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Twas the Night Before the YMAs… January 26, 2014

Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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Just a few thoughts before I get up insanely early (well, for me) to hear the results of the ALA Youth Media Awards. I have to work tomorrow too, which means that I hopefully will be able to make a display of award winners–always assuming we have them in stock! My final ponderings…

-I would not be sad to see The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp or The Thing About Luck win the Newbery. 

-I REALLY hope that Boxers & Saints gets recognized. Somehow. 

-If something out of left field wins big, I can only hope that DC Public Library will have it on the shelf. 

-Is it too much to hope that the winner of the Edwards is another fantasy author? 

-If The Kingdom of Little Wounds gets recognized, I guess I actually have to go back and try to finish it. Sigh. 

-I will probably be happy no matter what with the results of the Caldecott. Well, unless Journey gets left out entirely. But I don’t think that will happen!

YALSA Hub Challenge January 21, 2014

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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Despite the fact that my interest in the ALA Youth Media awards borders on obsession, I’m not actually a librarian. I’m certified to work in K-12 school libraries in Virginia, but so far, I haven’t applied for any jobs because I’ve been doing other things. Still, I read all the online material posted by School Library Journal, and this month I’ve been adding YALSA’s blog The Hub to my daily to-read list. I decided to take on the challenge they posed of reading all the finalists for the William C Morris Award (given to a debut YA author) and the Excellence in Non-fiction Award before the YMAs are announced January 27. I’m in the middle of rehearsals and have nowhere near enough time to write full reviews, but here are my brief reactions to each book.

Excellence in Non-fiction Award finalists: 

Courage in Color: Great piece of history, but not compelling enough to really stick with me. The most interesting part for me was the balloon bombs sent by the Japanese, which made me wonder what other crazy things people did during wars that have been hidden from the public?

Imprisoned: I loved the book Farewell to Manzanar as a teen, so this was familiar territory to me. A fantastic overview that I hope LOTS of people read.

The President has Been Shot: Meh. It wasn’t bad. But I wasn’t blown away. It’s nowhere near as compelling as Kennedy Assassinated! The World Mourns: A Reporter’s Story, which was one of my favorites in high school.

The Nazi Hunters: THIS one was compelling. I knew the sketchiest of outlines of this part of history; it was told with precision, great pacing and just enough detail. Great to pair with fiction by Elizabeth Wein.

Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design: This one was also exceedingly fun. If I had the time, I would love to work through this with an art class of kids and have them try all the challenges and project.

William C Morris Award finalists: 

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets: It took me a REALLY long time to get into this. Partly it  felt too close to Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, another book this year with a depressed teenage boy protagonist. In the end, I was engaged, but overall the characters didn’t really stick with me.

Belle Epoque: Similarly, I had just read The Painted Girls, an adult title set in the same time period so that may be why I found this kind of underdeveloped. It was fun, with a nice happy ending for everyone, but not thematically very deep, at least to me. And first person present tense narrators always bug me more in historical fiction for some reason.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds: Great historical detail in this one–I haven’t read so much about the 1918 flu epidemic since A Time of Angels, by Karen Hesse. Occasionally it felt like just a string of strange facts though, and the plot was a bit meandering for my taste. I did like the main character though, and I’m interested to see what else this author writes.

Charm & Strange: I read this one in one day at the bookstore and it’s a testament to the strength of the prose that I never got distracted by anything else. Once again, a damaged teenage boy narrator (yet again in present tense) who in some ways reminded me of A. S. King’s narrator in Reality Boy. Good pacing and tightly focused characterizations put this one at the top of my list.

Sex and Violence: Past tense narration, finally! The main character of this story (Evan), while just as damaged as the narrator of the previous title, has more of a sense of humor and a wider circle of people helping him. The book covers a much longer period of time too, which means he gets farther along in his healing process. I loved this one for the humor, the authentic teen dialogue and the nuanced handling of the themes which the title states so blatantly. Now to figure out how I’m going to sell it to people who won’t buy books with the word ‘sex’ in the title.

