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July Favorite: The Tightrope Walkers July 25, 2015

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tightropeOver halfway through the year and I’ve read more than 250 books (including picture books). This month in particular, I’ve had a great run of new YA titles to read, with diverse protagonists, great prose and fascinating insights into friendship, relationships and growing up. Not for the first time, I’ve been a little sad these weren’t around when I was a teen; I wonder how they would have affected my sense of self and the way I interacted with others.

I’ve read three different titles by British heavyweight author David Almond lately and while I’ve really enjoyed all of them, The Tightrope Walkers stood out for its characters, setting and prose. Set in the north of England, it follows Dominic as he grows up in estate housing with a shipyard worker father and a best friend who is an artist. Like Mal Peet’s Life: an Exploded Diagram it explores the tensions between the generations, class divisions in Britain in the 50’s and 60’s; the growth of counterculture and the ways we use art both to escape our lives and to explore them.

Almond has been lauded for awhile now in both Britain and the US, winning a Printz award for his book Kit’s Wilderness and a Hans Christian Andersen award for his body of work. His books range from fantastical middle grade fiction (Skellig) to myth like picture books (Mouse Bird Snake Wolf) to the experimental YA (The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean as telt by hisself) I highly recommend his work to everyone interested in quality YA and children’s literature.

June Favorite: The Marvels July 4, 2015

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How is it halfway through the year already? I have read 221 books so far this year and 112 of them have been by or about people of color, which means I am on track with my goal. My reading is still skewed heavily towards female writers except in the genre of picture books. I’ve been reading a few more adult books this year, mostly thanks to Twitter and BookRiot, which actually make them sound interesting. I’m still working on including books with LGBTQIA main characters, which brings me to my pick for a favorite in June: The Marvels by Brian Selznick.

marvelsSelznick doesn’t really need any introduction. His book The Invention of Hugo Cabret won a Caldecott, was turned into a highly acclaimed movie and taught many people, including myself, the history of automata. The follow up book, Wonderstruck, expanded on the unique combination of images and words he invented for Hugo. Both works involve mystery, parallel or connected stories of individual children, and the theme of a family chosen. These books also speak to strong inspirations from history and the real world and a sense of curiosity and love of story. The Marvels is no different.

Inspired by theater and a unique museum in London, The Marvels begins with a tale told in images, of a theatrical family living in London in the 17oo’s and of how each successive generation makes it’s mark on the stage. We are left with a tragic event and the narrative shifts into text and the story of Joseph, who has run away from his boarding school in order to find his uncle and hopefully, his best friend. In many ways, this is a classic tale of a virtual orphan convincing family to take them in (I was reminded of the Tillerman cycle by Cynthia Voigt) but the house where Joseph’s uncle lives and the connection to the earlier story about the family makes the book unique.

So much in this book felt like it was speaking directly to me. The idea of holding onto the past, the magic of inventing stories and how theater creates connections between people was all profoundly moving. I can’t wait for everyone to read and laugh and cry and be moved by this book. I’m so glad that Mr. Selznick shared it with us.

May Favorite: Drum Dream Girl June 18, 2015

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Better late than never, right? Travels in May meant that I got a little behind on writing about what I was reading. This picture book, however, has stuck with me, in my head and my heart and I’m so happy to talk about it here.

drumDrum Dream Girl, by Margarita Engle, tells the story of Millo, who lives in Cuba and longs to play the drums. But drums are only for boys and men, so that means she dreams and practices in secret before finally finding a teacher and joining her sisters’ band. Millo is based on a real person, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, who is credited with helping change the stigma against women playing drums in mid-twentieth century Cuba. The illustrations, by Rafael Lopez are vibrant and colorful, with movement that sometimes has the reader turning the entire book on end to try and contain the life and excitement of the drawings.

This book made me want to learn more about Millo and the history of her all female band in Cuba. It made me want to go back to Cuba and listen to drummers and appreciate their music. This is a fantastic book to pair with Sweethearts of Rhythm or another picture book about female jazz musicians and women of color during the swing era in the US. The poetry of the words in this piece makes it a great read aloud and hopefully it will inspire young readers to try making music, visual art or writing their own stories about their dreams.

April Favorite(s): Lenny and Lucy, Waiting April 26, 2015

Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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The days are growing longer, and publishers are sending boxes and boxes of new books that are coming in the fall! Since I don’t want to think about cold weather coming back, lets just focus on all the new books, shall we?

I’ve read more than 150 books so far this year and I’m maintaining my 50% by or about POC goal. This goal has pushed me to read books by authors I’ve heard about before, like Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, as well as new titles by authors I’m not familiar with, like Sofia Quintero’s Show and Prove. I’ve been reading a few more adult books than normal, completing Pulitzer winner All the Light We Cannot See in addition to speculative fiction A Darker Shade of Magic and The Just City. The two favorite titles I’m going to talk about this month, however, are both picture books, due out later in the summer and fall by Caldecott medalists Kevin Henkes and Erin Stead.

