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Review: Bomb September 30, 2012

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Steve Sheinkin’s author biography states that, as a former textbook writer, he is ‘making up for his previous crimes’ by writing exciting non-fiction for young readers. I was one of those kids who read the social studies textbook for fun, so I don’t know what he’s talking about–no, all kidding aside, Sheinkin’s history narratives are a huge step beyond the basic events retelling of most American textbooks. His latest, about the race to build the first atomic bomb, is no exception.

A key challenge facing a lot of non-fiction writers is the problem of how to make a story exciting when most of your readers already know the ending. The majority of kids who read Bomb will probably already know that the United States created the first atomic bomb and dropped it on Hiroshima in 1945. Sheinkin takes on this challenge by expanding his narrative into three parts–the race to create the bomb in the United States, the race to stop Germany from creating a bomb first and the efforts of the Soviet Union to figure out what both the United States and Germany were doing. In many ways, this is the perfect mix of non-fiction topics–spies and wartime for military enthusiasts, and hard-core physics for the science nerds.

In the US thread of the story, Sheinkin explained the physics of building the bomb as clearly and concisely as possible, although I still had to re-read some paragraphs multiple times to get any sort of visual in my head of what was happening. It was also nice to meet scientist figures not often seen in young adult literature, such as Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman (Ottavani’s excellent graphic novel bio notwithstanding).  From the thread dealing with the sabotage of Germany’s bomb-making efforts comes the gripping story of Norwegian saboteurs Knut Haukelid and Arne Kjelstrup who repeatedly attempt to destroy materials for bomb-making before Germany could use them.  And the sections on the Soviet spies expanded my ideas of the relationship between the US and the USSR during this part of the war, clarifying why the Soviets and their sympathizers in the US felt that the secrets of the atomic bomb needed to be shared and what they were prepared to do to make that happen.

Sheinkin does an admirable job of letting the participants in all three stories speak for themselves and concentrates on the events as they happened, rather than editorializing about whether atomic weapons are a good idea. In the epilogue, however, he forcefully makes the point that with all the atomic weapons in existence now, readers are part of the story, whether they like it or not. As debate goes on about Iran and nuclear energy and politicians argue about which countries have the right to what amount of power, more knowledge of the beginning of these weapons can only be a good thing.


Maggie Stiefvater Has Words on Her Face September 26, 2012

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Probably one of the best things for a fan to see when meeting a favorite author is tangible evidence that they are writing something new. At the National Book Festival this past weekend, Maggie Stiefvater had her hands covered in Sharpie notes for the next Raven Boys book, which made me indescribably happy. She did say, however, that the Sharpie often came off on her face, leaving her, as the post title says, with words on her face.

Stiefvater explained at one point during her talk that she had been raised by “feral librarians” (if I were a better artist, I would draw a doodle of the image that phrase brings to mind) and they must have brought her up on books with unusual word choices and vocabulary. She included various colorful descriptions and phrases throughout her speech, including ‘stone cold delightful’, ‘malevalous sheep’ and ‘distances be dammed!’ She repeatedly referred to her younger self as a ‘maggot’ and told a great story about her attempts at age 12 to write books that her dad would like (namely, thrillers) with kissing scenes that read ‘like instruction manuals, without the illustrations.’ Stiefvater’s comedy bits were fun (“Panic!” was her knee-jerk response to being asked for advice about anything) but she also included some excellent words of wisdom for young writers–my favorite being “When someone tells you no, it doesn’t mean NO. It just means NOT YET.”

Stiefvater also, probably without intending to, answered a few burning questions of my own. One was incredibly random–what the heck was a ‘boat shoe’? Gansey, a lead character in The Raven Boys, wears them and I had no visual in my head that could help me understand why they got on another character’s nerves. Fortunately, Steifvater had an example of said boat shoe with her. Mystery solved. If I had any doubts as to whether she had the ability to spot an amazing bit of YA fiction, they were laid to rest when she gave a shout out to Code Name Verity (Yes, I cheered. Yes, I got strange looks from the crowd around me.)

