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Review: Again! April 30, 2013

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Again!It is clear from reading Emily Gravett’s delightful new picture book that bedtime stories and toddler tantrums become slightly more dangerous when you are dealing with a dragon. I was captivated by this book in F&G form when I first saw it back in the fall, and the finished work is even more fun.

Gravett usually works with limited text and unusual animals as characters and this book is no exception. The spunky little dragon only speaks a single word throughout the entire story: “Again!” His parent is a little more verbose, reading (and re-reading) the favorite book identified only by a red dragon on the cover. As the night goes on and the child keeps demanding “Again!” readers will notice that the story in the book changes little by little, until the parent has fallen asleep. This of course, only enrages the small dragon further, which slightly disastrous results for the book (remember that dragons breathe fire, and you can probably guess the outcome).

Gravett’s pencil and watercolor illustrations perfectly complement the sly humor of the text, with the expression on the parent dragon’s face going from indulgent to long-suffering, to flat-out exhausted. Gravett plays cleverly with color, contrasting the red dragon in the bedtime book with the bright green of the parent and child. Of course, as time passes and emotions run high, you can bet that the little dragon will not stay green very long. The hand-lettered text of his cries perfectly reflects the frustration of someone who is NOT tired and wants to hear the story just one more time. Small listeners will sympathize with him, even as they gently touch the results of his rage in the back cover of the book. This is a great choice for a read aloud, bedtime or anytime story.


Review: Stardines Swim High Across the Sky April 27, 2013

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stardinesOne of my go to poetry books for children has always been Scranimals by Jack Prelutsky. Even kids who claim to ‘hate’ poetry and roll their eyes through my dramatic renditions of Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes will chuckle and go “Oh cooooool….” at the silly animals created by Prelutsky. Now he is back with a new book written in the same form: Stardines Swim High Across the Sky, graced with incredible illustrations by Carin Berger.

Stardines is in some ways slightly more sophisticated than Scranimals. While the earlier title mostly focused on combining animals together or animals and plants (Broccolions, Potatoads), these creatures’ names comment on their characteristics, such as the rather messy Slobsters (…Their sense of decorum/Is woefully small/SLOBSTERS don’t have/Many manners at all…) and the erudite Braindeer (…With endless perseverance/They serenely mill about,/ Reflecting on the universe/And figuring it out…). The heightened language may be a stretch for some younger readers, making this a good choice for a read aloud, class discussion or bedtime story.

Fortunately, even if children might not always be able to decipher the words, the illustrations are stunning enough to fill hours all on their own. Carin Berger has created a shadowbox diorama for each creature, photographed them digitally and added such engaging touches as straight pins, labels and paintbrushes to the endpapers. In the style of such surrealist masters as Joseph Cornell and Max Ernst, Berger uses sheet music, advertisements, and constellation maps to depict Prelutsky’s fascinating creatures. My favorites are probably the Planda, with his paper fountain pen and his long list of precisely numbered images or the Bardvark, an inkpot standing on a stack of books and sporting a feathered hat and paper ruff. Readers will want to get to know them all.

Top 5 Things I Learned from E.L. Konigsburg April 24, 2013

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From the Mixed up FilesThe world lost a fabulous writer when Elaine Lobl Konigsburg died this past week. I first fell in love with her work when I read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in third grade, a love that only increased after reading A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver and The View from Saturday. She was the writer who, with her 2005 title The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place made me really sit up and think “Hey, lots of the writers I loved as a kid are still writing books. And there are even more new children’s authors now…maybe I should pay more attention to them.” Nearly ten years later, I’m working in a children’s bookstore, writing this blog and reading obsessively. Thank you for all your fantastic work, E. L. Konigsburg. Here are the top five things I learned from reading your stories.

5. A love of long titles.

I think the shortest title Konigsburg ever wrote was Father’s Arcane Daughter. Her first two books, which were awarded the Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor in the same year (the only time that has happened) were From the Mixed-up Files… and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and me, Elizabeth. To this day, I prefer the long, involved title, as evidenced by my current puppet play, which I titled The Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet. I like to think Konigsburg would approve.

4. Museums are magical places.

Like most kids, I resented being dragged to museums unless 1. It had things for you to do (preferably pulling a gigantic soap bubble around yourself) or 2. It had a dollhouse to look at. From the Mixed-up Files changed my opinion however, and since reading it, I have grown to love any and all museums, if only because I look at each installation of a bed and wonder what it would be like to sleep there. Probably impossible, in todays world of security cameras, but I can still dream.

Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place3. Siblings can be your greatest allies.

