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Lots of Sighs…BOB Round 2 Matches 3 & 4 March 29, 2013

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It’s getting harder and harder to come up with good quotes this year in BOB. For whatever reason, very few of these judges seem to have the quick wit or insightful comments that we were treated to in past years–and FAR too many of them have indulged in unnecessary plot descriptions. Assume we’ve read these books already!

“Years ago I zapped the writer’s guilt of finishing every novel because someone had bled to write it.” –Thanhha Lai

Perhaps I should have expected that Thanhha Lai would be concise in her comments. After all, her novel Inside Out and Back Again used a very small number of words to accomplish a polished and beautiful story. While I nearly loved both books in this match equally, the Victorian setting and presence of puppets tilted in Splendors and Glooms’ favor. So I agree with Lai’s decision, although I wish she had said a little bit more.

“Both books are just good old-fashioned storytelling: provocative beginnings, wild-ride middles and endings that are at the same time happy and heart-rippingly poignant.” –Paul Griffin, on Seraphina vs. No Crystal Stair. 

I did not have a horse in this race. I haven’t managed to re-read Seraphina after going through it very quickly back in the fall when it came up on the Someday My Printz blog. No Crystal Stair never really managed to grab me, although I did finish it the second time I tried. The in-between format of not quite biography and not quite novel just doesn’t speak to me–I wanted there to be more plot and tension but I also wanted more context of the time period. Every judge who reads this seems to love it though, which makes me nervous for my lovely puppets in the next round…

Lows and Highs…BOB Round 2 Matches 1 & 2 March 26, 2013

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I was EXTREMELY grumpy after reading the results of the first match of round 2. After the second I was…less grumpy. But still not completely mollified.

“Both books reveal how complex are the decisions people have to make in times of war. Both are respectful of the strengths and weaknesses of humanity.”  –Donna Jo Napoli on Bomb vs. Code Name Verity. 

Now, normally I’m not terribly upset when my predictions for these battles turn out to be wrong. But THIS? SUCH  a disappointment. Not that I don’t love Bomb. I do. In fact, I sold it this evening to a ten year old girl looking for spy stories. But Code Name Verity is the one YA book that I have gone back to repeatedly this year and I’m exceedingly sad that it is not moving on. It was clearly a tough decision (although I had to laugh at the way Napoli basically detailed the entire plot, then at the very end said “I won’t spoil it”) and I am glad that at least one non-fiction book is moving forward in the Battle. But still….as Verity says at one point… “Oh Maddie…”

Well of course I’m being picky. But I guess I had to find something.”

–Martine Leavitt on Endangered vs. The Fault in our Stars.

I read Endangered because Monica Edinger of educating alice said to. And I was glad I had. I’m not a huge fan of animal books, nor am I a huge fan of contemporary war books, but Sophie and Otto’s story was compelling as well as informative. Still, it wasn’t a huge surprise to see that Leavitt chose The Fault in our Stars to move on in the Battle, since so many people have had so many good things to say about it. And yet when I first read TFiOS, I wasn’t blown away. It was an emotional story and I loved the fact that Hazel Grace has a distinct voice from Green’s other protagonists. But Augustus seemed WAY too good to be true and the entire Van Houten story line was something I started to skip over. All in all, not my favorite of Green’s books. I set it aside, then lent it to a friend and only went back to it this weekend when I was working at the bookstore and needed something to read during the slow moments. I still skipped a lot of Van Houten. But I identified even more strongly with Hazel than the first time I read it, and several lines have been bouncing around in my head ever since, so for that reason, I am glad it has survived. (Ok, also, I now want CNV to win the Undead Poll.)

Dragons, Birds and Gorillas…BOB Matches 7 & 8 March 22, 2013

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One right, one wrong. Can you curse a curse? I REALLY wanted Ivan to be the title to break the Newbery Curse!

“After all, birds are real dragons, aren’t they?” –Marie Lu, on Seraphina vs. Moonbird

Props to Marie Lu for making me want to go back to both of these books for a re-read. Seraphina was a title that everyone at my bookstore was buzzing about before the blogs and awards committees discovered it. I read the beginning, got bogged down in some info-dumping, skimmed more of it and then said “I’ll get to it later.” I need to give it a much closer read, clearly. Philip Hoose is one of my absolute favorite non-fiction authors; I read his book We Were There Too! aloud to my third graders every year and I count meeting meet and Claudette Colvin as one of my top National Book Festival thrills ever. Moonbird has been a hard book to find, and we didn’t have it at the bookstore, but I finally got ahold of it at the DC library this week, so it is next on my list.