She also gave me a simple, concrete reason for why I like her books so much–we are influenced by the same writers and traditions. Stiefvater credits Susan Cooper’s series The Dark is Rising, for inspiring her to write folklore based fantasy, and Cooper is one of my children’s book idols. I’m sure that if I ever meet her, I will be as tongue-tied as Stiefvater was.  We also apparently share a love for Katherine Briggs, the British folklorist who wrote A Dictionary of the Fairies. I will wholeheartedly admit to being very jealous that I did NOT have a copy in my local library and had to wait to discover it until I found a book of excerpts at Oxfam in Cambridge. No wonder I immediately fell in love with the capall uisce of The Scorpio Races and the Welsh kings of The Raven Boys. They had been lurking in my imagination for awhile. Stiefvater was passionate about these early influences–she demanded that the audience raise their hands if they had read the Cooper series (“Ponies for you!”) or not (“You are heathens!”)–and later, when asked about how to use influences as inspiration without plagiarizing, she pointed out that the key is to use influences that matter deeply to you. I look forward to reading more marvelous work from Stiefvater that draws on her influences and inspiration.

P.S. Stiefvater clarified later that the ponies we got for having read Susan Cooper are from Wistman’s Wood in the UK. Here is the picture, stolen from her blog. Ana, take note. We are going here next summer!

Notes from the National Book Festival September 24, 2012

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High on my list of reasons why I love DC is the National Book Festival, presented by the Library of Congress, the President and Mrs. Obama, every September. I can remember when it was still small enough to be held inside the Jefferson Building itself (admittedly, it was INSANELY crowded) and only had one or two children’s authors I had ever heard of. Now it covers a good stretch of the Mall and people begin lining up at 7am to get a book signed by people like John Green. So many bibliophiles! Happiness!

There are always far more authors I’d like to see at the Festival than I actually have time for, and most years I never manage to spend more than an hour or two there due to rehearsals or other commitments. Waiting in lines for signings can also take multiple hours, so I often have to decide: do I listen to an author speak or wait to smile at them for three seconds and add an autographed book to my library?

This year, I opted to skip the signing lines (it helps that I now work at a bookstore and have more consistent access to author events) and concentrate on listening to presentations. I was able to catch part of speeches by Lois Lowry and Jerry Spinelli, as well as nearly all of Maggie Stiefvater’s. Stiefvater will get her own post, but here are some photos (from very far back, unfortunately) of Lowry and Spinelli.

It occurred to me, as I listened, that both Lowry and Spinelli are authors I was introduced to in a pivotal year for me as a reader, which was third grade. I count second grade as the year I realized the amount of enjoyment you could get from stories (due to the fantastic reading aloud by my teacher that year) but third grade was the year that I think I began to be inspired by books–inspired to create art, plays and songs because I was so moved by these characters and themes. Reading Number the Stars by Lowry and Maniac Magee by Spinelli were watershed moments in my reading life that year, so it was nice to hear them both on Saturday. Now, if Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollboothhad been there and Scott O’Dell (Island of the Blue Dophins) had come back from the dead, the day would have been perfect.

Review: The Quiet Place September 21, 2012

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Everyone knows that the most powerful toy in the world, the one that can do the most things, isn’t the iphone5–it’s a cardboard box.  As an all-purpose game,  time-travel machine and comfort space, a box is hard to beat. There are several books for younger kids about the pleasures of cardboard adventures (most notably Not a Box by Antoinette Portis) but now comes a book for slightly older readers about the comfort and reassurance of having a box–and a space–of your own.

The Quiet Place, written by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small, is a collection of letters from Isabel, a girl who has moved from Mexico to the United States with her family in 1957. Isabel writes to her Aunt Lupita about missing the sounds of Spanish, seeing snow for the first time, being nervous about starting school in English and most of all, her quest to find a ‘quiet place’.  With the help of her older brother and father, Isabel builds her own quiet place out of cardboard boxes, given by the families her mother makes birthday cakes for. As the quiet place grows, so does Isabel’s confidence, until by the end of the book, she has invited new friends into her quiet place and it is no longer quiet.

