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Review: To Timbuktu September 24, 2011

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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One of my favorite things to do is travel to new places and I am incredibly jealous of people who got to go off adventuring right after college. So reading the new book To Timbuktu by Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg was a lovely vicarious trip to places unknown. Scieszka (yes, the daughter of our former Children’s Laureate Jon Scieszka, aka “Stinky Cheese Man guy”) and Weinberg met during a study abroad program in Morocco and after graduating from their respective colleges, headed off to Beijing to teach English for a few months before traveling through Southeast Asia and eventually ending up in Mali, where Scieszka had been awarded a Fulbright grant to study religion.

Scieszka is a writer and Weinberg an artist, so each person’s work complements the other’s beautifully. Scieszka is straightforward and blunt, explaining how decisions were made, the challenges of traveling and working with a significant other and how to make the best of bad situations. A sample quote that shows her style “Now just to be perfectly clear–I am NOT recommending long-distance dating as a lifestyle. It’s certainly a whole lot more fun to have a certain someone in your bed instead of on the phone. But for a finite amount of time, during which both parties are feeling personally fulfilled in other ways, it can be done.” The narrative is broken up by country (each new country they visit is introduced with a mock TV interview titled Meet (Country)¬†that is charming), with the largest number of pages given to China and Mali. In between stories of teaching English to rowdy children and drawing the people on the streets of Timbuktu are short guides to things like Chinese Street Food, Temperatures in Beijing and Bamanankan (the local language in Mali).

This book is perfect for teens to who love to travel, recent college graduates, or anyone curious about traveling to countries slightly off the beaten path. The short sections would be great to use for comprehension lessons or classes on graphic novels. Weinberg’s illustrations are funny and engaging and Scieszka’s down-to-earth voice is one you will want to spend more time with. I’m excited to see what they create next.

To Timbuktu. Words by Casey Scieszka, Art by Steven Weinberg. Published by Roaring Book Press, 2011.

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Top 5 Things We Love About John Green September 21, 2011

Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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There isn’t much that I can gloat to Ana about. She beats me in musical knowledge, writing ability and many other things. However, I can brag that once upon a time, I got to meet and talk to John Green. When he had just won the Printz award for his debut, Looking for Alaska, Green spoke to a book club at our local library and I happened to be home from college that weekend. For a couple of hours, Green talked to me, my brother and a bunch of 8th grade girls about his education, books and the editing process. He even called his editor and we tried to convince her that the test cover of his next book An Abundance of Katherines looked like a Gossip Girl novel (the book cover didn’t end up changing but Green TOTALLY agreed with us). Now, of course, Green is a big name author, with thousands of Twitter followers, fans with a fun name (nerdfighters) and best selling books on Amazon that haven’t even been published yet. But we always knew he was amazing. So here, we list our Top Five Things We Love About John Green.

5. Pre-occupation (of both him and his characters) with trivia: Most of John Green’s characters have a fascination with some kind of trivia. For Colin (An Abundance of Katherines), it’s anagrams. For Miles (Looking For Alaska), it’s famous last words. For Quentin (Paper Towns), it’s Walt Whitman. For John Green himself, it’s conjoined twins. The quirkiness of this trivia adds to the characters and makes the reader sympathize with them.

4. Realistic Dialogue: As a YA author, John Green captures the way teenagers speak, by neither trivializing their dialogue, nor over-exaggerating their use of swear words and slang. It is a mark of how true to life his character’s conversations are that I didn’t even notice much of the profanity in Will Grayson, Will Grayson until another teacher pointed it out to me.

3. Gorgeous prose (sometimes): Most of Green’s protagonists like to speak in long, complicated monologues, at least some of the time. This can occasionally get boring, but sometimes he manages to distill the book’s themes and attitudes brilliantly and still make it sound like something the character would actually say or write. A prime example is the end of Looking for Alaska where Pudge writes in his final essay “We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end and so it cannot fail.”

2. Depiction of journeys (literal and emotional): In Looking for Alaska, Pudge grows and changes over the course of a school year. In Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns, Colin and Quentin each go on extended road trips in search of ideal women. In Will Grayson, Will Grayson, Will gradually comes to terms with who he is as a friend and a person. Each of Green’s protagonists has changed by the end of his book, and that’s one reason they are so exciting to read about.