“What does a radical self-educated bookseller have to do with a depressed 35 year-old strip mall gorilla?”

-Catherine Gilbert Murdock on No Crystal Stair vs. The One and Only Ivan

NOOOOOOO! Ok, I was sad about this one. I read No Crystal Stair twice, and never got nearly as into it as most of the other books in this battle. Like a few other commenters over at Heavy Medal, I thought that the voices blended into each other and the lack of structured plot (as opposed to other fiction and non-fiction in the battle, Splendors and Glooms or Bomb) meant that it failed to win my heart the same way that Ivan did. I’ve never tried to hand-sell a book by using the description “This is the new Charlotte’s Web” but that’s what I’ve been doing. I’m sorry to see Ivan go, but I will be curious to see how No Crystal Stair fares against Seraphina. Let the battles continue!

Stars, Puppets and More Spies….BOB Matches 5 & 6 March 19, 2013

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I GOT TWO MORE RIGHT IN A ROW!! Seriously, it feels really weird to have authors picking the books that were my ‘because-I-LOVE-them’ picks. It probably shouldn’t feel this weird–clearly, I’ve had my heart broken following this contest one too many times.

“Because in reading a book closely, in taking the whole novel in your mind and flopping it over and turning it around and trying to chew it and hurl it across the room at your wife, you discover secrets–and not only the books.”

–Adam Gidwitz, on Starry River of the Sky  by Grace Lin and Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh.

Just so you know, I had a really hard time picking an Adam Gidwitz quote. He definitely lived up to my expectations for a fantastic and funny post. I mostly agree with his issues with Jepp, Who Defied the Stars. The style of writing didn’t bother me that much, but I can see how it could put a reader at a distance. The pacing, while again something that didn’t make me put down the book, could have been smoother in the first third of the story. Starry River of the Sky is a book that I loved immediately, which I found interesting because I wasn’t that enchanted with Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.  It took reading the book aloud to a class of third graders to make me fall in love with that title, whereas Starry River had me on the edge of my chair from the get-go. Incidentally, these are possibly the top two authors on the list this year that I would really like to have a conversation with about writing.

“The girl dances, the bad guys are buried; the orphans find a home; and wafting over everything are the smells of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.”

–Franny Billingsley, on Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

I’ve never eaten Yorkshire pudding, and yet I have to agree with Franny Billingsley. Not that I didn’t enjoy Liar and Spy, but despite my appreciation for the careful description of the world, the quirkiness of Safer and his family and the realistic (not Guidance Counselor Fiction) struggles of Georges at school, I never went back and re-read it. Splendors and Glooms, on the other hand, I have read so many times that I’ve lost count. If I were creating a rubric for a ‘better’ book, as Gidwitz did in his post, it would definitely include the criteria “stays in my brain, begs to be re-read.” It might be because I want to find the clues to the mystery that I missed the first time, or because I want to take a trip back to that other world, but for me that top book will always be the one that I go back to again and again and find new things to love about it each time. For me, in this round, that book was Splendors and Glooms. 

Animals, Mysteries & Romance…BOB Matches 3 & 4 March 18, 2013

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At the end of the first four matches, I have three predictions right and one wrong. Not a bad start!

“It feels like I’ve trued something that needed truing.” –Kathi Appelt, on Endangered by Eliot Schrefer.

I so called this one! I enjoyed both of these books, but neither completely blew me away. As Appelt points out, Mo in Three Times Lucky joins a long line of spunky, small-town heroines of middle grade fiction. She’s adorable, but she’s also someone I’ve met before and there’s a distinction between a book that is an excellent example of a genre and a book that makes that genre feel entirely fresh and new. Endangered, like our wonderful Newbery winner of the year, was a book that made me think about the relationship between animals and people in a way that I hadn’t before. I’m not really an animal person (never had pets growing up, etc.) and I don’t often like animal books, so I was surprised that this one stuck with me so long. I’m excited it gets to move on in the competition.

“You want to stroke the pages (I admit it. I stroked).” –Deb Caletti, on Temple Grandin by Sy Montgomery.

