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2011 Books: Top Ten December 31, 2011

Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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I will admit, I didn’t have a very clear method for choosing this Top Twelve List. Basically, I just scanned through the pages where I scribbled book titles, and if a title jumped out at me as a “YES. That was an AMAZING book,” I put a little star next to it. And lo and behold, when I was done, I had ten titles (ok, a few more but a couple are a series, so they go together). In the order I read them, they are:

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

All the Printz winners this year were amazing, but King’s taut, suspenseful style kept me on the edge of my chair the entire time I was reading this. Truly, a book that made me both laugh and cry.

Built to Last by David Macaulay

I will never look at a cathedral, mosque or castle the same way again after reading this masterpiece. Macaulay turns architecture into poetry and engineering into a compelling story in this collection of three of his classic books.

Trash by Andy Mulligan

I had never heard of this book before it got picked for the SLJ Battle of the Kid’s Books in March, but it quickly became a book I went around telling everyone to read. A devastating story of poverty and violence, wrapped in loyalty, adventure and friendship.

Season of Secrets by Sally Nicholls

Possibly my favorite on this list. It renews my hope in the changing seasons and the magic of the natural world. I only wish it were eligible for a Newbery.

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

So torn on the Newbery this year (see the entry above!). But if I had to pick, I’d probably go for this one, with the most incredible voice and amazing integration of art into literature. If only it didn’t have SO MANY coincidences in the ending!

Bloodline and Bloodline Rising by Katy Moran

I wasn’t familiar with this series before, but Moran’s tales of honor, intrigue and family loyalty in the Dark Ages are worthy successors to Rosemary Sutcliff’s tales of Roman Britain. That’s saying something.

The White Cat and Red Glove by Holly Black

I’d never been a huge Holly Black fan–the whole modern faerie thing just didn’t appeal to me. Oh My Lord. These books are seriously addictive. The perfect mix of noir, mystery, romance and adolescent angst, I cannot wait for the last book in the series. The set of thirteen short scenes Black posted on her website are just not enough to satisfy me.

And Picasso Painted Guernica by Alain Serres

The only non-fiction on this list and I feel guilty. This large format book explains the events inspiring Picasso’s masterpiece and the process he went through to create it. With fold-outs, photographs and reproductions of other work by Picasso, this book made me proud to be an artist.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

This is probably the book I was most impatient to read this year (as I am an avid follower of Taylor’s blog) and it did not disappoint. Angels, demons, magic and PUPPETS. I mean, really, what more could you want?

Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

King gets the prize for being the only author duplicated on this list. More introspective than her first in some ways, it has the same dry humor and specific style. I would not be surprise to see this with a Printz sticker on it by the end of January.

So, clearly I favor chapter books. Not much non-fiction that stuck with me, or picture books or poetry. I may repeat the experiment of trying to keep track of what I read, or I may not. Either way, here’s to a new year of reading!


2011 Books: Books I Didn’t Finish December 29, 2011

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A small confession: I usually have around 25-30 books checked out of the public library at a time and at least 10-12 books on hold, if not as many as 30. But I certainly don’t manage to read every single book I check out. Here are a few books that I can remember not finishing this year.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

I blame this one on high demand and short library check-out periods. I was probably around 50 or 60 on the hold list when I initially put this on hold, so by the time I actually got it, other books were clamoring for my attention. The jacket copy, hailing Grossman as a convention-breaking, trend-setting fantasy writer, seemed just a bit over the top. I enjoyed his earlier book The Magicians, but I don’t consider it to be hugely outside the conventions of the genre or earth-shatteringly original. I got about halfway through The Magician King before it had to go back to the library. Later, I read a little more in Ana’s library copy. I enjoyed Julia’s story, but found myself skipping the long blocks of Quentin’s self-pity. When characters don’t change, I start to get bored.

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

This was my purchase at Books for the Beast in October. Every time I go, I always end up buying a book by the featured author, and I knew this was one that Ana had already read and enjoyed. The beginning, with the mysterious balloonist, and the descriptions of the lavish luxuries on board the ship Aurora, had me enthralled, but after the pirate attack and the landing on the beach, my interest began to flag. Hopefully I’ll get back to it soon.

Tell Us We’re Home by Marina Budhos and The Six Rules of Maybe by Deb Caletti

I covered these earlier in my posts on Books for the Beast. There’s usually at least one book in each group that I can’t quite make it through and this year it was these two.