Stewart’s text is concise and full of quiet energy. Her details are perfect, giving clues to Isabel’s feelings in little ways, such as the shift in her sign off to each letter, when ‘Missing you’ turns into ‘Wishing you were here’. Small’s artwork is colorful without being overwhelming, the end pages showing Isabel’s home in Mexico, with the landscape so different from the cold, grey north. Several pages show views of Isabel working on her quiet place from different angles and her immersion in her safe world is palpable. The final open-out pages of the party guests enjoying the quiet place is a celebration of creativity and the immigrant’s memories of home. I guarantee that everyone who reads this book will want to pick up a box and some markers to create a ‘quiet place’ of their own.

Yes, I am still obsessing over this gorgeous fold out spread. Are you surprised?

Medal Mania September 20, 2012

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It is now, believe it or not, after Labor Day (I’m still in denial about the end of summer. No longer being a full time teacher makes it WAAAY more easy to ignore!) and so blogs and mock committees are getting up and running for the ALA Media Awards. Lists are being posted. Comments are being made. Disappointment is registered with books that failed to live up to expectations. Raves are being given for books that are just that fantastic.

My favorite thing about awards season is that it gets me to read books I might have ignored otherwise, due to an unfortunate cover or bias against the author or any number of reasons. I usually keep up with the blog Heavy Medal over at School Library Journal, along with Calling Caldecott at the The Horn Book. Both give great recommendations for books that should be considered for the Newbery and Caldecott. Right now, the books I have read in the ‘Newbery range’ fall into several categories:

The “It was good but didn’t blow me away” category: Wonder falls into this category as does Princess Academy: Palace of Stone and Liar and Spy. Liked them all, but wasn’t floored.

The “I know I should really finish this…” category: Summer of the Gypsy Moths goes here. I really will get back to it soon…

The “I LOVE it and so am probably biased when it comes to Newbery discussion” category: Splendor and Glooms. In case it wasn’t obvious.

The “I’m DEFINITELY going to read that” category: Lots of things in here that haven’t been published yet, such as Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin. Also several books that are sitting in my room right now, like What Came from the Stars by Gary Schmidt!

In spite of all the arguing… September 17, 2012

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Ana and I both agree that the LEAST annoying John Green boy is Pudge, from Looking for Alaska.  Is it because he was the first John Green protagonist we met? Ana will explain:

Ana: Even though Pudge is essentially the same pattern as Colin, Will, and Quentin, he’s in a very different situation. Maybe we don’t find him quite as annoying because, despite him being the narrator, he doesn’t actually say very much. The book, of course, focuses mostly on Alaska, and even though Paper Towns is much the same way in that it focuses on Margo, she’s not actually there for most of the book, whereas Alaska is.

Cecilia: That makes sense!

Who is the most annoying John Green character? September 14, 2012

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Ana recently had the chance to talk to John Green via a call-in to one of our local bookstores. Characteristically, her question was along the lines of “Why did it take you so long to write as a girl when all your boy characters are so annoying?” Green, of course, had a perfectly good answer, but my first thought when she told me this story was “Wow…that’s true…they ARE really annoying!” So,  in the spirit of true sisterly argument, here is our debate over who is the most annoying John Green character.

Cecilia: I say it’s Colin, from An Abundance of Katherines. 

Ana: I vote Will Grayson (either of them, but particularly the straight one) from Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

Cecilia: Well, technically you would have to blame David Levithan for the gay Will Grayson. Green only wrote the straight one. I vote for Colin because of all the self-pity. Plus, the footnotes and anagrams just get annoying after awhile. At least Will Grayson doesn’t show off all the time.

Ana: Well, part of my opinion may be prejudiced, because I like Abundance of Katherines so much. It’s the only one with a happy ending, so to speak. But for some reason, I find Colin hilarious instead of annoying, whereas to me, straight Will Grayson has absolutely nothing going in his favor. He whines essentially all the time, in spite of having pretty much everything he could want.

Cecilia: I don’t think you can say Will has everything he could want. At least at the start of the book, his best friend pretty much ignores him after falling in love (whereas Colin’s friend Hassan is entirely dedicated to their friendship) and while similar to Colin he has major insecurities, he is more reserved and doesn’t complain about them all the time. You could also make the argument that both Abundance of Katherines and Will Grayson, Will Grayson have happy endings, but that’s another debate.

