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Old & New: From the Mixed Up Files…and Under the Egg May 28, 2014

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mixedupFirst published in 1967 and winner of the 1968 Newbery Medal, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg is one of the most celebrated middle-grade books ever. A compelling mix of mystery and coming of age story, it has prompted many young readers (myself included) to dream of running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Siblings Claudia and Jamie see a statue of an angel and become obsessed with discovering whether or not it was actually created by Michelangelo. They stare at the statue and do research at the library but it takes a visit to the mysterious Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to finally satisfy their curiosity as well as help them learn a few lessons about secrets and growing up.
eggMany recent books with a mystery or an art theme have been marketed as “for fans of From the Mixed-Up Files..” but none I think fit the bill quite as well as Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Beyond simply the structure of a mystery and the themes of lost art, they are both books with resourceful protagonists who when faced with challenges, take matters into their own hands. While Claudia Kincaid in Konigsburg’s book is researching the angels statue for emotional reasons, Theodora in Under the Egg is concerned only with the practical. Her mother is fragile and absentminded, leaving her to try and keep the household going on the $463 her grandfather left behind. Food and electricity are her priorities and she has no clue where the ‘treasure’ that her grandfather promised her might be. That is, until she accidentally spills a bottle of rubbing alcohol on a painting of an egg and discovers what might be a Renaissance masterpiece. But questions abound: Was the painting stole it? Is it from the Met where Theo’s grandfather was a guard? Who painted it? Who is the picture of? With her new neighbor Bodhi (the daughter of movie stars) and the help of various New York eccentrics–including some great librarians–Theo sets out to solve the mystery of the painting as well as the true story of her family’s treasure. Give either of these titles to readers interested in mysteries, art and how they often combine to make a great story.

Review: The Night Gardener May 21, 2014

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nightAre you a fan of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman or Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz? Are you looking for a new book to love and re-read ten times, and recommend to all your friends? Look no further than The Night Gardener  by Jonathan Auxier, coming out this May from Amulet Books.

It starts with a time-honored historical fiction set-up: two children have run away from the orphanage and are on their way to find a job until their parents come for them. This is Victorian England, there is famine in Ireland and jobs are scarce for immigrants. Kip, the younger brother, has a lame foot and walks with a crutch. Molly, the older sister, is a storyteller who claims that the ‘sourwoods’ they are heading towards are made of lemon trees and lemon blossoms. And once they make it through the trees and across the river (ignoring the advice of the wandering storyteller Hester Kettle), they meet their employers, the Windsor family.

Once at the Windsor house though, strange sounds, sights and stories begin to unfold and we are in the world of twisted dreams and family legends. You see, there is a tree. A giant tree close to the house, it’s “…gnarled trunk running up the wall like a great black chimney stack.” Why do no flowers or grass grow near it? Why does each member of the family have a collection that they hoard and where do the rings, letters and candies come from? Molly and Kip must summon all their cunning and courage to confront their own dreams and desires. They must figure out the difference between a story and a lie and figure out how, when stories turn evil and come to life, they can be defeated.

Auxier pulls no punches for the reader, rendering the tree and it’s ghostly gardener in harrowing detail. Molly and Kip are sympathetic protagonists and there are surprises to discover in the characters of each member of the Windsor family. Hester Kettle the storyteller presides over the narrative like a slightly twisted fairy godmother, telling truths and giving gifts. This is a book where the historical and the supernatural twist together perfectly to form one seamless thread of story and the layers in the narrative mean it will satisfy a wide range of ages. For readers who love the shivers, this will be the perfect bedtime read-aloud, while for those of us who prefer to face ghosts by daylight, it will be a new favorite to return to again and again.

Ghandi: From Picture Books to Graphic Novels May 13, 2014

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Two recent books bring Mahatma Gandhi to life, one for older readers and one for younger audiences.
graphicGandhi: My Life is my message is a graphic novel by Jason Quinn with art by Sachin Nagar. Narrated by Gandhi himself, it takes a detailed look at his life and work. For readers who have little knowledge of Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, this biography covers his education in England, his work in South Africa as well as the more well known events of his fasts and civil disobedience in India. Gandhi was part of so many actions and protests that a biography sometimes runs the risk of being one long list of bloody confrontations, but Quinn does a good job of being specific about what the issues are and the opposition forces. Occasionally I got the various British officials mixed up and it would have been nice to have a better understanding of British-Indian relations. However, for readers age 12 and up, especially those who prefer history to be told visually, this is a good choice.
Shorter, but perhaps closer to the heart of Gandhi’s message is Grandfather Gandhi written by one of the great man’s grandsons, with author Bethany Hegedus. Arun narrates the story of how he visits his famous grandfather, living in the service village alongside other followers, eating simple food and helping with the chores. Arun doesn’t get much chance to see his grandfather alone and he struggles with lessons and getting along with the other kids in the village. His anger scares him, but his grandfather calms him by explaining that anger can strike like lightning or be transformed into light–and that everyone, even the peaceful Gandhi, struggles to control it. It is a thoughtful text, with enough detail to reward close reading and study by older readers, yet paced in a way that allows it to be read aloud as well. It is sure to spark conversations with young people about ways to deal with anger in our lives and world today.
gandhiEvan Turk’s illustrations are simply stunning. The materials list reads “watercolor, paper collage, cotton fabric, cotton yarn, gouache, pencil, tea and tin foil” and not a single one is wasted or extraneous. Careful placement of shadows for all the figures gives a strong sense of place and the hot sun of India, while Gandhi himself is presented alternately as a giant figure imposing on a child’s sense of the world and just one of the crowds of people in the village. Most impressively, Arun’s anger is represented as scribbles of pencil and snarls of black thread erupting from his head, to contrast with the order and structure of the white thread spun by his grandfather. Turk’s illustrations turn an already special story into an essential one for readers and picture book lovers of all ages.