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Review: A Gift for Mama April 16, 2014

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A Gift for MamaOskar’s mother is having a birthday and he has a problem–how to find the perfect present? Although the streets of Vienna are filled with beautiful things, he only has one coin. He purchases a beautiful flower and thinks he has made a good choice, but then an artists comes a long and offers to trade him for a paintbrush. As Oskar walks through the streets, he keeps trading and trading, each time for something unique to Vienna–music, books, candy. Finally he has to make a choice–will he give away the present, in the end, to make someone else happy? And if he does, what will Mama get for her birthday?
Linda Ravin Lodding’s text is filled with rhythm and detail. The carriages in the street ‘clippety-clopped against the cobblestones,’ the artists offers ‘a beautiful horsehair brush’ and Oskar ‘waltzed down the street.’ Alison Jay’s illustrations are done in her trademark crackle-glazed style with bright colors perfect for springtime. Spot illustrations show Oskar’s thoughts about what he might give Mama, while full spreads detail the marvelous houses and shops of Vienna and the dramatic struggle of the Empress’ carriage stuck in the mud. In the end, Mama gets her gift, the sun goes down and Oskar is happy, so the reader must be too. This is the perfect book for a birthday, Mother’s Day or any day.

And the Winner Is… April 3, 2014

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I’m SO HAPPY with the result of this year’s Battle of the Kid’s Books! I’ve been following now for about four years and for the last couple of battles I’ve appreciated but haven’t really loved the winner. This year, however, I was rooting for Boxers & Saints from Round 1.

“This book is brilliant in the way only older children can be.” –Jennifer Holm.

Why, thank you! (Yes, I’m an oldest child) I absolutely loved the family metaphor that Holm used to start off her decision. Books and literature are a family–a huge fantastic one with cousins and second cousins and not-really-related-but-might-as-well-be cousins (I have lots of those) and I love how she reminds us that different kinds of books all have their merit. And yes, that line from Eleanor & Park is one of the best love lines ever.

Holm, from the standpoint of a historical novelist, makes us appreciate even more the challenges that Yang faced in distilling the events of the Boxer Rebellion into a narrative. Patrick Ness touched on this as well in his decision, but one of the reasons that I think this book resonated with me so much this year was the fact that it illustrated how a specific story can illuminate huge historical events or experiences. I am a playwright and puppeteer, and storytelling is something I ponder on a daily basis. How to create fresh stories? How to communicate the horror of events and experiences to audiences? This book reminds me that the specific can also be universal and by telling a single person’s story, we can create empathy and understanding. I love that Holm talked about the technical aspects of Boxers & Saints as a graphic novel. Her gushing about the layouts, the panel design, the color palette are all aspects that we haven’t heard as much about from the other judges and I love that she gets to remind us how rich and varied the visuals in Boxers & Saints are, along with the text. And then she quotes Neil Gaiman. Perfect.

BOB, Round 3 March 31, 2014

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Only one more week! What on earth am I going to read online to procrastinate once this Battle is over? I know, I know–that’s what Twitter is for. Two matches in this round, and here are my thoughts:

“YA has grown into such a gorgeous, vast country that to narrow it down seems impossible and probably undesirable.” –Patrick Ness

I probably would have been more surprised at the incisiveness and punch of Ness’ decision if I didn’t follow him on Twitter. After reading his ongoing comments on Twilight, I somewhat expected him to takedown one of these two titles. While I definitely agree with his pick of Boxers & Saints, I myself was not so harsh towards Far Far Away which I read as being intended for a slightly younger audience than YA, if not for middle grade. The fairy tale aspects of it, for me, took the book far away from reality and the real actions of teenagers, almost into the realm of allegory. However, I appreciated Ness’ comments on the need for specificity in order to achieve the universal and his acknowledgment of Boxers & Saints as some of the best work that YA has to offer.

 

“Do you hear that sound? That is the sound of Fate laughing her fool head off at me.” –Robin LaFevers

I probably would have gone the other way, to be honest. For me, the episodic structure of P.S. Be Eleven disrupted the pacing more than it helped the story. While I smiled at the antics of Vonetta and Fern, I laughed out loud repeatedly at Summer and Obaachan’s tangled arguments. That said, I thought LaFevers explained her decision thoroughly and I wholeheartedly agree with her final sentence and reminder that anyone who reads either or both of these titles is a winner.