Radiant Darkness by Emily Whitman

I get updates on Recommended Reads from School Library Journal each month and I’m always eager to look at lists of books relating to Greek Mythology. The books written for younger readers are often good picks for my classroom and the YA books are often good reads for me! I liked the idea of this book; the concept that Persephone and Demeter didn’t really have that great a relationship and that Persephone went with Hades by choice, even if she didn’t quite think things through. But the pace was too slow and eventually I just gave up.

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

Oppel was a good speaker, with some interesting ideas about writing and creativity in general. I was glad to know more about his process writing this book, his latest, and how he was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, when I finally managed to check this out, I got somewhat bogged down in the less than subtle rivalry between the two brothers, as well as Victor’s self-pity and selfishness. The action sequences, in search of the various ingredients for the Elixir of Life, were by far the best parts of the book. I started getting impatient with the characters and so I still have not finished the book. But since it’s a gothic romance (and based on one of the most famous horror stories of all time), I’m pretty sure I know how it ends!

2011 Books: Overview December 27, 2011

Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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At the beginning of this year, I made a goal for myself. For the first time ever, I would try to keep a list of all the books I read throughout the whole year. People have occasionally asked if I do this, but then nodded and smiled when I explained that I read so many short books (picture books, short chapter books) that I wasn’t sure I could ever really keep up. Some days while my class is listening to a story in library, I’ll read three or four picture books, waiting for them.

So this year was an adventure. A 239 book adventure. I’m sure I missed a few in there (sometimes I would forget and then have to scan my shelf of library books, trying to figure out what had already been written down) and it would REALLY help if I could search my library check out record for books I’ve already returned. It’s hard to tell what I read the most of–it’s probably a somewhat even split between middle-grade and YA if I had to take a guess. Maybe next year I will set up pretty spreadsheets and keep track of which genres I read the most of. Or not. It was hard enough remembering where I had put the notebook I was scribbling in this year; I have the feeling that if I had to actually open a file and find the right page, I just wouldn’t bother!

This was a good year for reading. Scanning the pages, I could remember at least something about each book (ok, so there were a few where I thought “I read THAT? When?”) and there were many where I could remember exactly where I was when I read it and what my reactions were (always a sign of a really good book!). I haven’t been able to review nearly enough books in the few months I’ve had this blog, so despite my love/hate relationship with ‘Best Of’ lists, I will put together my top ten or twelve books of the year. Check back soon!

In Memoriam: Russell Hoban 1925-2011 December 26, 2011

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The world lost several fine children’s book writers this year before I began this blog. Ana and I are still planning to remember the wonderful work of Brian Jacques and Diana Wynne Jones at some point in the near future. More recently, however, we lost the author of one of the formative influences of my childhood, Frances from the book Bread and Jam for Frances, the master Russell Hoban.

Hoban is one of those authors about whom I know very little, but I can always recognize his work. As a kid, I loved Frances, who was a picky eater like me, didn’t always get along with her friends or little sister but tried her best to do the right thing. Frances is stubborn and realistic and along with her friend Albert, goes all out in setting up her elaborate lunch tables (why didn’t I ever get vases with flowers to go on our cafeteria table?).

Hoban wrote many other fine books for children. I read The Mouse and his Child one slow afternoon working at the bookstore. I watched the Jim Henson version of Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas and then found the book in the library and re-read it. We even sang “Where the River meets the Sea” in one of the music groups I was in during college.

But it is Frances that I know I, and probably most people, will remember Hoban for. She may be a badger, but I recognized myself as a child in her, and I know that many others did the same. For a children’s writer, that is the ultimate goal for a character you created to achieve.

Why are all the best Christmas traditions Swedish? December 23, 2011

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I think it is pretty clear now from previous posts that as soon as it gets close to Christmas, I re-read ALL my picture books and chapter books that have some sort of connection to the holiday. In my quest to re-visit all these old friends, I noticed an interesting pattern. Almost all of the traditions that I loved to read about as a child come from Sweden. Now, I am not Swedish. In fact, my French/Irish/Mexican/Spanish heritage could scarcely be further from Scandinavia. And yet, so many of the Christmas stories that I read and loved involved saints, foods and celebrations from Sweden. A few examples:

Many children’s books talk about the tradition of St. Lucia Day on December 13, when the oldest girl or woman in the family gets up early and brings coffee and special pastries to everyone in bed while wearing the special Lucia costume of white dress, red sash and crown of leaves and candles. Kirsten Larsen, of the American Girl book series, probably goes through the most harrowing adventures in her book Kirsten’s Surprise in order to celebrate this tradition. Snowstorms, injuries and getting lost can’t stop her from bringing light to the winter.