Waiting, by Kevin Henkes, uses a cheerful pastel palette to introduce the reader to a series of toys sitting on the windowsill. This book pushes all of my puppeteer, I-like-making-objects-talk buttons and hearkens back to many of my childhood favorites about what dolls and other toys think about when humans aren’t in the room. It’s a quiet book, a thoughtful book, a book that rewards careful re-reading of the pictures and not just the words. I fell in love immediately, and I think you will too.

Lenny and Lucy, by Philip Stead with pictures by Erin Stead, is the first new book from this champion team in three years and it is well worth the wait. That said, it was NOTHING like what I was expecting. I had seen the cover on Twitter, of a boy and a dog and so I assumed the dog Lucy and the boy was Lenny and this was a friendship story. Not so. Lenny and Lucy are neither the boy nor the dog and the story is one of home and fears and changes. It is also about the power of imagination and our ability to create. The pictures are stunning and I know this is going to be a new favorite for many, many people. I can hardly wait to share it!

Battle of the Books: Second Round March 27, 2015

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Oh the sadness, as books are judged and set aside! However, this round featured stellar decisions from both Elizabeth Wein and Alaya Dawn Johnson, so I am happy. I was thrilled that both El Deafo and Brown Girl Dreaming made it through, though I am not thrilled that they now must face each other. Can’t we just declare a tie right now?

I love how Jason Reynolds commented that there is probably a flag with Jackie Woodson’s face on the moon (if there isn’t, there should be!) and that she “…could’ve thrown a fire-breathing chipmunk in there and it would’ve worked” (I also agree, though it’s a little hard to picture).

I probably laughed the hardest at Elizabeth Wein’s line about using her “…skills as an unreliable narrator” which everyone who has read Code Name Verity knows are CONSIDERABLE. She is right that many judges start with the book that they are going to cut and what fun to see her do the opposite with her decision! I still need to read Madman of Piney Woods. I really enjoyed Alaya Dawn Johnson’s reasoning behind her decision, even if I kind of was hoping for a graphic novel match up between El Deafo and This One Summer. 

Now no matter who wins the next round, I’m in for some serious disappointment when either Brown Girl Dreaming or El Deafo have to leave. Hopefully the Undead Poll will solve all quandaries.

March Favorite: Goodbye Stranger March 23, 2015

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strangerHow is it March already? Three months into the year and I have read 95 books. I’m sticking pretty close to my 50% by or about POC goal, though I see that I haven’t read much with LGBTQ characters lately. I need to work on that! I also need to read more poetry, especially as April approaches.

My favorite for March has to be Rebecca Stead’s latest book, coming in August, which is called Goodbye Stranger. A story of friendship, growing up, and feminism, it has the same New York City setting as her previous books, but with slightly older protagonists and themes. This is a book I really wish had been around when I was in middle school–it would have given me a mirror to reassure me that I wasn’t so weird after all. It’s a great example of a book that makes it hard for me to figure out which I like more: the universal themes or the tiny specific details that remind me of my own adolescence.

I also had a tendency to eat lunch in out of the way corners like the theater and started participating in the theater both onstage and backstage in middle school. I had causes that I was passionate about (in the book, it’s feminism, for me it was pacifism) and drove my friends kinda nuts with all my diatribes. I didn’t have any close friends like Sherm, though I wish I had had one!

I think this book is going to spark a LOT of great discussions among readers and adults about the messages girls get from media and grown-ups, how to handle issues of growing up and friendship and in general staying true to yourself. I can’t wait to share it with as many people as possible.

Battle of the Books: First Round March 20, 2015

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HA! I think this is the best I’ve ever done in predicting the first round of matches. 7/8 correct, my only flub being Grasshopper Jungle vs. The Key that Swallowed Joey Pigza. I haven’t read Joey Pigza, so I chose the YA title and Jo Knowles did not. The Newbery Curse did not disappear, even though Isabel Quintero is a poet and spoke about The Crossover far more eloquently than I ever could. I was sad to see The Story of Owen go, though I am now even more excited to read both the sequel Prairie Fire and judge Hartman’s books Seraphina and Shadow Scale (I know, I should have already read Seraphina, get off my back!)

And now? I am very nervous that Brown Girl Dreaming will wind up facing off with El Deafo and what will I do then? Elizabeth Wein and Alaya Dawn Johnson are possibly the judges I am most looking forward to reading. Wein has already contributed comments on many of the other matches, pointing out folklore traits, historical detail and other lovely nerdy elements I would otherwise have missed. I can’t wait to see what she says in her judgement of Port Chicago 50 and The Madman of Piney Woods. Onward!

