up in a sort of Remington Steele situation, fronting for a pretend Dr. Ragostin, a renowned Perditorian (finder of lost things or people.) She is a bit of a master of disguise, is our Enola, as well as a master of codes and cyphers. She is still sending messages to her missing mother through the personal pages of London's top newspapers. Every so often she gets a reply. At only 14, Enola has to lay low for a good number of years yet until she comes into her majority and is finally free of her brothers' plans to send her to boarding school and make a proper lady out of her. So imagine her chagrin when her first client is none other than Dr. John Watson. He has actually come in the hopes of finding her. But instead he sets her on the trail of a vanished girl who sounds not unlike Enola herself: caring, conscientious, and not to be corseted.

I enjoyed The Case of the Missing Marquess, the first Enola Holmes mystery, immensely, and am eagerly awaiting the third, due for publication early this year. Author Nancy Springer gets to show off what must have been extensive research in preparation for these books with copious amounts of information about codes and ciphering in Victorian England. Enola's own interest in the subject serves her investigations well. When she inspects the room of the missing Lady Cecily, she not only sees the obvious codes, such as the sealing wax at the Lady's desk in various colors for various purposes (red for business, grey for friendship, violet for condolences) which anyone would notice, but the code of a frustrated, intense young woman. She sees the listless pastels, the shackles of an aristocratic life, hanging on the walls and recognizes enough in them to know that Lady Cecily's passion and attention is not on all things debutante.

Not even 100 pages into the book, and Enola has already survived a garroting attempt and accidental detection by her brother's business associate. Enola is bold, clever, and believable, and does the name of "Holmes" proud.

2008 Award Winners

Well, thanks to one of those timely New England noreasters, I'm at home (for now.) For the last 15 minutes or so my mobile phone has been ringing with text messages announcing the big prize winners from ALA Midwinter in Philadelphia. (I wonder if it's snowing there, too.) So this is my first live blogcast!

Caldecott Medal: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (Wow! Talk about breaking the mold.)
Newbery Medal: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz
Printz Award: The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

And here's the rest of the best:

Sibert Medal: The Wall by Peter Sis.
Awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished
informational book published during the preceding year.

Geisel Award: There is a Bird on Your Head! by Mo Willems.
Given annually to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished contribution to the body of American children’s literature known as beginning reader books published in the United States during the preceding year.

Carnegie Award: Jump In! Produced by Disney DVD.
Awarded to honor outstanding video productions for children released during the previous year. Supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Batchelder Award Winner: VIZ Media for Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe.
This award is a citation awarded to an American publisher for a children's book considered to be the most outstanding of those books originally published in a foreign language in a foreign country, and subsequently translated into English and published in the United States.

Odyssey Award Winner: Jazz, produced by Live Oak Media.
This annual award will be given to the producer of the best audiobook produced for children and/or young adults, available in English in the United States. (This is the first year for this award.)

Edwards Award: Orson Scott Card.
Recognizes an author's work in helping adolescents become aware of themselves and addressing questions about their role and importance in relationships, society, and in the world.

Coretta Scott King: Author: Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis.
Illustrator: Let it Shine by Ashley Bryan.
Awarded annually to authors and illustrators of African descent for their distinguished books for children.

Steptoe: Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything In It by Sundee Frazier.
The award is established to affirm new talent and to offer visibility to excellence in writing and/or illustration which otherwise might be formally unacknowledged within a given year within the structure of the two awards given annually by the Coretta Scott King Task Force.

Schneider Winners: Picture: Kami and the Yaks.
Middle School: Reaching for Sun.
Teen: Hurt Go Happy.
Honors an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.

Belpre Medals: Author: The Poet Slave of Cuba by Margarita Engle.
Illustrator: Yuyi Morales for Los Gatos Black on Halloween.
Awarded biennially to a Latino/Latina writer and
illustrator in an outstanding work of literature for children.

Congratulations! I'm interested to see what the honor books were in the various categories. And I guess this is also a good time to see if the copy of Good Master! Sweet Ladies! that I ordered for work has arrived yet.

12 January 2008

Bring on the accolades

The young readers book award season, which will hit the mother lode on Monday when ALA announces its big prize winners, has a new addition. Christopher Paul Curtis' (a Newbery winner for the fantastic Bud, Not Buddy) has won the Scott O'Dell award for Elijah of Buxton. The Scott O'Dell Award, named after the legendary author of Island of the Blue Dolphins, among others, is given each year to a children's or young adult novel of historical fiction.

