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All in a Single Sentence October 31, 2013

Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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One of the more tedious and time-consuming jobs at the bookstore where I work is entering data for the New York Times Bestsellers every week.  Each of the four categories for children’s and YA lit (Middle Grade, Young Adult, Picture Book and Series) has a list of the top ten bestselling titles printed in the New York Times Book Review each weekend. But I have to enter data for WAY more than just those ten titles. The online site organizes books alphabetically by title, not author, so I’m constantly skipping back to authors who have two (or three, or four, or seven) books in a particular category. It’s a pain. However, when I open the actual print review, it’s fun to see what made the top ten list, and the sentence that goes along with each title. Who writes those sentences? Some are great, some are succinct but accurate and a few are just plain misleading. Here are some examples from a recent edition:

EXCELLENT ENCAPSULATIONS:

Out of My Mind: A brilliant girl with cerebral palsy longs for a way to speak.

Journey: A lonely girl draws a red door on her bedroom wall and enters a lushly detaailed imaginary world. I would quibble with the word ‘imaginary’ (says who?) but otherwise, a great summary.

Fangirl: Cath, a writer of popular fan fiction, struggles during her freshman year at college. 

Looking for Alaska: A boy seeking excitement finds that and more in a girl named Alaska. 

OKAY, BUT NOT THE WHOLE PICTURE

The One and Only Ivan: A gorilla who lives in a mall meets an elephant. Yes. And THEN??? No hint of the way Ivan takes control of his destiny.

Paper Towns: After a night of mischief, the girl Quentin loves disappears. Why does this sentence not mention the ROAD TRIP?

SHORTEST PHRASE POSSIBLE:

There’s apparently only so much you can say about the books for the really young set.

Press Here: A dance of color. 

Pete the Cat: I Love my White Shoes: Well-shod Pete.

LEAVES OUT MOST OF THE STORY:

The Fault in Our Stars: A 16-year-old heroine faces the medical realities of cancer. WHAT??? This makes TFIOS sound like a CANCER book, which it is definitely NOT. What about love? What about sparkling wit and conversations and true friendship? Epic fail, New York Times Book Review.

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Review: Mouse, Bird, Snake, Wolf October 30, 2013

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mouseWhat if the gods had started creating the world…and then got lazy? What if there were holes here and there? And what if a group of children starting creating new creatures and they got a little out of hand?

This is the premise of David Almond’s marvelous new picture book Mouse Bird Snake Wolf. I first encountered the book in Paris (thank you, Shakespeare & Co. bookstore!) and London, but it is available in the US as well. This is a wonderful title to read aloud, to use as part of a unit on myth or creation stories, or just to sit and ponder in your own mind.

Harry, Sue and Ben (known as Little Ben) are taking a walk through their world. The gods have made many wonderful creatures, both familiar (the whale) and unfamiliar (the zowet). But now they have grown lazy and are drinking tea, eating cake and taking naps. So the children wander and wonder about the many empty spaces in their world. It’s only to be expected that they try to fill these spaces, and soon there is a mouse, a bird and a snake where before there was nothing. But Harry and Sue are not satisfied. They decide to create a wolf…no matter the consequences.

Dave McKean’s illustrations are marvelous and occasionally creepy, depicting the gods in grey wisps of cloud, and the children in rich color. Sets of panels which occasionally go inside a character’s head give a close up view of thoughts and the process of creation. As Ben says at one point “Sometimes…when you look into an empty space, you can kind of see something in it.” That’s as good an explanation of the impulse to make art or tell a story as any I’ve ever heard.

Jugenbibliothek München October 27, 2013

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I promise this will be the last post about my summer travels! Most people have special places that they look for while traveling. For some, it’s historical monuments, for others it’s great restaurants, stores or parks. I usually look for bookstores, but I think I’m going to have to add libraries to my list. Because in Munich this summer, I found the most amazing library.

The main reading room.

The main reading room.

The Internationale Jugendbibliothek or International Youth Library is housed in the Schloss Blutenberg, a castle dating to the 13th century. It is the largest library for international children’s and youth literature in the world, with a collection of almost 600,000 books in addition to documentary materials and journals. With rotating exhibits on writers and illustrators and shelves of recommended books in many different languages, it’s a paradise for librarians, researchers and anyone who is a reader.

The medieval church in the castle--one of the few that wasn't redecorated during the Baroque era.

The medieval church in the castle–one of the few that wasn’t redecorated during the Baroque era.

There are two different exhibit halls in the library. One has cases for a visiting exhibit, along with examples of work by Binette Shroeder, a German artist that I had never encountered before. Her illustrations are dreamy and filled with light–the exhibit has them mounted in light boxes that you open, giving the best view of the work. There is also a tiny door in the wall, which you can open to see a music-box type automaton of her characters. So cool!

Magical music box hidden behind a door!

Magical music box hidden behind a door!

If you love children’s book and happen to find yourself in Munich, I highly recommend visiting this magnificent library. I’m now scheming ways to get enough money to go back and do research there!