Ana: But Colin does have a reason for being depressed. It’s the reaction you expect from a teenage boy going through that situation–in terms of realism, it’s spot on, in the same way that fifth book Harry Potter was annoying, but a real person. Will doesn’t have much of a reason, it seems. He’s just perpetually morose and cynical.

Cecilia: But isn’t that a pretty typical reaction of a teenager to life in general? I feel like adolescence causes a perpetual feeling of being a fish out of water–which readers accept if it comes from a character who is going through specific stress, like Colin or Harry– but what about the stresses of everyday life, like just walking down the hall at school?

Maybe the best conclusion to this debate would be to acknowledge that whether they are prodigies, ordinary students or have just been dumped, teenage boys are just annoying in general. I guess we won’t be seeing a huge change in Green’s protagonists anytime soon then. Good thing they make us laugh even when we get annoyed!

Review: Splendors and Glooms September 10, 2012

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If there was a prize given for “Best Creepy-Yet-Ultimately-Reassuring Middle Grade Book” Laura Amy Schlitz would win hands down for her latest beauty Splendors and Glooms. This is most similar in tone to A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, her tale of spiritualism in the early 20th century.

Clara lives in a beautiful house in London with servants, delicious food and two parents who would do anything to keep her safe and well. Yet her life is sad and constricting and she wishes she could be out on the streets, performing with the children who operate Mr. Grisini’s fabulous puppets. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall spend their days trudging through cold, dirty streets with little food and avoiding the worst of Grisini’s temper. When they visit Clara’s house to perform for her birthday party, it feels like entering a magical world of warmth and light. But then Clara disappears, suspicion falls on Grisini and Lizzie Rose and Parsefall must solve the mystery.

Schlitz makes it clear with her setting and characters that this story is an homage to Dickens and Victorian London, and pretty much up until Clara’s disappearance it reads like historical fiction. Interspersed with the story of the children, however, is the tale of Grisini and Cassandra, a witch who is his ancient rival. From the beginning, Cassandra’s powers are clear, as is her dependence on a magical object, a fire opal. How far Cassandra is willing to go to free herself from it’s influence gives the story suspense, especially after Lizzie Rose, Parsefall, and Clara get caught up in her schemes.

One of my favorite things about Schlitz’s writing has always been her magnificent descriptions, which made me feel as though I was standing in Clara’s room, looking out past the two sets of curtains “claret-colored velvet on top, frilled muslin next to the glass.” I got to go see the Royal Marionette show with Lizzie and Parsefall, watching the “…knights and fairies, demons and clowns, sword fighting, slapstick and the ballet…the showmen had used every material to its best advantage: looking glass, pasteboard, paint and wax; wood, cloth and papier-mache.” The book is also beautifully designed, with a gorgeous cover by Bagram Ibatoulline and a splendid spine that looks like a column in a theater. As a puppeteer, I found Schlitz’s use of marionettes to be a perfect metaphor for her tale of children trying to take control of their own lives. It was easy to visualize Grisini’s puppet theater and show from her well-chosen details.

Plucky orphans, magical stones and vindictive witches are fairly common tropes in children’s literature, but Schlitz breathes fresh life into them with her dimensional characters, suspenseful plot and entirely earned happy ending.  Hear Schlitz speak about this book at the National Book Festival  on September 22 or go find a copy at your library now!

Too Many Tiaras September 7, 2012

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My co-worker Kristen told me last week that she had been to a birthday party for a three year old girl where more than half the presents were tiaras and magic wands–she was the only person who brought a book as a gift. While we often get parents, grandparents and family friends in the store who tell us “She loves pink–anything frilly and fancy will be great!”, we just as often have relatives saying “Well, she’s a real girly girl…but do you have any princess books that aren’t quite so sugary?” Here, to solve the crisis of too many tiaras, are some old and new favorites for those who like their princesses just a little bit subversive.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

A true classic, Princess Elizabeth is engaged to Prince Ronald, when a dragon comes by who steals the prince and burns up all Elizabeth’s princess clothes. She has to wear a paper while going off to rescue her true love with cunning and strategy. Does the prince appreciate her efforts? Well….

Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole

This is another tale of a princess who doesn’t quite make it to the altar–and is perfectly happy about it! To avoid having to choose a prince for a husband, Princess Smartypants devises a diabolical series of tasks for those who apply for the job.  And even when Prince Swashbuckle shows up and is determined to complete them all, the princess has a magical trick up her sleeve that will keep her single forever.