1. Friendships that shouldn’t work, but somehow do: Friendships are a huge driving force in YA lit. But it’s no fun to read about friends who either a. act like you want them to all the time or b. are the kind of people you expect to be your friend. Green creates some absolutely hilarious pairs or groups of friends in his novels, including Tiny Cooper and Will Grayson, Ben, Radar and Quentin, and of course, The Colonel, Pudge and the ever-fascinating Alaska. So we will end with a short illustration of friendship, from An Abundance of Katherines.

“Look,” Hassan said. “This is my ninth day at a school in my entire life and yet somehow I have already grasped what you can and cannot say. And you cannot say anything about your own sphincter.”

“It’s part of your eye, ” Colin said defensively. “I was being clever.”

“Listen, dude. You gotta know your audience. That bit would kill at an ophthalmologist convention, but in calculus class, everybody’s just wondering how the hell you got an eyelash there.”

And so they were friends.

Looking back over this, each of these paragraphs is quite a bit shorter than our last ‘5 Things We Love’ post. John Green, we promise we love you as much as Melina Marchetta. We’re just getting better at being a bit more succinct with this whole blogging thing.

Review: Orani: My Father’s Village September 5, 2011

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Orani: My Father's Village, by Claire Nivola

Claire Nivola begins her picture book Orani: My Father’s Village¬†by vividly describing the location and geography of the village where her father grew up. “In a sea of breathtaking blue…white-pebbled shores…rugged cliffs,…thistles and wild-scented thyme.” She goes on to take the reader on a detailed journey through her childhood experiences visiting the village of Orani, on the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean. We join her and her cousins as they wander through the village, witnessing various scenes of daily life and eating delicious food. Nivola’s childhood feeling of being at the center, where “all I needed to learn and feel and know was down there” is perfectly captured in the detailed writing. An authors note at the end explains a little about the history of her family and the village, as well as the poverty and changes that were taking place during the time period of the story.

This book is perfect for children who like to look at illustrations at length, for there is always something new to find in Nivola’s lovely drawings. Similar to Barbara Cooney’s illustrations in their simple colors and smooth texture, kids will imagine themselves walking up the hill to the spring for water, exploring the dusty streets and tasting delicious food straight from cows, bees and hot ovens.

The book would also be a great tool to use as part of writing lessons for students in elementary school. There are many passages which could be used as examples of vivid description, such as this part about visiting a store “….to watch the tailor stitch jackets for the shepherds out of thick velvet–olive green, burnt ochre, brown and black.” Many students struggle to put words together to form a complete picture of what they imagine in their heads. Nivola’s writing is a wonderful inspiration for kids to describe their own lives.

My favorite passage in the book is at the end, where the narrator returns to her city in America and imagines everyone around her having another world that they come from. “But then, what different world, I wondered, what Orani of their own might they have known before they traveled here?” Hopefully this book will prompt some readers to learn about the stories and worlds of the people in their own families.

Introducing Imagination Station September 3, 2011

Posted by ccbooks in Bookstore.
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The main reason I love children’s books and know so much about them is because I worked for six years at this place:

Imagination Station existed for about 21 years in Arlington, Virginia. Family-owned and operated, it offered a fantastic selection of books for kids of all ages, as well as a very small section of adult bestsellers. This is the place where I re-discovered all the picture books I loved when I was little, where I read every single Betsy-Tacy book ever written and where I celebrated the book releases of Harry Potter 4, 5, and 6.

As an independent bookstore in a tiny suburban strip mall, it was a toss up each day as to whether we would get any customers. Consequently, my fellow bookstore workers and I spent a good chunk of time making up games, reading books that had been on the shelf for years and going through the drawers of book catalogues and free books from publishers.

You can just make out the purple cart in front of the window, which held all of our sale books jumbled together in no particular order. I spent a lot of time going through the cart and debating whether or not to get some obscure picture book or non-fiction selection for $4 but I usually held off, knowing that they probably wouldn’t be going anywhere for awhile.