No, I don’t think I stroked the pages. But I did love this biography of an amazing scientist and humanitarian. I’m sorry that I never got to read this aloud to my students, because I think they would have had some great reactions and it would have been eye-opening for many of them. As someone who has taught several students on various parts of the autism spectrum, this book both helped me understand them better and made me hopeful and excited for their futures. I’m sorry that it won’t continue on in the battle. As a side note, I have to say that after reading Caletti’s slightly breathless listing of John Green’s accomplishments, I was thinking “Oh man, I can’t wait to hear what Roger has to say about this…” and sure enough, Appelt won the judges battle for this round. Caletti had great things to say about The Fault in Our Stars, making me even more annoyed that I haven’t been able to get my copy back from a friend in order to re-read it. As an analysis though, I think I was more impressed with these commenters, from The Morning News Tournament of Books and what they had to say about the book and its reflection of the ‘millenial’ generation.

Bullies, Shipwrecks & Spies…BOB Matches 1& 2 March 16, 2013

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Now that I no longer have a definitive lunch break (a drawback/perk of being a freelance artist), it has been harder to find time to respond to each day of the SLJ Battle of the Kid’s Books. Not that I don’t still wake up early and immediately check the site, but writing about it has been more challenging. Nevertheless, here are my thoughts on week one:

“…I find that real stories almost invariably contain incidents more amazing and outlandish than the ones I could invent”

–Kenneth Oppel, on Bomb by Steve Sheinkin.

So true. Elizabeth Wein says something similar in her afterword to Code Name Verity. Oppel also correctly put his finger on my one issue with Wonder, that the tone is just a little too optimistic. Guidance-counselor fiction, as it has been dubbed in the comments. For which is there is undoubtedly a time and a place. However, I fully agree with Oppel that Bomb is the greater achievement of these two. I’ve already read Sheinkin’s latest, about a plot to steal Lincoln’s body and I can’t wait to see what he discovers to write about next.

“This is not a simple case of comparing apples and oranges; it’s apple pie against whipped cream. I want both!”

–Margarita Engle, on Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein vs. Titanic by Deborah Hopkinson

So do I, Ms. Engle, so do I. Luckily, this is one of the good things about being a reader. There are SO MANY different kinds of books to choose from! And no one chastises you (at least, not usually) for a surfeit of historical fiction so much as for eating a surfeit of pie and whipped cream.  I did end up reading Titanic, and while I agree that it is a great book (for all the reasons Engle mentioned), it didn’t come close to matching my love for  Code Name Verity. I remembered, as I was reading the entry, that the last solid YA book to advance far in the Battle was Life: an exploded diagram by Mal Peet, which joined Code Name Verity on the list of Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Awards this year. I am crossing my fingers that the upcoming judges are just as kind to YA this year as they were last year.

Review: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass March 11, 2013

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Yaqui DelgadoPiddy Sanchez doesn’t have a perfect life, but things could be a lot worse. She doesn’t know who her father is and her mother’s strict rules are annoying, but she has her best friend Mitzi, teachers who like her and her mother’s friend Lila to take her shopping and teach her to merengue. Then Piddy is told that Yaqui Delgado wants to kick her ass, and slowly, her life begins to unravel.

Meg Medina captures lighting in a bottle with this story– it’s a perfect combination of coming-of-age, bullying, learning the truth about your family and being true to yourself. Medina captures the many tiny dangers of high school, which for Piddy is a place where walking the wrong way gets you beat up and being whistled at by a guy is your fault, not his. Who is to blame for social failure? Does being smart mean that you don’t count as Latina even if your mom is from Cuba? Is walking away from a bully the right choice to make? While the reader is clearly meant to root for Piddy, Yaqui is presented more as a mystery than as a flat out evil person, partly because, until the bullying starts, the two girls don’t know each other at all. Adults are sometimes part of the problem and sometimes part of the solution, but one of my favorite characters in the book is a teacher who admits that there are limits to what he can do. There are no easy answers in this story and no easy solutions to Piddy’s very real problems. Medina doesn’t shy away from the brutal violence of Yaqui’s bullying, making this a better fit for high school than middle school, although the descriptions are never gratuitous. Supporting characters are clearly drawn and Piddy’s strong voice will resonate with the reader long after the book is put down.

