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Review: Dodger November 29, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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The Victorian era is a period in history that I find fascinating and I like to think I know more than an average number of odd facts about it.  I was familiar, for example, with the ‘toshers,’ the group of people who made a living by sifting through the sewers for money, jewelry or other things they could sell. Leave it to Terry Pratchett, the master of the mix-it-up story to bring toshers and millionaires, novelists and architects together in one brilliant mixed-up novel. Dodger is a warm-hearted romp through London, both the good and the bad.

Dodger is a tosher, with more luck than most people in London. His life changes at the start of the book, when he emerges from the sewers to spy two rough henchmen pursuing a runaway girl. Appointing himself her savior, he falls in with up and coming journalist Charles Dickens and social historian Henry Mayhew to protect the girl, who calls herself Simplicity. In trying to ascertain who is pursuing Simplicity and how to keep her safe, Dodger finds himself climbing out of the sewers and among a cast list of London’s famous and infamous; among others, he runs into Sweeney Todd, Benjamin Disraeli, heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts and eventually the Queen herself. Gradually he becomes used to Savile Row suits and dinner tables with multiple forks, but when he has to come up with a plan to fake Simplicity’s death, his talents and standing as a prince of the underworld help him achieve his goal.

Pratchett vividly evokes London of the nineteenth century where “the streets were so crowded that you were rubbing shoulders with people until you had no shoulders left.” Dodger knows everyone, from the flower sellers and mudlarks to owners of pawnshops and the more shady characters who will steal or maim people, for a price. He is vividly characterized as a straightforward boy who understands his world, is immensely loyal and not afraid of change. In the long list of historical and fictional characters, I’m sure there were references I missed and Pratchett leaves some of them, such as Dodger’s particular friend Solomon Cohen, open to a certain amount of interpretation. Understated humor abounds and a few well-placed footnotes (concerning, among other things the Sin of Onan) prompt the reader to learn more on their own. Pratchett’s author’s note elaborates on some of the historical figures who appear and also waxes lyrical on such topics as the England’s old system of money.

A few quibbles: I wish Pratchett had somehow managed to squeeze in where Angela Burdett-Coutts got her fortune from. The money was left to her by a female relative who was an actress, a splendid irony considering how actors were considered thoroughly second class in Victorian England. My other quibble is more substantial. I have to admit, I never quite fell in love with Simplicity. Maybe I kept comparing her to Tiffany Aching, a very strong-minded Pratchett heroine. Simplicity can be strong-minded, and speaks up for herself when necessary, but she spends most of the book in hiding and accepts all of Dodger’s plans to save her. I know, this is Dodger’s book, but the romance just seemed a little too…Victorian? Simple? Maybe that’s my own preferences speaking.

If you know and love Pratchett, you will not be disappointed. If you enjoy historical fiction with a few improbabilities, humor and warmth, and a story where the bad guys are thoroughly trounced, then this is a book for you.

Tiny side note: I started reading this book directly after finishing a history of London ‘below’ (the Underground system, sewers, etc.) where I came across many references to Henry Mayhew and his work on London’s poor. Imagine my surprise, to open Dodger and discover Mr. Mayhew again in fictional form! It’s the literary equivalent of meeting someone new in a college class and then running into them everywhere else on campus.

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A Review Experiment November 26, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews, Quotes.
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Problem: I just finished a new YA book by Sarah Rees Brennan, which I quite liked but I don’t really have time to review it. 

Solution: Pull a bunch of quotes I liked and have that be the outline of the review. We’ll see how well it works. 

Unspoken, by Sarah Rees Brennan is the first in a series about the Lynburn family, who have just returned to the small English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Everyone seems to be afraid of them, and Kami Glass, an aspiring reporter is determined to figure out why. Kami and her best friend Angela have conversations consisting of a lot of banter. 

“So you were basically interrogating poor Mrs. Thompson, who is probably a hundred and twenty years old?” (said Angela) “I was acquiring information” Kami said calmly. “Also licorice.” “You are shameless,” Angela said. “I hope you feel good about your life choices.” Kami looked out at the valley again. There were stories to be found here, and she was going to discover them all.