Well done!

Jon Scieszka--Children's Ambassador extrodinaire

If the UN can have a goodwill ambassador, then why not children's literature? In a super-cool move, The Library of Congress has appointed Children's Author Jon Scieszka as the first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. He doesn't have the status of Children's Laureate, a title which is used in the UK. But he will spend the next two years stumping for reading. The LC have made a great choice. His off-beat sense of humor, and his dedication to keep boys reading in particular(check out his Guys Read site) works in his favor. Scieszka understands that an emphasis needs to be placed on reading as much as on books. Not every kid wants to read War and Peace (Yes! I was the exception!) But most kids want to have fun. Scieszka wants to connect kids with fun things to read. All the power to him.

Some Scieszka faves:

Cowboy and Octopus (a NJFK Book of the Week)
The Time Warp Trio series (a great choice for kids looking to move away from Captain Underpants)
Seen Art?
The Stinky Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales

10 January 2008

Good for a giggle

I wish I could take the credit for this!

09 January 2008

And the (mock) winner is......

This afternoon I met with fellow librarians representing the Southeastern Massachusetts Library System to try our hand at selecting a Caldecott Winner. The 2008 Caldecott Medal will be awarded on Monday 14 January (along with the Newbery, Seibert, and Prinz) at the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting in Philly. We will see how our selection stacks up at that time. This was the first time I had taken part in such an event, and it was good fun. We were a group of 14, so we were only 1 body short of the actual nominating committee. But we only had 2 1/2 hours to select, defend, and vote on a title, as opposed to the conclave that will duke it out this weekend. As it was, we had to award a tie, because after two ballots and a hand count we were evenly split. We started with 29 titles, selected in advance by Melody Allen of the Rhode Island Office of Library and Information Services. Those 29 were narrowed down to 17. We then split into three groups, with each group commissioned to select two titles of the 17 to present and defend (and there could be no duplication between groups.) Although only 6 books were presented, each member was allowed to vote for a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd selection from the group of seventeen finalists. First time through I voted as such:

Dogs and Cats by Steven Jenkins
First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Jabberwocky by Christopher Myers

Second time through I voted:

Dogs and Cats
First the Egg
Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, Illus. by Kadir Nelson

When it came for a hand vote, I went with First the Egg.

But as I said, it was a tie. And so I present to you, the 2008 Caldecott Winners for the most distinguished American picture book for children published in English in the United States, as chosen by SEMLS:

The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County by Janice Harrington, Illus. by Shelly Jackson
First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Honors went to:

Fred Stays with Me! by Nancy Coffelt, Illus. by Tricia Tusa
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik
Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, Illus. by Kadir Nelson

Aside from providing a bit of fun, this afternoon's exercise was a great lesson in objectivity and critical analysis. It was new for me to take these books and judge them on the merits of a single aspect, in this case the illustrations (especially since I tend to pay more attention to text.) It was too easy to dismiss a title simply because the story or subject matter itself did not appeal to me. In order to judge fairly and according to the criteria which I had been given, I had to evaluate the effectiveness of the illustrations, not just as enhancers of the text, but as the heart of the story-telling process itself. Peter Sis' The Wall, for instance, is text heavy in a way that is not likely to attract a young reader. But the context and execution of the paneled illustrations does a superb job of presenting the themes discussed in all that text, in a way that is accessible to children. They may not read all the information about life in Communist Prague, but they will understand from the pictures that the place the author is describing is oppressive, colorless, and uniform. So in that regard, the book is outstanding.

Although I had enjoyed most of the 29 titles submitted for consideration, there were some severe omissions, in my opinion (where oh where was The Pink Refrigerator by Tim Egan?!) Here are the other 24 titles:

