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Fantastical Women February 25, 2013

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Listening for MadeleineI had a perfect duo of fantasy writers waiting for me at the library a few weeks ago, almost without trying: Reflections, a collection of essays by Diana Wynne Jones, and Listening for Madeleine, the new biography of Madeleine L’Engle by Leonard Marcus. It was time to get better acquainted with two giants of fantasy and science fiction for young readers.

Madeleine L’Engle is a perfect example of a writer whom I admire, but do not worship. I love A Wrinkle in Time, but have only read a few of her other books. I never felt the need to read the entire Murray quartet or any of the Austin books. I have  read a few of her early pieces of fiction such as The Joys of Love and And Both Were Young, but more out of interest in mid-century young adult fiction than because of interest in L’Engle. I had some awareness that as an icon of children’s literature she had some controversies surrounding her life, but much of the discussion of her tendency to embellish and romanticize the past was new to me.

Marcus has created this biography as a ‘portrait of many voices.’ Rather than writing one straightforward chronological narrative, he has grouped interviews into categories such as ‘writer’, ‘childhood’, ‘mentor’ or ‘icon’. The very first selection immediately draws you in; L’Engle’s cousin Mary L’Engle Avant describes life as a debutante in 1930’s Jacksonville, Florida and makes it abundantly clear just how and why L’Engle felt out of place in that world. Some interviews are short, others are long and together they create a wonderful mosaic of the many aspects of L’Engle’s life.

While I’m still not going to go out and immediately read everything she wrote, I have a much greater appreciation of L’Engle as a writer. As her friend Barbara Braver says in her interview “She understood that if you’re wide-awake and alert to the life around you, then stories will occur to you–stories that nobody but you can tell.”

ReflectionsI’m more familiar with Diana Wynne Jones, having read at least four or five of her books, thanks to my siblings. Reflections is a collection of her essays and lectures on fantasy and writing for children. As might be expected,  a handful of themes come up again and again, as well as several childhood stories from what sounds like a most unorthodox childhood. While she can occasionally be a little more long-winded than I would like, Jones nails several truths about imagination, the importance of fantasy to children and the craft of writing. She makes me deeply glad that I grew up in an era where reading fantasy was encouraged and even more glad that I am part of a generation of educators and artists who celebrate fantasy and acknowledge it’s importance as a genre. If I hadn’t already been in love with Jones as a writer, I would have fallen for the statement “I love telling stories. Finding out what happens next. And the bit where it all starts to come together at the end is the most marvelous thing I know.” Me too!

Review: Follow Follow February 20, 2013

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Follow FollowHooray for another collaboration between poet Marilyn Singer and illustrator Josee Masse!  In 2010, Mirror, Mirror, Singer’s first collection of ‘reverso’ poems (that change in meaning when read backwards) was the hit of my third grade classroom. Most of my students tried their hand at writing their own reversos and discovered that it is hard. So I’m sure they will be delighted to find that Singer has a new collection ready for them to enjoy.

The poems in Follow Follow are mostly short and deceptively simple. You read one poem top to bottom. Then on the other side of the page is the exact same poem written backward (only changes in punctuation or capitalization are allowed). You’ll be amazed at the new voices, details and attitudes that emerge simply from reading the words in reverse order. Following the fairy tale theme of Mirror, Mirror, each poem connects to a story either well known (‘The Three Little Pigs’, ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’) or slightly more obscure (‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’, ‘Puss in Boots’). Hans Christian Andersen is especially well represented here, with ‘Thumbelina’, ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Nightingale’ among others. Singer achieves the best results with poems connected to tales with clear oppositional characters. ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’ from the Tortoise and the Hare is especially witty. Poems that present a dilemma from two points of view, such as ‘The Little Mermaid’s Choice’ are sometimes less immediately engaging. Masse’s clever illustrations make use of a split page to show either two different characters or the same character in different attitudes, as in the sweet final selection ‘Now it’s Time to Say Good-Night.’  This will be a great addition to bedtime reading or classroom shelves everywhere.

Review: Open This Little Book February 17, 2013

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Open this Little BookThe first clue that Open this little book is out of the ordinary comes when you first pick it up. Unlike a typical picture book, there is a bulge in the middle and some of the pages clearly do not extend all the way. What is going on? After about three page turns, you figure it out. And then, I promise that you will smile.