Claudia has Jamie to help her conquer the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Winston has Hilary to help him puzzle out the mystery of their sister Caroline. Connor has Margaret Rose to help him pull words out of his silent friend Branwell. As a child, my next youngest sibling Danny was my constant ally in games of pretend and as we grew older, we have had the great fortune to stay close, while bringing our sister Ana and youngest brother Jack into our schemes and plans.

2. Friends are found in unexpected places.

A recurring theme in all of Konigsburg’s work is that you never know who will help you and become your friend. It could be the person next to you on the bus, an old lady you’ve never met before, a strange girl who keeps showing up at the same hotels as you or even the group of kids who used to torment you at summer camp. I try to keep an open mind about everyone who comes into and goes out of my life, as you never know when they might hold the key to a mystery.

1. Always be yourself.

Whether you are convinced you were born to live in luxury or to sing onstage, Konigsburg’s characters proclaim themselves loud and clear to their world. From her books, I learned to never be ashamed of who I am, who my family is or what I love. If there is a grand theme to her entire body of work, I think it is that by working together and staying true to ourselves, children can help others and change the world. A great legacy to leave for all readers.

Review: Round is a Tortilla: A Book of Shapes April 22, 2013

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Round is a TortillaTortillas are so delicious, I would probably pick up any book with the word in the title. Round is a Tortilla by Roseanne Greenfield Thong is the perfect book for those who want to introduce a little Latin culture and Spanish vocabulary along with shapes. Bright illustrations by John Parra with a light texture suggest paper cutouts and murals on walls. They show the parks, kitchens and backyards of  a welcoming town and loving family.

This book covers simple shapes: round, square, rectangle, triangle, oval and star. The rhyming text describes various objects for each shape, including at least one in Spanish. The final line of each couplet asks the reader what other round or square or triangle things you can name. Food and furniture are recurring items, with paletas, sandias and huevos all making appearances and then making me hungry!

Pick up this book to share when your toddler is ready to learn shapes, or you’re eating some sandias in the summertime. It also makes a great gift for a preschool teacher or school librarian looking for a good read aloud for Hispanic Heritage Month. Language teachers can use it as the basis for a lesson on shapes and have students create their own pictures and illustrations to put together a class bulletin board. So many possibilities!

Top 5 Things We Love About Diana Wynne Jones April 19, 2013

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This post is WAAAAAY overdue. Diana Wynne Jones has been a huge inspiration to both of us as writers and readers. I don’t love everything she’s written–I definitely have my favorites–but her huge body of work means that there are still lots of treasures out there for me to discover. So here are our Top 5 Things We Love About Diana Wynne Jones.

Howl's Moving Castle1. Storytelling

Some writers–many of whom I love–let their wordcraft and prose get in the way of storytelling. Plot takes a backseat to long, beautiful descriptions of empty cans on the side of the road or extended conversations debating non-essential questions about the meaning of life. Diana Wynne Jones, however, does not fall into this trap. She perfectly balances plot with description and communicates information about characters with specific, detailed snippets. In an essay from her book Reflections, Wynne Jones talks a little bit about how myth and folktales influence her work, saying that “I find my story usually pulls them in whether I intend them to be there or not. Well, they are the earliest forms of fantasy. The beauty of these tales is that they come to pieces like Lego and each of the pieces has a shape and meaning on its own.”  Wynne Jones definitely understands how to arrange the pieces for maximum beauty.

witchweek2. Families

Families–both biological and non-biological–are key to Jones’ view of a magical universe. Many of her characters are either cut off somehow from their families or feel like a fish out of water, unable to compete with the talents of their kin. The Magicians of Caprona and The Pinhoe Egg are two examples of books where it is only when children of alleged enemies work together that good prevails. Friendships and partnerships between humans and animals are also often the key to accomplishing change and progress.

3. World-building

Jones’ books often take place in one key location–a house, a village–and don’t always wander that far. Nonetheless, she is a master at bringing the reader into a fully-formed world in miniature.

chrestomanci quartet4. Engaging situations or locations

I desperately wanted to live in Howl’s castle when I was younger. It sounded so cool. The creativity that she produces for some of her books is incredible: another example is Roddy’s life in The Merlin Conspiracy. Her daily routine sounded so interesting to me, particularly as a child who loved magical details. The house in The Game was another place that I wanted to go to and join in the explorations of the mythosphere. We also love her habit of writing happy endings–her reasoning being that “…it is better to aim at the moon” and we wholeheartedly agree!

pinhoeegg5. How magic affects the world & history

The most obvious example of this is Witch Week, where Chrestomanci and a class of students have to figure out how to reverse a major magical error. Many fantasy novels take place in an entirely alternate universe, where magic really works. Others take place in a parallel world, or one where magic only works for certain individuals.