Kami uses her school newspaper as a way to account for her snooping around the Lynburns. 

“People took home copies for their parents,” Kami announced and did a victory dance in the privacy of her headquarters. “The photocopy machine overheated and broke down. I think I can still hear the sound of it sobbing and wanting to talk about it’s childhood.”

And sometimes she goes a little beyond the bounds of legality in getting her information.

Victory! Kami announced, leaving up and running into the office with her arms spread wide like an airplane. If I wasn’t going to be a world-famous journalist and if I didn’t have such respect for truth and justice, I could be an amazing master criminal.

My favorite part of this book was Kami’s no-nonsense attitude–she talks straight, doesn’t get all choked up and nervous in awkward moments and can take care of herself without a boy. 

“Oh, I want to meet him,” Kami said instantly. “Not in a loopy ‘I want to meet your parents, I want your babies’ way. For the interview! Let’s go.”

“You look so sweet when you sleep, ” Kami said. “Like an emo ten-year-old’s first Vampire Bride Barbie. Pull the string on the back and she says cruel things to her hardworking friends.”

“Don’t feel bad, Angela.” Kami said. “You know guys, they only want one thing. Repartee. I can’t count how many times men have admired my well-turned phrases. The shallow jerks.”

The plot got a little too convoluted and dramatic for my taste, but to be fair, Brennan is playing with gothic conventions, so the drama is to be expected. I look forward to seeing where the series goes next. 

Obama and Independent Bookstores November 25, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Bookstore.
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As an employee of an independent bookstore who regularly hears the line “Wow…I’m amazed you’re still here…” I was thrilled to see a video on The Washington Post website today of the Obamas doing some Christmas shopping at fellow independent store One More Page Books in Arlington. While clearly I think people should shop at independent businesses all year round, I can’t deny that the holidays are an important time to encourage it even more.

Visit One More Page or Hooray For Books, where I work on King Street for a fantastic selection of books for all ages and even more importantly, expert advice and recommendations on what to give as holiday gifts. A huge thank you to President Obama and his daughters for their support!

Thankful Books November 22, 2012

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There are untold numbers of books devoted to Christmas and Hanukkah. The Horn Book Magazine even runs a special section of them each year because so many new titles continued to be published. It’s a little harder though, to find books about Thanksgiving. Here are a few that I remember from childhood, as well as some newer favorites.

Mousekin’s Thanksgiving by Edna Miller

I loved any book with mice in it as a child, so it isn’t surprising this was a favorite. Mousekin is looking for the animal who has eaten his winter store of food. He goes through the wood, finding animal after animal, until he encounters the culprit–a wild turkey! The details in the watercolor illustrations are always my favorite part of this series, but I’m pretty sure it’s out of print now.

Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen

I remember this as being the go-to Thanksgiving book for many teachers when I was in elementary school. Molly is an immigrant from Russia, newly arrived in the U.S. sometime in the early twentieth century although the text is a bit vague as to the exact year. When asked to make a pilgrim doll for a school project, Molly’s mother makes a doll that looks like her–a Russian Jew who has come to America for religious freedom. Molly is worried that she will be laughed at yet again for being different, but her teacher is understanding and reminds the class that “Pilgrims are still coming to America.” While I’m not sure how many of my classmates truly took in the lesson, I at least liked the books focus on dolls!

Squanto’s Journey by Joseph Bruchac

This has become my book of choice for discussing Thanksgiving with students. I met Mr. Bruchac at a Kennedy Center event once and gained a much larger appreciation for the oral traditions he pulls from to create his books. A descendent of the Abenaki Indians of Massachusetts, Bruchac has worked hard to make his account of Squanto’s life as accurate as possible and includes a detailed author’s note about his sources. The text is a little heavy for reading aloud, but I found that students were able to stay engaged if I stopped at a few points to discuss specific events. This is a great title to use when addressing Common Core standards for critical thinking, prompting students to consider the events leading up to the First Thanksgiving from different points of view.