Jesse Klausmeier has written a winner with this debut title (and I love that she partly dedicates it to LeVar Burton, from Reading Rainbow) about the power inherent in opening a book. Who doesn’t want to read books with your best friends, in all the colors of the rainbow? The lovely illustrations are by Suzy Lee, who after her stunning books Wave and Shadow, goes in a whole different direction with this one.  Rather than silhouettes or loose brushstrokes over a single color, the bright, saturated palette matches the cheerful, matter-of-fact text. Both the animals and their book covers have a lovely vintage feel with their distinct colors and delicate patterns.

Kalusmeier created a similar book as a child and the whole story is clearly a labor of love and a special gift to children who like to tell their own stories and create their own handmade books. This is a treasure you will want to share with children over and over again.

Newbery Titles to Try February 15, 2013

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I’m still doing that thing where every time I walk past our Newbery shelf, I check to make sure all the newest winners are in place. I can’t say enough about how happy I am that The One and Only Ivan, Splendors and Glooms, Three Times Lucky and Bomb have joined the Newbery canon. However, in my perusing of the shelves, it occurred to me that there are lots of other Medal and Honor winners that readers might not have read or heard about. Here are some Newbery titles to try, for two different kinds of readers.

If you like historical books or old-fashioned classics, try…

Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs

This biography of Louisa May Alcott reads like a novel, and even if you haven’t read Little Women, you’ll be drawn in by the story of this author’s struggle with poverty. Alcott had an unconventional childhood moving from place to place with her family, and her early writing attempts, games with her siblings and schemes to earn money are all detailed here. A timeline and index are included and the lovely cover by Jane Dyer is a nice additional touch.

The Good Master by Kate Seredy

The plains of Hungary are the backdrop for adventures in this tale of cousins Jancsi and Kate. Jancsi has low expectations for a girl when he hears that cousin Kate is coming from the city, but he soon learns that she is an energetic tomboy with the same enthusiasm for horses, village fairs and gypsies as himself. The regional customs of Hungarian ranchers are depicted in loving detail and Kate in particular is a bright, engaging character.

Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer

Kate would find a common spirit in Lucinda Wyman, the protagonist of Roller Skates. Set in New York City of the 1890’s, it follows Lucinda through a year of living with family friends, as she struggles with her prim-and-proper cousins, experiences thrills and disappointments and makes friends with everyone from policemen to tramps to fruit sellers. References to unfamiliar things like hansom cabs and pinafores go hand in hand with games of theater and dress-up that children still love today. A great read for lovers of old-fashioned classics like Anne of Green Gables or the Little House series.

If you like folklore and fantasy, try…

The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw

Moql is half Moorfolk and half Human without key Folk traits such as the ability to shape-shift or disappear. As a result, she is banished and sent to live among humans as a changeling named Saaski. In the human world, she also faces rejection from the villagers who fear her differences. The only place she feels safe and at home is out on the moors, playing her bagpipes. As she grows up and slowly comes to understand the tangled relationship between the Folk and the humans, she becomes determined to find the real child of her human parents and bring her home. This is a great read for fans of Fanny Billingsley and other authors who write fantasy based on folktales and legends.

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

An ambitious mix of history, ballad lore and fantasy, this story begins with Kate Sutton being exiled to the remote castle known as the Perilous Gard. There she gets pulled into a series of encounters with the Fairy Folk who live underground and eventually must use what she knows of the Tam Lin ballad to save her friend Christopher, as well as decide what she truly wants her life to be. This is a slightly creepy adventure with a strong heroine and wonderful details of fairy lore and legend.

This Made Me Smile February 11, 2013

Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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As a lifelong fan of the American Girl series (yes, I fell in love with them early), this article in the New York Times made me happy. I was one of those kids whose parents refused to buy my a doll because they were so expensive. Fortunately, they were fine with buying me the books and I also ended up with a large collection of the trading cards that were popular once upon a time. I played with the dolls that belonged to my friend, but I would have loved to have borrowed a doll from the library and pretended she was mine for a week!

Tucson Bookstores February 6, 2013

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Over Christmas, I went to Tucson, Arizona to see my grandparents for a week. I spent many summers there as a kid, but I have few memories of visiting bookstores–we usually just went to the library for reading material. This time, however, I had noticed a link on the blog of illustrator Adam Rex which read “Best Bookstore in Tucson Until Someone Proves to Me Otherwise.” I have a high opinion of Adam Rex, so I decided to make sure I visited Antigone Books.