Pippi Longstocking, the beloved character created by Astrid Lindgren, celebrates Christmas in Pippi in the South Seas, although a little out of season (characteristically, she blames it on a faulty almanac). But it is the slightly less well known Children of Noisy Village, also by Lindgren, that goes through the season in detail, from making Christmas-tree baskets to baking gingersnaps to hoping for the almond in your porridge (or not. It means you’ll get married in the coming year).

Another slightly obscure book that shares even more Swedish holiday fun is The Little Silver House by Jennie D. Lindquist. This is part of a trilogy of books chronicling a year in the life of a little girl in the early 20th century (I’ve never been able to figure out exactly when these books are set, and the rural setting doesn’t help!) Lindquist, who was editor of the children’s literature magazine The Horn Book for a number of years, draws inspiration from her grandparents, who were Swedish immigrants. Many of the traditions already mentioned, such as Lucia Day, make an appearance in this book, along with others both delicious (candy treats called Karameller, given to everyone who comes to the house after Lucia Day) and just plain fun (the Long Dance of Christmas Eve, led by the youngest member of the family.)

Ok, so my family has its share of lovely customs from France and Mexico. There are piñatas, posadas, luminarias (or farolitos, depending on where you’re from) to line the sidewalk, beautiful clay santons on the mantlepiece. But every December, when I re-read these stories, I think “Can’t I just be Swedish for this one month out of the year?”

In Memoriam: George Whitman 1913-2011 December 19, 2011

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This is the first of two posts remembering literary figures who passed away this month. The first is George Whitman, owner of the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. I visited his store only once, in 2004, and immediately found it to be a home-like place. Books in English filled the walls floor to ceiling, with sections covering every topic you might imagine and tucked in among the stacks were narrow beds, like secret hiding places. When I found out that George allowed people to stay at the store for free (if you worked in the shop and read a book a day), I only fell more in love. My friend Kay and I each purchased a book there (I bought Tumbleweed Hotel, a collection of autobiographical sketches by various people who had stayed at the shop) and when we were told “Tomorrow is Sunday, so come back for tea in the afternoon,” we immediately resolved to do just that. We met George (sitting downstairs behind the register proclaiming loudly “Tea! Go right upstairs!”) and climbed the rickety stairs to a room crowded with English speakers, jars of tea and tiny cookies. People were interesting, the conversation was brisk and I’ve always been grateful to George for giving me the one place in Paris where I really felt like comfortable.

Over the years, I’ve read many articles and books about George and his shop, and I’m glad that it still exists, with its motto “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.” George Whitman lived a rambling, extreme life and wherever he is now, I’m sure he has many books to enjoy.

A Chapter Book Christmas December 19, 2011

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Most of the Christmas books out on the coffee tables in my house—and leaning on shelves and standing on bookcases—are picture books. However, I do have a few favorite chapter books set at Christmas time that are a bit less well known.

Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians by Mary Nash is the sequel to When Mrs. Coverlet was Away, a story of three siblings who take care of themselves while their housekeeper/substitute mother is gone for the summer. In this winter story, Mrs. Coverlet is again called away, and the two older siblings, Malcom and Molly, must take charge and somehow make Christmas happen for their stubborn six year old brother Theobold (otherwise known as The Toad). Finding a tree, cooking dinner, and buying presents all become more complicated when combined with a nosy neighbor, a freak snowstorm and some possible magic. This is a great read aloud, with a heartwarming message of the importance of families creating holiday magic out of love for each other. As one character says toward the end “I believe in magic at Christmas…The amount of good will which is set loose every year at this time is quite unaccountable.”