Thank you, Thanksgiving by David Milgrim

I read this book when I was doing my student teaching in kindergarten, a number of years ago. The story is simple; a girl goes out to buy things to make a pumpkin pie. As she walks through the town, she says ‘Thank you!’ to everything she walks by. Trees, snow, milk, and door were just some of the items that got a cheerful acknowledgement. My students loved the book so much that we did our own remake. Each student got to choose something in the school to ‘Thank you’ to, they drew a picture of it while I took a photograph and we compiled them all into our own book. Fun project for little ones at this time of year.

Over the River and Through the Wood by Lydia Maria Child

I think most people have heard this poem, chanted by a family member or teacher, at least once in their life.  I can never remember what comes after “the white and drifted snow” so it was nice to find this new board book version, with all the verses and lovely woodcut illustrations. An old-fashioned family stays warm in their log cabin, enjoys the snowy outdoors and finally arrives at Grandma’s house just in time for pumpkin pie. A great choice for an after dinner read with little ones!

For anyone who reads this, may peace be with you and Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s the Little Things November 19, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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The NY Times list of Best Illustrated Children’s Books just came out and I was interested to see several books that are translations originally published in other countries.  I’m always wishing for more translations to show up in the US, because I know there are amazing children’s authors and illustrators all over the world and I wish I could see more of their work! I was also intrigued to see that two titles on the list had similar tales of tiny little occurrences that prove revelatory.

Stephen and the Beetle, by Jorge Lujan from Mexico, is about a little boy who notices a beetle in the garden. He takes off his shoe to squash it, but then has second thoughts.  He realizes that, if he drops the shoe, the day will go on, exactly the same “..except for one small thing.” He decides to put the shoe down and look at the beetle more closely.  Facing it head to head, he is able to better appreciate that it looks like “a creature from the Cretaceous” or “a terrible triceratops”. But just as he starts to get worried about being attacked, the beetle turns aside and walks away. Coincidence? Lujan’s text takes the view that our small choices matter and can lead to eye-opening experiences.

Similarly, in Little Bird, by Swiss author German Zullo, a man drives a truck filled with birds to the edge of a cliff, and opens the back to let them fly away. Apparently this is something he does often, as the text informs us that “One could almost believe that one day is just like another.” But this day is different–when all the other birds have flown away, one little black bird stays behind. Is he hungry? Does he not know how to fly? What will the man do? The sweet ending, with its subtle lesson about what it takes for each of us to fly is entirely earned.

While I don’t think children are as likely to pick up either of these titles on their own, I think they will enjoy listening to them and looking at them. The illustrations in Stephen and the Beetle are loose and sketchy, as though they had been scrawled by a child and the wordless spreads in Little Bird feature bold expanses of color in the landscape, juxtaposed with the tiny details of the man’s face and checked shirt. The birds too, each have unusual colors and markings, along with simple, expressive eyes. I’m glad that the New York Times committee brought these unusual titles to our attention!

NBA Comments November 12, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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It has taken awhile, but I have now read at least some of all five finalists for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. At least enough to give me a taste of each story and to make me feel that I can comment at least a little on all the titles. I’ve said this about the ALA Media Awards before, but I really like it when books are shortlisted for (or win!) an award and I have never heard of them, because it means new stories for me to discover. Of the five books on this shortlist, I had read one, heard of one other and the other three were completely new. My general thoughts on each of them, before the winner is announced very soon…

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

Much of the conversation about this title focused on the voice, as it is told in the first person. McCormick based her story on the journey and recollections of Arn, and the sentences are very much in the voice of a non-native English speaker. For some readers, this was jarring, but I found that it didn’t really bother me. Any book about genocide and war is going to be hard to read in parts and McCormick certainly pulls no punches. While not my favorite on the list, there is no denying that this book tells an important story, one that not enough people are familiar with, and I hope it reaches a wide audience.