Review: Nelly May Has Her Say April 16, 2013

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Nelly May Has Her SayThere is an Italian proverb I love that goes “The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.” The definition of a folktale is a story handed down over generations, changing and transforming with each person who retells it and there is nothing I love more than a really well-told tale. At this point in history though, I sometimes feel that it is the same handful of stories, particularly from the Western European tradition that get retold in picture books again and again and again. So it was a nice surprise to read Nelly May Has Her Say by Cynthia DeFelice, a retelling of a slightly more obscure tale from the UK, the entertaining ‘Master of all Masters’.

The story form is simple–a new servant arrives at a grand house and is informed by the owner that she must use his fancy language when referring to such everyday things as the dog, bed, pants and water. All is well, until the night when an unexpected crisis leads to the servant having to use every single nonsense  name in a single sentence and she is so frustrated that she quits. The humor comes from the repetition that builds to the crisis and of course the sound of the crazy words.

DeFelice doesn’t change much about the story’s events, beyond adding some details about the servant and why she is looking for work. Her main beautiful addition is the nonsense words, which she changes from the older style into something more energetic and entertaining to young ears.  “Master of all Masters” becomes “Most Excellent of all Masters”, the bed, instead of “barnacle” becomes “restful slumberific” and the house, instead of “high topper mountain” becomes “roof-topped castleorum”. The effect of all the names said together in one long run-on sentence by Nelly is snappy and high-spirited, making this a great choice for a read-aloud. Henry Cole’s bright illustrations perfectly capture the pondorous Lord Pinkwinkle, his loyal dog and no-nonsense Nelly May. Best of all, the tale ends happily, with Nelly May asserting herself as a true heroine should.

The Lumatere Chronicles April 12, 2013

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Finnikin of the RockWe have discussed my great love for Melina Marchetta on this blog before. However, I’ve had an interesting relationship with her trilogy The Lumatere Chronicles, which just wrapped up here in the U.S. with the publication of Quintana of Charyn. I read the first book in the trilogy, called Finnikin of the Rock, around the same time as Frances Hardinge’s The Lost Conspiracy, another book which used a fantasy setting to explore some real-world social issues. Hardinge tackled colonialsim, while Marchetta depicted the devastating conditions faced by refugees  in Finnikin. The book has a really wide scope, giving the background of a country in the grip of not just an invasion but also a magical curse. following the main characters as they gather the leaders of their country from various places to go back and defeat an imposter king. Add to that the divisions between different tribes/families of people, the curse and women who can walk the sleep and dreams of others, as well as a whole set of other countries with their own political ambitions and struggles. I liked the book, but didn’t return to it very often, telling myself that maybe Marchetta was just better at realistic fiction than fantasy.

Froi of the ExilesThen I read the second book of the trilogy, Froi of the Exiles. It took me a long time. I didn’t have the patience for it when it was first published in the U.S. last year, but when I was handed the ARC of Quintana, I couldn’t bring myself to read it out of order, so I went back to Froi. And couldn’t put it down for three days straight.

Marchetta’s greatest strength is the relationships between her characters and it’s on full display in these last two books. Every single connection between characters is incredibly specific and compelling. Even the smaller characters get large roles to play in the many twists and turns of the plot and while the majority of the action takes place in one country–Charyn–it’s a country with so many varieties of landscape that we never get bored. We also hear more about the different areas of Lumatere (the Flatlands and the Mountains, in particular) which made me feel like the custom of characters using their home as a last name (Finnikin of the Rock, Lucien of the Monts) was less a fantasy cliche and more of a window into the history of this kingdom.

Quintana of CharynThe trilogy as a whole still has some issues, I think. There are just so many plot turns, so many hidden pieces of information that get revealed, and in Froi and Quintana especially, more narrow escapes than were perhaps necessary. I kept getting lost trying to remember who knew which part of the history of various characters. It’s a story bursting at the seams, which made me wish that Finnikin and Isaboe had each had their own book, similar to Froi and Quintana. By the end of the trilogy, I felt that I really understood those two as characters, whereas the queen of Lumatere and her consort were not quite as shaded and detailed.

These are quibbles, however. I give Marchetta great credit for not shying away from the real-world depictions of how exile, plague, class divisions and betrayal affect humans and their nations. Yet even with all the difficult moments and devastating discoveries and sharp conflict between people who love one another, I had hope by the end for the future of the countries of Lumatere and Charyn. If you are looking for a fantasy series to suck you in, in the same way that Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series does or Tamora Pierce’s Tortall, I recommend you take a look at The Lumatere Chronicles. 

