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Top 5 Things I Love About David Levithan October 7, 2014

Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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This is a Top 5 Things post that I’ll write on my own, as Ana doesn’t share my love of David Levithan’s books. Part of this is certainly literary taste: Ana is enamored of plot and many of Levithan’s books, especially the early ones, focus more on characterization and atmosphere than action. It may also be differing experiences of adolescence. In any case, here is my list:

5. Friendships that don’t become romantic

This is not to imply that Levithan isn’t a great writer of romance. He’s written some of my favorite couples in all of YA literature (Nick and Norah, Noah and Paul). But he’s also brilliant at writing about friendship and one of my favorite chapters is the one in The Realm of Possibility about Lily and Jed who love each other, but are not ‘in love.’

4. Variations on high school cliches

Levithan’s first book Boy meets Boy, intentionally turned the usual high school tropes on their heads. Published in 2003, a year before Massachusetts, it was a bit of an outlier for it’s time. The football quarterback is also the homecoming queen for example. But even in books set closer to our own experience, such as The Realm of Possibility or Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, Levithan and his co-writer Rachel Cohn manage to make the stock characters of rich girl, jock, or stoner into individuals.

3. Nuanced family relationships

My favorite Levithan book just might be Are We There Yet?, the story of two brothers on a trip to Italy. Part of this is because there are so many references to my own childhood favorites (such as E.L. Konigsburg) but mostly it’s the fantastic depiction of how you can share so much with a sibling and yet still have so much to learn about them. My one quibble with this book is that Julia is a bit of a MPDG but I have met people like her while staying in hostels so I will mostly let it slide. And (SPOILER) neither brother ends up with her at the end, which is exactly as it should be.

2. Girls I can identify with

I can remember reading The Realm of Possibility as a teen and thinking “Hey, she sounds like me” multiple times. This rarely happened in depictions of teen culture for me and is one reason why I was never particularly into John Hughes movies or 10 Things I Hate About You.  Levithan’s characters may have different tastes in music (Norah) or live in different places (Lily) but they were almost always kindred spirits.

1. Unfailing optimism

The pervasive sense throughout all of Levithan’s books is hope. Whether they are dealing with struggles over sexuality, the aftermath of terrorism, personal journeys or political action, the characters look to the future with hope and optimism.


One last bonus–in addition to being a writer, Levithan is also an EDITOR for Scholastic! Some of the writers he works with are my very favorites in YA, including Libba Bray and Maggie Stiefvater.

Imitating Eric Carle October 7, 2014

Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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When I tell people I’m a freelance artist, they always ask “What kind?” in a voice that makes it clear they are thinking about visual art. I’m a puppeteer, so all my art is visual, but I don’t do a lot of painting or collage or art like that. So whenever Betsy Bird over at the blog A Fuse #8 Production breaks out one of her art challenges, I try my best to create something, just to mix things up a little.

For her latest, Re-Potterfy Harry Potter, I decided to play around a little with Eric Carle’s style of illustration. I own a book by Carle where he details his artistic process accompanied by great clear photos of how he creates each illustration. Using that and a bunch of his books for reference, I painted a bunch of tissue papers:


Then I sketched out the pieces of the illustration on tracing paper and used them to cut out the various parts I needed. I used the train in one of Carle’s earliest books 1, 2, 3 to the zoo as my model for the Hogwarts Express and it was complicated. 


But in the end, I was pretty happy with the results. I like collage, as it’s a little more forgiving of my lack of formal training than other media and I think Carle’s bright style matches the tone of the first Harry Potter book well. Maybe someday I’ll make some other Potter illustrations just to see how they turn out.


Three Septembers and a January August 8, 2014

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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With apologies to Neil Gaiman for stealing one of his titles from Sandman, here are four ARCs I’ve read recently that I can’t wait to share with readers:

deafoEl Deafo by Cece Bell (September)

This is without a doubt my favorite graphic novel of the year so far. When she was four years old, an illness left Bell with limited hearing and she had to wear a hearing aid to school. As she struggles to make friends, explain the hearing aid and find a way to fit in, she creates the character of ‘El Deafo’ a superhero with extra-sensitive hearing. And although the hearing aid gives her some embarrassing moments, it also leads to some triumphs. This was a funny, inspiring and flat-out fantastic read.

Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire (September)

eggMaguire combines Russian folktales and his own special brand of wit and whimsy in this tale of two girls–one rich, one poor–and their encounters with a prince, a Firebird, an ice dragon and the indomitable Baba Yaga. With lush descriptions that never overwhelm the story, laugh-out-loud asides from ‘Miss Yaga’ and quiet wisdom about heroism and choices, this is a near-perfect read. A great title to pair with Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz or The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier for readers who want a mix of mystery, fantasy and history.

Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson (September)

loveI was a huge fan of Johnson’s YA debut The Summer Prince when it came out last year and I’m even more impressed by this thriller set in Washington DC. Emily Bird is a student at Devonshire Academy, whose mother insists on academic and social perfection. But she would rather hang out in Northeast with her uncle and cousin, dream of opening a small store and–maybe–get to know Coffee, the Brazilian non-conformist who just might be in love with her. But with a government agent lurking who is convinced Bird knows dangerous secrets, and a deadly flu virus ravaging the city, Bird must figure out how to take control of her future. This one is for readers who like mysteries, thrillers, love stories–really, for anyone who loves a  great read.

The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (January)

warIt’s not out until January. But I just finished this new title by the author of Jefferson’s Sons and I am in love with it. This is the perfect read-aloud for kids who love the American Girl doll Molly and it will also please fans of World War II YA fare like Code Name Verity.  Ada is ten, but has never been able to walk or leave her house because of a clubfoot she has had from birth. Her mother is ashamed of her disability and abuses both her and her little brother Jamie. But when the war comes and Jamie is sent away to the country, Ada follows and slowly learns to walk, to trust others and to believe in herself.  With excellent period details, a spy story, horses and strong emotional resonance, this book will please just about everyone.

Latino Book Challenge August 2, 2014

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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I have given myself several book-related challenges this year. As a bookseller, I resolved to stop asking whether customers were purchasing for a boy or girl and instead focus my queries on gender-neutral characteristics like genre or other books the child has enjoyed. As the We Need Diverse Books campaign ramped up in May, I started trying to make sure I read at least two diverse titles every time I do a story time for the bookstore. And since January, I’ve been trying to keep track of all the Latino books I read for the Latinos In Kid Lit challenge.

The challenge is simple: read at least one book by a. a Latino author or b. about a Latino character each month. This challenge will go in a slightly different direction once I leave for South America later this month, but here are some favorites that I’ve read so far:


Fire! Fuego! Brave Bomberos by Susan Middleton Elya, illus. by Dan Santat

For any child who loves fire engines or firefighters, this is a fantastic read aloud with lots of Spanish mixed into the story. My preschool students loved it and played firefighters enthusiastically after listening.


What Can You Do With a Paleta? by Carmen Tafolla, illus. by Magaly Morales

Beautiful illustrations and an imaginative storyline about a sweet treat for the summer. Even if your reader isn’t familiar with a paleta they will enjoy finding all the little details in the pictures. It will probably also make you hungry.


Little Roja Riding Hood by Susan Middleton Elya, illus. by Susan Guvara

I love fairy tale retellings and this, along with the new Ninja Red Riding Hood is one of my favorites. Lots of Spanish mixed in, but the familiar storyline will help readers figure out the meanings. Great illustrations as well.


Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

A non-fiction picture book about the court case that integrated schools in California in the late 1940’s. Sylvia Mendez was told she had to go to the ‘Mexican school’ despite being an American citizen and speaking perfect English. Her family fought back with a lawsuit and won, establishing an important precedent for the more familiar Brown vs. Board of Education case. Tonatiuh’s text is a great read aloud and the pictures are vibrant and engaging.


Caminar by Skila Brown

This is possibly my favorite title here. In a poetry format, Brown tells the story of a boy in Guatemala in the 1980’s, whose entire village is killed in an attack by government forces. All along, he must climb a mountain to find his grandmother and warn her village of the danger. Beautifully written and with a sensitive author’s note, this book shines light on a piece of history almost always neglected by US history classes. A gem.

