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Hold Shelf: October October 30, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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One of my favorite things to see is this: holds that have come in at the library! New books, including National Book Award finalists by Carrie Arcos and Eliot Schafer, older books, like Hilary Mantel’s Booker award winning Wolf Hall and books I’ve been waiting forever for, like J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. What hurricane? I’ll be reading for the next few days!

Review: Sadie and Ratz October 28, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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As a third grade teacher, I had a tendency to miss a lot of the high quality early reader fiction that has come out in recent years. My students still liked to look back at some of their favorites, such as Elephant and Piggie, but for the most part they were into Rick Riordan and graphic novels and my collection of Cam Jansen gathered dust. Old habits are hard to break, but I am trying to retrain myself to pay attention to new early reader and short chapter books that are gaining accolades from other teachers and librarian.

Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production mentioned this new title from Sonya Harnett in a blog post earlier this year and as soon as I saw the cover, I fell in love. As a puppeteer, my first thought in seeing the cover was “Shadow puppets! Hands making puppets, just like my company’s graphic!” (you can see it here at www.witsendpuppets.com). The story doesn’t directly concern puppets, but the narrator does learn that hands, like puppets, can be blamed for certain malicious actions.

Hannah is the name of the main character, but as the cover illustration suggest, she plays second fiddle to her two devious hands, named Sadie and Ratz. In three short chapters, perfectly illustrated with charcoal illustrations by Ann James, we meet Sadie and Ratz as they ” Crush things..twist and scrunch…and scratch! scratch! scratch!” Most of the time these actions are directed at younger brother Baby Boy, who as Hannah comments, usually “…bellows like a banshee bull” in response to their shenanigans.  Harnett’s descriptive language is a pleasure to read, either silently or out loud. And any child with extremities that have a tendency to get them into trouble will sympathize with Hannah as Baby Boy gets crafty and realizes that Sadie and Ratz can conveniently take the blame for his own mishaps. Can Hannah find a way to keep Sadie and Ratz from automatically being labeled the troublemakers? Give this to a first or second grader who enjoys listening to Ramona, Clementine or similar characters. Just be prepared for them to name their hands afterward!

Review: Abe Lincoln’s Dream October 25, 2012

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The metro station near my house is currently plastered with huge quotes from our 16th president, thanks to movie publicity for Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. On television and in the newspapers, politicians and pundits argue about what our founding fathers and former presidents would have to say about the state of the country today. Lane Smith’s new book Abe Lincoln’s Dream, is a quiet, gentle reminder that really, we’re doing pretty good.

Abe Lincoln’s Dream opens with Fala, FDR’s pet Scottie growing unaccountably restless as he views a certain room in the White House. He is followed by various other pets, all of whom react to the otherworldly presence in the Lincoln bedroom. It is only when a little girl on a tour (appropriately named Quincy) wanders into the room that a conversation begins with the tall, thin ghost. Amid corny jokes and discussion of recurring dreams (Like the one where “…bears have gotten into your cabin”) Lincoln confesses that he  is restless because “…there was so much to do beyond 1865. Our union was so fragile, so uncertain…” Quincy takes it upon herself to reassure him, traveling magically out of the Executive Mansion (“We just call it the White House now”) across the nation and even into outer space. As they go, Lincoln asks if the states are united, if there is equality, and if man does not ‘fuss and fight’ with his fellow man. Quincy admits that while things are not perfect “…the founding fathers would be proud of our progress.” And that knowledge is enough to send Lincoln, on the last page of the book  “…on a boat moving rapidly toward the rising sun. He was smiling.”

Smith’s pages are filled with his trademark fun typography which never gets so complicated that it becomes illegible. He uses an understated palette of subtle colors that is similar to his Caldecott-Honor winning book from last year, Grandpa Green. Each page is also given light texturing–the crackle of old paint, the grain of wood–that contributes to the overall charm of the pictures. This is the perfect book to read on President’s Day, with a child interested in Lincoln or whenever you need a break from the election season. As Lincoln would say “Three cheers and Ballyhoo!’

Review: The Diviners October 22, 2012

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Do NOT read this book at bedtime. You will have nightmares. Read this book in the daytime instead.