The Apple Pie That Papa Baked (Thompson, Lauren, illus. by Jonathan Bean)
At Night (Bean, Jonathan)
Beetle Bop (Fleming, Denise)
The Cheese (Palatini, Margie, illus. by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher)
A Closer Look (McCarthy, Mary)
Comets, Stars, the Moon and Mars (Florian, Douglas)
The Crow (Paul, Alison)
Dog and Bear (Seeger, Laura Vaccaro)
Dogs and Cats (Jenkins, Steve)
Duck, Duck, Goose (Hills, Tad)
A Good Day (Henkes, Kevin)
Heat Wave (Spinelli, Eileen, illus. Betsy Lewin)
Jabberwocky (Myers, Christopher)
Knuffe Bunny Too (Willems, Mo)
Leaves (Stein, Ezra David)
Let it Shine (Bryan, Ashley)
Lightship (Floca, Brian)
Little Red Riding Hood (Pinkney, Jerry)
Mary and the Mouse, The Mouse and Mary (McClintock, Barbara)
Pictures from our Vacation (Perkins, Lynne Rae)
Rainstorm (Lehman, Barbara)
Velma Gratch and the way Cool Butterfly (Madison, Alan, illus. Kevin Hawkes)
The Wall: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain (Sis, Peter)
The Wizard (Prelutsky, Jack, illus. Brandon Dorman)

What I am Reading--Being Bee

This is a slim volume but well worth a look. It tells a familiar story--precocious pre-teen has to adjust to new girlfriend in the life of her widower father. But there is a style to Catherine Bateson's storytelling which really sets this one apart. While the reader instantly sympathises with Bee as she bemoans the fact that no one understands her situation (and most of the adults really are surprisingly unsympathetic to the upheaval this is causing in her life), the girlfriend herself, Jazzi, is a thoroughly likable character, and there is real hope that the two of them can work on their relationship. The process is aided by events presented up-front (Jazzi taking Bee in as a confidant) and behind the scenes (the correspondence between Bee and her guinea pigs, Fifi and Lulu.) I found myself in tears at points in the story, mainly because Bateson does such an excellent job of revealing the communication gap between adults and children; how the gap would be so easy to bridge if the adults just remembered that the children are not adults themselves, that they don't think like adults. A perfect example is when Bee walks into her father's bedroom unannounced and discovers that Jazzi is there in bed with him. While the adults yell at her to go away, knock first, etc, etc, all Bee can think is, "Well how was I supposed to know that she was sleeping over?" How or why indeed.

While reading this, I was reminded of what an easy ride I had with my own step-son. I've always realised that I got off lightly, and that the credit goes to him. And as I read the ebb and flow of tension in Bee and Jazzi's relationship, I thanked God again that it was so! Pieceing together a family, as opposed to creating one, is a tricky business. Being Bee is a lovely way for young readers to see that it can be done successfully.

07 January 2008

Book of the Week--Toy Boat

Just about any child can identify with losing a beloved toy. But what if you had made the toy yourself? And it was lost at sea? And what if the toy had already wondered about setting off on its own, into the world, only to realize that there's no place like home? Randall De Seve's gentle book, Toy Boat explores these questions. Soft-hearted children will feel for the lost toy, as well as for the little master who has lost her. Tender illustrations, such as a mournful moon--which looks suspiciously like the little boy--watching over the boat, adrift at sea, and a clearly composed text combine to lift this story above the level of 'feel-good-message-book'. In a world where sunshine follows the rain, and the kindness of passing strangers completely compensates for previous slights, then a little boy and his boat can still find each other, even across the vast, unforgiving sea.

More celebrity pandering...er...publishing

Call me cynical, but the news reported by the BBC that Little Britain star David Walliams is set to publish a children's book doesn't exactly overwhelm me. I mean, when he is quoted as saying, "I hope the story will be funny and thought-provoking," all I can think is, 'doesn't he already know if it is or not?' Perhaps he was misquoted.

This is not even the first brush between children's literature and the Little Britain world; Matt Lucas, the other half of the LB team, stared as Toad of Toad Hall in a decidedly odd live action version of The Wind in the Willows, which I caught on Masterpiece Theatre last year. I think it was one of those projects which must have looked good on paper. I know it looked good when I read the program description on the TV Guide. Watching it, however, was a different matter.

04 January 2008

Bedtime Stories

Skippyjon Jones in Mummy Trouble (Schachner, Judy)
Wilfred the Rat (Stevenson, James)

I'm not a fan of Skippyjon Jones, the Siamese cat who insists that he is a chihuahua, but I have to admit that I liked this outing. Maybe it's because he wasn't as willfully naughty as he has been in past books. Maybe it was Judy Schachner's narration (I confess, we listened to CD, rather than test my cold-plagued voice) and her funny little accent and rolling of her R's. Maybe it was the reference to the "Under Mundo" and the fact that The Night Tourist was still fresh in my memory. Whatever it was--I liked this one. Skippyjon decides that he wants to visit Ancient Egypt. And, despite the warnings of his own Mummy (warning that he will get scared,) Skippyjon escapes to his closet and sets off on adventure with his band of Chimichangos. There are plenty of silly worditos, as in the previous books, which I think is part of the appeal.