Review: Bluffton October 24, 2013

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blufftonEven movie stars were once kids who loved playing baseball. And Buster Keaton, star of the silent screen, was no exception. Yes, he created some of the best films of all time, that still show up on Best of… lists over 80 years after they were made. But as a kid, he was more interested in fishing, rigging elaborate pranks and playing ball.

Matt Phelan’s impressive new graphic novel Bluffton introduces us to Keaton through the eyes of Henry, a resident of the small Michigan town where Keaton and his family, along with other vaudeville acts, are spending the summer.  Henry is fascinated with the lives of the performers, listening to tales of travel, hotel disasters, comedy gags and appreciative audiences with awe. But Buster isn’t interested in teaching Henry how to do physical tricks or answering questions about his life on the road.  Over the course of three summers, Henry matures from a wanna-be performer into an appreciative audience member and Buster takes his next steps toward greatness.

The pacing, character development and clarity of theme are what make this middle-grade title stand out from the pack. Phelan includes just enough information about vaudeville, Buster and his fellow performers so that you understand their lives, but keep turning pages to find out what happens to them next. Many panel sequences are wordless, allowing the reader to focus on the precision of the steps to building a fake outhouse, a walk through the amusement park or a juggling act gone wrong. Nothing huge happens–there are no dragons, natural disasters or mysteries to solve. It is Phelan’s meticulous buildup of character details that help us see how a snide comment or talent show gone wrong might be just as devastating to Buster or Henry.

I knew only a little about Keaton before reading this book, but now I intend to watch his movies, and read more about his life and world. Phelan’s book, with it’s finely drawn setting and engaging characters, both real and imaginary, has the power to make the reader want to spend more time with the vaudevillians both on and off their stage.

Edinburgh Book Festival October 22, 2013

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102_4742I’m the first to admit I’m spoiled when it comes to book festivals. I live in Washington DC, where the National Book Festival takes over the National Mall for two days every September. It’s a sprawling event, with huge tents, signing lines that go on for blocks and costumed characters wandering around. This summer, I managed to catch the beginning of another book festival– the Edinburgh International Book Festival–which has a much smaller footprint, but lasts much longer and has no less passion for the written word.

Located in Charlotte Square and surrounded by elegant Georgian houses, the festival draws many of the biggest literary names from Britain and beyond. Unlike in DC, author events are ticketed and cost a fee, so I was content to simply wander around the complex of tents and drink a cup of tea in the cafe. There are raised walkways connecting the various tents (some of which, like the Spiegeltent, are gloriously decorated), all covered in case of rain. Since the weather in Edinburgh is almost always cloudy, this is a very good precaution. But the sun was shining when I stopped by and I got to enjoy the central courtyard with chairs ringing the central statue, grass for kids to run on and dozens of people reading newspapers, books or e-readers. The festival stores were massive (separate tents for children and adult titles) with shelf upon shelf of local authors, local history and titles from small publishers. And Alexander McCall Smith tea towels!

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I wish I could have stayed in town longer to see some of the amazing writers and panels that were being offered. Eventually I had to stop flipping through the program book, I was getting so envious. I bought one book at the shop, about the Edinburgh book sculptures, which may have to get a post of their own at some point. I hope that I can go back to Edinburgh at some point and enjoy more of the wonders of the book festival. In the meantime, the Library of Congress should start working on a cafe (with tea and scones) and chairs to put out on the Mall.

Review: Journey October 10, 2013

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journeyHarold (he of the purple crayon) has a new friend. This time, the magic drawing implement is red. The nameless protagonist of Aaron Becker’s Journey is left to her own devices when mother, father and older sister are engrossed in their various devices. The sepia toned opening panels give a sense of a slightly older time period (cordless phone, bulky desktop computer) but technology then was clearly just as isolating as smartphones and tablets are today. In her room by herself, Becker’s heroine picks up a red crayon and starts drawing…on the wall. And a door appears.

Who hasn’t wished for a magical door into another world? On the other side, a forest fills both pages; majestic trees, a flowing stream and luminous blue lanterns. Looking at this spread felt like coming home; it was exactly the kind of secret world that I had pictured as a kid exploring my backyard.  The next pages follow the heroine as she draws herself a boat, is welcomed into a fantastical city and takes off in a balloon after a captured bird. The city, (which has a steampunk, Escher feel to it) begins as a land of wonder, but turns sinister when the girl is captured in place of the bird. Fortunately she has friends to help rescue her, both in the city and back in her own world.

Becker achieves a brilliant balance in this book between dreamlike sketches and precise details. Figures are tiny and expression is often implied through gesture rather than facial details. The towers, streets, canals and machines of the city are rendered exquisitely, the lush spreads alternating with close-ups from the point of view of the character. The one page that felt out of place to me was when the protagonist had to draw her method of escape from the cage. To go from a color page to a completely white background felt jarring and I wasn’t sure initially what was going on. Without some kind of partial background or object to ground the image, it seemed like we had stepped out of the story momentarily. This however, is a quibble. Becker is clearly a major new talent and I’m excited to see more of his work. I cannot wait to share this journey with students and hear their thoughts on the backstory of the city, the characters and predictions as to where this magical girl might go next.

The spread that made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

The spread that made me feel all warm and fuzzy.