Battle (Almost) Ready March 9, 2015

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The SLJ Battle of the Kid’s Books starts tomorrow!!

I haven’t been quite as on top of things as in some years, and there are still two books I have yet to read. Neither one sounded terribly appealing to me, but perhaps the comments from the judges will change my mind! Before things kick off, here are my thoughts about the books in this year’s list.

Brown Girl Dreaming vs. Children of the King

Brown Girl Dreaming made me cry multiple times, every single time I read and re-read it. I like Sonya Hartnett, but did not find Children of the King terribly impressive. The protagonist seemed way younger than her stated age and in general, I wasn’t terribly invested in the characters.

The Crossover vs. Egg and Spoon

Ahhh, I loved both these books! The precision and poignancy of sibling battles and the sweep and drama of epic magical journeys! How can I choose? Will The Crossover finally break the Newbery curse? Maybe…

El Deafo vs. The Family Romanov

No contest here whatsoever. I enjoyed The Family Romanov, but it didn’t stick with me and El Deafo captured my heart in a way few books have. It has my vote in the Undead poll as well.

Grasshopper Jungle vs. The Key that Swallowed Joey Pigza

I have not read Joey Pigza. In general I find it hard to get into Jack Gantos’ writing for some reason, though I usually like it once I get going. I enjoyed Grasshopper Jungle, but got annoyed at the cardboard cutouts that were the female characters after awhile.

The Madman of Piney Woods vs. Poisoned Apples

I also haven’t read Madman of Piney Woods. I read Poisoned Apples in ARC form a very long time ago and liked it, but can’t point to any poem or image in particular that has stuck with me.

The Port Chicago 50 vs. The Story of Owen

Two books that I probably liked about the same. I wasn’t blown away by Port Chicago 50 in the same way that I was by Bomb, but I’m glad I now know about this piece of history. Likewise, The Story of Owen didn’t overwhelm me with greatness, but it was a super fun read and I’m looking forward to the sequel.

This One Summer vs. A Volcano Beneath the Snow

Ugh, I really don’t envy Nathan Hale. Talk about two ENTIRELY different books–genre, format, structure…what a thankless job. I loved This One Summer and admired Volcano. That’s about all I have to say.

We Were Liars vs. West of the Moon

Two more that I read quite awhile ago and haven’t felt the urge to go back to. I’m looking forward to hearing what Kelly Barnhill has to say about them.

Let the Battle begin!

February Favorite: Bone Gap February 20, 2015

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I am having a very good reading month in February! Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan was a middle grade historical adventure with twists and turns and a hint of magic. Gabi, a girl in pieces by Isabel Quintero was sweet and funny and strong and hopeful. Audacity by Melanie Crowder was thoughtful and lovely and helped me better understand early 20th century labor history. One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart made me miss Florence and think about cities and families, art and the brain in an entirely different way.

So many favorites, but I think my top pick this month has to be Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, which hovers in the back of my head and refuses to leave. I love the characters, the setting, the tone and the way it reveals big truths about our world through extremely specific moments that the characters experience. It is unflinching in it’s examination of the ways women are subjected to unfairness and cruelty, but at the same time, offers a portrayal of strong relationships built on respect and love. The prose is beautiful, the magic is entrancing and the painful moments are balanced with humor. I highly recommend it to everyone!

Oh My Gods! Comics for a Mythology Lover February 14, 2015

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For those of you who love Greek mythology, there are plenty of awesome comics retelling these ancient stories for both kids and adults! Here are a few:

Amazing Greek Myths of Wonders and Blunders

by Michael Townsend

blundersThe table of contents gives a sense of the tone of this one: “Pygmalion’s Rocky Relationship!” “Arachne Gets a Big Head!” This collection features mostly side stories (Icarus, Pandora etc.) rather than the twelve great gods. The artwork is brightly colored and occasionally silly, making this a good choice for younger readers. Also, there are sheep. Lots of them.

Olympians Series by George O’Connor

zeusIf you’d rather stick to the twelve main gods, look no further than this fantastic series, which has seven books out so far. Starting with Zeus, each book focuses on stories about one particular god or goddess, paired with gorgeous artwork. O’Connor shapes the stories to be as action packed and suspenseful as any superhero story and includes a bibliography and author’s note explaining his sources. In an additional section titled “G(r)eek Notes” he talks about his process in drawing the panels and points out tiny details and hidden references throughout the series for hardcore fans.

The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds

odysseyIf epic wanderings and misfortunes are more your style, why not try this take on the great Homer himself? Leaving out none of the adventures, from the Cyclops to the bloody homecoming at Ithaca, Hinds’ lush, detailed panels reflect the scope and rich language of the original poem. The monsters are scary, the gods are intimidating and Odysseus himself is very sympathetic in this fantastic retelling that makes it clear why this tale has lasted so long.

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