As a side note, can I just say how much I love that Kid Commentator RGN is pulling so hard for Rose Under Fire to win the Undead Poll? We’ll find out the winner tomorrow…

 

BOB, Round 2 March 27, 2014

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Three matches that made me happy, one that made me shrug my shoulders a bit. That’s not a bad record, as far as the Battle of the Kid’s Books goes. ALSO, can we once again say how incredibly amazing these judges are? Katherine Marsh even came up with a new comparison cliche!

“With vivid, wrenching scenes of warfare and massacre, Yang makes readers face up to how savage we human beings can be.” –Tonya Bolden

Much as I love The Animal Book, I would have been really upset had Boxers & Saints not won this round. I think it’s the most impressive graphic novel I’ve read this year, of any genre or age level. The writing and visuals are both gorgeous and there are no easy answers, which is probably my favorite thing about it. If I had to pick a contender right now that I’m rooting for to win the whole battle, it would probably be Boxers & Saints. 

“Too often, omni POVs serve as protection against critical crucifixion while they ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ or insert the author’s voice at the expense of Story.” –Rae Carson.

On the one hand, I’m glad that Carson didn’t pick Eleanor & Park because it has definitely been the most talked about title this year, similar to TFIOS last year. And I love it, I really do. One thing that has been really interesting is to hear what other adult fiction writers had to say about it over at the Morning News Tournament of Books. I was bemused to read several of them complaining that the lack of sex wasn’t believable, and I wonder how much they know about general parental and teacher objections to young adult material.  Far Far Away was intriguing but I didn’t run out to tell everyone I know that they had to read it RIGHT NOW. I’m interested to see what the next judge has to say about this reinvented fairy tale.

“Both books are about growing up. Both stories are rooted in dreams.” –Joseph Bruchac.

This was a lovely appraisal of both Hokey Pokey and P.S. Eleven. I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Bruchac several years ago and this thoughtfulness and consideration really come through in this decision. I love that he pointed out the literary references in P. S. Be Eleven, something that I hadn’t really thought about but that is definitely a big part of Delphine and her life. I’m glad that I finally read Hokey Pokey (now I just have to figure out who I can sell it to) and I’m glad that P.S. Be Eleven is getting more discussion here than it did on some of the Newbery blogs.

“But a slightly older reader can appreciate a more complex carbohydrate, which brings us to wheat.” –Katherine Marsh.

Katherine Marsh is possibly the author I was most excited to read as a judge (and not just because she responded to my comment on her introduction post). Her book The Night Tourist is one of my favorite explorations of Greek mythology in a middle grade novel and Jepp, who defied the stars gave me a new interest in astronomy and European history. Marsh just hit this one out of the park. I’m using ‘gut punch’ now on to describe novels that stick with me and I think it absolutely applies to The Thing About Luck. I’m looking forward to reading whatever Marsh writes next.

BOB, Matches 5-8 March 21, 2014

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SIGH. There are two ways that the matches seem to be going for me in the Battle of the Kid’s Books this year. One, I’m ok with either book winning because I liked them both with no real strong feelings either way. Or two, I’m never going to be happy because I LOVED both titles and it’s completely unfair that one has to lose. The redeeming factor in all this angst is how amazing the judges are this year. No offense to anyone who has judged the past couple years but this group is just nailing every single decision. Holy bagumba! (as Flora would say).

“… I think I’ve got the most outrageously unfair bracket since the invention of brackets in 1257AD.” –Tom Angleberger

Side note: Were brackets invented in 1257? I think my favorite part of this decision was Angleberger’s description of Hokey Pokey as ‘Peter Pan’ meets ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’ Best. Description. Ever. At least for this fan of Little Women, which is the only reason I ever actually got through the John Bunyan allegory. I thought March Book 1 was possibly the best historical graphic novel I’ve ever read and I can’t wait to read the next installment (plus the fact that it was a staffer who convinced Lewis to write it gives me hope that there actually are cool people among the hordes of political junkies in my hometown). Still, I’m happy to have Hokey Pokey move on to the next round.