And continuing my efforts to highlight any book with favorable representations of rats, I present Wilfred the Rat. James Stevenson, for all of his wry brilliance, is rapidly approaching Lost Treasure status. His Worst Person in the World books are pretty hard to come by, as are his Monty stories. "Wilfred" tells the story of a rat who finds himself at an amusement park abandoned for the winter. While there he befriends a squirrel and a chipmunk who show him the pleasures of a pleasure park when there are no people to chase them away. These are Wilfred's first friends, and when he has the opportunity to chose between fame or friends, the choice is easy. You can add "loyalty" to the list of fine ratty qualities!

What I am Reading--The Night Tourist

This was an absolutely brilliant book! Now, having gotten that out of the way, I can continue in a more professional manner.

Jack Perdu is a high school freshman with an intense interest in and talent for the Classics--Latin in particular. He lives with his widower dad who is an archeology professor at Yale University, friendless but happy with his books. When he suffers a near fatal experience (while trying to translate a tricky passage involving Orpheus and Eurydice, no less) his father sends him to New York City for an evaluation by a doctor friend. While waiting for his return train home, Jack meets Euri, an unusual girl--but one with whom he feels an instant rapport--who shows him a secret world beneath the city. It turns out that the secret world is actually The Underworld, and Jack has managed to cross into that world even though it is forbidden to the living. Having to constantly keep one step ahead of Cerberus and his sadistic keeper, Jack has three days to find his mother, before becoming trapped in death forever. While a knowledge of Greek mythology helps, particularly any of the stories involving the Underworld, author Katherine Marsh does an excellent job of setting the scene so that the reader understands the correlations between her story and the original source. It's never quite clear until the end of the story as to whether or not Jack is even still alive, but the authenticity of his experience is never in doubt. Marsh's descriptions of New York from a ghost-eye point of view made me think of scenes from Wim Wender's Wings of Desire--visions of a world that the living cannot see but that is unbelievably near. Jack and Euri are wonderfully drawn-out characters, and this is a page turner of the highest order. As the story drew near its conclusion I found myself starting to worry as to whether or not it would end as I hoped. And how would it end?! Read it and find out! The Night Tourist is a lovely, lovely, book. I'm putting it in YA, but junior high and strong middle school readers would and could enjoy it, too.

03 January 2008

Please (don't) look after this bear--Paddington seeks asylum

Still catching up on my holiday surfing....

I saw this piece in the Guardian about the upcoming Paddington book, Paddington Here and Now, which is Michael Bond's first Paddington book in eons, written to commemorate the bear's 50th birthday. Evidently Paddingon gets into trouble with the London Metropolitan Police when they realize that he is in the country, if not illegally, then certainly suspiciously. I kid you not! Bond says that the intent of the book is not to write a "hot-button" story for kids, but to simply highlight for them the isolation one can feel when in a country that is not their own. To that I say look no further than Shaun Tan's outstanding wordless graphic novel The Arrival. But getting back to Paddington. While the thought of Paddington Bear being shipped back to darkest Peru seems comical, it sort of lends itself to the debate about revising books in order to bring them up-to-date with current sensibilities. In fact, it is an excellent example of why it's really not a good idea to revisit and revise the classics (or even the less than classic, but simply beloved.) It's nice to think that there was a time when Paddington could turn up on a train station in a busy capital and trust that someone would have the goodness of heart to see him for his worth and give him a safe and comfortable place to live. I'll have to reserve judgement until I've read the book, but I wish we could be celebrating Paddington's big 5-0 a little less oddly.

02 January 2008

Bedtime Stories

Amazing Grace (Hoffman, Mary and Caroline Binch, illus.)
Follow the Line Through the House (Ljungkvist, Laura)
You'll be Sorry (Schneider, Josh)

As we prepare for a return to school, and the end of the holiday routine, it was not very easy getting these stories read, because it was not very easy getting washed and in bed on time. And then once we did, we realized that we should have saved something like"Follow the Line" for a reading opportunity when we had time to do just that--follow the line. It was a cool book with lots of details to investigate, and the appeal of trying to follow the single line from the front cover all the way through. But we were racing against the clock, so we did not give the book it's full due. However, we did read "Sorry" twice. The premise is simple: a little mouse is warned against hitting her baby brother. She does not believe it when her parents say "You'll be sorry." She should have listened to them! The comic ramifications will scare off any young reader. Parents--get this book for your squabbling offspring!