I will admit that it has taken me quite awhile to join the Libba Bray fan parade. I could never get into her Gemma Hardy series and I don’t think I even opened her Printz-winning Going Bovine (while mad-cow disease isn’t the sort of thing to catch my attention, it probably didn’t help that I REALLY wanted another book, Marcelo in the Real World, to win that particular award). But I was assured by librarians I trust that I would not be disappointed by her latest series opener, The Diviners. And they were right.

The year is 1926. The place is New York City, where everyone searching for something or trying to hide a secret. Everyone except Evie O’Neill, who is determined to enjoy herself after being packed off to her uncle in the city after getting a little too wild for her Ohio town. Evie is ambitious, and sure that she is destined for great things and fun times. She is also aware that she is, in her own words ‘the careless sort’–rushing into things without considering the consequences. Over the course of several months, these two sides of Evie will be on full display as she meets all kinds of people and learns more about an odd supernatural talent.

Bray takes the reader along with Evie on her whirlwind tour of the city–everywhere from nightclubs to jail cells, Coney Island to Harlem. The point of view jumps around; chapters focus not just on Evie, but on pick-pocket Sam, poet Memphis, showgirl Theta and Will’s assistant Jacob. These shorthand identifiers make each main character sound like a cardboard cutout, but the marvel is how Bray makes each of them memorable in just a few short pages. By the end of the 578 pages, there are still mysteries about most of the characters to be solved and Bray drops a few huge hints about who might have a more prominent role in the next two books.

Learn more about Libba Bray in this interview at The Horn Book and find The Diviners at your local library or independent bookstore!

Review: Island October 18, 2012

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If you want to get a group of kids excited about a natural history topic, start with a book by Jason Chin.  His picture books Redwoods and Coral Reefs feature children who discover magical books that pull them into the world of the topic, enlightening them with facts alongside the beautiful visuals. His latest, Island, doesn’t have a similar child character, but it doesn’t need one. For all of us who are unlikely to win an all expenses paid trip to the Galapagos Islands any time soon, this book provides the perfect vicarious experience.

Chin divides his story into chapters labeled with the stages of life–for this unnamed island, ‘birth’ was six million years ago. Repeated volcanic eruptions bring it to childhood, adulthood and finally old age, as it sinks back into the ocean. Very slowly, over time, creatures discover the island and turn it into their home. Sets of three square pictures detail the seabirds, iguanas and sea lions who gradually migrate via water and air to live on the islands.  The adaptations that species such as the finches and tortoises evolve over time are explained simply and clearly, accompanied by detailed illustrations showing the differences in beak shape, snail and tortoise shells.

Galapagos is the go-to example for teachers when talking about the science of evolution and sometimes it feels like the islands didn’t exist until Charles Darwin sailed up in the ship Beagle, to wonder and question and eventually put together his theories. One of the things I love about this book is that it takes place entirely before Darwin’s time–by the time the ship sails in for the last couple of pages, the island’s life is over and it has sunk below the waves again. The idea of a past that is millions of years old is often difficult for young readers to understand.  This lovely, informative book will give those readers a concrete story of how our world has changed over time and is still changing today.

Storytime with the Steads October 15, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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There were two presentations at the National Book Festival a few weeks ago that I was bitterly disappointed I had to miss. One was Laura Amy Schlitz (who wrote Splendors and Glooms and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!) and the other was Philip and Erin Stead, co-creators of the Caldecott-winning picture book A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Fortunately, the Steads were sticking around in DC a few more days to do another event at the bookstore Politics and Prose, so I was able to spend some time with them after all.

Their presentation was delightful. The two classes of children who came to the event (1st and 2nd graders) loved hearing them read aloud both A Sick Day for Amos McGee and their new book Bear Has a Story to Tell. After reading the books aloud, Erin Stead talked about how she created the art for each book, showing sketches, the wood blocks she carved for Amos McGee and the various stages of the art for Bear, which was created by painting with crushed chalk. As she pointed out, it is kind of like painting with mud. The students asked some great questions, especially about the tiny details included in the drawings, such as a mouse, bird and balloon, and they offered interesting theories for why these silent characters kept reappearing!