“…my inner beard-stroking medievalist made me an actual beard-tugging reviewer.” –Mac Barnett

YES. Barnett nailed all of my problems with both P.S. Be Eleven and Midwinterblood. I’m not a medievalist so it wasn’t the anachronisms in Sedgewick’s writing that stuck out to me, so much as the lackluster characters of both Eric and Merle. I don’t always mind cliches anachronisms (and I know there are those out there who will say “It’s fantasy! Who cares?”) but they have to have a reason for existing or at least make the story compelling and I was never pulled into any of the worlds depicted in Midwinterblood. Thank you Mac Barnett, for explaining all this much better than I ever could have. 

“Can a combine be cute? Yes!” –Malinda Lo

The Thing About Luck is a book I appreciate. Rose Under Fire is a book I love. That said, especially with all the discussion lately about lack of diversity in children’s lit, I can’t find fault with any part of Lo’s decision (and can I say how refreshing it is to have judges who decide so specifically instead of waffling?). I do think the structure of Rose could have been smoother, although it didn’t bother me that I knew from the beginning she survived–if I hadn’t had that reassurance, I’m not sure I could have made it through the book. Also, this sets up a huge middle grade showdown with the winner of the eighth match…

“So. How’s that fruit salad coming along?” –Sheila Turnage

Will there ever be a year when none of the Battle of the Books judges use the old apples vs. oranges cliche? I wish I could say that I predicted What the Heart Knows to win this, but I had a feeling that Turnage would pick True Blue Scouts–incidentally the book on this list that hews closest to Turnage’s own writing style. I enjoyed the escapades of Chap and Sonny Boy, Bingo and J’miah but I haven’t gone back to re-read them nearly as much as the precise, insightful poems by Joyce Sidman. Oh well. May I point out that four of the finalists for the National Book Award (Far Far Away, Boxers & Saints, True Blue Scouts, The Thing About Luck) are still in the running here? Will The Thing About Luck triumph over them all yet again? We’ll see….

BOB, Matches 1-4 March 14, 2014

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I have so little to be annoyed about! This NEVER happens with the Battle of the Books…inevitably there are judges who I just completely disagree with no matter how eloquent their explanation of why they chose a book that I didn’t like. Perhaps it is because I love nearly every single title in the running this year. At any rate, some favorite moments from this week’s matches: 

“Both books are filled with mystery, romance and survival–the drama of predator and prey.” –Vaunda Nelson. 

No complaints about the outcome of this match! I loved The Animal Book and am glad that Nelson also appreciated its detail and careful structure. 

“It all ends with me throwing the book against the wall again. Only a master storyteller can make me do that.” –Yuyi Morales

I thought I wasn’t going to be happy no matter the outcome of this match, and yet, Yuyi Morales managed to write a judgement that had me cheering at the end of every sentence. Like Morales, it took me forever to get into the rhythm of A Corner of White and like Morales, by the end I was completely enraptured. However, Boxers & Saints has been the book I’ve told everyone I know to read and read NOW, so I’m glad it moves on to the next round. 

“…reading Eleanor & Park was like discovering a new flavor of ice cream (really sad, really poignant ice cream)…” –Lauren Oliver

I’m totally going to describe Romeo & Juliet now to teens as being about a rebound relationship. I was curious to see what Oliver would pick, as she is an author who writes both middle grade and YA.  Doll Bones hasn’t really stuck with me (though I should probably revisit it at some point) but Eleanor & Park is a book I’ve re-read every time I have to shelve it at the store, so yay for it moving on. 

“Once upon a time, on a couch in my apartment there were two books…”–Sarah Mlynowsky

Sigh. I have a higher tolerance for quirky than most people, I guess. On the other hand, I enjoyed Far Far Away probably just as much as Flora & Ulysses so should I really complain? Also, Mlynowsky gave the best explanation I’ve heard yet for the odd mix of fairy tale and contemporary that Tom McNeal serves up. So I guess I can’t really grumble. Looking forward to next week!

Battle Books Revisited March 6, 2014

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The Battle of the Kids Books officially starts on Monday! So here are my comments on the books heading into the ring. Bear in mind that these are VERY rough thoughts, especially for those titles that I read six months ago and haven’t opened since!