Picture Books & Paper Theaters January 17, 2014

Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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Like any other form of visual art, there is a wide range of media used for picture books. Most people are familiar with the paper collage illustrations of Eric Carle; some love the watercolors of Jon J Muth, others love the woodblock and pencil drawings of Erin Stead. This year there were several titles that all used a format I haven’t seen much of in picture books:  paper drawings (and sometimes other objects) arranged into layered compositions, almost like a toy theater. The stories are very different and the technique achieves a different effect in each, but all are beautiful and unique

You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey, artwork by Soyeon Kim

stardustAccompanying a text that is an extended meditations on the many connections between humans and the natural world, these illustrations feature three-dimensional crystal forms of paper and cutouts of trees and animals alongside cutouts of children. Many of the spreads resemble grade-school dioramas, with animal cutouts dangling on strings in front of a paper background. Kim includes dried flowers, handmade papers with rich texture and painted acetate to flesh out her detailed landscapes of our world. Some pages are close-up views of earlier spreads, inviting the reader to closely examine the visuals, just as we are more closely examining our world and ourselves through the text.

My Father’s Arms are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde, illustrations by Oyvind Torseter

fatherIf Kim’s illustrations are lush compositions crowded with life, the pages of My Father’s Arms are a Boat begin quiet, spare, and white. Composed almost as a film, with interior and exterior views, and various angles, the furniture in the spreads looks like it came from an ultra-modern dollhouse, with simple lines and pale colors. Objects and the father and son in the story are more detailed, if clearly two-dimensional. Tilted angles to some of the spreads convey the uncertainty felt by the young narrator, while the stylized snow and trees of the exteriors have the distinct feel of a stage set. If the cool colors and sharp angles feel distancing at the beginning of the story, by the end the pen and ink detail and carefully chosen lighting have brought us into the world of the family and we know, along with the narrator, that everything will be alright.

The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan, illustrations by Sophie Blackall

laloucheIn some ways the most classic book on this list, The Mighty Lalouche is set in Paris and tells the story of an underdog mailman who becomes a boxer. Although the story is set in France, the illustrations are actually done in a Japanese style called ‘tatebanko’. Blackall painted the backgrounds and figures individually, then assembled them into very shallow dioramas and photographed them for the illustrations. The shadows are visible, giving depth and definition to the characters (literally) and making you feel as though you could step into the setting, while also giving you an appreciation for the time and effort that went into painting and cutting out so many little details. Blackall talks a little about the process in this interview. I have my fingers crossed that this gets a Caldecott nod at the end of the month!

Stardines Fly High Across the Sky by Jack Prelutsky, illustrations by Carin Berger

stardinesThe illustrations for these poems differ from those of the above books in that they are more contained and much more surreal. Unlike the previous texts, which have paper spreads taking up the entire page, many of the illustrations by Berger are contained within their own boxes, similar to the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell. Yet they still layer paper cutouts, giving dimension to the flat and occasionally (as in ‘PLaNdaS’) exploding out of the box and onto the rest of the page. Berger uses a variety of papers and ephemera, giving the spreads just as much of an old-fashioned feel as Lalouche, while still holding onto the playful and witty style of the text.

Review: Africa is My Home January 13, 2014

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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africaOne thing that used to drive me nuts when teaching history to children is that there is just so much to cover. In our era of standardized testing, teachers are often forced to focus on the events and people required by their grade level and have to skip the most interesting parts. So historical fiction and non-fiction are important, as they help to draw students into reading about the past and finding out about what teachers skipped. Narratives that focus on people who have long been ignored by ‘official’ history are even more important. Now Monica Edinger has given us one of these engrossing stories with Africa is my Home, about a child on the slave ship Amistad. 

Margru is only nine when she is sold to slave traders, away from her home in Mendeland on the west coast of Africa. After being taken to Havana, she is sold, along with three other children, to the owners of the ship Amistad. When the slaves, led by a man named Cinque, take over the ship, Margru and the others explore and wonder about mysterious objects like a mirror and books. Eventually though, the Amistad is re-taken by whites off the coast of New England. Over the course of several years, Margru learns to speak and read English, eventually returning to Africa as a teacher and missionary.

Originally conceived as a non-fiction book, Edinger ended up creating a fictional first-person voice for Margru which helps the reader immediately connect with her. Her observations and homesick longings are occasionally poetic but never stint on the challenges and struggles she faces on her journey. The wonderful illustrations by Robert Byrd match the carefully chosen details of the text and follow Margru from her life as a child to her final homecoming as an adult. An all too rare hopeful and triumphant story from the history of slavery and the African diaspora, it is a welcome addition to the canon of historical literature for children.