Another childhood favorite was The Christmas Dolls by Carol Beach York, part of her series of short chapter books about the orphan girls at the Good Day Home for Girls. Like the other books in the series, this one focuses on Tatty (Charlotte), who occasionally gets in trouble for being forgetful, but always triumphs due to her empathy and kindness to others. Similar to The Story of Holly and Ivy, (do you get the sense that  dolls and orphans were a main theme of my childhood?), I loved the quiet adventure Tatty goes on to fix the two dolls, Florabelle and Lily who have been set aside due to missing hair and shoes. Even characters such as the stern board member who chastises the heads of the orphanage for their extravagance in decorations and presents, turns out to have some good in him after all. This is a great read for children still gaining confidence in reading chapter books and it’s perfect for any child that loves dolls.

A Picture Book Christmas December 16, 2011

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Christmas is my favorite holiday, so of course I have LOTS of picture books about the traditions of Christmas or set during Christmas. While I have plenty of the usual suspects (The Nutcracker, The Twelve Days of Christmas, A Christmas Carol) and several modern holiday classics (The Polar Express, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey), I thought I would highlight a few less well known books here.

Two childhood favorites were The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden and The Doll’s Christmas by Tasha Tudor. I loved any and every book about dolls when I was a kid, and especially those books that had dolls who talked, thought, and wished, such as Godden’s tale of a girl and doll brought together magically on Christmas Eve. An orphan, an evil toy, and all the details of Christmas preparations, from decorations to cooking breakfast combine to make a perfect holiday story. The picture here of the breakfast table, with poor little Ivy, looking in the window, was always one of my favorites. The Doll’s Christmas is shorter, but just as packed with detail, as the reader follows little girls Laura and Efner and their dolls, Sethany Ann and Nicey Melinda, through the fun times of the holiday. From presents to dinner, to a marionette show, it’s old-fashioned,  yet all activities I could see myself creating for my toys. And can I say how much I envied that huge dollhouse?

Another favorite book of my family’s explained the genesis of the carol ‘Silent Night,’ composed during the 19th century in Austria by pastor Joseph Mohr and his organist Franz Gruber.  The Christmas Mouse  by Elisabeth Wenning is a re-telling of a legend that the carol was composed on guitar because a mouse had chewed the bellows of the organ. The illustrations are beautiful (they look like woodcuts, but I’m not sure) and it was very easy to sympathize with little Kaspar the mouse, who is afraid he will have to leave the church of St. Nicholas, his home, when his crime is discovered. I loved this book so much, that the first time I went to Salzburg, I took the local train out to Oberndorf to search for the church of St. Nicholas. After a few hours of blundering around the countryside (ending up in Germany briefly after crossing the Salzach River), my friend and I discovered that the church burned down around the turn of the twentieth century, but a memorial chapel had been built in its place, so we searched for mice there instead.

Finally, a book that I first read in my school library and which took me years to track down is Christmas Toyland by Lynn Hollyn. My copy, purchased online, is missing its cover and has scratches and worn edges. The bright pictures, with their borders of stenciled children and toys, seem a little more Disney-ish than I remember and the story is definitely a bit too sugary sweet. But there is still a wide picture of the dolls with their curls and lacy dresses sitting down to a feast of desserts that look scrumptious…reminding me of how delectable this book seemed to me at age 7. And really, aren’t those memories part of what Christmas is all about?

In the Classroom: Oh My Gods! December 12, 2011

Posted by ccbooks in Classroom Books.
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It is now December which means….it’s time to study Ancient Greece in my class! Teaching Greece has become a little less fun, now that so many of my students have read the Percy Jackson series and can name all the gods, both Greek and Roman (although there is still MAJOR debate about how to pronounce ‘Hephaestus’). I used to have only one or two students going systematically through all the books in the Greece and Rome section of my library; now most students have read at least one of those books. Which means, of course, it’s time to buy new books!

When I heard that Donna Jo Napoli was writing an overview of Greek myths, I got very excited. I have always been a fan of Napoli’s work, as she was the first author to really open my eyes to the possibilities in exploring fairy tales and myths from different perspectives. Her books Zel, The Magic Circle, Spinners and Beast made me more aware of the power of stories.

Let me be clear, though, that my heart is still with D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. That was the book I memorized when I was 10 and it’s still a great read aloud for my class each year. So thorough, with so many minor gods and heroes that other collections leave out…Napoli, though. This collection of myths has beautiful prose–witness the following quote from the section about Gaia:

“Rules of nature? They didn’t operate. Indeed, there was no nature. There was nothing reliable in this turmoil except lack of order. And lack is the essence of need.

Out of that original need came the mother force, Gaia. All on her own. Need can do that.”