Out of Reach by Carrie Arcos

This one was a quick read for me and while I thought it was pretty good, it didn’t strike me as brilliant. My main problem with this story was the jumping back and forth in time, as main character Rachel gives the reader background on her brother Micah and his slip into drug addiction. Each story from the past ties in to a stop on Rachel’s trip with her brother’s friend to find Micah. Rachel and the people she meets were all (for the most part) believable, but the time shifts were hard to follow and it would take a few paragraphs to get me back to where she was on the road, which had a tendency to push me out of the story.

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

I was very intrigued by the description of this title, which features goblins, masks, theater and a vaguely steampunk setting. I liked the premise and found the main character appealing but in the end, his story wasn’t compelling enough to really stick with me. Great world building, though.

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

I’m not usually an animal book person. So when I find one that I do like (such as Gill Lewis’ Wild Wings), I tend to recommend it over and over again. We haven’t yet gotten Endangered in at our bookstore, but when we do, I have a feeling I will be pulling it out for every customer who asks for an animal book, a nature book or a book with a strong female lead. Dense without being overwhelming, it’s a fantastic portrait of the challenges facing the Congo, and people who care about animals like the bonobos. A wonderful book.

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin

There’s been some interesting discussion about this title over at Heavy Medal, but my opinion is still that this is one of the most distinguished non-fiction titles of the year, and Publishers Weekly was crazy for leaving it off their Best of 2012 list. More specifics in my review here.

An interesting group this year, from the National Book Award judges! I’m looking forward to seeing their final selection and hearing more about why they made that choice.

Jon Klassen’s Hats November 10, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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The bookstore where I work was lucky enough to host writer/illustrator Jon Klassen relatively recently, which made me go back and re-read his Geisel award winning title from last year, I Want My Hat Back. This year, Mr. Klassen has written a companion book, also about an animal who lost his hat. Only this time, the new book–This Is Not My Hat— is written from the point of view of the hat thief, rather than the hat’s owner. There are other ways that the second title is something of an inversion of the first. I Want My Hat Back takes place on land, against a backdrop of flat cream with only a few straggly weeds and stones to suggest the ground. This Is Not My Hat, by contrast, takes place underwater, in dark black water broken up by the tall leafy plants that are rendered so beautifully on the endpapers.

Both books are beautiful, as well as laugh-out-loud funny. However, I think that This Is Not My Hat is my favorite of the two, because of the absolutely spot on pacing. I Want My Hat Back has multiple voices, as the story follows the main character bear through his conversations with a fox, frog, rabbit, snake, etc. But none of those conversations goes beyond a single exchange of sentences until the reindeer, who has the smarts to ask what the missing hat looks like.  The repetitive nature of the conversations (and the sheer silliness of some of the animals’ responses) gives the story comedy. However, I think to a certain extent, the reader has to add their own odd voices or pacing in order to really make the story funny.

This Is Not My Hat, in contrast, has a single narrator and the comedy comes from the contrast between his words and the scenes that the reader (or listener) can see floating by. The narrator (a very tiny fish) has stolen a hat from a much larger fish who was fortunately asleep. As the narrator confidently asserts, the hat was too small for that big fish anyway, the only witness to the theft won’t give him away and there is a safe hiding place just up ahead. Where I Want My Hat Back had conversations on most pages, This Is Not My Hat has mostly single sentences above each wide spread of the fish moving through the water. And without any need for additional voices, or dramatics, those simple sentences build up the suspense slowly, as the reader realizes that the little tiny fish just might be in a lot more trouble than it thinks. The brilliant pacing, achieved through the interplay between words and visuals make this one of my favorite picture books of the year.

Puppet Picture November 6, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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A rare instance where two sides of my life come together: here is a picture of a puppet I made, posing with Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys. 

 

Stiefvater is offering free bookplates to people who send in pictures of themselves with her book (more info on her blog.) However, she also said you could take a picture of the book with a stuffed animal or your pet and I thought “Why not a puppet?” This puppet is called Billy Bookworm and I made him in 2008, for a television show called Cuentos y Mas (think Reading Rainbow, but in Spanish) that still can be seen in reruns on a local Arlington, VA channel. He is a sock puppet, with a good sense of humor and I like to think that he would enjoy The Raven Boys, which is a fun tale of friendship and the supernatural. If you would like to see other puppets I’ve made, you can check out my puppet company here.