Already Thinking about Fall April 10, 2013

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I know. It’s only just started to get warm here in DC and both spring and summer are still to be savored, so why skip two seasons and think about fall?

Well, because Publishers Weekly recently put up its Fall 2013 Sneak Preview. (Thanks, 100 Scope Notes for the link! The script that I was supposed to be writing when I lost an hour to scrolling through it does not thank you, unfortunately!) Twelve reasons I’m excited:

1. Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo. Whether the book is about mice or a toy rabbit, Ms. DiCamillo always writes in beautiful images, so the fact that the title includes the word ‘illuminated’ just makes me even more excited.

2. I love maps and I have great respect for the literary journal McSweeney’s, so just about everything from the new Candlewick imprint Big Picture Press looks cool to me.

3. Yes! We are Latinos puts Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy back together for another title, which after Tales Our Abuelitas Told can only be cause for jubilation.

4. Little Red Writing by Joan Holub is not only illustrated by Melissa Sweet, who I love but also sounds like the perfect title to join The Little Red Pen in a puppet show about writing utensils.

5. Pretty much everything from Enchanted Lion sounds amazing and beautiful.

6. The Paradox of Vertical Flight by Emil Ostrovski sounds intriguing and I’m excited to read the final book in The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson.

7. Huzzah for a sequel to The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde. I’m eager to see how Jennifer handles the next set of problem wizards to come her way.

8. I love both Joyce Sidman and Pamela Zagarenski, so I will be heavily lobbying for my bookstore to order their new book What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms and Blessings. 

9. City Cat, by Kate Banks, sounds adorable, especially if it has illustrations by Lauren Castillo.

10: I’m beyond excited that both Cecil Castellucci and Philip C. Stead have new books coming in the fall.

11. The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield pairs John Bemelmans Marciano with Sophie Blackall and I am curious to see the results. 

12. Susan Cooper has a new book. It is called Ghost Hawk. ‘Nuff said.

Favorite Noel Streatfeild Book and other Randomness April 7, 2013

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Holiday trips clearly make me and Ana nostalgic. Then again, which would you rather discuss when stuck in a miserable Texas airport–depressing current events or childhood books?

The edition we had as kids.

In contrast to Alcott, a favorite we have in common is Noel Streatfeild, who wrote books about theatrical children in England during World War II. She was a very prolific author, and over the years I’ve collected most of her titles from yard sales and on trips to London. Ana and I got sucked down the rabbit hole of various questions about her books, starting with our favorite titles.

Cecilia: Ballet Shoes, without question. Three contrasting main characters, great theatrical details and the most interesting shows were in that book.

Ana: It’s a difficult question for me. I’m going to go with Dancing Shoes, since it’s the one I re-read the most often, and I identified so completely with Rachel as a child. Also, Hilary is funny.

Cecilia: I think my main problem with Dancing Shoes is that Dulcie and Mrs. Winter are caricatures. One of the things that I love about Ballet Shoes is that there is no ‘bad guy’ or ‘mean girl’ that they have to beat. Although as you say, Hilary is funny. And I do like the discussion about different kinds of dancing and whether ballet is the end all and be all. Which do you think is Streatfeild’s worst book?

Ana's favorite title.

Ana’s favorite title.

Ana: I don’t know. I remember being thoroughly uninterested in Party Shoes, although I couldn’t tell you why. When you get right down to it, I only really remember Ballet ShoesDancing ShoesTheatre Shoes, and Skating Shoes. I know there was another one where the kids moved to America and one of them was in a Hollywood movie of The Secret Garden, but I don’t remember its name. I think it was your book and I never really got the chance to re-read it. I honestly don’t think I have a least favorite. All the books have good points and bad points for me.

Cecilia: I’d say it’s a tie between Party Shoes and the third book in the Gemma trilogy where Gemma falls in love with the guy playing Romeo to her Juliet. Party Shoes never had much purpose beyond describing a fancy outfit and Streatfeild just isn’t good at depicting teen crushes. Her theatrical descriptions and backstage details are far more interesting. Are there are any Streatfeild books that you would say are just too similar?

Ana: Ballet Shoes and Theatre Shoes follow pretty much the same storyline, but then again, they take place in the same school. Still, the pattern is essentially the same, with the only exception being the addition of Miranda in Theatre Shoes.

New, illustrated edition that I bought in the UK.

New, illustrated edition that I bought in the UK.

Cecilia: She’s a pretty big addition though. And I’d say the change from being orphans in Ballet Shoes to being part of a distinguished theatrical clan in Theater Shoes is a pretty huge leap. The Fossil girls in some ways have to work way harder than the Warren family. Wouldn’t you agree?