F&Gs for Winter July 22, 2014

Posted by ccbooks in Bookstore.
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I noticed a few trends as I went through the stack of F&Gs–an increasing number are written in first person or present tense, which I find interesting–and in the process found a set that all deal with winter or the seasons in a variety of different ways.
Blizzard by John Rocco
blizzardBased on the author/illustrator’s memories of a big snowstorm of his childhood, a family works together to stay warm and fed in the midst of snowdrifts that block the doors and make walking to the store impossible. When food runs short, it is up to the young narrator (who knows all about arctic survival) to create makeshift snowshoes and venture out for supplies. This is the perfect adventure story without being too scary and the one fold-open spread of the neighborhood under snow is fantastic. A great choice for a read-aloud.
Winter is Coming by Tony Johnston, illust. by Jim LaMarche
winterYoung naturalists and artists will be jealous of the narrator of this picture book, who has her own treehouse hideout from which she can observe all the animals of the forest. She watches each species looking for food as the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop. Her specific, detailed notes will inspire other young scientists while the beautiful colored pencil spreads (and the sketches the narrator makes) will prompt other young artists to try their own.
What Forest Knows by George Ella Lyon, illus. by August Hall
forestThis poetic text follows the creatures of a forest through all four season, paired with luminous illustrations by August Hall. From budding leaves to burrowing insects, this forest has seen it all and encourages the reader to “Listen. Look.” Lots of information is included in the simple sentences, making this a great book to use in science lessons or as a classroom read aloud. I could see asking students to choose a spread and annotate it with their own scientific explanations of photosynthesis, hibernation or decomposition. A great mix of story and information for young readers.

Fall F&Gs July 10, 2014

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It’s been awhile since I went through the stacks of F&Gs (that’s ‘fold and gather’, the bookseller term for a picture book that hasn’t been published yet) at the store. Here are some titles I’m looking forward to seeing (and selling) this fall.
blueBlue on Blue by Dianne White, illus. by Beth Krommes
A great read aloud about a summer storm with beautiful scratchboard illustrations from Beth Krommes, who won the Caldecott for The House in the Night. Set on a country farm near the water, short rhyming sentences and fun details of animals and plants will make this a new favorite. Teachers may want to use with Come on Rain by Karen Hesse or Tap Tap Boom Boom by Elizabeth Bluemle to compare thunderstorms in the city with those in the country.
I Am a Witch’s Cat by Harriet Muncaster
Perfect for Halloween (or anytime, really) is this sweet story about a little girl and her mother. The narrator (who always appears in a black cat outfit) is sure that her mother is a witch. Doesn’t she have strange potion bottles in the bathroom and magic to stop hurts? The illustrations are photographs of mixed-media settings along the same lines as the books I highlighted in this post. Young artists will be inspired to create their own similar settings for their own stories and read this one again and again to look at the magical details.
Draw! by Raul Colon
Colon is one of the most well-known illustrators in children’s lit, with hundreds of unique titles to his credit. We’ve been seeing many more children’s illustrators creating books about their own evolution as artists (Allan Say, Lois Ehlert) and Colon creates a beautiful tribute here to the power of imagination and the inspiration of the natural world. He depicts himself as a child reading books about africa and then through smaller panels, shows how he imagines himself getting up close and personal with elephants, zebras and hippos. He even invites one of the primates to draw a portrait of him! This is a lovely wordless book to add to your collection and hand to aspiring artists or naturalists.
The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee
This title reminded me of nothing so much as The Wizard of Oz, probably because of evocative grey backgrounds. The farmer is working on his land when a circus train passes by and something–someone?–falls off. What will he do? This is perhaps the simplest but most touching picture book I’ve seen so far this year and the final spot illustration is just perfect. This is a book that will put a smile on your face every single time you read it. Beautiful!