Antigone Books sign

As I walked in, the little bookseller voice in my brain kept going “Check…check…check.” Tables of staff recommended books? Check. Section of incredibly tempting blank notebooks? Check. Shelf of books about reading and author favorites and what’s on your bookshelf? Check. As I walked over to the children’s section and started looking around, I decided that I had a few points to add to my list of “What Makes a REALLY Good Bookstore”. First, the children’s section must have at least one book that I have been looking for at the library and haven’t found yet. Second, the store must have a display with books that I have never heard of, but when I read the back, I immediately decide to put them on hold at the library. Antigone books passed both these tests with flying colors. Yes, Adam Rex, you are right. Best bookstore in Tucson, hands down.

Antigone Books display

Because it’s practically impossible to be in an English or Spanish speaking place and not visit at least two bookstores, we also hit up Bookman’s, which is a massive warehouse used-book type of place. I had several great finds in this store, including a childhood favorite picture book, Valentine Secrets and a couple Native American and Mayan folktale books to use in research for a theater project. Plus, the view from the parking lot of the mountains in the light outside was just beautiful.

Bookmans sign

Parking lot view

Review: Building Our House February 3, 2013

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Building Our HouseWhat kid hasn’t wanted, at some point, to build their own house? I’ve heard several people talk about the appeal that books like the Little House series have for kids (any gender) who like to build things, and Jonathan Bean adds to the list with his lovely new picture book, Building Our House. The premise is simple: A family of four leaves the city and drives out to the country. In the middle of a field, they live in a tiny trailer for a year while Mom and Dad build their new house. Each step is carefully detailed in either text or illustration, from mixing cement to raising the frame, to insulating and painting the walls. At the end, the entire family (including a new baby) gathers near the stove to read together.

To add to the high interest subject, this book is based on a true story. Bean’s parents built their own house using the same process in the book, although it took five years instead of one and a half. In an author’s note at the back, Bean provides pictures of the process, including one of himself standing among the rocks and boards of the basement. For people who would like to learn more about the back story of the book, Bean shares fantastic storyboards, early sketches and  even more photos over at the blog Seven Impossible Things.

I’ve read this book several times now and I never fail to be impressed by the variety of the page layouts. The illustrations frame the text perfectly and reflect the different steps of building while adding interesting details at the same time. The seasons too,  are included in both the spot illustrations (the brother and sister cooling off in the pool) and full page spreads (the green trees and hills surrounding the frame-raising party). Bean makes the hard work of a project like this clear to the reader, as well as the difficulties of weather. But if the work is hard, the result is well worth it, and the satisfaction of creating your own home is evident in the final spread of this gorgeous book.

ALAYMA Thoughts February 3, 2013

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A new shadow puppet show to build and technical rehearsals for a magical realism epic meant that I have not posted about ALA Youth Media Awards until now. The title of this post is the result of this being the first year I followed the awards via Twitter as well as the webcast. Thanks to people like Travis Jonker of 100 Scope Notes, I felt a little more like I was in the room and sharing the excitement.

Overall, I’m thrilled. Lots of gorgeous books that I was hoping would win shiny medals and a few surprises that I’m now eager to read. Let’s recap, briefly:

Printz Award: 

Code Name Verity? Check. Still wish it had won gold, but I’ll take silver. I have not read In Darkness, but will be doing so as soon as I can get a copy from either DC or Arlington Library. I have to say I wasn’t that thrilled with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe but now that it won three awards, maybe I should go back and re-read. Nothing about it really stuck with me and I remember thinking that the contrast between the two main characters was very similar to the contrast between the protagonists of The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco Stork. Still. May have to give it another shot.

Caldecott Medal:

I’m a little disappointed not to see a Stead here. However, I love Extra Yarn, and This is not my Hat was in my top five way back in November. So really, I can’t complain. Only…what about those lions and puppet pictures and clever meta-stories?

Newbery Medal:

Absolutely no complaints here. I loved The One and Only Ivan, and think that the comparisons to Charlotte’s Web are entirely justified. I actually tried to sell this book the day before the awards to a mother who was looking for good read alouds for her 8 and 6 year old kids. She had already chosen the E.B. White, and I tried to talk up Ivan, but she said she really only wanted ‘classics.’ Oh well, it meant that we had a copy at the store to display the next day! Splendors and Glooms of course was at the top of my list and both Bomb and Three Times Lucky were fantastic.

Margaret Edwards Award

This was the announcement that made me jump up and down, waving my hands in the air. Tamora Pierce was the writer who got me hooked on fantasy (after Lewis and Tolkien) and my siblings and I still quote her books regularly at one another. She is my top comfort author–I read her books when I am stressed or sad and need a break from the real world. I’m so happy to see her get recognized for her contributions to YA literature!