All the Truth that’s in Me: I finally got around to this one after it was picked for the Battle. The somewhat disjointed style (and the present tense narration) are not my favorite and at a certain point, I just wanted to know the ending without really caring how we got there.

The Animal Book: I loved this book and sold many, many copies over the Christmas season. Definitely one of my top non-fiction picks of the year–I always learn something interesting from Steve Jenkins’ books.

Boxers & Saints: Possibly my favorite graphic novel I read last year. I was so grateful I got to hear Yang speak about these books and learn a little more about the journey he took in telling these stories. I was hugely disappointed this did not get any love at the YMAs.

A Corner of White: I just finished this, having started it months ago and put it down, put off by what I saw as a twee magical kingdom concept and a boring protagonist. I admit that I was wrong. The ending especially just knocked it out of the park and I can’t wait to read the second book in the series.

Doll Bones: I really enjoyed this, having been a big fan of similar games as a kid. That said, I haven’t felt compelled to re-read it recently and none of the characters really stuck with me.

Eleanor & Park: Despite the fact that I identify far more closely with the protagonist of Fangirl, I believe that E & P is the better book and the relationship between the main characters is amazing. I can easily see this coming back from the dead, should it get knocked out earlier in the Battle.

Far Far Away: I really enjoyed this creepy fairy tale and the oddly distanced narrator worked for me. Not in my top ten, but still a good read.

Flora & Ulysses: I loved both main characters in this story and was thrilled that it won the Newbery. Can it beat the Newbery Curse?

Hokey Pokey: Pacing was an issue for me, but once I got past all the introductory stuff and descriptions and hit the urgency of this day being different for Jack, I really enjoyed this one.

March Book One: I was lucky enough to hear John Lewis speak multiple times at my college and I sang for him on several of those occasions as part of the college choir. This is a wonderful introduction to the civil rights era and his experiences as a leader and activist. I hope it becomes widely read and appreciated.

Midwinterblood: This one really did nothing for me. I didn’t hate it, but after how much I loved Revolver by the same author, I was pretty disappointed. The format didn’t build into anything bigger and more meaningful and I didn’t really care about any of the characters (in any reincarnation).

P.S. Be Eleven: Delphine is one of my favorite middle grade characters ever. While the episodic structure of this title didn’t build for me as smoothly or effectively as One Crazy Summer, I’m still a big fan.

Rose Under Fire: It didn’t quite tear my heart out in the same way as Code Name Verity, but it would be unfair to expect that. I loved every single character in this story (Anna Engel!!!) and got to hear Wein speak about it back in May, which was a thrill.

The Thing About Luck: This was an ARC that I picked up, read a few pages, and put down. When it started getting love on the Heavy Medal blog, I went back and tried it again. Kadohata’s work is never going to really be my favorite–the style is just too slow for me. That said, I love the character building, there were lots of funny moments and I appreciated learning about a group of workers I never knew about before.

True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp: Similarly, Kathi Appelt is a writer I appreciate, but hasn’t been one of my favorites. However, I LOVED this title and really wish I still had a classroom to read it aloud with. Great voice and setting and just a fun, rollicking adventure all around.

What the Heart Knows: I pre-ordered this as soon as I knew it was coming out. Joyce Sidman is one of my favorite poets and every single poem in this collection touched me in a different way. I want to have printed copies of them on little cards that I can carry in my pocket as a talisman. Another title I was very sad to see without a shiny sticker after the YMAs.

Another March, Another SLJ BOB February 19, 2014

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I’m buried in plays, puppets and grant applications right now, but still trying to find the time to search out books from the ALA media awards that I haven’t read, as well as persuade myself to go back and finish those I put down (ahem, The Kingdom of Little Wounds, Maggot Moon!). And then there is School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kid’s Books. Otherwise known as “the site Cecilia checks first thing in the morning every day in March.”

The list of judges this year is AMAZING. Yuyi Morales! Jennifer Holm! Rae Carson! KATHERINE MARSH (who says she will come to my bookstore when her new book comes out, yeeesssssss!) You see, there are authors out there whose books I enjoy. Then there are authors who just impress me so much that I want to hear their thoughts about other books. Especially if they might be funny about it (Looking at you, Tom Angleberger and Mac Barnett. Adam Rex has set the bar high here. No pressure.)