The Barefoot Book of Princesses retold by Caitlin Matthews

If your little princess thinks that all princesses have blond hair and blue eyes, this lovely collection of read aloud tales is a perfect antidote. I love the story collections published by Barefoot Books (someday I will do a post on all they have to offer) which include tales from all over the world. Bringing together old and new stories from Denmark, Siberia, China and Persia, these princesses all have their own tasks and challenges to accomplish in their different ways. The stories are accompanied by lovely illustrations and a CD with audio versions of each one.

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer

Olivia, the little pig whose color scheme is red, black and white, finds herself surrounded by pink in this latest adventure. She complains to her mother that “All the girls want to be princesses” and “Why is it always a pink princess? Why not an Indian princess or a princess from Thailand…there are alternatives.” When her mother points out that last year Olivia had wanted to be the fairy princess ballerina in the school dance recital, she is met with the retort “That was when I was little. I’m trying to develop a more stark, modern style.” Of course, Olivia’s real problem is not so much the idea of being a princess, but rather that “If everyone’s a princess, then princesses aren’t special anymore!” She doesn’t have to worry. With ambitions ranging from being a nurse to a reporter (who exposes ‘corporate malfeasance’ no less) it is certain that Olivia will never be the same as anyone else.

Lively Rocks and Resourceful Creatures September 4, 2012

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It’s always nice to come into the store and see a whole bunch of picture books on the New Books shelf! Here are two non-fiction books that have been praised by librarians and booksellers alike. Both are by well-known children’s authors, one a non-fiction writer and the other a poet. They share a couple of traits, namely, beautiful art and poetic writing. Perfect to share with an inquisitive child or classroom of students!

A Rock is Lively by Dianna Hutts Aston

Following her other titles about eggs, seeds and butterflies, Aston now explains rocks in simple sentences, then expands to provide more information in sidebars. “A rock is lively” she begins, explaining about molten rock under the earth’s crust. “A rock is mixed up” is paired with a recipe for lapis lazuli, accompanied by detailed drawings of each mineral element. Aston’s great choice of words makes the book engaging as a read aloud; ‘galactic,’ ‘inventive,’ ‘ingest,’ ‘gizzard,’ and ‘creative’ all make an appearance, along with more standard rock vocabulary such as ‘jewel’ and ‘deposit.’

Teachers or parents looking to communicate basic information about the rock cycle or the three categories of rocks will find what they need here, but Aston also encourages the reader to think about rocks in a broader sense–that they helped humans create tools, to say nothing of cave paintings and architectural wonders. Many kids who start rock collections are the equivalent of magpies–‘shiny’ or ‘pretty’ is the main reason for their choices and interest. This book has plenty of shiny and pretty illustrations by Sylvia Long but hopefully by the end, they will have been entranced by the sentences and facts as well.

A Strange Place to Call Home by Marilyn Singer

Singer brings her signature style of vivid language and precise poetry forms to this collection about animals that live in dangerous habitats. While some kids can tell you everything about the zebra or the tiger, others are committed to learning about far stranger creatures. The anglerfish is always popular, as is the electric eel. Singer has created a book to aid those children who live for the moment when they spout a fact and their friends respond “Whaaat? They do what? They live where?”

Singer uses poetry forms such as the triolet, haiku, sonnet and villanelle to give information about a list of animals just as diverse. From the Humbolt penguin to the ice worm to camel, these creatures live in habitats all over the world, all of them dangerous places where you need special skills to survive. At the back are further notes about each species, as well as a note about the poetry forms. As a teacher, I love using poetry to teach science because all the information is there, but not up front. You have to read carefully and think about the language in order to understand that the flamingos eat shrimp from the salt lakes. Singer’s poems are perfect to read if you want to learn a little about the fascinating species of our planet.

Last note: Ed Young’s collage illustrations are a great match for each poem. Strong lines and varied textures give a sense of both the creature and the habitat, often in close-up or from an unusual viewpoint. When will someone arrange an event where Eric Carle and Ed Young can talk about collage and the children’s book?