My Theory of Maggie Stiefvater July 5, 2014

Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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Maggie Stiefvater, author of The Scorpio Races, Shiver trilogy and Raven Boys series, is one of my favorite authors. I love her use of mythology and fairy lore, the way she engages with her fans and how enthusiastic she is about everything from art to cars. I read her book The Scorpio Races first and only recently have I gone back to the Shiver trilogy, which was her breakout series back in 2009. Many people have commented on the shift in style that happened in her writing between the Shiver trilogy and The Scorpio Races. Now that I’ve read all of her work (with the exception of the next Raven Boys installment), I have a theory (okay, more like an observation) about this shift.

In Lament, the first of the Books of Faerie series (Ballad is the other and maybe eventually there will be a third, Requiem?)  the story begins when harpist Deirdre Monaghan meets a mysterious boy at a music competition. In Shiver, main character Grace has had encounters with the wolves before the story begins, but essentially the fun starts when she finds ‘her’ wolf transformed into a human boy and bleeding on her porch.

All of Stiefvater’s books have these central relationships–partly because they are romances, to one degree or another and partly because she explores how people change. Both Lament and Shiver start with a surprise–a magical encounter completely out of the ordinary that pulls the main character away from everyday life. Deirdre and Grace then have to decide how to react.

In The Scorpio Races, the story begins when Puck Connolly makes a choice–she will compete in the races as a way of getting her brother Gabe to stay on their island just a little while longer. The Raven Boys  is more complicated and takes longer to get going, but Blue Sargent also has a choice to make–whether or not to join the Raven boys on their search for Glendower.

This is what I see as the central difference between Stiefvater’s early work and later work–the way the main characters are launched into their stories. In her early work it is a big event–someone transforming, a mysterious figure showing up–that then pushes the main character into the crisis or conflict of the novel. In her later work, which builds more slowly, the main character makes a choice that gives them their purpose and leads them to the relationships that precipitate change. I think Stiefvater has been getting better and better as a writer; each book she writes impresses me more than the one before. I’m looking forward to Blue Lily, Lily Blue, which is out in the fall.

Top 5 Things I love about The Great Greene Heist June 7, 2014

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greeneThe Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson is one of my favorite middle grade books of the year. Jackson Greene has pulled many pranks, but now he swears he has gone straight. That is, until he hears a rumor that someone might be planning to steal the student council election from his former best friend Gaby. In pursuit of justice, Jackson just might be convinced to return to what he does best. I love this book for many reasons, but here are my top five.

5. So. Much. Geek. A shed full of Star Trek action figures and memorabilia. One character uses ‘IAmBorgHearMeRoar as his screen name. Another insults people in Klingon. At one point the hero tells his friend “There’s nothing wrong with being the tech guy. You’re good at it. You’re a key part of the team.” That love of nerds and technology and geekiness is a huge part of this story and it’s great to see.

4. The girl gets as much screen time as the boy. Yes, this is Jackson’s story. But Gaby–his onetime best friend and possible crush–has her own struggles with friends, her student council campaign and multiple boys who just might like her. The author doesn’t downplay any of this, treating Gaby’s interpersonal crises with just as much respect as Jackson’s crazy schemes. It is a mark of just how much Gaby has changed her mind about Jackson that she pitches in when things go awry at the last minute.

3. This is a book with a diverse cast of characters, but that’s not actually my favorite thing. My favorite thing is that it doesn’t ignore the different experiences of those characters. And the differences in people’s attitudes and assumptions are something that Jackson notices.   One of the most realistic things about this book for me is how it doesn’t shy away from showing the pinpricks that some of the characters deal with on a daily basis. Speedy Gonzalez is used as a shorthand for a Latino character by the school bully, even though, as Jackson points out, Gonzalez is a Mexican character and his friend Charlie is Puerto Rican. Secretaries in the office continually mix up kids who are the same ethnicity and Jackson himself is told “Boys like you are always up to one thing or another.” These references are subtle but definitely add realism and depth to the story.

2. Gaby. Everything about her. Can I gush again about how much I like Gaby as a character? She’s sensible but not boring, athletic but not obsessive, bossy but not mean. She genuinely doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but learns over the course of the story to be more honest with her friends. And she takes matters into her own hands. Gaby is one of my favorite new middle grade characters and I hope Varian Johnson writes a whole book starring her sometime.