Battle of the Kid’s Books is Almost Here March 4, 2013

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BOBThere are two months each year when I get overly obsessive about children’s literature (I know, my siblings and roommates would say “Only TWO?? Just who do you think you’re fooling?”). The ALA Media Awards in January are like my Oscars. And the SLJ Battle of the Kid’s Books (BOB) is like my Super Bowl/March Madness/World Series or any other sports comparison you’d like to make.

BOB is almost here and this year I’ve done pretty well with the list. The only two books I have not managed to get to read  are Moonbird and Titanic, and since Titanic is coming up soonest, that one takes priority. Moonbird I’m hoping I can find before March 20 (maybe it’s at my bookstore! That would be make things easy) and it would be really nice to re-read Seraphina as well. Everything else I have read at least once (some of them multiple times) so here are my predictions/wishes for the Round 1 brackets. I’ll try to make this a list of ACTUAL predictions (based on my oh so scientific observation that the author judges 1. tend to pick books unlike the ones they write themselves and 2. everything is a toss-up) except for a few where really, I just have to go with what I love.

Round 1: 

BOMB vs. WONDER: BOMB. It won a Newbery Honor and was probably the most widely praised non-fiction book of the year.

CODE NAME VERITY vs. TITANIC: CODE NAME VERITY. This is a love one. I know, I haven’t read TITANIC, but there’s really no way it can knock CNV off its pedestal. At least, I think it’s unlikely.

ENDANGERED vs. THREE TIMES LUCKY: Oh so hard to say. I think I’m going to predict ENDANGERED, because THREE TIMES LUCKY is similar in some ways to what Ms. Appelt writes herself. See scientific observation #1.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS vs. TEMPLE GRANDIN: Another incredibly hard one. I enjoyed both these books, while feeling that they weren’t quite my favorite titles by their respective authors. I have to confess, I’ve only read one of Deb Caletti’s books, so I have no real idea what she might pick. Let’s toss a coin and go with TEMPLE GRANDIN. 

JEPP WHO DEFIED THE STARS vs. STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY: Cannot WAIT for this one. I have high expectations for Gidwitz’s comments based on his books, interviews and my own (brief) conversation with him at our Story Festival back in the fall. I’m going to go with STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY. 

LIAR AND SPY vs. SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS: SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS. Another love one. Also another judge I’m excited to hear from.

MOONBIRD vs. SERAPHINA: Another author I really don’t know at all, two books I either haven’t read or that didn’t make a huge impression on me and that adds up to another coin toss. I’ll say SERAPHINA. 

NO CRYSTAL STAIR vs. THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN: THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. I’m lobbying for Katherine Applegate to break the Newbery Curse (that says the Newbery winner always gets knocked out in Round 1).

UNDEAD POLL: We’ve been told by the Battle Commander to go with what we love, since there are no guarantees. Such a hard decision: CODE NAME VERITY or SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS? I know that CNV has many fans, so I think I’m going to pull puppet strings for this one…

More Book T-Shirts! March 1, 2013

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When I quit my full-time teaching job nearly a year ago and decided to become a freelancer, I decided that I needed more children’s book t-shirts. I already had a Mo Willems shirt, courtesy of the fantastic company Wonder Shirts. Then I found Out of Print Clothing, which specializes in shirts with book covers and there were so many more possibilities!

The thing is, when you’re a freelancer, you go into different classrooms all the time. With only 45-90 minutes a week to make an impression, it helps to have the students on your side from the first moment they look at you. Wearing a children’s book t-shirt helps, even with jaded middle-schoolers. They immediately say “Oh  remember that book!” and already they are a little more disposed to be nice to you, even if you are there to work with them on something they hate, like writing.

So many thanks to Out of Print, which provided me with various options for my working wardrobe. But now I’m starting to think ahead. While Harold, Charlotte and Pigeon may be immediately recognizable to my students today, there are so many more talented writers and illustrators whose work I would love to wear to class. Here are my top five contemporary books that I think should be put on t-shirts (either the cover or an illustration).

1. Lane Smith Abe Lincoln’s Dream. Really anything by Lane Smith.

2. Jon Klassen Extra Yarn or This is not my Hat. They won Caldecotts! What more reason do we need?

3. Erin Stead A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Ditto.

4. Adam Rex Chu’s Day. I need more adorable pandas on my t-shirts.

5. Jules Feiffer The Phantom Tollbooth. Ok, so this is an older classic. No matter. It’s my favorite book of all time practically and I want it on a t-shirt!