Ana: Not necessarily. The Warren children still feel incredibly isolated, living in their grandmother’s house. They still identify immensely with their father’s side of the family, rather than their mother’s. And in a way, they are orphans. The money worries are still there, and the Fossil girls never worry very much about being liked or included by the other children at the Academy. We get more details of the Fossils’ routine being difficult (mostly because Streatfield describes the dancing in more detail, since none of the Warrens are dancers apart from Miriam) but I don’t think that necessarily means that the Warren children don’t work as hard.

Original illustrated edition that I found at a flea market in the UK.

Original illustrated edition that I found at a flea market in the UK.

Cecilia: I guess after reading the rest of her books, I see Miranda as a prototype for the ‘mean girl’ who only cares about her own success, which we get with Dulcie, Maurice from Movie Shoes and to a certain extent Lalla from Skating Shoes. The real interest in Theater Shoes I think comes from seeing how the school operates in wartime, with rationing, blackouts and effects of bombing.

Ana: I can see your point about Theatre Shoes. I don’t think Lalla fits into the stereotype at all, though. While she does get jealous at one point during the book, she’s basically a good person, and she doesn’t have any other moments where she is mean or cruel to Harriet. Miranda and Dulcie are both proud and vain, and dislike being around other people–they don’t have any friends. By contrast, Lalla desperately wants a friend.

Cecilia: True. I guess I meant more in the aspect of being taken up with her own success. But even there, it’s really Aunt Claudia who wants Lalla to succeed–she doesn’t care as much about her figures as about being entertaining.

Ana: Yeah, that’s true. I suppose in Skating Shoes, Aunt Claudia is the “bad guy”. It is interesting that we don’t get one in Ballet Shoes.

Ana and I Discuss Little Women April 4, 2013

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The frontispiece from the Jessie Wilcox Smith edition that I remember reading as a kid.

The frontispiece from the Jessie Wilcox Smith edition of Little Women that I remember reading as a kid.

Over the holidays, Ana and I had the misfortune to be stuck in an airport on Christmas night and as often happens when we are bored, we began to discuss children’s books. Specifically, we talked about several of the classics that we both loved as children, but now have different reactions towards as grownups. A key example is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

Cecilia: I’m pretty sure I read Little Women sometime in second grade. I have a memory of taking a paperback abridged copy on a Brownie camping trip and then mom and dad gave me the unabridged Jessie Willcox Smith illustrated version. My sharpest memories are of skipping to the parts where the sisters enjoyed activities that I envied–putting on plays, exploring the mansion next door, creating special clubs like the Pickwick Club.

Ana: I think Mom first read me Little Women. I have a memory of re-reading parts of the books over and over again, but I don’t have a clear memory of reading it for the first time. At some point, she must have stopped, though, because I know for a fact that I’ve never finished the entire book. I got about as far as the girls growing up, and stopped. I was more interested in them as children than as adults.

Cecilia: Why were you more interested in them as children? I think some of my favorite parts were when Jo lives in the boarding house in New York, as well as Amy’s adventures in Europe.

Orchard House, where Alcott lived in Concord, taken during a New England children's book pilgrimage in 2010.

Orchard House, where Alcott lived in Concord, taken during a New England children’s book pilgrimage in 2010.

Ana: At the time, I was a child, and I had no particular interest in reading about adults. I found adults boring. To a certain extent, I think I still do– hence the reason I tend to read and write primarily about children. Childhood, at least in books, is the exciting, magical time when you can do practically anything; you aren’t bound in by rules and proper behaviour. It seemed as though there was so much less possibility for the March sisters once they grew up and moved away, and that they probably weren’t going to be doing anything that I would interested in reading about. So I stopped. In my defense, I was about eleven at the time.

Cecilia: You read adult books now–have you ever gone back and re-read the entire book? If not, why not?

Ana: I read some adult books now, although a lot of that is not necessarily by choice, being an English major. In terms of my personal reading list, a lot of it is still children’s lit or young adult. I also tend to re-read a lot of books, though, so that skews the stats. But I’ve never gone back to Little Women, mostly because as an adult, I find the style and the characters painfully moralistic, and I don’t want to spoil the beautiful memory I have from childhood. I prefer to live in denial.

Cecilia: I guess the difference is that when I read a book from childhood, like Little Women, I find that I’m reading with the mindset of my child-self and so I mostly ignore the moralizing (since I didn’t notice it as a child). Most of the time when I re-read a book from childhood, I’m remembering my reactions and thoughts about it as a kid and so I enjoy it in much the same way.