1. COMPLICATED PLANS! I admit it–I’m a sucker for con stories and mysteries where the detectives set up huge intricate traps to catch the bad guy. So I absolutely loved the great lengths that Jackson and the rest of Gang Greene go to in order to achieve their goals. From disguises to gadgets, they use every trick in the book and give them all funny names to boot. Half the fun is going back and re-reading the entire story immediately in order to spot every trick and figure out who was responsible for each step along the way.

Old & New: From the Mixed Up Files…and Under the Egg May 28, 2014

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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mixedupFirst published in 1967 and winner of the 1968 Newbery Medal, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg is one of the most celebrated middle-grade books ever. A compelling mix of mystery and coming of age story, it has prompted many young readers (myself included) to dream of running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Siblings Claudia and Jamie see a statue of an angel and become obsessed with discovering whether or not it was actually created by Michelangelo. They stare at the statue and do research at the library but it takes a visit to the mysterious Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to finally satisfy their curiosity as well as help them learn a few lessons about secrets and growing up.
eggMany recent books with a mystery or an art theme have been marketed as “for fans of From the Mixed-Up Files..” but none I think fit the bill quite as well as Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Beyond simply the structure of a mystery and the themes of lost art, they are both books with resourceful protagonists who when faced with challenges, take matters into their own hands. While Claudia Kincaid in Konigsburg’s book is researching the angels statue for emotional reasons, Theodora in Under the Egg is concerned only with the practical. Her mother is fragile and absentminded, leaving her to try and keep the household going on the $463 her grandfather left behind. Food and electricity are her priorities and she has no clue where the ‘treasure’ that her grandfather promised her might be. That is, until she accidentally spills a bottle of rubbing alcohol on a painting of an egg and discovers what might be a Renaissance masterpiece. But questions abound: Was the painting stole it? Is it from the Met where Theo’s grandfather was a guard? Who painted it? Who is the picture of? With her new neighbor Bodhi (the daughter of movie stars) and the help of various New York eccentrics–including some great librarians–Theo sets out to solve the mystery of the painting as well as the true story of her family’s treasure. Give either of these titles to readers interested in mysteries, art and how they often combine to make a great story.

Review: The Night Gardener May 21, 2014

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nightAre you a fan of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman or Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz? Are you looking for a new book to love and re-read ten times, and recommend to all your friends? Look no further than The Night Gardener  by Jonathan Auxier, coming out this May from Amulet Books.

It starts with a time-honored historical fiction set-up: two children have run away from the orphanage and are on their way to find a job until their parents come for them. This is Victorian England, there is famine in Ireland and jobs are scarce for immigrants. Kip, the younger brother, has a lame foot and walks with a crutch. Molly, the older sister, is a storyteller who claims that the ‘sourwoods’ they are heading towards are made of lemon trees and lemon blossoms. And once they make it through the trees and across the river (ignoring the advice of the wandering storyteller Hester Kettle), they meet their employers, the Windsor family.

Once at the Windsor house though, strange sounds, sights and stories begin to unfold and we are in the world of twisted dreams and family legends. You see, there is a tree. A giant tree close to the house, it’s “…gnarled trunk running up the wall like a great black chimney stack.” Why do no flowers or grass grow near it? Why does each member of the family have a collection that they hoard and where do the rings, letters and candies come from? Molly and Kip must summon all their cunning and courage to confront their own dreams and desires. They must figure out the difference between a story and a lie and figure out how, when stories turn evil and come to life, they can be defeated.

Auxier pulls no punches for the reader, rendering the tree and it’s ghostly gardener in harrowing detail. Molly and Kip are sympathetic protagonists and there are surprises to discover in the characters of each member of the Windsor family. Hester Kettle the storyteller presides over the narrative like a slightly twisted fairy godmother, telling truths and giving gifts. This is a book where the historical and the supernatural twist together perfectly to form one seamless thread of story and the layers in the narrative mean it will satisfy a wide range of ages. For readers who love the shivers, this will be the perfect bedtime read-aloud, while for those of us who prefer to face ghosts by daylight, it will be a new favorite to return to again and again.


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