More Medal Mania November 5, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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We continue to race towards January and the ALA Media Awards, altogether too quickly for my taste. This year I’m trying my hardest to keep up with the debates on Caldecott, Newbery and Printz contenders. Here are my top five (at the moment) for the Caldecott.

Bear Has a Story to Tell, illust. by Erin E. Stead

This title just barely beat out And Then It’s Spring, Stead’s other picture book from earlier in the year. I love them both. But I think Stead’s illustrations for this story, which use more negative space and give the suggestion of woods, snow, leaves and earth through her lines and splotches of color, are a bit more distinguished. It may be that there is more different in visual style between these illustrations and those for Amos McGee and I am nothing if not a sucker for variety. Really, though, I would be ecstatic if she won for either book.

Chloe and the Lion, illust. by Adam Rex

I think I’ve started a pattern here…I’m nominating all the books by authors I’ve met this year. This book also features an impressive variety of illustration styles–cartoonish animals, cardboard theater sets, puppets made from Sculpey and fabric. I love picture books that play with the expectations of the reader, and this book never lets you sit back and relax for a moment. You have author and illustrator arguing, creators getting eaten, drawings attempted and then discarded. This book has one of my favorite themes of any picture book this year: no matter how frustrating or difficult it is, you can’t just stop telling the story.

A Home for Bird, illust. by Philip C. Stead

Oh no! Stead vs. Stead! I fell in love with this title earlier in the year and it has stayed in my top five ever since. The story is quiet–no dragons or lions–but contains a quest that is no less important for being rather ordinary: the search for a home. Philip Stead writes friendship into the tiny details, and just as Amos and his animal friends won our hearts a few years back, so do Vernon and his friend Bird in this story. The loose, colorful drawings reflect Vernon’s love of life and wish for happiness for everyone in his world. A truly stellar addition to the year’s picture books.

This is not my Hat, illust. by Jon Klassen

More coming soon on this title.  Let me just say for now that it tied with Chloe and the Lion for making me laugh the hardest.

Step Gently Out,  illust. by Rick Lieder

I am a storyteller–albeit, usually through movement and puppets, rather than words and pictures on a page. I love character and I love plot. But this book reminded me of how, without any of those details but with carefully selected images and precise words, a book can open your eyes to the beauty you often miss in the everyday world. I know that many readers will open this title and just go “WOW.” The photographs are that stunning and the poem only enhances their power. I would be happy if any of the titles above won the Caldecott Medal. But if this book is the first picture book to win with photography, I think I will do an extra little happy dance.

Review: Oliver November 3, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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I know, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But really, a picture book with two hand puppets facing off? Held by a protagonist in a turtleneck and boxy glasses? Clearly, I was destined to fall in love with this book.

Oliver, as introduced by debut author Birgitta Sif, feels a bit different but is mostly happy. The charming illustrations, which owe something to Quentin Blake, show him enjoying adventures in couch cushion and shoebox versions of oceans and deserts. He is accompanied by stuffed animals, but no other children. And life is good. But eventually there are some things, like playing piano or tennis, that need another person to make them worthwhile. So thanks to a wayward ball, Oliver finds the perfect friend to join him in his adventures…Olivia!

This is one of those perfect books that can play multiple roles: it can both open a child’s eyes to the way other people experience the world, as well as reassure a child that their character, their personality, is ok. I can see a teacher reading this to a group of kindergarteners and leading a gentle discussion about Oliver. Does he look like he’s having fun? What games would you like to play with Oliver? What game would you invite him to join? Should we make puppets today that look like that? I can also see a parent reading this book to a child who is often solitary and letting them know, without ever saying it directly, that yes, you will find friends who understand you and who see the world the same way that you do. As someone who is an introvert and often finds life much easier when lived on my own, I’ve always been very grateful for the friends who have found me and let me know that yes, others do see the world in the slightly odd way that I do. This book is a lovely reminder of the importance of living life the way you want, but also being open to new friends and experiences.