The Steads were kind enough to sign some books for me after the presentation, complete with handmade stamps. After seeing up close the kind of time and attention to detail that they put into the creation of both the words and the pictures for these books, it wasn’t surprising that their signatures involved special carved stamps, and details in silver Sharpie. I can’t wait to see what stories they will choose to tell next.

Writers in Boxes October 13, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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I take the bus home from the theater very late every night and most of the time, my fellow riders are asleep. But occasionally, I will overhear conversations around me. A few nights ago, there were two women sitting behind me, and as soon as I heard the name ‘Percy Jackson,’ I started eavesdropping.

The women were discussing their need to catch up with the latest book by Rick Riordan, but then they moved on to another big name of the moment–J.K. Rowling.  When asked if she planned to read Rowling’s new adult novel The Casual Vacancy, one of the women replied with something along the lines of “No, I don’t think so. I think I prefer her in her little box–magic, wizards, you know. That kind of stuff.” She went on to cite the poverty and teen pregnancy that she had heard was part of Casual Vacancy and said that it wasn’t the kind of thing she was interested in reading from Rowling.

I was intrigued, because it felt very much of a piece with what I was hearing in the media about Rowling’s new book–namely, that it was impossible to read, discuss or review, without resorting to comparisons with the Harry Potter series. In Michiko Kakutani’s review for the New York Times, Harry Potter was mentioned in 7 out of the 9 paragraphs. It is impossible to know if the book would have been received differently had Rowling not written (and become famous for) the Harry Potter series first. Certainly it’s a fact of writing and reading that a reader will not necessarily like every book by a particular author, and since I haven’t read The Casual Vacancy, I’m not going to give an opinion on whether it has been unfairly panned by critics. But I wonder if we do writers a disservice by automatically assuming that a book that steps out of their usual genre or style is something the reader won’t enjoy. It almost feels as though Rowling’s creativity and vision for this story is being sidelined, because it doesn’t fit with what readers have come to expect from her. I remembered hearing a clip from a concert by I think Joni Mitchell, who when asked to play one of her hits, pointed out that other artists don’t have this same problem with being expected to repeat themselves–no one told Van Gogh “Hey, paint Starry Night again!”

“Creativity” and “Ingenuity” are words that I hear tossed around a lot–in the media, and around education and business people who talk about how to foster it in students and workers. And yet, when writers and other artists try new ideas and stories that deviate from what they have done before, they often get ignored or compared unfavorably with their previous work. Maybe if we really want to foster creativity, we should stop putting writers and other artists in these little boxes. Even if all we do is read a book like Rowling’s, that we’re not entirely sure we’ll enjoy.

“When You Ban a Book, You Ban a Kid” October 3, 2012

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It is once again Banned Books Week and looking at the list of most frequently challenged books for 2011, I feel like I’m slipping a little. How is it that I still haven’t read anything by Lauren Myracle? Some books on the list, such as the guide to pregnancy, I have just had no reason to read. Many of my favorite authors who have been on the list in the past, such as J.K. Rowling or Philip Pullman, don’t seem to be challenged as frequently anymore. And some books, such as Twilight or Gossip Girl, I probably still won’t read, even to make a point.

The title of this post is a quote from Chris Crutcher that has been floating around. Crutcher, probably more than any author I have read, does a brilliant job in his stories of illustrating the horrific things that can happen when adults try to keep teens away from issues or people ‘for their own good.’ When you ban a book in an attempt to ‘protect’ the reader, you are sending the message that anyone who identifies with the experience of that book–be it pregnancy or homosexuality–is not worth a story and is not worth a place in the library or classroom. But those people are out there. Those teens are out there, in those libraries and in those classrooms. And just like everyone else, they deserve to be able to see themselves in literature. Huge thanks to those librarians who fight censorship and politely explain to people that they cannot take away a person’s freedom to read. Huge thanks to all the parents (including my own) who trust their kids to put books down if they feel uncomfortable, rather than trying to pre-emptively keep them from selected topics. Go here to see videos made by readers in all 50 states and go here to see the lists of frequently challenged books from ALA.