Gorgeous. Napoli also clears up a few lingering mysteries, such as Aphrodite’s parentage, details about Zeus and Hera’s relationship, and even a few theories about Athena’s birth (has anyone else put forth the theory that the men of ancient civilizations were trying to take away the supreme role of women–giving birth–by writing about gods who came from their father’s bodies?). The pictures, by Christina Bali, are also beautiful and invite repeated viewings. Sidebars with additional details and connections to science and history are included throughout, so that even the most rabid Rick Riordan fan will find something new to learn in this fantastic book.

Unfortunately, mythology is not considered essential to my curriculum on Ancient Greece. My students will not get asked questions about particular gods on their standardized tests or be required to explain the purpose of mythology to the Greek civilization. So while I usually read about the major Olympian gods and a few of my favorite heroes, I also look for ways to emphasize the big idea of the unit, which is that the Greeks came up with many ideas and innovations which are still with us today.

Lise Lunge-Larsen’s new book, Gifts from the Gods, is a perfect tool for this task. In short, dramatic sections, accompanied by detailed illustrations (sometimes with speech bubbles), Lunge-Larsen explains the mythological history’s of various words from the English language. Each tale is given a quote from a children’s book as an introduction, showing how the word is used in writing today. Some words come from Greek myths, some from Roman myths and some, such as ‘genius’ illustrate how a story, and a word, changed in meaning over time. End notes to each section give additional words that derive from the characters introduced and an author’s note explains more about why so many words come from these stories. A chart showing the corresponding Greek and Latin names is included, along with a selected bibliography, web sources and notes from the artist.

The pictures are phenomenal, as you might expect from Gareth Hinds, who created a wonderful graphic novel version of The Odyssey last year. While the Virginia State Board of Education considers democracy and architectural features such as columns to be the most important legacies of the Ancient Greeks for the United States today, I think that words and stories are just as important, if not more so, and I can’t wait to share this book with my class as proof.

Treasury of Greek Mythology by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrations by Christina Balit. Published October 2011 by National Geographic Society.

Gifts from the Gods: Ancient words and wisdom from Greek and Roman mythology by Lise Lunge-Larsen, illustrated by Gareth Hinds. Published October 2011 by Houghton Mifflin.

Review: Hidden December 8, 2011

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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I have mixed feelings about middle grade and YA novels that are written in verse. Sometimes it seems powerful and entirely right for the story (Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse). Sometimes it feels slightly gimmicky, if ultimately heartwarming (Love that Dog by Sharon Creech). Last year, one of the more unusual YA books I read was Crossing Stones by Helen Frost. A historical novel set during World War I, the chapters were written in concrete poems in the shape of stones and water, representing the stones across a creek that ran between the homes of two families. As I recall, I enjoyed the book and main character was interesting, but I wasn’t compelled to re-read it.

But now.

Frost has a new book out this year, which I have read about five times so far and still I am finding new details in its pages. Also written in verse, Hidden tells the story of two girls, Wren and Darra, who are linked in a horrifying incident when they are little. Darra’s father steals a car, without knowing that Wren is hiding in the backseat. For several days, Wren is trapped in Darra’s garage, trying to find a way out, while no one (or perhaps only one person) knows where she is. The first two parts of the book tell that story from each character’s point of view. The third part of the book takes place years later, (when the girls are older and meet by accident) and tells the story of how they come to terms with the past.

Both voices in the story are written in free verse (that is, no rhymes). However, Wren’s sections are written in true free verse, while Darra’s, as the author explains in an afterword, are an invented form, with messages hidden in the lines. The result is also that Wren’s voice sounds much more spare and tense, and this makes sense, considering the ordeal she goes through. Darra’s voice is more specific and includes a lot more details and her reactions to events and people, which also makes sense when you take into account her family history and how her family changed after the incident involving Wren. Supporting characters are well drawn, and even those who seem thoughtless and cruel are shown, through Frost’s ingenious hidden messages, to be more complicated than they seem at first read.

Yes, the coincidence of the girls turning up at the same summer camp requires a certain suspension of disbelief (this may be a theme of this year’s books–I’m looking at YOU, Okay for Now!) but I was definitely pulled in by the characters and the set-up of the story and so was willing to go along with it. This is a mystery, a survival story and a friendship story that will intrigue many readers.

Hidden by Helen Frost. Published April 2011 by Farrar, Straus, Giroux.