As for "Grace," this is a favorite. We have enjoyed all the Grace books and are revisiting them as we wait for the latest installment in the series, Princess Grace, due out in just a few days. I sang the first verse of "Amazing Grace" for my daughter, who was rather surprised to hear it. Apparently she was unaware of its existence. Clearly not paying attention in church!

2008--The Year of the Rat

This was originally intended to be a "What I am Reading" entry with a short list of rat faves, when I made the connection that 2008 is indeed the Year of the Rat. So how fitting that the first novel tucked away in the new year is Judy Cox's The Mystery of the Burmese Bandicoot. This is the first of, what will presumably be many, Tails of Frederick and Ishbu (yes, 'tails', not simply 'tales'.) Cox tells the story of two ratty brothers who escape (only as a matter of self-preservation) from their home in a fifth-grade classroom. In an absolutely fantastic sequence of events they find themselves traveling half-way around the world in search of the fabled Burmese Bandicoot, a jeweled figurine said to hold great powers and able to destroy mankind. The action is pretty much non-stop from start to finish with short chapters to keep the attention of reluctant readers. Cox's knowledge of rats is evident from the very start, and her detailed Author's Note reveals the extent of her research into all things ratty. Of course, as a school teacher herself, she has plenty of first-hand experience.

While Children's literature is sometimes unkind to rats (Brian Jacques' Redwall comes to mind,) there are plenty of titles which show rats to be the clever, sensitive animals that they are. Among them:

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh (O'Brien, Robert C)
Space Station Rat (Daley, Michael J)The sequel, Rat Trap, is due out in March.
Vasco Leader of His Tribe (Bondoux, Anne-Laure)
The Christmas Rat (Avi)
Ratspell (Mounter, Paddy)

01 January 2008

Blistering Barnacles! Tintin to hit the Screen

This is kind of an old story by now but the BBC reports about the upcoming Tintin films, one of which is to be directed by Peter Jackson (him of Lord of the Rings fame)and another by Steven Spielberg. According to the article a trilogy of films is to be made (Jackson clearly working on the premise that 3 is a magic number) and will feature the same technology that worked so well for Beowulf. So I guess that means it won't be live action? The article does not mention who will play the boy reporter, but there is already an official Tintin movie site, so you can watch that space for more news. Clearly, some people are very excited about this project. And who can blame them? I for one adore Tintin. When I visited Brussels, all I wanted to do was find a Tintin t-shirt. Forget the chocolate! But as I get older I find that I enjoy book to film adaptations less and less. But I'm looking forward to Snowy becoming the most famous film Yorkie since Toto.

Book of the Week--Dolores Meets Her Match

Barbara Samuels brings us the further adventures of Dolores and her beloved cat Duncan. Dolores's enthusiasm for Duncan is unparalleled, and that's saying a lot, because Dolores is nothing if not enthusiastic. When new girl Hillary and her uber-Siamese Harold arrive, Dolores feels not just threatened as the elementary school cat supremo, but she fears that Duncan's status as cat extraordinaire is in danger. Fortunately, Dolores's ever wise and patient big sister Faye provides a steady hand. And Dolores and Hillary realise that cooperation is preferable to competition. This is a good natured story with comic illustrations that showcase a motivated Dolores and a stoic Duncan. They remain matchless.

Bedtime Stories--Haven't I Read This Already?

Backbeard Pirate for Hire (McElligott, Matthew)
When Dinosaurs Came With Everything (Broach, Elise and David Small, illus.)
Play, Mozart, Play! (Sis, Peter)

And so 2008 starts very much like 2007 ended--still reading and looking for great books. Sis's "Mozart" put me in mind of M.T. Anderson's Handel who Knew What He Liked, mainly because it's a picture book biography of a great composer. And McElligott's Backbeard, with his outlandish clothes and pig (as opposed to a parrot) joins the rank of other misfit pirates Roger the Jolly Pirate and Jack Plank. In fact, Backbeard's search for employment is reminiscent of Jack Plank's attempts to find life after piracy. And as for "Dinosaurs", it gives a new twist to the "look-what-followed me-home" story. I guess that goes to show that good themes and ideas can never be exhausted.

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