This year I’ve read nearly everything on the list, with the exception of three: All the Truth That’s in Me, Hokey-Pokey and A Corner of White. The first two I  never got around to picking up and the third I started, then got bored and put down. Time to visit the library and do some catching up. Only a few weeks to go.

Twas the Night Before the YMAs… January 26, 2014

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Just a few thoughts before I get up insanely early (well, for me) to hear the results of the ALA Youth Media Awards. I have to work tomorrow too, which means that I hopefully will be able to make a display of award winners–always assuming we have them in stock! My final ponderings…

-I would not be sad to see The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp or The Thing About Luck win the Newbery. 

-I REALLY hope that Boxers & Saints gets recognized. Somehow. 

-If something out of left field wins big, I can only hope that DC Public Library will have it on the shelf. 

-Is it too much to hope that the winner of the Edwards is another fantasy author? 

-If The Kingdom of Little Wounds gets recognized, I guess I actually have to go back and try to finish it. Sigh. 

-I will probably be happy no matter what with the results of the Caldecott. Well, unless Journey gets left out entirely. But I don’t think that will happen!

YALSA Hub Challenge January 21, 2014

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Despite the fact that my interest in the ALA Youth Media awards borders on obsession, I’m not actually a librarian. I’m certified to work in K-12 school libraries in Virginia, but so far, I haven’t applied for any jobs because I’ve been doing other things. Still, I read all the online material posted by School Library Journal, and this month I’ve been adding YALSA’s blog The Hub to my daily to-read list. I decided to take on the challenge they posed of reading all the finalists for the William C Morris Award (given to a debut YA author) and the Excellence in Non-fiction Award before the YMAs are announced January 27. I’m in the middle of rehearsals and have nowhere near enough time to write full reviews, but here are my brief reactions to each book.

Excellence in Non-fiction Award finalists: 

Courage in Color: Great piece of history, but not compelling enough to really stick with me. The most interesting part for me was the balloon bombs sent by the Japanese, which made me wonder what other crazy things people did during wars that have been hidden from the public?

Imprisoned: I loved the book Farewell to Manzanar as a teen, so this was familiar territory to me. A fantastic overview that I hope LOTS of people read.

The President has Been Shot: Meh. It wasn’t bad. But I wasn’t blown away. It’s nowhere near as compelling as Kennedy Assassinated! The World Mourns: A Reporter’s Story, which was one of my favorites in high school.

The Nazi Hunters: THIS one was compelling. I knew the sketchiest of outlines of this part of history; it was told with precision, great pacing and just enough detail. Great to pair with fiction by Elizabeth Wein.

Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design: This one was also exceedingly fun. If I had the time, I would love to work through this with an art class of kids and have them try all the challenges and project.

William C Morris Award finalists: 

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets: It took me a REALLY long time to get into this. Partly it  felt too close to Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, another book this year with a depressed teenage boy protagonist. In the end, I was engaged, but overall the characters didn’t really stick with me.

Belle Epoque: Similarly, I had just read The Painted Girls, an adult title set in the same time period so that may be why I found this kind of underdeveloped. It was fun, with a nice happy ending for everyone, but not thematically very deep, at least to me. And first person present tense narrators always bug me more in historical fiction for some reason.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds: Great historical detail in this one–I haven’t read so much about the 1918 flu epidemic since A Time of Angels, by Karen Hesse. Occasionally it felt like just a string of strange facts though, and the plot was a bit meandering for my taste. I did like the main character though, and I’m interested to see what else this author writes.

Charm & Strange: I read this one in one day at the bookstore and it’s a testament to the strength of the prose that I never got distracted by anything else. Once again, a damaged teenage boy narrator (yet again in present tense) who in some ways reminded me of A. S. King’s narrator in Reality Boy. Good pacing and tightly focused characterizations put this one at the top of my list.

Sex and Violence: Past tense narration, finally! The main character of this story (Evan), while just as damaged as the narrator of the previous title, has more of a sense of humor and a wider circle of people helping him. The book covers a much longer period of time too, which means he gets farther along in his healing process. I loved this one for the humor, the authentic teen dialogue and the nuanced handling of the themes which the title states so blatantly. Now to figure out how I’m going to sell it to people who won’t buy books with the word ‘sex’ in the title.

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